Code4Kids – Building a Simple Scratch Game

I had the pleasure this week to be a guest on Code4Kids, a webinar series with Kelly Moore. Kelly is a teacher and tech coach in Melbourne, and she asked if I’d come on the show and talk about the use of Scratch to help teach computational thinking and coding. Well, you might know I’m a bit of a Scratch fanboy so I didn’t take too much convincing!

Rather than just talk about theory stuff, we actually created a classic but simple guessing game in Scratch during the live show.  I thought this was a good example because it uses quite a few fundamental programming constructs such as sequencing, looping and branching, etc. It also makes good use of Boolean comparisons, if-then decisions, and reassignment of variables. Throw in some simple maths like random number generation, greater than and less than operators, and it’s the start of some simple yet sophisticated Scratch coding.

YouTube Preview Image

It was nice to get some comments from the livestream viewers that they learned something from watching.

If you’d like to check out Kelly’s channel and her other videos, head on over to her Code4Kids playlist

And if you’d like to check your own Scratch skills, you can take the 15 question Scratch Quiz I mention at the end of the video… just head to bit.ly/scratchquiz and take the quiz… your results will be emailed to you immediately thanks to Google Forms and Flubaroo!

The Most Dangerous Phrase In The World

If you’ve been in education for a while there is a phrase you’ll hear regularly if you listen for it. It’s just seven little words but the impact of those words can be enormous. The people who utter this phrase often mean well, but it rarely leads to much that is positive. This phrase can kill a potentially good idea, ruin a worthwhile initiative or demoralise others who want to make a difference.

It may just be the most dangerous phrase in the world.

The phrase is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

You may have been on the receiving end of these words. Perhaps you came up with what you believed was a brilliant, clever, innovative or time-saving idea. You honestly feel your idea can improve an existing outcome and make a huge difference. So you approach your colleagues with your idea, knowing that by making just a few simple changes the world will be a better place. And while they might listen and thank you for your interesting suggestion, they inform you of all the reasons why your idea cannot possibly work, because the way things are currently done is just the way they’ve always been done.

It might not be said with these exact words, and it sometimes comes in many variations. There’s “We tried that years ago and it didn’t work”, or “We’d never be able to do it because the others won’t go along with it”, or “That might be ok for other schools but it would never work here”, or even the time tested “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However it’s phrased, the message is essentially the same; we like the way things are and we don’t want to change them.

The irony is that while all these phrases are used to resist change, the world around us constantly changes. Change is just a natural thing.

We want our students to learn, which is just another way of saying we want them to change. Of course we want them to be better tomorrow than they were today. We want them to know more at the end of each term than they knew at the beginning. We want them to be more mature, have more wisdom, and make better decisions. All of that is based on the idea that they need to change. We call it growth.

And yet, far too often in schools we see systems and processes that stubbornly resist change. We see outdated curriculum, often locked in time by static syllabii and aging textbooks. We see processes being repeated each year, often without ever stopping to consider whether there may be a better way. We sometimes stick with “proven” tools and technologies without looking around to see if there may be better alternatives. And we also see the occasional teacher who does not realise that their 30 years of teaching experience has in fact been one year of teaching experience, repeated 30 times.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it”, or TTWWADI for short, is the reason we see the same old worksheets, the same old assessment tasks, the same old resources, used year and year. It’s also often the reason that we structure our schools in ways that contradict everything we know about how students learn most effectively. We want to make decisions in the best interests of our students, but we don’t because those decisions often contradict the way we’ve always done things.

Despite the fact that the outside world changes constantly it is still far too easy to find classrooms that don’t. TTWWADI-thinking does a grave disservice to the students that pass through those classrooms.

I recently overheard two sisters talking. The younger of the pair had the same teacher that her elder sister had five years before. Despite the five years that had passed, the older student was listening to her younger sibling talk about the work she was doing in class and remarking “Oh yes, I remember doing that assignment when I had that same teacher”. Unless that assignment was perfect and timeless, repeating it year after year without considering alternatives makes is seem like that teacher is simply on autopilot.

As this new school year begins, stop and think about what you’re doing. Are you reaching into your files and digging out the same teaching program you used last year? The same activities and worksheets you gave your students last year? The same letters to parents that were sent home last year?

If you’ve been in a school for more than a few years, think about how much has changed in the world around you. Even just five short years ago, most of us were not storing work in “the cloud”, or working collaboratively with others on shared documents, or learning by being digitally connected through various social streams. Technology provides great examples of these rapid changes but it’s hardly the only area of change. (Although you could probably argue that technology is the main driver that is forcing change in so many other areas). However you look at it and whatever the driver may be, it seems that change really is the only constant.

So why do some teachers embrace change and get excited about the possibilities of doing things in new and different ways, while others cling doggedly to doing things in ways that they have always done them? Why do some people immediately dismiss new or innovative ideas because they are not “the way we’ve always done it”?

Before exploring that question, it’s important to also recognise that just because something is different does not necessarily mean it’s better. Some of the things we repeat year after year may be done that way because they actually are the best way to do them. It can be exhausting to constantly be reinventing wheels that have already been invented. We don’t need to throw out everything we do and start again but we certainly should look at everything we do with fresh eyes and continually ask ourselves the critical question “Is there a better way to do this?”  

Carol Dweck’s work on the ideas of Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset is a good place to start. Without restating all of her research, essentially Dweck found that people see their world differently depending on whether they embrace a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. That is, whether they believe they are capable of growing and changing, or not. Those with fixed mindsets tend to believe the abilities they were born with, or that they have right now, are the abilities they will always have. Those with growth mindsets believe that they are capable of growing, so they see change as an opportunity for learning and trying new things. Ironically, having a fixed mindset is not fixed; once you realise that you are limiting yourself with this kind of thinking you can catch yourself doing it and consciously decide to respond differently.

Responding differently is hard. It’s not always easy to see past “the way we’ve always done it” and reimagine how things might be done differently because many of us have not been conditioned to think this way. But you can start by consciously and deliberately asking yourself one very simple question. Begin by asking yourself “Why?”

  • “Why are the desks in my classroom arranged like that?”
  • “Why do my students do that same geography assignment every year?”
  • “Why do we always study that same novel?”

Thinking bigger, consider some of the many aspects of school we take for granted, such as…

  • “Why is our school day structured the way it is?”
  • “Why are our lessons 50 minutes long?”
  • “Why does the school day start at 8:30 and finish at 3:00?”
  • “Why do we group students according to the age they were born?”

As you begin to ask “why?”, take note of your answers. If you find yourself answering the question with “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” then dig a little deeper. Why have you always done it like that? Is it because it is the best way? Maybe it was the best way at one time, but is it still the best way now? Could there be a better way? So many of the things we do, we don’t even think about anymore. We get so used to the way things work that we forget to question them.

One easy (and fun) thing you can do is simply to visit other schools. Just walking into a different environment and looking around can be enlightening. When you walk into someone else’s classroom you cannot help but notice how things are done differently. You find yourself noticing little things and saying “That’s interesting. I wonder why they do it like that?” You’ll see ideas that you hadn’t thought of. Ways of doing things you hadn’t considered. And when you return to your own classroom you’ll see it just a little bit differently. Looking outside the world you experience every day helps you have fresh eyes.

Consider this. Kodak, the once great film and camera company, is these days little more than a footnote in the history of photography. The reason? Their entire worldview was rooted in the idea of film cameras and film processing. When digital photography came along they dismissed it as a fad because it was “not the way we’ve always done it”. They failed to respond to the changes around them and that failure hit them hard. History is full of similar examples where entire industries – often large, seemingly entrenched empires – have been decimated because of their failure to respond to change. The Swiss watch industry refused to adopt the quartz movement because it was not the way they always made watches. It took them years to recover. The record industry initially rejected digital downloads because they were not they way they always distributed music. They eventually relented, but it put them years behind where they could have been had they chosen to lead that change. The list goes on.

There is no denying that we live in a world of enormous change, where a single technology can make “the way we’ve always done it” obsolete very quickly. As educators, we need to be leaders in the ability to change and adapt and learn. The students we teach today will be the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs and world-changers, and will be the ones who must address the big, wicked problems that need be solved in our future. If we want the education we offer to our students to be the key to making the world a better place, then we need to develop mindful, creative, critical thinkers, who constantly ask “why?”

We will never get the future we want if we keep saying “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

An edited version of this post was also published as an article in the March 2016 edition of Education Technology Solutions Magazine

 

Be Smart On Air Interview

I was recently asked to be a guest on the Be Smart On Air podcast by Niilo Alhovaara. Niilo is a fan of The Google Educast and was keen to catch up to talk about podcasting, technology in education, and the good old days of the internet.

I thoughts I’d cross post the recording here, because, well, that’s just what the Internet does.

YouTube Preview Image

You can Tweet Niilo at @niiloa and check out his other interviews on his YouTube Channel.

When is a Remix no longer a Remix?

As many of you may know, I’m a big supporter of Creative Commons and the ideals of open sharing. I publish most of my stuff under a CC licence, usually BY-SA, because I think sharing is important and I believe that the world is a better place if we allow others to build on what we do (in the same way that I often build on the influences of others).

So, a while back I published a couple of things to the OER Commons; a site where teachers can upload and freely share their educational resources with others. The general idea is that if you publish to OER Commons, anyone can take your work and remix it and build upon it to create a version for their own individualised use. For busy teachers who all too often find themselves “reinventing the wheel” in the creation of their own teaching resources, it’s a brilliant concept. You can also attach metadata to the resources you share to make them more searchable, and even map them to the US Common Core standards if you wish. If someone finds your work useful, but wants to make slight changes, the site provides the option to remix the work, connecting the new work with the old work via metadata. Like I said, it’s a brilliant concept.

One of the resources I published to the OER Commons was a worksheet called “What Rights, where?” which aims to be a guide on how to select the appropriate Creative Commons license for a piece of creative work. It links to a Google Doc which suggests a range of scenarios and asks the user to think about which of the CC attributes might be most appropriate for the circumstances.

I got an email the other day informing me that another OER Commons user, Binod Deka, had made a remix of my What Rights, where? worksheet. I was pleased to think that someone liked it and might have found it useful enough to remix it for their own needs. After all, that’s the whole point of OER Commons.

Of course, I was also curious as to what changes he might have made to it, so I took a look at his version to see what was different. You can see his version here. The weird thing is that, from what I can see, it bears absolutely no resemblance to my original. His seems to have just removed 100% of the content that I provided, and he has replaced it with a plagiarised cut and paste of information from the Wikipedia definition of what Rights are. It’s a related idea I suppose, but completely disconnected from my original work.

I suppose it’s one of the risks you take when you share openly, that you have to trust that people building upon your work won’t destroy more than they create. While I’m glad to see my work getting used, I’m not too thrilled about the idea that his work of plagiarism from Wikipedia purports to be a remix of something of mine. I don’t think it was done with malice or any ill-intent, but it’s a bit annoying. It’s also a bit ironic that the work that gets credited as the source (mine) gets cited with a remix link, and the work that is actually used in the remix (from Wikipedia) is not cited at all.

I like the term “remix” because it implicitly suggests that the original work should still be somewhat evident in the new work. A remix is not designed to completely mask the original work in the same way that students are taught to hide their original sources lest they risk an accusation of plagiarism. I have no issue with someone remixing my work, but I’m perplexed by the idea of my work not being even remotely evident in the remix.

All of this got me thinking… At what point is a remix no longer a remix? For that matter, when does plagiarism cease to be plagiarism? And how much originality needs to added to an idea of influence before you can legitimately consider it to be a new work?

As always, your thoughts are valued in the comments…

Featured Image: Acrylic Paint from Wikipedia

The Case For Chromebooks

I was asked via email recently about Chromebooks and whether I thought they were a good choice for schools. Here is my email response, posted here for anyone that might be interested in reading it…

I’ll start by suggesting that any resistance you get on Chromebooks from tech and IT staff will be made for reasons that have nothing to do with pedagogy. I think you could argue that by almost any relevant measure Chromebooks are CLEARLY a better choice for schools. (which is why they are now the number 1 device in US schools)

They are easier to deploy and manage, more secure, more robust, and less expensive. They do everything that a student would need them to do. They integrate directly with Google Apps for Education and are easily shared between students in ways that other devices are not.  They boot fast (under 7 seconds), save work automatically, are completely immune to viruses, and are fast to use. ChromeOS does not slow down over time like other operating systems, and to completely wipe and reset a Chromebook to a fresh configuration takes about 40 seconds. They can be easily managed via the GAFE console, where you can enforce policies and restrictions if needed, install apps, and monitor usage.It’s true that Chromebooks are less expensive, with quality machines available for only around $300 to $500. But price should NOT be the deciding factor here.  The fact that they are cheaper is a great benefit, but it’s not the reason you should consider them. You should consider them because they are arguably better for school use.

I am using my own Chromebook to respond to this email, and in fact my primary computer is now a Chromebook.  I think ChromeOS is the best option for my own use (and I have access to Macs and PCs if I want them).  ChromeOS is not a cheap compromise of an operating system…  it is an excellent, fast, stable operating system that rivals major OSes in terms of functionality and usability. Anyone who tells you otherwise simply has never spent any time with ChromeOS to make an informed decision.

If you are a Google Apps for Education school, Chromebooks make enormous sense.

Some people compare Chromebooks to Windows by listing their features and looking at what Chromebooks supposedly don’t have that Windows does. They are missing the point. The advantage of Chromebooks is that they are NOT Windows. Again, anyone who attempts to make a decision about Chromebooks by comparing them to Windows is completely missing the point of what Chromebooks are all about.

In terms of managing Chromebooks in a school domain they are TRIVIALLY easy to manage.  Because they are managed via a web interface and can be placed into OUs (organisational units) they can have different policies and settings easily applied remotely. Managing 5000 Chromebooks literally requires no more effort than managing 1 Chromebook.  That is NOT true of Windows or Mac. New Chromebooks are added to your domain with a simple keystroke, and then all settings, including wifi details and all apps, are automatically configured. I used to manage a large Windows network in a school and I speak from some experience.  Chromebooks are astonishingly simple to manage!

You will hear all sorts of conflicting opinions about Chromebooks, mostly from people who have never actually used them. Many IT people are not keen on them (why would they be? Chromebooks are so simple to deploy and manage they threaten their jobs!) Many school leaders are ignorant about them because they often simply don’t know any better (and have usually been taking their advice from the IT people; see previous point)  In short, when it comes to Chromebooks there are a lot of ill-informed people out there.

You’ll see from the responses you got in the original thread where you asked about Chromebooks that there is a great deal of enthusiasm and positive attitudes from many people who use them. Seriously, once you go to Chromebooks in a school you’d NEVER go back to the old ways of traditional PCs.

They do require rethinking the way you approach your computing tasks. Chromebooks are different. Not worse, not less capable, not more limited. Just different. And perfectly suited for schools.

One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Well, I think this is exciting news…

After 8 years I’ve officially resigned from my tech integration role at PLC Sydney and, starting on January 1 next year, will be embarking on a whole new career adventure. I have taken up a fulltime position with EdTechTeam as their Director of Professional Development for Australia & New Zealand.

EdTechTeam is a California based company but has just started a local subsidiary here in Australia. As “a global network of educational technologists” with a mission of “improving the world’s education systems using the best learning principles and technology”, I’ve always been really impressed with what EdTechTeam are about. If you’ve ever been to a Google Apps for Education Summit, you’ve already had a small glimpse into the kinds of things EdTechTeam does, but there’s a whole lot of other things going on as well! Basically, imagine if you assembled a team of the most talented teachers in the world, who are all doing amazing things with technology in the classroom, and then ask them to go change the world. That’s what EdTechTeam is.

I’ve been doing work with EdTechTeam on a part time basis for the last few years, so I have a pretty good idea of what they are about; helping teachers understand and embrace the power of using digital technologies to improve student learning.

I’ve been teaching in schools for nearly 30 years now. I’ve taught both boys and girls, in public, catholic and independent schools, in Australia and Canada. I’ve left teaching twice already to try other things, but always managed to find my way back to it. I love teaching. I love working with kids. I don’t know of any other career that lets one make a dent in the future in quite the same way that teaching does. The thing I love about teaching is that it puts you in a position where you can make a difference.

That said, I think the work EdTechTeam is doing is impacting education on a much bigger scale. I think we are poised at an exciting moment in educational history, approaching a grand confluence of ideas, technologies and social change. I’ve been banging on about the need for change in schools and education for years now (as have many others) and I feel we are nearing a real tipping point in being able to create that positive change in education. If I can impact teachers – at scale – in helping drive that change, then that seems like a great place to direct my energy. As much as I will genuinely miss not being in classrooms with kids every day, the chance to have an impact on tens of thousands of educators each year, who then take that impact back into their own classrooms and apply it, seemed like an irresistible idea to me. In a school I might be able to influence 30 teachers. Last year EdTechTeam worked with over 30,000 teachers from around the globe. Many of those teachers went back to their schools and applied what we shared with them to dozens, or even hundreds, or kids. That’s what I find exciting!

As I cleaned out my desk at PLC last week, I was finding documents and items from the past eight years. It really struck me just how much change has happened in those eight years. When I arrived at PLC in 2008 the tools, technologies and ideas about teaching were quite different to how they look now. When I started at PLC we did not have Google Apps. There were no Chromebooks or iPads. The App Store was in its infancy. Google Drive had not been invented. Streaming music and video was almost unheard of. Working productively on a mobile device was not possible. The idea of storing files in “the Cloud” was not even in the public consciousness. Yet all of these technologies and ideas have completely redefined the day to day experience of a contemporary classroom.

Eight. Short. Years.

There’s no doubt that stepping away from something you’ve always done is scary. Teaching is what I’ve done for a very long time and I’m comfortable with it. I even think I’m reasonably good at it. It’s so easy to just keep doing what you’ve always done. It’s much harder to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

So here I go. Starting in January I’ll be working with many more teachers here in Australia and New Zealand, as well as other parts of the world too. I know I’ll probably see way too much of the inside of airplanes and I know I’ll miss the daily contact with students like crazy. But as Helen Keller once said, life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

The good part is that, along with my new colleagues, I’ll have the chance to work with teachers all over the world to create positive educational change and to help them see just how powerful learning can be with the right tools and ideas. I hope I get a chance to work with some of you over the next few years too.  Let’s change the world together.

Should I Trust The Cloud?

I received an email recently from a colleague asking about data sovereignty, and in particular asking about how schools deal with the  need to store all personal data on Australian servers to be compliant with the law. This was my reply…

When deciding whether to do a thing – any thing – you need to assess the relative risk. There is NOTHING that can have it’s risk mitigated to zero. So while we can have debates about the security of the cloud, the fact is that ANY service is generally only as safe as the password that protects it. It’s far simpler to socially engineer your way into a system than to hack it, and it’s easier to follow someone through an open doorway before the door shuts than to crack the lock. There are security risks involved with every system.

What makes you think that data saved on a server that happens to be geographically located on Australian soil is any safer than data on a server located on the other side of some imaginary geographical dividing line? What policies make Australian servers impervious to security issues?  What is it about Australian passwords that are safer than non-Australian passwords?

It’s interesting that whenever I hear the security argument from someone, I ask them whether they use 2-factor authentication on their online accounts. The answer is almost invariably never. I find it hard to take someone seriously when they bleat about security and yet do nothing to secure their own stuff using the safest and simplest technology we have available; 2 factor authentication.

I also find it amusing that these same people who bang on about not trusting the cloud, also almost always have a bank account. When I ask them where their money is stored, they say “in the bank”. When I ask where is it actually stored, they have no idea. They don’t know where their money – or the digital records that define the concept of money – is actually stored. They never stop to consider than when they go to an ATM and withdraw $50, it’s not the same $50 note that they actually put into the bank. There is no magical shoebox under the bank’s bed that stores their actual money… it’s all just computer records, kept on a server, somewhere, and I guarantee that they have no idea where that somewhere is.

That’s why the debate about whether we should be allowing our data to be stored offshore is such a laughable concept. It shows a real lack of understanding about the way the Internet actually works.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter WHERE your data is stored. What matters is WHO is storing it, and whether you trust them with it. I’d rather trust my data to major cloud provider offshore who offer privacy policies that I trust, along with strongly encrypted and sharded data storage techniques, virtual and physical security over their datacentres, and a proven track record of doing the cloud right, than to some minor player in the cloud storage space just because they happen to have servers in Australia.

I’m also not a lawyer.  However, I’ve done enough research into the Australian data sovereignty laws to feel satisfied that I’m interpreting them the right way. And contrary to all the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt being spread around regarding these laws, they do NOT say that cloud services cannot be used unless the servers are in Australia. What they say is that the cloud service USER – that’s you – needs to feel satisfied that the cloud service PROVIDER is offering a service that meets your expectations of safety, security, privacy and redundancy.  If you do your due diligence, and come to the conclusion that you’re satisfied with your cloud service provider is giving you a level of service you can trust, then you are free to use it and in turn offer it to your users. If you don’t believe they are offering this level of service, then don’t use them. It’s as simple as that.

Your choice will never be able to come with a 100% guarantee. Nothing does. But if you do your research carefully and make your choices well, the chances are as good as they will ever be that you have made the right decision. The cloud offers amazing possibilities, and I’m completely convinced it IS the future of computing. I’m all in on the cloud as the platform.

To me, there is really only one obvious choice in picking a cloud provider. You want someone whose entire infrastructure is built for the cloud, whose entire business model is built on doing it right, managing data with security and integrity and maintaining the trust of their users. I’m not mentioning names because I’m sure you can make your own decisions about who you trust and how well they do this cloud thing.

What I don’t want to do is to place my data with a cloud provider who is still playing catchup, whose cloud infrastructure run on legacy platforms that were never built for the cloud, and whose business practices in slagging their competition I find completely distasteful.

I don’t care where their servers are located.

Header image by Dave Herholz – CC BY-SA