The Problem With Technology Education In Most Schools
Technology education is not new in K-12. More than decade ago, Singapore offered a two-year GCE ‘A’ Level Computing module in selected Junior Colleges. However, the drop out rates were very high. The cool things students thought they could create were supplanted with writing pseudo-code for homework and learning disjointed computational algorithms dictated by the syllabus.
Learning concepts like sorting and recursion is cool but that is no different from learning atomic structure and relativity — appreciation of theory without application to real-world problems. Why teach technology the same way as other subjects when it has the potential be something bigger?
Technology is disrupting traditional industries at an unprecedented speed: tourism, banking, transportation… the list goes on. Governments around the world are hopping onto the tech-wagon to grow their tech talent pool; rolling out technology courses, such as coding, robotics and 3D printing, into K-12 education. This trend is exciting yet worrying.
This worldwide movement in technology education led to an explosion of learning resources for Technology and there are even tools for preschoolers to learn robotics and coding. The question is: what are students really learning?
Many schools simply teach students using standard coding tutorials with lessons instructions that look something like this:
Step 1: Create new file
Step 2: Create a new variable “Bob”
Step 3: Assign “Hello, World” to “Bob”
At the end of the day, they might have something cool. The same game, the same circuit, the same website. Everyone will end up with the SAME THING.
Schools teach tech just like the way they teach math and science. The syllabus governs what students have to learn at each grade and the easiest way to teach them is through tutorials that cover those concepts. This is exacerbated by games and platforms that structure these concepts into mini challenges. Students progress through the stages and are “certified” that they have learnt a concept once they clear the mini challenges. But do they really learn how to program? Or are they being programmed by the computers?
We need to teach technology like how we teach arts. Let students have the freedom to deep dive into projects and express their creativity. Let them have more control over what they learn. Let them program computers instead of being programmed. Sounds like every teacher’s worst nightmare? Yes, it might sound like it, but it id necessary and it will be rewarding.
How can we structure tech lessons in a way that students can gain deep technical expertise and are intrinsically motivated to apply them in their everyday lives?
Low floors: Students do not need to go through hours of instructional learning. The platform must be easy for them to get started, explore and hack things by themselves.
High ceilings: Tech has the potential to empower children. There must be enough depth in terms of functionalities for students to create impressive solutions that even adults would want to use.
Wide walls: It must be versatile enough to integrate with anything that kids find meaningful in order to get them excited about applying what they learn to a wide variety of contexts.
With Potato Pirates, we're attempted to make the Low floors even lower. This card game was designed and developed to increase the accessibility to Computer Science (CS). By removing computers and programming syntax from the equation, we focused on making fundamental computational thinking concepts fun, enjoyable, and easy to understand through adorable, visual representations. Students are learning how to use loops and conditionals without even realising it.
Potato Pirates serves as the first step into technology, after learning to play the game, students can switch to learn any programming language or other tools they want and easily apply the fundamental concepts they grasped in the game. Some platforms and tools that we recommend are Scratch, MIT App Inventor, Thunkable, Micro:bit, and Lego EV3. What is common among these ed-tech tools is that they allow for endless, unique creations that kids can proudly claim to be their own.
Next the question is, what do they create?
Having just the tool is not enough. The problem with teaching technology is that it progresses at a blistering speed. The tool you teach now might be irrelevant in a couple of years. Hence, there is no point structuring a lesson around mastering the various features in a tool. What’s more important is using it to transform students’ mindsets and attitudes towards innovation.
Let us share a few concrete examples. Our company, Codomo, ran multiple types of courses for various schools in Singapore, and we'll showcase a few of them here.
Mobile App Design Innovation
For Maha Bodhi Primary School's ICT Club, we've customized a 10 x 1 hour Mobile App Design Innovation course for their Primary 3 members. The goal of this course is for students to learn how to develop an actual mobile application on MIT App Inventor, a software platform that allows anyone to code an Android-based mobile application using drag-and-drop code blocks.
We began the sessions by playing Potato Pirates and teaching fundamentals of computational thinking. Giving them a taste of what it's like to develop a mobile application from scratch, the students learnt how to program game assets such as image sprites, timers, sounds, and visual effects to create a game. The course was structured such that only 50% of the time was spent on teaching how to use MIT App Inventor to create mobile apps. The other 50% of the time was dedicated to a design challenge.
Redesign Your Waking-up Experience
This was the design challenge — relatable and immediately applicable. Through the activities, students learnt and applied various design techniques: empathizing with their friends’ dreadful stories of waking up in the morning, ideating fun ways to wake people up and testing their app prototypes every morning. The results were amazing.
Every session, students came to class and started sharing how their app features worked and what they wished to improve upon. Instead of having us tell them what they would learn each day, they were the ones who led the flow of the class and proposed concepts that they wanted to learn to make their apps cooler.
In fact, the students were so motivated that they continued working on their apps even after the course was over. A couple of our students thought that it was too easy to hit the snooze button so they developed a barcode alarm clock where you have to scan the barcode of something, e.g. your toothpaste, to snooze the alarm. Genius?
Isn’t that awesome? A class where students benefit beyond just learning the technology. A class where teachers will guide students in developing their projects instead of rushing through the syllabus. A class where you break the boundary between education and real-world challenges.
Interdisciplinary Design Challenge
For Ai Tong Primary School, the teaching team engaged us to conduct a full-semester technology course that seamlessly integrate learning objectives from other subjects such as Mathematics and English for various levels of students.
For the Primary 1 and 2 students, we decided to use Scratch as the main platform for the course. For Primary 3 and 5 students, they worked on their projects using the Mirco:bit controllers.
Regardless of their grade levels, all lessons begin with students playing Potato Pirates. The most important reason was to get students excited about learning. By playing the coding card game, we could get students to understand computational thinking concepts such as For/While loops, If-Else statements, Variables, Functions and more in just an hour. This guaranteed a smoother transition to their main coding platforms because it was easy for them to visualize those concepts and how they were applied on the coding platforms.
Creative Coding With Scratch
With the combination of English as a main subject to be integrated, Primary 1 and 2 students were challenged to create an interactive, animated story on Scratch. This involves their creative writing skills as well as newly harnessed coding skills. The beauty of this is that children's imagination could run wild and they are motivated to learn the code and functions that would allow them to see their ideas come to live.
Primary 3 students are challenged to create carnival games through the use of the Mirco:bit microcontrollers. In order to achieve this, on top of the computer programming knowledge they have to learn, students were taught how to connect basic circuitry with speakers and understanding concepts of data types and sequential logic coupled with button and accelerometer sensors usage.
As you can see from these examples, by creating these fun and relatable coding projects, students are more motivated to learn and fully understand the programming concepts because they wish to achieve their vision for their designs. They are able to see the relevance and apply what they have learnt to something they care about. This is the future. The new wave of tech education is still in its infancy. We have the opportunity to make it right before it follows in the footsteps of traditional subjects in education.
Let us be part of your journey to truly make a difference to our students learning, contact us to find out how our games and our expertise in learning experience design can revolutionize your classroom.