WeTeach_CS – Everyone Needs to be Digitally Literate

weteachcs-stacked-orange-largeAnother conference has come and gone.  I attend  a great many of these over the course of a year and one thing I have noticed is that most of them are too big.  TCEA is a wonderful place to share and learn but it is very easy to get lost. Bringing thousands of people together to share ideas, oddly enough, makes sharing those ideas much more difficult.  This is not the case with the WeTeach_CS Computer Science Summit, held each year in Austin at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus.  (That name appeals to me for some reason).

WeTeach_CS is a program sponsored through the Center for STEM Education by  the University of Texas in Austin with the express purpose of promoting Computer Science Education in Texas High Schools.  They are deeply involved in promoting Professional Development for Texas Computer Science Teachers and probably are best known for providing $1000 stipends for teachers who are willing to become certified in Computer Science and to teach it in the State of Texas.  WeTeach_CS provides training and resources in all aspects of Computer Science with a focus on helping teachers successfully pass the TEA 141 exam to become a certified Computer Science Teacher in Texas.  They provide support and resources for currently employed CS teachers to insure that students in Texas High Schools have the best access to Computer Technology and Education available.  They also act as advocates for Computer Science Teachers and educators in general.

To those ends, the staff of WeTeach_CS, led by Dr. Victor Sampson, Director of the Center for STEM Education, and Dr. Carol Fletcher, the Deputy Director of the Center for STEM Education, sponsor a summit meeting of interested Computer Science Teachers, Administrators, Technology Support Staff, and Vendors from across the State and around the Nation.  This event, ably organized behind the scenes by Amy Werst, Manager of Programmatic Operations for the Center, is a great opportunity for educators to share techniques and ideas with their peers from across the state as well as a place be become informed on the condition of Computer Science Education in Texas.

I have been privileged to attend this summit for the last two years (2015/16 and 2016/17) and I can say that, unlike many conference type events, this one is worth the time and effort to attend.  In the past I have attended trainings where the primary function seemed to be getting as many potential customers in front of as many vendors as possible.  Many of the “educator sessions” turned into sales pitches for whatever product the vendor was selling.  While I recognize the need for sponsors and that sponsors should receive benefits for the investment they make, it is very easy to take this to a level so extreme that it ceases to have any educational value at all.  (Advice to all event organizers of this type: Limit vendor/sponsors to the absolute minimum necessary to fund the event and make sure that the content they are providing in their sessions is actually useful to people who aren’t going to buy their products.)

I believe WeTeach_CS Summit organizers hit the balance perfectly.  Aside from main corporate sponsors (IBM and Oracle this year – Thank You Both Very Much!), there were only about 6 vendor sponsors in attendance.  This for a conference of a couple of hundred attendees.  The tables were located in the common break area and the vendors were not intrusive at all.  The sessions they presented were informative and useful, even to people with no intention of purchasing anything.  In short, they were an asset to the meeting and not a distraction.  It would have been very easy to fill the common area up with vendor tables and the organizers could possibly have made more money but I believe that the conference would have suffered.  Hats of the Amy, Carol, and everyone involved for doing a great job organizing.

The facilities provided by UT were, as usual for the university, top notch.  I am anUT Associate Faculty with the OnRamps program as well as a budding Bootstrap presenter and so I frequently attend meetings and presentations at various locations within the University of Texas.  I have never had a bad experience with any UT sponsored event.  The WeTeach_CS Summit for 2016/17 was an excellent reflection upon the University of Texas and the value it places on education in the State of Texas.  (I’m saying this even though I graduated out of the A&M system so you know it has to be true).

If Carol, Amy, and the other attendees of this conference are any indication, the future of Computer Science, and education in general, in Texas, is bright. Given the projected growth of the Computer Industry and all things digital, I would say that the future of the economy and the welfare of the people of Texas is also bright.  At least it will be if Carol Fletcher has anything to say about it.

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Teacher Tools – Day 3

htmlToday my picks for useful teacher tools are both related. HTML stands for Hyper-text Markup Language. It is the code used to create web pages, among other things. The code allows us to present text and other visible features through an HTML aware browser and allows us to create links to other documents using the anchor tag.

Every teacher should be able to write basic HTML and know the common tags.  Teachers should also be familiar with creating and uploading web documents to a site.  HTML is becoming the most common way to present content to students both in the classroom and remotely.  LMS systems like Canvas or Moodle all use HTML to present content and they allow you to edit HTML tags in order to more accurately control the material that you present in your classroom pages.  Being able to control the placement of text around an image, for example, is important to the presentation of your material.  If your pages are difficult or uncomfortable to read, it is likely that students will not read them.  You owe it to yourself and your students to learn the basics of HTML and web design and to use those tools as you create your materials.

The other part of this partnership is the use of Cascading Style Sheets to format and control the appearance of your material.  It is an established design principle that content and formatting should be separate.  Having the information in a different document from the formatting instructions allows you to change the appearance of your material without having to modify, or even touch, your material.  You can also edit your content without having to wade through presentation markup.  The current web model uses a markup technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to accomplish this feat.  The content is stored in an HTML document as basically paragraphs of text with no formatting.  The paragraphs are tagged with class and id names that allow the author to assign presentation information even down to a single letter of a word or sentence.  CSS allows us to separate and update presentation and appearance for an HTML document without having to disturb the content and without having to search through the content for formatting tags.  To become a better teacher in the 21st century classroom you should commit right now to learning at least the basics of HTML and CSS and then establishing an online presence.  Build an educational philosophy page, a curriculum vitae, or a blog site to discuss the things that are important to you.

#TCEA16 Reflections

tcea2016I just got in from unpacking the car after an exhausting and thrilling week at TCEA’s state-wide convention in Austin, TX and now I have a moment to pause and sort out my thoughts before I go take a nap.  (As you might suspect, this will be a short post.  I really need the nap.)

First let me say that there is a great deal of talent, passion, and enthusiasm for technology in education in Texas.  I have spent the week with several thousand people who genuinely care about educating YOUR children.  Public school teachers in Texas are not lazy by any stretch of the imagination.  They are not uncaring.  They want nothing more out of life than to see your child succeed.  They work in the face of impossible odds and with very little in the way of appreciation, either financial or social.  They don’t need a lot.  Texas teachers will teach your kids using old fashioned text books, pen and ink, or the newest SMART board and laptop.  They don’t need a lot but they make use of anything and everything.  This week I saw people using computers and robotics and I saw people using rubber bands and paper clips.  Each was just a excited and committed as the other.  Both groups are now home and reinvigorated and ready to teach on Monday, or at least they will be ready after a good night’s sleep.

To all the teachers who have spent the last week at TCEA I have some suggestions that will make the experience a bit more meaningful…

  1.  Sit down ASAP and write down your impressions and thoughts about the past week.  Don’t let all that experience go to waste.  If you met someone interesting or who offered worthwhile information, write down their contact information and enter it into your phone or email address book.  Make a committment to contact them and continue the relationship.
  2. Recopy any notes that you may have taken.  Use OneNote or some other organizational aid to put what you learned in order.  Don’t let all those brochures and handouts get wadded up into the bottom of a suitcase and tossed out with the trash.  Organize what you brought back.
  3. Commit now to work next year.  We need volunteers.  Every member should spend at least one session as a facilitator or a worker at the TCEA booth or something.  Much of the work for this convention is done by a very few people.  Be one of them.  Besides you get a really cool T-shirt that is different from everyone else’s and it is not one that can be bought or given as a door prize.  The only way to get an “I can help you get connected” T-shirt is to earn it (or you could mug someone else who earned one but that would not be very nice).
  4. REST this weekend.  Sleep late tomorrow.  This convention stuff takes it out of you.  Be ready to get busy on Monday.  Get some sleep.  Take a break tomorrow.
  5. Pick three things that really impressed you and implement or involve them in your classroom.  Don’t try to cram everything in your notes into your daily routine but do incorporate three things.  If one doesn’t work, choose another but you should be able to add three tools to your belt that will make your job easier, better, more effective, or more fun.  Write the other things down and keep them for later but make sure you add three things when you go back to work.
  6. And finally, the most important thing you can do is go back to school and share what you learned.  This is the purpose of the convention in a nutshell.  “Learn and then Teach”.  You have been given a great many opportunities, tools, and tips; share them.  Give a class on something that impressed you.  Build a document that all the teachers from your school can access.  Just don’t waste what you’ve been given.

Well that is my take on it anyhow.  I am going to start organizing my notes while I can still keep my eyes open and I will see you in the classroom on Monday.

Top 10 Tech Skills Every Teacher Needs – Day 2

Tech560Welcome back to day 2 of the top tech skills that every teacher needs to provide a relevant and engaging learning environment in the digital world.  Last time we listed “Search Engine Skills”, “Office Mastery”, and “Social Media”.  Tonight we present three more skills that most teachers will find indispensable.  Remember, these are in NO particular order..

4.  Teachers should be bloggers.  Blogging is a skill that every teacher should posses.  News from your classroom, important current events, and information like assignment instructions can be presented easily to a large audience via a blog site.  Blogging is also a great way to communicate with peers and keep parents informed.  At the very least, blogging is an exercise in discipline.  In order to develop a following, fresh content must be added daily (or at least more than once a week).  Reading blogs allows a teacher to keep abreast of what others are doing.  It is a great way to find useful items for use in your own class.

5.  Creating video content is a vital skill.  Teachers should be familiar with the production and distribution of digital video.  Once upon a time, video creation was reserved to professionals.  Given the abundance of video editing tools, inexpensive cameras, and the ease with which material can be posted to YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites, there is no reason for any teacher to fall behind the video curve.  Case in point,  your humble author built a highlights video for a chemistry class that I taught in 2010 over combustion chemistry.  The effects were done in Adobe After Effects and the final edit was in Premiere Pro.


It’s not about talent, it is about providing information and generating interest in your students.

6.  Teachers should be able to build a web presence.  Using Notepad to code up and ASP or PHP site and posting it via an FTP server is not really necessary (it IS good to know how) but all teachers should have some type of an online presence.  There are many hosting solutions available today with templates already in place that allow a potential webmaster to fill in information and present a fairly professional looking site to the Internet at large.  Your schedule, contact information, a fairly recent picture, and a minimum of biographical information should be available to parents, administrators, students, and, probably most importantly, potential employers.  A web site today is more like a virtual business card/biography.  It should be indexed and easily searchable.  If you keep current and accurate information available on the web, you won’t have to worry about what others post.

Well, that is surely enough for tonight.  I will try to finish up tomorrow.  Meanwhile, have a great evening.

Technology Skills that Every Teacher Must Posses

Tech560One of the most often addressed issues for both teachers and administrators in today’s rapidly changing educational environment is exactly WHAT technologies and applications are needed to successfully deliver the content and practice the skills necessary for a post-industrial education.   What tools do we really need in order to facilitate learning for students today?  I have been researching the question extensively and these ten items seem to be making every list I can find.  No doubt this is not an exhaustive list and surely not everyone’s favorite will be present here but hey…if you don’t see your personal preference then by all means, comment and let me know what it is.  The most common things I have found, in NO particular order, are…

1.  The ability to use key words and control a search engine.  Most people use Google or Bing or some other search engine, and most know that you need to give it a clue as to what you’re looking for, but too many people, teacher or otherwise, have no idea what a search engine is capable of.  Were you aware that presenting keywords in different formats would lead to different results?  Surrounding a word or phrase, for example, with quotation marks means you are looking for that EXACT phrase, spelling, punctuation, etc.  If you enter the terms three, blind, and mice into Google you will get a great many results about eye health, rodent control, and mathematics.  If you enter the phrase “three blind mice” surrounded by quotation marks you will get only results dealing directly with the nursery rhyme in question.

The “-” or minus sign also has great significance to search engines.  If you enter keywords and would like to exclude other key words often associated with whatever you entered, then use the minus sign.  For example, if you wish to search for Batman but avoid any reference to Robin, you might enter Batman -Robin.  You will see many results for the Dark Knight but no reference to his nerdy partner.  The plus or “+” symbol works exactly opposite.  If you want to search for Captain America and specifically get info about his shield you might enter Captain America +shield.  You are likely to get results about Cap, his shield, and you will also likely get results from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.  In order to further filter these results you could use Captain America +vibranium -“Nick Fury”.  We want info about Cap and his accessory but not about the organization of the same name.  If we purposely include a reference to that material that the shield is made from and purposely exclude the leader of the SHIELD organization, it is likely that our results will fall more into the realm of what we want to know.

There are many tutorials available online to learn search engine techniques.  You owe it to your kids to not only learn them, but share them with your classes.  Lets put an end to Search Engine Illiteracy.  A key word is a terrible thing to waste.

2.  Be a Microsoft Office Master.  Microsoft Office is the standard application suite for business in the world today.  Anyone searching for any kind of job in a corporate environment needs to be able to use Word and Excel at the very least.  If you are a teacher then you should not expect your students to do anything that you, yourself, can not do.  Setting up and switching between Chicago, MLA, and APA style formatting and citation should be second nature.  You can’t expect a student to properly format a footnote if you can’t help them get it done.  You should be able to write simple Macros for Excel in VBA and automate various Office tasks.  Passing on those types of soft skills to your students can take you from being a good teacher to being a great teacher.

3.  You should be fluent in Social Media.  Having a Facebook page that you haven’t visited since its inception does not count.  You need to able to communicate with your students using a language that they understand.  You need to be able to teach proper digital citizenship to any and every class you have.  In order to engage students you need to appear relevant.  Without social media interaction you will not be considered so.  You also need to know your limitations.  Social media is a great tool for education as long as it is used by professionals within the guidelines set by your school.  Having your students as friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter can be a tragedy in the making.  Know the rules and know your options.  Tools like Remind.com and Edmoto are invaluable but you still have to follow the rules.

…and speaking of rules.  According to the protocol for content development I have just gone past the amount of material that most people want to digest at any one reading so I am going to transform this entry into a three part series.  Be sure to drop by tomrrow and see the next three technical skills that a teacher needs.