Thursday, 2 April 2020

Pandemic Reflections: F2F Has Way Better Bandwidth

I'm a teacher with a lot of technical expertise.  I don't just teach effectively with digital technology, I teach the subject itself.  Fifteen years working in information technology in roles ranging from systems implementation to technical support and training are what led me into teaching the subject.  When I began teaching in 2004, elearning was beginning to evolve out of distance (ie: mail order paper based) material.  I jumped on it the summer after I started teaching at Peel DSB.  At that point elearning was a very loose HTML webpage where you had to write code to display the content properly.  I had some very interesting experiences teaching senior, university bound English on that system.  When I moved to my current board I volunteered for their pilot elearning program and taught a variety of elearning courses purely online, and then did a blended face to face introduction to elearning while teaching the mandatory career studies course.  One of the best things to come out of that project was that all of those students had a very clear idea of whether or not elearning would work for them.  A third of the class never wanted to see it again, and the correlation between students with IEPs and students who had trouble with elearning was nearly 100%.

All that to say, I've spent a great deal of my career exploring how digital technologies might augment our teaching, but I'm also well aware of the shortfalls.

The recent pandemic shutdown has driven a lot of teachers and students online, and the framing by our Ministry early on was very elearning focused, but a colleague in our first ever staff video conference said something that resonated with me:  this isn't elearning, it isn't business as usual, this is emergency response remote learning - we're not 'going online' we're doing everything we can to keep education alive at a time when it's too easily dismissed.  This might sound like an arbitrary distinction, but it isn't.  Not everyone needs to go online, and in many cases (as in the 2011 career studies experiment above), we have a sizable portion of our student population who cannot learn effectively in that space.  When you also toss in the inequity of online learning, it leaves option looking like a very poor go-to.  As educators, whenever we see the system roll out an undifferentiated, blanket response to an issue (like EQAO), we should take a hard pedagogical look at it.  Uniform responses that don't honour our student (and teacher's) individual approaches to learning and teaching are, by definition, unresponsive and ineffective. 

Since the school closures happened I've been very conscious of the economically disadvantaged students who have been cut off at home.  This may very well be a home that isn't safe, isn't providing adequate care and isn't where the student wants to spend their time.  The "stay at home" message that started this off is couched in privilege.  For many students home isn't a nice word.  I've been frustrated by the lack of initiative shown in this crisis, but the digital divide many of our students face was something we could have addressed before, but didn't.  Some leaders are now using that lack of equity as an excuse to do nothing, which strikes me as the worst kind of hypocrisy.  If we messed it up before, we're messing it up now for even more people because what we didn't do before is an excuse to do nothing now?  Wow.

I'm also staggered that there is evidently no one in the largest school system in the country who is responsible for emergency response planning.  We seem to be making it up as we go and delivering planning by press conference (evidently this are no communications going to boards before hand to begin preparing), and we've already lost three weeks planning something that should have been in place from the go.

You know what's harder than teaching remotely?  Teaching remotely using unclear and constantly changing expectations.

So here we are, in a pandemic situation that people have been warning is coming for years.  Our solution is to throw elearning at it, and (so far, 3 weeks in) do nothing to address the fact that thousands of Ontario students don't have the devices at home and/or the internet connectivity to access it - and those are the students who most needed education to support them from the beginning.

There is a reason why we truck in students on diesel fume spewing school buses each day to a face to face learning environment; public education is the great equalizer.  More than anything else it helps us find the best in our population and enable them to achieve beyond the socio-economic situation they find themselves in.  For wealthy students school can feel like a step down from a life of choice and excess, but for others it is a bastion of reliability; the only time in their day when they're talking to dependable, capable adults.  For some it's the only time when they aren't hungry, and our solution in an emergency situation that demands isolation is to ignore them?
Level 3 means you can take a time and date out of an email
and put it in an online calendar, this isn't rocket science.
Let's say we get the digital divide under control and manage to get everyone connected (we haven't and we won't, but let's imagine we did).  Now that we have everyone online and using an appropriate device, we need the majority to leverage digital skills they haven't developed and get them learning remotely.  Ontario doesn't have a digital skills continuum, other than some vague language dropped into other subjects here and there, yet we were increasingly expecting students and teachers to use digital tools in school and now they have suddenly become a necessity.  I teach computer technology and have a well developed program, but I only reach about 100 students out of the 1300 in our school.  If you count the business tech courses and media arts that also build digital fluency, all together we'd be lucky to reach a quarter of our student population, the rest have basic, habitual digital experience - like most of the population.  What we're doing with elearning is akin to handing out books to illiterate people so they can learn at home with them.

Could elearning work?  It has in my experience, and I'm seeing some of my very digitally fluent seniors doing outstanding work online now.  I've had some very positive elearning teaching experiences where we leveraged technology and created a remote learning environment that was rich and responsive.  When it has happened, it was with a digitally focused and experienced teacher and voluntary students who also had the resilience and technical expertise to make it happen.

When you teach online it feels like you're looking at your students through a wrong-way-around telescope.  I described this recently in terms of bandwidth.  When you're face to face with someone you're able to read their body language in fine detail.  The tone of their voice isn't a dimensionless thing coming out of a tiny computer speaker, but it doesn't end there.  I've had students with obvious (when face to face) hygiene issues that I'm able to notice and subtly address by getting our councillors involved.  I'm able to leverage the fantastic food school resources our school offers to get hungry students fed when we're face to face.  I'm able to overhear student conversation in class that gives me the context I need to connect with them more effectively.  I'm able to present body language and nuance of voice that develops trust and a human relationship.  I'm able to differentiate instruction with students quickly and effectively while face to face.  I'm able to close the digital divide for all my students when they enter my lab.   Doing all this in school means I'm also doing it in a place with social conventions aimed at teaching and learning that define and direct what we're doing - you don't get any of that online.  There is a reason we learn best face to face, it has way better bandwidth than any digital option.  Even if you and your students are digital ninjas, remote/online learning is always going to be a lower bandwidth, less effective option that face to face learning.

In a perfect world we'd develop our staff and student's digital fluency and engage in augmented 21st Century learning using digital tools and connectivity to enhance our ability to collaborate and communicate (and be ready for bizarre emergencies like this one), but it makes for a poor replacement; educational technology for augmentation is a worthy pedagogical goal.  Educational digital technology replacing face to face learning isn't pedagogically motivated, it's usually tied to scalability and the resultant monetization of a platform, usually with an eye to reducing costs and centralizing control.  The elearning push by Ontario's current government was entirely focused on this without any thought given to the digital divide, dearth of digital skills and pedagogically reductive nature of remote elearning.

This pandemic has shone a harsh light on the inadequacies of our system in terms of emergency response and digital skills training, as well as highlighting the ongoing digital divide.  A good that might come of it is that we begin to address all of these issues and build a more resilient and effective education system that is able to take initiative and respond to an emergency situation without taking a month to think about it.  The resultant remote learning will still be inferior to what we can do in school, but as it stands now we've taken too long to do something we're not ready to do anyway.  As we limp out of this situation, we need to take a long hard look at how unprepared we were to deal with this.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Surviving First Contact With The Enemy

The wise, Jedi-like Colin Jagoe posted a link about how the COVID19 pandemic is very much like being at war.  This got me thinking about how our behind-closed-doors / business-as-usual approach to managing this crisis has been... minimalist.  This shouldn't be about maintaining the organizational status quo, it should be about building a resilient, transparent and responsive approach to dealing with an unprecedented social engineering challenge.

The following reflection highlights how a transparent, communicative, engaged leadership approach helps mitigate one of the truths of fighting a war:  "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy."     In the fluid and rapidly changing situation we find ourselves in, it might be wise to lean on some military wisdom in our response.


I was an air cadet in the 1980s in Mississauga.  One of the major pillars of that program is teaching leadership.  I took summer courses on it and spent at least dozen hours over and above school each week working through cadet syllabus on it.  It's safe to say air cadets was a seminal experience for me in that it not only showed me how I can best fit into an operational structure, but also how to run one effectively in a changeable environment.

When I was halfway through my cadet career we went up to Base Borden for a March Break training exercise.  Pete Rudin was my flight sergeant and as experienced as a cadet can get being only a couple of months away from retiring.  I was a very keen new corporal.  Our flight consisted of about 35 kids ranging in age from brand new 13 year old recruits up to savvy 18 year old veterans like Pete.  We got put into a capture the flag game against other flights, but Pete did something no one else did.

While all the other flight sergeants split their groups up into the standard squads (one experienced NCO leading 4-5 very excited and inexperienced younger cadets) and ran things top down, Pete differentiated his leadership approach based on the human resources he had at hand.  His plan was to create a massive group of all the new recruits who were anxious and a bit freaked out and move into the exercise with this slow moving but unstoppable unit.  He knew he had a few experienced and gung-ho junior NCOs who wanted to run, so rather than hold them back in the big group he told us to recon where the other teams were and report back.

You can imagine how that felt.  When a senior NCO who you look up to acknowledges your esprit de corps and gifts you with a special assignment, your already gung-ho approach steps up another gear.  Things went as you might imagine.  The other junior NCOs and I ran off into the woods full of adrenaline and immediately began finding those little homogeneous squads.  As soon as we made contact we'd run back to the hive, usually with that squad chasing us thinking we were an easy kill... then they'd come over a hill and find dozens of excited youngsters swarming around our flight sergeant, and get retired from the game.

We began hoovering up squads and about an hour in I stumbled across the other team's flag - the one we had to capture that would end the game.  I barely got out of there alive (if they pulled the flag off your arm you're considered retired), they had two of their most experienced squads on defence.  I managed to get away and ran back breathless to tell Rudin where the flag was.  Ten minutes later it was all over as our hive swarmed over the hill into the dell where their flag was hidden.  The two squads they'd put on defence couldn't believe what was coming at them.  Our youngest, tiniest new cadet took the flag and ended the game (I think Pete made a point of that).

Afterwards, I asked Flight Sergeant Rudin how he came up with this bizarre approach.  He said something I've never forgotten: "I figured if I tried to keep you guys back with the big group you'd be hard to manage and it wouldn't help things.  We'd perform better if I didn't have to micromanage when you wanted to be doing something else that would produce better results for all of us anyway.  The little ones looked terrified, so I wanted to keep them with me and build their confidence."

We were the  younger team in that capture the flag, with less experienced NCOs - the other team was cocky and confident because they had many ringers.  Rather than open up the rule-book and follow homogeneous protocols designed around top-down control that would have ended up with us losing, Pete differentiated his leadership approach and gave each of his people just what they needed to succeed.  He also arranged things so that everyone was in contact with everyone else and made communication easier by giving us a clear focus to return to, it really was a brilliant piece of planning beautifully executed.

I never forgot that lesson.  In retrospect, it was the centralization of resources, clarity of the planning (it was all done out loud with us all standing around Pete as he elicited ideas and worked out what we were going to do), and the focus on communication that allowed it to succeed like it did.  Everyone knew what we were doing, why we were doing it and how to let the group know if it was or wasn't working.  When we caught the fourth squad who had no idea that three others had been caught by our big hive, I began to realize what that lack of communication was doing to the other teams.  No battle plan may survive first contact with the enemy, but designing a plan transparently and reflexively with clear communications channels allows your organization to respond to surprises quickly and effectively.

I ended up retiring a sergeant in cadets.  Others have suggested that only making it half way up the command structure is somehow a failure, but I don't see it that way.  I finished my career as Rifle Guard Commander and Colour Party Commander and occupied a specialist role in our large organization.  The metacognitive awareness of how I can operate most effectively in a large organizational structure was another invaluable result of my time in cadets.  I'm very much a sergeant - good at dealing with tangible, immediate issues in small groups collaboratively and imaginatively (handy classroom teacher skills, eh?).  Given latitude I liked to exercise initiative and move quickly - did this sometimes get me into trouble?  Yep, but the leaders I had recognized those skills and made a point of leveraging them.  That made me feel like a valued member of the organization, rank wasn't the only thing that defined me.

I was good friends with many of the younger cadets who ended up in charge of our squadron - many of them attended my 50th birthday party last year (we're all old now, so those year or two differences don't matter any more - but then they didn't back then either).  They didn't make rank about exclusion, privilege and control and they acknowledged their cadets' expertise and experience by making productive use of them by differentiating the roles they assigned.

This collegial and transparent approach to leadership allowed us to execute the cadet syllabus with precision and flair.  It also allowed us to revise and respond to the unknown quickly and effectively when on exercises, contact with the enemy be damned.  I'm really proud of the things we learned and work we did.  This experience has aided us all in our professional lives as adults.  This transparent, communicative approach has informed much of my teaching practice.  If you asked my students what they find most compelling about my classes, I think many would say that sense of agency - I acknowledge their strengths and honour them by differentiating their work.

I'm missing that transparency, clarity of purpose and engagement now, even though not one of the teens I just described had a post graduate degree in leadership.  If we are indeed at war as Colin suggests, then we need to quickly engage and develop effective communications and a clarity of common purpose, or all of those secret plans being developed behind closed doors won't survive first contact with an enemy we've too often underestimated.  Initiative is lost, but it's never too late to try and get it back.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Metacognition In COVID19 Isolation

The mighty Peter McAsh shared a link to Yale's most popular course: The Science of Well Being, which is designed to address the psychological misconceptions we all labour under that have produced some of the worst depression in human historyLaurie Santos, the professor running the course, describes it as a necessary response to the plunging rates of happiness in her students.  It's free on Coursera right now.

I'm only a day in and it has already raised a number of interesting questions around how I approach things.  I'm currently watching Martin Seligman's TEDtalk on positive psychology:

It's worth your time.  Seligman was a pivotal researcher into applying psychology to finding happiness rather than just treating illness.  I've since been sucked into Dan Gilbert's The Surprising Science of Happiness.  Dan's book was suggested in the course.  In his TEDtalk he's hard pitching the idea that our reflexive over estimation of outcomes to our choices makes us select things that make us less happy - we overestimate the opportunities choice gives us and it seldom makes us happy.  He gives the example of Harvard students who select a course that gives them more choice, but those choices produced a lot of unhappy students.  This has some interesting ramifications in a world where choice is considered a sacred right, whether it's choice of government, partner or anything else.  We've designed our society around choice, but choice is a mechanism that defies happiness.

If we're pre-programmed to select for choice (which I suspect is another word for control, even if it's just a false sense of it), and more choice makes us less happy, then we're pre-set to make ourselves less happy.  Our consumerist economic system and our democratic systems are designed to make us less happy - and they're working.

That I'm looking at this at a time when everyone feels hard done by due to their individual freedoms being curtailed by the COVID19 pandemic is pretty ironic.  Perhaps people will find some happiness in their lack of choice, but soon enough that'll all be forgotten as we struggle to restart all the social systems that are strangling us.

Some followup from day 2:

Materialists in college were followed up on 20 years later - there was a strong correlation between materialism and lower life satisfaction and materialism and mental health disorders.  Materialism makes you sad and ill...

The desperate grab for money defies description - people spend more on lottery tickets than they do on media and activities that are much more likely to bring them genuine and immediate joy.  Longitudinal studies showed that lottery winning doesn't produce happiness.  The more people get, the more they want.  Statistics indicate that if you're making more than $75k US/a year in the US (that's $105k a year in Canada not counting higher taxes and cost of living, so maybe $120k/year in Canada?) you don't get a statistically relevant bump in happiness if you make more money.  Instead of chasing more money, once you're at that plateau where money isn't so much of an issue, it's better to find alternative benefits rather than just asking for more money. 

Some post apocalyptic music by Sturgill Simpson helps frame the situation...

Make Art Not Friends

Lookin' out the window
At a world on fire
Flames see the end is near
Seen all the sights
Tired of the lights
So you can let me off right here

This town's getting crowded
Truth's been shrouded
Think it's time to change up the sound

Yeah, the wheels keep turning
The flames get higher
Another cycle rolls around

Face in the mirror's all skin and bone
Bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone
Never again, I'd rather be alone
Think I'm gonna just stay home
And make art, not friends

I love saying "No" to all the "Yes" men
Just to see the look on their face
I love how everybody knows what's best
But nobody knows their place

Sucker every second, stack 'em up to the sky
For every winner there's a hundred that die
So you get yours, stay out of mine
Here's to the memories, where do I sign?

Face in the mirror's all skin and bone
Bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone
Never again, I'd rather be alone
Think I'm gonna just stay home
And make art, not friends

Oh it's getting hard to find a good friend
So close the door behind you
Falling when more come in
Nobody writes, nobody calls
Nobody bother 'cause I'm over it all

Face in the mirror's all skin and bone
Bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone
Never again, I'd rather be alone
Think I'm gonna just stay home
Think about my friends

Sunday, 22 March 2020

COVID19: Desperate Times Call for Tangible Measures

My first instinct is to show some initiative and begin solving problems when things get difficult.  I'm frustrated at the lack of transparency, communication and minimal focus on effective learning process going forward.  Had I any say in how things are going down I'd break this down into two approaches:

One unit would be working to immediately attempt to address digital divide issues and try and close the gap on the number of students without technology or connectivity at home to as close to zero as possible.  This would also have the benefit of connecting poor families as well as their children to the major source of communication the rest of us share these days.

The other unit would set up online learning officers at each school board who have the latitude to make agile changes to organize staff so that they are able to communicate with students and leverage existing digital communications to try and provide genuine alternative programming that will allow students to resume their face to face studies eventually without the time away being a complete loss.  Throwing out generic material online isn't going to do any of that.

Being an ex-IT technician I'm very interested in trying to quickly resolve the logistical and technical issues around the digital divide:  Dusty World: Exceptional Times: Using a Pandemic to Close the Digital Divide.  I'd leave the people management to others better suited to it.

At times like this the top heavy nature of Ontario Education with all the ministries, unions, boards, colleges and goodness knows what else, really comes into focus.  We're unable to put the focus where it should be (on enabling student learning, remember?) because they're all too busy getting in each other's way.

I was involved in a VoicED podcast yesterday on how student privacy could be compromised as we rapidly migrate online in response to the pandemic:  EP 06 – Special Pandemic Edition: Transforming Education Under Pressure | voicEd 

Student data privacy is already quite opaque and uncertain with boards all doing it differently, or not at all, with little ministry of government oversight and many questions around who has access to what.  A sudden shift online is only likely to make things worse, but it's also an opportunity.  An opportunity to begin seriously teaching digital skills in a coherent and meaningful way instead of the piecemeal curriculum we've cobbled together to date.  With better digital fluency will come a more responsive and effective online learning response to this pandemic.

If this situation has shown anything, it's that digital communications are vital in creating a coherent social response to this crisis.  Closing the digital divide would not only help those students on the wrong side of it, but would also create a more inclusive Canada.  We couldn't be bothered to do it when life was easy, but maybe we could do it now when life is hard.

I'll end this with the 3 suggestions I ended the podcast with:

1) Use existing board walled gardens (UGDSB's UGcloud is particularly well put together) - that's vetted material in a secure environment - all UGDSB students will know how to use it too. Whichever board your child is in, there will be an educational technology equivalent where they can work in a protected space... and communicate with classmates and teachers!
2) Parents shouldn't stress out because of all the 'we're giving you the tools to home-school' rhetoric coming out of the government. No one expects you do get a degree in teaching and begin doing it effectively. This piece from the NY Times might talk you down a bit:  Keep in mind that the 'anyone can teach' nonsense is recent Ontario government rhetoric and not true.  Putting that expectation on yourself at this difficult time isn't fair to you or your family.

3) Talk to your kids' teachers! If you're in my board you have online access on UGcloud to do this - most other boards have similar systems. The vast majority of us want to help and want to do something. We're generally frustrated at all the suits who keep telling us not to.  We should be signing out laptops to the students who need them and providing internet for those without, not doing PR and wringing our hands about liability.

What does UNICEF say?
“Children need structure. Full stop. And what we’re all having to do, very quickly, is invent entirely new structures to get every one of us through our days” - so 'look after yourselves for two weeks' isn't helpful according to psychologists...

Discussions about this are happening in many places:
... just not where they should be happening between ministry, boards and teachers.