Thursday, 27 December 2012

Five Big Wishes For 2013

2012 has been a challenging year for me as a teacher, a Canadian and an online citizen. My five big wishes for 2013 range from recognizing digital literacy to changing the way we run organizations, but the underlying theme becomes obvious:  technology is changing how we interact with and influence each other.

A flattening mediascape means everyone can publish information. From wikileaks to Anonymous to social media induced political upheaval, technology is unhinging how societies control their members. Organizations that used to control their message through limited access, broadcast media are stumbling while whole populations are discovering that they can now speak to more people than multinationals could in television commercials only twenty years ago.

Here are my five big wishes for these interesting times in which we live:

We stop wishing for digital literacy and actually do something coordinated about it.

Students flounder in this strange new world as much as anyone else.  We've not been very organized about trying to get them up to speed. A Digital Skills Continuum needs to be integrated into curriculum. We need to stop putting our faith in myths like digital natives and BYOD and begin to intelligently address the revolution we're in the middle of.  We do a real disservice to students with the half-assed way in which we deliver digital literacy.

As a teacher I'm worried not only for students I see being graduated into a time of radical change with virtually no preparation from their education, but also for the teachers who seem intent on patently ignoring these changes to both their own detriment and those of their students.  If I could get Ontario education leadership to stop playing politics and get back to, you know, education, this is what I'd be begging them to begin taking seriously.

Listening to business types begging us to graduate people who are useful in a digitally enhanced workplace is panic inducing! I really wish we'd start taking this seriously and build it into curriculum so technologically illiterate teachers couldn't just ignore it.

Ontario politicians stop using teachers in their shabby games.

Watching the Ontario Liberal Party thrashing around in its death throes was been startling, getting black eyes from their their dishonest, manipulative politics has been very disheartening. Ontario has one of the cheapest, highest performing education systems in the G20 and performs favorably when education costs per GDP are concerned with even many third world countries. We don't pay much for the fantastic results we get. Watching politicians (who get to magically become my boss when they have no background in what I do at all)  heap lies on their mistakes and vilify my profession has been very demoralizing.

I'm sorry that I let the divisive nature of this battle turn me on Ontario Catholic teachers. I think the dual nature of our public/Catholic boards in Ontario must enrichen our educational process somehow, and it isn't breaking the bank as many might have you believe. If we're this good for this little, just leave us alone to do our work; go play your shabby political games by yourselves.

Perhaps begin by not bailing out giant multinational banks and lousy car makers.

Teachers vocalize how difficult their job is

Part of the political angle played against teachers is that they are overpaid and under-worked. This plays to an uneducated idiot's view of the profession - I'm surprised by how many people swallow this, and it isn't helped by many teachers not saying anything in response.

I don't doubt that there are a few that do as little as they can while milking the system, but in my experience these people are a tiny minority. The vast majority of teachers I know put in sixty hour plus weeks while in school, and still spend hours a week working on preparation and research when not actually in class. 

I recently did the math, if you look at the time I put into my job, I make about $15/hour... and I need two degrees, first aid qualifications, a clean driver's license, a clean criminal record and years of experience to make that much. Starting teachers make less than minimum wage if they are also doing the requisite extra curriculars and extra class work.

Watch any teacher who is active online and you'll see how much time they spend collaborating on lessons and building good pedagogy. If we judged every profession by the 5% who bottom feed, no one would be looking very good.

I wish more teachers would open their mouths and explain to friends and family what it is they do. The chance to spread this information far and wide lies at your fingertips.

No more charter school American education consultants brought up here at great expense in order to tell us how to do something we're already much better than them at

I've been begging Canadians to put away their be-polite mantra and recognize what we are doing well.  Apparently being proud about hockey is as far as we're willing to go.  Watching (evidently) cash strapped boards throwing out thousands of dollars to push bankrupt American philosophy makes me financially, culturally and educationally sick. If we do something well, recognize it and bring in the local talent that is making us world class. I'd love to see more Canadian content in the educational conferences I'm attending. I'd love to see more Canadian educators publishing and presenting on what we are doing; the rest of the world would benefit from it... especially the Americans... even the Charter school ones.

Radical transparency in our institutions... all of our institutions.

Social media is wreaking havoc on the status quo. Organizations used to a hierarchy based on one sided media transmission are floundering. The signal is no longer owned by the few rich, anyone can now publish information to the world.

An active democratic population isn't what most of these organizations want though. They are far happier with an apathetic electorate that hands them sufficient power every few years and then does what they are told. This came home to me not just with the Ontario Liberal nonsense, but with my own union's nonsense too. It's a tough thing to have two organizations that are supposed to be representing you instead threatening you for exercising your voice.

After making mistakes that would make any individual blush, these 'leaders' are incapable of a simple apology, which only indicates the arrogance still found in the crumbling halls of power. Many of these people in positions of power still feel that they are superior human beings to the rest of us. I'm all about the healthy dose of humility coming their way.

The democratization of media is forcing a democratization in organizations too. I tried to do this in my union and was demonized for it. At least the inevitability of progress is on my side with this one. With individuals having more voice than ever before, the idea that organizations can force their members into a lockstep, parroting the company/union/government line is an old idea whose time has passed. 

Democracy is messy, loud and boisterous; forcing a single voice in this noise is factory thinking.  As is said in Radical Transparency, "Radical transparency means you don't have to stand up and read a script, you don't have to wonder how the numbers will play out on a new policy... you know your beliefs and you act on them."  

Leaders who are managers and don't stand for anything shouldn't be leading. I'm looking for people who believe in what they say, and say it consistently   Clever people who think they can manipulate people to their own ends? Those people have an uphill struggle in a flattening mediascape.  The leader who is transparent and direct in their communications? That person need never fear many voices, their transparency is their strength.

Wrap Up

What I'm really wishing for is a digitally literate population who makes effective use of our new ability to speak loudly to each other without being pushed to distraction  by it.  The weak link in our current digital maelstrom are the people using it.  If we could manage:

  • Social media that respects and empowers its users without hypocrisy
  •  Digital tools that clarity and amplify their users rather than obfuscate and distract them
  • Technology companies that respect user effectiveness, and aren't solely purposed to get in the way
  •  Educational systems that produce technically and socially competent students, especially in the middle of a digital revolution
 we'd be able to begin to exercise the real power of a global village.  Classrooms that range across the world, world wide democratic voices empowered by free information, transparent organizations that prevent abuse by being only what they are, publicly... that's all I'm wishing for in 2013.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Radical Transparency

Mr Universe Knows!
I just read an email from our union lamenting the lack of control when it comes to presenting our contract information to us.  In the 36 hours OSSTF took to put together a two page comparison of our deal with the one the Catholic teachers had land on them, details leaked to the press and were already flowing around social media before that.

When we finally got 'official' information it was formatted entirely in comparison to the OECTA deal - we don't get to see actual details, we get a selection of facts designed to look better than the pile of manure OECTA provincial executive signed off on for their members (none of whom have ratified it) last summer.  I'm having trouble seeing the democracy through the political machinations.

Watching the government, the forth estate and our union trying to manipulate the flood of information in an increasingly flat mediascape is rather tragic to watch.  These lumbering dinosaurs try to breach holes or spin facts, only be swamped by crowd-sourced social media.  They want to harness the crowd for their own ends only to find their carefully laid plans designed to manipulate results thrown into the weeds.

We might have evolved into Web2.0, but it is also causing a more democratic means of understanding the world and ushering in a Democracy2.0 wherein people have access to more information sources and are no longer held captive by traditional organizations and the big media that served them.  The Arab Spring, OccupyAnonymous and many other social movements are happening because governments and corporations don't own the signal any more.  Anyone with an internet connection can publish to the world, find information and create community with like minded people.

How is a political organization to survive in a time where they can't control their own message?  Perhaps by putting out a message that doesn't need controlling in order to be accepted.  This would mean un-spinning and de-lawyerizing your organization and simply being direct and consistent with what you stand for.  Being accessible and open about communicating wouldn't hurt either - if you're working behind closed doors, you're not getting the point..

Your political party shouldn't be trying to win elections, it should have a clear vision of what it stands for and then never waiver from that goal in word and deed.  If you're consistent, radical transparency and the flattening mediascape doesn't frighten you, it empowers you.  If you're a shifty, manipulative organization that is used to getting its own way by having direct access to big media, your days are numbered.

Radical transparency means you don't have to stand up and read a script, you don't have to wonder how the numbers will play out on a new policy, and you never have to come back to an interview and say, wow, we really screwed that up.  You don't have spin doctors telling you what to think about issues, you know your beliefs and you act on them.

As insane as I think Tim Hudak's tea party Conservatives are, at least they are consistent in their insanity.  The NDP are also consistent in their left winged-ness.  The Liberal party (whom I used to vote for and was considering membership in after I became a Canadian citizen) are something unique to Canada, but in trying to be centrist they have ended up being worse than the right wing bullies; a manipulative party that only stands for being in power, consistency be damned.

I'm having trouble being unionist at a time when my union seems to be playing the same kind of Liberal game, of speaking out of both sides of their faces.  One moment the offered contract is a disaster and we're ordered to go on work action; the union is overjoyed at the crowd sourced support they are seeing online and myself and others are more than happy to vocally convey the unfairness of the situation.  In the next we are suddenly accepting a similar contract.  Communication has stopped and online voices have turned from supportive to hurt and confused.

I'm a creature of this flattened mediascape.  I cannot understand or condone the backroom politics or spin.  I don't want to be manipulated, I don't want to be treated like an idiot who can't know details, I want the facts, and if I'm not given them, they are easily enough found online.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Hostage Situation

 I'm being held hostage by an authoritarian government.  These fascists (they certainly don't believe in democracy) have demanded that I surrender my rights and work under their terms.  In this impossible environment the people who speak for me have begun a legal battle on this government's attack on my fundamental Charter freedoms.  The process of overturning that legislation will take time, but it will eventually be overturned and will result in the end of this nasty, self-serving government and their illegal legislation.

My rep has also tried to bargain a deal to protect me in the meantime.  The bargain was made with a Bill 115 Magnum aimed at our heads, so a fair deal wasn't exactly the result of the process.  

There was no negotiation, it was more like begging for our lives.  This government was happy to turn the public against us in order to further their agenda.

If you're held hostage you look for the basics, you don't start asking for more than you had. It's a moment of desperation.

If we don't take the deal our rep has scraped together for us, this authoritarian regime will put us in an even worse situation because it has legislated our rights away.  In either case we will no longer have anything like we had.  We either lose a lot and keep a bit because our rep got some concessions out of the regime, or we end up in their even worse MoU prison, either way, we lose.

When someone has a gun to your head, do you start moralizing with them?

So do we vote for a contract that strips us of years of concessions because this government would rather flush money down poorly managed ehealth experiments, semi-privatized air ambulances, quarrelsomeness wind power and on again/off again power plants, or do we go to the wall and burn it all down because this is just wrong?  

If we don't vote for this, something even worse is imposed on us anyway.  This is divisive no matter how you play it.  Junior teachers lose their grid increases, senior teachers (who are the majority) don't lose their retirement sick-day payouts.  Some boards may OK this, others may not.  This isn't going to create labour peace, it's going to create an uneven mess across the province.

In the meantime that fight to overturn the regime continues.  In a year and a half, we could very well be standing over the ruins of Bill115 (and the Ontario Liberal dream of being the government) and be able to bargain a fair deal under Canadian law; we can't do that right now.  Whether we vote for this or not, our agreements will be in tatters because the Ontario Liberals and their Tea-party-Hudak lapdogs have pushed through this ridiculous, undemocratic legislation.

Do you go along with what you know is wrong hoping to protect you and your family as best you can or do you say, "NO, this is wrong, I will not be a party to it"?  This isn't an easy decision.

The lack of clarity, both moral and professional in this makes this a very uncertain, difficult decision to make.  Unfortunately I'm a bloody minded kind of fellow; I fear I'll vote for what's right, whatever the cost, politics be damned.


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The ideal digital learning tool

I'm thinking about what the ideal digital tool would be for student learning.

It has to offer strong reading and browsing abilities as well as data entry.  I want the benefits of a passive consumption device (like a tablet) with the benefits of an active media production device (like a laptop).  My ideal device must have a keyboard and mouse pad, but also offer touch screen functionality.  It'll also rotate to use the screen more effectively as a reader/tablet.

It also has to be ruggedized (I have no misconceptions about how hard kids are on electronics).  It would also be built like lego (compartmentalized and accessible to easily replace failed parts).  The goal weight would be under 3 pounds.  At three pounds we'd be providing a device that can easily carry all the student's text books, binders and loose paper without injuring them or destroying the planet.

Some devices I'd shamelessly steal brilliant design ideas from:

Dell's latest round of ultrabooks with a flippable screen offer the kind of flexibility I'm looking for - the benefits of a rotating tablet screen (allowing you to turn a widescreen to a tall screen for reading), light weight, flexible, powerful...

In fairness (and because I have one), HP has been making touch screen/tablet laptops for years.

I don't care which technology gets used (which ever is more durable), but the idea of a lightweight touch screen reader AND a laptop that allows for full media creation is vital!

Horizontal wide-screens are designed for entertainment, but reading only happens well when you've got continuous text you don't have to constantly scroll through a narrow window.  These learning tools MUST allow for the most accessible e-reading experience - meaning a device that can mimic a tablet.  

The end result has at least a 128GB solid state drive (SSD), that allows for multiple OS installs if a student wants them.  The hardware would be able to run CHROME OS, LINUX, OSx and Windows (depending on student experience, preference and ability).  The choice to upgrade on-device storage would be easy because the SSD it comes with would be a standard 2.5 inch laptop hard drive bay that would take any of many choices of hard or solid state drive.

Basic connectivity to the device would be through USB3 and video out - mini-dvi (for sharing presentations).  No manufacturer specific connectors (Apple, I'm looking at you and your weird dongle fixation).

The screen would be a 13 inch unit with a standard resolution of 1366x768, though a student who wants a higher (retina) level display could always upgrade to one (since they bolt on, this would be a matter of standardizing monitor connectors and offering variations in resolution and colour quality based on cost and need.  

While we're standardizing things, these digital tools would use standardized screws and fasteners that make repairs easy (are you still listening Apple?).  Any high school would have its own genius bar/nerd cave where students in senior computer engineering can repair and upgrade equipment at minimal cost.

The compartmentalization is vital to this tool.  The screen needs to detach logically and easily for replacement, same with the memory, hard/solid state drive, CPU, battery and keyboard.  Compartmentalization allows for much cheaper upkeep.  I'd also like all the pieces to be easily recyclable as well as replace/up-gradable.

The end result would be an easily upgrade-able, component replaceable device that is operating system agnostic, highly adaptable and tough.

The idea of an environmentally sensible laptop isn't a pipe dream.

Google could easily make this happen working with their hardware partners (an Edu-Nexus?) - Microsoft and Apple seem intent on closed eco-system models, even for education, but I live in hope.

It's already the end of 2012.  I'd love to see the silicon valley geniuses recognize that digital literacy is vital for education (and for the future of industry too - we're not producing digitally literate graduates!).

If we could get our hands on that modular, easily upgrade-able/maintainable, ruggedized transformable laptop/data creation, tablet/content consumption device, we'd be one giant step closer to helping students grasp opportunities for digital literacy.

I think we could mass produce these things for $300 for a basic one up to $600 for a tricked out one.  The revolution is well underway, it's time for someone to give us the classroom tools we need to teach it.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Public Teacher, Public Job

I've been teaching now for eight years so this is my first time experiencing work action.  I've had union jobs before, union jobs that went to the wall with job action, but the teacher experience is very different.  When I was a warehouse worker for National Grocers we were fighting for our benefits and pay, but no one in the general public ever thought that they knew what my job was or demanded that I stay after my shift to volunteer to do extra work for no pay; I guess the private sector has it easy.

The public nature of this teacher job action has produced a startling realization - there is a portion of the population that hates teachers.  Around that small kernel of teacher-haters is a larger layer of people in the general public who think that teachers are lazy, overpaid and undeserving of even basic Charter rights.  I have noted that many of these people tend to be under-educated and have a  lasting hatred of what happened to them in school.

Listening to someone who couldn't hack high school, let alone university (twice, once for undergrad, and again for teacher's college) crying about how little teachers do is like listening to the guy who thinks he can play hockey but can barely skate going on about how he could have gone pro.  That doesn't stop ignorant, lazy people from making noise though.

Then there is the management thing.  If you've ever tried to work out a deal with private business, they are cheap and relentless, but they are consistent.  If you can understand what their parameters are in negotiating, you can come to an agreement.  Also, if you do your job very efficiently and make money for them it makes more room for you in negotiation.  At no point in private bargaining situations did I see a deal stopped for political reasons.  You also have the benefit of working for bosses who are experts in the business (because they made it).  I never had to explain to National Grocers management what our job was because everyone at the table knew the business.

Ontario: top 3 in the world, midpack in cost -
best bang for the buck in education in the world!
If you don't believe me, believe the freaking UN!
If you're a teacher in Ontario these days your boss has no background whatsoever in what you do, and even though you produce some of the best results in your field in the world it isn't acknowledged at all; you still get to hear an unrelenting carcophany in media and the public about how easy your job is and how lazy you are.  Even your boss, a lawyer who hasn't taught a day in her life, likes to point out that you just took the whole summer off (which you hadn't).

Ontario's education system is truly world class, to the point where it is copied around the world.  If you go to an international school there is a very good chance that it will be running the Ontario K to 12 curriculum.  Private schools copy our public school system, it's that awesome.  If we were building cars, they would be the best in the world, they'd be selling like hotcakes, no one would think to question what we were doing.

So here we are, dealing with a Minister of Education who has never actually worked in Education - ever, a government that is more interested in poll numbers than in resolving serious issues and getting everyone back to work, and it's all happening while Ontario Education is the envy of the world.  Trying to negotiate in this environment makes very little sense.  It makes me long for the private sector where things made sense.

We threw money at GM so they could stop making crappy cars and become solvent.  We threw money at banks that had purchased bad loans.  If private businesses make bad choices, we cripple ourselves financially to support them.

However, if we create excellence we bitterly attack it, demean it and then use it for shabby political ends.  It's not hard to see why Ontario is going down the toilet.  We don't even recognize and protect excellence any more.  And when we've let ignorant (dare I say stupid?) loud mouths vent their frustrations at their own failures by blaming teachers for their own short comings while at school, we're left with a demoralized education system... hardly the kind of place that can compete successfully on the global stage.

Other Notes:
The poor right winger: what you get when laziness and greed replace industry and reward
All Hands on Deck: when politics dictate economics
Death of Vision: where our leadership went
Educational Maelstroms: what it's like to hear the negativity
Surfed PISA lately?: How fantastic our Ed system is!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Digital Skills Continuum

We look good...
I've recently thrown my hat in with a rough bunch of commando teacher types (@stevewynen, @mrmarnold) who have applied for TLLP funding.  My wife, Alanna (@banana29), saw my ECOO presentation on integrating BYOD into a digital skills continuum (instead of just instituting the policy randomly with no thought to pedagogical need).  The idea of doing some action research into developing a digital skills continuum was the foundation of the application the four of us have forwarded.

One of the arguments I made was that bringing your own device to class does not imply technological skill, and may ultimately hurt a student as much as help them.  It certainly does nothing but disrupt learning in a class if no one in the room actually knows how to problem solve and/or effectively use the device - especially a device where familiarity is founded upon its entertainment value - using that device for a previously unexpected purpose is perilous indeed!  Students who own their own device but have very little actual facility with it aren't served by trying to include it, unsupported, in an effective learning environment.

From the student who got the two thousand dollar camera and was going to return it because 'it took bad pictures' (it was set on web-sized 600x800 pixels, it was a 24 megapixel DSLR...), to the student with the new laptop that only has stolen games, videos, pornography and oodles of viruses on it, unstructured BYOD is a technological (and learning) quagmire in the making.   The assumption that because someone owns a digital tool that they know how to effectively use it is just that, a huge assumption; not exactly sound pedagogical practice.

How we assess and teach digital fluency lacks any cohesion at all, yet everyone is itching to throw ipads at students.  The problem goes well beyond student technological prowess to include many teachers as well.  If we're going to produce students ready and relevant to future workplaces then we really need to get a handle on our expectations around effective use of digital technology.

To that end it is well past time to begin developing a digital skills continuum - an objective, mastery based learning continuum (no, 50% is not a pass).  You either know how to use digital tools effectively, or you don't, and it's time to figure out who knows what.

It's early days yet, but it seems to me that digital fluencies break down into two fundamental areas, like the technology itself.  One side is communication/data driven and involves effective management of information in digital environments.  The other side is the technical/hardware side of the equation and how fluent you are with using technology to access digital information.  Both sides can be broken down further...

Any one of these particulars may be further developed to create a more nuanced understanding of a person's digital fluency.  Even regular users might be surprised by their lack of breadth in this area.  Knowing how to do one thing, over and over again on a specific (single) device well does not make you an expert.

Many years ago when I went for my Comptia A+ and Net+ certifications, I became aware of what the differences between a keen amateur and a professional were when it comes to computer technology.  The first time I took a practice exam I was stunned to be getting in the forty percents, I thought I was an expert.  That testing process is grueling and requires a 75% pass rate.  You don't get to call yourself an expert by getting it half right (why we think 50% is a pass is beyond me).  I'd like to bring some of that objective credibility to this digital skills continuum.  People need to be able to articulate and demonstrate what they know.  Guessing is where we are now, we need to move beyond that.

I'd also like to hook up differentiation of and access to technology based on how people are able to demonstrate their digital fluency.  A teacher with low digital fluency can access a supported lab, but the more advanced teacher can access diverse mini/mobile labs or even, eventually, a bring your own device model of learning, but only if they have clearly demonstrated the mastery needed to make that quagmire actually work.

BYOD - MINILAB - SCHOOL LAB: diversified technology digital skills continuum

We've painted ourselves into an ineffective corner when it comes to teaching digital literacy, and as a result we're graduating students who are having a great deal of trouble transitioning to the twenty first century workplace.  This technology change is happening so quickly that society and the education system that serves it, is having trouble keeping up.  Digital fluency (where it exists at all)  has generally been self taught, and as a result it is unevenly distributed and almost impossible to quantify; it's all quite magical.  Teachers who don't have much in the way of digital fluency aren't being assisted to improve it, meanwhile the rogue, commando types are just going off and doing it on their own.  Classrooms within the same department in the same building appear completely different in terms of teaching digital fluency.

A ministry initiative to develop a continuum of learning around the digital skills of everyone involved in the learning process would be a great place to start.  I hope our board and the ministry itself recognizes what an important and timely piece of pedagogical development this is and gives us a chance to further develop it.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Death of Vision

I was listening to CBC radio the other day and Ideas had a review of the repatriation of the Canadian Charter.  One of the people pondering the politics of the day noted that modern politicians don't stand for anything.  They remorselessly chase poll numbers, trying to place themselves in front of whatever the herd currently believes is worthwhile (itself dictated by big media interests).  McGuinty's shameless chasing of right wing votes while throwing teachers under the bus this summer is a fine example of that approach.

Don't look for moral standards, or even any kind of consistency in modern politicians.  As the radio interviewer suggested, we look back on our political leaders as giants and see the modern ones as dwarfs.  The old ones would push for a vision based on belief, even if it wasn't always rational.  The current ones shamelessly chase data in hopes of power.  It makes the business of politics very economical (and I don't mean that in a flattering way).

CTV is quite excited by this as ads for their Powerplay political commentary show declare, they are all about watching how politicians get and keep power.  I thought politics were about developing visionary leaders who take Canada toward a better version of itself.  It's now all about holding power, and not standing for anything in the process other than a Machiavellian quest for control.

Last summer I was once again listening to CBC, this time Matt Galloway interviewing the CEO of RIM.  As the agonizing interview went on, it became clear that this MBA wasn't put in charge of RIM to lead it, but rather to manage it into successful insolvency.  He shrugged off a question about RIM failing by simply suggesting that investors will make money on the deal because he'll just cut the business into pieces and sell them off.

Can you imagine if Churchill had suggested that?  Instead of we will fight in the fields, we will never surrender, how about we give you Scotland and Wales and call it even?  Everybody ends up happy, and so much more productive.

We value leaders because they stand for something, and never back off it, even (or especially) if it makes them difficult.  Wired did a recent article on Steve Jobs as either angel or demon.  The man was difficult, almost impossible to work with, and the result was market dominance.  He took over from a bumbling committee of MBAs who had discussed Apple into insolvency and took the company from the brink of destruction to an enviable market position before his death.  I have difficulty liking Apple products due to their closed nature and proprietary design, but I have to appreciate the power of a Steve Jobs.  If you want to be a visionary you aren't looking for consensus, you're driving for the best vision even if it seems unattainable; Churchill would have approved.

It's a pity that RIM went to the MBA pool to find another finance monkey to further run the company into the ground.  I'd much rather see a visionary, a true believer, attempt greatness rather than a controlled slide into insolvency all to benefit the moneyed class.  This German jackass they've hired couldn't give a damn what will happen to Waterloo and the many RIM facilities that communities depend on around the world if he manages to successfully dissolve Research In Motion into the highest bidders.

John Ralston Saul talks about the death of leadership and the rise of management in his The Collapse of Globalism.  Using false economics (there is no other kind), Saul cuts apart the chop logic of globalism and how it is used to manage people into a massive mono-culture with no way out.  Globalism comes complete with a data driven wrapper that is self justifying, and that desire to base leadership action on data driven decisions has been conditioned into us for decades now as the only credible justification for planning; it's scientific, logical!

In an age of computing it serves our current mindset to over value the potential of computed statistics

The MBA manager/priest uses incomplete/fictional statistics (are there any other kind?) to manipulate belief, founding all decisions on the inherently logical and statistically valid benefits of globalization, all while ignoring simple truths.  Those truths don't go away.  When you found your system on  the idea of an unlimited, limited resource (cheap oil) the truth will make itself evident.  The problem with globalism (and the politics, media, and education it has infected) is that we have all been conditioned to swallow statistics like they are Truth.

The last half century of post-modernism, globalism and mass media have weaned us from visionaries and simple truths.  These things are now aberration s rather than a cause for celebration; panicky by-products of a lack of control in an era of false computational certainty.

I am NOT a committee!
Next time your data-driven boss/principal/MP tries to base future plans on data that are obviously minimalist,  fictional and/or fabricated (and what facts born of data aren't?), ask yourself where our sense of vision went.

I don't want to base my very important job on data.  I'm not interested in grossly simplifying teaching to suit ease of management for MBAs looking for efficiency.  What I'd like is a leader with vision, maybe even someone who asks for the impossible and leads us on a charge into it.  Even a near miss in that case is better than the best laid plans of a data driven committee, and sometimes the results are revolutionary.  Even the failures are more helpful than statistically supported fictions leading to more data that prove how right everything is; simplifications supporting simplifications.

I'd rather take the road less traveled and risk failure while attempting greatness.  I'd rather fail trying to address hard truths than present false successes best seen in standardized test scores.  Most importantly, I'd rather believe in what I'm doing rather than being told what to think by a spreadsheet.

I guess I'm a man out of my time.

I'm not teaching you to play a game

There has been much talk of gamification as a means of engaging the digital native (sic).  I've been a fan of integrating complex simulation into the classroom for a long time now, and I believe that digital tools offer us a great deal of paracosmic power in that regard.  As a means of assessing student ability, nothing comes close to the immersive simulation to see multi-dimensional aspects of student skill, from basic knowledge to how they work under pressure and what their lateral problem solving skills look like (something most assessment is devoid of).

But like the flowery classroom in which no one can fail, the vast majority of games are designed to be entertainment.  The satisfaction you have in finishing them is entirely artificial - the point was for you to finish them.  Sort of like making a big deal of getting a high school diploma... way to get what just about everyone has.  I missed my high school graduation, but I didn't miss my university ones.  The best part about those degrees where all the people who started with me that didn't finish.

If we're going to set up games in the classroom, then they need to be full spectrum experiences (where failure is an option).  If you want to go all the way, actually set up the simulation to put your students in an impossible situation and then assess how they respond rather than how they perform.  If it works for Starfleet Academy in two hundred years, it should work for us now.

One of the most immersive games I've ever played was called Planescape: Torment.  I'll spoil it for you because no one will go looking for a fifteen year old game to play.  You begin in a Memento-esque amnesia in a morgue.  Through the course of the narrative you learn that you are immortal, though you've been killed many times (and are covered in scars).  The end of the game has you having to come to terms with a character you've come to identify with realizing that he has to die (and spend an eternity in hell - he hasn't been a nice man) in order to complete the game.  It was a game playing moment where I was completely lost in the story, when it asked more from me as a participant than I wanted to give, but I gave it anyway, and have never forgotten the effect.  Watching a character you've struggled to keep alive walk into an eternal battle on the planes of hell was truly epic.  Winning isn't always about collecting badges.

I've had a number of those epic moments while playing Dungeons & Dragons.  I've also created some sufficiently complex simulations in the classroom where students have forgotten where they were.  Being a Dungeon Master is excellent training for a teacher.

In English I've spun mutants v. humans in a Chrysalids simulation that had students who thought the prejudice and violence shown by characters in the book where 'ridiculous'.  An hour later the simulation had the same students jailing (and worse) the hidden mutants in their classroom, while the mutants tried to hide, then ended up drunk on their own power.  It left many students hyper-engaged, frustrated and introspective about human nature.  I wonder what kind of quiz would have resulted in that mind space?

Immersive simulation is a powerful learning tool - I believe it should be the end game of digitization in education.  A student who has had to experience Brock's sacrifice or Napoleon's Waterloo will have a sense of personalized learning that strikes the gaming nerve - they feel like it was a personal experience rather than something told to them.

They do this on the holo-deck all the time in Star Trek.  Janeway has Leonardo Da Vinci as a mentor, Data has arguments with Einstein and Hawking about physics.  Their learning is personal and they are active participants in it, the learning environment is personalized, immersive and offers the mightiest access to information.

Any well designed simulation has to allow for free-play and unexpected outcomes (Data vs. Moriarty is a good example).  If your games are designed for single outcome, or you're throwing badges on achievement, you might as well go back to photocopying worksheets, you're not getting what games can do for people.  Unless you take into account player freedom of choice and are willing to address unexpected outcomes, you're only hanging a badge on the same old linear knowledge attainment.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Enhanced Self Awareness

At ECOO last year, digital footprints were the focus of many sessions.  The concern revolved around students (and teachers) showing anything of themselves online.  The fear was clear and present, as was the suggestion that we MUST craft a meaningful online presence.  Many were surprised at this year's conference when our keynote speaker talked about how digitization has gone beyond self presentation and become interactive as a means of self improvement.  Tech doesn't want to be passive, it wants to interact with us, become a part of us!

At the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario's conference this week we had Nora Young from CBC Spark talking about how digitization and the proliferation of data is creating a kind of self awareness that is entirely new.  She used examples of bio-metric tools and productivity time assessment software to present examples of this digital mirror.

This is a world that our students are immersed in 18 out of every 24 hours (when school is in session) - and it leaks into classrooms constantly on smartphones.  Trying to address that tide by telliing students to bring their own devices, or go on generic, years behind the times school computers is one of the many places you can see education failing.

Words like relevance and engagement are thrown around in panic.  People start flipping class rooms and attempting to engage students by offering the same un-directed over empowerment that kids receive through digital devices; that's an arms race that no one wins.  The resulting habitual usage at best offers minimum educational gains, at worst it actually impedes student abilities in other areas.  If you've ever watched a digital serf mindlessly copy an essay from the internet to submit, you're watching undirected digital empowerment in action.

Where Nora was talking about a kind of enhanced self awareness through digital tools, many 'digital natives' are blissfully unaware of how public their digital presence is, or where their data goes.  It's merely a part of their lives, and they don't think twice about posting material that makes them unemployable because in their minds it is the equivalent of talking to friends.  They haven't thought twice about publicity settings, it doesn't occur to them.

On top of that, the data that they might use to become more efficient, or digitally empower their learning, or self-organize are often out of reach because students, as digital natives, are unaware of anything but their self-taught habitual usage.  We certainly aren't doing much to address habitual usage in schools (a digital continuum would be a start), even going to far as to encourage it with BYO-device BYO-technology initiatives.

It's a nice idea to imagine digital tools offering us data that helps to make us better people (Wired did a cool article on this a while back).  The digerati will do this to great effect, once again empowering themselves in ways that Luddites will lack.  As a teacher my concern is that the digital native is as incapable of grasping these tools as the tech-hater.  It takes technological fluency to grasp these kinds of digital self-awareness opportunities.  Unless we're developing those fluencies, this is just another 21st Century opportunity lost to on our students.

Hybridized Education

The Toyota Prius hybrid car is a series of expensive compromises.  Born at a time when we are transitioning from fossil fuels to electrical power, the Prius is a car that combines gas tanks, gas powered drive trains and engines with batteries, and electrical motors that do the same jobs more efficiently.  The result is a poor performing car that weights a thousand pounds more than the equivalent gas powered vehicle because it's trying to live in two worlds at once.  If you've ever driven one, you've got to know that the future is grim indeed.  Fortunately, hybrid cars are a momentary blip on the automotive evolutionary scale.  As the transition from gasoline to electrical vehicles happens, and electrical infrastructure and technologies improve, the compromise of a hybrid along with all the pointless redundancy will no longer be necessary.

Our education system is in a similar situation, and it's an expensive moment to have to live through.  The future consists of paperless, friction-less information.  The past consisted of papered, controlled, expensive, limited access to information.  In 2012 education is straddling that paper/digital divide, trying to answer to centuries of paper based tradition while also struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly digitizing world.  It's an expensive gap to cross, and one that is full of incongruities and compromises - ask Toyota engineers, it's an impossible position to create anything elegant in.

We struggle to produce students relevant to the increasingly digital world they are graduating into while experiencing more paper-based drag than just about any other industry.  Whereas business and research have leapt into digitization, driven by the need to find efficiencies in order to be competitive, education struggles to understand and embrace the inherent advantages of digitization.  The only urge to do so is in trying to remain relevant to our students - perhaps the least politically powerful (yet most important) members of the educational community.

I see teachers spending thousands of dollars a year on photocopying handouts (of information easily findable online which then get left behind), and no one bats an eyelash.  Thousands more are spent on text books that are already out of date when they are published, also often showing information that can as easily be found online.  At the same time we struggle to find funds to get the basic equipment needed to embrace digital advantages; the between directions is apparent.

No trees were destroyed in the writing of this blog, but a significant number of electrons were terribly inconvenienced.

The good news is that this is a temporary shortcoming - we won't be building Priuses or trying to fund two parallel (analogue & digital) education systems for long.  Once the tipping point is reached and migration happens, the inherent efficiencies of digital information will transform education.  In 20 years will look back on this time of factory schools like we look back on the age of one room school houses.  In the meantime, the strain of trying to please the past and the future at the same time is causing confusion and misdirection.

We ignore what is happening digitally in society in general and risk becoming increasingly irrelevant as an education system.  We also risk producing students who are increasingly unable to perform (aren't taught how to manage the digital)  in a world very different from the one they were presented in school.  In the meantime we're trying to satisfy traditional academic habits in order to appear proper and correct (books on shelves, teacher at the front, tests on readily available information, streamed classes that feed the right students to the right post secondary institutions using the same old established marking paradigms).

Once again, the ECOO Conference, its feet firmly planted in the future, looked forward while getting slew footed by traditional interests.  Perhaps the best we can hope for is compromised hybridization.  Oddly, those traditional interests often include the people who run IT in education who seem more interested in ease of management than they are in our primary purpose (learning... right?).

The term guerilla-teacher came up again and again; a teacher who goes off into the digital wilderness alone in order to try and teach their students some sense of the digital world they will graduate into.  The last presentation I saw by Lisa Neale and Jared Bennett made a compelling argument for bringing the rogue digital teacher in from the cold, but as a digital commando I am reluctant to trust a system that still places perilously little importance on my hard earned digital skills.

Very little of my practice now occurs in traditional teaching paradigms.  My classes are all blended (online and live), virtually all of my students' work happens online in a collaborative, fluid, digital medium.  I don't spend a lot of time in board online environments.  It's as much about my own discovery as it is my students.  Traditional teaching situations seem more about centralization, standardization, itemization and control.

If we move past a hybridized analogue/digital divide in education and digitized learning becomes standardized and systematized, I may very well lose interest.  There's something to be said about being a cyber settler, alone on the digital frontier.  Perhaps I should be pushing the hybridized divide - it keeps this hacker/teacher beyond the reach of standardization.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Forming an ECOO Presentation

There were three key books I read in the past year that have clarified for me a direction we could head in educational technology.  Ideas from each of those books, which at first appear to be in direct odds with each other, helped form the content of my ECOO presentation this year.

After reading The Shallows, Nick Carr's carefully constructed argument held a lot of weight - the internet and how it is being adopted by the general public is actually making people less effective as both thinkers and doers.  As educators, we should all be concerned about this result.  At a conference this year a frustrated, thirty-something CEO said of the twenty-somethings she's tried hiring recently, "I just wish they could finish a thought!  I can't even get them to close a sale because they are checking Facebook!"  This problem goes well beyond education (where any teacher can tell you it's an epidemic).  Everyone involved in education should read this book, especially if they are trying to implement technology in the classroom.

From The Shallows I took a serious concern about technological illiteracy and habitual use of computers actually injuring people's ability to think.

I read Ray Kurzweil's The Singularlity is Near as a counterpoint to Carr's very accurate, and very depressing Shallows.  Kurzweil's giddy optimism in our engineering skills verges on evangelism.  He is a wonderfully interesting and eccentric character.  His belief goes well beyond merely living in a time of transformative change.  The singularity he refers to is a moment in the near future where we are able to develop a greater intelligence than a single human brain, or even a group of them.  He goes into mathletic detail about exponential growth and how this is occurring in computers.  Very soon we'll understand things in finer and more complete detail than we've ever been able to before and our management of the world will take on omniscient proportions.  Technologically enhanced humans exist beyond the technological singularity - living in a world that looks as alien to us now as ours would to someone from the middle ages.

From Kurzweil I recognized how technology is evolving in increasingly personalized ways.  This is an argument Carr makes from the other side too.  From external machines, we are on a journey to technological integration.  This integration is going to well beyond smartphones, that's just the latest step in an inevitable trend.  If education does everything it can to present technology as generic and impersonal, it is failing to notice a key direction in technology, it's failing to produce students who will be useful in their own futures.  This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of my BYOD/differentiated technology argument, but I believe it's a fundamental part of our technological evolution.  Computers want to become a part of us.  We're not going to develop a Skynet or Matrix that will take over.  Our technology IS us, and it wants a more perfect union.  This probably scares the shit out of most people.  My argument to that is: if you're going to amalgamate with other systems, make sure you the one directing them effectively.

Matt Crawford's wonderful philosophical treatise on the value of skilled labour goes well beyond simply being handy.  He argues that skilled labour psychically protects you from consumerism and makes management doublespeak and creative economies an obvious joke.  The value he places on objective, quantifiable skills development often savages the feel-good ethos of a lot of educational theory which then sounds like management double-speak nonsense.  I read the book after taking my AQ in computer engineering, and it made me re-evaluate (and recognize) the value of my skilled labour history - something I'd walked away from in becoming a teacher.  I'm loving being a tech teacher this year and working with my hands again.

From Shop Class For Soul Craft I took a recognition of the importance of hands on, skill based learning.  It brings real rigor to learning, and should be a vital part of developing past the poor digital literacy I see around me.  One other experience kicked this up a notch.  In the summer we visited the Durnin farm and Heather talked about how her husband teaches people to use the farm equipment.  He gives them the tools, and expects them to figure it out and get it done.  It's a high expectation, immediate result environment that puts a great deal of expectation on the student; Crawford would approve.  I tell my students, "no one ever learned how to ride a bike by watching someone else riding a bike" - it's an experiential thing that offers real (often painful) immediate feedback... what effective learning should be.

Into that mix of big ideas of warning, optimism and rigor I also mixed in the standard PLN secret sauce.  Concerns over BYOD abound with teachers online.  The idea that BYOD should just be thrown into curriculum struck me as simply wrong.  As Andrew Campbell suggests, it's more about stretching a divide (or Carr would argue intellectually crippling idiots) than it is about increasing digital fluencies.

Teaching competency, flexibility and self awareness on digital tools should be a primary goal of current educational practice.  We're graduating students who are dangerously useless to employers.  The idea of a continuum of digital mastery based on objectively developed skills linked to a gradual loosening of restrictions and access to increasingly diverse tools and online content was the result.

I present on Thursday, and I'm more interested in the discussion that ensues than I am in telling anyone anything.  ECOO is a wonderful braintrust, and usually super-charges my educational technology awareness.  I'm looking forward to the brain soup we create out of this!

Diversifying Edtech: the key to a digital skills continuum

Monday, 22 October 2012

Staring Into The Abyss

Art Therapy
I was just reading Doug Peterson's Blog about how a number of edublogs are looking at the Amanda Todd story.  I can understand the urge, but I'm coming at this from a different angle than most.

I've had a particularly difficult year dealing with suicide.  In September I received an email from the coroner with a PDF attached.  In many pages of astonishing detail I read the science that showed that my Mum's death wasn't an accident, that she took her own life.  When you're staring into an abyss like this the rhetoric currently in the media sounds astoundingly shallow.  Suicide isn't a rational choice, or even an emotional one, it's an existential choice, the most profound one imaginable.

To pin an action like this on a single motivation (ie: cyber bullying so you can amp up anxiety around technology use with children) is simplistic and manipulative.  I have no doubt that cyber bullying played a part, but to base suicide on a single motivating factor is asinine and seems more in line with pushing a political agenda than recognizing a complex truth.

When I was in high school I was big into Dungeons and  Dragons.  At the height of the hobby a kid in Orangeville killed themselves and the press gleefully pinned the cause on D&D, causing panic in parents and making me, as an avid player, feel isolated and vilified.  They'd done something similar a few years earlier with Ozzy Osborne and another suicide.  This kind of simplification fills up the reports of the chattering classes, and helps idiots create fictions that let them push agendas.  That many in the public swallow it is a lasting sadness.

From an educator's point of view, this is being treated as a management issue.  I fear suicide is being used to manipulate cyber bullying as a political tool - which under my circumstances seems particularly callous.  Rhetorical stances like 'suicide is never an option' and rationalizations abound in an attempt to direct this very difficult aspect of human behavior.  Control is the goal, based on a very real fear of the outcome.  But the rhetoric still comes on in response to the presses' assertion that cyber bullying caused this death.

I've been staring into this abyss for a while now.  It has made work difficult, it has made life seem like the self made experience that it is, which is exceedingly heavy if you're like most people and happy with distractions and assumption as your reason for being.  Nothing is inherently valuable, life is what we make it - literally.  In my Mum's case she was battling mental illness and was finally on medication for it - which she overdosed on.  Did mental illness play a part in her death?  No doubt.  Was it the only cause?  Not remotely.

The suicide I'm dealing with didn't happen in a vacuum, I suspect none of them do.  I also suspect that none of them has ever, ever happened for a single reason.  There is no doubt that Amanda was bullied, and that this was a factor in her suicide.  What I question are the responses that focus on dealing with a single, social issue that has always and will always exist as though resolving it would some how magically have prevented her death.

People are naturally social and competitive.  Bullying is a result of this basic human nature, it always has been.  The twist now is that many of the clueless digital natives are publishing what has always happened privately for everyone to see.  Instead of being seen as a window to a previously hidden behavior, the media has dubbed this a cyber bullying epidemic and called into question the very technologies that have made a problem as old as humanity obvious.

The educational response has been to try and get out in front of this invented epidemic.  As someone who has circled this abyss, I'd ask everyone involved in education to consider the situation from more than a single perspective.  Please do not simplify suicide into a misunderstanding that can be rationalized away.

We are not serving our students well if we simplify this into an administrative exercise solely to reduce suicide numbers.  Appreciate the complexities of suicide and try to see the people who end up in this darkness as whole people with many interconnected, complex issues, and not something to be convinced, coerced, manipulated or managed into doing what is more comfortable for everyone else.

Suicide is complex, terrifying and present.  It deserves our full attention, not a soundbite.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Between a rock and a hard place

Imagine you're the head of the English department at a high school.  Your job is to support the English teachers in your department, help develop consistent and meaningful curriculum, buy department supplies and act as your teachers' voice at school directions team meetings.  It's one of the biggest departments in the school, you may have up to a dozen teachers, some teaching English full time and some part time, all of them with clear qualifications in their field.  You have the benefit of all those varied opinions, but you also have to try and get them moving in roughly the same direction too.  You've got your school's library of novels and other texts to maintain, all the time knowing that every student in the school is going through your program which teaches vital literacy skills.  Students cannot graduate without demonstrating those literacy skills.  Your job isn't an easy one, but its importance is self evident.

I am the head of computer studies at my high school.  I'm a department of one, which makes developing consistent and meaningful curriculum for my subject area rather difficult (and lonely).  I don't have a collection of professionals to bounce ideas off.  I have to maintain text books, and equipment, but for vanishingly few students - computers just aren't on the must-take list at my school (there's no future in them?).

There's a twist to this headship though: when you're the head of computers, you're not just the head of a small, unimportant department, you're also responsible for your subject area school-wide, and it's a growing, vital piece of modern educational practice.  Internet failures now begin to look a lot like power failures in the last century.


Imagine you're that head of English again, except now you're not just responsible for your department, but for English usage in the entire building.

Every time a student or teacher makes a grammar mistake or needs some reading material or writing stationary, you're the one they turn to.  You've got your department to run, but you've also got to oversee the execution of your discipline throughout the entire building.  You spend your time correcting people's reading, buying them pens and paper, and proofreading and correcting their mistakes.

They don't hand this to you because they want to be illiterate, they do it because the school board wants to retain control of their stationary - which means its better to read and write everything for people than it is to let them learn how to become literate themselves; control is more important than learning.

The school population is capable of learning how to read and write, but remain illiterate because their employer finds that easier to manage.  In that building of illiterate people, your ability to read and write raises you to otherworldly status, people seek you out to do the impossible and read the printed page.

This isn't entirely without historical context.  There was a time when reading and writing was a mystery of the learned class, a means of separating knowledge from the proles.  Whole alphabets were conceived around the idea of making it more difficult for commoners to become literate, churches kept literacy from the masses.  Knowledge is power and literacy is the key to knowledge.

I fear something similar is happening with computers now.  There is little doubt that they are becoming intrinsic to the functioning of modern life, but a smaller and smaller group is able to grok computing.  Overcoming intellectual barriers like this should be the primary directive of public education, yet we're falling into the gap between the digerati and the rest.


It sounds ridiculous, but enforcing enforced ignorance is what I'm facing as the Computer Studies head.  I have almost no time to actually nurture the anemic department I've inherited because I'm looking after the people who have been taught to be helpless by their employer.  I spend most of my time managing the budget of school IT, ordering equipment and repairing or passing along problems to board tech support.  My own department is an afterthought, the actual teaching of computers to students is an echo of what I experienced in the 1980s when we barely had any computers.  My time is spent supporting a system that encourages ignorance, and it's a system that is insinuating itself into education practice more completely every day.

This is a headship like no other.

I was thinking about this as I was doing my weekly 'fair share' of extra duties and covering the library so the librarian could go to lunch.  I haven't had an uninterrupted lunch since school began.  I haven't had an uninterrupted prep period since school began.


I'm feeling pretty down on the job, but it's more a matter of appreciation for the work involved than it is the work itself.  I genuinely enjoy technology.  I've had my hands in computers since I was a child, it was one of my first serious hobbies.  When people say things like, "computers are making people stupid" or, "computers are making people autistic" I get angry.  Ignorance injures people, tools are only helpful in skilled hands, otherwise they can injure as easily as assist.

Computers are one of the most powerful tools we've invented, up there with harnessing electricity as a means of empowering us.  How we teach computers directly influences how well we're able to grasp a better future, I honestly believe this.

Watching the taught helplessness of the school computer lab makes me fear for that future.  Just as we teach drivers the responsibility of operating an automobile, so we should be teaching both teachers and students how to grasp and manage the powerful computing tools we now have at our disposal.  We all need to be responsible for the technology we wield.

Fire can save you, or burn you...
Students (and educators, and education systems) who view computers as a distraction instead of an empowerment, who enforce simplistic, habitual use instead of exercising human/computer potential are more than a tragedy, they are the genuine threat that Nick Carr suggests.

It's a tough situation, being trapped between what appears to be an increasingly vital skillset and an education system intent on not teaching it.

The frustration at not having your work recognized is one thing, but when that work only reinforces a system founded on spreading ignorance, the whole thing gets quite unbearable.

I hope one day we wake up and change how we use computers in schools.  I guess my way forward is to keep pushing for what I think should be a self evident truth: if you don't learn how to use the technology, the technology will learn how to use you.