Saturday, 14 December 2013

Living in an Information Rich World

The other day I had a senior high school student who has been conditioned to be helpless say, "How am I supposed to know what aperture is?  You're supposed to teach us!"  Aside from the fact that this student has evidently won photo competitions and got an 81% in grade 11 photography, I suggested that we have this thing now called the internet that has all sorts of information on it.  I was genuinely frustrated at her unwillingness to resolve her own ignorance.

I may have been a bit curt, but this is an essential truth of our age: information is at hand.  If you think education is about imparting information you're about to become quite redundant.  Education isn't redundant, it's more important than ever to prepare students for information that is no longer vetted by the forth estate for them.  Unfortunately this isn't a focus in education where bells still signal the start of shifts, um, classes, and teachers can still be found talking the whole period long.

Digital access to information greatly emphasizes how out of touch the sage on the stage is nowadays.  The teacher who talks for an hour straight giving their students facts has failed to realize that we no longer live in an information poor world.  Instead of letting students access information pouring out of the technology that surrounds them, the sage teacher puts themselves in the middle of the class and drips information on them slowly, like water torture.

Assuming we have connectivity, something school boards aren't very good at because they were never meant to be internet service providers (yet have taken on this task poorly), and assuming the people in the room have developed some degree of digital mastery, then information will fall to hand.  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher's mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.

The opportunity to collaborate and support each other is continuously available and learning reverts to the self-directed and driven activity it was before we institutionalized it.  Questions of engagement quickly become irrelevant in a world where teachers aren't vital because of facts they know.  Those sages are going to have to find other ways to pamper their egos.  If they aren't expert learners themselves they will quickly find that they have no skill to share with students, and if you have no skills to teach you don't serve much purpose in a world where any fact is a few keystrokes away.

There was a time when you needed a teacher to show you the way into hard to find information.  Nowadays a good high speed internet connection has that information at your fingertips, assuming you know how to use it.  Many teachers are still trying to be a font of information, even as the information revolution passes them by.  The real losers in this aren't the teachers struggling to keep things the way they were, but the students we're graduating who have no idea how different the world on the other side of school actually is.

Cultivating Genius & the Zen Teacher

A recent issue of WIRED has an article on student directed learning called: The Next Steve Jobs, which asks some hard questions about teaching and learning during an information revolution.

The idea of regimented learning in rows in classrooms is so obviously indicative of 19th Century factory thinking that it begs for change, but many traditional education organizations have so much invested in the status quo that they will spend all our time and money hammering people into system-serving standardized thinking.  Instead of developing the skills vital for learning in an information revolution, we cling to politics and habits.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in a poor Mexican school that wasn't serving a genius in their mix.

You have to wonder how many of our students are marginalized and never see their own potential because we are wringing our hands about how not-average they are and how they don't respond appropriately to being indoctrinated by an archaic education system.

The article leans on technology, brain science and student centred and directed learning to bring out real genius in a student who was otherwise disengaged.  The brain research is fairly straightforward (though ignored by most education systems):

“The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.

Neuroscience has proven this again and again, but education stubbornly holds to an information limited, rigidly programmed learning system because these traditions support the political makeup of that education system.

“If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.

Mitra's research still assumes a teaching presence that will bump students along when they run into repetitive habitual patterns.  The key is a good leading question and then that dogged support as students find their own way to an answer.  The urge to interfere in this process in order to make learning clinical and exact is great, and many teachers do this with the best possible intentions, but what they are actually doing is taking away the student's opportunity to internalize learning.

Learning is a messy process, at its best teaching is a subtle presence focused on producing a fecund environment for fearless experimentation and research.  An idea is only learned when it is internalized by the learner and that can only happen experientially.  Any time you see a teacher talking at students there isn't any learning happening.

Faith in the self direction of a learner is something we've tried to remove from every aspect of the education system.  The system becomes the intent rather than the learner's learning.  Words like curriculum, assessment and standardized data become watchwords for how effective the system is as a system, it all has nothing to do with learning.  

Many of the fads we embrace in education around self-directed learning are little more than smoke and mirrors - the appearance of self-direction in order to fool the student into engagement with otherwise rigid systemic need.  This is exactly why a genius in a poor Mexican school couldn't engage enough to show her talents until her teacher threw away the paradigm.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Is Simple Better?

Once again Twitter teacher chat raises some interesting educational technology questions.  Chromebooks or ipads?  Louise's question had me asking questions about the question.  Why have we come to a place where we're asking which incomplete but branded and popular technology should we buy for schools?  Google and Apple have spent a lot of money locking in educators to their brand.  To me, that question signals a marketing victory for both of them.

Later in the conversation Julie asked what Chromebooks can't do.  At three hundred bucks a pop I'd hope they can do everything a comparably priced netbook could, but they can't.  They can't print, they can't connect to a projector to share a presentation, they can't install drivers so you can't use any peripherals on them (one wonders why they have usb ports at all).  Want to plug a scanner in to your chromebook?  No.  Want to plug in an Arduino?  No.  Want to install a decent graphics editor?  Sorry.  Want to install a fully fledged word processor instead of frustrating yourself with what g-docs still can't do?  Sorry.  Want to install an IDE and do some programming?  Nope.  Want to try a different operating system, or even dual boot into multiple environments?  Definitely not, that is the whole reason ipads and Chromebooks exist, to keep you in a closed ecosystem; you give away usefulness for simplicity's sake.

It was suggested that Chromebooks are much cheaper than laptops, but this isn't true either.  The much maligned netbook has grown up.  What used to be a single core, stodgy little laptop is now a dual core machine that starts with much more memory than it used to.  Taking the $300 per Chromebook cost I went looking for a comparable netbook in the fall and found the ruggedized, student ready Lenovo X131 retailing for about $250.  For $300 I'd add another 4 gigs of RAM to it and have an 8gb of RAM multicore netbook for the same price as a glorified browser.  It'll run the Windows version of your choice, and any Linux distro you could throw at it all off the same hard drive... oh, and you can install Chrome and still do everything a Chromebook can.

OK, it might be a bit unfair to call iOS a pointy stick,
but calling Linux needlessly complicated isn't.
I find the limited OSes in tablets and Chromebooks very frustrating.  I'll put up with it in a phone for mobility's sake, but in a day to day device for learning?  I'll admit, Linux is daunting, but Windows & OSx offer full operating systems with many uses.  If we're evolving into simpler and simpler OSes, what does that say about how we are using (and teaching) our technology? is doing their hour of coding this week.  I got my nine year old doing it last night.  After we gave up on his ipad not being able to run the site we went to... yep, a regular old Windows machine.  You can't even expect an ipad to display a website properly.  Won't that be fun in a class of thirty kids?  At least it would have worked on a Chromebook.

During the conversation it was suggested that expecting teachers to understand the basic limitations of technology is exclusionary and doesn't allow them to focus on teaching.  I'd argue the opposite: selecting minimally functional technology to begin with is the problem, especially when we do it through the brand moderated ecosystems offered by Google and Apple.  Teachers don't all need to edit their own kernel in Linux, but they should have an understanding of how various technologies enable and limit their ability to perform basic functions (like opening a website properly), especially in a learning space.  Asking for basic digital fluency in teachers isn't asking too much in 2014.  We can then ask for it (by extension) in our students.

This may all sound anti-Google, but I assure you it isn't.  I've had a gmail account since it came out and I've got gigs of data in various Google drives (Dusty World is written in Blogger!).  I own an Android phone because it offers the most open ecosystem.  I value the tools Google offers, but I feel like the Chromebook is a tool designed to close off digital opportunities and drive everyone into a Google-centric cloud.  It follows ipad down the same closed-system dead-end that Windows is flirting with now.

When I'm using peripherals I need a computer, not a glorified web browser.  When I am setting up a complex document I need a proper word processor.  I can't do graphics and video editing in the cloud, I need a general purpose computer, and your students will too, even if that does mean teaching them how to maintain a more administratively complicated machine.

I'd argue for as big a tool-kit that offers as many digital opportunities as you can afford, something the question, "ipads or Chromebooks" doesn't begin to consider.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Dancing In The Clouds

This guy really seems to know what he's talking about:

Working The Cloud With Mobile Edtech

$99 for an android tablet?  Yes, yes it is.
I got a couple of android tablets for the department... $99 each at Factory Direct!  You could pick up a class set of twenty-four of these for about $2500, or about the cost of a single Macbook Pro... crazy.

What could you do with them?  Well, my grade 9 intro to computers class are doing a review of information technology.  We're using to build shared notes for review.  What's so good about shared notes?  You can't trust them, so instead of reading something and blindly accepting it, students are reading it critically because their peer might have done it wrong; a much better review process.
wikispace live assessment/engagement tool

If you get a wikispace up and running check out the assessment button in the top right corner - it shows you a live feed of student activity on the wiki.  I threw this on the projector and it turned into a race to see who could get the most material down (the engagement graph updates every ten seconds or so, so it's almost live).

I set up the tablets with their own gmail and then linked a dropboxaccount to it.  As students take pictures and make video using the tablet it is automatically shared to the dropbox account, so they can pull the media out of the cloud and include it in their wiki-pages easily.  Automating this process is fairly easy, and means that only seconds after taking a photo with the tablet, students are able to easily access it online for use.

Every android tablet I get now can be signed in to that single gmail address and then auto-linked to a shared dropbox account.  Any media generated from the tablets is immediately available online.

The rules for the wiki were specific:  all notes had to be in your own words.  Students got acknowledged for:

  • media: using original photos and video to explain their focus
  • media: using the snip tool in Windows 7 to snip screen shots of various parts of our etext
  • content: explaining their focus in their own words
  • links: to other material online that support understanding of their focus (all links had to include an explanation of the site and why it was useful.

The benefits are many.  Students get to use a new device and recognize its uses in a learning context - this often led to more effective use of their own devices.  A number of them have since set up their own dropbox backups on their own devices.  Because media is easy to create and access students are able to focus on the material at hand instead of worrying about their spelling and grammar in a google doc.

Being open Android tablets, the apps available are many, and I've only begun to scratch the surface of what they could do.  Next semester in introduction to coding I'm thinking we'll use them to run the flash games we design and build.

TEJ wikispace: students learning about information technology through an etext shared on UGcloud.
Notes are created in wikispaces and dropbox is used to quickly and automatically share student-made media.

All told this set up uses three cloud services (ugcloud, wikispaces and dropbox) and some open, accessible and shockingly cheap mobile tablets to offer students a media rich way to tackle note taking.  If we can set up a fluid, information sharing environment like this now, imagine where we'll be in five years.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Tyranny of Numbers

I’ve always found a strange disconnect between my experience in coding and how it is taught in school.  Back in the ‘80s, matheletes owned computer science, and still do today.  More interested in the theoretical number games they could play on computers than in actually building programs, I quickly failed out of it.

My self-taught experience was one of hacking and building.  Tweaking pieces of code and refining them until I got the desired result.  I could see the logical construction, but it was never numerical for me, it was mechanical.  Later in life I worked as a millwright and an auto mechanic before coming back to computers as a technician.  I’ve always had a love of machines and computers have always been included in that mechanical empathy.  That mathematics stole coding from me is something I've always regretted.

That tyranny of numbers still holds sway in coding no matter what attempts are made to pry it free.  I’m previewing a video for my computer studies class and came across this bit:
So there you have it.  Had we developed computers with different intent, our analytic engines wouldn't have been confused with calculators.

One of the perilous moments I experienced while getting my philosophy degree was trying to get the mandatory symbolic logic credit.  My first attempt had me in a classroom full of science majors all taking symbolic logic because it was being delivered as a math course.  I fled the scene and worried that I'd never get this credit, the math-bullying in that class was something else.  I ended up taking symbolic logic the next semester and getting an A in it.  Why?  Because it wasn't taught by a math major.  I can appreciate logic, I have trouble with it when it gets abstracted in numbers.

The term ‘computer’ is prejudicial.  Computers were originally people who did tedious math problems, mechanical computers supplanted them, but modern computers aren't number crunchers.  Modern code on a modern computer is a construction of complex logic that produces results well beyond mere calculation, to reduce that process to mathematics is absurdly simplistic.  

The whole thing makes me want to change my department from "Computer Studies" to "Universal Engines" and escape from the confusion of a historically inaccurate name, and that tyranny of numbers.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Tech Girlz

Girl Power
On a cold, snow squalling Saturday morning I had another PLN twitter moment courtesy of Shadi Yazdan on Twitter.  Her link to this New York Times blog has a fantastic video with re-written Beastie Boy lyrics - talk about reclaiming media.  That the author takes a very misogynistic song and uses it to empower girls is ironically compelling.  This spin only amplifies the message in the video:  that girls are groomed to be objects, but they don't have to listen.

I've long agonized at the complete lack of *any* girls in *any* of the senior computer engineering or computer science classes at my high school.  We're in a small town/rural community so the interest in high-technology is pretty limited anyway.  If we have high-skills specialist majors it's in heavy industry or arts.  Of course, once they leave our small town high-tech is one of the most in-demand industries to work in, but without the culture to support it I'm finding this a continuing struggle, and one that if I lose does a disservice to our graduates who enter the working world missing imperative digital skills the rest of the world is expecting them to have.

After looking over this article it appears that the number of women in high technology is declining across the sector.  Is this because as consumerism becomes our main form of socialized identity we become stereotypes of our gender, age and income?  Girls become consumerized princesses, boys become consumerized soldiers?  Not so long ago we learned our social roles through complex traditional influences like nationalism and religion.  In our brave new border-less world where money is the main defining feature of our social character we become shadowy stereotypes of the consumer data that pours out of us.

Women in Technology by the numbers.
From 37% to 14% in the past 25 years?
Boys and girls both suffer a limited existence in this environment, though the female stereotype carries with it a submissive objectivity that ensures that girls are mainly valued in terms of their appearance, whereas boys are stereotypically the doers, girls are passive.

Of course, this is ridiculous.  Your ability to think is your magic power in engineering or coding, your gender doesn't enter into it.  It is only because girls are convinced that boys are 'tough enough' to handle the maths or the complexity of engineering and programming that they get shaken out of the field; stereotypes forcing inequality.

It appears my struggle to convince small town/rural high school girls to give computer studies a try goes well beyond the limiting geography and toward a societal trend.  That doesn't mean I'm going to stop, but it does make me consider this from media influence rather than as a primarily local influence.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Digital Narcissist

How We Build Digital Narcissists
Narcissus fell in love with his own image while staring into the water.  That kind of self-infatuation is difficult to come by in our world with its relentless competition and big problems; you can't help but feel humble before what faces us.

Fortunately, many first world children don't have to face that reality.  In the past decade they have found a new cocoon to wrap themselves in that isolates them from the harsh truths that surround them.

In that digital cocoon they are free to see only what they want to see.  The machines that serve them slavishly see to their every whim no matter how asinine, base or self-serving it may be.

At the best of times it's tricky to develop a sense of humility and perspective in children, they tend toward an egotistic world view.  The technology cocoon amplifies this and insulates them from adults (both parents and teachers) in a way unseen before.  In a whirl of habituated media consumption, children today are always able to find a 'fact' on the internet that backs up their myopic world view.  They are immediately and constantly able to communicate with peers who are more than happy to reinforce their prejudices. In spite of its promise, social media is very socially insular.  Rather than moving us into an era of interaction and awareness on a global scale, for far too many people the internet is offering something more akin to mental masturbation.

The other week we went to the backwoods of Ontario.  With limited internet and basic cable, we weren't in the self-directed, media rich world we usually are.  I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary that compared militant Hindu girls' camps and the Miss India pageant.  We ended up watching (and learning) something that we wouldn't have in our self-directed media paradise.

Remember when TV was only a few channels and you ended up watching what was on?  It was in this way that I discovered The Twilight Zone, Woody Allen, early Japanese Anime and a variety of media that I would never have picked up in our insular modern media world where we define ourselves by our niches.  I'm not saying things were better that way, but limited media did tend to push us out of our comfort zones and try things we otherwise wouldn't.  We also tended to watch something only once or twice. Limited media forces you beyond your areas of interest and you tend to focus better on it because access to it is special.

I used to beg for rides or ride
the bike for miles to get this!
When Bits & Bytes on TVO wasn't enough to satisfy my new computer fixation in the early '80s I had to search far and wide for media that would cover this new medium.  When I found COMPUTE! magazine in a small shop in a strip mall five miles from home I used to beg for a ride over there or jump on the bicycle and ride forever to go get the latest copy.  That media was hard to get and greatly valued.  Every page of that magazine was a glass of water in the Sahara. My urge to find it had to be great or I wouldn't have bothered.  Limited media makes us value the information we find and lends a sense of accomplishment to our learning.  All that is lost today.

In 2013 media practically scratches at the door of your mind to be let in.  You have to make an effort to stop it rather than find it.  Ironically, this inflection in media delivery does a lot to take away our ability to self direct our interests.  It's hard to enjoy a glass of water in a flood.  What's worse is that instead of amplifying our ability to learn, modern media delivery has cordoned people off into their own habitual interests.

Instead of focusing on research and access we need to consider how to manage distraction and information overflow.  Only once this is in hand can we start to direct ourselves in this storm.  The digital narcissist is the logical result of our sudden access to any information that we want, and it fits hand in glove with the consumerist drive that dictates digital development. It behooves the companies that are reducing users to consumers to create a false sense of how powerful we are; it sells.

Generation Xbox
In a media vacuum you have time with your thoughts.  In that silence you have a chance to examine yourself critically, figure out a direction you want to go.  We expect meta-cognition in students but I'm finding that they are increasingly out of touch with a balanced view of their self worth because they are buried under a media avalanche that is not simply a result of technology advancement, there is intent in the deluge.

The navel gazing digital narcissist can't examine themselves because they exist entirely as a figment of their own imaginations.  Meta-cognition and the sense of perspective it demands is impossible for them in this media storm; a quiet mind is an unknown experience.

The digital native is trapped in an ego feedback loop with a steady stream of media that caters to their every urge, and because the longer they are engaged with media the more they are worth, the media itself is more interested in keeping them plugged in that it is in advancing their thinking.  

Wrapped in this digital cocoon, is it any wonder that the poor digital native can't help but gaze at the screen like Narcissus and his pond?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Mastery Learning, Digitally Empowering Idiocy & Being Humble Before the Task

I ended up presenting on what mastery learning is and what mastery might look like in digital realms at ECOO13 last week .   

HERE is the prezi.

Developing digital mastery in a digital world

The Humble Egotist: A teacher who encourages learning...

In untangling what digital mastery might look like I had to back up and describe mastery learning in general.  This ended up clarifying my ideas around the process of learning itself.  As much as we'd like to think we impart learning as teachers, the process itself is very much internal to the learner.  Teachers aren't nearly as central to the process as they like to think they are.

I started studying instructional technique when I was still a teen in air cadets and through coaching sports.  That progressed into technology instruction in business and then language instruction in Japan.  Finally getting my B.Ed. years later was just the latest in an ongoing personal journey to understand learning.

I'm self taught in so many things that I have trouble remembering being taught.  I've dropped out of every kind of education you can imagine, and finished some too.  I have real trouble with authority for the sake of authority and I've always found a strong element of that in teaching.  There is no doubt that a teacher can be an important influence in a young person's growth (I have several who were, we all do), but those people were never magical because they taught me something, they were magical because they enabled me to learn something.  No one else has ever been the architect of my learning, it has always failed or succeeded because of how I tackled it.  A good teacher looked at me and figured out how to enable my tendencies toward learning something effectively.  A bad teacher would sabotage my learning, usually because my hero worship wasn't up to their standards.

Teaching is a tricky business.  It takes a lot of self confidence to do the job, but it also takes a lot of humility to get out of the way and let people learn.  Self confidence and humility seldom co-exist comfortably in the same person.  The urge to sage on the stage is strong in a lot of teachers, they really enjoy the attention and the social status (no matter how staged it is).

Not unless you do it you don't,
learning isn't downloaded,
it isn't given, it isn't easy
But learning is an internal process, you can't have learning implanted in you (this was one of the reasons it seems so magical in The Matrix), as the learner you have to be the active agent, learning is hard work.   We confuse this with a lot of edu-babble about engagement and over-focus on how entertaining a teacher can be but this ignores the essential issue.  If a student doesn't want to learn then they won't.  The value of learning should be self evident.  It takes a colossal amount of work by the education system to assume responsibility for learning and hide the truth that students are the real agents of their learning.

During the ECOO presentation I described a good teacher as an awesome roadie, you can't even tell they are there until they adjust or fix something to better enable the show.  The learner is the one on stage doing the learning, a good teacher, like a good roadie, makes the show run smoothly but they aren't the main act.

I see far too many full period lectures with sages on stages.  Those people retire and are immediately back in the classroom because they miss the audience, they miss being in a socially constructed place where people have to listen to them.  They don't do much in the way of encouraging learning, but boy do they talk a lot, and they have no idea that students live in an information rich world and don't have to wait for the slow drip of a teacher's talk to learn a fact.

This isn't to say that the flipped classroom is the obvious way to manage this.  Learners have to internalize their own learning, but students who are many miles away from what they need to be broken out of their habitual patterns if they are going to learn something new.  Sometimes this takes a teacher who is the centre of focus in a classroom.

How do you manage a room full of digitally super charged ids?

This is especially true when educators attempt to integrate digital devices into learning.  Digital devices slavishly satisfy the desires of their users no matter how asinine or repetitive.  An idiot on a digital device becomes an empowered idiot.  A teacher can be a vital influence in breaking that destructive, repetitive cycle, but not if they are as habitual and limited in their use of digital tools as their students.  Being humble before the task of learning gets even harder in a digital environment where every stupid urge is moments away from being satisfied. The teacher cannot facilitate student learning in an environment that they themselves are also oppressed by.

One of the key pressure points in learning is breaking someone out of
habitual use in technology (the pink bit), but that's impossible if the
teacher is as habitual and illiterate as the student is...
If you've ever seen how many students (and  teachers) treat school computer labs you know what I'm talking about.  Rather than selecting the tool for the job, a teacher with low digital fluency will ask students to use computers as an analogue for something else.  The computer is treated like a book, or a paper and pen.  Booking a lab for this purpose is akin to renting a car to drive to the end of your street.  You're not using the technology for it's capabilities, you're using it to exacerbate your own habits.

That's assuming the teacher didn't book the lab as a digital babysitter while they get marking done (or so they could just surf the net in the same way as their students).  In those classes I'm having to replace vandalized computers and students may as well be at home doing whatever they do there online.  This damages digital fluency for everyone in the room by actually encouraging habitual usage, and it's expensive.

Trying to focus on learning is difficult in the hyper-personally empowering digital realm.

Developing mastery of any kind isn't a focus in education, trying to do it now with digital narcissism at every fingertip is even more difficult.  Classes are set with 50% credits and minimal expectations around attendance in order to facilitate pass rates.  In terms of digital mastery, administration seems to think this is about device access, but it's more about people, self-discipline and work habits.  Digital mastery falls back on the habits of the learner.  A strong, self-directed learner is empowered by a digital environment,  a weak, dependent one is impoverished by it.  For the strong it empowers their ability to learn, for the weak it offers them a constant stream of distractions so that they can stay in the most base, trivial, superficial and habitual parts of their minds.

 If we practiced mastery learning across education then digital mastery would follow.  If we took teaching digital fluency seriously (in both staff and students) we would have a chance at using technology to create amplified learners who are able to access information and self direct their learning at a rate unseen before.

Sometimes I wonder if we aren't dropping the digital football just to keep the traditional power structures in play.

note:  this is the 4th re-write of this post, it's an ongoing attempt to figure out some big ideas, I'm still not happy with it but I'm going to let it lie and move on.  I suspect I'll be trying to clarify the ideas in here in future posts.

The Appearance of Credibility and Other Useless Pursuits

I've got two other posts on the back burner because I spent hours this weekend fabricating the appearance of credibility.  It's mid-term time, which means I've finally got to put together the dreaded markbook that I've been neglecting.  I used to think I neglected it because I'm lazy, but that's not really the case.  I spend all sorts of time in and out of class getting materials, working on lesson plans and spending time individually with students.  I spend most of my lunches with students offering them extra help or just space to tinker.  I spend hours outside of school communicating with other teachers about education.  These are not the actions of a lazy man.

So why am I so reticent to build up my markbook?  Why does the idea of putting numbers into complex programs that divide and weigh marks make me roll my eyes and find something productive to do?  Because it's all about building a fiction.

Yeah, you are, but you're a really difficult
to calculate number!
Like so much else of what we do in our nineteenth century education factory, the idea of reducing human beings to numbers so that we can define them smacks of reductive, Taylorist thinking, but reducing people to easily compared numbers is what the system demands.  That grade has an aura of magic around it, we think it full of deep and profound meaning but it's fabricated out of thin air.  

Learning is a complex, rich process, but we don't focus on that in education, we focus on gross simplifications in order to spin out self supporting statistics.  We create numbers to justify the system, to give it the appearance of credibility and meaning.  The system feeds the system with evidence of its own success.  This goes well beyond k-12, post secondary is predicated on this fiction.

Each year we fabricate grades using complex alchemical processes.  Last year I had staff say they couldn't use Engrade because it didn't offer enough fine control over category weighing.  Our Ministry goes to great lengths to on this, and teachers agonize over it, yet no two do it the same, even in the same course, even on the same assignment.

The process of grading, from the teacher assessing a piece of work (and some of them also taking into account what the student's sibling was like, or that they are in a bad mood that day, or that this is a nice kid who should be forgiven the odd error) to how it is entered in what mark program (it varies from teacher to teacher), makes this a very slippery slope.  We're asked to assess curriculum but in most cases the personality and circumstances of the student interfere with this to the point where getting a good read on the last, best example of their demonstrated skill is impossible.  Even if it is possible, reducing their learning of complex subject areas down to a single percentage grade is absurd, yet that is what we do.

When someone says that grading is killing education I agree, but not because we should be living in a hippy commune doing whatever strikes us as fun.  The fiction of grading supports other fictions, like passing.  I wouldn't trust anyone to do anything if they got it right 50% of the time, yet that is a pass in education.  Grading is killing education because it is meaningless in terms of learning.

Now that I've built that set of grades up all is safe from questioning.  You can't question modern marking practices, they're designed to prevent simple analysis.  That markbook I built is really to make the grade I give appear credible.  Look!  There are mathematics at work here!  This number must mean something important because it was calculated by a machine.  Grade production is an arbitrary, fictitious structure based on the constantly moving sands of circumstance and personality.  That it is used to discipline and direct students has more to do with enforcing the absurdity of the classroom situation than it ever did with learning.  If you don't sit in rows and capitulate you'll fail!

If anyone says, 'Hey!  Why is that my mark?!?" I need only crack open the byzantine markbook and baffle them with categories and weights to quell any further questions.  Assessment of learning has been made sufficiently obscure as to defy questioning.

What do I do?  Nothing dear, you're not qualified!
This may as well have happened in a classroom, it's the
same approach.
We receive a great deal of PD around assessment and evaluation (you can't serve the system unless you know what the system needs).  You'd think, based on how assessment works, that learning was a professionally mandated enterprise that the layman couldn't hope to comprehend, just the way the education complex wants you to think about learning, it's something done to you not something you do yourself.

Unfortunately, until parents stop expecting us to reduce their children to numbers this isn't going to change.

Until post-secondary institutions stop empowering the mythology of marks by basing entrance requirements mainly on high school grades this isn't going to change.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Individual Education Plan

Many moons ago as I was finishing up my B.Ed. at Nippissing U. we got invited to an educational technology symposium for special needs students.  We were shown the (then) cutting edge Kurzweil speech to text software, fantastic education tools to use with Palm Pilots and other PDAs (!) and even early online access to text books.  I thought it was all wonderful, but I couldn't help but wonder why this technology was reserved for special education students, wouldn't everyone's learning have less friction with these tools?

Except you're not, are you? Some of you get individual
education plans, the rest get the system.
Today I'm going to the latest IEP meeting for my son.  As a teacher I've never understood the individual education plan in Ontario education.  Like that technology all those years ago, wouldn't every student benefit from an IEP?  Doesn't every student deserve one?  Aren't they all individuals?

I'm gong to argue for my child's special needs again today and wonder why I have to do that.  Is it so the school can do well on standardized testing?  Is it so my child isn't run over by a teacher who is determined to get him to conform to bench marks decided by the Ministry?  Is it so he can conform and be more easily manageable?  My son is not rude, or nasty, or dangerous, he is a delightful fellow who thinks laterally the way most people think linearly.  His problem isn't that he can't do things, it's that he does them differently from how most people do them.  Watching the education system try to force his circle into a square hole isn't easy.

As a parent I'm even more baffled by education than I am as a teacher.

A number of years ago my fearless wife demanded an IEP review.  It was grudgingly given, and after some expensive private psychological review (that many families would not be able to afford) a formal IEP was prepared.  At first I was against the idea, but as I continued teaching and saw the number of times a student is held academically accountable by teachers for circumstances beyond their control, I started to realize that an IEP is nothing more than a shield against a system intent on enforcing conformity; protection against teachers who think they are producing widgets instead of people.  Our nineteenth century school system is still building human cogs designed for production lines.  The fact that there aren't a lot of people working on production lines any more seems to have slipped their minds.

In these IEP meetings my son's educators are facing off against two parents with all sorts of familiarity with the system and credentials that help them deal with it.  What happens to the child who should have an IEP but doesn't because their parents are intimidated by the panel of 'experts' in front of them?  What happens to the student who doesn't have a parent who can get to those interviews?  Who wouldn't even think to ask for one because they are a single parent working sixty hours a week?

What about the student who is going through a nasty divorce at home?  The student being abused?  The student who has to work a full time job outside of school to support themselves?  The student who has fallen into drugs?  No IEP for them, though they need individual education plans every bit as much.

If every student in Ontario had an IEP what would it look like?  How would that change the process of teaching?  Instead of trying to catch students out or stream them for post secondary, what if every student was using an IEP to reach their maximum potential?  What if there were no standardized tests but individualized education was put at the forefront of everything we do?  What if there were no streams?  We're not in the factory business any more, almost no one is.  Robots do a lot of that work now.

The nail that stands up gets the hammer.
Years ago in Japan a student told me about a Japanese saying when I asked about conformity and how it's viewed there.  They told me, "the nail that stands up gets the hammer."  That kind of brick in the wall thinking might have served Western education in the last millennium, but it's a foreign way of thinking in a post-industrial world.

I'm going to walk into the education factory today and ask them to not hammer my son into a slot that he doesn't fit into.  Fortunately the IEP shield is in effect, so he's protected from the worst of the hammering (he just has to suffer the small day to day whacks).

I wonder what happens to all those kids who aren't individual enough to be entitled to an individual education plan.

Followup:  posted by a very forward thinking Ontario Educator this morning:

“The most effective way to provide enrichment to every student at a school is already in front of us. All children, in all schools, should have an IEP. Grade levels in classes should be eliminated. High stakes testing should be dropped. Lockstep schooling should be eliminated [to end comparison thinking] There would no longer be “third grade” or “tenth grade”. All students should work toward mastery learning. When they have mastered a skill they move on to the next one. When they finish the required and elective curriculum, they graduate. Slower learners are never “held back” . . . There is no grade to be in. . . . They learn at their own pace, moving through the learning at the pace at which they can show they have mastered the curriculum.” (189).
Jensen, Eric. (2006). Enriching the brain: How to maximize every learners potential.
San Francisco, USA: Jossey-Bass

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

ECOO13: soaking in the future

When you see this in the morning, it's hard not to be inspired!
ECOO13 was bigger better, and better located that any of the ECOOs I've previously attended.  If you believe in ley lines then putting ECOO on the edge of a natural wonder captured some wonderfully thunderous energy.

I'm told that back in the day ECOO was enormous, much bigger, but those early immigrants were following a huge first wave of personal computing.  Since then computers have insinuated themselves into so many aspects of life that they often feel like just more work.

Informational democracy courtesy of computer networking on social media is a slow burn and is still building.  Instead of feeling disenfranchised by machines more and more people are recognizing them as an enabling influence, allowing individuals a voice where only mainstream media and large organizations once broadcast their influence.  ECOO has been building on this new wave of social media democratization every year since I've been attending.  It's always in peril of being spun by the powers that be, but I still hold out hope that places like ECOO will allow people to realize how powerful they are in our new, flattened mediascape.

How to think in a new era? ECOO asking some big questions with Jaime Casap.
On a personal level I've been finding it difficult to engage with educational technology in the past few months.  Between a new infatuation and a year of difficult technology events (GAFE summitPearson Social Media Event), I've been finding the business of education to be politically charged and inexplicably restrictive.  The cavalier and simplistic manner in which technology is rolled out frustrates me.  In a difficult year I've been finding personal growth in other areas.

I'd signed up for an ECOO presentation without any really clear sense of direction. The past two years were pretty easy, I knew what I wanted to say and went after it, but after developing a digital skills continuum around pedagogy rather than cost cutting, and instead watching monopolistic corporate buy in, I'm not feeling overly engaged.  Sometimes rolling the rock up the hill just gets too heavy.

They ain't kiddin!
It was with this sense of unease that I went to ECOO, but quickly found my happy place again.  From the conversations I had with intelligent, interrogative educators to the fantastically chosen keynotes that went straight after the larger questions around the information revolution we are living through, ECOO does indeed tackle tough issues.

I really enjoyed all three keynotes and they didn't shy away from asking what education isn't doing to help our students get ready for a world most of us have no idea is coming.  

Wired caught up with our ECOO keynotes in their latest issue. Coming back to the 19th Century, factory designed education system hasn't been easy after soaking in the future for a few days.  ECOO is what education could be like if there wasn't all the friction from dinosaurs.

If nothing else, ECOO reminded me that change is inevitable and not to give in to the pessimism of bureaucratic thinking.  Being an agent of change is difficult.  There are a lot of entrenched educational interests that have no interest in adapting to change.  After being at ECOO for a few days surrounded by educators who have already made steps into the future I realize I'm not alone in this, and I'm on the right side of history.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Free Range Computing

I'd initially gone into this with pi in the sky (sic) daydreams of students working entirely on open source hardware and software that they have assembled and coded themselves, free from the evil influences of corporations.  After attending ECOO this year I'm less on the hippy open source bandwagon and more on the inclusivity bandwagon.  It isn't an educator's job to ignore corporate technology, but it is their responsibility not to indoctrinate students in only one particular company's technology because it is easier or cheaper for them.  Student digital fluency has to drive technology access, not corporate carrots or teacher laziness.

I've noticed a real move toward the branding of education (and teachers) by technology interests.  This is almost always done to ensure their own monopolistic dominance rather than offering students the widest range of technology experience.  In order to indoctrinate students in a single means of access (in order to later capture them as consumers), many boards are locking students into company specific technology, usually because some kind of discount being offered.  Selling out student technological fluency in order to appear more cost effective isn't very pedagogically sound.

...but I'm certified with screwdrivers!
Would you trust the literacy teacher who only uses one publishing company and brandishes the logo like a qualification?   Does this not call a balanced approach to their discipline into question?  How can the same thing not be said for Google Certified or Apple Distinguished? 

It's one thing to get a professional certification from an platform agnostic professional organization that has no interested in monetizing you, it's another to brand yourself with the name of a profit driven company that is intent on turning you and your students into revenue streams while limiting access to alternatives.

My knee jerk reaction to this is what had me storming off into the woods and getting all back to nature with open source hardware and software:


Raspberry Pi, almost fits in your wallet!
I've been thinking about the open source technology classroom I wish I could run.  Engineering based rather than brand based hardware with accessible, open software.  Hardware that could run free, crowd-sourced software.

Raspberry Pi is an obvious starting point.  As a way of showing students the basics of computing cheaply (it'll run a full GUI OS with internet for about thirty bucks per student), it's something that they can use to get familiar with how software and hardware work with each other.

I wish they'd come up with a Raspberry Pi à la mode, a 1 ghz 2 core unit with a gig of ram, hdmi and 2 usb 3.0 ports.  They can toss the video in and separate audio 3.5 jack out (hdmi has audio built in anyway).  If they could pull that off and keep it close to the same size I'd think twice about stepping up from the Pi.


It's beyond the Pi that open source hasn't developed enough high level hardware to take on more advanced learning environments, though having students build digital tools from a variety of components has its own value.  

There are plenty of software options, but ready made agnostic hardware is thin on the ground.  This is when I started to think about systems that, while branded and corporately developed, might be focused on access to a variety of technology rather than the tyranny of one:


In the meantime, from the Pi how do you create a free range system that lets students experience a variety of operating systems and software?  The recent nano-desktop round of computers offer some interesting options.

Intel NUC
The NUC (next unit of computing) by Intel is an engineering platform that crams an astonishing amount of processing power into a package the size of a paperback novel.  With an i5 processor and up to 16 gigs (!) of ram, this thing is a monster.  It would handily outperform any desktop in our school right now.

If we could get a NUC sorted out in some kind of student-proof Otterbox type enclosure we'd have a tough, durable, wickedly fast, open computer that would offer students a totally customizable platform for just over $400.  Presumably we could whittle that down to cost (maybe ~$300?).

Having a dock in labs that would allow students to plug their own PCs (personal again!) in would be one means of accessing the box.  Offering a plug in touch screen peripheral that could do the job of a screen/mouse/keyboard would be another avenue that would create a very powerful laptop/tablet option.  Pica-projectors would be another way to produce screens out of thin air, and they are rapidly becoming smaller and less energy consuming.

The nicest thing about the NUC is that it could work with pretty much any operating system you could want.  Students could come to class with a paperback sized computer that could boot into Apple OSx, the Windows flavour of your choice or any of a number of Linux distros (including Chromium).  You wouldn't have Mac labs, or Windows labs, you'd have whatever you wanted/needed to boot into.  

A truly agnostic hardware platform that would offer you access to any software on any operating system.
Foxconn Nano PC

Another (cheaper) option is the Foxconn Nano PC, which retails for substantially less (only $219 retail vs. the $420 NUC).  The Foxconn unit runs on an AMD processor (not Apple friendly) but offers strong graphics performance from its (Canadian!) graphics subsidiary ATI.

It would still run any flavor of Windows or Linux you could throw at it (including Chromium) and is as svelte as the Intel option.  Education purchasing could probably get these down into the $150 range.


The real goal would be to create and have educators themselves crowdsource an open, upgradeable, accessible hardware system that is designed to teach students about technology in all its various forms.

The chance to develop personalized learning technology would take us away from the ignorance and learned helplessness we peddle today in education and offer all technology companies a level playing field on which to ply their wares.  Our students would experience a wide range of operating environments and software as well as being aware of how hardware impacts those systems.

Thoughts on mastery learning in digital spaces
(from my ECOO13 presentation)

Imagine high school graduates who have worked on a variety of operating systems that they have installed and maintained themselves.  

Imagine graduates who understand how memory, processor and storage work with software because they've experienced hands on changes in this hardware.  

Imagine graduates who are able to problem solve and resolve their own technological problems because the breadth of their familiarity with technology is such that any new digital tool they lay their hands on isn't a mystery to them.

Imagine students and educators who go to the tool they need to get the job done instead of having the tool dictate the job.

Imagine students who have enough familiarity with code that they can appreciate the complexity of the world we're living instead of being baffled by it.

I was having doubts about putting corporate logos on my office windows, but I don't any more.  Instead of taking down the Google stickers I've added Apple, Microsoft, Linux, Toshiba, Dell, Asus, IBM, Lenovo, Arduino, Raspberry Pi and will continue to add others.  The point isn't to run off into the woods and live in vegan austerity on open source hardware, it's to make all technology available to students so they can appreciate the astonishing variety of systems we're immersed in, and not be made helpless by it.