Category: Digital Education

The finished monster

Crumble Monster

A couple of weeks ago I spent my Saturday morning at Brighton Mini Maker Faire. My 6-year old daughter has shown an interest in technology and digital making so we thought she might be keen to see what was going on and have a go at some of the activities that were on offer. We had a great time doing stuff like exploring conductive paintlearning to solder, and chatting to the very friendly inventors of a new and intriguing computer called Ada, designed for young digital makers.

My daughter and I were also both really pleased to meet the inventor of the Crumble micro controller. I first heard about Crumble when said daughter got to use one at school. Here’s a short video intro…

I took the chance to buy a Crumble Starter Kit directly from the very lovely Mr Crumble himself. You can see what you get in the photo below. There’s a Crumble, two ‘Sparkles’ (more on these below), a set of 10 croc leads, a USB cable and a battery box (batteries not included). This kit cost £19.80 which I think it pretty good value.

Photo of Crumble Starter Kit
Here’s what you get in the Crumble Starter Kit (£19.80)

My plan was to use the Crumble to build on the enthusiasm that my daughter had already shown for electronics and programming and it wasn’t long before we got a chance to open the kit and start planning our first project together. Well… to be honest I’d already opened the kit and I’d tried to think of a simple project that we could work on together using pretty much just the contents of the starter kit.

Flashing monster eyes

The first idea that popped into my head was to create a pair of flashing monster eyes using the two Sparkles from the kit. The Sparkles are special LEDs. As well as being able to turn these on and off you can program them to change colour. My daughter is a big Scooby Doo fan so I was hoping I could find a good picture of a monster from the original series (I’m sure there was at least one with flashing eyes) but in the end I just grabbed a line drawing of what I think is supposed to be that character from Monsters Inc. I had this already printed out for when my daughter got home from school, having promised her a session in the InventingLab (aka my office).

Choose your own monster face
Choose your own monster face

Crumble software

The first thing we did together was to download the software that enables you to write programs that run on the Crumble. If you are familiar with visual programming software like Scratch or Blockly then you won’t have any trouble getting started with the Crumble app – it is really intuitive for users of all ages providing they can read the text labels. There are currently versions for Windows and Mac and there is a Linux/Raspberry Pi app on the way.

Hooking up a Sparkle and writing our first program

Once we’d installed the software (this was a great opportunity for me to explain a bit about installing software) we hooked up the Crumble via the included USB cable and connected a Sparkle to it along with the battery pack (needed to power the connected devices). We then wrote a very simple program together to turn the Sparkle on and off. It’s surprising how much fun a 6-year old can get from something so simple and even her old dad found it quite fun. Once we’d got that working we worked out together how to make the Sparkle change colour as well as flash and added a ‘loop forever’ block to make it… well… you get the idea.

Testing out the sparkles
Testing out the Sparkles

Connecting up the Sparkles and the battery pack using the croc leads is pretty easy although little fingers can find the crocodile clips a bit tricky to manipulate. One great thing about the Crumble is that your programs are sent to the board almost the instant you run them and once the program is running you can disconnect the USB cable and just run the program with power from the battery pack. This means it is easy to take your Crumble projects into places far away from a PC.

Making the monster face

We stuck the monster face printout onto a piece of cardboard from the recycling box to give it a bit more rigidity and made holes in the centre of each eye using an old pen.

Making eye holes
Make holes for your monster eyes

Connecting up the two Sparkles

As we’d already got one of the Sparkles connected to our Crumble we stuck this on the back of the face using sticky tape, carefully lining up the LED so that it would shine directly through one of the eye holes.

Connecting first sparkle
Connect up your first Sparkle and tape it to the back of your monster face

Connecting the second Sparkle proved a little more tricky and we had to carefully consult the excellent Getting Started Guide to help us do this correctly. We didn’t get this right the first time as we hadn’t realised the significance of the little ‘D’ and arrows on the Sparkles which show the direction that the current needs to flow when chaining them together.

Getting Started guide
Use the excellent Getting Started Guide to help you connect your Sparkles correctly

It is possible to chain as many as 32 Sparkles together! If you don’t have enough croc leads to do that (and I shouldn’t think many people do) then you can buy Sparkle batons – strips of 8 connected Sparkles – which will significantly reduce the number of croc leads required to create impressive LED arrays. A really great feature of the Sparkles is that even when they are chained together you can still address each individual Sparkle in your program. This means that you can for instance change the colour of each one independently.

Connecting more crocodile clips
Carefully connect croc leads to make the connection to your second Sparkle

Once we’d got both Sparkles taped in place over the eye holes we then taped the Crumble itself to the cardboard side of our monster face. We decided against attempting to stick the battery pack on as well as its quite heavy but stronger tape or maybe a glue gun would sort that.

Taping Crumble on
Tape your Crumble to the back of your monster face

The last step was to colour in the monster face. We probably should have done that before sticking all the stuff to the back but we managed anyway. We set our flashing eyes program running, disconnected the Crumble from the USB cable and took our monster downstairs to show a very impressed Mummy. Watch the video below to see the finished product :)

Interactive Whiteboards: Is the writing on the wall?

An interactive whiteboard in use
An interactive whiteboard in use

For those of you who don’t already know me, for my day job I currently work as a lecturer in Initial Teacher Education. Prior to this I was a Primary school teacher for a number of years, working in schools on the south coast of England. My particular area of expertise (such as it is) is Information & Communication Technology (or ICT). Within that field I have a specific interest in digital media technologies and their impact on the lives of young people both within and beyond the school gates. For this post I’ve decided to write about something that has some considerable significance within that context. It’s a bit out of character with the rest of the posts on this blog and is a bit of an experiment. If it finds a receptive audience then I hope to follow this up with other posts along similar lines. Otherwise I’ll stick to the software reviews, tutorials and screencasts.

Recently a friend and colleague of mine, Avril Loveless, passed on a link to a blog post written by a teacher working in the US, titled “What I’d Buy Instead of an Interactive Whiteboard”. The author, Bill Ferriter, teaches 6th Grade Language Arts in North Carolina and is a former Teacher of the Year. In the post he discusses how, given the opportunity, he would choose to spend the money that might otherwise be spent on equipping his classroom with an Interactive Whiteboard (hereafter referred to as an IWB). If you’re not already familiar with IWBs then this wikipedia entry should bring you up to speed. If you have a teaching role in an educational setting that uses IWB technology then I highly recommend reading Bill’s blog post. However, before doing so you should probably also read an article that he wrote previously, entitled “Why I Hate Interactive Whiteboards”. The title alone should give you a pretty strong indication of which way he’s leaning on this one!

To what extent are Interactive Whiteboards actually interactive?

In that article Bill nails his colours firmly to the mast. He states that “even with time and training, interactive whiteboards are an under-informed and irresponsible purchase”. He goes on to assert that “[t]hey do little more than reinforce a teacher-centric model of learning”. This is a view that I have a lot of sympathy with. In fact the use of the term ‘interactive’ in the nomenclature for this technology is perhaps rather misleading. That term I believe has been used historically to refer to the ability given to a presenter to interact with computer software via the device. However, over the years IWBs seem to have been perceived to be imbued with deeper ‘interactive’ characteristics. Indeed IWBs have often been marketed as a technology that will ‘transform’ approaches to teaching and learning: suggesting that they might facilitate more innovative teaching methods. However, the practice with IWBs that I generally see in schools largely conforms to an old-fashioned ‘chalk and talk’ model of teaching and learning. In some cases this amounts to the teacher simply handwriting on the board as if it were a conventional whiteboard. Sometimes the teacher, or student teacher, has prepared some slides or pages containing images and text or they might have loaded up an ‘interactive teaching program’ or website. Occasionally a child might be summoned to the front of the class to interact with the IWB, although current wisdom suggests that this can slow the pace of whole class teaching and might therefore be best avoided. This hardly constitutes the kind of interactivity that promotes effective learning and teaching. As one of the comments in response to Bill’s blog post suggests, the term ‘interactive’ in classroom terms is generally used to indicate a shift away from teacher-centred approaches to more pupil-centred pedagogy and therefore from this perspective the term seems inappropriately applied to a technology which largely supports teacher-centred, instructional teaching.

Isn’t it all about how the teacher uses the IWB?

There is an argument that says that if the IWB is in the hands of a good teacher then it becomes a valuable piece of technology. Or, conversely, that an IWB won’t turn a bad teacher into a good one. However, the question that I would then ask is whether a really good teacher would choose to use an IWB in the first place, particularly if alternative technologies were on offer? What if teachers were able to choose for themselves the technology that was installed in their classroom? Investing in IWBs is an expensive business. Not only do you need to purchase the IWB itself but there is also the cost of a data projector and usually a ceiling mounting kit too. You need to have a computer shackled to the board, which is a further expense, and let’s not forget the installation costs.

Now, I wouldn’t want my views to be misunderstood here. I believe that the facility to present digital media to a whole class (or a group) of learners is tremendously powerful. However, as Bill Ferriter points out, an IWB is not required in order to achieve this. A mid-range data-projector and a set of speakers will do that job very nicely and will cost a great deal less. The money that is saved could then instead be spent in a variety of ways that would promote the kind of interactivity that underpins effective learning and teaching in the 21st century. I would encourage all teachers to carry out a similar exercise to that carried out by Bill and consider how they might exploit other available digital technologies in their practice. His list includes technologies that put the emphasis firmly on collaboration and shared knowledge creation.

Who is driving the adoption of IWB technology?

The extent to which adoption of IWBs in the classroom has been driven by teachers is questionable. For many years now the UK government, through Becta, its agency for informing policy and practice with ICT in schools, has been championing the adoption of IWB technology. And within Initial Teacher Education the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) has also pushed IWB adoption through the provision of directed funding for the purchase of IWBs and associated technology. It is interesting to note that when he was recently interviewed about cuts in Becta’s funding, Ed Balls (currently Schools Minister) talked about their success in “get[ting] IT into schools” and suggested that they needed to continue to “sell that technology round the world”. His comments leave me questioning the Government’s basis for promoting the adoption of technologies such as IWBs in our schools. Bill Ferriter suggests that improving pedagogic practice might not be the foremost concern of school leaders when making the decision to invest in this technology:

“Frankly, it seems like most school leaders don’t really care whether IWBs change instruction in meaningful ways in their school’s classrooms. Why? Because whiteboards aren’t an instructional tool in their eyes. They’re a PR tool-a tangible representation of innovation that can be shown off to supervisors and parents alike. Heaven forbid that you run a school without whiteboards if your colleagues down the street have taken a big bite of this 21st century fruit. You’ll look like a hayseed at the next PTA meeting, won’t you?”

I don’t believe that this view is as cynical as it might sound. Certainly I don’t believe that the provision of IWBs in classrooms is always a reflection of demand for this kind of technology from teaching staff. I work in an institution where every teaching space is equipped with an IWB and yet staff regularly bemoan the lack of conventional whiteboards and some have even written on the IWBs with permanent marker pens (in error, I think). This certainly doesn’t paint a picture of technological innovation being driven by the tutors.

If Interactive Whiteboards are the answer then what is the question?

In my role as a lecturer in ICT Education, I have to help prepare student teachers for working in the current context. Currently that context includes IWBs installed in almost all Primary and Secondary school classrooms and this provision is generally paired with an expectation (from colleagues in the partner schools and often also from University colleagues) that these are exploited as a teaching tool on a daily basis (if not in every lesson). However, it is also my role to encourage student teachers to promote the development of their pupils’ digital media literacy and their ICT capability. For this to happen it is vital that these children interact with technologies in ways that are much more profound than watching their teacher use an IWB and which reflect uses of technology beyond the classroom. That means using digital technologies to explore their environment, to model possibilities, to find things out for themselves, to develop their ideas, to present their knowledge in multimodal forms, to share their understanding, to collaborate… I could go on.

My ICT colleagues and I, often receive requests from student teachers for “more interactive whiteboard training” as many are under the impression that induction into the mystical ways of the IWB is the key to effective and innovative teaching practice: an impression that is often reinforced by the experience that they have on their teaching placements. IWBs appear to be widely accepted as a tool that is central to modern teaching practice and, at least according to student feedback, their effectiveness and impact is rarely questioned. Curiously it is often the teachers who are least digitally literate who insist on our student teachers using this technology when they are on teaching practice. Perhaps this is due to a perception that using this piece of technology is a sign of their readiness to ‘move with the times’, to adopt supposedly ‘innovative’ teaching practices? Or perhaps it is a misguided view that through using this technology on a regular basis they are fulfilling the children’s entitlement to an ICT education?

I believe that teachers need to be given the opportunity to select the tools that will most benefit their pupils’ learning. To be in a position to make informed decisions they need to be encouraged to explore a range of digital technologies and to carefully evaluate their impact. If this does not happen then there is a real danger that Interactive Whiteboards will continue to reinforce outdated models of teaching that will disengage learners. There is also perhaps a risk that with limited budgets the expenditure on IWBs will mean that funding for other technologies will not be forthcoming. Bill Ferriter’s blog post, and the comments that follow it, give me some hope that good practice will prevail.

What do you think?

What is your view on the potential of IWBs? Do you think I am writing them off too readily? How would you spend the money that you could save by not having an IWB installed in your classroom? Are you seeing a change in attitudes towards this technology in the classroom or is it just as popular as ever? Whatever your viewpoint, I’d be interested to hear it so please do post a comment below.