Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Slippery Slope

Fortunately, the ark didn't have to worry about any of
those pesky fictional icebergs...
Over the past couple of days the concept of professionalism seems to keep popping up, usually after it's been lit on fire.  It began when someone posted a quote on Facebook based on a Twitter storm.  It was described as 'interesting' on Facebook and lots of people on there were very happy to prop it up.  I would have called it asinine.  My first instinct was to write back, 'it's important to remember that amateurs built the starship Enterprise but professionals built the space shuttle.'  But I didn't.

Beyond the amateurs-are-really-good-at-building-things-that-don't-exist thinking, I was more put off by the implicit attack on professionalism.  Ironically, it's the lack of professionalism in our news that's accelerating this anti-professional bias.  When you share media created to force an opinion rather than declare facts, you're pouring gas on the ignorance fire.  From patients spending half an hour on Google and then telling their doctors what their self-diagnosis is and demanding they medicate them for it (self assured arrogance is a wonderful byproduct of everyone's-an-expert), to shady business men taking over super powers (dido), the idea that we don't need professionals any more because we all have access to information and therefore know everything is rampant.

The problem with our information deluge is that it isn't vetted.  With no oversight or fact checking, alternative facts become facts when they are repeated often enough.  Opinions become truths when you find enough people to agree with them.  Part of this comes down to the shear volume of information around us.  We're living in a tsunami of data and we're very bad at curating it.

That quote is from 2010.  The revolution happened, but it hasn't been the touchy-feely future of knowledge that we thought it would be.  Maybe AI can sort it out because we've made a mess of it.

This flood of social media produced data has us awash in information, much of it crap.  With a waning (professional) fourth estate and everyone on the planet rapidly getting to the point where they can broadcast their opinions no matter how factually bereft, we are living in dangerous times.  There was some hope, early on, that crowd sourcing would help manage this onslaught, but it turns out a large proportion of the crowd doing the sourcing are idiots.

Our willingness to absorb lies is amplified by the idea that we customize our social media feeds based on our own beliefs.  Doing so turns our 'news' intake into an echo chamber of ideas that only support our world view; a sort of self-fulfilling propaganda.  This quickly takes on Orwellian proportions as people who once kept their racist thoughts to themselves suddenly find themselves at the virtual equivalent of a Clan meeting.  Those embarrassing prejudices are validated and suddenly become worthy of broadcasting.  This process is a powerful one, and its tail is wagging the political dog in 2017.
Alternative is right - this 'headline' photo is taken from a
2007 HBO film.  Welcome to 2017. 

It isn't just the alt-right who are happy to take this neo-propaganda and make use of it.  With no oversight everyone with a strong opinion is happy to do things like take pictures from a film and publish them as if they are news - just to convince people that what they think is right.

Way back in the naughties ('06 I think) one of my media studies students brought in a video that prompted tears and a lot of conversation.  The inevitability of what they proposed in that video caused a lot of anxiety in our class, me included.  At the time social media barely existed so this seemed like a real stretch, but in the dystopian future they describe in the film the traditional news media has fallen apart, eaten by the internet.  What's left is a shallow, sensationalist mediascape that caters to the quality of thought most people aspire to.  In the past year I've begun to think that this quality of thought isn't anywhere near where I thought it was.

The description at the end might be starting to feel all too familiar:
"At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper and broader and more nuanced than anything available before. But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow and sensational, but EPIC is what we wanted..."  
It's what we have today.

We're too busy, distracted and incompetent to vet and even critically analyze the media that engulfs us, and we're too cheap to hire people to do it for us.  It turns out we weren't just paying for information from the fourth estate, we were also paying for critical analysis.  But if we can get sensationalism for free why pay for hard truths?

A philosophical underpinning to all of this is the idea that anyone can do or say anything they want simply by wanting to do it.  Effort to develop mastery, and the professionalism implicit in it, is frowned upon.  We're told by wealthy people that doctors, politicians, teachers and other professionals are shysters who are trying to take advantage of us, and we buy it!  Much of this media push is an attempt to crush unions and the middle class they represent.  We idolize the mega-rich who are so simply because of the situation of their birth rather than because of any professionally developed skill.  The lies we tell ourselves every day are part of a vicious cycle made possible by politically poisoned media delivered through a sabotaged information revolution that makes everything except learning the truth easier.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Institutionalizing Success and Teaching Millenials

This was shared online this week and it prompts some thinking about how we deal with the generation we teach.

Four social circumstances that have millennials struggling:

1) Failed parenting strategies include children being told they are special and can do whatever they want just because they want it.  They have won awards their entire lives for simply showing up.  This award inflation devalues excellence and embarrasses the failures these children experience.  They've learned not to strive for excellence because it doesn't matter.
2) Technology: Millennials are surrounded by filtered social media where everyone appears to have it figured out and puts on a good face.  On top of that they have the same relationship with social media as a gambling addict has with a casino, except this addiction is only ever a touch away.
3) Impatience:  They want to reach the summit and have a 'big impact' but are unaware that the summit lies at the top of a mountain.  Is this related to number one?
4) Environment:  Companies (and schools?) should be rebuilding the confidence and resilience of this generation by reconnecting them to personal relationships and long term goals.  This means stepping up to combat number 1, something that most school administration really isn't willing to do.

Now imagine standing in front of thirty one of them.
I've struggled with the vagaries of the millennial mindset in the classroom many times over the past few years.  From the grade inflation of risk averse learners and five-ohs to the complaints of industry, I'm familiar with the millennial challenges Sinek refers to in his interview above.

Battling these frankly bewildering and fictionally driven parenting strategies seems to be a lost cause for most educators.  Since banks and multi-nationals decided to burn the economy down and cause years of austerity, education (and governments in general) have taken on business-think in an unprecedented manner (some kind of Stockholm syndrome?).  The modern approach seems to be 'the customer is always right even if they have no idea what they're doing'.  Rather than expecting competence on the part of the student I often find myself defending a failing grade from a student who has never completed any work at grade level and has missed weeks and weeks of class.  Parents don't want to hear that their child is incapable and they certainly don't want to accept responsibility for that incompetence.  Their only goal seems to be finding ways to blame anything else.

We're not doing a lot of either these days.
Technology is another place where education has thrown in the towel.  Students can do whatever they want with their devices.  Any attempt to redirect a student away from inappropriate technology use is wasted as these devices are now considered to be a constitutional right.  It isn't uncommon for me to ask a student to focus on what we're doing and have them tell me they are in the middle of a text conversation with their parents which is obviously much more important than whatever's happening in class.  They're probably planning a two week absence from school for a holiday - another exciting new millennial parenting tactic that would have been foreign to my parent's way of thinking.  Sinek's no smartphones in a meeting rule wouldn't fly in a modern classroom.  You can't helicopter parent without the tether.

How education is becoming less able
to manage these dangers we face.
Patience isn't lost in all students but even the most capable are dwindling in attention duration.  At the beginning of our last unit I showed exemplars of previous projects done over the past few years.  The top student in my class asked, "are people getting dumber and dumber?"  Good question.  They certainly seem to be less and less capable of developing skills complex enough to tackle curriculum level theory and practice.  Perhaps if they weren't taking weeks of unexplained absences and holidays during the semester things would be better.  Perhaps if they were expected to attempt all course work to the best of their abilities skill-sets wouldn't be deteriorating.

In modern high schools students take the courses they want, not the ones they are capable of.  Students who fail advanced courses get a variety of options to regain the credit and are seen at the same level next year regardless of how little they've proven they can do.  Parents demand access to advanced classes for students who barely find time to attend school and are unwilling to actually do anything.  If I fail anyone I have to justify the failure, not so the absent, incompetent student.  Even trying to offer a range of courses doesn't work because everyone is an academic all-star who should be getting the most advanced credits.

The complaint from people in post secondary education and the work place is that we're producing graduates incapable of working effectively in the 'real world'.  Sinek's comments go straight to this.  Any absence or student failure isn't an administrative issue; the system won't even address it.  There used to be a limit on unexplained absences and then a student was kicked out of a course, that doesn't happen any more.  There used to be criteria for failing late work, that doesn't happen any more.  There used to be requirements for staying within an academic stream, now it's do whatever you want.  When a student is absent or obtuse teachers are told to contact the parents who caused the situation in the first place and work it out.  In Ontario this approach has been institutionalized using laws like school until eighteen no-matter-what.  By keeping students in school at all costs we've effectively removed anywhere to drop out to.  With no bottom to fall through, graduation rates are on the rise!  We've effectively institutionalized failed parenting strategy number one:  everyone is a winner!

The internet is full of memes that suggest the approach we're taking isn't helping.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Virtual Possibilities

I was asked the other day what virtual reality could do beyond the obvious entertainment it provides. A bit of online research shows VR moving in a number of directions beneficial to education.  

Below is a list that covers everything from currently available software to academic research and emerging uses.  It isn't even remotely complete.


VR for physio therapy

Phantom Limb Pain Recovery

When I worked in Japan I did a lot of work with a local doctor who was researching therapeutic muscle stimulation in patients recovering from paralysis.  A lot of that physiotherapy was very hard work for both the patients and the people working with them.  VR would offer a way to produce more natural, targeted and full range interaction without the tedium and limitation of repetitive exercise.

The CBC piece above is talking about how amputees with phantom limb syndrome use VR to reconnect the neural pathways that used to operate the missing part.  Body confusion over the missing part appears to be the cause of phantom pains in missing limbs.  The immersive nature of VR allows patients to exercise those neurons and reduce instances of false pain responses.

Physical Therapy VR Research
If you've ever immersed yourself in VR you quickly become aware of how elsewhere you feel.  I've felt vertigo while standing on a cliff in Google Earth.  As a tool for balance and movement it has obvious immediate applications.

A Home-made VR Motion Sensor and Data Collection Tool
Currently, my senior computer engineering students are designing an Arduino based virtual reality movement sensor that will collect data on a user's movements while immersed.  They are programming a Java based back end in computer science to collect the data streaming from the ultrasonic sensor in order to create data-sets of movement while immersed.  This data could be used to measure the depth of immersion the user is experiencing.  More immersed people tend to physically interact more with the virtual environment - that physical interaction can be used to collect data.

Analysis of the data means they might be able to produce accurate information on how well a user is playing a game, how effectively an athlete is following a VR training regimen or perhaps if a patient recovering from an injury is making the right motions in physio.  It should be able to isolate and describe the physical limitations of a user in VR.  Unlike previous digital experiences through the window of a monitor, VR offers immediate physical feedback that we're going to record.

Digital interaction is going to be much less sedentary in the future.

VR and Autism

Floreo Autism Therapy
Founded by two dads of kids with autism, Floreo explores VR as a therapy.  I like their approach: autism isn't seen as a defect but a difference that we can support with therapies designed to allow these different thinking kids to survive and thrive with everyone else.

Austism Speaks on Virtual Reality 

Autism Speaks is a science focused advocacy group that is encouraging a seed change in how society views the spectrum of atypical autism related thinking.  

In this article they are funding research into a VR based social cognition training in order for autistic people to function more effectively with others.  The complexities of autism means they need to proceed carefully with data collection.  VR's unique sense of immersion means they can simulate social situations (and the anxiety that arises from them) more accurately and produce responses that reflect it.  The data collected from this specifically targeted research is vital to creating tools to help people with autism practice social skills more effectively.

Having kids who are already comfortable with VR means that when this therapy is ready they won't have to get familiar with the technology before they benefit from the therapeutic value of the program.

Sensitivity Training for Neurotypicals
We're currently using a 360 camera to create a VR based tour of our school.  In it students get to move around the building looking where they want in order to begin to get a sense of where everything is.  Editing 4k 360° video is a challenge - I have to use the best VR PC we have to do it (when it isn't running VR), but we'll get there.

In the meantime, I came across this immersive video made by the UK's National Autistic Society.  Designed in collaboration with autistic people, it gives you some idea of how overwhelming the world can be when an autistic child has a panic attack.  It's overwhelming watching it on the screen.  Watching it in VR I was in tears...

If you're not in VR and haven't done 360° video before, you can move the point of view around with your mouse as you watch.  As a way of trying to explain to others how it feels to have a panic attack when you're autistic, it's a powerful tool.

Using VR to Teach Autistic Teens How to Drive
Another ready-now application for VR is in vehicle operation.  High performance operators such as racers use it to learn tracks.  Heavy equipment operators are using it to train people on expensive industrial machines before they ever get into the cab for the first time.  Pilots have to log flight time in a simulator as part of becoming qualified on a new plane.  As a way to get people familiar with a complex machine it's cheap and effective.

In this case VR is being used to ease the anxiety of learning to drive in teens with autism.  Every high school in our board has driving instruction starting in their parking lots.  They should all be adopting this first step in order to ease anxiety before putting any kid behind the wheel for the first time.

General education links

The Virtual Reality Society
Based out of the UK, this group offers a great resource site to get your feet wet in VR.  They are also very interested in how VR can be used in teaching and learning and a lot of their links will take you emerging uses of this technology.

That Tim King Guy

There's this guy in Canada who jumped into this early and has his students building VR kits for other schools.  He's out and about often demonstrating the technology in his school, his board and his province to anyone who will listen.  He and his students have put hundreds of people through their first experience with VR.

His interest is in the engineering that creates the immersive VR experience.  It takes astonishing amounts of computing power to produce 3d immersive simulations.  Astonishing amounts of computing power are what got his attention in the first place.

Education isn't  usually responsive to emerging technologies but this guy's MO is to explore new technologies, and this one is going take immersive simulation (something he's always been interested in) to unforeseen levels.

VR and Mathematics
Experiential algebra in VR.  The benefits of visualizing mathematics in 3d are obvious.  This is one of many academic papers on the subject.
Geometry is another obvious use for 3d data visualization.  This is another academic paper on using VR in teaching geometry.

VR and Chemistry
Chemistry is one of those hands on teaching environments that have a lot of safety oversight.  Using VR to familiarize students with the safety needs of the lab could drastically reduce damage costs.  The safety training applications school-wide in technology and science are obvious.

These guys used Unity just like my software engineering course does - this is something that capable high school students could render.  Perhaps we will next semester.
Drop into a chemistry lab and explore.
Data visualization is a huge part of VR.  Chemistry researchers are already envisioning how it could be used to better understand advanced chemical interactions.
An academic paper on how immersive simulation can advance the learning of chemistry.

A trip through the body.  You can observe infections happening at a microscopic level.  It has my twelve year old talking about viral nucleocapsids - I have no idea what he's talking about.

Gender and Virtual Reality
There has been a lot of talk about gender in schools this year.  The immersive nature of VR means empathy can go from difficult to access to something approaching a lived experience.  Having a red neck experience the looks of distrust aimed at a black man or a misogynist spend an hour as a woman would go a long way toward addressing inequity.  It's hard to hate or belittle someone when you've spent some time in their shoes.

Foundry10 Virtual Reality Research

Foundry10 has been a fantastic resource in our exploration of virtual reality.  They are a Seattle based research group focused on how VR might be used in education.


Does VR have any value beyond entertainment?  It's an explosive new area of technological growth and we've barely begun to explore what it can do.  Even so, there are already hundreds of immediately useful educationally focused VR apps, and more come on line every day.

VR as a tool for pain management

Sunday, 11 December 2016

World Class.... again

The PISA results for 2015 have been published and Canada is once again top ten (6th) in the world.  I imagine this means I'll once again attend a bunch of Canadian educational conferences with American (30th best in the world) speakers who want to tell us how we need to completely re-imagine our (their) failed system.

I tend to take statistics as less of a truth and more of a vague indicator of what's happening.  They don't explain complex systems like human education very well but they do take the temperature.

Since Ontario is the largest single education system in Canada we lend a lot of weight to the country's successes and failures in these UN tests.  If Ontario is performing well it tends to push the country's scores in that direction, so we must be doing a pretty good job if we're sixth in the world.

There are a variety of statistics pulled out of the OECD PISA data that are interesting to consider.  To begin with, the top Asian countries only pitch their most gifted students at PISA while Canada, Finland and Estonia are representative of their entire populations.  From that perspective all Canadian students were only beaten by the highest streamed students in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.  If this were an apples to apples comparison we'd have done even better.

Another interesting statistic is truancy (on the left).  There are a number of countries, Finland among them, that have seen a surprising jump in truancy.  Unsurprisingly, the countries that are only putting their strongest students in also don't tolerate truancy.  Canada, as in every aspect of the results I've seen so far, exceeds the OECD average and performs well in this area, even when we include all socio-economic and geographic areas of the country.

The other argument I'd be expecting from the neo-con right is that we pour tons of money into education so of course we get good results, except we don't.  When compared to OECD countries world-wide, Canada is mid-pack in percent of GDP spent on education.  Australia spends slightly more than us and the US only slightly less to get significantly worse results.  Finland spends significantly more of their GDP on education than Canada does and finished behind us this time around.

It's a quiet time in Ontario education right now but I'm sure the Ontario Liberal party is already concocting stories in order to villify Ontario educators in the next round of bargaining.  While that's going on I guess we'll just keep producing world class results at a reasonable cost.


Playing with the data in the World Bank is always interesting:

The official results page:
Teacher pay by country.

I wonder if publicly funded private religious education systems in Canada brag about these UN numbers because they ignore this: