Thursday, 18 July 2013

Royan's Delemma

Royan Lee's Spicy Learning Blog (it's in my list of favorites on the side of Dusty World), asks some hard questions as digital technology matures and reaches mass appeal...

My response...

There is something about mass adoption that shifts a market from focusing on literate early adopters to the willfully ignorant masses.  When the herd finally adopts a technology it becomes a race to reach the widest range of people (including the lowest denominator).

When they started manufacturing automobiles in the early 1900s each one was hand crafted, almost unique and required either your own personal mechanic or you were the mechanic.  As automobiles became more popular, the landscape changed, systems became synchronized, the car became a cookie cuttered piece of mass assembly designed in more complicated
ways to ask less of the driver - the only sense of individuality was found in the frantic marketing.  The technology itself matured into operator simplicity in order to get even the most incompetent people behind the wheel.

Sound familiar Microsoft?  Google?  Apple?  Fanboy/girlism is one of the clearest signs that we've moved past the early adopter stance on digital technology and are now catering to the main stream (I say that in the most derogatory way possible) where marketing dictates sales because the majority of people have no idea how the technology works.  It's in this environment that giant legal documents creep in to user agreements and business finds more insidious ways to make use of the ignorant consumer.

If you put this in a modern
owner's manual, people
wouldn't buy it
If you look at manuals from long ago, they were full of technological information on how the product worked (so you could fix it).  Nowadays you get legalese and idiot diagrams designed to hide the inner workings.  They are even put together intentionally to prevent you from repairing them.

The only real way to save yourself from the vapid consumerism and accompanying ignorance that drives mass adoption is through the hacking ethos of maker culture; this has never died.  Cars are being stamped out for the unwashed masses by multi-nationals but there has always been a thriving underground of maker/hackers who ignore the rules designed for the ignorant and come to relate to the technology in a direct, more complete way.

If you want to save your (and your student's) minds from this ignorant, simplified relationship with technology, reignite their inner hackers.  Get into the nuts and bolts, bend technology to your will.  Freedom is only a hack away!

Some reading to save your mind:  a brilliant, modern attack on consumerist thinking and the power of your hands to save you  a classic on how modern people relate to technology  a hacker manifesto

Don't give up!  Just don't follow the road more traveled (even if it's paved for you by people determined to monetize you)...

MediaSmarts: Battling Consumerism

Monday, 15 July 2013

OISE AQ Blog: Your dream lab

Our blog entry for today (we do one a day during this qualification course to teach computer engineering)...
Mike Druiven's lab at CKSS in Milton

In the context of teaching Computer Technology, 9 to 12
What do you like about 112 & 113 at CKS?

  • The rooms are purposed for what they teach (I have to teach comp-eng in a board lab with locked down computers shared with 2 other subject areas).  
  • The cupboards were installed to a very high standard (we installed them last year ;) and provide a lot of easily accessible storage.  
  • The work benches have plugs on hand and encourage building as well as easy collaborating (Conestoga's computer engineering lab uses similar benches - I'd LOVE a set of them!)
  • natural light is nice
  • Smartboard is permanently installed and out of the way
  • multiple seating areas
  • two labs designed around two different purposes so you can go to what fits what you're doing best

What would you change?
  • the stools aren't the most comfortable over a whole day, but that's not really an issue for teenagers in 75 minute periods, wheelie ergonomic work chairs would be nice, but wouldn't fit the regular student in here (as opposed to the old guy with a dodgy back)
  • rack mounted LCD monitors that could be folded away when not in use would be nice for the benches, as would a sleeve to hold peripherals for quick set up of desktops
  • having more control of the server side IT structure would allow for more complete networking opportunities while still making use of board internet access
  • I saw a sound-field system used a few years ago and even though I'm not a particularly audial learner, I found it absolutely fantastic for de-stressing a teacher's voice and aiding student learning, having one in here would be nice
  • we're inches away from 3d holography.  Mike could go full 'help me Obiwan Kenobi, you're my only hope!' with a 3d holography system in front of his desk... where else but in computer engineering should we show of the leading edge of computer engineering?
Develop a 5 year action plan to improve a Computer Technology classroom that you work in, have worked in or have seen.
    • improve tools & supplies
    • improve equipment
    • improve seating and lesson delivery
    • improve displays
I've agonized over the lab they gave me since seeing Mike putting together his lab last summer.  I initially gave up, then started looking at cheap ways to make use of this giant space.  I went on an ethernet spending spree and purchased long (25 and 50 ft) ethernet cables whenever they went on sale.  When I had enough I took an afternoon after school and migrated all the computers at the back up the unused wall, so the school lab is now located all toward the front of the room (and connected to the drops at the back by looong ethernet cables).  With the back clear, I got my hands on some work tables and set them up in a C pattern at the back.  It is here that we build our own networks and PCs.

I began picking up computers from schools from our board's regional school (GCVI in Guelph), so every year I have relatively new machines we can experiment on.  This year we're especially lucky because our technician asked if we could keep 30 of the retiring PCs back for us to use, so in the fall we'll have 2GB Pentium Core2Duo machines, which should be fun.

I'd still like the lab to be computer engineering specific. We currently run 3 grade 9 sections and an 11/12 combined section.  If I can get that up to eight sections, I could lock down the lab and re-purpose it to computer engineering and nothing else.  If that happened I'd chuck the board lab (someone would be happy to have it somewhere else) and run work benches down the middle of the room, leaving the side tables for other work.

I'm currently looking at getting my hands on more Raspberry Pis and Arduinos and expanding our electronics repertoire. It's currently stored in a back room, I would very much like to have in-room access to this material as Mike has in his room.

Seating and lesson delivery would be aided by a lab with re-adjustable benches and seating.
The Dream Media Arts Lab
 A couple of years ago I saw THIS video about Finnish classroom furniture.  I used it in my dream media arts lab.  Having a room with furniture that could reconfigure on the fly for whatever we're doing is the kind of flexibility I dream of in the classroom.

I saw Mosaika a couple of years ago at the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.  It blew me away!  It turns out projection is the next big thing in animating buildings.  I'd like to do something similar in our school  with a long throw projector, using it to show announcements and pictures on the wall of our library.  Five years out I'm hoping that pico-projectors will be cheap enough that the walls, floor and ceiling of my classroom will become pedagogical tools for student learning.  I don't think I'm going to get to see holo-decks during my career, but the idea of a holographic or whole room projection is a pretty exciting prospect, and once again, where else to show the future of computer engineering if not in a computer engineering lab?

Coding the walls to show supporting information around student learning as it happens... we haven't even begun to consider just how powerful pervasive digital presence in the real world could be!  (I'm tempted to put an evil scientist laugh in here)

My lab 2013:
My lab, 2018?

Friday, 5 July 2013

Coding Is A Hands-on Skill

I'm frustrated at how computer science seems to own coding.  In Ontario it is now an orphaned subject unto itself.  There is no way someone without a degree in computer science can teach coding, though coding isn't computer science any more than auto mechanics is theoretical physics.

This reminds me of the Big Bang Theory when Leonard's car breaks down.  He asks, "does anyone here know how internal combustion engines work?" and all the the scientists in the car laugh and nod.  He then asks, "can anyone here fix a car?" And all the heads go down and they say no.

Computer science is the theoretical end of a spectrum of coding that goes from hands-on hacking through professional coding and into academic research.  That only math quants who were looking for a second teachable pretty much like their first can teach it greatly limits its appeal to the general population. agrees with me, as does Steve Jobs, as does Codeacademy, Khan Academy and many other online groups.  These organizations are proliferating because we are not offering our students meaningful access to computer programming.

If we're going to treat coding (as a part of digital fluency in general) like other basic skills (literacy, numeracy), then we need to free up coding from the bizarre limitations placed upon it by the Ministry of Education and computer scientists.

Can you imagine if all the autoshop teachers had to be theoretical physicists or engineers before they could apply that knowledge to repairing vehicles?  It's a ridiculous idea, yet that is precisely what we are doing with coding in Ontario schools.  There are many ways a teacher could approach computer programming, limiting it to an extreme, theoretical end of the spectrum doesn't respect the variety of people who get into coding, and it doesn't offer students that variety in the classroom.  Coding isn't a theoretically biased branch of knowledge, in fact I'd argue that coding has much more in common with stochastic technical skills.

We are killing a vital 21st Century fluency stone dead with arbitrary limitations.  Coding should be a technology course, it should be hands on, and it should work hand in hand with engineering (because that is what it is and what it does).  That it is artificially separated into a null space between mathematics and computer studies helps no one other than old school computer scientists, and there aren't many of them.  The irony is that many of the math teachers with comp-sci as a teachable don't want to teach it because they never kept up with it other than as a theoretical/academic course of study in university; they don't love coding, it was simply an easy way to extend their mathematical degree work.

Computer science, like theoretical physics, is a vital subject, but it's highly specialized and how we teach it should recognize that.  Coding is a skill anyone can learn, and should.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Changing My Mind About PD

OISE's Senior Computer Tech AQ
I'm about to head into the senior part of my computer technology AQ with the University of Toronto.  My instructor is an outstanding fellow, we're in a new school with a fantastic lab and if it's anything like last year I'll expand my knowledge in a subject I really enjoy both professionally and personally.

I've found myself at times falling in to the negativity that many teachers feel around PD, but it's easy to get excited about this course.  I could get all long in the face about how much it's costing me, how many weeks of my summer I've got to spend doing it, why I have to take an AQ in this subject when I see so many other teachers with no background or qualifications in the subjects they teach not doing it.  I could wallow in the negativity, but I won't because I don't want it to spoil the learning opportunity.  Learning dynamics are so closely tied to the emotional approach of the student that I'm making a conscious choice not to.  This has left me wondering at all those teachers who hate on PD.

I work with a number of teachers who don't do the AQ thing.  They think it's a waste of time and money, they think it's just a money grab with no real value.  These teachers often end up teaching subjects they have no background in.  Over time they learn how to teach the subject because they are smart, capable people who want to do the job well, but they consider teacher training to be beneath them.

I first came across this attitude in educators in teacher's college and I found it demoralizing and unhelpful.  I didn't sign up for teacher's college to go through the motions just to get an empty qualification.  As I began teaching I found that cynical negativity surrounding professional development.  PD was treated by a surprising number of teachers as a waste of their time, something beneath them.

Teaching is one of those jobs that demands a degree of arrogance in order to survive.  If you're timid or unsure you'll get eaten up by a difficult class.  Confidence, even over-confidence, is an important survival tool.  The spill-over into our own learning is distressing though.  Teaching is a challenging discipline, if anyone thinks they've got it all figured out they are kidding themselves.  By turning that self-defensive cockiness on our own learning we effectively limit our ability to perform our work well.

I'm not a fan of mindless optimism.  An accurate assessment of what is going on is more important than mindless positivity.  I see a lot of management types who do this and it drives me nuts.  The easiest way to lose me as a team member is to ignore facts in favor blind positivity, but that doesn't mean blind cynicism is any better, in fact it's worse.

A teacher who won't be taught is about as useful as a mechanic who can't drive or a doctor who ignores health; in both cases these are people are can't make use of what they claim to be experts in.  A negative approach to learning affects a teacher's ability to teach.  Beyond the professional problems, teachers who are bad students are hypocrites; they berate a student in class for doing what they themselves do at PD.  Unless you're able to model productive learning you aren't showing your students what you'd like them to do, and you probably don't have a good grasp on what it is you're supposed to be doing in a classroom.

Those teachers who don't make productive use of professional development, including taking AQs, do themselves and their profession a disservice.  Those administrators that trivialize teaching by ignoring qualifications aren't the kind of educators I enjoy working with.  There is something to be said for objectively taught professional designations.  They certainly have more credence than someone simply giving a teacher a class because they like them or think them capable.

So, tomorrow I begin a two hour daily commute and eight hours a day in class for three weeks to study a subject I worked  in professionally for years before I became a teacher.  I could turn my nose up at it, trivialize the experience, make it less than it could be, or I could approach it the way I'd like a student to approach my own class, with curiosity, humility, positivity and integrity.

Next time you find yourself dismissing professional development, consider how changing your mind might make you a better learner and teacher.  And if you're avoiding an AQ because you think it beneath you, perhaps you shouldn't be teaching that subject in the first place.  It's hard to argue for teaching as a profession if it doesn't have credible, valuable training that is a requirement for the job.  It's even harder to understand a teacher who refuses to be taught anything.