Friday, March 25, 2011

Program or be Programmed

I've taken my title from Douglas Rushkoff's talk and book who says that if you are not programming you are, by process of elimination, one of the programmed. As a teacher that is forever expounding the powers of programming I find this point of view intriguing.

Along a similar line, I had an interesting discussion with one of our music teachers at school. I had sent her a link to a website called ujam - a cloudapp that allows a user to sing into a microphone to a metronome beat.

The app will then suggest a chord progression to accompany the melody line. It also allows you to choose the style of your composition and the instruments and you can convert the singing line to an instrument as well. I thought it was a powerful and engaging way for young musicians to experiment with musicality and composition. Unlike the app Mynah it uses the student's own melody line and then helps them to find the harmonic sound they are looking for for the accompaniment. The music teacher didn't agree. She said that it had caused a heated discussion in her household because she and her husband are musicians who held the position that this kind of app takes all the musicianship out of composition and her children (teenage girls) didn't see the big deal because they could create music without all the fuss of writing it out. There is an immediacy which appealed to the younger generation but which slightly appalled the parents because it seemed to oversimplify the problem.

The retelling of her family discussion allowed me to consider my own position. I have often bemoaned the use of Microsoft Publisher and PowerPoint in the classroom. Many teachers use these tools to add a sense of presentation and fun to the gathering of information. That's a good thing. It's admirable to try to add fun and design to basic tasks and technology is very good as an overlay to add this to the classroom. I do think, though, that often the use of this technology is just used to replace other classroom activities such as "Present to the class with visual aids", "Create a poster" or "Create a flyer". In fact, the old fashioned way of creating a brochure with coloured pencils and paper had more educational benefit than using Microsoft Publisher to create a brochure in most cases. Similarly, "Present to the class with visual aids" required more thought than create a PowerPoint. The finished product might look better if it has been created using a computerised template but it will also look much the same as the other student in the class who used the same template. This will always happen if we don't teach our students the principles of visual communication as well as how to use the tools to create visual communication.

I think that in this world where non-textual communication is so important, all subject areas should be teaching students how to get to the crux of their point and communicate using the visuals and the colours to form part of the persuasion.

I'm a computing teacher. I teach IST to juniors and IPT to seniors and I am capable of teaching Software Design but we don't currently have enough classes for me to teach it. Some of my colleagues think that students should learn skills with PowerPoint and Publisher in my classes but there are a few problems with this. Firstly, these subjects are elective. Not every student goes through them so not every student would gain these skills. That would be like suggesting that students can only learn to communicate visually in Visual Arts or that students can only learn to present in Drama. These are skills that are bigger than a subject field. The second problem with all students learning how to use these skills in computing is that they are not explicitly taught anymore. My department can choose which applications to use to deliver the core and elective syllabus content and I haven't used Microsoft Publisher in any classroom. I do try to teach what makes a good PowerPoint and how to communicate when presenting but these are not application skills, they are communication skills.

I think these discussions of tools disguise the main point which is that we need to determine what goal we are trying to achieve in each class activity. If we are trying to get students to present a group's findings from a survey with reference to imagery found on the web, then PowerPoint is a great tool to use. If we are trying to get students to quickly create a theme song for a TV commercial, convincing an audience to buy a product then they should be using ujam or aviary to create the theme music. If we are trying to get students to simplify the tenets of the Nazi party into something that could convince people to join the resistance then they could create a brochure in Publisher (but I would require that they not use any of the theme sets because they're horrible).

I think that if your focus as a teacher is to get the students talking and learning about non-technology subject matter then you should use a tool that has a very small barrier to use (that is, neither you nor the students need to read a manual to get started). We need to trust that the students who have a passion for music will study music where they learn the musicianship to make compositions properly and well; students with a passion for visual representation will study art and students with a passion for how all this stuff works will hopefully choose computing.

That said, there are a number of very cool apps that make doing stuff manually look hard and cumbersome. I have listed some of these here. Of course we don't design the educational experience around the tool but use a tool to support the educational experience. A brainstorming tool that allows collaboration. It's great for very quick and easy mind maps

voicethread A tool that allows students to textually and vocally comment on images or powerpoints

Aviary A suite of adobe-like clones. Image editing, music editing, and vector image creation.

Museum box a tool that focuses on finding and displaying visual representative information rather than text to tell a story

Storybird from the website: short, art-inspired stories you make to share, read, and print.

Timetoast create interactive timelines

DoInk create really easy animations

Wallwisher make a virtual noticeboard

Interestingly, after writing this up I found an blog post by Jeff Utecht talking about a similar thing with reference to Powerpoint. You can read it here.

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