Friday, June 4, 2010

School Technology Websites I Like: Prezi

I have a confession to make -- I hate Powerpoint presentations.

Maybe it is because I have had to sit through so many bad school presentations that when a student or teacher gets up to do a Powerpoint presentation my skin starts to crawl and I look for excuses to leave the room. I think you know what I mean:

- ugly slides
- too many bullet points
- bad graphics
- sound effects
- too many transitions

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

So imagine my surprise last month when I was sitting in a class having to watch student presentations on the religion of Islam when a student got up and gave a presentation like I had never seen before...

It was so very cool, the only way to explain it is for you to see it yourself. I immediately got up after the presentation and asked the student what it was. He simply replied - Prezi.

What the crud was Prezi?

I went back to my classroom and looked it up. Sure enough it is a new Web 2.0 website that allows you to make what I call "anti-Powerpoint" presentations. Prezi Website

WORD OF WARNING! Like most new school technology: Prezi is like a superpower, if it gets into the wrong hands it can be used for evil, I have seen Prezi presentations that are so bad they can make the audience car sick. So be careful with it!

To see Prezi in action just watch this TED talk from James Geary on metaphors:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

iPad Report - Games and Learning

I should have titled this blog post -- First We Play, Then We Learn.

Yesterday I had the opportunity of sharing my iPad with a group of new middle school students at a summer camp I am teaching. You should have seen the room light up when I took the iPad out of my bag. It was like I held in my hand the Holy Grail itself. The students practically fell down and worshiped it.

I wanted to show them how cool it was and how it was going to change education, things like the iBooks and the great educational apps that I have, but all they wanted to see were the games.

"Show us the games Mr. Flick," they all shouted.


At first I was sort of ticked about this. I wanted to yell "There is so much more to an iPad than games!" But last night I started to think about what happened...

You see, games are everything to these young pre-teens. They live and breath video games. Knowing this can change how teachers can manage these new school technologies like iPads or other PODs (Personally Owned Devices). One of the greatest classroom management strategies is the "preferred activity" of in other words what the students wish they were doing instead of your lesson. I can imagine with iPads in the classroom a teacher can simply say, "Okay class as soon as you are done the XYZ assignment, and I have checked it, you may have 5 minutes of free time on your iPads." Not only would the work be done fast, but it would also be done right, since the teacher is checking it. Classroom efficiency could skyrocket with the iPad!

So back to my story... I showed them the incredible games that the iPad has and then they could finally focus on the educational apps that I had to show them. It was like I had to prove that there were really good games with really cool graphics before they could sit back and take in the rest of the message.

In the end they really were blown away with all of the things I showed them on my iPad, but I had to first start with games.

My lesson from this is such: when it comes to school technology and students -- learning follows interest, and interest usually follows fun. If we show them how fun something can be, then we have then hooked for learning more about it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Power of USB Microscopes

A few summers ago I was asked to teach at a summer camp for young gifted and talented students. The class I was teaching was CSI, so the students got to play with all sorts of things like evidence and special equipment. I had almost everything I needed to teach the class except a microscope.

I was working with a budget so I knew that I couldn't just go out and get a $1000 school microscope that I was used to having. So in a crunch I went to a local toy store and bought a $70 Digital Blue USB microscope and boy was I shocked when I started to use it.

First off, USB microscopes are way cooler for students to use than those regular laboratory-type ones. This one was light and plastic, with see-through parts so you could see all the insides of the microscope.

Next, the software that runs the microscope is the best part about it. You can turn on the top or bottom light, record video or just take a photo. Try doing that with a regular school microscope.

You can even pop the microscope off the stand and use it on a person's head to check for lice!

I used these features in my CSI class; students had to find certain parts of key evidence and then take a photo and email me a copy of the photo. For example, they had to match dirt found on a victim to six different dirt samples. This little $70 microscope did the job.

The lesson that I learned from this is that school technology does not have to be expensive to be good. It is not always the rule as you get what you pay for. Sometimes the best solutions to a school technology problem can be the cheapest.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Students With Cameras

One day when I was sitting through student presentations where the students were showing photographs of themselves taken by their parents and themselves, I kept thinking that students can take better photos than these (so could parents for that matter). So starting in the third grade I began teaching the basics of digital photography.

I did this mostly for selfish reasons; I did not want to sit through another presentation filled with bad photos. You know the ones...

- out of focus
- bad lighting
- bad layout
- bad anything else

It was like I blogged weeks ago about students and school technology; "Just because a student owns technology, it does not mean that they know how to properly use it." Besides, it gave me a chance to teach the 21st Century Skill of creativity.

So I sat my students down and taught them how to take proper photos, passed out the cameras and instructed them to stay in my computer lab and practice what they had just learned. We then went through their photos, instructed them how to improve and then tried it again and again until they got it right. Just like a teacher would do with a new math concept, but in this case a tech concept.

Here is what I got from 4th and 5th grade students...


Remember, students can do incredible things if we just ask them to and hold them to a standard of quality that has been expected in their other subjects like reading, writing and math. If we don't allow students to write poorly then why do we allow them to use school technology poorly?

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Roadblock with Critical Thinking

I remember the first time I set up a LEGO robotics lab in a middle school and how surprised we were with our initial results...

Before setting up the robotics lab we had agreed to the 21st Century Skills that we wanted the students to learn. Skills like; creativity, innovation, collaboration and above all critical thinking. We spent thousands on converting an old wood-working shop to be an new state-of-art LEGO lab. In one end of the lab we set up a viewing area where we could watch the students work -- so we kind of turned the students into little lab rats. Each class would have 20 students for a quarter so we could let every 7th grade student take the class.

The students were excited about the new robotics program and rushed into the lab on the first day to start learning how to build and program the little robots. After weeks of learning the skills it was now time for students to solve the challenges that were in the testing area of the lab. Some were simple and others were really hard challenges. I think the students at one time thought we were the evil scientists playing some sort of sick game.

The first day of the challenges was hard, most students through up their hands in frustration. They would ask where the program and designs for the robots to solve these challenges? We explained that they were none, they had to design and program their robot from the skills they have learned over the past few weeks.

What? No answer key! Imagine the possibilities!

I remember one challenge in particular, student had to back their robot into a garage and then drive out and select the red ball, not the blue, and drive back to the starting point.

After the first quarter of students not one challenge had been completed and most of the students left the program discouraged by the challenges. At first we thought that we had made a terrible mistake with these young students and we thought about changing the class and giving them the answers to the challenges. But we thought we would let it remain the same for the year and see what happens.

However, at the end of the second quarter something magical started to happen. A group of the students had completed 3 of the 5 challenges. It was like a little dam in their brains was starting to crack. These challenges were possible to complete.

By the end of the third quarter all the groups had completed all of the challenges and were now competing for fastest times.

At the end of the last quarter, the students were complaining that the challenges were not hard enough.

So what was the difference between the first and last group of students?

The number of classes was the same, the lessons and challenges were the same.  The difference was in critical thinking, the first group had never had to use this skill before and it was tough for them to imagine completing the challenges, which taught us adults an important lesson about teaching students critical thinking skills, you must teach them to imagine and that all tasks are solvable, nothing is impossible.

Einstein theorized the laser 60 years before it was invented.

We need to remember when introducing new school technology that our students can do amazing things if we just give them the chance and the PUSH they need.

As adults we are just as guilty...

"5th graders can not make movies."

"14 year-olds cannot develop iPod apps."

"2nd graders should not blog"

Shall I go on?

Go ahead, jump in the deep end of school technology and students, you might just be surprised at what you might see.