I love open source software, not just for technological reasons, but also for philosophical reasons. Isn’t it lovely to be able to share things freely and build a better world together? Over the past few years I have tried to convey this love to students, but generally have failed miserably. This year I will try once again, and to help me I have put together a visualisation in order to try and make the situation clear. In designing this I have tried to be as impartial as a fanatic can be, showing that open source is not the right choice for everything, but that it has its place and does some things incredibly well.
This is rewrite of a unit which I really loved running, but somehow never knew how to assess. I was so unhappy with the assessment that I actually stopped teaching it, despite really wanting to keep it running. The addition of the Self Assessment Guide to the Year 7-9 ICT Course, means that I now have the tools to really do the unit justice, without getting bogged down in assessment which fails to add value.
The idea for this unit came to me first thing one morning whilst I was lying in bed desperately trying not to think about work. In the unit, students work in teams to combine hardware and software in the production of a system which allows them to remotely guide a blindfolded peer. Beyond the ICT aims, it provides students with an understanding of the world as experienced by the visually impaired, as well as the ways in which technology can be used to augment and improve the lives of people with disabilities. The video below gives a quick feel for how things work:
The system is entirely student-assembled and centers around a head-mounted web cam and freely available software. Being a relatively new school, we do not yet teach Home Economics or Design Technology, so this unit provided our students to work in a hands-on fashion that they do not often experience. In total, the cost of running the unit should be less than HKD$200 (USD$25) per group, assuming you do not need to purchase any laptops.
Over the past 3 years I have been teaching a unit on Computer Systems, in which I used a simple 4 Layer Model to teach how computers work. I am currently planning for next year, and whilst I am running the same unit, it will be stripped down and more focused. The 4 Layer Model has moved to v2, with some tweaks based on how I have seen students use it in previous years:
Once the unit is done I will share the whole thing here, but I just wanted to get this model up on its own for students use.
The idea for this unit, which I think is my most adventurous yet, came to me first thing one morning whilst I was lying in bed desperately trying not to think about work. In the unit, students work in teams to combine hardware and software in the production of a system which allows them to remotely guide a blindfolded peer. Beyond the ICT aims, it provides students with an understanding of the world as experienced by the visually impaired, as well as the ways in which ICT can be used to augment and improve the lives of people with disabilities.
The system is entirely student-assembled and centers around a head-mounted web cam and freely available software. Being a new school, we do not teach Home Economics or Design Technology, so this unit provided our students to work in a hands-on fashion that they do not often experience. In total, the cost of running the unit should be less than HKD$200 (USD$25) per group, assumming you do not need to purchase any laptops. The materials below should guide you through the process of running this unit.
Thanks to Coco, a very artistic student from my school who was kind enough to create a lovely logo for this unit!
I designed this unit with the aim of introducing young students to the fundamentals of programming, in the hope of helping them to view programming as a discipline built on logic and sequential processing. Theory is kept to a minimum, with students asked to learn 7 key, interrelated key words. Most of the learning takes place within the Scratch visual programming language environment, and students can be encouraged to work independently, solve their own problems and think creatively. The unit provides three levels of assessment, and I allowed students to decide for themselves which they would tackle, allowing students to differentiate the task for themselves.
- ICT Unit – Y7 – 201011 – Programming 101 – Unit Overview
- ICT Unit – Y7 – 201011 – Programming 101 – Task – 1 Standard
- ICT Unit – Y7 – 201011 – Programming 101 – Task – 2 Challenging
- ICT Unit – Y7 – 201011 – Programming 101 – Task – 3 Ridiculous
- ICT Unit – Y7 – 201011 – Programming 101 – Mark Sheet
On the whole my students seemed to enjoy the challenge, although at times they were very frustrated. I used the following diagram to try to help them understand their feelings, and how they change during the problem solving process:
This unit is my first attempt to introduce students to computer systems in a thorough, formal and organised manner, and it has proved both educational and enjoyable for both myself and (I believe) my students. It uses a very simple layered model (which I call the Four Layer Model) to help students understand how hardware, software, networks and people each function as parts of complex computer systems. For my Year 9 students this was their first opportunity to really work with computer hardware (they had to reassembly old PCs) and software (they had to install Ubuntu Linux). It also gave them new insights into how the Internet works, and finally a glimpse of the complexities involved in human use of technology at the individual and group levels. Hopefully this unit has managed to demystify those little plastic and metal boxes they spend so much time staring at!
If you are planning on running this unit, be prepared to answer lots of interesting questions, and fix lots of problems. Let me know if you need any help. The files below should provide you with all of the information you need:
- Unit Outline
- Presentation 00
- Presentation 01
- Presentation 02
- Presentation 03
- Presentation 04
- Mark Sheet
- Four Layer Model
- Four Layer Model with Annotation
- Rapid Presentation Example
- Example Internet: Role Play – This video was one of the outcomes of the unit. You can read more about it in this blog post.
Over the past few months I have been working to create a new open source project: Gibbon. At the risk of neglecting this blog and other projects, I have been putting in many, many hours to create a system which allows schools to better manage their data. Whilst there are plenty of commercial systems that do this, I wanted to create something that I could alter, and that other people might help me build. The aim of the system is to bring students, staff and parents together in understanding through the use of shared data. This takes the form of student demographic data, attendance, marks, units of work and lesson plans, which is mostly complete for students and staff. In the coming weeks I hope to add in more functionality, such as timetabling and the parent interface.
I love comics, and am often amazed not only by how funny they can be, but also how much can be learned from them. Growing up I was a regular reader of Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side and Mad Magazine. As I grew older I began to appreciate the intelligence and sophistication of Dilbert and XKCD. From this reading I developed my own sense of humour. More than this, however, I learned to question and reflect on the world around me, to understand that different situations could be understood in different ways and that I was not alone in my feelings and views on the world and its inhabitants.
Whilst many children love comics, too many teachers and parents dismiss them as childish distractions from serious reading and learning. If you are of this opinion, I ask you to read this short strip and see if it changes your perspective on this issue. Whilst reading comics can be beneficial in the ways described above, creating comics provides an even richer opportunity for learning. Consider some of the following ways in which comic creation can be used in the classroom:
- Discovering the joy and power of remixing and mashing up the work of others.
- Drafting stories before writing.
- Encouraging creativity and self expression.
- Character development to extend understanding of texts.
- Learning about graphic design and layout.
- Learning about persuasion.
- Honing online research skills.
- Learning computing skills.
- Developing an understanding of issues surrounding intellectual property and copyright.
- Digital storytelling.
- Summarising complex ideas.
- Putting events into chronological order.
- Learning about visual literacy, social conventions and suggestion in the media.
Interestingly, these ideas apply to almost all subjects. If you are teacher, stop for a minute and consider the multitude of ways in which this could be applied to the subjects you teach. Certainly within both of my subjects (ICT and ESL) I can see plenty of scope for applying these approaches. In fact, in terms of promoting multiliteracies, I can think of few more powerful tools.
Computer technology provides us with some great tools for quickly and easily creating comics. These technologies afford one great advantage to users: they lower the barrier to creating great work because they do not require traditional artistic abilities, such as drawing. The following are four pieces of software that can be used to empower students:
- Comic Life is the premier comic creation software in terms of ease-of-use and pure joy. It focuses on arranging existing images and applying effects to them. It is desktop software, and runs on Windows and Mac OS. Unfortunately, payment is required, although it is very reasonable, especially when purchasing in bulk. The 30-day trial is completely free and unrestricted, so this is a great place to start.
- Comiqs is an online alternative to Comic Life, with comparable functionality: it seems extremely promising, but is in beta and currently seems to have some bugs. Hopefully these will be ironed out in the near future. The service is free, and there is no need to install any software onto your computer.
- Pixton is an extremely flexible online comic creator. Unlike Comic Life and Comiqs, which are primarily concerned with working on existing images, Pixton allows users to create and edit their own comic characters. This is a great tool that is worth some serious exploration, and whilst it does seem a little tricky to use, it does provide a huge range of flexibility. Pixton is free for individual users, but there is also a paid educational version with enhanced tools for teachers.
- BitStrips works along the same lines as Pixton, but is somewhat easier to use. That said, you do not get quite as much flexibility in terms of creating and manipulating your creations, although the results can be just as good. I would recommend this for use with younger students. As with Pixton, it is free for individual users, but there is also a paid educational version with enhanced tools for teachers.
Having sung the virtues of comic creation, I will end with a cautionary note: as with any tool, it is essential not to overuse this approach. Whilst kids will love the novelty and freedom that these activities can bring, if they do it every year in every subject they will very soon lose interest.
If you adopt any of these ideas in your classroom, please feel free to send over some student work, which I will gladly post on this page.
Mozilla Firefox is a free, open source web browser which aims to provide a simple, light and fast way to browse the web. It is one of the main driving forces in the web today, and the competition it provides is one of the reasons that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has seen so much development in the last 3 years (it is scrambling to become relevant again).
In an effort to avoid the bloating that effects many mature software products, Firefox ships with a relatively minimal feature set, including some of the best features that most people require from a browser (such as tabs, smart addressing etc). However, to ensure that Firefox can meet the needs of all users, there is a huge selection of additional functionality, available as optional addons. The purpose of these plugins ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, and there are literally thousands to choose from. As an indicator of their popularity, the Firefox website shows that there are currently more than 127 million addons being used around the world! The list below shows some of my favourites, most of which are related to website design and development:
- Firebug provides a sophisticated environment for analyising and debugging websites. Of particular use is the feature which allows users to see the effects of CSS code visually, making the process of turning an idea into reality that much easier.
- Wappalyzer shows which technologies (such as Drupal, Google Analytics, jQuery, etc) are used in the website you are currently viewing. This is very useful if you are curious as to how a particular website is put together, and to gauge the popularity of various technologies.
- ColorZilla provides a color picker, allowing you to grab the RGB code of any colour you happen to see on the web.
- Firesizer allows users to make their Firefox window a particular size. I mostly use this when creating training videos, to ensure that the Firefox window matches the size of my video container.
- FoxyProxy extends Firefox’s built in proxy settings, allowing a user to store multiple proxy settings and quickly switch between them. I made extensive use of this whilst working on my laptop in government schools in New South Wales, as it allowed me to quickly switch between work and home settings.
- Delicious Bookmarks: I am a massive Delicious fan: in fact, most of the articles on this site begin life as Delicious bookmarks. This addon allows you to quickly create and manage Delicious bookmarks from within your browser. In the development process I often bookmark sites that I find interesting and inspiring, and Delicious provides a great way to store, index and retrieve these.
- Download Statusbar: one of my few gripes with Firefox is its download window, which always pops up and gets in the way of the site I am using. This addon replaces the window with a discreet bar, making browsing flow that little bit better. This addon also ensures that you can keep an eye on your downloads and continue browsing at the same time: great when downloading lots of fonts, images and software during the development process.
- Flagfox is very simple: it displays, in flag form, the country in which the current web page is hosted. I find this interesting for its own sake, but it is also useful for security and localalisation issues.
Originally designed as a blogging platform, WordPress has evolved into a fantastic system for publishing all manner of content. Whilst it is not quite as flexible as Drupal, it is far easier to use, and has a great variety of high quality themes, making it relatively easy for anyone to build a website. If you have your own server or hosting, you can download and install a copy of the software within 5-10 minutes. With such a setup, you have are afforded great flexibility in terms of site setup and content. Alternatively, you can use the free hosting service provided at www.wordpress.com, which uses the same platform, but applies controls on content and functionality.
I like WordPress so much that I used it in the creation of this website.