Monday, June 19, 2017

Zen and The Art of Technology


As you reflect over the past school year and think about all of the technology choices you made—movies, videos, podcasts, screencasts, assignments scheduled in Google Classroom—can you say why you did what you did?  When working with educational technology, it is important to create meaningful and relevant experiences for students, but it is equally important to know the rationale behind all the uploading and cursor clicking.

Here are five Zen tenets that will inform a mindful approach to making sure your technological choices are effective, practical, and necessary in a modern, successful, 21st century classroom. I’ll focus on when to click, but I’ll also add just enough heart and soul to keep things interesting.
Intentionality.  Technology is a tool. And you wouldn’t pick up just any tool from your toolbox to build a house. If you need a hammer, you grab a hammer. On purpose. The same is true for educational technology. Don’t simply rely on thoughtless, knee jerk reactions based on what you’ve always done. Make intentional choices about which tool or device you need to achieve your purpose. Making a document? Know which is better for your job—Google Docs, Word, or Pages.  (And yes, they’re different). If you need Google Drawings, don’t grab Google Forms.  Which works better: Screencast or video? Or maybe some (gasp!) good, old-fashioned “live theater”-style direct instruction? Learn to make mindful, conscious choices about which tech options will serve you best and when.
Simplicity.  When I started the telecommunications program at my school in 1993, I had two tech savvy students who loved to experiment with the effects. They geeked out over wipes and fades, switchers and green screens. They couldn’t get enough of all of the bells and whistles in our brand new, state-of-the art television studio (when state-of-the-art meant VHS tapes, of course).
        These boys were very disappointed when I mandated that they begin with a script and insisted that they keep things simple.  Our mantra became, “It Starts with The Word.” Before you use an effect, it is imperative that you know what story you’re trying to tell (Actually, that’s just a great metaphor for tech use in the classroom in general).
        The point is that simplicity is key. As I tell my writing students, “Simple and clear is better than fancy and unclear.” Just because you have a piece of technology doesn’t mean you HAVE to use it. Or at least not all of it.  
        Start simple.
        Then level up.
Nonjudgment.  Not everyone feels comfortable with technology. And that’s okay.  If technology works for you, great. But you don’t have to evangelize. Don’t be a Moonie! Allow people to be where they are.  If a colleague expresses interest in learning a new platform, of course you should reach out and help. But know that there are other, traditional options that can work just as well as the newest gadget. No one has a monopoly on effective pedagogy.
        Non-techies unite!
        But in analog, of course.
        Maybe in a Moleskin journal.
        Or on a landline phone call.  
        Whatever works, still works.
Detachment.  It may sound like sacrilege, but consider periods of unplugging and digital detox as a normal part of your technology diet. The truth is, you will come back refreshed and with a much greater perspective to achieve even more of your technological goals.
Gratitude.  Be grateful for what you have. You may want to be a 1:1 school, but be grateful for your two iPads or the shared Chromebook cart. You may want Padlet, but be happy with your Post-Its. Pursue what you want, but be at peace with what is. If you have a book, some students, and a space, everything else is gravy. Modern education tends to look at technology as a panacea, but if the thinking and planning and purpose BEHIND the technology isn’t in place, all you have is a vapid, empty piece of media--the classroom equivalent of an episode of The Bachelor.  
        Technology is a wonderful gift from the science and engineering gods. But if we are to use it effectively in the classroom, we must remember who is the master and who is the servant.
        So the next time you’re about to click the power button, stop and breathe.
        Make sure it’s what you want.
        And make sure it’s what should happen.


Dan Tricarico has been a member of the West Hills High School English Department for over twenty years and is author of The Zen Teacher:  Creating Focus, Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom (DBC, Inc. 2015). He can be found on Twitter at @thezenteacher.  In his spare time, he enjoys writing fiction, listening to music, reading mystery novels, and staring out of windows.  One of Dan's first loves is writing poetry, and he has published many poems both in print and on-line.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Creating Virtual Reality Content in the Classroom

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of the newest trends in both education and entertainment. With tools like Google Expeditions, students are able to take virtual field trips and view stunning images in 360 degrees. Movies, video games, and theme parks are also beginning to embrace virtual reality as a way to provide an immersive experience for customers. There is a ton of VR content that can be consumed by students and added to the classroom to enhance lessons, but are there ways for students to create VR content in the classroom?

Recently I organized a STEMfest at my school site, where 6th - 8th grade students had the opportunity to present a STEM-focused project to family and community members. Two separate groups of students decided to research ways to create 360 degree images that could be used in the Google Cardboard viewers at our STEMfest. One group wanted to explore taking 360 degree photos and the other group was interested in drawing a 360 degree image. I was really excited that these two groups wanted to explore ways of creating VR content, rather than simply consuming the content already available. The only issue was that I had absolutely no idea how to help them! So, I began to research, prototype, test, and fail, alongside with the students, while learning some pretty great tools for creating VR content in the classroom. Here is a summary of the two VR projects and some suggestions for getting started with VR in your classroom.

Photoshop to Create 360 Degree Art
The students that wanted to create a 360 degree drawing, were convinced that they could use Photoshop to accomplish their task. They watched several YouTube videos about using the Photoshop software to draw a 360 degree image, however the version of Photoshop in our STEM Lab is rather old (Photoshop Elements 4), and we were not sure if we could make it work. The students found an online image of Disneyland that was 360 degrees/panorama and imported that photo into the Photoshop software. Then, they used the image as a template for their drawing, using a Wacom tablet and stylus to draw over and modify the existing image. The final product was uploaded into the iPhone app “VR Viewer” ($0.99) and the iPhone was placed into a Google Cardboard to be viewed in VR.

Google Cardboard Camera App for Creating 360 Degree Photographs
The second group of students who wanted to explore Virtual Reality decided that they would use their cell phones to take 360 degree images of our school and create a sort of virtual tour. After playing with several different apps, including Google Street View, they decided that the Google Cardboard Camera app was the best choice for them. The students used their cellphones to capture images around the school in 360 degrees. They included the cafeteria, the library, the playground, and several other areas in the school virtual tour. Within the app, the students were able to save their images to a Gallery, then view them in virtual reality with the Google Cardboard viewer.

Start Creating VR Content in Your Classroom
Both of the VR projects were very successful and quite the crowd-pleasers at our STEMfest event. Obviously, most schools do not have access to Photoshop software and Wacom drawing tablets, so that might not be the best place to start with creating VR content.

After assisting both student groups with creating content for VR, I would highly recommend beginning with the Google Cardboard Camera app (available for multiple devices/platforms). Allow your students to explore the app by taking 360 degree images of the classroom or school, and then view the images with a Google Cardboard viewer, (or something similar) if possible. Even without the Cardboard viewer, students can view the images in 360 degrees on their device.

Once students are comfortable with the Cardboard Camera app, there is an opportunity to extend beyond the classroom with other VR apps, such as Google Street View. In the Google Street View app, students can view 360 degree photo spheres in Google Maps, and even contribute their own 360 degree images for others to view. Creating content and extending beyond the walls of the classroom are important for students today, and incorporating virtual reality into the classroom is a great way to engage and excite students in both of these areas.

Heather Love-Fleck, SDCUE Innovative TOSA 2017

Heather Love-Fleck is an EdTech TOSA for Oceanside Unified School District. In addition to supporting staff with technology, she also facilitates a STEM lab at Stuart Mesa Elementary school. Heather believes it is important to create a classroom environment where students can be problem finders, risk-takers, and creators. She encourages students to wonder, question, collaborate, fail, and reflect on everything they do. Heather has been teaching for 10 years, working with students in grades K-8. She shares her innovative classroom ideas with colleagues by presenting at district-level professional learning opportunities, as well as larger conferences, such as the National CUE and SDCUE Tech Fair. Heather shares her EdTech ideas and classroom lessons on her blog and on Twitter @mrslovefleck.