TCEA 2016: Here We Go Again

tcea2016Here I come again now Babaaayy!  I never knew what In a gad da davita meant and I was afraid to Google it just in case it was something bad and I had to quit listening to Iron Butterfly.  Anyhow, TCEA is already posting the web site for TCEA2016.  I had an outstanding time at the expo this year, and with any luck we will be taking another group in February ’16.

My 2015 presentation was a great success.  A member of TCCA was in the audience and he invited me to apply to present at the TCCA conference in October.  With any luck I will be introducing those folks to the wonder of Greenfoot next year.  The TCEA 2016 presentation window should also be opening pretty soon.  This year I am proposing two half day presentations: Modding Minecraft Made Easy and Getting Green Again: Greenfoot Java. It would be nice to have two days of presenting for next year.

Why do I care about educational technology and Computer Science you may ask. I see the opportunities that kids today have and I think back to my own educational experience. The year I graduated college, our university put in the first computer lab for general student use. I took programming with Basic and was hooked. I suspect my life would have been quite different if the current level of technology had been available to me then.  Regardless, it is important that we do everything we can to encourage student interest in technology and development in particular. Not everyone has the knack for programming but for those who do, it is better that they start early. I look forward each year to introducing students to the satisfaction that comes with seeing something they build run and work as expected.

If you are a teacher, find a reason to introduce coding into your curriculum. HourOfCode.org is a great place to start.  If you are a student, get involved, learn,  buy in.  If you are an administrator, find a teacher that is willing to try this and support them.  Give them the latitude to work technology into the curriculum.  If you are a parent, give your kids the opportunity to learn something besides facebook and twitter and instagram.  Encourage them to learn, to explore, and grow on their own.  Sign them up for a camp, let them join a club,  buy them a computer and get involved.  You never know…You might learn something as well.

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Livin’ The Dream(spark)

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Today’s entry into educational technology tools is not simply a web site or single piece of software, it is a licensing plan offered by Microsoft to get professional quality development tools into the hands of students.  The program is called Dreamspark and it is the best way to provide real tools for students at a price that any school district can live with.

Many development companies, technology shops, and “just plain businesses” use Microsoft development tools and Operating System software as the foundation of their business models.  Given that the shortage of qualified developers and technical workers continues to grow, Microsoft has decided that providing their tools to up and coming young programmers can help alleviate the gap between qualified applications and jobs.  They have developed a program that allows students and faculty to have access to their flag ship business products for a tiny fraction of the cost that business pay.

The Dreamspark program is available to qualified and accredited High School and Universities and provides software packages for students and staff to be used for educational purposes.  Visual Studio Professional 2013 (and soon 2015), MS SQL Server, Windows Server 2012, and all the various flavors of Windows 8.1 are available for home and school use for around $100 per year depending on your circumstances.  These are not crippled academic or “lite” versions, this is the real thing.  If your school district can find someone to teach it, Microsoft will provide the tools to build the class.  To give an example of the value of this program, one copy of Visual Studio 2013, purchase retail runs about $500.  A copy of MS SQL Server standard goes for about $1000, and a full copy of Server 2012 standard, depending on the number of clients and other factors, can run from $500 to more than $2000 per copy.  Dreamspark provides all this and more for around $100 per year.  The software may be downloaded be each student for use at home via a personalized web store.  Essentially there are no limits to the numbers (although I think they cap the install keys at 500).  The price is hard to beat.

Many companies are seeing the value of providing professional tools to students who are interested in the learning those products.  Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions for academic use can be had for around $20 per month (the commercial license runs about $50 per month for individual use and $70 a month of businesses).  3D software like 3DS Max and Motionbuilder by Autodesk can be used for free by students on a yearly basis but costs thousands to be purchased for commercial projects.  It is sincerely worth your while as an educator to investigate what titles are available for academic discounts.  You owe it to your students and your self to see what is available.

Get in Kahoots!!

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One of the best uses of technology in a classroom setting is to facilitate engagement in the audience.  Students retain more when they are authentically interested in and invested in the lessons we are presenting.  Technology can make presentations more interesting and thus easier to retain.

One tool that I have found to fill this role is an online review and quiz creation tool called Kahoot.  The URL is http://getkahoot.com and accounts are available for no cost.  This site allows an instructor to create interesting and interactive short quizzes that students may participate in from any Internet enabled device.  I have tested it with iPhones, Android, Chromebooks, Surfaces, and traditional computers, and all will work perfectly.  The presentation is energetic and fast-paced.  The content environment is very similar to a video game.  Every student to whom I have presented these activities has pronounced them a success.

The process is simple and intuitive.  The instructor creates a short quiz using questions of their own design as well as images that support the content.  If you can’t find an image for a particular question, Kahoot will supply one.  Once the quiz is built, Kahoot generates a random access code and provides a URL for the students to log in.  When they access the site they are required to enter a name.  Part of the fun is allowing the student to select their own username rather than limiting them to the name they were given at birth.  As the students log on, their usernames appear on the web site, which should be visible to all in the class via a screen or white board.  Either will work.  When all participants have logged in, the quiz may be started by means of a button on the main screen.  Review questions are presented on the main screen at short intervals, maybe 30 seconds.  The time limit may be changed according to the instructor’s wishes.  The students read the questions from the main screen but THEIR device shows a simple interface of four buttons.  When a question appears, the students have a limited amount of time to select one of the buttons.  When all students have answered, or the time has expired, the correct answer is automatically displayed and the page moves on to the next question.  This continues, along with a sound track of lively music, until all questions have been answered.  The overall experience is very much like a fast-paced video game.  By the third or fourth question, most, if not all, students are authentically engaged in the learning process.  I have seen a marked improvement in test scores when using this tool as a review compared to the traditional pen and paper assignment method.

When selecting a piece of technology to use in the classroom it is important to realize that different tools are for different purposes.  The questions in Kahoot must, of necessity, be short, as the engine that makes this site work is Twitter.  This is a tool designed for review and reinforcement.  It is not a place to present new material or assign questions that require extended answers.  For an application like that, a site like Quia.com, which allows for extended questions and detailed answers as well as embedded content, would be more appropriate.  If, however, you need to review your students for a chapter or unit vocabulary test for example, then this site is perfect.

I am seeing a good bit of criticism today concerning the ever expanding role of technology in the classroom.  I am also seeing students who are learning to read at 4 or 5 instead of 6 years old.  Many people, particularly older folks, sneer at more modern educational methods as though somehow they are inferior to the “good old days”.  Life in the now makes more and different demands on those who live it, and education must necessarily change to meet those demands.  Don’t let anyone intimidate you away from trying new and different methods of teaching.  Tailor the method to the audience,  make sure the content is there, and you are guaranteed success.

An Intriguing Project…

I recently received a second hand Dell all in one PC that refused to boot.  After a cursory examination of the motherboard I discovered that nearly all of the capacitors were either greatly swollen or already burst.  Without a great deal of solder surgery this system will never boot again.  I currently have a re-cap project in the works and the value of the system is such that it is not really worth the work required to replace all the different caps on this board.  While I was carrying the corpse to the dumpster a thought struck.  Here I have a perfectly functional PC case/monitor combo with no motherboard.  On the other hand, I have a perfectly serviceable Raspberry Pi and I have no clue what to do with it.  Why not combine the two into a (not very) portable PC monitor combo and break out the Pi’s various inputs and outputs and run them through the various ports on the computer case.

Step 1:  I started with a defunct Dell 745 OptiPlex “All in One”

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Step 2:  I removed the unit from the monitor and completely emptied the case.  Motherboard, fans, hard drive, and all other hardware connected with the original system was removed.

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Step 3:  I used one of the original motherboard risers to mount a Raspberry Pi (running Raspian) in the center of the case.  It is currently booting from an 8 GB SD card.  I investigated the possibility of actually using the SATA disk drive that came with the original system but discovered that there is no SATA controller available on the Pi and no way to connect one to boot.  I will have to continue to boot from the SD card and then mount a USB hard drive for file storage, etc.

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This is as far as I have gotten tonight.  I have a 7 port powered USB hub that I will remove from its case and wire into a circuit with the existing power switch.  I can connect the hub to the existing ports in the back and front of the case to make them operational again.  I have also purchased an HDMI to VGA converter that I can attach to the original VGA port on the back of the case and plug the HDMI into the PI.  I know I could just use the HDMI straight out of the case and connect to an HDMI monitor but the built-in monitor only has a VGA input so it would violate the build idea of keeping everything as original as possible.  Instead of a built-in power supply, this case uses an adapter transformer similar to a laptop charger cable.  It uses an eight port plug to connect to the case.  I can build a Molex connector and break out the power to run the Pi, the USB hub, and any other components we may need.  I can also run a network cable from the Pi to the wired network connection port on the back of the case to make it operational.  Now I need to figure out how to get a “breakout” cable to allow the various input/output ports on the Pi to be used without opening the case.  As the build progresses I will update the blog.  Meanwhile, school starts back up on Monday and our robotics contest is Jan. 24th.  Wish us luck.