Wednesday, 29 December 2021

The DIGITAL LENS: How Education Has Ignored A Third Foundational Fluency During The Information Revolution

I've been battling against digital illiteracy in Ontario's public education system for going on a decade now and I'm frustrated at the slow rate of change.  I've applied for multiple positions at the board and ministry levels and watched as future administrators get moved into these positions and fail to move the needle before they evaporate off into management.  Perhaps my mistake is that I want to take on a curriculum enhancement role not to escape the classroom but to actually improve system response to an ongoing crisis that everyone else seems to want to sweep under the rug.

Considering Ontario's current state of affairs, I'll probably have to wait until after June 2nd for us to get any traction with this.  When Ontario comes to its senses (if it doesn't, I think we're moving), I'd really like to see us address digital illiteracy, but not just for the societal benefits it would provide - my actual interest is in developing a cyber-awareness curriculum that improves Canada's ability to survive and thrive in a networked world while also clarifying this hidden cyber-pathway for students capable and interested in pursuing it.

Unfortunately, cyber and information security aren't foundational digital abilities, they are advanced, complex skillsets that are developed on top of more simple fluencies.  An academic comparison would be writing a complex essay of a challenging piece of writing in English class.  In order to tackle the dreaded Hamlet essay, a student would need advanced reading skills with the ability to tackle complex vocabulary and grammar that includes an understanding of both poetic syntax and the chronological difficulties inherent in reading something over four hundred years old.  This contextual challenge alone would stress most people's language skills.  On top of all that, the writing itself is a complex set of skills developed on top of simpler abilities.  Students would need to understand spelling and grammar, and sentence construction and paragraph construction and argumentative theme development across the entire paper - it's a staggeringly complex ask that we can only attempt in high school because we've placed literacy as a foundational skillset in our education system.

That was in 2010 - over a decade later Schmidt is still
trying to get people to understand the digital
that is happening around them.
With that perspective in mind, I thought I'd try and take a run at infographicking how our analogue education system has digitized over the past twenty years.  This digitization of education has ramped up dramatically in the past decade - much of what I've written in Dusty World has orbited around this sea-change in digital teaching and learning.

The suddenness of this change has left many people behind.  There are administrators and 'curriculum experts' in our system who have never used the cloud-based learning systems we're now required to use in every lesson.  I'm up the pointy end of digitally fluent educators in the province.  I applied for a system IT support role last year and didn't get it - I suspect mainly because the system is incapable of understanding and appreciating digital fluency on anything but a puerile level; it's a case of illiterate people failing to value and understand what literacy looks like; I'd really like to change that.

If we consider the education system I grew up in 1980s Ontario, it was a very analogue place.  Teachers hand-wrote notes on a chalkboard which we copied by hand onto paper (which many students promptly lost, assuming they made the notes in the first place).  I can remember vindictive teachers doing a whole 76 minute period of note taking to 'ready us for university'.  Nothing prepares you for university like claw hand!  These 'lessons' weren't about how to take quality hand-written notes, they were about how to copy everything that was on the board as exactly and quickly as possible.  In retrospect, they did nothing to prepare me for university, but they were an example of the entrenched lessons we all experienced around creating analogue content; we never had a problem with teaching analogue skills because they hadn't changed for generations.  In the past two decades we've revolutionized information recording and access, but we've also all but ignored learning best practices in these new mediums for both teachers and students.

Analogue learning materials, analogue formative note taking leading to analogue communication of learning - and we drilled students on how to do each of these analogue exercises in order to create these skillsets.  We assume the same skills in digital spaces rather than teaching them.

My generation has been described as 'digital immigrants' as we arrived at the current state of affairs from a time that would seem completely alien to anyone currently under forty years old.  Along with the framing of us as digital immigrants comes the absurd framing of kids who have grown up in digital abundance as 'digital natives'.  If you've read Dusty World before you know what I think of this concept (it's absurd - just because I grew up in a time with cars didn't mean I magically knew how to drive!).  What this lazy observation did was absolve education of the responsibility for teaching digital communications as a foundational skill, even as it became the basis for how we teach and learn.  When I tried to replicate the 20th Century Teaching & Learning above with how 21st Century Teaching & Learning has become digitized, it quickly becomes apparent that digital skills aren't just needed to communicate your learning (it's even how we run the literacy test now!), the digital lens is also present in the learning materials you receive and the formative documentation of your learning.  Many parents struggle with the new digital means of communications from their schools (online reporting and such) because of their own digital illiteracy.  If you aren't digitally fluent you aren't capable of learning effectively in an Ontario classroom in 2022.  You aren't capable of teaching in one either, though that's the new expectation in our on again off again emergency remote and hybrid classrooms.

Learning materials are now almost entirely digital.  Even if a textbook is used it's often digitized first so that the information in it can be shared more fluidly in digital spaces.  Staff and students need to know how to research and find information online (including curating their own which many can't or don't do). Formative learning is documented (when it's documented at all) on digital notes taken in cloud based documents, though more often than not it doesn't happen at all because we've lost note taking as a skill during the digital devolution revolution.

Communicating learning is now also digital with most students incapable of writing by hand legibly (part of what has killed off formative note taking).  We've replaced all those lessons about analogue skills development with INFORMATION, because information is so readily available to us (though apparently only a minority can critically assess its value).

That digital lens is now between everything we do in education, including the traditional foundational skills of literacy and numeracy.  If you require digital fluency to teach and learn literacy and numeracy in a 2022 classroom, doesn't that make digital fluency itself a foundational skill?  Perhaps you're curious as to how many mandatory digital fluency programs Ontario teachers have to take?  None.  Know how many mandatory digital fluency classes there are in Ontario high schools?  None.  Know how many classes you need digital fluency in to best teach and learn?  All of them.

That is how messed up things are as 2021 ends in an ongoing pandemic that has pushed us into fully digital emergency remote learning for months at a time.  Fluency is but one part of this equation.  The digital divide also includes equity issues around bandwidth and device access at home, but we only talk about equity when it doesn't cost us anything.  Our ignoring of digital fluency has been a socio-economic/equity issue from the start (kids with access to tech and connectivity are obviously going to be more comfortable with it).  You might say that our lack of movement on digital fluency is simply a way to hide inequity behind something complex and difficult to deal with while still spouting about how equitable we have become.

I'm live in hope that our education system is put back on the rails and a we stop our oblivious approach to digital skills development in both teaching and learning.  If we're going to use networked digital tools like we are (ie: everywhere, including sharing private/personal data online), it is incumbent on every teacher to become fluent enough with it to teach best practices in order to protect both themselves and their students.  Our networked world is not a particularly safe place.  Our blind leading the blind approach isn't viable or safe and never should have happened in the first place.  Had we been working on this like we should have in the decade leading up to the pandemic, the desperate lunge into emergency remote learning could have been much more equitable and functional and would have gone a long way in reducing the strain on families being mulched by the pandemic.

When that hope is realized I want to go after the most challenging aspect of this in-the-land-of-the-blind skillset: cybersecurity.  CyberSec assumes advanced ICT (information & communication technology) hardware and software skills and then, like that Hamlet essay, goes after complex, esoteric skills far beyond where most people will operate.  I want Ontario to develop a cyber-awareness curriculum that brings all users of networked technology (that's pretty much everyone in the province) up to a point where their digital illiteracy is no longer a detriment to the province.  Illiterate users are still the biggest threat in cybersecurity, so I'd like to get everyone to the point where they aren't oblivious to how the networked world they're living in works.  If we can get to a level of digital literacy where the majority can teach and learn fluency online, we can also make Ontario education more hack-proof.

I'd also like to clear away the obstructions our digitally oblivious education system has placed in front of the most digitally adept students and create pathways into jobs in critical ICT infrastructure, most especially in cybersecurity.  If we don't take steps to secure our digital infrastructure, everything else fails (electricity, water & gas all depend on IT).

We should be producing graduates with the digital fluency needed to confidently make their way in our brave new world while also clarifying pathways for those students willing and able to protect everyone else from an increasingly threatening global, cyber-threatscape.


Over the past couple of years I've done a fair bit of writing for various provincial and national agencies around cyber-education.  In every case they seemed to be looking for an in-and-out, short duration of work online course they could post that teachers and students would magically flock to.  Having presented on cybersecurity education in the classroom both face to face pre-pandemic and online once it kicked off, I became aware of just how fearful most staff are in engaging with this subject that jumps up and down on their digital doubts while also threatening them with horrible outcomes that they don't understand.  Throwing up an online course isn't going to bridge this fear/ignorance gap.

Having worked with CyberTitan and Field Effect (an Ottawa based cybersecurity provider) on a joint federal government/private enterprise/public education presentation at the NICE K-12 Cybersecurity Education Conference this past December, we presented on how with industry expertise, federal vision and provincial public education community outreach we could make cyber-pathways available to all interested students while also offering immersive and meaningful cloud-based simulations that are equitably available to all.  Field Effect's cloud based immersive simulations are accessible and VERY engaging.

ICTC did an ICT Teacher Champion Day pre-COVID where they provided interested and engaged teachers with resources and support.  I think this approach is how you work through the fear and get staff and students to engage with scary-cyber on a basic fluency level.  It would also present competition opportunities that clarify pathways for the most cyber-interested.  By finding local champions who are willing/able to engage others in cyber-skills development, we could connect and walk people through some of that dormant online material and actually produce a change in how we're doing things.  This requires boots on the ground and a longer term commitment than throwing together an online course.

As digital fluency becomes a mandatory part of our public school experience and we begin producing more digitally fluent teachers and students, we can up our game in advanced digital skills like cybersecurity and emerging technologies like machine learning and 3d modelling and create digitally skilled graduates who aren't self-taught, potentially dangerous young adults who put our economy and communities at risk.

There is much to do.  I'm looking forward to being part of an Ontario that is ready to take on this challenging future even as it continues to hatch around us.

Sunday, 19 December 2021

I'm a Hacker!

Every year we get grades 9s who waft into our high school believing they are god's gift to computing.  In the vast majority of cases I discover that they've learned how to do one or two things, but the moment you move them out of their area of 'expertise' (which is usually so small you couldn't really call it an area so much as a corner), things fall apart.

We have such a genius in this year's grade 9 cohort.  When the class was given CyberPatriot's Unity OS security simulation to play, he didn't know how to open a zipped file and get the game running.  When I queried him about it, the conversation went something like this:

"You told me you're this great hacker, but you can't open a zipped archive?"

"Well, this isn't what I usually do."

"You told me you're this great hockey player who can score goals from anywhere on the ice, but when I ask you to show me how you skate, stick handle and shoot you can't do any of it, which makes me wonder what it is you think you're good at."

Taking a script that you found online and running it doesn't make you a hacker, it makes you an idiot.

The student in question has proudly boasted of swatting people, which I'd describe less as hacking and more as criminal harassment that wastes limited emergency services.  This clarifies the difference between a hacker and a criminal in simple terms anyone can understand.  One is focused on complex skills development, the other is focused on finding shortcuts.

hacker noun

hack·​er | \ ˈha-kər

1: one that hacks
2: a person who is inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity; a tennis hacker
3: an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer
4: a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system

#2 comes very close to what this guy is in terms of being a hacker, though he'd be popular with actual criminals if he's thick enough to run scripts that he doesn't understand; he'd be the perfect trigger man.  If we're applying the term in computer studies, a hacker is generally someone who is expert at solving problems with a computer or getting into systems.  In either case this skillset has traditionally required years of complex skills development including a challenging apprenticeship of trial and error learning on the wilds of the internet.  Criminals seldom have the kind of patience and intelligence to develop these skills; it's part of what makes them criminals.

Malware is being sold as a service: the
'hackers' running it are plain old criminals
What has happened recently is that cybercriminal activity has become professionalized.  Many of the people doing the 'hacking' now have no idea what they're doing (like this grade 9).  They buy malware as a service software from professional criminal organizations (many of whom have ties to state cyber-warfare actors) and then run a dashboard that provides them with ready-made hacking tools that do the thinking for them.  Some of these MaaS systems even provide IT support!  No genuine hacker would ever want nor need IT support, they'd provide it themselves.

I'm currently re-reading Matt Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head in which he makes a strong philosophical argument for developing complex skills rooted in real world experience.  Crawford goes to great length to describe how these hard-earned skills often develop a corresponding moral character in the majority of practitioners; reality is a consistent and demanding teacher and it demands rigour and focus.

I have students who have developed deep, complex digital skillsets in the course of our four year program and I would proudly acknowledge that they are hackers in the correct sense of the word, but what most would-be hackers are is really script kiddies who run other people's code simply to perform malicious acts.

Script kiddies exist in the first place because we go out of our way not to teach digital literacy and cyberfluency in our schools.  In the absence of any direction, some of the blunter tools wander into this kind of self-identification.  Students have to take 8 years of geography and history in elementary and then have mandatory geography and history courses in high school too, but there are no mandatory digital fluency courses in any Ontario high school - even after we've forced everyone into a remote learning stance due to COVID.  Many of the problems that have arisen during emergency remote learning are a result of the terrible digital skills many educators and students possess.  Script kiddies are just another symptom of our digitally illiterate education system - a system that depends increasingly on digital tools and networked information to operate.

This grade 9 may well sort himself out and become a hacker in the real sense, though I find the most boastful ones tend not to have the wherewithal to develop complex skillsets such as those required by a genuine hacker.

At the CyberTitan nationals in 2018, one of our team members (then valedictorian then University of Waterloo Computer Science student), became intrigued with the idea of pentesting as a career.  Penetration testing is something that has evolved quickly as networked cybersecurity best practices have evolved.  The thinking is basically this:  if you want to understand how best to respond to the rapid evolution of cyberattacks, have a skilled pentester come in and probe your network for weaknesses and then assist your defensive team in sealing up any gaps in your system.  Now THAT is a hacker!

White hat hackers used to do this as a kindness, though most recently it has also become a bounty hunting situation, and now a lucrative profession.  Top pentesters are in high demand and make good money.  What they don't do is download and run scripts they don't understand and then not know how to perform even simple tasks on a computer - that would be a good way to lose any credibility with their employer.

I'm in the awkward position of seeing this happen in another class.  Were it me, I'd be leaning on this student hard to see what it is they actually think they know.  Being at arm's length in this scenario, my biggest worry is that this student will use our technology to hurt someone else (I fear this has already happened).  If we had a student come into the school who had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter, I doubt we'd put them in an automotive technology class, yet we don't think twice about taking a potentially digitally dangerous student and dropping them into computer technology?

This is a tricky situation to navigate.  I'm actually hoping this student has genuine potential and we can get him engaged with doing more than running scripts he has no understanding of.  In learning the rigours of operating in cyberspace, he will also most probably become less of a braggart as he aligns himself with the reality of the situation.

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Imitation Isn't That Flattering

Yoda didn't say that in a vacuum, he was an
attentive and differentiating instructor!
Over the past couple of years I suddenly find myself considered a 'senior teacher'.  You might think this comes with all sorts of resources like extra time to work on training other teachers where you can show them the tricks of the trade, but this is public education so you just do it for free.  You might think that it would result in a curriculum support role where you can prompt system-wide improvements based on your decades of classroom experience and pioneering curriculum development, but those jobs are all full-time permanent gigs for very specific people with criteria for admission that I don't evidently possess.

A previous principal told me that my classes are too difficult and I need to turn them down.  When I pointed out that no one had failed any of my courses since he'd arrived for his stint in our community, that held no weight with him; some students and parents want daycare, not education.  I have no interest in providing daycare so I simply ignored his misguided observation.  I get where it's coming from though, daycare is much cheaper to provide than education.

One of the things we do in my program is get into Arduino microcontrollers in grade 9.  Arduinos offer a tactile introduction to basic electronics circuit prototyping with breadboards and electronics components as well as a coding connection through the C++ based language that runs the microcontrollers.  I've been doing this long enough and in such a brutally honest reflective practice stance that I've gotten pretty good at it.  One of the things that less experienced teachers (which includes many admin) fixate on is the placement of responsibility for engaging with this hands-on learning on the student.  To the unaided eye this looks like I'm chucking them in the deep end and watching them drown, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Pulling apart tech to show students how it
works is a core learning tool in my computer
engineering program. Tech isn't magic!
I present this introduction to circuit building in a remarkably structured environment.  I build the first couple of circuits in front of the students, repeatedly reminding them how the electricity is passing around the circuit which also has the added benefit of showing them the stochastic nature of what we're doing.  Sometimes you do it all right but the part you're using is broken, so you have to approach everything critically, iteratively and with sensitivity and patience.  I then leave those working 3d examples in front of them to look at.  Modelling the work establishes with them that I know what I'm doing and encourages them to ask questions.  I also show them a pulled apart breadboard so they can begin wrapping their heads around how this new-to-them (though they spend their whole social lives on it these days) technology works.

It's that cognitive breakthrough that I'm actually looking for (the hands-on skills are just muscle memory practice).  Some students with strong tactile skills and good visual reasoning are able to imitate the circuits without understanding how they work.  This becomes a problem when they get into more complex circuits later in the unit.  When a student finally begins to see how the electrons are flowing, that's when they begin understanding basic circuit building in our applied technology class.  If you're not a teacher reading this, are you beginning to get a feel for the yawning gap between education and daycare?  Could you email the Ontario Minister of Education and fill him in on it too?

To support that hidden cognitive focus I'm on (metaphorical - health and safety would never go for it) roller-skates when I'm teaching grade 9s in the first day of circuit building.  Alanna knows these introduction to circuit building days are one of the toughest teaching days of my semester because I'm not focused on chucking everyone in the deep end and seeing how many fail, I'm focused on getting everyone from misplaced developmentally delayed students to the previously experienced and gifted (all dropped into the same open level tech course) over this challenging cognitive realization.

Some students require one on one support, some figure it out immediately. Some are able to imitate understanding through mimicry but then run into problems later.  I'm keeping a running tally of all of that in my head as I'm running round and round the room helping those who need it.  I'm doing all this by leveraging technical skills that took decades to hone along with teaching skills that have also taken decades to develop.  I understand that recognition is difficult for many, but just because you don't understand it doesn't mean you should simplify it so you can.

The sink-or-swim misunderstanding creeps back in when less experienced teachers watch me interact with students who aren't engaging with the material.  When the system-trained giver-upper waves me over and tells me they don't know what to do (after extensive set up and support), I don't cater to their apathy inspired edu-hack (ask the teacher to do it for them).  I'm often left wondering how they got 9 years into the system without anyone calling them on this weak move, but many 'teachers' are all about systemic success at all costs - it makes for good statistics and happy management.  I'm in this for the teaching - which is why I'll never find myself with the power to make system wide improvements.  For those edu-hacker students who have learned that helplessness gives them a free pass, I'll often prompt them quite roughly with something like, "you haven't even opened up the how-to webpage or attempted to build the circuit.  I'll come back when you decide to make an effort."

This often knocks them back on their heels.  A teacher expecting them to participate in their learning?  How dare they!  I'm going to get my mom to call the principal and tell him this needs to be easier (code: daycare).  Strangely enough, many of these reticent students end up gaining a great deal of confidence as they come to understand how to build circuits in in my thunderdome - it's the first chance they've had to experience a genuine sense of achievement.  No one learns anything from having other people do it for them, no matter how much cheaper that is at a systemic level.  It's a frustration that this myopia has infected people without enough classroom experience (or common sense) to know that it's nonsense.
Fail fast only works if you have enough
skill to realize why you're failing. Failing
fast and clueless is both expensive & pointless.
Over the past couple of years I've watched several teachers imitate my approach and it ends up feeling like a rather embarrassing caricature drawing (my nose isn't that big - actually it is).  They see what looks like a rough approach that mulches students in order to look for talent, but this isn't that.  What's happening is that I'm creating a very structured situation for learning something hands-on and difficult (reality is a cruel teacher) while also placing the responsibility for engaging with it clearly where it belongs: on the student.

Another of the many supports in place are the GREEN BRICKS OF DOOM (!!!).  This is a spreadsheet that is put up on the projector showing who has completed what circuits (you get a greened out block in the spreadsheet when you show a working circuit).  It very quickly becomes apparent that some students are quicker than others, but I don't consider that a secret, I use it as a learning support.  If you're sitting next to the girl who has already done the circuit you're struggling with, ask them what's going wrong.  This also has the benefit of showing me those students who are faking an understanding rather than building their circuits based on deeper knowledge.  I've been told that slower students would find this mean, but they generally lean into the information as it helps them.  That is also recognizes students who are engaged and working it out is something I have no problem with.

I once used the term 'pedagogy' in context with a new administrator and she replied with, "pedagogy? what does that even mean anyway?"  I found this response frustrating though unsurprising from someone aimed at system management where you often have to enforce cost cutting measures that cause harm in order to do the job (something I'd be bad at and another reason why I'm never likely to have any system reach).  But wouldn't it be something if pedagogical best practices drove everything we did instead of being dismissed?  Perhaps then more people would have a better idea of what I'm doing in my classroom.

Teaching complex, technical skills is challenging, but you can provide supports without
taking away the immediacy of experiential learning. Some will struggle to understand it though.