Sunday, 30 October 2011

Saving Us From Ourselves

When I see the vast majority of digital natives (something I've raged against previously) attempt to make constructive use of a computer in class, they are constantly sideswiped by how little they know.  Watching my students struggle with their own urge to pointlessness in a blended learning career studies pilot last year was very enlightening.  If you hand them a computer, for the vast majority, the first thing they do is open Facebook, no matter what the reason for working on the computer was, it's like a digital tether, 90% of their digital self is stored in that one place (the other 10 is on youtube).  College humor hits the digital natives where they live with this.

When a student whose primary relationship with computers is one of entertainment, they have great difficulty thinking of it as anything other than a gaming console for asinine videos and Facebook.

One of Carr's angles in The Shallows is the loss of deep reading in a digital format.  Our memories can very efficiently manage the linear data stream we generate when we read deeply, but not if we're continuously interrupted (by links, navbars, hypertext, incoming social media etc).  Interrupted reading (or any kind of interrupted focused attention) results in substantially lower understanding and retention.  This isn't an opinion, it's a fact of our biology.

The 'wild' (read: increasingly monetized and corporately directed) internet caters to this.  Google thrives on page views and the internet thrives on Google, so the medium has continually evolved into a distraction engine that encourages disrupted thinking and rapid, trivial surfing of web pages.  This isn't the fault of digital technology, it's the fault of human beings intent on squeezing wealth from it.

The technology itself could as easily be adapted to protect its users and encourage and engage a focused mind.  Off the top of my head, THIS would be a good start.  We could as easily create deep research apps and other digital tools that encourage and reward focused attention online (we do all the time, they're games).  The feedback loops I recently read about in WIRED would serve this well.  People wouldn't be so reckless on the web if their recklessness was quantified.

One of the ways we try to deal with this as educators is to validate fractured thinking.  We start to think that skills like multi-tasking should be assessed and graded.  Multi-tasking isn't a skill, it's a series of single tasks we do in a much less effective way.  Rather than encouraging it, we should be angling students toward short term intense focus if they have to deal with multiple tasks.  A quote from M*A*S*H has always stayed with me.  "I do one thing at a time, I do it very well and then I move on."  It's from Charles who won't adopt a meatball surgery approach to his work, he won't be rushed into doing many things poorly.

If we're going to be technologically inspired and effective educators (and I desperately think that all teachers must be), then we need to train a very clear eye on what the internet does and how it (dangerously) simplifies our thinking.

In the meantime, herds of edtech educators get giddy about a new app with many flashing buttons on it.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

If you don't use the tools, the tools will use you

@GlblCanuck posted this on our school email today: 

I especially found the last paragraph interesting - a Silicon Valley execs reasons for sending his kids to a school where computers are not allowed in the classrooms.

I'm most of the way through The Shallows and thinking about this as well.

At teacher's college one of the science guys was making a fake website based on elementary science curriculum that had all wrong content in it (so kids would use it to copy out assignments and then fail).  He was very angry that everyone was so focused on content (which can be easily fabricated) rather than building critical analysis and understanding... it was all about the whats and nothing about the hows and whys.  He thought the righteous digital natives who copy and paste as if they had made it had it coming.  Perhaps we need a Doug Couplandism here, "copying and pasting isn't writing."  

If you don't really grok what you're presenting as your own work, you're going to look like a fool.

In relation to the article, digital literacy doesn't replace the traditional kind.  Computers are never going to replace reading, especially deep reading.  But according to The Shallows, the internet might supplant them, which results in shallow, confused, constantly distracted people with no ability to parse complex thought.  Digital literacy should be trying to prevent that outcome, which I fear is inevitable without intervention.

From a Darwinian perspective, if digitization really does turn much of the population into mentally limited stimulus response monkeys with no ability to parse complex ideas, then the rest of us get to take over in a mighty Geniocractic revolution.

If we don't learn how to use the tools, the tools will use us.

I'm ok with that as a social Darwinist and a technologist.  I'm not OK with that as a teacher though, and the kickback I keep seeing through The Shallows and now this article make me wonder if this isn't just the latest in a series of Luddite pushes that rival intelligent design in terms of trying to scare people away from some hard facts.

Computers aren't here to make your life easier, they're here to amplify whatever you do, and if that's sheer stupidity, then you'll only get stupider in front of one.  Using something without considering how it's affecting you is not only ignorant, it's dangerous.

Hence, digital literacy.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Do you ride the horse, or does the horse ride you?

The idea that technology will somehow make teaching easier (or superfluous) makes me sad... and angry. The idea that it might be making us inferior to previous generations drives me right over the edge.

I've been reading Nick Carr's The Shallows.  If you're a techie-educator, you might disagree with him, but the Pulitzer prize panel didn't.  Neither did the Laptops & Learning research which demonstrated that students retain less information about a lecture when they have a digital distraction on their laps.  Carr's argument that digital tools teach a plastic brain to reorganize in simplistic ways has resonated with many people, usually people that didn't like digital options in the first place.

There is a big backlash against this single minded approach, which I think was addressed at the recent ECOO conference.  If students aren't able to recall details from a lecture, I think I have to start with the sage and the stage.  The idea of passive learning is rapidly losing traction as the most effective way to teach.  Countries that cling to the idea (usually as a cost saving measure and to try and adhere to standardized tests) are tumbling down world rankings in education.

A teacher who talks at their students for an hour will view laptops in their class as an invader who fights them for their (not so) captive audience's attention.  If you want to accept digital tools into a uni-directional, passive classroom environment, they are going to disrupt the learning.

Several of my students came up to me today and asked me how to perform a function in imovie (we're editing videos we've been working on for three weeks).  I told them both that I wouldn't show them.  Following the sage logic, I should have given them an in-depth 20 minute lecture on how to add pictures to credits, and then chastised them if their attention ever seemed to wander to the imacs in front of them.  Instead, I suggested they look at the help information, and then go out into the wild west of the internet if they were still lost.  I not only wanted them to resolve their own (relatively simple) learning dilemmas, I wanted them to feel like they had solved them themselves.  Within ten minutes they both had figured out what to do without being spoon fed the details; they owned that information.  For the rest of the period they were showing other interested parties how to do it.

If I had saged that whole thing, digital tools would have appeared to be a detriment to thinking and learning; nothing but a distraction.

The other side of this is the idea that teachers no longer teach, they simply facilitate, like trainers on a bench.  This usually plays to the 'technology will make my life simple' crowd, and it isn't remotely true.  To begin with, many students haven't learned to use digital tools in productive ways.  When they turn on a computer it means hours of mindless, narcissistic navel gazing on Facebook.  Students in my class are expected to use the computer as a source of information, a communication tool and a vehicle for artistic expression.  They aren't going to be the players if they don't even know the game.  I have to model and learn along side them, I have to demonstrate expertise on the equipment, and more importantly, expertise as an effective, self-directed learner.  If I do this well enough, I can eventually step back, but I'm more the weathered veteran on the bench good for a few more pinch shifts when I'm really needed, than I am a towel jockey.

A good teacher challenges, and  then is able to recede, but even that recession is a carefully modulated choice that balances student ability with student independence.  This is never going to be anything but a challenging dance that you will always be leading, even if you're not necessarily in front.  We CANNOT assume that students know how to use digital tools effectively, any more than we can assume they will intuitively grasp band-saws, or nail guns.

If you're into tech in education because you think it's an easy way out, it's time to realize that there are no short cuts, and that your job will constantly change, and you better be mentally lithe enough to keep up with it, or else the digital natives will use the tech in the most simplistic, asinine ways imaginable, and Nick Carr's Shallows will become the truth.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

You Say You Want A Revolution?

... well you know, we all wanna save the world.

Thoughts from ECOO 2011

You say you want a digital revolution in education?  Is your perfect classroom a one screen per child?  Do you rage against the bureaucracy and hate that this isn't happening fast enough?

There is a lot of excitement and optimism around this, much of it centered on the idea that technology will somehow make our jobs as teachers easier.  If you honestly believe that then your optimism is blind.

Technology will give you access to information, and offer you opportunities to differentiate learning and even assess student abilities in much more minute and specific ways, but it won't make your job easier, it will make it much more challenging, especially if teaching for you is a matter of working out a lesson and then repeating it for twenty years until you retire.

If you knew how to direct a plough team of horses in the field, did you really think that a modern machine makes things simpler?  Easier to operate?  Do you have to know less to operate the machine than you did the horse?

At the Ecoo Conference this year, many people focused on specific apps that would replace a specific classroom related paper based piece of work.  This is the equivalent of creating a steam powered horse, rather than designing a train that more appropriately uses the new technology.  Using google docs to replace individual writing is this kind of thinking.  Using prezi to replace a poster presentation is this kind of thinking.  Using Diigo to replace making notes out of an encyclopedia is this kind of thinking. The real power of these tools lies in how they are different, not in how the replace an existing process, and especially in how they create collaborative opportunities.

We are trapped by our preconceptions...

Those preconceptions also feed into fears.

The collaborative nature of online tools freaked out many people at ECOO.  The heel digging around using social media (twitter and others) to expand personal learning networks was consistent across many of the seminars I attended.  Many educators still accept group work in class, but believe online collaboration is a form of plagiarism and cheating, or even worse, it somehow causes children to be preyed on by making them public.

If the classroom is really going to bleed out of the factory inspired buildings we call schools and infect a student's life in a more permanent way (ultimately creating curious life long learners), then we need to continue to develop access to collaborative online tools that don't frighten people, and act assertively to clarify new media and calm down the analogue population.

I had a knee jerk response from an invite I sent out on school email this weekend asking if anyone who hadn't PLN built before might be interested.  The teacher (a self described dinosaur) said, "I don't want to be tweeting or any of that other social media stuff.  If I want PD, I'll read a book."  I pointed out to her that most of the discussion online revolves around books we've read.  The key difference between her enriching her own teaching and the PLN doing it online is that more than one person benefits; collaboration is what super charges it.

The foundation of all this anxiety is the spectacular example our digital native students make of social media, which is usually displayed as the most asinine waste of time ever devised.  Older teachers who are techno-phobic find the idea of using digital tools for productivity as foreign as clueless fourteen year olds do.  The blind leading the blind.

I keep trying to shed some light on this, but people get very cranky about it.

Friday, 21 October 2011

ECOO germination

Whole responses on each to follow, but right now here's what the ECOO 2011 Conference germinated for me:

  • thanks to a question during my Dancing in the Datasphere presentation (which almost 500 people have viewed now!): "has anyone thought though this from a how it harms the students perspective?  Or are we all just rushing to ipad up each child?"
I'm now going to research into how tablet displays affect people, especially children, after long term use...

If using these devices is physiologically hurting children, then people need to settle down on the 'ipad is our savior' angle and start pushing for a healthier alternative; I know Apple (and others) will deliver.

The ipad at high magnification:

ereader at high magnification:
Late night screen time with children.

We need to pay attention to what long term screen use does to children... especially if we're going to push for it on a one screen per child basis, which most people at ECOO seemed to be longing for.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge screen geek, we have no less than... 9 screens in our house, but some intelligent analysis can guide us to best use policies with this stuff.

There is a solution to this, but not if we think the ipad is the second coming. A tablet with a screen that can alternate between the benefits of a tablet touch screen and an e-ink screen for ease of reading on the eyes is what we should be demanding in education; if we care about the health of our students.

  • The mini-lab still has a lot of interest behind it.  If we're going to de-centralize school board IT access, this is a great first step that puts digital literacy back in the hands on teachers.  We need to reclaim digital literacy if we're going to own and direct it in the future.

  • Diana M's digital footprint seminar provoked a great deal of discussion.  Someone said that they aren't going to give the internet to lunatics and perverts in Royan and Zoe's seminar on a similar subject, and I'm all in with her.  Fear will not guide us in developing coherent digital pedagogy; something I think we need to seriously develop if we're going to meaningfully adopt social media in a useful manner.

  • The idea of decentralizing school teaching and using technology to adopt student focused and driven learning is divine.  But we're never going to have it mean anything if the ministry keeps mandating standardized testing and the strictly adhered to curriculums that feed into that testing.  Finland, the number one school system in the world, doesn't use standardized testing but sets very high standards for its teachers.  Until we do the same, we're going to stay stuck in third place looking for ways to cheat test results rather than teach students meaningfully.
I've still got a lot of ideas swirling around.  More will pop free as the weekend opens up my mind.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Cutting Cookies

CBC radio was playing a phone call from parent with a child diagnosed with ADHD yesterday afternoon and I'm having a knee jerk reaction to it.  The responses were based on THIS story.

The parent described her child as "energetic, creative and wonderful" but then said, "but he was falling behind in writing and maths, so we had to medicate him".

I'm a parent in the process of going through a psych assessment on my own child because he didn't  get stellar grades in grade one.  He is a shy, active, thoughtful, sensitive, creative boy who loves to dance and can solve puzzle games designed for kids three grades ahead of him.  He can use a computer like a pro and loves media, especially if it has music in it.  He gets perfect on his spelling tests, but still has trouble writing and staying on-task in the classroom.  He almost failed music last year (stern parental intervention deflected the well-meaning but paralytic school system into passing him).  They seemed to confuse lack of participation by a chronically shy boy in a Christmas Concert in front of a thousand people with the subject of 'music'.

When we went to see the psychiatrist, I was adamant about him not getting labelled.  The psychiatrist said a label, if properly applied, will help him.  I was adamant about him not getting medicated, they seemed more willing to accept that, though, of course, whole industries revolve around making these diagnoses, applying labels and following up with expensive, brand named drugs.

Oh how we love to systematize our children.  Achievement in that limited, disciplined, standardized setting is just so easy to assess and statiscize.  We can set them up in rows, itemize them and then compare them, all in a spreadsheet!  Oh, the convenience.

And that poor woman on the radio?  She, in a panic over how an incredibly myopic education system determine writing and math skills in a specific instance, is now paying a multi-national to drug her child so that it can enjoy 'success'.

Great job everybody.

Monday, 17 October 2011

I Hope They Realize Where They Are

Having just been to my first unconference, I'm still buzzing with the energy, collaboration, disagreement and accord.  It wasn't easy, or comfortable, but it was relevant, and it was VERY ENERGIZING.

This week I head to one of my favourite not un-conferences, ECOO.  This is the conference that got me onto twitter, got me building pln, got me blogging, got me into so many different ideas around technology in the classroom that it has changed my practice, it's a fantastic piece of work.  It's also the first conference I ever presented at, and I'm presenting there again this year.  ECOO works for me on so many levels, but this year I'm worried about the linchpin to the whole thing: the keynote addresses.

This year, as in other years, they've trotted up American presenters who, for the most part, present a consistent polemic of fear, anxiety and need for radical change.  It's all very exciting, and radical, and urgent, and necessary, if you're in America.  In the U.S. they've demonized the teaching profession (and public service jobs in general), gutted public education (and services in general) and done everything in their power to privatize what's left.  In the process they are astonished that they've  become uncompetitive.

What I fear is going to happen at ECOO is that two Americans are going to stand up and quote American statistics at us (again), while urging us to throw out everything we're doing and radically revise our failing education system.  Ah, the polemics of fear and upheaval; what happens when you let short term business interests (there are no other) run your society.

Except, of course, the Canadian education system isn't failing, it's fantastic.  We graduate more students, reach more with special needs and do it at a higher rate than almost any other human society on earth.  We have to keep working at it as hard as we have to keep it at the front, but throwing out everything we've done only works for a system that's in tatters, like the U.S. system.

I live in hope that the keynotes will actually research what they are walking in to and not treat us like a 51st state (again).  If they don't, expect some snippy back channel comments come Thursday morning.  I'm prepared to defend what we have done and what we are doing, it's important.

I've already had to go through this once this year (at great cost to my board), I'm going to lose patience doing it again.

Note:  The speakers were fantastic, taking an audience participation approach, heavily using technology (when the hotel internet would work... I thought private business was supposed to be all masterful with this stuff), and emphasizing what we are doing right, rather than what the US is doing wrong.  Well done all.