After 168 days and 12 hours at sea, a small sailboat built by high school students in Kennebunk washed ashore in Scotland after traveling thousands of miles. The boat had sailed across the Atlantic, then up and down the coasts of Portugal, Spain and Ireland before it was discovered Friday by a pair of Canadian tourists exploring a beach on a remote Scottish island.
“It really was a crazy journey,” said Leia Lowery, the director of education for the Kennebunk Conservation Trust who worked with the students who built the boat and documented its journey on Twitter.
The 5-foot boat washed up on Balivanich Airport Beach on the island of Benbecula, where it was found Friday by John and Angelika Dawson of British Columbia as they were walking their dog. The couple notified local police, who called the Scottish coast guard.
At first, no one quite knew what to make of the boat, which is covered with stickers from Maine groups and businesses. The blue and white sail is a bit tattered and the underside of the boat is covered in mussels, but the solar panel, camera and sensors appear to be undamaged. Even the tiny Lego pirate that had been the students’ mascot while they built the boat survived the journey intact.
“Everyone was really excited to hear it was in pretty good shape,” said Ed Sharood, a teacher who worked with the students to build the boat and who informed them of its discovery via text message and email. Some students who had doubted the boat could make it were a bit surprised, he said.
After determining the boat was not hazardous, the Scottish coast guard moved it to a secure location while officials tried to contact the owner, according to a Facebook post from the HM Coastguard Benbecula. In an update, the HM Coastguard Benbecula said the boat has been handed over to Mari Morrison, a primary school teacher from North Uist. Morrison had previously been involved with the rescue and repair of a similar mini boat that landed in Scotland in 2016.
The boat project is part of an ongoing partnership between the students in the Kennebunk High School Alternative Education program and the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. The trust bought the kit to make the boat from Belfast-based Educational Passages using an $1,800 grant from San Francisco-based RSF Social Finance.
Even the Lego pirate on the boat launched by high school students in Kennebunk survived the transatlantic journey to Scotland. Photo courtesy of John and Angelika Dawson
Seven students from the high school program teamed up with the trust and The Landing School in Arundel to construct the 5-foot self-steering boat that is powered solely by wind and currents. Inside the boat – named “The Little Boat That Could” by students – is a waterproof pod that includes a chip that should have collected data from the sensors, along with information about the alternative education program, Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and items that tell about life in Maine.
Kristen Cofferen, one of the students working on the project, suggested the boat’s name after a classmate expressed skepticism that it would make it across an ocean.
“We thought it would be a good opportunity to engage ourselves,” Cofferen said in December when the students were finishing up the project.
Students in the alternative education program take classes for the first couple of hours each day, then spend the rest of the school day in the community working on projects and learning about career opportunities. There are seven students in the program, which launched in 2012 to serve kids who weren’t finding success in traditional classrooms.
Students handed the boat over to Educational Passages on Dec. 29 and it was launched near Georges Bank on Jan. 2 by a fishing vessel from the Portland Fish Exchange.
The students and their teacher tracked the boat on the Educational Passages website, following its progress as it initially made a beeline for Spain before veering south toward Morocco. It came within 100 miles of Portugal, then headed back out to sea.
“We laughed and said we’re the only ones who would send out a boat that would boomerang right back home,” Lowery said.
The Maine students had hoped their boat would make it to across the Atlantic and that they’d be able to connect with students in another country via Skype. Now that Sharood and Jacqui Holmes, the other teacher working with the students, are in touch with the Scottish teacher, they’re planning to make that happen.
Sharood said Morrison’s students have been studying the ocean. During an assembly celebrating the last day of school Friday, Morrison plans to bring out “The Little Boat That Could” to show students. Sharood and Holmes plan to coordinate with Morrison to start a conversation between students in Maine and Scotland.
Sharood thinks his students will have lots of questions about Scottish culture and life on Benbecula, an island off the west coast of Scotland with about 1,300 people. He said they’ll work with the Scottish teacher and students to retrieve the data and make repairs so “The Little Boat That Could” can be relaunched. Sharood and Lowery also are dreaming of finding a way to get the Kennebunk students to Scotland for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to learn about the island where their boat made landfall.
“So many of (our students) thought the boat wasn’t going anywhere. They ironically named it ‘The Little Boat That Could,’” Lowery said. “I wish we could get these kids over there to teach those kids how to fix the boat and relaunch it.”
“Everything that is old is new again!” Daniel Rabuzzi exclaims, his eyes light up with excitement that seems to match the glowing, handcrafted flower pinned on his vest. He’s talking about the next wave of the Maker Movement, big news buzzing amongst makers in the inner circle.
Rabuzzi is the executive director of Mouse, a national nonprofit that encourages students to create with technology. The organization, now celebrating 20 years in operation, is part of the worldwide Maker Movement, encouraging students to get creative (and messy) when using technology to build things. Rabuzzi calls his work at Mouse “shop and home economics for the 21st century,” and his students “digital blacksmiths.”
Rabuzzi, like many experts within the Maker Movement, believes the heavy emphasis on standardized testing in schools, which has pushed the arts, shop and home economics into the shadows, is what spurred outside groups like Mouse to begin hosting alternative makerspaces for students. Throughout the years, Rabuzzi has seen the movement evolve. Most recently, he’s seen technology become more directly integrated with making, along with an uptick of women in leadership.
“It can’t just be the boys tinkering in the basement anymore,” says Rabuzzi, pointing to women in maker leadership, like littleBits founder Ayah Bdeir, who encouraged more young girls to enter the space.
Now Rabuzzi, along with makers, investors, and journalists, are buzzing about what they describe as the next wave of making: the Maker economy, which many believe will transform manufacturing the United States by integrating with the Internet of Things (IOT), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).
“There is all this talk about bringing back manufacturing to America, and I feel like this is going to come back on a local level,” says Juan Garzon, former Mouse student, who started his hardware company. He believes that personalized goods designed and manufactured by Makers through mediums like 3D printing will drive the return of domestic manufacturing.
“The future of manufacturing is not a big plant, but someone designing what they want and developing custom made things. It sounds so sci-fi, but it is within my lifetime,” continues Garzon.
News reports from Chicago Inno show that custom manufacturing designed by makers might be an active part of the domestic economy sooner than Garzon realizes. Inno reports that several Maker-entrepreneur spaces are popping up in the city with hopes to develop places where creators can build scalable products to be manufactured, creating new businesses.
For many, talk of 3D printing and merging Making with AI are bleeding edge topics, far away from today’s realities. But for technologists supporting Mouse, this the world they want to prepare students to be a part of.
Mouse students at the 20th-anniversary party are already getting started. At the event, some students proudly showed off projects they designed in 3D spaces that can be viewed and altered in virtual reality. Many of the projects students worked on required a mixture of creativity, technical skills and awareness of the societal needs. Displays showcasing green energy projects along with digitalized wearable technology for persons with disabilities were all throughout the room. Still, Rabuzzi imagines more.
He hopes that through making, students can test the limits of new technologies and do good for the society. “How do we use Alexa and Siri in the Maker Movement?” Rabuzzi wonders aloud. He describes his idea of using AI to support students in designing, prototyping and creating new learning pathways in future, but admits that he doesn’t have the funding or technology for such ambitious projects now. He hopes that some of Mouse’s corporate funding partners are interested in supporting the endeavors.
“We are preparing today’s young people for a cyber future,” he explains. “In the old days if you had a clever idea you had to go into a big company to get it done. Now you can make it yourself.”
CHICAGO — The sixth graders at Newton Bateman, a public elementary school here with a classic red brick facade, know the Google drill.
In a social-science class last year, the students each grabbed a Google-powered laptop. They opened Google Classroom, an app where teachers make assignments. Then they clicked on Google Docs, a writing program, and began composing essays.
Looking up from her laptop, Masuma Khan, then 11 years old, said her essay explored how schooling in ancient Athens differed from her own. “Back then, they had wooden tablets and they had to take all of their notes on it,” she said. “Nowadays, we can just do it in Google Docs.”
Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the United States, with about 381,000 students, is at the forefront of a profound shift in American education: the Googlification of the classroom.
In the space of just five years, Google has helped upend the sales methods companies use to place their products in classrooms. It has enlisted teachers and administrators to promote Google’s products to other schools. It has directly reached out to educators to test its products — effectively bypassing senior district officials. And it has outmaneuvered Apple and Microsoft with a powerful combination of low-cost laptops, called Chromebooks, and free classroom apps.
Today, more than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs, the company said. And Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, are now a powerhouse in America’s schools. Today they account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.
“Between the fall of 2012 and now, Google went from an interesting possibility to the dominant way that schools around the country” teach students to find information, create documents and turn them in, said Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. “Google established itself as a fact in schools.”
In doing so, Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas. It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.
The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”
Schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers.
Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable.
Every year, several million American students graduate from high school. And not only does Google make it easy for those who have school Google accounts to upload their trove of school Gmail, Docs and other files to regular Google consumer accounts — but schools encourage them to do so. This month, for instance, Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo., sent out a notice urging seniors to “make sure” they convert their school account “to a personal Gmail account.”
That doesn’t sit well with some parents. They warn that Google could profit by using personal details from their children’s school email to build more powerful marketing profiles of them as young adults.
“My concern is that they are working on developing a profile of this child that, when they hit maturity, they are able to create a better profile,” said David Barsotti, an information technology project manager in the Chicago area whose daughter uses Google tools in elementary school. “That is a problem, in my opinion.”
Google, a unit of the $652 billion Alphabet, is the latest big contender in a decades-old battle among tech companies to hook students as future customers. “If you get someone on your operating system early, then you get that loyalty early, and potentially for life,” said Mike Fisher, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a research company.
Google captured these next-generation users so quickly by outpacing its rivals in both educational product development and marketing.
In 2013, while other tech firms seemed largely content to sell their existing consumer and business offerings to schools, Mr. Rochelle, a co-developer of Google Docs, set up a team at Google to create apps specifically for schools.
To spread those tools, Jaime Casap, Google’s global education evangelist, began traveling around the country with a motivational message: Rather than tout specific Google products, Mr. Casap told educators that they could improve their students’ college and career prospects by creatively using online tools.
“Teachers really helped to drive adoption of Google in the classroom, while Apple and Microsoft continued to leverage traditional sales channels,” said Phillip DiBartolo, the chief information officer of Chicago Public Schools.
But that also caused problems in Chicago and another district when Google went looking for teachers to try a new app — effectively bypassing district administrators. In both cases, Google found itself reined in.
Unlike Apple or Microsoft, which make money primarily by selling devices or software services, Google derives most of its revenue from online advertising — much of it targeted through sophisticated use of people’s data. Questions about how Google might use data gleaned from students’ online activities have dogged the company for years.
“Unless we know what is collected, why it is collected, how it is used and a review of it is possible, we can never understand with certainty how this information could be used to help or hurt a kid,” said Bill Fitzgerald of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group, who vets the security and privacy of classroom apps.
Google declined to provide a breakdown of the exact details the company collects from student use of its services. Bram Bout, director of Google’s education unit, pointed to a Google privacy notice listing the categories of information that the company’s education services collect, like location data and “details of how a user used our service.”
Mr. Bout said that student data in Google’s core education services (including Gmail, Calendar and Docs) “is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email.” These services do not show ads, he said, and “do not use personal data resulting from use of these services to target ads.”
Some parents, school administrators and privacy advocates believe that’s not enough. They say Google should be more forthcoming about the details it collects about students, why it collects them and how it uses them.
“If my daughter came home and logged on to Google Docs on my computer at home, they’ll know it was now coming from this address,” said Mr. Barsotti, the Chicago-area project manager. “If this is truly for educational purposes, what is their business model and why do they need to collect that?”
A Campus Marketing Machine
Mr. Casap, the Google education evangelist, likes to recount Google’s emergence as an education powerhouse as a story of lucky coincidences. The first occurred in 2006 when the company hired him to develop new business at its office on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mr. Casap quickly persuaded university officials to scrap their costly internal email service (an unusual move at the time) and replace it with a free version of the Gmail-and-Docs package that Google had been selling to companies. In one semester, the vast majority of the university’s approximately 65,000 students signed up.
And a new Google business was born.
Mr. Casap then invited university officials on a road show to share their success story with other schools. “It caused a firestorm,” Mr. Casap said. Northwestern University, the University of Southern California and many others followed.
This became Google’s education marketing playbook: Woo school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. Then enlist schools to market to other schools, holding up early adopters as forward thinkers among their peers.
The strategy proved so successful in higher education that Mr. Casap decided to try it with public schools.
As it happened, officials at the Oregon Department of Education were looking to help local schools cut their email costs, said Steve Nelson, a former department official. In 2010, the state officially made Google’s education apps available to its school districts.
“That caused the same kind of cascade,” Mr. Casap said. School districts around the country began contacting him, and he referred them to Mr. Nelson, who related Oregon’s experience with Google’s apps.
By then, Google was developing a growth strategy aimed at teachers — the gatekeepers to the classroom — who could influence the administrators who make technology decisions. “The driving force tends to be the pedagogical side,” Mr. Bout, the Google education executive, said. “That is something we really embraced.”
Google set up dozens of online communities, called Google Educator Groups, where teachers could swap ideas for using its tech. It started training programs with names like Certified Innovator to credential teachers who wanted to establish their expertise in Google’s tools or teach their peers to use them.
Although business practices like encouraging educators to spread the word to their peers have become commonplace among education technology firms, Google has successfully deployed these techniques on a such a large scale that some critics say the company has co-opted public school employees to gain market dominance.
“Companies are exploiting the education space for sales and public good will,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm. Parents and educators should be questioning Google’s pervasiveness in schools, he added, and examining “how those in the public sector are carrying the message of Google branding and marketing.”
Mr. Bout of Google disagreed, saying that the company’s outreach to educators was not a marketing exercise. Rather, he said, it was an effort to improve education by helping teachers learn directly from their peers how to most effectively use Google’s tools.
“We help to amplify the stories and voices of educators who have lessons learned,” he said, “because it can be challenging for educators to find ways to share with each other.”
At Chicago Public Schools, the teacher-centric strategy played out almost perfectly.
In 2012, Jennie Magiera, then a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago, wanted her students to use Google Docs, which enables multiple people to work simultaneously in the same document. Because the district wasn’t yet using Google’s apps, she said, she independently set up six consumer accounts for her class.
“We were bootlegging using Google apps,” Ms. Magiera recalled in a phone interview. “I just knew I needed my kids to collaborate,” she said, touching on one of Google’s own main arguments for its products.
Chicago administrators like Lachlan Tidmarsh, then the school district’s chief information officer, visited Ms. Magiera’s classroom to observe. Mr. Tidmarsh said he concluded that if individual teachers were already using Google’s services, the district should officially adopt the platform — to make sure, for instance, that younger children couldn’t email with strangers.
Ms. Magiera’s advocacy came at an ideal moment. Chicago Public Schools was looking to trim the $2 million a year it was spending on Microsoft Exchange and another email service; it had opened bidding for a less expensive program.
A committee that included administrators familiar with Microsoft, as well as Ms. Magiera, reviewed presentations from several companies. In March 2012, the district chose Google.
Microsoft executives were disappointed, said Edward Wagner, the district’s director of infrastructure services. But at that time, Mr. Wagner said, Microsoft had neither a free array of web-based products for schools on par with Google’s nor Google’s level of grass-roots classroom support. “They didn’t have the teachers and the principals,” he said.
Quickly, though, a data privacy and security issue emerged, exposing a culture clash between Google’s business practices and the values of a major school district.
In interviews, Chicago administrators said they asked Google to sign a contract agreeing, among other things, to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law permits federally funded educational institutions to share students’ personally identifiable information with certain school vendors, provided those companies use that information only for school purposes.
Instead, Google initially proposed abiding by its own company policies, Mr. Wagner said, and followed up by emailing links to those policies — terms that the company could change at any time. “Our lawyers were a little bit apoplectic when they were given links to security things,” Mr. Wagner said. “I don’t want a link that can change.”
Mr. Nelson, the former education official in Oregon, reported similar frustrations over student privacy when his state negotiated a contract with Google. “That’s why it took 16 months,” he said.
Mr. Bout of Google said that the tech company had “always taken the compliance needs of our education users seriously.” He added that “even early versions” of the company’s agreements for its education apps had “addressed” the federal education privacy law.
Today, Google’s standard agreements with schools for its education apps include a commitment to comply with that law.
Since adopting Google apps, Chicago schools have saved about $1.6 million annually on email and related costs, a district spokesman said.
Google then enlisted Mr. Tidmarsh, who now works in technology at a health care company, to share his enthusiasm by contributing to a Google blog. In the post, Mr. Tidmarsh described creating 270,000 school Google accounts. “It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen,” he wrote. (He did not earn a fee for the blog post, he said.)
“We were always enthusiastic to tell the Google story,” Mr. Tidmarsh said. “I would like to think dozens of school districts switched, based on our success.”
Ms. Magiera, now the chief innovation officer for another district, also helped Google’s cause. In 2012, as part of her effort to become a Google Certified Innovator in education, she said, she came up with the idea of having Chicago Public Schools hold a free conference — called Googlepalooza — to train teachers on Google’s tools. The annual event, co-sponsored by Google, now draws several thousand educators from the Chicago area, as well as a few from neighboring states.
(Ms. Magiera has since occasionally worked as a paid speaker for education technology organizations that train teachers on Google’s tools.)
“You can see it radiate out from certain geographic hubs, and that is very deliberate,” Mr. Bout said of Google’s growth strategy for education. “We are taking a very geographic approach because we know it works.”
Chromebooks Find an Audience
By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.
But there was one interested audience: public schools. In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet Mr. Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.
Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.
His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.
In the audience, Jason Markey, principal of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., was converted. Students in his blue-collar district near O’Hare International Airport faced similar struggles. On the spot, Mr. Markey said, he abandoned his previous plans to buy Microsoft Windows laptops for 3,500 high school students. Now he wanted Chromebooks for them instead.
“I went up to Jaime immediately after the presentation and said, ‘Are you guys ready to ship these?’” Mr. Markey said.
Then Mr. Markey went back to his district to inform administrators and teachers that he wanted to order an unproven device that most of them had never heard of. “It was a tough announcement to make,” he conceded.
It was an opportune moment for Google to pitch lower-cost laptops to schools. Districts administering new online standardized tests needed laptops for students to take them on. And Google offered a robust way for school districts to manage thousands of computers online: They could lock Chromebooks remotely so that students could not search the web during tests, or disable missing ones.
Another attraction: The Chromebook’s cloud-storage approach made sharing among students easier. They could gain access to their documents no matter which Chromebook they used.
“That is one of the big reasons we took off in education,” said Rajen Sheth, who oversees Google’s Chromebook business. “In less than 10 seconds, a student can grab a Chromebook and be off and running.”
The Chromebook’s price and usability fit neatly into Mr. Casap’s argument that, for students, access to technology was an issue of fairness. “I didn’t want us to be vendors in the space,” he said of Google’s education philosophy in an interview last year at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Tex. “I wanted us to be thought leaders, to have a point of view.”
As he spoke, a group of students trooped past wearing purple superhero capes emblazoned with the logo for Microsoft OneNote, a rival classroom service. Spotting the capes, Mr. Casap said, “We don’t do things like that.” He added dryly, “I love gimmicks.”
Some critics, though, contend that the equity argument for technology is itself a gimmick that promotes a self-serving Silicon Valley agenda: playing on educators’ altruism to get schools to buy into laptops and apps.
“It centers learning on technology, not students,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the learning app analyst. “It is a very narrow lens on equity that leaves out things like student-teacher ratios.”
(Mr. Casap said he would not advise school districts with deficiencies in areas like teaching or student support services to invest first in classroom technology.)
Mr. Markey, the East Leyden High School principal, had another equity concern. About 20 percent of his students lacked home internet access, he said. How would they do their homework on a Chromebook, which required a connection?
Google was already working on offline capabilities, Mr. Casap said, and ultimately modified its education apps so that students could take their work home on Chromebooks, then upload homework the next day using school Wi-Fi.
Soon, so many educators were visiting Leyden to see its technology setup that the school district started an annual conference to host them. Last summer, Mr. Casap gave the keynote address. And Mr. Markey now occasionally works as a paid speaker for EdTechTeam, a company that holds Google boot camps for teachers.
In 2016, Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States, up from less than 1 percent in 2012, according to Futuresource Consulting, the research firm. Google does not make money directly from Chromebooks — which are manufactured by Samsung, Acer and other companies — but it does charge school districts a management service fee of $30 per device. Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million on 134,000 Chromebooks.
“I don’t think I can ever remember when a specific device and platform has taken off so quickly across different kinds of schools,” said David Andrade, a K-12 education strategist at CDW-G, a leading Chromebook dealer.
A ‘Mission Control’ App
In 2014, Google’s education juggernaut hit a speed bump in Chicago Public Schools. The culture clash illuminated profound differences between Google, a build-it-first-and-tweak-it-later Silicon Valley company, and a large, bureaucratic school district with student-protection rules to uphold.
Google had hoped that Chicago would become an early adopter of Google Classroom, its new app to help teachers take attendance, assign homework and do other tasks. In August 2014, a Google team flew to Chicago to demo Classroom at Googlepalooza, the school district’s annual teacher conference.
At the time, she was the school system’s director of technology change management. Early on, she said, Google had invited teachers to try an initial version of Classroom, without first contacting the school district’s technology administrators — effectively making a district policy decision from the outside. Now Google wanted Chicago Public Schools to switch on the app districtwide, she said, before determining whether it complied with local student-protection policies.
“You can’t just hand out product and hope it will work in the classroom,” Ms. Hahn said. “You have to work with the districts to make sure that you are keeping the kids and the teachers safe.”
Jim Siegl, technology architect for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 10th-largest school district, reported a similar experience.
He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.
Mr. Siegl added that Google did not tell him which, or even how many, Fairfax teachers the company had enlisted to try out the Classroom app. And by the time he was able to shut off the app, Mr. Siegl said, teachers had already set up virtual classrooms on the service and started using it with their students.
He said he complained to Google.
“Because of who they are and how sprawling the ecosystem is,” Mr. Siegl said, “they are held up and need to meet a higher standard than any other vendor schools deal with.”
In an emailed statement, Mr. Bout said of the company’s core education services, “In all cases, the use of these services is tied to the approval of an administrator who is responsible for overseeing a school’s domain.”
Classroom was the brainchild of Mr. Rochelle, who started Google’s education apps group, and Zach Yeskel, a Google product manager and former high school math teacher. They said they envisioned the app as a kind of “mission control” dashboard where teachers could more efficiently manage tasks like assigning and correcting homework, freeing teachers to spend more time with students. To create the app, they collaborated closely with teachers.
In May 2014, Google posted an announcement online, asking for volunteers to beta-test Classroom. More than 100,000 teachers worldwide responded, the company said, illustrating Google’s power to rapidly stoke demand among educators. That August, Google made Classroom available to schools.
“They developed a real momentum with teachers,” said Mr. Fisher of Futuresource Consulting. “Google Classroom was key to that.”
That was too fast for Chicago Public Schools.
Administrators there wanted to test Classroom first to make sure it complied with district policies and fit their teachers’ needs. So they set up a pilot program, involving about 275 teachers and several thousand students, to run for the entire school year. Every month, Ms. Hahn said, she collected teachers’ feedback and sent it to Google.
“We wanted to help them do it right,” Ms. Hahn said.
One immediate problem administrators identified: School board policy required employees to keep records of cyberbullying and other problematic comments. But Classroom initially did not do that. If a student wrote something offensive and a teacher deleted it, there was no archive.
“It took us a long time to get them to do it,” Ms. Hahn said. She added, “Unfortunately, there were things that a district of our size needed that Google did not understand.”
Google eventually added an archiving feature. The next fall, the Chicago district switched on Classroom. Teachers there later vetted other Google products, effectively becoming a test lab for the company. “We have said to Google many times, ‘If it works in Chicago, it will work anywhere,’” Ms. Hahn said.
Mr. Bout of Google agreed, saying that Chicago Public Schools often made more stringent demands on Google than other school districts did.
“If you can get it in Chicago, it’s sort of like you have passed a lot of tests,” Mr. Bout said, “and then you can probably get it into any school in the country.”
The relationship has benefited Chicago Public Schools, too.
The fact that Chicago schools were vetting Google products, like the Classroom app, gave administrators a welcome counternarrative of the district’s altruistically helping Google debug its products for schools across the country. And it remains a good story even as the district now faces a financial crisis.
Today, about 15 million primary- and secondary-school students in the United States use Classroom, Google said.
Google’s ability to test its products on such a monumental scale has stoked concerns about whether the tech giant is exploiting public-school teachers and students for free labor. “It’s a private company very creatively using public resources — in this instance, teachers’ time and expertise — to build new markets at low cost,” said Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.
Mr. Rochelle, the Google executive, said that it was important for the company to have large, diverse sets of educational users giving feedback — otherwise it might develop products that worked for only a few of them.
“Our goal is to build products that help educators and students,” Mr. Rochelle said. “Teachers tell us they appreciate the opportunity to get involved early and help shape our products to meet their needs.”
Ms. Hahn, who now works for the same health care company as Mr. Tidmarsh, agrees. She said that schools were getting something substantive in return from Google, something they had rarely received from other tech companies: quick product improvements that responded to teachers’ feedback.
After the Chicago schools tested Classroom, she said, members of Google’s education team started directly contacting her when they were seeking educators to try out the company’s innovations. “They no longer just turn stuff on,” she said. “They come to us first.”
The logical response seems to be to educate people differently, so they’re prepared to work alongside the robots or do the jobs that machines can’t. But how to do that, and whether training can outpace automation, are open questions.
Pew Research Center and Elon University surveyed 1,408 people who work in technology and education to find out if they think new schooling will emerge in the next decade to successfully train workers for the future. Two-thirds said yes; the rest said no. Following are questions about what’s next for workers, and answers based on the survey responses.
How do we educate people for an automated world?
People still need to learn skills, the respondents said, but they will do that continuously over their careers. In school, the most important thing they can learn is how to learn.
At universities, “people learn how to approach new things, ask questions and find answers, deal with new situations,” wrote Uta Russmann, a professor of communications at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. “All this is needed to adjust to ongoing changes in work life. Special skills for a particular job will be learned on the job.”
Schools will also need to teach traits that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. The problem, many respondents said, is that these are not necessarily easy to teach.
“Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold,” wrote Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice, which provides research on the new economy.
Can we change education fast enough to outpace the machines?
About two-thirds of the respondents thought it could be done in the next decade; the rest thought that education reform takes too much time, money and political will, and that automation is moving too quickly.
“I have complete faith in the ability to identify job gaps and develop educational tools to address those gaps,” wrote Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data and Society, a research institute. “I have zero confidence in us having the political will to address the socioeconomic factors that are underpinning skill training.”
Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, wrote, “Barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue and muscle formation, there will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people.”
Will college degrees still be important?
College is more valuable than ever, research shows. The jobs that are still relatively safe from automation require higher education, as well as interpersonal skills fostered by living with other students.
“Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence,” said Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen, a policy research firm.
But many survey respondents said a degree was not enough — or not always the best choice, especially given its price tag. Many of them expect more emphasis on certificates or badges, earned from online courses or workshops, even for college graduates.
One potential future, said David Karger, a professor of computer science at M.I.T., would be for faculty at top universities to teach online and for mid-tier universities to “consist entirely of a cadre of teaching assistants who provide support for the students.”
Employers will also place more value on on-the-job learning, many respondents said, such as apprenticeships or on-demand trainings at workplaces. Portfolios of work are becoming more important than résumés.
“Résumés simply are too two-dimensional to properly communicate someone’s skill set,” wrote Meryl Krieger, a career specialist at Indiana University. “Three-dimensional materials — in essence, job reels that demonstrate expertise — will be the ultimate demonstration of an individual worker’s skills.”
What can workers do now to prepare?
Consider it part of your job description to keep learning, many respondents said — learn new skills on the job, take classes, teach yourself new things.
Focus on learning how to do tasks that still need humans, said Judith Donath of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society: teaching and caregiving; building and repairing; and researching and evaluating.
The problem is that not everyone is cut out for independent learning, which takes a lot of drive and discipline. People who are suited for it tend to come from privileged backgrounds, with a good education and supportive parents, said Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a media historian at Muhlenberg College. “The fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required in the new work force means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future,” she said.
Even if we do all these things, will there be enough jobs?
Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said he was optimistic about the future of work as long as people learned technological skills: “People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central.”
But the third of respondents who were pessimistic about the future of education reform said it won’t matter if there are no jobs to train for.
“The ‘jobs of the future’ are likely to be performed by robots,” said Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast, an email company. “The question isn’t how to train people for nonexistent jobs. It’s how to share the wealth in a world where we don’t need most people to work.”
Debunking the most common media myths and truths with real research and practical advice.By Sierra Filucci3/28/2017
Parents have a lot of responsibility. Mainly, keep the kid alive. Next, try to raise a decent human being. And the messages about media and tech start almost from the moment they’re born: TV will rot your kid’s brain! Video games are evil! Kids don’t know how to have conversations anymore! It all boils down to the idea that too much media and tech will ruin your kid — or make them fat, dumb, and mean. But obviously that’s an oversimplification. The truth is more complicated — and a lot less scary.
Here we break down the scariest media and tech rumors and give you some solid research and simple, no-stress advice.
Rumor: TV rots kids’ brains.
Research says: No credible research exists that says screens cause any sort of damage to the brain. It’s pretty clear, though, that having a TV on in the background isn’t good for little kids. It’s been shown to reduce the amount of time kids play and the quality of that play. It also seems to be related to less parent-child talk and interaction, which can have a negative impact on kids’ language development. Television in the bedroom is also a no-no; research shows it affects the quality and amount of sleep kids get, which can affect learning, among other things.
Advice: Turn off the TV unless you’re actively watching it. And keep it out of sleeping areas. Play music — perhaps wordless — if you want some background noise. And set aside time each day, if possible, to actively play with little kids.
Rumor: Watching TV or playing video games makes kids fat.
Research says: Some research suggests a connection between watching TV and an increased body mass index. But the numbers seem to point to this being a result of kids being exposed to food advertising, not necessarily being couch potatoes.
Advice: Avoid commercials by using a DVR or choosing videos without ads. Also, teach kids to recognize advertisers’ tricks and marketing techniques, so when they see ads, they can evaluate them critically. Make sure kids get exercise every day, either at school or home. If kids can’t spend time outdoors, find ways to be physically active indoors (create obstacle courses; do kid “boot camps”) and choose active video games or find fun exercise apps or TV shows to enjoy together or for kids to enjoy on their own.
Rumor: Cell phone radiation causes cancer.
Research says: Lots of studies have been done, and the results are inconclusive. The research community is still investigating, but there is still no indication that cell phones cause cancer in humans.
Advice: Kids don’t talk on their phones very much — they’re more likely to text or use apps — so even if there were a credible connection between the radio waves emitted from phones and damage to the brain, most kids would be at little risk. If you want to be extra cautious, make sure they aren’t sleeping with their phones under their pillows (not a good idea anyway!).
Rumor: Kids use the internet/their phones too much — they’re addicted!
Research says: While plenty of research has been done to try to figure this out, the results are still pretty inconclusive, especially for kids. Certainly, studies show that kids feel addicted, but whether many are experiencing the symptoms of true addiction — interference with daily life, needing more to achieve the same feeling — is still up for debate. Also, no one has defined what “too much” time is.
Advice: Build as much balance into kids’ days and weeks as possible. That means aiming for a mix of screen and non-screen time that includes time with family and friends, reading, exercising, chores, outdoor play, and creative time. If kids seem to be suffering in some area — at school, with friends, with behavior at home — take a look at her daily and weekly activities and adjust accordingly.
Advice: Avoid games that are age-inappropriate, especially ones that combine violence with sex. Make media choices that reflect your family’s values; that can mean choosing nonviolent games, limiting the amount of time kids can play certain games, or playing along with kids to help guide them through iffy stuff. Also, as much as possible, limit other risk factors of aggression in kids’ lives.
Rumor: Kids don’t know how to have face-to-face conversations anymore.
Research says: Studies on this topic haven’t focused on kids yet, but that data is surely on the horizon. What we know says that many older adults think devices harm conversations, but younger adults aren’t as bothered. A couple studies have also found that the absence of devices (at summer camps or during one-on-one conversations) can inspire emotional awareness. What that means about the ability to have a conversation is unclear.
Advice: Make sure kids get experience having face-to-face conversations with family members, friends, and others, such as teachers, coaches, or clergy. Teach kids proper etiquette, including not staring at a phone while someone else is talking. Model the behavior you want to see. But also accept that digital communication is here to stay. Embrace it and use it with your kid. And don’t criticize kids for using it appropriately, even if it’s not your preferred method of communication.
Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women’s and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley…. Read mor
In “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” the course he helped conceive for nonmajors at the University of California, Berkeley, Daniel Garcia explains an all-important concept in computer science — abstraction — in terms of milkshakes.
“There is a reason when you go to the ‘Joy of Cooking’ and you want to make a strawberry milkshake, you don’t look under ‘strawberry milkshake,’ ” he said. Rather, there is a recipe for milkshakes that instructs you to add ice cream, milk and fruit of your choice. While earlier cookbooks may have had separate recipes for strawberry milkshakes, raspberry milkshakes and boysenberry milkshakes, eventually, he imagines, someone said, “Why don’t we collapse that into one milkshake recipe?”
“The idea of abstraction,” he said, “is to hide the details.” It requires recognizing patterns and distilling complexity into a precise, clear summary. It’s like the countdown to a space launch that runs through a checklist — life support, fuel, payload — in which each check represents perhaps 100 checks that have been performed.
Concealing layers of information makes it possible to get at the intersections of things, improving aspects of a complicated system without understanding and grappling with each part. Abstraction allows advances without redesigning from scratch.
It is a cool and useful idea that, along with other cool and useful computer science ideas, has people itching to know more. It’s obvious that computers have become indispensable problem-solving partners, not to mention personal companions. But it’s suddenly not enough to be a fluent user of software interfaces. Understanding what lies behind the computer’s seeming magic now seems crucial. In particular, “computational thinking” is captivating educators, from kindergarten teachers to college professors, offering a new language and orientation to tackle problems in other areas of life.
This promise — as well as a job market hungry for coding — has fed enrollments in classes like the one at Berkeley, taken by 500 students a year. Since 2011, the number of computer science majors has more than doubled, according to the Computing Research Association. At Stanford, Princeton and Tufts, computer science is now the most popular major. More striking, though, is the appeal among nonmajors. Between 2005 and 2015, enrollment of nonmajors in introductory, mid- and upper-level computer science courses grew by 177 percent, 251 percent and 143 percent, respectively.
In the fall, the College Board introduced a new Advanced Placement course, Computer Science Principles, focused not on learning to code but on using code to solve problems. And WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, is using National Science Foundation money to help develop a program for 3- to 5-year-olds in which four cartoon monkeys get into scrapes and then “get out of the messes by applying computational thinking,” said Marisa Wolsky, executive producer of children’s media. “We see it as a groundbreaking curriculum that is not being done yet.”
Computational thinking is not new. Seymour Papert, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and an M.I.T. professor, used the term in 1980 to envision how children could use computers to learn. But Jeannette M. Wing, in charge of basic research at Microsoft and former professor at Carnegie Mellon, gets credit for making it fashionable. In 2006, on the heels of the dot-com bust and plunging computer science enrollments, Dr. Wing wrote a trade journal piece, “Computational Thinking.” It was intended as a salve for a struggling field.
“Things were so bad that some universities were thinking of closing down computer science departments,” she recalled. Some now consider her article a manifesto for embracing a computing mind-set.
Like any big idea, there is disagreement about computational thinking — its broad usefulness as well as what fits in the circle. Skills typically include recognizing patterns and sequences, creating algorithms, devising tests for finding and fixing errors, reducing the general to the precise and expanding the precise to the general.
It requires reframing research, said Shriram Krishnamurthi, a computer science professor at Brown, so that “instead of formulating a question to a human being, I formulate a question to a data set.” For example, instead of asking if the media is biased toward liberals, pose the question as: Are liberals identified as liberal in major newspapers more often or less often than conservatives are identified as conservative?
Dr. Krishnamurthi helped create “Introduction to Computation for the Humanities and Social Sciences” more than a decade ago because he wanted students “early in their undergrad careers to learn a new mode of thinking that they could take back to their discipline.” Capped at 20 students, the course now has a waitlist of more than 100.
Just as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is drafted to explain politics and business, Dr. Wing argued for broad use of computer ideas. And not just for work. Applying computational thinking, “we can improve the efficiencies of our daily lives,” she said in an interview, “and make ourselves a little less stressed out.”
Computing practices like reformulating tough problems into ones we know how to solve, seeing trade-offs between time and space, and pipelining (allowing the next action in line to begin before the first completes the sequence) have many applications, she said.
Consider the buffet line. “When you go to a lunch buffet, you see the forks and knives are the first station,” she said. “I find that very annoying. They should be last. You shouldn’t have to balance your plate while you have your fork and knife.” Dr. Wing, who equates a child filling her backpack to caching (how computers retrieve and store information needed later), sees the buffet’s inefficiency as a failure to apply logical thinking and sequencing.
Computational thinking, she said, can aid a basic task like planning a trip — breaking it into booking flights, hotels, car rental — or be used “for something as complicated as health care or policy decision-making.” Identifying subproblems and describing their relationship to the larger problem allows for targeted work. “Once you have well-defined interfaces,” she said, “you can ignore the complexity of the rest of the problem.”
Can computational thinking make us better at work and life? Dr. Krishnamurthi is sometimes seduced. “Before I go grocery shopping, I sort my list by aisles in the store,” he said. Sharing the list on the app Trello, his family can “bucket sort” items by aisle (pasta and oils, canned goods, then baking and spices), optimizing their path through Whole Foods. It limits backtracking and reduces spontaneous, “i.e., junk,” purchases, he said.
Despite his chosen field, Dr. Krishnamurthi worries about the current cultural tendency to view computer science knowledge as supreme, better than that gained in other fields. Right now, he said, “we are just overly intoxicated with computer science.”
It is certainly worth wondering if some applications of computational thinking are trivial, unnecessary or a Stepford Wife-like abdication of devilishly random judgment.
Alexander Torres, a senior majoring in English at Stanford, has noted how the campus’s proximity to Google has lured all but the rare student to computer science courses. He’s a holdout. But “I don’t see myself as having skills missing,” he said. In earning his degree he has practiced critical thinking, problem solving, analysis and making logical arguments. “When you are analyzing a Dickinson or Whitman or Melville, you have to unpack that language and synthesize it back.”
There is no reliable research showing that computing makes one more creative or more able to problem-solve. It won’t make you better at something unless that something is explicitly taught, said Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who studies computing in education. “You can’t prove a negative,” he said, but in decades of research no one has found that skills automatically transfer.
Still, he added, for the same reasons people should understand biology, chemistry or physics, “it makes a lot of sense to understand computing in our lives.” Increasing numbers of people must program in their jobs, even if it’s just Microsoft Excel. “Solving problems with computers happens to all of us every day,” he said. How to make the skills available broadly is “an interesting challenge.”
“It’s like being a diplomat and learning Spanish; I feel like it’s essential,” said Greer Brigham, a Brown freshman who plans to major in political science. He’s taking the course designed by Dr. Krishnamurthi, which this term is being taught by a graduate student in robotics named Stephen Brawner.
On a March morning at the Brown computer science center, Mr. Brawner projected a student’s homework assignment on the screen. Did anyone notice a problem? Nary a humanities hand was raised. Finally, a young woman suggested “centimeters” and “kilograms” could be abbreviated. Fine, but not enough.
Mr. Brawner broke the silence and pointed out long lines of code reaching the far side of the screen. With a practiced flurry, he inserted backslashes and hit “return” repeatedly, which drew the symbols into a neat block. It may all be directions to a machine, but computer scientists care a great deal about visual elegance. As Mr. Brawner cut out repeated instructions, he shared that “whenever we define a constant, we want that at the top of our code.” He then explained the new assignment: write a program to play “rock, paper, scissors” against a computer.
Mili Mitra, a junior majoring in public policy and economics who sat with a MacBook on her lap, would not have considered this class a year ago. But seeing group research projects always being handed off to someone with computing knowledge, she decided that she “didn’t want to keep passing them along.” She has learned to write basic code and fetch data sets through the internet to analyze things she’s interested in, such as how geographic proximity shapes voting patterns in the United Nations General Assembly.
Despite finding interactions with a computer much like “explaining things to a toddler,” Ms. Mitra credits the class for instilling the habit of “going step by step and building a solution.” She admits to being an impatient learner: “I jump ahead. In C.S. you don’t have a choice. If you miss a step, you mess up everything.”
Just as children are drilled on the scientific method — turn observations into a hypothesis, design a control group, do an experiment to test your theory — the basics of working with computers is being cast as a teachable blueprint. One thing making this possible is that communicating with computers has become easier.
“Block” programming languages like Scratch, released by the M.I.T. Media Lab a decade ago, hide text strings that look like computer keys run amok. That makes coding look less scary. Instead of keyboard letters and symbols, you might select from a menu and drag a color-coded block that says “say ( ) for ( ) secs” or “play note ( ) for ( ) beats.” The colors and shapes correspond to categories like “sound” or “motion”; the blocks can be fit together like stacked puzzle pieces to order instructions. Students use this to, say, design a game.
One need not be a digital Dr. Doolittle, fluent in hard-core programming languages like Java or Python, to code. Block languages cut out the need to memorize commands, which vary depending on the computer language, because the block “is read just the way you think about it,” Dr. Garcia said. Students in his Berkeley course use the block language Snap! for assignments — he doesn’t teach Python until the last two weeks, and then just so they can take higher-level courses. “We tell them, ‘You already know how to program,’ ” he said, because the steps are the same.
Computer Science A, which teaches Java, is the fastest-growing Advanced Placement course. (The number of students taking the exam in 2016 rose 18 percent over 2015 and nearly tripled in a decade.) But professors complained that “Java was not the right way” to attract a diverse group of students, said Trevor Packer, head of the A.P. program, so a new course was developed.
The course, Computer Science Principles, is modeled on college versions for nonmajors. It lets teachers pick any coding language and has a gentler vibe. There is an exam, but students also submit projects “more similar to a studio art portfolio,” Mr. Packer said. The course covers working with data and understanding the internet and cyber security, and it teaches “transferable skills,” he said, like formulating precise questions. That’s a departure from what the College Board found in many high schools: “They were learning how to keyboard, how to use Microsoft applications.” The goal is that the new course will be offered in every high school in the country.
President Obama’s “Computer Science for All” initiative, officially launched last year, resulted in educators, lawmakers and computer science advocates spreading the gospel of coding. It also nudged more states to count computer science toward high school graduation requirements. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia now do, up from 12 in 2013, according to Code.org. It’s what Dr. Wing had hoped for when she advocated in her 2006 article that, along with reading, writing and arithmetic “we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.”
In an airy kindergarten classroom at Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, in the Tufts University Department of Child Study and Human Development, children program with actual blocks. Marina Umaschi Bers, a child development and computer science professor, created wooden blocks that bear bar codes with instructions such as “forward,” “spin” and “shake” that are used to program robots — small, wheeled carts with built-in scanners — by sequencing the blocks, then scanning them. Each “program” starts with a green “begin” block and finishes with a red “end.”
Coding for the youngest students has become the trendy pedagogy, with plentiful toys and apps like Dr. Bers’s blocks. Dr. Bers, who with M.I.T. collaborators developed the block language ScratchJr, is evangelical about coding. Learning the language of machines, she said, is as basic as writing is to being proficient in a foreign language. “You are able to write a love poem, you are able to write a birthday card, you are able to use language in many expressive ways,” she said. “You are not just reading; you are producing.”
Peer-reviewed studies by Dr. Bers show that after programming the robots, youngsters are better at sequencing picture stories. Anecdotally, she said, when they ask children to list steps for brushing teeth, they get just a few, “but after being exposed to this work, they’ll have 15 or 20 steps.”
Dr. Bers embeds computing in activities familiar to young children like inventing stories, doing dances and making art. At the Tufts school on a recent morning, children puzzled over a question: How does a robot celebrate spring?
“He’s going to dance, and then he will pretend that he is wet,” offered Hallel Cohen-Goldberg, a kindergartner with a mane of curls.
Solina Gonzalez, coloring a brown, blue and red circle with markers, peered soberly through pink-framed glasses: “He just does a lollipop dance.” Solina’s partner, Oisin Stephens, fretted about the root beer lollipop drawing she had taped to a block. “The robot won’t be able to read this,” he said. (It’s an invalid input.)
As they lurched around the carpet on their knees, the children executed computer science concepts like breaking instructions into sequenced commands, testing and debugging. One team used “repeat” and “stop repeat” blocks, forming a programming “loop,” a sequence of instructions that is continually repeated until a certain condition is reached.
My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.
Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:
Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
Are you near an ocean?
Is it morning or afternoon for you?
Are you in a big continent?
What is your main language?
I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.
This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.
As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.
Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School
A Window to the World
While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.
I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.
Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.
Virtual Field Trips
I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.
My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.
Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School
In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.
First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School
In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.
Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.
My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.
Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships. For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.
My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.
Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!
Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.
My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”
Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.