Enjoy - 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.