Alexa, What’s on the High School Menu Today?

When the Montour School District launched America’s first Artificial Intelligence Middle School program in the fall of 2018, many questions arose. Why middle school? Why teach Artificial Intelligence? How? (Just to name a few). But, as a student-centered and future-focused district, the thought process was not if we should teach AI, but what if we don’t teach AI? Also, why isn’t everyone teaching AI?

To better answer these questions Dr. Justin Aglio, Montour’s Director of Academic Achievement, and I met with two eighth grade students who were part of a special project that tapped into AI. The students provided great information about the “why” and “what” for learning about Artificial Intelligence and Justin added some key elements explaining how the program will grow in the upcoming years.

Tema and Aidan, two of the four eighth grade students, really played up the fact that it’s not about teaching AI in school today, but why hasn’t anyone started sooner. The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” report from the World Economic Forum points out that we need to understand our changing environment, challenge our assumptions, and continuously innovate. Schools and all institutions will need to begin to think about the impact of AI and Robotics. It’s not only jobs that will be affected. It’s our moral code; it’s our training for all learners to become informed citizens for the 21st century.

For K-12 schools that means we need to rethink how we define and evaluate learning. Montour is one of school districts who are rethinking what graduates in the 21st century need to know, understand and do. Montour believes that all students need to become data fluent. They need to know how to analyze, interpret and create data to solve problems. They need to be able to design frameworks to solve real world problems using data. Learners also need to understand the underlying processes and ethical issues behind modern technology. In Montour that’s exactly what students discover. Through a Media Arts course developed by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) all students investigate moral issues related to Artificial Intelligence. Topics for the Montour course include: algorithmic bias called gender shades, the trolley problem, or ethical matrix design.

However, as Tema and Aidan pointed out that doesn’t explain how AI works. You need to get behind the modern 8 ball and discover how to use AI to solve a problem. We don’t want students to become just better consumers of AI; we want them to become better creative producers using AI. So what’s a problem that middle school students have on their minds? The Montour middle school students wanted to know what to expect when they head to high school.  It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s something different to develop a “skill” for Alexa to explain what to anticipate at the high school level. Amazon provides a developer’s kit that the Montour students used. The Montour team first conducted a survey of their peers and then used the data to develop the questions that would be part of a pilot project with Witlingo. Each of the four students in the development team not only conducted the research, they also recorded their answers. So, today when you ask for Montour “Hey Google, talk to Montour High School,” or “Alexa, Launch Montour High School,” you now can learn about the high school program through the research and voices of Montour students.

While the middle school program has had great success, it’s not enough to just drop AI in the middle of a student’s life. What will prepare students for the world of machine learning? According to Justin Aglio you need to arouse student curiosity at the elementary level. So next year Montour will include in its elementary program Experiments with Google AI to introduce students to AI concepts and traveling AI robots around the school that interact with students.

Once you have the students asking questions and conducting research, you want to have them go further. At Montour high school students will soon have mentorships with companies, like Google or Argo. Students will have opportunities during their Personalized Learning Time (PLT) to take additional courses, such as AI4ALL’s Open Learning program.

Future of Educational Technology

This year I had a chance to travel to Orlando for the Future of Educational Technology Conference (FETC). I spent a good part of my time conducting workshops for Birdbrain Technologies, but I did have time to peruse the Exhibit Hall, hear keynote speakers, and talk with a number of folks who had participated in FETC before. Here are some of my reflections.

Here Comes Virtual Reality

For the opening Keynote Dan Lajerska, the Chairman of EON Reality, Inc, outlined how his Swedish company is moving not only into educational spaces, but commercial ventures. EON provides a very robust tool that will definitely play a role in educational technology. In the Exhibit Hall zSpace brought an RV to demonstrate their technology. However, the most impressive technology for me came from two young Chinese educators who have created “SnapBench.” Up till  now most VR projects are opportunities for learners to consume and be entertained by the novelty of AR. SnapBench provides a creative tool that looks like Minecraft. You can actually create your own VR projects using SnapBench. Where this will lead is really up to the creative user. I can see environmental education, design projects, and other opportunities. In addition to allowing a user to create a virtual representation, SnapBench also provides a 3D printing option – something that no other technology I’ve seen can accomplish.

Teaching to One

Yes, Personalized Learning is on the radar for many schools. Tyler Sussman, the Director of Partnerships for Summit Learning, outlined at the opening keynote the opportunities for schools to tap into the free Summit Learning tool set. Marc Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook not only paid for this project, but they also provided the engineering behind the software tool. Summit Learning now has over 100 schools (grades 6-12) around the country using the software. The tool set is designed to provide not only an encapsulation of what students have done, but it also is designed to allow learners to set goals around careers and post-secondary opportunities. In addition to Summit there were workshops and presentations sharing success stories about Personalized Learning. Other companies, like Pearson  showcased their software in the Exhibit Hall.

STEAMING Ahead

Hummingbird

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

If there’s one focal point that everyone seems to agree upon, it’s the importance of giving all learners active learning experiences that are interdisciplinary and inquiry based. I participated in the Mobile MEGAShare where TechTerra organized 18 stations that FETA participants could sample in six rotations. I worked with one of TechTerra’s gurus to challenge folks to create an animated product in less than 30 minutes using the Hummingbird Robotics Kit from Birdbrain Technologies.  I was amazed how teams of 2-3 educators could meet this challenge using the CREATE Lab’s Visual Programmer. We need to make all entry learning activities as challenging and rewarding as this. Other stations included software from BrainPop (one of the big hits in the Exhibit Hall), robotics from Lego, science inquiry tools from Pittsco, and Virtual Reality from SnapBench. Over 100 people jammed into the meeting room. In addition, at the Exhibit Hall there were dozens of STE(A)M companies. I had a great chance to talk with one of the representatives from SparkFun Electronics. In the past I’ve been involved in eTextile projects that have used the LilyPad from SparkFun. Today they’re a great resource for educators looking for STEAM materials.

Active Learning

David Dulberger FETC

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While some people are proclaiming the end of interactive whiteboards, SMART Technology has moved forward with new tools that work both with their boards and without them. My wife’s nephew, David Dulberger, did a presentation on SMART Amp, an incredible tool for collaborative, active learning that has engaged David’s 5th grade students at the Emma Doub Elementary School in Maryland. Throughout the exhibit hall there were vendors demonstrating new furniture for active learning. There were also a host of hardware and software products. Everyone seems to realize that active learning leads to Deeper Learning. We need to provide opportunities for learners to move, to get out of their seats, to have flexible solutions, in order to have creative and productive learners. In addition, we need to  make the activities project or problem-based where learners work collaboratively.

Blended 2.0 shifts learning in schools

[Blended learning continues to evolve. In this District Administration article schools are moving towards greater personalization of learning using technology resources and tools. I’ve always wondered how teachers can combine a personalized approach with deeper learning through projects. Summit Schools provides an excellent model and as this article indicates provides a free tool to help teachers / schools manage a more personalized approach.]

By Patricia Daddona

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Third-grader studying the Spanish settlement of California found a virtual tour online and shared the trip with her classmates by slipping a smartphone into a Google Cardboard viewing device.

Such limitless online resources represent a big, blended leap beyond the essays students in Coalinga-Huron USD in Central California used to write. Blended learning for the district’s 4,400 students began three years ago, and in the past year has gravitated to blended 2.0, says Joe Casarez, associate superintendent for instructional services.

“If you define blended learning in the first iteration as a combination of technology and print,” Casarez says, “then what we are seeing when you marry 2.0 personalization with the Common Core standards are more authentic activities in the classroom.”

A survey of 1,381 students in the district showed nearly 74 percent were more engaged, and 89 percent agreed they could solve problems or create presentations by researching online, he adds.

Across the country in New York, all 7,300 students in the Middletown City School District engage in variations of blended 2.0. Students begin researching topics online at home and then get guidance from teachers in the classroom, says Superintendent Kenneth Eastwood.

“Kids go online, watch films and view PowerPoints in preparation for a deeper conversation in the classroom,” Eastwood says. “This flips the lecture piece to the outside of class. The class itself is for clarification and expansion of concepts.”

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