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Minds Online

brainOnline courses have definitely opened access to students in remote areas. They also offer option to people with learning requirements that require more flexibility with meeting times, and more critically with issues of physical accessibility and even learning disabilities.

There are lots of books, articles and theses devoted to this research on teaching with technology. More recently, I see research on the ways in which online teaching can improve learning for all students.

More and more traditional, full time, on or near campus students add online courses to their schedule. In many cases, it's for the same reasons as students at a distance - time scheduling around work, and enjoying the freedom and different approaches to learning an online class offers.

We don't hear these courses and programs referred to much anymore as "distance learning" because distance is not the biggest factor for enrollments.

Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University, usually researches language and memory, but a newer book by her looks at the role technology can play in improving the learning experiences of all students. That research appears in Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology.

In an article on chronicle.com, she says that "One of the reasons Northern Arizona University values teaching with technology is our geography and location. We’re located in the middle of some vast, sparsely populated spaces, and a major part of our mission as an institution is to serve the educational needs of the people spread throughout these spaces. Especially critical is our commitment to serving the needs of Native American students, many of whom live or spend time in rural reservation communities." 

It is only recently that educational technology has mixed with neuroscience and cognitive psychology to design with the brain in mind. These designers are considering how attention, memory, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning can be used for technology-aided approaches. This approach seems relevant for teachers and instructional designers.

Online courses by their very delivery seem to be a natural pathway to using technology for learning. Miller says that cognitive psychologists already knew that frequent checks for learning (quizzing) is beneficial to learning. This "testing effect" doesn't work very easily in a traditional classroom. In an online course, repeated quiz attempts with different questions and adaptive learning techniques to adapt a quiz's topics or questions to an individual student is easier. Of course, this technology can also be used with students in an actual classroom with some course retooling.

This is a key concept for Miller who suggests that "for more complex activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and case studies. Using online tools, we can set up multiple scenarios, present them as many times as we want, and customize the content or pacing for different students. We know from research that effortful practice is the way to master complex skills, and technology offers new ways to lead students into this effortful practice."

Miller's book is not just theory. In the chapter on "Putting It All Together," she offers a sample syllabus for an online course with commentary linking the policies to the cognitive principles covered in the book. 

Aligning online pedagogy with learning science and putting instructional design and cognitive science together into usable design principles seems to be a worthy, though difficult, process.


Everyone Should Be Coding

I wrote earlier about the "Hour of Code" and about how coding is a subject not often taught in schools (at all levels) or taught in isolation and to only a small percentage of students.

Students and teachers are sometimes moving into coding via other projects, such as a makerspace and playing with things like an Arduino board or robotics that require some coding knowledge. But a lot of coding education is occurring outside of traditional school settings.

Code.org has a search tool to find computer science classes in your area and my searching around New Jersey didn't turn up as much as I would have guessed.


Coding bootcamps are intensive, accelerated learning programs that teach beginners coding skills, but the "coding academies" like General Assembly, Galvanize, and the Flatiron School are much more. 

I know someone is reading this and thinking "Why do I or my students need to learn to code?"  I might answer that you don't know what skills will be necessary for your future work, but knowing something about coding could be part of that skil set. Of course, that is very close to the answer I got from my 8th grade algebra teacher when I complained that I would never need algebra to be a writer or English teacher.

These coding bootcamps and academies have only been around for about five years, although there have been computer science classes and programming courses in schools and for-profits for more than three decades.

Bootcamps can vary in length from 6 to 28 weeks, with the average at about 10 weeks long. Code schools teach a broader technical curriculum. It might include Full-Stack Web Development, Data Science, Digital Marketing, UX/UI Design along with teaching coding languages like Ruby on Rails, Python on Django, JavaScript, and LAMP Stack.

Ones that are intended for adults are usually making their money by offering courses aligned with or even in partnership with an employer network.

In 2015, it was expected that the number of graduates from such programs would be 16,000. Not an enormous number, but more than double from 2014, according to a recent survey by Course Report.

Almost none of these are accredited and so students enrolled are more interested in skills than credits or certificates. However, some of these students would probably be interested in using those courses towards a college degree if it was offered, as is the case with many college certificate programs that are usually part of their continuing education or adult learning programs. These can include courses that lead directly into graduate degree programs.

College tuition isn't cheap and these outside bootcamps and academies aren’t cheap either. A summary of the Course Report survey notes that the average cost of the courses is more than $11,000. There are about 70 of the programs in the United States and Canada today.

Last March, President Obama announced an initiative, called TechHire, to train Americans in technology jobs. Among other things, the effort encourages people to enroll in coding boot camps.

Boot camps have the potential to complement computer-science departments’ curricula and degrees, but most colleges are not comfortable in these partnerships, although they do often work with individual employers looking for customized training.

I am particularly interested in the growth of programs for our younger students that use coding both as a critical thinking builder and as a way to learn coding in order to do other STEAM projects.

The vision of many of these groups is based on the belief that computer science and programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra.

Here are some resources towards that goal.

Code.org – This nonprofit foundation website is a great starting point for coding novices. It shares lots of useful online resources, apps and places to learning coding. 

Scratch was designed by MIT students and aimed at children ages 8 to 16 as an easy-to-use programming language. Without using lines of code, you arrange and snap together Scratch blocks of code. 

Stencyl  is software inspired by Scratch's snapping blocks system that allows you to create simple games for iOS, Android, Flash, Windows, Linux and Mac. There are paid pro plans that come with advanced functionality. 

Khan Academy is best known for its math tutorials that often look like games, but it also has basic programming tutorials and students can learn to build graphics, animations and interactive visualizations.

CodeAcademy is an interactive website that has a gentle learning curve and teaches kids basic code through fun and simple exercises that feel like games.

Hackety Hack this quick download allows you to learn Ruby, an open-source programming language that's easy and intuitive. 

Code Monster is  particularly good for kids learning as the Code Monster shows two adjacent boxes - one showing code, the other shows what the code does. As you play around with the code with some help from a prompt, you learn what each command does.

No one knows how old you are when you use these sites, so all you curious adults should feel free to use them as a way to get started - an then share them with your own kids in school or at home.



What Most Schools Don't Teach

What is it that most schools don't teach? Coding.

Coding - transforming actions into a symbolic language - is offered in colleges and in many high schools, but computer science is not part of the core curriculum alongside other courses such as biology, chemistry or algebra that all students take.

Launched in 2013, Code.org is a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Their vision is that every student in every school should have at least the opportunity to learn computer science.

Code.org is organizing its “Hour of Code” event for the third consecutive year as part of Computer Science Education Week. They give students the opportunity to learn about programming with free online tutorials and instructional videos. There are more than 191,000 events in more than 180 countries and one-third of all U.S. schools are participating, They expect to reach 50 million students this week.

Coding is becoming an increasingly crucial skill. If you hear asked (or you ask) "Why do I need to learn to code? I'll never use it to be a ________ (fill in the blank)," I can identify. Teaching English for many years, I always heard that question with poetry or some other item being substituted for "coding." I knew students would need language skills, including learning to interpret language, understand symbolism etc., but it was hard to make the point to someone who had no idea what they would do or need in life.

Do I believe everyone in the future will be doing coding? No, but I believe understanding how code works to run much of the world we live in is essential, at least on a basic level.

This month, the "Hour of Code" campaign from nonprofit Code.org makes that very visible. If you look at its website, you can see that it is aimed at students and teachers in K-12, although it is is clear that people older have as many (or more) gaps in their coding knowledge.

The site uses popular movie characters from films like Frozen and Star Wars as avatars for coding activities.

not unlike when I was teaching students in the late 1970s to make a turtle on a screen move by writing Logo programs. That was Apple Logo which was an early implementation of Logo that was popular then due to marketing for Apple's Apple II computer.

This week (but really all year), educators, extracurricular leaders, and parents are being encouraged to introduce kids to coding. There are many free, online coding tutorials designed for all ages. Some tutorials are designed to be suitable for kids as young as 4 and even for implementation without computers. But many of these tutorials are designed as games that are accessible for computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

This year 3 for the "Hour of Code" and partnerships for licensing with Microsoft and Disney to create tutorials using settings and characters from Minecraft or Star Wars makes coding more appealing to children. "The goal of the Hour of Code is not to teach anybody to become an expert computer scientist in one hour," reads the description on Hour of Code's homepage. "One hour is only enough to learn that computer science is fun and creative, that it is accessible for all ages, for all students, regardless of background."

A sample is an activity (there are also sequenced courses at different age and ability levels) to program characters from the Star Wars universe to make a game of your own creation. In the video below, Star Wars film producer Kathleen Kennedy introduces some broad uses of computer programming, and then Rachel Rose, Senior Engineer for the Star Wars Animation and Creature Team, walks you through the basics of programming using Blockly.

Blockly is a client-side JavaScript library for creating visual block programming editors. It is a project of Google and is open-source It runs in a web browser, and resembles another simple programming language called Scratch. Blockly seems almost too easy as it uses blocks that link together to make writing code easier. But it can generate JavaScript, Python, PHP or Dart code and can be customized to generate code in any computer language.


If you try the activity, it is obvious that critical thinking and thoughtful placement of the blocks is required to make the program run correctly.code 1

Using Blockly as a visual programming language is a great start and, although in the working world most code is typed, each block conatins and corresponds to a line of "real" code which students can view.

Students doing any of the most basic activities are learning that an algorithm is a series of instructions  on how to accomplish a task. they experience debugging -

finding and fixing issues in code.

If they advance through the activities , they will learn what a function is (a piece of code that can be called over and over), and how to customize their code parameters with extra bits of information that you can pass into a function to customize it.

code 2Students are reminded that some of the tools, like autofill, seem like "cheats" but are used by full time programmers too in order to speed up the coding and maintain consistency.

One activity is designed for very young coders and kids without access to computers. Using a predefined “Robot Vocabulary,” students will figure out how to guide

one another to accomplish specific tasks without discussing them first. This teaches students the connection between symbols and actions, as well as the valuable skill of debugging.

Course Correction


As I rehearsed a presentation on rubrics this past weekend for the Faculty Institute this week at NJIT, I reminded myself to stress formative assessment.

Every teacher and student is aware of summative assessment - those things (especially tests) that come at the end of learning experiences. Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a some defined instructional period. Typically we use them at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. Formative assessment, including diagnostic testing, is a wide range of formal and informal assessment procedures. Teachers conduct these during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student achievement.

These formative checks are often what lead to "course corrections." The term might be one more often used in navigation, but it applies nicely to teaching. We set out both in a course and on some course of study. We monitor the conditions along the way and then make corrections. If done well, we still arive at the same destination, but in less time or with less wasted effort or with less stormy weather along the way.

Rubrics are a good example of a tool that can be used as a formative or summative assessment, though it is more likely to be used as the latter. That's unfortunate as I find that formative assessments are more important to learning than summative. A lot of research bears this out and shows formative assessment as a viable means to help improve overall student achievement.

In teaching writing, it becomes obvious that the feedback students receive during the writing process is much more useful than comments on a final paper that will no longer be revised. Frequent formative measures of student progress are essential, how the information obtained from these measures is used is even more critical for boosting student achievement.

Most of the research suggests that key elements of the formative assessment process include a) sharing clearly stated learning goals with the students b) provision of specific, actionable feedback so that [teachers/students] can adjust learning strategies.

A more recent trend is to have greater student involvement in that formative assessment process (for example, creating the rubric) and make them take greater ownership of their learning by tracking progress toward their goals, and by self and peer review of their work.

The Impact of Games on Learning

go board

Games for the classroom continues to be an expanding field, though there are more skeptics than converts. As with other trends (MOOCs, for example), many educators want more information on assessing the impact of games on learning before they adopt games or game qualities in their courses.

Some bloggers on gamification have pointed out that it is not even clear what we want to accomplish in using games. Engagement? Critical thinking, problem solving and analysis skills? Personalized learning? Motivation?

A new report from Games for Change and the Michael Cohen Group titled "Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field," looks at some of the disconnects.

For example, a game may not have a significant impact on teaching "knowledge" but may impact collaboration and problem-solving skills in unexpected ways.

The report writers say that they "discovered that the words fundamental to successful collaboration like ‘game’ and ‘assessment’ have become litmus tests -- forcing people to be 'with us or against us'”

The report summary also suggests that:

"Success may require new umbrella language to enable meaningful comparison and improve coherence and efficacy -- especially across stakeholders. Power may need to be shared, rather than giving preference to either researchers or designers. The primary contribution of this first report is to make five basic claims about how the field is currently fragmented, establishing a foundation for more systematic solutions. Along the way we reveal why we are talking past one another, in public and private. Our second report (forthcoming) will dive deeper into proactive solutions..."


Emerging Learning Design

Today, I am attending the Emerging Learning Design conference at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

The opening keynote is titled 7 Technological Changes that are Reshaping Teaching and Learning presented by Dr. Richard Halverson from the UW-Madison School of Education. In this talk, Halverson will discuss how technologies such as social media, digital media production communities, fantasy sports, massively open online games and courses, learning management systems and mobile devices are changing teaching and learning, and how such tools and practices might be directed toward creating the kinds of learning environments we want.

A number of topics during the day's schedule interest me, but I always end up selecting session at the last minute - often based on conversations over the early morning coffee!

The lunchtime Roundtable topics are: Assessment Critical Thinking Emerging Technologies Gamification & Games NMC.org New Educational Technologies Instructional Design Learning Technologies Pedagogy and Design Self-Directed Learning Twitter Users Web Development & Trends.