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The Hour of Computer Science

Mark Zuckerberg endorsing computer science education

Considering that less than half a century ago, the idea of using computers was considered fantastic, if not ludicrous, the proliferation of computer and technology not only into offices, but also into homes, schools and even handbags is nothing less than magical. Users of computers, in fact, technology in all its forms, now transcend age, nationality and gender. In most nations of the world that are economically and politically stable, technology is used in almost all facets of daily life and thus computers and software impact lives and society every day. The use of computers and other forms of technology at home has seen an exponential increase, as seen in the data collected by the American census bureau in 2011. While the data is for USA alone, it is reasonable to expect a similar trend in other nations as well.

compuse.png

The growth in technology use has resulted in the need to teach computer skills to children. Thus, the three R’s of learning – Reading, (w)Riting and (a)Rithmetic has, in the past decade, expanded to encompass a fourth “R” – (p)Rogramming. But has computer education kept pace with the growth of technology itself?

Apparently not. According to a study conducted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), the situation is not encouraging. In the US, computer science is not considered by states and/or local school districts as part of the “core” curriculum offered to students at the secondary school level. In many states, computer science courses are still not counted as a separate core course, but are grouped along with mathematics or science courses. In fact, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics reports a disturbing trend that computer science is the only one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields that has actually seen a decrease in student participation in the last 20 years, from 25% of high school students to only 19%.

Even more disturbing is the fact that there is a clear gender and racial divide with respect to the type of students who are offered or who take computer science based courses. In 2008, although 59% of students who took the Advanced Placement test in 2014 were women, only 25% of those that took the Advanced Placement (AP) computer science test were women [AP Program Summary Report]. Even more disturbing is the participation and success rates of ethnic races in computer science based AP tests. In 2012, only 8% of Hispanic Americans and African Americans took the computer science based AP tests, and the situation has not improved significantly since then.

Interestingly, countries such as RussiaChina and India have been offering computer science as a core course in schools and colleges and/or have separate schools that teach computer science and programming out of school hours, for more than a decade now, with excellent student enrolment. In the US, there are many factors that contribute to the alarming mismatch between need for computer science education and offerings of this subject as a core course. The current federal, state, and local government policies underpinning the K–12 education system are conflicted in the area of engaging computer science as an academic subject. The shortage of well-prepared teachers, on instructional materials and adequate resources and infrastructure to support teachers and student learning also contribute to the poor state of computer science education in the K12 system in America.

There are now efforts to repair the situation. Joint efforts by computer industry, academia and government policy makers have resulted in the introduction of programs such as the “hour of code” project to disseminate computer science education to kids, and encourage them to learn. The “hour of code” is a one-hour introduction to computer science, organized by Code.org and CSEdWeek, and backed by the likes of ACM, IEEE-CS, CA Teachers Association, National Center for Women and Information Technology. Statistics show that in 2013, over 15 million students worldwide participated in the hour-of-code to learn various aspects of computer science and coding, and going by the response of both teachers and students, it has been enormously successful. Although the one-hour introduction to computer science was held during the computer week in 2014 (December 8-14th), its success and acceptance points to expansion of the program into other times of the year.

The acceptance of computer science as a core course in the K12 curriculum depends on participation by policy makers, academicians and parents alike. Demand from parents for introduction of computer science courses to children will induce policy makers and academician at all levels to review the place of computer science in the core curriculum.  When introducing computer science as a core course in schools, it is important to keep in mind that computer science education must teach fundamental concepts of computing, just as a mathematics course must teach everything from number theory to geometry before embarking on calculus and higher math. So also, a computer science course must be a continuum, starting from basic concepts to advanced topics such as programming or even hardware design. It is obvious that such a vast breadth of topics requires an expanded time frame. Therefore it is essential that computer science not be introduced suddenly at higher classes, but started at the elementary level to allow the student to get a continuous and comprehensive feel of the field by the time she finishes school.

But why should computer science be introduced in school? A more compelling reason than the fact that when you are surrounded by something, it is only logical to understand it, is the fact that the computing sector will have 1.5 million job openings over the next 10 years. This number is not as staggering as it would be when read along with the following statistic. According to a study by Bureau of Labor Statistics, NSF, computer science is the only STEM field where there are more jobs than students [Source].

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But that is not all. The knowledge and skills gained through basic computer science education enables innovation and deeper understanding in the other traditional fields of STEM. Computer modeling, for example, is an inherent part of any academic field, and involves many of the fundamental concepts of computer science.  The word “computational” is now a standard prefix to almost all areas of science, engineering, business, finance and perhaps even art!

It is imperative therefore that K–12 schools introduce computer science early and at all levels to make students college- and career-ready.

This is an unabridged version of the latest Mobicip Newsletter. Click here to subscribe

Image credit: code.org

Happy New Year of Tech, Gadgets and More...

The coming of the new year, like the air of cinnamon, fills our being with cheer and joy. The thrill of the season infects all, and the calm of the silent nightfall of the year fills us with eager anticipation for a new dawn that brings with it more joy, more hope. And more technology.

Kid with toys and gadgets

This year, more than any in the past, has been digitally driven. Technology is undoubtedly a blessing during the festive season in more ways than one. Take the simple phone call, for example; this apparently old-fashioned technology is so ubiquitous now that it is hard to believe that less than half a century ago, people away from home on New Year had no way to wish and be wished by their loved ones. Now, all it takes are a few numbers and a low-earth orbiting satellite to connect to any part of the global village that your loved one inhabits.

recent poll by the Barna Group shows that in America, 82% of people are likely to phone absent friends or family members. Even youngsters are just as likely as their parents and grandparents to pick up the phone on a festive day to wish loved ones – now if that is not the spirit of the season, what is? Close on the heels of the “ancient” technology of telephone comes social networking – facebook, emails, g+, blogs, skype etc. - especially among the millennials. E-cards have taken the place of paper cards that once adorned the fireplace, and as they say, a card-is-a-card-is-a-card.

But of course, it’s not all ho-ho-ho with the techie-celebrations. The 24% of the millenials, in the same poll, who prefer to wish people virtually than in person, could point to a social dysfunction that negates the camaraderie of the season. A holiday text or emoticon-rich e-mail, while convenient indeed, cannot replace the human moment of a face-to-face smile or the lilt of the voice. Living in the virtual world, tweeting, facebooking and emailing, when there are flesh and blood people who chose to share the special day does no one any good either. “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor” said Charles Dickens; why not spread this contagion during these holidays rather than viral posts that insult the physical presence of human beings?

Technology can be a boon or a bane during the festive season in ways other than communication as well. While shopping for gifts is made easier in the comfort of one’s home and a few numbers on a plastic card, it can, for some, destroy that “personal touch” involved in searching for and choosing gifts at a real shop. For others, this small drawback is overpowered by the obviation of finding a parking spot in the same zipcode as the mall! Although sales in brick-and-mortar stores have not lost their sheen, online shopping and in-store browsing are increasingly overlapping as many of the physical customers often research products online before making an in-store purchase or vice versa. Online sales on Cyber Monday this year hit a record $2.68 billion  – and this number will only keep rising as the holiday season proceeds.

Online shopping for the holidays with all of its frenzied activities stretches the limits of business technology as well. Increased online traffic and e-commerce sales can put enormous pressure on the infrastructure of the supplier. By staying one step ahead of the rush, the virtual shopkeeper can circumvent expected problems. Routine evaluation of the site and software, updating the design and front end to reflect the seasonal spirit and beefing up cybersecurity to prevent hacking and other mishaps are essential for the retailer to make most of the holiday rush.

Where does the equation lie when you add kids to a tech holiday? Do the benefits outweigh the risks or the other way around? Like everything else, it depends on how we, the adults, manage the mix. Children are indeed a vulnerable target and marketers overtly or surreptitiously target children through social media, websites and viral ads. It is very important to teach kids to think logically and objectively about consumerism and brand pressure during the holidays and help them find the joy of the season rather than the expedient pleasures of “buying stuff”.  

With the marketplace, both real and virtual, bursting at its seams with gadgets that beckon kids and adults alike, it is little wonder that 2014 holiday season was expected to see the highest levels of consumer spending to the tune of $33.76 billion on consumer electronics yet. It thus becomes challenging to choose gifts for kids (and adults) that are constructive and reinforce positive beliefs and practices instead of addiction and rampant consumerism. Books, board games (both old-school and digital) and handmade gifts may not speak louder than the din of branded toys and gadgets, but they undoubtedly make the experience of holidays more wholesome.

The Center for a New American Dream reports although most Americans (72%) believe that there is no need to spend money to have a fulfilling and enjoyable holiday, 4 in 5 people polled continue to mindlessly complicate gift giving. The pressure of festival shopping is driven by the need to meet real or imagined expectations and can be overcome through the simple belief that gift giving is only one way of sharing the sense of gratitude, joy and abundance. A simple verbal declaration of appreciation, homespun simple gifts and charity are perhaps better ways of sharing the spirit without the pressures of materialism.

Technology can be put to good use during holiday season without intruding on the spirit. Letting kids design their own new year cards in the computer adds personal touch and warmth. Kids can also be encouraged to make a difference to another’s life through donating online. Sites like We Give Books and Free Rice can change lives of children around the world by simple activities like reading and playing, and what better season to give than the dawn of a new year.

How can you make technology safe during holidays? Keeping your money safe by not using public WiFi hotspots to access your financial platform, ensuring that all financial transactions go through “https” sites, enabling your firewall, updating the antivirus software, and logging off any e-business website before closing the browser are common-sense steps to safeguard your purse and peace. Keeping the wallet and other valuables physically at a safe location and storing pin numbers and passwords in the head rather than cookies are rules that must be taught to children early on.

At Mobicip, the holiday season is literally the busiest week of the year. Little wonder, as parents are typically overwhelmed by the technology gifts their kids receive and therefore wonder about what they expose their kids to. After all, smartphones and tablets today are no less than full-fledged computers in what they do and what they allow one to do. The need for some sort of parental controls is felt by parents sooner or later, and the Mobicip team braces itself every year for an on-slaught of customer enquiries and support requests during this time of the year. The goal is to provide the tools that you need to equip yourself and help sustain a meaningful dialogue with your children on the challenge of staying abreast of a very tech-savvy generation.

Any festival is, as Coolidge said for Christmas, not a season, but a frame of mind that spreads joy and mercy. It is all about preserving traditions and creating meaningful new ones that transcend the mélange of matter. Let us, echoing Dicken’s sentiments, honor the new year in our hearts and try to keep it all year round.

Here's wishing our dear readers and customers a wonderful 2015!

This is an unabridged version of the latest Mobicip Newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov / IWoman / CC BY

Mobicip Just Keeps Getting Better!

Happy Holidays

The holidays are upon us. And there is no better way to celebrate than by giving you a bunch of new features that give you the peace of mind you so deserve!

App Monitoring for Android

Android smartphones or tablets in the household? You can now keep a watchful eye on the apps your kids install, without touching the device. If you're a Premium user, login at mobicip.com and select Apps to get started.

Android App Monitor

Access Requests

Say some content is being blocked, and your child disagrees with it. She can now request an override. You receive an email and respond. As simple as that. If you're a Premium user, simply login at mobicip.com and select Requests.

Blocked page with access request button

Expand each request to decide if that content should be allowed. Allow that URL or the entire domain and it will be added to your whitelist.

Access requests screenshot

Filtering Levels Simplified

Login at mobicip.com and select Filter Profile to check out the brand new filtering levels and what they do. Available to both Premium and non-Premium users. Right now!

New filtering levels screenshot

Like what you see? Let us know. A whole lot of sweat and labor went into building these for the holidays, and we hope it helps you meet the challenges of parenting the hyper-connected generation. The entire Mobicip crew wishes you and your family a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!

Best of the Mobicip Blog

Have you visited the Mobicip Blog lately? Check out some of our most recent popular posts:

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How to Interact With Your Kids Using Mobicip

One of the most important benefits of parental controls is that it enables open discussion. Mobicip allows your kids to request access to blocked content, right from within the browser when any content is blocked.

Blocked page with interaction

With the Premium upgrade, you can review the requests at any time and approve or deny each one.

To review pending access requests, simply login at mobicip.com and select Requests.

Mobicip > Requests menu

You will see a list of requests, along with the associated filter profile. Click each request to review it.

Access Requests feature screenshot

You can choose to allow that particular content, or the entire domain.

Access Request

You can also choose to receive alerts by email for each access request. Simply click on 'Notify me' at the top right, and enter the email address at which you wish to receive the alerts.

Access Requests notification settings

App Monitoring for Android Available Now!

Yes, one of the the most popular Mobicip features on iOS is now available on Android - App Monitoring. You can now keep track of apps installed on your kids' Android OS-based devices, and setting it up is a breeze!

Unlike on iOS devices, there is no extra step required to enable this feature. Simply install the Mobicip Safe Browser for Android and it comes with App Monitoring built-in.

- You may then login at mobicip.com, select Apps and the device you wish to check.

Mobicip App Monitor menu

- Thats it! You should see all the apps installed on that device. You can then sort by Play Store category, maturity rating, etc.

App Monitor for Android

Give it a whirl and let us know what you think. If you're as excited as we are about this awesome feature, please leave a review on the Play Store!

The Art of Learning by Doing

Aristotle’s wisdom that “the things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them”, while being common sense, is often ignored in the realm of conventional education. Ironically, “learn by doing” is an instinctive activity, as can be seen by the role-play games by children that help them understand complex systems and dynamic processes in real life. Role play is a classic mix of simulation and emulation wherein a real situation is enhanced through imagination and helps in better perception of spaces and scenarios; Einstein knew a thing or two when he claimed imagination to be more important than knowledge.

Students playing computer-simulated game

Somewhere along the way, theory replaces experimentation and erudition becomes an alias for knowledge. Such a situation has been largely driven by lack of time, resources and innovation, or merely by the impracticality of designing hands-on experiments. This is where technology can help. Computer-based simulations can be used to provide a fertile ground for experience and the use of simulated activities is slowly being recognized as an important tool in education. The use of computer simulation in education is particularly relevant now because school students in tech-aware countries, unlike their predecessors, were born into a digital world where technology is an artifact of culture.

Computer simulation-assisted education has been broadly categorized into two – simulation focused learning wherein the student learns to simulate to solve practical problems and simulation-based learning, where computer simulations, in combination with animation and other visualization techniques are used to understand a topic. Such simulation-based learning is interactive where the student actively participates in the simulated environment.

Computer simulations are cognitive tools in education because they are practical, especially in cases where theory cannot provide the full “experience” of learning, and experiments are impractical or costly to setup. They are designed for trial and error learning and help in transitioning the student from novice to expert understanding of the subject matter. More importantly, they provide firsthand experience to the student who becomes an active participant, not merely an observer. This inspires and encourages active learning because the student assumes a responsible role, finds ways to succeed and develops problem solving tools by herself.

A unique feature of interactive simulation-based learning is that results change in response to input signals and students understand various scenarios and their effect in a seemingly chaotic world, without the risks associated with real life experimentation. For example, the effect of vehicle speed on crash damage is best understood through simulation rather than experimentation, for obvious reasons. Such dynamic simulations are often seen in what are considered (sometimes derisively) “games” (e.g. flight simulators, auto racing games etc.). Considering that 92% of children ages 2–17 play video and computer games, it is only logical to extend this “infotainment” into “education”. Computer simulations are already used in a variety of practical contexts, such as weather forecasting, analysis of air pollution, noise, logistic system, flight simulators, etc. and it is but one small step to move them into the classroom.

Another advantage of computer simulations is that graphics and animations can allow better visualization and offer an emulative feel. Use of three dimensional dynamic models is particularly useful in visualizing creative processes, such as building of molecules.  Simulations also provide an environment in which learning is fast-moving, self-determining, demanding, graphically oriented and proactive [i]. Blake and Scallion, in an article in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, report that computer simulations allow time saving, easy manipulation of experimental variables and provide support in understanding representations, such as diagrams and graphs [ii].

Game-like simulations provide an opportunity to attract students who are otherwise indisposed to engaging in the classroom. It has been shown that game-based learning has the biggest impact for low performing students – students who do not engage through the textbook, lecture and other classroom activities [iii]. This could be a result of the opportunity offered by simulations for peer tutoring and task focus.

The management and implementation of simulated learning is very similar to “practical” experimental labs and involves the teacher providing content expertise and focus to move it along. Obviously, this entails that the teachers be not only knowledgeable in the content area that the simulation will anchor, but also adept at using the simulation itself or at least willing to learn it along with the students. The teacher must be aware of the aspects or phases of the simulation that will meet specific goals of the lesson. Apart from merely “having fun” going through the motions of the simulations, the student must be able to generate specific results and understand the fundamentals of the simulated scenario. Simulations must offer parallel learning experiences that connect the learning experience that is structured into the learning unit or lesson plan.

Computer simulation-based learning shifts the focus of education from “teacher centric” to “learner centric” and this discovery learning approach has become very popular. However, there is a limit beyond which the control cannot be transferred from the teacher to the learner. Insufficient “theory” support for the processes of discovery learning results in difficulties in generating and adapting hypotheses, designing experiments, interpreting data and regulating learning [iv]. On the other hand, over-guidance that condenses the simulations to a step-by-step recipe approach undermines their potential and restricts creativity in a richly contextualized environment. Balanced guidance is essential for inquiry learning and provides the scaffolding for simulation-based learning.

Simulation based learning carries with it the risk that the engagement of students could lose balance and could become a mindless addiction rather than the educational activity it is aimed to be. According to Dr. Heather Coffey, when the goals of simulations do not align with the learning goals of the classroom, students only waste time “playing” rather than becoming educated.  Some other drawbacks include deterioration of interest in the simulation, driven by natural disinclination towards simulation, perceived cognitive challenge and decline of human interaction leading to lack of communication, discussion and feedback [v].

The costs and technical issues associated with simulation based learning could be a serious deterrent.  The insufficiency of technology to support a digital simulation-based learning may lead to unequal access by students to this type of instructional tool. The availability of a myriad of educational technologies necessitates careful and informed assessment before integration.

Driven by the synergy of technological advancements and instructional innovations, simulations are rapidly gaining importance in the classroom in tech-savvy nations as robust add-ons, either as a supplement to traditional teaching methods or as a substitute for sections of the curriculum. Merging traditional methods with simulations can potentially enhance the experience of the learning process.

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[i] Elizabeth Simpson & Frances A. Clem, Video Games in the Middle School Classroom,  Middle School Journal, 39(4) March 2008 pp. 4-11

[ii] C. Blake, E. Scanlon, Reconsidering simulations in science education at a distance: features of effective use, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23 (6) (2007), pp. 491–502

[iii] Best Practices for using Games & Simulations in the Classroom, Guidelines for K–12 Educators, Jan  2009: A Publication of the Software & Information Industry Association (Siia) Education Division

[iv] T. de Jong, W.R. van Joolingen, Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual domains, Review of Educational Research, 68 (2) (1998), pp. 179–201

[v] Lowe, K., Lee, L., S., R., Cummings, R., Phillips, R., and Lake, D. Learning objects and engagement of students in Australian and New Zealand schools. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (2), (2010) pp. 227-241

The Often Ignored Dangers of Texting While Driving

Texting and driving

When we were growing up we were told that stealing was unethical. Lying was a sin. Smoking and drugs could kill. So could alcohol. More so, alcohol and driving. These were black-and-white behaviors that were never virtuous and so although children rebelled, there was no counter argument that could negate the adult warnings. Cancer was real. OD was real. Alcohol induced brain fuzz was a measurable metric.

The area of technology use is, however, hardly black and white. It is not even gray, but carries with it the splendor of the rainbow. For example, while that ubiquitous little piece of technology, the mobile phone, could potentially save lives, sometimes even literally, such as in the case of the store clerk whose phone absorbed a bullet aimed at his abdomen, and figuratively, like helping the adult keep track  of the child’s whereabouts and activities, the danger associated with misuse or use of the gadget at an inappropriate time is very real. Topping the list of cell-phone induced dangers is texting while driving.

“It is common sense”, one may exclaim in exasperation, “that reading and texting while driving is dangerous. Isn’t the warning superfluous?” The response to that rhetoric could lie in some mind boggling numbers. According to a 2014 Harrison Poll, more than a logical number of Americans admitted to reading (45%) and sending (37%) text messages while driving. This number is disturbingly more than drivers who drink and drive (37%). The US Department of Transportation reports that at any given moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving. Age appears to be no bar for distracted driving, as can be seen from the data by the US department of Transportation, reproduced below.

Texting & Driving Stats

According to the US government’s distraction.gov site, eleven percent of drivers aged 18 to 20 who were involved in an automobile accident were sending or receiving texts when they crashed. In another survey by the Pew Research Center, 40% of American teens claim to have travelled in a vehicle where the driver used a cell phone while driving.

The danger of texting while driving is three-fold. The opposable thumbs of the Homo habilis may have been an evolutionary leap that enabled the use of tools, but the restriction on the number of hands to two poses a natural restriction on the number of tools that can be simultaneously operated. The first lesson in Driver’s Ed that goes “Both hands on wheel” precludes the availability of limbs to operate the cell phone while driving, and any cell phone operation would point to a risky compromise on the number of arms on the wheel.

Assuming for a moment that the shortage of limbs can be overcome, the more serious dangers come from the eye and the head. When travelling at a speed of 55 mph, taking the eye of the road for a mere 5 seconds to check an incoming SMS is the equivalent of driving blindfolded across the length of a football field filled with obstacles. The five seconds is literal eternity compared to the split second it takes to drive into one of the obstacles and at 55 mph, no impact could be trivial.

The 100 billion neurons that process information at the rate of 1000 times per second may make the human brain a marvel, but contrary to claims of being able to “multi task”, the brain merely switches linearly among tasks. Neurons that are firing instructions to the fingers to fly over the touch screen are incapable of simultaneously alerting the driver to a possible barrier ahead. Is it any wonder then that the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute reports that heavy-truck drivers who send and receive text messages while on the road face a 23 times greater risk of crashing than the non-texters? An alarming finding by UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) is that drivers who read or wrote texts while driving fare worse than drunken and even drugged drivers in terms of alertness – reaction times deteriorated by 37% due to mobile texting/reading as against the 13% induced by alcohol and 21% by cannabis.

Beyond the common sense dictate of not using cell phone when driving, governments around the world have imposed restrictions and bans on gadget use while driving. Many of these restrictions involve hefty fines and are directed at talking on the cell phone while driving, but the dangers of texting are being increasingly recognized, going by the quantum of fines imposed on texting violations. Within the USA, less than half of the states have an organized rule in place on the use of cellphones while driving, but that clearly is not a license to kill. While simple self-control is sufficient, use of #X in social media profile updates and use of apps to automatically respond to texts can go a long way in reducing a life to a mere datapoint on a disturbing graph.

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Photo credit: IntelFreePress / Foter / CC BY-SA

Technology-Enabled Parent Teacher Communication

It may not take a village to raise a child anymore, but parents and teachers certainly continue to play a vital role in the growth of the child.  Hitherto, the parents’ and teachers’ groups were largely disjoint with brief overlaps coinciding with “PTA” meetings where a five minute face-to-face was expected to exchange a semester-worth of information. With familial focus shifting from multi-children households to largely nuclear families with limited offspring, parents and teachers have come to expect more from their interactions with regard to their wards. Both sets of caregivers rightly believe now that teacher-parent communication fosters better understanding and collaboration between the classroom and home to make education a wholesome experience for the child. Indeed, research has shown that increased parent participation is a critical influence on student success.

Parent-Teacher Conference In Session

Despite the known benefits of increasing parent participation in schooling, parent-teacher conferences can be stressful for teachers, especially in a competitive society that often breeds helicopter parenting and tiger parents. But beyond interpersonal strain that such meets can cause, the sheer volume of information that must be sorted and communicated can make such meets less than pleasant for the teacher. Through experience, teachers learn the best way to deal with the stressful experience and develop their own techniques to conduct smooth parent meetings that are productive and painless. Experience dictates that the teacher prepare in advance for the meet, provide both positive and negative feedback judiciously, listen not only to the spoken word, but also the implications of parents, and be pleasant.

With the inroads of technology into education, it is but logical that educators use technology to encourage meaningful parent participation and improve the experience for all concerned.  Technology can enhance home-school communication in ways that alleviate communication challenges and barriers of time and distance that teachers and parents often face. There are many ways in which a teacher can use technology to improve the interaction, starting from scheduling to dissemination of student grade information, thus establishing avenues for parents to have a more meaningful role in education.  

The selection of the technological tools for parent teacher communication must be based on the answers to the following questions:

(a) What is the nature of the message to be communicated?  Is it a private communication about a specific student, or news/message dissemination to the parent community as a whole?

(b)   What are the types of technology that both teachers and parents have access to?

(c) What are their skills and willingness of parents and teachers to use the technology, and to what extent?

(d)   Should technology replace face-to-face communication or will it complement offline communication?

Some specific tools that the teacher can use to establish a fruitful parent-teacher-student triad partnership are as follows.

Emails:  Emails have replaced all conventional modes of communication in tech-savvy countries and are already used, especially in primary school, as a mode of communication between the teacher and students – announcements of assignments, submission of homework etc. have now already moved on in many schools to the digital classroom, to free the teacher of time, effort and paper clutter. The use of email communication between the teacher and parent can help ease the strain during parent teacher meets because any issue, problem or announcement can be communicated at the required time without waiting for a later scheduled meeting so that the issue can be addressed immediately. This also frees the teacher from remembering and collating information and messages over the year to be conveyed to the parent. The parent also benefits from being in email touch with the teacher because she can monitor the progress of her child, and know of problems that the child may be facing academically and otherwise. It must however be remembered by all parties concerned that the line between “awareness” and “obsession” is blurry and both parent and teacher must take care not to overstep limits beyond which the freedom and privacy of the child is invaded.

Apart from periodic email updates, weekly or fortnightly class newsletters could be created as a joint effort, to include examples of student work, and upcoming assignments. Such newsletters can be made a class assignment and include the syllabi in it, in terms of quizzes and creative assignments.

Web Pages and Lists:  The more tech-fervent teacher may create, or guide creation of a class webpage that provides information and updates on class activities as a whole.  This could be a joint effort by the teacher and the students, and will serve not only the purpose of communication, but also a learning experience for the teacher and student.  The students get to use, and display their creativity, in addition to learning hands-on practical skills such as web design, the teacher herself gets to know the hidden talents and skills of her students, and the parents get to know what happens in class, a win-win-win situation all around.  Again, the possible pitfall here could be distraction – the focus could get shifted from learning a curriculum to learning the technology without careful monitoring and control, and the experience of the teacher can come handy here.

Social Networking Tools:   Social networking is a dicey tool that while allowing teacher to increase the level of communication using a recognizable social media format, possesses inherently a high risk of distraction.  As a means for disseminating information and exhibiting and sharing the skills and talents of the students (through weblogs, for example), social networking can undoubtedly support the teacher-parent-student partnership.

Mobile Apps: Mobile apps are increasingly gaining acceptance as a medium of communication between parents and teachers. Mobile apps such as Remind (formerly Remind101) and ClassDojo are being used by millions of teachers, parents and students, without doubt a staggering rate of adoption for apps that were launched but a couple of years ago.

Video Conferencing and Video Podcasts: Occasional live video podcasts of class activities can make the parent feel more included in their child’s education.  This can give the parent first-hand account of how the class is conducted, how the students behave and what improvements could be needed to make the class better.  This particular use of technology in the classroom is, however, fraught with practical difficulties. On the technical end is the setting up of a video capture system and transmitting it to the parents, but the more difficult task is to obtain permission from all parents because of privacy issues.  Even if such videos are shared only with class parents, there may be objections from the parents, and often even students themselves, which must be taken into consideration.

Live Chats: The other side of video podcasts are live chats and video conferencing with parents. Video enhanced chat options are now aplenty and the parents and teachers can set up a convenient time to meet online to avoid schedule clashes and unnecessary travel. There are even free tools that allow live online collaborative sessions.  Such tools allow multiple participants to communicate with one another to share ideas.

Portal (or Apps) for Grades, Events and Calendar:  This is perhaps the least “social” and most utilitarian part of technology in the area of parent-teacher interactions.  Rather than wait a semester or year to share grade information to parents, such information can be sent to parents as and when required so that any followup discussions are more relevant and apt. Many schools already use student management.

Susana Juniu has published a research article on computer-mediated parent-teacher communication and succinctly summarized the needs vis-à-vis application of technology in the classroom in the following table:

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Technology allows parent-teacher interactions to be practical, positive and personal.  Technology mediated communications tools such as videoconferencing, phone conferencing, online chats,and emails are already being discovered as efficient mediums to enhance school/home communication that allow teachers, parents, and students to stay connected and informed. Of course, there are occasions when teachers and parents must engage in a face-to face dialogue and online chat may not offer that level of “personal” touch and motivational spontaneity of a real-life interaction. Lack of computer access, and knowledge and skill in using technology and absence of interest in a new form of communication, by both teacher and parents, are some barriers to tech-enabled parent-teacher interactions. In such cases, a bare minimal use of technology must be encouraged that may include text-based and instant messaging and the use of tools that are more personalized to encourage active engagement.

This is a copy of the latest Mobicip Newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

Photo credit: Innovation_School / Foter / CC BY-NC

A Story of a Brain Freeze and a Lollipop Crush

Thanksgiving collage

A new version of the Mobicip Safe Browser for iOS was rolled out via the App Store last week. Today, a freshly minted Safe Browser for Android is available on the Google Play Store. While we do update apps once in a while, the latest updates are significant in more ways than one.

Unfreezing the Brain Freeze

When the last update of the Safe Browser for iOS went live in August, it was a fairly routine one that was developed, tested thoroughly and deployed with confidence. Little did we realize the mayhem it would cause over the next several weeks. Apparently, the browser would freeze randomly, crash occasionally, and do it so unpredictably that it confounded users and developers alike. It took several weeks to understand that code that was carried over from older versions of iOS was causing the app to brain-freeze. And so it was back to the drawing board to painstakingly recreate the app using the latest and greatest offered by the iOS SDK (Software Development Kit), followed by several rounds of testing and bug-fixing that drove our QA engineers to the edge of crazyness. After a week of release, judging from the noise that has died down, and the silent applause from anonymous users, it looks like we did it. You see, we rarely hear from users when they're happy. There is an ominious and sweet silence, with only the download numbers acting as proof of said happiness. It appears that the freeze is gone. Phew! What a relief.

Download the latest update from the App Store on each of your kids' devices. Simply unlock / open the App Store on the device and select Updates > Update All.

The Lollipop Crush

The Android L aka Android 5.0 aka Android Lollipop update was announced at the Google I/O conference in June. It was not immediately obvious that a whole lot of APIs had changed. In fact, so much had changed that it took several months of development effort to create the same user experience as on Android KitKat 4.x. And as the official release date approached, Google chose to release another devleloper update of Android L that led to another round of scrambling to reinvent the wheel. Suffice to say that 'Lollipop' has come to represent a moving target that can hardly be reached. Some heroic effort and sleepless nights later, the update was published today. Phew, again! What a relief 2.0.

Download the latest update from the Play Store and you should be all set. If you have auto-update enabled, it should be installed already.

Happy Thanksgiving

After weeks of burning the midnight oil, we are coming up on a well-deserved break. Wish you all (well, if you're in the US) a wonderful weekend and a great time with your family. Oh, and if you wish to thank us, a super-nice review on the App Store or the Play Store would be some sweet icing on the cake... er... gravy on the turkey. Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo credit: The Coastal Chick / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Foter / CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) PDD

Of Teachers and Educational Technology

Teacher assisting student with a tablet

Introduction of any new tool into academia is a matter of great interest among educators, students and parents. This is particularly evident when the tool is technology and the domain of academia is the school. The drive to develop technology-assisted classrooms has been driven by  the goal of providing easy access to information coupled with the need to prepare children for a tech-intensive future.

The introduction of technology into the classroom eventually hinges on the skills, attitudes and belief systems of the facilitator, the teacher. Teachers already shoulder tremendous responsibilities; they have to be impartial and objective judges of students, with insights into their needs and progress in addition to understanding expectations from parents and following the norms and rules that govern them. Thus, the equation of education is already intricate, and the addition of a new variable - technology - into this equation, not only complicates it further but raises many questions and doubts. Understandably, no academic advancement in the history of humankind has ever elicited as much controversy as the use of technology in the classroom and both sides of the debate have legitimate points of view. There are teachers who swear by technology, and there are those that must be dragged kicking and screaming into a tech- enabled classroom. Most teachers however fall in the intermediate region where they are still testing the waters as seen from their responses following the issue of laptops to all students and teachers by the government of Maine.

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The “to tech or not to tech” controversy is fueled by conflicting reports.  The research at the University of Southern Maine, found that math performance of seventh- and eighth-graders taught by teachers trained in using the laptops improved significantly. In another survey by the Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP), most teachers reported that digital technologies helped them in teaching middle school and high school students but the distractions of the internet, mobile phones, and social media were challenges to deal with. In contrast, another review by the Education Department in 2009 on online courses offered to millions of K-12 students found that there is “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.

The aye-sayers visualize a classroom where the teacher is a guide rather than the dispenser of information, who nudges the students into the path of self-paced learning through Internet-connected devices. The detractors are apprehensive mostly because of the need for time and resources to train, or doubts in their ability to master available technology. A 2010 survey by Grunwald Associates shows that despite more and more new teachers entering academia with far more advanced technology skills than senior teachers who have been in the field from much before the tech boom, only 39 percent of teachers report "moderate" or "frequent" use of technology as an instructional tool. The disparity in tech use in schools is also related to the financial stratum to which the school belongs; 70% of teachers working in high income areas found schools good in providing them with resources and support needed to incorporate digital tools in the classroom, compared to only 50% of teachers working in the lowest income areas as reported by the Pew Internet Research Project.

With the digital revolution spreading its wings into all aspects of society, its inroads into academia is unavoidable.It is therefore essential that teachers be prepared both mentally and skill-wise in the use of technology in the classroom. In order to be tech-savvy, a teacher must first be aware of the fine line between the use and abuse of technology; For instance, asking “why?” is the first step towards becoming an efficient tech-enabled teacher. Flexibility to new knowledge and skill, willingness to change, an open mind set, enthusiasm and genuine concern are traits that follow the first “why”.

For a teacher to ease into technology-powered education, it is important for her to understand that technology can create an equitable and efficient system that supports both teaching and learning. It is also a universal language transcending geographic, cultural and professional barriers. Technology enhanced learning can accommodate the diverse learning styles of students and enable them to work in ways that are not possible in conventional classroom instruction, e.g. flexible learning, personalized pacing etc. Technology can improve educational productivity by accelerating the rate of learning because of absence of time boundaries and can thus utilize teacher time better.   

Beyond direct classroom applications, technology can help the teacher communicate with students and parents on a continuous basis, and this in turn creates a teacher-student-parent triad partnership that can further academic causes. Committed teachers can, through newsletters, announcements, virtual tests and assignments, calendars, discussions and tips extend learning beyond the classroom. Most of all, the introduction of technology into the classroom is a collective learning process; often the teacher becomes the learner and this can create better bonds within the classroom. Learning is fun at all ages, and showing students that the teacher is willing and excited to learn can do wonders to the child’s attitude towards education.

The use of technology in the classroom is not without its pitfalls; distraction and safety are issues that the teacher must be aware of and know how to handle. Teachers are responsible for maintaining a safe environment in their classroom and with the introduction of technology, safety goes beyond the four walls. Possible risks include exposure of students to objectionable and inappropriate material, cyberbullying and harassment. The teacher must be aware of possible security breaches and must be trained in ensuring safety of the students in classroom. Technology-induced distraction can be overcome by integrating the Internet with instruction, careful planning of the day’s lessons and a certain amount of monitoring. It is important for both teacher and student to know that technology is merely a tool to teach the curriculum and cannot replace the curriculum itself.

There are various types of technology that cater to individuals and groups, and synchronous and asynchronous educational activities that can be combined in the classroom as the teacher sees fit. Development of technology for the classroom must take into account teacher needs and is best when there is input from the teacher during development. While the teacher’s primary goal is indeed to teach the curriculum and not the technology, a complete disconnect between technology development and teacher use cannot serve any purpose.

The use of technology in the classroom can be a liberating experience for both teacher and student. In a tech-enabled classroom, the teacher becomes the coordinator, or even partner, in learning rather than the traditional “foster helicopter parent”. Such a shift in teaching style can indeed move the focus from the teacher to the student and expand learning from its traditional confines. 

This is a copy of the latest Mobicip Newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

Photo credit: Kathy Cassidy / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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