Autism Village

Topher Wurts, father of a 13-year old son with autism, is developing a mobile app called Autism Village. According to Wurts, the aim of this app is to “allow people in the autism community to add, rate and review different restaurants, museums, parks, playgrounds and other locations based on ‘autism friendliness.’”

I don’t know about you, but I wish there were more apps like this that catered to individuals, and friends and family of individuals, with specific mental or physical disabilities. I also feel like there ought to be similar apps involving education. One way this could be done would obviously be to have apps for rating and commenting about the level of “friendliness” of a school’s campus and facilities. Although there likely already exist ways to find out this kind of information, it may help for these people to hear more input from those who actually have experience dealing with the challenges posed by such disabilities. In this regard, I also feel such apps ought to tap into input from educators and administrators. People in these professions are privy to experiences and information that many are not (e.g. what assistive tech is best for a specific problem, or what places are best for education/recreation activities), and their input could go a long way in informing not only the users of apps like these, but their developers as well. At the same time, these kinds of apps could also be useful for educators themselves, helping them to plan out class activities, field trips, etc.

Click here if you’d like to help support Wurts’s kickstarter for Autism Village.

Google Classroom

Google has come out with many new apps and features recently, and many of those can be used for various purposes, including education (e.g. Google Docs, Drive, Mail, Calendar, etc.). Up until recently, all these different Google apps could only work separately from each other, as stand alone apps; they weren’t interconnected in any significant way. Teachers and students could still use them, but their applications in education settings were limited. However, Google has addressed this issue with one of their newer apps, Google Classroom. With this new app, teachers and students need not jump between all the various different Google apps just to send out a file to everyone, or turn in an assignment – this can all be done from within Classroom. It also possesses some of its own unique features, which make this app particularly well suited to educators. For example, teachers now have the ability to send out individual copies of an assignment to students in a class, the ability to grade assignments using any point scale, and the ability to correspond with students about particular assignments.

Google Classroom also caters to student needs as well – ever turn in an assignment early, only to think of a change you wish you had made before submitting? Not a problem. Classroom allows students to actually “unsubmit” assignments so that they can make any changes, and then submit the revised assignment, without any sort of hassle or confusion. Additionally, teachers are able to “return” an assignment to student, with commentary, thereby allowing them to inform students of any changes they need to make before resubmitting later.

Google Classroom possesses many other features as well, all of which help to make it extremely practical. However, it does seem to possess its own shortcomings. For one, it requires that everyone in a class have Internet access. That being said, the app is available for mobile devices, along with all the other previously mentioned apps. That, in addition to it being cloud based does offer teachers and students certain advantages. However, being cloud based does carry some potential risks with it. The app also seems limited in the types or formats of assignments that it can be used with. Despite all this, Google Classroom is a very versatile app that can be used to help organize a classroom and the interactions between students in teachers in a way that allows for immediate feedback, takes into account specific student and teacher needs, and it can effectively help to free up some of the limited classroom time.

Click here for a review and tutorial.

ArtistWorks

ArtistWorks is an online music lesson program. By acquiring teachers who are virtuosos on their respective instruments and using online videos, ArtistWorks has created a system whereby students are able to not only access lesson videos at their own pace and discretion, but also record videos of themselves in order to receive feedback from their teacher as well as fellow students. The system seems like a pretty well rounded attempt to a straightforward concept – to make professional online lessons available to as many students as possible, while still providing a way for them to interact with their teachers. This spirit of mass reach is also reflected in their pricing, which is lower than most in-person private lessons ($90 for 3 mo., versus ca. $25 for 30 min. lessons). The technology seems to possess many advantages over traditional video lessons, particularly its Video Exchange system. However, in this interview, founder David Butler seems to omit what seems to be some glaring inadequacies of this lesson system.

First, allowing a student to completely control his/her own pace possesses some drawbacks. Butler attributes the logic behind making videos available in this way to his own observations of in-person private lessons, where he noticed that the content of most lessons tent to be a repeat of the previous week. Butler however fails to address the role that practicing (or lack thereof) will play in this, and instead attributes it to student needs. While it is certainly important for students to have some control over the pace of their learning, this degree a freedom presents risks for “slow learners” (as Butler puts it). Particularly, it ignores the very real possibility that a student may be learning slowly for reasons other than innate ability or practice habits (e.g. poor match between student and teacher, lack of motivation, or personal resources such as time). It also makes it very easy for students to get too far ahead of themselves – students may think they are ready to move on, and then try to do so prematurely, or they may simply get impatient. This is very important, since a strong grasp of the fundamentals in invaluable, and is already difficult to get students to spend enough time on them.

Another thing that Butler strangely omitted was the role of sound quality in his video system – even though he makes a few mentions of the use of good lighting and different camera angles in lesson videos as one of ArtistWorks strengths. While this is definitely advantageous for students, it is equally important that they also have good audio feedback. However, this can only be guaranteed if both the recording quality and the playback quality are good. Since this would require students to have access to good quality speakers or noise cancellation headphones, it seems unlikely that most students would be able to take full advantage of this lesson system. This can be especially detrimental during more advanced lessons, where subtle nuances in performance become increasingly important.

Involving Teachers More in Discussions of Edtech

I think most teachers would agree that being more directly involved in the edtech “revolution” would help both edtech developers and policy makers to better meet the actual needs of classrooms. Mercer Hall and Gina Sipley articulate this point quite well in their article. However, how can this be accomplished? In Texas, the State Board of Education, like other policy makers, are often more concerned about their public image, and maintaining their position as much as (if not more than) they are concerned with actually improving education. In many cases (such as in Texas), these people also behave more as political ideologues who would sooner drive education into the ground pursuing their own beliefs in what is “right” than listen to dissenting resources or opinions. In these sorts of political environments, how can teachers make sure that their voices are heard? Afterall, just by sheer numbers alone, teachers’ political influence is dwarfed by the voting power that parents yield. Similarly, they do not have anywhere near the monetary influence of businesses that invest in education. So, how can teachers’ voices reach the ears of the people that write and interpret education policy? Possibly more important is also how they can actually make their input politically valuable to those people. One way is of course to influence public opinion, thereby creating public pressure. However, this presents its own challenges (e.g. media coverage, public interest, mobilization, etc.). Furthermore, in today’s political environment, not a single issue comes up that does not become highly politicized, thereby becoming distorted and often destroyed in the process. This goes double if an issue can be interpreted along religious lines, and not just partisan ones. So given all these challenges, what can teachers do to become more involved in the political discussions both surrounding and driving the development and integration of edtech?

Asking the Right Questions about Education Technology

In an article on Forbes, contributor Jordan Shapiro makes some excellent points about the kind of dialogue currently surrounding the issue of integrating technology into the classroom. Primarily, he points out that people have largely been asking the wrong questions. Unsurprisingly, Shapiro feels that this is in large part due to the agendas inherent in many of the technologies being examined today. These agendas are often concerned with prioritizing the teaching of marketable skills, while ignoring the implicit messages and values that they impress upon students. Namely, like the high-stakes testing based environment that has created or exacerbated many of the problems in education today, Shapiro believes these technologies often teach children that marketable skills are a value, rather than a skill-set. On that topic, Shapiro makes an excellent point that people often mistakenly believe that they can remove these misguided messages from these technological media when adapting them for classroom use. For that reason, the slower pace of technological integration into the education sector (versus other sectors such as business) is actually beneficial in that it allows us time to step back and ask ourselves these important questions: What is the message this technology is sending to students? What is the goal of this technology? Does it align with desirable educational outcomes? On this point, I would have to agree with Shapiro.   It often seems that policy makers and business leaders alike are best equipped to slip something past the public eye when there has yet to be enough established, scholarly research and dialogue on a topic. So while it is important for teachers and administrators to look for new solutions to existing problems, it is equally important to allow themselves and others time to question them. Without that, it becomes all too easy for businesses and politicians to slip in tools and constructs with a hidden agenda, thus depriving children of a quality education that is able to adequately prepare them for the future.

The Cyber-Bully and the Tattletale: How Should Schools be Involved?

Given the presence of cyber-bullying among today’s youth, schools nowadays have little choice but to ask themselves, “how, if at all, should we involve ourselves in this problem?” Answering this question is, of course, complicated by numerous intertwining and, especially in the case of technology, constantly changing factors. However, schools should almost certainly always play some part in addressing and coming up with solutions to these problems. After all, even if the problem does not take place within the school’s jurisdiction or sphere of influence, it can start or escalate there.

In the following link, an article explains one particular female gaming journalist’s approach towards halting (or at least decreasing) the sexual harassment she has been subjected to in cyberspace. To paraphrase, the journalist Alanah Pearce has been using social media networks to track down and contact the parents of young boys (who are the culprits in the vast majority of these cases) who have been making regular rape threats online. Understandably, parents are generally shocked to hear such news, and their responses have mostly been constructive. In fact, Alanah reports receiving far fewer threats since she has began doing this.

So my question is this: how can this be extrapolated to be included in how public schools choose to involve themselves with cases of cyber-bullying (especially when it involves sexual harassment or worse)? Surely, schools might be apprehensive to take on the role of tattletale themselves, as they are generally hesitant to take on any definitive stance in such ambiguous, sensitive issues. However, what particularly interests me in Alanah’s story is how she got the parents involved, and allowed them to handle things as they saw fit. So, why shouldn’t the schools take the initiative to collaborate with parents or parent-driven organizations (such as the PTA) in addressing such issues? Even involving student organizations such as the student government association could help school administration and parents to be privy to information and insights that they might otherwise not be able to find in such a personable, close-to-home form (if at all). This could also help lead to viable legal solutions. This is particularly important given the deficit of such (viable) legislation in the realm of cyberspace or online privacy. By getting involved here, parents and schools could help to create solutions that are enforceable, while allowing parents to engage their child in a private, personalized manner.

Clintondale High School and the “Flipped” Classroom Approach

Clintondale High School’s principal Greg Green has been trying some new things in his school’s classrooms (Click HERE to access the article). The former coach has been using at-home video lessons to help improve his student’s learning, performance, graduation rate, and college enrollment rate. These videos, which Green adapted from a technique he used when he was a coach to help his athletes observe and fix specific areas of their performance, have purportedly helped students to identify and solve problems they having been facing with specific subjects/assignments, as well as learn new concepts that will be covered in upcoming class period(s). This has allowed students to do their work while in the classroom, thereby allowing them more access to peers, teachers, and other classroom/school resources as they do it.

Understandably, a method like this would be more conducive to certain subjects/environments than others – For example, music would likely be an easy transition, due to the kinesthetic and audio nature of much of the subject matter. What other sorts of settings would this method be particularly conducive to? And, are there perhaps also some settings in which the applicability of such a technique is actually more limited than more commonly used methods?

Secondly, which students would benefit from this the most? In the link provided, the article mentions that Mr. Green conducted an “experiment” to determine if this method could improve his students’ performance. However, given the amount of errors involved (even just those which are immediately apparent) in both the experimental design and implementation, as well as how the findings are presented, it is obvious that it lacks scientific validity. This is unfortunate, given that the findings demonstrate vast improvement in the performance and attitudes of at-risk students. However, validity aside, could this approach provide unique opportunities for those students which have otherwise been left behind in schools? Or is its usefulness more universal among a diverse student body? Also, how does affluence or home environment play into this?

Finally, one last thing to consider ought to be the demands that this method would place on teachers. How easily can current teachers employ or transition to this method? What will be the learning curve for those teachers who are less technologically literate or adept? And, how much (and for how long) would this increase a teacher’s workload? Certainly, being able to make full use of this sort of method would require that teachers have access to, and perhaps even some experience with, certain technologies (e.g. video making/editing software). For those that don’t, however, what specific technological problems or challenges will this method present?