Posted by: Barinas | October 6, 2012

The Attention Battle

This week I was part of a presentation on ADHD, and through the course of my research a question always seemed to bubble over:  Is today’s technology partly responsible for students’ general lack of attention?  First of all, let me clarify that by no means I am implying that technology is directly responsible for the rise of ADHD among students of all grade levels.  In fact, there is an ongoing debate as to whether ADHD is being overdiagnosed, and scholars believe that there are both internal and external factors that may cause the disorder (the perennial nature vs. nurture debate).

What I want to point out is that as I was studying ADHD, I was reminded about the other debate that revolves around the use of technology in the classroom.  This debate centers on whether today’s digital culture is in fact shortening children’s attention span.  According to the CDC, only 3%-7% of school children have ADHD.  By contrast, a lot of parents believe that short attention spans affect a much larger percent of school children.  I thus began to wonder if there are external factors that even though are not directly responsible for Attention Deficit Disorder, may foster milder forms or worse, exacerbate the condition for those who already have it.

There are those who are quick to blame smart phones and other forms of mobile technology as the prime culprit behind children’s short attention spans.  Whether it is TV, Iphones, the Internet or whatever gadget comes to mind, they are constantly pulling children’s attention in all different directions.  Every five to ten minutes there is a new post, tweet, link, trend, hashtag or thread worth perusing.  Someone said that “nowadays ten year olds have laptops, iPads, iPods, smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter, whereas back then, all I had was ten years of age”.  Hmmm… is it right to think that this technology is causing more harm than good when it comes to staying focused on school?

I believe that in certain instances, there might be some truth to that, but I for one am not inclined to take a blanket opinion.  I believe I am in the majority when I say that it is better to see both sides of the equation.  On one side, some instructors say that students have changed.  In the past, you can give a one-hour lecture without a problem.  Students remained focused on the lecturer without batting an eye.  No one placed his head on the desk, stared blankly at the window, or periodically glanced towards a mobile device.  The instructor could command students’ attention without having to resort to streaming video, interactive whiteboards, fancy props, and the like.  Now it appears that educators must compete for their students’ attention as if it were a tug-of-war between them and portable media.  Compared to previous generations, students are apparently more likely to get distracted.

On the flip side, many people question whether shorter attention spans should be our main point of concern.  Students are less attentive, so what?  Is this something new?  In fact, how do we know whether students from decades past were really paying attention?  They might have been “paying attention”, as in keeping their eyes locked on the speaker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were actively thinking about the lecture.  There is, after all, a difference between hearing and listening.  Perhaps the presence of mobile media is finally bringing to light the fact that students have never really been constantly paying attention.  Back then there were only rubber bands, paper airplanes, and doodling, but now that we have more sophisticated competitors inside the classroom, instructors are finally on the spot to take their rhetoric and presentation skills to the next level.  In the end, I believe that we need more research about memorization, cognition, and other brain functions before we choose which side of the fence to take.

In the meantime, what are we to do?  There is a funny Spanish proverb that says “camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente”.  Roughly speaking, it means that the shrimp that “falls asleep” gets carried away by the current.  So are we going to stay idle while this debate continues to unfold?  I say let’s get up and move!  As we have learned so far in class, technology is a tool that depending on the user, can lead to either good or bad results.  I like how in class we are learning about distraction-blocking software (for both Windows and Mac) and other ways by which we can stayed focused.  It is our responsibility as instructors to pass these lessons to our students, so that students are using technology more for educational development as opposed to time-wasting opportunities.  Perhaps most importantly, educators must master how to use technology in engaging ways so that students focus on the technology that we are using to teach, rather than the ones they brought for fun.

We need to step up our game, but also ensure that there is a level playing field.  So I just want to put out a couple of questions that are worth considering.  What are the most appropriate rules with regard to portable media in the classrooms?  Should internet filters be more restrictive? (ex. only allow education-related websites).  The corporate world uses strong firewalls like Barracuda to ensure employee productivity, so should school districts take a step in the same direction?  If I remember well, I believe that Karen and Todd have touched upon the subject of cell phone policy in the classroom and about the distractions that gadgets pose for us.  It is important that as future educators we both continue this line of questioning and also become more tech-savvy.  That way when our number is called, we are better prepared to win the attention battle in the classroom.  In other words, let our technology hold more sway than theirs.

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Posted by: Barinas | September 24, 2012

Tech-Spoiled

Yesterday I went to the restroom (hold your thoughts, this is not a setup for a yucky story or dirty joke LOL), and the lights were off.  “Hmmm… why didn’t the lights come on?” , I thought to myself.   A few seconds later, I just realized the silliness of my question.  “Pedro, not all restrooms have motion-detector light bulbs!”

Wow, how spoiled I’ve become.  It didn’t at first cross my mind to just turn the light switch the good ol’ fashion way.  This just makes me think about how technology changes us in such a way that we expect certain conveniences to come as a given.  If we extend this reality to the classroom, it shouldn’t surprise us that students are also conditioned by the accommodations of the Digital Age.  They do not wish for them, but expect them.

Case in point: yesterday I had the chance to observe a high school science class.   The teacher was teaching about the levels of organizations in living beings: from the microscopic animal cell all the way to 15-ton elephants and beyond.  To illustrate the differences in scale, he showed the class are really cool website called The Scale of the Universe (http://htwins.net/scale2).  If you go to the site, you’ll notice how amazing is the breadth of its scope!  I just told myself “wow, how cool it would’ve been to see this site back when I was in high school!”

As a biologist, I was pretty much amazed at the site’s visuals and treasure trove of information.  Then I looked around to read the students’ faces.  A few were impressed, but others were rather nonchalant.  What!  Your jaws should be hitting the floor!  All of you should be amazed by this!   But then I have to remember once again that kids nowadays probably have seen even more sophisticated visuals online.  This is just one of the many cool interactive websites they’ve seen.  As noted earlier, they now expect the motion sensor lights.

This is rather intimidating.  How can we as educators bring that sense of wonder in the classroom?  The tables have turned.  Now the kids are the ones impressing the adults.  They are the ones who are accustomed to the latest technologies and the conveniences they offer.  We are now facing a, shall we say, “tech-spoiled” youth.  Regardless of what we manage to find in our magic bag tricks, the younger generations have already seen even more impressive technological wonders.   So what are we to do?  But then, as  I thought about it more, I remembered that technology is in fact just a tool.  Tech is the wand, but the magic really comes from the wizard who wields it.

I believe that as teachers, we must always remember that our imagination and creativity is what really sparks that sense of wonder that, if we are lucky, will last for a lifetime in the hearts and minds of our students.  As a future biology teacher, I believe that if I can effectively relay my own sense of wonder and all the reasons why I fell in love with science, then I can really spark a domino effect in the class.

Now, in order to do that, we need a little spark ourselves, once in a while.  And what’s so great about technology is that it rejuvenates our passion for the things we love.  Looking at the Scale of the Universe website, I felt like that young middle school kid who took his older sister’s science books to read them just for fun.  Technology has that kind of power!

Indeed, technology is without a doubt a very powerful wand, as it lets the wizard expand his vocabulary of “spells”.  However, in order to be one of the best, we need to be inspired to learn all the new ways in which we can use the wand to captivate and enchant our audience.  Sure, they might’ve already seen it all before, with that “been-there-done-that” look on their faces.  But rather than feeling intimated, I prefer to be encouraged about how technology helps me see science in a new light and expands the ways by which I can teach it.  For instructors, these new resources make our content areas exciting again — like a kid who always finds new brands of candy at the store.  And, as well all know, excitement and sense of wonder are nothing short of contagious!

Posted by: Barinas | September 21, 2012

The Power of PHP

I was thinking about how we can make use of all three CAI (Computer-Assisted Instruction) frameworks: Tutor, Tutee, and Tool.  Of the three, Tool is the most popular, whereas Tutee is often regarded as the most challenging, since in this one requires the student to teach the computer to do something by way of (ugh!)… programming.

Clearly, Tutee CAI entails that both instructors and students have the technical know-how to do at least basic programming.   That’s clearly no walk in the park for many.  We are for the most part familiar with social media and popular computer peripherals (printers, scanners, pc cameras, etc), but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are drawn to command lines (remember DOS?) or sifting through hundreds lines of mind-numbing computer code.  However, Tutee-based CAI does not need to be the exclusive realm of Computer Science professors and students.  The reason why is described in three letters: PHP.  As stated in its home site, “PHP is a widely-used general-purpose scripting language that is especially suited for Web development and can be embedded into HTML”.

If that came across like a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo, then fear not.  What it basically means is that PHP is a computer language that people use to write websites.   I came across PHP after dabbling with web design for a while.  I no longer spend too much time writing PHP, but I gravitated towards it, because I found it easier to grasp and proofread than the other computer languages.

As a quick example.  If you want a webpage to say “Hello, I am Pedro”.  You would write:

<?php 

print ‘Hello, I am Pedro’;

?>

Easy, right?  Surely it gets more complex (just think of all the lines of PHP code that it takes to write the functionality and all the cool bells and whistles that you see in Facebook or even yet, here at WordPress.com).  But higher-level code is not what we are interested in.  We just need to write basic PHP for Tutee CAI.

I think that for math students in particular, using PHP would be extremely helpful under Tutee CAI.    Say a student wants to tell the computer “hey, if a+b=c, a=2 and b=3, then if you see c=5 say ‘that is correct!’.  Otherwise, say ‘that is incorrect’)”.

A student would therefore write a “if-this-happens-then-do-that” type of statement like:

<?php

$a = 3;  $b = 2;  $c = a+b;

if ($c == 5) {

print ‘That is correct!’;

} else {

print ‘That is incorrect!’;

}

?>

I think this is a great way to teach students how to think logically and organize their thinking while applying what they learn in math.  What do you think?  I know that the dollar symbol ($) is rather confusing, but it’s just part of the PHP grammar.  Do you think PHP-based Tutee CAI would be a good idea for at least pupils above eighth grade level?  I certainly think so!

Posted by: Barinas | September 14, 2012

To Gadget or not to Gadget?

I am in this class where I have seen some cool new toys that I didn’t know were available.  Say that the class is going on a 10-minute break.  To keep track of time, the professor simply opens a program on the smartboard that acts like a 10-minute timer.  There’s no wondering aloud if the 10 minutes are up or which clock did you use to mark the time.  How much break time is left is right there in full display for all to see.

But what if the professor needs to separate the class into random groups of three?  Well, no problem, either.  Simply pull up another application that has all of the students’ names.  A couple of clicks later the software will randomly shuffle the names into groups of three — quick and easy.

What’s even cooler?  Let’s assume that these groups of three should make a five-minute presentation and present their findings in a way that the entire class can see.  The typical course of action is for each group to make a banner and hang it on the wall.   With all the cutting, gluing and hands-and-crafts involved, this process can easily take more than 20 minutes to complete.  But the professor has a digital projector that puts to shame that old light projector in which instructors make notes on plastic sheets of paper.  On this digital device you would instead place a regular piece of paper on its panel, and a video is projected on the smartboard showing an exact rendering of the page.

Imagine all the time that we saved thanks to this technological advancement.  Instead of spending lots of time making banners, we wrote our presentations on a standard 8.5×11 piece of paper that the projector magnifies on the whiteboard.  We can then use the digital markers to make notations on the paper without altering the master copy.  The digital projector even lets you adjust the zoom at your convenience.  How cool is that?  And we haven’t even yet talked about the technology we use to enhance lesson plans!  All I have mentioned so far is technology that helps teachers with general classroom management tasks that are not directly related to the lesson itself.

The debate goes on about how some teachers mistakenly tailor their curriculum to the technology rather than vice versa.  Others argue that many technological tools distract students from the lesson itself.  But let’s not forget about the technology that is not used to teach lessons.  Here we are talking about technology that helps educators manage a class with greater ease, and better time management.  Note how this technology helps teachers in ways beyond what a standard blackboard and chalk could do.  Whether it is tracking time, assigning groups, aiding group presentations, or displaying websites on smartboards, there is a wealth of technology that helps teachers save time on class management, so they have more time to focus on the teaching itself.

Technology for conducting lesson plan material may understandably have its sticky points, but we should not leave out of the conversation the technology that aids with the logistics and nuances of classroom management.  No one can say that these technological tools are merely a distraction or may adversely affect the quality of class instruction.  Though their impact may seem small, we have seen from these examples how class management technology helps both educators and students save time, and enhance the classroom experience.

Posted by: Barinas | August 28, 2012

Dancing Techno In the Classroom

Who likes techno music?  Dubstep anyone?  No, I am not looking to throw away all the cellos and trumpets for Macs and turntables.  But humor me for a second.  Think about technomusic.  It is about using technology to create new sounds and rhythms through digital software.

Not everyone is into it, of course.  Some people would prefer to stick to a good ol’ Bing Crosby tune no matter how many people tell them that Moby is da bomb.  But if you happen to be visiting London and some bloke invites you to a club where people are grooving to techno, I don’t think they will want you to walk over the DJ and hand him a copy of your Cosby record.  They got nothing against smooth-singing Bing.  They may be enamored with the song White Christmas, but that’s just not their thing right now.  They grew up in techno, and that’s the music they came to dance.

Sure, you can get testy a la George Costanza and push it by telling the DJ that if he doesn’t play your Crosby, you’ll publish on Facebook all his pictures as a zit-popping violin kid in his high school band, the Yoodley Yoodlers.  “Whoa, not cool bro” he says and meets your wishes.  People will not necessarily hate the music, start a riot, and have the DJ for dinner, but they will certainly stop dancing.

So what does this all mean?  First of all, no bribing of Deejays.  OK, seriously, if you are a teacher who is not in tune with what your students are using, liking, and integrating to their everyday lives, you can probably make them learn, but you won’t make them dance.  They won’t be excited, which is quite a disadvantage, knowing how we all learn more when we are really excited about it.  So there you have it folks: I have to dance techno.  I got to learn the steps, the nuances, and the culture.  I need to be in their world.

Like learning a dance move, I know that there are going to be a few missteps here and there.  It’s part of the learning curve and unless you are Fred Astaire, we have our two-left-feet moments once in a while.  But the great thing about it is that if you like the music, your body will follow.  That’s all it takes.  I like technology, so I feel I have a good head start.  Interest is the catalyst.  And if students see that I truly enjoy the technological facets of their everyday lives, then I’m sure they’ll be more open and receptive to what I have to say.   I won’t be this alien from outer space that wants to teach them “stuff for school”.  They can learn to the beat of technology, more precisely, their technology.  Kids love tech, so I want to make them  say, “we are going to school, so we can dance some tech”.  And that will be music to my ears.

Posted by: Barinas | August 28, 2012

Well, Hello Tech!

Hi, my name is Pedro, and I am working towards becoming a biology high school teacher.

Clearly, the world has changed from the last time I was a high school student myself.  While I was taking classes the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Wozniack were still refining that clunky, square device that is now regarded as one of the most relevant machines that shaped human history since the invention of the automobile (or as some couch potatoes would argue, the advent of TV).   Nowadays kids of all sizes have already moved beyond desktops and laptops and are using portable technology like Ipads, Laptops, Androids, and the like.  It is quite a change from the days when having a pager and owning Super Mario 3 meant you were at the forefront of technology.

Alas, I can just see myself encountering students who haven’t used a film camera in their life (sorry Kodak).  I’ve heard of one kid asking her mom why her disposable camera did not have an LCD screen on the back!  Likewise, I can see myself completely foreign to gadgets, web trends, and other forms of technology that are common fare amongst today’s youth.  So if effective education requires the ability to connect with students, and be able to relate to them, then I must find a way to bridge this gap, and teach within the context of the world they live in.

This blog serves as an account of this journey.  I will explore the relationship between education and technology as it exists today, and use it to become an effective educator.

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