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ISTE Buzz: STEM video games, cloud collaboration and online PD

Students in the Game On Project at the University of Michigan used the game Minecraft for a procedural writing project
Students in the Game On Project at the University of Michigan used the game Minecraft for a procedural writing project

Rapidly changing K12 classroom technology that is helping district administrators prepare students for college and the modern workforce was on display at this June’s ISTE conference in San Antonio, Texas. The exposition floor buzzed with more than 500 exhibits and 4,500 industry representatives showcasing revolutionary products such as interactive tables, Common Core-aligned adaptive educational computer games, and data-driven instructional programs.

Presentation highlights and the latest trends included video games that can spark students’ interest in STEM, free Google apps that are making classroom collaboration easier, and online professional development tools for teachers.

Value in video games

The number of computer programming classes offered in high schools nationwide is lower today than it was 20 years ago, due to budget cuts and a lack of mandatory tests on the subject, says Scott Gordon, professor of computer science at California State University, Sacramento.

Gordon presented at ISTE on promoting STEM interest for women and urban students by incorporating social relevance into their learning, through building educational games for younger students. Public districts may offer fewer engineering classes in coming years, he adds, a nationwide problem since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2018 there is estimated to be over 1 million unfilled software engineering positions.

“Engineering and computer science are increasingly important fields that our students are not adequately being prepared to study, or even being made aware of,” Gordon says. “It’s hard to justify it budget-wise if there isn’t a standardized test involved.”

But video games, although still unconventional in the K12 classroom, are helping teachers to keep math and science active across subjects to prepare students for a workforce reliant on STEM fields.

“Video games are just another way of conveying information and getting kids’ attention,” says Cameron Pittman, physics and chemistry teacher at LEAD Academy Public School, a charter school in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. Pittman spoke about using the puzzle-making game Portal 2 in STEM education at ISTE.

Pittman conducts physics experiments with Portal 2, which is free for educators. Students studying gravity and acceleration could drop objects off a virtual ledge to calculate weight, time, and distance, bringing such physics concepts to life.

Elsewhere, preservice teachers from the University of Michigan figured out how games that their K8 students played outside school could be integrated into the curriculum. For a fourth grade class studying writing and world cultures in Ann Arbor (Mich.) Public Schools last December, three preservice teachers used a Nintendo Wii game called African Safari Adventures to develop a unit called African Safari Journalism. The students went on virtual safaris and wrote about their experiences, through journal entries and news stories.

In the exercise, students showed higher order thinking skills, such as problem solving and creativity, when preservice teachers integrated the games into curriculum in a highly structured way. Such structure would include specific class times for game use and lesson plans, says Liz Keren-Kolb, a clinical assistant professor in teacher education at the University of Michigan who oversaw this project, and spoke about it at the ISTE conference.

Special needs and ESL students, especially in K2 classrooms, gained the biggest benefits using African Safari Adventures, she adds. “Interactive activities seemed to really engage the students who used to be shy because of their disabilities or language issues,” Kolb says.

The lesson is that administrators should be open to using not only educational games in the classroom, but any games, such as Minecraft or Sim City, that could engage students, Kolb says. The lessons with the African Safari game, for example, fulfill Common Core writing, speaking, and listening standards. “If you bring it into the classroom and structure it the right way so the experience is equitable and enhances the curriculum for every student, it can be a rich learning experience connecting the Common Core with their everyday life.”

Google Apps takeover

Budget cuts and outdated email servers have led many district leaders to move to Google Apps for Education, a free, web-based email, calendar, and document service that lets students and teachers collaborate. For example, teachers can watch students write in real-time and can make comments along the way, giving students immediate feedback. These docs can be accessed by teachers and students 24/7, no longer limiting the work to class time.

Because these apps are web-based, “teachers don’t have to worry about whether kids are on different platforms at home or at school, or different systems that don’t work together,” says Deb Tschirhart, educational consultant at the Southwestern Ohio Instructional Technology Association. “As long as they have internet access, they can easily get to everything.”

Students who don’t have internet access at home can download items to work offline, she adds.

Many top colleges and universities use Google apps, as do most K12 schools in Ohio, Tschirhart says. “Students can learn this suite of apps in elementary school, and it will follow them as they learn, and the apps continue to grow and develop as they do,” Tschirhart says.

And more and more school administrators use Google apps to share calendar schedules, collaborate on meeting agendas, and share notes, Tschirhart says. Many use “Google forms” to conduct teacher observations. And principals can quickly email the entire assessment to teachers afterward.

At Greenwich (Conn.) Country Day School, an independent school with students from preK through grade 9, Google forms are now used schoolwide as part of the teacher evaluation framework. Teachers use the forms to assess themselves and organize goals and action plans. Administrators can also use the forms to assess individual teachers and identify patterns of relative strengths and weaknesses among the faculty. This can be used to design professional development solutions, says Marek Beck, the school director of professional development.

For example, the district used this data to create Differentiated Professional Learning Fridays, time each week for teachers to come together in groups targeted toward their needs to collaborate and share best practices.

Teachers at Greenwich Country Day School, an independent school in Connecticut, also use Google apps to create class websites where student projects, such as book reports, research papers, and videos, can be collected. Each students’ material can be easily compiled in a digital portfolio that will follow them throughout their time at the school.

Regular meetings in which teachers and administrators share ideas on how to implement classroom technology are critical for the success of programs like Google apps, says Matt Dandola, a sixth grade teacher at Greenwich Country Day School. “For implementation across the curriculum and throughout the school, providing the time needed for teachers to teach each other and experiment with it is vital,” he says. “If it’s just ‘here’s a new tool, go use it without any support,’ it’s overwhelming and not as effective.”

Reimagining professional development

When it comes to staff development, more districts are moving online toward blended and flipped professional development models that involve online work with shorter in-person sessions. For example, in Joplin (Mo.) Public Schools, administrators found that evening professional development sessions that sometimes last three to four hours exhausted teachers.

So this year, the district moved to a flipped model: over the course of one week per month, teachers complete about 2 ½ hours of professional development lessons online, followed by a 90 minute face-to-face meeting with other teachers to share knowledge and methods.

“We saw online discussions that were very rich—the kinds of things the teachers were discussing had a whole new depth compared to what I’ve seen in face-to-face sessions,” says Klista Rader, director of technology at Joplin schools. She also spoke at ISTE about the flipped PD model. “They were able to put their thoughts down, and had time to think about what it would look like in a classroom,” she adds.

Companies like Edgenuity, School Improvement Network, and Solution Tree offer online and blended professional development services that can be tailored by district. But despite the ease of online professional development, administrators must still provide teachers the opportunities to meet in person to collaborate, says Marian Pasquale, senior research scientist at the Education Development Center’s Center for Children & Technology. Pasquale also has studied different blended professional development models.

“It’s not a panacea,” Pasquale says. “The online curriculum is very helpful for people learning content without having to go to a college and take a three-credit course. But in addition to that, people do need that face-to-face opportunity to really deepen and connect their online learning to their classroom.”

In-person professional development workshops are also changing to more interactive models. Typically, these workshops send the message that teachers need to promote active learning in the classroom, but don’t give concrete examples how to do so in the workshop, says Lori Gracey, executive director of the Texas Computer Education Association, who spoke at ISTE on the subject of interactive PD.

Administrators must model new professional development styles for teachers to bring them to their schools, Gracey says. “When you have faculty meetings, don’t stand there and read off a PowerPoint—if that’s what you do, that’s what your teachers will do,” she says. Instead, they need to show teachers how to effectively interact with students and use technology in the classroom.

For example, at a staff meeting, an administrator could set up stations around the room with active learning components and discussion questions and ask teachers to move through them at specified times. Some stations might be required, such as sharing information about upcoming events, while others would be elective, allowing the teacher to choose what they want to learn and discuss. Teachers would work together at each station to complete a task, and reflect on their own learning.

“Think about how you can provide different materials for teachers, and how you can assess them,” Gracey says. “You have to model what you’re expecting your teachers to do.”