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.

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.

Useful Skills in Canvas

Canvas_vertical_colorDuring this edition of Technology in Education I will demonstrate the easiest method (that I know of anyhow) to integrate video into Canvas pages.  This technique will work with YouTube, Microsoft SharePoint, or any other video hosting service that allows embedding via the iframe tag.  Once again we will be using the HTML editor.First we need to select the video we wish to embed into the page we are editing.  On YouTube, videos that are available for embedding, as most are, will have a link to create the embed code for you.  You will merely need to copy this code and paste it into the html already in your page.  If we wish to include this video from OnRamps, for example, we first need to find it on YouTube…chrome_2017-03-10_17-22-58

Once we have located our video we need to find the “Share” link located directly under the title…

chrome_2017-03-10_17-26-10As you can see, the “Share” link is marked with a curved arrow and the word “Share”.

 

 

 

 

Clicking that link will reveal the sharing options we can make use of. The option we want to select is “Embed”.

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Selecting “Embed” will generate a snippet of html code containing our “iframe” that will allow us to embed the video into our page and have it play as though it were part of the page we are creating.  We need to copy the highlighted code and then paste it into the page we are editing using the HTML Editor.

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Once the code is pasted into our page’s html we can click the “Save” button and view the results of our work…

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Your students will be able to watch this video, assuming they have access to YouTube, without the distraction of the “Up Next” list along the right border of the page.  .

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They can access only the material that you want them to view.  Be aware that if the video is hosted on a secure server like Microsoft SharePoint, your students may have to provide a username and password to access the content.  If you look carefully at the code pasted in the example above you will notice that it says whitesboro.sharepoint.com rather than youtube.com as the source of the video.  This is because I am forced to download all videos originating from YouTube and re-host them on our SharePoint video server because students at my school do not have unlimited access to the YouTube site.  It does not matter what source you use, as long as their material is available via an “iframe”

If the material in this post has been of any help, please leave a like a comment, if nothing else, to let me know you are out there 🙂

 

Useful Skills in Canvas

w3c_logoI am going to start a series aimed primarily at teachers who use the Canvas Learning Management System.  I have found, over the course of the last three years, some tips and tricks that can make your experience with Canvas easier, or possibly more effective.  The first trick I will offer is the use of HTML to control how your embedded images relate to the text you place them with in pages, quiz questions.  Most people ignore the HTML editor portion of Canvas and just use the Rich Content Editor.  I think this is a mistake because the HTML editor allows you much more control and functionality.  All you need is a cursory knowledge of in-line style commands and CSS.

Let’s say you wish to add a picture to the top of an informational page.  Ordinarily you would upload the file to Canvas, use the Embedded Image button in the page editor tool bar to place the picture, and then put your cursor where you want the text to appear and start typing.  The problem here is that if you wish the text to appear on one side or the other of the image and/or to wrap the image, it is difficult do do in the Rich Text Editor.  Often you end up with a single line of text next to the image and the rest of your text below the image, like this…

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With the addition of a tiny html snippet into the HTML editor you can go from this to what appears in the image below.

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To accomplish this task we only need open the HTML editor and find the code that embeds the image into the page.  We are looking for the following structure:

chrome_2017-03-08_11-12-51We see the line img src=”https://whitesboro…  This line tells us the source for the picture we have embedded into our page.  We need to edit that html slightly with the addition of the following snippet of html code.

“style=”float: left; padding-right: 15px;”

Everything, including the quotation marks, must be included.  Essentially this line of code tells the HTML browser to float or move the picture always to the left of the text and to give us a 15 pixel space between the right margin of the image and the start of our text.  Entered correctly, the code will now look like this…

chrome_2017-03-08_12-18-23This is the same bit of html with the code snippet above pasted in.  We placed the line of code between the “img” and the “src” and now our text politely starts at the top of our image, wraps nicely around our image, and gives us a 15 pixel buffer space between the right margin of the image and the left margin of the text.  This particular bit of html can be pasted anywhere that you are allowed to edit a page with html.  In fact, I used it on the smaller images on this page at WordPress to allow me to wrap the text around the images.  This is just one example of the power that simple HTML and in-line CSS style commands provide.  The link above will take you to the W3C page on style sheets and you can begin your journey from there.

If information like this is useful to you, please leave a like and share on social media.  If there is some topic you would like covered, please leave a comment below.

Prezi on Purpose

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How often do you assign a presentation to your students over some topic you are covering in class?  How often have you heard “We don’t have that program at home” from those same students?  It IS possible, even in this world of academic pricing and file sharing, for a computer to be without the ubiquitous copy of Microsoft Office.  Some people just don’t have PowerPoint.

As the Bible says in Romans, “They are without excuse.”  One of the best tools for creating presentations and slideshows is available free for the asking, on the Internet.  Prezi.com is equal to, and in some ways superior to Microsoft PowerPoint and the price is definitely right.

Once again, the most important part of choosing a technology tool for the classroom is to make sure it is the right tool for the job.  Prezi provides an easy to learn interface and a very unique format for presenting data.  The semi-3d transitions from topic to topic never fail to impress even those who have seen it before.  It is easy to create and link topic balloons and, with a little practice and preperation, one can link to video, audio, or any other presentation material that may be called for.  While Prezi may not be as versatile as PowerPoint in every way, it certainly provides a rich feature set that can be grasped fairly quickly.  It is easy to use, especially for people who may not be technically inclined.

Another important feature is the location of the media and presentation files.  PowerPoint files must be stored in the cloud or transported to and from school on a flash drive.  Movies and shockwave files must accompany the presentations  or be missing when the time comes to present.  Prezi, on the other hand, is self-contained and online.  Since instituting Prezi I have ceased to hear “I forgot my flashdrive”.  The presentation is available to any system or Internet enabled device without taking up valuable storage space in tablets.  Anything that will attach to a projector or monitor can act as a presentation device and did I mention how cool the transitions look?

Given the fluid nature of school computing, shared devices and classroom sets, as well as the nearly universal presence of broadband Internet,  it makes sense to limit the amount of data that students are required to store locally.  Presenting a topic to the class is an excellent way to learn the material as well as teaching valuable life-skills like public speaking.  Prezi can make that assignment simple and effective.  Give it a try.

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.

Tools for Teachers

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I am starting a new series of blog entries aimed at providing reviews for some of my favorite teacher technology tools.  Hopefully it will be useful to others of my profession.  If nothing else, it might save you some time by showing you what you don’t want to use.

Tonight our first entry will concern a tool that I have used for several years now to create online content and evaluations. Quia.com is a web site that allows the user to import class rosters, build games, activities, and quizzes, and then compile the results into a grade book.  Students are provided a unique user name and password and must log in for the activities to be credited to them.  This is a paid application that I cover out of my own pocket.  The cost is only about $40 per year.  It is well worth the price.  Using this site it is possible to create engaging review games like Hangman, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, virtual flash cards, Battleship, Concentration, and many others.  The games are all content based and provide and thorough and engaging review.  It is also possible to create online quizzes and formal evaluations involving true/false, multiple choice, matching, short answer, and essay questions.  The quizzes and activities with absolute answers (eg. multiple choice or matching questions) grade themselves.  The written questions (eg. short answer or essay) may then be graded by the instructor.  It is possible to embed video, PowerPoint, Flash, and other interactive content directly into the activities to provide a guided learning environment.  For all you flippers out there, this is an excellent tool to provide guided instruction outside of the classroom.  Images, sounds, and other files may be embedded into the activities as instructional material or feedback.

There is an extensive online community to provide support and ideas for the new user.  It is possible to share activities between instructors so if you need inspiration for building a lesson, something is always available and people are willing to help.  Questions may be imported via text files and stored as question banks for year to year continuity.  Every part of the quiz or activity is HTML and LaTex enabled to add a personal touch or emphasis to the questions.  Grading of the questions that require review is simple and different point values may be assigned to each question to provide emphasis.  Students may work the assignments multiple times or be limited to one time only for testing purposes.  Of all the online assignment environments I have used, this is the most complete and the easiest to get started and become adept at.

Free evaluation memberships are available and the cost for a full membership is very reasonable.  I have used quia.com for the past 4 years and I will continue to use it for the foreseeable future.  It has allowed me to convert to an almost completely paperless classroom environment, and is well worth the time to evaluate.  I would highly recommend this site to any educator in almost any grade level.  High school students are engaged by the more complex games and younger students will find activities to match their level of development.  All in all, and excellent educational tool.