Friday, March 28, 2008

Mobile phones - A Weapon of Mass Instruction

I came across this post from Will Richardson: Students Pay a Price (Literally) for Cell Phone Ban. It's more than worth reading the whole thing, but here's the bit I want to talk about:

Joshua is iTrapped
Originally uploaded by Stillframe
But here was the moment that floored me. Obviously, these kids don’t leave their cell phones at home. They are too important as a communications tool for safety’s sake and for social connections. Yet they can’t get these phones through the airport like scanners at the front of the building. So what do they do? Seems a little cottage industry as sprung up at the delis and bodegas around the school so that kids can check their phones in for the day at $3 a pop. They get a ticket, just like a coat check, on their way into school, and they pick it up on the way out.
Will's focus was on the cost to pupils but the bit that hit me was the use of scanners to detect phones. Presumably the scanners are there to check for dangerous weapons: so they look for knives, guns ... and mobiles! Unbelievable. The school my children attend in theory bans mobiles but in practice, as long as they are not used in class, kept out of sight and (most importantly) kept silent, they are tolerated. But for schools to frisk and confiscate is just unbelievable.

I've often said that schools should be looking for ways to use mobile phones in classes not just to ban them (though, to be fair, some schools are). However, although it may not be as bad in Scotland as it is in the school Will describes, the reality (and stupidity) of the mobile phone policies was brought home to me the day after I read Will's post. We were visiting the Computer Science Inside project at the University of Glasgow's Computing Science Department with out Computing students. We had just completed a really interesting session on machine learning that used predictive text as the hook to introduce important computing concepts. At the end of this enjoyable exercise, the session leader (Quintin Cutts) said something like, "At this stage, you could get the pupils to try this on their own mobile phones." The sharp intake of breath from the students, fresh from a school placement, spoke volumes about the policies on mobile phone use in Scotland. Quintin said, most pupils now carry with them more Computing power than was used to launch the first moon landing. That may or may not be an exaggeration, but at a time of tight resources, how can we afford to ignore a fantastic learning resource like this?

So what do you think? Am I being too pessimistic? Do you have examples of schools that are making good educational use of mobiles?

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter time

Originally uploaded by foreverdigital
A friend noticed that we often say that Easter is early (as it was this year) or late... but we never say, "Hey, Easter is on time this year!" I thought therefore that it would be useful to define a set of dates where Easter could officially be declared to be on time. However, this has turned out to be slightly trickier than anticipated. (It becomes even murkier when you take the Eastern Orthodox Church's calculations for Easter into account... so this post will only consider the dates chosen by the Western churches.)

My first thought was to take the earliest possible date for Easter (21 March) and the latest possible date (24 April) and simply divide the time between into three sections: early, on time and late. That gives eleven days, from 2 April to 12 April inclusive, where Easter would be declared to be on time. The problem is, some dates for Easter are more likely than others and there's not an even distribution. For example, the most common date for Easter is 19 April which falls outside my "on time" slot - that may be OK, but it feels wrong.

What I need therefore is someone with the time and the mathematical inclination to analyse all the possible dates and come up with an 11 day slot which will result in the number of years where Easter is late being roughly the same as the number of times it is early. Since the pattern of dates repeats after 5,700,000 years, it shouldn't be too hard to work out. :-) Anyone up for the challenge?

Once a time slot has been chosen, we can start a Campaign for On Time Easters (COTE).

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Friday, March 21, 2008

e-portfolios and e-assessment

Richard Kimbell came to Jordanhill earlier this week to talk about project e-scape. Note, not Richard Kimble but Richard Kimbell :-) He was taking about e-portfolios and e-assessment. I made some notes as he was talking but the super fast fingers of Ewan McIntosh have done a much better job of summarising what was said than I could have managed.

So instead of summarising all that was said, I want to consider briefly the idea of e-assessment he introduced. If I were to ask you what you thought of when you heard the term e-assessment, how would you answer? I suspect many of you would think of automatically marked, multiple choice style assessment. That's not what Professor Kimbell was talking about. In the form of e-assessment he talked about, teachers did the assessing. Teachers who knew the syllabus, who understood children, who could make intelligent and informed decisions about children's performance. In one picture of e-assessment, you have technology being used to dis-empower teachers - to reduce them to the level of technicians supervising students. The version of e-assessment Professor Kimbell talked about used technology to support teachers - to allow them to do their job more effectively.

I know which model I prefer.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke

Moon / Luna
Moon / Luna
Originally uploaded by . SantiMB .
I haven't checked out Twitter for ages and when I finally logged into Twitter last night, one of the first messages I read was from David Warlick who was sharing news of Arthur C. Clarke's death.

I think Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov shaped my early reading habits more than any other authors. They helped create and feed my appreciation of Science Fiction. Arthur C. Clarke is also the source of my favourite technology quote:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I've got loads of things I should be doing tonight... but one of my tasks will be to go down to the extension and retrieve something of his to re-read.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

All about perception?

What is wrong with schools? Are they broken? Do they need fixed? ...Or is it all down to perception?

This post was prompted by a couple of videos Ewan McIntosh posted to YouTube. The clips are of Derek Robertson talking on the BBC about the work of the Consolarium. I saw Derek on the news but missed the introduction, so I was glad Ewan posted the whole interview. However, it was the second set of clips that prompted this post. (See Ewan's post if you want a slightly less grumpy response.)

The final clip of the compilation is interesting. I suppose it's in the nature of news programme interviews that the have to set up conflict but for the interviewer to listen to Derek and then turn to the other chap and say, "Are you happy to hand over your teaching to a computer game?" Bah! I have some sympathy with what David Perks (the other chap) said in reply... we do too often look for the easy fix. However it is not just educators that look for the simple answer. The media also looks for simplistic answers to education's problems. Answers that don't always acknowledge the legitimacy of different approaches for different children/situations. One size rarely (if ever) fits all. I also agree with David that the teacher is more important than the technology. But I suspect Derek would agree with both these points too.

However I'm not sure what David's solution was. He said the problem is that if we perceive school is boring we will end up trying to make it exciting instead of making it better. Or at least that's my interpretation of his position - he didn't get the opportunity to fully explain his concerns or to explore possible solutions. It seemed to me he thought that the main thing that should be done was to change the perception that school is boring. The question remains - how? It reminds me of Billy Connolly's description of his music classes at school where the teacher played music while shouting, "Appreciate! Appreciate!" at pupils. However, Derek got the chance to articulate some of his ideas about improving schooling and he suggested it's about good teachers using a variety of good resources to help children learn effectively. Sounds good to me.

What do you think? Am I being to hard on David Perks? Are we working too hard at entertaining and not hard enough at educating?

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P.S. Sorry that I've been a bit quiet of late. I may say a bit about why in the next post.