As I transitioned out of my role as Program Director at Computers4Kids, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose contact with a number of students who I had formed especially close relationships. I had a group of them out to my house on Sunday to “build stuff” as they requested. I provided ingredients for lunch, computers for looking up plans, lumber and simple building tools. Fatuma, college freshman, was our documentarian. Her words and pictures are below.
This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.
Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.
Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:
- An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
- Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
- Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
- Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.
Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.
Earlier this month we were lucky to get to share portions of the Computers4Kids curriculum at the Digital Media and Learning Badges competition. As I’ve mentioned, C4K didn’t win the money prize, but we were thrilled to be included. C4K offers training, one-on-one mentoring and college and career transition guidance to low-income youth in 7th-12th grades. With the exception of training, which has a clearly defined set of objectives, the C4K curriculum provides an intensely individualized program which accommodates the needs and interests of both our students, and our volunteer mentors. The challenge has been to provide a meaningful measure of what our students are achieving.
The DML Badges Competition asked organizations to create badge systems that validate out of school learning. We chose to present the college and career transition aspect of our program, Teen Tech. When students come to Teen Tech they focus on academic, job readiness, technology and/or service projects. As they attend over their high school years, their interests and needs change depending on school or family obligations, their age or other extra-curricular activities. Teen Tech’s curriculum needs to be flexible to accommodate our students’ changing priorities, however, our metrics need to capture what the students are learning so we can monitor their progress, uncover their challenges, and review the data to inform how we evolve the curriculum.
In this situation we can’t focus our measures on what content is being learned. On any given day, 10 students may be in the lab, working on such diverse tasks as Trig homework, mixing a new song, writing an English essay, practicing Photoshop in preparation to teaching a workshop.
All of this is why we do focus on broader, recognizable and valued skills. We work with students to fit their work into one of 5 learning domains and then map them onto ISTE-NETS for students. The table below demonstrates that alignment for some sample activities.
|Badge||Tasks||Selected Skills (ISTE-NETS)|
|Plan||-Identify tasks and final goal
-Adjust plan to reflect feedback from critique
|Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
(Use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources.)
|Learn & Apply||-Identify and Perform 15 new technology skills in Adobe Dreamweaver||Technology Operations and Concepts (Demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems and operations.)|
|Create||-Create, assemble and organize all components of your website, including images||Creativity and Innovation (Demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology|
|Reflect & Revise||-Perform self-evaluation before formal critique
-Participate in formal critique
-Revise products according to feedback received
-Write final summary of the project
|Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making|
-Advertise it via social media
|Communication and Collaboration|
I think this kind of thought, investigation and analysis is what sets Computers4Kids apart and why the DML Badges Competition judges selected us out of a pool of 500 teams submitting content and frameworks. Multiple people have asked, how could they award such large institutions like Disney-Pixar, Microsoft and Intel in a competition intended for small non-profits? I’ve come to realize that the competition had nothing to do with awarding the most needy, or the smallest, or most efficient. We were competing toe-to-toe to demonstrate that we could reach the widest audience with international companies that have huge resources, instant name-recognition, and deep pockets of personnel. Our six employee organization got into the room with them and showed that we’ve got the goods as well.
Last week, we all went to the DML Badges Finals competition to represent Computers4Kids and Teen Tech. By we all, I mean me, Dolly, Paul, and Brandon. We’ll post the content and idea behind in a second blog, but this one is all about the process.
This was a Big Deal to Computers4Kids and our team. This competition was funded by The MacArthur Foundation (you know, the geniuses) and sponsored by Mozilla and a whole bunch of high profile educational organizations. With only 3 full-time and 3 part-time staff, C4K were certainly the underdogs. And we didn’t win. We lost to teams from Disney-Pixar, Smithsonian, 4-H, American Museum of Natural History and other institutions that you’ve heard of. But, we started in a pool of 500 teams and went on to be in the final 64. Here’s what we did right:
- Do What You Know
- We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. I took content that I knew extremely well– the Teen Tech curriculum that lab staff and I have developed and refined over 3 years– and refined and reordered it to fit the competition constraints.
- Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
- Going in we knew we were leaner than most of the organizations, but we know what we do well. We’ve built a curriculum that is flexible and closely meets our learners’ needs and is aligned to national standards. We know our logic model, assessment strategies, and actual educational outcomes are more realized than most organizations our size or larger.
- People are Your Power
- We assembled the best team we could and sought qualified outside opinions. Everyone who worked on this project shared similar vision about what’s important in education, learning and design. High pressure situations with tight deadlines are not the time to bring in the devil’s advocates.
- Let Go of Ego
- Good products require that you be willing to let ownership go. When someone tells you to revise, do it. Unless they’re wrong, but if you’re working with the right people, they’re not.
- Appreciate the Process
- Even though we didn’t win the money, we accomplished a great deal. I took the opportunity to meet with the Teen Tech Manager to figure out what was working with our program and what wasn’t. We’ll implement these changes shortly. I generated material that we’ll use to describe our program better. I refine my own thinking. And we had fun. You’re not good at ID if you don’t love doing it.
In 2 days I’ll be flying out to California in compete in the Digital Media + Learning Badges Competition. There I’ll be presenting Computers4Kids’ Teen Tech program. I’m super proud to be heading out to this pretty elite competition; the MacArthur Foundation funds and Mozilla sponsors. Computers4Kids is definitely one of the smaller organizations that will be competing, but I’m feeling pretty confident about my ability to make a winning argument.
We’ve been working hard for the past few years at C4K to align what the kids are doing to national standards. I think this sets apart from a lot of other non-profits. And while it’s personally and professionally gratifying, what keeps me grounded and directed is that everything we’re doing leads to further student success. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that all this leads to agency success: recognition=more money=greater sustainability, but it’s hard for me to maintain excitement about that.
The realization I had the other day is that by aligning what students learn and practice to recognizable and recognized educational outcomes, we can better communicate to them, schools and employers how valuable their skills are. For under-served students in particular, having that self-esteem and self-worth is crucial. I want to arm myself with the knowledge that C4K is making a real difference in youth’s lives and that curricular alignment and larger efforts like badging systems contributes in a significant way.
I’ve got too many gadgets. But I find that I need one more. I want a laptop again.
I miss laptops. While the iPhone and iPad provide mobility and the sexy design that makes want one (until we find out the human cost behind them and probably ALL of our gadgets), they’re awfully hard to write much beyond a tweet on.
The students in my school district all got tablets to use this year. They were so excited initially. At Computers4Kids we were concerned that the students wouldn’t come to us anymore because they had this gadget and wouldn’t need the computer access that we’d always provided them. But they still come. The promised keyboards haven’t materialized, and even if they had, would you want to write and edit a 3-4 page paper on a tablet screen?
Both me and the kids love to watch movies on the tablet– it’s great and portable, but I’d rather write an email on an iPhone and I’d rather write a paper on a desktop or laptop.