Saturday, July 11, 2015

My Take on ISTE 2015: Highlights, Takeaways, Things to Use and Follow-Up On

ISTE 2015: Highlights, Takeaways, Things to Use and Follow-Up On

A mega-surplus of resources for inspired kids to positively impact their world.
GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura
CREDIT ISTE imageIt’s been a few days now since the big event in Philly, and while I would have loved to have posted the following piece the minute my plane home from the conference landed, it does take a little while for the mountain of impressions and new ideas to settle enough for me to understand and write about them. Reporting on what took place is one thing; interpreting what it all means is another — something that requires time and reflection.

For a week or so before ISTE 2015, this year’s installment of the planet’s biggest and most comprehensive edtech conference, my mailbox was stuffed each morning with messages bearing titles like: How to Strategize Your ISTE Conference Experience, ISTE Conference Cheat Sheet, Invitation to a Special Preview of the Next Big Thing, Earth-Shattering Classroom Resource: Visit us at Booth #___, and the like.

What follows are some highlights, things that made my mind spin, my heart leap, and my spirit soar during a few very special days in Philadelphia.

By the way, this was ISTE Conference #17 for me. I’ve attended them happily every year since the late 90’s, and while overwhelm and overload do come with the territory, I’ve come to see the over-the-top nature of this annual pilgrimage to The Mecca of All Things Digital for Education to be a very good thing.
The ISTE conference offers us the positive side of there being more of a good thing than one could cope with, in any of the usual ways. To me, this event represents a massive wave on which the wise attendee and observer of progress in the field of education can catch a ride. It’s a wave made up of information, connections, and inspiration. So, I find it best to relax, hold on tight, and enjoy a ride unlike any other.

The Thrill of the Ride
Still, one needs some sort of a compass to steer by and, for me, edtech trends — especially those involving fascinating, out-of-the-box, new resources and practices — are the markers by which I navigate. I tend to leave things presented at the conference that represent mere Next-Step Refinements in The Realm of The Practical & The Tried and True to others to explore and map.
I’m out for ‘Ah-ha’s’ and thrills.
I got into this field to leave the staid and traditional behind, and if there’s no promise of adrenaline, exhilaration, and the particular type of satisfaction that revolutionary resources and practices bring to the world of education, then I’m not especially interested.
And, of course, even narrowing my ISTE meanderings down to that admittedly biased niche, there’s more than I could ever strategically absorb. Yet, I prefer to ride that edtech roller coaster wave, following the instincts that many years of hard work in the field have helped me hone.
In that spirit, what follows are some highlights, things that made my mind spin, my heart leap, and my spirit soar during a few very special days in Philadelphia.
Making a Better World
The most significant trend I witnessed this year has to do with answering the question, How does the ‘Realm of the Digital’ interface with the Realm of the Physical, of the Real World?  I saw a wide variety of resources and ways to use them that can enable students to explore that question, things guaranteed to engage kids deeply while demonstrating for them crucial ways that they can influence and better the world they live in. How’s that for a meaningful, relevant educational goal?
In many instances, the items I reviewed took the form of small, relatively inexpensive electronics that interface with digital devices. Expectedly, student robotics, one of the most important varieties of STEM resources and practice was much in evidence. However, some new, alternate varieties showed up as well.
One very impressive new item I came across in this space is Little Bits. A relatively new, kit-based resource, this one provides easy-to-use components (they snap together magnetically to form circuits and chains of electronic/machine elements that do things). Little Bits’ website uses the phrases “A Library of Modular Electronics” and “Invent Anything” — which to me sums up the kits intent, contents, and potential. This one sits squarely in the middle of the prominent space currently occupied by things STEM/STEAM, DIY, and Maker Culture. Small wonder there was much buzz continually around the extensive booth Little Bits occupied.
Another thing that made me stop and smile in wonder and appreciation was a poster session given by Roger Wagner. I found it most interesting that Roger, who was giving a great series of demos on his new offering, the HyperDuino, was largely unrecognized by his appreciative audience. In the history of Instructional Technology, there’s a special place for old standby resources that for years and years have served students well. One of these is HyperStudio, Roger’s creation from ‘back in the day’, which was probably the most important multi-media platform, one that has, no doubt, influenced many that have come since. The HyperDuino is a small interface device that allows kids to connect their computer to things in their world (toys, displays and art they’ve created, etc.) and have them communicate and interact, enabling the student to apply HyperStudio’s simple programming to their hand-made, real world ‘stuff’. Wow! Simple, easy for kids to use (and for teachers to support them) and world-changing in its implications.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the MOUSE Corps poster session in which high school students showed off the “Shoe Levator”, their invention that helps physically challenged individuals put on their shoes, a great example of the application of learning to address real world problems. Way to go, kids: Invent! Make! Impact your world positively!
Moving further through the convention center, I stopped to see a demo and chatted with Vieyra Software; actually a husband and wife as I recall (she’s a high school teacher) showing their ingenious suite of Apps called Physics Toolbox. The idea is brilliant: harness a variety of sensing resources already built-in to smartphones to make the phones work and repurpose them as tools to help students explore the physics of our world. Their site comes with free lessons and much more.

Domo Arigato
As stated above, Student Robotics were everywhere in evidence throughout the conference. While I am a long, long-term fan of the LEGO Education Student Robotics materials (EV3, NXT,WeDo, etc.), in fact I wrote a book for ISTE on the subject (Getting Started with LEGO Robotics), I fully appreciate that there are other providers who offer alternatives as well and who take this broad area in other directions. One heartwarming display that I visited at the ISTE StartUp Pavillion (booth space for smaller, newer companies trying to establish themselves) was that of Trobo the storytelling robot, a small, plush doll-like robot that partners with younger children to foster deep literacy learning as it supports them in writing their own stories. Great stuff. Not just a digital resource to learn from, but one kids will love!
I also wandered by the booth of OZOBot, a mini robot that I’m sure would be great for upper elementary kids and older. The fascinating thing for me is the way students communicate with it. Apparently, it comes preprogramed to read shapes and patterns and colors and students can use software or pre-printed 2D modular stickers, or draw their own to get the robot to follow their instructions. My take is that this item will teach and illustrate programming and robotics, keep kids engaged and wondering and discovering, and offer schools a relatively inexpensive and effective way to offer a small slice of Robotics, an important piece of STEM Education.

Picking Up STEAM
Another concentration of interest well represented at the conference was STEAM (emphasis on the “A” for Arts, the thing that distinguishes it from traditional STEM). I saw a good number of things that make this body of resource and practice viable and exciting. Actually, one of them, BirdBrain Technologies, straddles both the Robotics category and the STEAM (again, too much of a good thing sometimes seems just right). BirdBrain is a robotics system that uses some simple electronics and mechanical components; things like the Arduino processor and simple motors and sensors. These things are found in other robotics systems, but the wonderful difference here is that the robot body’s students produce with BirdBrain materials are very much the personal, expressive, hand-made, cut from cardboard variety of thing kids have always done and learned from. There’s a blend of real Robotics and crafts with a full blown artistic thrust to what kids do with this resource. Something I’ve long wanted to see, but have actually witnessed far too examples of, are student robots created by students for the purpose of creating art, art that requires learning programming and engineering thinking and STEM oriented problem solving; marriage of STEM and the Arts… STEAM!
I was also thrilled to see that everyone’s favorite cat, Garfield, was represented at the Professor Garfield booth. Professor Garfield is a free motherlode of learning resources available at the website that the foundation behind it created to share them with kids and teachers. Of particular note this year, through the efforts of its partner, New York Institute of Technology, Professor Garfield is expanding to offer resources in the area of STEAM. I’ll be looking forward to see how this develops further.

Really Digging Gaming
Gaming, too, was everywhere in evidence at ISTE. I arrived at the conference worrying about today’ kids reaching the saturation point with gaming in the classroom as well meaning teachers so intent on gamification, that even this exciting variety of learning experience would begin to bore them once the novelty wears off. However, based on what was shown at the conference, clearly there’s such inventive thinking behind so many vibrant and exciting new resources to be found of this type that this is not something to be concerned with.
For example, I came across some great game-based resources, things like ClassCraft, a subject-agnostic way for teachers to transform the classroom experience for their students positively by turning the class itself into a game.
Also, I witnessed NEXED’s Answerables, a unique game-like virtual environment for presenting content and engaging students.
But what truly captivated me is Dig-It Games. Wow! Behind many great digital learning resources there’s a fascinating origin story, and the one I got on this one from the creator herself is that her career as a field-based archaeologist eventually led to a job as a public school teacher and that, to the resolve to create her own resources for students. The result is a suite of game-based items, all with archaeology themes and metaphors that seem very exciting and done with passion and dedication. I like what this group has come up with and wish them much luck with this.

Trips and Pics
A couple of items of special note: Google’s new Expeditions program and Shutterfly’s new Photo Story resource. Expeditions is Google’s new program to provide teachers and classes with Virtual Field Trip experiences, an old idea getting a very powerful shot in the arm and renewed life from Google who is updating and (hopefully) popularizing it in a big way. Using Google’s Cardboard — a fun, folded phone holder and viewer — students can use their phones to provide a special viewing experience of the virtual excursion. This ‘50s, retro-looking item turns a smart phone (placed inside) into a state of the art, virtual-reality viewer and, I’m sure, adds a ‘Wow Factor’ that will make the learning experiences created to take advantage of it, truly memorable for today’s students.
Photo Story (I Pad app) is a free resource from Shutterfly that serves as a multi-media composing platform to support, guide, and engage kids in creating their own published books. It’s well planned and designed to give kids a kid-writer friendly user experience, enabling them to concentrate on the content they are creating without struggling with the means to produce it. This resource is carefully crafted so that the kids’ finished product is impressive and something they are proud of. Whether that finish follows the digital or the print option their work takes on the look of a professional book, one way that technology clearly raises the experience of learning and being part of the world several notches.

A Shout-Out for Passion
Before I forget, a big shout out to Chris Aviles, a teacher who blogs under the name of Teched up Teacher. Chris gave a poster session on making passion the guiding force in teaching and learning. This guy’s got fire in the belly, caffeine in his veins, and appropriate righteous indignation in abundance at the fact that the learning experience our kids still get in their classrooms isn’t inspiring and habit forming. He showed examples of his students using today’s resources to create and make things that meaningfully respond to and positively impact their world. For me, this poster session captured perfectly the spirit of the change that we want to see in education.
And as for the rest of the conference? Well, it strikes me as having showed the means to that end. All in all, it was great!

Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member, taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. An edtech pioneer, he spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, where he assisted over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. Now retired, he currently teaches graduate courses to EdTech Masters students. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Extending and Enriching a Career Through Writing / CSA Newsletter March 2015

Extending and Enriching a Career Through Writing
By Mark Gura

Being a retired educator can be a challenge. While  I don't miss the daily suit-and-tie or rush hour traffic, I still feel the need to remain involved in my field - educational technology. I was  aware of that desire from Day 1 of my retirement.

I found a new outlet, however, that allows me to help my colleagues and has given me a great deal of satisfaction - I've become a write.

Shortly before I left the NYC school system 10 years ago, I wrote  and published Making Literacy Magic Happen, my first book for teachers. I've kept at it and most recently, one of my publishers, the International Society for Technology in Education, has released Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age: Inspiration for ALL Levels and Literacies.

Of the dozen education books I've written, this one presented the biggest challenge. Not simply because its subject, the important intersection of literacy instruction and technology, has evolved into a broad area, but because this book is a compendium of practices, a collection of insights from some of the most talented colleagues with whom I've had the privilege to collaborate. But it's one thing to talk about the material, quite another to help 17 people who are not professional writers put their thoughts on paper in a coherent manner that is illuminating and inspiring.

I reached out to as many colleagues as possible who might contribute a chapter, and I accepted proposals on subjects that struck me as illustrating something important about combining technology with literacy instruction. I also wanted easy-to-implement, effective practices that involve the use of free or commonly available digital resources.

'I don't miss rush hour traffic,
but I need to remain
involved in my field.

I settled into the long process of conferring with each author as they formulated and then wrote his or her chapter. To do this I drew upon my experience at the Department of Education as well as the skills I've acquired in retirement. Many months later, all the coaching, mentoring and editing resulted in the book, a satisfying experience to say the least.

In many ways, the process took me back to what I did for so many years for the DoE, which was to motivate and guide educators in producing professional development content and curriculum. I remember that I wanted them to not just develop instructional materials; I wanted them to design materials that would move our colleagues to try new things given the new technological possibilities and to see their jobs in that bright new light. For me, writing has been the perfect vehicle to continue and extend my commitment to the field. It's one I highly recommend to my colleagues and fellow CSA members everywhere.
Mark Gura was the Director of the Office of Instructional Technology from 1997 to 2004, when he retired from the NYC school system. Visit Mr. Gura's blog at Upload:

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

ISTE Librarian Professional Learning Network - Webinar

I had the pleasure of sharing some professional thoughts and knowledge with the ISTE Librarian Professional Learning Network via their monthly webinar...

The Librarian Professional Learning network devoted its recent book study to my book, Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age. This was the theme and focus of the webinar
Here's a little of the background on this webinar... below is a screen shot of the way the webinar was announced in the ISTE website. 

Spotlight on Mark Gura, Faculty of Touro College GST’s Instructional Technology Program
(Published in NoMad, Manhattan) 

At Touro College Graduate School of Technology (GST), students are prepared for the dynamic challenges of the technologically shifting workplace, gaining the tools necessary to excel in the fields of information systems, web and multimedia design and instructional technology. Perhaps the most important part of this process—the way that graduate schools truly differentiate themselves—is access to experienced and dedicated faculty. This is where the addition of Professor Mark Gura to the Instructional Technology Program’s faculty is crucial. He comes to the Graduate School of Technology with decades of experience gleaned from a lengthy and successful career in the educational field.

Mark Gura is no stranger to education. In addition to working as a teacher in the classroom for 17 years and spending 5 years as a staff and curriculum developer, he has also served as a central office administrator and the head of the Office of Instructional Technology with the New York City Department of Education. Gura has consistently been on the forefront of the field; he’s authored numerous text books for teachers and also holds the presidency of the Literacy Special Interest Group of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). When it comes to how this all applies to his classroom, as he puts it, “this deep pool of experience is the source I feel that’s the most important.”
Indeed, students at Touro College GST engage with the leading minds of the instructional technological field, creating a vibrant academic community that fosters their development. Professors like Mark Gura, with their wealth of practical, real-world experience and a genuine passion for teaching, are what set the Graduate School of Technology apart from other and graduate programs. See for yourself what a graduate track at Touro College Graduate School of Technology might look like by checking it out online.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact an admissions officer at:
Touro College Graduate School of Technology
27-33 West 23rd Street, Room 331
New York, NY 10010

Friday, February 13, 2015

Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age: Inspiration for All Levels and Literacies” Compiles Best Practices in Standards-Based Activities

Very proudly announcing my latest book, Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age: Inspiration for All Levels and Literacies.

A tremendous amount of work went into getting this together, but the result is something I'm very proud of...

“Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age: Inspiration for All Levels and Literacies” Compiles Best Practices in Standards-Based Activities
Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age: Inspiration for All Levels and Literacies, edited by Mark Gura, features practices that represent important trends in technology-supported literacy instruction, and covers topics including storytelling, story analysis, report writing, persuasive writing, literature discussion, vocabulary development and more. Contributed by 23 literacy specialists and other expert teachers across the curriculum, the book’s activities are tagged with recommended grade levels, main technologies used and literacy skills covered.

Activities are aligned to the ISTE Standards for Students and the Common Core State Standards and most can be easily adapted for any grade level as well as for students with special needs and English language learners.

Activities range from podcasting in foreign language class and creating a graphic novel to crafting an argumentative essay and producing a digital television news program. Technologies integrated into the lessons include social networking, blogging, podcasting, digital audio and video tools, digital games, online animation and comic creation tools and various Web 2.0 tools.
An educator for more than three decades, the book’s editor, Mark Gura, is the former director of instructional technology for the New York City Department of Education where he developed and administered the first citywide instructional technology program. He began his career as a teacher, spending 18 years in elementary and middle school classrooms in Harlem. More recently, Gura taught graduate education courses at Fordham University, Touro College, and New York Institute of Technology. He has written extensively on education for the New York Daily News, Converge and a variety of other education magazines and has written and published numerous books on education, including Getting Started with LEGO Robotics (ISTE, 2011), and Visual Arts Units for All Levels (ISTE, 2008).
For full article follow this link>>>


Storytelling, story analysis, report writing, persuasive writing, discussing literature, vocabulary–no matter what language arts topic you're addressing, this book will provide you with dozens of activity ideas using a wide range of technologies.

Each activity in this book is tagged with a recommended level, main technologies used, and literacy covered, and all are aligned to the ISTE Standards•S and Common Core State Standards. You can easily adapt the majority of the activities for any level with minor modifications, including for student with special needs and English language learners.

Publisher's Website (for more information and to order):

ISBN: 9781564843395
Audience: ELA Educators (early elementary – 12), curriculum specialists, library media specialists, technology coordinators
Price: (ISTE) Nonmember Price: $24.95 / (ISTE) Member Price: $17.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

GUEST COLUMN - ISTE 2014: A Tale of Two Paradigms

ISTE 2014: A Tale of Two Paradigms

A veteran attendee to edtech’s big show provides an in-depth analysis.
GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura

Now that the
dust has settled on the massive ISTE event in Atlanta, part conference and part all around edtech rave, I’ve gotten down to the serious work of making sense out of this year’s installment of what always proves to be a field-defining information storm. I’ve attended every ISTE Conference since 1997 and rely on this annual event to provide me with the very most important ‘ah-ha’s’ about what’s actually going on and what it all means. For me, the biggest clue this go-‘round, was not what was shown or demonstrated or said — it’s who showed up.

While dazzled by the screen glow of elegantly designed functionality, let’s be sure to ask ourselves what goals it’s directed at…

Between the sessions I host or attend, the poster sessions I rely on for quick access to actionable info, the folks I rub elbows with while in line for over-priced coffee, the shoulders I look over at the book sales area, and the myriad other opportunities to interact with colleagues, friends, and total strangers — I usually manage to exchange views with a few hundred really smart people. I also read their registration badges, not just for names and home towns, but what sorts of jobs they hold.

At previous conferences, this invariably showed them to be tech teachers, tech coaches, edtech professional development and curriculum specialists, and the like. Not this year though. This year, I found myself talking to a great many non-tech specialists. Over and over, I found myself sharing the conference with generalist subject area teachers, instructional supervisors, and school and district administrators; far more of them than I would have expected. These folks were there to get themselves up to speed on the ways technology will impact their professional lives.

It seemed to me, too, that while they’ve known for a long time this is something they should do, they were doing it at this year’s conference with urgency and conviction. It was as if the great, non-techie rank and file ‘out there’ had finally taken to heart that the long-forewarned edtech tsunami had already crested and was poised directly overhead. They were now declaring themselves to be part of a movement that has been slowly, but steadily and strongly, making itself known over the past quarter century.

I’ve been part of this phenomenon for the past 22 years and to tell the truth, it was not truly a brand-new field even when I entered it. I was delighted to see this shift, though, and this year I’ll try to digest all I saw and experienced from the point of view of these new partners. It’s got to be an overwhelming challenge to enter our field at this particular point in its history — and I particularly sympathize with their efforts to navigate and comprehend the dizzying overload of information and opportunity represented by the massive ISTE 2014 Expo sales floor.

The other understanding that this year’s conference reinforced strongly for me is that edtech has become such a broad field that, to navigate it now, one really has to distinguish between types and purposes of resources and practices — and to create categories with which to sort out the various trends and approaches.

A great many of the rank and file newcomers I chatted with have come to understand that schools are in the process of being transformed into digital work environments. Consequently, they were investigating and being shown by vendors and colleagues how to make things more efficient and effective digitally.

From my perspective, a good portion of the technology being produced and consumed currently does this, while preserving an overall vision of what school is and what its goals are. I saw a great deal at this year’s conference that I feel can be effectively contextualized as part of a paradigm we can call The Digitized (Traditional) School. And consequently — at both a good number of the displays on the sales expo floor and some of the sessions — I saw student information systems, online testing, content management systems, and a host of other things directed at gaining advantage in controlling perennial school concerns like student compliance in remaining on-task, record keeping, and student achievement assessment.

One-hundred and eighty degrees away from this in meaning and significance, colleagues with a different vision about the type of education today’s kids need — one that embraces the ways technology has changed how people research information, manipulate and apply it, and communicate their discoveries and understandings — were wrapping their heads around transforming education through such approaches as student content creation and publication, games-based learning, programming, global collaboration, robotics, etc., things that not only motivate students, but that re-contextualize learning and re-define the goals of curriculum and instruction.

And, of course, in a field as rich as edtech, there are areas of gray that bridge both paradigms. While many conceive these two takes on the state of education, today’s and tomorrow’s versions, to be paradigms in conflict, that’s not necessarily the only way to understand it.

Clearly, it’s inevitable, that like all other types of work environments, school is bound to be digitized. True, in the short run that digitization in many respects amounts to ringing more mileage out of the 19th-century paradigm of worker preparation-oriented learning that defines traditional schooling. It’s also true that digitization also represents basic preparation for the true revolution in education that is bound to follow; a revolution in which technology will enable and empower the long overdue re-conceptualization of what it is that today’s students need to learn and how they may best learn it in order to take their place among tomorrow’s movers, shakers, and informed and adept global citizens.

Armed with these powerful ah-ha’s, I cruised through this powerful conference’s vast sales floor. The following are some highlights of things I found being sold, promoted, offered, highlighted — or whatever. I think it is crucial to understand these not only on face value, but by mulling over which paradigm they are emblematic or at the service of. In some cases I’ve given my take, but for many, I leave it to the reader to make the determination him- or herself:

Microsoft. I had lunch with the very astute Margo Day, a VP with Microsoft, who shared with me three of the very interesting inspiring things they are focusing on: Skype Translator, Office Mix, and one that I had the opportunity to follow up on later that day at the Microsoft exhibit on the floor, teaching and learning practices supported by the technique of Digital Inking that is implemented using the software, OneNote. The demo of this that I attended was given by a teacher, Robert Baker. The application of this approach to establishing and obtaining easy and high value teacher to student/student to teacher. I’ve rarely witnessed an approach to non-verbal communication between teachers and students that was more casual, seemingly effortless, and with potential to truly flip the ‘On’ switch to those light bulbs that float over the heads of students as they ‘get it.’ Very impressive. But, then again, while there is value in improving the quality of communication between teacher and student, in the end, what matters most is the what of the communication, not the how! Further, I personally think that there are more ways for teachers and students to use One Note-based digital inking than I saw there, the fine art of virtual pen and ink drawing, and the casual diagram creation needed for robotics and other Engineering and STEM activities, for instance. I was so impressed by the freeform line functionality that I saw though, that I vow to explore those possibilities on my own over the next year.

Penveu. Every once in a while I actually get excited by a hardware item that comes out in the edtech marketplace (yes, I’m one of those instructional practice; instructional software/APP geeks who usually doesn’t care what device resources run on). Penveu, though, is a potential game changer. I teach graduate courses in Education, both for EdTech majors and for non-techie, generalist and subject area teachers. I often start a course for the latter group by asking them what technology they are familiar with and often the only tech they’ve actually observed is the now near ubiquitous Interactive White Board . And, truly, if you had to pick a single item type that had the most potential to turn a traditional classroom into a digital learning environment, this would be the prime candidate. But Interactive Whiteboards have their problems, both in their high cost and their technical difficulties. Penveu has come out with a truly low-cost, easy-to-set-up-anywhere, little-calibration or -maintenance-required device. It’s an alternative to the classic interactive whiteboard that appears to me to perform better than what’s out there dominating the market currently. Penveu, by the way, is portable — something that is not true of interactive whiteboards. If you are contemplating acquiring an interactive whiteboard, I highly recommend that you take a look at what Penveu has to offer first.

One of the ways that technology is making an impact in instruction is through the use of digital content. Years ago, print textbook providers began to experiment with providing digital ancillary materials for the classic textbook, the single resource that, by far, has literally defined the institution of school more than any other. Those resources over the years have spawned fully digital bodies of content that now in many instances replace the classic print textbook series.
And then there are newer and even more visionary approaches to providing content area materials for students. One that stands out prominently that I saw at ISTE is Filament Games.

Filament Games. Currently, this group offers a suite of game-based experiences that address (among others) the Next Generation Science Standards (in the area of Life Science). These are sophisticated learning games, not the disappointingly simple right/wrong “plug in the correct short answer, kids!” variety that many teachers may have seen. In short, these games require real thinking and provide meaningful learning. Most encouraging is that Filament is providing a full package and not just the games, which appropriately represent the core of the experience. There are also curricular extensions and assessments to round out what teachers and students have to work with. I chatted with Marshall Berringer at the Filament Games booth and was heartened to learn that as wonderful as it is, this Life Science suite of games and materials will hopefully be just a beginning. It is their approach to harnessing technology as a learning resource resonated for me even more strongly than their current product. I expect to see even greater things from these folks down the line.

Intel and Kno. I was greeted with a great deal of hardware to be inspected at the Intel area. All well and good. However, I’ve always been an instructional practice guy, so what caught my attention at this exhibitor’s area was the resource Kno (Intel acquired this rich digital content provider back in 2013). Apparently, Kno provides a uniform interface that allows students, even those with different types of devices, to uniformly take advantage 
of the benefits of digital textbooks of a variety of types. This company appears to make digital texts easily and efficiently searchable, to facilitate annotation, highlighting, and book marking effective and shareable; also providing analytics. The group’s website states: ‘Kno is an education software company on a mission to “Change The Way Students Learn.” We believe engagement is a leading indicator of success and grades are a lagging indicator. So we have partnered with over 80 leading publishers to offer more than 200,000 interactive titles that make learning more engaging, efficient and social for students.’ Truly, comparing the experience of reading traditional, hard copy textbooks with the sort of experience to be had by accessing texts through Kno calls to mind the image of a school attended by the Flintstones’ kids vs. one attended by those of the Jetsons. There’s simply only the scantest common denominator between the two. YouTube videos of classes using Kno are truly inspiring, painting a picture of a very highly improved way to have students consume and learn from text content. However, keeping in mind the Educational Paradigm that I’ve observed evolving over the past few decades, I’m left wondering. I have no doubt that accessing interactive texts via Kno absolutely changes the way students access, process, and respond to the content set before them, but does it really change the way students learn? Perhaps, but only in a very limited sense, I think. Kno, it seems to me, is currently tied to texts, which (more engaging in their digital versions, or not) are directed at having students absorb bodies of fact and basic skills routines; things that are more aligned, in my mind, with the traditional 19th-century paradigm of educating workers than releasing, empowering, and guiding the curiosity and self-directed discovery that will be the hallmarks of preparing the innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs of the 21st Century.

Google. I expect a good deal from a highly active giant like Google, and the high energy group of people manning this company’s large piece of real estate on the Expo floor had much to share with those who paused there for a while. By now, only those who’ve been in a dormant state in a parallel universe somewhere are unaware of Chrome, Chrome Books, instructional APPs that run on them, and the ever expanding portfolio of free goodies that Google provides to educators who, more and more happily, take advantage of them. One item that thoroughly caught my attention, though, is Google Classroom.
As the teachers featured in one of the Google Classroom videos on YouTube point out “Google Classroom is one location for all of their worksheets and handouts; a way for teachers to distribute projects to students … a way for students to turn in their work. “Everything that we need for the class is in one place”, “Classroom really helps organize everything and it shows me when an assignment was submitted, (and) what was submitted, “With Google Classroom I am able to maximize time in the classroom to bring students to that next level”. Google Classroom, which I believe will be offered free when fully rolled out (I was informed by the nice woman at the Google exhibit that it is in beta currently, with an anticipated general release date this coming September) seems to me to have many of the features of a quality content management system. And I would fully expect that as the teachers in the video mentioned above abundantly, it will save time and make the job of traditional teaching more efficient and manageable. It’s my very strong hope though, that teachers who are attracted by the Google brand will also make good use of Google resources like Blogger, Picasa, Sites, and YouTube, all of which encourage, support, and guide students in creating original content, presenting it to authentic audiences, and learning from the feedback those audiences provide. When I hear teachers speak of handouts, worksheets, and quizzes, I generally take those as evidence of instruction directed at teaching those things that were considered important in a world that is increasingly bygone.

Expo Start Up Pavilion
The Start Up Pavilion is a niche area within the main exhibit area. This is set aside for new-ish, small-ish companies, who have something original-ish to offer for sale. If you want to feed off a generous abundance of youthful, entrepreneurial spirit, this is the place to go. As predictable and staid as much of sales floor can be, the Start Up Pavilion offers some true, high interest excitement from groups that are often indicative of where edtech is heading. There were far too many groups there (20+) for me to cover them all here, but here’s a sampling I saw that impressed me:

TYNKER Programming has made a strong comeback as a worthwhile, computer-based activity for students. In the early days of edtech, we discouraged it as a “too obvious” answer to tech enthusiast teachers’ question of what computers could possibly be used for in school. However, the day of having students memorize the rules and routines of challenging programming languages like BASIC and “C” are gone. A number of user friendly, engaging approaches to making programming appropriate for kids have emerged. These activities are highly engaging and foster thinking and problem solving. TYNKER is a notable, relatively new, resource in that category. Their website states that TYNKER is “Designed to motivate and inspire kids to bring their creative ideas to life. Kids create their own games, animated stories, and projects, and publish their apps for the web.” To glimpse an example of the type of learning activity that is truly relevant for our time, I highly recommend you check out this site
By the way, another of the programming-centric activities that offer an important window into the future of 21st Century relevant education is student robotics. Thankfully, robotics materials were very much in evidence on the Expo floor and I covered them in a lengthy blog post on the Classroom Robotics Blog.)

An easy to use, web-based resource that enables students (or teachers) to create original multi-media rich presentations; ones that are published, accessed, and shared online? Now you’re talking! Self-directed, personalized learning – authentic activities – student as content creator/student publishing– maker-oriented assignments – Project-based Learning, and on and on: so many of those high minded, but difficult to implement, dimensions of the ‘new education’ are made possible and given a shot in the arm by this resource! BTW, BUNCEE offers a FREE level for teachers and students.

As we move to adopt a more student-centered, thinking oriented variety of learning as the appropriate goal of Education, thinking tools will increasingly take center stage in student activities. Ideaphora appears to me to be a likely candidate to become a highly favored one. Sure, we can still do flow charts, semantic webs, and ‘mind maps’ on our desktops with workhorse, general purpose software varieties like MS Word, but Ideaphora takes the general idea and slingshots it into a contemporary approach, providing a handsome and useful application that also has such features as: browser-based accessibility, increased ease of use, functionality that guides and supports student discovery of links between key words and images, personalization by the learner to conform to one’s own learning style and personal view of a topic, interactivity in which student created mind maps are automatically linked to source material, sharing and collaboration features, formative assessment features, and more.

Despite plentiful rhetoric over the past few years about the need to foster student creativity and innovation, the resources offered by SPARCIT are just about the only actual program I’ve encountered that specifically claims to accomplish that. The idea revolves around providing games for students to play that will develop their creativity. The SPARCIT website currently states “We are still at the start-up stage and are developing the games.  But we are actively looking for early-adopters and would love to hear from you…”   The 2 gentlemen manning this exhibit were quick to proudly inform me that they currently have a pilot project underway in a high school in Washington, D.C. I didn’t get to actually see the games at this exhibit, Web Access being very slow throughout the conference floor, but frankly, sight unseen, I love the idea here. This is the kind of gutsy thinking and curricular chutzpah that will be needed to nudge the institution of School out of a fading paradigm and firmly ensconce it in the emerging one. I’ll take a close look at this as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Samsung  I attended a classroom style demonstration set up at the Samsung exhibit. A presenter there, one with actual, extensive experience in the classroom conducted the demo. It was impressive to see how a classroom set of individual, tablet-style devices can effectively be connected so that the teacher can easily observe what all students are doing on their screens, offer them help, and ‘ensure’ that students remain on task by messaging them appropriately that their compliance in doing assignments is being observed. To those new to the field of education this may seem like an appropriate and innovative use of technology. I’ve been in the field for close to 4 decades now, having spent over 2 of them as a classroom teacher, and I can’t help but hold the opinion that better than a more effective arsenal of tools to force student compliance, teachers should address the issue of why students avoid participation in instructional activities in the first place. I was impressed with the design and functioning of the connected devices I saw at this exhibit, but for my money, until technology is implemented in our schools at the service of the emerging paradigm of individualized, relevant curriculum, instead of ensuring compliance with one that is old and outmoded, little true, lasting improvement in learning will be achieved. But of course, in the hands of enlightened educators, a classroom set of connected tablets would be a very useful resource to bring that about.

Booktrack Very cool; a free resource that enables teachers and students to create soundtracks to e-books! I see great potential for Literacy and other varieties of learning here. Booktrack’s website paints an enticing picture for teachers interested in bringing next level resources into their classroom:
“Booktrack offers a new content creation and distribution platform that turns reading into an immersive movie-like experience. Bookrack’s patented technology lets anyone add a synchronized movie-style soundtrack to an e-book or other digital text content, with the audio paced to each individual’s reading speed.”
1) Add Text; copy your existing work, type an original story, or use a royalty free text to get started,
2) Add sound; add music, ambient sounds, and effects from our free library of 1,000s of tracks to create an immersive soundtrack for your text,
3) Share; publish your story for our community of readers to enjoy and share. … New York University and The University of Auckland have conducted studies on Booktrack which showed that Booktrack increases reading comprehension scores and student engagement.”
“We’ve assembled a variety of free lesson plans catering for students at the elementary, middle and high school levels, covering a variety of subjects and learning outcomes. All lesson plans have been created by professional teachers and conform to CORE standards and best practice.”
While students can use Book Track to modify and personalize e-books of their choice, I think that potentially the most far reaching application of this resource involves writing, ‘tracking’, and publishing online their own, original work.
(Promethean) Classflow Class

Flow is another major company-provided resource that seems to be directed at enabling teachers and schools to establish uniform digital experiences for students — this, by providing a platform that will enable teachers to create media-rich lessons, pulling in and distributing a variety of content resources. It leverages a good number of the sexy technology functions and ideas that dominate the edtech landscape, or so it seems to me (e.g., log in anywhere, store everything in the cloud, connect multiple devices easily, collect student performance data, establish and work in an online community, etc.).

Where to Next
These are very compelling ideas that make a great deal of sense. However, in reviewing any digital resource offered to “improve education”— I feel it’s one thing to get everyone on the same page (even a page that’s replete with compelling bells and whistles) — but it’s quite another to get everyone on a page that offers experiences relevant to learning in the 21st Century.
While dazzled by the screen glow of elegantly designed functionality, let’s be sure to ask ourselves what goals it’s directed at: new paradigm learning or merely traditional paradigm activities wrapped up in a mantle of up-to-date technology features.
After we’ve kicked the tires and admired the wonderful new tools on the dashboard, we have to ponder where we want to drive this sexy new car. Hopefully, to a destination that makes sense for today’s learners and the world they are being prepared for.

Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member, is president
of the ISTE LITERACY Professional Learning Network (formerly, Literacy Special Interest Group). Mark taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. An edtech pioneer, he spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

Every Student Can Learn / EdTechDigest Article

Posted on @EdTechDigest

Students aren’t defective, materials and resources are.
GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura
CREDIT Rose and Meyer This past semester I taught a required course for Instructional Technology majors. Trust me, there’s nothing like swapping ideas with 30 early-career technology teachers to give you a good snapshot of the state of thinking in this field. This was a great learning experience for me as well as the students and chief among its many strong points, this was my first opportunity to use the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST’s, ‘Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning’ as the keystone text in a graduate level Education course. I, of course, had been familiar with this important work previously, but this was a great opportunity to look at it with fresh eyes — those of my students. And wow! It proved to be not just the good, informational text I had hoped for, but a truly transformational one.
I’ll paraphrase this book’s very wonderful, central idea:

Students who don’t succeed in learning through traditional instruction don’t do so because of some defect or deficit or learning disability on their part, but rather, because the materials and resources they are presented with are inflexible and unsuitable to meet their particular, personal needs as learners.

The book offers many ideas and practices to help teachers determine those specific needs and how to address them. What resonates about this so strongly for us Instructional Technologists is that the flexibility that’s needed to make instructional resources accessible and usable for so many students is brought about by increasingly common and available digital technologies.

The flexibility needed to make instructional resources accessible and usable for so many students is brought about by increasingly common and available digital technologies.

These truly are revolutionary ideas and it was inspiring to observe my students, none of whom were previously familiar with UDL (Universal Design for Learning), wrestle with this conceptual framework that runs throughout the book for the first time. What my students took away from their reading is nothing less than the realization, that truly, EVERY STUDENT CAN LEARN – and seeing examples of how this can be brought about through the focused, targeted use of technology, they walked away with the crucial “ah ha” that a vast improvement in teaching and learning looms on the horizon and is within our reach.
Quite reasonably, my students first saw the body of UDL ideas and practices as a way to serve Special Education students. And no doubt, such students have reaped a great deal of benefit from it through instruction provided by educators who also have seen this natural connection. But the truly transformational understanding my students came to next is that by applying the ideas underpinning UDL to mainstream students as well, all students can experience the curriculum in a much more satisfying way and consequently, can learn and achieve far better. Moved by the inspiring experience my students had, I’m making this way of looking at the potential of technology to re-make education for the benefit of learners worldwide a personal area of special interest. Of the broad range of instructional platforms and philosophies extant, I think this is one of the most promising by far.

No area of learning needs this more than Reading. Using traditional resources and instructional practices, a very substantial percentage of students fail to master their literacy skills (particularly Reading) sufficiently and early enough to succeed with a good deal of the curriculum that’s presented to them during their school career. Further, they fail to catch on to the satisfaction and inspiration that self-directed reading can provide and consequently miss out as well on the benefits it offers by making them lifelong, independent learners. Applying our very best understandings of learning and how to overcome barriers to it to this very important issue is crucial.

Fortunately, CAST is piloting a new resource named Udio that will do just that. Udio’s goals are “to foster a passionate interest and investment in reading for students who have traditionally been uninterested in, or disenfranchised by, traditional classroom literacy practices, and “to substantially improve the reading comprehension skills of middle school students who have experienced recurrent failure in the domain of reading.” ...

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Madrid Vale!

“Vale” – “Vale” – “Vale”, you hear it everywhere in Madrid. We were told it simply means “OK”... but that it also means “To be worth.”  My recent experience in this marvelous city showed it to be very OK and time spent there to be worth a great deal!
After a hiatus of a couple of years while my wife Maria and I relocated our home to Jupiter (Jupiter, Florida, that is), we've started traveling again. And what an uplifting delight it is to be back on the road exploring our mind-blowing world! Spain, with Madrid as home-base, proved to be a very good choice to ease back into the mode of growing and learning through travel...
Translation: Dark swallows will return to your balcony to hang their nests and again, with wing on your windows, they’ll call out playing.
The streets of Madrid are  paved with many things, one of them is poetry!
Visuals of Madrid... Vale! Click to see what we saw (photos)