Digital Learning Day – Flashback 2017

As Digital Learning Day came around in February I wondered if the distinction between digital and non-digital even exists.

I am old enough to remember when we actually celebrated an annual event called E-Day here in Phoenix, as part of the IABC. In the early 2000s, Business Communication then was pretty much analog, with smatterings of digital. Soon E-Day became passé.

Just seven years ago –a long time in Internet years! -at Salt River Elementary School, STEM had pushed its way through the door. Ed-Tech was a buzzword, as was digital learning. In my computer lab I was introducing students to Mars exploration, Robotics, VR and 3D Printing. With tremendous support from my colleagues at Salt River Elementary, Mrs. Decker, Mrs. Yurek, and Mr. Filhart –from Music, the Library and PE respectively – we created an entire day for this across K-6.

Today, digital learning encompasses almost every facet of what we do, whether it is in libraries or the gym. Online school has made the digital device a necessity, when it once was a nice-to-have. Platforms evolve, from Quizlet to Khan Academy; Grammarly to Google Classroom; Mindstorms to Scratch and so much more.  Students now create podcasts with a simple free AnchorFM app on a phone – intros, outros and all. Screencast-O-matic has taken the pain out of video-supported lessons for teachers like me, furiously posting them to Google Classroom. 

The VR glasses of yesterday are gathering dust on my shelf at Benjamin Franklin High school as the pace accelerates. Will Digital Learning Day become an archive of education too?

Split-screen? Lives in contradiction are the norm.

I’ve been curating front pages of the New York Times over the past few months, as a record of how how we are dealing with unfolding events during the pandemic. Some images are so grim that they could have been plucked from a newspaper in another country.

Take this one, for instance. Homeless shelter? Activists? People destroying incriminating evidence? Sadly it’s how people in one of the wealthiest states in the US are keeping warm, after the winter storm crippled its power grid, disrupted its water supply. This is in San Antonio, Texas. Boiling snow for drinking water became the norm.

Then there was this on the same day the winter storm hit – Perseverance of another kind, on a planet 30-plus million miles away. The Mars rover, named Perseverance, landed in the afternoon, Arizona Time. Even the search engine couldn’t resist a bit of exuberance as the page loaded. (that’s a screenshot of my Google search engine results for ‘Mars Rover.’)

COVID has laid bare our split-screen lives. Bitcoin made waves this week, but at the same time economists think the number of unemployed exceeds 10 million in the US. Those hunkering down, and those lifting themselves up are living side by side. The disgruntled and suspicious, and the hopeful move on. Those facing unbearable tragedy, sitting next to those who are building new lives.

When a green screen pops up in class

Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.

And then this happened.

Computer lab at Benjamin Franklin High School

As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.

I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.

This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.

A flurry of writing in schools?

Is the pandemic a catalyst for creativity?

I’ve been teaching writing for the past three years as one component in my Computer class. I teach technical skills –formatting documents, and creating presentations — while always introducing current, big-picture issues in information and communication technologies, or ICT, and social media. You know, privacy, trolls, AI, disinformation…

BUT 202O DELIVERED A SURPRISE PACKAGE, besides a micro-organism that derailed us: An explosion of student writing. Fiction, mainly. The capstone project for the past three years has been an eBook my 7th graders research, write and produce. I noticed a sudden interest in fiction writing by last December, so I invited this semester’s students to consider a Writer’s Club. This week, the club is beginning to take shape. It’s fitting: Benjamin Franklin was a prolific writer, after all!

In parallel with this, in my other class on Writing and Publishing class for high school students, writing seems to come naturally. Which is why they take this elective, after all. But what surprises me is how much of writing they have already begun. Two students are already working on a book. Reading their assignments makes me wonder where these young authors have been hiding all these years. Has COVID been a catalyst for creativity? Somewhere, in some research department, there’s probably a study going on about how lock-downs and screen-time have driven young people to books again; how young adults are discussing issues not covered by memes and Tik-Tok.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, I INVITED JESSICA MCCANN, a Phoenix based author and freelance writer to talk to my class on Monday. Jessica writes historical fiction, and her story of how she researches her character, and crafts her story is inspiring. Her examples are what we writers could identify with such as taking on the mundane work (writing about topics such as ‘garbage’), editing work for a different kind of ‘reader’ (corporate documents), and a brush with law literature. The latter is what serendipitously led to her digging into a court case involving slavery in the late nineteenth century, which led her to a character who figures in one of her books.

Speaking of craft, Jessica talked about the need for a writer to capture and convey the sensory experiences of a scene or a character, whether it is interviewing a celebrity or an anonymous figure in history. [Her books areA Peculiar Savage Beauty” set in the 1030s Dust Bowl, and “A different Kind of Free” set in the pre-Civil War era. Having always leaned toward Sci-Fi, I’ve never read much in the historical fiction genre. I’m sold now!

My students this week are working on a blog post. In a few weeks they will create and produce a podcast, and then a newspaper. Elsewhere, and anecdotally I hear that interest in journalism is on the rise. Does that mean a return to long-form journalism, and greater value placed on writers across all genres? I hope so.

In this COVID economy, my students’ eBooks shine a light

This year too I am so inspired by the work that students in my computer class have produced. Their capstone project is a 24-page eBook, and this year I relaxed the guidelines and let them choose any topic. I wanted to see how they use this moment in time to come up with ideas, rather with no boundaries.

I wanted to see what has been brewing in the minds of young people. I was in for a shock! This semester, I noticed more fiction emerging than all the semesters before, combined. Even the non-fiction was telling. Topics include, “The most tragic events in history,” the solar system, and one on somewhat gruesome events of World War II. But the outpouring of fiction made me have to allow them to go beyond the 24-page requirement.

Here are some of the topics:

The Mind Traveler,” “The Girl Astronaut,” “A Vacation in the Woods,” “The Mystery Letters.” Two books on Softball as a backdrop to drama, two on dance techniques, a romance, one on the harmful technologies affecting young people, and one two on mental illness. There’s more….

My students design the front and back covers using only copyright-free images, they control margins, and on my insistence, ad nauseam, use plenty of white space. Take a look at these, and let me know if what we are seeing an explosion of creativity in 12 and 13 year olds. Perhaps this year with so many ups and downs has rekindled the urge to read, imagine and tell stories. I hope I am right.

It makes being a teacher so rewarding!

Click on the images and they link to actual eBooks.

Cheeseburgers and Socrates – How we engage students during COVID

One of my colleagues at Benjamin Franklin High School, is a pro at the Socratic seminar. The onus, he says, is on us teachers to make sure we aren’t just encouraging idle passengers on their educational journey. There needs to be a ‘method’ to help them interact with the material we teachers present.

That method, says Jason Klicker is the Socratic seminar. Here’s his fascinating example, Klicker-style:

Image, courtesy Jordan Nix, Unsplash.com

“A student wants to know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of telling them how to make (or even worse, just making it for them), I ask them if a grilled cheese sandwich is like other sandwiches they know how to make. When they say yes, I ask them what is similar and what is different. Over the course of the discussion, the students learns for themselves how a grilled cheese sandwich is different from a BLT, and knows how to make one. After they think they are ready, I watch them do it, giving them pointers along the way. The sandwich might not taste delicious the first few times they try, but their knowledge allows them to have confidence to try in the future.

“While we don’t discuss grilled cheese in my class, we do ask questions like “what is justice?” or “how do you secure your freedom that you have been given?”. Both are important questions for important times. It’s frustrating for the student at first, as it should be. I’m not giving them the answer, they have to find it for themselves. In the end, They have a deeper understanding of justice or freedom than they could ever get if I just simply lectured at them.”

Most importantly, says Mr. Klicker, “They have taken charge of their own education because they were in the driver’s seat instead of being an idle passenger. They are also much better people for it.”

Despite the disruptions we have had since March this year –indeed because of the having to adapt to COVID — all teachers have had to turn up the creativity thermostat in how we engage young people. Many of my students in the computer lab are remote, or have moved between in-class and online. Using higher order thinking and engagement techniques are di rigueur. Nothing like a 2,500 year old technique to motivate the mind.

Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.

On this 30th anniversary of the Web, some teachers still send lessons on WhatsApp

It’s easy to be so enamored by the shiny objects around us –smart speakers, wi-fi door locks, wireless earbuds– and assume that the whole world is connected.

Yesterday, November 12th was a big anniversary of the World Wide Web. 30 years ago to this day Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist suggested in a very academic scientific paper “…a space in which everything could be linked to everything.” This was his third proposal – the original was in 1989. It outlined the concept of hyperlinks, and how browsers, servers and terminals could possibly connect everyone.

But there are many parts of the world, including here in the US, where dead zones exist and the web is almost inaccessible. I remind my students of this often, as they sit in a computer lab and sometimes get impatient when the Wifi drops, or a website doesn’t load.

This morning, I was taking them to Pixabay, and open-source website for copyright-free images, but also for music. The site was blocked. No worries, I said. There are worse things that could happen to you. There are schools where students have to depend on lessons sent to them on thumb drives. In Sri Lanka, I know of teachers who send students lessons on WhatsApp, because the homes don’t have Internet (but a serviceable smart phone with a monthly data plan.) See Hakiem Hanif’s story how a 53 year old teacher is doing it.

So while some of you may be contemplating buying a fancy 5G phone for about the price of a plane ticket to Australia, remember that there are parts of the world where being online is still a luxury.

Googler speaks to my students

Patrick Krecker, a software engineer at Google spoke to my students last week. This was the start of a series of Technology Speakers this semester at Benjamin Franklin High School.

The goal is to give students a different way of seeing the relevance of a computer class. My hope is that speaking to someone in the real world, at a company they are acutely familiar with, could put many things in context. The previous week, we discussed search engines, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s early engine, curiously called Backrub! They also took a deep dive into Google’s Moonshot projects at GoogleX.

Hearing about the Google culture, its pioneering spirit, and the way a Google engineer approaches apps was really enlightening. Even for me. I used to work with Patrick at ASU. I was so impressed to see what he’s doing at one of the most powerful, omnipresent companies today.

Thanks, Patrick! I would certainly want to have to back on Google Meet (what else?) in the future!

Hacks that make you long for un-smart devices again!

Have you heard of the hack that could make your smart watch expose your ATM PIN? Of how a guy with a laptop could hack into a vehicle and turn off the engine on the highway?

This demo of a Jeep’s system being hacked was in 2015. Imagine what’s possible today!

There’s a reason I will never wear a smart watch. Or install a Nest thermostat. Or a Ring smart doorbell.

Indeed 2FA, or two-factor authentication can protect us. But this could mean cyber-security manager would be yet another task we take on in managing and maintaining our appliances, our wearable devices and our vehicles. You probably know that your TV is watching you, right?

Next week, my students are going to talk to a someone who works in cyber-security compliance at Microsoft. I showed them this Jeep-hack video to get them thinking. They got quite spooked! I don’t think they’re going to sleep well. It’s Halloween, too!