How abundance might mean we need to change the way we learn to learn

I’ve been having a transformative experience here in the Department of Education in PEI in many ways. One of the most rewarding is the digital practices course that i’m currently teaching. I’m working with some very experienced teachers, coaches, assessment folks and curriculum people. They are willing, engaged and challenging. The best kind of students. I’m learning tons about what can practically get done with change in the system. What can teachers manage? What is too much? What are they really looking for?

Abundance
One of the core concepts in the course is that the abundance of information available on the internet fundamentally changes what is possible in the classroom. It also, potentially, changes what we should be doing. I mean… i don’t think its ‘potentially’. I think it should change it. Finding and ordering are now more important than remembering.

And, to the point of this blog post, we need to prepare people to learn random things. They need practice dealing with uncertainty. Dealing with things where they might be the first person they’ve met who has ever come across it. Something we can’t prepare them for.

Learning something really new
Our classroom activity last week was hard. It was hard for me as a facilitator, and it was difficult for them as a group (one group found it more challenging than the other). I gave them random microbit parts and said ‘start’. I was trying to recreate the feeling that many people have in the world right now… people confronted with a new phone, people confronted with taxes, with a new social network, with cambridge analytica… people seemingly expected to know how to do, and how to understand, hundreds of different things. Things that we didn’t know we were going to know how to do. Things we are going to have to figure out with whatever is available to us.

Gradual release
One of the main items of feedback from the students is that they prefer a gradual release methodology to learning about things like the microbit. Some structure up front. Goals clearly outlined. Targets identified. Scaffolding in place. You acclimatize to the water by slowly lowering the temperature of the pool from a balmy 85 degrees all the way to a proper maritime 66 degrees in the summer. This is certainly an effective mechanism for getting people to acquire certain skills.

It’s also not how much of our world works now.

But i don’t like technology
This was an excellent critique from a number of participants. The challenge I gave them was not really a level playing field. If you already understand code, or you have an existing interest in tinkering with technology the activity is going to be much easier to adapt to. You’re going to dive in and play around with it.

I don’t know how to adapt this activity to this objection. More thinking needed here.

What are the new practices?
We had some talks. I don’t think I rolled it out as well as I could have. They pulled it together. Their reflections (which for a variety of reasons are not public) are exceptional. Their home activity was to do an instruction activity for ‘something’ in the microbit and write a reflection on how they felt about it. They have written amazing instructional pieces that we’ll be able to use in classrooms. They are now reading each other’s manuals and learning how to use the microbit. Student centred, student driven, student guided.

I’m torn to be honest. One part of me thinks – here is the way we need to be able to learn in 21st century. We are confronted with too many situations where we don’t know what to do and we need to learn how to get that first instructional video, that little bit of help from our friend (or whatever) to get ourselves started. We need to deal with the frustration of a task we don’t understand and use our connections. That’s the practice.

The other part of me thinks that if we can save people the frustration, shouldn’t we just go ahead and do that?

Going forward
I’ve heard lots of complaints recently that ‘kids these days’ are helpless and unwilling to try and solve their problems. They’re constantly looking for guidance and to find an expert to solve their problems. Firstly… that sounds like a survival mechanism for a generation that has 100 times more decisions to make than I did. 1000 times more personal choices and options available to them. 1000000 times more things that they could watch or read.

Also, it just might be that the way we help them learn makes them a little too dependent. Doesn’t make them struggle quite enough. Doesn’t quite manage the learning they need to do in the world.

I’m looking forward to difficult discussions with the group tomorrow.

Digital Practices Mapping – Intro activity for digital literacies course

I developed a new tension pair for introducing digital practices. Thought I’d share. Lemme know how it goes if you use it.

My planning prep for a course is to have a number of possible activities in the hopper that I can pull out and use, or make something up, or use an activity suggested by a participant. I have short canned slide decks. I have writing/chatting prompts. In class short readings. And, of course, the usual bevy of ways to get people talking to each other all designed to create an environment in which everyone can come to know. I always have general places I assume we’ll want to get to, but I think that in a post-knowledge-scarcity world, its pretty presumptuous to think that you know what a group of people you don’t know are going to need to learn before you’ve even met them.

I spend an inordinate amount of time, however, worrying myself about what the first activity for the course will be. Those first couple of moments a learner spends in a class are critical, in my view, to establish the first threads of the social contract. It sets a tone. What’s this course going to be like? What is going to be expected of me? Am I allowed to have opinions? If I walk into a class, spend thirty minutes on a slidedeck intro and goal setting, I’ve basically told everyone that they’re job in my class is to sit and listen. This is not what I want.

I tend to have have a two step process at the start of day 1 – one activity that gets people working together, right out of the gate, and one that gets them to reflect on who they are (and who other people might be) with regards to the intent of the course. This stuff is stolen and learned from dozens of awesome practitioners over the years. Thanks to all ya’ll.

First step – get people relying on each other
6 or 8 years ago i tried the most extreme version of the first intro. I walked into the class, made a brief (2min) introduction, suggested that they form groups of four to register for twitter, wordpress, the moodle course and (something else, can’t remember) and then i walked back out the door. It was a response to the consistent challenge i’d been having of people looking to me for step by step explanations. To thinking that somehow I was in the room to explain to people how to use technology. It did work. When i walked back in five minutes later everyone was up, explaining to each other what was going on and getting things done. But it’s kind of a jerk move. And it doesn’t really serve people who are not feeling safe in the classroom. So…

That… was probably taking the thing a little too far. But it does illustrate what I’m trying to get done with the intro. I want people to look to other classmates for help, for guidance, for hints. There is no such thing as cheating, there is only learning. I want engagement.

In the Digital Practices class we built things out of cardboard. We used my precious cardboard screws to build some random structures as a group. I just said “build something with the cardboard”. I was looking for a couple of different things. i wanted to see if anyone looked on the internet for instructions (they didn’t) and I wanted to get a sense of how the social dynamics would come together. It also, I hope, helped build those other social contract things like creativity, like there not being a particular thing they needed to build, independence etc… that would fold into the rest of the course.

The first activity – part two
I was lucky enough to be drawing at the table with Dave White and Lawrie Phipps when the first V&R map was drawn in a little canal side bar in the UK 10 or so years ago. I love me a tension pair. I like how tension pair maps allow you to bring together two sets of concepts into one space. If you’ve never used V&R its a model that gives people a sense of where their tool use is on the digital spectrum. On one axis it goes from personal to professional (clear enough) and the other from visitor to resident. I’ll leave you to read Dave White’s blog for a more detailed sense, but a visitor dabbles (like lurking on twitter) and a resident engages (like someone who goes to twitter and replies to people on a regular basis).

It’s a useful model… but it sets the digital apart as something that either ‘is digital’ or ‘is not digital’. I was looking for something that looked at the whole of someone’s practice rather than just the digital stuff. And V&R tends to look at things from a tool based perspective, rather than from the perspective of what someone is trying to get done. I wanted us to look at ourselves from the perspectives of ALL of our practice… and see what its digital qualities might be. I wanted each participant to be able to see what each other considered to be part of the ‘professional practice’ and where they considered that practice to fit in the mapping activity.

I popped four pieces of blue sticky note on the wall with the words from the pic above creating the map. Do you do your professional planning by yourself on paper? drop a sticky note with “professional planning” in the bottom left quadrant.

The nice thing about this activity is that it kept us focused on ‘what is a professional practice’ as a first point of interest and the digital quality of it as a secondary conversation. It also prompted any number of conversations between us about how digital a particular practice really is. Is email ‘really’ a digital practice? Write a letter, send it to someone, wait for a response? Not so digital. Lots of interesting discussion and the start of some goal setting.

It seemed to work. lemme know how it goes for you.

Beyond the Tree Octopus – Why we need a new view of k12 (digital) literacy in a Cambridge Analytica world

I’ve been very fortunate the last few weeks to have the opportunity to co-design (with learners who happen to be master teachers) a course on digital practices for education. It’s kind of like cheating. Small classes, very engaged and intelligent people, with a real desire to get to the bottom of what the digital means to the education system. These are the folks who write the curriculum, work with principals on school goals and work with teachers on their teaching practice here on Prince Edward Island. The digital strategy committee has done a ton of work here getting the systems part of things ready for a digital world and have developed some interesting ‘shiny projects‘ but the work of this course is where the important stuff happens. The day to day. If we’re going to prepare our students for the world that they live in, if we’re going to give them the habits of mind for a generation that has so many new demands on it, these are the kind of people who are going to figure it out. It’s been a real privilege.

Session 1&2 – Abundance and trust
The core premise of the course is that the digital moves us from a societal position of scarcity to one of abundance. There was a time not so long ago that a student (in a school) could only access the information from his teacher, from books within arms reach and from their friends. A teacher could only access the resources they had squirrelled away, their own experience, the experience of their colleagues and the hours of professional development that could be provided by their educational authority. This is no longer true. I can reach into my pocket right now and get just about any ‘information’ that I want.

Or can I?

There are any number of structures that were in place in the pre-digital world that made it so that ‘a’ piece of information became ‘the’ piece of information. And that’s a critical distinction. It used to be that our publishing industry, our faculties of education and our educational authority had a near stranglehold on information in our system. And I don’t mean this in a bad way. The advent of paper, of schools and of education systems did amazing things for our culture, they allowed us to take the human voice and move it around in a way that changed us from mostly illiterate farmers at constant risk of losing most of the knowledge we had (see. Dark Ages, fall of Mayan cities etc…) to groups of cultures that can build upon the past. That’s awesome.

But the controls that were in place, the publishing cycle, the education and selection of faculty, the balances of an education system, meant that the information that made it to the classroom was heavily filtered. That’s good and bad. It meant that tons of smart people had looked at the things you were going to use before you used it. That’s good. It also meant that you got less practice (and your students even less) learning how to filter. (it also means that dominant narratives stayed dominant, but that’s a discussion for a different day)

There’s a ton more to ‘learning how to filter’ than just picking information, its also about learning who to trust. If you’re information comes to you through limited sources, finding out how to evaluate those sources is fairly standardized. National Enquirer – uh… probably not. New York Times – uh… sure. That guy at the conference who everyone said was a nutball (mostly referring to myself here :)) might want to take that with a grain of salt. The professor that won all the awards? Sure, I’ll trust her. That approach has weaknesses, but on the whole, it works.

In a world of abundance, those filters are no longer in place. Pre-digital systems of adjudication for turning ‘a piece of information’ to ‘the piece of information that i need’ simply don’t work anymore. The processes that we did have for filtering were not built to handle the onslaught of stuff that we receive on a daily (or minute by minute) basis on facebook, from our google searches or in our increasingly splintered media. We retweet without thinking about it. We post a comment by reflex on something that makes us mad – thereby increasing the noise. And people are taking advantage of us.

Cambridge Analytica
I’m not suggesting that people have just started taking advantage of us. Robocalling during elections apparently started in the sixties where people would call you during an election and ask questions like “if your candidate was a murderer, would you still vote for them?” This kind of nudge suggestion doesn’t necessarily work on each individual, but it can start rumours, start conversations and suddenly a candidate has a reputation that was totally fabricated. Advertising IS the attempt of people to try and shape your opinion about things. That’s what’s happening now, the difference is the scale or, to put it in the language of this post, the difference is abundance.

Cambridge Analytica is a election data firm in the news when this post was written for helping shape the feelings voters during the US election and the British Brexit vote. Information like the things you ‘like’ on facebook and the results of personality tests you do create a profile for you. It tells the database what kind of things attract your attention. Companies like CA use this data to target you with the exact message that is likely to impact your feelings in the way they’ve been paid to do that. Take a look at how they made ‘Crooked Hillary‘ a thing. Unlike the robocalling, these approaches can affect millions of users at the same time creating a web of messages that look like something that ‘could’ be true.

It’s much, much easier for us to just pretend this is an internet thing that doesn’t effect our lives. The Trump election should convince you that this isn’t the case. Cambridge Analytica isn’t alone… not even close. There are simple tools at work like remarketing (think of how all your ads start to match up with what you last viewed on amazon). There are also much deeper tools that are constantly trying to ‘nudge’ (see Behavioural Economics) your attitudes in one direction or another. They’re not trying to make you believe that something is ‘true’ they’re trying to move opinions by 5%. That 5% gets you elected. It shapes public policy.

Why the tree octopus is not helping
In 1998 a website called the Tree Octopus was created to help students identify real information on the internet. Thousands of school children (millions?) have been assigned this activity as a way of building their skills in identifying what’s ‘true’ on the internet. It’s an initial step to building the kinds of skills that will allow students to identify ‘reliable’ data. They are going to judge ‘is it the piece of information’ is it ‘true’ or is it something that I can safely ignore. It is, in a sense, a digital ‘book’ that they are going to add to their library or not. This is an analogue view of information.

Think of it this way. Most kids will say that the wikipedia is not a trusted source. For that matter, so will most teachers. It was not created using the filters that created the items of trust from before the digital era. “anyone can just go on there and edit it.” It’s not been validated by a publisher, by a professor or by another system. Here’s the thing, wikipedia is neither ‘true’ nor ‘false’. Its a place in a large network of bits of information. It’s part of a wide abundance of information around any topic you might have a question about. No particular entry is likely to be perfectly good or perfectly bad. It’s a really great place, however, to get started building your own thread of knowing. You can read the introduction, if you’re fancy you can look at the history of the edits, but most importantly you can look at the references page to get a sense of what others have said. It’s a FANTASTIC tool if your in a world of abundance. It doesn’t pass muster if you’re still using the filtering tools of world of scarcity.

Our friend the tree octopus is one page. Isolated. Artificially created to make a point. It’s not part of a larger ecosystem of knowing, its not connected to other things that help you understand it’s background. That connection to understand, that ability to build a path of knowing IS THE 21ST CENTURY LITERACY. I would suggest that the octopus takes us down an analogue path, building habits were just going to have to break when we’re doing ‘real’ work on the Internet. We’re not building the skills that will allow the students in our system to deal with the world of nudging and data that is shaping our world.

What does this mean for the classroom?
That’s the real question here. How does this change what we actually do on a regular basis in our school systems? I’m going to leave the two questions we’re working on now here. Feel free to help us with your thoughts.

1. How does this change the interaction between faculties of education/educational authorities and teachers? How do they account for the loss of hidden controls (again, no blame here in the word hidden) that they had over the information teachers had access to?

2. How does it change how a teacher should filter information that goes to students? If we accept that students need to build their own tools to deal with a world of abundance, how does that change the way we work with our students?

The world has changed around us. You can forget teaching students for a future world of whatever. We’re going to struggle to teach them for the world we are currently in right now.

Note: a huge debt goes out to all my colleagues working on this, but especially @holden who’s work has been central to our course. Check out his book

Pedagogy, Not Outcomes – How to Do Maker Models for Language Arts

In PEI we are working towards bringing ‘maker sensibility’ to our classrooms and trying to come up with a functional approach to getting this done. I’m hoping to help support the pockets of creative projects that currently happening in our system with maker/tech and pedagogy supports that can allow teachers to feel as comfortable as possible putting student lead creativity at the centre of their classrooms.

I’m working towards a model I’m calling STELAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts, and Math). It takes STEAM sensibility and embeds it deeply into the language arts classroom.

What do the words really mean?
The acronym STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) means different things to different people. The usage of the acronym STEM (without the arts) is fairly recent, its really only come into fashion in the last 10 or 15 years. It’s a response, partially, to the concern that some people have that we need more science-type people being trained in our schools. There is a great deal of debate around whether this is true. I am comfortable, however, claiming that the kind of critical thinking that can come from exploring STEM style projects can be useful to students. Let’s take that as a shared premise and move forward.

The addition to the A (Arts) in STEAM is a recognition that there’s more to being a successful STEM person than just the STEM. You need creativity and the ability to communicate. I think of it as a way of mapping the STEM concern to the Maker movement. When you combine the research skills that come from STEM with the creativity that comes with art, you end up with the potential for a rich classroom experience that creates some connective tissue between our curricular silos. That’s when this gets really exciting.

Maker movement in education
There is a great article in edutopia about the maker movement.

In a day when everyone thinks, “There’s an app for that,” many educators believe that we’re missing the point of technology if we think its best use is programming kids to memorize math facts. Students don’t want to use apps — they want to make them.

The maker movement is committed to putting students at the centre of their learning. That learning ‘may’ involve the use of technology, or it may be building things out of cardboard, but it brings a hands on, student lead flavour to how we explore our curriculum.

Maker carts
Here in PEI we are taking a maker cart approach. Imagine a cart that you can roll into you classroom with everything from cardboard screws to 15 Microbits on it. That number ’15’ is relevant because we’re looking to populate the carts so that kids can work in pairs. The carts will also have an age appropriate collection of other things that can help you make things, both tech and craft. This gives us a bit more flexibility in terms of scheduling, and it is WAY easier to get one cart down the hallway, then to get 24 kids down a hallway :). You can also imagine the contents of a maker space divided into four or six carts that could be used at the same time by different teachers.

Custom Educational Furnishings
Here’s one from Custom Educational Furnishings

STELAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Language Arts and Math)
So what are going do with this stuff? In a real classroom? Excellent question, thank you for asking. I want to work it into language arts. I mean, not only language arts necessarily, but its the real focus of my interest. i want kids to create an elephant out of cardboard, and build a robotic interface inside of it that lights up its eyes, or makes it roar when you get too close or… whatever. But i want them to use it as a communication object.

Why?

I have zero interest in measuring creativity
I have no interest in measuring how creative a kid is. I’m happy to encourage creativity all day. Reward particularly interesting bursts of it. Take pictures of it and post it online. But i have no interest in giving your cardboard elephant a 92 and your cardboard treehouse a 78. None. If we think of the maker process as a pedagogy… then i don’t have to. It’s the WAY that we go about learning something, not the something that needs to be learned.

More time for being creative
If I’m in a language arts classroom, working on a personal reflection about my elephant, or doing procedural writing about how to build it, or explaining to someone else what the elephant’s backstory is and turning it into a story – i have TIME. I have time to work on my creative process. I have time to get comfortable with the coding I’m using to make its eyes flash red. I have time to allow my project to iteratively improve. Too often these kinds of creative projects are rewards before Christmas break, or march break or after a long stretch of hard work. I want to provide the possibility to have it integrated into the work we’re doing. Weeks not hours.

Because it totally makes sense in language arts
But the journey of maker into language arts isn’t just a matter of finding time in the day. It makes sense because of narrative. So much of the creative is about coming up with a narrative for what you’re doing. Whether that’s just the name of the thing that has evolved out of your creative process or a whole story about it. The communication. The writing. The collaboration. The reflection. These are key skills that are needed for citizenship. Team that up with some coding and some maker skills and you’ve got a killer combination.

How does it work?
This is still emerging, I figure it will continue to evolve as we get more and more people involved in thinking about it. At the current time, we’re thinking about putting a clear guidelines for achievable tech projects (make the lights blink, launch an elastic band) in with the maker carts. We’re also working towards having trainers in the classroom (and the staff room) to help teachers work through things their first time or two. They would be flexible projects that you can build around. This figures that once teachers get their minds around it with projects that are maybe a tad more scripted than a traditional JUST MAKE classroom, they’ll be able to take it from there. We’re also talking about graduated carts that help kids develop (say, in grade 1) the skills they’re going to need (maybe by grade 5) for doing the programming, wiring and building up required for these projects.

The key, though, is to design these projects so that it isn’t just the geeky teachers that get involved. We want LOTS of teachers to think “hey, i can get started with this”. That diversity will bring more art, cooler LA projects and more practicality to the maker process.

I’m super excited.

elephant!

Supporting Digital Practice – making time-for-learning

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks here in PEI. We’ve launched the first part of the training and discussion for our maker cart project. We’ve been working on pulling together all our information pieces on supporting technology in the system. We spoke with the principals about our work and have had a fair number of them reach out excited to get involved. We’ve been thinking about how technology can support language arts. We’ve been working towards better basic training in technology in the form of google certified educator. We’ve been thinking about how we can improve our wireless infrastructure in the long term. The digital strategy committee approach (yup, I suggested we solve a problem with a committee) has been fantastic. As always… getting the decision making worked out is a critical step in the process, many thanks to the leadership in k12 here for letting us set it up.

Digital Practices
Dedicated time-for-learning is critical for digital transformation (or, really, any change project). While we are planning learning events with teachers for both the maker work and with google, getting time-for-learning with the curriculum consultants and the coaches is just as important. This week we start a 2 month-ish course on digital practices. The course itself is based on the ed366 course I taught at UPEI for years, but modified for smaller class sizes and the more specific use case of being within an education system.

‘Digital Practices’ are the things that I do that are born out of the affordances of our digital communications platforms. It is an assemblage of the digital skills i might have mediated through the digital literacy and habits that i have acquired. Or, to put it more simply, it’s ‘being digital’.

It’s tricky business, talking about this stuff, and it inevitably leads to some contradictions. One of the biggest advantages of digital spaces, from my perspective, is the return to orality. When we depend on a finished text (say, a printed book) to arrive to us in the mail, we are the receivers of the knowledge that is contained therein. I can certainly work through that text with my other, previous learnings, but I never get a chance to contribute, to ask questions that can get answers… I’m not part of the knowledge creation process. When we think of an oral discussion (at least, a good one) there is a chance for both sides to contribute, a chance for us to move together to a new understanding. Digital spaces allow for this to happen with text. We can collaborate on something that becomes knowledge through our interactions with it.

It’s not all sunshine and roses of course. Collaborative texts tend to reduce themselves to consensus… which can be nice, but can sometimes privilege existing ideas over new ones. There is much greater safety in sending out a printed text that people read when you’re not in the room. If the reader hates it, or it makes them angry, you are not in the immediate line of fire. These advantages and disadvantages need new social norms… new practices to make them effective and still maintain our own healthy relationships. These digital practices need to be negotiated, they need to be talked about out loud in ways that many of our 20th century practices don’t. I’m going to run a course about this. It’s going to be fun. A few opening thoughts…

Tools vs. practices
Years of teaching courses like this have lead me to believe that most people are coming expecting to learn ‘how to use a bunch of tools’. I can totally understand this. You see people using tools, they claim to be effective with them, you too want to use the tools. Truth be told the ‘how’ of these tools has simplified (in most cases) to the point where the technical using of them is an almost incidental part of the learning process. There’s all the world of difference between ‘learning how to use a hashtag’ and ‘knowing how to use a hashtag to avoid getting it hijacked’. One involves knowing that when you put a character (#) in front of a word it becomes a tag, and the other involves hours of working in an environment to come to understand how twitter spam/trolls work. People will probably learn how to use tools in the course, but I probably wont be teaching much of it.

Complexity
I’m still pretty stuck on the idea of complexity being important when teaching digitally mitigated practice. I think that separating things to learn out into simple, complicated and complex concepts allows us to make space between things that are easily accomplished by more rote means and those that require us to settle into a concept and work our way around inside of it.

Maker
There’s always been a maker strand in my work, but I’ve never formally acknowledged it. I was uncomfortable with the term, but the last six months preparing a maker project here in PEI has led me to feel much better about it. I’m expecting to have a big solid maker section in this course and to use it to demonstrate differing analogue/digital approaches to learning/teaching with it. Do I need to have ideas for the kids before I arrive? How do I structure student lead ideation so that all my students can succeed and I don’t make it teacher centric? Is the internet really full of good ideas? How can I work with other teachers to create more relevant ideation spaces?

Community as Curriculum
It always come back to this for me. I feel more strongly about it now then when i first wrote it 10 years ago. The goal for me is for each person in this course to be able to be able to become a member of a conversation in a community of knowing in the subject. Can you pass? Can you engage? Do you know how to ask questions? Do you speak the language? Can you help? We learn to become members in a community of knowing by practicing and learning together. When the community is the curriculum.

Citizenship
At the end of the day practices lead to citizenship, as they do in the rest of our lives. The ways in which we interact with each other, with our community, our schools ourselves… these all make up our actions as citizens. As more and more of our communications are mediated through the internet, more and more of our lives as citizens are mediated through it as well. If our schools prepare citizens, it is essential that they prepare them for being good citizens, online or offline.

Building a worksheet for rhizomatic learning in the k12 classroom

The first paper I wrote on rhizomatic learning turns 10 this year, and if you’d told me that I was every going to write the word ‘worksheet’ and ‘rhizomatic learning’ in the same blog post i would have coughed my coffee on my keyboard.

And yet, here I am.

Two years ago I committed to using the Arduino to model rhizomatic learning and, for the last year, I’ve been leading the digital strategy for k12 in my province here in PEI. Next week we start the next phase of our work and start looking at how we can integrate microcontrollers and maker activities (and coding) into various parts of the curriculum in our schools.

But how to teach it?

And, more importantly, how do we support teachers (many of whom don’t currently use these approaches) in such a way that they don’t fall back to step by step approaches to using it. Because, i have to tell you, it’s really REALLY hard in the real world not to just tell people what to do with a microcontroller. I’ve found that each time I have this crazy urge to just go “look, plug this in here, nail that over there…” Technology is hard. The multitude of travelling road shows that make this stuff look attractive in the classroom might look snazzy when you see them, but the practicalities of using this stuff in the classroom can be overwhelming.

And yet… I want students to be able to follow their own paths with this stuff. To create a curriculum by interacting with their community. I want them to build connections to what they already know in an organic, authentically student lead manner.

To design things we can’t ourselves imagine.

Some challenges
Technology projects are hard
I have yet to find a limit to the possible impediments to a wide open “lets play with this to make something cool” approach to using microcontrollers in the classroom. I’ve had people straight out panic at the ideation point. I’ve had people go down a rabbit hole of something that was entirely impossible (at least, as far as i could tell). I’ve had people with full circuit boards with one wire out of place that we couldn’t find. lack of tools/resources appropriate to the task. Boredom. Frustration. Fine motor skill challenges. Organizational weaknesses. I mean… I could do this all day.

Error identification
lets assume that someone has a reasonable idea and a reasonable path to get there… sometimes it doesn’t work. Why doesn’t it work? Well… if i had time to sit down with it for 5 minutes I might be able to figure it out, but when 10 other people need my attention, i never get 5 uninterrupted minutes to look at it. Troubleshooting these things is partially about experience, but its also about process. Once your other students become more proficient, this isn’t such a problem… but first day… the day that will convince the teacher that this is really a terrible idea… those other kids aren’t always a whole lot of help.

Knowledge gaps
Some of that knowledge gap is simply mine as a teacher. Hey dave, any idea what voltage this is at? Hey dave, can i plug this in here? Hey dave… you get the idea. And, of course, in a rhizomatic classroom this should be student lead. But the internet is not generous to the uninitiated in this kind of technology. The forums can be terse and distant and, in some cases, totally unresponsive. Can i really let a kid wait 2 days for an answer to a question? And, as that question is a fact “what voltage does this thing need to be at?” finding it is not discovery (outside of effective searching practices which are important…) doesn’t it make more sense if i can save their time for the truly explorative part of this. Plus… I want lots and lots of teachers to be able to do this. Some structured resources are going to make creativity easier? Right?

Concepts of success
So much of our schools system is built around things being finished. Success is having a project done and presenting it. Finishing the paper. Finishing the test and getting a grade. many of these projects will not work OR get finished. The existing social contract does not really favour this. We need to provide a scaffold on which students can build their own sense of success.

All kinds of other feelings

“Educational research says:” you need to give people a clear sense of what success looks like. While I agree that having people understand the contract under which you are using your power as a teacher is important its that word ‘clear’ that gets me into trouble. I like learning to be messy. Like life. When you don’t give people a clear sense of what success like, we enter a whole realm of real (and super important) human feelings that we need a way to address. WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO!!?!?

A worksheet
So I’m working on a worksheet for a core project. (it’s setup for comments. Feel free to go ahead and tell me what you think)

The project i’m designing this around is an elastic launcher

Arduino project unlocked. Attacked by my own children

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It’s a pretty simple project from a tech perspective. At its core is an arduino uno, a button and a servo. Combine code from two into one… ur done.

Project management
The left side of the worksheet is for the project management pieces. What are your goals? How will you know you’ve reached them? What approaches are you going to take to get there. What will you actually do and when?

Put simply, I’m imagining giving this to teachers fully filled out. At least for one version of the project.

Goals (what change are you trying to make)
Main goal
Build an elastic band launcher
Subgoals
Accurate? Beautiful? Easy to use? Sturdy? What kind of launcher is right for you?

Success Measures (how will you be able to measure that change)
If it’s accurate? (i can hit a target five feet away)
Ease of use? (how quickly can people use it?) (Can a five year old use it?)

Approach (what approaches will you use to shape tasks)
Copying a list of actions from an existing model
Working with partners to fill out my task list
Ask for help

tasks and timelines
Process stuff
Getting the thing plugged in
Checking the arduino works (blink)
Checking the button works (button)
Checking the sweep works (sweep)
Building stuff
Trying to combine button and sweep
Building a gun
Getting a base
Attaching the sweeper
Finding a front peg
Attaching both in a reasonable space

The process from here, then, is to have teachers remove the pieces they wish to to allow for more student choice. You might hand out the worksheet with the sub-goal section blank. You might focus on strategy development one day. This approach allows you to develop different kinds of skills and limit the points of complexity on any given project.

Socio Emotional Learning
On the other side of the worksheet is the narrative. How are things going? Am I panicked at the ideation stage? What did I do when I couldn’t get the stupid thing to work? It’s a list of Writing prompts that you may or may not include… but the idea is to create a place for the discussion around the feelings that people are having related to the projects. Are you nervous about building? is it really just boring for you? Do you feel like its a rote process?

Goals
Ideation challenges
What if my goal isn’t cool enough?

Success measures
How do i measure things like beauty
How accurate do i need to be?

Strategies
My partner isn’t doing any work
Aren’t i just copying their work?
How much should i have done before i start working on that?
I can’t get the teacher’s attention
What should i know to ask for help as effectively as possible
Is this too much work? Can i make it easier?

Tasks and timeline
OMG what are they saying? I can’t read this
What are these little lines for on the resistors?
What happens when i can’t get it to work
What materials should i choose?

What I’m getting at
What I’m trying to do with this worksheet is scaffold the classroom experience so that 25 kids can all have some kind of success in the work they’re doing. They could be really successful in their reflection on feeling helpless when faced with this task. Most (all?) should be able to do the initial rote work that will be part of the testing phase for the technology. The tracking of their timelines and tasks will give them success markers and also allow them to return to the work two weeks later and find the place they were at.

Does this still retain enough creativity? Does it still allow learners to learn rhizomatically? Well. It still depends on the teacher. If you do a few like this will you be able to remove the shackles and let them just build? I hope so. Maybe they’ll be able to translate these skills to home and take a more rhizomatic approach there.

What I do know… is that the scaffolding is necessary. It wont be fair to teachers or students without it.

Thoughts?

Digital learning for everyone – project management + socio-emotional support

I’m into Year Two (of two) leading digital strategy for the K-12 system here in PEI. I landed in a wonderful situation where almost all the hardware (computers and wires) system-wide had just been replaced when I arrived, and where the educators and curriculum/governance people involved are interested in having conversations about a way forward. But we want a way forward for everyone. How do we make a plan that is inclusive, that develops web literacy and helps support our learners becoming good digital citizens? I’ve become really interested in trying to build some key strategies into the process to help everyone succeed. This is where that thinking is at now.

Where we are in the digital strategy
Year One was mostly about setting the stage for change.

  1. We’ve built a system wide committee with decision making responsibilities (more on this in another post)
  2. We’ve built a platform to house curriculum and resources for each course
  3. We’ve developed a two course approach to building literacy (my own digital practices course and Google Certified Educator)
  4. We’ve identified and started working on a massive list of things that need attention
  5. We’re working on grants and partnerships to bring cool stuff (and training) to the system

The targets we’re looking to address
Digital citizenship
This one is first because it’s the most important. We need to understand what literacies we need to be good members of our society in a world that has the internet in it. The internet can give us access to wonderful things, and it also contains piles of people who are purposely trying to mislead us so they can make money off of ads. The internet has entertainment for us and also has terrifying Peppa Pig videos. I would love to be part of a society where each individual is trying to make good choices based on their values and not on fears stoked by some kid in Veles.

Equity
For so many reasons. Once we start talking about technology, the idea of gender equality inevitably comes up. And it should. Our numbers around tech and girls are still not great and there is still way more work to be done. But there are lots of other issues in here as well. Technology (as its often taught) favours the autodidact. It also favours people who have certain kinds of support at home, whether it be access to tech or the habits that are privileged by our education system. I have seen countless folks over the years, big and small, who come to this work with a great deal of fear. I like to think that I have helped some of them succeed through that, but how do you plan that for a system?

Silicon Valley Narrative
I could call this a lot of different things, but lets just say that it’s the ‘we all need to be coders because coding is the future’ argument. The idea that the purpose of this technology is somehow that we are all going to make millions or have nice cushy jobs pushing the world through its fourth revolution. Go and read Hack Education. It’s amazing and will cover these issues way better than I can. Suffice it to say there are more reasons to work on internet things than coding. Coding isn’t bad… it’s just not some panacea that will save the children.

Technology is hard
Well… it is. I have no interest in taking something like an Arduino, or blogging or web literacy and breaking it into tiny bits that will slowly combine over 13 years in our education system. I want each interaction with this stuff to be meaningful, so that means it’s going to be hard to do. I’m not terribly worried about that. Kids are actually quite smart if you let them be. But it’s important always to remember that this stuff can be difficult technically, socially and emotionally.

Project management and socio-emotional support – a partnership
My solution to address this has developed over 15 years. Much of it comes from my experience working with the concepts around rhizomatic learning and watching people struggle to come-to-know using the rhizomatic approach. My approach is based in hundreds of conversations with educators, research I did for Academic Planning at UPEI two years ago, researchy stuff and lots of time spent staring out the window.

Project Management
Nothing has had a bigger impact of my professional career than learning how manage a project properly. I certainly wouldn’t claim that I have fully reached that goal, but it’s something I’m working on constantly. I’ve learned to ask questions like: What is the real goal we’re working on? What change are we trying to make in the world? What objectives will tell me that I’m getting there? What strategies will I use? Who will do the actions? When?

I’d like to see these concepts applied constantly to our work around tech. We do…kinda. What I’m hoping to encourage (I don’t write the curriculum, I’m working with the people who do) is that we standardize the language around project management and the literacies required. We can use it with 7 year old and with 17 year olds. Imagine a school system graduating people that could directly go into the workforce with strong project management skills. Forget about the workforce. Just imagine how much easier it would be for them to plan a weekend party.

Some people seem to come out of the womb with these skills. I am one of the legion that did not.

Socio-emotional support
I’ve waffled on what to call this. I started out by calling it resilience… but I’m finding that I don’t like the connotations sometimes attached to this. Resilience also, to me, suggests that growth as a human is somehow just about sucking it up and trying harder. That’s not what I mean here. I’m talking more about that reflection that allows you to process your feelings when you’re working. The pressure of idea generation. The frustration when something doesn’t work. That feeling you’re falling behind. What do we do about those things? Is it really about just trying harder?

I’ve been walking around with an Arduino kit in my backpack and doing a little test with it. I’ve been putting it in front of people, opening it up and asking them how it makes them feel. Some people say they are really excited by it. Most are not. The majority of the response I get sits somewhere between revulsion and fear. That kind of response doesn’t encourage learning.

How do we build supports to work and talk our way through those feelings, as learners of whatever age? How do we encourage the kind of reflection that allows people to ‘succeed’ AND feel supported and good about themselves in the process?

Putting them together
I think both approaches get stronger when you think of them as a team. Some learners will certainly favour one approach over the other – but I’m fine with that. Structured conversations about what your goal looks like and how to create a timeline are going to keep people on task and give them success milestones. Reflecting on your feelings in that process – “What did you do when you felt like you were lost in the process?” “How did you deal with having too many ideas (or none)?” and, eventually, “How did your idea generation impact your project charter? Did you have to change your timelines?” is important too.

I would love to see us focus our assessment on these two things. I don’t particularly care if your tech project is perfect, or all the lights blink or whatever… what I care about is how much you’ve grown through that process. Did you develop your search literacies when you got stuck? Did you hit your timelines? Did your goal change as you learned more about the process?

I’m not 100% convinced that this needs to stop at digital. I can totally see it applied in the exact same way to a science project or an essay. Imagine if we focused all the project work we work around those two pieces? If we all used the same language, and pulled together towards preparing our kids to have healthy approaches to running projects?

Wish me luck 🙂

Our schools aren’t broken, they’re hard

Another blog post today (which i wont link to) about how education is broken and how technology is going to save it. This is a favoured phrase of the consultant who wants to sell you a technology to ‘fix’ said broken system (#techcharlatans). Fortunately for my blood pressure, a good buddy (@kreshleman) posted a the perfect Chesterton quote for the occasion paraphrased to…

Don’t tear down a fence unless you know why it was put there in the first place

Our particular fence (free public education) serves a ton of roles in our society, many of them quite well served actually. The problem (which #techcharlatans conveniently overlook) is that when you pull one string on that system to try and fix it, you tend to tear the sweater somewhere else. SO much easier to just call the thing broken so you don’t have to put your shoulder to the wheel and do long term sustainable change. When the cup is broken, you throw it out and replace it with a computer. Can’t drink with a computer you say? Agreed. A computer isn’t an education system either.

One year anniversary
I’ve been working on digital strategy for the PEI department of education for a year now. I walked into a perfect situation, really. Coming in on the tail end of a massive infrastructure investment by the government in edtech (new wires, wifi, bandwidth and computers for most everyone) the stage was set to try and create some sustainable technology supported education. I’ve been given enough time to dig into the situation here and help put some things in place to try and support some long term change. It’s been very enlightening getting under the hood and seeing just how complex a system provincial/board education really is. A few lessons learned from year one.

Building trust
One of the implications of #techcharlatans is that teachers have been promised a hundred easy, solve all your problem, silver bullet projects in the last 20 years. Those didn’t work.

My first goal was to get a project out the door that solved a problem in the system with technology. The project we ended up launching in September did just that. We’ve saved hundreds of teachers piles of searching time by putting up a system that allowed them to gather all their material into one spot. https://learn.edu.pe.ca was born. It works and its growing.

Constant improvement
Put a system like that in the wild, and people are going to start innovating. And they are. I’ve spoken to parents who’ve been using the system to find out what their kids are supposed to be understanding. They are also using it to find out ‘what’s next’ for their kids in math. Good and bad there. New ways of communicating? Great! We’ll have to track the implications of it and adapt as we go along.

Decision making
Technology projects everywhere tend to cross over different departments and responsibilities. Lawrie Phipps told me that this is called “matrix decision making”. Where a project reports up through multiple decision makers who may or may not have similar ideas of how to get a particular problem solved. Imagine 6 people sitting around a table all reporting to six different directors. It’s a common problem, and we had it.

We’ve moved on. As of a week ago we now have a digital strategy committee (new name pending) that is empowered with making (some) decisions around technology for the system. We’ve managed to pull in many of the people in the know and have some of their time committed to both the planning and the doing of projects that can help the system. Fingers crossed by that should allow us to get piles of work done quickly.

Digital citizenship
Yay! Tech is great! But should we be using that freeware software in our schools? What happens to the data? Has the terms of service changed on that software since the last time we evaluated it? That’s the trick with all this. People want to use new and interesting software with their students, but companies are getting trickier about how they hide their upsells. (I’m looking at you Prodigy Math #nolink)

We’re also trying to update our approaches to teaching kids how to evaluate the internet. We’ve been adapting @holden’s work, to help guide effective searching for instance.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN!?!?
And here’s the rub. All that and I really haven’t spoken that much about how the experience changes for students in the classroom. Those are just a few of the projects we’re running and changes we’re making to try and create a scenario where the change we want to make in the classroom will stick, that it will be fair for teachers, that it will be useful for students.

Project management and wellness
What i really want to do (and I realize i’m two years into saying this) is be part of creating a k through 12 continuum that uses microprocessor type things (microbit/arduino whatever) and coding to teach project management and wellness. Can you make a plan? Do you know what to do when it fails? Can you deal with the disappointment? Can you ask for help? Have you learned anything in the process? Is your planning getting better? Did you find your answers quicker? better?

These kinds of questions allow use the tech to support a creative environment where we can use the awesome creative potential of the tech to teach important life lessons. And, as we go, teach #digciz. To help our students become better citizens. But that’s hard. Really hard. It takes a village.

But that doesn’t mean our education system is broken. It’s not. Citizen building is an huge, complex task… needing constant attention.

Do your democracy a favour. Say no to a #techcharlatan today.

Supporting Healthy Digital Practice – An approach to digital strategy in k12

For the past year, I have been working with the Department of Education in PEI to support Digital Practice (a term i settled on working through ideas with Lawrie Phipps). I landed in a wonderful situation in the k12 system here where someone had already gone through and replaced all the hardware (wires and computers). The system is full of people who are willing to engage in difficult conversations, and the department happens to have several people with deep system experience around technology. My task has been to come up with a strategy for supporting ‘edtech’ in the system.

In a nutshell? Start by supporting teacher digital practice.

If I had gotten this role 5 years ago, I think I would have come out with a number of what I now think of as ‘shiny’ project. Things that are impressive, that could show people what is possible when one thinks of the teaching and learning process from a digital perspective. These projects are great for the students who do them, but not necessarily for the teachers. Shiny projects are exhausting. They are normally targeted at the ‘most-invested’ teachers, who are often involved with a number of other projects too. You want your shiny project to work, so you overfund it, over support it, and generally create a situation that is totally unsustainable. This is what I have done in the past… and what I would have done.

Not this time.

Changing the relationship to technology
The technology that was replaced was… not perfect. Being a good technology person 3 years ago on PEI had a heavy dose of ‘reseat that RAM’ and ‘let’s try rebooting it and see if it helps’. That’s not to say that there haven’t been amazing tech projects, there have, but much of the time and effort went into trying to make the technology work. Several smart people here took it upon themselves to fix that problem, and, from what I can see, they have. Which is great. But now we need to reboot the relationship that our teachers have to the technology. Their trust in it is not strong, because they’re smart, and they have long experience of not being able to rely on it. So… project one –

Solve a problem in the system using technology – create trust in technology …by showing it can actually help

The Teacher Platform
One of the legacy issues of a non-performing technology infrastructure was the scattered nature of resources in the system. You might find your curriculum outcomes in the filing cabinet, or on a website. You might have resources on your schools network drive. You might have gotten an email two years ago with some assessment stuff. Bits and pieces, here and there. There were certainly some initiatives by folks to solve it, but not for the whole system.

Our first project then, was to create a platform that contained resources that were essential to the system. I used Moodle. A Moodle, I might add, that is externally hosted with the excellent folks at Lambda Solutions. External hosting was a critical element of the plan because if we’re going to build trust it has to work – ALL THE TIME. So far, it’s been excellent.

We started by creating a course for a course. We picked a pile of math courses to start with and started putting in links to iconic curriculum documents and included other important things that people were looking for. Basically, we started with using Moodle as a document repository. But. Moodle CAN be a collaborative platform (of sorts) and it can also be a course platform. I think that putting necessary resources in one place could save the average teacher an hour a week. I hope they keep that hour. I don’t want it for anything… other than the building of trust that technology can, when it is used in response to actual needs identified by actual users, be helpful to them.

The fact that it creates a very specialized platform that allows us to add concepts, connections, advice, and ideas at a course level is a bonus. We may never do that, that decision lies in the hands of the users… BUT THEY COULD.

Digital Practices Course
So, with phase one underway (lots of guest user access, 216 teacher registrations through google integration) its time to look to the next part of the process. How do we encourage healthy digital practice across the system. I’m not particularly interested in teaching people to use a specific technology, I never have been. I am interested in hosting a discussion in our system about how we can help folks shape healthy and effective digital practices. No one has told any of those 200 teachers how to register their account, they figured it out. That ‘figuring it out’ is the kind of digital practice I’m interested in supporting. These practices are the normal, everyday things that we do that are different in digital spaces. Different sometimes because you have to do them differently. Different sometimes because you can do them better.

lateral searching
Mike Caulfield has written a book on effective searching practice. One of the strategies that he talks about is lateral reading of digital contexts. “Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.” It’s a digital practice that our students need to understand, and that means that everyone in the system responsible for them needs to understand it.

Understanding your goals/roles
In a digital space you are a million times (exactly a million) more likely to wander in to a social/knowledge situation that you weren’t introduced to. Imagine walking into your kitchen and running into 500 people who’ve been involved in a 7 year conversation. That’s what happened to me yesterday doing research for my son’s new hedgehog. A quick google search and BANG I’m in the middle of a new conversation in my kitchen. How do I navigate that? What do I want to know? How should I act? What’s my role? These are things that we understand (most of us) well enough in our analogue social situations, but digital spaces require new frameworks.

Learning

A number of us got together last year and put this framework together to help us talk about what some of those different roles.

Those are two of the practices that I’m interested in supporting with the course. There are tons more, and, as per usual, I’m not particularly interested in everyone LEARNING EVERYTHING, but rather hosting a discussion that allows people to learn the things they need to learn. The course is still moving through the approval process, and a review process. Would love your feedback on it.

The strategy continues
Lots more work started in that strategy. Once its all approved I’ll write another post, ’till then, it’s digital practices time.

An introductory Arduino class design

Last weekend was Oscar’s 11th birthday party. For those of you in the know, that is the age that kids receive their letters of invitation from Hogwarts and, therefore, we were having a Harry Potter themed birthday party. I admit I probably went over the deep end on this. The kids and I made magic wands out of 3/4in maple dowels. Bonnie made an awesome Harry Potter cake. Bonnie and I designed three ‘tests’ for the ‘Initiates of the Maple Wands’. 1. Potions class (we made bath bombs… they only had their magic wands for stirring… super messy – super fun) 2. History of Magic (bonnie ran a lively version of mostly Harry Potter themed Jeopardy) 3. Muggle studies (We made a security system on the arduino platform)

(links to my introductory arduino posts and here)

I started working with Arduino hardware at the beginning of 2016, thinking of it as a potential platform for real world projects for kids. I have ZERO electronics background, so it really took me a year of playing with it on and off to get my mind around how you could use it with kids and still make it fun. Most of the introductory lessons I saw online involved “attach this wire to a light, make the light blink” kind of activities that are designed to provide a SET OF SKILLS in small steps along a linear pathway. I hate this approach to learning. I wanted something that got to a useable project very, very quickly and then allowed for discovery after the project was built.

A word on what Arduino is
It’s a tiny computer platform that you can attach to little sensors. You can use it to build a project that senses when a bird comes to your feeder and counts them, or takes their picture, or opens the feeder door. There are other platforms out there (rasberri pi, microbit) but this one seems to have the balance of flexibility and power that I was hoping for. If you put ‘arduino kit’ into the googles, you’ll see the price range and possibilities. Here’s a collection of cool projects that people have done.

Choice of project
I very much wanted to kids to have some level of success on their project in the first 15 minutes of the class – so i couldn’t have something that was too complicated. I expected that the kids wouldn’t have any prior experience (with the exception of my kid). I was also going to send the project home with each of the kids in the hopes that they would experiment with it, so I had to keep the price down. I decided on making an alarm system that would buzz when someone when someone got close to it. I cobbled the project together from various online examples. Project cost was a little less than $15 each at the end of the day, when you include batteries etc… It took a fair amount of prep. Just sayin.

Classroom design
unbox
I wanted us to get to work very quickly, so I didn’t even explain what the project was when we started. I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t really understand/be paying attention, so I jumped into talking about stuff right away. All their parts were hidden in a little cardboard box on the table when they came in. I got them to open it and lay all the parts out in front of them. I was hoping for the surprise ‘unboxing’ part of the process to give them a sense of adventure/excitement. Mostly that worked.

Arduino box

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identification
I got them to hold up the battery first. Everyone got that one right :). From there i got them to hold up the breadboard, the Nano, the wires, their friend… just a quick roundrobin so that each table would probably have someone that knew what each part was named. Important to note that though i did preload the code on each of the Nanos, i left the code printed out on the table and made no reference to it. One kid asked what it was and I said “meh, it’s just the code, don’t worry about it for now”. This only took a couple of minutes and we moved right along to wiring things up.

Wiring
The arduino system can all be connected together without a soldering iron using jumper wires. I guided them through ‘what connects to what’ in a basic, step by step manner. Put the proximity sensor in the breadboard. (student: “what’s a promix… what’s a whatever you said” me: “someone hold up their proximity sensor” it wasn’t long until they just started asking each other). From there i got them to plug in the wires one at a time, establishing that each table confirmed that each set was setup (minus the power, I made them all hide their batteries back in their little boxes). This took about 10-15 minutes.

Attaching the battery
I made a big production out of this. Attaching the battery wrong gives you a good chance of frying the board, so we talked a fair amount about safety, about caring about their work, about being good to the machine. I told them that I had fried one of them that morning (which i had doing last minute prep). So they attached their battery… and about half of them worked. Working being the really annoying buzzer started to drone when someone ran their hand in front of their sensor. Much troubleshooting of wiring ensued. It was at this point that we started to talk about ‘what the project could be used for’. “I could scare my cat!” “it could protect my wand!” “i could use it to keep my sister out of my room!”

The moment
You’ll note that no one has really ‘learned’ anything at this point. It’s mostly been call and repeat, simple domain stuff. There was a trap in the middle of this lesson that was really ‘the beginning’ in a sense. I had changed the code on one of the projects to make the buzzer sound like a police siren. When that project started working the room went silent for a second… and then blew up. “why doesn’t mine do that? How did you do that? What’s that?” When i got them settled (and got the police siren unplugged) i explained that the code on his project was different than the code on theirs. “can i change mine? Can i do it?”

The code
So I got them to look through the code (on the paper on their tables) and figure out where they needed to change the code to make the sound change. We changed the frequency, we changed the delay, we changed… we made a lot of noise :). Then we started uploading new code to each of their projects (I was only working with one computer). I also started to refer to the code when people were asking me “i unplugged a wire by mistake, where does it go?” Then our hour+ was up and it was time for Pizza. I struggled getting them out of the room to go eat pizza… which I’m calling a victory. For the rest of the party, kids would walk out of the movie, the pizza, whatever, and ask if i could upload updated code to their project. We got an idea of what the code was… a teaser in a sense.

The point
This was an interesting challenge. I don’t particularly like a ‘structured activity’ but with something as complicated as an arduino project, the kids have a fair number of things they need to know just to be able to follow basic instructions. I really wanted to start the project in the middle and work my way back to most of the basic skills, so that we hit them in context. From that first class we should be able to modify the existing project, add pieces to it, or wander off into new projects as we go along. I even included a light snippet in the code which could easily lead to the damn blink project if people really want to do it. Some of them may learn to code, some may do more of the artistic work or the planning work… i don’t really care.

I want them to understand what code is (not necessarily ‘how to code’)
I want them to get a sense of how the digital part of the world they are growing up in works
I want them to dream up projects, learn to research them
I really want them to find the parts of this they like to do, and find friends who are interested in the other parts – the ultimate 21st century literacy
Also safety. That too. And confidence confronting uncertainty

Aftermath
I’ve heard back from what two of the kids did with the project they took home. One kid apparently terrified his cat – which i guess is a successful adaptation of the project, though maybe not the one I would have chosen :). The other kid I heard back from took the little box, cut holes in it and turned the project into a robot that protects the side dresser of his bed. Four of the five kids want to come back, and, with the other kids who’ve expressed interest, we’re going to be looking at 7 or 8 kids in our little arduino club to start. I’ll keep testing out the design and see what happens. How does this look in a class of 25 or 30? Don’t know yet. One thing at a time 🙂

Notes:

Project parts
Arduino Nano
Jumper wires
9 v. battery
9 v. battery connector
Proximity sensor
Mini breadboard
Buzzer
Small box

Things I learned
You need to have two or three sets of spares of everything. It’s so easy for this stuff to stop working. Having a spare working project on the side so you could check parts would be super useful for troubleshooting “is this broken? Nope, it works over here! Ok then it must be something else”

The cheaper Nano version I used requires a special CH34X USB-SERIAL DRIVER. The standard one is called FTDI. It’s the way your computer talks to the Nano over USB.

Be very careful when plugging in the battery power. I fried one of the nanos getting the ground and the power lines mixed up.

The code I used.

Wands

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