There is a very easy way to create stimulating material for your ed tech classes. It’s free, doesn’t take much time, and can be especially useful in showing students that learning how to code is not some esoteric activity that has no relation to the real world.
What is it?
Trawling the news.
Every week there is at least one story of a data leak, a new breakthrough or an algorithm that has generated unexpected results. All you have to do is make a note of the most interesting stories, bookmark their URLs, and add a few discussion questions.
Here’s an example of a “discussion topic” I created for my newsletter in July 2016:
Are self-driving cars 100% safe?
The first fatal accident involving a self-driving car has occurred. Read the story here:
What do your students make of it? How did the computer program fail? Did it fail? What are the ramifications for the future of self-driving cars? Who should be held responsible?
As you can see, all I’ve done is take an article from an online newspaper and added a few questions to it. The questions use adult language (‘ramifications’), but that’s only because the newsletter is aimed at adults. You can change the wording to suit the reading age of your kids.
If you think about it, what those questions address is:
- The program used by the self-drive cars. Can the kids try to create a simplified version of the flowchart it uses? What was in the program, or missing from the program, that caused this event to happen?
- Is this going to put people off using self-drive cars? Are local governments likely to ban them, or maybe restrict their speed to 5 miles an hour? (In the early days of the motor car, someone had to walk in front of the vehicle holding a red flag.) How might people react to that?
- Who is to blame: the programmer? The manufacturer? The driver (self-drive cars have a manual override)?
Now here are some statistics:
- Time taken to find the article: not applicable, because I came across it while eating breakfast.
- Time taken to come up with questions? 5 minutes max.
- Time taken to put the whole thing together in a scenario as shown above: 10 minutes max.
- Total time taken to prepare this lesson starter: 15 minutes.
Discussion time likely to be generated by this stimulus scenario: a whole lesson, at least.
I’d say 15 minutes spent creating a scenario that could lead to at least one lesson’s work is a pretty good investment. By the way, I use the term “at least” because you could go off in several directions. For example, the kids could research the development of self-drive cars, or search for other accidents (there have been a few, but so far only one of them was fatal).
You could even branch out into the realm of ethics and philosophy if your students are old enough. See, for example, Why self-driving cars must be programmed to kill and The ethical dilemma of self-driving cars.
Another option, one that is especially relevant to the example of self-driving cars, is to explore how new technology tends to be received. See, for example, When the telephone was dangerous and Socrates’ objections to writing.
Or you could explore how technology has affected the lives of women. In Technology and the position of women, John McCarthy mentions that the invention of appliances like the refrigerator freed women in particular from household chores. He even suggests that self-driving cars could one day free women up from having to take the kids to school and pick them up.
All this from a short item in a newspaper. You really don’t have to buy expensive materials to make your ed tech lessons zing!
Terry Freedman is an ed tech writer and consultant. He publishes the ICT & Computing website and the Digital Education newsletter. He is based in England.