Saturday, 24 November 2012

Radical Transparency

Mr Universe Knows!
I just read an email from our union lamenting the lack of control when it comes to presenting our contract information to us.  In the 36 hours OSSTF took to put together a two page comparison of our deal with the one the Catholic teachers had land on them, details leaked to the press and were already flowing around social media before that.

When we finally got 'official' information it was formatted entirely in comparison to the OECTA deal - we don't get to see actual details, we get a selection of facts designed to look better than the pile of manure OECTA provincial executive signed off on for their members (none of whom have ratified it) last summer.  I'm having trouble seeing the democracy through the political machinations.

Watching the government, the forth estate and our union trying to manipulate the flood of information in an increasingly flat mediascape is rather tragic to watch.  These lumbering dinosaurs try to breach holes or spin facts, only be swamped by crowd-sourced social media.  They want to harness the crowd for their own ends only to find their carefully laid plans designed to manipulate results thrown into the weeds.

We might have evolved into Web2.0, but it is also causing a more democratic means of understanding the world and ushering in a Democracy2.0 wherein people have access to more information sources and are no longer held captive by traditional organizations and the big media that served them.  The Arab Spring, OccupyAnonymous and many other social movements are happening because governments and corporations don't own the signal any more.  Anyone with an internet connection can publish to the world, find information and create community with like minded people.

How is a political organization to survive in a time where they can't control their own message?  Perhaps by putting out a message that doesn't need controlling in order to be accepted.  This would mean un-spinning and de-lawyerizing your organization and simply being direct and consistent with what you stand for.  Being accessible and open about communicating wouldn't hurt either - if you're working behind closed doors, you're not getting the point..

Your political party shouldn't be trying to win elections, it should have a clear vision of what it stands for and then never waiver from that goal in word and deed.  If you're consistent, radical transparency and the flattening mediascape doesn't frighten you, it empowers you.  If you're a shifty, manipulative organization that is used to getting its own way by having direct access to big media, your days are numbered.

Radical transparency means you don't have to stand up and read a script, you don't have to wonder how the numbers will play out on a new policy, and you never have to come back to an interview and say, wow, we really screwed that up.  You don't have spin doctors telling you what to think about issues, you know your beliefs and you act on them.

As insane as I think Tim Hudak's tea party Conservatives are, at least they are consistent in their insanity.  The NDP are also consistent in their left winged-ness.  The Liberal party (whom I used to vote for and was considering membership in after I became a Canadian citizen) are something unique to Canada, but in trying to be centrist they have ended up being worse than the right wing bullies; a manipulative party that only stands for being in power, consistency be damned.

I'm having trouble being unionist at a time when my union seems to be playing the same kind of Liberal game, of speaking out of both sides of their faces.  One moment the offered contract is a disaster and we're ordered to go on work action; the union is overjoyed at the crowd sourced support they are seeing online and myself and others are more than happy to vocally convey the unfairness of the situation.  In the next we are suddenly accepting a similar contract.  Communication has stopped and online voices have turned from supportive to hurt and confused.

I'm a creature of this flattened mediascape.  I cannot understand or condone the backroom politics or spin.  I don't want to be manipulated, I don't want to be treated like an idiot who can't know details, I want the facts, and if I'm not given them, they are easily enough found online.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Hostage Situation

 I'm being held hostage by an authoritarian government.  These fascists (they certainly don't believe in democracy) have demanded that I surrender my rights and work under their terms.  In this impossible environment the people who speak for me have begun a legal battle on this government's attack on my fundamental Charter freedoms.  The process of overturning that legislation will take time, but it will eventually be overturned and will result in the end of this nasty, self-serving government and their illegal legislation.

My rep has also tried to bargain a deal to protect me in the meantime.  The bargain was made with a Bill 115 Magnum aimed at our heads, so a fair deal wasn't exactly the result of the process.  

There was no negotiation, it was more like begging for our lives.  This government was happy to turn the public against us in order to further their agenda.

If you're held hostage you look for the basics, you don't start asking for more than you had. It's a moment of desperation.

If we don't take the deal our rep has scraped together for us, this authoritarian regime will put us in an even worse situation because it has legislated our rights away.  In either case we will no longer have anything like we had.  We either lose a lot and keep a bit because our rep got some concessions out of the regime, or we end up in their even worse MoU prison, either way, we lose.

When someone has a gun to your head, do you start moralizing with them?

So do we vote for a contract that strips us of years of concessions because this government would rather flush money down poorly managed ehealth experiments, semi-privatized air ambulances, quarrelsomeness wind power and on again/off again power plants, or do we go to the wall and burn it all down because this is just wrong?  

If we don't vote for this, something even worse is imposed on us anyway.  This is divisive no matter how you play it.  Junior teachers lose their grid increases, senior teachers (who are the majority) don't lose their retirement sick-day payouts.  Some boards may OK this, others may not.  This isn't going to create labour peace, it's going to create an uneven mess across the province.

In the meantime that fight to overturn the regime continues.  In a year and a half, we could very well be standing over the ruins of Bill115 (and the Ontario Liberal dream of being the government) and be able to bargain a fair deal under Canadian law; we can't do that right now.  Whether we vote for this or not, our agreements will be in tatters because the Ontario Liberals and their Tea-party-Hudak lapdogs have pushed through this ridiculous, undemocratic legislation.

Do you go along with what you know is wrong hoping to protect you and your family as best you can or do you say, "NO, this is wrong, I will not be a party to it"?  This isn't an easy decision.

The lack of clarity, both moral and professional in this makes this a very uncertain, difficult decision to make.  Unfortunately I'm a bloody minded kind of fellow; I fear I'll vote for what's right, whatever the cost, politics be damned.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The ideal digital learning tool

I'm thinking about what the ideal digital tool would be for student learning.

It has to offer strong reading and browsing abilities as well as data entry.  I want the benefits of a passive consumption device (like a tablet) with the benefits of an active media production device (like a laptop).  My ideal device must have a keyboard and mouse pad, but also offer touch screen functionality.  It'll also rotate to use the screen more effectively as a reader/tablet.

It also has to be ruggedized (I have no misconceptions about how hard kids are on electronics).  It would also be built like lego (compartmentalized and accessible to easily replace failed parts).  The goal weight would be under 3 pounds.  At three pounds we'd be providing a device that can easily carry all the student's text books, binders and loose paper without injuring them or destroying the planet.

Some devices I'd shamelessly steal brilliant design ideas from:

Dell's latest round of ultrabooks with a flippable screen offer the kind of flexibility I'm looking for - the benefits of a rotating tablet screen (allowing you to turn a widescreen to a tall screen for reading), light weight, flexible, powerful...

In fairness (and because I have one), HP has been making touch screen/tablet laptops for years.

I don't care which technology gets used (which ever is more durable), but the idea of a lightweight touch screen reader AND a laptop that allows for full media creation is vital!

Horizontal wide-screens are designed for entertainment, but reading only happens well when you've got continuous text you don't have to constantly scroll through a narrow window.  These learning tools MUST allow for the most accessible e-reading experience - meaning a device that can mimic a tablet.  

The end result has at least a 128GB solid state drive (SSD), that allows for multiple OS installs if a student wants them.  The hardware would be able to run CHROME OS, LINUX, OSx and Windows (depending on student experience, preference and ability).  The choice to upgrade on-device storage would be easy because the SSD it comes with would be a standard 2.5 inch laptop hard drive bay that would take any of many choices of hard or solid state drive.

Basic connectivity to the device would be through USB3 and video out - mini-dvi (for sharing presentations).  No manufacturer specific connectors (Apple, I'm looking at you and your weird dongle fixation).

The screen would be a 13 inch unit with a standard resolution of 1366x768, though a student who wants a higher (retina) level display could always upgrade to one (since they bolt on, this would be a matter of standardizing monitor connectors and offering variations in resolution and colour quality based on cost and need.  

While we're standardizing things, these digital tools would use standardized screws and fasteners that make repairs easy (are you still listening Apple?).  Any high school would have its own genius bar/nerd cave where students in senior computer engineering can repair and upgrade equipment at minimal cost.

The compartmentalization is vital to this tool.  The screen needs to detach logically and easily for replacement, same with the memory, hard/solid state drive, CPU, battery and keyboard.  Compartmentalization allows for much cheaper upkeep.  I'd also like all the pieces to be easily recyclable as well as replace/up-gradable.

The end result would be an easily upgrade-able, component replaceable device that is operating system agnostic, highly adaptable and tough.

The idea of an environmentally sensible laptop isn't a pipe dream.

Google could easily make this happen working with their hardware partners (an Edu-Nexus?) - Microsoft and Apple seem intent on closed eco-system models, even for education, but I live in hope.

It's already the end of 2012.  I'd love to see the silicon valley geniuses recognize that digital literacy is vital for education (and for the future of industry too - we're not producing digitally literate graduates!).

If we could get our hands on that modular, easily upgrade-able/maintainable, ruggedized transformable laptop/data creation, tablet/content consumption device, we'd be one giant step closer to helping students grasp opportunities for digital literacy.

I think we could mass produce these things for $300 for a basic one up to $600 for a tricked out one.  The revolution is well underway, it's time for someone to give us the classroom tools we need to teach it.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Public Teacher, Public Job

I've been teaching now for eight years so this is my first time experiencing work action.  I've had union jobs before, union jobs that went to the wall with job action, but the teacher experience is very different.  When I was a warehouse worker for National Grocers we were fighting for our benefits and pay, but no one in the general public ever thought that they knew what my job was or demanded that I stay after my shift to volunteer to do extra work for no pay; I guess the private sector has it easy.

The public nature of this teacher job action has produced a startling realization - there is a portion of the population that hates teachers.  Around that small kernel of teacher-haters is a larger layer of people in the general public who think that teachers are lazy, overpaid and undeserving of even basic Charter rights.  I have noted that many of these people tend to be under-educated and have a  lasting hatred of what happened to them in school.

Listening to someone who couldn't hack high school, let alone university (twice, once for undergrad, and again for teacher's college) crying about how little teachers do is like listening to the guy who thinks he can play hockey but can barely skate going on about how he could have gone pro.  That doesn't stop ignorant, lazy people from making noise though.

Then there is the management thing.  If you've ever tried to work out a deal with private business, they are cheap and relentless, but they are consistent.  If you can understand what their parameters are in negotiating, you can come to an agreement.  Also, if you do your job very efficiently and make money for them it makes more room for you in negotiation.  At no point in private bargaining situations did I see a deal stopped for political reasons.  You also have the benefit of working for bosses who are experts in the business (because they made it).  I never had to explain to National Grocers management what our job was because everyone at the table knew the business.

Ontario: top 3 in the world, midpack in cost -
best bang for the buck in education in the world!
If you don't believe me, believe the freaking UN!
If you're a teacher in Ontario these days your boss has no background whatsoever in what you do, and even though you produce some of the best results in your field in the world it isn't acknowledged at all; you still get to hear an unrelenting carcophany in media and the public about how easy your job is and how lazy you are.  Even your boss, a lawyer who hasn't taught a day in her life, likes to point out that you just took the whole summer off (which you hadn't).

Ontario's education system is truly world class, to the point where it is copied around the world.  If you go to an international school there is a very good chance that it will be running the Ontario K to 12 curriculum.  Private schools copy our public school system, it's that awesome.  If we were building cars, they would be the best in the world, they'd be selling like hotcakes, no one would think to question what we were doing.

So here we are, dealing with a Minister of Education who has never actually worked in Education - ever, a government that is more interested in poll numbers than in resolving serious issues and getting everyone back to work, and it's all happening while Ontario Education is the envy of the world.  Trying to negotiate in this environment makes very little sense.  It makes me long for the private sector where things made sense.

We threw money at GM so they could stop making crappy cars and become solvent.  We threw money at banks that had purchased bad loans.  If private businesses make bad choices, we cripple ourselves financially to support them.

However, if we create excellence we bitterly attack it, demean it and then use it for shabby political ends.  It's not hard to see why Ontario is going down the toilet.  We don't even recognize and protect excellence any more.  And when we've let ignorant (dare I say stupid?) loud mouths vent their frustrations at their own failures by blaming teachers for their own short comings while at school, we're left with a demoralized education system... hardly the kind of place that can compete successfully on the global stage.

Other Notes:
The poor right winger: what you get when laziness and greed replace industry and reward
All Hands on Deck: when politics dictate economics
Death of Vision: where our leadership went
Educational Maelstroms: what it's like to hear the negativity
Surfed PISA lately?: How fantastic our Ed system is!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Digital Skills Continuum

We look good...
I've recently thrown my hat in with a rough bunch of commando teacher types (@stevewynen, @mrmarnold) who have applied for TLLP funding.  My wife, Alanna (@banana29), saw my ECOO presentation on integrating BYOD into a digital skills continuum (instead of just instituting the policy randomly with no thought to pedagogical need).  The idea of doing some action research into developing a digital skills continuum was the foundation of the application the four of us have forwarded.

One of the arguments I made was that bringing your own device to class does not imply technological skill, and may ultimately hurt a student as much as help them.  It certainly does nothing but disrupt learning in a class if no one in the room actually knows how to problem solve and/or effectively use the device - especially a device where familiarity is founded upon its entertainment value - using that device for a previously unexpected purpose is perilous indeed!  Students who own their own device but have very little actual facility with it aren't served by trying to include it, unsupported, in an effective learning environment.

From the student who got the two thousand dollar camera and was going to return it because 'it took bad pictures' (it was set on web-sized 600x800 pixels, it was a 24 megapixel DSLR...), to the student with the new laptop that only has stolen games, videos, pornography and oodles of viruses on it, unstructured BYOD is a technological (and learning) quagmire in the making.   The assumption that because someone owns a digital tool that they know how to effectively use it is just that, a huge assumption; not exactly sound pedagogical practice.

How we assess and teach digital fluency lacks any cohesion at all, yet everyone is itching to throw ipads at students.  The problem goes well beyond student technological prowess to include many teachers as well.  If we're going to produce students ready and relevant to future workplaces then we really need to get a handle on our expectations around effective use of digital technology.

To that end it is well past time to begin developing a digital skills continuum - an objective, mastery based learning continuum (no, 50% is not a pass).  You either know how to use digital tools effectively, or you don't, and it's time to figure out who knows what.

It's early days yet, but it seems to me that digital fluencies break down into two fundamental areas, like the technology itself.  One side is communication/data driven and involves effective management of information in digital environments.  The other side is the technical/hardware side of the equation and how fluent you are with using technology to access digital information.  Both sides can be broken down further...

Any one of these particulars may be further developed to create a more nuanced understanding of a person's digital fluency.  Even regular users might be surprised by their lack of breadth in this area.  Knowing how to do one thing, over and over again on a specific (single) device well does not make you an expert.

Many years ago when I went for my Comptia A+ and Net+ certifications, I became aware of what the differences between a keen amateur and a professional were when it comes to computer technology.  The first time I took a practice exam I was stunned to be getting in the forty percents, I thought I was an expert.  That testing process is grueling and requires a 75% pass rate.  You don't get to call yourself an expert by getting it half right (why we think 50% is a pass is beyond me).  I'd like to bring some of that objective credibility to this digital skills continuum.  People need to be able to articulate and demonstrate what they know.  Guessing is where we are now, we need to move beyond that.

I'd also like to hook up differentiation of and access to technology based on how people are able to demonstrate their digital fluency.  A teacher with low digital fluency can access a supported lab, but the more advanced teacher can access diverse mini/mobile labs or even, eventually, a bring your own device model of learning, but only if they have clearly demonstrated the mastery needed to make that quagmire actually work.

BYOD - MINILAB - SCHOOL LAB: diversified technology digital skills continuum

We've painted ourselves into an ineffective corner when it comes to teaching digital literacy, and as a result we're graduating students who are having a great deal of trouble transitioning to the twenty first century workplace.  This technology change is happening so quickly that society and the education system that serves it, is having trouble keeping up.  Digital fluency (where it exists at all)  has generally been self taught, and as a result it is unevenly distributed and almost impossible to quantify; it's all quite magical.  Teachers who don't have much in the way of digital fluency aren't being assisted to improve it, meanwhile the rogue, commando types are just going off and doing it on their own.  Classrooms within the same department in the same building appear completely different in terms of teaching digital fluency.

A ministry initiative to develop a continuum of learning around the digital skills of everyone involved in the learning process would be a great place to start.  I hope our board and the ministry itself recognizes what an important and timely piece of pedagogical development this is and gives us a chance to further develop it.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Death of Vision

I was listening to CBC radio the other day and Ideas had a review of the repatriation of the Canadian Charter.  One of the people pondering the politics of the day noted that modern politicians don't stand for anything.  They remorselessly chase poll numbers, trying to place themselves in front of whatever the herd currently believes is worthwhile (itself dictated by big media interests).  McGuinty's shameless chasing of right wing votes while throwing teachers under the bus this summer is a fine example of that approach.

Don't look for moral standards, or even any kind of consistency in modern politicians.  As the radio interviewer suggested, we look back on our political leaders as giants and see the modern ones as dwarfs.  The old ones would push for a vision based on belief, even if it wasn't always rational.  The current ones shamelessly chase data in hopes of power.  It makes the business of politics very economical (and I don't mean that in a flattering way).

CTV is quite excited by this as ads for their Powerplay political commentary show declare, they are all about watching how politicians get and keep power.  I thought politics were about developing visionary leaders who take Canada toward a better version of itself.  It's now all about holding power, and not standing for anything in the process other than a Machiavellian quest for control.

Last summer I was once again listening to CBC, this time Matt Galloway interviewing the CEO of RIM.  As the agonizing interview went on, it became clear that this MBA wasn't put in charge of RIM to lead it, but rather to manage it into successful insolvency.  He shrugged off a question about RIM failing by simply suggesting that investors will make money on the deal because he'll just cut the business into pieces and sell them off.

Can you imagine if Churchill had suggested that?  Instead of we will fight in the fields, we will never surrender, how about we give you Scotland and Wales and call it even?  Everybody ends up happy, and so much more productive.

We value leaders because they stand for something, and never back off it, even (or especially) if it makes them difficult.  Wired did a recent article on Steve Jobs as either angel or demon.  The man was difficult, almost impossible to work with, and the result was market dominance.  He took over from a bumbling committee of MBAs who had discussed Apple into insolvency and took the company from the brink of destruction to an enviable market position before his death.  I have difficulty liking Apple products due to their closed nature and proprietary design, but I have to appreciate the power of a Steve Jobs.  If you want to be a visionary you aren't looking for consensus, you're driving for the best vision even if it seems unattainable; Churchill would have approved.

It's a pity that RIM went to the MBA pool to find another finance monkey to further run the company into the ground.  I'd much rather see a visionary, a true believer, attempt greatness rather than a controlled slide into insolvency all to benefit the moneyed class.  This German jackass they've hired couldn't give a damn what will happen to Waterloo and the many RIM facilities that communities depend on around the world if he manages to successfully dissolve Research In Motion into the highest bidders.

John Ralston Saul talks about the death of leadership and the rise of management in his The Collapse of Globalism.  Using false economics (there is no other kind), Saul cuts apart the chop logic of globalism and how it is used to manage people into a massive mono-culture with no way out.  Globalism comes complete with a data driven wrapper that is self justifying, and that desire to base leadership action on data driven decisions has been conditioned into us for decades now as the only credible justification for planning; it's scientific, logical!

In an age of computing it serves our current mindset to over value the potential of computed statistics

The MBA manager/priest uses incomplete/fictional statistics (are there any other kind?) to manipulate belief, founding all decisions on the inherently logical and statistically valid benefits of globalization, all while ignoring simple truths.  Those truths don't go away.  When you found your system on  the idea of an unlimited, limited resource (cheap oil) the truth will make itself evident.  The problem with globalism (and the politics, media, and education it has infected) is that we have all been conditioned to swallow statistics like they are Truth.

The last half century of post-modernism, globalism and mass media have weaned us from visionaries and simple truths.  These things are now aberration s rather than a cause for celebration; panicky by-products of a lack of control in an era of false computational certainty.

I am NOT a committee!
Next time your data-driven boss/principal/MP tries to base future plans on data that are obviously minimalist,  fictional and/or fabricated (and what facts born of data aren't?), ask yourself where our sense of vision went.

I don't want to base my very important job on data.  I'm not interested in grossly simplifying teaching to suit ease of management for MBAs looking for efficiency.  What I'd like is a leader with vision, maybe even someone who asks for the impossible and leads us on a charge into it.  Even a near miss in that case is better than the best laid plans of a data driven committee, and sometimes the results are revolutionary.  Even the failures are more helpful than statistically supported fictions leading to more data that prove how right everything is; simplifications supporting simplifications.

I'd rather take the road less traveled and risk failure while attempting greatness.  I'd rather fail trying to address hard truths than present false successes best seen in standardized test scores.  Most importantly, I'd rather believe in what I'm doing rather than being told what to think by a spreadsheet.

I guess I'm a man out of my time.

I'm not teaching you to play a game

There has been much talk of gamification as a means of engaging the digital native (sic).  I've been a fan of integrating complex simulation into the classroom for a long time now, and I believe that digital tools offer us a great deal of paracosmic power in that regard.  As a means of assessing student ability, nothing comes close to the immersive simulation to see multi-dimensional aspects of student skill, from basic knowledge to how they work under pressure and what their lateral problem solving skills look like (something most assessment is devoid of).

But like the flowery classroom in which no one can fail, the vast majority of games are designed to be entertainment.  The satisfaction you have in finishing them is entirely artificial - the point was for you to finish them.  Sort of like making a big deal of getting a high school diploma... way to get what just about everyone has.  I missed my high school graduation, but I didn't miss my university ones.  The best part about those degrees where all the people who started with me that didn't finish.

If we're going to set up games in the classroom, then they need to be full spectrum experiences (where failure is an option).  If you want to go all the way, actually set up the simulation to put your students in an impossible situation and then assess how they respond rather than how they perform.  If it works for Starfleet Academy in two hundred years, it should work for us now.

One of the most immersive games I've ever played was called Planescape: Torment.  I'll spoil it for you because no one will go looking for a fifteen year old game to play.  You begin in a Memento-esque amnesia in a morgue.  Through the course of the narrative you learn that you are immortal, though you've been killed many times (and are covered in scars).  The end of the game has you having to come to terms with a character you've come to identify with realizing that he has to die (and spend an eternity in hell - he hasn't been a nice man) in order to complete the game.  It was a game playing moment where I was completely lost in the story, when it asked more from me as a participant than I wanted to give, but I gave it anyway, and have never forgotten the effect.  Watching a character you've struggled to keep alive walk into an eternal battle on the planes of hell was truly epic.  Winning isn't always about collecting badges.

I've had a number of those epic moments while playing Dungeons & Dragons.  I've also created some sufficiently complex simulations in the classroom where students have forgotten where they were.  Being a Dungeon Master is excellent training for a teacher.

In English I've spun mutants v. humans in a Chrysalids simulation that had students who thought the prejudice and violence shown by characters in the book where 'ridiculous'.  An hour later the simulation had the same students jailing (and worse) the hidden mutants in their classroom, while the mutants tried to hide, then ended up drunk on their own power.  It left many students hyper-engaged, frustrated and introspective about human nature.  I wonder what kind of quiz would have resulted in that mind space?

Immersive simulation is a powerful learning tool - I believe it should be the end game of digitization in education.  A student who has had to experience Brock's sacrifice or Napoleon's Waterloo will have a sense of personalized learning that strikes the gaming nerve - they feel like it was a personal experience rather than something told to them.

They do this on the holo-deck all the time in Star Trek.  Janeway has Leonardo Da Vinci as a mentor, Data has arguments with Einstein and Hawking about physics.  Their learning is personal and they are active participants in it, the learning environment is personalized, immersive and offers the mightiest access to information.

Any well designed simulation has to allow for free-play and unexpected outcomes (Data vs. Moriarty is a good example).  If your games are designed for single outcome, or you're throwing badges on achievement, you might as well go back to photocopying worksheets, you're not getting what games can do for people.  Unless you take into account player freedom of choice and are willing to address unexpected outcomes, you're only hanging a badge on the same old linear knowledge attainment.