Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Follow Opportunities, Not Dreams

I'm up early chasing through UK documents on their worrying lack of digital skills.  A typical UK worker falls behind many other country's workers in basic IT skills, and I suspect the same is true of many Western countries.  When the digital economy is one of the few bright spots, Western students seem to be turning away from it (unless it's video game design, everyone wants to be a video game designer - as long as it means playing video games and not actually learning how to code).
We can't fill jobs in computer related fields, but less and less students are considering the pathway.
One of the prime movers in this shift away from viable employment follows an idea on bad advice I saw from a tech teacher at our school:
"Just because you're passionate about something doesn't mean you won't suck at it."

As a general rule, parents and students are guided in school to do what makes them happy.  We fill up courses playing hockey, taking photos and give out credits for things kids are doing at home anyway.  It makes for shiny, happy, low stressed students and a great graduation rate, but none of it is really preparing students for the workplace.

We are frequently updated with the number of students from our school who have been accepted to university (only university, the rest don't matter).  We never see any stats on how many of them finish the degrees they were accepted for.  I suspect that stat isn't very flattering.  An even less flattering stat would be an income check at the age of thirty.  I wonder what the employment prospects for those university bound students are.  What is their quality of life trying to pay off debts larger than they've ever been in history?  Yet that's where all our 'good' students are directed.

I dropped out of high school and became a millwright because I had smart hands and the apprenticeship fell into my lap.  When I didn't feel like that was intellectually stressful enough I tackled university and then chased the opportunities that arose from it.  I didn't become a teacher because it was some kind of magical calling, I became a teacher because I was chasing opportunities.

Much of the advice students get in school are from life-long academics.  People who went to school, attended university, and then immediately became employed for life at school again (sometimes the same school they graduated from!)  These people with their carefully proscribed lives don't experience the world the way the rest of us do.  When I see them telling students to 'do what makes you happy' and 'follow your dreams!', I cringe.

My son has recently been wondering about getting a job so he can manage his own money, he's eleven.  I told him, 'do you know why they call it work?'  He looked at me for a moment and then said, 'because it isn't for fun?'  Out of the mouths of babes.  I only wish school guidance would realize that basic truth.

You can derive a great deal of satisfaction out of your work without it being some kind of romantic calling.  Few people live the lives of celebrities, playing a game or making art and wallowing in the money derived from it.  Insinuating that kids could be that person is dishonest at worst and deceiving at best, but how would you know if you've never had to struggle for work?  We can all find satisfying and challenging work if we push ourselves and chase opportunity.  Train yourself to better chase opportunity and you'll find your circumstances will continue to change and improve.  One day you might find yourself in a well paid, challenging profession that you'd never have predicted for yourself.

Or, you know, maybe making a living...

Quinn Norton gives the blather some context.  Hobbies are for fun, your career
is probably not your hobby, and that's fine, it's how the world works.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Troughs of Disillusionment

It might seem a bit negative, but this process is anything but.  Adopting disruptive technology is a difficult business, those inflated expectations create a lot of hope and enthusiasm (not things we like in education).  With experience comes rationalization and a better understanding of how new technology can actually help.  It isn't all sunshine and flowers,but without a bit of heedless optimism, this kind of adoption would be too difficult for most to consider.
Alanna recently put me onto this idea of how the innovation adoption cycle actually works.  It's an interesting way of understanding how innovation ripples across established practices.

Though it's business focused, it demonstrates how even flexible businesses have trouble effectively adopting and harnessing technological innovation.  Education is much more conservative and inflexible, so this process is weirdly distorted in ed-world where many people still think that a chalkboard is sufficient.  

In ed-world that technology trigger is usually ignored, along with the hype, excitement and enthusiasm.  A kind of wilful ignorance blinkers many educators from even looking at technology, it's all just a fad.  What finally drags them into it is the fact that what they're doing in the classroom is sadly out of touch with what the rest of the world is doing.

While teachers complain about lining up at photocopiers but won't consider alternatives, the rest of the world got excited about cloud based documents and moved online.  Even as school departments worried over photocopying costs (and forests moaned under the weight of learning the way it has always been done), tech-hype excited businesses were frantically connecting up cloud based solutions and searching out efficiencies.  In business, management is often the most agile, forward looking part of the enterprise; the early adopters.  Business's willingness to adapt and seek out efficiencies is usually a lead by example process.  Educational leaders tend to get there by towing a conservative line, they're not interested in actually changing anything.

Without the lead-by-example business approach, technological change in education only seems to happen when there is no other choice.  When a disruptive technology is finally so overwhelmingly apparent that educational management is forced to consider it, they aren't leading by example and the vast majority of the people within their organization don't want it either.  Status quo rather than improvement is the point of education.

When it comes to education, we begin in the trough and usually don't get out of it:

We ignore the trigger and have none of the hype that encourages people to experiment and explore possibilities, there is no hope for new technology in the educational apparatus.  Beyond the classroom there is hope, excitement and possibility before finally dropping into the trough of disillusionment.  I'd argue that this range of emotion when exploring new technology allows early adopters a better chance to grasp what a new technology is capable of and allows them to eventually optimize their plateau of productivity.

In education we grudgingly begin in the trough, grumble about the entire process and then pick it up as poorly as possible, never exploring it, never revelling in the possibilities it might offer.  When it gets difficult we drop it, having never wanted to do it in the first place.  The poor support around embracing new technologies is just another symptom of this.

If you wanted a perfect example of how not to effectively integrate innovative technology, you need look no further than the education system.  There are outliers within the system who push against the morass of conservative norms that manage and run education, but they struggle to find support, often having to find indirect ways to explore and integrate new technology.

As long as schools are administrated by the most conservative elements in education (academia loves conservatism), we will always struggle to stay abreast of innovation, whether it be technological or otherwise.

Two Recent Examples

#1:  I got an HTC Vive virtual reality headset for the computer lab.  It's an uphill struggle to get any staff to try it (students? No problem).  The general comment I get is, "what did that cost?"  My standard reply is, "less than your photocopying budget."  The Board is unable to connect the SteamVR software needed to update the drivers and programs on the headset, so I'm trucking the desktop home each week to update it at home.

Even during those rare moments when we do get current technology in, there is no hype, only criticism and doubt.  For someone who gets excited about the possibilities of technology, this is a very exhausting environment to be in.

#2:  We requested a Glowforge desktop 3d laser cutter in for the tech-design lab.  Even though it comes equipped with Hepa air filters and doesn't require any exhaust, we were stymied by board safety people whose default position is 'no', regardless of any facts we could produce.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Perception is Reality, except when it isn't

When I'm packing up the computer lab at the end of the school year I usually do it imagining that I won't be back.  For an introvert like me, teaching is an exhausting business.  I don't get recharged by people the way others seem to; people drain me.  The thought of disappearing out the door and not returning is a happy one.

As the year wound down I came to realize that information technology has become like plumbing or electricity: no one thinks or cares about it unless it doesn't work.  Fortunately I'm good at IT and get a a lot of satisfaction out of solving problems in it (not to mention my staying sharp in technology allows me to teach it better), so even though it is nothing I'm contracted to do I still beaver away in the background trying to create a more accessible, current and consistent educational technology platform for our teachers to use.

I find the year end back slapping tedious at the best of times.  Everyone gets well paid to do their job and no one I know in the building stops there, but what some people do above and beyond is considered more important.  While some were having meetings and planning presentations, I was hand bombing over a ton of ewaste out the back door of the school to a local charity.  They have DD adults dismantle electronics and then make enough recycling it to pay for their charity work.  It isn't attention grabbing, but it matters.

The energy other people are willing to spend in order to shine a light on themselves obviously pays off, I'm just not interested in it.  Fixing things that are actually broken holds much greater interest for me.  Changing people's minds is exactly what I don't like doing.  People should be able to make up their own minds based on the facts, not on how convincing I am.

This year has offered me some wonderful moments.  By far the most positive experience was our run at Skills Canada this time around.  Seeing my student's surprise at winning provincials and then our experience at Nationals was awesome.

Another powerful moment was seeing software engineering actually produce viable projects this time around.  That class offers students a chance to experience team based software development and then publish code while still in high school, and it has improved dramatically year on year thanks to a lot of curriculum building.

The least professionally rewarding part of my year was participating in the school leadership team.  The work done seemed pointless and time consuming, and seemed to follow a predetermined process rather than actually being creative and meaningful in any way.  A colleague dropped out of leadership a few years ago and she claims it frees you up to spend your energy on more productive things.  I think I'm following her approach when my headship ends this year.

The summer is for finding my mojo again, and then refocusing on what works best for my students in the fall.  A list is already forming:

  • Continue developing curriculum that still challenges and differentiates even when I'm regularly expected to teach five sections of class each semester.  Skills Canada plays a big part in that, allowing exceptional students a chance to see just how good they actually are.  Skills preparation also directs all students towards higher standards.
  • Getting equipment in that allows students to learn hands-on, even when I have classes of 31 students in a room.  Have you ever tried to set up a classroom with 31 computers and then arrange additional space for students to safely solder, build electronics and dismantle additional machines with hand tools?  It requires fore-thought (and perhaps some kind of time and relative dimension in space device)
  • While all that is going on I'll continue to apply my senior computer engineering courses to school IT support.  This year we repaired 26 chromebooks that would otherwise have been chucked (repair costs were $1250, replacement cost would have been $9100),  Having a genuine engineering challenge in front of students is invaluable to them, saves the school board thousands and keeps the teachers they are supporting in working tech, even if it is thankless work.
  • Windows 10 free upgrades end before August, so I have to get into school at some point before July 26th and update all the student PCs in my lab.  Having a DIY lab is a lot of work, but it offers students unique access to software in a building otherwise tied down to out of date board software.  It's $135 a PC otherwise, so I'll go in during the summer and save the board another four grand.
But first, some summer...
Note:  I usually write a draft, edit it once and then publish it on Dusty World.  This got heavily re-written three times with an eye to repairing problems rather than just complaining about them.  The end of the school year often gets me into a rather negative state of mind.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

National Skills Competition Reflection

We're back from Skills Canada's National Competition.  It was my first time as a Team Ontario coach and it was a spectacular six days in New Brunswick.  The sight seeing was frenetic and then the opening ceremonies astonishingly loud and boisterous.  To say we were revved up would be an understatement.

After a weekend waiting for competition to start we were finally able to do what we went there for (compete), except we didn't.  I'd hoped for a top half finish.  Ontario's provincial skills are much more competitive than most other province's simply because we have the biggest population and therefore the most contestants; we had to beat more people to get to Nationals.  Aiming for a top half finish didn't feel like a long shot, especially when we'd done so well in provincials (a gold medal and one of the highest technical scores in all competitions).  I fear our good provincial results meant we didn't drive at Nationals like we should have.

I prefer Bull Durham's
dissonance over the pat
just be humble quote.
There is a place for
swagger in competition
as long as it doesn't blind
you to what you need to do
You need a bit of arrogance when you walk into a competition because, despite the platitudes, everyone isn't a winner, in fact the vast majority are losers.  When you dangle yourself out there in competition you need a bit of cockiness to survive the failures.  There were a steady stream of people bursting into tears and running out of the awards ceremony when they didn't medal.  Humility wasn't helping them keep their composure when they lost.  If you don't think composure in the face of failure matters you probably haven't competed much.

IT & Networking came up early and because of a screw up on the screen I'd realized we hadn't medaled before they actually made the announcement.  In that moment all that hope evaporated and I was struggling with disappointment.  As a coach, I felt protective of my student who wasn't happy with the result but didn't run out of the room in tears.  Since we were announced so early we had another hour and half to sit there watching others succeed.  It certainly set a reflective mood.

Our approach to Skills all along has been one of the long game.  Each competitor returns and brain dumps everything they can remember into a document that we can use to prepare better next time.  Our current competitors are often able to get in touch with alumni (the benefits of a small town) and get additional support and advice.  That'll happen with our first go at Nationals as well, so when we get there next time we won't be going in blind.  The three who did medal in this national competition had all been there and seen the scope of competition before.  Knowing what to expect is a key to success.

But there is another side to this that I need to consider beyond the long game.  I was very hands off with training my competitor after our successful provincial run.  He asked questions about subnetting and IPv6, and I provided him with material on it, but didn't follow up to see if he'd looked at it.  He hadn't.  I'd assumed he'd grabbed this opportunity with both hands and put his training into overdrive, but end of year distractions and a very successful provincial run had shifted him to glide.  After a long, exhausting first day of competition we were both sitting there going over material that should have been second nature instead of resting up for day two.  At that point hope replaced confidence for me.  I hate depending on hope.

I'm a big believer in students, especially seniors and even more especially competitors, being self driven.  I have no interest in hand puppeting students to a win, I want them to feel like it's their's because they are the prime movers in their own skills development.  I don't believe in moulding students in the likeness of my own learning, I want them to internalize it in their own most effective manner.  My job is to do backflips in the background making sure they have the information and tools they need to efficiently and effectively develop their own skills.

High school seniors on the verge of post secondary work in technology should have a developed sense of professionalism as a part of their skills formation, which means not off-loading blame when you fail, and taking on responsibility for fine-tuning your own expertise (I drive this home in class constantly).  Because these things didn't happen I'm at peace with losing - we didn't deserve the win - though it still irks me and has me wondering what I could have done differently.

Another reflective piece for me was remembering all of the curriculum I ditch in order to serve the relatively digitally illiterate students I get in computer technoology.  As we were going over subnetting I remembered how doing this used to be second nature for me as a technician, but I can barely get basic IP addressing across to the majority of my students let alone binary subnetting.  Dumbing down curriculum might make my program more palatable, but it didn't help us get ready to compete at Nationals.  That one's entirely on me.  If this experience means I'm not shying away from expected curriculum in the future, it might cripple my program's ability to take in the digital dilettantes and guidance refugees I'm expected to serve, but at least we won't get pwned again in competition.

When the lights come up and judgement begins, you don't want
to be hoping you might squeeze out a medal after missing
questions and going in unprepared.  Hope isn't how you win.
After losing for years (see below) and putting a good face on it (I don't like losing, I'm competitive by nature), I suddenly found myself, on only my third attempt, on Team Ontario, coaching my strongest Information Technology student yet.  That we didn't perform like we could have is the most disappointing part of this experience for me.

I don't care if questions are repeated so students who have been there before have an advantage, I don't care if the environment they put us in seemed intentionally designed to produce poor results (we were placed between an amplified loud speaker job presentation and millwrights hammering metal and running power tools) because everyone had to suffer through it.  What I do care about is approaching Nationals with a self-driven, professional mind-set, and I think that's what I'll focus on next time around.  Not shying away from complex material in my courses and keeping a focus on being properly prepared will help my competitors to do more than hope for a medal.  The valuable information we gathered this year on how Nationals are scoped means we're not going in blind next time either.

Losing for Years...
I stopped coaching soccer at my high school after a number of years because it was a constant hassle trying to get players out to practice (the fact that our talent pool was desperately shallow and we lost almost every game wouldn't have shaken me off like indifference did).  The time the student players decided (after losing another game) to just not show up at 7am the next day for the practice time they told me they had to have broke it for me.  I'd paid for daycare, put my own child into it at 6:30 in the morning and was standing there alone on the pitch in the pre-dawn light when I decided I'm done volunteering for this kind of abuse.  I'm glad I was able to find Skills Ontario/Canada as an outlet for competition that also helps improve my own program.