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!

Planning a school podcast, 11 years later

I have been working on material for a podcast at school in the past few weeks. It’s an opportune time to do it, with so much to discuss in education, especially with millions of students rethinking ‘school’ in the middle of a pandemic.

Ever since I re-discovered my 2009 podcasts, I’ve felt pull to get out that microphone and fire up the recording app! The tools make it so much easier. Here are some ideas to start up:

Recording:

  • Audacity, open-source software is free to download. It’s also super intuitive –easy to use.
  • Hindenburg This is professional-grade software. More complex, but serious features!

Now for mics.

  • I have a trusty old mic that does look like it was from the nineties, and it is. Quality is great but not too much base.
  • I am experimenting with a lavelier (clip-on) mic we were  given for our distance learning video recordings. I found an adapter on Amazon, which plugs directly into a PC.
  • Zoom. I consider the ZoomH4N the best. I used to own one. It has a curious shape, but voice quality is terrific with 2 uni-directional mics

Intros/Outros

Unlike in 2009, there is plenty of podsafe –Copyright free–music available. But it is highly recommended you support the artists with a small contribution. Nothing should be free, in this economy!

Thoughts on wrestling with ‘hybrid’ learning models as schools reopen

Photograph, courtesy Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com

The question on everyone’s mind is not, “When will school reopen,” but how.  It’s been on our minds, nagging us like crazy no sooner we closed for summer this May.  My wife and I being teachers, have different models and school environments. Hers is a Montessori – Li’l Sprouts. Mine is a classical academy, Benjamin Franklin High School.

Should her students wear masks? And social distancing two-and three-year olds? Hmmm. She has decided to wear a face shield when not donning a mask. My students will have to learn new ways to conduct themselves, from the simple things like sharing pencils and keyboards, to what to do or not during recess.

The hybrid model is something we have experimented with from March through May with mixed results. Students love computers, but aren’t exactly thrilled about being ‘instructed’ through them.  (She conducts Zoom sessions, I’ve been using Google Meet.) But having said that, we educators have to adapt to the times and be part of the learning. I love the challenge, however. I’ve been spending much of these quarantined months experimenting with platforms and lessons, while not hanging out at a coffee shop with a mask. Toggling  between face-to-face and online technologies: Screen-Castomatic, Explain Everything;  Jamboard, and Google Classroom.

Remember that ‘PLC’ buzz acronym (for ‘professional learning communities’) that got thrown around a lot five years ago? Now’s the time for us to show that we can be a true learning community. Not just with our peers, but with our students. A community of learners.  As the Coronavirus mutates, we must hybridize.  Would that make us ‘PHCs‘? Professional Hybrid Communities? Here are my random thoughts on how schools will be for the near future, at least in the US.

  1. Teachers will find ways to better connect with and understand students they don’t see face-to-face or have just a smattering of time with, should they show up in class or on camera.
  2. Parents will form strong partnerships with teachers in that there will be much more back-and-forth, rather than leaving it to annual parent-teacher conferences. We need their unstinting support as much as they need ours.
  3. We will all admit that technology is messy. It’s sometimes broken, and cannot be the magic bullet. Meaning, we will stop complaining about poor WiFi, or the audio not working.
  4. We will not forget the larger lessons we are called to teach. Yes we want to help students dot the i’s and cross their ts, but we want them to have grand takeaways that make them better people, not just high GPA achievers.
  5. The clock-watchers will disappear. It won’t matter if we run  ten minutes over to explain the difference between a web browser and a search engine for the eleventh time. The ‘lab work’ won’t end when the Bunsen burner is turned off.

Let’s not allow a virus to kill our enthusiasm. Let’s be safe. But let’s go!

My typewriter, a Corona

My typewriter shuttles between home and my computer lab. So when I brought it back from school last week I was surprised to see it was a Corona.

The company that made these marvelous machines was actually Smith Corona. This model goes back to 1935!  I love the sound of the keys as I type. Interestingly I use it in demos when introducing keyboarding in class each semester. You should see the rush of students waiting to use the clickety-clack machine –in a class filled with 34 computers!

On an interesting side note, you should watch this TED talk that I had referenced some time back. It’s how a technology innovator names Aparna Rao, hacked a typewriter to enable it to send email! Why? Because it helped her uncle feel he was typing a letter, and still give him the ability to email. Fast forward to 1 min, 14 secs for this segment.

Photoshop, Photography and Web Design in final week of school

This was indeed a weird semester! So to end it on a high note, I taught classes on image manipulation, digital photography, and Web design on three consecutive days. Using Google meet, of course.

Photoshop was something all my students had asked for. It’s an opportunity to also connect it to real-world issues such as doctored images in news –a blood relative of ‘fake news’ — digitally altering historical figures –Churchill without a cigar, MLK at a cleaned out podium on the Mall — and simply knowing how to be aware of what could be Photoshopped.

Photography may not seem related to a computer class, but we all know that taking pictures, editing, and sharing is now a given in a young person’s life. Any device is now a ‘camera.’  To make it more interesting, I invited a photographer from Sri Lanka to co-teach the class. (This is distance learning after all, so what’s another 10,000 miles?) Nazly Ahmed, a photo-journalist uses various cameras, spoke of lighting and composition, depth of field, framing, why aperture settings and ISO are important.

As for web design, the goal for the class was to give students an opportunity to design a site that could be home to their digital portfolio, or even a rudimentary business.

I also added a photography contest, so that students could go and use the techniques they learned. The winners are announced on my class website, here.

Student project on ‘The Future is Now,’ a sneaky lesson plan

This semester too I have my students work on a 4-page report on the future by having  them address technologies that they believe is impacting them right now. While my present concerns include Blockchain, bio-metrics and Cube-sats, theirs includes contact lenses that  monitor health, stratospheric balloons, the ‘cyber truck,’ drones, and AI. Speaking of which, smart speakers and robots become huge topics of discussion.

So many sidebars, so many diversions, but there is no shortage of passion about these utopian/dystopian technologies. [This week I showed them a story about how Tik-Tok, an app that most teens could not seem to be able to live without, is suspected of being a ‘parasitic’ data-harvesting operation.]

Earlier this week we discussed logos, and I showed them how to create their own logo, and  insert it in the report. The goal is to treat this as a  professional report, as if they were working for a consulting company.  Our 2-week project that’s due before Spring Break, teaches them:

  • How to research five topics, beginning with Google’s Moonshot factory
  • Formatting a report using features in the ribbon of Google docs & Microsoft Word.
  • Citation of sources .

The Lesson Plan Evolves. Over the past few years I have discovered that a report like this, intimidating at first, helps students gain a broader vocabulary about technologies they are being exposed to. They also learn how to develop critical thinking about  hardware and software, which is part of the scope of this class.  I’ve revised this lesson plan many times, and changed the pace to deepen the research, and get students comfortable with long-form content.

Not reading, not writing well is becoming a default mode, sadly. As I continue to teach ‘computers’ and have students sit in front of screens, I am determined to make sure that they leave my class with much more than technical skills.

Automation’s great – When you’re the manager, not the person turning the widget

This article, with a Phoenix, Arizona dateline sums up much of the issue we have with technology, robotics and automation.

As I teach students about the pioneers of tech, from Edison to Jobs, from Babbage to Berners-Lee, I have to temper it with discussion on what computers in general (and algorithms / automation in particular) are doing for us. Or will do for them when they enter the workforce.

The article states that Some economists have concluded that “the use of robots explains the decline in the share of national income going into workers’ paychecks over the last three decades.”

In a state where autonomous cars are quite common –at least the Waymo variety being test-driven in the Chandler & Mesa area, algorithms and jobs are on top of our minds!

 

 

Fascinating titles as students publish eBooks

As a final project to wrap up their mastery of layout and editing tools in Microsoft, my students created a 22-page book. Each book was published as an eBook.

To kick it off, they brainstormed themes for their book. Followed by a unit on creative book titles, I was fascinated to see them come up with titles such as these:

  • Is Amelia Earhart Dead?
  • Oh, the Creatures You’ll Find!  – Mythical creatures
  • A Helping Paw   – On dogs that risked their lives for humans
  • The Ultimate European Bucket List – no explanation needed
  • A Pigeon’s Eye View of Europe
  • Johnny B. Goode Tonight   – Classic rock songs
  • Tragic Waters   – The most disastrous storms
  • Geek out with Dragons – For readers with a serious Harry Potter obsession

More than a 100 books are being uploaded today and tomorrow! Here are two. Click on images to launch the books!