Monday, July 29, 2013

Alice 3 and Java Institute

I'm guessing that a lot of educators share my thought process when looking for new curriculum or materials to use in classes. I want to keep my classes fresh and new, so what I use has to be engaging, but it also has to be quality and reflect the goals and objectives I want students to achieve. I was excited to have the opportunity to attend the Alice 3 and Java Institute for Community College Faculty a couple weeks ago, and am even more excited to start using Alice 3 in classes after attending! In case anyone reading teaches anything Computer Science related, I thought I'd share a little about what Alice is and what we learned over this 4 day institute.

First of all, let me explain a little about what Alice is. Straight from the Alice website,, 

"Alice is an innovative 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a video to share on the web. Alice is a freely available teaching tool designed to be a student's first exposure to object-oriented programming. It allows students to learn fundamental programming concepts in the context of creating animated movies and simple video games."
So in short, Alice is a programming environment you can use to introduce logic and programming in a fun, exciting, engaging, non-scary way. I've only taught our CIS-115 Introduction to Programming and Logic class a couple of times, but I distinctly remember one thing about teaching it- the look of fear on some of my student's faces after reading terms like algorithm, variables, and strings on the syllabus. Last fall when teaching the class, I used a program similar to Alice, but found that it didn't have the direct correlation to Java or C++ that I was looking for. Enter Alice. 

First of all, how could you not have fun with something like this, where our first assignment was to create an animation scene from Finding Nemo? Throughout our 4 days, we learned all about problem solving using Alice, how to set up scenes, how to create motion, design algorithm, procedures and parameters, built-in functions, creating our own functions, variables, strings, and how to transition to Java using NetBeans. 

One of the hardest things to get the hang of when writing code (for students and for me) is syntax! I remember back when I took my first programming class staying up all night writing code and running, writing code and running, to realize after tons of time spent searching that my issue was usually one little punctuation mark out of place or error in spelling keeping everything from working. Of course, just using something like NetBeans or Eclipse helps with that immensely, Alice takes it a step further.

Imagine being able to teach logic, and introduce students to the concepts of programming by letting them actually program without worrying about syntax. That's exactly what Alice will allow you to do. I really like how easy it is to create in Alice, but also how seamless the transition to Java is. Below you can see how this simple scene is written in Alice, then the same scene looks in Java. So you can teach the concepts, the language, the terminology all in Alice, and have students build much more complex programs than they could in Java or another language. Using a plug-in for NetBeans, you can import your Alice program straight into NetBeans so that you can see how it looks in Java, then make any modifications you want.

Nemo scene in Alice

Nemo scene in NetBeans, using Java
I think looking at the above, you can see what a great teaching tool Alice would be for anyone teaching Java or C++. Even if you're not a computer science teacher, I can see Alice being a great tool to teach about story and creative writing. To set up a scene, you really have to plan things out, think about markers, view point, and more. 

One of the best parts, is that you can download Alice and supporting materials and resources for free from the Alice website at If you're looking for a new way to introduce computer programming, be sure to check it out! I'm even planning on including an Alice project into my CIS 110, Introduction to Computers classes. I'll be using it primarily with college students, but I can see Alice being a great tool for middle school and high school students as well.

I think the Alice Team did a great job not only teaching us about Alice, but also in constantly supporting and updating the program to make it better and easier for teachers to use! 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Feedly or Bloglovin'?

Well, for as long as I tried to deny it would actually happen- Google Reader really is going away. In fact, after this weekend, it's gone for good! There are tons of blog posts out there offering suggestions for replacement RSS Readers, and after trying out a couple options I've narrowed it down to two I like. I thought I'd just offer up my opinion of both Feedly and Bloglovin.

So here are a couple observations about each of these services:

Ease of Setup
Both Feedly and Bloglovin make it super easy to import all of your feeds from Google Reader with just one click of a button. If you're a Reader user anyway, this is a huge plus! However, I did notice that when I did this, Feedly kept the blogs that I had in different folders or labels separate  while I'm having to put all my blogs into categories again on Bloglovin.
Feedly categories capture

Bloglovin Screen Capture

As far as layout goes, I am leaning towards Bloglovin at this point. They both have a simple, organized layout, but I am enjoying the way unread posts display in Bloglovin a bit more. I also like seeing the categories on the right so I can quickly gauge how many unread posts I have.

Adding Content
For me, Bloglovin wins this one. I have really enjoyed being able to add new content, or just test out reading new posts or blogs by glancing through the Popular Posts and Top Blogs sections that are listed at the top of the screen. These are also available on the app, which is great since (during the summer at least) that's where I spend most of blog time. Of course you can also add content by typing in a blog name, keyword, or URL. While I do prefer Bloglovin for this, Feedly makes it easy to add content as well! I've had success adding to both readers using # searches. Here's an example of the results when I searched #education. I would love to see an education category added to both services...maybe with Reader leaving us that will eventually happen?

Feedly #education search
Bloglovin #education search

 So, those are a couple of the things I looked for when deciding on a replacement for Google Reader. For me, Bloglovin wins for now. (And it should be noted that their app is pretty awesome too!) You can follow this blog on Bloglovin using the link at the top of the post!

What are you using to replace Google Reader?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Seeing Google Drive in a New Light

Today I’d like to share with you two apps that make my job as a teacher infinitely easier and more manageable. These are not new, and aren’t even new to me, but I’ve seen them in a new light this year, and want to jot my thoughts down.

When it comes to technology, there are two companies I love. I am a total fan girl of both Google and Apple. I own many Apple devices- a MacBook Air, an iPad, and I’m now on my 3rd iPhone. I love Google mostly for their suite of collaboration  tools- Google Drive, which is what I really want to talk about today. As a tech facilitator, using Google Drive (then Docs) was a part of my daily work flow. Whether I was creating checklists and spreadsheets for my own use or working with my colleagues, Google Docs was the go-to. Docs was used to write rough drafts of papers in grade school, used to keep collaborative agendas and meeting notes at work, and to create and share presentations with teachers and students. I used to constantly tell teachers how much I loved Docs, and tried to demonstrate many many ways in which they could use it as well. I believed in the product, and loved how much easier it made my life as a tech facilitator.

Now that I’m teaching again, I have discovered even more ways to use Google Drive. I’m now using Drive in the ways I tried to convince my teachers to use it in the past, and I’ve got to say- I love it! I guess it’s just reaffirming to me to be back in a teaching position and realize that all of the things I used to spend time trying to convince my teachers to do actually do work! Here are a few ways I’ve used Drive (so far) this semester:

  1. All course syllabi are created in Drive. This means I can embed or link them in my courses- and when I make changes or updates I don’t have to worry about re-uploading the Word file.
  2. All course schedules are created in Drive. Again, I can embed on the home page of my course and any changes are automatically updated. Here’s an example.
  3. At the beginning of the semester, students create blogs on Blogger. Throughout the semester, they need to be able to read each other’s blog posts and comment. To make it easy to keep up with everyone’s URLs, I create a table on a Google Document for them to fill in their name, class section, and URL. Since they haven’t been introduced to Drive yet, I make it viewable and editable by the public. So far, no one has erased anyone else’s work (but if they did, I could just restore using Revision History).
  4. For each chapter, I have a listening guide students fill out. I created all the listening guides in Drive, and set the Sharing settings so that anyone who has the link can view. On the guide itself, there are directions for making a copy for themselves and turning it back into me…which they can do through Drive. Here’s an example of that. The best part of that is, the lecture guides can serve as a study guide for them at the end of the semester.
  5. Students use Google Presentations to create collaborative projects. This means they all have access to work whenever and wherever, and it is also super simple for them to share with me.

There are many other ways I’m using Drive this year, but those are probably the ways that have the most direct student impact. None of these ideas are earth-shattering in their innovativeness or newness, they sure do make my (and my students’ lives easier)!

How do you use Google Drive?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Doing Learning

This semester I'm teaching several sections of an Introduction to Computers course, which is an interesting class to teach for many reasons. One of the most interesting things to me is the range of students that take the class. Even though the course is an introductory one, the ability level and background content knowledge level of students is all over the place. This can make for an interesting classroom culture. One of my teaching philosophies, if you will, is that students have to "do" in order to learn. I think this is particularly true in the case of technology courses. I can lecture and "book talk" all day long, but if students don't take ownership of their learning, it doesn't really stick with them.

For this reason, I incorporate quite a few collaborative and self-guided individual and group projects in the course. In my previous job as an Instructional Technology Facilitator, I spent my days working with teachers and trying to convince them to do the same thing in their classes. Being back in the classroom (and for this, I don't think there's much difference in being in a K-12 classroom or in higher ed as I am now) has given me an opportunity to practice what I was previously preaching, and to reflect on whether or not it really works.

Yesterday, in the fourth week of the semester, I gave one of my seated classes their 2nd project assignment. Their 1st project was a group effort and they created a Google Presentation. It was more directed from me. For this assignment, I gave them the option to work alone or form small groups. I also gave them a choice of topic (we were focusing on Digital Communications, and they had 5 topics in that area to choose from). I also gave them a choice of tools to use to create their presentation. I spent about 2-3 minutes quickly demonstrating about 6 different web tools, which included Prezi, Glogster, Mixbook, Voicethread, Slide Rocket, and a few others. I made sure to point out that my goal wasn't to teach them how to use the tools, but just to show them a few different options. I also made sure they realized that part of the project was to spend time playing and learning the web tool they chose to use. They had the rest of class to get started, and they'll have part of tomorrow's class as well. Once they finish creating their project, they will post it to their blog and then spend time reading and commenting on each other's posts.

So yesterday, after I gave the assignment and made sure each knew how to get started, I gave students the option to either stay and work or put in their lab time elsewhere. And you know what happened? They all stayed. Even knowing the project wasn't due until after next class, in which they have more time, and even though they had the option to go home, they stayed and worked. And not all, but most went ahead and finished the project so they can come in Thursday and write their blog post. They asked questions when they couldn't figure something out or just to make sure they were doing something such as saving or submitting a link correctly. But they figured out how to create.

And you know what the best part is? I saw some really awesome projects. So these students who had never used these web tools before taught themselves to create some really great things. And was the objective of the assignment that they learn how to use Prezi, or Glogster, or Mixbook, or whatever? Absolutely not. But what they accomplished that I am most happy with is that those students who walked into class afraid to try  anything new or touch a key that I didn't ask them to touch learned that they don't have to be afraid of computers.

I think that's one of the most important life and school lessons- not to be afraid to try. And I guess that's what makes me sad about what I'm hearing from some of my K-12 teacher friends. Common Core or old SCS, there isn't time to let students try. And fail. And do. Which is how we learn.