In Defence Of EduTech

I am looking forward to EduTech. I am lucky enough to be leading a group of seven of my staff off to Brisbane in under two weeks time. Several have been wanting an opportunity like this for a couple of years now, while others are nervous about participating in such a high profile event early in their teaching career.

However, across my network connections, there is a growing trend towards bagging EduTech both as a concept and as an event. I am not saying that some of the criticisms aren’t valid or that educators aren’t entitled to hold views that are anti-EduTech. It’s just that incessant bleating of the same complaints over and over again that give out the vibe that it is an evil, money-sucking, leeching parasite of a conference for gullible teachers that I feel is unnecessary. I get the sense that some people would rub their hands together with glee if they heard that this event that has risen to prominence in just a short number of years was about to fold or to discontinue.

I’ve read the complaints. Overseas speakers get buckets of cash while our poor Aussie compatriots get no monetary recompense. It’s too expensive. It is too big and too impersonal. It’s a big echo-chamber. Too many vendors peddling wares to unwary schools. Too much celebration of the edu-celebrity. There’s elements of truth in all of these generalisations. But it’s not the total story.

There has to be a reason that huge numbers of Aussie educators flock to Brisbane – and it’s not because we are all gullible sheep lining up to get fleeced. There has to be a reason why the big name speakers resonate with teachers – including teachers who don’t join state professional edtech organisations. Everyone has different reasons – I can only share mine.

I enjoy the different speakers, especially the ones from beyond our shores because they can sometimes present ideas in new and different ways compared with the way institutions involved in learning operate in Australia. Everyone has their asking price, and if someone like Sugata Mitra is asking a six figure fee and EduTech are prepared to factor that into their expenses to put him in front of me (and several thousand compatriots), I don’t have a problem with that. As with all speakers (and anything being spoken, written or conveyed about education and learning) the onus is on the attendee to be a critical consumer. I don’t have to agree with everything that Sir Ken says as I feel that my learning is most informed by the tensions or points of difference that I notice. And being plugged into Twitter at the same time enables me to see into other people’s brains at the same time and see how the story is resonating or reverberating there. I see more pushback or added value via Twitter than nodding and regurgitating but it could just be that I have chosen who to follow intelligently and strategically. The money angle is interesting because all speakers have a limited window of opportunity in which their reputation can reward them financially – does anyone remember Jamie McKenzie or Marc Prensky? These people were forward thinking at the time but their potential conference learning power has certainly diminished.

EduTech is not cheap but it is no more expensive than other similar sized events in Australia. The sheer size increases the chances of me meeting up with educators I currently connect to (I hate the phrase PLN) and meeting new teachers to add to those connections is awesome as well. Yes, there are lots of vendors there but I have never engaged in a conversation with a sales rep or consultant unless what they were showcasing piqued my interest and I wanted to ascertain if there was an opportunity of value for my school.

For me, it is a future of learning festival. It is not like the local EdTechSA conference – it is a totally different beast. It is big picture, forward looking and unashamedly so. I have seen first hand how exposure to new ideas as a live event (as opposed to watching a YouTube recording) has spawned innovation and forward movement at my own school from the colleagues who attended last year. It was a chance to press pause on their day to day classroom practice, deeply converse with their colleagues, see ideas from fresh and multiple viewpoints and resolve to rethink things when they get back to their classroom. For example, Scott, a colleague who heard Ewan McIntosh speak last year about Google-able and unGoogle-able questions went back and started a rethink about how he got his kids to research. This spread to his learning team and a planned approach to rethinking the middle school opportunities and learning programs for our students. Today that group attended a Design Thinking workshop with Tom Barrett as the next logical step in that process. The EduTech spark that got Scott pondering has lead to a steady flame of progress at our school. I am confident that my 2015 group of attendees will find sparks of their own.

So, I get that some people don’t like the idea of for-profit event like EduTech. I get that they feel disrespected as Aussie educators of repute when they aren’t offered dollars for their time and expertise. I don’t have that problem because I’m not going to get asked or even imagine that I would be in that market space. I’m just happy to have a 7 minute slot at one of the TeachMeets and share that space with a bunch of educators who I wouldn’t get to meet face to face under normal circumstances. I suppose that it all boils down to your own expectations. But for me, slagging off EduTech as a constant theme is tiresome. Plus it is kind of ironic to be moaning about a corporate influenced event on a platform like Facebook.

So if you are reading this, will be at EduTech and you see me, please say “G’day.” I am a bit of an introvert so breaking the ice with new people is always welcome. And if you’re not going, no worries. Everyone has different priorities – and a conference is just one way to get the brain connections buzzing.

 

The Power Of The Humble Lanyard

dllanyards

Tomorrow morning at the Primary Years Assembly, I will be presenting six more Digital Leaders lanyards bringing the number of newly qualified Leaders up to twenty two. My photo shows the pile ready with the badge grid showing badges earned so far complete with the glamorous purple lanyard (called the forgotten colour of our school uniform by our Music teacher!) with teal custom printing.

The cost for each lanyard is around five dollars. The plastic sleeve is worth about fifty cents and the printing is a few cents extra. A modest investment considering what the students and the school get in return. We are not talking about privileged students here – far from it.

For that price, I get enthusiasm and dedication. For that price, students get opportunity and a shot at showcasing their skills. For that price, the school gets expertise, hosted lunchtime activities and teachers get access to student experts who can help get their learning programs running smoothly. For that price, students get a chance to feel special, to feel pride in helping others, in having fun and getting to learn something new. For that price, I get to build new relationships, I get to re-engage some challenging kids and I get to push this whole idea along to become something that is a positive, embedded part of the school.

Worth every cent, I say.

The Foanes 2

foanes 2Enjoy – hope someone finds this mildly amusing. The Michael Bolton reference is a bit of an in-joke that contrasts my wife’s musical tastes with my own. For the record, I did take Joanne to see Michael Bolton in concert a few years back, and he was very entertaining. I’m finding that the drawing part of trying to do a comic strip is the easy part – coming up with a story or anecdote or observation is definitely the hard part.

Don’t Give Google Too Much Credit, The Open Office Concept Is Not New

This link popped up via Ewan McIntosh in my Feedly reader today, and reading the article sent me back in time to 1995, when I started teaching at Flagstaff Hill Primary School in southern suburban Adelaide. The whole premise of the Washington Post piece is that open space work environments as apparently championed by Google are not really working that well, and that the drawbacks are outweighing the anticipated benefits. What surprises me (as it will many educators) is that the open space concept is supposedly new, and this analysis had me thinking back to my first experiences in an open space work environment.

Flagstaff Hill was built in the early eighties when the open space concept was really taking off. Two of the larger buildings had this design, while the other major in the primary section was a double storey block with more separate, privatised classrooms. I was a young teacher straight in from country service and I arrived ready to teach a Year 4/5 composite class – the principal told me that I would be in Blue Unit, one of the open space buildings, built to accommodate six classes with minimal shoulder height dividers between teaching spaces. There were four smaller withdrawal spaces that could be used for working in smaller groups and in the centre of it all was a “well” a recessed section where a class could sit on the ground in a rectangle pattern with their feet in the depression – conceived as a common meeting space.

backofblue

This view looks back into the centre of the unit. There is a semi-permanent corner divider in the centre of the pic, and off to the right in the background you would find the “well” and then beyond another teaching space. You can tell I liked dangling displays back then!

The coveted class areas were in the four corners of the building where teachers could lay claim to two solid brick walls, while in the centre were two class sections where the front wall where the whiteboards were mounted being the only solid part of that classroom space. It was to this space that I was directed. I met the vacating teacher who gleefully told me she was getting out of Blue, and heading over to Orange building where she would have her own room and not “have to share” any more. I guess she had decided that “open space” classrooms were not for her.

frontofblue

This is looking frontwards to the only permanent wall in my 1995 classroom. Note the trays and portable dividers that separate my classroom from my neighbour’s on the left side of the image.

I was lucky that I lobbed next door to a teacher who would become my closest friend in education, and we used the openness to dabble in team teaching, and to explore progressive teaching methodologies over the next eight years (although not without shifting around the Blue Building, and then eventually into the vacated library). So, I think that we were able to make the open space environment work but it does take a certain mindset and there are a lot of differences when compared to a traditional classroom where the door can be shut and the rest of the world kept out.

Noise and visual distraction were a factor in open space classrooms for sure. I recall agreements around times of the day when things were asked to be a bit quieter and everyone was always mindful of the effect their learning activity was having on their neighbours. In that way, because in a few steps you could see what every class in the unit was up to, that mindfulness tended to work favourably. Until …. you got a colleague who didn’t want to embrace that ideal.

I remember one teacher, in our building for the year, who didn’t concern himself with anyone but his own classroom. He loved doing construction stuff with his students and we used to joke that it sounded like the scene from the beginning of the Flintstones where the whistle blows in the construction yard and Fred just abandons his work and heads for the door. He also used to have a tradition of the “tray tip”. If he found a student’s tray of belongings to be in a less than stellar way, he would hold the tray aloft over the child’s desk and ask the class loudly (and of course, the whole unit heard the whole thing) if he should tip out the contents forcing a clean up by the culprit. This was then followed by a whole class chant of “Tip, Tip, Tip!!” until it reached a crescendo and the tray was upended in front of the helpless offender. The practice was extremely popular with the Year Three kids in his classroom until one day he grabbed a tray of a student who had unfortunately left an unfinished flavoured milk carton in amongst the crumpled up worksheets and pencil shavings. The carton had been in there for several weeks, brewing beneath its folded in spout. So when the “Tip, Tip!” chant started, the student was powerless to warn the unsuspecting teacher about the contents in the tray. The tray was tipped, the carton exploded all over the desk, the odour was over powering, and to top it off, the student then threw up all over the contents. The stench was such that all five classes were vacated for the clean up (and the shared air conditioning system made sure that his error in judgement haunted us all for quite a while).

But when all teachers were on the same page, the environment worked quite well. Swapping groups for lessons was easy because one can see if the other class is ready. A teacher could work with a group in a withdrawal room knowing that other teachers in the building could “keep an eye” on the remaining students working independently. It forced inventiveness when it came to displaying student work. I hung netting from the ceiling and used paper clips to hold art work in place. Collegial consultation was the norm, rather than the exception.

pirateship

Another hanging display in front of the netting – the pirate ship goes with the dangling seaweed and jellyfish art pieces. If you look carefully, you can see a penguin infested paper iceberg on the right.

I know that when I moved to my next school and had to return to a closed in classroom with only a door connecting me to my next door colleague, I felt boxed in and less inspired. It was harder to see what my colleagues were up to but then again, it probably spawned the next productive phase of my teaching journey where my colleagues and I moved to an online environment (using a wiki and Skype) in order to grab back the natural collaboration that I feel is possible in an open space environment.

Really, teachers have to make do with the spaces they are given. There are plenty more sixties style prefab box classrooms out there as there are eighties style open spaces. My teachers at Woodville Gardens probably have the best of both worlds in their more modern concept classrooms that open onto a shared common area, but that is not to say that they one day might end up in a heritage listed building (like my wife taught in at Lockleys Primary) where thick brick walls and concepts of learning from a century ago influenced the architecture. Teachers and learners don’t really need seclusion – the concept of breaking down the classroom walls is clearly not a new one!

Meet The Foanes

Playing around with a comic strip idea – here’s the first go. Hand drawn, scanned and then Photoshopped into existence.foanes01

Learning From The Learners (Digital Leaders Working Out Sphero Robotics)

I described my Digital Leadership initiative in my last post and how students have signed on to participate. I managed to secure some time in our Resource Centre to supplement the lunchtime sessions so that students could work towards their badges. We have started with the twin options of MinecraftEDU and Sphero Robotics, but potentially down the track, the program could expand to Digital Leadership in iPads, BeeBots or other technology connected possibilities. We’ve had a Minecraft server for a few years now and I’ve blogged about some of the ways it has been used at our school after the research our school has done in the past.

But the Spheros are brand new to me and the students. So in the last three weeks since I took delivery of the 15 little robotic balls, I have held two afternoons and four lunchtime sessions with the sole intent of letting the Leaders loose to work things out for themselves. It has been fascinating to watch. We have a few accessories to use with the Spheros – rubberised covers, small plastic chariots that have a Lego like connection section and Terrain packs with ramps, poles and connectors to create a stunt park or obstacle course. I nabbed a building’s travel case of ten iPads and downloaded eight of the most useful Sphero apps, and supplemented them with my own staff iPad and a couple of spare Nexus 7 tablets not currently being used for anything else.

The first challenge was getting the Spheros to connect and communicate with a device. The connection is made via Bluetooth and every Sphero flashes its own tri-colour sequence when woken. My eBay special at home here has a sequence of Green, Blue, Red so it appears in the BlueTooth settings as Sphero-GBR. But you can imagine the mayhem when a whole bunch of stuents double tap their Spheros to wake them, forget to see what sequence is flashing and are confronted by a list of four to seven visible devices that are offering connection!greensphero bluesphero

We started to see that often the Sphero the Leader wanted to use would not respond, or would suddenly start showing its blue aiming light but be under the control of someone else in the room who did not really know what their app was doing but they could tell they were connected to something! Once the connection issues were sorted, students had no problems getting the Spheros moving around the area using the Drive app – a simple set of controls allowing direction and speed as well as the ability to change LED colours and a limited number of “tricks” (zigzag, figure 8, square, circle, lightning). They tried out the nubby covers, zoomed around in the chariots, even allowing me to insert my iPhone into one of them and filming a Sphero Chariot POV of the Resource Centre surrounds.

Eventually, a couple of the students asked to use the Terrain Pack gear and starting setting up jumps and obstacle challenges to drive the Spheros over and through. One of the badges I had designated was a Rally Driver’s badge and we had some discussion about what this would entail. I talked about being able to successfully negotiate a prescribed route but that they could set up their own challenge. A number decided that getting over the long ramp as pictured left would be testament to their skill but it turned out not to be as easy as they first imagined! The Sphero’s smooth surface spun and skidded on the way up so some Leaders switched to a cover to get some much needed traction. Eventually there was a lot of excitement as Spheros veered off track at the last second, as successful attempts went unwitnessed and unverified. A lot of play and a lot of learning was going on in all sessions, and the cooperative learning I envisaged was starting to unfold.

A couple of more adventurous students decided to try out some of the other apps. One leader tried out the Sphero app which turns the use of the ball into a gaming experience with levels, points and rewards. This is quite a good way to get students thinking creatively about the Sphero and not just see it as a toy to drive around. The tricks that can be unlocked in the Core Exchange show that colour and movement sequences can be humorous and artistic, and can lead to the use of the MacroLab app where the programming aspect of Spheros can be utilised. Only a a small number of students have felt confident enough to have a go in this app but the pride in creating and programming a simple Macro could be clearly seen in the face of the two Leaders who just had to show me what they had coded.

These leaders clearly need more time to grow their expertise and I am learning a lot just simply through observation and trying to solve their problems as they arise. Some students are even keen to help me pack everything up at the end of a session, ensuring that all Spheros are powered down and “asleep”, everything in its correct box and easy to access for the next time. I want this group of about twenty students to be able to assist me when I start using these robotic balls with middle primary classes. One test lesson with a class in my building taught me that one teacher on his or her own will struggle to get first timers up and going without headaches galore. Having some expert Leaders on hand to help with connection, modelling appropriate care and encouragement will be of benefit to all parties. The teacher will appreciate the support, the students in the class will get a better lesson and the leaders will have helped others in their learning and put their particular skills to great use.

My 2015 Version Of Student Digital Leadership

One of the things that emerged from our 2012 WGS action research project around gaming for learning was the idea of acknowledging digital skills and expertise of students in a Digital Leaders program. As the student researchers played in the Minecraft environment or used the XBox, it became apparent that some students fell naturally into the role of instructors, organisers and coaches. In 2013, I formally organised the first group of Digital Leaders for our school, earmarking Friday afternoons as a time where they could work in-world in our MinecraftEDU server. These students were volunteers from the upper primary classes, and had a mix of responsibilities ranging from troubleshooting for younger students invited to participate, mentoring some handpicked disengaged students to running lunchtime sessions for middle primary kids. It was quite informal – but I began to see Digital Leadership as offering an opportunity for students to demonstrate leadership in a different form. Some of the students who became embedded in the program were shy, or struggled academically or socially. But in this role, they grew in confidence because they had expertise that other students saw as valuable and desirable. These students were acknowledged at the end of 2013 with certificates but I think they appreciated the gift of time where they could showcase their talents and interact with peers who had the same digital bent.

In 2014, some of the same kids continued with the program but through a combination of factors, we now longer had access to a time in the weekly timetable to set aside for this group. I ended up running Minecraft sessions four lunchtimes a week across the school using our new suite of Digital Leader laptops, but the Leaders dwindled to a small but loyal group of volunteers. Some of the lunchtime groups attracted students who were struggling in the social whirlwind of the lunchtime playground and saw time absorbed in Minecraft as a safe haven. But looking back, I can see that I didn’t invest enough time in the actual Leaders and really leaned on their goodwill for the entire year. They were great kids but as they were moving onto high school this year, I knew things had to change. But I couldn’t work out what the way forward should look like.

As this year started, I would run into kids in the yard asking me, “When are you starting Minecraft back up again, Mr Wegner?”

I had lunchtimes free to actually eat my lunch but I was feeling guilty about not providing an option that kids were super keen on. My big pile of priorities to get off the ground kept stalling the inevitable moment when I would have to get started. But I knew that the Digital Leaders program needed some structure, needed fresh student participants and I wasn’t ready to do anything until I knew what was required. The weeks ticked by. I thought kids would grow tired asking about lunchtime Minecraft but the almost daily queries continued.

Then on a Partnership Leadership day with Anthony Muhammad, the structure of the 2015 program came to me. We were having a morning tea break. I had taken delivery of my new Spheros earlier in the week. I had just been nibbling on a pastry when the concept came to me – a badge system that acknowledged skills and allowed progression and responsibility. I scribbled the basic structure on notepaper during what remained of the break, and put some more finishing touches during the lunch break. The next day, I fleshed it out using Cmaps and ran the idea past a few colleagues. I used ClassBadges.com to create and find the badges I needed and to provide the tracking system I would need. I typed up the whole thing into a clear structure that could be used with staff and students. You can download a copy here.

2015dlIt is loosely based on a gamification hierarchy. Demonstrate a skill in either MinecraftEDU or Sphero Robotics and earn a badge. Earn all of the badges in that level and then level up. What I wanted was a system where as many kids who were interested could join in and progress at their own pace. Getting students from Apprentice to Assistant will give me the expertise needed to start to run lunchtime sessions again. Diversifying from a Minecraft only diet will also attract a different type of student, but again with choice as a driving factor students can choose one path or the other – or both! Moving up from the Apprentice level also grants students their official lanyard with ID plastic tag where a printout display of earned badges with the student’s name shows others what the Leader is qualified to help with or what role he or she can perform. I ordered cool purple lanyards (the school’s overlooked colour) with WGS Digital Leadership embossed on them, and presented the whole concept to the Year 3 – 7 classes at an assembly on the following Tuesday after my initial brainwave.

Three weeks later, I have 51 students enrolled in the program. As expected, students are at all different stages but I presented the first official lanyards to six very proud students at last week’s 3-7 Assembly. I’ll be giving out some more this coming week at the end of term Whole School Assembly. I have run lunchtime sessions for potential leaders only alternating between using our MinecraftEDU server and learning how the new Sphero robotic balls work. I have found enough ninety minute sessions to get back that valuable time that leaders need as an additional incentive to provide support down the track. Students use the Leadership blueprint to plan their approach to earning badges, and are diligent about providing evidence so that the next badge can be awarded and tracked.

My vision is that there will be a core group of students who can be rostered on for lunchtime activity sessions, and be on call to help teachers who want to use either Minecraft or the Spheros in their classroom. I hope by opening it up to so many students that I am providing opportunity for younger students to gain experience in sharing their expertise with others. I am also hoping that a small group of students have the chance to become a Diplomat or Advisor, where visitors to our school can hear first hand from talented students about the unique opportunities we offer in this ares for our students. So far, it is off to a promising start.

Meet The Robot That Got Me Excited About Robotics

For someone who likes technology, particularly for learning, I have never been that interested in the field of robotics. For all of this recent focus on coding and programming in education, I haven’t really got swept up in becoming personally skilled or knowledgeable in the area. I recognise its importance but have to admit to putting things like Lego MindStorms in the “too hard” basket. My interest has always been in the internet and like many self taught learners, it’s easy to play to my own strengths and steer away from might be a steep learning curve out of my comfort zone.

The recent release of the Australian Curriculum for Technologies (pending final endorsement) has renewed the focus on specific ICT and digital technology skills. The Technologies curriculum is now split into two specific subjects – Digital Technologies and Design & Technology. The latter of these contains much of the SACSA Design & Technology curriculum and its focus on Design/ Make/ Appraise so in general, most of my primary school colleagues feel comfortable with the expectations of that subject. The Digital Technologies curriculum is a more specific focus on skills and knowledge that our previous state curriculum spent time integrating throughout the curriculum. So it feels a little bit like subject matter that is making a comeback even though we know that digital technologies work at a more sophisticated and lower cost point in our daily lives than even ten years ago.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ocg_bilder/8571558534/

We held one of our student free days as an Australian Curriculum focus, and had two DECD consultants spend half of the day focussing on the Digital Technologies curriculum. 2015 is a familiarisation year and we looked at several of the key concepts like computational thinking and programming. We looked at and used BeeBots and one of our talented upper primary teachers showed how her work with Lego MindStorm robotics was giving students opportunity to program. This teacher has been totally self taught after recognising the need within the upper primary students and led the way in overhauling our resources for Lego Robotics. She has spread her expertise across the whole five class unit, and even fostered interest through a lunchtime club. So, again, I know her work in this area is good but I have never dabbled using these tools myself. The BeeBots are great – simple in terms of setting out a sequence of commands and very accessible for early years students. After the day, I had a lot of teachers requesting that our meager supply of these robots be replenished. I’ve ordered them and they are on their way.

So, Beebots filled that need for the programming part of our new curriculum nicely for our Early Years students, and MindStorms is targetted at the Upper Primary area so I asked the consultants what would be best for the Middle Primary Students (Year 2, 3, 4) and their suggestion was the Probot. I then remembered that there were four of these sitting in a tub in my office! These were from one of the closing schools (my school was formed in 2011 from 3 smaller sites) and hadn’t been touched in four years. To my mind, they weren’t that much more sophisticated than the BeeBots, and when I went to purchase some, the price for each was over $160. That was $100 more than a BeeBot – withe major differences being that it was larger (not really a plus) and had an input screen so that instead of pushing > four times, I could key in 4> for the same result. Not exactly a quantum leap forward in extending programming skills, and potentially could have students complaining that Probots were boring and they were doing the same stuff as they would have with the BeeBot.

So sitting at my desk, I was hesitant to buy the fleet of Probots for the school because of these concerns. So, I turned to my trusty ally, the internet, as I was sure that there must be a better alternative to the Probot. Something to bridge the gap between BeeBot and Lego Robotics – but unique and engaging in its own way. I remembered that I had something that might be useful in my neglected delicious account – and found Romo. This is a neat idea where you plug an iPhone into a robotic base and interact with it. This was promising but not quite what I was after. The school isn’t flush with iPad Touches and iPhones so I went looking anew.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/karasutech/14150146105/

Then I found what I was after – Sphero. Basically a ball shaped robot, controlled via apps on a tablet or device. The site was informative and I liked the fact that it linked into its own Education section. One of the Apps where I could imagine potential was MacroLab where users can create macros; basically long lines of commands in order to get Sphero to perform a particular action or routine. I could see the programming aspect coming into focus – but unlike MindStorms where the robots being built are very sophisticated, the ball robot was conceptually very simple. I watched some videos, and went to see Marg, my line manager, who has a deep background in digital learning to see whether her impressions matched mine.

My original thought was to buy one and play with it myself to work out the potential. Marg was more confident. “Buy a class set if you think that they are what you want,” was her reassuring reply.

So I did.

I ordered them from the Sphero US store, and they arrived in under a week. (I am still waiting on the BeeBots, ordered from an Australian company!) I paid the GST import duty and bought power adaptors as they shipped with the US version. I bought covers for the Spheros and several Terrain packs which have click and hold pieces to create obstacles and barriers to manouevre the Sphero through. I also purchased an original Sphero on eBay (I ordered Sphero 2’s for the school) for $46 as an investment in my own professional learning.

So, they are pretty cool and I think that they will serve the purpose I envisage. I had a search through my blogging connections to see if I could find anyone I knew using them for learning – my only link was to Wes Fryer’s STEM resources as part of his after school Maker’s club. He had four of the beasts and was feeling well resourced – but I had ordered fifteen!

How does Sphero work? Basically, the ball needs to be charged prior to use on its own induction stand. Three hours charging gives the user an hour’s worth of constant use. I’ve downloaded about nine apps to try but the first one I have had students start on is Drive, a simple app that gets them to use the tablet as a remote control for the Sphero. They can control direction, speed and colour within that app. The standard Sphero app is wrapped up in a gaming interface where points accumulate for Missions and can be exchanged at the Core Exchange for pre-programmed Macros or tricks. This app is the one that gets users thinking beyond just getting it to move around and crash into things. An example is the Frog macro where Sphero turns green and jerks forward with a timed croak from the app. There are many others but these “tricks” then can lead to using MacroLab, where users can then create their own – the actual programming!

I’m only in the beginning stages of this all. I have been using my Digital Leaders at school to become the student experts using Spheros, and I have had to think through many logistical issues when using then ranging from charging to security, from sourcing enough iPads to dealing with multiple Spheros trying to connect to their iPad via Bluetooth all at the same time. These devices could suck up a lot of my time if I allow it, but I also still have to introduce them to staff, provide support in their use in classrooms and in planning for the coverage of the Digital Technologies curriculum. But this is still the first robot that I have got seriously excited about. We’ll see how it progresses.

Data As Tool, Not As Weapon: Part Two

Our department has announced a commitment to getting schools to use PAT Maths and Reading tools, which our school has already been using for 2 years now. I’ve had training and as part of my role, I have spent time becoming familiar with the tests, the scoring system and the interpretation of results. Data analysis isn’t something that I am naturally talented at and I have to run over things again and again until I am sure that I “get” it. Unfortunately for me, there is no substitute for this repetition as I learn mainly by having a go at things – official training only really points me in the right direction. I simply must play with numbers and results, and look to see patterns that mean something. With all of this in mind, I ran a PD session in the week before school started for interested staff to try and share some of that hard fought for wisdom.

At my school, we use the online PAT system to test the students once a year in Maths from Year 1 to 7, and in Reading Comprehension from Year 3 to 7. Because it is online, students’ results are available immediately without the manual scoring workload that was associated with the old paper version. There is a bit of administration work required before hand as I had to enter in all of the students, assign user names and passwords, add tags to sort students by Year Level, class and other key factors (EALD, NEP, ATSI) as required by our school. However, once the tests have been taken, I then take on the role of intermediary to help teachers make sense of and then use of the data gathered. Like most schools, this is only one part of the whole student achievement data picture. We collect lots of other data to inform us about how students, classes and cohorts are travelling in their learning. But each piece requires clarity and understanding in order to ensure that an accurate interpretation takes place.

PAT uses a combination of stanines, percentiles and their own PAT scoring system. Many teachers are puzzled by the concept of stanines but they are not that hard to grasp. Stanine is an abbreviation of “standard nine” where students score fall into a Stanine from 1 to 9, with 1 being the lowest and 9 the highest. Generally, students don’t progress from one stanine to another – they are moving goal posts that sit aside a calculated mean score for each year level. This calculated mean (generated by thousands of PAT scores) tracks the mythical “average” student and outlines what “typical” growth over the years should look like. Don’t get me wrong, students can and do move from one stanine to another, but this movement is more likely to show an unusual gain or decline that will require further analysis. Generally, if a student has a stanine between 4 and 6, then they fall within the average range with the bell curve being in statistical effect meaning that over half of students should fall into this range. Stanine 1 -3 indicates where students who have learning difficulties or learning gaps are, and helps to flag possible learning intervention, while 7-9 is the realm of the highly capable to gifted students. Statistically, these two groups contain the same number of students – 23 % at either end. Percentiles also can be used to peg out these levels but stanines seems to be more manageable as a concept.

pat-mThe PAT score is different, and is the way progress is measured. The Maths scale doesn’t line up with the Reading scale but they both operate in the same manner. This can be seen on the Scale PDFs (shown right) that come with a school subscription. You can see how the PAT score runs up the left hand side of the chart while the stanines shift their way across the year levels. So every score can be read across the diagram, and you can determine if this means the students falls into the average range, or has low or high achievement. When you have multiple scores for an individual, you can use the chart to map out their progress and some determination can be made about whether they are tracking as expected, making better than anticipated gains or whether progress has slowed.

However, for some teachers, this chart feels like information overload and they just are not confident enough with the scales and how they connect to the stanines to really be sure of what they are looking at. Here’s where I have made an attempt to simplify and clarify. One thing I did to aid their understanding was to annotate the median point in Stanine 5 across the year levels to show them as moving goalposts, while pointing out that progress is measured by the PAT scale.Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 8.11.00 PM

This was helpful for most but a conversation between our special education team and a frustrated teacher lead to a simpler version that I will share next. This teacher had her class data in our school WGLADS spreadsheet but pointed out that the number for either PAT result didn’t really mean anything to her. I remembered that we have introduced a colour coding system into that spreadsheet where NAPLAN bands, PAT stanines and report grades were given a simple colour system. Blue meant high achievement (as in blue ribbon!!), amber meant an alert for underachievement or learning difficulties while results left uncoloured fell within the average or acceptable range. When doing a simple filter on a class, the students can be seen to fall into these three rough categories as a starting point for addressing the learning needs of the class. So, I thought adding the colours in on the stanine segments would help a teacher at a glance determine where a result sat in the range of potential achievement. The teacher also found it hard to relate to the percentile figures (which a data lover like myself has no issue with) so I stripped them out as well. I added in red lines across the page to make it easier to read a score across the year levels. A print out of this or using digital markup tools would make it an easy exercise to map out a student achievement history, and make some determination about whether appropriate progress was being made.pat m stripped

Getting teachers to engage with this data is a pretty big step, and the easier and more palatable I can make it, the more they will seek to use it in a meaningful way. I don’t want staff thinking that PAT data is super mysterious or that you need be some sort of assessment geek to make sense of it all. Use the tools provided and the teacher can see where the class sits at that point in time. If they them wish to drill down more deeply into the individual student’s results, they can do so in the Report generation mode within the ACER PAT website. The tools in here enable the teacher a more detailed view of how a student is handling different aspects of the subject being tested. The website also gives you access to some handy videos that explain the various aspects of the PAT system in an easy to understand way, and importantly, they take the time to remind educators that this is only a snapshot in time, and that student achievement needs to be evaluated through an array of assessment and evidence. A test like this should confirm and provide evidence for what a teacher already knows – but it is not surprising that it can sometimes reveal things that can be masked in the classroom. As an example we had a Year 2 student who we believed was quite capable but was not always focussed in his maths lessons. The teacher was unsure whether he really understood the learning or was just coasting. After he aced the Year 2 Maths test, blitzing it without any requests for help, and scoring in the 99th percentile (only 1 % of all Year 2 students would be higher than him), it was clear that he needed more challenge. This was confirmation that was very useful for the school to know and bear in mind moving forward.

I hope this post helps a few people who may be still coming to terms with PAT. I am no expert so feel free to correct any errors or misinterpretations you may find. I’d like to thank ACER for giving me permission to post their copyrighted material, and my alterations of that material. There is much more I could cover but nothing beats hands on use of real student data and results, so don’t be scared about digging deep and seeing if my observations help to shed some light on this particular assessment system.

Data As Tool, Not As Weapon: Part One

When my job was advertised last year, it included an aspect that wasn’t there when I first won the position back in 2011, that of Student Data Management. It evolved to be a part of my role over a couple of years, in line with the development of our own Student Achievement Data System. We started this back in 2012 under the guidance of our then Primary Years Head of School who figured that as our system was a glorified spreadsheet, it was better that the person in charge of ICT (me) should be responsible for it. It’s grown from there and we track a lot of data now, and have student data spreading over a 3 year period that can be analysed and used to drive classroom decisions about learning programs. For us, data is a tool.

I didn’t always see data in this way. I tended to see it as a weapon used by governments and departments to drive compliance – and there is much truth in that viewpoint. But being responsible at my school has given me an insight into understanding the various measurement systems that have been set up to map student achievement and how to look for patterns and trends. It has helped me to sort out some of the hyperbole that the media likes to use when bending data to tell the stories of woe and under achievement within our schools, and to see how presenting data in certain ways can spin the story that it tells.

Here’s one trick that I noticed with NAPLAN results either sent out to schools or shown in the media. Check this fictional graph with some fictional NAPLAN scores:fake graph 1

Notice how the difference in scores really show out here. School A and even School B should be really alarmed at this extremely worrying results! But the graph only focuses on the very tip of the measurement scale. Rescale the graph to show from 0 – 550, and this is what can be seen:

fake graph 2
All of a sudden those differences at the top don’t look so drastic. So, how the data is presented to the viewer can really sway their interpretation of that data. And if you had a hundred schools lined up like this in a graph, you might struggle to tell the low achievers from the high – it is why a league table can also skew perspective, and make a school look like it is failing when in reality, it might only be a few points away from matching those ranked up in the upper echelon.

So, when I pull together graphs for the staff to view, I choose to show a whole picture and let them view the differences for themselves. After all, if we want teachers to use data to inform their teaching, they need opportunity to look for the patterns for themselves. We can set benchmarks as well, but the goal is improvement for all of our students regardless where they sit on the varied achievement scales of the assessment tools commonly used.

I’ll leave this post for now but I do want to come back and explore a few of the tools we use for our Data System.