Back in the early eighties when computers started to become affordable enough to make their way into the classroom, the catchcry was that any teacher who could be replaced by a computer should be (replaced by a computer). Computers were seen as a convenient rote learning aid and self-marking multiple choice tester. It followed that learning experience on a computer was bound to be a poor quality learning. We’ve all seen “educational” computer programs that either failed to keep students interested, or more frequently engaged the students but had dubious educational value. More recently the obligatory requirement to ensure that students are computer literate can find students in computer labs frustrated by the slow speed of internet access shared across many users, or enhancing their “cut’n’paste” skills with powerpoint presentations.
Back in the 80′s most of us believed that a computer would not be able to beat a world master at chess, yet in 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue won against the then current world champion Garry Kasparov. Computer chips have kept on getting smaller and more powerful since then, and in August 2009 a mobile phone application, Pocket Fritz 4, won the Copa Mercosur tournament with 9 wins and 1 draw, giving it a stunningly impressive performance rating of 2938. (Only five players in the world have exceeded ratings higher than 2800.)
The point is that classroom computers are now far more capable than thirty years ago, and so is the range and quality of software available -much of it for $free thanks to creative commons licensing and open source software. Software is one area where free does not necessarily mean second-rate – there are programs available that challenge and engage students, and the quality is first class.
Here a few suggestions of programs that should be in every classroom. Try them out at home and then pester the IT department to install them on the school machines.
GeoGebra probably has no equal when it comes to mathematics. Every mathematics teacher owes it to themselves and their students to explore the potential of this program. Not only does it make charting equations a snap, but it is flexible enough for tasks ranging from demonstrating alternative Pythagorus proofs, to showing how to calculate the area of a circle. It lends itself equally well to simple counting and measuring activities for younger students. Teachers or students can use GeoGebra to make lessons on a particular topic, and the library of ready-made lessons is building rapidly. EDC in Maine have an impressive collection that can be used as java applets in web pages on their site, or the entire collection can be downloaded (see the links under Learning Tools at the bottom of the page.) Sometimes the educational value of Geogebra is it’s ability to interact with previously constructed visualisations, but it is as a platform allowing students to do their own mathematical explorations that this program really excels.
2. Google Sketchup
Google Sketchup is a mature 3D modelling program has been improving steadily since it’s prize winning days in 2000. Sketchup does an admirable job of making 3D modelling relatively easy and intuitive. When it was first released curved shapes had to be imported from other 3D modelling programs, but now it’s possible to make complex curved shapes. There is also an extensive range of free plugins that add all sorts of extra bells and whistles, from ray-tracing for photorealitic images with SU2POV to collisions and gravity effects with SketchyPhysics. While this is fairly advanced stuff and won’t suit all students those students requiring extension math and physics activities will probably thrive on it. There’s some great basic tutorials using Sketchup for various activities such as tesselations and platonic solids at 3DVinci. Woodworkers seem to be using Sketchup to model their projects before building them. It is also possible to import a location from google earth, so you can build you own dam, bridge or building in a realistic location.
3. Scratch and Etoys
Scratch (for younger children) and Etoys both come from the same stable and introduce children to simple programming. Scratch has a more active following, but more sophisticated programs are possible in Etoys, with activities as diverse as calculating the perimeter of a rectangle to the behaviour of ants following a pherome trail between their nest and food. The two programs share a number of common features which reduces the learning curve for mastering both programs. Both are free and open-source programs, and Etoys is already supplied on the XO computers, the $100 (ish) laptops being distributed to schools in Africa, Asia and South America.
EToys is the creation of Alan Kay, an award winning computer scientist with a keen interest in constructionist learning. He discusses how EToys can be used to teach mathematics and science at TED talks. (I’ve used the youtube version to skip past the preliminary 12 minutes.)
4. Project Presentation
Finally, as alternatives to power-point, Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3 (free!) with it’s ability to animate images by zooming, cropping, panning – all with a voice-over or music sound-track- can create dramatic presentations.