Thursday, April 29, 2010

30 Smart Phones and 5 Weeks: An Augmented Reality Classroom Experiment

30 Smart Phones and 5 Weeks: An Augmented Reality Classroom Experiment

     This is the first post in a series that I am going to do on Augmented Reality learning environments.  Over the past two years I have been working on my district to allow me to use smart phones in my room to develop Augmented Reality learning environments.  Augmented Reality is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery Wikipedia.  As you would expect, this has met with some concern about how students would be using these devices in class.  So I have been creating programs that create environments in which students interact in the real world, mainly on our back football field, where students interact with virtual characters and situations to solve a mystery or puzzle in the real world.  I have piloted this with a few kids with great success using my personal phone and some of the students phonesSeeing the success I had, the district decided to allow me a chance to pilot 30 HTC Touch Pro smart phones to develop more of these Augmented Reality learning environments.  So I thought I would share what software I have found to use to make these environments. 

     I have found two different types of free software to be very easy to use to develop these types of environments.  The first is MSCAPE:  This was created by HP as a pilot for their PDA’s.  This software is great to use and has a variety of games and a small community of developers behind it; however, they are closing down their site next March.  You will still be able to download their programs and games, but they will no longer be supporting the software.  I created “History Detectives”, which is a game that I used with a small group of students quite successfully last year and am gearing up for a full class pilot of this game next month.  A copy History Detectives can be found at this address.

     Another software program that I am using is called MITAR.  This was created by MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program, and they have been actively working on this since 2003.  This is a simple to use editor that allows you to embed virtual characters and objects in a real world environment to create unique learning opportunities.  A copy of this software is also free and can be found at:  There is a good user manual, but no community behind this program.  The interface like MSCAPE is simple and intuitive.  You must register with MIT at that website to obtain a copy of the software.  Also, be sure to read their use policy. They are very specific on how you are able to use their software.

     I have found these types of environments to be exceptionally engaging for students. Often, have had to beg students to go to their next class.  It is amazing how they get into learning a topic and don’t seem to even realize that they are learning.  I also follow each of these exercises up with a discussion. I have found that everyone participates in the discussion, since they have a vested interest in the topic thus creating another great learning environment.  Setting the game up does take time and some planning but is well worth the effort.  Having created a couple of games for students and now that I have enough phones for an entire class, I am very excited about the last few weeks of school.

     This post is part of EdTech Blog Swap and was written by guest blogger, Michael Alfred.  You can find me on Twitter at  Mreduhowto or on my blogs at the Eduhowto Blog.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I am not an assessment

As my regular readers know, I am teaching a 6th grade math class for the first time this year along with my regular technology classes. The biggest change for me is the scripted curriculum and standardized tests. I have a ton of academic freedom in my technology classes compared to most teachers, but my math students have the state standardized tests in the fall, quarterly district assessments, and district standardized tests for each unit we teach.

I am attempting standards based grading practices and some of my students are failing and make very little effort to do anything about it. I started the year off with the goal of helping every one of my students succeed in math and learn to like the subject. Utopian I know but I believe in No Child Left Behind-the concept not the ridiculous law. Well, reality has set in and I find myself stressed about the results-assessments, evaluations, whatever.
Some of my students love math and some hate it. Probably the same kids felt the same way at the start of the year. Lots of my students are successful and some are still grade levels behind in their skills and concepts.

I also find myself discouraged by the direction of education in this country. No, I am not about bashing public schools and United States education. I am discouraged by the political obsession of over-assessment of students and now the move to over-assess teachers with merit pay based on student achievement or just fire a whole school.

It really bothers me when a student performs poorly on a test or assignment (read anything). (yes, I was the student who wanted extra credit if I had an A- and actually read all (most) of the assigned readings in college) I think I take it personal sometimes.I truly want every student to earn an A in my class and enjoy it.

But the stress I feel this year is more personal. Since it is my first year teaching math I feel like if any of my students fail, my administration will see me as not a good math teacher. I truly want to be a great teacher for my students and want every one of them to be ready for 7th grade and be successful in the future, but deep down inside is also this ugliness about their failure making me look bad. It really is about my own insecurities and measuring my value based on results, assessment, pass/fail, whatever.

As is often the case, church put these feeling in perspective this morning. Rob preached (podcast will be here in a few days) about the obscure Bible story of David spilling water that his men had  risked their lives to bring him (II Samuel 23:13-17). David "wasted" the water by dumping it on the ground as an offering to God. David recognized that the water was sacred because of the sacrifice made by his men to obtain it. How did these guys feel watching David refuse to drink this water and instead dump it on the ground. It is easy to feel that efforts are wasted if we only look at the "results."
We are not the sum total of our accomplishments. My value is not a reflection of my ability or lack of ability to inspire every child to be successful. Teachers and students can not be measured by test scores or other formal assessment. Teachers sacrifice for their students daily in hundreds of ways. That is how I would measure how good a teacher is: how do they sacrifice daily for their students.

We can not control the results.
We can not make our students learn anything.
We love. We care. We support.
We teach. We learn with.
We sacrifice daily.
Teaching is sacred.

Politicians, administrators, parents, success, failure, assessments, whatever.

I am a Teacher. I am sacred through my sacrifice.

Friday, April 23, 2010

PD Time

I feel like I have not been blogging as much lately because of the busyness of the end of the year. I find that I had lots of thoughts to blog about on Spring Break when I had the opportunity to step back and relax. I also do most of my blogging on the weekend when I have less preparation to focus on. I think one of the biggest obstacles to teachers improving their craft is time set aside to think, plan, and learn.

On Thursday I jumped into a conversation on Twitter started by John Spencer about professional development using the hashtag #edrethink . There was whining (lots by me) about how worthless the majority of PD that most districts offer. Most of the people in the discussion agreed that we need PD that is differentiated, personalized, and conversational. I personally think we need more opportunities for conversations amongst teachers.

Last year my district had a PD day with different session options to choose from. I thought it was a good idea, but for whatever reason it was not repeated this year. Personally I would design a PD day where teachers brought their three best lessons/ activities in class and their three biggest challenges. Then they would meet in small groups and discuss. Every half hour they would rotate to different groups so that there would be as many different conversations as possible.

Unfortunately teachers seem to be pressed to do more. The political climate in this country is currently quite negative toward teachers. There is an amplifying of the age old arguments about three months off and how easy it is to be a teacher. There are also the budget problems for public schools across the country. So it does not seem to be an environment where teachers will gain time in their scheduled day to converse and collaborate.

Those educators who care must dedicate their own time for their own learning and conversations. I personally "wasted" an hour that morning in this conversation, along with helping others on Twitter. Afterwards I felt refreshed at the break from all of the "stuff" that needed to be done by the conversations I participated in.

My question for you is when do you reflect on your teaching and personal learning? Do you find that it takes a concentrated effort for you to find time to think about things or are you able to do it in the midst of a stormy week? Do you see any signs of changing PD in your district from sit n' git to more personal conversations?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Iranian Revolution re-mixed

How soon we forget about last year's news. This remix by DJ Spooky AKA That Subliminal Kid AKA Paul Miller tells the story of the Iranian Election and Revolution. Enjoy!

I don't know about you but almost all of my students like hip hop.Why not make this a history project for students to create their own re-mixed video of an era of history? How about a re-mix of a science or math concept or formula with great beats and pics to go with it. I think it would make a great summative assessment instead of a test.

Here is more about DJ Spooky's latest work The Secret Song and how he meshes hip hop, history, and videos for powerful messages. Thanks to Wesley Fryer for pointing me to DJ Spooky's work.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do PLN's exist?

A couple of times now I have discussed the idea of Personal (or professional) Learning Networks (PLN) with people on Twitter. Some have questioned what they actually are, if they really exist, and whether or not they are really new or not. I won't try to quote (or misquote) others here, but hopefully they will weigh in with their comments.

First of all a PLN is defined in wikipedia as:

Personal Learning Networks consist of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a Personal Learning Environment. Learners create connections and develop a network that contributes to their professional development and knowledge. [1] The learner does not have to know these people personally or ever meet them in person.

I don't know if this is a perfect definition but it is a starting point. I like the fact that it is broad rather than specific. I would like to share my opinion about what a PLN is and argue that it does exist.

My PLN is all of the people that I learn from. First of all, it is the many mentor teachers and colleagues in my building and district. They have helped me with classroom management, lesson plans and ideas, and listened when I have had a difficult day. Next it is people that I learn from digitally through internet sites or tools. My two favorite sources of interaction are blogs and Twitter. Others use sites such as Facebook, Nings, Skype, email, Plurk, wikis, and even Google Buzz or Wave. In the past people used databases and listserves. The tools really don't matter and five years from now we will probably have a whole new list of them. I really find little benefit to rank which of these tools are better, but think that each learner should play and discover which tools best help them connect.

These learning relationships have existed since ancient times, but the reason that we need a new term for them is that the digital version of them is relatively new, and I would argue different than the past. In the past one had to become a disciple of Socrates, Jesus, or Budha and physically follow them around. This limited the number of people who could commit to this lifestyle. With books one could learn from a distance from the greatest minds of the past and present. But books can not answer questions. (There is an internal dialogue between author and reader, but again I think that is different from on-line conversations between multiple participants). Personal relationships have always been a part of learning and always will be, but...

What we have in digital networks are expanded relationships between people who would never have been connected in the past. I can learn from other teachers, administrators, professors (without having to pay for their class or travel to their university), student teachers, and students from around the world at the same time. That is what is different-direct and instantaneous access to thousands of minds from every corner of the earth. The learning I experience is exponentially more than what I can learn from the teachers in my building or district alone.

In the past there was a danger of tunnel vision from only learning from those "near" you. Now I can interact with great minds with multiple perspectives whenever I want. My digital network is always available for me to learn from 24/7. It is never off and takes no holidays (It does celebrate them though). There are a few people who do not reciprocate conversations, but the vast majority of people in these on-line spaces will talk to anyone. Therefore I do not see PLN's as exclusive at all. I did at one time, but have found that if you engage with others than they will engage back.

Another new thing about PLN's is that although I would argue they are personal in that each person creates their own relationships through their own choices of tools and contacts, it is not limited to just the connections that you make. Countless times I have asked for help with a resource or problem on Twitter and it has been re-tweeted and answered by people that I have never "met" online or even heard of. I think of this as the Kevin Bacon effect in that I benefit from the relationships of people in my network beyond my own relationships. This multiplication effect is very powerful. Also most of the on-line tools allow for "lurking" so that people can learn from listening too.

Is this new? Not all of it, but I think the instant, public discourse of leading thinkers is. Also the ability of anyone to engage with anyone without having to apply, go to a conference, be accepted into university, or buy their book is. Anyone can be a virtual disciple from some excellent education leaders.

The last point I would like to make is that I think people in the on-line communities forget that the vast majority of teachers are not part of an extended, on-line PLN, but are limited to their physical relationships and the few books that they read in a grad class. Therefore I would argue that we NEED some kind of term for what "this" is to help define it for those not in these communities. Is PLN the best term, maybe not, but it is the accepted one at the moment until someone comes up with something better. So I am not committed to the term PLN specifically, but what it represents is very important to me.

OK let me have it, what do you think?
Wikipedia footnote  a b c Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1, Jan 2005

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why collaborate outside of your classroom?

Kevin asked this question after reading the challenges of the Scratch collaboration between my class and a class in Vietnam.

        Why not do the collaboration within the class? Is there some reason you have to create all these barriers to collaboration (12-hour time zone changes, ...)
I appreciate this direct question to the premise of this project. First of all here are some good reasons to collaborate from a previous comment on my blog, but they do not address why one should collaborate outside of an individual classroom.

I believe in exposing students to different points of view. Too often students live in their neighborhoods with people like themselves and do not have an open worldview. For example my district is less than one hour drive from Lake Michigan, yet I have students who have never been there. I value any opportunity to expand my students' perceptions of the world, in particular about different cultures. Collaborative projects can help students experience. When students Skype with others different from themselves they learn about how they are similar.

Collaboration and learning from/about others is often relegated to social studies/language arts classrooms. Gary and I wanted to do it in a programming situation. I think our goals and ideas were correct. We just did not set up our students well by not giving them opportunities to build relationships first. We had the best intentions but skipped that part due to logistics and time.

So I believe collaborating outside of the classroom is important because:
  • We do not live in a manufacturing based world anymore where kids live in the same small town with people who look just like themselves for their whole lives.
  • Diversity is an important part of the global community, and we need to expose students to as many different kinds of cultures as possible.
  • Collaboration allows students to see how they are the same as well as different from other cultures. The similarities can make as big of impression on them as the differences.
  • I want to model that real learning is not limited to the classroom walls.
  • Collaboration should build relationships between students.
I spent two years teaching English in China and studying Mandarin. I guess I have a strong personal belief in exposing oneself to different cultures and experiences. Many of my students may never have the opportunities to travel and experience new cultures firsthand. We have the technological tools to make these connections in the classroom. I believe that teachers have an obligation to use these tools to give students opportunities to collaborate and learn from as many sources as possible.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    Scratch: collaboration or not?

    I was contacted by Gary Bertoia via twitter about a collaboration project using Scratch. If you are unfamiliar with Scratch, it is an MIT designed software that allows students to create games by clicking and dragging commands rather than using a complicated programming language. It allows students to think about the design and layout of how video games work without having to learn the language. Gary's idea was to teach our 8th grade classes the basics of the program and then have them design and create their own game together. Oh by the way, Gary teaches at South Saigon International School in Vietnam exactly 12 time zones ahead of us!

    We started by using some instructions in Google Presentations created by Simon Haughton. Students learned the basics of Scratch by designing an Etch-a-Sketch, race car maze, Pong, and Pacman. Then we used a wiki for students to come up with their own game ideas. The first challenge was to match up our classes' ideas. My class was divided in groups of two and Gary's students worked in groups of two or three. We then had to bargain with the students to convince them to agree to one anothers' ideas. It would have been nice to have the students engage in a real discussion about the topics with each other but the time zone difference made that impossible.

    For our first attempt, collaboration might have been more of a goal than a reality. There were many challenges to this project centered around the communication piece. We had many ideas and tried many tools including e-mail, Google Docs, Voicethread, wikis, and the Scratch upload site. On my end there were challenges related to us having many class periods off due to parent conferences, a conference I attended, and mid-winter break. We also had challenges with our district filter blocking our uploads to the Scratch site and not allowing the students to download email attachments from Gary's students. 

    We ended up with a chart in Google Docs that linked the student teams, emails, and an individual Google Presentations for each game. Students used the slides in Google to share their ideas, drawings, and changes to the game. On our end we would download the games from Scratch and then e-mail them back to the students in Vietnam. But we spent wasted days not being able to access the games due to the filter and changed passwords. I think sometimes my students neglected to email their games back to the students in Vietnam. The end result is that in many groups Gary's students did the lion's share of the programming and had more buy-in than mine.

    Just because you build it, does not mean that they will collaborate. Gary and I had plans of a great cooperation, but we did not make it personal enough so students did not feel it. We originally planned to have the students make video introductions to each other. We scrapped this due to time restraints and my not having permission slips from students ahead of time.

    We surveyed both of our classes about the experience afterward and they (I use they to represent both Gary's students and mine) expressed frustration about their partners abroad not working hard and the lack of communication. They also were frustrated by feeling that their ideas were not heard or deleted. Both of our classes experienced similar thoughts and we both had some students that worked harder than others. As Gary said it "felt more like us and them rather than a collaboration." Middle school students need more than a Google Doc to communicate to develop a relationship with others.

    Gary and I learned a lot from this experience. Gary's school uses Google Apps so his students were already comfortable with gmail and Google Docs. I underestimated how long it would take to get students started in these tools. His class was a semester long class and mine was only nine weeks.

    Remember it is ok to model failure to students. I am not afraid to "fail" at an idea especially if it is something new with great potential. The good news is that we are going to do it again next year. Things we will do different next year include:
    • both doing this project during a semester class for more time and make sure that there will not be a major break in our school schedules during the project.
    • teaching gmail, wikis, and Google Docs before the project
    • starting the collaboration sooner with introduction videos and google docs before we introduce Scratch to the students to build relationships
    • finding a better way to share our work perhaps with dropio or dropbox
    In the end the students did not really collaborate because they had no relationship with each other. We will work to fix this next year and hope for a more successful project based on better communication and real relationships. Hopefully this reflection will both encourage you to try a collaborative project and help you to plan it well.