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Affordable Technology in the Classroom - Canadian Style

Education Scrabble
Ben Kelly is a technology teacher at Caledonia Regional High School in New Brunswick, Canada. He is also a very popular education personality on social media (especially Twitter) who advocates for ed tech tools in the classroom. One reason for his popularity is his clear enthusiasm for technology as a teaching tool for future careers. He sees his primary job as getting his kids ready for the rest of their lives.

Ben uses and credits Twitter as the social media platform that most significantly impacts his connection to professionals and was the avenue for his discovery of new technology tools for teaching. One example he cites is Soundtrap, a music and audio recording cloud service that brings the functionality of GarageBand to all devices used in the classroom. He used Twitter to discover the Microsoft HoloLens and become one of the first teachers in North America to use one in the classroom. Minecraft is another technology tool that Ben heralds as an across the board useful tool in helping inclusivity needs.

The kids seem equally as excited as Ben in using technologies in school. As he puts it, “I love what I do every day. Who wouldn’t? I get to come in here, and I have HoloLens on my left, Soundtrap on my right, Minecraft in front of me, and drones behind me.”

It’s clear that Ben Kelly loves his work and the students at Caledonia Regional High School are the happy beneficiaries.

Interview with Ben Kelly

Interview Transcript

Rod Berger:    Ben, it's fun to finally meet you face to face. I've heard so much about you. I see you on social media. You are an active professional in education. Is that fair to say?

Ben Kelly:  That is fair to say, yes. I love it. (Laughter)

RB:  Let's start with that. Tell me a little bit about social media and your affinity for it and how you've used it not only to share what you like to do best, or your best practices, but a way to connect with the greater community of educators outside of Canada and here in the U.S. specifically.

BK:  I'm not the type of person who feels that my Facebook should be shared professionally. That's usually a very small collective group of friends and family. I was looking for something that could share my students’ work and my work a little more broadly than the district office which is a few kilometers away.

I stumbled across Twitter, and I get really discouraged when I hear how Twitter is going through financial troubles. I really can't wrap my head around that because, for educators, Twitter is the answer. My career has just boomed and blossomed through the roof since I found Twitter, and I think I put my finger on it recently.

I think it's because you're always supposed to find someone smarter than you, and you're always supposed to find someone who’s got a little more knowledge than you. Locally, that can run out pretty quickly, or it becomes that everyone is on par.

Twitter has given me a global perspective so that when I sit down at the table with parents, students, and other teachers, I'm not drawing on what's happening at the district office down the street. I'm drawing on the entire world at my fingertips; and I can say, “Listen, guys, we're behind the eight ball on this” or “We are leading in this.”

It's really good to get that global perspective.

Minecraft In School

RB:  Do you also feel you get a head start on researching technologies that do not cross your desk at some moment, and if you see it on Twitter from someone at a different level or a different experience or a different environment, that it gives you a head start on their review or their recommendation?

BK:  Nearly a hundred percent of the initiatives that happen in my class and my programs came from Twitter. I think we had one of North America’s first Hololenses ─ Microsoft HoloLens ─ in the classroom and we're developing for that. I would have never known about HoloLens or the Surface Studio if it wasn’t for Twitter giving me the heads-up and these *wow* videos that appear.

Of course, as a teacher, you set your mind to bring it in.

Soundtrap is another one. How would I know about a Swedish music company revolutionizing GarageBand, essentially, and bringing it online to the cloud?

There's no way that would have reached me if it were not on Twitter. And Twitter seems to be the platform that reaches out to most educators. I love the fact that I can flip it and share it with even more ─ hopefully, picking up someone else along the way.

RB:  I know from reading your op-eds and pieces on the web that the power of audio and technology in education is something that you're really passionate about, and we were saying off-air that we're finding a number of different academic departments are also seeing the light. They are saying, "Wow, if we can integrate technology with audio in ways that students learn for different disciplines, we may really have something."

Tell me what we have not been paying attention to and how you see technology impacting audio and learning.

BK:  No offense to the other software but for years GarageBand was the staple in audio education. However, that comes with pricey hardware; and for the longest time, a lot of schools couldn't afford Apple hardware to get their hands on GarageBand.

All of a sudden, this software out of Sweden comes out and it's Soundtrap; and it really is the answer that a lot of people were looking for. It's like the “hallelujah moment” where it's GarageBand with the same systems and the same way of recording but now it's in the cloud and available to Chrome devices and Microsoft devices. Both companies ─ Google and Microsoft ─ have struggled for decades to find a creative solution for audio engineering.

There's been third-party software, but it's never been mass-adopted or anything like that.

Soundtrap offers that solution for everybody ─ Apple included. You can put it on an Apple device, on a Google Chrome, and on a Microsoft system. It is a solution for one hundred percent of the classrooms in North America.

Soundtrap 1

RB:  Ben, let's talk about the technologies that are exciting you that you're finding not a lot of people are hearing about that they should. What is exciting to you and what are some areas that you're still looking for answers for innovators to say, “Wait a minute, we need to answer these questions and come up with this innovation”?

BK:  Minecraft in the classroom is huge. I can't understand why it's not being adopted on a huge scale. I realize that there's a Windows 10 component to it and some Office 365 accounts now linked to it and there are some hiccups, but I really do believe after watching the power of Minecraft happen in my room that it is the answer. If you believe in universal design for learning and how students have several ways of representing and presenting their work, Minecraft just solves all of these things. It's inclusion in the classroom.

There are no behavior problems when using Minecraft to demonstrate something.

Minecraft is a big one. I really believe that it should be first and foremost in a lot of people’s minds.

I wish there were a little more advancements on game development in education. The game development market is absolutely huge.

I was telling the kids today that I'm sharing a lot of the game development processes, but there's not much of an audience yet. It's almost like it's not even on the educational radar at this moment.

RB:  What are they missing? I often hear the opposite that there are so many technologies that are gamifying themselves. So from your perspective, what are they missing?

BK:  If you’re gamifying the subject matter… You're right; I see that more broadly. There is some gamifying going on. But in the aspect of actually developing games, students have the hardware and the software available to them ─ free. There are companies like Unity that will give you a free copy of their $1500-dollar license on SketchUp, anytime you want to develop assets for a game. Again, their software is available for free if you ask the right people for it.

I really think that people are unaware that these massive-costing software are available for educational services for free.

Minecraft Villiage

RB:  How do you evaluate technology, Ben? I'm always interested in the ways in which we do that. Is it something that we need to continue to build a skill around?

You hear people talk and it's like they hadn’t updated their own software in the way in which they're looking at technology because it continues to change. Every day is something different.

If we look back to even a year ago, there were things that were going on that today we would probably shake our heads at. But that's okay because we need to not fear the failure part of it.

How can we get better at discerning the quality that is out there?

BK:  I've rated technology for over a decade now. I've rated it in one way for a long time, and that is: “Will it lead to careers for my students?” Because, otherwise, it's just fun and games.

We can support hobbies all we want, but unless we're talking about productive lives through lucrative and important careers, it's just fun and that's where you get the label on some of the technology initiatives in school; it's just being fun.

If you can make it relate to a career, then you're talking about a serious technology that we should consider.

Most recently, it's been the 7Cs, the 21st-Century skills of collaboration, creativity, citizenship, character, computational thinking. The Cs ─ if the technology can support those for me ─ they are priceless.

I rate the Cs higher than the actual curriculum documents that we get from the province, and I'm not sure if I'll be fired for saying that. I really believe that the 7Cs are what's going to translate into jobs for us, Canadians ─ and in North America. It will put us ahead of the competition versus the curriculum outcomes that they're still insisting some kids learn.

RB:  Given those 7Cs, in Canada, do you see where the corporations are looking at those 7Cs? Are you connecting the dots in Canada like we are starting to here in U.S. where we try to communicate what we're teaching kids in schools to skills that apply to the workforce, etc.? Are they doing that in Canada?

BK:  They are. There are certain organizations. I'm part of a group called New Pedagogies for Deep Learning. It's under Dr. Michael Fullan out of the West Coast of Canada. He's got some research which is basically the 6Cs. I added the computational thinking because it sounded more pirate-ish ─ sailing the 7Cs and for other reasons, I'm sure.

But then you have companies like Microsoft who are leading the way. They're acknowledging STEM. They're acknowledging the 21st-century skills as being just as important, if not, more important than the actual curriculum.

I don't want to put words in their mouth but that's the feeling I'm getting. I think it's coming along. I think companies from the smallest ones to the largest ones ─ like Soundtrap, for instance, out of Sweden ─ are really embracing this skills that will lead our students to a successful career and life in the future.

Drone 2

RB:  We'll close with this. Ben, you have a lot of energy and I would imagine that it is infectious with your students and your colleagues. Tell me a little bit about that.

I think we don't do a good job of profiling those who bring great enthusiasm to education. And we need to because young people in your classes are going to be the next Ben Kellys, hopefully.

The only way it will happen is if kids see it as something exciting and something that is changing all the time for the positive and brings learning.

Tell me a little bit about that level of enthusiasm. Is this something that you're conscious of or is it just your pure love of your job?

BK:  Number one, I do love what I do. I love what I do every day. Who wouldn't? I get to come in here and I have HoloLens on my left, Soundtrap on my right, Minecraft in front of me, and Thrones behind me.

Who wouldn't love to come into that atmosphere every day and get to work with students?

The students run to my room, in general, just because it's a technology class. It's generally a class that students can love from Grades 6 through 12.

I’d like to think that it's because of my stories and the humor I provide in awkward situations and stuff like that. I'd like to think that there are other reasons that they're running to the room.

I run a lunchtime Minecraft crew that fills the room; so that's another safe place for them at lunch to go, work and create.

We have grade sixers using Unity 3D to make Xpod games at lunch. It is the enthusiasm. They would have never picked up that Unity 3D if it weren’t for me showing it off.

Peer-wise, they see the smile on my face when I come in the building and I think they equate it to hard work.

We have the Tiny House Program down the hall, one of the first in Canada, where we actually have students building tiny homes for clients.

I believe the enthusiasm is contagious. It doesn't work with all. I'd like to think it works with all but it certainly doesn't work with all teachers and kids. But it's paying off. It helps.

RB:  I think it's wonderful and it is a testament...I wish, as a parent (I've got two little ones) that they will be able to experience the Ben Kellys of the world because it's so important. It is fun. It can be fun.

You've found a fantastic career path and we wish you continued success. Thanks so much, Ben.

BK: Thank you.


Further Reading:

Next Reality - Microsoft Wants to Make HoloLens the Future of Education

Edscoop - Cloud-based music tool engages students on a new level

T|H|E Journal - MusicFirst LMS for Educators Adds Collaborative Tools to Suite


About Ben Kelly:

Ben KellyBen Kelly is a teacher at Caledonia Regional High School at Anglophone East School District in New Brunswick, Canada. Ben is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, Apple Distinguished Educator, Global Minecraft Mentor, New Brunswick STEM Teacher of the Year 2017 and Soundtrap Ambassador.

He started Canada’s first K-12 Dronography Program, and his students work daily with the Microsoft HoloLens, Xcode, and Swift and other empowering technologies.

Follow Ben Kelly on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Dr. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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