Sunday, 28 April 2013

Privacy Never Existed & Ownership of Information Is Dead

What you do when you try to privatize,
own or control digital content in the C21st
When #ontsm talked about how to introduce social media to students there was a lot of talk about walled gardens and safe places.  By creating private digital spaces students could become used to the nuances of online life in a tidal pool before they wandered out into the ocean.  It's a nice idea.  It's predicated on a myth.

The flaw in this thinking is that privacy exists, that it ever existed.  Anonymity is very difficult to maintain, it always has been.  This isn't a digital issue.  A hundred years ago, people weren't able to move about as easily as they do now.  You tended to exist in a much more colloquial and static social group.  Your town or village knew who you were because you were contextualized in it by your family, job, religion, culture and friends.  Modern cities barely existed at that point.  Industrialization and the machinery it produced gave us the  ability to migrate individually in the 20th Century, but even that came with a lot of social baggage.  If you were out alone on a motorcycle, you were socially classified, even if people didn't know you personally. We do this all the time with race, socio-economic status, even accent; every time we stereotype we do it.  Privacy has always been a myth.  If anyone lays eyes on you who doesn't know you, their impression of you is what you are socially.  Digital information makes a greater mockery of that myth by spreading us across the web, ignoring our geography.

Digital information is so fluid, so easy to create and share, that it is frictionless.  You don't have to physically share a book to share text any more, you don't have to physically share a DVD to share a video any more.  When information is a stream of data constantly flowing, ownership and privacy become impossible to manage in any traditional sense.

If you put student data into a digital format, your 'privacy settings' (an ode to the myth to make you feel better) are set to whomever is the viewer of your content with the least goodwill toward you and the least respect for your privacy.  This goes beyond the people you shared it with to anyone at all who can view your information.  Any attempts to 'lock down' (another backward looking term designed to make you feel better) digital information is easily bypassed by a screen capture or a cut and paste.

The digital is leaking into the physical world too.  If anyone sees or hears you doing anything, anywhere, at any time, and they have a smart phone on them, you are the push of a button away from being published.  Stupidity has never been so readily documented; see youtube for a billion examples.  If you think you're 'safe'  because you're not doing something digitally, the ability to record and publish digitally makes your point moot.  Want to go back to report cards on paper?  It's one photo away from being on Facebook.  Think you're in private because you've closed the door to your classroom?  The kid videoing you without your knowing will have you on youtube in thirty seconds, and then copies of copies of copies spread across the web.

The idea of privacy might be a byproduct of industrialization - that machines can insulate us from our social context and offer us a kind of freedom people have never really had before.  We leapt into digital machines thinking they would further isolate us from each other and preserve the myth of privacy, but the slippery nature of digital information makes a mockery of the myths of privacy and ownership of information.

Revolutions and Dataspheres
When you can propagate information this easily and quickly, and exponentially like a virus, who owns it?  When we stumbleupon material intentionally author intent quickly becomes a secondary influence in media.  The viral nature of social media sharing pushes information in a way that used to be the job of publication.  It's hard to even introduce traditional publishing into this environment.  This is such a chaotic, crowdsourced, place, the idea of a professional publisher (itself based on an industrialized limitation around the costs of printing to paper) becomes almost impossible to justify.  Editors give way to crowd wisdom and the results are often indistinguishable.  An argument might be made for professional publishing, but if crowd sourced material finds ways to approach the quality of traditional media, and ends up forcing it out of the market, what is left for the professional publisher?

Does the author's intended audience matter?  That information takes on a life of its own.  Its audience is dictated by its accessibility and how effectively it hooks a viewer's attention.  In a medium where people are buried in information, caprice replaces intent, information that captures curiosity is gold.

The shear volume of data in this wild-west is so overwhelming that it couldn't possibly be managed by traditional (industrially designed, limited paper media driven) editorial systems.  Machines can try to self organize the data they present, and they are getting better and better at it, but crowd sourcing offers a way to keep a human touch in information flow.  It lacks the clarity of purpose of professional editorial work, but given enough time it often produces surprisingly similar results.  In fact, it often bypasses the political spin and self interest that traditional hierarchies have always put on the limited industrially defined information they claimed ownership over.  Democratization of information means it becomes free from manipulation by the former gatekeepers of it.

If you're making content in this brave new world, don't expect to own or even direct it, once it's out, it may end up in unexpected places.  If you're not making content, don't worry, everyone one around you is, and it will end up where you don't want it as well.  How do companies and individuals survive in this madness?  No one is really sure (I have a guess), but one thing is sure, it won't be boring.

I was listening to CBC's The Current today as they had Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas on talking about what is about to happen to the world.  Two billion people are online, another five billion are about to join them.  We've already seen the internet bypass governments and ferment revolution in the Middle East, and we've seen Western governments struggling with trying to keep control of information with wikileaks and other hactivism.  If you have a few minutes, listen to Cohen on The Current.  His ideas about where the world is going are radically transformative.  The only part I'd question is his assertion that Google is a force of nature in this process, rather than just the most successful parasite.

Corporate Shills

I keep saying that...
This is one hot potato on a Sunday morning.  #ontsm trended nationally yesterday and attracted a lot of attention, which I suspect was the point.  The fact that the attention has a life of its own is probably a concern to people who are used to controlling the message.  Ironically, it's trending again today, driven in large part by people who objected to it for various reasons.

I heard the term shill a couple of times this weekend.  It's not a commonly used piece of language.  My favorite moment was when another one of the attendees (and one of the smartest guys I know) said, "yeah Tim, you gotta be careful we don't turn into corporate shills." He said it with a glint in his eye, knowing that we were all at a paid for event the week after I'd been criticizing another corporate event; nothing like some tasty irony.

If you want an idea of the conversation around what some are calling a controversy, me writing at you won't present it well.  Go over to the twitter feed and enjoy the diversity of opinion.  Some are worried that this is dividing the PLN.  The PLN isn't a single group with a single approach.  What you'll see on the twitter feed (and in other blog posts) are what complex discussion and disagreement could look like online.  It doesn't have to be modeled on a fifteen year old's idea of flaming.  I've disagreed with a number of colleagues on there, and that is fine.  I still respect them as professionals, and even if we end up agreeing to disagree, I'm still OK with that.  Online communication can be deep, nuanced and even contrary without becoming personally inflammatory   It's all good, and I'd much rather the disagreements get aired in public than kept in, or hidden.

This will be resolved, as it was started, transparently and publicly online; the best kind of modelling for a new communication medium I can think of.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

When Your Learning Space is a Loud Close Talker

Tools provided, time to do
A couple of weekends ago I went to Conestoga College and took my motorcycle training course.  Other than about an hour on a dirt bike a year ago I'd never ridden a motorbike, it's been a lifelong dream to do it, so I was pretty pumped.  This was a challenging learning process for me, going from near zero to basic competence in a weekend.

This weekend I'm at the Ontario Google Summit.  I'm an advanced digital technology user, I'm attending this conference to look at ways to manage technology and ease adoption for beginners.  This isn't a learning challenging situation for me, but I love the subject area (I teach it) and it's a life long hobby as well as a career.

I'm finding myself comparing the two learning experiences.  Bike course and Google Summit are both expensive (time and money: both on the weekend, motorbike: $18.33/hr, Summit: $, suggesting an intensive, focused learning opportunity for motivated students.  Unmotivated students wouldn't spend the time and money to attend these things.  With that as a foundation, I couldn't have had more different experiences.

At the motorbike course there were six expert instructors for 26 students for a better than 5 to 1 student/teacher ratio.  They moved logistical mountains to provide working technology for all students (over thirty bikes tuned, fueled and ready to use every day).  Because a 1:1 student/technology ratio was guaranteed, the focus became small group and individual hands-on instruction.  This was vital because the bike course had a theory and practical (road) test at the end.  If you were unable to demonstrate what you knew by that time you just spend over four hundred bucks without getting the license or insurance discount.  Attendance was absolutely mandatory, you got dropped for not showing (one guy got dropped Sunday morning after showing up nearly two hours late).  You had to BYOE (equipment), but the most expensive technology (the bike) was provided, and it got dropped by a number of students.  You also had to provide your own food and drink and there was time time given to consuming it (we ate during in-class sessions).

At the end of  the weekend you knew what you knew (or didn't) and had demonstrated qualitative improvement (or hadn't), resulting in the license and savings.  On a more pedantic level, you were provided with the room you needed to learn.  You had desk space in a large classroom for learning theory.  You had acres of pavement outside for learning hand-on skills.  You were hands on in a closely watched and personally assisted learning intensive situation all weekend.  It was a credible, challenging and learning intensive process (it was also physically exhausting).  My taking the course will probably save my life at some point, let alone save me money.  I left that course having a very clear idea what I'd paid for and no question as to the value of it.

Lecture! Time to listen.
The Google conference is lecture driven (a necessity of the 100:1 student:teacher ratio).  The keynotes have been excellent and the audience response very positive.  I've greatly enjoyed the keynotes.  It's fallen apart for me in the learning sessions though; I've been unable to attend the sessions I've wanted to because the venue (a high school) has classrooms designed for a thirty two students.  These sessions often have upwards of fifty people jammed into them, sitting on the floor, standing around the edges, all breathing on each other (yes, I have issues with that).  I don't have the space I need to be comfortable, let alone to learn.  The provided internet is the best I've experienced at a tech-conference, so that's in place, but the physical space, other than the auditorium I've been in all weekend, isn't remotely up to the task of learning.  As I consider the lecture based, knowledge (rather than experience) learning focus of the Summit, I'm left wondering why educators do this to each other, and how we hope to improve educational technology when we continue to treat it like an ephemeral idea rather than a demonstrable skill.

What is it about professional development that has teachers punishing other teachers in order to learn?  Ironically, we've spent time talking about the Third Teacher and how the learning environment plays such a vital role in learning.  We then demonstrate how not to do it in vivid detail with overcrowded rooms and people sitting on floors in order to desperately hear a bit of knowledge out of the mouth of a sage on a stage who are part of a company that wants to radically decentralize and democratize knowledge for everyone.
There has been a lot of opportunity for learning at this conference for me.  The back channels and keynotes have been very engaging.  Oddly, the learning sessions haven't been where learning has happened.  Had this been the bike course, I would have spent that weekend sitting on the floor, jammed between other people, watching someone else riding a bike before I went and rode around on my own without any feed back; not the ideal way to learn how to do that, is it?

note: this is six months later, right after the ECOO13 conference (not a summit?) not to mention EdcampHamilton.  My feelings about GAFE have only intensified.  GAFE is a money grab, designed to funnel teachers into a branding process with Google.  After speaking to others at ECOO I'm more than ever convinced that it is a teacher's professional duty to not brand themselves and offer their students an unbiased access to any and all technology currently in use.  Anything less is a limitation to students and irresponsible on the part of the technology educator.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Is The Digital World A Branded World?

Who Is Paying For This?
I'm at the Google Apps for Educators Summit in Kitchener on a Saturday morning.  I'm a Google fan.  I Android, I use UGcloud for school work, I use Google+.  I'm aware that all of these services require a means of income or they'll evaporate, hence the Google ads I see on them; I'm OK with that.  In a field that can get grabby and greedy, I think Google is more balanced in how it performs its business than most.

As a teacher I'm a bit more cautious about how online tools are framed in terms of learning.  This morning's keynote with Jim Sill asked what kind of world do we live in.  I suspect the desired answer is a giddy, Silicon Valley logo filled blurt:  I live in an Instagram world! I live in a Google world!  I live in a Facebook world!  When the question turned to how you access this magical world, it revolved around brand names for apps.  Tying brands to information offers you a unique way to infect unrelated material (and learning itself) with your logo and corporate image.  Google has done this perhaps better than anyone (though Facebook takes a pretty good run at owning friendship).

Is the 21st Century really an information revolution, or a branding revolution?  I watched We Are Legion: The Story of Hactivists last night and I'm feeling the dissonance this morning at a conference that is all about companies branding information and funneling it to eager teachers who want to be relevant to their students.  I'm not saying yea or nay to this kind of business, I'm just wrestling with the chaotic freedom the information revolution inspired in hactivists last night and the business of information this morning.

If the information revolution really is about a radical change in how information moves (and I think it is), then talking about apps and brands is akin to focusing on the make of hammer you purchased when you're learning carpentry.  It would seem strange if, in learning carpentry, the master carpenter went on and on about the brand of hammer they are using.  They might mention why they like it briefly, but they wouldn't start calling carpentry "Mastercraft hammer", that would be odd.

Google: a great tool, but be careful not to brand
learning and information with it
People identify with brands, it gives them a sense of belonging, it offers them a ready-made identity in a field where they might not know much else. Excessive brand loyalty is usually the result of ignorance.  I'm less interested in the kind of hammer you're selling and more focused on how the wood is being fitted together.  I happen to enjoy using my Google hammer when online, I just don't know that I identify an important revolution in human development with their peppy logo, and I'd hope they'd be OK with that.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Do As I Say

Reading Shopclass as Soulcraft a second time has me thinking about the similarities between Crawford's and my work histories.  I walked out of high school before I finished.  I wasn't failing anything, I was just sick of the officious and arbitrary nature of the place.  I wanted to learn how to do *things*, but I was being taught how to sit in rows and do what I was told.  I'm not very good at that.

"Teaching takes a back seat to the more socially salient task of sorting, and grading becomes more important for its social consequences than for its pedagogical uses." p 146 Shopclass as Soulcraft

From there I bounced around your typical low income jobs (night time security, Canadian Tire) before finding myself an apprenticeship.  This I did for a couple of years before finishing up high school and going to university.  It only took me until second year to get into trouble at university, brashly questioning the veracity of my professors.  The younger profs tended to want to change your life.  I have a great deal of trouble buying in to systems, especially when the people advocating them put themselves in the centre of this marvelous new way of thinking.  I've always felt that these Rasputiny types aren't in it for mastery, they are in it to be masters.  My skepticism in this has been born out in politics as well.

"The master has no need for the psychology of persuasion that will make the apprentice compliant to whatever purposes the master might dream up; those purposes are given and determinate. He does the same work as the apprentice, only better... for the apprentice there is a progressive revelation of the reasonableness of the master's actions." p. 159

When I worked as a Millwright, I had a number of senior mechanics who taught me the ropes.  They taught me by doing the job, showing me the job, letting me do the job while they berated me for doing it badly, letting me do it on my own and if it worked, it worked.  It was messy, but at no point did any of the senior guys have to tell me they were the experts and I should do what they say, they let the work demonstrate their expertise.  I seldom saw that kind of do as I do, not as I say demonstration of expertise in formal education.

Students are always looking for credible teachers.
Many teachers I know don't practice what they teach.  Many business teachers teach business, they've never run one.  Many art teachers teach art, but don't make any themselves.  Many English teachers teach writing, but don't write themselves.  You might make the argument that they teach, and that is what they are good at.  I'd argue that this is an abstraction of an abstraction, and whatever it is they are teaching, credibility is in question; student engagement necessarily follows (they subconsciously pick up on a teacher's own doubts).  If you've ever shown students your own work, they look like meerkats; they long for credible learning, and showing mastery does that.

Last summer I took my additional qualification for computer studies.  I worked in I.T. after university, mainly because objective skill sets pay a lot better than abstract ones.  Ask anyone with a Masters Degree in the arts or humanities how the job search is going for proof of that.  While in university I worked as an auto mechanic, because it paid way better than the knowledge economy job my arts degree was preparing me for.  I've always migrated back to those objective skill sets because it seems like credible work.  You don't have arbitrary managers downsizing you based on abstraction, personal dynamics or their own towering sense of self importance.

I love seeing those MBA types on the side of the road, their BMW SUV's tire flat, waiting for someone who can *do* something to come and move them along, back into the clouds they live in.

Crawford makes a compelling argument for respecting those skills that we tend to diminish.  Objective, experientially gained mastery is often looked down upon by the academic class which itself rules education with a university-clad fist.  Objective mastery isn't up for debate, or the charismatic manipulation of office politics by experts in "human management".  If you know what you're doing, reality responds, and no amount of talking is going to change that.  I miss that kind of traction in education.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Objective Learning, Humility and Real Achievement

I'm re-reading Shopclass as Soulcraft, which begins with Matt Crawford asking what value hands-on work offers.  He questions the abstractions in which we all traffic (consumerism, academics, politics) in the information age.

There is value in learning about something external from ourselves, something with absolute requirements unlike the everyone's a genius in their own way/student success means everyone passes/let students direct their own learning so they aren't bored mantras you see whirling around edu-speak these days.  Crawford is focusing on trade skills in the book, but he's arguing for any skill that has needs beyond whatever criteria we choose to apply to it.  This would apply to languages (you either understand and can communicate in it or not), technical skill (you can rebuild that carburetor so that it works, or not), or even sports (you can ski down the hill, or you can't).  These kinds of skills get short shrift in schools these days because we can't bend the requirements sufficiently to pass everyone and claim success.

Conestoga's Motorcycle Training
This past weekend I took a motorbike training course.  It was exhausting, and very rewarding, and it had a six and a half percent failure rate. Those people paid four hundred and fifty dollars and were unable to complete the requirements of the course in a road test.  They left frustrated, and in some cases angry, but in a very real way they demonstrated that they could not control and place the bike.  The instructors were transparent and explained the failed components in detail, but people still left early with high emotions.  It's hard for people who are used to paying and passing to suddenly find themselves having paid and failed.  Doesn't payment equal success?  Doesn't consumerism replace competence?  It does in many situations, and increasingly in education.  Students become clients (especially in post secondary where they are paying directly for it), but even in k-12 tax payers are the clients and success for all is what they are paying for.

It's fair to say the test asked us to demonstrate about 60% of what we'd been asked to do that weekend - it wasn't brutal by any means, but controlling a motorcycle is a tricky business, and some people found the learning curve too steep.  Whether it was full body coordination or keeping what you're doing organized in your head, there was a lot to manage in doing this test.  The criteria were clearly explained and had been practiced relentlessly for two full days, there were no surprises yet some people were unable to *do* what was required.  Alternatives weren't offered, differentiation was self directed - by you - while you were learning on the bike, the instructors offered advice and it was up to you to take it or not.  Those that failed generally didn't take it.  Riding a bike isn't like driving a car.  You're alone on it, you don't have a voice in your ear making suggestions or stepping in with alternate controls, it's all up to you.

The curriculum was demanding and had specific requirements that couldn't be ignored. It was physically exhausting and required twenty four hours of your time over a single weekend, early wakeups and hours outside in very changeable April weather.  When someone showed up late on Sunday they were dropped out of the course (and seemed utterly flabbergasted at the situation); 100% attendance was required, and in order to see success you had to be there mentally, physically and emotionally.  There was a high correlation between failures and people who were always the last to show up.  As Crawford mentions in his book, learning an objective skill requires a degree of submission and humility to the task at hand - something that we ironically iron out of schools in order to demonstrate success.

For the rest of us, marks were given and certificates (which include a big drop in insurance costs as well as a direct pass to the next level of licensing) were given out in a ceremony.  People who got perfect scores were mentioned, and applauded. Everyone still in that room realized how much work they'd put into their success that weekend.  But they'd put in more than effort, they'd also been willing to be taught, to check their pride at the door and learn something challenging and new from the ground up.

There is an important difference between submission and humility. One can be humble and it enhances self worth, and allows learning in the oldest educational context we possess.  Submission is about the power of the strongest, humility is about an honest awareness of one's circumstance.  A master at a skill is honoured when their apprentice is humble before the task because they are receptive and teachable, and they are also respecting the skill that the master possesses. That humility allows you develop perhaps the most powerful learning tool available to us, self-discipline, which in turn grants the serious student the ability to master skills that would otherwise defeat a dilettante. You assume the mantle of a serious, even professional student when you are able to apply self-discipline gained through the humble acquisition of meaningful skill.  In school we constantly seek ways to amateurize learning in order to satisfy a Taylorist economic logic.  We try to streamline and ease student passage, forgiving absence and inattention in a misguided effort to generate successful data.  Any statistic you've ever seen about education has nothing to do with learning.

This sounds like throw back language, especially in light of the MBA edu-babble popular today. Students teaching themselves in order to stay engaged?  Best not done around a band-saw, as Crawford suggests.  Students able to 'pass' with a 50% average? Or with weeks of absenteeism?  They've hardly mastered anything.  Students given multiple avenues to success with targets that get closer the more they miss?  This learning is empty and pedantic, and students recognize that. Reward comes with real effort, and real failure.  Guaranteeing success for all?  The surest way to a systemic failure of learning.

I hurt all over from this past weekend, but it was profoundly satisfying.  I worked hard, didn't treat it like a joke, gave it my full attention and realized early on that the people instructing know so much more than I do that it would behoove me to be humble before their skill and experience.  I think that humility is what led to my success.  That success may very well save my life one day.  Engagement was never an issue.

I won't see much of that humility and openness to learning in the diploma factory I'm returning to today, though I'll try and try to put reality's demands in front of my students and let them be frustrated by it.  It's real success when you overcome an obstacle and figure something out, especially if you experienced failure in the process.  Not so much when people systemically remove obstacles to keep nearly inert objects in motion.  As self discipline erodes and humility dries up, the process of learning itself begins to break down.

Are you teaching curriculum today?  Or are you teaching how students should passively pass through the Kafkaesque education factory in which they find themselves?

Being taught how to actually do something with objective demands has made me proud, humble and grateful for the skillset I have as a learner.  When I see opportunities to approach learning with humility and develop self-discipline missing from so much of what we do in school, it makes it seem an empty, even dangerous place.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Meet Your Maker
I'm working my way through my second semester with grade nines in computer studies. I've tried to bring as much 'shop' as I can into computer studies.  My background was in I.T., so getting into the nitty gritty of electronics has been an expansion of my craft which I've enjoyed as much as the students seem to.

Using Arduino microcontrollers we bridge the gap between hardware and software and get students comfortable with the idea of building circuits as well as controlling it with code.  This year I've also gotten a Raspberry Pi up and running as well as building dozens of desktops. A resurgent maker culture has made electronics much more accessible and customizable; it's a good time to be teaching computers.

Maker Culture
This semester we've been pulling apart broken electronics and reusing digital displays, microphones and other components in our Arduino Frankenstein creations.  Some of it will work, some of it won't, but the process will make Makers of many of the students.

The real fear in using technology is that many users don't have the faintest idea how things work.  When it breaks there isn't a frame of reference of where to begin, fixing anything seems impossible.  After breaking apart their first digital clock, or radio, or electronic game, students begin to recognize the components because they're already familiar with the bits and pieces having used them to assemble a dozen Arduino projects already.  With the mystery gone, they begin to grasp the power their minds and hands have.

I'm re-reading Matthew Crawford's Shopclass as Soulcraft.  It's such a complex read, with so many ideas packed into each page, a second run through will do me good.  If you're an educator, and you can take some well intended criticism, reading the first couple of chapters will challenge many of the assumptions we wrongly found current educational theory on.   I imagine most educators won't find the criticism comfortable, no matter how well intentioned.

I'm about to get my first motorcycle and I've found myself casting about, trying to figure out who I can get to maintain it for me.  A chapter in and this ex-mechanic is getting his hands on a shop manual and doing it himself.  One of the reasons I want to begin riding is to develop a closer relationship with the machinery I use.  The plastic covered, warrantied cars I drive don't do that.  The nakedness of a motorcycle begs for it; I'm looking forward to that quiet, focused mind driving busy hands.

There is something inherently valuable in being able to fix what you use.  I've never had to argue for the value of what we do in computer studies, the learning has inherent worth, is immediately useful, and applicable in a surprisingly wide range of situations.  From the insides of an operating system to the flow of electrons around a circuit, these students develop a familiarity and comfort level with something that most people are more than happy to use in blissful ignorance (until it breaks).  The tactile nature of the work also draws in even the most reticent.  Working with your hands, making something real work through trial and error, offers an experience missing from much of academia.  Crawford's philosophical attack on the globalized knowledge economy happens every day in my classroom.

Many of these students will move on to other interests in other fields, but none of them will ever again be at the mercy of their ignorance while working with a computer.  I'll have to paste rubrics and marks over all this to make it credible to the establishment, but the moment a student who has been whacking his head against his own bad wiring for half an hour realizes what he's done and fixes it himself, he has developed a tiny bit of independence, and perhaps realized that paying attention is a powerful ally.  Learning shouldn't be frustration free, if it were, it wouldn't mean anything.  With minds and hands engaged in a battle with realistic demands, the rewards are hard to quantify in a mid-term mark.