Monday, September 23, 2019

digital innovation in secondary education

The Education and Health Standing Committee (a committee of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly) is conducting an inquiry into Digital Innovation in Secondary Education. (link)

The inquiry will consider:
  1. How digital innovation can assist secondary students to learn anything, anywhere, anytime
  2. The role of digital technology in addressing secondary student engagement and retention
  3. How digital innovation can increase equity of opportunity in secondary education
  4. The potential for digital technology to cater to the needs of high performers and at-risk learners in secondary education
  5. Challenges to implementation, including provision of digital infrastructure, resources and technical support
In July this year I roughed out some notes addressing these criteria.

Overarching statement:
Computers can be both instrumental and epistemological vehicles for certain powerful ideas / dispositions and hands on practices which can be delivered to those who have missed out (aka the digital divide)

1) Rapid but twisted evolution of the computer revolution

Although computers are everywhere, the hardware, software, applications, programming languages and the practices and theories of educational computing continue to evolve rapidly which makes it hard to keep up to date.

Experts and movements (the new Coding Movement, the Maker Movement) do exist and are very helpful but they don’t always agree. The existence of the vigorous Coding and Maker Movements outside of schools indicates that often schools are not doing the job and also that these movement are highly engaging for many students.

2) The powerful ideas and dispositions

Seymour Papert’s original concept (1) was about using computers to transform the way knowledge developed in the learner’s mind. The subject domain of geometry could be restructured to make it more accessible, meaningful and fun for the learner (aka “hard fun”).

Some powerful ideas can be clearly identified:
eg. debugging of code or working to improve a prototype through repeated iterations requires persistence and is a form of looking at mistakes. There is general agreement of the educational importance of that.

Other powerful ideas arising from computer science can be identified and ways found for them to be taught. However, what history has shown is that the most important thing here is setting up learning environments where an invitation to develop powerful ideas will emerge naturally, rather than being forced. See next section.

Although there has been exaggeration, historically by some, of what can be achieved with computer based learning environments, nevertheless, the practices in most schools falls well short of what could be achieved.

ACARA’s Digital Technology curriculum (2) does outline some of the powerful ideas (as outcomes) but doesn’t explain how to achieve them. Effective teacher training exists through the CSER MOOCs site (3).

The history since computers entered schools shows there are widely different claims and approaches about the best way for them to be used. Some authors have done a good job of sorting through this. To do a thorough review of this literature is an arduous but possible task.

Three game changers have been identified by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager: coding, physical computing and fabrication. (4)

Collaboration has been identified as part of the desirable culture (Yasmin Kafai/ Quinn Burke (5)) and some software and learning sites have built that into their workings (eg. Collabrify software (6), Scratch3.0 website with their Remix feature(7))

Various names have been assigned to summarise the powerful ideas. These include computational thinking, computer science, computational literacy, computational participation. This theorising is an ongoing process in a relatively new curriculum area. Consensus has not yet been achieved. It is an important discussion which does need to be further analysed and understood.

3) Learning environments

Experience shows that for most students powerful ideas are not learned by force. A more effective approach is to make them conspicuous in the learning environment (by good choice of hardware, software and learning environment) so that their development is encouraged.

For most students, the powerful ideas will only arise from thoughtfully constructed learning environments, a powerful curriculum delivered by teachers who understand the issues.

Such environments have been developed and trialled in the past (eg. Turtle geomety, “Instructional Software Design Project” (8)) and this is ongoing.

Some excellent modern curricula have been developed, eg. Scratch 3.0 curriculum by the Harvard School of Education (9). Some general principles of what works and what should be encouraged can be stated, eg. collaborative work, project work which is personally and socially meaningful with long time slots.

Whole school change / integrated curriculum (STEM / STEAM) is difficult for a variety of reasons:
(a) School leadership may not understand the issues deeply
(b) Teacher training has not kept up with the computer revolution.

Nevertheless, focused change based on teacher enthusiasts is possible. The structural reform which works well involves personally and socially meaningful projects (preferably an integrated STEAM curriculum), sufficient time to develop them with teachers trained who understand the issues (learning environment, hardware, software, child psychology and cultural issues for indigenous students)

4) Cultural focus

Learning environment can be enhanced meaningfully for indigenous learners using Culturally Situated Design Tools. Some exemplary work has been done by the group led by Ron Eglash in the USA over a long time frame (10)

I have developed a few exemplars along similar lines (11)

Much more could be done along these lines. The conditions for success have been outlined in the publications of Eglash et al.(12)

5) Hardware and software

The growing list of hardware to choose from highlights the need for informed evaluation: includes Makey Makey, Arduino, Little Bits, Ozobot, Micro:bit, Chibi Chip, Circuit Playground Express, Lilypad, Bee-Bot, Dash and Dot, Sphero, Edison, Drones, etc.

Some of the important principles have been articulated by those who have developed the best construction kits (13). They include:
  • Design for designers – use kits that encourage building and tinkering (iterate, iterate and iterate again)
  • Low floor (easy to begin use), wide walls (diversity of possible projects including multimedia) and open windows (collaboration)
  • Make powerful ideas obvious but not forced
  • Minimalism often works better than feature creep
  • You can do quite a lot with a little bit of programming
  • Eat your own dogfood (don’t ask students to use software and hardware you don’t like using yourself)
With these principles in mind some of the hardware and software I recommend are Scratch3.0, Turtle Art, Makey Makey, the micro:bit, MakeCode, the Hummingbird:bit and App Inventor (not a prescriptive list)

6) Nuts and bolts

Computers in schools and related hardware is a significant budget item. Many schools have difficulty acquiring sufficient network managers / maintenance staff. Teacher training lags behind the potential of what can be achieved.

(1) Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms
(2) ACARA Digital Technologies
(4) Martinez, Sylvia and Stager, Gary. Invent to Learn
(5) Kafai, Yasmin and Burke, Quinn. Connected Code
(6) Collabrify apps
(7) Scratch 3.0
(8) ISDP
(9) Scratch 3.0 curriculum
(10) Eglash, Ron et al site
(11) Kerr, Bill
a) Turtle Art design
b) Indigenous icons
c) Arrernte language app
(12) Eglash, Ron et al publications
(13) Construction kits article

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