Thursday, 24 February 2011

Peak oil is all about peak food production

You can't feed six billion people without it. I'm reading The End Of Food right now. The level of societal change we would have to undertake to revert 80% of the population to manual food production would (will) be impossible. The fact that we don't even see it coming is just absurd.

The whole middle east uprising isn't about freedom or democracy at all, it's about food. Prices skyrocketed, wheat yields in Africa collapsed starting 2 years ago, corn is unavailable so Americans can drive pickup trucks, and not even iron fisted dictators can stop a hungry mob. The amount of press afforded the "Arab Awakening" in terms of freedom, democracy or the even more crass "power of social networking" is completely out to lunch.

Middle east uprisings aren't about democracy, or rights, but food prices and cost of living. I read an article on the ug99 crop fungus in WIRED last year. Unconnected? I suspect not.

A verilent new version of a crop disease that almost crippled the world in the 70s (saved by some gene splicing and dna magic) has figured out how to overcome the GM crops designed to resist it - it starts in Northern Africa, causing wheat to all but disappear from the market, corn has since been diverted to ethanol production, making it in short supply... chaos ensues, but we try and say, "it's because they want to be like us!"

Who said colonialism is dead?

The future looks bleak If we want to be teaching useful education, we should be teaching them how to grow their own food, without oil, immediately. Instead we spend a fortune running a school that is, on net analysis, doing more damage to the world than good - and we're in the business of making better people! Imagine what the net worth of a self-serving business is in a world of dwindling resources.

Instead we complain about high gas prices, irrationally saying that they should be lower because that is more convenient for us and go on buying gene-copyrighted crops (that are about to fail wholesale) from Monsanto from the lowest bidder.

Local sustainability should become an immediate local, provincial and national mandate. Globalism has collapsed, but we've become so dependent on a broken system that we are virtually helpless.

We've taught ourselves to be helpless on the eve of the greatest disaster in human history.

elearning and the teacher/student relationship

A little while back I caught a National Geographic show studying human intelligence. In studying various great ape social groups they narrowed down perhaps the most exceptional aspect of human being: our ability to teach each other. Most of the technology we develop is keyed to enhancing this aspect of human civilization.

What began as the transmission of basic skills has evolved into a world wide civilization that has peaked into the heart of matter and seen to the edge of the universe. We suddenly find ourselves holding immense power, and only seek to discover more. The ability to learn and teach are powerful skills indeed.

The fundamental relationship at the heart of this transmission of knowledge: master/apprentice, teacher/student, mentor/mentee, exists in every human (and, it appears, any intelligent animal) society, and is generally acknowledged as one of great importance. Whether you're a Sensei in a dojo, a master craftsman passing on the skills of your trade, or a teacher in a modern education system, the fundamental nature of your job is the same: transmission of knowledge through human contact.

Transmission of knowledge occurs very effectively through these human relationships. When I think about key teachers in my life, they ring true for me because they were people of exceptional emotional honesty, as well as knowledgeable people. They related to me on many levels. I see students cotton on to various teachers in the school because, on many levels, they vibrate at the same frequency. From an administrative point of view, this is why it's vital that schools have many different kinds of teachers who teach in different ways. It's also one of the fundamental problems with trying to systematize the transmission of learning.

We've got the elearning Ontario conference coming up and I'm just coming off a semester where I had to manage no less than 6 elearning courses. Having now taught elearning remotely and in-class, I'm trying to wrestle with the challenges of teaching through the elearning system. In-class, I found good students frustrated because they felt isolated from the teacher (because of the split focus between the online course and the physical presence of the teacher). I found weak students frustrated because of poor computer literacy. They didn't want or seek a stronger relationship with the teacher, but couldn't access the course information or assignments behind a digital veil; anger was often the result.

Over the years I've had some wonderful teachable moments with remote students. Sometimes through text (with exceptional writers and readers in 4U English), but more often through video conference (which doesn't demand a poet's touch for honest, direct contact). A while back, our board set up an Adobe Connect server allowing me to talk to students directly. While still not as immediate as an in-class relationship with a student, the video link does a lot to mitigate the sense of isolation. Unfortunately, the html only elearning system has no intrinsic ability to make this multi-media link possible.

As we begin to move from oil dependence, elearning is going to become a more critical means of delivering curriculum. Being physically present in the same place at the same time will become increasingly expensive. At the moment, elearning does a lot to minimize the personal nature of that teacher/student relationship. Much of this revolves around bandwidth, technology accessibility and lack of experience in both students and teachers. I've been sitting in school waiting 10 seconds for *every* page to load while working through elearning - and those were text pages. In addition to the technical issues, elearning also contains courses not written by the teachers delivering them. Any teacher who teaches other people's material knows how awkward this can be. Elearning is still new, and is having on going problems in its completion rates due to these difficulties.

At home I'm an online game player. I have lists of friends, very few of whom I've met in person, many of whom I feel I know well. We've fought zombies, explored strange wildernesses and worked together through all sorts of adventures. With sufficient bandwidth and technology on site, multimedia information can flow between people in surprisingly complex and meaningful ways. It's still not the same as being in the same place, but it can come astonishingly close. If you ever have a chance to play WoW, or another in-depth online game, you know what I'm talking about.

I'm not in elearning because it will solve all of our problems instantly, that is ridiculous. I'm in it because it is embryonic. Using technology that people couldn't even imagine 2 generations ago, I want to try to find a way to bring the essence of that fantastically ancient learning relationship alive, not just through eyes, vocal chords and ears, but through fibre optics, interactive media and the cybernetics that have become a part of who we are.

It's as close as I can get to sci-fi while teaching. Frustrating? Sure, but I get to "boldly go...", and that is priceless.


This is a post from a few weeks ago on that elearning pilot program. It includes a review of the student survey statistics from the end of the course.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

How Low Can We Go?

Just bumped into another Dad from my street, who no longer comes out to get his kids on the other school bus in the morning. He told me a sad story.

Our local school bus companies were bought up by an American company who promptly fired everyone and rehired them at minimum wage. That didn't bump up the investor returns enough so they also cut staff and combined bus routes. Their 8:30 pickup was becoming more like an 8:55 or 9:10 pickup. This happened for weeks on end. He finally went to the company and they reorganized their buses (again) to try and stabilize pickups. This is the 3rd time this has happened this year. This is why I don't see them in the morning any more.

I wonder if the school board gets back money on this with cheaper rates. I wonder if all of those people who now can't afford their mortgages, car payments or household costs (forget luxuries like having their kids play sports) are happy that the board gets such good rates. I wonder if the publicly funded school boards did anything whatsoever to try and resolve this without people who do a vital job being treated like refugees.

This reminds me of Michael Moore's bit on airline pilots in the States in his last film.

What we appear to have here are publicly funded and operated school systems that seem intent on lowering the standard of living of thousands of people to improve bottom lines Am I the only one this seems absurd to?

I then told him about where our school custodians are. That same school board is intent on cutting back their responsibilities until it can replace them with minimum wage paid contracted cleaning services. Everything I've heard from board politics around who has been hired to perform this, to the ground level response of our own custodians, has supported this explanation. Once again, a publicly funded school board seems intent on lowering the standard of living of hundreds of people in its area in order to lower its bottom line. The fact that minimum wage paid people with no particular on-going interest in their work will be responsible for numerous health and safety issues in schools doesn't seem to be at issue.

As a younger man I was never a fan of unions, until I saw the epic mess that "business" makes of even simple situations. Whereas a union might protect the odd jerk while protecting many honest employees from abuse and exploitation, private business seems to screw virtually everyone in order to pay off a select few of the richest, usually while dismantling a working system in the process. Given a choice, I'd rather see as few honest people get screwed as possible, so union it is.

Private ownership of what should be publicly owned utilities never works out. The businesses squeeze it for as much as they can with no eye for sustainability. They reduce the effectiveness of a service to just below the bare minimum accepted by the public, then try and hold it there for as long as they can, hiring off shore call centres to field the calls at minimum cost. It's been a long time since big business has done even it's own R&D work, let alone truly add anything of value to human civilization.

So here I am, listening to yet another story of Globalization in a world that has proven again and again that it simply doesn't work. Simplifying ownership into multinationals injures regional interests and only benefits a few of the very rich, making everyone else poorer in the process. The big lie is that we're all told that we could be that rich minority if we: try hard enough - are smart enough - know the right people - whatever, but that simply isn't the case.

In the meantime, I'm paying taxes (and working) for a public organization that promotes the povertization of entire sectors of employees that depend on it. Thousands poorer to so a select few can move into a higher income bracket.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Special Education

Near the end of my teacher's college program, Nipissing put on an assistive learning tools workshop. We were all duly wowed by the latest version of Dragonspeak, the latest in PDAs and how they could be used in learning, and a surprising array of speech, numeracy, literacy and subject specific learning tools. It was an all day seminar, and it really had an impact on me. It also made me question the intent of all of this fantastic equipment.

Over and over, it was targeted at at-risk/below grade students who struggled with whatever the technology was supposed to help them overcome. Dragonspeak, there is no doubt, helps students see language in terms of the written word, but why does it need to be so carefully guarded from the general population? If a student struggling with literacy could use Dragonspeak to gain a foothold on something beyond their reach, couldn't it just as easily help a group of media students get their ideas down in solid form while they were storyboarding a video? Couldn't it assist a gifted writer who wants to try a different way of getting over writer's block? These people aren't anywhere near failing, but if we're only using assistive tech to help those failing expectations, I think we're wasting a valuable opportunity.

Those many learning tools we saw that day impressed upon me just how helpful technology could be in learning, I just didn't understand why it all had to be so Special focused. Any one of those tools could help anyone learn. Learning isn't easy, for anyone, it's a challenge to stay focused, it's a challenge to make the time and space to write, even if you think of yourself as a writer. It's a challenge to get work in on time, even if you're a top student. I watch excellent students in the form of teachers doing their Masters struggling with this very issue all the time.

In my senior year of high school, my grandfather died, our family pet died and shortly thereafter my father was involved in a near-fatal traffic accident. Always a B student (why draw unnecessary attention to yourself), my grades slipped, assignments weren't handed in and things went from mediocre to worse. My teachers berated me for time management, I was not working "to expectations". I didn't tell anyone about what was going on at home, I was trying to hold it (and a shaky family) together as the oldest son. I'd never been special enough to get a special education, and the standard one wasn't fitting now. I squeaked out of high school and it took me 3 years to get my self together and take another run at it in order to get grade 13 and go to university.

Whenever I have a student, regardless of what their Individual Education Plan does or doesn't say, suddenly miss work, or class, I don't start grading them in terms of expectations, I ask myself what's going on in the other 99% of their lives that has little or nothing to do with my classroom. Sometimes I ask, sometimes they tell me, often they don't, but I don't take that as license to grade them to Ministry expectations.

Dealing with the system now as a parent for the first time has only enforced my understanding of how streaming generally works. My son is lucky in having 2 educated, very motivated and able parents who advocate for him strenuously. His challenges at school aren't overwhelming, but many students face much worse obstacles, and don't have the support at home to take on the system effectively. On a purely experiential basis, we could as easily stream academic/applied and essential into stable family/broken family/no-visible family, and you'd find a startling correlation between our current "academic" system of measurement and an often ignored key indicator of school success.

Differentiating, student centred learning and assistive technology all aim to produce an education that helps a student on as much of an individual basis as we can manage in a system that often has too many people and not enough money. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have Special Education, it would all be special education, in the meantime, you have to ask yourself, how often have you had grades dictated by a lack of access to assistive technology or poor student performance due to their circumstances beyond school?

Maybe one day education will just be special, but I don't see that happening as long as we set up static, specific expectations and expect students to achieve them like automatons. An education has surprisingly little to do with building a better person. It's a biological process, deeply tied to our physical development, circumstances and opportunities, but we still want to assess it as though it were a Victorian industrial process.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Sustainable Anything?

My on going reading has led me through Coupland's Player One, Saul's The Collapse of Globalism, and Wright's A Brief History of Progress. I'm currently on John Birmingham's After America, an alternate history novel about what would have happened if a freak event had wiped out almost all of Continental North America on the eve of the Iraq invasion (if you like Tom Clancy, you'll love Birmingham).

Alternate histories aside, there seems to be a rising sense of urgency in both fiction and non-fiction about the predicament we are getting ourselves into. I've long thought that the zombie apocalypse sub-culture (and believe me, there is one - Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead are just the tips of the iceberg) is a subconscious response to the impending Malthusian collapse we face. I saw a version of this at the ROM the other week. How can we not see this ending in disaster? In our lifetimes?

The interdependencies of modern life make it inherently frail. We're so isolated from the necessities of life that virtually all of us never give them a second thought. Food is never a problem, neither is clean drinking water. These things becomes immediate, panicky concerns when Walmart and all the rest aren't delivering at the lowest possible price. We don't have a grasp on what the actual costs of life really are; we are increasingly unprepared for a breakdown.

Human history has lasted for tens of thousands of years. All of those lifetimes were, with precious few exceptions, dependent on the individual being able to contribute to their own and their immediate society's good. You didn't get an extended childhood (into your early 20s) or a retirement where you could 'stop' working. Civilization grew out of our ability to sustain ourselves through increasingly complex group work, making these moments of non-responsibility possible. But as Wright mentions in "...Progress", there isn't a single example of a great civilization that hasn't collapsed under its own weight. As an experiment in civilized growth, we seem incapable of recognizing our own unsustainability until it is too late. We seem intent on building civilization to the point where it can carry a large number of members who contribute little or nothing, or actively work to take more than they need. Wright's case studies on Easter Island and the Roman Empire especially ring true - 2 successful civilizations that died under their own weight by destroying their own ecosystems. Wright's conclusion is that we face a mass extinction when we finally exhaust the ability of the small planet we're on to sustain the groaning weight of billions.

If we're ever to truly develop a successful civilization, it must recognize our ability to overcome natural limitations, and it must recognize our need to self limit our own growth, even though that works against every evolved fibre in our animal beings. Some people appear to recognize this, but the vast majority of the human race does not. We will not have a civilization for millenia until we develop the self-discipline at an individual and societal level to recognize what an industrialized human being is capable of. If pursuit of technology and science are a pure goal, this understanding has to be at the basis of it, or else everything built will consume itself.

Nature is a wonderful system because it can balance itself. It can seem cruel (from a self absorbed human point of view), but it is sustainable, and had been for a billion years on Earth in many forms. It is nuanced, non-linear and complex, unlike our ridiculous systems based on simple greed, self-interest and insulated simplicity. Perhaps its time to start taking a serious look at how nature does its business, and create a human civilization that recognizes some fundamental truths.

I read an article in the Economist in which they suggested we can reduce population by increasing standard of living (this has already happened in many industrialized countries). Their solution to world overpopulation? Make poor countries more like rich countries, and they'll have less babies (and more ipods). China tried this, and it worked... for a while, and now they find they can't look after a massive bubble of aging population with too few children, and want to relax the one child policy (which is responsible for half a billion less people in the world today). The Chinese are richer than they have been, but in a population crisis. Economics won't lead to a solution here. Neither will simplistic birth control measures.

So we can't have less babies or we end up with many older people living much longer while not contributing. We are forced into a continuing growth bubble in a world that is running out of resources and is focused primarily on individual wealth rather than societal good.

Maybe we'll get it right next time, after the impending crash.