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!

AI is here – should we prepare or panic? – LMD cover story

Linked from the Futureoflife Institute

A few weeks back I featured an ominous exercise, conducted seven years ago by the Navy Research Lab.Today Artificial Intelligence is taking us into a new machine age, with devices, and not just robots, being able to grow ‘intelligent’ with data they glean from other machines we use.

Big players are developing capabilities in AI –from PwC and IBM, to Tesla and Alibaba!

For the October issue of LMD I was commissioned to write the cover story on AI. You can access it here

 

Google’s ProjectX, balloons, kites and PowerPoint

As a PowerPoint assignment last week I asked my Junior High students to look up Google’s ProjectX, and build a presentation around the theme, “The Future is Now.” They loved it!

No shortage of radical ideas at GoogleX –also called a Top Secret Project Lab. (At least on Wikipedia)

So they have picked material such as Project Loon, the ambition idea to deliver Internet connectivity to dark spots around the world using balloons. There is another called Makani which involves very large kites that act as wind turbines. That’s right weird looking ‘kites’! Then there’s Foghorn, a sea water project to produce a hydrocarbon alternative; Verily a life science idea involving contact lenses and machine learning. And many more. But not to be limited to Google labs, they can chose other developing technologies.

Their presentation should not just describe the state of R&D, but to explain it as an Impact Statement. This requires them to discuss it with someone at home or with a friend. Which is what makes a presentation more interesting than the typical ‘effects’ in PowerPoint.

Oh, and there’s also question time, when they must hear from their audience.

 

Inside the Classical Education model. Latin, robotics, and…podcasting

In our middle-school years at St. Peter’s College, Latin was a subject. We didn’t know why we had to study a ‘dead language’ or how it fit alongside biology and geometry. But it later transpired when the seeds of a classical language began to sprout. Our love for theater (whether it was Oliver Twist, or Hamlet), our appetite for reading, debating, linguistics, and history could be traced back to learning what seemed like tedious (read: boring) declensions and the likes.

This school year I joined a classical High School, and now see the internal architecture of a classical education. The three-part structure of ‘grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics’ is just the start. Music and the fine arts, science and athletics are key elements. And of course technology.

A few months ago in teaching communication to my college level students, we looked at how rhetoric mattered; the underpinning of public speaking, ‘Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.’ So I was delighted to see how my High School’s monthly themes are structured on classical Roman virtues such as Gravitas, Humanitas, and Comitas.

You’re probably wondering what does this do for learning, and students’ character? I can only say this. After a month of teaching with this model in place (teaching computers and tech, mind you!), students come to class eager and prepped to learn; respectful, inquisitive, thoughtful.  This week, looking at inventors and inventions we did thought experiments (a.k.a. Bell work) on social norms and expectations when Thomas Edison messed around with filaments and early audio. Next week they will see parallels with someone like Douglas Engelbart, the prolific Edison-like chap who gave us the mouse, among other things. They were philosophers in their own time, who embodied, and fit, the classical model.

At the end of the week two students approached me to sponsor clubs. One was a Robotics club, and the other was for Podcasting. I had to catch my breath – podcasting! What would 12-year olds want to do with podcasts? It comes down to the classical model which feeds the need for young people to engage in much, much more than Fortnite, or memes. If we only let them.

Team Lanka at Robotics Olympics in Mexico this week

Last July, our team went to to the kickoff  Robotics tournament in DC.

This year, the team’s expanded to include students from other schools in the country.

  • Students: Cong, Daniel, Felix, Hamza, Lasith, Navod, Sachin, Sherwin, and Syanthan.
  • Coaches: Shankar, Jekhan, Dilum, and Srimali

This is one impressive gathering of 170 nations. It is hosted by the ‘FIRST’ organization, which is the umbrella organization that holds 5 other robotics tournaments around the country, such as FIRST Lego League Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics for grades K-4, 4-8, 7 – 9, and 9-12 respectively.

I’ve worked with FIRST for the past 6 years, and met Dean Kamen, the founder, who’s one of the biggest STEM promoters I’ve ever known. He puts his money where his mouth is, a serial entrepreneur and educator who inspires youth across all ages. If you like to know how to get your school involved in robotics, or STEM, let me know.