Maker Resources Rule!

A report from the 2017 FETC exhibition hall.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

CREDIT FETC 2017.jpgLike one of those all-powerful entities from Sci-Fi movies of the past, sometimes a monster edtech trend appears spontaneously, coalescing from a collection of basic elements and just waiting for a chance to challenge the status quo. Or so it seemed to me as I viewed a very impressive body of Maker-learning resources found throughout the recent 2017 FETC Expo in Orlando. As I explored the exhibitor floor, it became clear that all the exciting maker stuff there was coalescing into an edtech juggernaut, one that will continue to make a major impact in the character of learning.

It is up to the teacher and his or her understanding of creative processes and how to foster and spark student creativity that makes the greatest impact on whether or not Maker-based Learning experiences will be the very rich and hyper-relevant instruction that today’s students need.

When one considers the bountiful body of available Maker resources and what they make possible for today’s students, what comes into focus is a very uplifting vision of a transformed school experience. And, as things displayed at this year’s FETC attest, it’s a vision that’s good-to-go right now. Truly, there’s a very impressive body of affordable and practically implementable things waiting to make the concept of Maker-based Learning come alive in our schools.

There were too many items on the floor to describe them all here. And in fact, some, like the Little Bits electronic construction kits and the Makerbot 3D Printer are already well known, popular, and making a difference in the sort of learning experience schools now offer.

What follows here though, are some resources and the important ideas behind them I came across that I think are truly worth making note of and that I think readers would do well to follow up on, consider acquiring and putting them to good purpose in classrooms.

Tinker Table

As I wandered the exhibit floor, I was attracted to the buzz of excited, joyful activity at a ‘Tinker Table’ where dozens of teachers took advantage of mountains of freely offered supplies to spontaneously create items powered by miniature electronic components. This hub of inspiration powerfully demonstrated the potential Maker Resources represent to breathe fresh life into teaching and learning. The Tinker Table was part of the display area of United Data Technologies (UDT). Chief Technology Officer Danny Rodriguez explained to me that UDT provides an array of Maker oriented tech resources to schools, helping them select appropriate and effective resources and supporting them in managing and implementing them. My takeaway? Maker-based Learning can provide excitement and spontaneous expression-fueled learning – it offers high student engagement driven by opportunities for discovery, reflection, and hands-on learning in action. It was great to see a large gaggle of teachers modeling and living all this at the very center of the exhibit.

Meaningful Making

For me, a crucial issue in the whole Maker-based Learning conversation has to do with the goals and hoped for outcomes of Maker experiences in our schools. Above all, while we do want schools to adopt this approach, we want them to do it for the right reasons, hopefully even discover some reasons of their own that are consistent with and extend their understanding and commitment to 21st-century learning. What I mean is, good reasons for supporting students in making things with the components and resources we provide them, reasons that reflect another stage in achieving meaningful learning and not simply adopt Making as an attempt to stay in step with something that’s currently all-the-buzz—without aligning these au courant efforts to our highest educational goals and aspirations.

A further key question is, as Makers, do we want students to simply follow directions to replicate creations that others before them have already designed and proven can be assembled from parts provided? Or, do we want to them to shift their focus to the way humans meet their needs with machines, devices, and constructed inventions; identify and address a need on their own, and go through the rich, enlightening process of conceiving, prototyping, and refining creations of their own design?

And yes, there certainly is much value to be had from the former, there’s a good deal of math and science involved and making things is, indeed, a very good way to learn them. The second approach, though, the one in which deep understanding of the phenomenon of technology is understood, and student creativity is sparked, unleashed, focused and learned is so much more of what today’s kids truly need.

The good news is that, to one degree or another, pretty much all of the Maker resources that I reviewed and explored at the expo provide the opportunity for both sides of this equation, obviously some more than others. I walked away, more than ever though, understanding that so often it is up to the teacher and his or her understanding of creative processes and how to foster and spark student creativity that makes the greatest impact on whether or not Maker-based Learning experiences will be the very rich and hyper-relevant instruction that today’s students need.

Electronics Kits

When they think of Making, many conjure up images of circuits, processers, power units, connected lights, motors, probes, and the like. These were offered in the highly usable format of kits made fully ready and accessible for students. I saw several of these highly worthy of mention. In fact despite my jaded sensibilities, the result of years of reviewing edtech resources, I found myself broadly smiling, even on the verge of cheering at just how right some of their providers had gotten them.

A few I’d like to mention are:

The soon-to-be-released Microduino kit offers components that are neatly stackable and that adhere to one another magnetically. Very neat and it’s easy to see that these components might be reused endlessly as part of a great many learning projects. The little Arduino processor that the gentleman at the booth showed me was well encased in a plastic frame making it safe to touch, easy to handle, and very easy to integrate into all sorts of machines that student inventors might come up with. I love the magnetic components and plug and unplug electronic cables that obviate other, more difficult and potentially hazardous ways of connecting components.

I fell in love with Sparkfun’s new Lillypad Sewable Electronics Kit right away. This kit’s cover shows a photo of a small group of young girls working on technology projects together. Seems to me to be (importantly) girl oriented, we need to encourage girls to take ownership of technology as their natural instincts and passions may dictate. Along with the now well known, Makey Makey and others, this kit was featured at the Sparkfun booth, nicely broadening the array of wonderful possibilities that the Maker Niche offers learners in need of hands-on, minds-on engagement.

The Piper kit got a big smile from me when I came across it at the booth. Kids construct a computer from its essential components and elements, including a cool looking wooden case that houses the computer and the parts and tools with which it is constructed. According to the rep manning the booth, as soon as students get enough assembled so that the small display is activated, the computer itself provides video instruction on how to build it out further until it is complete and does much of what one would expect from any computer these days. This could help a school establish a great segment of a technology education program. I was left wondering though about open-ended projects that students might do beyond creating the computer.

3D Printers

MakerBot, the first 3D Printer that many of us ever saw or even heard about, was widely represented at the booths of several re-sellers as well as at its own. This item bridges the gap between learning about making things, and actually making them. Currently, manufacturing involves the use of computer technology to aid in the research, design, and in the actual fabrication of so much. Computers drive robots and machines of all types. MakerBot paved the way, or at least a good part of it, with its affordable, easy to comprehend and use 3D Printer. Anyone still not aware of these wonderful little devices and their history and significance should check out the (YouTube available) video Print the Legend t which explores the growth of the 3D printing industry, with focus on Startup companies like MakerBot.

In a related vein, what I found remarkable at AP Lazer’s booth is that they were showing a commercial grade, industrial laser engraving machine. I chatted with one of the reps there who explained that they are just beginning to place these in schools, that is, beyond technical schools where one might reasonably expect to find such things. In fact, I was informed that this company had placed one recently in a middle school. This is really quite something, because following the logic of Maker-based Learning; the advantage is for the student to produce a real ‘something’ in the real world. This item though, elevates this prospect from producing a small plastic thingie that sort of resembles an authentic artifact to something with a very strong presence in the real world. I was shown beautifully etched items with designs laser cut into wood and stone. Some schools just may want to consider this.

Virtual Making

If Maker-based Learning is about creating things, it’s things that kids make as an expression of their focused experimentation and their application of thinking skills. If their making is a response to challenges and issues they identify in the real world as well as those they imagine, then why wouldn’t “Virtual Making” be an effective and exciting part of this?

Actually, the folks at Tynker, a popular resource to support student learning about and applications of Coding, understand that well and have placed on their website an answer to that question:

“Coding is the Language of Creativity – Learning to code at a young age isn’t just about becoming a programmer—coding is a creative outlet, a way to challenge yourself, a collaboration tool, and a new way to interact with your digital world. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen from the Tynker community. Kids are creating incredible games and stories, they’re learning from each other, and they’re pushing themselves to create projects they’re truly proud of.”

This orientation, and things to implement it well with students, was much evident at the Tynker booth.

Making Crosses Over to Robotics

Interestingly, while there were many Maker resource booths to visit, and there was a similar number of robotics resources on exhibit, there were a few that also spoke to the crossover between the two realms of tech-supported learning, an opportunity that I think is important and needs to be expanded.

Sphero is already quite well known for its student robots. Interestingly, these are not in that niche of resources that call for students to construct their own robot. SPHERO is one of those that comes already assembled, encouraging students to learn coding by programming it. At the booth at FETC, though, there was an intriguing interactive exhibit in which a SPHERO robot was used as the power for a more elaborate robot in which it was mounted, thus making it something of an engine. I love clever adaptations of robotics materials like this. I hope to see Sphero expand its line of robots and its applications of them as learning resources. This display pointed out new possibilities and new aspects of technology for student discovery and inspiration, something that, in my mind, was emblematic of the whole of the FETC 2017 Expo.

Mark Gura is an Advisory Board Member and Contributing Editor at EdTech Digest and the author of the recently released book, Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School published by ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education).

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The Best of Both Worlds

Why you need more than apps in the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Marie Merouze

CREDIT Marbotic.pngIt is no secret that education technology, or edtech, is becoming more prevalent in today’s classrooms. From regular tablet and computer usage to the introduction of artificial intelligence, teachers and students are more connected than ever before. Advanced digital tools provide a connectivity that can prove to be one of our greatest assets for providing better learning experiences.

Learning must engage both the spirit and the heart, teaching those critical social skills.

Edtech applications can create opportunities for content personalization, immediate feedback and interactivity among students and teachers no matter the education level. A staggering 90 percent of teachers believe that technology in the classroom is important to student success, while 81 percent believe that the introduction of education technology, when used appropriately, can allow for a more hands on experience in the classroom, providing additional motivation for all involved.

Many of today’s students have grown up using apps, or at least have a high level of exposure to them in some way, and are familiar with their capabilities. In fact, it’s been reported that kids spend approximately six and a half weeks per year on apps, with a daily average use of over three hours for each child. So, why wouldn’t education take advantage of these already established technological tools?

Teacher Focus

While apps and edtech tools provide numerous benefits within the classroom, and should be used when appropriate, they should never completely replace traditional ways of teaching. Edtech is best used a companion to these traditional methods, allowing teachers to be even more involved and invested in student learning. Students who are only exposed to learning through apps will lose out on vital and fundamental aspects of education, both in a measurable sense and in those important, intangible ways. What, when using apps, should teachers focus on to combine the best of both edtech and traditional teaching methods in their educational curriculum?

  1. The Power of Touch

One of the many things taught by renowned educator and philosopher Maria Montessori taught us was that students better understand very abstract concepts best through the manipulation of physical objects. This is especially true with concepts involving numbers or symbols. Instructors who allow students to work exclusively with apps inhibit their potential for material learning. Apps just cannot allow for the same level of creative, discovery learning physical objects provide.

But that doesn’t mean apps can be a valuable learning tool. When used in conjunction with the physical manipulation of objects, tools or toys, students will receive benefits from both edtech and physical objects – the best of both worlds. For example, if a student is learning about civil engineering concepts, such as building a bridge, through an app, physical tools will only increase the level of comprehension. Younger students are still learning creativity on some level and with tangible objects, they’ll be able to create, build and imagine, supporting that creative development more than any screen alone can.

  1. Human Interaction

Perhaps the most vital learning aspect students will be lacking with exclusively app-based education is human interaction. As a society, we interact with other people almost every day. We have to learn to talk, debate and engage successfully with more than just a computer screen. Learning must engage both the spirit and the heart, teaching those critical social skills. It’s been proven that students actually learn better, are more receptive and better focused with human instructors rather than videos or machines.

Again, this doesn’t mean edtech is a detriment. It can be a valuable learning tool especially when used in group setting and workshops, allowing for both human and technological interactions. These groups allow students to develop methods of interaction and cooperation critical later on in life. And, as most teachers and students would agree, ‘hearing’ a voice on a device tell you that you did a great job isn’t nearly as satisfying as hearing it from your instructor.

  1. Continuous Reinforcement

Reinforcing concepts through training and exercises is one of the most important ways edtech and apps can be used in education. Teachers can find great ways to utilize apps as effective reinforcement tools to traditional educational approaches. Sometimes, students need a new angle to learn a concept. For example, some students find game-learning the most effective for reinforcing concepts, something apps can provide. And for teachers, apps provide an invaluable tool for gauging understanding.

Even then, teachers must stay involved with the learning process. Some apps on the market are very directive – it presents a question or problem, if the student answers correctly, the app is designed to move on. However, the teacher has little to no insight into how the student got to that answer or if it was a lucky guess. Apps with open modes or sandboxes often provide the best way to encourage understanding and imagination.

Something Beautiful

Human contact and physical object manipulation should never leave the educational setting. While education technology, particularly in today’s digital world, has a definite place in the classroom, it is not an educational “fix.” Apps can be the perfect tool to encourage fun and engagement but they can never replace traditional teaching methods or tools. Apps are just one part of the educational puzzle. And, as we all know, while complex, the most beautiful puzzles are created with many pieces.

Marie Merouze is the founder and CEO of Marbotic, an IoT startup focusing on the creating of connected devices for children. Marbotic has two flagship products: Smart Letters and Smart Numbers. Marie was previously an edtech consultant for BeTomorrow, a company focused on the innovation of connected products for the web and mobile. She has her Masters in Engineering from Ecole Centrale Paris, an engineering graduate institution.

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A Lesson that Flourishes

Video game uses 3-D scanning and collaboration to teach eco-planning.

GUEST COLUMN| by Joe Packer and Tony Morelli

CREDIT Wikipedia.pngAnyone who guided their digital family on a harrowing trip across the Oregon Trail knows that using video games to educate is not a new phenomenon. As games grow more advanced and students gain higher game literacy from their own widespread use of video games, educators need to continually innovate, all due deference to classics like Oregon Trail (1971) and Math Blaster (1989).

Educational games lack the funding to meaningfully compete in many popular game genres driven by advances in graphics. Most widely anticipated new video games have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. Creating games that students view as poorly refined versions of the games they play at home is a surefire way to make educational games appear derivative and dull. One solution to this dilemma is for educators to build games with no corollary in the mainstream market.

We’re interested in using video games to educate students.

Tony Morelli and I are professors at Central Michigan University and we’re interested in using video games to educate students. Aware of the problems that face educational games that mimic too closely the games students play at home for fun, we sought to build a totally unique educational gaming experience. The result is Rangers VS Planners, a hybrid board game/video game. The game uses HP’s Sprout technology — with a 3-D camera and touch mat — to take one player’s actions within a board game and digitize them into the virtual world the other player inhabits.

In the game, one player takes on the role of city planner, rolling dice to collect resources and allocating those resources into various buildings that she or he places on a map. The HP Sprout takes pictures of the board and uploads the buildings into the virtual world. These buildings act to increase this player’s score, but each building has environmental consequences for the other player within the digital world.

The other player manages the city’s wildlife population. Moving vulnerable animal populations and designating construction free zones. This player is scored on the basis of the health of the environment. The players’ final score is a combination of the scores based on construction and environmental protection.

The game is designed to encourage cooperation to teach the value of effective eco-planning. Through coordination, players can manage the tensions inherent in development and produce a city that balances the needs of its human and animal populations.

The analog components include custom plastic objects and custom six-sided dice. The plastic objects include a wrench, hospital, house and a tree. Each of these components create unique objects in the virtual world. These objects were 3-D printed and painted different colors in order to ease the calculations required to recognize these objects when analyzed by the game.

3-D printed game objects will ease distribution of the game. Video games can be distributed easily for no cost. However, requiring the physical pieces made this step very difficult.

As the availability of 3-D printing continues to increase, distributing digital copies of games and digital copies of the accompanying physical objects may become mainstream. We are excited to investigate new types of game interaction and game distribution.

We hope that our innovative use of analogue and digital inputs creates an experience quite unlike the many simulation games that students may be familiar with — from SimCity to City Skylines. The players’ disparate input mechanisms also emphasize the extent to which city planning and environmental management are treated as totally separate government functions. Nevertheless, players will need to overcome their own narrow agendas to create a city that flourishes for both its human and animal occupants.

Joe Packer is an associate professor of communication and dramatic arts at Central Michigan University. His research interests span a wide variety of topics. He has written on the rhetoric of alien life, video games, social movements, and philosophical pessimism.  

Tony Morelli is an assistant professor of computer science at Central Michigan University. His areas of research include accessible gaming and gaming trends, and he teaches computer game design.

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Cool Tool | TEC Data Platform

CREDIT TEC.pngBillions in edtech dollars, but is the money well spent? Well, to answer the question, the Technology for Education Consortium (TEC) recently launched the TEC Data Platform, which appears to be the first online library of edtech market pricing data specifically developed for school districts. The platform gives district leaders a tool to improve purchasing processes and student outcomes with edtech throughout America’s school districts. Developed through a partnership with Lea(R)n, it uses LearnPlatform as the unified edtech management ecosystem that allows for the collection and analysis of district technology contracts. Member districts can access price reports on the products they are considering for first-time purchase or renewal. Districts can access easy-to-read graphs providing insight into how other districts are buying and utilizing edtech. This is that elusive concept of ‘transparency’ in full play, allowing districts to make better-informed decisions that improve efficiencies and increase cost savings for TEC districts. “We’re thrilled to introduce the TEC Data Platform, which we believe will change the way districts buy technology,” says Hal Friedlander, co-founder and CEO of TEC. “This platform will significantly expand the intelligence and decision support we can provide district leaders. We believe that greater transparency and better information will allow school districts to improve results, reduce costs and support new product development,” he says. Learn more.

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Trends | EdTech Toys

CREDIT DiffusionPR.pngIt’s been fascinating over the past few years to watch the evolution of the toy industry – from toys just dabbling with electronic pieces to the sheer explosion of the “edtech” toy industry. Today, even Target has a dedicated STEM toy category for parents to peruse and purchase from! It’s clear that edtech toys have become mainstream and parents are no longer concerned just with a toy’s entertainment value – the pressure is on for these new devices to demonstrate clear developmental benefits. Hundreds of companies are vying for consumer interest by showcasing the latest in tech-toy development. Thus far, tech companies, educational leaders, and influencers alike have weighed in on this trend, contributing their insights and predictions for the future of technology in education. However, one intrinsically important audience has had little share of voice in the matter— parents. That’s why DiffusionPR commissioned the following Ed-Tech Industry Highlights report to reveal parent sentiment around such products. The report’s findings: the majority of parents (76 percent) want edtech toys not just at home, but incorporated into the curriculum at schools. Seventeen percent even said their children learn faster with edtech toys. It won’t be long until such toys are ubiquitous in every pre-school, elementary school, and middle school across the U.S. The question will be – with so much competition, which toys will survive? And what do they need to do to prove to parents and educators their value? We’ll be watching to see which toys make the grade. Learn more.

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