Category Archives: Best Practices

Messy Learning Labs. Just what our screen-obsessed kids need

If you’ve ever complained about classrooms being stuck in the industrial age, here’s a glimpse of a different kind of class. It’s Hi-Tech space with a factory-floor setting. Perfect for digital natives, huh?

I took my robotics students here last Tuesday, to a place called HeatSync Labs in Mesa, Arizona. Not the kind of ‘lab’ they had in mind – but in a shocking way! It is what’s known as aMaker Space’ where kids come to ‘learn by doing’. They didn’t want to leave!

You see, a Maker Space like this is more like a mad scientist’s garage, than a classroom, with a variety of machines, tools and material just begging to be used. If you recall how HP began in a humble garage, you’ll see why a tinkerer’s tool-shed like this is what classrooms ought to be like if we are to motivate the next generation of inventors, astronomers and mad scientists like Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard. Or the next Thomas Edison (who barely went to school, please note).

Having worked with 6-12 year olds for four years now, I know how hungry they are for science. Especially science that comes to them in unexpected packages. OK, so in one corner of the lab there was a 3-D printer, an artifact from our all-too-digital present. But someone had used it to produce intriguing pieces such as this plastic cube (right), with gears!

In 75 minutes my students probably got more about science that any slick PowerPoint presentation. This was about experimenting, making mistakes, and asking ‘what-if’ questions. This was about rummaging through bins, and peering through scopes, working with laser-cut stamps they mounted on blocks of wood. And not a tablet in site!










At one point, Eric Ose who works there took me aside and told me, awkwardly, “I am not used to young people here asking permission to do things.” Meaning, this was a space that people came and just tried things out, used material lying around, and worked on their own pace. Of course there are guidelines – especially safety guidelines, as when watching laser cutting, or operating the 3-D printer.

But the real house rules are this: Try something out. Make things. Break things. Revise. Start from scratch. Discover. Build something impossible!

Note: If your students have never been to one I urge you to make it your next field trip. Many cities have these community run spaces. (Map)



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‘BYOD’ in schools, free ‘Candy Crush’ tablets for MPs – Maybe it’s a good thing

The BYOD – or ‘Bring Your Own Device’ – movement has been gathering steam in schools. If you want to know my position on this, I put it this way: It could quickly turn into Bring Your Own Distraction’ unless we make sure young students understand what screens are good for, and what they are lousy at. Unless we teach young people how to engage with others, and the value of being able to dive deep into issues beyond simple search and scan, we will end up with a distracted workforce, and distracted leaders.

Speaking of whom, consider this: 650 British MPs will be issued iPads after the British elections in May. But apparently the Brits are concerned about distraction. (Just read the headline of this Forbes article, and you’ll know what I mean.) But skepticism aside, it’s about time elected officials are provided with technology that denies them the excuse for not staying in touch with the rest of us.

In my book, Chat Republic, I featured a prescient idea by a Sri Lankan journalist who said that we ought to make democracy more digital. In a nutshell, what Indi Samarajiva said was that the average citizen has a right to know how an elected acts on our behalf, in real-time! Here is Indi expounding on part of that idea.

Last December (21014) Accenture published a paper on ‘Government as a Digital Disruptor. It spoke of the need for an eco-system for open, collaborative, creative engagement. Read the paper here.


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Speaking like Jobs – Presentation tips from 10 years ago

Exactly 10 years ago this week, Steve Jobs took to the stage –a technique he would go on to perfect — to launch the iPod Shuffle.

That was Jan 11th, 2005.

I often do ‘anniversary’ events in my class, to get young people to think about where we are now, in relation to where we and the technologies we take for granted were once at. After all, this is a Computer and Technology Lab, and I don’t want to get into the trap of always featuring today’s shiny new object, or the hottest new parlor trick in digital media. We often need context, and it tends to fly by when we refresh our feeds, doesn’t it?

Back to Jobs. His presentation trick was to use insanely simple devices. Well rehearsed, and well timed but simple. Which made him very different from his tech contemporaries, who revel in Silicon Valley argot. (Yes, I listen to ‘This Week in Tech, to catch up with the other kind of tech-talk!)

Listen to how he works up the crowd, and keeps them hanging on for that characteristic”One more thing.”  Fast forward to 1:35, and see what I mean.

  • He uses words like ‘noodled’ (He “noodled on it” not “researched it”)
  • He uses unexpected pauses, and slows down and speeds up suddenly
  • He uses home-spun images – comparing the iPod Shuffle to a pack of gum, and contrasting it with four quarters

Notice how he also stays away from big words, using words like “easy”, “simple,” “thing,” etc. (And yet, peppering his presentation with keywords!)

Even if there was no YouTube, I bet we would still listen to it.


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Disrupting Education. Sorry, There’s No App For That!

It’s easy to get sucked into the belief (or is it group-think?) that apps are the only way to disrupt an existing business model, or that true engagement is all about stubby fingers on a screen.

I tend to take the contrarian point of view that tablets are not the thing that will change everything. We romanticize these pieces of glass too much. Waaay too much.

I come at this from two angles. First as someone who runs a computer lab, where the touch-screens will soon over-run the grey boxes. Second hearing first-hand what very young kids barely out of diapers, can do. At the Montessori school my wife runs, pre-schoolers show leaps of knowledge, grasping complex ideas in science, geography, and math, with no tablet in sight.

Against this backdrop I took a deep dive into the Khan Academy, and even got some of my 5th grade students to follow its curriculum. Online, mind you. The opinion I came away with is neither black nor white. It’s not about the screens. It’s not about the technology. It’s a lot more simple –and subtle–than that.

If you have fallen in love with tablets, you may skip this link below:-)


If you want to read about it, it’s in this month’s LMD Magazine, for which I write a monthly technology/business column.

“Disrupting Education. Why Schools Love It.”


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No phones allowed at White House Cabinet Meetings

No live blogging, no checking your email, no tweeting during meetings.That’s a White House rule at cabinet meetings.

  • What does that tell you about how grown-ups behave at meetings?
  • What might it suggest about decision-making and technology distraction?


I’ve read somewhere that many businesses are asking people not to bring their Blackberries and iPhones to the meeting. I’m interested to know if you have seen or heard of an official policy on this anywhere.

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Posted by on February 20, 2014 in Best Practices, Social Media


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Sochi’s ‘Teaching Moments’ through social filters

How to teach social media, without actually calling it social media?

That’s one of the challenges I run into, now and then. To many young students –and I am talking those elementary school to whom “hash tag” means something else entirely–, there is no big distinction between media variants. Newspapers, photo albums, television, encyclopedias etc all belong to one blurry category.

You will probably hear this often – schools are really anxious about (social) media behaviors and the flood of tools that enable them. I take what might seem a contrarian approach: It’s better to prepare students for responsible use of digital media, than ask them to check them at the door.

Yesterday Feb 5th was Digital Learning Day, so it was a good day, as any to address some of these topics. Since this week also happens to be the opening week of the Olympics, I tried to pull these two strands together. As always there was a lucky collusion of opportunities.

  • Padlet - OlympicsTo bring this all together in a classroom experience I began experimenting with a website another teacher referred me to: Padlet. It lets a student import content into a page in a variety of ways – from PDF to QR code, to an embed link – as you could see here. or via this QR Code it generates.

Some of these open the door to what we educators like to call Teaching Moments. To deal with topics such as:

Copyright. What does that mean in a link economy, where someone could embed a video or link to something without violating intellectual property rights? Even the International Olympic committee has had to spell out its SM Policy about blogging and tweeting. Even grown ups need to abide by an event or site’s rules – such as this, below that says one cannot ‘assume’ a reporter’s persona!


Collaboration: The connectivity students take for granted (the always-on wi-fi) makes it possible to have a close conversation with a total stranger, and learn from him/her, but at the same time, sharing personal information with someone on a public channel could be dangerous.

Old media that was decidedly one-way, locked down, or expensive didn’t allow some of these opportunities, but it also protected us from the torrent of meaningless discussions, and TMI. Maybe there’s a lesson in that too.

If you’re curious about Padlet, here’s what the page looks like:

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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Best Practices, Social Media


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Technology with a sense of humor (and humanity)

So much of tech in our lives is about inanimate objects that deliver some convenience.

Maybe they animate our lives a bit: Typewriters helped us write better reports. Levers helped us move large rocks. Microphones and memory devices) helped us record and preserve important  moments.

I’m becoming more steeped in the four S-T-E-M areas, because (a) that’s where all education is headed, and (b) I run a computer and tech lab for a school where students from Kindergarten to 6th grade come to experience computers in education.

So it’s always refreshing to be able to focus on technology that is not a computer, or at least one that NOT rectangle-with-screen. I have robots, of course (a big ‘Aha’ for third graders): rectangle with wheels and sensors, and a few other objects.

But where could you take (or hide) a computer, to make our lives more interesting?

I found a great example of a ‘technologist’ who comes from an a non-tech space, and adds a layer of humanity to objects. She’s not from Silicon Valley, and I don’t believe she’s been featured in Fast Company. Bangalore-born Aparna Rao infuses technology with a sense of humor and humanity, letting us find our own meaning in inanimate objects such as a phone, a typewriter etc. The one on the left, for instance, was designed so that her uncle could send email, making him feel he was typing a normal letter on a piece of paper. But it gets funnier, and, deeper, such as when she uses a camera to make people disappear — the reverse of what we do now in our desire to put ourselves into every conceivable screen-captured image of life.

This is probably one of the best reasons why the arts –and the capital ‘A’– cannot ever reside outside the S-T-E-M areas everyone is so focused on.

This is the best example I’ve come across for encouraging schools to add some S-T-E-A-M!


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