Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Tyranny of Collaboration

I was talking to a digital native the other day in English class about Shakespeare.  This particular Millennial is a top 5%er who will go on to do great things.  She was wondering who the people who wrote Shakespeare were.  I was surprised at the question as I've always thought one person wrote Shakespeare.  I even have trouble with the classist conspiracy types who think an actor couldn't be that smart so a noble must have done it.  Having read a lot of Shakespeare (all of it actually) over decades, I know his voice, and it isn't a voice by committee; that kind of brilliance doesn't happen around a meeting table.

I thought it interesting that the Millennial mind assumes collaboration, infecting her own generation's constant interaction across history.  The internet has turned the digital natives who live in it into a hive mind.  They can't form an opinion without socializing or turning to the internet for information. Their waking lives are awash in constant communication.  They describe moments 'trapped' in their own mind when they are unplugged as boring.

The modern mind is open in a way that someone from 20 years ago, let alone 400 years ago, would find alarming. Our marvellous information revolution has not only made our data public, it is also changing what we think we are individually capable of.  Needless to say, if we start thinking that individual genius can't happen in the quiet of our own minds, it won't.

A smart, capable digital native can't conceive of a single mind being capable of producing great works, they must be the result of never ending communication and collaboration.  A couple of centuries from now people who have been immersed in digital communications for generations will wander around The Van Gogh Museum or read Macbeth and think that people from back then must have been mental giants to do these things alone, that or they'll reinvent history as each age does, in its own image, seeing collaboration and minds peeled open under a barrage of constant communication where none were.

Education hops on the back of this communication revolution (flood?) and has integrated collaboration into just about every aspect of learning.  Leveraging technology to find new and exciting ways of collaborating is one of the pillars of early Twenty-First Century education.  Students have lost the idea of personal mind-space thanks to current communications habits.  The classroom, one of the last places where a student might find privacy in their own heads has been crushed under the weight of expectations from this social shift.  Much of this is shrouded in talk of engagement and preparing students for the modern world.  I just hope that preparation has real advantages for the student in terms of personal development.  I'm starting to doubt that.

Brainstorming about the advantages of deep thinking in your own head - from an ENG3u class two years ago...

Saturday, 29 November 2014

We're All Just So Busy

If I hear this one more time I might pop.  We're no busier than we ever were.  If we were all so busy we'd have solved world hunger, the impending energy crisis, unemployment, racism, our broken democracies and poverty.  If we're all so terribly busy, what is it that we're busy with, because it doesn't appear to be anything important.

Most recently I heard it on CBC radio when someone was talking about an online dating site that allows you to quickly, with little more than a photo and a couple of bio points, select a date and meet them.  Not surprisingly, the CBC piece was on the disasters that have come from this.  When asked why people do it, the interviewee trotted out, "well, we're all just so busy now-a-days."  I would suggest that if you are too busy to develop a considered relationship with a possible life partner, then you're getting what you deserve.

These people aren't busy, they are distracted.
I see students who spend more than half their walking hours engaged in the (mostly) viewing and (seldom) producing of social media.  Much of this is so utterly banal that it defies belief, yet people get so wrapped up in it that they feel trapped.  For those who feel the urge to publish their every thought for the world to see, the results are often less than complimentary.

There are those who are leveraging social media in interesting ways, but for the vast majority it is a passive time sink that has conditioned them to do many things poorly and barely ever finish a thought.

This myopia feeds data bankers who make a lot of money from the freely given marketing information.  It also feeds the industry that creates a treadmill of devices to cater to the process.  Lastly, our digital myopia also feeds the egos of all the 'very busy' people who see themselves as a vital part of this wonderful new democracy.

At yoga the other week our instructor gave us this:  pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.  There are things we need to do in life in order to survive and thrive:  look after our bodies, look after our minds, look after our dependants, seek and expand our limitations, find a good life.  This can be very challenging, but it is dictated by choice.  When we make good choices we tend to see a reward.  Eat well and feel better, expand your mind and learn something new, look after your family and enjoy a loving, safe environment.  Poor choices lead to poor circumstances.  In a world where we have more dependable machines and efficient communication, we should enjoy a sense of ease greater than previous generations who had to tune carburetors and ring through telephone exchanges.

Make some good choices.  How busy are you really?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Procedural Learning

You can learn anywhere,
but some places are better than others
We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I'm not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don't consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We've build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren't going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I'd initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn't like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I'd like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I'd often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I'm not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don't spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie's equipment if you don't appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don't have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.
When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you're going to run into engagement problems.  I'll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it'll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I'll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won't do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you're some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, "the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline."  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn't give a care that there isn't a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.

I've tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I'm speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they've said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I'm amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Money Clouds

You hear a lot about the magic of the cloud these days.  It's linked to online integration, website optimization and the evolution of computers.  Integration and optimization involve encouraging users to put information online and making that data easy for agitators to access.  The modern, monetized internet is built around turning data into a commodity.  The 2014 web is designed around encouraging you to put as much of your life online as possible because that data has value.

Gotta watch out for those people who drink the koolaid...
The idea of computers evolving from mainframes to desktops to laptops to smartphones appears self evident, but I'm not so sure.  I'm starting to think the devices prompted us online and the evolution idea was set up afterwards as a marketing angle.  Our devices might not be a response to market needs, but a push by the data bankers to get more people producing.

When you boot up a computer you've created a self contained virtual environment that is designed for and subservient to your needs.  Within that machine you have security, privacy and administrative power over your data.  It's hard to argue that this is anything other than an empowering position for a user.

When you connect to the internet you surrender administrative control.  Your virtual environment is no longer yours, your data is no longer internal and local, it's no longer your data.  Privacy is an antiquated idea you have to let go of and security is entirely at the discretion of hackers who are increasingly supported by big business and government.  When you go online you have lost that private computing experience and thrown it wide open to many interested parties.

When you send in three one year old
broken Chromebooks you get one back, the
rest aren't cost effective. If driving people online to

collect data is the goal, then the Chromebook is a
master stroke - disposable hardware that funnels you
into using a single browser - a branded internet.
Why have we stampeded to the cloud?  Did our devices change to serve our needs or have our devices been designed to drive us online?  Apple famously rolled out the ipad.  At the same time they put together itunes, which not only dominates media sales but has also now come to dominate app sales as well.  Selling an ipad is nice, constantly selling media is an exciting, never ending source of income.

Data as an income stream is at the root of our online migration.  Microsoft made billions selling an operating system, but the data produced inside it was very much the domain of the user.  Software we purchase for that environment had to also be subservient to the user.  This is a lousy approach if you want to monetize data and enjoy the benefits of a continuous income stream.

Blizzard realized this with the move to online gaming.  World of Warcraft was one of the first games to successfully follow the data=continual income model, charging monthly fees instead of a one time point of sale for the game.  The end result is a gamer spending hundreds of dollars on a game instead of the single $50 outlay.  If you don't think it worked, check out how WoW compares to the other top grossing games of all time.

Google famously claims that it wants to organize the world's information and make it available and useful.  This is always dressed in altruistic nonsense, but this is a profit driven business that goes to great lengths to not pay taxes.  Google is a data mining company, it always has been.  The happy result of this data mining is a remarkably accurate search engine that also happens to feed the data mining operation.  

Once the search engine was established Google went after traditional desktop based applications.  Lite versions of word processing, spreadsheet software and other traditional desktop apps drew users in with the suggestion that your software and data could be wherever your internet connection was.  This drove the expansion of the internet as well as the need for more bandwidth. Once the apps were rolling other data collection techniques like mapping and geo-location were added to the mining process.  The more data that feeds the machine, the more ways it can monetize it.

Claiming to be free, these apps drive users out of their private desktops and into the fishbowl of the internet.  Online apps feed data mining operations just like search engines do.  This blog is written on Blogger, a Google owned web application that encourages information to be put online so it can be mined.  Why do I use it?  Because I want to publish my writing.  In certain circumstances it makes sense to put data out into the fishbowl, but you don't get to choose those circumstances on the web today.

The reason Google struggles with offering unmined online resources is because Google is a data mining company, it's what they do.  This isn't necessarily evil or nefarious, but it behooves us to understand how online companies work, especially if we're going to get all giddy about driving students online.

A lot of infrastructure had to be put into place for your personal computer to be built, but that infrastructure is minuscule compared to what is involved in creating an internet.  The cost of building and maintaining a worldwide networking infrastructure is staggering.  The only way to make it cost effective is to make the data itself pay.  There are cost benefits to scaling up this kind of infrastructure, so online companies drive as many people into producing data as possible.

Any company that lives online can't simply create something of value and then stand by it.  The sand is constantly falling through the hourglass, it costs bandwidth to offer even a simple online service in this expensive, complex, cut throat infrastructure.  The only way you can survive in an environment this carnivorously expensive is to make the data you're attracting pay.  You push to schools, to charities, anywhere you can to generate input.

There is no such thing as a free online app.  The whole point of any online service is to get you producing data that can be mined.  This data is valuable even if your name isn't attached.  Most privacy legalese attached to online services explicitly allows them to use your data as they see fit.  Cursory efforts are made to hide your name because no name = privacy, but your data is where the money is, and it isn't yours according to most online agreements.  You surrender control of your data when you agree to use their data mining, um, nifty, online application.

Now that we've trained entire generations to ignore traditional media, this intrusive and invasive analysis is where market research has gone.  Multinationals don't spend marketing dollars on TV commercials for people under thirty any more, it's wasted money.  Instead, they drive the herd online, creating heat around exciting new smartphones / tablets / wearable computing - whatever gets people producing data to feed the network.

Again, this is neither good nor evil, but it is an evolution away from ideas of traditional advertising (which itself could be cast in a poor light).  The questions we need to ask ourselves as educators are: 

  • If we demand that students use online services that monetize the information they share, are we eroding ideas of privacy and personal security by demanding their online interaction?
  • Are we commoditizing our students' learning?
  • Should that make us uncomfortable?

There are ways to bypass all of this, but that means turning away from the carefully designed, market driven future laid out for us.  Education could adopt open source software that offers complete administrative control.  Educators could require students to actually learn how to manage digital tools from a mastery learning perspective (instead of whatever bizarre kids-know-this-stuff-intuitively / digital native thing we're doing now).

We could supply Tor browsers for students to use that would guarantee real anonymity and privacy.  We could expect students and teachers to learn how to manage their own online spaces and develop their own tools with education as the focus and no hidden data mining agenda.  We could leverage the sharing power of the internet to spread these tools around the world at little or no cost, but we don't, because the future we've been sold is so shiny that we can't think of anything else.

One thing is for sure, the future will be branded.  Branded
information, branded thinking, branded learning?
At the Google presentation at the recent ECOO conference the g-employee asked the room, "why aren't you all joining Google For Education?  I'm not going to go on until someone can tell me why!"  He was very enthusiastic in his hard sell.

In a less high-pressure sale situation I can formulate a response:  I use Google tools, but I make a point of understanding what they are.  I get the impression that most Google Certified Teachers are more interested in being unpaid sales reps than they are recognizing the complexities of cloud based computing.  Any teacher who rushes into branding themselves with a private company's logo makes me question their commitment to pedagogy.  What's more important, using the best tool available or using the best tool from your brand?  It's a big reason why the idea of brand specific computing devices will never get my vote.  

We're being led to the cloud by implacable market forces who have monetized our information flow.  They offer ease of access, integration and a general malaise that many regular users of technology turn into ecstatic fandom.  You don't need to learn this stuff, we'll take care of all that for you, just hook yourself up to this milking machine and it'll all be OK.

Hook up students to the milking machine and tell them it's for their own good.  Edtech is preparing them for the future!

Saturday, 8 November 2014

ECOOs1: Nerd Machismo & Other Barriers That Prevent Technology Learning

Nerdismo works like any other kind of machismo,
insecure boys belittle others and make the most
of what little they know to establish a social
space they can control.
I attended an excellent talk by Anne Shillolo on how to engage girls in technology at the ECOO Conference this year.

I've been struggling for a number of years to convince girls to hang in there in senior computer classes.  In the grade nine introduction course I have a number of girls who are often front runners in terms of skills and ability to learn tech, but they all drift away in the senior grades.

Anne covered the systemic and social issues around this in great detail during her presentation.  Hopefully those issues will begin to resolve themselves now that many tech companies are conscious of the problem.  As much as I'd like to I can't model being a woman in technology, but there are some other angles I can pursue.

In grade nine, especially in semester one, you tend not to get a lot of attitude because they are all fairly terrified to be in high school for the first time and are cautious.  As students become acclimatized to their new school they look for where they are strongest and tend to establish dominance in those areas; the jocks own the gym, the drama kids rule the stage, etc.  I was dismissively told by a university professor once that tribalism is dead as a theory of human socialization, but that guy was an idiot.  In the world of high school (and pretty much everywhere else, including online) tribalism is alive and well.  Computer society is more tribalistic than most.

In the senior grades the (mostly male) computer geeks do to computer lab what the jocks do to the gymnasium, they establish dominance.  I've seen a number of girls begin a senior computer studies course only to bail after the first week because of all the posturing.  The most frustrating was a coding prodigy whose parents were both programmers who vanished to take an alternate course online where she didn't have to put up with the drama.  This nerdismo ends up damaging the field of computer studies in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is choking it of sections in high school because the vast majority of students feel ostracized by the culture of the students in the room.

Anne's girls missing out on technology presentation led me to consider just how insular computer culture can be.  The idea of barriers to learning mathematics, sciences and technology came up in Anne's presentation.  As someone who wanted to be an astronomer before he almost failed grade 10 physics (and did fail grade 11), I know that it takes a fair amount of effort by the alpha-nerds of the world to shake otherwise interested right-brained kids out of 'their' fields of study.  From the science teachers who seemed to take great joy in pointing out that this wasn't my thing to the computer science teacher who watched me drown in mathematical abstraction with an absent smile on his face when all I wanted to do was tinker with code, I've experienced those barriers first hand.

As a non-linear/tactile/intuitive/experimental thinker I was intentionally bludgeoned by numbers until I couldn't care less about computers.  Watching the tribe of like-minded students (many of whom were good friends) form around those teachers and pass beyond that semi-permeable membrane into the math/science/tech wonderland scarred me.

My tactile nature eventually paid off when I got back into computers (years later - scars heal) through information technology, but I've never forgotten how those left brained mathletes made me doubt myself and turn away from the computer technology I loved.  I went from being the first kid in our school to publish code and own his own printer to going to college for art (and dropping out) because that was what I thought was left to me.  There was certainly nothing like leading a charge for greater accessibility in learning coding (Anne showed this in her presentation):

I can't help but wonder how many kids we shake out of technology because they don't approach it in an orthodox manner, or don't fit the stereotype of what we think a person in tech is.  It might be slowly changing, but the gateway to learning technology is guarded by your stereotypical computer geek, and they are as fierce about guarding it as any athlete in a locker room. 

When I see teachers putting students in silos because of this kind of thinking, or worse, punishing students who don't follow their discipline in the same way that they do, I can't help but remember that I was once that kid who ended up dropping out and walking away.

Everyone can learn coding and computers.  Anyone who says, "I'm no good at that stuff" (including all the teachers I hear say it daily) are responding to the barriers that surround it.  Exclusivity driven by arrogance has defined how many people see the computer field.  Digital technology is so big now that any kind of thinker and doer can survive and thrive in the field, but we need the traditional computer experts to tone down the nerdismo.

The people who build the digital world we inhabit have as much swagger as a professional athlete does nowadays, and it starts in high school with insecure boys chasing everyone who isn't like them out of the lab.  Until we take steps to open up technology to more diverse learners it'll continue to chase the girls and atypical thinkers out of this left brained, male dominated industry.

Perhaps I can convince more girls and alternative thinkers to keep learning technology into senior high school by not being an arrogant git, but I'm also fighting this well established conception of what a computer geek is.  Until I can tone down the nerdismo in the classroom, I fear that preconceptions and the aggressive nerdismo in the computer lab will dictate who takes my courses.  The field of computer studies would greatly benefit from an influx of creative/alternative thinkers, but until the geeks loosen their grip, nothing will change.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Infecting The System

If the internet is the nervous system for a new global
culture, should it be artificially limited by human
self interest?
Cory Doctorow ended a harrowing editorial on artificially limited computing in WIRED this month with the observation that the internet isn't simply an information medium but has, in fact, become the nervous system of the Twenty First Century.

Doctorow begins by questioning why we shackle computers with controls that users can't overpower, and in many cases don't even know exist.  He uses the example of the Sony rootkit, that would install viral software on machines whenever a consumer would run one of their music CDs.  The idea was to curb pirating, the result was creating a blind spot in millions of customer's machines that immediately got exploited by hackers.

Whenever we build a computer that is subservient to anything other than the user, we're creating blind spots that hackers can exploit.  Whenever our software or hardware is artificially limited to satisfy human values, whether they be government or business or even educationally motivated, we are creating a machine that is flawed.

There is a simple honesty to computing that I find very appealing.  When we're building a circuit or working with a computer or coding, students will often say that they didn't change anything but got a different output, or that they did everything exactly right and it doesn't work.  The subtext is always that computer is up to something.  Whatever the computer is up to, you put it up to it.  Computers don't make mistakes, humans do.  This is why it's vital that computers are not controlled by remote interests.  When remote interests dictate computer outputs, you end up with confused users who start to blame the machine.

... because someone programmed HAL to kill.
Machines don't make mistakes, unless people tell them to.
I've long said that computers are merely a tool, but many people see them as intelligent entities with hidden agendas.  If we allow institutions to hard code their interests into our computers then we are intentionally allowing our flaws to infect one of the most honest expressions of human ingenuity.  We're also creating that confusion around computers as entities with evil intent (we provide the intent).

What goes for our personal devices also goes for our networks.  Unless we are going to continually battle for net neutrality and efficiency over self interest, we're going to find ourselves with hobbled machines on near sighted networks, seeing only what vested interests want us to see.  In that environment computers and the internet can very quickly move from democratizing force to Orwellian control.  Keeping computers free of human influence is vital to human well being.

I've been uneasy about the nature of the modern internet as distraction engine as well as the branding of edtech.  Both examples reek of the infected human influence that Doctorow refers to in his editorial.  Wouldn't it be ironic if we, as a species, were on the verge of building a more perfect machine that allows us to move beyond our short-sighted selves, but instead of building that wonder we infect it with our own shortcomings and end up using it to create a kind of subservience never before imagined?

I see it every day in machines so locked down that they barely function as computers, with limitations on virtually everything they do.  This is done for ease of management, to satisfy legal paranoia and, ultimately, to ease the burden of digitally illiterate educators, but this approach has me watching whole generations growing up in an increasingly technology driven world having no idea what is is or how it works.  As a computer technology teacher this is difficult to swallow.

The only restriction on a computer should be the laws of physics and the state of the art.  Efficiency and user empowerment should be the machine's and our only focus.  Everything should be up to the user otherwise these magical machines aren't empowering us, they're being used to create dangerous fictions.  Is it difficult to teach students how to use computers like this?  Perhaps, but at least we'd be teaching them a genuine understanding of what digital technology is, and how to wield that power responsibly.  All we're doing now in education is feeding the infection.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

ECOO 2014

ECOO 2014 approaches this week.  Once again I get to step away from the classroom for a couple of days and see the forest for the trees.  Instead of day to day/trying to make things work, I get a couple of days of strategic space to consider how things might be.

The ECOO conference is all about possibilities for me.  I know a lot of people go there to learn how technology works, and that's great, but for me it has always been about possibilities.

In school we're all in the trenches trying to make things work.  For tech-savvy teachers this can be a very frustrating experience.  We're not only battling the complications of getting complex information technology to function in the rough and tumble world of the classroom, we're also battling the negativity of colleagues who aren't buying in to the possibilities offered by this technology.

ECOO is a chance to get away from all that static and consider possibilities in a positive light.  The trick for me has always been not to get mired down in how-to sessions.  I like the big thinking/strategic talks.  The keynotes usually do this well, but it isn't always possible to find that kind of opportunity in the breakout sessions because a big part of ECOO is assisting new edtech aficionados into the fold.  When I can't find an edtech-philosophy or future-tech session I'm just as happy to bump into someone and have an unscripted chat.  You won't find a greater edtech braintrust anywhere than you will at ECOO.

What will I get out of ECOO this week?  Inspiration, I hope, and some idea of what's coming, so I can be ready for it before it gets here.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Collegiality vs Teamwork and Digital Technologies

We re-aligned our computer courses last year.  Our school formerly was one of the few with a Computer Studies Department, with computer science and computer technology courses all existing under a single banner.  Last year the department was dissolved and computer science was put under the Mathematics Department while computer technology was re-integrated with the Technology Department.

I transitioned from Computer Studies Head to a co-head of Technology, but I'm finding working in such a diverse (we cover everything from metal work to food school to digital design) department challenging.  With so many horses pulling in so many directions, I can't help but feel that digital technologies tends to be a second thought.  Rather than feel excluded I've been finding ways to develop a stronger digital technologies continuum.

The computer lab has always been next to the design lab, though run by different departments.  Now that we're on the same team so to speak, I've been re-thinking how digital technologies, always minimally represented in terms of classes, should work within the school.  We've been developing an integrated digital technologies curriculum in order to facilitate that.

With the dissolution of Computer Studies the realigning of our school's digital technologies was inevitable.  No longer is Technology Design the lone digitally focused technology course in the department.  Combined with Computer Technology, our digital technology courses can now offer a continuum of learning across a wide variety of digital platforms.

I initially felt that dissolving the computer department was going to be bad for the discipline, but now I'm feeling a new synergy.

By drawing together our digitally focused technology courses under the many common threads they share we're able to offer 9-12 curriculum in a wider variety of areas.  For students in a rural area where digital-tech doesn't have the social impact it has in more urban settings this is a big deal.

The first step was to diversify our high-tech offerings.  I argued successfully at Heads for Tech-Design to offer Robotics (our tech design teacher has a background in it).  I also argued successfully for a Software Engineering option that would allow students interested in the field to experience industry standard practices around software development rather than the mathematics focus offered by computer science.

From the junior grades students get a wide variety of choice in 11 & 12 around what aspects of digital technology they want to pursue.  And even if the student isn't going into a tech-focused profession, they are at least able to develop the kind of digital fluency that will be handy in any 21st Century workplace.  Of course, digital-tech doesn't end at the workplace.  If we're going to graduate citizens capable of communicating in the 21st Century, they need to have digital fluency.

I always felt isolated as the head of computers with only a part time comp-sci teacher who wasn't interested in collaborating.  Now that I'm the co-head of tech, or perhaps Head of Digital Technologies fits better, I'm able to empower our tech-design as well as my own computer-tech fields and build a more complete set of options for our students to benefit from.

Change isn't always easy, but in this case I feel like it's led to a good place where teamwork and a common goal has replaced cold, distant collegiality.

A 9-12 Digital Technologies Continuum with a healthy variety of choice that will develop graduates ready to take on the challenges of the 21st Century:

The layout is so helpful I've expanded it out to the Technology Department as a whole:

Friday, 17 October 2014


We're moving into poetry in the senior academic English class I'm teaching.  Poetry is one of those things that can seem a bit pretentious, especially to high school students.  We looked at contemporary lyric poems to begin with.  After some Practical Magic and other free verse I thought it might be time to take a swing at it ourselves.  I'm curious to see what students bring to class today.  Hopefully writing about something that interests them will remove that pretension and let them get some ideas on paper in the relatively unencumbered contemporary lyric format.

In My Pocket

あ and ん
alpha and omega
binary beginnings and silent ends.

ones and zeroes?
math is an abstraction
certainty is in the machine.

waves relentlessly pound our shores,
pass through us
quantify us
connect us
ensnare us
constant attention demanded
this raging sea of yes and no,
profound and banal
personal collective
private crowd.

information constellations
in magnetic grips
lighter than a glance,
more certain than a second thought.

frozen moments of certainty
tumble to an event horizon
making sense of the senseless
at a ferocious rate.

I have a text!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Literacy, Engagement and Marketing

The latest WIRED has an editorial by Clive Thompson about Minecraft and literacy.  In the article it is suggested that Minecraft (and other video games) have engaged reluctant readers to the point where they are able to overcome their reading problems and devour challenging texts with near perfect accuracy.

I usually enjoy Thompson's reach, he tends to push back assumptions, but in this case it feels hyperbolic.  "Minecraft is the hot new videogame among teachers and parents".  It was three years ago, but then it hasn't just been sold to Microsoft for billions (with a "B") of dollars.  Sometimes I can't tell if it's hyperbole or marketing.

Thompson goes on to state: "Minecraft is surrounded by a culture of literacy." So is any hobby, video games are not magical because of this.  Motor vehicles are surrounded by a 'culture of literacy' - look in any magazine rack.  Back in the day Dungeons and Dragons was surrounded by a 'culture of literacy' with books and magazines galore.  Movies are surrounded by a 'culture of literacy' (IMDB, Entertainment Weekly etc), so is technology in general (WIRED).  That we read and write about the things that interest us is hardly a shock.  Why should video games be any different?  Many reluctant readers are willing to read material about a subject that interests them.  That this is newsworthy is a bit baffling, what is more surprising are the assumptions further on in the article.

Interest and engagement are key elements in developing basic literacy skills, no doubt, but the article goes on to imply that engagement through video games can somehow overcome illiteracy.  This is going from hyperbole to gross over-simplification.  I've already got my doubts about gamification, but championing gaming engagement as the solution to illiteracy isn't respecting the complexity of the skill, though it does sync well with valuations in gaming companies.

Back in 1973 when I was a three year old learning to read my grandmother would read me a bit of The Magic Faraway Tree and then say she was tired and put it down, usually at a critical part of the story.  I'd struggle through the text using the light from the doorway, desperately trying to find out what happened after she left me to go to sleep.  I have no doubt that she knew what I was doing.

I suppose WIRED might have written an article about that, but Enid Blyton doesn't have the market reach of Minecraft or the magic we desperately want to believe inhabits our brave new and oh-so-very-valuable media.

I'm a strong reader.  I can't remember a time when I couldn't read.  For me it meant independence and the ability to satisfy my own curiosity.  There is no doubt that my determination created intense engagement at a time when reading wasn't easy for me, but it was just the first step on the long road of literacy.  I wasn't displaying illiteracy one day and then suddenly became a fluent reader the next because I was "really, really motivated".

Thompson quotes Constance Steinkuehler (of whom I'm a fan) on the effects of video game focused literacy.  Middle and high school struggling readers were asked:

" choose a game topic they were interested in, and then she picked texts from game sites for them to read—some as difficult as first-year-college language. The kids devoured them with no help and nearly perfect accuracy."

How could they do this? “Because they're really, really motivated,” Steinkuehler tells me. It wasn't just that the students knew the domain well; there were plenty of unfamiliar words. But they persisted more because they cared about the task. “It's situated knowledge. They see a piece of language, a turn of phrase, and they figure it out.”

Situated knowledge plays a key role in literacy.  Scaffolded understanding and context awareness are inherent to good reading.  On a micro level it assists vocabulary and parsing written conventions like punctuation and grammar.  As we build our understanding of written language we're able to comprehend more complex texts using previous experience; literacy builds on itself in this way.  

Contextualization also assists a reader at the level of themes and ideas.  Being conversant in a video game allows you to make assumptions about words and concepts you would otherwise have no link to through the text.  No doubt many of those struggling readers were able to accurately guess vocabulary and concepts from their own experience, the text becomes a secondary resource, literacy a secondary skill.  Large scale contextualization can help a strong reader parse a complex, unfamiliar text, but if it is being used to parse familiar concepts and materials I'd argue that it isn't assessing literacy that effectively.

Literacy isn't merely the repetition of familiar ideas, at its best it is the ability to deeply comprehend new ideas through a written medium.  Video games might offer a hook that helps reluctant readers engage, but to suggest that Minecraft or any other game could act as a solution to illiteracy is more than misleading, it's dishonest.  It's also why complex, long term skills development like literacy is best left to education, where quarterly earnings and attention grabbing don't attempt to outsell learning.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Anti-Edtech or Anti-Distraction?

Is technology in the classroom a distraction or a tool for improving learning?  The results of vastly improved student learning from technology haven't materialized, yet we continue to throw money at educational technology hoping that it will help.

A wise internet jedi recently shared an article in which a new media professor is putting an end to digital distraction in a class in which he teaches about digital distraction.  A better person to explain the assumptions we make about digital technology you'd be hard pressed to find.  He had a couple of quotes that really punched assumptions about edtech use in the face.

"Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption."

"Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting; when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change."

The concept of multitasking has long been championed by the rise of the digital native crowd.  It's something we poor immigrants to this brave new world simply can't do like they can, except it isn't.  If you want to follow the science rather than the marketing, you'll find that multi-tasking is indeed a myth.  If you want to do something well, you focus on it.  That might seem like simple common sense, but you'll find a lot of digital education evangelists pushing for it anyway.

For the Luddites that want to attack computers themselves for this dilemma, he had this:

"programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go."

As a philosophically minded technologist I straddle this uneasy divide between the tech-hater and the fan-boy/girl, and I like neither.  Where I see computer technology as a tool to use, many others either vilify or champion it from an emotional angle.  I struggle mightily in class to get students to stop this emotional love/hate relationship with computers that many model on the adults in their lives, but it's a simple truth when Shirky says our computers are now designed to be distractions.  If you're only going to be a user, you're going to be a loser.

Clay Shirky goes on to describe the intellect as the rider atop an elephant of emotions, desires and urges.  The rider may direct the elephant occasionally, but when the two are in conflict the elephant will usually win.  This is what happens when you put a distraction engine like the modern internet in front of a child whose rider is still working out how to direct the elephant (not that many adults are better).  No wonder I find it a continual frustration to direct students... and I'm teaching computers designed to distract!

The engagement game we play in education nowadays is based on this battle with software designed to distract.  As Shirky says, we're bringing whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and losing badly.  When we decide to get in sync with the modern world we are actually downgrading education in order to play the distraction game in the same split attention, broken thinking world that has people driving into each other.

Educational IT should be the leading edge, designed to vary student access to digital technology in order to promote pedagogy at every step.  What it shouldn't be is what it is, a hand-me-down variety of the very software and hardware that is causing the problem in the first place.  This realization puts concepts like BYOD, tech-branded education and open internet access in a very awkward place if you want to champion learning over engagement, though I get the sense that engagement has infected educational management much as it has everything else.

This infected thinking, the kind that has monetized the internet and made a generation of software engineers billionaires, demands constant human attention.  When everything touched by technological integration gets infected with the idea of deep psychological engagement, people in the world become little more than variables in an economic equation.

Education is now just another enabler in a digital distraction  end game that is infecting society as a whole.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Big Digital Magic

I'm really enjoying teaching English again, especially the university bound group I've got.  I don't have to worry about explaining why they are there as I do in many computer-tech classes.  The students come complete with their own resilience and competitive nature.  When you're not reduced to hand holding all the time you can get into concepts deeply and quickly.

An opening unit from the text is "Fire of the Human Spirit".  In it we look over Mandela's inauguration Speech, a Susan Aglukark song and a June Callwood essay amongst other media, all of it pointing at the concept of FotHS.

After a few examples and some discussion we set up a wikispace where students each found a song that they believe described FotHS.  They each made a wikipage on which they provided a link to the song, the lyrics, and a personal analysis of why this song exemplifies FotHS.

Because this class comes ready to play I tend to approach it as though I'm a participant in a hot group; I like to bring gifts to the group.  In this case I knew that I could export the content out of the wikispace relatively easily.  Since that text consisted only of the lyrics and student written analysis I thought it might be interesting to look at what we'd created from a group vocabulary usage point of view.  What words found in the lyrics of 28 songs and accompanying student analysis point to our concept of Fire of the Human Spirit?

Exporting the wiki is a one click process.  Once I had the text I had to do some magic to combine all the HTML pages into a single document.  Wikispaces also exports to text but it takes the html coding with it, which made a mess.  Google-docs didn't seem to have the mojo I needed to combine multiple documents into a single one, but the Phantom Foxit PDF creator I had did.  Once I had a pdf with all the text from twenty eight wikipages imported together I dumped it into the text window in Wordle and voila:

Katy Perry single-handedly got 'oh' in there!  Looking at verb usage is interesting.  Fire of the Human Spirit seems to demand action!  The nouns are also enlightening when creating constellations of meaning around this concept.  We're going to use this class produced conglomeration of ideas to develop thesis around the concept next week.

As an aside, several English teachers turned their noses up at what we were doing.  Apparently it's widely believed that you can't learn English in a digital context.  I beg to differ.  If we're going to turn to media to teach English, I'd much rather it be personalized, self created media like this.  The students themselves were surprised at how much depth something this simple offered.  That they created it as a class seemed to produce a sense of satisfaction.

Here is a FotHS 2.0 with some common words removed to emphasize specific vocabulary:

Gaming Everything

Via NBCnews: the glory of the hardcore video gamer.  Not
 the kind of thing that's ever going to challenge the Olympics

for public attention I think.
I've had a lot of trouble playing video games lately.  My problem seems to be around that idea of scripted experience.  If I'm playing a video game I'm working through a narrative someone else created.  I enjoy narratives but what irks me about video games is they pretend to have an element of choice in them when in fact they don't.  They suggest that they are the next evolution in entertainment but the interactivity they offer is so limited that it's really just a hidden script that you follow under the illusion of choice.  Gamification in general seeks to use this illusion to hook people into otherwise tedious situations.

The first step away from video gaming occurred when I found I couldn't get into single player games anymore.  Even the good ones with epic narratives felt banal.  I went to multi-player games for several years hoping that the human element would create choice, but I find that these too are scripted, and worse, they force players into scripted responses to the point where you can't tell the players from the bots.  When a game is so restrictive that it makes the people in it act like machines it's not a game I care to play.

There is a particular situation in which we're happy to turn people into bots if the illusion of engagement is preserved.  That situation also happens to be seen as quite tedious by many of its participants.  Education is eager to digitize if it ensures engagement, even if that engagement mimics the dimensionless engagement found in online activity.  Standardized testing feeds this thinking, producing learning outcomes that are easily quantifiable as data even as they fail to demonstrate learning.  Deep contextual human activities (like learning) are lost in simplistic digital data.

Doubt is cast on an individual teachers' ability to teach a subject.  Consistency is demanded in modern education as a result of this doubt and the slippery nature of digital information encourages this by eroding the space between classrooms and lessons.  This is shown as some kind of great step forward in terms of fairness, but what it really does is reduce teaching (as it has done with many other human activities) to a vapid exchange of information, incidentally, what digital machines do best. 

We fill in templates, teach centralized material and are encouraged to sync how we teach it.  Proof of success is found in standardized test scores.  There is little interest in assessing teaching or learning in any other way.

This digital infection also carries the parasitic idea of gamification, usually championed by video game evangelists who believe that the structure of gaming can overcome every obstacle.  Teachers are encouraged to design student success through scripted outcomes, pretty much like a video game does.  If the game you're playing is designed to have you eventually win, it isn't much of a challenge, and certainly isn't something you can be proud of, but then modern learning isn't about challenge, it's about engagement.  The idea of gamification makes me uneasy for this very reason.  When we gamify situations that aren't games I'm afraid that we pollute complex situations with the implied success found in most gaming outcomes.  If education is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond school, this isn't going to do it.

When you're gaming everything, you've lost the ability to
immerse yourself in anything.
If you offer open ended, 'real' experience many digital natives shy away from a situation where the rules can't be gamed for advantage.  The hacking mindset implies that the system is more important than the content.  Perhaps that is why I can't play video games anymore.  It's hard to get lost in a narrative when you're constantly looking at ways to subvert the delivery method.

Wilful suspension of disbelief is lost in the digital age.  This is the root of the pessimism and disengagement you see in many students.  When education becomes another process you hack to guaranty your own success, it becomes increasingly impossible to do anything useful with it.

This grew out of Scripted Lives which itself grew out of Unscripted Moments.  I'm pulling at a lot of threads here.  I've been a fan of RPGs since I got into D&D when I was 10.  I love sports and would describe myself as a serious gamer.  I've spent most of my life learning digital technology, so I'd hardly call myself a tech-hater either, but watching digital technology and gamification aiming for society wide acceptance has made me very uneasy.