Preparing Tomorrow's Workforce Today

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CTE Demonstrates Benefits of Rigor and Relevance

At a time when educators struggle to get a majority of high school students graduated on time, students in Career and Technical Education graduate in record numbers.

Nationally, more than 90-percent of CTE students graduate on time, while the average for all high school students is less than 75%.

I offer for your examination – Rigor and Relevance.

For years “Vocational Education” was where the students who “couldn’t make it” in regular classes were put. A funny thing happened on the way to the dropout line… vocational classes enabled students to focus on something they were actually interested in. Students were introduced to subjects they enjoyed learning about and could do something with. School became relevant. They succeeded, therefore they grew.

And to get it right required rigor. Asking questions and finding answers. A Comprehensive, thorough and complete approach to problem solving.

Many students never get close to understanding The Pythagorean Theorem? You know – how to figure the length of a side of a right triangle when you know the length of two other sides.

But when that student who couldn’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem in Algebra goes to Building Trades class and figures the rise and run of a roof (height, length and angle of the roof) in his head, that’s the Pythagorean Theorem at work. He didn’t learn it in algebra. He learned it in shop.

There is a lesson here.  We (and students) learn best when things make sense to us.

Dave Boliek

The Only Constants in Education

The fad of the year… Initiative fatigue… the latest “new thing.”

If there were a silver bullet to successfully educating children, someone would have fire that shot a long time ago.  Policy makers who try to force one-size-fits-all plans on schools and districts miss the point that all districts, all schools in all districts, and all students in all schools in all districts are different and unique.

The only constants proven to help students achieve a year’s growth in learning for a year in school are 1) high quality teaching and 2) effective, supportive leadership.

As teachers grow in reaching each student with their different needs and abilities and administrators grow in understanding what goes on in the classroom and having constructive faculty conversations, students will grow and blossom. A friend of mine said once that schools must be places where everyone learns, especially the adults.

High quality teaching has proven itself over and over and over again as the key to student success.  Effective, supportive leadership has proven itself over and over and over again as the key to teacher success.

Dave Boliek, CEO

15 Things We are Thankful for This Season

While the overall national unemployment rate is at 8.6%, the tech industry unemployment rate is 2.4%. And the outlook for 2012 is even stronger. It’s a great time to be teaching Information Technology, or working with teachers who are doing it!

In spite of educational budget cuts and fiscal challenges for schools, we continue to have the opportunity to provide training, curriculum, resources and support for high school Information Technology teachers. We’re thankful for that and for many other blessings this year, including:

  • A closer partnership with NCDPI in 2011, and a growing relationship ahead in 2012.
  • Administrators who understand and support the need for professional development and resources for their teachers!
  • Thousands of students at more than 150 high schools participating in our Computer Engineering and Digital Media programs.
  • Our friends at CMOSS, LLC, who produced our best Computer Engineering resource yet.
  • All the teachers who helped us bring Digital Media to the next level.
  • All who provided quality training for us this year.
  • A new group of talented teachers who are conducting workshops or writing curriculum for us.
  • Participating teachers like Angela Sanders, who always has an encouraging word.
  • Student success stories from teachers in our programs and workshops.
  • The opportunity to become a Microsoft Certified Training Partner, selling out five workshops and training 100+ Microsoft IT Academy teachers this fall (with many thanks to Ricky Hardy, Valleri Harris, Paige Haney, Robin Isaacs, Helen Maness, and a growing list of successful MSITA instructors ready to deliver sessions next year).
  • The chance to help prepare scores of Multimedia and Webpage Design teachers to teach new and unfamiliar content.
  • The opportunity to promote the value of student certification through three outlets: CompTIA’s new and free Partner Academy Program, Microsoft’s IT Academy, and Adobe’s ACS certification.
  • Our Twitter followers and Facebook friends.
  • Newer, cooler Web 2.0 tools (such as Tagxedo for word clouds, Mindomo for mindmapping, SnackTools and Aviary for digital and multimedia).
  • Our upcoming  revision and revival of NCDPI’s Foundations of Information Technology – a very exciting project ahead for 2012.

That’s a lot to be happy about. What are you thankful for as this year draws toward a close?

-Robin Fred
ExplorNet CareerTech

Congrats Due for Teacher-Student Success

One of the great things about working at ExplorNet is the opportunity to associate with some real quality CareerTech teachers who are preparing students for lifelong success.

This fall we’ve trained more than a hundred Microsoft IT Academy teachers across North Carolina, helping them take best advantage of a wealth of resources that prepare students for certification.  I’ve heard some inspiring success stories from teachers like Chris Eudy, who passed the Word certification exam during our Charlotte MSITA workshop and immediately put his skills to work in the classroom.

“It was only after I had a firm grasp of the concepts themselves that I was able to score well and then move on to actually help a couple of students (yes, at the alternative school in Henderson County) get certified in Word,” he says. “I am proud of these students and look forward to more getting certified.”

Several Computer Engineering teachers tell me they’ve had students achieve CompTIA A+ certification.  CompTIA’s new Partner Academy program is free for schools to join, and makes it easier to get students certified with discounted test vouchers.  It’s good to hear some teachers are planning to take full advantage of that.

We had the chance to work once again with SkillsUSA and FBLA, judging competitions for both and seeing first-hand some of the quality work done by North Carolina Business Ed and Digital Media students.

Allison Hassard

NC SkillsUSA Winners in Kansas City

Congratulations are due to all those who did well in those contests, and to students in NC IT programs who won at an even higher level. Reza Mohammadi at Guilford County’s Weaver Center had a national winner in SkillsUSA competition this year.  Allison Hassard won the Telecommuncations Cabling competition in Kansas City.  And Cecil Hobbs of Wilmington’s Ashley High had students place seventh in the worldwide Cisco NetRiders competition. Andrew McCarthy and Alex Hazeltine advanced after placing first in the state.

Leading the Transition to the Common Core

The move to Common Core state Standards – now underway in 45 states, two territories and the District of Columbia – brings challenges for educators.  The transition is getting into full swing in North Carolina, and as administrators and teachers learn more about what the standards are, they’re working through how to implement them.  What will they mean to teachers and students, and how will they change content and practice in the classroom?

“We’ve never had a national curriculum outlined across standards that are adopted by as many states as we have now,” says Rachel Porter, Senior Instructional Specialist for The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning.  Porter is leading a session for 70 principals and assistant principals, sponsored by the North Carolina Principals and Assistant principals (NCPAPA).  The administrators are at NC State’s McKimmon Center to formulate plans for making it happen, and making it work.

She notes that the language and terminology of the Common Core State Standards is different from what teachers may be used to using.  There’s no reference to ‘objectives’ – ‘standards’ and ‘domains’ are outlined in CCSS.  To further complicate matters, the adoption on CCSS comes simultaneously with new standards for all other subject areas.

“These standards require a different kind of planning and a different kind of structure in the classroom,” says Porter, noting that the Common Core State Standards are not focused solely on content, but more abstract concepts that reflect higher order thinking.

Those standards set an expectation that students develop the ability to read like a detective, write like an investigative reporter, listen like a safecracker, and speak like a teacher.  That’s no small feat, and will require intensive planning followed by effective execution.  The preparation to do that is now underway.


Session Features Windows 7, Cool Tools

Windows 7 and cool tools for the Computer Engineering classroom were in the spotlight at the North Carolina Trade and Industrial Teacher Association’s fall conference.  Asheville High teacher Bryan Morrisey led a session for us on preparing students for the A+ exams.

One change that exam takers are already seeing is additional questions on Windows 7.  Bryan covered several resources that give students a taste of Windows 7, along with links to online tools for evaluating system capabilities:

Compare Windows 7 Versions
Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor
Windows 7 Compatibility
Windows 7 Features
Windows Easy Transfer
Installing Windows 7 on a Netbook
Windows Virtual PC

Bryan also shared an interesting project from the Elder Geek website where students change the appearance of the Start button by changing a registry setting – not something that can be done in a lot of locked-down classroom labs, but an activity that provides some nice insights into operating system functions for those who can do it.  And he showed a couple of video websites that teachers and students alike will fine interesting: one where The Engineer Guy takes apart an LCD monitor (something you would never likely do in the classroom) and another with A+ exam prep videos from Professor Messer.

Last but not least, talk turned to a couple of Web 2.0 tools that can add a little variety and interest to the teaching of  vocabulary and concepts: the wordcloud tool Wordle and the mindmapping site

Our thanks to Bryan for an interesting session, and to our hosts at NCTIETA!

Summer Conference Links and Tools

A lot of great tools and links were shared during Wednesday’s Computer Engineering and Networking sessions at NCDPI’s CTE Summer Conference. We’re using one of them to showcase the others.

LiveBinders is an online tool for organizing links and documents. It allows you to very quickly post favorite links into a tabbed structure that you can organize and share with colleagues, friends and family. We’ve set up a LiveBinder for websites and resources shared during our sessions in Greensboro this week.


LiveBinders lets you organize and share links - like the ones we're sharing at

Those sites run the gamut from Web 2.0 teaching resources such as Tagxedo, Animoto and VoiceThreads to articles on formative assessment and raising student performance. There are links to utilities like CCleaner and RKill as well as simulators, and lists of useful resources like lifehacker, and eventbrite.  We’ll preview some of those more in-depth in this blog in the coming weeks.

Our presentations have been uploaded there as well. If you teach Computer Engineering or Networking in North Carolina but couldn’t join us in Greensboro this year, we hope to see you next time around.

CompTIA Authorized Academy Program

Getting students certified is an ongoing challenge for IT teachers, and CompTIA’s Alan Rowland is joining us at an NC Summer Conference to talk about ways to overcome it.

CompTIA has long had a partnership program for schools called E2C. This year the name has been changed to the CompTIA Authorized Academy Program. Rowland says participating schools are considered partners rather than members, and the name reflects that. Dues are eliminated, removing a barrier that made the program less accessible to some. Schools that were E2C members have to reapply to the Academy Partner program, but there’s no charge and the process for applying has been simplified as well.

Immediate benefits for partners include discounted vouchers for students and teachers. Once a school purchases $500 in student vouchers or conference registrations, etc, additional benefits are sent out including free exam vouchers for teachers, banners, downloadable recruitment and teaching tools, and access to online forums and training materials.

A+ certification is a tremendous tool for students seeking their first job, whether it’s a full-time career move or a part-time position that helps them work their way through college. Getting students to understand the value of certification and invest the time and money to get certified is not always easy, but for students who have the ability to reach that level, it’s well worth the time.

CompTIA is taking steps to address the issues that sometimes prevent students from taking the exams, with the discounted vouchers to cut costs and now new steps to improve access to exams. They’re working with a company called Innovative Exams to seed secure exam kiosks in schools that place an emphasis on certification.

Details about the program are online at

Online PLCs Can Help Teachers Meet Evaluation Requirements

North Carolina’s new teacher evaluation instrument includes measures of a teacher’s involvement in a Professional Learning Community. PLCs are great, but a problem for Career and Technical Education teachers is that they are often the only teacher in their school – or even the whole district – teaching specialized courses like Computer Engineering.

Moodle forums offer a way to connect with peers in far-flung locales. The forums we use in our ExplorNet programs connect teachers online and enable discussions about everything from technology to classroom management and teaching strategies that work in the IT classroom. At the first of several NC Summer Conference sessions for IT teachers today, Greg Thoyre of Orange High School and Geof Duncan from Knightdale High are leading a discussion about how Moodle and other online tools facilitate better communication across district lines.

NCTEP assessment standards are complex, and areas covered include Leadership, 21st Century Skills/Knowledge, Collaboration, Effective Communication and Ongoing Assessment. Moodle communities are conducive to all of that, helping teachers become more comfortable with online learning tools and collaborative processes. The systems typically have chats, forums and other features that can document teachers’ involvement in the PLCs.

Participants have different takes on and experiences with the new evaluation instrument. “It was a lot of extra work for us to do these things, and they didn’t really explain it to us,” says one participant.

Another notes that evaluations like the one being used with teachers have long been common in business and industry, and have helped determine raises and advancement.

“We have to deal with it either way, and we’re looking for ways to do it efficiently without creating extra work,” says Thoyre, adding that evaluations like to see teachers “stepping outside your boundaries.” They want to see real growth in teaching skills and professionalism, and participation in the online communities can illustrate that.

The benefits can extend to students as well.

“Once you start using these forums and chats with other teachers,” Duncan says, “you’re going to find that you start using them with your students.”

And students connect with the use of online tools. Thoyre tells about a student who kept quiet during normal class discussions, but came alive in online chats about the content, and outlines ways to differentiate instruction by pulling individuals or small groups aside for labs as the rest of the class works productively on assignments. These approaches truly impact students, and impacting students, in the end, is the whole point of teaching.

Even Better than Wordle?

Tag clouds have been an engaging way to reinforce vocabulary and other lessons, and over the past couple of years we’ve shown Wordle to a lot of teachers in QTL sessions and other workshops. Now comes a tool that is even fancier.

Tagxedo lets you create word clouds that have interesting shapes, with enhanced interactivity and just a lot more movement. Using it is as simple as entering a URL or pasting in text, and seeing which words pop out as the most significant. Take a passage of text from an article on the topic your discussing, and use Tagxedo to identify key terms or just start a classroom discussion.

Mark Brumley created a nice tutorial that you can find on the HP teachers’ site. I watched half of that and then created the following in less than two minutes.

Fast, easy, fun, and informative.

A Deal That Will Cost NC Teachers and Students

Lawmakers who are touting a “budget compromise” at the North Carolina General Assembly say it will save educators’ jobs. But in fact, the opposite is more likely.

The budget deal, which would cement cuts proposed by Senate Republicans – now reportedly has the support of the handful of Democrats needed to override a veto from Gov. Bev Perdue. The News and Observer reports the deal could lead to quick budget approval in both houses, with final approval by mid-June even if Perdue does veto it. Proponents say the proposal restores enough money to the budget to save hundreds of teacher assistant jobs, without extending part of the temporary 1-cent sales tax passed a couple of years ago. What they don’t advertise is that the plan restores the money for those teacher assistant positions by cutting allocations to local school districts across the state. That doesn’t mean there won’t be teacher layoffs – it just means local districts will have to make them later in the summer.

Together NC, a coalition of 120 advocacy groups, says this budget would ultimately still cut thousands of educator jobs and drop North Carolina to 49th in the country in per-pupil spending.  NC PolicyWatch calls it “a deal the state cannot afford.”

This morning, State School Board Chairman Bill Harrison received a standing ovation after telling board members there is no way the proposal could save teaching positions while slashing state funding to local districts. “The number that is going to be real is our number in terms of spending in the nation,” he said. “That will be real.” At Harrison’s request, the board approved a resolution saying the budget would cause “irreparable harm” and “has the potential to derail our public schools in North Carolina.” (more…)

I vs. U: Can the Internet Overtake the University?

TheNextWeb poses an interesting question in an article posted earlier this month: will the Internet make college obsolete?

For those of us who carry fond memories of campus life and hold our degrees in high esteem, the answer is obvious: of course it can’t. Or could it?

The NextWeb article makes some intriguing points. Universities – including prestigious ones – have been offering online courses for years. Five years ago, UC-Berkeley started putting up complete academic courses on iTunes U and then began using YouTube as a delivery mechanism. Yale offers free access to some introductory courses, and Stanford has an online “mini med school.” Not sure I’ll be changing doctors and opting for the “online degree” variety anytime soon, but the trend toward online learning has clearly taken hold in academia and even in high-stakes content areas.

Driving all of this is the fact that online learning, for all its challenges, has proven more effective than many critics expected. Many questions have been answered surprising positively:

· Could students be trusted to do the work, and make sure it was their own? Not always, but with the appropriate systems in place, it appears they can be surprisingly disciplined.

· Would technology keep up and could students access resources? Broadband access has expanded rapidly, and while some areas are still at a disadvantage, technology has clearly made education more accessible to more people than in the past.

· Would instructors be able to manage a chaotic and undisciplined environment? Not only is that possible, but many have found collaboration increases dramatically if the course is structured properly and managed well.

· Would K-12 students turn into zombies? Okay maybe no one phrased it quite like that, but they were thinking it. Fears of a classroom where visually overstimulated children ran amuck have given way to technology-enriched classroom environments where students are more engaged, and take a more active role in their learning. In middle and high schools, the transition to blended learning like that we often see in our ExplorNet affiliated classrooms has had a dramatic impact. Students like technology, and most of them are eager to use it as a learning tool.

Organized education aside, I’m sitting here trying to organize all the links to interesting articles, tutorials, even courses or pdf textbooks that I want to read. There’s so much to learn – and now it’s right there at our fingertips. No, reading those articles from an electronic device isn’t quite like going to college. But it’s extending my own opportunities as a lifelong learner in ways that wouldn’t have been possible. How about you?

Robin Fred, ExplorNet/QTL

Budget Frustrations

If it’s possible to measure a low point for morale in the education world, North Carolina teachers may be getting there. Budget cuts already discussed and virtually approved will take a bite out of classroom resources. Further proposed reductions will bite harder.

Some lawmakers are trumpeting their plans to reduce lower grade class sizes by hiring 1,100 K-3 teachers. But other budget line items show that many of those smaller classes will have to do without teacher assistants (13,000 positions slashed, along with 5,000 teachers and support staff in higher grades). It gets worse from there. The budget itself paints a much dimmer picture for education overall.

These are not just numbers. They’re people, including some who are very dedicated. I just heard from a veteran teacher in one of our high school Information Technology programs who got the news today that his program is being shut down and he’s out of a job. For the past decade he has taught high school students to build and repair computers, network them together, and troubleshoot issues. He’s focused on community service, providing real world opportunities by lining up projects to wire or network churches, community facilities and more. He’s gone the extra mile to promote high tech skills and higher order thinking. Now he joins a list of strong teachers who’ve fallen victim to budget cuts this year.

Next year the students will much more limited options in the field of IT. Instead of learning what makes computer technology tick, they’ll be able to learn how to use office software. Those skills are important, and the new program promises to be easier and “more affordable.” But will the students be better off?

It’s not just Career and Technical Education, and it’s not just North Carolina. eSchoolNews reports today that with the end of federal stimulus funding that delayed widespread layoffs two years ago, the problems are widespread. Districts are “laying off large numbers of teachers, raising class sizes, cutting electives such as music and art, scrapping summer school programs, and shortening the academic year.” Parents – regardless of income – are being asked to pay for more of the basics.

What happens to a generation of students whose class sizes will be bigger, or whose teachers will have a weaker infrastructure to support their efforts? As technology drives innovation and recovery around the world, what is the impact of having teachers who have not had professional development on using these rapidly evolving tools for learning? How will educators rise to the challenge of providing quality learning experiences, promoting creative and higher-level thinking, while facing larger classes and fewer resources? These are the challenges of 2011 and beyond.

Robin Fred

Can Chrome OS Really Shake up the PC World?

There’s a lot of talk this week about Chromebooks and whether they will or will not change the way we use computers in everyday life. There are implications for PC repair, and if Chrome OS catches on, it will change the way we approach maintaining or repairing computers.

One real difference that Google brings to the fore with its newest innovation is the basic lack of a device-based operating system. With a Chromebook, you turn it in, log on and go. Any files you create are stored “in the cloud” rather than on your own device.

Tech writers are abuzz with the implications of this. On the down side, there are privacy concerns and worries about the wisdom of putting all your information into someone else’s hands. Will you be able to access it when you need it? Some point to cases like Amazon’s recent cloud computing problem or Google’s Blogger outage this week, which raises the issue at the worst possible time for Google. On the plus side, some say, is the fact that files stored on your own computer are more vulnerable than those stored on Google’s servers with all their backups and redundancies. Most users aren’t very good about backing up their data regularly, and we’re one accident away from serious issues. For all its problems, could “the cloud” actually be a more secure place to keep our stuff?

I’m re-tweeting some of the most interesting articles on this topic at our Explornetqtl Twitter page.

Whatever the outcomes, the tech industry continues to evolve at a breathtaking pace. All of this points to the importance of teaching tomorrow’s workforce the foundations of Information Technology. Though that technology keeps changing and it can be frustrating for teachers and curriculum providers to keep up, an understanding of the basics will be a critical component for tomorrow’s IT professionals.

What do you think?

Robin Fred

Growing a Program During Challenging Times

While budget cuts threaten many K12 programs, it’s always encouraging to hear good news from the field. So we were thrilled to get an email from Kevin Howard of Mooresville Graded School District saying that the numbers for his Computer Engineering program are improving and he’s continuing to build the program. He says it’s “because our district encourages classroom recruitment and is very supportive of its teachers.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Mooresville’s schools were just featured in a very upbeat PBS NewsHour report about their enthusiastic and cost-effective embrace of classroom technology. Anyway, Kevin says this is great for the students. “The IT industry is making a comeback and is in need of IT pros.” (more…)

Budget Ax Threatens Deep Cuts to NC Education System

For North Carolina educators, students and their parents, looming cuts to school funding pose an alarming threat.  In a state that already ranks 46th in per pupil spending, the NC House budget unveiled this week would slash spending by almost 9 percent, more than a billion dollars, almost $500 per child.

The numbers sound ominous, but more telling are the programs and staff that would be eliminated: state-funded professional development programs including NCCAT, Teacher Academy and the NC Professional Teacher Standards Commission.  The state would eliminate all funding for teacher training – any professional development would have to be paid for with federal or local dollars.

Also eliminated under the proposal: Dropout Prevention Grants, Learn & Earn Virtual Schools, state school technology funding, Science Olympiad, Kids Voting, the NC Science/Math/Technology Center, and the list goes on.  Teacher assistants in second and third grades would be cut, along with many ‘support’ positions in local schools, from assistant principals to librarians to custodians to counselors.

What isn’t eliminated altogether gets cut: NCDPI loses 25 percent of its funding under the plan, meaning possible elimination of school transformation teams. Pre-school funding (Smart Start and More at Four) face 20% cuts.  Funding for gifted and talented children would be cut by $8 million.

As Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch puts it: the budget looks bad, but it’s worse than it looks.

If approved by the GOP-led House, the bill goes to the GOP-led Senate, which observers say may cut K-12 education even deeper.  If Gov. Perdue vetoes whatever budget the State Assembly eventually sends her, negotiations will begin over what – if anything – gets salvaged.

Students Learn and Serve

I’m constantly impressed to know teachers who go the extra mile to provide learning opportunities for their students. It’s doubly impressive when they can work in service to the school or community.

Charles Thorne’s students in Williamston, NC are a great example. Charles teaches Computer Engineering and Networking to students from Riverside and South Creek High Schools in a lab at the NC Telecenter. The best and brightest serve as interns and get a wide array of hands-on experiences – from troubleshooting computer problems to writing instruction manuals for users to working on a server that hosts local government websites.

Those experiences often turn an interest in computer and video games into an interest in IT careers from computer repair to networking to programming or even creating video games. (more…)

Modern Innovation Meets Age-Old Problem

Much has been reported in recent months about the role the Internet now plays in world events. Facebook and Twitter are credited with helping protesters in Egypt and elsewhere organize their efforts and overthrow their governments.

Every new use of technology brings a new set of challenges. As social networks and dissident websites take aim at repressive regimes, those intent on staying in power fight back. And sometimes bystanders are caught in the crossfire.

That’s what happened last week when an attack on a website critical of China’s communist government took out an estimated 5,000 websites (including ours) for several hours. As engineers at our web hosting provider and several other affected companies worked to figure out who was behind the distributed denial-of-service attack, thousands of teachers and students across our ExplorNet Moodle system were forced to go to “Plan B” as they found themselves unable to connect to Moodle as they usually do.

The really encouraging news: though several teachers called or emailed to let us know we had a problem, nobody seemed to panic. Everyone seemed to have Plan B in place and to adapt quickly to the fact that the work they had planned for students would have to be approached differently. As often as I hear how much teachers and students love working in Moodle, it would be easy to lapse into over-reliance on the tool. Thankfully, I don’t see too much evidence of that. As we monitored our web host’s Twitter page and kept our partners posted through our Twitter page, everyone remained patient and waited for things to return to normal. Fortunately, they did by early afternoon.

I hope we don’t see a repeat of this type outage, but these types of attacks are unfortunately becoming more common and are more frequently affecting innocent bystanders. If you want a little more background, check out our web host’s post about what happened and their response at the Codero blog, or a CNET report on the attack and its impact on Codero and other providers and their customers.

Robin Fred

Can Race to the Top Help Turn the Tide?

Ten years into the 21st Century, educators have been too slow to embrace the technology tools needed to help American students keep up. That’s the conclusion of the longtime educator in charge of implementing North Carolina’s Race to the Top grants.

“Classrooms still look too much like they did when I went to school,” Dr. William Harrison told North Carolina Technology Association members at a meeting in Raleigh. He went on to say he is hopeful the $400 million dollars in federal funding that is coming to the state can help turn the tide. But he cautioned the money isn’t as much as it sounds like it is when split among 115 districts and 30 charter schools and spread over the course of four years.

That money must be used by districts to support four “pillars” of school improvement, and instructional technology as well as professional development will be important components of districts’ plans. He says children’s education “has been too dependent on zip code.” Finding qualified teachers is especially challenging in districts that are not only rural themselves, but remote from any significant population centers. Expertise in advanced subjects like AP Calculus or Physics can be hard to find, meaning students in those areas may not have any opportunity to study those subjects.

Dr. Harrison says technology will help address the problem by making online learning resources available on a broader basis. But he says the real key to success will be in providing “great teachers and leaders” to students regardless of where they live in the state.

“The nature of the work of a teacher has changed dramatically,” he says, ”but the most important factor is having a competent, caring teacher in the classroom. There are new tools, new methodology, new technology… but in the end it comes down to the teacher.

For that reason, professional development will be a critical component any plan for lasting improvement. Dr. Harrison clearly understands this.

“The key is not putting a laptop or device in the hands of every student,” he says. “It’s helping teachers understand how to use it.”

How schools will provide that professional development amid shrinking budgets and increased teacher workloads will be a key challenge in the years ahead. We at The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning will be working hard to provide high quality services, whether the efforts are supported through Race to the Top or other funding, and to make the growth in teacher capacity both lasting and sustainable. Like so many others, we’ll have our work cut out for us.

-Robin Fred
The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

Virtual Reality Workshop Spotlights Challenge, Opportunity

The inclusion of Virtual Reality in North Carolina’s newly updated Multimedia and Website Design course gives business teachers a unique opportunity to expose students to STEM careers.

Virtual Reality was the subject of the latest in our series of workshops designed to help MMWD (formerly Computer Applications 2) teachers become more knowledgeable about the new content. The workshop at Duke University September 24 was offered in partnership with the Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) – a state-of-the-art facility where VR technology is being put to work in the service of cutting-edge research.

Teachers who attended the session heard Dr. Rachael Brady, the facility’s director, describe how virtual reality has evolved over the decades.  She took us from the first mechanical flight simulator way back in 1929 through the use of VR concepts for education and entertainment during the 1950s and 1960s.  We discussed how VR has evolved to the point where VR “presence” allows users to really feel like they are IN a virtual world rather than the real world.

participants in DiVE facility

Workshop participants in the DiVE

That concept comes to life in the actual DiVE facility, a six-sided cube (four walls, floor and ceiling) that enables participants to step into another world that can change at the touch of a button. (more…)

Reaching for the Stars

We’re always looking for ways to encourage Computer Engineering students to pursue CompTIA A+ certification. Our courses are aligned with A+ objectives, but the exams are not required due to cost. So how do you make students see the value and go the extra mile?

During a conversation about our Moodle resources, Darlene Sanders at Myers Park High mentioned to me that she had five students sit for the A+ exams earlier this year, and all five had passed. That’s a great passing average, and getting a third of your students to take the trouble to study for and sit for the exams is a pretty impressive feat, from what I hear from other teachers.

How did she do it? Well, it helps that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools covers the cost of exam vouchers for students who have the potential to get certified. But another part of the puzzle is engaging students in the content right off the bat so they will consider IT as a career field.

Darlene says many of her students get hooked by a “dream computer” activity she has them do as the course is getting started. They research components and put together a PowerPoint presentation outlining the computer they would build if they had the resources. Some are outrageous – the most expansive graphics cards, the biggest monitors, outrageous RAM – but she encourages them to dream big and requires them to consider compatibility and other issues that introduce computer maintenance repair. “As long as it gets them excited about learning and asking questions… I know I’ve reached them.”

Next, simple awareness of the benefits of certification and the knowledge and skill requirements enables students to draw up their own ‘road map’ to achieving this goal. Making sure they understand what A+ certification is and what they need to know to earn it is key.

So is understanding what certification can do for them. First off, if they want a career in technology, A+ and its sister certification Network+ are valuable credentials for both career beginners and seasoned IT professionals. The training organization Global Knowledge has a new list of the most valuable certifications for IT professionals to hold, which places CompTIA’s A+ and Network+ near the very top. That would be good information to help encourage students!

Another point to make is that if they are going on to college, they may plan to have a part-time job to help with expenses. Working at an electronics retailer or computer repair shop certainly offers the promise of better pay than a job at a fast-food restaurant! And they’d be able to continue to develop their career skills. A+ certification can definitely help them get that first well-paying part-time job.

Are there jobs to be had in the IT industry? It’s been a tough couple of years for any career field, but the trend in IT is very positive. A brand-new report from the North Carolina Technology Association says IT job openings across the state grew by 15% in August to the highest level in more than two years. Some of the highest demand is for people with solid computer maintenance, networking and tech support skills. That should help confirm the promise of the skills IT teachers are teaching.

Robin Fred

Changes in the Wind

I’m always amazed to hear what teachers are doing, how some stretch the boundaries of what they have to do and go the extra mile to create new opportunities for students. I’m sitting in an ExplorNet “A+ Boot Camp” where teachers from across the state have come to hear about updates to the Computer Engineering curriculum. We’re starting out with introductions, and the session has already turned into a great “Professional Learning Team” meeting.

Alfred Ash from Kings Mountain tells how his students operate a small computer repair business, operating out of a storefront and fixing PCs for the public. I’ve never heard of a school taking student tech support to this level. Alfred says the point of the operation is not to make money, but just to be able to pay the bills. The goal is to give students something to do which builds the skills they are supposed to be learning in class.

“They don’t get overloaded because we don’t do any advertising,” he says, “but they stay busy.”

Other teachers have talked about ways they try to build student achievement and encourage students to achieve A+ certification. There has been much talk about the difficulty of the A+ exams and the low percentage of students who opt to take them. That’s a larger issue, but there were some good ideas for promoting certification. Todd Thibault says he made A+ certification the measure of success for CET2 Honors Students. If they wanted the extra credit for the honors course, they had to pass the CompTIA exams.

Billie McNair from Creswell High has higher level students who serve as tech support interns. “That’s how I’ve kept it going, having interns outside the class.”

The challenges of a rigorous curriculum have also been a hot topic. Robert Furth of Clayton High says he often has students who show up the first day excited about taking a course, but sees that enthusiasm wane “when they realize that they have to work on computers, they don’t just get to play on them.” The highly technical nature of the content can be an uphill climb. Finding new ways to add interactive activities has been a focus of curriculum development efforts this year, but the volume of content to be covered can limit the time available for ‘fun’ activities.

Kim Mayo says Washington High has a somewhat unusual approach to addressing this. They require students to commit to taking CET 2 in the spring if they want to sign up for CET 1 in the fall. The class size is capped at 12, so only a dozen students get into the program. But they are well supported – the district buys computer kits each year to enable hands-on activities, and the program does attract high level students.

Cecil Hobbs of Ashley High in Wilmington agrees that rigor can be a good thing. He has 80 students signed up for his classes this fall, and says he will really push certification. He actively recruits students, even visiting other classrooms to talk to students who might have an interest and aptitude for Computer Engineering. He’s passionate about helping those students succeed.

“I’ve taught just about everything,” he says, “but this is the best course I’ve ever taught. I enjoy going to school every day.”

We haven’t even gotten into the ‘meat’ of the workshop yet and I’m already learning new things and excited about the next boot camp, in Charlotte August 4-5.

Robin Fred

Great Stuff from Collaborative Workshop Session

Great tools for the classroom were the focus of this afternoon’s “Best Practices in the CET Classroom” session at NCDPI’s CET Summer Conference.

Kathy Wright is up first with a look at some Web 2.0 tools that add interactivity and engagement to the mix. She starts with a look at Google Sketchup, which she uses to help familiarize students with PC components like the motherboard. By installing the software on a PC, then pulling graphics from the Google images library (for example, a picture of a motherboard), she can create an exercise where students have to label parts and components.

Kathy also showed ScreenToaster, a free way to record screen captures and tutorials. She demonstrated what she and students have done using Animoto, which allows users to upload photos and create surprisingly sophisticated-looking music videos. Kathy uses the service – or has students use it – to create vocabulary-based projects or to document classroom projects and activities. She shares the links with students, parents, administrators, or as a recruiting tool.

One of Kathy’s Animoto videos centered on “Texting in Class.” She used a service called polleverywhere which let students use their cell phones to text a survey response on a question of interest. She calls this a “21st Century bellringer” and adds, “100% of them were engaged doing this.”

Greg Thoyre of Orange High is sharing some tech utilities including CPU-Z (monitoring processor functions and overclocking) and GPU-Z (monitoring graphics) and RealTemp (monitoring processor temperatures) which measure computer performance and illustrate key hardware concepts.

Greg also raves about Live Linux CDs such as Ubuntu’s Live Linux version which are particularly useful for finding and recovering files on the hard drive. He keeps it on a USB drive and boots a problematic PC or laptop from the USB. You can grab directories from the Windows partition, if it has died, and copy them over to the flash drive. As long as the hard drive will spin up and become operational, you can recover files using this method. That’s one of several handy tasks you can perform with a bootable Linux Live disk.

Charles Thorne shows some of the tools he uses on an Ultimate Windows Live CD – another handy tool for disaster recovery that includes numerous built-in tools that can be run from the disk even if a computer’s operating system is malfunctioning. This rescue utility disk includes antimalware utilities, cleanup tools, CD burning tools, diagnostic tools, file management and networking tools, password and registry tools, even games. One participant mentions, quite accurately, that we could spend a day exploring these tools in a hands-on workshop. Maybe we will…

Geof Duncan shares a variety of free teacher resources from Microsoft, which he has cataloged for fellow Wake County teachers at this wiki site. Among the most interesting are officelabs, with training tools and intriguing software enhancements for Office products, and Microsoft Mouse Mischief, which, when used along with wireless mice, offers a cool new way to make your PowerPoints more interactive.

One of the most interesting finds came from Wayne Whaley of Burke County, who recommended the Procaster service from Livestream. With it, you can live stream your screen to anybody at any time, including audio, to multiple viewers if you want. It includes webcam and chat options. Wayne says he has used it to broadcast lessons live or recorded to homebound student can follow it from home. You can record your class and students can replay it later. Livestream even hosts it. At least for now, it’s free…

Robin Fred

Promoting Certification

How do you get students to study hard and sit for their A+ certification exams? Madeline Drayton and Larry Harrison from Union County’s Central Academy of Technology have a group of students who don’t need arm-twisting.

Late this spring, almost 30 students banded together and made a pact to study together and sit for their certification exams before the end of 2010. They’re spurred on by the fact that those who earn A+ before December 31 will not have to renew it later on. After January 1, 2010, A+ becomes a renewable certification that has to be “re-earned” every three years.

The students have organized and started communicating via email over the summer to set up a fall schedule of study group sessions, a couple a month. They’ve purchased study resources. Harrison says they have parental support as well as encouragement at school. The whole thing was the students’ idea.

“They came up with it on their own and just wanted our blessing,” says Drayton.

Still, student-driven study groups don’t arise out of thin air. Motivated students thrive in an environment where they are encouraged to go the extra mile to excel beyond the required schoolwork. Clearly the teachers are playing an active role in fostering that kind of initiative. Will the students meet their lofty goal?

“I think they will,” says Drayton. “These guys are really serious about what they do. They’re always working beyond what we do in class.”

Robin Fred, ExplorNet/QTL


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