Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Automate this

If there is one thing I love about the summer holidays it is having the time to catch up on some recreational reading. The first book I read this summer was called Automate this: How algorithms came to rule the world, by Christopher Steiner.

Automate This tells of how the use of modern algorithms began in Wall Street to give slight trading advantages and is now spreading to every area of human endeavour. With each spread, the story seems to be the same; people first say that the algorithm will never be able to replace the work of real people and in each area, it appears, the algorithms always win, disrupting entire industries.

There are some comical and terrifying tales, like the book on Amazon that reached a sale price of over $1000000 due to 2 competing algorithms, stories of money vanishing in the finance world and some beautiful classical music written by algorithms.

As a teacher, this book really gave me food for thought. When I was training to be a Science teacher and revisions were being made to the UK National Curriculum, a component called 'How Science Works' was introduced. The idea being that all students would be consumers of Science and its fruits whereas only a minority would go on to be Scientists. It therefore made sense to teach students about the scientific method and how science impacts on society.
Compare the revisions to the UK Science curriculum with what is happening with ICT/Computer Studies education. Lot's of students leave school with zero knowledge of code or knowledge of the impact that it will have on them and society. It is absolutely imperative that schools try to catch up and formally introduce the teaching of code to students, or at least teach them about how it will impact on their lives.
During the summer, I also had a slight problem with a hotel I was staying at and called the travel company to complain. I got the usual message "this call may be recorded for training and moitoring purposes". It is nice to know after reading this book that what that really means is that an algorithm is analysing your voice and detecting your mood so that it can assign you to the most suitable agent to minimise conflict.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Welcome to the land of Maths worksheets

Although I tend to focus on and review websites and apps that encourage new ways of learning and increase collaboration, occasionally I stumble across a website that offers lots of good old traditional worksheets.

Maths worksheet land contains a vast number of worksheets for all grade levels and has them linked to the common core for all you American teachers out there. It is not interactive, it does not allow students to work simultaneously on equations but they can do a worksheet on simultaneous equations.

If you are a Maths teacher, I have no doubt that you will want to check out this resource and the best thing is it is 100% free. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The joys of seeing an ex-student succeed.

I received a message from an ex-student, Marco, a few weeks ago asking me to check out his new app. I was pleasantly surprised as my memories of him from school were that he was a nice kid with poor attendance.

Marco has just created an android app called Numbersnap. This very cool app is designed to automatically take someone's picture when they enter their phone number so that you can remember who they are. It also automatically sends them your number by text message. It is very cool and I was very impressed and exceptionally proud of Marco for his creation.

I am still stuck on Marco's attendance and it really made me think. Here we obviously had a student amazing potential who wasn't coming to school. If we had been teaching something that Marco found useful I'm sure he would have turned up to school a little more often. I last saw Marco six years ago and in that time the technology landscape has changed massively but we are still stuck with an education system that pays little more than lip service to the skills that students need to be taught in this new technology-rich environment. Marco has been successful in spite of the education we provided, not because of it. How do we develop an education system that promotes this success?

Here on Free Technology for Schools I do not normally promote paid for products but here I am not promoting a product, I am promoting Marco so if you have an android phone navigate to the Play store and check it out and see if we can get Marco into the top 10. 

5 things I have learned about writing an educational blog

It has been 7 months since I started this blog and I have found it to be one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career as a teacher. I am now firmly of the belief that it is something all teachers should do on some level. I can think of no better way of building links with other teachers allowing you to experience new ideas and widen your skill set. So here are 5 key things I have learned so far from being a teacher blogger. I have to say that up until this point, I have stayed away from the 5 things format but in this instance, I think it is the easiest way to structure this post.

1) Professional development
Too many teachers think that professional development is a course (or series of courses) that you go on. When doing recruitment, I get frustrated by teachers who have a CV with a list of one day, non-assessed courses who then mention nothing about how they have developed in a covering letter. I am much more interested in people who have been proactive and have taken steps to build communities and share their learning with their colleagues. Since I have started this blog, I have made connections with people across several continents and learned of new useful technologies and new approaches. My only regret is that Edtech is only part of my job and I wish I had another blog to discuss school leadership and subject specific work. I am planning to start one where I can do this but I haven't got it off the ground yet.

2) Community
There is no doubt that blogging leads to you developing a far reaching learning community or network. I have been eternally surprised by how much busy professionals are willing to take time out to help answer a question or make contributions to Free Technology for Schools. Could it be that blogging brings out the best in people and promotes altruism? My favourite occasion this year was when Memrise contacted me for some advice. As you can probably tell from some of my posts, I think this is one of the most amazing new pieces of technology available for learning languages. Having the opportunity to help them develop new tools for educators was an excellent experience.

3) Learning new skills
By simply committing to writing on a regular basis, it has made me become more proactive about learning new things. I can't write a blog about free technology if I am not learning about new technology, therefore blogging for me has promoted learning. It has also allowed me to dust off the old skill of writing, something a science student in the UK system doesn't really do from age 16 onwards. I will be honest, the quality of my posts is variable but I do think I have made some improvements.

4) Making time
This goes without saying. To blog effectively it should become routine. Different people have different time allowances. I found I was able to do it once or twice per week. When you blog regularly you notice it with your traffic. At one point I had built my traffic up to 18000 page views per month. Once it got to June with the usual end of year report writing coupled with the needs of a pregnant wife, my writing fell and so did my traffic. It is going to be interesting to see how easy it is to blog in November once the baby arrives. I might become the nocturnal blogger...

5) Promote your blog
You will not be making the most of your time spent blogging if no-one is able to read what you write. I would also say that you really want the right people (i.e. other teachers) reading your blog so you should really think about how you promote your blog. I have found the following  really useful; Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Edmodo. I also use Pinterest, Scoop it, Teach 100 and a few other blog networks.
There is a danger that you can spend more time promoting than writing which is bad so here are a few tips. Edmodo and Google+ will give you the biggest traffic surge if you post in relevant communities and you can automate posts to Facebook and Twitter using www.ifttt.com. The key is to promote enough to get people reading and then interact with readers.

I hope these 5 points are useful. Now that I have the free time during the summer, I am going to start work on a few other blogs. In particular, I am going to start a personal blog to discuss wider issues in teaching and learning along with some fun things that I experience and learn from. I'm sure I will let you know about it here on Free Technology for Schools.