Category Archives: Maker Learning

Maker Spaces and Digital Fabrication Democratize Learning

As Paulo Blikstein noted “Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of the schools by the mandates of standardized testing.” If you’re a parent who is frustrated by this, perhaps you sign your child up an after-school robotics class, or you register for an online program such as DIY.org, or maybe it’s a kind of hybrid plan and you order your daughter (or son) a Blink Blink creative circuits project kit. If you’re a teacher, maybe you sign yourself up for a professional development event, such as “Project-Based Learning Integration: From Design to Evaluation” held on June 9 at the Beam Center.

It was refreshing to witness the engagement of about 30 educators while learning about the background of project-based learning (PBL) and digital fabrication and working together to brainstorm appropriate projects.

Not only did we learn about how maker spaces need to be designed for optimal impact, but we also personally experienced first-hand some of the challenges of designing effective projects.

What is Beam?

The evening’s session was hosted by Brian Cohen, Co-Director of the Beam Center and facilitated by Nancy Otero, Director of Professional Development. The Beam Center, located in the transitioning industrial waterfront of Red Hook, has a number of different offerings, ranging from collaborative projects with kids, working with schools to develop their own programs, and professional development.

Their programs include after-school workshops for elementary school children and programs for high school students in which they collaborate with engineers and artists. Beam Camp is held in Strafford, New Hampshire and includes both full summer sessions as well as one-month experiences that are focused on a new and unique building project for each session.

Key Concepts of Project-Based Learning

Surrounded by projects spanning conductible yarn to a dome-like tent that projects digital representations of the constellations, we were first provided an overview of PBL. Otero is also Curriculum Coordinator and Developer for theTransformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University and founder of Active Emergence, a group that helps schools develop MakerSpaces orFabLabs@School. She shared a number of key concepts associated with successful PBL:

  • Space matters: As David Kelley of IDEO has pointed out, “We read our physical environment, like we read a human face.” Otero stressed the importance of making learning spaces gender neutral and accessible, with ample examples of what types of projects are possible.
  • Let kids explore: Here we were encouraged to consider Maria Montessori’s advice to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
  • CREATE: According to Otero, successful projects share the following characteristics.
    • Child Direct: Let students choose, be curious and lead.
    • Risk Friendly: Encourage successful failures.
    • Emotionally Attuned: Praise process rather than people.
    • Active: Judge activities by tinkerability and playfulness.
    • Time Flexible: Help students find and stay in flow.
    • Exploratory: Ask open questions.

The Need to be Purposeful in Terms of Diversity and Design

Two main findings tell us that we need to be purposeful both in terms of how we encourage participation in PBL and digital fabrication as well as in how we design the actual learning experiences. As Otero shared with our group:

  • Diversity is something we need to continually strive for. According to Leah Bueckey’s keynote at FabLearn 2013:
    • Of the 36 magazine covers depicting maker projects and curricula, 85% of the people shown were male, O% were African American;
    • Of 512 articles surveyed, 85% were written by male authors;
    • Of the projects developed to date, 90% appear to be in the category of electronics, vehicles and robots.
  • Order matters: In designing learning activities, studies have shown that students learn better when given the opportunity to experiment and then are provided with instruction. Think of the flipped classroom methodology. Experiments by Schneider and Blikstein show higher performance on tasks when students are allowed to discover for themselves rather than having to first listen to instructions on how to perform the tasks.

Trying It on for Size

As we found out, designing such projects has its challenges. Walking around the room as smaller groups worked through the process of planning sample projects, Otero encouraged active brainstorming and discouraged the tendency to lead with technology. She challenged groups to focus on individual concepts that students could learn while working through projects that ranged from urban design, working with fractions, and conductivity. What did we want the kids to learn?

What’s ahead for PBL and Digital Fabrication?

According to Otero, “We are seeing more and more independent schools implementing [these projects] as a tool for multidisciplinary activities, teaching robotics and programing. More and more teachers from public and independent schools are interested in using technology even though it’s not clear how to integrate it or evaluate it. Parents and students are asking for these spaces and classes. They will happen, hopefully as a tool to understand technology and find it less alienating, and as a way to democratize invention.”

While a growing range of opportunities exist outside of school for PBL in after-school programs, maker clubs and spaces, in online programs and within the homeschooling and unschooling communities, Blikstein’s comments continue to ring true. Hopefully, with programs such as those at the Beam Center and the growing DIY and Maker movements, one day we will prove Blikstein wrong and see this type of innovation integrated in the schools as well. I think he might be OK with that.

Women, Girls & Tech: Building Engagement in Business and Learning

Most of us know the statistics. On average, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. And only 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce is comprised of women. But maybe you are like me, and you think your gender hasn’t played as much of a role in your career trajectory.

I cut my professional teeth in a university teaching department that was led by women for the most part and in which women held the majority of positions. Somewhat conversely, I’ve worked in and on the edges of edtech for the past couple of decades, and I’ve been in situations where men dominated the top of the chain of command and where men made up the majority of engineering teams. The women I knew and worked with ran complex learning design projects and marketing efforts. We all formed an ecosystem in which people played their part, jobs got done and gender was not a frequent topic of discussion.

Stay with me here. I’m building up to something.

Opportunities for Women in Tech

Recently, as I’ve explored edtech from a K-12 perspective, I’ve been introduced to women in very strong leadership positions, running companies that are considered to be the forefront of their field: Alex Meis, Co-Founder of Kinvolved; Maya Gat, CEO and Co-Founder of Branching Minds; Juliette LaMontagne, CEO and Founder of Breaker, to name a few.

So, I was a little surprised (not shocked) to hear that when the New York Tech Meetup (NYTM) group first started inviting people to demo, very few women were applying.  For that reason, according to Executive Director Jessica Laurence, they started offering a Women’s Demo Night and were able to generate interest from women entrepreneurs.

NYTM is the largest Meetup group in the world, with about 44,000 members currently. At its latest Women’s Demo Night, hosted by Bloomberg and held at their Lexington Avenue headquarters, six women demoed products ranging from image collaboration software to addiction recovery. I encourage you to visit these sites, as there is very interesting work being done by all these companies.

http://addicaid.com/

http://www.benefitkitchen.com/

http://www.blinkblink.cc/

http://www.bunchcut.com/

http://hellogoldbean.com/

http://www.weintervene.com/

Out of all of these, Blink Blink tells the best story of why and how we need to be purposeful in creating opportunities for girls and women in learning and in the workplace.

Getting Girls Excited about STEM One Circuit at a Time

Blink Blink is run by the dynamic duo of Nicole Messier and Joselyn McDonald. Messier is an aerospace engineer and McDonald is a filmmaker turned technology designer. The pair met in graduate school at Parsons School of Design. Their shared passions for technology and creativity resulted in a love for wearable tech and creative circuits. They channeled this into a means of getting more girls in tech and engineering by hosting workshops to explore crafting with technology and art.

Based on the success of these workshops, hosted by middle schools and high schools, Messier and McDonald decided to package the workshop materials into multi-project kits that kids can work on at home. The kit contains a creative circuit booklet, copper tape, conductive fabrics and thread, LEDs, crafting supplies and more. The craft kit enables individual users to make 10 different projects at a cost lower than would be required if consumers had to purchase the materials on their own.

Blink Blink has a great story to tell in terms of women in edtech and women creating engaging learning opportunities for girls in science and technology. They have participated in the innovative 4.0 Schools Accelerator Program, exhibited at SXSWedu, received the Maker Faire Editor’s Choice and Best in Class awards as well as the New Challenge Grant for Social Innovation. They are currently running a KickStarter campaign to fund production of their next round of creative circuitry kits.

Be Purposeful

Kudos to the NYTM for creating the Women’s Demo Event as well as the Women in Tech NYC group “to increase the number of women participating in New York’s technology industry.” Please visit the links above to learn more about all the companies that demoed at the event last week. Special thanks to the women of Blink Blink for making great strides towards social impact and for being purposeful in creating a company that will engage girls in learning about science in a fun, engaging and creative way.

Update: Blink Blink’s Kickstarter campaign ended successfully, raising $29,012 with 371 backers in June of this year. Visit their site to view and purchase one of their fantastic kits.

If We Want to Change Education, We Need to Disrupt It

What do you think our greatest improvements have been in the educational sector in the past couple of years?

  • Has it been the number of students graduating high school?
  • Has it been the technology introduced to support teachers in the classroom?
  • Is it the growth of online learning expanding the footprint of higher education beyond the ivory tower?
  • Could it be the evolving business model under which we operate?

To really address the issue of improvements, I’d propose that we ask ourselves first whether our educational system is adequately preparing today’s student for the workplace of tomorrow. Are we?

Is Anything Really New?

A while back, I attended a Google + Hangout hosted by the American Enterprise Institute called “Can you be for profit and for students? Rethinking private enterprise in public education.” It brought together John Bailey from Digital Learning Now, Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly of the AEI, and Michael B. Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. My interest, at the time, was in the debate over private dollars in public education. I’d seen resistance to this for so long and was thrilled that progress was being made to frankly get support from the private sector.

At that time, the discussion yielded a few key takeaways:

  1. A lot of the argument against for-profits was in a simplification of the role for-profits could play.

Andrew Kelly raised an interesting point in noting that 70% of Americans were comfortable with private dollars going to food, transportation, and supplies but not whole school management.

If you look at the different roles for-profits can play, this may reveal a misconception over the intent that many for-profits have and the role they can play in improving educational access and quality.

  1. We can learn from how federal policy deals with private sector contributions to other sectors.

A lot was said in this discussion around the role that policy can play in incentivizing the private sector to support positive results in education. As John Bailey point out, in almost every other sector (health care, clean energy, space program), the consideration has not been whether or not to engage with the private sector, but how to bring them in to tackle the challenge. Education, Bailey noted, is very unique in that incentives have not been provided to make such a collaboration work. And therefore, for-profits have largely had to work outside of the system to get things done. Michael Horn added to this argument that with i3 came out “the engine of innovation was cut out of the game.”

  1. There’s enough to be done so that we can all play a part.

As an extension of the first two points, John Bailey highlighted the role of collaboration, stating that “a blended solution” wherein “the suite of tools, services, and resources that the private sector will develop” can be used inside of the institutions. These benefits of innovation funded by the private sector could be used to support the existing institutions rather than breaking into institutional management. Likewise, expertise in instructional design, program design, and business modeling shared from the private sector can lend great support to the improvement of our schools, from K-12 through higher education.

At the time, my own conclusion was that a balanced, collaborative approach would yield the best result, that based on the need to produce revenue, for-profit educational providers would be watching the bottom line and that this could be a good thing when the pursuit of quality is as important. Additionally, I felt that with technology driving innovation, collaborating with those with the greatest access to capital to drive innovation, could be a smart move.

Now I’m not entirely sure.

What is needed to truly innovate in education

That technology is being used to great effect is not the issue here. It is being used to great effect. In these following areas, the use of private dollars to help drive innovation has resulted in improvements in:

  • Blended learning models and programs
  • Gamification
  • Professional development

But remember that millions of dollars are also being spent to support the Common Core and its associated testing, which in turn is really an extension of an existing model of education that remains stale and disengaging for a large number of constituents. Amy Scott reported on Marketplace yesterday that a single multiple-choice question costs $1,000 with costs ranging between $3,000 to $5,000 per question for more open-ended questions.

To truly innovate would be to take a look at this constituency and really understand how they can best thrive both during the school years and into the workplace. So take at least some of that money spent to make our kids better test takers, and instead provide them with more experiences and skills that prepare them for an adult world:

  • Experiential, hands-on learning
  • Expanded mentorship programs
  • Community-based internships

Question the Model

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Ed came out with an article on the Thiel Fellowship, titled “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club.” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know about Peter Thiel, he is the PayPal co-founder, Facebook board member and investor who decided in 2010 to pay selected teenagers $100,000 each to “stop out” of college and work on their own start-ups. While there are those who question Thiel’s methods, I’m a huge fan because he addresses the heart of the issue, which is the model itself. The article points out that Thiel initially considered building a better university through his foundation, but instead decided “The opposite of putting faith in the system is putting faith in the young people.”

Granted, the model isn’t expandable, but like other emerging like-minded organizations, it is calling into question the accepted standard for success that has been in operation for so long. UnCollege and Enstitute are others that I have mentioned here before, providing alternate pathways to the working world.

So, while we have made progress with dropout rates, there are still 1.2 million kids a year who leave school. The system still appears to be broken. And that is where we have to begin, questioning the model itself.

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Who Is the Teacher of Tomorrow?

In my last post, I asked people to “Imagine a School without Teachers” in order to examine some of the current challenges to the profession. Some interesting conversation came out of that post, with people actually speculating a school without teachers, or some variation of that theme. It’s safe to say that with the ever evolving technology, there are great opportunities for technology-assisted learning to support both classroom instruction and personalized learning in any environment (traditional school, home school, etc.). But removing teachers from the equation is not the answer. Evolving the role is a large part of the answer, as is ensuring the curriculum addresses the real needs of today’s students.

Early Voices of Discontent in Higher Ed

Since I left the classroom over a decade ago to participate in the development of some of the first online learning programs in higher ed, I’ve been keenly aware as to how the teaching profession is evolving. I saw the great potential for those whose passion is teaching and learning.

Throughout those years, I also saw how many people felt threatened by the changes that were occurring, first with the introduction of new technology and then with the introduction of new business models, particularly within the realm of higher ed. The first step was simply posting course materials online, starting online discussions, and allowing homework submissions online: in essence, using online platforms as an extension of the classroom learning environment.

As universities started to extend their footprint via the world of online learning, many faculty began to feel they would be replaced by either the technology itself or by those more willing than themselves to engage with it in this newer form of teaching. Sure, there were those that embraced and even spearheaded the changes, but that there was discontent is no great secret.

MOOCs shook things up entirely and to a great extent ensured that online learning would never be ignored again. Higher ed is still learning how to incorporate online options into their overall business model, but it will be a while before we see massive closings of brick and mortar institutions of higher learning.

Embracing Technology within PK-12

Today, as I continue to explore the ongoing changes in PK-12, I see an overwhelming amount of effort being exerted by teachers, schools, districts, and private entities to bring technology into the classroom. According to PBS Learning Media, 74% of teachers say technology enables them to reinforce and expand on content, to motivate students to learn, and to respond to a variety of learning styles (73%). Seven in ten teachers surveyed said educational technology allows them to “do much more than ever before” for their students.” And more than two-thirds expressed a desire for more technology in the classroom.

So, what type of support is there? Let’s look at a couple of examples that differ in their offerings.

Edmodo, the online community for teachers and learners (or “the social network for schools” as it is referred to) has over 47 million users. Teachers share lesson plans and support each other through online forums. Students keep track of their learning and become content creators through blogging features. Parents keep track of learning (including homework, quizzes, grades, projects, etc.) through the platform’s notifications, calendar, and tracking tools.

ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has a membership of 100,000 users worldwide who collaborate to implement technology into the classroom. ISTE has online resources and Professional Learning Communities, hosts an annual conference on educational technology, has an advocacy network to share information on federal and state policies, and provides a framework (the ISTE Standards) for implementing technology in the classroom.

Teachers’ Perspectives on their Role

Teachers will continue to play a vital role in the educational process even as, and especially as that process evolves. But we have to ask if we are providing enough support to enable the change in the role.

According to a 2013 Scholastic poll, 82% of teachers felt that constantly changing demands on teachers and students was the most significant challenge to their profession. The second most significant challenge was not having enough time to collaborate with colleagues. Additionally, all teachers reported having two or more populations within their one classroom, with 23% having seven different populations (including special education, gifted, and those working below grade level).

So, from an academic perspective, providing the time, resources and classroom conditions becomes ever more vital as we seek to retain the quality of teaching we seek for our children. From a broader perspective, it is important to note that 99% of teachers surveyed agree that “teaching is about more than academics, it is about reinforcing good citizenship, resilience and social skills, and they believe great teaching demands a mastery of many skills.”

The Ongoing Role of Teacher

What will be the role of the teacher as we incorporate more technology into the classroom, and as more and more information becomes accessible outside of a traditional classroom environment?

  1. Many teachers in the PK-12 environment have already started the process of evolving as they:
  • Bring more technology into their lesson plans, having students research topics further and complete in-class assignments using desktop computers, laptops, tablets and, yes, cellphones.
  • Use blended learning strategies to differentiate and personalize instruction.
  • Flip their classrooms to make classroom time more valuable.
  • Communicate with students and parents outside the classroom via online platforms accessed on a variety of devices.
  1. As access to information expands, the concept of the flipped classroom may also expand, and the role of teachers will evolve further into those who support learning rather than deliver it directly, as:
  • Curators who help students navigate and select from the vast array of available learning material.
  • Facilitators who provide feedback and guidance within specific learning programs.
  • Mentors who offer practical guidance on real-world tasks associated with more project-based learning programs throughout their educational journey.

More change? Yes, it’s inevitable. I can see some eye-rolling right now. As the Scholastic report noted:

In conversation, teachers identify various issues within “constantly changing demands,” including changes in leadership, policies, curriculum, administrative systems and more. Many note that a large part of the challenge is the pressure these changes place on existing time and resources. As one teacher said, “Too many changes at one time waters down everything and doesn’t give teachers the time to effectively implement all of the changes.”

We need to manage change effectively, give teachers time, and broaden the support system. In an earlier piece, I wrote about Meet Johnny’s Teachers, a community of experts, inside and outside of the school who all contributed to a child’s learning. This proposed network depends to a certain extent on a more experiential curriculum. I agree with those teachers who said that a large part of teaching “is not about academics,” and I do believe the classroom teacher does not need to do it all on his or her own.

The role of teacher is changing greatly, but I don’t see it disappearing any time soon.

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Reflections on Learning Part II: Back to the Future

At the close of 2014, Designs2Learn shared memories of early learning: the rituals of school, learning journeys, learning how to fail, and becoming conscious about learning. As we enter 2015, we begin the process of creating the memories from another new year of learning. What will we learn and how we learn it? How can we design meaningful learning experiences and curricula that will persist into the future of our students’ workplace lives?

A few key points come into perspective when thinking about how we will reflect back on 2015 at year end. This is how I would like to remember this year of learning:

  1. We utilize technology to support successful learning rather than technology driving learning altogether. MOOCs are the primary example of this phenomenon; we are now in a period of self-correction. This was a fantastic mistake to make because it alerted those who may have been asleep at the wheel that online learning is something to be incorporated not only into the higher education realm but PK-12 as well. Corporations have known this all along, and recent learning expenditures indicate that 2015 should be a good year for online learning. But we need to go back to some basics in terms of understanding and incorporating learning theory into edtech design in order for these experiences to have the lasting value we seek. The tools we put in the hands of the universities are merely platforms on which to deliver learning. The learning still needs to be effectively designed. The tools that we provide to school kids at an early age should help plant the seeds for more independent learning and critical thinking rather than a mere dependence on technology.
  2. We extend the role of mentorships in all educational domains. From PK-12 to higher ed and in the workplace, there is a definite place for mentorship. There is some wonderful work being done by groups like the Future Project and iMentor in the schools and by Enstitute and UnCollege beyond PK-12. So much of what we learn takes place between people in one-on-one engagements. Let’s bring more of the 70:20:10 model into the schools and establish the groundwork for this type of learning early on.
  3. We involve more community resources into the educational experience.Beyond the classroom teacher, in addition to our cadre of mentors, there’s a wealth of resources in the community to extend the learning experience. From libraries to local businesses, we should be spending more time of the classroom and helping kids make the connection between what they learn there and the outside world.
  4. We incorporate more experiential and maker curriculum into the schools. Providing opportunities for children to observe their environment, to define a problem, to embark on the design process to investigate and solve that problem and to become proficient in the tools required to do so will have a tremendous effect on that person’s confidence and abilities moving forward. Imagine the advantages to a workplace populated with people who have grown up having engaged in this process. The Maker Education Initiative is one of several prolific organizations supporting the maker movement, with a range of resources and programs to help schools and individuals get started; Tools at Schools is another group whose work within the schools is helping to utilize design thinking to engage students in meaningful projects.
  5. We look to homeschooling and unschooling for inspiration. There is so much work that has been done by these communities in terms of examining the learning process and creating models for user-driven learning experiences. The majority of us understand now that one size does not fit all, and technology-enhanced blended learning experiences are becoming more common in the schools, but let’s not forget that there are alternatives for students who are not best served in the school environment. The resources and community-building that the homeschooling and unschooling families have created have a lot to teach us all.

The coming year has a lot of promise for those of us in the educational arena. With so much investment in edtech, and the formation of meaningful partnerships in the educational space, there’s great potential to make some good memories to reflect back on. The role of the teacher is constantly evolving and this year may also reveal significant progress with how we incorporate best practices in teaching and learning into the ever-changing equation.

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