30 November 2012

Value Above Replacement: Sabermetrics for EdTech

Have you seen the movie, read the book, or heard of Moneyball? Here's a quick primer if not - be sure to keep reading after the excitement of this trailer. :)

Billy Beane, real-life general manager of baseball's Oakland Athletics, was faced with a challenge I'm sure you recognize: get a ton of performance with what never seems like enough money. Knowing he was never going to get ahead (or feel satisfied) trying to make conventional, "sexy" decisions, Beane recruited a statistician to go behind what his scouts' eyes were seeing, and make his personnel decisions based on parameters, or metrics, that were going to provide the most improvement for the best price. Generally, this outlook in baseball is referred to as sabermetrics, and is first attributed to Bill James.
the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.
I very simply substitute "technology" for "baseball" and "learning" for "in-game activity" in the above definition from wikipedia and I have definition for the principles we should be following when we choose technology tools for purchase on any level, and when we plan our everyday lessons.
the specialized analysis of TECHNOLOGY through objective evidence, especially TECHNOLOGY STATISTICS that measure LEARNING.
I'll be the first to argue in favor of spending as much money as possible on district technology budgets, but only if an actionable research plan has been followed first. Bad money spent just takes away from sports, theatre, music, teacher salaries, etc.

My favorite sabermetrics stat is WAR - Wins Above Replacement. (Here's how Baseball Reference calculates) Basically, WAR aims to compare any baseball player on a team against what an "average" player at the position would do. How can we apply that to education technology? I don't have numbers for it yet, but using my new sabermetrics definition for technology, (and some intuition and reflection), I can compare any piece of technology against the "average" instructional tool or method.

Wet-erase overhead vs. SMARTboard
iPads vs. laptops vs. computer labs
Graphing calculators vs. Graphing software
Graphing calculators vs. graphing by hand
student clickers vs. paper response cards
students on whiteboard apps vs. small, physical whiteboards

The observations would be simple, the CHANGE or DECISIONS would be more difficult. If the technology method as you're applying has insignificant statistical difference between traditional methods, then you have 2 options:
  1. Transform the way you use the tool, get new data, compare again
  2. Pass on that tool and continue using the "old" method

Its usually fairly easy to justify purchase or use of technology, even if students are more successful. Our culture ingrains within us such a reverence of new technology that often the first impulse is not to question the technology, but rather, search for other factors. The students? The teacher? Hour of the day? Grade-level?

Could you commit to making anti-technology decisions in favor of future, more capable tools or un-flashy, proven methods? What's the VAR of that technology in your classroom?

Don't Play With Technology - Just Teach!

This post goes out to the early adopters like myself who always want the newest gadget or software in classrooms so they can use it in their lessons.

Teachers in the 21st century have to continuously straddle demands of "teacher-tainment," competing with screens, and focusing on content at the risk of being "boring," or irrelevant, losing students' interest. I'm sure you'll agree that you didn't keep watching this video for the hard hitting, engaging journalism.

Technology employed thoughtfully and with a clear, self-designed purpose can draw your students into a lesson. Technology you're using because it's "cool" can take away from actual learning, and while it may impress some of your co-workers, play well for an observation, or look good on a resume, we have a duty to reflect on the true VAR (value above replacement) of the strategy over a more "traditional" approach.

09 November 2012

Stop Posting Your Homework Assignments (As Often)

I've blogged before about my struggles with missing assignments and communicating work with my students and parents. ("Get the Homework Monkey Off Your Back"). Now I'm going to say, you're doin' too much.

If you're supremely organized, or teach a dual-credit or AP course that requires a complete syllabus from day 1, then this strategy will be much easier to implement and adapt for your situation. The basic goal - keep your homework assignment from getting lost here.
You know this backpack too well...you probably trip over it every day.
Another plan for keeping your students and (more importantly for everyone's success) parents up-to-date and informed on class assignments and tests is to share your planning calendar with them. Before you think, "I tried this once before - updating the calendar function on our school's webpages," hear me out.

Your first step is to begin using Google Calendar for your planning. My favorite function in Google Cal makes me feel like it was made just for me. To change the date of an event, simply click and drag it to another day.

Once you get your lessons mapped out you have TWO options: embed the calendar or share it. I do both with my small AP Stats class. Sharing the calendar is the same process as sharing docs with your students or colleagues. Enter their email and they can have whatever level of sharing/editing/viewing control you desire.

The beauty of sharing the calendar that you're already working with is that there is not an extra step to sharing updates with your students and parents. You update, they see it. You've probably run across one before, but here's what my embedded calendar looks like.

Within 2 days of sharing my AP Stats calendar with my students, I had this conversation:

Hey, Mr. Baker, I'm going to be gone next Thursday for a field trip. What are we going to do?
Um...well... ::trying to come up with a helpful answer::
Oh! I'll just check the calendar!

Your students will be amazed at your organization (and you'll surprise yourself, too).

05 November 2012

I Will Never Go Paperless

I love calculators, iPads, and smartpens, but even my favorite note-taking app will never take the place of a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

I really enjoyed this post last Friday on LifeHacker, Three Ways I've Simplifed Using Pen and Paper Instead of Technology

The author was making his case as a writer and for his personal life, but the key points are applicable to math class and instruction, as well.

1. "Writing Out Lists Embed Them In Your Memory"

I'm not usually one to make my students write everything out by hand just to fill class time and keep the chatters busy (although I used to be, LOL), but through my own personal experience, I know there's a space in pedagogy for the muscle memory and learning environment triggers to writing out postulates, theorems, and examples before starting problem solving. It's not the best, but I believe hand-note-taking is a kinesthetic activity, as well, solidifying memorization through movement, hearing, and sight.

I like to do this in my personal journal with quotes or scripture I want to let sink in a bit more than just copy and pasting text in electronically. If a strategy doesn't even work for me as a learner, then you'll have no confidence in it for your students

2. "Paper Gives You More 'Room' to Explore"

Which is more inviting - a blank sheet of paper, or a blank word document? For some there may be little difference, but I much prefer the sheet of paper. As soon as I sit down to a keyboard (or even a notetaking app) I inherently begin to think about formatting and how I'll fit the spacing of my lines and paragraphs. Sometimes I prefer landscape "mode" to portrait.

The extra demon of doing even preliminary math work via technology is that (even though we're working on tablets now) an already abstract study in variables and functions is compounded with an extra layer of abstractness between the learner and the learning he/she is trying to build or exhibit. Using equation editors and mathematical programming language is an important skill for our students, but its digital noise when introduced too early.

For digital interactive notebooks this means I would much rather have students keep work and scratch on paper and then consolidate it all into Evernote. This works out most conveniently for students uploading their group work or homework to their Evernote accounts since we had a cart environment. Students don't often have access to Evernote at home, and spending the extra time to type their work on the iPad is a distraction to the actual learning outcomes I want for them.

3. "Writing Slows You Down"

The Lifehacker author points out on this one that giving up the technology for writing quiets distraction and forces you to focus on the task at hand with dedicated, power-thoughts.

Right now I'm streaming a recent Mizzou Men's Basketball game on espn3.com, have 2 different email tabs, a facebook tab, and my wife would usually be watching something on the TV. There's a lot going on. I love the ritual of sitting down to write. ::Just had to silence the basketball game; I was having trouble finishing this paragraph. LOL:: There's never been a time I presented a worse lesson, led a less effective discussion, or was less persuasive in a speech because I was intentional about writing it out first.

Having your students write in math class gives some permanence to what they say. Writing my reasoning of a process requires that I'm thoughtful of the words (vocab) I'm using and the sequencing of my words and phrases. I freaked out a lot of my students a couple years ago because I started asking, "Why?" every time they gave an answer, and for awhile they thought they were wrong because I wanted to know what they were thinking. Even then, however, I let them off the hook too frequently with a "You know what I meant" kind of answer. You know, the vague answer that using lots of "this" and "that," and is less evident of learning.

What about you? Do you ever feel the same way? Do you think the process of romanticizing pen and paper will eventually alienate me from my students?

02 November 2012

Desmos Updates Web-Based Calculator: Ready to Ditch Your Old TI?

Desmos, Inc, creators of a great online graphing calculator just updated the interface and functionality of their web-app, but is it enough render other apps or traditional calculators obsolete?

There are advantages to your students utilizing web-based, iOS/Android, or physical TI (or Casio) graphing calculators, so if you've got the resources, use them all!

Software, hardware, and mobile apps all have their place in 2012 maths education.

Appropriate Uses:

Desmos (and other) online graphing calculators

You live on the web, you work on the web, you publish on the web. Why are we still forcing our students to make and analyze function and statistical graphs on a separate piece of hardware and (at best) uploading them to PCs via USB? 

Especially with Algebra 1 or Geometry students, I feel like there is a ton of instructional time spent just teaching navigation through menus and screen on traditional calculators. The beauty of the Desmos interface is that almost every utility your Algebra students might use is all together. Equation editor, tracing, and graph view doesn't require any extra keystrokes. Instructing use of the Desmos Calculator is usually limited to answering "How do I add a new equation," and "What do you press for the exponent?" and the students quickly figure out the rest as they play.

Editing equations on this web-based graphing calculator also seems like training wheels for other math software like MathmaticaWolfram Alpha, or Geogebra

The real power of Desmos, is how they've built sharing right into the app. 
With a button that looks VERY similar to the Google Docs share button, you've given a hypertext link, mail link, embed code, and image download. Very flexible!
You could:
  • use the sharing feature to upload your own graphs onto your class website
  • post to your class social media pages
  • embed into assignments/quizzes/exams

Your students could:
  • Share on wikis
  • Share on discussion/message boards
  • email you
  • email each other
  • Post on their social media accounts

Mobile Apps or Software Based Calculators

I haven't really found one that has anymore functionality than the free Desmos calculator, but these are handy to have on my iPads or the math computer lab for when the network is down. The practice of typing mathematical equations is also important for success on our Missouri Algebra I EOC. It'd be a shame for our students to score poorly because of the technology instead of a lack of knowledge. 

Students are also always willing to download a free version to their mobile devices. Searching in your app store will get you one of several free or cheap options. The favorite for my class iPads is (you'll never believe it) "Free Graphing Calculator". My preferred software for high schools is the open source GeoGebra platform. It is very similar to Geometer Sketchpad, which is written into many textbook's curriculum, and (like Sketchpad) also has an archive of lessons and resources.

Traditional graphing calculators (TI-83/84/NSpire or Casio Fx or Prism)

Students taking standardized tests still have no other options for their graphing/statistical needs than the golden standard dedicated graphing calculator. It seems obsolete and an inefficient use of resources to me, but its also irresponsible to neglect training on operation (and encouraging/requiring students to use them). If your math students are spending all of their time sketching simple graphs on their ACT, SAT, or AP (or your Praxis II) scratch paper, they will run out of time to do the analysis that is truly required on the assessments. Until the testing companies find a way to block students' use of other apps during testing, laptops, tablets, and smartphones will continue to be banned from the testing environment.

Besides testing, endurance also lies on the side of TI. Although it seems crazy to me that they still sell TI-83s for 80-90 dollars, that's actually great for your attempts to integrate the technology into your classroom. The keystrokes for most basic functions on TI or Casio hardware haven't changed since at least 2000, so you can reasonably use class sets your school has previously purchased within the past 12 years. Can you imagine getting a reasonably similar experience for your students between a 2000 iBook and a 2009 MacBook (The year before TI-Nspire was introduced). We have almost 40 old TIs we still use in a bind.

What's your preference for your students' graphing needs? Given limited instructional time, which approach would you prioritize?