Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Tablets are like high heels part 2

The original: Tablets are like high heels
A while back I tried to wrap my head around tablets and why they are so popular.  I struggled using an original ipad and eventually gave up.  A bit later I had an opportunity to use a windows tablet and almost broke it across my head in frustration.  I'm a tech savvy type, so I kept at it.  If tablets are so great, what wasn't I getting?

This past year I got my hands on an Asus Transformer - the tablet that would convince me that tablets are handy (because it also comes with a keyboard).  It only convinced me that Android has a long way to go in being a tablet OS.

I've got an ipad2 and the Asus Transformer floating around my department waiting for robotics to start, so I offered them out to my staff for test drives.  18 emails requesting the slower, lower memory, single tasking ipad, one saying either would be fine (he got the quad core multi tasking Asus).  Marketing works.  Perhaps that is the key to tablet success.

The sell on tablets is a hard one.  You're getting epic style (yes, Picard has epic style) along with interweb access.  I want to be peppy, mobile and look like I come from the future!  I want a tablet, right?

Turns out I don't.  After trying and trying to tablet up, it just isn't sticking.  It appears I'm at an impasse when it comes to tablets and how I use the internet.

When I go online it's a full contact sport.  I like to get into many things simultaneously (that knocks the ipad out), I'm constantly taking pictures from one thing and slapping them into another.  I'm in and out of photoshop, dreamweaver and other processor heavy software, I want lightning fast responses, the ability to create media on the fly, a keyboard that rewards me for years of learning how to touch type, and a screen that offers a clear view of as many full colour pixels as I can lay my eyes on.

Keep your filthy touch screens!
I want no part of it!
I expect to be able to toss something I found online onto my twitter feed or Facebook or linkedin, or flickr or evernote, or Ning, or Edmodo or any of a million other online tools without having to wonder if it'll copy and paste this time or not.

Touch screens drive me bonkers.  Until I'm getting Iron Man like performance from my 3d touch interface, I'm not interested in taking stabs at data to see if I can pick them up over and over again.  Watching people do this on tablet baffles me, they seem content to have to attempt the same action over and over again, resigned to it - the inefficiency drives me batty.  The fact that you look like a lost mole looking for a hole makes me snort in derision!

Then there's the screen itself.  I'm the kind of guy who cleans the windscreen in his car often (or his glasses before he got the lasers).  If I have to look through it, I want it pristine.  Peanut butter encrusted high def screens hold no interest for me at all.  Even a plain old finger print smudge makes me wonder why you'd pay for the high-def screen in the first place.  I'm a visual person, I want my digital window to gleam.

Tablets are for people who like to watch, spectators.  If you are a passive web media consumer, I'd suggest going back to TV, but if you're determined to lurk, tablets are a good fit for you.  You look nice, but can't do much; we're back to the high heels again.

If you're an active web user, someone who produces (and by produce I mean generate media, not merely be a retweeting machine) as much as they consume, then you're going to find that the all show
Geeky high heels.
and no go reality of tablets frustrating.

There is no single moment where I've wished for a tablet when I've had my ultrabook handy.  Light, fast and fully capable, and running on a full/real operating system instead of the dumbed down mobile OSes on tablets; that is where my proclivities lie!

If I have to have a tablet at all, it's a phone and it fits in my pocket.  It has a good camera, can get me online in a pinch, the batteries last all day and it doesn't run so slowly as to drive me around the bend.  I'll live with the lame mobile OS until they get better and it'll do everything I'd ever need a tablet for without spending hundreds of dollars on a redundancy.

At any other point, when I really want to hit the web, I'll turn to the laptop.

Tablets might be a good fit for how you go online if you're a freaky lurker, but otherwise stay clear!  You'll look great using them, but you won't actually be doing much.  If that's your M.O., an Apple genius is waiting to take your order.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Aiming For The Future

I came out of business in 2003 to become a teacher in 2004.  I walked out of being IT support in an increasingly mobile office that had converted from desktops to laptops in '02-'03 and was starting to integrate the new Blackberry/smartphone trend.

I walked into a series of schools with centrally administrated desktops modeled on a working environment I hadn't seen since the nineties.  Workplaces evolve very quickly - mainly because of competitive pressure and a dictatorial approach to work (this is faster, adapt to it, I don't care about your opinion or habitual usage; if you don't like it, quit).  It's a harsh environment, and not always a productive one, but it is more willing to experiment and evolve.

I've always struggled with what I know to be current trends outside of school and what I'm seeing in school. If preparing students for the world they're walking into is one of our primary goals, educational techno-phobia and fear mongering Board IT myopia isn't getting us any closer to it.


Come into my office! Could this be how we interact with colleagues in the future? 
I'm still developing my talk for ECOO.  This always happens.  I have an idea I want to go with, then feel the need to make it feel as speculatively plausible as possible.  I end up radically retooling it before I go.  I like to get up there and see what I'm going to say, it's often a nice surprise.

When I begin my presentation I want my mind-space familiar with current technology and trends.  This article helps cast a net over what might be coming.

Future workplace trends wouldn't be a bad place for high schools to start developing meaningful curriculum around technological familiarity.  If giving students an idea of what environment they're going to be working in when they graduate is one of our goals, we ought to be seeing where industry speculation is going.  Soon enough our students will be out of our classrooms where we do everything we can to discourage technological adaptation and into employment that will discard them if they don't quickly adapt to new technologies.


Tech Cloud Brainstorming
I started with the Mini-lab idea for my ECOO talk. I'm still working along those lines, but the idea of a personal tech cloud seems like it will become even more integral to how we work with technology in the future.  From desktop adoption to laptops to smartphones, miniaturization is apparent, as is personalization.  Digital technology seems intent on integrating itself with us in the most intimate ways possible - which seems obvious as it is trying to interface with our most personal, mental selves.

I've said before, we live in a time of unprecedented technological growth, even the industrial revolution pales in comparison as a means of changing how humans live on this planet.  How we integrate technology into our lives will be key to us dealing with the population and resource challenges we face in the future.

Our technology continues to find ways to connect and amplify us.  Hand tools made our hands more capable, mechanization allowed dominion over our physical environments by reducing the need for repetitive work, and now our technology is creeping into our minds, offering us better memory recall, improving our senses, helping make our discoveries accessible and meaningful in ways we might not have otherwise seen.

One goal of my ECOO talk is to imagine a future classroom and what steps we might take to get there.  The idea of ubiquitous computing, technology that subtly permeates and enhances our thinking, and what an education in this world looks like is frightening, fascinating and challenging... just what I'd hoped the future would be.

Is Always On Exhausting or Exhilarating?

In a recent conversation with a techno-phobic (or at least reticent) colleague she was bemoaning the constant state of connectedness that modern technology forces upon people.  I've heard this complaint from a lot of people who struggle to remain unplugged.

The conversation:

she: I choose to remain present and not in a state of constant inattention!

me:  It's more of a oneness with the datasphere, you're never alone, a living cell in a massive organism... a heightened state of awareness, the world is all around you, information conducted by you...

she:  Wow...sounds almost like Zen Buddhism. Ohm.

One of the reasons this onlineness isn't work for me is because it's cathartic.  I never feel like I'm doing work, it feels more like self expression.  I'm the one who directs it, it's empowering.

What I find exhausting is sitting in traffic, fascism , traffic lights, current Canadian politics, indoctrination and standing in lines.  If I had to do that 24/7, I'd go mental, yet millions of people accommodate  these things as the necessities of daily life.  When I'm online I'm orchestrating my interests, communicating with people I enjoy and feeding my mind.  How would I ever get tired of that?

And as for information overload.... well... 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Lab That Isn't A Lab

I'm teaching Computer Engineering in a school computer lab.   It's the nicest lab in the school, and I don't want it any more.

I recently described it to my principal as, "trying to teach auto mechanics in a new car show room where you can't touch anything."

Computer engineering in school underlines everything I don't like about school computer labs (and that list is long).  I don't think school computer labs teach students anything helpful about computers.  In fact, I think they are specifically designed to be out of date, glitchy, inaccessible and frustrating - hardly the mindset you want to put students in when you're teaching them how to learn effective operation of an extremely powerful learning tool.

Essentially, what we try to do in school computer labs is teach students how to ride a bicycle by having a professional bike rider come in when they aren't there, maintain and ride an old bike, then leave it there for them.  We then tell the students to get on it and ride with no hands on experience, practice, training or intent.  We then get angry with them when they fall off and damage the bike, or ride it pointlessly in circles.

Whether it's media arts labs, or school computer labs in general, I'm not a fan.  The fact that they haven't changed significantly in form or function since I graduated from high school in 1989 should bother people, but the real bee in my bonnet is the lack of ownership in our understanding of technology.

If you want to use technology in your classroom (and in 2012 you'd have to bury your head pretty deep in the sand to not want to), then you the teacher need to understand how it works, and you need to teach this to your students.  The willful ignorance I meet in staff is sometimes good for my ego, but never productive in developing technical literacy in our students.

With our old tech, people are familiar enough to know what they are doing:
... but not so much with our new technology.  We need to address that.  Until we're all familiar enough with the digital tools we're expected to be literate in that their use is second nature, we need to spend time, especially in the classroom, learning what they are, and you can't do that in a school board IT straight jacket.

I'm not advocating for a ground up build your own computer when you want to type out an English paper (that's what computer engineering is for), but I am advocating for an open, author-able, stable, up to date system that allows teachers and students to become familiar with the options and customization available on this equipment (something impossible in our board, locked down, forget-everything-when-you-log-off terminals).

Back to the lab that isn't a lab.

When I was doing my AQ for computer engineering in the summer, our instructor showed us his new classroom in his new school.  It was fantastic.  Work benches filled it, fabrication tools and a few tables for the odd sit down talk.  It looked like a room where making happened.  There wasn't a single board computer in there.

Later in the summer, when I was picking up computers from a school in Guelph (a teacher, working in the summer?  Evidently), I saw their lab and it was the same idea: workbenches and stacks and stacks of parts; a room where hands-on learning happens.

I'm not entirely sure why we feel that computer engineering should be happening in a computer lab at my school.  My seniors don't use the school computers at all, and my juniors are only on them because they are there.  I'd much rather they be hands on with machines, except there isn't enough room in a lab full of school computers to make another network.

What do I want?  One of the de-labbed classrooms where there are plenty of electrical drops.  I'd be willing to evacuate the much in demand lab if I could get a room that let me store my equipment and set it up as I need; a room that was truly a lab where experimentation and hands-on discovery happens.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Diary of an Cyber-Settler

There's something to be said for being the first settler.  You have to be self directed, self sufficient, an explorer.  You experience the risks, suffer the failures alone and get a feel for the new world you find yourself by spending quiet moments in silence together away from the static of opinion and politics.

Later, as waves of immigrants reach a critical mass you see them bringing all the bad habits of the world they left behind with them.  They never had the opportunity to learn what the new world is telling them because they've never been alone in it.  They aren't interested in what the new world offers, they want to recreate what they left behind.  Whole political and social structures make this migration.

In the summer of 2005, only a year after I became a teacher, I signed up for summer school teaching only to have them ask (based on my technical background) if I'd be willing to give elearning a try.  I leapt at the opportunity.  Summer school was run in Peel by a separate business entity, and they were aggressively pursuing alternate means of course delivery.  It was an exciting opportunity that came to me years before the Ontario Ministry of Education even started on elearning.

The online Learning Management System Peel summer school had selected was Angel.  It was HTML friendly but often required hands on coding to get graphics and other information online.  What it had going for it was flexibility and freedom.  It was a blank slate that I could populate with my own material.  I could easily add links to outside resources and quickly got a handle on how to post up to date statistics to give students constant feedback.

I had students from across Ontario, 3 other provinces in Canada, Tokyo, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand.  Peel summer school offered the course globally (overseas students could use the grade in proving their ESL proficiency prior to going to an English speaking university).  I was buzzing with the possibilities of what a global classroom would look like because I was observing one of the first.  The student conversations were wonderful to follow, so full of curiosity.

This was the year after Zuckerberg left Havard to found his little startup.  This was years before the first tweet.  Phones were still phones.  In the dark fibre of the Internet before social media, we had a global classroom.  This was before the majority of students were psychologically (pathologically?) locked into the same three webpages whenever they went online.

You couldn't walk into the digital Wild West like that and expect to serve everyone.  The admission requirements demanded that you were proficient on a computer, knew how to get about on the internets, and were a capable student.  There wasn't a lot of room in the digital wilderness for spoon feeding the directionless learner.  The teacher knew how to code webpages, knowing how to simply open a browser was insufficient.  The students were digital ninjas, doing everything from their own IT support to working a system that still had the wrapping on it.

There was no real idea on how to do final exams.  We elected to run them in a 2 hour window on the last day of the course.  You had to login to the course, have your IP validated by me, and then write the final exam online, live, while I observed remotely.

One of the student's internet went down just as the exam started.  She called around until she found a friend out of the affected area, then she jumped on her bike and pedaled over there, got back online and finished the exam... on time, and well.  She also got barbaric yawps from myself and the rest of her classmates who recognized the energy and thinking that went into a fix with no excuses.  The students in Tokyo and Bangkok?  Up at 2am in the morning to write the exam.  They sent up webcam pictures of themselves with the city lights on outside... it was a sunny morning in Ontario.  That exam ran simultaneously in 7 timezones.

The Ontario Ministry of Education
works its way into elearning
I ran that course again the next summer (how could I not?).  When I moved to the rural board in which I lived, I suddenly found a dearth of elearning opportunities.  It took a year before they started to develop elearning, and I leapt into the fray once again.  In that time the Ministry had worked its way online like a lumbering kraken awaking from the deep, getting its tentacles into everything!

Elearning was now going to be organized, efficient, and a cure-all for every credit poor student.  They gave me a class full of drop outs from non-academic English.  In the first week fully half of them failed to login.  There was no local support for these digitally and traditionally illiterate students.  It was a stark contrast from my first experience with elearning where students would perform super human feats of daring-do in order to get it working - the course was aimed at those students; a higher bar to strain the limits of the gifted learner.

Half a dozen survived to the end of the basic level English course, which I had to keep cutting content out of because the poor English students were drowning in the text-heavy online deliver system the Ministry had adopted.  It was a disaster, and utterly frustrating - and every student was from my board, the furthest only 60 kms away.  It was about as magical as road kill.

The next year they changed the head of elearning and in the Byzantine logic of my board, other teachers, many with no experience at all, were handed elearning courses.  I could get none.

Blended learning stats from 2010
I came back to elearning obliquely the year after by being handed a blended learning course.  The idea was to run elearning in-class with students to familiarize them with the system, so when they got to elearning they weren't lost at sea.  The Ministry and Board were still set on using elearning as a cure all to limited access courses and credit poor students.

The stats from my blended class supported my suspicions about what a successful elearner looks like - the vast majority of students don't have the technical aptitude or the literary chops to manage elearning, especially when it's in an embryonic, text-heavy stage.  I ended up having to print out sections of the course so the weakest literacy students could manage the material.  Many more had a devil of a time trying to do anything useful with a computer and the internet, which they had only previously experienced as a toy and time waster (a new socialization that wasn't an issue eight years ago).  

The intrinsically motivated learner who explores independently and develops their own understandings, who spreads their knowledge where it wants to go, unrestricted by curriculum or what comes out of a teacher's mouth... that elearner is a small proportion of the general population.  I'd noted that the same division lies in just about everyone, including teachers.  Intrinsically motivated learners are a rare breed.

That year I heard of Digital Natives and almost threw up in my mouth.  There is no such thing.  There are capable, early adopter students who are self directed in their learning and can manage digital tools, and then there are the other 80%, most of whom are capable of learning what is needed to survive if not thrive in online learning.  The weakest 10%, dogged by weak literacy skills (no doubt a result of their poor learning habits) were incapable of interacting with computers in any meaningful way.

The fact that we are beginning to expect this proficiency in all students is worrying, especially if we're reaching for it at the cost of basic skills, like literacy.

So here I am, about to go back into an elearning class for the first time in several years next semester.  I fear the digital stupification of people - though that's not an accurate representation.  It's more a matter of these hordes of digital immigrants flooding the new world with their analogue habits; people being led here by social expectation rather than any particular predilection or interest on their part.

As someone who had a farmstead on the frontiers of the digital world since the early days, I'm looking at these wide-eyed, immigrants with a steely eye, my hands calloused with the work of building the digital frontier in which they want reside, but have no interest in understanding what it is or how it works.

I'm glad I had a chance to do elearning clear of the politics and the expectations of a bunch of bureaucrats who knew nothing about what they were demanding out of a new technology.  In those vast, empty digital plains, we took elearning places where it can't go any more because of MinistriesConsortiums , funding formulas and the modern expectations and demands of carefully managed and coddled digital usage.

Dire Straits:  Telegraph Road

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Answer Enright's Questions!

Michael Enright is interviewing 4 "new" teachers on Sunday Edition today (though I'm not sure a year 7 teacher qualifies as new).  Here are the questions he asked these bright and shiny teachers from across Canada.  Once he settled them in, the discussion got real!

Being an interrogative, tarnished, unpicked teacher, I thought I'd throw in my two cents too!  Feel free to grab the questions and reply for yourself below...

Why did you become a teacher?
I got downsized 3 times in business, and started to get the sense that you'll get used and tossed by business no matter how hard you work at it.  You'll put in years above and beyond and get chucked when it suits them.  I'd taught in Japan for a couple of years and my wife was a teacher.  When the last downsize happened she encouraged me to go take teacher's college in Ontario.  I didn't like school, didn't do particularly well at it, and still think it's a bit of a holding cell for disenfranchised young citizens (if the voting age was changed to 16, graduation age would quickly follow it).

I've learned in many different environments from classrooms to online to machine shops.  In my experience classrooms tend to be more about control than learning.  Every year before I go back into the classroom I listen to Another Brick In The Wall, and then promise never to do that to anyone.  It's very easy for education to become a mechanical system.

I love learning, and I see my students as people, not statistics.  I loved being Sensei in Japan, being 'teacher' in Canada isn't quite as renowned, but I'm dedicated to my professional practice and believe that what I do matters.

Are you a minority in your field (gender? race? age?)  What's that like?
I was the oldest in my teacher training program by many years.  Most of my colleagues were career eductionalists (public school straight into university straight into teacher's college straight into teaching).  I often found myself applying experience to what was a challenging teaching program while the pro-students choked on the work loads.

I've often found it difficult to see eye to eye with how academic teachers do things.  But one of the most important things about teachers is that they represent all aspects of society.  If the only teachers students met were academic A+ average robots, many students would be alienated.  It's important that we have a diverse teaching population for a diverse student population.  Mentors aren't found in ranks of similar people.

Has being a teacher changed you?
I've really enjoyed building a profession knowing that I can commit myself to it and not get dumped because of a spreadsheet.  That sense of security allows me to do an important job well.  It allows me to justify the thousands of dollars I've spent on my own qualifications without fear that it may be wasted.  Teaching is a long view profession that I enjoy developing year after year.

There has been a lot of latitude in job options, so I'm never bored.  Teaching hasn't changed me much, but I've finally found a profession that matches my intensity.  If it's changed me at all, it's made me a bit more reluctant to argue ideas (believe it or not), while I work out all sides of an issue.  Teaching makes you less likely to jump to conclusions.

Regionally, what's challenging about your job?
On the edge of rural and urban Canada, I have a great deal of difficulty dealing with students driving to school with large rebel flags in their pickup trucks.  The overt racism can be shocking (though it tends to be repeated from the dinner table and is based more on a lack of experience than a sense of actual hatred).  I enjoy taking as many students as possible on field trips to Toronto - it's good for them, though many fear they will be murdered.

Anyone spread too thin by teaching?
I tend to jump into breaches, suddenly find myself teaching pilot programs, heading departments, running sports and clubs, presenting at conferences, representing in the union... often all at the same time.  My wife teaches too, and between us I feel a great deal of tension wanting to participate in the full spectrum of teaching related work and keeping up with family commitments.

One of the hardest things I've found in teaching (I'm going into year 9) is the gearing.  You go at 110% all semester and then suddenly it's exams.  In June it then means summer.  The change in gears is stressful, it's hard to put it down, and it gets awfully heavy if you don't.

I've had half a dozen distinct careers... none have been remotely as emotionally, physically and intellectually exhausting as teaching.  If you're at work, you're full on, all the time.  There are no easy days when you feel like taking it slow.  If you're away, you're still planning all the work, so you're never really off.  When you are there, you're surrounded by people, an unfortunate percentage of whom are of questionable personal hygiene.  You get sick a lot.  You make your family sick a lot.  All while going 100%, all the time.

Are we asking teachers to do too much?
no average Ontarian would expect a 5.5% pay hike in these economic times, 
just because they took the summer off and refused to negotiate"
If their bosses are going to publicly humiliate them and ignore the actual job in favor of public illusions about the profession, then yes, we are asking teachers to do too much without recognizing what the job actually is.  I have been teaching for 8 years and have yet to have a 'summer off'.  I know some teachers do walk away and do nothing, but many more don't.  If you're going to represent a profession by their worst members, no job in the world is going to look appealing.  Teachers don't mind doing the extra work, they tend to do it for the right reasons (passion), but not if it's going to be used against them, which it has been.

How do you deal with the bureaucracy?
Cautiously, especially now that I understand I work for a ministry that is run by morally bankrupt vote grabbers who stand for nothing and are willing to toss any ideal they claim to represent into the fire if they think it'll satisfy the mob.

I've found my school admin to be relatively easy to work with.  The vast majority are professional and dedicated to fair, reasonable work.  I'm finding the larger, political structures to be somewhat less trustworthy.

What is the relationship between teachers and the ministry (bureaucracy)?
See above.  No real problems until this year.  We do our job very well, they support us, we look fantastic in UN rankings of world education systems.  Apparently we can trash that if it means winning a single by-election.  Now I am trying not to be hostile, though it is hard when your boss openly lies about you in the media.

Yes, going to school this year has been overshadowed by some very negative politics.  The only thing I find more frustrating are head-in-the-sand teachers who refuse to acknowledge anything about it.  It affects them, but they think they're above it.  How they can call themselves genuine when they are willfully ignorant of the hypocrisy hurting their profession is annoying.  Meanwhile, they appear to be content letting other people throw themselves into a fight that will benefit them while they do nothing about it.  I wonder how they teach students about democracies and human rights, it isn't through example.

Do teachers drive students to do well in standardized testing?  Is it a race?
I hate that they do, but they do.  Test scores have dictated where I live, which makes me sad.  Not all schools are created equally, and people grasp at anything to distinguish them.  I'm an advocate of saving the millions we spend a year on testing by cancelling it.  The only way we can get better is by NOT following bad US habits down the toilet.  Simplifying learning into standardized testing is beneath the standard we've set for ourselves.

How do you handle parents with unreal expectations?  or an abiding dislike of teachers?
The second bit I get a lot of around this very conservative (never been anything else) riding.  As a general rule I try and deal directly with students, my covenant is with them.  Having said that, I use technology to try and make my teaching as radically transparent as possible.  If there are no surprises, there are usually no complaints.

I also approach teaching trying not to prejudice students.  I've seen too many teachers gossip about a student and destroy any chance for them to build a new relationship with a different teacher.  I've had very good relationships with students who have been nightmares for others.  I try to avoid that kind of talk - it leads to confrontations with parents.

Even the most hateful parent won't have a complaint if I'm straight up and direct with the student and them about what a course is and how to do well in it.  The fact that I can talk to them from their own experiences (not just as an Ed-bot) doesn't hurt either.  It's a lot easier to commiserate with someone who has been downsized when you've experienced it yourself.  The shiny educationalist would find that challenging.

"You don't know what it's like out there, you've never worked
in the private sector, They expect 
results! (shudder)".


CLICK HERE to listen to the original interviews.  As mentioned, once they get settled in and get past the bright, shiny stuff, it gets real!

Here are the questions boiled down.  Feel free to copy and paste in to go face to face with Enright yourself!

Why did you become a teacher?
Are you a minority in your field (gender? race? age?)  What's that like?
Has being a teacher changed you?
Regionally, what's challenging about your job?
Anyone else spread too thin by teaching?
Are we asking teachers to do too much?
How do you deal with the bureaucracy?
What is the relationship between teachers and the ministry?
Do teachers drive students to do well in standardized testing?  Is it a race?
How do you handle parents with unreal expectations?  or an abiding dislike of teachers?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Beware The Dinosaur's Lawyers!

Watching broadcast media, one of the giants birthed of industrialization in the Twentieth Century, struggle with the recent Olympics was enjoyable.

Wimbledon Flashmob
Early on, CTV's London desk was showing video of a flash mob at Wimbledon.  The broadcast anchor said, "I don't get this at all, why would people do this?  What a waste of time."

He doesn't get why people would do back flips to get on mainstream media?  Dude, your entire career is predicated on what they are doing... did you enjoy getting made up for your camera time today?  Does your agent do what those people are doing all the time just to get your mug in front of more cameras?  Do you throw a fit when they bring you the wrong tie?

The 'let them eat cake' distance that the corporate broadcast media has from a bunch of sweaty fools having a good time on a hill at Wimbledon underlines how truly out of touch they are.

Technology has miniaturized, communications have become a widely distributed two-way medium, yet the corporate broadcast media cling to their unidirectional economic model, frantically milking it for all it's worth before the weight of inevitability forces change.  I'm not saying there won't be a place for professionally created media, but technology is allowing for smaller, niche groups to make what they want, how they want, and do it well while still making a living selling to niche audiences.  The days of centrally controlled media are ending because the need for expensive corporate backing are no longer a technical necessity.

Where once an artist had to gather the corporate power of a massive enterprise behind them in order to get their hands on the technology needed to broadcast their story, they now find themselves increasingly able to create their vision and distribute it themselves, assuming the wallowing dinosaur doesn't have a room of lawyers on hand, which they do.  Deinnovation by legislation.  Deinnovation by lawsuit.

Sita Sings The Blues
A couple of years ago I came across Quinn Norton's brilliant column in MaximumPC on the calamity that was Nina Paley's attempt to express her own miserable breakup using a brilliant mash up of Flash animation, Annette Hanshaw's blues, and The Ramayana.  To call this copyright theft is ridiculous... this mash up is insane (and brilliant - I use it every year teaching media arts).  Yet Paley was run out of business by copyright trolls (lawyers) who look for out of date art, copyright it, then lay in wait, hoping to squeeze money out of something they purchased from other copyright lawyers - an open market of dead artist's work being held to prevent new art from forming.

If that isn't an example of the desperation of the broadcast media system, I don't know what is.  They are so intellectually bankrupt that they can only recycle and steal other ideas.  The corporate media machine continually pumps out near identical films at virtually the same time, desperately trying to tap into cultural memes that they aren't agile enough to keep up with.  Indy and social media media create far more current, personalized and pertinent media in the early 21st Century, and younger viewers are cottoning on to it, even while everyone tries to dodge the wallowing dinosaur's departments of lawyers.

There will always be money to be made in a good bit of story telling, and digital media is nothing if not a good bit of story telling (even the news).  What we're seeing now is a slow, painful adjustment as the habits we invented around expensive, industrially driven broadcasting give way to cheaper, individualized, technology supported media.  Professional media isn't dead, but we don't require millions in corporate backing to produce it any more.  Don't expect an industry worth more than two trillion dollars to give up on squeezing it though.

I'd hope that instead of trying to cobble together another massive production, corporate mega-media would be trying to spin off divisions that support small, agile groups feeding niche markets, but I don't imagine that's the case.  The problem with really big animals that are ideally suited to a specific environment is that they are horrible at adapting.  They're great while the ecosystem stays the same, but the minute the social media asteroid appears, they just keep trying to do what they've always done, thrashing around, hoping to hold off the inevitable, until they are extinct.

Note: thanks to Quinn & Nina, Sita will be shown again in the middle of our Flash animation unit this year.  I'm looking forward to another year of grade tens wrestling with who owns what, what art is, how no one is free from influence, how The Beatles could steal other people's musical influences and then lock down their own for ever, what is appropriation of voice, and the future of media art. That one little column led me to a wonderful teaching piece that is still raising hard questions for hundreds of students years later.  Thanks!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Looking Forward to Teaching Technology

The other night Alanna noted that I seem much more intent on presenting my best work during my computer engineering qualification than I have in others.  This stirred up a whole pile of history for me.

I completed my honours BA in English and philosophy from the University of Guelph in 1995.  I staggered out of my four year program elated, dissolussioned and fairly determined not to wade back into academics again.  I found a subset of professors (the young up and coming type usually) close minded, aggressive and cliquey.  Many of the post grads I met were intellectually cannibalistic, competitive and cruel.  That feeling kept me away from Teacher's College for many years, and still has me firmly refusing to consider a Master's program.  The arbitrary, cliquey nature of academics was alienating.

In university I approached liberal arts liberally, trying one of each subject area in my first year.  One of the reasons I cottoned on to English was that I was good at it.  Being drilled in reading and writing let me resolve a skill; I improved in noticeable ways.  My profs were hard but the skills continuum was pretty clear.

Where I got into muddy water was in philosophy.  The vast majority of my profs were older and tended to approach it in a friendly hands-off manner; I remember those profs fondly.  The younger ones, as mentioned above, seemed intent on discouraging interrogative learning and appeared constantly in a state of dismissive negativity, unless undergrads were fawning idiots.   Philosophy seemed to be about collecting disciples rather than understanding some of the greatest thinking in history.  Being an older student, I tended to be of an age with many of these life long academics, though having come from a school of sweaty warehouses and machine shops.

Ironically, many of the best teachers I had growing up weren't teachers at all, but rather senior mechanics who were willing to take time to help along a young apprentice.  It was a learn fast or get caught on fire kind of environment, but learn I did, and the power structure was never arbitrary.  You either knew what you were doing, or your work spoke for you.  It was never a matter of how much money my parents had spent on tuition or what your academic pedigree was that dictated relationships.

Taking my first tech-qualification this year as a teacher feels like coming home.  I'm going to miss teaching English, but I'm not going to miss the sweatshop approach to English and literacy in high school where every class is at cap and the rooms are filled with students being forced into a mandatory subject.  I love English.  The reading, the writing, Shakespeare...  Watching how it's made into work, overfilled and underfunded is depressing, I won't miss that.

So here I go into the tech classroom where I think I'm going to channel my apprenticeship experiences over my academic experiences.  What we're learning isn't easily politicized, or easily based on classism or culty academia.  Teaching tech includes an element of objective quality, it works or it doesn't, you know how to do it or you don't.  I'm looking forward to that solid ground.