Coding IS a super(edu)power


I’ve been really impressed by the Dan Meyer/Dave Major collaboration. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to click on that link immediately. Seeing both Dan and Dave post on their respective blogs about the thought and rationale that goes into these activities is like a masters class in pedagogy, digital media, and user design.

The common thread that I really like about these tools is the clean and minimalist way they pose an idea, encourage a bit of play and intuition, and then get out of the way. Dan has talked about these ideas philosophically for a while, and seeing Dave make these happen is really exciting. They talk about this being the future of textbooks, but I am willing to wager that textbooks will get fidgety at displaying a task to a user atop a blank white screen. The trend has been so far in the other direction that I am skeptical, but I am hopeful that they will start to listen. These exercises are like a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. Textbooks and online learning otherwise tends to look either like a visit to Chuck-E-Cheese or the town library, over-thinking or under-thinking the power of aesthetics to creating a learning environment that is stimulating enough, but not distracting.

Being a committed Twitter follower, I of course interrupted their workflow with suggestions. I was looking for an easy way to collect student responses to a question along the lines of Activeprompt, but for tasks that are not about finding a location. I had posed a question to my Geometry class and was really excited about greasing the rails for gathering student responses and putting them in one place. This is the same idea as what Dan/Dave had done, but with a bit less of a framework pushing it in a direction.

Dave’s suggestion was, well, intimidating:

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I had been playing around with web2py, Django, Laravel, and other template frameworks that said they would make things easy for me, but it just didn’t click how they would do this. I have done lots of small Python projects, but the prospect of making a website seemed downright unlikely. I spent three hours putting together this gem using the CSS I had learned from CodeAcademy:
Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 4.56.54 PM

I was not proud of this, but it was the best I thought I could do.

Through the power of Twitter, I was able to actually have a conversation with Dave and learn how he put his own work together. He uses frameworks such as Raphael.js and Sinatra in a way that does just enough to achieve the design goal. I learned that he wasn’t doing everything from scratch. He took what he needed from what he knew about these different tools and constructing precisely what he envisioned for his application. I prefer Python to Ruby because, well, I don’t know Ruby. I found Bottle which works beautifully as a small and simple set of tools for building a web application in Python, just as Dave had done with his tools.

Using Bottle and continuing to learn how it works, I made this yesterday.
BFwz3k5CQAEE2ts.png-large

I shared it with Dave, and he revealed another of his design secrets: Bootstrap. Again, dumbstruck by the fact this sort of tool exists, but also that I hadn’t considered that it might. This led me to clean up my previous submission and reconsider what might be possible. With a bit more tinkering, I turned this into what I had envisioned: a flexible tool for collecting and sharing student responses to a question
Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 5.12.14 PM

I was just tickled pink. Dave had shown me his prototype for what he made in response to my prompt – I was blown away by it, as with the rest of his work. Today, however, I proudly used my web app with two of my classes and was happy to see that it worked as designed.

The point behind writing about this is not to brag about my abilities – I don’t believe there is anything to brag about here. Learning to code has gotten a good mix of press lately on both the positive and negative side. It is not necessarily something to be learned on its own, for its own sake.

I do want to emphasize the following:

  • My comfort with coding is developed enough at this point that I could take my idea for how to do something in the classroom using programming and piece it together so that it could work. I got to this point by messing around and leaving failed projects and broken code behind. This is how I learn, and it has not been a straight line journey.
  • If I was not in the classroom on a regular basis, I doubt I would have these ideas for what I could do with coding if I had the time to focus on it completely. In other words, if I ditched the classroom to code full time (which I am not planning to do) I would run out of things to code.
  • Twitter and the internet have been essential to my figuring out how to do this. Chatting virtually with Dave, as an example, was how I learned there was a better way than the approach I was taking. There are no other people in my real world circles who would have introduced me to the tools that I’ve learned about from Dave and other people in the twitterverse. Face to face contact is important, but it’s even better getting virtual face time with people that have the expertise and experience to do the things I want to learn to do.
  • I have been writing code and learning to code from the perspective of trying to do a specific and well defined task. This is probably the most effective and authentic learning situation around. We should be looking for ways to get students to experience this same process, but not by pushing coding for its own sake. As with any technology, the use needs to be defined and demanded by the task.
  • The really big innovations in ed-tech will come from within because that’s where the problems are experienced by real people every day. Outsiders might visit and see a way to help based on a quick scan of what they perceive as a need. I’m not saying outsiders won’t or can’t generate good ideas or resources. I just think that tools need to be designed with the users in mind. The best way to do this is to give teachers the time, resources, and the support to build those tools themselves if they want to learn how.

You can check out my code at Github here. Let me know if you want to give it a shot or if you have suggestions. This experiment is far from over.

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Filed under computational-thinking, programming, teaching philosophy

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