Thursday, August 30, 2012

Robots Attack!

I'm always amazed at the recurrence some ideas seem to take in my day.  Maybe I'm just being hyper vigilant but lately the topic of robots keeps popping up.  The August issue of iste's Learning & Leading magazine arrived proclaiming "We Love Robots!"  I've seen a lot of buzz about STEM learning with Lego Robotics but perhaps we are playing into the hands of our new overlords.

ro·bot  (noun)
    1. a machine that resembles a human and does mechanical, routine tasks on command.
    2. a person who acts and responds in a mechanical, routine tasks on command.
    3. any machine or mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill.

This post could go in a couple of directions based on that definition.  My first inclination is to ponder who the robots in education are?  An argument could be made that traditional schooling has been preparing students to perform as robots, but I'll steer clear of that weighty topic.  I'm thinking more along the lines of 'computers in education', or is it 'education in computers'?  When students go to a computer lab are we just plugging them in and allowing the computer to manage the learning process?  The line is increasingly becoming blurred as to whether computers are used as learning tools or whether they are assuming the role of the instructor.

This past week Audrey Watters addressed this conundrum in the 2012 Learning 2.0 Virtual Conference with her presentation: Robots in the Classroom.  I've been a fan of Audrey's Hacked Education blog for some time and she didn't disappoint with a thought provoking presentation on the role of robots in Education.  From Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to robot essay graders, she posed a number of ethical questions on just how far educators should hand control over to machines.

We don't normally think of computers as robots, but they can be a "mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill."  In fact, as Audrey pointed out, computers are exceeding humans in certain educational roles.  Computers are being used as robo-graders for millions of standardized tests each year, and I'm not just talking about the bubble questions.  Robo-readers are also being used to grade the essay portions as well.  A New York Times article reported one automated reader "can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds" (I can hear all the English teachers groan from here).  Computerized tutoring is another rising trend.  It's hard to argue against a computer's effectiveness in this role when it has the capacity to adapt to the myriad of learner differences much more easily than a classroom teacher.  Some Florida schools found it more economical this year to offer summer school online than to offer site-based instruction.  Learner management systems are also becoming more advanced with personalized options.  So is it possible that we may see the day when an entire school district goes online for the entire school year?  That really isn't that far-fetched of an idea.  The question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not these are intrinsic improvements for Education.  Are these developments occurring for efficiency or for economic reasons?  Does computerized instruction dehumanize learning?  Most people would agree that a computer is a tool but we are fast approaching a threshold where this tool may become another member of the faculty.

Science fiction author Sir. Arthur Clarke once said "Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be."  To that end I would refer the machine to Asimov's First law of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Live the Olympic dream

Although the 2012 games have reached their conclusion, the Olympic dream is being born in the hearts and minds of young athletes from around the world. So why not join them?  I don't mean for you to shave seconds off your 10,000m run or work on your double-pike dismount.  What I have in mind is adopting the strategies that got those athletes in London this summer.  Try to apply these lessons in your personal life and profession, and encourage these virtues in your students.

Now I haven't ever been in the Olympics myself, but I did take part in a regional version some years ago.  In 2005 I raced in the 6-man outrigger canoe events at the South Pacific Mini Games held in Palau.  The highlight was a 30K race through the rock islands that took us over 2 1/2 hours to complete.  Just to be able to compete against nations from around the Pacific made the six months of training worth it.  Safe to say that was probably my peak as an athlete, but after watching hours of the current Olympic coverage with its non-stop commentary and video-bios of the athletes, I think I've gleaned some pieces of advice we can all strive for.

1.  Set goals

We encourage our students to set goals but we do this enough with ourselves?  Your goals for the school year don't have to be performance-based alone.  What achievements do you want to accomplish?  Perhaps you've considered recording some flipped classroom videos or creating a series of IWB lessons?  Start blogging or learn a new application; there's always new technology to learn.  Maybe you could create a Google Earth activity and submit it to RealWorldMath (hint hint).  The beginning of the school year is one of the best times to set goals.

2.  Aim high

I don't think any of the athletes went to the Olympics without intending to earn a medal.  Aim high when you set your goals and make an impact.  A high jumper doesn't improve his score by keeping the bar at the same level.  Set your goals to a task that you can achieve and then raise the bar.  You're capable of tremendous growth if you challenge yourself.

3.  Find a coach

There isn't any reason why you need to do this alone.  Find a mentor to help you work towards your goals.  The best coaches provide support and motivation with a critical eye on performance.  Their experience can help you avoid mistakes and setbacks so listen to their advice.

4.  Dedication

This is probably the hardest part but it is also the most admirable.  The vast majority of Olympians got to where they are by years of dedication to their sport.  Stay on top of your goals and don't allow any slips.  Even the smallest lapse in dedication can have an exponential effect and so this is a mental challenge more than anything.  A close partner to dedication is sacrifice.  If you have trouble making your goals, prioritize your time for maximum effectiveness.  More than anything, your dedication will determine whether or not you achieve your goals.

5.  Be patient

Patience goes well with dedication but it's a mixture of optimism and pessimism.  For any large challenge, you need to be realistic about the difficulties you will face, and the time it will take to overcome them.  What you thought would take one quarter may take three.  Believe in yourself and what you are trying to accomplish.  Your confidence will carry you through troubled waters.

6.  Overcome adversity

As I write this, Spain is giving the current Dream Team a hard time in the gold medal game.  Guor Marial, Caster Semenya, and Oscar Pistorius were just some of the other incredible stories of Olympic athletes overcoming adversity.  While your challenges may not be as dramatic, you can be sure to face times of difficulty.  Don't get discouraged by the problems you face; they'll be part of learning process and add to the satisfaction in the end.  Use your hardships as motivation to strive harder.

7.  Work with a team

Just as a coach can lend you guidance and support, you'll find it amplified when you work with a team.  Your team might consist of grade-level colleagues or correspondences from your social networks on your venture.  Each member will have strengths to contribute so adjust the scope of your project accordingly.  Encourage and learn from another.  As a team member you're not working only for yourself, so be someone they can rely on.

8.  Represent something bigger

Olympic athletes often remark on how they persevere for their country.  You may not be working at quite the same scale but it doesn't mean you can't represent something bigger.  Perhaps you are trying to contribute to your field or your profession in some way.  With the Internet it is easier to reach a greater audience and magnify the significance of your efforts.  Make your mark in a profound way by contributing to the global knowledge base.

Hopefully these are some points you can incorporate into your aspirations.  To live the Olympic dream is to push towards goals, persevere through hardships, and to strive for excellence. You don't have to be a gymnast to adopt these traits.  Good luck with your endeavors this year and let the games begin.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Start your school year off right

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 09:  Pupils wait f...
(Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Just when you pulled the lawn chairs out of storage, it's time to think about heading back to school.  Before you put down your lemonade, take a moment to consider which Real World Math lessons you will be using during the next school year.  Personally, I use at least one Google Earth activity each quarter with a particular class, but it may depend on your students' abilities. If they haven't used Google Earth before, then it may take some time to get them orientated. The following Real World Math lessons would be good introductory activities to teach beginners some basic Google Earth skills:
  • Line Patterns - using the Path tool
  • Mazes and Labyrinths - navigating & working with folders
  • Estimating Distance - using the Ruler tool
  • Water Problems - using the Elevation Profile tool

You may want to use a Real World Math activity at the logical spot in your curriculum but I would often slide something in out of sequence.  Instead of running the gauntlet through several chapters on fractions, why not introduce an exploratory activity or take time to incorporate some project-based lessons.  Of course, prerequisite skills are an important factor to consider, but I think students would appreciate a change of pace.  Studying mathematics doesn't always have to be done in a linear fashion.

Also keep in mind that many of the Real World Math lessons lend themselves to cross-curricular activities. Coordinate extension activities early on with the Science, History, and English teachers on your team.  Oil Spill Estimates and Whale Watch are just two of the activities that can be explored in different disciplines. 

I would love to hear of your experiences with the material throughout the year. Please give feedback - the good and the bad - by emailing or use the site's contact form.  

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