Why I Want My Students' To Work Online

Something interesting happens when a student does a Google search for something and either their own work or the work of a classmate shows up. Today was the first day that actually happened!

A little background first: As a concluding project to studying the "Progressive Era" in American History, our 8th graders have to give a class presentation about a National Park of their choice. This is a "role playing" project which has them take on the persona of a park ranger who must give a presentation to a congressional over-site committee. The goal of the presentation is to convince committee members to not de-fund or close their park. Here's a link to the project site if your interested. As an aside, I like this project, in part, because a component of the rubric has them contacting an actual NP Ranger. Most students just want to email, but a majority wind up having to make a phone call and talk to a live Ranger. We've got to work on our people skills along side the digital ones!

In the process of doing research on their national parks, I was teaching them how to use the filetype: operator in Google to search for KMZ files when low and behold the top entry for a Shenandoah National Park search was from our school wiki page.

The lesson my wide-eyed students took away from this was that their work, which gets posted online, is important. It's not important because they are getting a grade, or because it's for a presentation they will have to give in front of an actual audience, but rather because their work is digitally permanent.

It was neat to see their reactions when I told them that file was uploaded back in 2008...an eternity ago for a middle schooler! If the work which a student did almost four years ago is coming up in the search results now, what might happen to the work they post today?

The answer to that question has all sorts of implications, many of which I won't get into here, but the most obvious one is of quality. All of the sudden knowing that someone from the future will use their work all of the sudden ups the ante on their effort.

Never discount the power of audience, either now...or in future!

If you're interested, here is a list of helpful search links and/or sites:

  • Google Search Operators--http://www.googleguide.com/advanced_operators.html
  • My Diigo sites about Search--
  • Power Searching with Google--

Unexpected Urgency

Over the past two or three years, I've felt a sense of urgency to be creating more computer science related learning activities for students.

There are many likely catalysts for moving in this direction, none of which is my experience with computer science. After all, I was not a computer science major in my education program, I didn't / don't particularly enjoy math and I'm not particularly good at logical, critical thinking puzzles. I used to think I was a good logical problem-solver until I was asked to help troubleshoot the class schedules of our entire middle school schedule and I felt my brain locked up; my thinker just does not feel at home in certain areas.

By nature I'm an end user. If you asked me to figure out how to use something, I can generally do it. Please don't ask me to program it or create a flow chart around the logic of it's design.

So here I am with this glowing feeling of inadequacy about my lack of skill in the process of programming, while at the same time I know I should be teaching my students to THINK like computer scientists!

Then it dawned me...the power of teaching in this digital age of learning isn't that you always have to be the knowledge expert, but rather you need to be be able to help students curate their own learning. While that sounds awkward, it makes quite a bit of sense. I've seen this most to be the case in the electives I have chosen to "teach." The emphasis has shifted away from what content related area do I know that most about, to which subject/class idea has the most resources available to help me facilitate and mentor students! If I stumble as a teacher, it's not that I don't know how to do something, but that I wasn't able to connect my students with the people/resources they need to help them learn.

Now I am NOT saying that teachers should not be knowledge experts. For example, I "taught" a computer science elective this past semester which focused mainly on using the program Scratch. I know how to use Scratch, and I know how to help students storyboard and plan their ideas, I just wasn't quick at the troubleshooting process. My helping students learn to debug involved asking a LOT of questions and relying on other students (near and far) to provide insight:
"Is there a YouTube video about how to do that?"
"What other script could you have used to get the same result?"
"What would happen if you tried the other script instead?"
"Did you find any Scratch discussion forums addressing this same issue?" 
I didn't particularly know the answers to those questions, but nine times out of ten my students where able to learn the correct answer. 

The one thing I do know, however, is it is important for kids to know how to think like computer scientists. Regardless of my adequacy in that area.

Douglas Rushkoff in his book, "Program or Be Programmed" says:
Digit technology is programmed. This makes it biased toward those with the capacity to write the code. In a digital age, we must learn how to make the software, or risk becoming the software. It is not too difficult or too late to learn the code behind the things we use--or at least to understand that there is code behind their interfaces. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of those who do the programming, the people paying them, or even the technology itself. (p128)

So, comfortable or not, it's time to start pushing a little bit more into the areas of programming (slowly learning javascript at CodeAcademy). Maybe not so much the language itself, but the skill sets that accompany them.

Now to be sure, the "discipline" of computer science is much broader and deeper than learning a programming language, but it's not a bad place to start. It is my goal that within the next three or so years, to start encouraging my faculty to integrate the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) K-12 Computer Science Standards (membership to CSTA is free by the way).

I definitely don't have this all figured out, but you've got to start somewhere, right?

image "Binary" by Flickr user: noegrandado
Used under an Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike Creative Commons License.