Talking Tech and Gaining Perspective

Developing a mindful approach on tech integration in the classroom is currently something that is of keen interest to me. However, from the perspective of a student teacher, there is still a lot of foundational knowledge for me to develop on. As a result, I decided to make this blog post more of an effort in seeking out some advice from those around me who carry a wealth of knowledge from their vast experiences.

A role model to many, including myself, I decided to approach Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr, former professor and dean at the Faculty of Engineering at uOttawa, to gain her perspective on tech integration based on her experiences and observations/interactions with her students. I also took this opportunity to gain some initial learning about coding/programming.

The following are some of questions/answers shared in what turned out to be an “email interview,” due to time-zone differences. At the end, I also provide some of my own reflections on the valuable insights I gained from this perspective.

Q1: Integrating technology into the learning process —is it essential in today’s teaching practices? Would it be a disservice to students if it wasn’t incorporated?

A: My whole argument on the issue of technology is that technology was developed as a tool to provide solutions to problems we have and to improve our quality of life; we should always differentiate goals from tools.

Technology is a tool and should never end up being the goal.

You cannot enjoy the advancements of technology and keep aiming for more advanced technology. You should always stop and ask; why was I doing this?  what do I need it for? and not just focus on, how do I do it?

This is my general rule, so when it comes to education, you as teachers need to decide on the skill sets you need to impart onto your students and then see how technology can help you to get them to acquire those skills.

A secondary goal is that students will have to deal with technology all the time, so you need to get them to be comfortable with it and not scared of it by getting them used to it being part of their life. Sort of like what you do with diversity; they have to live with it in society, so you teach them about it and how it can add richness to their lives.

So yes, bring it in the classroom so they’re comfortable with the “tool” and prepared to use it later on as they need to. And when you incorporate it in your learning plan, use it to support your educational tools and do not make learning it the goal.

It would be a disservice if it is not included, but it is also a disservice if it is included at the expense of the basic skills of critical thinking, learning to learn, problem solving etc.

Q2: What is coding/programming and what kind of computational thinking is involved in this process?

A: Programming is simply a list of basic specific instructions that solve a problem. Think of a robot you have who cannot think. You need the robot to go to aisle 6 in the store, pick-up the red package on shelf #5 and bring it back.  You taught the robot (like you teach a dog) a certain set of orders. So you use the basic set of orders the robot knows and then give them out in a sequence.

Take 10 steps right
Turn 90 degrees
Three steps left
(whatever algorithm that gets it to aisle 6)
Move up 5 shelves
Check package colour
If colour is not red, go to next package
If colour is red, pick it up
Take 2 steps back

In other words, you need to know exactly what needs to be done and then write the program or code which is basically the steps you as a person needs to do, articulated in the language the computer understands.

Different computers have different “hardware capacities” that can for example get him to check the colour of the package very fast. Also the “vocabulary” the computer understands can be rudimentary (one step right, turn 890 degrees, then two steps left) or (keep moving until you find a left turn) or …

You cannot program a solution if you cannot solve it yourself. The computer is just implementing your steps, faster, more accurately, but they are still your steps. You need to learn problem solving to be able to actually solve the problem and structure the solution in the most elegant way that is matched to the computer’s capacity to understand (or its set of instructions).

 Q3: I heard you make mention before that it’s not about the technology itself, because by the time students graduate, the technology will have changed. From that perspective, what kind of transferable knowledge/skills should I be focusing on when integrating coding in the classroom?

A: I believe if technology is learnt as a tool, certainly, there is so much transferrable. In reality, most are fascinated by it and they focus more on the technology and not on the thinking behind using it.

You are 100% right, I learned vacuum tubes and a few years down, there were no vacuum tubes. Technology is now changing faster than education. You need to teach students to be comfortable with technology and to learn how to learn using it and what to do with what they learn, all while ensuring you maintain the concept of this is just a tool.

The best are the ones that learn how to program a lego kit for example and then tomorrow, they sit and learn a different language on their own because they understood that all languages are simply a set of instructions. You need to know what instructions are available, then look at what you want to do, and how do you break it up into a sequence of instructions from within this set.

Q4: What would a poor integration of coding into the classroom look like to you?

Poor integration is something where students are learning to program a game but did not focus on the problem solving process that they needed to write the code. Rather, on writing the code itself and playing the game.

Q5: What qualities distinguished your most innovative students? 

The best are the ones that have enough confidence to try something new on their own and when they fail, it motivates them more to try again. It bothers them to not know how something works.

Reflection:

There are two key takeaways that stood out to me in the reflection process; technology as a thinking tool and technology for inclusion.

Technology as a Thinking Tool:

One of my math professors likes to use the term “thinking-tools” when referring to math manipulatives because they help provide learners with ‘aha-moments’ when working out a problem or trying to understand a concept. They allow students to interact with the learning and further stimulate the thinking processes involved. By the same token, Dr. Tyseer refers to technology in the same sense, continually reiterating that it is indeed just a tool; a thinking tool that we should be introducing to students or incorporating into our learning for the purpose of eliciting and stimulating that thought-process.

Technology is not the goal and nor is it just about the engagement level that it helps to create in the classroom; when integrated meaningfully, it can also help me add a new dimension to the thought-processes involved in trying to reach my learning goal(s) with students.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be anything fancy, and still requires strategic planning and support from the teacher to be able to capitalize on it well. Take for example using Pear Deck in a math class to try and engage students in a discussion. As a teacher, I know that some of my students are always hesitant at first to share their thoughts, so I make use of Pear Deck to anonymize their responses and create that safe environment for them. Students are then able to see everyone’s response on the screen without knowing who said what. The focus in the classroom now is strictly on the responses and ideas shared by my students. Added to that, of course, is my back-pocket cheat-sheet full of teacher prompts/questions to help me navigate the discussion, along with other strategies I planned out for this portion of the lesson.

In this sense, the integration of Pear Deck allowed students the space and time to be able to tap into their own thoughts and equally engage with the lesson. The strategies I planned out helped me to capitalize on the support that this technology provided.

This is a very basic example, but the main idea for me here is asking myself: how is this technology I’m bringing into the classroom supporting or “manipulating” my students’ thought-processes somehow?

Whether I’m integrating simple technology to help engage students in a discussion or using it as a more complex tool to learn about coding, the big idea is the same — the focus is on the thinking involved as students are making use out of this tool.

Technology viewed as a ‘thinking tool’ also reminded me about a recent post I came across by Nick Shackleton-Jones where he talks about tech integration in terms of “content-dumping” vs. “performance-support” in three short videos here. While the videos are aimed more for e-learning in organizations, they are still relevant to the classroom. The big idea mentioned here is to basically package technology in terms of a resource that can improve performance rather than a tool used to re-create a micro course or content online.

The following example and image are taken from the original post here:

micro

Resource vs content

Technology for Inclusion:

Technology for inclusion is often thought of in terms of an ‘assistive device’ to support learners with special needs. However, upon mentioning the idea of bringing technology in the classroom so that students can be comfortable with it and ready to use it later on in life as they need to, brought-up the question of: how inclusive are classrooms if technology is not incorporated? If the term ‘inclusive’ means meeting the needs of all my students equally and technology is currently a tool they’re using outside of the classroom to try and support their learning, then by excluding it from my classroom, am I really meeting their current and future needs?

Educators who are still hesitant to incorporate technology in the classroom are often not comfortable with using it themselves. But by not incorporating it, even though it is indeed a big part of our lives now, then we’re passing on that ‘fear of technology.’

As mentioned by Dr. Tyseer, we educate students about diversity in the classroom and how it can add richness to their lives because it’s a characteristic that defines our society and something that we have to live with. By the same token, technology is now also a defining characteristic of how we interact/learn in society and thus would be a benefit to students when educated on how to make proper use of it.

How do you cut your Pizza?🍕

*This lesson is based on an activity I tried out in my Intermediate Mathematics course at uOttawa.

Slightly adapting it and integrating some technology in the process, I introduced it to my MFM2P students during practicum via Pear Deck, an interactive presentation tool, here. It was my choice of tech for this lesson because it had all the features I needed to set-up the activity with the students and collaboratively showcase our understanding of the actual task before working on it smaller groups. With features such as adding images, text/number responses, drawing/sketching, and the anonymous grid display of answers, I was able to breakdown the activity and gather that diagnostic assessment all through whole-group discussions based on student responses.

First, I displayed this image:mfm2p_pizza_problemThen asked:pizza-problem

We focused our discussion on,”Not equal slices” and “The way it’s cut.”  Both pizzas used only 3-straight cuts, but the one on the left gave us 6 pieces, and the one on the right gave us 7. Why would you cut it differently? My idea here was to provide some meaning as to why we’re about to cut our pizza in such a way …perhaps it depends on whether we’re interested in producing equal size pieces vs. maximum number of pieces.

Next, we introduced 4-straight cuts. Using Pear Deck’s student response and answer display features, we estimated the maximum number of pieces possible, showcased all responses, and consolidated by having a student volunteer to come-up to the board to present his answer —11 pieces.
pizza-cuts-estimatespizza-cuts
In my opinion, I found Pear Deck to be extremely complementary to the introduction of this activity before breaking it down to working in groups via hands-on:

  1. It allowed for students’ initial engagement with the task to be on an individual level, yet in a collaborative environment where they can see each other’s anonymous responses and formulate whole-class discussions around their understanding.
  2. In a sense, it also allowed for differentiation because it created a safe learning space for students to engage with the task—even if unsure of their response—followed by the opportunity to self-assess/reflect by gathering feedback from peer responses and class discussions.
  3. Provided for better time-management through the collective presentation of student responses as opposed to directly introducing it through hands-on experimentation and travelling from group to group to gather diagnostic assessment.

The hands-on portion for this activity was introduced through the main challenge, which was now to find the maximum number of pieces possible using 20-straight cuts. Again, we estimated some numbers together, then they worked on it in random groups of two using the materials provided. Some students took to it and wanted to sketch it out on their boards, even though it wasn’t an easy sketch to draw —kind of left me wondering if this request was a reflection on their preference and level of comfort in working on Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS).

pizza-estimtes

With each answer they came up with for maximum number of pieces, there was still room to find more. Only one group started collecting their data using a table of values, and so we directed our discussion towards this idea and discussed a possible next step —noticing a pattern in the data collected. Once we identified the constant second difference and the quadratic relation, Desmos Graphing Calculator  was the math tool of choice to finally help us solve this question —211 pieces!

solving2_pizzascreen-shot-2017-01-29-at-3-24-16-pm

Overall, the students seemed really interested and engaged in the task, however, I think I could have definitely consolidated it better. I dedicated a bit more time than needed before stepping in to provide some support during productive struggle and thus had less time than originally planned to spend on interpreting the actual graph we produced. My plan was to use Pear Deck’s drawing features to collectively gather and discuss student responses by labelling some points on the graph together.
pizza_responses
Looking back on it now, however, I think a better choice would have been to design the graphing and answering portion of this lesson using Desmos Activity Builder and possibly introducing it as a consolidation activity for the following day. Not rushing consolidation is just as important as providing the necessary time for productive struggle.

My preference in using Pear Deck was mainly for what it’s actually designed for —an interactive presentation for my activity; however, when it comes to solving and graphing, Desmos is the right tool for that task. I need to see precise responses for better assessment and feedback, while allowing students the ease in answering —given the different features offered by Desmos as the interface design is math directed.

Desmos: Your Smart Graphing Calculator

“Do I have to buy a graphing calculator?”

This was the first question asked by a student in a grade 10 math class during my final practicum. A very honest question. I know when I start reading any course syllabus, the first question on my mind is, do I have to buy a textbook?

And so came the introduction of Desmos —a free online graphing calculator.  But far from the fact that it’s free and doesn’t need any fancy equipment to use in class (students can access it from any personal device), Desmos has a lot more to offer. Think of the smartphone you’re using now, and then think of what you were using before that. That’s Desmos. It’s a smart graphing calculator, and graphing is just one of its features.

What I found to be most helpful before using it; however, was observing an experienced teacher put it into action. This is definitely something I would recommend when it comes to integrating new technology in the classroom. Reading about it or watching tutorials online on how to use it is extremely helpful, but watching someone put it into action or even having the opportunity to engage with it offers you a full view of that desired outcome.

The big picture; what does Desmos offer you:

  1. Online graphing calculator —no account needed; if you have internet access, simply go to desmos.com and start graphing from any personal device. If you want to save your work; however, you need to be signed in under your account (free). You can also download it as an App on your device.
  2. Pre-made Classroom Activities that you can use as-is or adapt/edit to fit your own classroom needs —simply sign up for a free account to access them.
  3. Custom activities via Desmos Activity Builder —design and create your own digital math activity online to integrate into your lesson.

Classroom activities or custom activities are simply a series of interactive slides that students can work their way through either at their own pace, while still engaged with their peers (see below), or using teacher pacing (whole class working on the same slide).

Here is a screenshot of a classroom activity offered by Desmos that I tried with my students during practicum.digital-activites Some features you can add into your digital activities include; text, notes, hidden folders (from students), student input, multiple-choice questions, images, videos, and graphs. Students can also interact with their graphs, sketch their thoughts, type their response, or have their work carried forward from a previous slide to continue solving.

What does it offer your classroom:

  • Allows you to focus on the math in an engaging way
  • Allows students to see how their graph changes in real-time depending on their input
  • Supports social interaction in and out of the classroom
    • Students are able to see peer responses and provide them with instant feedback or critique their work
    • Teachers can build a strong PLN with other educators using Desmos to share/discuss ideas and/or collect feedback
  • Safe learning environment: you can choose to anonymize student names when sharing responses and have them take on famous mathematician’s names instead
  •  Teacher/student pacing: have the whole class working on the same slide together while facilitating a discussion or allow them to work at their own pace while still getting that feedback and support from their peers -students can also continue to work on the activity from home
  • Pause the class: grab your students’ attention at once by pausing their work to showcase a solution or start a discussion that can help them carry forward
  • Formative assessment: check-in on responses while your students are working to provide them with instant feedback or use it to guide your next move.

Here are some screenshots of what the teacher can see as students are working. These responses can also be shared with the class as a focus on discussions. Activity link.

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Breaking it down; how to use it:

Note: One of the best things I like about Desmos is that it’s not just designed with students in mind, but teachers as well. The instructions and support offered for this tool are unlike any I have seen; albeit I’m still starting off my career in teaching, but I’m sure experienced teachers who have used it would argue the same.

Team Desmos offers video tutorials on its graphing calculator features and classroom activities. A full PD package is also ready for download if you’re looking to share the learning with others. You can access them here or you can also check out their user guide loaded with visuals.

Classroom Example:

Here is an example of a lesson I adapted from my intermediate mathematics course at uOttawa that integrated Desmos into Pear Deck into hands-on.

Task: What is the maximum number of pieces you could get using 20 straight cuts?

pizza-problem

First, we experimented with this:

Then, after noting the quadratic relation, we used Desmos to find our solution:screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-3-24-16-pm

In this lesson, I integrated Desmos online graphing calculator into my original plan and provided a link on Pear Deck for students to easily access it. Overall, I think they enjoyed the activity in itself and going through that productive struggle in trying to figure out the solution really paved the way for Desmos as a math tool to help us solve problems. I think what students like most about using Desmos is that it’s easy to use; you don’t spend the majority of the time explaining how to use it, but in actually using it.

With time management in consideration, I think next time I try this lesson, I will use Desmos Activity Builder for the graphing portion. Linking it to Pear Deck for students to access on their own doesn’t allow you to see their work once finished to be able to assess/offer feedback.

I still have a lot of learning and experimenting to do in integrating Desmos into the classroom, but it’s definitely a tool I would recommend to try and introduce to your students.