NECC – 4 weeks and counting

Generation YES booth NECC 2006The National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta, Georgia, is about 4 weeks away (June 25-28) and things are getting exciting! For Generation YES, this is “the big one” — the conference that we really go all out for. We even have a yearly “theme” for our booth. For most conferences, we don’t really do much decorating, but for NECC, well, we try. Of course, for us, that means imagination over money! But that’s always more fun, isn’t it?

Last year was our tenth anniversary, so we went to the party store and bought party favors and decorations with a Happy 10th Birthday! theme. That was fun (and cheap!) The Generation YES students are always the best decoration, after all.

This year we had a tougher time, but finally, Megan’s southern picnic idea won the day. We plan to buy a roll of astroturf (cheaper than renting conference carpet) and find a picnic table to use as a meeting table (cheaper than renting conference tables – see a pattern here?) We’ll be back at the party store looking for red checked tablecloths and picnic accessories for decor. We want to use part of our booth to set up a “drive-in” theater, with blankets on the grass and a film projector showing some great student projects, videos, and other movies.

And of course, students will be there to “walk the talk” of student empowerment and ownership of their learning experience.

Constructivist CelebrationThe Constructivist Celebration pre-conference event is completely sold-out, so on Sunday, we will be playing in the Atlanta Botanical Garden with almost 100 constructivist educators and our partners from the Constructivist Consortium. We have students from nearby Barber Middle School in Cobb County coming to help out and show off the technology skills they’ve learned in their TechYES class this year. Tech4Learning, one of our Constructivist Consortium partners, has already sent Barber Middle School packs of their software so that the students could practice ahead of time.

At NECC, we have a full round of events, panels, sessions and of course, time spent in our booth, talking to people about student empowerment through technology. I’ll put up another post with the full schedule next week.

During the conference, the Constructivist Consortium will be giving away some amazing prizes–more on that later as well, this post is getting too long!

We love meeting old friends and new, and NECC is always a great place to do just that. Hope to see you in HOT-lanta, as they say, so come by and chill out with us at the Generation YES picnic!

Hole in the Wall – Can kids learn computer literacy by themselves?

In India, several foundations are working together to build Playground Learning Centers – computers built for the sole purpose of providing Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) opportunities for poor children.

Minimally Invasive Education is defined as a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.
Hole-in-the-Wall website

MIE was defined and extensively researched by Dr. Sugata Mitra, in an amazing project called, “The Hole in the Wall.” This experiment began in 1999 with a single computer literally placed in a hole in a wall between the New Delhi office of NIIT (a computer training school) and the slum outside. The computer was accessible to children and became an instant hit. Local children, many of whom did not attend school regularly, quickly picked up how to use the computer tools, including word processing software and graphics programs and learned to surf the Internet. Some progressed to more complex skills. All of this without understanding a word of English or being able to read at all, even though all the programs and interfaces were in English.

Researchers and newspapers from around the world have documented the success of this first installation, and many more have followed, all with similar results. The impact on many impoverished children has been life-changing. The PBS show Frontline did a story, “One boy in particular, Rajinder, has become a computer whiz and a celebrity in India. “Mainly I go to the Disney site,” Rajinder tells FRONTLINE/World, but he also regularly visits news sites and likes to use computer paint tools. His teacher says that Rajinder is a much better student now: “He has become quite bold and expressive. I’ve got great hopes for this child.”

Computer in the wall

Articles, videos and research online

What about the usual worries? Security, inappropriate access, testing…
From the Christian Science Monitor:

  • In five years, across all locations, [Mitra] says, Hole-in-the-Wall computers have experienced “less than 0.5 percent pornographic access,” adding that the computers “are clearly visible to passing adults.” The fact that both boys and girls have access “completely eliminates pornographic or other undesirable access,” he says.
  • Despite this unconventional, unstructured setting, Mitra claims that, in the past five years, participants have been tested in controlled studies “many times,” and passed the government board examination with no other assistance, with the results documented in scholarly journals like the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.
  • Hole-in-the-Wall has awakened new aspirations in some participants, who have gone on to take courses in preparation for high-tech careers, Mitra says. Many have changed their goals from say, rickshaw driver to engineer, and most now want to go to college.

Classroom Implications
Far from being a repudiation of classroom learning or an insult to teachers, the research on MIE shows that unstructured learning strengthens behavior that translates to classroom success.

Learning Dynamics

This doesn’t mean that teachers don’t teach, but can look for opportunities to leverage unstructured success into more structured academic success. By asking an interesting question or by providing a clue to a frustrated student, teachers can scaffold student learning more than by direct instruction. Allowing unstructured learning opportunities frees the teacher up from teaching basic skills to focus on the big picture and give individual help as needed.

“If computer literacy is defined as turning a computer on and off and doing the basic functions, then this method allows that kind of computer literacy to be achieved with no formal instruction. Therefore any formal instruction for that kind of education is a waste of time and money. You can use that time and money to have a teacher teach something else that children cannot learn on their own.” -Dr. Mitra

Many veteran Generation YES teachers tell us that their best experiences come when they “let go” and let students take the lead in the classroom.

In many new Generation YES schools, teachers want to spend time teaching application features to students with the the thought that once learned, students will be better able to tackle projects of interest.

From more veteran Generation YES teachers, however, we often hear that it’s better to do a quick intro and then jump immediately into project work, allowing for student collaboration and discovery. Rather than being chaotic and out of control, teachers report to us that it creates a unique classroom laboratory, where students share discoveries and go further, faster.

For some teachers, this is a leap of faith that students will gain the necessary skills for the long run. A peak through this “hole in the wall” might be convincing!


Treasure trove for constructivist classroom projects

Dr. Alice Christie from Arizona State University has a wonderful site packed with great resources and reading for constructivist educators looking for project-based learning resources. We know Dr. Christie well from her research on student collaboration and GenY, student voice, and many other student-centered papers, presentations, and resources.

The educational technology resource page lists subjects like geocaching, webquests, podcasting, multimedia, and more. Not only are there great examples and ideas, but links to many school websites showing these ideas in action.

For example, one subject that many of our TechYES teachers ask about is spreadsheets, and how to find interesting data for students to use. Dr. Christie’s site has data sources, example spreadsheets, lessons, ideas, articles, and more.

Finally, teachers and grant-writers looking for research to support student-centered, project-based programs like GenYES should definitely look at Dr. Christie’s research and publication page.

E6 Learning Model - Maximizing Constructivist Learning

Application triage to enable differentiated learning

Doug Johnson of the Blue Skunk Blog had an interesting post the other day about how to choose from the zillions of software and web 2.0 choices bombarding us every day. He called it – Application Triage.

His criteria:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Ubiquity
  3. Reliability
  4. Usability
  5. Affordability

In a comment, I suggested adding “Extensibility” – the idea that applications selected for students should have ways to accommodate more expert use, without compromising the simplicity and usability criteria. Doug asked if I could provide examples, saying, “I’ve personally always like what I call “tinker toy” software that lets me build instead of just use things that are already built. And a lot of kids do too. Not so sure about adults!

Unfortunately, there used to be more examples in widespread use in schools. Logo, HyperStudio and HyperCard were great applications that provided this “no floor, no ceiling” experience.

Good examples: hardware – cameras, computers, even ipods have hidden features that most people don’t know and don’t care about. You can click the button and get a nice picture or hear a song, but if you want to, there are settings and options that allow greater creativity and artistry. When you are ready, the hardware accommodates your new interest.

I think the key phrases here are: if you want to, and when you are ready

Tools with programming – There are a few programming languages very appropriate for students that offer easy entry and quick ways to do presentations and multimedia projects, but also allow for user control of objects (if you want to, when you are ready…)

For example, why teach PowerPoint when Flash is just as easy to learn, yet can be programmed AND do animations? I hear people say that PowerPoint is a good place to start, but it’s often the end as well. What a shame. For a student who has the potential to develop more expertise, PowerPoint is a limiting technology, not an enabling one.

Sure, use PowerPoint when needed, but it’s hardly worth teaching students endless lessons and activities to improve their PowerPoint use. Move along here, there’s nothing to see.

Or – Why not teach kids HTML instead of making them learn some “easy” editor. Most student web pages use 3 or 4 basic HTML tags. It’s hardly rocket science. I know, I know I can hear the groans from teachers everywhere.

But HTML (if you want to, when you are ready…) is the basic building block of every website from to your own school site.

It’s an unfortunate fact that many issues surrounding teaching technology reflect adult fears, not student ability or needs.

We talk about differentiated instruction, but that concept shouldn’t stop at the instructional door. Everything we put in kids’ hands should have the ability to offer differentiated and leveled experiences for kids when they want to, when they are ready


Constructivist teaching – virtually

Here’s a video of a music teacher in Newfoundland who teaches students across the miles.

From a teaching point of view, there are many noteworthy things in this video that are applicable to any subject, whether virtual or not.

  1. The teacher’s personal passion for the subject.
  2. The teacher’s focus on connecting the student’s existing interests and experiences to the class material.
  3. The teacher’s interest in finding tools that allow students to construct final products that are meaningful to the student and that can be shared with others.

The fact that this teacher uses a particular blog tool or sound editor is not as important as the fact that he makes these choices to leverage the students ability to produce something beyond the blog and beyond the mere output of a sound file.

Blogging is not a magic tool. Just the mere act of blogging is not constructive, it’s just another way to write. There are blogs being assigned to students today that are the virtual equivalent of the 5 paragraph essay–unauthentic and completely lacking value in the real world.

Creating a constructivist learning experience still takes a teacher who can create a learning environment, virtual or not, that pushes students to see themselves as capable of producing something of value to themselves and to others, and then facillitates them doing just that.

Thanks to Kelly Christopherson who posted this (and where it’s from) on his blog on Classroom 2.0.

Game-making with students – resources & rationale from Australia

Australia has long been a stronghold of digital game-making and programming as an academic subject. Why Australia? My friend Tony Forster says this, “I’m wary of stereotypes but we do have a national stereotype of making do with improvised junkyard creations, that fits with taking game freeware and repurposing it. We seem to lean more to constructivism than the US. The US leans particularly towards instruction in the current pendulum swing.”

From my own travels, I hear quite a bit of interest in U.S. schools about game design and robotics. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back! So, we can look to Australia for a peek into the community and resources that sustain this terrific educational activity. Warning! This is a long post!

“The computer is a medium of human expression and if it has not yet had its Shakespeares, its Michelangelos or its Einsteins, it will. …. We have scarcely begun to grasp its human and social implications.”
Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking By Seymour Papert

A Peek into the Australian GameMaker Community

GameMaker is one of a number of educationally-appropriate engines available for game development. Three Australians: Bill Kerr, Margaret Meijers and Tony Forster independently discovered Gamemaker and its potential as a learning tool for school students. Through their efforts, a number of Australian Schools have discovered Gamemaker and built a strong community that supports their own efforts and welcomes new participants.

Bill Kerr teaches secondary school students at Woodville High School, Margaret Meijers teaches at Newtown High School and has developed material for the Tasmanian Education Department, and Tony Forster, a parent, runs the Haileybury Computer Club.

Here are their websites:

  • Schoolgamemaker – Programming Games at School Tony Forster’s website has sample student work, useful snippets of code, and a collection of quotes and articles supporting game design in school.
  • Bill Kerr’s Website Articles and free GameMaker educational resources
  • ICT Mindtools Extensive website by Margaret Meijers with links, tutorials, resources for teachers and video demos. “The title ‘ICT Mindtools’ is designed to bring a focus on uses of ICT where students are required to use higher order thinking skills to become producers, rather than just consumers, of ICT products.”

There are teachers all around the world using game design and programming as an educational activity, but I think the Australian community is particularly strong, and a great example of just a few like-minded people finding each other across space and time to build community and share resources.

Pedagogical base supporting game design as an educational activity (most of this supplied by Tony)

Game design and programming is firmly based in constructivist learning theory – that children learn best when they are active agents in their learning and are given authentic and relevant tasks.

Game programming was advanced by Seymour Papert of MIT and is the originator of Logo which later was commercialized as Microworlds. MIT was also involved in the programming of Lego Mindstorms. The justification for teaching Logo to young children was that programming a computer is a powerful experience where a child can “…learn to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a complexity that was not previously accessible to children.” (Papert)

Seymour Papert Collected Works. Seymour Papert is the father of educational computing, and often talks about children making games as part of his vision that students use computers as constructive materials in every aspect of education. A good article to start with is Looking at Technology Through School-colored Spectacles.

There is research which supports the value of game programming as an educationally valuable activity for children of all ages.


  • The Game Maker’s Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners
    by Jacob Habgood & Mark Overmars (Amazon link)
  • Minds in Play: Computer Game Design as a Context for Children’s Learning (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1995) (Amazon link) (Questia link)

Last but not least – learn with your students and join with others

Don’t suppose that you need to learn a game engine perfectly before you introduce it to students. The experience of learning together is valuable. There are people worldwide who will help.

“there is such a thing as becoming a good learner and therefore … teachers should do a lot of learning in the presence of the children and in collaboration with them.”
Seymour Papert

Hooked on instruction

Classroom photo - stock.xchngPicture this – a classroom buzzing with activity, with students actively engaged in meaningful projects that challenge their minds. The volume is high and there’s a lot of movement, but it’s obvious that this is not chaos – something interesting is going on. The teacher walks through the room, dipping into student conversations, keeping things on track, and offering suggestions and comments.

Down the hall, a teacher stands in front of the class, talking and writing on the whiteboard. The students are quiet and attentive, taking notes, and sometimes raising their hands to ask questions.

I would guess that many, if not all teachers aspire to more classroom #1 and less #2. So what keeps teachers from teaching this way all the time?

Here’s one reason you may not have thought of – there is an immediate payoff for instruction. Every teacher wants to “see” children learn, to see that lightbulb light up, to hear a student say something smart. When you tell someone something, and they can immediately repeat it back, it feels good. You’ve accomplished something.

If I tell you that the Romans had the most advanced civilization in the ancient world, when you get that quiz question right, I feel good about my abilities as a teacher. It’s the fastest path to validation for the teacher and the student. A+ for both of us!

Students get addicted to instruction just like teachers. “What do I do? How many pages? How many words?” My 8th grade history teacher used to say, “You cook a turkey until it’s done.” Now that was scary stuff.

The payoff for teaching without relying heavily on instruction is different. The teacher has to wait longer and it’s not always as clear. Sometimes it looks messy along the way. But teachers who teach this way will tell you it’s a much bigger and better payoff for themselves and their students.

You can call it constructivist, guide-on-the-side (vs. sage-on-the-stage), project-based, Classroom 2.0, or progressive. When we wonder why it doesn’t happen more often, think about the payoff. Are you willing to wait?


Game design as an educational activity

Thinking about game design as an educational activity for students? It’s a great one! The act of designing and creating a game requires critical thinking, planning, expressing your thoughts for an audience, mastery of programming, text, visual and human interface literacy….. I could go on and on.

Virtual pet gameThere tends to be a huge gap in schools betweeen introductory courses in computer applications and AP computer science or IT certification courses. Game design is the perfect way to fill that gap with cross-curricular, constructivist projects that are of high interest to a wide variety of students.

There are many educators using game design in their classrooms. One I happen to know personally is Bill Kerr in Australia. Bill runs a blog where he discusses his use of games and game engines with his students.

Game Engines – Game engines vary a lot in complexity, so it really depends how deep you want to get into scripting and programming.

  • MicroWorlds EX Robotics (commercial) – A new multimedia version of Logo (see below). Great for games. Numerous projects and ideas for students.
  • MicroWorlds Jr. (commercial) – Logo for pre-readers (Pk-2). Yes, they can! Comes with resources and projects for students.
  • Scratch (free) – iconic open source language
  • NetLogo (free) – math oriented Logo
  • StarLogo TNG (free) – allows exploration of massively parallel processing, which may indeed be the way the world really works
  • Squeak (open source) – the result of 30 years of Alan Kay’s R&D
  • Agentsheets (commercial) – uses a spreadsheet metaphor as the data structure
  • Toontalk (commercial – PC only) – you have to see this for yourself
  • Game Maker (open source commercial – PC only) – drag and drop actions with a language for customizing game action. Offers reduced site licenses for schools, course materials and student guides.
  • Stagecast Creator (commercial PC/Linux) – point and click interface

Logo – This language is the real deal for K-12 students. It allows students to come in contact with powerful ideas in the process of making something. Logo was designed so that the act of programming becomes a conversation with the machine, increasing student understanding and awareness in the process. Logo is also the perfect language for robots, so any would-be warehouse warriors should check this out. Many teacher resources, articles, project ideas and links to Logo organizations can be found at Gary Stager’s website.

Consumer Game Engines – Want to understand more about game design and consumer game engines? Try this website. It’s intended for people who want to break into the video or PC game business, but there are some good resources on game engines, modding, and lots of links (check out lesson #56).

One Laptop Per Child

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is an global education project that is working to make it possible for developing countries to purchase laptops for their children. OLPC was founded by Nicholas Negroponte with a core of Media Lab veterans, and is based on the pioneering work of Seymour Papert, the father of educational computing and constructionism, who has spent his life putting the power of computational technology into children’s hands.OLPC in NigeriaVery recently, beta laptops were delivered to children in Nigeria. This would seem to be a cause for celebration, however there has been much skepticism about the plan. It’s too complicated to go into all the arguments for and against this plan, but two of them are of particular interest to us here at Generation YES.

One objection seems to be centered around the personality of Mr. Negroponte. He’s been called “pushy” “overbearing” “self-aggrandizing” and much worse. This sounds really familiar to us. I’ve heard many of these things said about Dennis Harper and others who have a passionate belief that it is their responsibility to change the world for the better. It takes a big personality to dream up big changes, challenge the status quo, and make them happen.

The second objection is that the OLPC implementation plan is based on “magic” – that handing out laptops to children will fail because there is no implementation plan. This is of course ridiculous and silly name calling. People may not like the plan–it’s clearly revolutionary because it focuses on children, not the adults. Read more here.

The alternative plans often touted typically involve first teaching teachers how to use the laptop, giving them carefully scripted lessons to teach the children, developing educational software for them, and then carefully phasing in laptop use by actual children. (Sound familiar?)

I was recently asked to do a guest blog on the OLPC News website (not affiliated with the OLPC project.) OLPC News tries to be an “independent source for news, information, commentary, and discussion” of the OLPC project. Although it skews towards skepticism, they do try to be fair overall. They asked me to share some insight on how our Generation YES experience might shed some light on the OLPC project. I did so in this guest blog post on their site.

I realized it would be a somewhat hostile audience, but it’s worth it to get the message out that Dr. Papert’s pioneering work and belief in “Kid Power” is not magic. Generation YES schools are testaments to that.

I hope I made some good points and don’t get hammered too hard in the comments!

Constructivist Celebration @ NECC

Constructivist Celebration logoJoin colleagues in a daylong celebration of creativity, computing & constructivist learning at the beautiful Atlanta Botanical Garden on June 24th, 2007. This is the day before the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Atlanta, GA starts.

The Constructivist Celebration is the inaugural event for the new Constructivist Consortium, an industry cooperative designed to showcase software and curriculum products that support creativity, constructivist learning, and student empowerment.

Peter Reynolds and Gary Stager kick the day off with an inspirational keynote address. Then it’s your turn to jump into exciting hands-on projects led by some of the nation’s finest ed tech leaders. The day ends with an opportunity to share your creations and a panel discussion, Sustaining Constructivist Learning, featuring leaders of LCSI, Generation YES, Schoolkit, Tech4Learning, and Fablevision.

In addition to a day full of learning adventures, your registration includes a southern barbecue lunch and a fabulous collection of materials.

  • LCSI will provide each participant with a single-user license copy of MicroWorlds EX & MicroWorlds Jr.
  • Tech4Learning will provide each participant with a single-user licensed copy of Frames, Pixie, ImageBlender, WebBlender & Twist.
  • Materials from other members of the consortium will also be available.

We have invited the TechYES students and teacher from nearby Barber Middle School to participate as well.

The Constructivist Celebration @ NECC
June 24, 2007, 9:00 – 4:00 PM
Atlanta Botanical Garden
Atlanta, Georgia

All for only $25!

Find out more and register today at:

Register today! Space is extremely limited!