Monday, April 22, 2013

When Computers Teach

Last December, during our school's holiday break, I went to my school building for a training on a new computer-based teaching program, "Compass Learning  Odyssey 2012." I went mostly to honor the bold and adventuresome name, which indicated to me that this would be the program. The one to take the students on a learning odyssey! 

Now until that day, the web-based programs I had tried had been predictably lame. Rabbits teaching letter sounds, or encouraging skateboarders that reinforce correct answers with either a "Keep it up, DUDE!" or a "Aww, BUMMER! Let's rock that one again!"  But this December day, I hoped that finally, 15 years after the internet itself went viral, there would be an on-line program to truly teach my kids. 

So with adventure in my heart, and a compass in my pocket just in case, I entered our school's library-turned computer lab. Imagine a nice-sized school library whose walls have shelves who have books who have authors who have names like Dahl, and Soto, and Myers, and Rowling, and Lewis and Sachar. And that's just the fiction. There are shelves of biographies, too, and histories and books about sports and books about nature. 

But the books are no longer the library's main attraction. In fact, the books have become a mere decorative perimeter, wedged in tightly, fitted wherever space allows. But the area of the library, the space where students learn and think, is now taken up by rows and clusters of computers. It is to one of these computers that I sat down to do a little learning and thinking of my own. Luckily, I had a guide.  

The smiling Compass Learning Odyssey 2012 trainer asked me what I teach and I told her 6th grade Special Ed.. Well, that was all she needed.  The selling points - tailor made for a 6th grade Special Ed. teacher - came out in rapid fire. How I could take a kid's IEP goal and design activities streamlined for that kid, and how it is completely aligned to the Common Core State Standards for Reading and Math, to NWEA MAP RIT scores, to the Descartes framework (which she pronounced Daycarts). She told me that the program is workable with RTI and even has 3 tiers of activities per grade level.  It even has an IEP goal writing tool! She went on with selling points I didn't even understand, while I nodded with feigned confidence and admiration.

I thought that maybe she was a salesperson, a position which could cloud her understanding of the product's objective awesomeness. So I decided to ask her a hardball question. "How will I know if the children are getting better at reading and math and not just clicking around on the mouse?" And whoo boy if she wasn't ready for that one!  She wasn't just going to tell me how. She was going to show me. 

She directed me to the log on to the teacher portal where I can assign a pre-test to my students that will allow me to see exactly where they need improvement, to monitor progress and their time allocation:  jobs that in the old days I had to perform by physically interacting with kids. But not anymore. With Compass Learning Odyssey 2012, my students would be going on learning odysseys without me! 

To the portal we headed, but there was a glitch with the portal. ("Aww, BUMMER!" I thought). That the trainer was surprised at the glitch, reminded me of my vast experience with glitches. I remembered all the hours spent on glitches, and wondered how much teaching time has turned into glitch-fix time in my 10 years at this job. Glitches with passwords, glitches with mice. Glitches with LCD projector cords and and some with bulbs. Slow Internet, no internet, internet on some computers but not on others. The wrong browser, the programs not installed. Viruses. Printer failures and lost documents. The times kids went to the wrong site on accident, and the times they went to them on purpose.  The time I came to  school early to find pornographic videos on the desktop of a student computer. The time I tried to find a black and white smiley face on Google Images with a 5th grade boy watching as  a woman holding her naked breast popped onto the screen.

For the present glitch, my trainer needed to go to her computer. While she did, I began to wonder how I would spend my excess time now that I'd be managing work from the portal. I found myself drifting to my fantasy football page. Lest you judge, I want to be clear about the fact that I didn't decide to go to the fantasy football page. I drifted. What I did decide to do was drop Eric Decker and pick up T.Y. Hilton for the upcoming match. The trainer was on the phone with the help desk, working one last minor kink, and I got to thinking  how many fantasy football moves I'll be able to make while the students are away on their respective learning odysseys. 

Well, we never were able to get onto the portal. Something about the browsers in our lab not being optimal. But the trainer did us one better: she logged us on as students. Maybe because she was recognizing my wayward tendencies, she stood next to me as I picked my first learning adventure. From the list of eight reading skills, I picked "Cause and Effect." 

To start off the session, a robot danced onto the screen, singing, 

"I'm Mr. Bot 
I will teach you a lot
open your mind 
and bring all you got

We'll get better at reading
and math to be sure
on this Learning
Odyssey Adventure.

The trainer whispered to me, "All the lessons start off with Mr. Bot. I just think it's so cute how the program designers use a robot to start the session. The kids really love that robot dance. Plus, research says that kids pay attention better with flashing lights and music than to a human voice." 

The robot got to explaining Cause and Effect. I didn't hear his whole spiel because my trainer kept whispering about the reading passages the program uses: they use non-controversial non-fiction passages, they use kid friendly language, and they always highlight and define words that may be tricky. But throughout her whispering, I did hear Mr. Bot say that the characters within a story (or subjects within a history) often cannot see how their actions will lead to effects. 

And this idea got led me to think about the effects of programs like these: "Where is all of this going? Has education devolved to a world where the newest teaching techniques require a salesperson? What is happening when an enthusiastic robot interacts more with my students than I do? Can't I perform the core roles of a teacher -  instructing, assessing, caring  - better than this machine?" 

With high-minded idealism I began to excuse myself from the training session. 

But when I noticed my trainer had gone to help someone else, I dropped the idealism like I'd dropped Eric Decker and wandered back to the Fantasy Football page. Who was Cleveland playing this week, anyway? 


momco3 said...

That's Cause and Effect for you.
Brian, thank you for this thoughtful post. So glad I dug up your blog again. Love to all your crew, Annie

Anonymous said...

When I was in Junior High I learned how to do Turtle Graphics and Basic when we had computers. Doesn't sound like we have made much progress since the early 1980's. Great read! Rich K