Friday, 10 December 2010

Digital Tribalism

Are we watching digital vandals sacking what's left of Rome? It can begin with something as ephemeral as truth, and quickly turn into a guerrilla war. Wikileaks only speaks the truth, and the digital tribes believe it's absolute. The words spoken and footage shown isn't the truth, it's too concrete, too certain, but the tribes need a focus, a common will.

The tribes are all around us, we are starting to identify ourselves more virtually than we do physically. We believe we have more in common with the people we associate with online than we do with our own countrymen. Democracy proves it with declining voter turnout and moldy, dysfunctional bureaucracies. People feel less and less relevant to where they are.

Your social networks linked to interests become more and more concrete in your mind. The people you game with are your comrades. It's little wonder that these bands of virtual patriots rally behind the cry of truth overturning hypocrisy that Wikileaks is sounding. Bring down the government, bring down the corporations, bring down those things that try to limit our digital selves.

Perhaps it's time to embrace the new, as our ancestors did with sail powered ships, printing presses and industrialization. The ships brought plague and genocide in the New World, the printing presses overturned a millennia old religious institution in Europe and industrialization is still slowly poisoning a very finite bio-sphere, but each of these things ushered in new eras of discovery and innovation; the digital era will be no different.

Why we ever thought that our brave new world would exist in happy harmony with the old world ideas of nationhood and economics is rather ludicrous; like expecting horse drawn carriages to run calmly next to a super highway. The digital truth we're in the middle of inventing is going to demand some changes.

I wonder if people throughout history simply stumbled into obvious, overwhelming change without realizing it. In 500 years, students learning the early 21st Century will wonder at how people clung to ideas that were obviously outdated. Perhaps they'll wonder why those nation states were so amazed that a apparently powerless little organization could unclothe them so easily. Perhaps they'll wonder why no one stated the obvious.

But then again, maybe as Rome burned they really did fiddle, we are.

The best digital future books: fantastic new author the future of how we feed ourselves - doesn't seem important until you realize what is
We Are Legion: the beginnings of the end of geographical government?  The beginnings of digital nationhood?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010


It used to be the desktop, but we've got more processing power than we know what to do with nowadays. The real bottleneck is internet access. I spent a frustrating day today in a public high school trying to fit an elephant of a live video feed through the doorway - it didn't fit. If the school was empty, and the network dormant, it ran fine. Unfortunately, I had to share bandwidth with 1500 other people, facebook must go on.

All I needed was a 700kb/sec video feed to run continuously all day. I'll blame the university for sending us an uncompressed, 640x480 monster of a feed. We could stream youtube or TEDtalks, but not the university live feed. The irony is it was one of the pre-eminent computer science universities in Canada, and they didn't know how to feed it to us so we could follow it.

After doing backflips all morning trying to fix it, some awesome grade 12 students filled in the afternoon with some presentations on number theory, robotics and computers. It wasn't a wasted day, but it's hard to sell technology as a course of study when the guy teaching it can't make it work.

I'd asked for a priority on the video feed over the 400 facebook accounts that were open, but apparently that's impossible. I find this frustrating. I had no trouble prioritizing traffic or outright banning it when I was network admining, I'm not sure whether it's a case of can't or can't be bothered. In either case, I'm at the end of a long day trying to make things work that simply won't because the board won't adjust bandwidth to need (it's cheaper) and a university didn't optimize it's feed (it's cheaper).

At the end of it, I got some grade 9s interested in robotics, and considering taking computers further on. I'm not sure that I got through to the half a dozen girls I convinced to come out. We don't have a single female in grade 12 comp-sci or comp-eng, which I'd really like to fix.

I also wanted to backchannel the heck out of this. I introduced 90% of the students to twitter and showed them how universities use it during seminars, then the university didn't use it at all, we were the only ones lighting up the hashtags or posting on the facebook page. I also tried running This thing could be brilliant. We had it running live on a wall through a projector. Alas, due to bandwidth restrictions, it crashed constantly and wouldn't refresh at any time.

Until our school board starts taking traffic shaping seriously, the school network continues to be hijacked by facebook junkies and youtubers filling up the bandwidth with noise not remotely related to anything educational.

It's been a long day watching technology not work.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Caution, Fear & Risk Aversion in Students

Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness. Bertrand Russell

... but we don't set up schools to nurture a love of learning, we set them up like 19th Century factories.

I'm teaching a grade 12 class on computer science. If my computer science teacher knew I was doing this, he would roll over in his grave. I haven't coded since the '80s, I'm a technician. I got knocked off coding by that same computer science teacher who could only approach coding from a mathematical/logical direction. My hackering/tinkering/non-linear approach to generating code depended on a natural fluency with syntax and a willingness to break things in order to come up with something new. I never cared about solving for x, I was always about the why.

So here I am, in a class full of students who my old compsci teacher would have adored:  math wizes who have learned how to learn so well they can't do anything else.

Lisa Simpson (during a teacher's strike): I can't take this anymore! Please, mom! Grade me! Grade me! Validate me!!!

That's at the bottom of it all. These A students are so trained to the system, so inured, that they can't possibly get unplugged from the Matrix. The idea of learning for sheer curiosity's sake has been beaten out of them by a dozen years of positive reinforcement courtesy of their spectacularly successful student careers.

When I suggest we take a left turn instead of doing more pointless actionscript programming that no one else on the planet except Ontario Elearning finds valuable and go after C++, which none of them have any experience in, only one is even willing to try it. The rest are paralyzed by fear of failure, or even worse, not being able to demonstrate consistent mastery - because that's how we really grade. You only get perfect if you're already ahead of the material. You can't get low marks at the beginning, continually improve, and end with an A+, those early failures that produced understanding are factored into your grades. We penalize learning in the classroom. There has been some change in this, formative/summative and such, but the vast majority of grading still follows the broken example above. Learning is a non-linear process, experimentation, failure, reassessment, reattempt, fail in a new, more interesting way... but we train students to think it's an inbuilt ability which you either have or struggle with. Grades reflect this.

Even the one student willing to self-direct his learning and take on a challenging new language (one that his university uses extensively and we're pushing him toward with no experience whatsoever) sent me an email anguishing over his grades if he cannot demonstrate fluency in C++ in the 5 weeks we have left. I've approached this a number of ways. Firstly, by working with him to set attainable goals (this still freaks him out, he can't see the mastery in setting the goals to a reasonable level, so feels his marks will suffer). Secondly, I've gotten him into a course of study that leads him through the beginnings of C++. The end result should be a working familiarity with a language he's never seen before demonstrated by some basic scripts that show him coming to terms with the material. Thirdly, I told him to forget the numbers. He is putting hours in on this, not because he has to, but because he wants to. The end result is irrelevant, he is directing his own learning - a dead art in an education system designed to force conformity in order to keep costs down and appear financially responsible. He's doing something no one else is willing or able to do. He's also learning something that will immediately assist him in university next year. How is any of this not 100%?

I only wish I could overcome the caution and apathy born of risk aversion in the other students and set them free. We feed them a steady diet of caution then wonder why they aren't willing to take risks in learning.

I'm not the guardian of knowledge, I shouldn't even get to decide how they learn, I should do everything I can to ensure that they do though.

Update:  I just ran into this student at the Grad ceremony a couple of weeks ago.  He's in his first year at Waterloo U doing computer science (a wickedly difficult course to get into).  It was nice to hear that the C++ really payed off, in a way that the actionscript stuff never would.  He's finding it difficult, but he's seeing success, and his greatest advantage?  Taking a run at the programming language they use at university before he got there, errors and all.