Course 4, Final Project

Why do you think this unit is a good possibility for your Course 5 project?

In one of my earlier posts, I observed that despite working with big and powerful Tetrix robots, I felt that many of my learning activities were boring.  This is because the challenges that students engage in are designed to be very convergent in their nature and are essential practical tests to assess the student’s understanding of a set range of programming concepts.

In an attempt to increase student motivation and engage students in more divergent learning activities, next year we are going to be designing and building VEX robots to compete in an in-house VEX competition.  My hope is that I will replace a lot of boring test like challenges, which are designed to asses a prescribed set of skills and knowledge, with an exciting open ended competition that will encourage students to seek out knowledge the substance of which will be shaped by their own imagination, creativity and motivation.

What are some of your concerns about redesigning this unit?

My biggest concern is time.  My elective only runs for one quarter, the lessons are 45 minutes long and I only see the students four times in a six day cycle.  I know that if I run a teacher directed class all students will have a functioning and competitive robot at the end of the quarter.  I am concerned that by turning the design process over to the students that some groups may end the quarter without producing a functioning robot.  Although they may still have learnt a lot in this process I want to ensure that every student leaves with a positive experience and a sense of achievement and mastery.

What shifts in pedagogy will this new unit require from you?

To successfully run an inquiry based class I will have to work hard to balance the amount of support and guidance that I give to students.  On the one hand I am tempted to divide the quarter up into a series of deadlines.  For example if students have not built a working sub-structure by the third week then I will provide them with a sub-structure template to follow.  The problems with this approach are that it could effectively turn a inquiry based course into a teacher directed course and secondly it may give students an easy out to sit and wait for.  The bottom line is I need to do more research and reading regarding effective inquiry based pedagogy.

What skills and/or attitudes will this new unit require from your students?

In my current course which allows students to work at their own pace, my biggest problems are students who are happy to let their partner do their work for them and groups that do not make good use of class time.  I’m hoping that the motivation of a competition and the freedom to design and build their own robot will help to eliminate these student behaviours.

The place where there is no darkness

Although most of my time is spent teaching physical education, a setting within which off-task behaviour is very easy to see, I have also taught health and I currently teach robotics in a 1:1 school. Laptop management is a contentious and always topical issue that probably deserves more focus in this course.  It would be an interesting assignment for Coetail participants to make their own laptop management video.  As an added bonus, this assignment could challenge Coetailers to produce a video with better production values than these using only tablets or smartphones for filming and editing  Or we could be tasked with producing a more readable list of laptop management recommendations than those that you find here.

Anyway, what I find works for me is…

Having set routines: Although my class is a non-graded exploration where students work in groups, every student must bring their laptop to class and they must turn them on as soon as they start so that we don’t lose 10 minutes of our 45 minutes waiting for them to boot up.

Having clear expectations: When I want to speak to the whole class I will not start until I see all eyes looking at me and I will stop and wait if anyone looks away.  I used to get students to lower laptop lids but I found that some would invariably hibernate and cause delays.

Having clear implications: I used to use Dyknow but I felt more like a warden at Bentham’s Panopticon than a teacher and I spent all my time staring at Dyknow instead of working with students.  I now move constantly around the classroom and monitor the student’s engagement by assessing their understanding and comparing this to the progress that they have made.  If a student’s off-task behaviour is impacting their work then they first receive a warning from me, on the second occurrence  they have to stay behind for five to ten minutes to catch up, on the third occurrence they have to complete work with pen and pencil and their parents receive an email from me.  I should note that I am lucky enough to be working at a school where students come to class extremely motivated to learn and I normally only have two or three students in my class who simply need a little more attention from me to stay on task.

Making students aware of their progress:  In physical education, a student’s ability, progress, and success, or lack thereof are constantly on display for others to see.  In my robotics class I constantly update the progress of all groups on the whiteboard so that students can see which groups have finished which challenges.  This rewards those hard working groups who get respect from their peers and it makes other groups realise how easy it is to fall behind if they waste time.  Having different groups on different challenges also motivates students as they see other groups doing cool things and they want to catch-up to them so that they can do those challenges too.

Schools! What are they good for?

This started out as a very long blog and has ended up as a very short one.  The point that I wanted to make was that the large number of commentators, experts and academics who tell us that schools are broken, are wrong.

I wanted to remind people that schools are the most valuable assets in all of our communities cities and nations – regardless of where you may be; and they are not broken, they are just not as good as they could be; however, in our rush to reform, change and improve education I feel that too often we forget about all the things that are working well in our schools.  We also forget that education is more than the end product which we receive in the form of skills or a certificate.  Traditional brick and mortar schools rightly or wrongly teach us a great deal more than any online course ever could and they provide many intangible services to us as individuals, communities and nations far beyond that which any online course ever could.

To elucidate my viewpoint I started to list all those things that I think traditional brick and mortar schools do better than online learning, after an hour or so my blog looked more like an essay.  In an attempt to cull my word count I decided to cut out those things that perhaps might be more important to me than they would be to any other reader, then I realized that it would be much more interesting if I invited everyone who reads this (my mum and Jeff Utecht) to leave a comment on what they thing traditional brick and mortar schools currently do well or what they think traditional brick and mortar schools might be able to do better than online courses, schools or universities.

I have started in the comments below and if I get no replies I will post my self-indulgent essay length blog – so leave a comment and spare Jeff the unenviable task of reading it.



We have all read and heard a lot of good things about Flipped Classrooms or Reversed Teaching and we have heard the criticisms as well.  For today’s blog entry I’m going to put these arguments aside and instead look at how this type of teaching might work in my classroom.

I teach an 8th Grade Robotics class that is 45 minutes long.  This is an elective class that students take for one quarter of the year.  They attend the class four times in a six day cycle.  As an elective subject I cannot prescribe homework and students only receive a pass or fail grade.

My inability to set homework may seem like a fatal blow to any aspirations of flipping or reversing this class; however, I think that the purpose of the flipped classroom is not simply to make homework time more productive but rather to make the time that students spend in the classroom more productive.  The underlying ideology of a flipped classroom proposes that the teacher is too valuable a resources to simply be used as a dispenser of knowledge.  Instead the teacher should be working with students on individual problems, using class time to guide and teach students the really difficult and important skills like critical thinking and problem solving.

So how does my classroom work? Students choose their own groups of two.  Each student downloads and works through two workbooks.  The workbooks are made up of three or four units which consist of mini challenges.  The workbooks have instructions and links which the students can use to access the content knowledge necessary to complete each challenge.  Content knowledge is primarily delivered in the form of PDF’s but students must also learn how to find information from other sources.  When students complete a workbook, they drop it into my online grading folder along with any programs that they have written for that workbook.  I then mark and return them.

So with the exception of three whole class lessons, I do zero content delivery.  Instead my time is spent moving around groups checking the understanding and progress of individuals and teaching students how to problem solve the many dilemnas that they encounter.

Good news first:  The greatest benefit of using online workbooks is the huge range of differentiation that emerges.  After one month, some of my students have already finished the first workbook as well as the bonus challenges, and they are now charging through the second and final work book.  I also have some students who may take the whole quarter to complete just the first workbook.

Although it might seem that I am failing those students who are so far behind, for once I feel that I am doing the right thing by them.  For example, when we first build the robots, some groups finish building their robot in two days whilst some groups take four or five days to finish their robot.  Previously I would have had the quick groups help the slow groups so that we could proceed as a class; however, the quick builders would have just taken over from the slow builders and denied them the extra practice that they need.  Students who are slow builders need and benefit from the extra time and practice and there is no easy out so they are forced to learn from their mistakes and improve their building skills.

Aside from differing the pace of learning, online workbooks also enable me to differentiate the difficulty level for students.  Within each unit there are three different programming challenges which vary from easy to hard.  Students can choose which challenge bests suits their ability or motivation.

Bad news second:  It is really hard work for me.  For 45 minutes I have my head down moving from problem to problem or group to group.  Often whilst I work with one student or group I have another one on my elbow asking for my help next.  I have to carefully consider and target my level of support for each student.  If I make things too hard for students they give up and if I make things too easy by giving them all the answers they learn nothing.  I have to make a conscious effort to see everyone, not just the five or six students who are demanding my attention but also the two or three who are avoiding my attention.  And before I know it my 45 minutes are up sometimes and I haven’t even given a lecture or written anything on the whiteboard.

What could I do better:  I can always do a better job of working with every student, ensuring that every student feels confident and in control of their learning so that they are not tempted to opt out and relying on a more able friend or partner.

Despite the fact that we are working with big and powerful robots, I feel that many of the learning activities are boring.  They are very convergent in their nature and are essential practical tests designed to assess the student’s understanding of programming concepts.  In an attempt to increase student motivation and engage students in more divergent learning activities, next year we are going to be designing and building Vex robots to compete in a competition.  My hope is that I will replace lots of boring test like challenges which are designed to asses a teacher prescribed set of skills and knowledge with an exciting open ended competition that will encourage students to seek out knowledge the substance of which will be shaped by their own imagination, creativity and motivation.

So although I am not flipping or reversing my class in the most common sense I like to think that I am working towards the ideology that supports these teaching methods.



Witch Which

The English language is a powerful and complex beast which we like to manipulate and wield in order to build a fortress from which to defend our positions and this week’s readings are full of wordsmith warriors.   Are we integrating, embedding, substituting, augmenting, modifying or redefining?   Are we entering, adopting, adapting, infusing or transforming?  And are we doing so in an active, collaborative, constructive, authentic and  goal directed manner?  All of this without even starting on the language that you find in the individual ISTE Nets and AASL standards.

I know, I know… the authors of these guides, standards, rubrics and matrices are trying to encompass broad and complex ideas into understandable and digestible frameworks (it is very easy and rather unsporting of me to be critical and when it is so much harder to attempt to tackle a problem and construct a solution as these groups have done) but at the core of all this semantic posturing I think the question that we are all trying to answer is not, what does technology integration look but what does good teaching look like?

Given this, technology integration to me is what happens when we use technology because it is the best method, tool, or means for the learning task at hand.  Whether this is writing blogs because it is easier for students to share and receive feedback on their work than journals.  Or using Google because we can find more up to date information from multiple sources instead of using printed encyclopedias.  Technology integration is what happens when teachers are able to draw upon a wide range of technology tools and skills in order to ensure that good teaching and learning is occurring in their classrooms.

And… I know, I know… these are all examples of teachers doing old things in new ways but to be honest, when I look at the skills that we want our students to learn I only ever see technology as a new and better way to achieve old things.  In my programming and robotics class you might argue that everything we do is new compared to 25, 50, 100 1000 or 2000 years ago but it is not.  The most important skill that we work on in my robotics class is problem solving.  Why doesn’t the robot go straight?  Why doesn’t your program work?  What is the best engineering / programming solution to this problem?  For me robotics and computer programming is just a new way to teach problem solving using this century’s tools, much as building a birdhouse in woodwork 50 years ago would have been, as would have drawing circles in the sand with Archimedes over 2000 years ago.

Cast your NETs

Whose job is it to teach the NETs standards to students and how do we ensure they are being met in an integrated model?

This is a debate that my fellow colleagues and I have had numerous times over the last few years.  It is a debate that is often prompted by those times when…

  • We set an assignment only to find that the students don’t have the technical skills to complete it.  As a result, time that we intended to spend exploring the content and working on assignments is now sacrificed in order to teach students how to use software.
  • A new student comes into our school and individual subject teachers must suddenly divert their class time, energy and focus in order to teach this student how to use their laptop.
  • We spend a great deal of time and effort to familiarize students with a particular piece of software yet we know that they may never use this software in another class or grade level.

And in the course of our debates we normally mull over the same few ideas…

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if every student had a computer skills class so that teachers could be provided with a list of skills and software that the students are all able to use.

But for this to work students would all have to take this class at the start of the year.

How long would this class have to run for?  

Would students remember what they learnt six months later when they are asked to apply it?

2. Individual classroom teachers should integrate technology skills and software competence into their units.

Does this extra teaching come at the expense of content?

Is this a reasonable expectation for teachers.  Should a social studies teacher be able to teach technology skills?

3. Students should help other students to solve their problems and learn new skills.

We tried this at our school.  Whilst there were a huge number of student volunteers willing to teach others, the students who were struggling preferred to go to their teachers for help.  It turns out that our pedagogical expertise is valued by some people. 

4. There should be a K-12 agreement about which skills and software knowledge our students are going to graduate with.

A expected skill set sounds like a good idea but is a list of required software competencies too prescriptive and unrealistic to maintain?

For schools that are increasing their technology use, these questions can be daunting.  As our school is a relatively new one to one school we have grappled with these problems and ideas over the last few years and we are getting much better at dealing with them.

In the middle school, subject teachers spend the first few days of the school year familiarising students with their laptops, teaching them how to manage and organise their files, how to access work online, how to drop and retrieve assignments, how to back up files and how to complete simple skills like creating wiki’s, google docs and screen grabs.

Individual subject teachers then teach students other skills and software competencies as they require it in their units.  This has required significant personal skill development by teachers and departments but it now works well.  Although there was a lot of software changes in the first few years, all departments have now found software and skills that work best for them.  This stability has also increased the ability of other subjects to draw on the technology skills that are taught elsewhere.  For example our music department does an excellent job of training students to use Audacity for a variety of purposes, consequently students bring this skill set with them to their foreign language class and are able to record their own speeches and submit them digitally to their teacher.

For us, like many one to one schools, the speed and scope of this implementation means that technology skills have been taught in a haphazard manner.  We do not have an overriding K-12 technology curriculum that identifies the technological skills that our students should graduate with, let alone when in their schooling they should be exposed to these skills, or at what stage they should have mastered these skills.

The manner in which schools currently teach technology skills is something that I discussed in one of my first blog posts and although I believe that all teachers should be IT teachers, there should also be an IT director whose job it is to ensure that students are taught a minimum range of technological competencies at certain checkpoints in their education much in the same way that we expect students to be able to read and write by certain ages so we should expect students to be able to manage and organise files, competently perform an internet search or manipulate digital images by a certain age.


After thinking that I had my head wrapped around copyright and creative commons issues, this week has unraveled my confidence all over again.  When making my video I used several pieces of professionally shot video and some music from a New Zealand band called The Naked and the Famous.  I did some research on whether or not I was able to use this content and the overwhelming answer seemed to be no.  The problem is that I kinda feel that the Web 2.0 isn’t really helping me do my job better if I have to suddenly produce all my own video and music in order to create educational videos that are specific to my class and students.  So I have taken the post first apologize later approach whilst I research what it is I need to do to ensure that I am respecting the copyright owners and the law.

As for a copyright lesson plan I would really like to be teaching a technology or social studies class where I might be able to use this lesson plan, but instead I think that I might try the following for my robotics class.

1. Students must select an instructional video from the NXT or Tetrix Video Trainer

2. They must decide which parts of the instructional video are the most relevant or interesting to them or problems that they know that their peers are experience when programming.

3. Using a mixture of original video and self made Camtasia screen captures students must remix a video to create a more relevant and interesting programming instructional video for the class.

Zen and the art of selling

I am not a fan of presentations.  I don’t like giving them and I sure as heck don’t like sitting through them.  I do however want to share some of our K-12 robotics experience with some of the other international schools in Taiwan so that we can develop more competition for our students.  In order to do this I thought that our school could host a one day workshop for teachers or schools that are interested in setting up a robotics program. So I thought that I make a presentation that advertises this workshop.  This is just a mock run through devoid of any concrete details and facts. I tried to base the presentation on the five questions of Who, When, What, Where, Why and How.

This is the PowerPoint as uploaded to Google Docs. I found Google Presentations too limiting to use. ** I deleted this as it was causing loading difficulties on the page**


And this is the youtube version, with a possible outline of what I might say.

The Director’s Cut

This is my embedded video post from week four of the course.  In the assignment outline Jeff referenced the Hollywood estimate of one hour of work for one minute of film.  Well I think I averaged about four hours of work for every minute of film.  It is a very time consuming activity especially when working on your own.

Instead of telling a story I decided to make a video that I could post online and my students could reference in order to help them study for their grade seven climbing quiz.  Unfortunately, one video file died on me so I will have to re-shoot that clip but otherwise it almost complete.

The other big task that I want to work on is to credit and investigate the legality of the videos and music that I have used in this clip.

I shot the self-recorded video on my Canon EOS 60D with a tripod and I used a combination of Windows Live Movie Maker and Camtasia to edit and produce the video.  If I was going to make more movies like this I would invest in a higher quality microphone to record my narration.

Hopefully you find it interesting and educational.


** I have solved most of the problems but some parts are choppy and one section vanished altogether, this weekend I will try to iron out the last few problems.*



Super Massive Black Hole of Time Consumption

As you may be able to tell from the title.  This week’s focus on infographics, graphical presentations and resumes consumed a great deal of my time…

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Tinkering around with my C.V in and consumed a reasonable chunk of time.  I really like this idea and would definitely like to submit a graphical or web based C.V for my next job.  As cool as these tools are I do think that some jobs will be better suited to this type of application and some employers may struggle to appreciate the graphical presentation style that these websites use.  Then there was learning about the movie features on my camera and finally the huge amount of time I spent creating infographics at and  The latter of the two I would rather not talk about other than to say that I had made a super cool interactive infographic for my robotics class when it went all 404 page error on me.  Anyway this is the lesser subsitute that I created at
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