Sunday, 28 October 2012

Enhanced Self Awareness

At ECOO last year, digital footprints were the focus of many sessions.  The concern revolved around students (and teachers) showing anything of themselves online.  The fear was clear and present, as was the suggestion that we MUST craft a meaningful online presence.  Many were surprised at this year's conference when our keynote speaker talked about how digitization has gone beyond self presentation and become interactive as a means of self improvement.  Tech doesn't want to be passive, it wants to interact with us, become a part of us!

At the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario's conference this week we had Nora Young from CBC Spark talking about how digitization and the proliferation of data is creating a kind of self awareness that is entirely new.  She used examples of bio-metric tools and productivity time assessment software to present examples of this digital mirror.

This is a world that our students are immersed in 18 out of every 24 hours (when school is in session) - and it leaks into classrooms constantly on smartphones.  Trying to address that tide by telliing students to bring their own devices, or go on generic, years behind the times school computers is one of the many places you can see education failing.

Words like relevance and engagement are thrown around in panic.  People start flipping class rooms and attempting to engage students by offering the same un-directed over empowerment that kids receive through digital devices; that's an arms race that no one wins.  The resulting habitual usage at best offers minimum educational gains, at worst it actually impedes student abilities in other areas.  If you've ever watched a digital serf mindlessly copy an essay from the internet to submit, you're watching undirected digital empowerment in action.

Where Nora was talking about a kind of enhanced self awareness through digital tools, many 'digital natives' are blissfully unaware of how public their digital presence is, or where their data goes.  It's merely a part of their lives, and they don't think twice about posting material that makes them unemployable because in their minds it is the equivalent of talking to friends.  They haven't thought twice about publicity settings, it doesn't occur to them.

On top of that, the data that they might use to become more efficient, or digitally empower their learning, or self-organize are often out of reach because students, as digital natives, are unaware of anything but their self-taught habitual usage.  We certainly aren't doing much to address habitual usage in schools (a digital continuum would be a start), even going to far as to encourage it with BYO-device BYO-technology initiatives.

It's a nice idea to imagine digital tools offering us data that helps to make us better people (Wired did a cool article on this a while back).  The digerati will do this to great effect, once again empowering themselves in ways that Luddites will lack.  As a teacher my concern is that the digital native is as incapable of grasping these tools as the tech-hater.  It takes technological fluency to grasp these kinds of digital self-awareness opportunities.  Unless we're developing those fluencies, this is just another 21st Century opportunity lost to on our students.

Hybridized Education

The Toyota Prius hybrid car is a series of expensive compromises.  Born at a time when we are transitioning from fossil fuels to electrical power, the Prius is a car that combines gas tanks, gas powered drive trains and engines with batteries, and electrical motors that do the same jobs more efficiently.  The result is a poor performing car that weights a thousand pounds more than the equivalent gas powered vehicle because it's trying to live in two worlds at once.  If you've ever driven one, you've got to know that the future is grim indeed.  Fortunately, hybrid cars are a momentary blip on the automotive evolutionary scale.  As the transition from gasoline to electrical vehicles happens, and electrical infrastructure and technologies improve, the compromise of a hybrid along with all the pointless redundancy will no longer be necessary.

Our education system is in a similar situation, and it's an expensive moment to have to live through.  The future consists of paperless, friction-less information.  The past consisted of papered, controlled, expensive, limited access to information.  In 2012 education is straddling that paper/digital divide, trying to answer to centuries of paper based tradition while also struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly digitizing world.  It's an expensive gap to cross, and one that is full of incongruities and compromises - ask Toyota engineers, it's an impossible position to create anything elegant in.

We struggle to produce students relevant to the increasingly digital world they are graduating into while experiencing more paper-based drag than just about any other industry.  Whereas business and research have leapt into digitization, driven by the need to find efficiencies in order to be competitive, education struggles to understand and embrace the inherent advantages of digitization.  The only urge to do so is in trying to remain relevant to our students - perhaps the least politically powerful (yet most important) members of the educational community.

I see teachers spending thousands of dollars a year on photocopying handouts (of information easily findable online which then get left behind), and no one bats an eyelash.  Thousands more are spent on text books that are already out of date when they are published, also often showing information that can as easily be found online.  At the same time we struggle to find funds to get the basic equipment needed to embrace digital advantages; the between directions is apparent.

No trees were destroyed in the writing of this blog, but a significant number of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.

The good news is that this is a temporary shortcoming - we won't be building Priuses or trying to fund two parallel (analogue & digital) education systems for long.  Once the tipping point is reached and migration happens, the inherent efficiencies of digital information will transform education.  In 20 years will look back on this time of factory schools like we look back on the age of one room school houses.  In the meantime, the strain of trying to please the past and the future at the same time is causing confusion and misdirection.

We ignore what is happening digitally in society in general and risk becoming increasingly irrelevant as an education system.  We also risk producing students who are increasingly unable to perform (aren't taught how to manage the digital)  in a world very different from the one they were presented in school.  In the meantime we're trying to satisfy traditional academic habits in order to appear proper and correct (books on shelves, teacher at the front, tests on readily available information, streamed classes that feed the right students to the right post secondary institutions using the same old established marking paradigms).

Once again, the ECOO Conference, its feet firmly planted in the future, looked forward while getting slew footed by traditional interests.  Perhaps the best we can hope for is compromised hybridization.  Oddly, those traditional interests often include the people who run IT in education who seem more interested in ease of management than they are in our primary purpose (learning... right?).

The term guerilla-teacher came up again and again; a teacher who goes off into the digital wilderness alone in order to try and teach their students some sense of the digital world they will graduate into.  The last presentation I saw by Lisa Neale and Jared Bennett made a compelling argument for bringing the rogue digital teacher in from the cold, but as a digital commando I am reluctant to trust a system that still places perilously little importance on my hard earned digital skills.

Very little of my practice now occurs in traditional teaching paradigms.  My classes are all blended (online and live), virtually all of my students' work happens online in a collaborative, fluid, digital medium.  I don't spend a lot of time in board online environments.  It's as much about my own discovery as it is my students.  Traditional teaching situations seem more about centralization, standardization, itemization and control.

If we move past a hybridized analogue/digital divide in education and digitized learning becomes standardized and systematized, I may very well lose interest.  There's something to be said about being a cyber settler, alone on the digital frontier.  Perhaps I should be pushing the hybridized divide - it keeps this hacker/teacher beyond the reach of standardization.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Forming an ECOO Presentation

There were three key books I read in the past year that have clarified for me a direction we could head in educational technology.  Ideas from each of those books, which at first appear to be in direct odds with each other, helped form the content of my ECOO presentation this year.

After reading The Shallows, Nick Carr's carefully constructed argument held a lot of weight - the internet and how it is being adopted by the general public is actually making people less effective as both thinkers and doers.  As educators, we should all be concerned about this result.  At a conference this year a frustrated, thirty-something CEO said of the twenty-somethings she's tried hiring recently, "I just wish they could finish a thought!  I can't even get them to close a sale because they are checking Facebook!"  This problem goes well beyond education (where any teacher can tell you it's an epidemic).  Everyone involved in education should read this book, especially if they are trying to implement technology in the classroom.

From The Shallows I took a serious concern about technological illiteracy and habitual use of computers actually injuring people's ability to think.

I read Ray Kurzweil's The Singularlity is Near as a counterpoint to Carr's very accurate, and very depressing Shallows.  Kurzweil's giddy optimism in our engineering skills verges on evangelism.  He is a wonderfully interesting and eccentric character.  His belief goes well beyond merely living in a time of transformative change.  The singularity he refers to is a moment in the near future where we are able to develop a greater intelligence than a single human brain, or even a group of them.  He goes into mathletic detail about exponential growth and how this is occurring in computers.  Very soon we'll understand things in finer and more complete detail than we've ever been able to before and our management of the world will take on omniscient proportions.  Technologically enhanced humans exist beyond the technological singularity - living in a world that looks as alien to us now as ours would to someone from the middle ages.

From Kurzweil I recognized how technology is evolving in increasingly personalized ways.  This is an argument Carr makes from the other side too.  From external machines, we are on a journey to technological integration.  This integration is going to well beyond smartphones, that's just the latest step in an inevitable trend.  If education does everything it can to present technology as generic and impersonal, it is failing to notice a key direction in technology, it's failing to produce students who will be useful in their own futures.  This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of my BYOD/differentiated technology argument, but I believe it's a fundamental part of our technological evolution.  Computers want to become a part of us.  We're not going to develop a Skynet or Matrix that will take over.  Our technology IS us, and it wants a more perfect union.  This probably scares the shit out of most people.  My argument to that is: if you're going to amalgamate with other systems, make sure you the one directing them effectively.

Matt Crawford's wonderful philosophical treatise on the value of skilled labour goes well beyond simply being handy.  He argues that skilled labour psychically protects you from consumerism and makes management doublespeak and creative economies an obvious joke.  The value he places on objective, quantifiable skills development often savages the feel-good ethos of a lot of educational theory which then sounds like management double-speak nonsense.  I read the book after taking my AQ in computer engineering, and it made me re-evaluate (and recognize) the value of my skilled labour history - something I'd walked away from in becoming a teacher.  I'm loving being a tech teacher this year and working with my hands again.

From Shop Class For Soul Craft I took a recognition of the importance of hands on, skill based learning.  It brings real rigor to learning, and should be a vital part of developing past the poor digital literacy I see around me.  One other experience kicked this up a notch.  In the summer we visited the Durnin farm and Heather talked about how her husband teaches people to use the farm equipment.  He gives them the tools, and expects them to figure it out and get it done.  It's a high expectation, immediate result environment that puts a great deal of expectation on the student; Crawford would approve.  I tell my students, "no one ever learned how to ride a bike by watching someone else riding a bike" - it's an experiential thing that offers real (often painful) immediate feedback... what effective learning should be.

Into that mix of big ideas of warning, optimism and rigor I also mixed in the standard PLN secret sauce.  Concerns over BYOD abound with teachers online.  The idea that BYOD should just be thrown into curriculum struck me as simply wrong.  As Andrew Campbell suggests, it's more about stretching a divide (or Carr would argue intellectually crippling idiots) than it is about increasing digital fluencies.

Teaching competency, flexibility and self awareness on digital tools should be a primary goal of current educational practice.  We're graduating students who are dangerously useless to employers.  The idea of a continuum of digital mastery based on objectively developed skills linked to a gradual loosening of restrictions and access to increasingly diverse tools and online content was the result.

I present on Thursday, and I'm more interested in the discussion that ensues than I am in telling anyone anything.  ECOO is a wonderful braintrust, and usually super-charges my educational technology awareness.  I'm looking forward to the brain soup we create out of this!

Diversifying Edtech: the key to a digital skills continuum

Monday, 22 October 2012

Staring Into The Abyss

Art Therapy
I was just reading Doug Peterson's Blog about how a number of edublogs are looking at the Amanda Todd story.  I can understand the urge, but I'm coming at this from a different angle than most.

I've had a particularly difficult year dealing with suicide.  In September I received an email from the coroner with a PDF attached.  In many pages of astonishing detail I read the science that showed that my Mum's death wasn't an accident, that she took her own life.  When you're staring into an abyss like this the rhetoric currently in the media sounds astoundingly shallow.  Suicide isn't a rational choice, or even an emotional one, it's an existential choice, the most profound one imaginable.

To pin an action like this on a single motivation (ie: cyber bullying so you can amp up anxiety around technology use with children) is simplistic and manipulative.  I have no doubt that cyber bullying played a part, but to base suicide on a single motivating factor is asinine and seems more in line with pushing a political agenda than recognizing a complex truth.

When I was in high school I was big into Dungeons and  Dragons.  At the height of the hobby a kid in Orangeville killed themselves and the press gleefully pinned the cause on D&D, causing panic in parents and making me, as an avid player, feel isolated and vilified.  They'd done something similar a few years earlier with Ozzy Osborne and another suicide.  This kind of simplification fills up the reports of the chattering classes, and helps idiots create fictions that let them push agendas.  That many in the public swallow it is a lasting sadness.

From an educator's point of view, this is being treated as a management issue.  I fear suicide is being used to manipulate cyber bullying as a political tool - which under my circumstances seems particularly callous.  Rhetorical stances like 'suicide is never an option' and rationalizations abound in an attempt to direct this very difficult aspect of human behavior.  Control is the goal, based on a very real fear of the outcome.  But the rhetoric still comes on in response to the presses' assertion that cyber bullying caused this death.

I've been staring into this abyss for a while now.  It has made work difficult, it has made life seem like the self made experience that it is, which is exceedingly heavy if you're like most people and happy with distractions and assumption as your reason for being.  Nothing is inherently valuable, life is what we make it - literally.  In my Mum's case she was battling mental illness and was finally on medication for it - which she overdosed on.  Did mental illness play a part in her death?  No doubt.  Was it the only cause?  Not remotely.

The suicide I'm dealing with didn't happen in a vacuum, I suspect none of them do.  I also suspect that none of them has ever, ever happened for a single reason.  There is no doubt that Amanda was bullied, and that this was a factor in her suicide.  What I question are the responses that focus on dealing with a single, social issue that has always and will always exist as though resolving it would some how magically have prevented her death.

People are naturally social and competitive.  Bullying is a result of this basic human nature, it always has been.  The twist now is that many of the clueless digital natives are publishing what has always happened privately for everyone to see.  Instead of being seen as a window to a previously hidden behavior, the media has dubbed this a cyber bullying epidemic and called into question the very technologies that have made a problem as old as humanity obvious.

The educational response has been to try and get out in front of this invented epidemic.  As someone who has circled this abyss, I'd ask everyone involved in education to consider the situation from more than a single perspective.  Please do not simplify suicide into a misunderstanding that can be rationalized away.

We are not serving our students well if we simplify this into an administrative exercise solely to reduce suicide numbers.  Appreciate the complexities of suicide and try to see the people who end up in this darkness as whole people with many interconnected, complex issues, and not something to be convinced, coerced, manipulated or managed into doing what is more comfortable for everyone else.

Suicide is complex, terrifying and present.  It deserves our full attention, not a soundbite.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Between a rock and a hard place

Imagine you're the head of the English department at a high school.  Your job is to support the English teachers in your department, help develop consistent and meaningful curriculum, buy department supplies and act as your teachers' voice at school directions team meetings.  It's one of the biggest departments in the school, you may have up to a dozen teachers, some teaching English full time and some part time, all of them with clear qualifications in their field.  You have the benefit of all those varied opinions, but you also have to try and get them moving in roughly the same direction too.  You've got your school's library of novels and other texts to maintain, all the time knowing that every student in the school is going through your program which teaches vital literacy skills.  Students cannot graduate without demonstrating those literacy skills.  Your job isn't an easy one, but its importance is self evident.

I am the head of computer studies at my high school.  I'm a department of one, which makes developing consistent and meaningful curriculum for my subject area rather difficult (and lonely).  I don't have a collection of professionals to bounce ideas off.  I have to maintain text books, and equipment, but for vanishingly few students - computers just aren't on the must-take list at my school (there's no future in them?).

There's a twist to this headship though: when you're the head of computers, you're not just the head of a small, unimportant department, you're also responsible for your subject area school-wide, and it's a growing, vital piece of modern educational practice.  Internet failures now begin to look a lot like power failures in the last century.


Imagine you're that head of English again, except now you're not just responsible for your department, but for English usage in the entire building.

Every time a student or teacher makes a grammar mistake or needs some reading material or writing stationary, you're the one they turn to.  You've got your department to run, but you've also got to oversee the execution of your discipline throughout the entire building.  You spend your time correcting people's reading, buying them pens and paper, and proofreading and correcting their mistakes.

They don't hand this to you because they want to be illiterate, they do it because the school board wants to retain control of their stationary - which means its better to read and write everything for people than it is to let them learn how to become literate themselves; control is more important than learning.

The school population is capable of learning how to read and write, but remain illiterate because their employer finds that easier to manage.  In that building of illiterate people, your ability to read and write raises you to otherworldly status, people seek you out to do the impossible and read the printed page.

This isn't entirely without historical context.  There was a time when reading and writing was a mystery of the learned class, a means of separating knowledge from the proles.  Whole alphabets were conceived around the idea of making it more difficult for commoners to become literate, churches kept literacy from the masses.  Knowledge is power and literacy is the key to knowledge.

I fear something similar is happening with computers now.  There is little doubt that they are becoming intrinsic to the functioning of modern life, but a smaller and smaller group is able to grok computing.  Overcoming intellectual barriers like this should be the primary directive of public education, yet we're falling into the gap between the digerati and the rest.


It sounds ridiculous, but enforcing enforced ignorance is what I'm facing as the Computer Studies head.  I have almost no time to actually nurture the anemic department I've inherited because I'm looking after the people who have been taught to be helpless by their employer.  I spend most of my time managing the budget of school IT, ordering equipment and repairing or passing along problems to board tech support.  My own department is an afterthought, the actual teaching of computers to students is an echo of what I experienced in the 1980s when we barely had any computers.  My time is spent supporting a system that encourages ignorance, and it's a system that is insinuating itself into education practice more completely every day.

This is a headship like no other.

I was thinking about this as I was doing my weekly 'fair share' of extra duties and covering the library so the librarian could go to lunch.  I haven't had an uninterrupted lunch since school began.  I haven't had an uninterrupted prep period since school began.


I'm feeling pretty down on the job, but it's more a matter of appreciation for the work involved than it is the work itself.  I genuinely enjoy technology.  I've had my hands in computers since I was a child, it was one of my first serious hobbies.  When people say things like, "computers are making people stupid" or, "computers are making people autistic" I get angry.  Ignorance injures people, tools are only helpful in skilled hands, otherwise they can injure as easily as assist.

Computers are one of the most powerful tools we've invented, up there with harnessing electricity as a means of empowering us.  How we teach computers directly influences how well we're able to grasp a better future, I honestly believe this.

Watching the taught helplessness of the school computer lab makes me fear for that future.  Just as we teach drivers the responsibility of operating an automobile, so we should be teaching both teachers and students how to grasp and manage the powerful computing tools we now have at our disposal.  We all need to be responsible for the technology we wield.

Fire can save you, or burn you...
Students (and educators, and education systems) who view computers as a distraction instead of an empowerment, who enforce simplistic, habitual use instead of exercising human/computer potential are more than a tragedy, they are the genuine threat that Nick Carr suggests.

It's a tough situation, being trapped between what appears to be an increasingly vital skillset and an education system intent on not teaching it.

The frustration at not having your work recognized is one thing, but when that work only reinforces a system founded on spreading ignorance, the whole thing gets quite unbearable.

I hope one day we wake up and change how we use computers in schools.  I guess my way forward is to keep pushing for what I think should be a self evident truth: if you don't learn how to use the technology, the technology will learn how to use you.