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"ICT in Education" - 5 new articles

  1. Become an expert Google educator
  2. 4 things I learned about using education technology from a blues harp
  3. Ed tech heroes get nervous too
  4. Girls cram for exams using a mobile app
  5. Neurodeterminism as an antidote to common sense? I doubt it!
  6. More Recent Articles
  7. Search ICT in Education
  8. Prior Mailing Archive

Become an expert Google educator

I’ve been sent an email about an all-day series of webinars under the heading “Transform your classroom with Google”.

Brought to you by the Simplek12 people, it looks pretty good. I attended one of their webinars once before, and it was packed with information.

The event takes place on September 6th. You can view the full itinerary, and register, on the event link.


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4 things I learned about using education technology from a blues harp

Look. I’m not the sort of person who likes to blow his own trumpet, but one thing I do know is that I play a mean blues harmonica. I know that is because musicians keep telling me, and who am I to argue with experts? I also get asked to join musical ensembles (five at the last count), so people seem to mean what they say: it’s not just empty flattery.The A Minor Harp

So imagine how disappointed I was recently when I bought a new blues harmonica and, upon trying it out, decided that it was feeble, tinny, and completely lacking in that angst with which blues is associated.

You might wonder why I didn’t assume it was my fault; was this not just another case of a poor workman blaming his tools? Well, no, because I am usually pretty adept at taking a pleasant, upbeat melody and transforming it into something that will have you crying into your coffee. Believe me, that is some skill.

The day after I bought this instrument I joined up with some other musicians: guitars, bass, keyboard, drums; even a slide guitar. And I played through a microphone and amplifier. The difference was magical. The key, A minor, was just right, and, as I had forgotten the day before, playing through a microphone not only changes the volume of the instrument, but the way it sounds too. No doubt that is partly due to the fact that you have to breathe and play differently to when you’re playing unplugged.

The worst, but also the most exhilarating, part of the experience was when the group leader shouted out “Harmonica solo”. This happened more often than I might have wished, largely because I had never played an A minor harp (as we blues heads call a harmonica) before, and cannot read music. Amazingly (to me), it all worked beautifully.

So how does this all relate to using educational technology? It seems to me that there are 4 parallels between my experience with the A minor harmonica and what happens in a computing lesson:

You need the right environment

Trying out my new blues harmonica while sitting in the car was hardly likely to yield exemplary results. The acoustics were wrong, the atmosphere was non-existent and there were no supportive others (it’s embarrassing to be playing away on a harmonica when people are passing by, unless you’re an incorrigible extrovert).

It’s the same with education technology. You can’t truly gauge what a new piece of kit can do if you try it out in a showroom or an exhibition. It needs to be right there in your classroom, working with your wi-fi system, with your kids, your lessons, your support structure — whether that is a teaching assistant, other pupils or some other other arrangement. For this reason I should highly recommend asking for an evaluation model of any piece of kit you are thinking of buying, especially if it is going to cost some serious money. Borrowing a tablet computer, say, or a 3D printer for two weeks can really help in the buying decision.

Either that or, as I have advocated previously (please see N is for … New Technology: 5 Reasons You Should Buy It), ask your boss to set up an innovation fund so that you (and others perhaps) can purchase bits of kit to try out, with no blame attached if they turn out to be not useful. Far better to “waste” £500 on a single item than £20,000 on a complete set.

Things work better together

Playing a harmonica on its own can be OK — for about five minutes. Add a guitar to it and things start to become much more interesting: ask any fan of Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Add several other instruments and then you can really start rockin’.

It’s the same with education technology. You can do much more with a piece of kit that is connected to other equipment, which is another reason that looking at something in isolation at an exhibition can never give you a proper insight into what might be achieved.

Context is all

Playing the harmonica on my own in the car only gave me a very rough idea of what it really sounded like and what it could be made to do. But the right context, that is, playing a particular song, is what really enables you to explore the possibilities — and the limitations — of the instrument.

In the same way, playing around with an application or a piece of kit can give you only a vague idea of what it can do. You need a context, a proper piece of work, such as a problem to be solved, in order to get the most out of it.

Risk-taking is to be encouraged

If you’re playing with a bunch of people and someone shouts out “Solo!”, you have a choice. You can either stop and mumble “Sorry, I’m not quite…., I don’t think…., perhaps we should…” — or you can throw caution to the winds, trust your instinct and enjoy the moment.

There’s a lesson for teachers here. If a pupil has written a brilliant program, or created a wonderful PowerPoint, then don’t leave it there. Yes, praise them, and say what you think is good about what they’ve done. But then say, “OK, I would like you to do X”, where “X” is a biggish thing. Maybe even an impossible thing: how will you know unless you try?

Does it matter if you can’t do “X” yourself? If you have established your credentials as an expert in the subject, and established a classroom ethos of discovery, risk-taking and acknowledgement of the fact that no one person can know everything, I don’t think it does. Indeed, your not knowing can add to the excitement of the lesson, and the thrill that pupils enjoy from discovering something even the teacher didn’t know.

One of the best lessons of my teaching career was when a couple of boys asked me how they automate some quite complicated procedure in a spreadsheet. I told them I hadn’t a clue — and the three of us promptly got down to the job of finding out. We got there in the end, using a combination of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), functions and a few nifty formulas. The interesting thing for me is that none of the pupils in the class batted an eyelid when their teacher said “I haven’t a clue”.

Please note: I had already established the conditions for this: my expertise and the classroom ethos described above. I am absolutely not advocating taking the view that it’s OK to know little or nothing on the dubious grounds that you are there as a ‘facilitator’ and that the kids can teach themselves and each other. Since when did someone who knows nothing succeed in teaching someone else anything?

If you think about it, my response of “I don’t have a clue” was not completely correct. I didn’t know how to solve that particular problem, but I did know that there was probably a way of doing so using VBA, and I also knew of a few excellent websites in which Excel experts had devised some amazing formulae that we could borrow or adapt. And I also had several books on VBA and advanced Excel adorning the shelves of my classroom, which I encouraged the pupils (and myself) to us whenever they needed to.

Conclusion

When John Donne declared that “no man is an island” he might just as well have been talking about educational technology equipment and applications.

And harmonicas!

Postscript

Did you know that blues songs have a structure? That means you can automate the creation of blues songs! Read the following article to find out more, and for details of a challenge.

Blues songs and Computing

Like many other musical genres, blues music has certain conventions, in respect of subject matter, chord sequences and structure. This means that it lends itself to some degree of automation — well, conceptually at least.

For example, blues songs often involve one or more of the following (and frequently all of them):

  • No job
  • no money
  • no luck
  • partner leaving (usually on a train departing at midnight for some reason) or (especially when the singer is female) telling your partner to pack their bags and leave
  • unwelcome police interest
  • … well, you get the picture.

This means that you could relatively easily draw up a flowchart, or devise an algorithm, that would help the would-be listener determine what sort of blues song a track is before even playing it — or could help a would-be blues song writer to determine the main theme of his or her song.

The structure of many blues songs is equally predictable. Here is a fairly typical example, taken from a Muddy Waters’ song with the deeply philosophical title of “You can’t lose what you ain’t never had”:

Had money in the bank, I got busted, people ain't that bad

Had money in the bank, I got busted, people ain't that bad

You can't spend what you ain't got,

you can't lose some little girl you ain't never had

Now, you could write a program or find some other way to automate the generation of a song from a few keywords or a few sentences. I did so just for a bit of fun (I don’t get out much) using a spreadsheet.

If you fancy a challenge and, to borrow from Mae West, if you’ve got nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in, why not see if you can write a short program or flowchart or something else to encapsulate one or more aspects of “the blues”? Email it to me – my email address is on the Contact Us page -- I’ll publish one or two of the the ones I like best!


This article first appeared in Digital Education, the free newsletter for those with a professional interest in educational ICT and Computing. One of the benefits of subscribing – apart from access to unique content – is articles in a timely manner. For example, slightly different versions of this article and the Postscript were published in the June 2014 edition.To sign up, please complete the short form on our newsletter page. We use a double opt-in system, and you won’t get spammed.

    

Ed tech heroes get nervous too

I was struck by a comment made my Steve Dembo on Facebook recently. He said:

“I imagine that some day I'll stop getting nervous before presentations. But today is not that day”

I’ve met Steve: passionate, enthusiastic, a great speaker. I came across him via his blog and podcasts some years ago. I found him to be really inspirational, and was delighted to meet him at a conference a few years ago. So I was shocked to read his comment, though not surprised.

I was speaking to a public speaking expert last year, someone who earns his living from training in that field. He has worked with famous actors and all sorts of celebrities, and some of them get physically sick before going on stage.

I asked him if he himself ever gets nervous. He replied:

“I always wonder if this will be the occasion when someone comes up to me afterwards and taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Perhaps you might think about a different line of work…’”

I get nervous too – but I actually think the nerves, combined with other factors of course, are necessary.

If you are interested in my take on this, read this article:

What acting taught me about public speaking

    


Girls cram for exams using a mobile app

Everyone goes on about “boys and their toys”, but according to research carried out by a revision app company, more girls than boys are using the app to help them revise.

The app is Gojimo. It provides educational content by working with various educational publishers. I haven’t tried the app myself, but I thought this set of statistics was interesting:

“30 per cent of all summer term revision activity was carried out over the four days in the middle of GCSE[1] exam week, between 1st and 4th June 2014: 79 per cent of this activity was carried out by girls.”

Gojimo was founded by someone called Guy Burgess, who was only 17 at the time. As he says, the statistics can be interpreted in several ways. Well, quite. Also, we don’t know how many students were in the sample size. Still, I quite like the idea that maybe Burgess is right when he infers from the data that:

“While boys are sticking to their traditional study guides, girls are exploring different revision options including mobile testing.”

I think more research needs to be carried out to see if this is actually true, or even possibly true. (It would be interesting, I think, to carry out your own survey amongst your classes: how do your students revise? If quite a number expect to revise on their phones or tablets, that is potentially very useful for you to know.) But whatever the “truth”, Gojimo looks interesting. At the moment it’s available only on IoS devices, but an Android version is due to be released in the first quarter of next year. Perhaps that will be in time for the Bett show, which takes place at the end of January.

[1] GCSE = General Certificate of Education, taken at 16 years old by many students in England.


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Neurodeterminism as an antidote to common sense? I doubt it!

Mel Thompson discusses a certain type of determinism found in the area of Philosophy these days. Some time I ago I discussed this phenomenon in the field of educational technology [1] and later discovered that Mel and I shared certain views and frustrations! Read Mel's article: do you detect any similarities between our two disciplines?

Advances in neuroscience have given us new insights into the workings of the brain, at least to the extent that the measurement of blood flow suggests which parts of the brain are operating at any one time. When we make a decision, the only physical evidence for how we do it is in terms of brain activity, just as when we go for a walk, the only physical evidence for how we do that is the movement of muscles and limbs, along with the corresponding unconscious brain activity. Such an observation is in accord with a common sense view of the mind, for few today would subscribe to the idea that we have a disembodied self, independently capable of pulling our physical puppet-strings. We think, we walk and we decide what to do – that is how we experience ourselves. We are real and we are embodied.

I am utterly frustrated, therefore, by those who take a further step and try to suggest that the self is nothing other than neural activity, or that our every decision is an illusion, created by neural activity that has taken place prior to our becoming aware of it. They suggest that, because they can detect activity even a fraction of a second before we make a decision, it is not we who have made the decision at all, but our brains, and therefore that we have no more than an illusion of being in charge or of being morally responsible for our actions. At this point, neurodeterminism parts company with common sense. We know what it is to agonise over a decision and then take responsibility for it, and no analysis in terms of neural activity is going to render that process illusory, any more than a Mozart symphony is rendered illusory by being analysed in terms of a sequence of sound waves. Of course there is no symphony without sound waves, nor some extra-terrestrial ghost of Mozart, but no list of frequencies is going to replace what we mean by the symphony or our experience of hearing it.

Neurodeterminism only makes sense if we assume that the human brain is the cause of its own activity and that human social interaction and communication are merely its by-products. Indeed, some enthusiasts for neuroscience mock the common sense view that we have of ourselves as thinking, choosing, creating, conscious beings as a relic of a pre-scientific outlook. If it can’t be measured, it can’t exist!

In fact, I would argue that the relationship between self and brain is exactly the reverse. Communication and social interaction, with the development of signs and language, provided the context within which natural selection favoured the development of mental capacity. Those best able to identify one another, communicate and make good decisions about how to act together, were able to survive in a competitive world, and the brain capacity that made possible such thought and communication therefore increased over time. To suggest otherwise requires belief in some external force that appears to have determined that hominids should have ever-increasing cranial capacity. But – if natural selection is a valid way of looking at evolution – it just doesn’t work that way. Change requires context and competition. It is because we flourish as a species if we think, decide and communicate, that our brains develop over time. Pure Darwin.

Notice that it is the reality of countless individuals in their interaction with one another and with their environment that enables this evolution to take place; it provides the context within which increasing brain-power makes sense. But, quite apart from evolution, we also know that the brain is plastic and constantly changing. It responds to our choices and actions. As we learn a new skill, the relevant neural pathways enlarge to reflect that achievement and to facilitate it further. We don’t find that we have a new skill because the neural pathways have changed; they change as we learn the skill!

What happens in the brain mirrors and continues to make possible what happens to us as persons and as social agents. We are more than our brains, and even if neuroscience were one day to achieve the impossible and give a full description of the activity of each and every neuron, that would still not explain what consciousness is like, or what it means to be a human being. That may be a common sense view, but I think it is none the worse for that!

About Mel Thompson

Mel ThompsonFormerly a teacher, editor and A-level examiner, Mel Thompson is now a freelance writer, with a particular interest in Philosophy and Ethics. His many publications include 8 books in the Teach Yourself series, Philosophers Behaving Badly, about the behaviour of some well-known thinkers, and, most recently The Philosophers Beach Book, which invites you to wiggle your toes in the sand and think!

For further information about his publications, and links to many other items of philosophical and ethical interest, see his website: www.philosophyandethics.com


1. Ed Tech determinism and so-called conventional wisdom: http://www.ictineducation.org/home-page/2014/5/13/ed-tech-determinism-and-so-called-conventional-wisdom.html


This article first appeared in Digital Education, the free newsletter for those with a professional interest in educational ICT and Computing. One of the benefits of subscribing – apart from access to unique content – is articles in a timely manner. For example, this article was published in the late July 2014 edition.To sign up, please complete the short form on our newsletter page. We use a double opt-in system, and you won’t get spammed.

    


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