Friday, 29 April 2011

A tough question

How do you think a student would reply to these?

You are legally required to stay in school until you're 18 (this is law in Ontario). At the age of 18 you can choose any number of work or learning opportunities and self-direct your education/life. Prior to that, you MUST be in this building at set times following a schedule that rings bells at you. Think that age limit is a coincidence?

You are held in large groups, in passive environments where you are expected to cooperate at all times. You are identified by numbers and held in rooms that are arranged so that you must all sit facing your immediate supervisor (a franchised citizen). If you attempt to electronically communicate out of this room you are summarily punished.

At the age of 18 you are legally able to vote and become a franchised citizen, and you aren't required to attend this state run at the lowest possible cost facility any more.

Still think there is no connection between being able to vote and being legally required to stay in school?

Think there is no connection between the class sizes and accessibility to technology because the people being served have no say in their government?

As disenfranchised people, you have no say over a system that mandates your daily activities closely. Are you citizens of a democracy, or are you underpaid, disenfranchised workers, held under tight limitations until you're arbitrarily given the right to vote at eighteen?

If they changed the voting age to 16, or to any age where you could demonstrate a basic understanding of the voting process and basic public affairs (something many adult voters fail to do), what do you think would happen to schools?

It's a pejorative question designed to raise some difficult questions. But ask yourself, how would education be different if the students in it were voting citizens? Having come back from the post secondary wonderland recently, I was prompted to ask myself this very question after seeing their fantastic student-teacher ratios and access to technology.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Information - Skills - Mastery

I was chatting with @banana29 about that learning thing on the weekend. She'd been wrestling with the idea of skills based learning, ultimately finding it too limiting in describing what we're actually aiming for in education.

After we ruminated for a few minutes, we came up with the idea of Mastery. We don't teach students information, or even skills, but what we look for ultimately is mastery (something more encompassing and complex than knowledge or simple skills development).

This bounced me back to a conversation I'd had the other week at a heads PD on assessment. The teacher I was chatting with had been heavily involved with the Hockey Canada coaching program. While in it, they were told that in order for a player to have gained a mastery of the game, they need to have put ten thousand hours into to it. While talking to him, we brought up Wayne Gretzky. I saw an interview with his Dad, Walter, back in the day. The interviewer was saying how Wayne was a natural and Walter just shook his head and laughed. He then told the story of Wayne's childhood. He'd get up, and go play hockey before school, he'd play hockey on recess and at lunch, he'd come home and... play hockey. In the winter he averaged 4-6 hours a day on the backyard rink; in the summer he played ball hockey. Wayne Gretzky wasn't a natural, he was a master, who'd put the hours in and learned (and earned) his mastery.

Back to the skills talk: the idea of skills is inherently limited. A skill is defined by its limitations; it's one of the ways we're able to focus on them and perfect them. To take the hockey metaphor again, skating is a skill, stick handling is a skill, shooting is a skill. These and many others work in complex ways to develop something that relies on them and many other indirect and seemingly esoteric skills and knowledge to create an encompassing and complete mastery.

Perhaps this is that missing piece everyone seems to be looking for in education. We focus on knowledge and information, we focus on skills development, but we never look for mastery, or encourage it in all its esoteric forms. Mastery training can get awfully abtruse too, bizarre even. I once saw the Detroit Red Wings playing hackey sack before a playoff game; masters getting Zen while warming up their hand/foot/eye coordination, teamwork and focus? or guys screwing around?

Mastery assumes a level of professionalism and focus that isn't in question. We have trouble doing that in PD, let alone with students. If we can't trust teachers to apply themselves to their professional development in a self directed, meaningful way (something a master will do no matter what), the idea of students doing it approaches absurdity. Perhaps mastery is more than we can expect from the education system.

Another problem in elementary and secondary education (it happens in post secondary) is being able to focus on a specific field in order to develop mastery. In Ontario, this is changing now with High Skills Specialists and other focuses beyond the bland, traditional subject haze that students have been dragged through.

The problems don't end there. In a system that prides itself on segmentation and order, mastery becomes a slippery concept that doesn't fit well into curriculum documents, class bells, mid term reports and percentage grades. Mastery leaves all of that nonsense behind, the master becomes an embodiment of their discipline.

That 'nonsense' is vital to an apprentice though. Without structure, and planned practice that develops the knowledge and skills needed, someone working toward mastery will take much longer to embody their expertise. Perhaps the fact that mastery isn't mentioned, or even understood to be the point of the educational process, is where we run into trouble. Structure is vital to learning, but it seems empty and pointless if there isn't an ultimate goal beyond the skills and knowledge happening right in front of you. The student being drilled on grammar or working to develop their sentence structure has no sense of what it is they are pursuing: the mastery of a writer. If they aren't pursuing mastery, they are spending all of their time getting drilled in stick handling, passing and shooting and never getting to play a hockey game.

The problem there might be that the masters teaching aren't really masters themselves, but rather experts in running drills and practicing. It's not always easy to convince a master to teach their discipline to the unwashed masses, they tend to want to pick and choose their apprentices, looking for people who demonstrate the kind of personalities and inherent abilities that will improve chances of success. Spending time and energy on an unworthy apprentice is exhausting and wasteful.

Ultimately, mastery, or even the striving for it, ends up seeming exclusionary, but training with no purpose creates skills and knowledge without context, which is very hard to explain or justify.

Last year I had a student who earned a 46% in grade eleven college level English. He thanked me profusely for 'giving' him a 50% and a pass. I told him it was no favour, moving him to grade 12 was going to be very difficult for him. His response was, "it's ok, I just didn't try this year, I'll try next year and get the B average I need for college."

He didn't get that 70%, in fact, he dropped the course on his first go around and is now at a loss on what to do. His problem wasn't effort, his problem was that he couldn't spell, his grammar was atrocious, I'd seen grade 9s with better vocabulary and he had virtually no understanding of sentence or paragraph structure. He could try as hard as he wanted, but his complete lack of a workable foundation in English is where the real problem lay.

In a system that feels to many students like random, fractured, pointless skills development with wads of knowledge dumped on top, the idea that they need to be developing toward something other than their next summative assessment is foreign. It's foreign for many of their teachers too.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Bad Habits: these tools are not toys

The other week we had a PD on differentiated instruction. Before this long, undifferentiated lecture, I tried to get netbooks into as many interested teacher's hands as possible. We set up a Google doc, opened up Twitter and began back channeling. It went well, most of the teachers trying it had never back channeled before. In a one way lecture with virtually no two way communication between the audience and the lecturer, we had ourselves a bracing and critical discussion about the material being covered.

That's not how the vast majority of our colleagues saw it though. The cut-eye from people began the moment I opened my netbook; the assumption is that if you're on a computer you're wasting time, not paying attention, screwing around. Admittedly, the vast majority of the angry (embarrassed even) stares came from older teachers, but not exclusively. The passive, talked at audience thought we'd found a way out of the lecture using technology, rather than a way to make it engaging. The highlight came when the lecturer began standing next to one of the back channelers in an attempt to use proximity to get her back on task; even the instructor assumed technology use was time wasting.

One of the most powerful aspects of back channelling, even in the most non participatory lectures, is that it can create a responsive, audience involved activity that allows viewers to engage in learning actively. That many people in the room didn't recognize what active learning looks like in a world of Twitter and shared documents tells you something about where they see their classes from.

The assumption I'm most interested in is that technology allows the user to screw around, not do what they are supposed to be doing. This makes me wonder what these teachers think their students are doing when they book them into a computer lab, is it a free period in their minds? Or does this have more to do with how people pay attention to a lesson or lecture? If that's the case, do they assume students aren't listening when they are taking notes? or not staring at the speaker?

There are some interesting questions around multi-tasking here, but I'll leave them for another time. What I suspect is that this all comes back to a fear of technology in learning; it's still assumed by many that internet access is a complete waste of time. They think that the web is Youtube, Farmville, Facebook and meaningless, puerile and unproductive navel gazing. For many students (and teachers I guess) it is, but then, isn't it up to us as teachers to show students how to make productive use of what may be one of the pinnacles of human engineering?

As old fashioned as this sounds, this may all boil down to what we think about note taking, a skill that is all but ignored in education. Learning how to take notes is vital, and back channelling, shared documents and a plethora of online services (Google docs, Prezi, Twitter, Adobe Connect and other video sharing tools, wall wisher, Todaysmeet, Backnoise, and many others; this is constantly evolving) have created new opportunities for note taking and interactivity with learning interaction and recording that didn't exist previously. These new skills need to be integrated into basic note taking. We need to stop ignoring technology competency in the learning process.

However you care to illustrate the process of learning, recording your learning in some way is a vital part of the process. It allows you to clarify ideas, isolate material, review it at a later date and summarize your knowledge. Note taking works as a fluid process that integrates the learner into what can be an alienating, passive situation, making them an active participant. I don't think anyone would suggest that students shouldn't take notes, but passive lectures (unless you're at PD) have become a thing of the past. Differentiated instruction and student centered learning have tended to de-emphasize note taking (often replaced with handouts). This seems to cause students new to university a great deal of difficulty.

Perhaps the best thing technology can bring to this are new ways to collaborate, participate and communicate a learner's response to new material, but not if we're assuming that the tools used are really just toys.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Backwards edtech

At PD this week we were working with arts teachers, many of whom were technically disinterested if not outright techno-phobic. Watching them work with our frustratingly slow network while trying to show them basic Google tools only amplified their distrust. One asked me, "why would I wait around to see if this works? Why not just TALK to the students?"

EDTECH TRUTH: poor network delivery weakens all aspects of online educational support.
  • It's frustrating to see all of that good stuff, stuff I can use fluently and easily at home, grind to a stop while on the board internet.
  • It makes teaching others how to use it almost impossible
  • It makes doing elearning at school agonizing (for teachers and students)
  • It makes edtech seem like a giant time-sink, when it's supposed to be an efficiency booster.
  • It calls into question the competency of the people trying to show the material in the minds of new tech learners (when it won't load, it looks like we don't know what we're doing)
The problem is that we still think IT delivery in education revolves around access to machines (still mainly focused on desktop computers). The vast majority of students have their own technology to access the internet. Cheap smart phones, netbooks and tablets have de-centralized online access, but we still spend all our time and money on maintaining easily (and often) vandalized desktop labs. These time and energy sinks should be kicked to the curb.

When I think about the labs in my school, I think only the CAD/design and media arts labs needs full desktops (they need the CPU horsepower and big screens). Every other lab would work better as a mobile netbook lab or mobile tablet lab. The cost of a desktop lab of 24 machines? About $45,000. The cost of a mobile lab of 30 ipads? About $18,000 (and that includes a teacher macbook, charging cart, the works! Isn't that cool?), a better than 2 to 1 price advantage. Imagine swapping out all of your labs at a 2 to 1 ratio and replacing them with ipads, or netbooks (which are actually cheaper - under $10,000 for a 30 laptop lab). I won't even get into the energy savings (mobile devices use way less electricity, create less heat and lower A/C costs too).

Edtech is staggering in this direction, years behind where business is. In 2002-3 when I was working as an IT technician, my offices were all being converted to laptops. Those same offices are now a mix of smart phones, tablets and laptops, depending on what the employee needs access for. I think the servers are the only thing left that look desktoppy. The office runs multiple overlapping wireless networks that automatically switch traffic depending on load through two IPs. They also shape traffic based on values; you can access facebook and youtube, but those packets are deprioritized over machine to machine and other internet packets (I've asked our board to do this and they say they can't). They've had no downtime in two years thanks to built in redundancy; no single points of failure.

After becoming a teacher I was flabberghasted to see the labs still modeled on 80's tech, and they're still here. My first year teaching I told our librarian about wifi, he'd never heard of it before. He was excited about trying it out because so many students were bringing their laptops in and couldn't access the internet. The computer club I founded got a wireless router and plugged it in behind a book case. For less than a hundred bucks dozens of students were able to get online. Some careful setup allowed them only onto the internet and not the board network. It took board IT a year to notice it and demand that it be removed, though not a single problem had occurred while it was running for that year, and the library became the place to go to get your research done; obviously not what should be happening in a library.

Here I am, seven years later. Wifi is now available school wide, but it typically takes 10 seconds to load a single page and has the most asinine security I've ever seen (open network with a pointless login that makes mobile devices go crazy). Our board has spent big money to create a fibre optic school to board office network, with a single internet connection to feed all schools through the board, and now it's overloaded.

I wonder when they'll catch up to my office from 2003.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A word about educational how-to videos

In the tragically depopulated videos suggesting how personalized assessment is to be done, cheerful teachers in half empty, quiet, ordered classrooms dealing with compliant, earnest, hard working children one on one, take a great deal of time reviewing their work in meaningful, specific ways. This is something I often see in ‘this-is-how-you-should-do-it’ videos.

I first noticed this in teacher’s college when the assessment professor gave us an article by a teacher who went into great detail about how teachers should create student specific learning opportunities and assessment. Everyone oo'ed and ah'ed this wonderful insight, but I had a nagging feeling while watching it. Two minutes on the interwebs at home that night had me coming into class the next day and showing everyone that this teacher works at a private school with mandatory laptops for each student, and class caps of 16 students. The students were all, "students of professors, lawyers and diplomats in the suburbs of Washington DC).

I sometimes work with students whose parents can’t feed them, let alone pay $2o,000 a year to put them in a private school. We just got a technology ‘refresh’ which involved us losing labs and dozens of computers from the school (to be replaced by wifi and the hope that students can bring their own tech) – technology support for all? Not where I live, and I work at what I'd describe as a good school in a pretty wealthy area, but we are a public school that serves everyone from trailer parks to mansions.

And I certainly have never seen an English class with (at the most) 16 students in it – double that and throw in 5-10 students are are clearly in the wrong stream; that’s what I see. In that environment crowd control is as much a part of my day as learning is.

I know they are trying to focus these videos on the specifics of what they're talking about, but if a video production team can't do that in a class of 30 students, 12 with IEPs, 8 who performed brain chemistry experiments at lunch and 6 who aren't sure that they remember your name after being in your class for six weeks, what makes them think a single teacher can?

Instead of making the video to sell a book (and a dream world of magic), how about some real world candid video of what happens in real classes, warts and all? Or will marketing not ok that?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Debates of the Future

The data wranglers sat in a loose circle behind the cameras frantically shaping the data clouds around their candidates. The debating format hadn't changed too much, but the show certainly had. Parties no longer threw candidates into the ring alone, a successful debate required a huge, group commitment. Candidates, party members of even the general public throwing in prioritized, well timed comments could make or break at debate in the new age.

The lights in the studio blazed on the candidates while they took great care to stay away from the dreaded O.R.L.. Out Right Lies became the killer app, as long as you had a good wrangler and a responsive party. Stating an ORL was a game killer, especially if your wrangler could get the pertinent data on the screen while your opponent was still speaking it. At best you looked ignorant, at worst manipulative and dishonest, if caught speaking a lie as the facts swirled around you to the contrary.

Rehearsals for debates now more closely resembled a football practice, with researchers, commenters and wranglers, than it did the solo focus of pre-crowd sourced debates; debates were now a team sport. What you needed in your party leader was someone who knew what they stood for, didn't have a lot of mental space for playing a crowd and could reach out and make meaningful contact with people with their rhetoric. The idea of gaming democracy was so fifty years ago.

The real danger came from the audience. The peripheries of the camera shots in three dimensions belonged to the digital crowd. Old fashioned rules surrounding civilized conduct were still strictly enforced, but comments from credible sources carried weight, and if the crowd trended a comment high enough, it could actually impact the size of the data cloud around a candidate. Parties no longer ignored a credible analyst, they feared them. Positive comments could trend very well, but a high trending negative comment could cut like a knife. When the liar tag pushed to the very edge of a candidate in a previous debate, ultimately costing them the election, politicians realized that telling mistruths was a disaster in the making, especially if you were pinned to the lie while you were still speaking it.

Next time around they all tried to avoid saying anything specific, only to be turned on by the mob once again. When given a chance, voters are happy to call their bluff, and did. You can't speak the nonsense of empty words, or mob mockery would quickly follow. Say what you mean, and mean something. Switching party positions just to try and win votes was likely to get you a face full of contrary video clips from your own lips from previous months. Being a consistent, values driven politician who acted on stated beliefs was your own real protection.

The debate raged on, politics laid bare. Trending thoughts, data in the form of text notes, video links, charts and other statistics appeared and peeled off into separate dialogs on secondary and tertiary feeds, sometimes trending back onto the main feed again. The audience watching the debate could follow the main feed, which looked a lot like the old television version, as it followed the speakers back and forth, or they could follow trending data, a specific candidate or manually direct themselves to any of the camera feeds available.

Data stormed around the candidates as they had to lay it all bare, nothing held back, egged on by the digital mob; gladiators in a fearsomely complicated storm of ideas that everyone participated in.

Do Or Do Not, There Is No Try

I just got back from a morning session of department head PD looking over Damian Cooper's ideas on assessment; it was a lot to take in and I’m trying to give some voice to the doubts while also sorting through what I liked about Cooper’s ideas.

Time management is a concern I have. It’s one thing to suggest that assessment be the result of diligent and ongoing consultation with students, but it’s another to ask that this be done when you have 90+ students in a single semester. A system that is still mired in 19th and 20th Century ideas about reportage and teachers who want to make assessment meaningful are about as far apart as two things can get. Teachers trying to do this in the current framework would be stretched mighty thin.

Our reportage is still very much time specific and causes a great deal of stress with teachers and students. We’re coming up on midterms now, we’ve been given a specific time (down to the minute) when percentage grades, specific learning skills and precise comments are required. In the next breath we’re being told to open up assessment, despecify grades into learning levels and provide constant meaningful assessment as feedback.

Perhaps the most valuable thing Cooper’s ideas can do is create a political movement for change at the Ministry level. By changing parental (and teacher) expectations around assessment, perhaps we can move towards a more flexible, meaningful reporting environment that still provides post secondary education with the yard stick they need for entrance, but also allows us to focus more on developing student learning.

Imagine a system where teachers and students create a constantly evolving assessment space that is open to parents, completely transparent. Rather than trying to hit specific timelines behind closed doors, teachers are able to develop assessment with students and constantly update how students are transitioning through the curriculum. The criteria are open and wide ranging, taking into account everything from soft skills like teamwork and self directed learning, all the way to curriculum specific hard skills. This open system would have to get rid of the edu-speak because students and teachers must be able to observe and participate in it while parents would be able to look in; a truly transparent and meaningful exercise in assessment. A less rigid grading system not dictated by mid-term specific timing, or percentage marks means that grades could evolve and develop while a student is with a teacher, allowing for latest, greatest results without math games like weighting creating even more abstract results. Grades would be end-of-course-weighted to ensure a better look at what students have actually learned in the course, rather than forcing early grades before they can demonstrate best work.

The Khan Academy concept of competence would be, perhaps, a better way to consider whether or not a student has actually attained mastery of a concept. Percentage grades are an abstract concept. I got low Cs in high school math up until grade 12, and in my 2 senior years I ended up getting 50s and failing, because I had nothing like the foundation needed to succeed. 50% is an abstract concept, it has nothing to do with whether you know the subject or not, yet we think of it as a pass. Would you want this level of grading to apply to the mechanic who just fixed your brakes? Or the pilot landing the plane? The static, percentage system has somehow become a habit that is seen to have academic validity, because it’s harsh? It seems to offer some kind of certainty? When it comes to hard skills in curriculum, a student knows it or they don't, they can demonstrate it or they can't. This isn't a question of whether they are present or participating, it's a matter of skill.

The Khan idea is that you either understand the concept and can demonstrate it consistently, or you don’t. If you don't, you keep hacking away at it without fear of failure, until you get a handle on it. One of the big fears we face in the class is risk aversion, which is almost entirely a result of the arbitrary, static and specific grading and reporting system we use. I couldn't get grade 12s to try things and fail, they only wanted to do it right the first time ("because I have to get high marks to get into university"). We feed that fear with midterms and percentage grades.

If we’re assessing skills, do you really want to assess it based on “they kind of know it” (is that what a 64% says?), or “they pretty much know it” (77%)? There is no validity in this, just a vague kind of petty certainty, put in place to make it easy for post secondary education to think they are accurately separating the wheat from the chaff; it doesn't serve learning at all.

I guess I like Damian’s ideas, but simplifying grading from percentages to levels doesn’t go far enough. It really comes down to you can demonstrate what you know or you can't. You can do this in many different and meaningful ways, but you either can or you can't.

Do or do not, there is no try.

Do you know it or don’t you? Can you demonstrate big understandings or not? This certainly applies to literacy and numeracy, and I’d argue that any subject area that has any kind of coherent development of skills (ie: all of them).

In that brave new world of assessment, post secondary institutions would have to stop thinking that 83% describes a person's knowledge of a complex field. To begin with, they should start basing entrance on learning skills, which could easily be expanded to target successful criteria for post secondary students (self discipline, ability to overcome learning obstacles, attendance and punctuality, timeliness, peer pressure skills, etc). If teachers could get away from agonizing over abstract percentages that have no real world meaning and simply look at whether or not a student grasps the skills they need to have, we'd finally have assessment serving learning.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The College Experience

The Media/Design Schools at Conestoga College had a forum on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.

Some notes:

College isn't what it used to be. Since grade 13 was removed from Ontario schools, colleges have stepped in to assist students in working out pathways, especially if they lacked direction and/or maturity in high school. Maturity came up continuously throughout the day. Many students do not do poorly in high school because of anything the high school process did or didn't do, they do poorly because they are not yet mentally mature enough yet to recognize the importance of the (poor) choices they were making.

Tim note: You can try and base this on brain development, but history would prove you wrong; we are capable of maturing more quickly than we do, we choose not to. We teach and parent to discourage maturity (taking responsibility for our decisions) because:
1) it's cheaper to create a factory school environment if you limit personal choice. Personal choice doesn't fit well in a small room with 32 students crammed into it.
2) the school system does as much to fight unemployment as anything in society - keeping students in school until they're 18 isn't necessarily for their own good, but it's a great way to keep a disenfranchised age group out of the work force and away from voting citizen's jobs.
3) we spend a lot of money trying to prevent people from making mistakes they choose to make, it looks like we're saving money if we're keeping a high risk population in semi-lockup
Legal note: I reserve the right to play with ideas in writing that I may not entirely agree with just to see what they look like on paper.

Notes Continue:

A number of students were on hand for an open, panel discussion, many of them seemed to support this belief (needing maturity and time to get on track - the fundamentals programs offer them this space in a guidance/portfolio building course of study).

Bachelor of Arts students, in the vast majority of cases, never recoup the costs of their degree program in terms of costs and earnings lost. Colleges focus on job preparedness and marketable skills. To that end, they aim to serve a much wider range of students than universities do.

Conestoga was careful not to vilify universities, they merely serve a different sort of post secondary student.

Tim note: I didn't go to university to gain marketable skills, I went to university to gain a deep understanding of my disciplines. I quit a lucrative job to go to university, a job that provided me with an apprenticeship, marketable skills and on-the-job training. Do businesses not do this any more? When did employee training get downloaded onto the employee through government sponsored college programs? Do businesses do *ANYTHING* other than serve their own profitability any more? Yet another example of how business keeps removing itself from anything remotely socially redeeming, but I digress...

Another theme that came up again and again was: Realistic Goals & Expectations.

In all Conestoga courses there is a zero tolerance for lateness and absence. Most degree/diploma programs have very low (under 10%) drop out rates. The fundamentals courses, courses they put students into who did not meet the requirements for specific diploma courses they had applied to, have higher dropout rates (about 1/3 don't finish).

A diploma specific course (graphic design, advertising, etc) typically receives 2-300 applications for 35 positions. If students meet academic requirements (65/55 in Eng4C/4U for fundamentals courses, 70/60 in Eng4C/4U English for diploma courses) they are invited for a 10 minute interview in which they show 15 diverse pieces from their portfolio. Top students gain admission.

Tim note: Interesting student story (I paraphrase): "I didn't pass the academic requirements, so I had to take an admissions test, I failed it by a couple of percent each time (I'm curious at what level the test is pitched). I could have done better in English, I just kept skipping and couldn't be bothered."

Hey sparky, the test scores suggest that you couldn't have done better in English, I'm assuming you actually showed up and tried on the college entry tests. You failed a standardized admissions test... twice, know why? Because you don't get better at English by suddenly deciding to try. It's a set of skills built up over many years. Student who tell me in 3U/3C that - Oh, I'll just turn it on next year - don't have anything to turn on, they don't know what they're doing... which reminds me of this.

Something to keep in mind: if you give a student a 60% in Eng4C, you've just denied them direct access to even fundamentals programs at the college level. They would have to take make up courses to gain admission. I suspect most students have no idea what the expectations for access are.

Setting a real world standard of competency allows Conestoga to focus resources on committed students. What a wonderful world they live in. And students (even the dropouts) pay cash for this process.

Students all said that they wished: "high school teachers had taught them better time management... had pushed for strict time limits and deadlines..."

Tim note: this initially made me angry with the lala land that we deliver to high school students. We are not allowed/are heavily restricted in how we can grade according to time management competency. I often see teachers being required to mark projects months late, sometimes after the course has actually ended. They usually stink, which makes the whole process even worse. After some reflection, I realized that college can pitch like this because their mandate allows them to shake out the weak/uncommitted students.

From a high school point of view, we don't get the luxury of getting to shake out the bottom third of students and then focus our resources on the top two thirds. Like college, we'd have a much higher technology to student ratio and a fantastic pass rate if we could do this, but we need to serve the entire population.

IT Management and technology access at the college was very impressive, what you wished you had in public school really. Teachers have detailed and specific control over internet access. They can block sites, time access (only full access for the first 20 minutes, then the system focuses on the software and web access you need to do class specific work. Mac labs were at least as common as PC labs in the media wing, no Window-centric/simplified public school IT going on here.

Tim note: by the time it was over I was trying to get a grasp on what education looks like in Ontario in 2011. That may not be entirely accurate, but based on what I've seen, it's certainly the direction we appear to be going.

One of the comments made was, "we try to do these events so that teachers, many of whom have never been on a college campus, know what it is that the next steps are for the majority of students they work with." A nice way to say that having a school system run almost entirely by people invested in the least popular form of post secondary education might not be the best idea. I really hope teacher's colleges and the profession in general starts to look a ways to find good, flexible candidates from many life experiences that can provide more than just a primary focus on academics.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Digital Serfs

This topic has come up before, but I've been rehashing it in my mind over the past day or two after having a twitter-talk with @innovativeedu.

She posted a blog on using Facebook in class. Before last semester, I would probably have read it, nodded, and moved on.

Last semester I found myself teaching career studies (a grade 10 compulsory credit to prepare students for the work place). It isn't a challenging course, so our board decided to use it as a pilot to introduce students to elearning. I thought this was a great idea. Our completion rates in elearning aren't good and introducing students to the technology before they have to go live with it alone and online is a solid step towards fixing things. (I initially wrote about that pilot here).

Even at high academic levels (pre university English is what I've taught on elearning), we typically have a 50% dropout rate. Last time through I had a 60% completion rate and I was over the moon about it. Part of the problem is how guidances place students into elearning - it seems to be a 'you've exhausted all other options so we'll dump you there' situation for many students - not an ideal way to cull candidates for a technically challenging, lonely learning experience. After doing these recent in-class/hybrid elearning classes I now think the failure rate has to do with digital literacy; very few people have it.

Part of the problem is an educational assumption (usually based on ignorance, age based ludditism and/or fear of technology), that young people have some kind of magical connection to technology that allows them to immediately understand and make effective use of it. We dress them up in terms like 'digital native' and sit there complacently, happily waiting for them to wow us with their, um, digital nativity.

When you're teaching elearning remotely, you're not seeing what they're doing first hand, you just get a (digital) window into what's going on (which is often nothing). When work does come in, it's often a jumbled mess. Students ignore things like file format (.rtf please, nothing else, then you get everything else). Students ignore file naming conventions (everything handed in is called document.doc, and is usually not what they thought it was because by mid-way through the course they have a documents folder filled with document(1) document(2) .doc files).

When you do finally get something as (technologically) simple as an essay, they often show little or no understanding of how the word processor they used actually works. They don't know how to format simple things like line spacing and margins, let alone more complex layout issues like APA citations. There isn't a lot of room in the grade 12 university bound English curriculum for teaching grade 7 computer skills.

This all leads me to the realization I had in that open grade 10 careers class. In a class of 25 (I taught 4 such classes, they all played out similarly), ten students took to the elearning environment like fish to water. They had the technical chops to manage uploads, file management and the various IT issues that arose. Ten or so had enough computer experience to push their way through the course and be successful. Five or so students in each class had very limited computer knowledge. They were comfortable doing only very specific things with a computer. They had no idea what file types were, how to upload things to the internet or stay focused on what they were supposed to be doing. These students were constantly, and I mean constantly, staring at Facebook.

What's interesting about that distribution is that it's pretty much the same across the general population.  Teens don't have a magical insight into technology any more than boomers do.  The willingness to learn and understand computers is not age specific.

I should add that all students were on Facebook at various points (including the student who finished with a 100% in the course). The difference between the technically literate ones and the digital serfs were telling though. The serfs weren't doing this because they were bored, they were doing it because they literally don't know how to do anything else with a computer.

In working with them I noticed big differences in their Facebook profiles as well. Strong students had media rich walls with many links, comments and discussions with a wide variety of contacts (many of whom were family members); they were media generators and social networkers. Weak students tended to have empty walls, minimal written contact with people (virtually all peers, most of which was appallingly low brow and often related to pictures that would turn their parents' hair white). They didn't know how to use the internet to add interesting content, they were users, not makers, and they were not in peer groups that encouraged more effective use of technology.

The more confusing part was that the vacant Facebookers would sit there for hours, looking at pictures, there was very little reading involved. This reminds me of a video I saw the other day. Put simply, many people will not self-direct their learning, even in a media rich, technologically plentiful environment where the entire history of human development is laid open before them. If the gap between what a student knows and what they are being asked to do is so great, the preferred solution is to ignore the situation entirely by pretending it doesn't exist; Facebook is the ideal go-to in these situations.

These students don't know what they don't know, and think they know a lot that is, in fact, wrong (just like those in that video). This is a Zone of Proximal Development issue. Their ignorance is so great that they can't even begin to realize how little they actually know. Their knowledge is akin to belief.

The internet, for many, is a vacuous, narcissistic waste of time. Their habitual use of very few (often two: youtube and facebook) websites has made them new media illiterate. They know virtually nothing about computers, navigation or using the net to provide resources, to the point of begging even common sense.

"It doesn't work"
"it's unplugged"

"I can't edit this file"
"You're looking at it in WORD viewer"

"The internet doesn't work"
"You haven't connected to the wireless" (this after 3 weeks of doing this)

I've had colleagues working with grade 12s who have no idea, not one of them in a class of thirty, about how to create a hypertext. They were supposed to be developing google docs about a piece of literature, but she's teaching them simple hypertext because none of them have any idea how the internet works.

Until we start taking digital literacy seriously and begin to develop the necessary skills in a coherent manner throughout school, we're throwing students into the digital sea with very unfair limitations, often based on family circumstance and technology access.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Academic Dishonesty: listening to Sunday Edition

I'm sitting here listening to Sunday Edition and listening to an interview with an ethics adviser for a California university. Her description of cheating isn't one of deceit and intent, it's one of accidental opportunism. She argues that students often don't even realize they are cheating.

In another section of the interview a university student says that it isn't the student's fault, they are victims of the ease of technology. These two ideas are closely linked; accidental cheating and technological access to information. In both cases, ethical choice is removed from the 'victim'. This is a pretty weak ethical argument. Because something is easy and readily available, it should be done? If you see a person put an ipad on a park bench and then get distracted for a few minutes, do you walk off with it? According the this victim mentality you would have no choice. The fact that all of your friends have stolen ipads from the park only makes it more acceptable.

When I think about my own university experience, it didn't even occur to me to cheat, because of my sheer awesomeness. My arrogance ensured that I would never even consider putting in someone else's work for my own, but then I was there to develop my own thinking. I'd walked away from a lucrative career in order to push my limits. Most of the kids I was in university with (typically 4-5 years younger than I was, many of whom dropped out) were there because they couldn't think of anywhere else to go. You didn't get a clear sense of who the real learning disciples were until third or forth year.

Later in the same episode, they mention that the vast majority of students in university now are there because they want a higher standard of income, they're there for the payoff at the end. If university is really all about the money, then perhaps their victim mentality is simply the best way to morally justify taking everything you can while doing as little as possible. University should, perhaps, follow SNL's angle from so long ago and simply accept what it is becoming.