London Marathon 2015

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I am running the London Marathon on April 26th. I was lucky enough to get a place that isn’t dependent on raising a certain amount of money for charity, but it seemed like a good opportunity to try to collect a few pounds for a good cause anyway. So, if you would like to sponsor me, I am raising money for the mental health charity Mind – you can donate using the link below. Thanks!

On Telephone Interviews

20131208-132245.jpgI am fortunate to be involved in another literacy-based research project, aside from my own PhD. As part of this I have recently conducted telephone interviews with individuals in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Mercifully for me, participants conversed in English as – to my shame – my foreign language skills do not extend beyond saying ‘hello‘ (invariably in the wrong language) and asking, in German, how to get to the railway station (‘Wie komme ich am besten zum bahnhof, bitte?’) – after which I would, no doubt, smile and nod uncomprehendingly at the response. Here, then, are some quick, personal reflections, based purely on this brief but valuable experience.

  • Interviews may provide an unexpected cultural, political or historical context to research. Although the questions themselves did not specifically seek this, it became obvious that participants were revealing interesting things about the countries’ attitudes to early literacy that would not necessarily come across in written literature or promotional materials. Known facts, therefore, gained greater significance when considered in context.
  • It is difficult to pursue a line of questioning that an interviewee is not enthusiastic about, or do not perceive themselves to have a secure knowledge of. This can swerve the interview away from the originally agenda. (My lack of ruthlessness here would clearly exempt me from employment at News of the World.)
  • Participants react differently to being sent questions in advance. Some people may use them to meticulously transcribe extensive answers to all questions. Others will not have had time to look at them until you call. And although the former approach may, on the surface, seem to be the preferable scenario for an interviewer, this can actually result in less opportunity for interaction and follow-up questions than the latter. Whilst there is clearly value in preparation, there is also something to be said for spontaneity. Both approaches present advantages and disadvantages.
  • People do not always know what you think they might know!
  • Telephone interviews do not, obviously, allow you to see facial expressions or body language. You only have tone of voice to help you gauge attitude, beyond what is being said.
  • People will give their time generously – for no evident or immediate personal gain. They enjoy talking about a topic that is important to them, and one that they have invested considerable time in – particularly if you show interest too.
  • The ability that some people have to converse in a language that is not their first is particularly impressive and somewhat humbling.
  • You will have no idea why you didn’t ask certain questions during the interview that seem obvious when you listen back to the recordings.
  • Listening back to your own voice on recordings is not a pleasant experience. You will cringe at your overuse of the word ‘excellent’ and a tone akin to a particularly patronising children’s television presenter from the 1980s.

Portal 2, Proxies and Boring Persistence

This post isn’t about using technology for learning. It’s about one of the things that stops us using technology for learning: the technological infrastructure in schools.

Valve now offer a full version of their game Portal 2 for use in schools. I now have access to 30 individual licenses for the game and I’m eager to start using it in the classroom. There’s significant potential for utilising it – along with the accompanying level designer – to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills. There’s also scope for some maths, literacy and science in there too. The accompanying site is here. Brilliant.

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This picture shows the process a teacher is required to go through to install a simple piece of software on a classroom computer.

Or at least it would be brilliant if I wasn’t currently unable to use it in the classroom due to the frustratingly infrastructure-related issues in schools. Humour me while I explain the boring details in boring detail: To use the game it is necessary to install the gaming platform Steam on each laptop. Installing new software is always time consuming on multiple machines, but do-able. It involves logging in on each computer with the administrator username and password (which I can never remember), then repeating the download, install and login process for each laptop.

The problem is, in this case, Steam won’t fully install through the proxy server. Either that or it is blocked by our broadband provider – I can’t tell which, neither can our technician – it just doesn’t work. Searching the internet for clues I found this US based blog which outlines similar frustrations and a number of forums (largely inhabited by secondary-age children trying to get Steam installed in their school) suggesting that Steam doesn’t play well with Proxies. So the next step is to contact the regional broadband provider to request unblocking the relevant ports to see if that works. And if it doesn’t, I will try bringing the laptops home to install the software using my own broadband and then logging in in offline mode. This isn’t the first piece of software to present problems and it most probably won’t be the last.

There is usually a way – although it is invariably one that requires a boring amount of persistence. And considering the amount of time this all takes, it’s important to re-state the basic process I am trying to achieve: to install and run a piece of software. A free piece of software, aimed at schools. How, in 2013, when computers have been present in educational settings for the last 30 years, are we still in the situation where trying to install a piece of software to use in class feels like climbing a particularly annoying mountain? My aim is not to criticise or complain about anyone in particular but to wonder out loud about what, if anything, can be done?

Shaffer notes, ‘Computers have been in existence for over half a century and have been used in classroom for decades. Yet there has been no wholesale transformation of education as we know it.’ (p8, 2006) The infrastructure in school is perhaps the least intellectually interesting of many influencing factors, but one that surely has a disproportionate impact, particularly in schools or classrooms where teachers are yet to be convinced of the value of tech to ‘enrich’, let alone ‘transform’…

When I have finally got Portal 2 up and running, that’s when I can return to the familiar internalised wrangling over whether the skills taught by the game meet the requirements of a standardised, knowledge based curriculum. Until then, I’ll be developing my own problem solving skills in this less-than-inspiring way.

References

Burnett, Dickinson, Myers and Merchant (2006) Digital connections: transforming literacy in the primary school’ addresses technology use in terms of ‘enrichment’ and ‘transformation’.

Shaffer, DW. (2006) ‘How Computer Games Help Children Learn’ Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Connecting Raspberry Pi through school proxy

A post to file under ‘boringly technical’,  but it’s here for anyone in the same situation.

pi desktop

I’ve been struggling to get the Raspberry Pi to fully access the internet in my classroom as it has to connect through a proxy server. I have so far been able to connect through the browser by changing the proxy setting in Midori, but had no luck in enabling a connection that allowed for apt-get commands through the terminal. As with most things relating to the Pi this process was not intuitive, but all the more satisfying for requiring a bit of digging, thus extending my limited technical knowledge.

This lunch time I sat down determined to find the solution and, with the help of various forums and the Raspberry Pi User Manual I successfully managed to achieve a connection. (This is using a wired ethernet connection – I haven’t tested it over wifi). There may be a smarter way, but this is how I did it:

1. Setup a password for the root account by opening up a terminal and using the command: sudo passwd root

2. Restart the pi and login as user: root with your new password (logging in as root will allow you to alter the following file – user ‘pi’ does not have this privilege).

 

3. Navigate to the folder /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/ (You can do this by clicking the second icon along on the taskbar at the bottom of your desktop and typing in the location address).

4. Right click in the folder and create a new file called ’10proxy’.

5. Right click on the new file and edit it. Type in the following line:

Acquire::http::Proxy “http://proxy.bmcgx.net:3214“;

(obviously changing the bit in bold for your school’s proxy setting)

6. Save the file.

7. Restart the pi and log back in as user: pi   password: raspberry (or whatever your default user account is set as)

You should now find that you have full internet access. You can test by trying an update in the terminal:

sudo apt-get update

Done. Hurrah!

 

Minecraft and the Introvert / Extrovert Spectrum

‘Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to’ – The Smiths, ‘Ask’

I have been listening to an audiobook called ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. Cain reflects on research about introversion and extroversion, suggesting that Western society – in pursuing the ‘extrovert ideal’ – undervalues introverts and the valuable skills they offer. It is an interesting book that has given me some insight into my own personality – as a person who would already readily describe myself as an introvert. (You can take an informal introvert diagnosis test here, but to be honest you probably don’t need to…)

Cain touches a number of times on education, which has prompted me to consider to what extent our schooling system – and my own role as an educator – helps to perpetuate the ‘extrovert ideal’. As someone who personally found group work and public speaking at best uncomfortable, at worst painful until well into my twenties, how much does my own teaching focus on promoting extroversion at the expense of accommodating and valuing those who learn in less ‘outgoing’ ways? To what extent should I be aiming to prepare children for a world where extroverts dominate? Education in this country is in a strange place where discussion, group work and collaboration (approaches more tailored to the extrovert) are the predominant pedagogic approaches but individual accountability (the refuge of the introvert – the individual bit, but perhaps not the accountability bit!) in the form of workbooks, tests and exams is still the ‘official’ expected output.

I think it would be interesting to look at aspects of children’s use of educational technology through the introvert / extrovert lens. With this in mind, on my run this morning I was considering the popularity of Minecraft club at school. ‘When is Minecraft club on?’ is the question I’m most frequently asked at school and, with the exception of the day the snow came, it has had full, voluntary attendance for each lunchtime session. I would speculate that at least a part of the appeal of Minecraft as a virtual environment (dare I call it a virtual learning environment yet?!) is its ability to accommodate children from all parts of the introvert / extrovert spectrum.

(These summaries of Cain’s definitions are quoted from the book’s Wikipedia page – I’m afraid an audiobook doesn’t facilitate easy referencing in a short space of time…)

‘Extroverts are energised by social situations and tend to be assertive multi-taskers who think out loud and on their feet.’

Minecraft, or at least the way I’m currently using it in the classroom, would certainly appeal to someone who fulfilled this definition of an extrovert. Playing collaboratively, together, in one room can be seen as social pursuit. Many children talk openly to each other, discussing their progress and ideas. As well as verbally, they are able to assert themselves in the virtual world by creating structures that dominate the horizon – I suspect that it isn’t a coincidence that some of the most assertive children in the class are the ones who have built the most imposing structures, such as the statue, the hotel and the giant larva ‘thing’ (whatever it is!). As for multi-tasking, it’s possible for the children to regulate their own progress, participating in as many – or as few – separate projects as they like.

Epic construction as an outlet for extroverts?

Epic construction as an outlet for extroverts?

‘Introverts have a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating environment.’

While Minecraft in the classroom may promote discussion between children there is no requirement that all children must participate in this dialogue. Children are free to get on quietly if they prefer, locating thmselves with their laptop anywhere in the room – sometimes physically away from the rest of the group in the reading corner, sometimes together with others. In the virtual world, children effectively choose their own level of stimulation. They can move freely to locate themselves in any space they choose, and can even build their own structures to stay inside if they wish. As a result, the world created includes many internal spaces – theatres, the spa, numerous houses – as well as the more visible external features. And, of course, they are afforded the extra layer of ‘protection’ that is their avatar, with or without a pseudonym.

exploring the internal spaces

Quiet exploration of internal spaces?

Do avatars provide an extra layer of protection for introverts?

Do avatars provide an extra layer of ‘protection’ for introverts?

‘Introverts tend to enjoy quiet concentration, listen more than they talk, and think before they speak, and have a more circumspect and cautious approach to risk.’

Returning to communication, those children who do not want to talk out loud can use the chat function on screen. I have observed a number of silent conversations and negotiations going on in game recently that were undetectable in the ‘real’ world. The need to rehearse this type of communication – thinking then typing – might appeal to a less extroverted individual. Regarding risk, a virtual world where places can be created, redesigned and rehearsed allows for as much or as little caution as the individual chooses to apply.

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A chat log – does this form of communication give a voice to introverts in the classroom?

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Conveying a message in the virtual world without the need for conversation.

‘Introverts think more, are less reckless and focus on what really matters—relationships and meaningful work.’

The extent to which the work in Minecraft so far has been ‘meaningful’ would depend on an individual’s perception of what constitutes valuable learning. I think that the children’s recent responses and continued attendance reveal that they feel that this activity has meaning – and that a lot of thought has gone into some of the creations. Some comments also suggest that participating in this virtual world has involved developing community relationships as much as it has been about building and creating.

Relationships are important within this virtual space.

Relationships are important within this virtual space.

I’m certainly not suggesting that using Minecraft – or any virtual world for that matter – provides a perfect environment for all children to learn, in all circumstances. But perhaps looking at what makes these places so appealing and accessible to a wide range of children can help us think about how we cater for the differing personality types present in our classrooms, in the ‘real’ world.

arcadia

Programmable Lights

Quick one this – made a programmable Christmas tree, using flowgo boxes and flowol.

Xmas tree and lights courtesy of pound shop (battery pack snipped from lights to attach them to flowgo boxes).

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