Puzzles: math and language in harmony

This past weekend I celebrated that ‘annual milestone’ day with my family. Great food, lots of fun and I still feel as focused and energized as ever – just with a little more experience. ūüôā

One of my presents was a new puzzle book – one that I had not seen around anywhere before. For those of you that know me and/or have been following my blog posts, might guess that the puzzle book is based on word games. If that was your guess, you are right but the book is much more than ‘just a word game’.


In many ways the book reminds me of a chess book I purchased many years ago. If my memory serves me correctly, the book was by chess great Bobby Fischer. The book presented a series of puzzles with partially completed chess games and the reader had to determine a sequence of moves to place one set of players in check, check mate or establish a draw. I recall spending hours pouring over the book to determine the various solutions.

End Flashback

Back to my new puzzle book. It is a delightful combination of language, math and problem solving all wrapped up into one concept: series of words in Scrabble plays , 3 sets of tiles to place on the board (write on the page) to achieve a predetermined or required score and an opportunity to boost your vocabulary all at the same time!

Ding Ding Ding РThis is a winner with me. If you enjoy puzzle books, check out Scrabble Puzzles by Joe Edley, published by Sterling.  A book like this might be a nice fit in a classroom. I am heading off to check out a new puzzle!

~ Mark

Are Netbooks Ready For Primetime?

The right answer is yes, no and maybe. It all depends on your point of view.

End User: If you need a nice small travel laptop for work or learning that runs mainly web based applications, your answer might be a resounding YES! Many of the netbooks available today have plenty of ‘horse power’ to run a few key applications and perform well when running web 2.0 applications. I have been ‘road testing’ one of the Lenovo IdeaPads. I loaded it up with a few apps including open office, skype, the first class client, MSN, iTunes, Adobe Reader and Smart Ideas, a graphic organizer. Other than these apps, everything else is web based. Other than the quirkiness of the keyboard <SHIFT> key and <ENTER> layout (or my slow adaptability to a new layout) and the screen being a little small as far as real estate goes for some applications, the IdeaPad performed well and behaved in a stable manner.

Point to ponder: Would you give up your desktop or full sized laptop for a netbook?  Personally, I would not be ready to make this type of a switch at this point in time. At least for the type of work I do, there are too many times where have a full screen to facilitate multi window operation of some sort, more serious document editing or something more intensive such as audio and/or video editing. I would find the small screen and extending timeframes working with tight key arrangement on the keyboard less than idea. Perfect for travel, but I am keeping another computer or full size laptop.

Enterprise needs: I am changing hats now. Let’s look at this from the IT Management viewpoint. In the setting of our school board, interest in netbooks (or the promise of the Mac tablet) is on the rise. From a planning point of view, the price point is certainly positioned to allow you the opportunity to buy more equipment for the same level of funding. On the assumption you could match the application suite and access to the equipment to maximize the use, netbooks look pretty attractive. But, before you rush away to buy a large number of netbooks, there is another side to consider.

Many current netbooks ship with Windows XP Home with no supported upgrade or conversion path to Windows XP Pro. The XP Home version limits you to local machine and workgroup access. ¬†Using the netbook in a network domain environment with group policies and defined security permissions is not an option. In addition, many enterprise level tools for imaging, patching, software updating and application package distribution rely on a domain based structure to properly manage the computers. ¬†This is where I think we are stuck yet. If you can manage the netbooks, at least easily, then this is a double edged sword. The price point and web usage is there, but you are limited in maintaining and supporting the machines. You can’t say you don’t need to support the machines – just wait until you have a few messed up and now some class in not functioning properly. They staff and students will want support to fix the computers or restore them to a usable state.

Things look more promising with Windows 7 on the horizon. Then again, how many large organizations are ready to roll with a Windows 7 deployment backed up with an organization wide support model?

My View: At least at this point in time, I stand by my yes, no and maybe answer. I do believe netbooks are here to stay, and will be valuable learning tools. It is just a little to early in the game. I will be interested to see how things unfold over the next few months because I think we are close.

Related Reading:

Test Freaks:  Netbook reviews and ratings

PC World:  Road Warriors Guide to Netbooks

Sync Blog:  Should your child have a netbook?

~ Mark

iPhones: Pushing the envelope

I came across some interesting videos highlighting where we are headed with the next generation of iPhone applications. I continue to be amazed at the rapid rate at which the envelope of what is possible is continually pushed. The 3 examples below illustrate different ways in which the envelope is being pushed.

Starbucks is developing an iPhone app which allows you to use a credit card to load money into the Starbucks app to use like a reusable gift card. Is this the birth of the iWallet?


Click here to watch the YouTube video

ARider: The next video demonstrates how iPhone GPS technology can benefit cyclists.

iPhone GPS

Click here to watch the YouTube video

The Bionic Eye application is essentially a new version of the ‘Nearest Subway’ application which previewed in the summer. The Bionic Eye allows users to locate fast food outlets, hotels and wifi hotspots.

Bionic Eye

Click here to watch the Bionic Eye demo on YouTube

~ Mark

Links: 2009-09-26

Links: 2009 09 26 ¬†—¬†Interesting finds of the week

1. Security Heads Up:  Phishing scam steals Twitter passwords

2. Edutopia: ¬†10 tops tips for teaching new media –¬†click here to download your copy.¬†¬†I have mine!

3. Free Ivy League lectures

4. Skype in Schools wiki

5. Microsoft has a rival to the Apple tablet – overview

6. Game Based Learning for innovative math educators

7. Tech Learning: Cell Phones Welcome Here

Enjoy the reading and learning.

~ Mark

21st century teaching

What is 21st century learning? Many of you have thought about this, read about this, engaged in dialog both face to face and online, and maybe blogged about this. Me too.

We had a meeting yesterday where we were looking at, and discussing that ‘age old’ question. There is no real need to rehash this again here. Besides, we are a decade into this century already! I did want to share a couple of interesting points from our discussion tonight.

Relative to times in the past, say 10 or more years ago, it was much easier to predict what a few years out looked like. Today, given the rate change in technology, job markets, communication tools etc. it is impossible to think what things will be like in 6 months or a year out, let alone 5 or 10 years out. I think the challenge of trying to articulate that future vision with clarity gives us a sense of being stalled in the journey to address the answer to ‘What is 21st century learning?’

However, maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the question is: What does 21st century teaching look like? Imagine you have a class of students in front of you equipped with mobile learning devices – students with different devices. Some might have iPhones or Blackberrys. Perhaps others have netbooks or notebooks. Oh yes, some have iPod Touches, and throw in a couple of tablet PCs to round out the class. Now, that you have your class in with 1:1 web enabled devices in front of you, let’s think about these questions.

  • How does this change my teaching strategies?
  • How does this change my planning strategies? (lessons, units, short term, long term)
  • How do I facilitate learning in this environment where information is abundant and instantly accessible?
  • How do I manage students who will essentially be able to do many more learning activities in an environment where the learning can easily be personalized?

We discussed three key areas in thinking about this question: enablers, core tools, optional tools and innovation.

Enablers are required to provide access Рwireless networking, network access control (Board/company owned and guest access coexisting), sufficient equipment, sufficient bandwidth. Core tools Рperhaps the identification of a smaller set of web 2.0 tools that are used and integrated in a more systemic way. Innovation Рthe use of other technologies and strategies beyond the selected core tools for effective learning.

In some ways, we are perhaps back at the sand box stage. We don’t really know the right mix of technologies and instructional strategies to achieve the greatest success in the learning arena. To my way of thinking, investing energy into exploring the ‘what does 21st century teaching look like?’ question is a key aspect of really moving things forward in a planned and sustainable way. Of course, professional development and sharing of best practice are also critical ingredients. This must be looked at in a holistic manner. Success, at least in the meaningful systemic way, will not be achieved by addressing limited aspects of this agenda.

Food for thought and more thinking to go.

~ Mark

First impressions: Skype on the iPod touch

Since my earlier post about Skype for the iPhone and iPod Touch, I have had an opportunity to try out the application first hand.

After the file download & sync¬†from ¬†iTunes, and a quick stop at an electronics store to pick up some iPod earbuds with a built in external mic, I was ready to go in short order. Since I already had a Skype account for my computer, the setup was a snap ~ join a wireless network, launch the software and log in. ¬†I took advantage of my prepaid Skype out package to make a couple of test calls – one to my wife who was cooking at the time and did not expect my call from the dining room, and a second call to a work colleague.¬† How nice to say ‘Hello, I am calling you from my iPod Touch’!” ¬†The next day, a third test call occurred at work while standing in the same cubicle as the person who you are calling. ¬†ūüôā

In each case, the iPod performed well and the voice calls were crystal clear audio. Based on the quality of the calls, my mind turned to potential classroom instructional uses of Skype (computer and/or ipod based).  After a bit of internet searching, I located the following resources for Skype use in the classroom to share:

1. 50 awesome ways to use Skype in the classroom:  Teaching Degree

2. Using Skype in education

3. Skype in the Classroom by  ISTEvision

4. Technology Medley:  Skype in the Classroom

5. Skype in the classroom:   Celebrate Oklahoma Voices

6. Skype in Schools:  Resources and Videos

7. School Tube:  Howe High School

Vendor website: Skype

~ Mark

Leadership: Managing Digital Distractions

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to demonstrate individualized consideration for staff. Individualized consideration references the ability to treat and understand each employee as an individual. Putting this into practical terms, it means knowing employee strengths and weaknesses, how to challenge them on a personal level, and giving your undivided attention when interacting with them.

Now put this idea into your typical day. There will be lots going on — time constraints, multiple meetings scheduled back to back, demands on your time to make decisions etc. – you know the groove. People don’t meet for the sake of meeting (I hope). There must be some task at hand: project planning, issue resolution, budget, staffing etc.. and you are in attendance for a reason.

Reflection: In todays world we have many electronic communication tools that we use to support our work tasks. How do you manage these tools when you are with other staff?

  • Do you have the ability to focus on the task at hand and give your undivided attention to person/people with you?
  • Are you distracted by the devices and messaging tools as your disposal (smartphone/cell phone, landline, pager, computer or voicemail)?
  • If you are distracted, why are you? Do you need to be on ‘red alert’ for every incoming message?
  • Have you considered the message you send to the staff if you consistently put them second to these unpredictable interruptions?
  • Where have you placed them on the ‘importance’ scale?

Ironically, I came across the Hierarchy of Digital Distractions diagram (below) last week on the same day I was involved in a discussion about focusing on employees as individuals at a course. I doubt anyone would argue the convenience and benefits of using these tools in todays busy and complex work environment. And yes, there will be some exceptions when you do need to take a call. Does the incoming text/email/alert/call etc. always have to take priority?

Challenge: Consider the questions outlined above, and reflect upon whether your current practice could use a change.

digital distractions

Click here to view the original full size Hierarchy of Digital Distractions pyramid.

~ Mark

Links: 2009-09-19

Links: 2009 09 19 ¬†—¬†Interesting finds of the week

1. Official Google Blog: Teaching computers to read: Google acquires reCAPTCHA

2. Myna: Garage Band in Your Web Browser

3. Facebook membership now matches U.S. population

4. 7000 textbooks in your pocket

5. Google Fastflip

6. The Six stages of Twitter

7. Royalty Free Sound Effects (FX) Library for Download

Enjoy the reading and learning.

~ Mark

Mazes and Team Building

As part of a leadership course I am taking, we had an opportunity to use an electronic maze to illustrate some interesting points about team building.

The electric maze, or learning field, was a set of 48 squares arranged 6 x 8 embedded in a large floor mat. Each square was programmed to be ‘safe’ (off) or ‘alarmed’ (on). ¬†Each of the two groups was allowed 10 minutes of strategy planning to set their tactics. The goals were to determine a safe path across the mat and then have each of the team members (6 in our case) cross the mat along the safe path. Team members were not allowed to talk after the 10 minute strategy session was complete. Each team was given an amount of ‘money’ which was used to pay for infractions such as stepping on an alarmed square, skipping a square or talking.

Playing the game itself was very enjoyable. Afterwards, it was interesting to reflect on the various assumptions and strategies of the different groups.

Success factors

  • team effort
  • observing
  • cooperation
  • remembering successes (correct moves)
  • remembering failures (additional learning)
  • assessing risk

Assumptions by some groups

  • the event was a competition
  • winning was the end goal (team members across and most money)

Reality Check

In fact, winning was not defined. The task was just assigned. In reflection, all groups realized that by working together the challenge could have been solved more easily if the groups worked together, collaborated and shared information and collective learning.

How often does the real life version of this event happen? How often do we miss opportunities to truly get something accomplished in an timely, efficient,  and perhaps more cost effective manner? Take the opportunity to analyze, plan work flow and  capitalize on the TOTAL resources available to deliver  a solid end result with a stronger team.

~ Mark

A Student Voice in K12 Technology Planning

During the 08/09 school year we moved to a new technology planning model. In our old structure we had separate groups to look at administrative and instructional needs. The plans and considerations produced by the two groups did not align and reflected needs and priorities that were often competing. This certainly did not make it easy get projects defined and moving.

The new structure introduces reflects a more integrated team approach, with members representing administrative business areas, elementary and secondary school principals, ICT consultants, learning services members HR and key ITS staff – 13 members in all. We have also adopted a new governance model to prepare and determine priorities at the system levels.

We wanted to add a component to this new structure to include a student voice. Last April we held our first student technology day. The format of the day included teachers and students from a sampling of our secondary schools. The computer contact teacher at each school brought 3 to 5 students with them so that the students outnumbered the adults. We also asked the teachers to select students to reflect male/female balance and a mix of grades.

We set the afternoon up to have discussion on two topics with feedback time from each group. The first discussion topic centred around digital citizenship. The second topic was positioned as a task. We asked students this question: If you could change 2 or 3 things about technology use in our system, what would you change? and why?

I was impressed with the quality of ideas and mature approach in which the students expressed their ideas. The students sent a very clear message about how they felt things should move forward. They recommended:

  • have wireless access in all schools
  • have the ability to use their own equipment in our computing environment
  • make use of cell phones/smart phones as part of the learning environment
  • have access to their files from home

This exercise was a good validation of the discussions of the Technology Steering Committee and you will see project reflecting these needs in our 09/10 project list priorities.

Now I am considering how best to keep a student voice in this process this year and communicate the outcome of last year’s efforts. I would be interested to hear from other people about the approach used in your Boards/jurisdictions so feel free to leave a comment, send a tweet, email or URL.

~ Mark