Friday, 6 October 2017

Reflections on Reflections: mastery & expertise and long standing inequalities

The revive old post plugin on Wordpress is great (and
random) , and gets you re-reading old reflections.
Learning Expert and the Skilled Master shone a light on the
PD I was about to walk into that morning.
Things keep happening at work that I've just had surface online.  The resonance between ideas from years ago and now always make me wonder about the progression of education.  The more things change the more they stay the same, I suppose.

Last week before our first PD day of the year I was re-reading a three year old post comparing learning experts with skilled mastery (when you've been blogging for six years you get to see a lot of old ideas remembered).  

Learning experts are like chameleons, perfectly camouflaged by their quick minds.  They're able to effectively consume large amounts of information and present it effectively in an academic setting.  They are very proficient in communication and embedding themselves in organizational structures.  They're who you want to explain to you how an internal combustion engine works, but they aren't who you want fixing one.  Learning experts tend to have a finger in a lot of pies.  They don't focus on developing a single set of skills because they prefer the rarefied air of pure learning; they tend to be informational creatures.

By contrast the skilled master is someone who has spent a lot of time honing stochastic skills though trial and error in the real world; their's is a situated intelligence.  They might have an encyclopedic knowledge of their specialty but they tend to shy away from theoretical recitation in favour of relying on personal experience.  Their expertise is in the particular, not the general.  They are able to demonstrate that expertise concretely.  Learning experts shy away from that sort of tangible skills demonstration.

High school teachers are expected to have mastery of their subject area, but you'd be amazed at how many English teachers don't write and how few science teachers do science.  In fact, in my experience, the vast majority of high school academic specialists don't practice their specialty in any discernible way.  They come dangerously close to making that annoying Shaw quote look accurate.  One of the exceptions I've found is in the technology department where our chefs chef, our technicians repair and our materials experts do carpentry and metal work, every day.  Constant examples of their expertise pop up all over the school.

We spent PD last week doing the learning expert thing as we always do.  We began by being given statistics so laughably incomplete as to be essentially useless and were then asked to suggest sweeping changes to our school based on them.   After being handed a Ministry document so dense in edu-speak as to be practically incomprehensible (which isn't a problem if tangible results aren't a requirement), we were asked to apply whatever it was to how our department teaches.  We then spent time touching so lightly on mental health as to barely register our presence before ending the session blasting off into the school as the resident experts on it, ready to develop deep personal connections with all the students who least want that.  In the afternoon we learned how to make our own statistics to justify any course of action we choose.  At the end of the day all the learning experts felt like they'd done many things, I felt like I'd been desperately treading water for eight hours.  

I'd suggested the tech department head over to the wood shop and learn how to use the new laser engraver.  By the end of the day we'd have all been able to make effective use of a tool that would have offered immediate benefits to all our specialists.  It would have been a day of specified training leading to a clear learning outcome.  The benefits would have been demonstrable by everyone in our department.

Tangibles from our day of learning expertise?  Nooooo.  We don't do tangibles.

The sub-text of our data driven morning was that our school doesn't do enough to support our essential and applied students.  Seeing as we're not sectioned to run those courses and have to squeeze them into existing classes, it's little wonder they aren't being served well.  Rather than trying to pry this open with insufficient statistics why not talk to the actual problem (our essential sections are given away to a school miles away)?

Since then there has been some top down pressure on making open courses easier.  Essential and applied students don't need easier, they need curriculum delivered to their needs.  It's hard to do that when we prioritize running a dozen half empty grade 12 university bound science courses but barely any non-stacked essential classes.  I'm guessing because these stats weren't given, but we spend more than half our class sectioning to satisfy university bound academic students who compose less than 30% of our student population.

consumerist learning: less challenging classes aren't what students are looking for.
proliferation of fifties:  we already pass students we shouldn't.  How low should we go?
situated intelligence:  it's the only real kind we have. Everything else is politics.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Does Applied Mean Easy?
Today I was told that my grade nine classes are too difficult and I should make them less so.  I'd never heard this before and this one time it was mentioned in passing while on another topic of conversation so I was kind of stunned by the comment.  Seeing as I have a perfect pass rate in an open grade nine course, 'too hard' doesn't seem very accurate.  Do I push my students to do their best work, certainly.  Is it challenging?  Absolutely.  Do I expect a lot from them?  You bet.  But too hard?  I have some thoughts on that...

My classes are hands-on and reality is pretty demanding.  I can't tell a student they have great ideas like I used to in English when I was handed a grammar abysmal paper.  If the circuit they built doesn't work, their work is obviously inferior.  I can't tell a student that they're brilliant at coding if their code doesn't run, because it doesn't run.  Unlike slippery academic courses where students are producing abstractions within abstractions, I'm facing reality with my students head on, so being stringent with them isn't an option, it's a necessity.

Reality is all about mastery, not learning expertise; it's a boots on the ground situation, not a generals talking around a table kind of thing.  The students who often struggle with my class the most are the A+ academic types who are have figured out how to game school and get great grades; they aren't used to this kind of non-linear struggle against such an implacable foe (reality).  The people considered the 'middle' of our learning continuum ('applied' students) are my main audience.  My top students tend to be college bound applied students, though I try to tend to the academic and essential needs as well.  These students tell me they enjoy the demands I place on them because most other teachers take applied to mean just do less (ie: make it easier?), which I've never done.  Maybe that's why this passing comment stuck in my craw so much.  If the entire system assumes non-academic courses mean make it easy and fun then I think we have failed a large portion of our student population.  Education shouldn't be easy and fun, it should be challenging and satisfying in a way that easy and fun never is.

My grade 9 classes are hands-on computer technology classes that have students race across a wide variety of curriculum because computer technology, in spite of being an emerging kind of literacy, is treated as a dumping ground for any related material.  Electrical engineering has less to do with programming or information technology than physics does with chemistry or biology, but the sciences are logically separated.  Computer technology curriculum in Ontario is like taking SCIENCE (all of it, at once), and yes, it's a lot to do.

In TEJ10 I'm covering all sorts of not really related specialties at once, but I'm still able to effectively operate an open level course that delivers me everything from grade 9s who can't read to grade 9s who will one day become nuclear physicists, and I'm able to challenge and engage them all.  The only ones who might complain that it was too hard were also the ones that took a couple of weeks off each semester for a family holiday and then missed a pile of other days for reasons.  When they are in class they are looking for reasons not to be.  Anyone who is there regularly is engaged by the hands on and collaborative nature of the course.  I'm not going to dumb it down because it's an applied course and I'm not going to cater to the students (and parents) who want to treat school like a sometimes daycare by demanding lower expectations.

I feel better about this already.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Leadership is Exhausting #1: headships & heirarchies

Some people make leadership their life's work, but I'm not one of them.  I find managing other people tiresome and tedious.  The only time I pursue leadership is if I feel it's the only way to get things done.  Getting things done is what I'm all about and with a few exceptions I prefer to do it without management hierarchy.  I greatly enjoy collaborating and find few things more satisfying than a team working well together, but those teams are best when populated with experts pursuing their expertise, not when dictated to by a hands-off management expert.

I just completed a two year term as co-head of technology at my school.  The only thing worse than leading is having to go to committee every time a decision has to be made, which is what the co-head structure was designed to do.  Rather than get tangled up in that nonsense I focused on the things my co-head wasn't conversant in, like communication and encouraging department improving extracurriculars.  At no point was I embroiled in co-head who's-the-boss arguments (as others were) or telling anyone what to do, though this approached baffled many of the other people on the leadership team.  My co-head took care of safety and hard-tech shop requirements, I did the other things.  We collaborated on things like sectioning, though even here there was sometimes friction.  I wouldn't recommend co-headships.  At their best they are a compromise.

At the end of my tenure our department had re-established itself as one of the leaders in the board in Skills Canada participation, re-connected with board funding for technology and had become used to actually knowing what happens in leadership team meetings thanks to my detailed, live and often colourful note taking.  I think I left the department in a more aware and positively engaged extracurricular place than I found it.

I've been a drill sergeant, I know how to bark orders and expect them to be obeyed.  It is only in very hierarchical situations that a dominating leader can operate effectively.  The punishments have to be immediate and the focus razor sharp.  Everybody involved is usually willing to do this because you're training for a life and death situation so you need to have your shit together.  I enjoyed operating in an environment like that because expectations were clear and the efficiencies were obvious, but leadership in education is anything but clear on objectives and expectations (it's managed by politicians).

It is such a relief to put that headship down.  The lack of focus or clarity of purpose makes for a very murky operating environment.  Everyone's opinion is carefully listened to and then decisions happen seemingly of their own accord.  Having to listen to people who think everyone should do what they tell them for hours at a time in Head's meetings is one of my least favourite things to do.  Trying to find quorum in a crowded room of conflicting self interests led to never ending discussions that never produced conclusions.  A room where less was said for longer amounts of time I don't think I've ever sat in.

Now that I'm free from the yoke of leadership I'm doing what I do best and doubling down my energy on research and development.  I voluntarily took on too many sections of teaching again just to give my students opportunities to explore the technology they want to make their life's work.  We're taking a run at cyber-security competition for the first time with ICTC's Cyber Titan program.  We've already put together a powerful roster of Skills Ontario competitors, and I'm pursuing half a dozen emerging technology initiatives.  My seniors are building VR ready computers for schools across the board and we're developing ipad based software for DD students to better understand emotional expression.  We've repaired dozens of Chromebooks and other school hardware, installed software and enabled technology across the school.  We're also in the process of working out how to create immersive 360° video as an introduction to the school so that students can become familiar with the layout before they arrive.  All that's happening while I'm teaching five sections in three classes.

It's my kind of work; it's wide ranging, there are no right answers, there are no instructions because no one really knows how to do a lot of it, and it demands a real sense of discovery.  Isn't this just another form of leadership you ask?  I'm certainly managing a lot of activity, but I'm back to my flat hierarchy where I work to develop expertise in my students so that they can self-govern their work (an expert is defined by how they design their work space in order to display their expertise).  I don't want a production line, or even submission to hierarchy, I want experts I can collaborate with in pursuing solutions to challenging, non-linear, real-world engineering problems.  That might be the worst definition of leadership ever devised, but it's what I value, and it's the opposite of exhausting.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Management Expertise


This is a WIRED story about tech software startups in the Denver area.  In it a man who has an idea about buying insurance online has become a 'TECH CEO' even though he has no idea of what it is he is actually building.  With no background in technology hardware or software development, this guy is trying to launch a tech-startup with an idea and little else.

The quotes below are from the article.  The bolding is mine...

ROSS DIEDRICH HAD gone pale and raw-boned. The CEO of a year-old startup in Denver, he’d stay at his office until the middle of the night, go home and sleep for about five hours, then chug a spinach smoothie and start again. He was just 27 years old, but he felt wrung out.

He still didn’t have even a basic version of the software that he could demo—an “MVP” in coder parlance, for minimum viable product. Chris was still holding down his full-time job; he didn’t want to quit until Covered had some funding in hand. The lead development engineer that Ross had brought on, a big, quiet nerd named Jonathan Baughn, was juggling a bunch of projects and wasn’t as available as Ross had expected. But Ross didn’t want to put too much pressure on Baughn. As a contractor, he was within his rights to work for others. A junior software engineer Baughn had brought to the project, Reyna DeLogĂ©, tried to manage on her own, but they kept blowing past their self-imposed deadlines.

He navigated to the demo site, typed in his password, and tapped on the mousepad. Then he tapped again. Nothing happened. The demo was broken. “What the heck is going on here?” he murmured.

I'd feel wrung out too if I was building something that I had no idea of how it works and kept blowing through deadlines.  Demoing it and having it fail to launch and then having no idea why would be exhausting.

I would posit that you need at least a passing acquaintance with the technology you're pedalling before you try to claim ownership over it.  An automotive executive who has no idea what is under the hood would be a poor manager.  A head chef who doesn't know how to cook would be a poor manager.  A general who has never stepped foot on a battlefield would be a poor general.  A principal who was a disaster in the classroom would be a poor principal.

The film Steve Jobs does a good job of examining the contradiction of a manager who has no engineering skill:

Where Jobs diverges from the disaster described in the WIRED article above is that he surrounds himself with the most knowledgeable engineers - an orchestra of expertise, and then focuses on having them produce their best possible work.  An argument could be made for a manager like this, but not at the expense of engineering, never at the expense of engineering.

Your ideal manager must have some technical background if they are to work with skilled labour.  In the clip above Woz tells Jobs that he can't do anything, which isn't really true; they met and bonded over their shared knowledge of electronics.  Jobs may not have been able to engineer the devices he helped create, but he was very aware of the technology and how it worked.  With that knowledge he was able to gather experts because he could appreciate their expertise.

A manager who is only an expert in management is best when not managing people who perform skilled work, whether that be engineering or teaching or any other complex, skills based process.  Matt Crawford does a great job of examining this in The World Beyond Your Head.  In the book Crawford distinguishes between the skilled labourer who modifies or 'jigs' their environment to better perform their profession and the unskilled script follower who does what they're told in a prefabricated production line.  Being free to manipulate the physical environment in order to perform your expertise is a foundation stone of professionalism in Crawford's mind.  A lot of the downward pressure you see on worker valuation in education and employment in general is because of the Taylorism of workplaces into script following routines.  Making the end goal of education a result in a standardized test plays to this thinking perfectly.  In those prefabricated and abstracted workplaces skill isn't a requirement, obedience is.

An effective manager of skilled labour acknowledges and cultivates expertise in their people.  You can't do that without having some kind of handle on that skillset.  Being oblivious to how reality works and managing complex, skilled labourers who work in that demanding environment like they are a production line is the single greatest point of failure in management, unless your goal is to chase out skilled labour and turn your organization into a mechanical process where the people in it are little more that scripted robots.  There are financial arguments for that, but they aren't very humane.  We might not perform as many repetitive job tasks in the future, but if we remove human expertise from the workplace it will damage us as a species, and any financial gain from it would be short lived.

Related Readings:

Shopclass as Soulcraft: IT Idiocy, Management Speak & Skills Abstraction
Taylorism in Edtech
Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Education
A Thin and Fragile Pretense
How We've Situated Ourselves

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Why bring a prototype technology to an #edtech conference?

I'm just wrapping up this conference in Toronto and it's another week before we're back at it in class.  This is a small conference where you get to meet and talk to many of the participants.  By the end of the three days you're familiar with a lot of faces, which doesn't happen at the bigger events.

I was invited to demonstrate virtual reality research my students and I have done in class over the past year.  Bringing all the kit involved in setting up multiple VR sets is like bringing all you'd need to project a movie... in 1930.  These are the heaviest, most awkward VR sets people will ever experience and it took a car load of tech to set up two headsets.

This 'state of the art' technology that is a pain to set up and far from perfect might seem like an odd choice to bring to a teacher technology focused conference.  Where everyone else is showing off cloud based software tools or simple electronics, I'm here with this astonishingly complex and expensive technology that clearly isn't for everyone, but that's why I brought it.

If you'd have shown up at an education technology conference in 2008 with a touch screen tablet that could run apps, create digital media and replace 80% of the work you do on a desktop computer, you'd have looked a bit mad.  Everyone there would wonder why you're showing off this stuff from Star Trek since it'll never be used in a classroom.  Eighteen months later Apple would produce the first ipad and everyone's mind would change.

When I first tried the latest evolution in virtual reality last spring I was surprised at how accessible it had become.  From bespoke systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars we suddenly saw Oculus and then HTC Vive appear with thousand dollar headsets that would run on a decent desktop computer.  It's not often you see an evolutionary leap that drastic and effective in computer technology (think ipad levels of advancement over a PDA).  The prices have since dropped again to under $600.

Bringing VR as it is now (big, awkward, complex) to an educational conference on technology was an opportunity to show people where we'll be in the next five years.  Heavy, hot, wired and expensive VR sets with lots of setup and complication won't be how many people first experience VR, but it's important for educators to be ahead of mass adoption and think about how media is evolving so that we're able to effectively harness it when that ipad moment happens.

VR is evolving so rapidly that it has reached a kind of critical mass with research and development support.  Money that used to go elsewhere is being focused on VR development which is further accelerating an already hot technology sector.  This means you'll be using VR in your classroom a lot sooner than you think.  Wouldn't it be something if teachers knew something about it before that happens?

I had a lot of people walk up to the station and ask me what company I'm with, even though this was a Minds on Media event and that means it's run by teachers for teachers.  There is a lot of subtext in the question.  The assumption that I had to be some kind of engineer with a VR company comes from a place where teachers assume they aren't experts on tech, but many are and we should make a point of recognizing those skills as they are a key to improving technical fluency in Ontario education.  The other assumption became apparent when people asked me how I could possibly have put this together in an Ontario classroom.

I'm lucky there.  My school board makes a point of exploring emerging technologies with the Specialist High Skills Major program.  Without that support my expertise as a former IT technician is wasted, but with that support we have an example of an Ontario classroom exploring the leading edge of emerging technologies.  The first thing we did after figuring out how to get VR working (and this was a team effort with myself, our board IT department and my senior computer engineering students) was to begin building and setting up VR sets for other schools.  This capacity building led to one of my students returning to his elementary school as a coop student and assisting them with their VR research which in turn led us to becoming an ICT SHSM program for the first time.  There is a virtuous circle when we enable the technical skills of Ontario teachers and use it to actively engage with evolving educational technology rather than waiting for it to surprise us.

I tend to shy away from turn-key digital substitutions of existing class work.  If it is relying on computers and networks you've introduced so much complication into something that achieves the same learning goal more simply that I don't bother.  If a poster making session in class would do it, why bother going digital?  But there are moments with technology where it offers you something so profoundly different from what you could do in an analog classroom that it begs you to use it.  VR did that for us with an opportunity to build digital 3d models and design software for VRspace.

Running Tiltbrush for art teachers from elementary to senior high school always prompted the same result.  Artists get excited by a new medium and this is that.  If you've never sculpted with light before, you can in VR.  Using something as immersive and tactile as VR is much better than explaining it.  After explaining VR many asked me what the point of it was.  After trying VR most of them were lit up by it, suddenly imagining all the possibilities, and that's what I was there for.  I'm not selling you on a platform, or a company, or a carefully designed analog replacement, I'm offering you a glimpse into the future.  If you left full of excitement at the possibilities, and pretty much everyone did, then my job was done.

VR offers 3d, immersive interaction with a digital world we've only been able to peer at through a 2d monitor before.  This will change everything, again.

Dozens of links and lots of information on how to get started in VR in your classroom, check it out!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Sky is Falling!

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

...and the counterpoint: Ignore The Bullshit: iPhones Are Not Destroying Teenagers

Is this another panicky article by The Atlantic about how digital technology is killing us?  (Remember is Google Making Us Stupid?  I do.)

The general complaint is that youngsters tangled up in emerging technology won't have the same beatific childhood we have all nostalgically invented for ourselves.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing at the best of times.  It's a fictional invention by its very nature.  Our own childhoods weren't magical bliss.  Depending on how old you are, that magical family trip you took when you were a child was done in a gas guzzling, emissions belching nightmare of a 1970s car.  We're all suffering from the results of your magical childhood road trips.  This isn't to say that those trips weren't wonderful, but they are hardly the placed on a pedestal, this is the way we should all be all the time ideas that nostalgia amplifies them into.

The distance between generations is very similar socially to the distance between races and cultures.  Especially with our rapidly evolving technology, one generation to the next might have significantly different lived experiences.  Just as racists like to emphasize differences in culture and patriots like to wave their flags over the perceived superiority of their countries, ageists like to belittle generations other than their own for their differences.  Sometimes that ageism turns into something worse.

This week in Canada the elementary teachers union in Ontario created a debate about the country's first prime minister, John A. MacDonald.  This discussion squared off people who tend toward staunch nationalism with people who tend toward staunch political correctness.  It reminded me of a story one of my history professors once told us about his dad.

In his late eighties this professor's father thought it would be nice to begin attending university classes.  The prof was delighted at the idea and encouraged his dad to give it a go.  In the first semester this elderly gentleman found himself in a class full of twenty somethings learning about the early Twentieth Century - something he had first hand knowledge of.  As they learned about suffrage (both gender and race) the ever-so-proud of their place in history young people in this class began throwing around words like sexist and racist.  The prof's dad was very upset by this.  He tried to explain that the vast majority of people at the time weren't consciously racist or sexist, but were becoming aware of how things had to change.

This is a huge realization that I think most people seem incapable of.  Our place in history is perhaps our largest single prejudice.  Those twenty-somethings in university in the 1990s were throwing around these judgments from a temporal place of perceived superiority, but I wonder how history will represent them.  Can you sit there wearing clothes made in sweatshops and burn fossil fuel to get to class and really feel that superior?  Can you live in a country that only exists as a result of aggressive colonialism and cast disparagements at the people who did the dirty work of creating it?  They could.

This feels like a people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones kind of thing, but it's human nature to grasp for and exploit any perceived superiority it can; political correctness is founded on the idea.  Humility and honesty are hard work.

When I was doing teacher's college I came across a grade 8 history text book that had a painting of the day of Confederation on Parliament Hill in 1867.  In this picture that I'd describe as more propaganda than anything else, were black, Asian and native people all walking hand in hand with white Canadians and all dressed in appropriate Victorian dress.  None of the women and most of the men in that picture couldn't vote and had nothing to do with Confederation.  If they weren't dying from smallpox they might have been building a railway or were recent refugees from the underground railroad who were now experiencing the quieter racism of British North America.  If you want a final victory for colonialism this was it - a children's history text that had rewritten history to make Canada look like something it never was (but would eventually evolve towards).  Burning books and rewriting history has a long and dark history.

Canada has a messy history.  Less messy than The States, but messy still.  Revising it isn't a way of fixing that, it's a way of hiding it, which isn't cool.  Any schools named J.A.M. should remain so - talking about history remembering the context of the time is why the study of history is so challenging, but it's something we should do or we're doomed to repeat it; I suspect we are anyway if we're not willing to ask the hard questions and fix the social inadequacies we currently exploit.  It's a good thing people in the early Twentieth Century were willing to fight for equality of access to democracy, because I'm not sure people today would.

There is little difference between George Washington owning slaves and a 21st Century North American buying sweatshop clothes from Walmart.  In fact, I'd say the only difference is that Washington did his own slave owning rather than farming the work out to multinationals.  The modern 'First World' has never paid for what things actually cost.  We can afford fossil fuels to power our massive vehicles and fly across the world because we
 stand atop centuries of colonialist policy that hasn't disappeared, it's just hiding in what we now call globalized economics.  We've never paid even a tiny percentage of what burning fossil fuels or manufacturing goods actually cost.  A future generations tax is an obvious choice we'll never make because screw our descendants, we'll get ours.  Isn't this just another kind of generationalism?

Judging newer generations who are struggling with technology change just as we all are is equally prejudicial.  Other than teens being able to publish their self involved drama, I'm not sure much has changed other than the ability to publish it, so panicking over the end of civilization because of smartphones seems a bit bombastic, but I'm sure it'll sell magazines.  When that generational prejudice begins to deny the existence of previous generations it's not going to help us fix any of our current blinds spots, of which there are many.  Future generations are going to look at us as a disaster, even as we're busy assigning blame to the people who came before us.

Jill Lapore

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Replies to our MoE Experiential Student Research Grant

This year I applied for a Ministry grant for student driven experiential research. I've tried this before without much success, but this time we got OK'd!

We collected interested participants from schools across our board, some of whom we'd built VR computers for, and proceeded to explore the emerging technology of virtual reality from grades 4-12 across four high schools and two elementary schools.

To wrap up the project we had to complete a review of our work - below are my answers to those questions:

Describe how students were involved in designing or co-constructing the learning experience.

CW students were encouraged to volunteer for a school wide VR research group where they got priority access to the VR sets during lunch. 30+ students joined this group but only two finished their projects.  Many faded away after midterm when they needed to focus on missed school work rather than volunteer projects. Early self directed research led students into 3d modelling using VR applications, but subsequent groups and individuals looked at curriculum wide VR possibilities.

VR is also integrated into the software engineering courses we run in grades 11 and 12. Two groups elected to develop VR based applications using Unity & Blender. These groups were student directed and managed through the entire development process. HexVR is a reflex action game running on the HTC Vive. Co/Labs focused on creating a virtual classroom that would allow people to meet in virtual space from anywhere to problem solve collaboratively.

Describe how students developed and applied the knowledge and skills associated with education and career/life planning.

Software engineering students follow SWEBOK and

engineering design process planning when developing their software. The purpose of this course is to develop real world planning, collaboration and leadership skills. Many of our grads take the software they developed in class and use it as portfolio work to get into challenging post secondary programs, and in some cases to earn income to pay for their post secondary educations. As a stepping stone into post-secondary and career skills, the leadership skills learned in software engineering are a vital stepping stone.

The engineering design process we follow in software is closely linked to the iterative career/life planning process outlined in the document above - both are self correcting systems.

Describe how students reflected on and applied their learning.

In the voluntary group a rigorous reflection process was not possible and probably led to the lower outcome. In the more structured software engineering class reflection is baked into the iterative engineering design process and students were pressed to constantly assess their progress and change their course depending on how possible their final goals were. This demanding process of reflection on student knowledge and skill, and how effective it was in realizing project goals, was vital to the positive outcomes achieved.

The ministry is particularly interested in projects that promote inclusion and foster equity by focusing on the role of experiential learning to improve outcomes for a diverse group of students. What strategies did you use to ensure that every student participated and was able to derive personal meaning from the experience? *

At CW we offer computer technology courses at open levels in junior grades and at essential to M level/post secondary focused at senior grades. Students of all levels were able to access our VR technology. In addition the VR set was offered school wide and was used by students of all levels in a variety of curriculum learning situations. Our computer teacher (who is writing this) is autistic, as is his son, and his program is especially welcoming to autistic and other neuro-atypical students. Computer classes at CW tend to have very high rates of IEPed students who are able to develop complex technology skills using advanced hardware like our virtual reality sets.

Describe the planned outcomes / learning goals for students.

Students designed projects that would develop virtual reality software. These students were already experienced with 3d modelling and rendering software (Blender & Unity), but VR is such a new thing that there is very little out there to support development. In many cases these student projects were using software that was only weeks old that no one else was using. As an engineering project this was a unique goal: to build something without online support or previous versions to copy from - a completely unique piece of software engineering. Both groups working in this manner acheived working prototypes, and one group has been asked to continue developing their project by a number of interested industry partners. This may end up being the most genuine kind of project imaginable - one that becomes a published piece of software.

Describe the skills, knowledge and habits that students demonstrated related to each of the outcomes / learning goals. Cite data that speaks to the project's impact on students' attitudes, achievement and/or behaviour. Refer to Appendix E: Evidence of Impact in the Community-Connected Experiential Learning Project Handbook at

Resiliency and self-direction were the main goals of this research work, and the students who stuck with it developed a stick-to-it-ness that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. From our grade 9s who were researching and essential beta testing unfinished software in a brand new piece of hardware to our seniors who were trying to develop software for it, real-world engineering practices were vital to success. Organization and an adherence to the engineering process allowed our successful students to exceed extremely challenging goals while other students benefited from a truly unique set of peer driven exemplars.

Our greatest success came from seniors who developed software both in and out of class, but several juniors also stuck with the voluntary research and produced satisfying and complex results (shared in subsequent answers).

The failure to produce output rate of volunteer non-class related students was exceptionally high while the completion rate of students with in-class support and access was significantly better.  While student directed research has merit, it should be noted that teachers have a strong role to play in helping less developed students plan and execute such work.

Reflect on your collection of project artifacts. Select and submit at least one artifact in each category that you think would be the most valuable to other teachers who may have an interest in exploring community-connected experiential learning in their programs. Where applicable, ensure that you have necessary consents/permissions to share. Refer to Appendix D: What Makes A Good Artifact? in the Community-Connected Experiential Learning Project Handbook at

CW exemplars:
MEDIUM: Oculus Rift 3d modelling software: (grade 9 analysis & review)

Check out Co/Labs on Twitter...

Software research (grade 9):

Grade 11 VR software research
Check out HexVR on Twitter...

Grade 12 Software development:

HexVR: The pinnacle of CW’s VR research this semester:

A good examplar needs to show not just student work, but how the student played a part in designing that work.  An exemplar of a worksheet designed and given by a teacher is probably aiming for the bottom of Bloom's taxonomy and wasn't what we were aiming for in this project.

Involvement of community partner: Describe the artifact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artifact. *

Our community began when our board SHSM lead offered to support us in rolling out VR sets to schools around the board as a pilot program. That roll out created a local community of users. Our grant application grew naturally out of our independent research as we already knew of each other and were keen to work together exploring this technological learning opportunity.

Some early adopters, most significantly TJ Neal at ODSS, had been into VR since before it went public using engineering samples of early VR sets, but he was working in isolation. Our local community, started by SHSM and then supported by this Ministry grant has created fertile ground for new technology research to occur.

TJ’s early work had also put him in touch with Foundry10, a Seattle based educational research group with an interest in VR. Their support early on in providing hardware and, more importantly best practices from other schools all across the continent, allowed us to quickly overcome or avoid obstacles and get our sets running in a sustainable and safe manner.

Community involvement both locally, at the board level, and even internationally online (and in person when Foundry10 came to visit) was key to our success in HexVR as well as our other projects related to this grant.

The artifact chosen would be Foundry10's VR research which we both participated in and benefited from:

Student involvement in the design/planning: Describe the artifact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artifact.

HexVR is an astonishing piece of software - a live action 3d game that already works well after only half a semester of in-class development by our senior software engineering class. Our valedictorian designed and built most of it while guiding and mentoring a number of junior engineers. HTC is interested in seeing if he can complete his development and our board SHSM has supplied him with a VR set for the summer to do that.

To technically understand what it means to design a working VR interface like this you have to understand how complicated it would be to ray cast both hands and head in 3d space in a continuous manner in a rendered virtual space.  It's a complex and brutal piece of engineering.

This project was entirely designed and built by our valedictorian (who wants to go into software engineering). His work not only produced a working prototype, but also helped us clarify how and what to teach in future classes.  His understanding of how to implement object based programming will drive future engineering work in our class.   As an exceptional student about to pursue a professional interest, this is powerful exemplar of student directed planning, design and effective engineering process and helps define what is possible.


Connection to the education and career/life planning program: Describe the artefact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artefact.

Up until three years ago we did not offer any software engineering course at CW. This course, which runs at cap each year, allows students to experience the engineering process involved in building software using industry rules, goals and expectations.

We already have graduates who have published software and many have gone on to successfully complete in-demand, high-expectation post secondary programs in digital technologies with great success.

Cameron’s work, like the work of other grads, will go on to produce a working software title.  The difference is that Cam did it using emerging hardware and software.  As an example of industry grade engineering by an Ontario high school student, there is little better.

Application of the experiential learning cycle: Describe the artifact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artifact.

A great example of the experiential learning cycle was grade 9 Kathryn’s research into Oculus Medium.

With less than a year under her belt in high school and with little experience in self directed research and while looking at days old software on weeks old new hardware, Kathryn self organized, planned an approach and executed it, all without any grades hanging on it (she wasn’t even my student at that point, she’d finished grade 9 computer tech in semester one).

A key aspect of experiential learning is self direction. In Shopclass As Soulcraft (a book any tech teacher or maker interested instructor should read), Matt Crawford proves the importance of self direction both in skills mastery and, ultimately, professionalism. Someone who is unable to self direct their work is not a professional. To see this kind of dedication and professional focus in a grade 9 student is exceptional and underlies the importance of offering the self directed planning of projects at the high school level.

What did you learn about the development, delivery and impact of community-connected experiential learning? What worked well? What will you do differently next time? *

Offer access to a large number of interested students, you’ll lose many of them in the process, but a big group means more people still working on it at the finish (we had 3 juniors out of 40 complete their research work).

Tying it to a course so there is more support (as in the senior engineering course) made a bit difference in completion rates (100% vs 8%). Offering more support to juniors might improve that, but I’m a big believer in a sink or swim approach to technology learning, and the students not willing to get organized will expect you to end up doing it for them, which isn’t the point of the grant, nor the point of why I teach technology. Having said that, I think I’ll still offer a bit more in the way of initial organizational support to juniors if we do this again because many of them can’t see the point of doing anything unless there is a mark tied to it (and sometimes not even then).  That would be a good habit to break if we're in the business of producing life long learners.

How can the Ministry of Education continue to support your efforts to provide community-connected experiential learning opportunities that promote student engagement, improve achievement, and foster well-being and life-long learning? *

Emerging technology is a sign of our times. The nature of digitization means everyone currently in education needs to be conversant in it - just like literacy or numeracy. Digital Fluency in Ontario education is at best an afterthought. The MoE should be looking to support digital fluency in both its staff and its students. We make grade 9 Geography and Art mandatory but there is no mandatory digital technology course, yet every student is expected to know how to use it both in their learning and in any future career they might have. Thinking that students magically know technology because they were born into it is ludicrous. Do you know how to replace a clutch in a car because cars were prevalent when you were a child? Or even just change a tire? Basic digital fluency is an expected foundational skill in 2017, but we don’t treat it like one. If the Ministry wants to help at all, start there.

Digital technology is connecting us both locally and virtually in ways unprecedented in history. Teaching all of our students how to do the digital equivalent of learning to drive, change a tire or look after the oil means they keep themselves on the road and get to experience and exploit that connectivity.   You want community connected experiential learning opportunities?  Digital technology is the grease the makes that wheel turn.

I teach students from grade 9s with little experience or interest in computers to grade 12s who are going to make it their life’s work, and every single one of them across that massive spectrum of skill and experience would benefit from a province wide focus on digital skills; it would make everything work more smoothly in a changing world and prepare our graduates for whatever job they may eventually inhabit.

Experiential learning is amplified with technology (VR is an excellent example of just how

powerful that can be - try standing in a ruined Auschwitz on a misty morning alone in VR and see if it isn’t). Student engagement is spiked by technology (assuming they are capable of using those tools effectively), achievement is improved as technology skills open the door to opportunities like elearning and other non-geographically limited learning. Student well being is improved with the ability to communicate with like minded people and seek out help when it's needed, and lifelong learning is encouraged and enabled when you can make effective use of technology and then apply it non-habitually and functionally in your learning. The future’s so bright, but only if we’re ready for it, and we get ready for it by developing our hard skills in a focused, curriculum driven structure.  We all become more literate if we're all more literate.

Research work like we did in this project seems far fetched and theoretical, but it’s what is coming next, and allowing us to explore this emerging technology and see what it can do for experiential learning allows us early adopters to improve our advanced skills while laying the groundwork for wider adoption down the road. This is differentiated instruction that helps us all, and for that I thank you for the chance to do it.