Teaching Practical Subjects with Videoconferencing

In my current role I often get an opportunity to see some interesting ideas and technologies before they become more widely known. I’ll occasionally learn about startups and tech tools while they are still in their early stages of development. It’s fun to see clever people building clever tools that solve interesting problems.

One such tool I saw recently was Classnika. With a deceptively simple premise around the idea of videoconferencing, Classnika provides an interesting solution for teachers of practical subjects like, music, art, cooking, or any other performance based activity.

For context, videoconferencing is something we all got pretty comfortable with over the past 12 months. Many schools quickly adopted the use of video calling tools like Google Meet, Zoom or MS Teams to continue teaching students at a distance. And while videoconferencing may not be a permanent substitute for face to face teaching there’s no doubt that video calls have been incredibly useful to get schools through a very difficult time. In fact, I suspect there will be many schools who retain their use of videoconferencing technology even when we all return to normal operations, whether that be for streaming school assemblies to a wider audience, holding remote parent teacher interviews, or supporting remote students who are unable to attend school for whatever reason.

While videocalls are useful for some things, they are not so great for others. If you were remotely trying to teach someone to solve a math problem, or to sing, or to speak another language, you could probably do that pretty easily over a traditional video call. When it’s just one person talking face to face with another person, or group of people, video calls can work pretty well. But for applications where you need to see more than just a person’s face, traditional video calls are much less useful.

For example, let’s say you’re a student trying to learn the piano, and for whatever reason, you are taking lessons remotely. Using a traditional videocall you might set up a computer on top of the piano, with the webcam facing you, so you can see your remote teacher and your remote teacher can see you. But what if the teacher wants to see your hands as you play, which they almost certainly would. Well, you could redirect your webcam at your hands on the keyboard, but now they can’t see your face and all the nuances that come from reading a students expression for understanding, etc. Or what if they wanted a additional view of your hands, such as from the side or the top? This is a real limitation of traditional video calling tools.

This is the problem that Classnika attempts to solve. The app has a teacher and a student mode. The student mode allows for multiple camera inputs from any internet connected device. So using the piano example, a student might set up the computer’s webcam on top of the piano as mentioned, but they could also use another phone or tablet to provide a second video feed looking at the keyboard from above, which could be easily done by placing the device in a simple clamp or tripod. Similarly, a third device’s camera could be set up on the side of the keyboard to provide another angle on the player’s hands. In fact, you can add as many cameras as you want as long as you have a device for each one, which can be any old phone or tablet. You could also bring in other remote cameras into the session, such as a parent or second tutor, or even uplod and add documents into the feed such as sheet music or notes.

The remote instructor uses the teacher mode on the app to switch between the various views – the student’s face, the overhead view, the side view, the sheet music, etc, and can maximise a specific view simply by tapping from the thumbnails. It seems like such a simple ideas, but the fact that you are able to bring together multiple video feeds of the same activity and easily switch between them, makes it super useful for remotely teaching activities that require the focus to be on more than one aspect of the performance.

I was given a live demo from two of the app’s developers, and it was very impressive. Even for an early stage demo, the tech worked very smoothly, and the UI seemed obvious and intuituve to use. Lessons can be scheduled in advance, so the student just needs to click the link at the appointed time to start the lesson. Ramtin, one of the app’s developers took me through the piano teaching example I’ve described by using his young son at the family piano as an authentic demonstration, and I can definitely see the benefits of multiple video feeds for remote teaching this kind of activity. I’m sure there are lots of other uses too.

If you want to check it out the Classnika app is available for both Android and iOS.

The Industry Standard Myth

So many times in schools I’ve heard people defend their choice of software for students by trotting out the old “industry standard” argument. They reason that schools should have their students using certain pieces of software because “it’s what the industry uses”.

Aside from the fact that most of the people making these claims are often career teachers who have never worked in an industry outside of education, they often also neglect to condider that not all industries are the same. There is often a bizarre kind of expectation that all students will end up working in the finance/legal world of a bank or a lawyer’s office, or in a narrowly defined “creative industry”, both places where, yes it’s true, you will sometimes find an incumbent piece of software that has been in use there since God was a boy.

If I may tell a couple of stories to make a point…

Story 1

When I was still teaching (computing subjects) one of the tasks I would get my kids to do was to create an instruction manual (either as a written manual or a series of screencasts) for a piece of software they had never seen before, that was not the incumbent tool, in different categories. So for example, for Word Processing they could choose anything other than Microsoft Word (which was our school’s standard WP tool at the time). So they got to look at things like Google Docs, Open Office Writer, Zoho Writer, Libre Writer, AbiWord, Scrivener, and so on.

They were usually quite shocked at

  • the number of alternatives available
  • how good some of them were
  • how much overlap existed between them all
  • that what they were really doing was not necessarily “Word”, but “word processing”

Their usual takeaway was that the only reason most of them were using Word was that it was what they were used to, and that when they started to look around, there were lots of good alternatives.

Turns out that, for the most part, a word processor is just a word processor, a spreadsheet is just a spreadsheet, a video editor is just a video editor, and so on. It’s their points of difference that make them interesting, but if you’ve never tried anything else then you won’t know what those difference are.

Story 2

When my son was in high school he got a new computer (MacBook Air). Thinking that his father was some magical supply of free software, he asked me to install MS Office on it. I said I did not have a licence for it, that I wasn’t about to buy one, and that I did not support him (or me) pirating software. I suggested he install Open Office on it, which he did, and after a week of complaining that it wasn’t Word, he decided he actually liked it better, and still has Open Office on his computer to this day (although he usually uses Google Docs now)

Story 3

A few years ago I was asked to collaborate on writing a book with someone, although I ended up doing the bulk of the writing and editing. It didn’t take long to realise that Microsoft Word was quite ill-suited for writing very long, dynamic documents like a book, so I started hunting around to see what other options might be available. I stumbled across Scrivener, an amazing writing tool which takes a completely different approach to long form writing. It was quite surprising to realise that the commonly accepted “industry standard” tool may not always be the best tool.

My point is that we often just use what we get used to, regardless of whether it’s actually the “best” tool for the job or not. If we never question the status quo, nothing ever changes. (Actually things change all the time, but once we get wrapped up in using a certain tool, if we never look sideways we never notice things changing around us.)

The “industry standard” argument is a spurious one. It makes sense for some kids, at some ages, doing some kinds of work to use the software that “the industry” is using at the moment. But for the majority of kids, at most ages, for the majority of the time, it’s a complete furphy, because really, who knows what “the industry” will be using in 5 or 10 years time.

It’s better to be adaptable, than perfectly prepared for a world that may no longer exist. If I was in industry I’d rather employ someone who knew how to learn and adapt to ANY piece of software, rather than to be an expert in something we no longer use.

An Introduction to AI and Machine Learning

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are driving a ton of innovation in computing at the moment. AI is showing up in nearly every major technology, and seem to give our machines the impression that they are almost human, almost intelligent. But remember it’s called Artificial Intelligence for a reason – it’s artificial. While these technologies might seem mysterious and scary, they are like most things in technology – easy to understand if you have a basic idea of what’s going on.

This video aims to unpack the core idea behind Machine Learning – that if we can provide a machine with enough examples of something then it will eventually be able to recognise and draw conclusions for itself.

Links to things mentioned in this video

Have fun exploring! If you end up making your own experiments in the Teachable Machine, please leave a link in the comments below!