Saturday, 10 August 2019

Data Starvation

Last summer we went to England and picked up a SIM card and an astonishing 30gigs of data for about $38.  We currently pay about $35 a month for 0.5gigs/month in Canada - prior to that we were paying over $80 a month for a gig each as part of a package deal.  For that month in the UK we felt like we were drinking from the fire hose.  We turned our phone off drip data and discovered what modern smartphones are really capable of.  Canadians are so used to breathing their data through a straw that anything else seems like a trick.  You have to wonder what that's doing to our global competitiveness in a connected world.

I'm currently out in the Maritimes and managed to run out of data in a single day when the ferry wifi I was on crapped out and Facebook decided to pump a high def video through 4G instead of waiting.  Facebook takes no responsibility for this (I found an option 3 menus deep to prevent it happening again), neither does my phone manufacturer or Canadian telecom, the people actually responsible for this mess.  Canadians live in a constant state of data starvation as they enjoy one of the poorest cost to performance telecoms in the world.

Canadian Telecom Protectionism
Canada Sky-high Data Prices
Canadian prices dropping but still among the highest
CRTC Confirms Canadians pay more


What's interesting about data starvation is what it does to the quality and focus of your thinking.  Rather than spontaneously share what you're doing, you're spending time and energy wondering if and when you should.  Instead of collaborating and connecting you're intentionally isolating your thinking.  Instead of creating and expressing you're silent.  As someone who uses digital connectedness for professional and creative communications, I wonder how many good ideas are forgotten and lost in Canada's data desert.

I was talking about this with Alanna and suggested a way out:  don't believe that what you're doing needs to be shared in the moment you're doing it.  That lets you send data when you're able, but she made a good point: don't regret your impulse to share and speak your experience as it happens... doing otherwise diminishes the quality of that shared experience, but diminished quality is our default setting in the Canadian data desert.

I got into an argument with someone recently about reducing carbon emissions.  His angle was that Canada has unique circumstances (large country, difficult climate, low population), and so shouldn't have to participate in carbon reduction, even if it is a world-wide emergency.  My response was that every country has unique circumstances and challenges and if we use that as an excuse to not do anything we're all doomed.  The same arguement has been applied to Canada's telecom sector - large distances, challenging geography, low population, but rather than develop emerging technologies to try and resolve these challenges, Canada has adopted a protectionist system that looks after big business profit lines and creates one of the widest digital divides in the world.

The digital divide is deep and wide in Canada
"income disparity plays a role in determining whether or not Canadians are connected online. Findings show that 97.7% of households that reside within the highest income quartile have high speed internet access, while only 58% of households that reside within the lowest income quartile possess access to the internet at home"
Even relatively wealthy students in my school have trouble finding reliable high speed internet because Canada doesn't put much focus on last mile connectivity.  We have fibre backbones, but when it comes to connecting people to them, especially in rural circumstances, we don't bother.  This isn't even a particularly rural example, the students I'm talking about live less than half an hour from Google headquarters in Waterloo, but that's how limited Canada's final mile ICT infrastructure is.

My argument on the climate emergency is similar to my argument for Canadian telecom:  this is an engineering challenge that Canada as a whole can benefit from if we resolve it ourselves.  The technology we develop to help solve our unique challenges will be so efficient that the rest of the world will eagerly buy into it.  What we're doing instead is the worst kind of hypocrisy as we wait to see what others develop and then buy into it as cheaply and unequitably as we can.

There is a lot of buzz about 5g wireless standards and how these can revolutionize our lives.  This high speed connection prototcol will allow us to communicate with each other in a richness (think virtual reality and other high bandwidth media) that is simply impossible at the moment, but not in Canada.  Most of the country won't see it at all, and if you're unlucky enough to live in a city that has it, your 1gig a month Canadian data plan would use up all its data in less than a second - yep, it's that quick.  Perhaps Canadians can go on holiday to countries that are actually well connected in order to enjoy this emerging technology:  a data holiday.

As we've moved across the Maritime provinces this summer, the effectiveness of Canada's ICT infrastructure has been cast in a rather harsh light.  Less than half the restaurants that offer connectivity actually have it working.  When they do the throughput is often slow to non-existent.  In a country that doesn't offer usable celllular networks (which themselves came in and out of effectiveness) due to  some of the harshest data caps in the world, the wifi pool can become a cost effective way to draw customers into your business, but most small businesses can't seem to manage even this simple piece of ICT infrastructure.

This really came to a point on Cape Breton Island in northern Nova Scotia where we had no cell service and no wifi at the hotel (though it advertised it as a service).  There is a part of me that enjoyed that disconnection.  Suddenly I couldn't work on my Cisco Netacademy Cyber Operations course and I certainly couldn't teleconference in to our weekly meeting with our teacher.  There's something to be said for giving up on digital data entirely and disappearing into the world, at least for a few days...


What was strange was returning to the half world of lousy Canadian ICT infrastructure.  In this broken landscape I somehow managed to blow through my entire data plan in a single morning, probably as a result of trying to use the hotel's not-working wifi the night before.  We got to the ferry to PEI and got on that wifi only to have it flake out on us.  My phone, still trying to catch up on all the things I'd been trying to do in Cape Breton before I gave up and turned it off managed to burn through my entire data plan in a single morning when the wifi dropped.  In talking to my wireless provider I got the typical Canadian telecom response, "yep, that's too bad, you'll see a big data charge on your next bill."

Being completely off ICT infrastructure is rewarding in its own right - it's one of the reasons I ride a motorcycle, to be off line, but trying to be on it while travelling in Canada is exhausting, and frustrating, and points to a future where the world will be collaborating and helping one another while too many Canadians don't bother because of the cost and difficulty involved.  We really need to start doing better, especially in that final mile infrastructure and in helping businesses provide usable and cost effective connectivity for their clients.  So much marketing is word of mouth now on social media that you'd be crazy not to apply marketing budget to stable connectivity in order to encourage people to spread the word about what you're doing.  The federal and provincial governments should be supporting municipalities in helping their businesses get connected effectively. It's 2019 for goodness sakes!

LINKS:
The digital divide in Canada (StatsCan)
Northern Connections: Broadband & Canada's digital divide
CATA Alliance: advancing Canada's competitive innovation ranking
CWTA: the network is fast where it exists, but poor final mile and data capping prevent it working for too many Canadians.
Canadian Government and Industry push for 5G (but only for city dwellers)

Harry Potter Wizards Unite:  my wife is playing this at the moment (think PokemonGo but with Harry Potter), and loves it.  It got her walking again after cancer surgery and keeps her connected with people as she recovers.  On our lousy Canadian telecom she managed to blow through a month of data in a week on it.  We've since finessed it to not cost us $50 a month in data, but software developed around the world isn't defaulted to run on Canada's 'unique' and heavily capped wireless infrastructure.  I imagine Canadians are paying tens of thousands of dollars in overages playing this game, so that'll be yet another emerging medium we can't participate in properly.


It makes me wonder if Canadians are going to end up paying data overages constantly once the internet of things gets going and our fridges and washing machines are constantly using data.  IoT, something else most Canadians are going to end up turning off.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Elearning: How to make the inevitable more than a cash grab

My Background in Elearning:

I've been elearning since the early 1990s in university.  Back then it was called distance-ed or correspondence learning.  I'd get a big parcel in the mail and work my way through paper based course work before sending it back.  When I got my ESL teaching qualifications in Japan in 1999, it was through a distance-ed school in Scotland.  Those courses were difficult and made more so by the one way nature of the communication.  As email became prevalent I was able to establish faster two-way communication with instructors.  This finally evolved into an online, cloud based elearning system in the early zeroes.

In the 90s I was working in IT, which included a lot of user training on new, cloud based software management solutions, so the elearning concept wasn't new to me.  From the very earliest cloud based management systems, I've had an oar in the water when it comes to elearning.

I became an Ontario teacher in 2004 and was a summer school elearning teacher by 2005.  Those early Learning Management Systems (LMSs) were very texty.  If you wanted graphics or even links, you had to HTML code them in yourself.  All of us (my students and I) were alone in cyber-space way back then, and some wonderful things happened that demonstrated the potential of this technology.  After two years of teaching elearning through Peel's summer school program on the ANGEL LMS, I moved to Upper Grand DSB, who hadn't touched elearning yet.

By 2007 UGDSB was starting to get into it and I volunteered to be in the first group sent to another board to learn how D2L's new LMS worked.  The next year I was once again teaching elearning in summer school and then also teaching elearning during the school year as part of my course load.  By that point I was also taking Additional Qualification courses (AQs) in the summer on elearning.  Rather ironically, out of all the AQs I took in English and visual art, the only one that wasn't elearning was computer technology.

In addition to teaching remote elearning in English, I also pushed for a blended learning course in my local school that uses elearning technology in a traditional classroom so that students can get familiar with this increasingly popular option for earning credits.  That blended elearning course in career studies was very successful in terms of introducing students to elearning.  Any student who took it knew what elearning was by the end of it and whether or not it would suit their learning habits.

Way back in 2011 I was trying to wrap my head around how to get students in a 1:1 technology situation to make effective use of technology that most people consider mainly entertainment focused.  Seven years ago I was trying to help our union understand elearning and how they could support effective implementation of it.  Many educators turned their nose up at elearning and the unions would rather it not exist at all, but this kind of disruption is exactly what digital information does, and ignoring it isn't a good idea - just ask Blockbuster.

By six years ago I was thinking about applying to become an elearning coordinator at my board.  Strangely, after going in for the interview and not getting it, I was suddenly out of the pool of elearning teachers and haven't taught it since.  I've found other ways to exercise my digital expertise, but elearning has always been a fascinating union between ICT, digital media and pedagogy that I've never really gone away from.

With the rise of GAFE in our board all of my classes have essentially become blended learning classes.  I didn't make any photocopies for my courses last year because our documentation and information all flows digitally online.  I expect my computer-tech students to be able to effectively use our learning management systems.  Many of them take that digital expertise and use it to effectively engage in elearning.  Many other students from across the school show up at my door unable to effectively engage in elearning courses due to a lack of digital fluency - I still help with that, though it isn't the gig I'm being paid for.

All that to say, I have a long history with elearning and think it can be a  powerful addition to our education system.

Meanwhile, in 2019...



The current provincial government, without a lot of forethought or apparent research, have stated that all students have to take four elearning courses.  The high number of expected elearning credits and lack of infrastructure around this would suggest that this is an excuse to create giant classes, ignore pedagogy and pump out students with little or no effective learning.  If elearning is going to be used to Walmart education into cheaper, less effective process, then it's a disaster for students, educators and the tax payers who are funding a process that isn't effective.

If elearning is going to become an effective tool in our education system (and it really should), it can't be an excuse to cheapen learning.  There are too many corporate interests involved that want to make it exactly that.  Those interests may well be what is behind this latest lunge at Ontario's education system.

This approach plays to a common tactic: grossly simplifying a complex public service in order to diminish it.  Many adults flippantly state that they have to do elearning through work so kids should get with it. Teaching children isn't like teaching adults. When a wage earning adult takes a course, it's an entirely different situation than a child doing it. Adults (most adults, the adult ones anyway) bring a degree of self-discipline and purpose to a course of study that children are still developing, because that part of their brain isn't done growing yet; it's neuro-science.  Saying that children should learn like adults do is like saying children should drive cars because adults do (ie: a profoundly ignorant and stupid thing to say).

Elearning in our schools should start off as blended learning  focusing on getting comfortable with the technology and expectations of remote instruction in a familiar, face to face environment.  Most students are dumped into it without any clear idea of what it is and then given minimal support. Once the tech is in hand and a student has a clear understanding of how elearning might work for them, pedagogy and high standards are vital or the whole thing becomes a cheaper, less effective option, which helps no one and just wastes money.  Having elearning as a required blended course using elearning technology in a face to face classroom is a great idea, but dumping 4 remote courses on every student in Ontario is a profoundly ignorant thing to do; differentiation based on student need should always be a driving force in effective elearning (or any kind of learning, right?).

Integrating elearning effectively is starting to feel like a no-win scenario.  Between callous government announcements about forced elearning courses for all and the reticence of unions and teachers to embrace this inevitable technology evolution, there are few who are willing to champion it.  If Luddite teachers (and their unions) would turn down the skepticism and negativity and get behind effective implementation of this inevitable technology, there is a chance to beat the politics.

Elearning is going to happen anyway, and if we don't engage and participate in making it as pedagogically effective as possible it'll end up being the corporate/neo-con money grab it's being primed to be. When that happens, students and educators alike will be hurt. So will tax payers, because they won't be getting their moneys worth - the corporations pushing it and the politicians that serve them will always cash in though.

The way forward is clear:
  • prepare students for elearning by training them in the technology and the instructional expectations in a familiar f2f environment - no one should suddenly find themselves in a remote learning situation without knowing what to do
  • provide full support for elearning students including guidance and library/research support just like f2f students enjoy
  • set high standards and hold to them, including offering exit strategies for students the process isn't working for
  • develop LMSes that curate a learning community in digital spaces - a sense of community is vital to any classroom situation, physical or otherwise
  • provide elearning instructors with excellent technical skills and fluency in digital environments
  • provide passionate elearning instructors and support people who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure a successful online learning experience
At the moment we have post-secondary programs that won't accept elearning grades on par with regular credits.  What does that tell you about the current quality of elearning?  It's about to get inflated into an even less effective learning outcome unless Ontario educators come to the aid of this emergent type of learning.  We've fumbled it along so far, but without all learning partners engaging in this to ensure sound pedagogy, this forced approach is going to cause a lot of damage and cost a lot of money doing it.


NOTES:

https://k12sotn.ca/blog/ontario-e-learning-graduation-requirement-scalability/
To better understand the level of growth that this requirement would create, it is useful to examine what we know about the level of e-learning that currently exists in Ontario.




http://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Ontario-e-learning-plan-unique-in-North-America-1.pdf
Traditionally, in Ontario, students have enrolled in e-learning courses for a number of reasons: to fast-track and get to graduation early, to catch up in credits, to accommodate their learning needs, or because particular courses are not offered in their communities. E-learning has benefits for many students, and for some it is challenging. 

https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/does-elearning-damage-teacherstudent.html

https://www.reddit.com/r/ontario/comments/b2qq79/snapshot_from_elearning_that_has_since_been_taken/
Expectations change as politics dictate new directions.

https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2012/02/confessions-of-elearning-pariah.html

https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/04/09/news/ontario-may-create-student-inequality-mandatory-online-learning-report

The digital divide is deep and wide:  https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-digital-divide-is-deep-and-wide.html  Elearning has an expensive barrier to entry in terms of in-hand technology as well as broad-band access.  It isn't a cheap alternative, but it can be a powerful tool in our educational toolbox.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Victory Lapping Like You Mean It

I've always struggled with the idea of victory lapping in Ontario high schools.  As someone who returned to high school to finish his final year in his early 20s, I understand the need.  Had I not been able to do that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now and paying the taxes that I am.  I can see the value in a victory lap, but I did it with purpose, doing a full semester of school while also working a forty hour week.  For those victory lappers I see returning with that kind of intent, I have nothing but patience.

Find Rick & Morty hard to stomach? Your students don't...
Unfortunately, this past year I saw a number of victory lappers who didn't apply themselves in school and then did the same again on their victory lap, at great expense to the system.  If it's to get credits needed to graduate or get into a particularly difficult post-secondary program and the graduate is attacking the opportunity like it matters, then it's obviously a good thing, but if it's for familiarity's sake, as has been the case this year, then I have to wonder why anyone would want to chuck their final year of income (which is usually your best one) down the toilet so they can hang out in high school for an extra year.

Just think about that for a sec.  You're not giving up your first year of income when you victory lap, you're giving up your last.  Students (and parents) often misunderstand this fact.  You'll always start off at the lower end of the pay scale, but where you finish when you retire is what you're cutting a year from because you're starting late.  Victory lapping isn't just expensive to the system, it's astonishingly expensive to the student, but in a world of helicopter parents and childhoods designed to protect children from the results of poor decision making, we continue to produce graduates who want to stay in the safe, no deadline, guaranteed success of high school.


In addition to this costing each victory lapping student tens of thousands of dollars, it's also costing the system millions.  Victory lapping isn't a very efficient way of resolving graduates, but we do tens of thousands of times a year in Ontario.

The other night I was at our graduation where I saw all sorts of students graduating who are returning next year.  If they're graduating then it means they've already gotten the credits they need to move on, so why stay?  Some will argue that they're staying to raise their grades.  Was it worth tens of thousands of dollars to screw around in your grade 12 year instead of buckling down and getting it done?  Some are staying because they simply can't think of what to do next and couldn't be bothered to make plans because the system is waiting to look after them yet again.  Those students (and their parents) are putting an awful lot of weight on an increasingly underfunded school system by doing that, in addition to flushing that year of income down the toilet.


Year over year I've seen some radically different approaches to victory lapping.  In 2018 I had some very strong students victory lap and in doing so they did incredible, portfolio building things that helped them get into nearly impossible to access post-secondary programs.  When students do that with a victory lap, ie: ride it like they stole it, then I'd argue it's a brilliant strategy.  They might have lost a lower last year of earnings, but they've gained a new career trajectory that annihilates that loss.  In the case of 2018, where our victory lappers were winning their way to national titles and opening up career opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have considered, you'd be hard pressed to make an argument, economic or otherwise, for not doing it.

A few years ago I noticed that our victory lappers were often hanging around the computer tech lab having completed the course curriculum.  In many cases they were heading into digital technologies in post secondary and needed a final boost in terms of experience and an opportunity to build portfolio.  I developed the TEN4M course, specifically designed for digital technologies students looking to build portfolio for post secondary.  Up until this year it has worked a treat.  An opportunity to exercise engineering process and lead a self directed project that raises digital literacy in our school has been very beneficial.

The first year we did it Zach, who had struggled earlier on, was able to direct his new found maturity into his development as an IT technician to the point where he dominated Skills Ontario provincials with the highest technical score and a gold medal, and then a top five finish in Canada.  In the years since we've had students who have helped hone the TGI Game Development course into the weapon it is today, medal winning co-op students who have developed programs with our feeder schools to enhance both their technology and their teaching of it and a wide variety of other students who have developed the hands on technical experience needed to launch themselves into a career in tech.  Cal, our most recent Skills Ontario champion, used his victory lap to help form our first CyberTitan cyber security team and land us a national finalist position, then he went on to win Skills Ontario and get another top 5 national finish.  Cam, another of last year's victory lappers, also helped launch our CyberTitan program and then went on to a top 10 finish in our first ever attempt at coding at Skills.  In both cases these experiences launched them into Waterloo's Computer Science program, which is notoriously hard to access.

Finding the time to develop and explore technical skills that require hands-on experience and space to develop is especially challenging in an Ontario secondary curriculum that is still very much focused on academics.  For the students (and there are many) who want to work with their hands rather than at a desk, having an extra year to focus on applied skills is invaluable in a system where every subject is mandatory except those that teach hands-on technical skills.  For students who are trying to expand their digital portfolio in order to access difficult post-secondary options, it really is a necessity if the curriculum is going to remain as it is.

It looks like we've got a pretty good handle on how to accelerate students accessing a victory lap into post-secondary options, but this past year has been a victory lap disaster.  In semester one my only victory lapping student wasn't interested in leading projects or improving school technology access and learning (the point of the course: using your digital expertise, help to improve the school's digital access and usage).  From the year before when I had students blowing expectations (both mine and their own) out of the water, I went to 2019s flaccid VLappers who were just looking for a free go-around with no initiative or effort required.  In semester two they were so shaky they just ended up dropping out - after flushing a year of income down the toilet.  In cases like this, it's hard to justify victory lapping in any way.

For the students who need to make up credits or align their high school trajectory with a difficult to access program, I have infinite patience when it comes to victory lapping, but for the directionless, there needs to be something in place (a charge for dropped/failed courses?) that stops this being a year of doing as little as they can while draining a system that is already being strangled financially.  If students are victory lapping with purpose, developing their capabilities using focus from late blooming maturity, then I am more than happy to pay the taxes that enable them to fight their way into a world that is more economically inaccessible now than it has been for any previous cohort.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Privilege Masquerading as Superiority

Last year while at the CyberTitan National Finals in Fredericton I happened to be standing by Sandra Saric, ICTC's VP of talent innovation, during a photo opportunity where the fifty or so student competitors were all together on a long stairway.  Under her breath she wondered, "where are all the girls?"  There were maybe three or four female contestants.  Sandra's comment resonated with me and I became determined to put together a female team that would get their own points and where no one is 'just a sub'.

CyberTitan and Cyberpatriot have doubled down on this focus on bringing women into a cybersecurity industry that has only moved from 11% to 20% female participation in the past five years.  For the
2018-19 season any all-female teams had their costs waived.  For a program that isn't rolling in support, that made a big difference and enabled me to pursue this inequity.

Graduating girls into non-traditional careers is an ongoing challenge in education.  Pushing against social norms is never easy, particularly so in our conservative, rural school where gender expectations tend to be even more binary and specialized program support significantly lower than in urban environments.  I've managed to have one or two graduating female computer technology focused students each year, but even that small step has only come after massive effort, and it's not nearly enough.  Even with all that stacked against us, we still managed a 33% female participation rate in CyberTitan this year, and of our six Skills Ontario competitors, two were female.  We're aiming to raise that even higher next year.


This year CyberTitan made a point of trying to address the very one sided gender participation in the cybersecurity industry by making the national wildcard position open to all-female teams.  There were only 15 out of 190+ teams in the competition, and our Terabytches finished in top spot.  We were delighted to discover that one of our boy's teams actually finished one place out of the top four eastern teams.  A number of people (oddly all male)  grumbled about the all-female wildcard spot, but the irony is that we knocked ourselves out of the finals.

Taking an all-female team meant that I needed a female chaperone with us.  Fortunately, our board's head of dual credit programming is a triple threat.  Not only is she very tech focused (her student just won top secondary brick layer in Ontario!), but she's also computer science qualified and an absolute joy to travel with (I went to Skills Canada Nationals in Edmonton with her last year), so I quickly asked her to join us when the call came through to bring our girls to nationals.  Not only did she not need coverage herself, but she kindly covered mine so my school literally paid nothing for this trip.

I like to think I'm pretty sensitive to gender roles in the first place, but taking an all-female crew to this event had me constantly seeing micro-aggressions I might have otherwise missed.  Within five minutes of picking up the Toronto (all-male) teams on the bus ride to Ottawa, one of them had intimated that we were only there because we're a girl's team.  Another later said that it's not fair that girls are getting special attention.  It must be tough when everything isn't about you all the time.  These comments were a daily occurrence from all the other teams, even the two co-ed ones, one of the girls of which said that she was just the sub.

That same Toronto team was able to attentively listen to a male speaker during the visits to cybersecurity companies in the Ottawa area after the competition, but the moment a woman stepped up to speak they began a loud and rude conversation among themselves.  I wonder how often these little princes (who did ever so well in the competition) have had their gender superiority enforced to develop such outstanding habits.

Walking in to the competition, our team had all signed in but one and as she reached for the pen a boy from another team stepped in front of her like she wasn't there.  Talking to Joanne and the team about it after, they shrugged and said, "you get used to it."  By that point I'd been triggered by this so much that my already light grip on my aspie-ness was slipping and I was starting to get right angry, but even that anger response is couched in a male sense of privilege.  When a man gets angry it's seen as assertiveness, when a woman gets angry she's a bitch, which brings up yet another point.

After fighting to get a team together against overwhelmingly genderized expectations in our community, and encouraging that team to develop a representative sense of identity in an overwhelmingly male contest, and then having to push back when the powers that be didn't like the name, you'd think this was all starting to get too heavy, but it has only clarified my sense of purpose.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if girls didn't have to get used to being invisible and could self-identify without being told what they can and cannot be called?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could be what they are and explore what they could be without some small minded traditionalist trying to put them in a superficial box?  When you push back against that social apathy you get a surprising amount of kickback from the people it benefits.  Ontario's current political mess is entirely a result of that conservative push back.

You even get kick back from the people it subjugates.  At an ICT teacher's meeting earlier in the year, a teacher from an Ottawa school said she would never run an all female team because it isn't fair to her boys.  Were everything else level, I'd agree with her sentiment, but in the landslide of unfairness around us, you'd have to be wilfully blind to ignore historically integrated misogyny in order to be 'fair to your boys'.  This teacher taught at the local International Baccalaureate school, which brings up yet another side of competition and privilege.

Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver... Fergus.  Your
usual expected centres of digital excellence.
We're a rural composite school that spreads itself thin catering to our entire community.  The major industry in our region is farming, we recently had our annual Tractor Day.  Our school contains programs for developmentally delayed students and has a sizable special needs student population.  We also manage to run a number of successful academic programs, but these are by no means our sole purpose.  Tech exists in there somewhere.

As far as computer technology goes, our lab is a room full of ewaste we've re-purposed to teach ourselves technology.  Thanks to some board SHSM funding and an industry donation from AMD we got the cheapest CPUs and motherboards we could find and put them in ten year old ewasted board PC cases running on ancient hard drives and power supplies.  My students have never touched a new keyboard or mouse in our lab.  We have to clear away our practice networks built of garbage because we have the largest tech classes in our board and province and we have no room in the lab to leave those networks set up with classes of 31 coming in next period.  I don't imagine any of the other schools operate in a similar environment.

We returned the board desktops in our room to the school who redistributed that money into other departments because you can't teach digital skills on a locked down machine.  We've received no school funding for the current lab.  Looking into the backgrounds of who we were up against in this competition, every other school is a specialist school from an urban centre.  In many cases they only teach top academic stream students pulled from other schools, and yet they can't put together an all-female team for this competition?  One wonders if those competition focused, talent skimming schools inherently encourage gender imbalanced technology with their incessant focus on winning.


We're built on sweat and tears.  Our disadvantage is also
our strength, but when it comes to competition it
gets frustrating not getting to run the same race
as everyone else.
The socio-economic side of privilege is every bit as battering as the sexism.  One of the little princes from Toronto was telling a Terabytche about his parent free March Break touring Europe with his friends.  She replied, "Hmm, I spent the week playing video games in Fergus..."  Last year half of our CyberTitan team had never left Ontario before, let alone had a week in Europe with their buddies.  The students who attend these specialized schools tend to come from economically enabled backgrounds and have parents looking to leverage that advantage.  The amount of support those wealthy families rain down on these specialty programs is yet another advantage we can only dream of.

Think the privilege ends there?  Because we cater to the full spectrum of students in our community, my classes are huge in order to reserve smaller sections for high-needs students (even though many of them also take my courses).  In talking to other coaches, my class sizes were the largest by a range of 20% to a staggering 50%, and their operational budgets ranged from five to twenty times what mine are; I teach up to twice as many students with a fraction of the budget in a lab made out of garbage.

We were surprised to learn that we would be beginning the competition short-handed because one of the IB schools had exams some of their competitors had to write, so to keep it fair we'd all start short handed.  Right.  Gotta keep it fair.

That these urban, wealthy, gender empowered, privileged kids are flexing that privilege doesn't surprise me.  That they continually complained about special treatment for a group of underfunded, rural, girls busting through gender expectations in technology, and who fought their way to these nationals literally using ewaste, only underlines the expectation that comes with their privilege; the expectation of winning.

In spite of these society-deep gender inequities and our specific socio-economic circumstances, the quality of my students continues to shine through.  Finishing fifth last year with only four team members and two broken competition laptops was just the kind of awesomeness I've come to expect from our kids.  It didn't occur to me to have the whole competition changed to make it fair for them.


This year we managed a ninth place finish out of ten teams, only beating the intermediate team who can't really compete with older more experienced teams anyway.  That earned another round of, 'you're only here because you're girls' from other teams.  After careful consideration I think my response is: if you came from where we came from, I wonder where you would have finished.

Is winning more about how you perform, or how you are economically and socially engineered to succeed?  I'd love to give gender and social equity to those complaining about our presence.  Having those boys experience people talking over them and stepping in front of them like they aren't there would be good for them.  Facing down gender based prejudice in an industry where women are a small minority is an act of bravery, not special treatment.  Wouldn't it be nice to bring everyone up instead of holding people down?  To do that we need to recognize what winning is, and how privilege enables it.

Next year we have returning students for the first time in this competition.  I'm aiming to put a co-ed team of our fiercest veteran cyber-ninjas together, build tech out of garbage and then win anyway.  Nothing gets me going more than an underdog fight against privilege, especially when those with that privilege like to selectively ignore it.

I hope we'll be back with another all-female team too.  Many of the Terabytches are interested in returning, but I can understand their hesitancy.  Working through this competition has challenged them in ways that were unintended.  If it was just about technical skill, then we'd have been much further down the track, but when you have to fight to be noticed and are constantly talked down to, it's exhausting.  I get why they might think twice about going through the never-ending online and face to face sexism all over again.  It'd be nice if other schools would pick this up and run with it instead of rolling their eyes at it.

Last year was all about giving the haves a black eye, and it thrilled me.  We didn't return home with a trophy or a banner, but we were running a different race.  I'm not even sure how anyone could make this an even race.  Teaching technology is dependent upon access to it, and the digital divide is deep and wide.  This year it was about something even bigger.  Yet again we came home empty handed, but I think what we won was worth more than any of the prizes.  I hope the girls see that and come back to defend their title.


An amazing opportunity and a chance to begin to create balance in an industry that lacks it.  Great work ICTC!