Not the Best, Not the Worst, and Getting the Job Done,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/18l7vwlkkqp45jpg.jpg

I was reading an article on Slashdot, by far my favorite website. The Slashdot posting linked to this original article, The programming talent myth. The article discusses this perception that programmers are either rock-star-ninjas or barely able to string to strings together (that was a programming joke by the way).

However, the author, who is very accomplished as a programmer and technology professional says something very compelling, and something very applicable to the whole of education,

If the only options are to be amazing or terrible, it leads people to believe they must be passionate about their career, that they must think about programming every waking moment of their life. If they take their eye off the ball even for a minute, they will slide right from amazing to terrible again leading people to be working crazy hours at work, to be constantly studying programming topics on their own time, and so on.

The truth is that programming isn’t a passion or a talent, says Edge, it is just a bunch of skills that can be learned. Programming isn’t even one thing, though people talk about it as if it were; it requires all sorts of skills and coding is just a small part of that.


I felt like I was a bad math student until I was almost 24 years old. I was so convinced I was bad at math, that I assumed I would be awful at programming. I would always work with technology that was based in or around some environment that aided me in development.

Then one day, as these stories go, I saw an interesting book, and randomly bought it. I literally judged the book by the cover. The book was titled Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem.

I began reading it, prepared to skip the math and get to the story. However, this was impossible, as the math was the story. I learned many interesting things. First off, all these “good at math guys” were normal people with mostly boring jobs who did math as a hobby. Second, I was able to actually understand and do the math. How was that possible? How could I, someone who had always struggled with math textbooks, read and understand this book about mathematics?

The reason I could understand it, was because I could read, and this book was written for normal people, unlike a textbook which is written to help teachers plan and meet standards. All I needed was to read the information in a different way, and then have the resources required to look-up things I was confused about.

Once this small break through happened, I started programming for real, and from scratch. Whenever I would go to online forums, I would feel like a fool because everyone seemed to be a rock-star-ninja. I did not let this bother me though, I persisted. I realized I would often only have time to program a few hours a week or sometimes only a few hours a month. I was not a programmer, I was a teacher with a full-time job. These forum ninjas were probably living the life of a programmer, and working on their skills full-time.

As time went on I wrote programs for operating systems, websites, DVDs, etc. I eventually started teaching programming, and often would question if I was doing the right thing being a teacher, while not being a rock-star-ninja. I found that when I have very talented students, they could easily learn programming faster than I could, so I would help them learn things like project management, documentation processes, and how to speak to people normally. I reminded them that in the real-world they would have clients, and those people would not want to deal with someone wearing all black and missing three days worth of showers.

For the majority of students, who were simply average at programming, I told them my story. I showed them things I had done in the past, and made it clear that they were in fact able to do more than I had done because they were starting younger. I expressed to them that having a good idea would drive their work and help them find people to assit them when needed.

This journey continues.  Programming turned into competitive robotics, and now in 2015, drones and 3D printing are the new challenges.

The key theme with the article that inspired me to write this, and my personal experience, is alienation. I was alienated, or isolated, from mathematics. I was separated at an early age by perception, from groups of people who were considered competent. This happened to me before high school. I believed firmly by year 7 that I was a bad math student. By all local measurements, I was a bad math student.

As I witness schools pushing to increase programming competency and standardized test scores in math, I begin to worry. I do not think any broad curricula, such as AP and IB, are as holistic as my programming curriculum. I think their learning objectives are driven by quantifiable outcomes, just like standardised math testing.

How can we measure all the pieces required to actually make something useful with measurement tools designed to evaluate a single answer? When do we start teaching students all the other skills they need to create, regardless of whether or not that creation is in code or in some other medium? Those skills being and not limited to, project management, planning, design,team work, testing, budgeting, etc.

If you did not know, the guy at the top is MacGyver. MacGyver’s character was always presented as a logical jack-of-all-trades who could find solutions to unpredictable scenarios. I would rather have more MacGyvers than rock-star-ninja’s, because MacGyver can adapt and learn and find new solutions to a larger variety of problems. MacGyver can be a programmer when needed, logistician, a statistician, a salesperson, an entrepreneur,etc.  I have a feeling MacGyver was a B-C student, who cared more about the why than the how. MacGyvers are going to understand the core and not just follow the common core.

Tony DePrato

Defining BYOD – Bring Your Own Device

Defining BYOD

Everyone always asks me if I have evidence that BYOD is a good model. I used to say, “Not really.” Now, I just ask a few questions in response to that question, such as:

  1. Do you want to trade cars?
  2. Do you want to trade phones?
  3. Do you want my laptop for the day?

No one has ever said YES to any of those questions. The reason being that ownership is an innately powerful concept. If it is yours, you will master it, care for it, and depend on it.  This is one of the main reasons BYOD programs are gaining popularity.

A problem with BYOD is that many schools believe they are heading down a new path, but in reality they are simply putting a different spin on an old paradigm. Instead of me telling you what BYOD is, let me tell you what it is not. If any of these statements are true then the school is not running a BYOD program:

  1. The school owns the laptops or devices and gives them to the students.
  2. The school requires all the students to buy the same laptop.
  3. The school requires all the students to buy the same laptop, and the purchasing is done through the school.
  4. The school allows students to buy anything they want, as long as it has wifi. (Yes they are bringing their own device, but this is equivalent to telling people they can bring buckets of water to a forest fire.)
  5. The school allows students to choose devices in a specific range of quality and performance, but then requires school-owned and-managed security software to run on the machine.

Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are 1-to-1 programs, not BYOD programs. 1-to-1 has been around a very long time. It has created many opportunities for many students and such programs level the playing field in terms of educational technology standards on a given campus. However, 1-to-1 does not meet the philosophical and pedagogical standards of a BYOD program. More on that later.

Number 4 is what I have heard many under resourced schools in lower income areas attempt. This is a violation of the number one principle of a BYOD program, which will remain a mystery until the list is thoroughly criticized.

Number 5 is a good start, but then the paranoia slides in. The technology staff or the administrators are only wanting BYOD on the surface, probably to save money. They still will not allow users to have the freedom required for a successful BYOD program.

Enough of the foreshadowing;  let’s get to what BYOD should be about: creating equal opportunities.

The number one rule for starting a BYOD program is not to focus on the money. If the focus is on the school saving money then the program will fail. It will fail because there is only short term monetary gain.

The goal of any BYOD program is to make sure all students have equal access to the resources owned by the school, can create the content required by the curriculum on and off campus, and have the freedom to switch between life at school and life outside of school.

That is all there is to it. You should feel good now, because you should have felt the power of something simple.

Anyone who truly wants to serve the needs of students cannot deny that those principles should be at the center of every part of the educational experience. Unfortunately, they are often overshadowed by politics, greed, or laziness.

If you really want a BYOD program to work, it must work on the merits of opportunity, work ethic, and freedom.

Tony DePrato

Consumption vs Creation

Lately I have had many discussions about mobile devices and iPads. It is very difficult to get people to focus on the negative side of something that is innately exciting.  You may ask why I have to be so negative, and the answer is because it is part of my job. Someone has to look at all the angles, the long term effects of the positive and the negative, and ask the questions that lift the hype up long enough to see the truth. And this is me usually…maybe unfortunately.

Personally I am a huge fan of portable light weight power efficient technology. I have been a fan since the Star Trek Tricorder. I even bought one of these(see below) when I lived in Japan in 2004-2005, the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000- still the best overall device I have ever owned.


In other words I am not against change, I am just beging logical which requires being negative as well as positive.

The main issue I have is the ratio of Consumption vs Creation.
I have been asking people this question: Aside from using Apps and doing research, what can students create on their own?

I believe the production process if very import. Many Apps allow students to make something, but not something unique and “from scratch”.  And although some Apps are very powerful, they are time consuming compared to using a laptop.

Even with laptops students are often just consuming and not creating. Many times one of the main factors behind this is they can find things that already exist which are much higher in production value than what they can create. So they would rather consume and remix than try to do things from the beginning.

Both consumption and creation are necessary. I am advocating, based-on nothing but my instinct, that we should strive for a 30%-70% balance of consumption and creation respectively. This means that assessments should favor creation and the process of creating over the quality that can be more visually appealing from consuming and remixing.

We cannot expect students to produce a great video, website, ebook, tutorial, etc early on in their educational experience. It takes 100s of hours of practice to master things, and most of the time we just want students to experience new ways of working and thinking.

Whatever schools are looking at, BYOD specifications, school supplied iPads, other technology, etc they need to look at this concept. If you are not considering that students may stop creating, then their learning process is going to be impacted.

Think about it like this – would you rather a child have an XBOX or a Computer? You can play most of the major games on both, but you can only learn to make games on one of them. If you are thinking Xbox, you would be trading a very nice ergonomically designed wifi controller for the ability to create practically anything digital.

Remember in K-12 education it is about the process not the product. It is the failure and critical analysis of that failure that gives students the skills they need to succeed after they move on. It is also about the cultivation of creative energy. It is this energy that can inspire a new generation of learners to take risks and transform new classroom ideas into tangible items, services, or philosophies.

Tony DePrato


The Proof

Whenever I help students with math, I always have them do proofs. I want to be sure they understand what they are doing, and not just working a pattern. The word “proof” is a very powerful term, and being able to use it means that one has been able to achieve success and then replicate that same success.

When I encourage people to move into one-to-one situations with technology, they always say things like…”Test scores do not reflect any significant difference in learning after one-to-one programs have started.”; or “Most of the time students will just play games, so their actual computer use is pretty low.”; and even “I am not sure that one-to-one prepares them for the real-world where they deal with people.”

The thing is, on the surface all these things are true. I suppose though the issue is people are trying to measure the wrong data, and they are ignoring performance, socialization, and productivity that is literally under their noses.

For me, on my campus, the power of technology and the motivating power of one-to-one can be seen in our school’s theater production team. It is solid proof that children with the correct tools at their disposal can achieve skills that rival their adult counter-parts.

A Bit of History 

It took me a few years to get the budget together to do a modern remodel of the theater’s IT equipment for lights and sound. The gear we had was not actually bad but it was very “Metallica Roadie Like”. Bulky…Hands-On…Audiofile stuff.  You know the guys who believe if they adjust a notch like 1/32 of a turn it makes a difference. It took about 3-6 hours to train students on the sound system, and about the same for the analog lighting controller. There were other things of course, but this was the core of the training. Then everyone had to practice. Working during a live show is stressful and decisions are made unforgivingly.

So most of the time we had 3-6 students who would help out through-out the year. The majority of them were in grades 10-12. They loved it, but it was a hard sell sometimes when trying to recruit new blood. I firmly believe everything that can be student managed should be student managed so my focus was to re-design things so students would want to be there.

Remodeled and a Bit More Painful

So when I was finally able to remodel, I had one rule:”If it can be done with a computer or touch interface it will be done that way.” All plans and budgets revolved around getting equipment that felt more like a laptop, iPad, or desktop experience. Without wasting to0 much time in an explanation, we did achieve this.

We bought a mixing console from Yamaha that was about 1/16 the size of the older one, with about 1000 times more complexity. It has a slick interface and an iPad App. We computerized the control of all the lighting, and could only afford to do it in a manner that requires 5 times the amount of planning compared to the old system. We added an iMac for additional support, and some slick processing gear to kill feedback and process the sound (which does help some N00B singers sound much better than they really do.).

Here is the best part..we increased the amount of training from a few hours to a day and a half. It takes about 36 hours of training to cover all the normal operations, planning methodology, troubleshooting, etc.

We literally made it harder to learn for the sake of a modern interface. The biggest upside was students could focus all their time on learning and not on worrying about the sound feeding-back or the audio sounding like garbage. This happens often when an analog environment is not in proper tune with the show it is supporting.

The Horrible Outcome that Never Was

I would like to tell you that I actually believed this would all work, but I did not. My logic told me that the system would be too difficult and no one would want to learn it. My instinct told me that it would be an instant hit, and I needed to believe in the design. My instinct was correct.

The first thing that happened was a few core tech students showed-up and look at everything. They said, “Can we use our laptops and iPads here?”. I said, “Of course!”.  Then they asked how it all worked, and I said I was not sure I only had training on about 20% of the gear.

They came back a few days later, laptops in hand. We began to research all the gear. As an educator I began vetting instructional materials and sending them to everyone. I connected with some students in a study-hall and asked them if they would do a 12 hour- yes 12 hour – training course on the lighting system and then teach other students. As soon as they realized they could sync their music from their libraries to the lights, they were engulfed in learning.

Then more students started asking if they could join. And this continued. It began slowly, but after 7 months we now have 15 fully trained students from grades 6-12. All with varying degrees of skill, and obviously the more experience students can solve problems faster. These students understand how prepared they have to be, how to coordinate the peripheral equipment with the core technology, how to setup the stage, and how to direct the people on the stage and in the presentation area. They know when it is time to stop and call me for help too, which is something special all in itself.

One thing these students all have in common is that they are equipped to learn, and equally so. They push and challenge each other. The argue. They solve problems. They connect to the people using the facility and work with them on all aspects of production. They break things, and often fix them. They get into trouble and make messes they have to clean-up. I am not sure, but if this is not learning, and exponential learning at that, then I do not know what is.

Do not doubt the complexity of what these students are doing and are continuing to do. They are training each other all the time on professional equipment. If you have any doubts, here is a link to one of the manuals to only one of the pieces of equipment they are using.  You will find it to be 280+ pages of fun. I makes most textbooks look like “Spark Notes”.

I taught them how to use enough of the system to get them confident for the experimentation process. I explained the terms and lingo they would encounter. I reviewed safety and emergency procedures. I focused on foundational knowledge and supported their learning with resources. However, I did not teach them how to be great. They learned and are learning that as we all do , through trial-and-error. They are a team supported by technology when they need it, but winning by communicating and cooperating.

To me this unexpected success is proof that providing equal access to resources can create learning and life experiences that are unpredictable. This type of educational achievement is tough to measure on any type of modern test used in the middle and high school universes.

I hope one day some of these students will realize that tests and testing need to change so that this type of learning does not get marginalized and termed as “not a significant difference”. Maybe they will be in a position to change things, and hopefully they will remember how they learned to master a system with nothing more than free access, encouragement, and a bunch of Youtube videos.

Tony DePrato

Learning 2.011!

It’s a WRAP!


It’s been over two weeks since I visited Shanghai for the Learning 2.011 ed tech conference and I though I’d give a few details about what I saw and experienced and what I learned. To be fair, I was only at the conference for about two days as I had to leave early to make it back to school but overall it was a good time. Read on past the break to see what I gleaned and hopefully convey that back to you.

Continue reading “Learning 2.011!”

He, he, he’s aliiiive!

Not actually Omar

Hey everyone…it is the other half of ITBabble although it may not seem so as Patrick posts a whole lot more regularly than I am. Still haven’t found . Just wanted to peek my head out and say hi.

I was supposed to be going to Learning 2.011 but my passport fell apart over the summer and barely made it back to work. Free tip from Omar…RENEW YOUR PASSPORT NOW IF YOU NEED TO…No delays!

So I tentatively let Patrick venture off on his own to a strange new land* (China) to rep us, teach some Edmodo and bring back some juicy ed tech material. 您好 Patrick!

Wishing everybody a good start to this new school year and encouraging you all to use technology in the classroom to enhance learning and not just to use it.

*Patrick actually knows China well and loves it
Frankenstein Photo

And I’m OFF!

To Learning 2.011 that is.


Yes, I am excited and giddy as a hamster in a new wheel. The day I’ve been looking forward to for the past few months is finally here. I’m here sitting in the airport, enjoying a beer, and waiting for my plane to board. The destination, Shanghai, China. The purpose, my first real ed-tech conference and I’m presenting to boot. To top it all off, I’m meeting up with Paulo Valenza my long, lost friend. What’s in store? Well you can bet there will be plenty of posts from IT Babble keeping you abreast of all the exciting news. Oh yeah, there WILL BE a podcast coming as well so stay tuned. It should be a great time and I can’t wait to learn and share more about ed tech with you in the near future.