Friday, 29 July 2011

Paper is so 20th Century

@banana29 is currently taking her Master's degree. We're already 500 sheets of paper and a lot of toner and electricity into printouts. All of that paper immediately becomes less accessible once she's read it and made notes on it; it disappears into a stack of unsearchable ideas. Obviously not ideal for keeping your ideas accessible and developing them. Paper is so 20th Century.

The master's course is online, but the text book isn't available electronically. Does this strike you as inconsistent? Why would this university make a course available online and then not offer the text digitally? Money!

I'd love to move her to a digital format, where her content creation and her content consumption is entirely electronic, but text book publishers won't release their content digitally because they can only respect the money they've put into paper publication and refuse to see the digital wave happening all around them. Very similar to what music companies did a decade ago, and we all know how that turned out. Burying their heads in sand is exactly what they shouldn't do, but it's what they are doing.

The other side of the problem is a good educationally friendly digital window. Ipads are nice, but they aren't designed to show text books in their original format. With low resolution and limited screen real estate, ipads work very well as quick digital windows, but long term content contact means lots of page turning through a small 1024x768 window.

I had high hopes for the Kno tablet, but it's been cancelled... : Kno tablet awesomeness that never will be.

Is the idea of an educationally focused computer/tablet that mimics text book layout and offers generous screen real estate dead? Can we get by with an Apple monopoly? It looks like we have little choice. Microsoft has cancelled its Courier 2 screen tablet as well. For the foreseeable future, 1024x768 is the only window you're going to get into ereading.

Kno is now an ebook presentation software for ipad (ipad dominance destroys potential improvements in hardware before they can even appear). This isn't an entire loss, a piece of software that lets students organize and access their texts on a single device is great, but I think I'd prefer something web based, so I can get at my content anywhere on anything.

The fact that they are trying to force the paper based text industry into providing etexts is also invaluable. They are forcing the change that is coming anyway. Until we can pry text content control from an industry solely focused on paper based money streams, the option to adopt an etext is very limited.

"What a student needs, according to Kno's research, is something that faithfully reproduces a full-size textbook, without compromise. In contrast, the attempt to cram a textbook onto a smaller screen is a primary reason that previous trials with replacing textbooks with e-readers such as the Kindle DX were abject failures."

I love the idea of a dual screen tablet that folds like a book. The screens are protected while in a bag, it can be opened into a 2 screen or 1 screen layout (by flipping it over) and one screen could be used as a full(er) sized keyboard, the benefits of a short interface ipad like device or a longer term dual screen interaction with content (that doesn't require all books to be reformatted).

I also love the idea of a transformable tablet, so here is my wishlist for that ideal education tablet:
  • a tablet that can be purchased like Lego pieces: one screen, two screen, three screen, keyboard, whatever: you can keep joining them together and configuring depending on what you need
  • the ipad2 has nice dimensions, but a huge bezel! And the resolution is too low.
  • Keep the dimensions for length and width but lets aim for 5mm thick (so 2 folded together are only slightly thicker than a current ipad), and 500g (so 2 folded together still only weigh about a pound and a half)
  • instead of a 9.7 inch display, an 11.8 incher would all but eliminate the MASSIVE BEZEL, making for an almost seamless dual (or more) display.
  • 1400x1050 resolution on that bigger screen
  • when you link multiple screens the systems work in sync to offer you a multicore, networked machine, more screens equals better performance
  • yeah, it should run FLASH, and HTML5, and offer an open source, community driven OS (so I guess Apple and M$ are out)
ipad3? Not without Jobsian control. Asus, are you into this? Google? You could partner up for the OS, Honeycomb is awesome! I'd ask Blackberry but they'd take 3 years to get it finished.

In the meantime, reams of paper get printed and paper text books get delivered. Living in a hybrid time period kinda stinks. Twentieth Century, will you end already?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

What Is Learning?

What is Learning?

Thrown out casually during a teacher conference and then immediately forgotten, but it lingered with me.

I heard the initial “transmission of information” definitions around me and shook my head. Saying that learning is simply information transmission is like saying killing is a physical effort that ends a life; a very simplistic definition designed to make a complex idea manageable.

I caught a National Geographic special a few years ago in which a team studying the differences between great apes and humans made the sweeping statement that teaching and learning are the key difference between humans and apes. There is little else to distinguish us from our close cousins.

If it is so pivotal to the definition of our species, it deserves a better definition than “the transmission of knowledge.”

Learning (def’n): the enrichment of our mental facilities that ultimately gives us power over the physical world. We are able to know truth in a broader and deeper way because we can experience the world indirectly and abstract the world in order to understand it beyond our own senses. Learning allows us to preserve and enhance this discipline independent of our individual existences. We are the only species that does not have to relearn how to master our physical environment in every generation; more than that, we are able to amplify previous learning and build on it at an astonishingly proliferate rate. We are dangerous animals indeed.

This definition has a couple of challenges:

Firstly, the idea that knowledge and learning it is very powerful makes people uncomfortable. If you’re teaching and you just want to transmit information, you can simplify your practice to that simple goal. Accepting that learning and knowledge are powerful and potentially dangerous (giving the learner power over the physical world), a teacher would have to also accept some moral responsibility for imparting information, and many teachers don’t want to take that on.

Secondly, since our brains (hardware) became sophisticated enough to develop this viral learning (software), we have developed well beyond the constraints of our immediate physical environment. We have mostly deferred the costs of overcoming our immediate physical space to a macro/planetary level that we haven’t had to deal with directly yet. When I look at all the teachers who drive into my school alone in large SUVs in the morning, I get the sense that most teachers aren’t any more aware of these challenges than the general public; they are either unwilling or unable to consider a larger picture. The viral nature of our learning means the people teaching and the people learning are not learning hard truths with any real discipline. Learning how to overcome nature taught the first learners some hard truths, truths we forget when we are the billionth person to learn a hard won truth as a fact in a text book.

Calling learning the dissemination of information is a very dangerous thing indeed. This is the viral core of learning; when learning becomes knowledge transmission with no real context. The dangers appear thick and fast. Teaching becomes indoctrination and learning devolves into belief generation rather than a coherent, candid body of knowledge. Standardized learning does this in spades. Standardized tests force it, curriculum defines it, cutting knowledge into independent disciplines clouds it and grading validates it. Instead of developing a student’s body of knowledge in a coherent, interconnected, meaningful manner, the industrialized education system creates information overloaded human beings with limited (or no) understanding of what their knowledge is capable of.

This is disastrous for us as a society and a species, especially if you want human beings to live in democratic circumstances with relative economic and civic freedom. The fact that we don’t want to appreciate complexity will result in simple solutions, like simplified education, dictatorial government and poor economic choices. In those circumstances the urge to control the herds of the ignorant would become overwhelming for those in power.

Making learning easy is a disaster, it should be challenging, not pointlessly so, but contextually it has to be, ignorance is preferable to a passing on knowledge that empowers a human being beyond the confines of their natural world.

If learning devolves into knowledge transmission, we populate the world with dangerous fools.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Wearing Out Willpower: edfail!

So, forcing people to constantly modify their behavior wears out their willpower and causes measurable deficiencies in their mental abilities. You can expect a 10-30% decrease in mental skills if you wear people out by forcing them to waste their willpower on maintaining arbitrary social norms.

.... how do we design schools? What do we constantly do to children all day? Then we demand that they work at their peak mental efficiency (which is impossible because we've worn out their mental focus on things like not talking, standing in line, doing what they are told, sitting quietly, doing what they're told...); it's weakening the teachers, it's also damaging students.

We've essentially created an education system designed to produce poor mental acuity. I've always said that teachers dissolve their in-class credibility with students if they are used as hall monitors and cafeteria ladies (they are in my school). It turns out that having to constantly sit on every little social deviance measurably weakens our ability to perform mental tasks in both teachers and students as well.

If you have a moment, give it a listen (there is a pod cast on that webpage), some great insights into how modern psychology is measuring willpower and its effects on mental ability, and how we’re completely ignoring them in education.

Monday, 18 July 2011

22C Ed: Gaming School

Kyle looked at the stairs going up to the next floor, he couldn't unlock the door to them, but he could peer through the small windows to the painted walls and carpeted floors beyond.

He looked down at his student badge, under his name and next to his picture it still said, "n00b learner". Kyle wasn't stupid, not by a long stretch, but he was incredibly lazy and was easily influenced by his peers negatively, though that had been changing recently. He used to spend most of his time trying to needle other students or his teachers. He found this amusing, only a small group of others did, but Kyle had been stuck on the first floor with them for two years now, almost all the rest of his elementary class had gone upstairs. The big 2nd year wasn't enjoying hanging out with the kids any more.

The bell rang on the first floor, the only floor where bells rang, and Kyle trudged off to his next class. The room was painfully white; tables, chairs, walls... the teacher walked in and put her briefcase on the teacher desk. She quickly looked at the scan log on her monitor, noticed who wasn't in class on time and said, "alright, let's begin."

The door closed automatically as she spoke, and anyone still out in the hall was being herded into remedial classes that would also take up their lunches. Very few people skipped or were late; better to just be there.

The lesson today was on writing basic sentences. Kyle knew how to do this, so zoned out during the instruction. Back in grade nine he would have talked over the teacher, thrown things at classmates or otherwise assed about, but standing for the whole class kinda sucked, so he didn't do these things any more. Damien, two seats up, was a bit of a tool, and he wasn't thinking about consequences very well this morning. He whipped a pen at the back of the kid in the front row. His chair seat dropped away immediately, depositing in him on the floor. Bright red in the face he stood up to the class laughing.

Ms Creighton looked at him for a moment and shook her head, "forty minutes is a long time to be standing Damien."
"He started it," Damien mumbled, looking at his feet.
"He still has a seat," Ms Creighton replied with a smirk, and turned back to the use of commas.

It was your typical n00b class, students kept forgetting about consequences and by halfway through half a dozen of them were shifting from one foot to another, while trying to take notes. Three others, including Damien, had decided to trade in lunch for a seat and were off in remedial, learning an awful lot more about sentence structure than they had perhaps intended.

The data being collected was more detailed than Kyle realized. His previous attempts (and improvements) in sentence building where being held up against how he performed today. His galvanic skin response (read through his desk) even gave indicators on how much attention he was paying, and even if he was likely to act up, though the system had a very low probability of that happening.

What Kyle didn't realize is that in the last six months his tardies had fallen to zero (mainly because he didn't want to miss lunch any more), he had no absences and his teacher had noted improvements in engagement across logic, numeracy, literacy, techniracy, kinesthetics and creativity. His scores had been slowly, but steadily improving, indicating a measurable improvement in learning facilities. Ms Creighton knew this, and she was hoping that young man who started the year so badly would ace this activity, as she knew he could; it might be the bump he needed.

With fifteen minutes left in the class Kyle's badge suddenly chimed. It usually only did this when he was late to class or otherwise in trouble. He irritably grabbed it and stared.

"Level 1: Novice Learner"

Creighton stood up immediately with a big smile. "Well done Kyle! The system had you on the cusp, but you've gone over!"
Kyle stood up nervously, his face flushing red. "What do I do?" he stammered.
"They're waiting for you upstairs! Enjoy yourself, and keep improving your learning!"
Kyle walked down the aisle as dozens of eyes followed him, some enviously, which the system made note of. The door opened as he approached and he was out alone in the hallway. Alone in the hallway never happened to n00bs and he almost felt vertigo. He walked stiffly to the doors to the second floor and they slid open as he approached.
"Welcome to the next level," a cool, female voice chimed as he passed through.

By the end of the day, Kyle was beginning to see why almost no one ever came back downstairs. His biggest class had a dozen students in it, as opposed to the forty he'd had in English this morning. Whereas downstairs was antiseptically clean and monotone, the second floor contained rooms in varying shades. Instead of shared desk screens, everyone carried their own computer, could share their content to the white boards, and were encouraged to develop what they had studied in class independently. Instead of six hours of proscribed class, the second floor had four hours of teacher time and two hour of independent study.

From having very limited, measured choice, Kyle suddenly found he could choose to focus his learning in specific areas. The system watched his initial ascension closely, some students needed a firmer hand while they became acclimatized to their new freedoms, though the data suggested that Kyle would not, and he didn't. As the novelty wore off, Kyle found himself wondering why it took him so long to get out of his own way, then he realized it, the system wasn't grading him on what he knew, it was grading him on how well he learned. Until he'd been able to demonstrate some self control, self direction and curiosity, he couldn't focus on all there was to learn; now he could. Instead of worrying about what the idiots in his class were thinking, he had, over the past half year, allowed his own natural curiosity to emerge.

Kyle quickly found Phin, a friend from the neighborhood who had ascended a few weeks earlier.
"Know what the best part is?" Phin said one day as they ate lunch in the smaller, less industrially designed cafeteria on the second floor.
"We're not n00bs any more? The technology access? The fact they the teachers can leave you alone because you've shown you can learn without training wheels?"
Phin laughed and nodded, "true, but not it! The real best part is that after we ascend through intermediate to senior, we get to go to the final floor... and it's supposed to be even better than this!"

Kyle looked across the caf at the doors to the third floor. His imagination took off.
"What could they have up there? Holographics? Hypnotics? Virtual studios?"
"You're such a tech-head," Phin laughed. "Bet they've got all that and more, but they also have the heli-pad, and I've seen Seniors come and go from it."

Phin left the thought of being able to travel on the supersonic 'copters hanging in the air. Both of them looked at each other and a new determination germinated between them. Deep in the core the system made the necessary adjustments. Kyle was improving Phin's approach to learning and Phin was improving Kyle's. Subtle changes were made in the scheduling to match them together and with other students at this stage of development. Teachers looking over the data called it the booster stage. Students at that stage could develop their own learning skills at a much more efficient rate, often over a surprisingly short period of time.

It wouldn't be taking Kyle two years to get up to that next floor this time.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Year of Living Dangerously

It's been one heck of a year. Personal tragedies aside (and they were quite epic in scale), my year in teaching has been difficult to say the least.

I began the year suddenly being asked to fill the shoes of our head of computers and IT. He is a dynamic, patient, kind man who is adored by all who know him; I am not. The chances of me filling his shoes satisfactorily were not likely, but I was the only other person in the school with any IT experience, so it fell to me.

I was asked to field a robotics team (never before done) and maintain a computer club whose sole purpose appeared to be allowing socially derelict grade 10 boys the opportunity to swear at each other using an astonishing array of racially insensitive epithets, while playing FPSs on school PCs.

With no training or planning, I suddenly found myself teaching a course I almost failed in high school and a pilot course on new equipment that didn't work. Oddly enough, this wasn't really a concern for me, I love in-class challenges, and I beat up the tech to make it functional. A couple of years ago I did an inter-disciplinary media arts program for (very) at-risk students. It almost killed me, but I actually enjoyed the edginess of it (it was immediately cancelled in spite of being labelled a great success), but I digress.

At first I was excited to get back into coding, something I genuinely enjoyed as a child (I used to type whole programs out of COMPUTE! magazine, then mod them, just for fun!), but that was before my computer science teacher implied that I wasn't competent and shouldn't be there. Still, the thought of getting back into coding really appealed, I was excited to teach the course I almost failed.

That was before I started averaging 40-50 emails a day, mostly from people who couldn't be bothered to check if the damn thing was plugged in before contacting me. My days were spent running around the school, plugging things in and restarting them, and constantly (and repeatedly) resetting students (who seemed incapable for remembering what they'd just typed) passwords.

Between pointless support based on shear laziness, the occasional genuine problem, students vandalizing equipment and some truly odd IT purchases (a wireless TV system purchased by student council a few years before that simply would not work), I typically missed lunch, had no prep and was buried in IT support and ordering; all while trying to teach three new classes in two departments I'd never taught in before, while being a department head for the first time. I never got that chance to model teaching my own re-introduction to programming, and struggled to be able to appreciate what my students were doing from a distance... very frustrating.

I kept coaching soccer, maybe not the wisest move considering, but I genuinely enjoy doing that. I don't really remember much from the beginning of the year. Between multiple deaths in the family and the crushing weight of work, and knowing that I couldn't spent the time I needed to on courses I had no experience with, I felt like I was doing too much, and none of it well.

The beginning of the year madness settled down, and soccer season ended. I staggered out of semester one feeling like I hadn't done anyone justice, but I was still on my feet.

Semester two consisted of three more new courses I'd never taught before in two departments I'd never been in before. Once again, I tried to balance the teacher in charge of computers thing with actually teaching (I imagine this is much easier when you're teaching things you're familiar with). Again and again I tried to go out on a limb and push technology growth in the school, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, usually to scowls and complaints.

March Break rolled around and my first ever international field trip started with me on a buzzy high. We drove down to Pearson at 2am in the morning, met up with our kids and prepared for a life-altering nine days sharing our love of Japanese culture. Out of a 3 hour line in US customs we saw some footage, but left when we were told everything was reopened. In San Francisco we got turned back. I got back into my own bed 23 hours and 9000 kms after I woke up, having had students crying on me, a strange kind of survivor's guilt and an exhausting and pointless trip across the continent (twice). And so ended my first international field trip experience.

In the weeks that followed we were accused of incompetence for not knowing what was happening while in customs lockup (or guessing what was going to happen next at Fukoshima), we had to fight for our students to get their money back, and were treated as a bothersome inconvenience by the travel company and our board. At no point did anyone ask us if *we* were alright, even after one of us had to cut their teaching time to get a grip on things. I can't speak for my colleagues, but I think we felt that we were being blamed for even trying to stage the trip.

At the end of the year I spent my extra exam day not getting marks and comments in order, but helping prepare the school for a 70 computer update, all while hearing constant complaints from people, some of them department heads, about how we better not mess anything up, and they better not lose anything on 'their' computer.

Difficult administrators, puerile teachers, arrogant students, and a crushing work/life combination made this a year to remember. At our end of the year meeting teachers were being rewarded for falling out of canoes and having to teach difficult classes, I just wanted to find the door and get out. Ending the meeting with a (attempted in humor) "teachers can go on summer break and wonder what working people do" felt like the right finish to this year; I would have laughed, but I've lost my sense of humor.

I now know what an anxiety attack feels like, and it seems like once you've had one, they are much easier to get again. Jittery and exhausted is how I feel; I don't want to go back.

My foray into department headship and my willingness to leap into the breach when needed has put me in a bad place. I said to a colleague at the end of the year, "I don't feel tired, I feel broken."