Sunday, December 13, 2015

The new paradigm

Access to the digital realm in schools has gone through an evolution. Although the stages are not clearly bounded, a simple overview might look like this:
  • Computer Lab school (the school maintains a lab environment with devices standardized by model and installed software)
  • Laptop Carts (in order to bring technology into the classroom, laptop computers, standardized by model and software, are available for check out)
  • 1:1 (schools provide each student with a standardized model and software image)
  • BYOM (schools allow students to bring their own Mac, but provide minimum standards for software and hardware)
  • BYOD (schools release students from the obligation of computer make/model, but still maintain standards for software and hardware)
The most recent variant of this evolution has been called "1 to n", where 'n' represents that students will have an array of technology devices; Smart Phones, Tablets, laptops, workstations, etc. The implication is that each type of technology has its own affordances, so teachers can design tasks that are best suited for each device.

I propose that there is yet another evolutionary phase that is more important and better represents the future of tech in schools. I call this "1 to x".

In mathematics, n represents a variable, while x represents an unknown. As a variable, n implies that there are many possible values...a student might have one device (a laptop, perhaps), two devices (a laptop and a Smart Phone), etc. The actual value of n is....variable.

x, however, represents an unknown; a specific value, but one which is unique to the situation. For example, we know there is a solution, but we don't know exactly what it is.

In the realm of technology, this means we know a student has a device that they will choose to use, but we don't know (or particularly care) which one it is.

This implies that the user is now empowered enough that we can allow them to choose the proper tool for a task, and we neither have to prepare the tool in advance (as with 1:1 environments), nor do we have to design the task to match different tools (as with 1:n).

For example, in a 1:x environment, a teacher would tell students to read the first chapter of Moby Dick. He or she would assume that all students have devices and connectivity, and are savvy enough to find a copy online and read it. For some, it might take the form of a Kindle and a kindle account, others might stream it online with their SmartPhone, others might fileshare through Dropbox and read it on their laptop. As far as the teacher is concerned, and for the purposes of the class, it doesn't matter where they get the copy, as long as they read the first chapter. The days of having to order a class set and hand them out (which originated because there was not a resource with enough reliable copies for an entire class) is over.

In another case, the teacher might tell the kids to represent their research thoughts on some sort of digital framework that is most effective. Some students might make a webpage or blog, using their laptop. Others might make a movie using their tablet camera, and others might write a short story and deliver it in ePub format for a Kindle. Again, choice of the digital tool and platform is part of the students responsibility, and frees them up to find the best way to achieve their goal. In fact, their choice of medium and device is a rich area for discussion which is lost if the teacher mandates that they do it on a Google Site using their laptops.

There is an old adage; if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. By assuming that every student has the same assemblage of tech tools, we run the risk of over-standardizing our tasks, robbing students of opportunities for creativity and collaboration, and adding to the management tasks of teachers and schools.

With the developing savvy of students and technology use, the need for teachers or institutions to provide the device (either the device itself, or a minimum set of specs for student-owned devices) is rapidly passing. The need to design lessons that fit within those constraints is also passing, as is the need to provide instruction on how to use the digital tools. As we reach this new paradigm of 1:x, technology truly becomes a tool of expression rather than another obstacle to learning.

The journey into 1:x can take many forms, and in many ways we have already made it. Many math programs no longer specify what type of calculator kids need, I know of no school anywhere that dictates what kind of paper notebook, pens or pencils kids must have. We often allow kids to read books from other sources than the school supply closet (online, the school library, etc). Other than to provide for the need of standardized grading (which should be avoided) or for instruction (which is becoming less necessary), we should move away from providing too much of a framework for tech expectations.

It's a tiny step, but I recently handed out Kindle devices to a classroom of students, and made a conscious choice not to include the micro-USB charging cable. These cables are easy to find, abundant, and managing them would have been just another task to interfere with productivity. Although access to a cable is crucial for use of the devices, for the most part, students took this in stride ("Oh, I have this cable at home anyway") and I realized that we needlessly take on too many responsibilities.

In the future, I expect to see teachers and schools free themselves from the yoke and constraints of digital maintenance. The 1:x model assumes that students have digital tools, know how to use them, can choose the best tool mindfully, and can focus their creativity on the tools and skills they have rather than have to develop new tangential skills or acquire new devices to meet class expectations. This paradigm best represents true integrated learning and creative productivity.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Flexible Learning Space: the Experimental Classroom

When I first started as Tech Facilitator at HKIS, the High School was doing some renovations which released a room that had been a computer lab. When I saw this space that had rows of electrical outlets on the floor, no fixed cabinetry and great lighting, I figured it could serve as an experimental classroom space, where I could try out different technologies before they were scaled up for the entire school.

The philosophy driving the space was that I wanted a room that was imminently flexible: with a mobile teaching space, movable desks and chairs, and extremely versatile surfaces.

My rationale was: if there was a defined 'front of the room', then the teacher would be there. Which means the students would naturally align themselves in front of the teacher, creating that "Sage on the Stage" arrangement. So the first thing I did was remove any evidence of a "front", by taking down the projector and board, and by making all the walls writable surfaces.

We looked at different products, but ended up using formica countertop material glued to plywood backing. There is also a spacer behind each board, leaving a little 'breather space' between the board and the wall. In the steamy season, the walls sweat and we felt that having the board mounted against the plaster walls would have been too fragile.

I installed folding tables and chairs, all mobile, in the room. My first intent was to make the policy that after each class, the room had to be returned to a 'neutral state' so incoming classes had no implied set-up, but teachers found that it was easier to rearrange the room if the tables and chairs were deployed, so the policy was suspended.

In order or provide for projection, I tried two different setups. The first was for a self-contained mobile projection platform. I started with an Ergotron Teachwell adjustable lecturn, mounted a flat surface and strapped a projector to it, added a USB document camera, and mounted an amp and speakers to the base. There were some issues in cabling: it would have been nice if some sort of docking station was available for the computers, but in the end each device had its own plug that had to be plugged in (projector, audio, document camera, power). The resulting product could be moved around the room, plugged into any floor outlet, adjusted for height, and projected onto the walls.

Overall, this experiment was not quite successful; the projector was far too sensitive to any motion on the stand (even typing on the computer), and the focal length meant that the user had to endlessly mess with keystone settings. Also, the reflected glare from the projector was hard to manage. After some time, this station was abandoned and disassembled.

The next (and eminently more successful) projection system was a portable SMART board with a short throw projector. I found a big screen TV mount (also made by Ergotron), and working with some engineers we built a mounting bracket that could hold a SMART board and also a projector while maintaining stability.

The signal was sent to the projector wirelessly from the computer using an Imation LINK device. This worked very well (better than Apple TV, in terms of signal stability) except that there was some small visible 'chop' while watching videos. The best feature was that kids could project their computer screens merely by passing around the USB dongle.

Connection to the SMART board was via a proprietary bluetooth link (since discontinued by SMART). The board had some issues with maintaining connectivity, but with practice, all users were able to troubleshoot when necessary, or else bypass with a Thunderbolt-VGA cable.

For audio, we mounted an amplifier and speaker system to the legs of the mobile board, which also added to the stability of the board. It took the audio feed from the Imation LINK device. If teachers chose to use the VGA cable, then they could either connect to the audio with a bluetooth device, or else use an audio cable backup.

When we switched to Macbook Airs (with no DVD drive), we also mounted a DVD/CD player on the legs of the portable board, and wired the audio to the speakers via a separate channel, so the amplifier could receive feed from the computer or the DVD player.

The teacher's workstation was also wireless. I used an Ergotron adjustable lectern and mounted a USB expansion hub. In the hub I plugged in a USB Document Camera, the dongle for the SMARTboard, and the dongle for the Imation LINK. Teachers connected to the audio track via a bluetooth audio hookup...the result was a truly wireless portable teaching station with only one USB plug to attach. If their computers were charged, the teachers did not even need to plug in the power cable, and could roll the workstation anywhere in the room and still maintain audio, video, projection and SMART connectivity.

Together, the portable SMART board and Mobile Teaching Station only needed one power plug on the SMART board to run the projector and amplifier. Other than that, they are a very versatile and mobile presentation platform pair...although in truth, most teachers tend to use the cable connection to the projector rather than the Imation LINK.

The classroom space took some time for teachers to start to want to use. The math department eventually became the prime users, being very excited about the multiple whiteboard spaces and as they are some of our most prolific SMART users, they found the SMARTboard very useful. Other classes used it and made extensive use of the mobile project surface...the board could be moved anywhere in the room and seating arrangements could be adjusted as needed.

All in all, a lot was learned about this space. I found that teachers were not as creative about manipulating the workspace as I hoped they would be, and eventually the board ended up residing at one end of the room with the teacher workdesk occupying the traditional 'front of the room' setting. However, the room does get used almost every period now, mostly by math teachers, but also for meetings with Admin and student groups. Maybe one of the best outcomes was that people who wanted to use the space had to learn to manage some basic troubleshooting, and this skill ended up spreading around the departments. 

One notable thing happened: when the school had to absorb the Language Department space for the SW Admin as we built our new campus, extensive renovations occurred to the entire wing. However, the Admin universally agreed to preserve the Experimental Classroom, as it served as such a versatile, useful and important learning space in the HS.