Sunday, 29 September 2013

ECOO 2013 Cometh

Last year I was getting primed for ECOO 2012 by constructing a process for transitioning from school provided, generic educational technology to a bring-your-own-device learning situation.  The idea was to assist this evolution toward personalized technology following some sort of pedagogical imperative rather than what appears to be a financially motivated top down drive to minimize school purchased tech.

Digital technology is intensely personal because it interacts with our
most personal selves, our minds...
Critically examining how we make use of technology has always been at the core of my teaching.  As I transitioned from academically focused English to technology orientated computer engineering my willingness to look for easy answers in educational technology has dried up.

Since the last ECOO a couple of events have made me question the branded nature of #edtech.  It began with the Google Education Summit in Kitchener in the spring, and then culminated with the Pearson Summit a week later.  As educators it is incumbent upon us to be technologically agnostic, this is getting more and more difficult as cash strapped teachers and boards look for financial advantage courtesy of corporate offers.  I've been battling my own understanding of this all year.

Can you imagine if your chalk board had a 'courtesy of Crayola' sign in the top corner?  Or the paper you hand out to students had a 'brought to you by Hilroy' on it?  Yet we don't think twice about branding the digital technology.  A student can't get on to a school machine without getting Delled, BenQed, Microsoft'd, Jinged and Googled, and we actually enjoy that branding, we encourage it.

In only a few weeks I'm talking about our digital selves at ECOO 13.  I'm excited about going to ECOO, doing Minds On Media for the first time (nurture your inner hacker, I'll show you how to code a microcontroller and become your own I.T. support!)  My worry is that I'm finding edtech increasingly owned, controlled and not focused on developing student (and educator) fluency.

I'm still being haunted by Matt Crawford's Shopclass as Soulcraft.  Crawford's description of the consumer as a victim of their own technological ignorance resonates:

"Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political."

The scattered, distracted 21st Century human being seems more a victim of digital technology than empowered by it.  When I realize that the 'I'm tech-savvy' high school student doesn't know what a disk partition or an IP address is, or how to boot to external media, I realize that what little expertise they've gained is almost entirely at the hands of commercial or political persuasion, and teachers are no different.  This kind of fluency doesn't suit corporate interests who would rather be able to sell you on marketing rather than engineering.  The kind of ignorance this brews is staggering.

I want to produce a constructive solution to hard pedagogical questions around technology use.  I'm finding this increasingly difficult as edu-tech becomes a managed, mainstream expectation rather than an experimental, fringe element.  The urge to simplify with dictated systems that encourage ignorance has me wondering how education will prevent rather than produce more dysfunctional digital natives.

The perfect platform for teaching students effective use of technology is an open source system that they build from scratch and have to maintain themselves.  The more you do for them, the less necessary fluency becomes.  Technology literacy is a 21st Century fluency that we should be teaching curriculum wide, much like literacy or numeracy.

That ideal technology learning platform is agnostic, varied and offers redundancy and resilience.  Students should never be in a position where the network technology is broken, but the hands on technology shouldn't be done for them.  What I'm seeing in educational technology is completely backwards; everything is locked down and done for students, and it seldom works.  This is a recipe for ignorance and about as far from pedagogically useful as we can get.

There is precious little open source software used in education, mostly because it demands competence and
Don't you wish there were a shared,open source
option for educational technology
?  There is,
but there is no money in it and it requires
responsibility.  Buying a corporate system offers you turn key technology.  We could offer cheap, debranded technology with open source, shared development software, but we don't because we'd rather be consumers than makers.  This is a result of teacher indifference as much as anything else.  Basic fluencies should be attended to and you'd have to be obtuse to think that effective use of digital tools isn't going to be as important as literacy and numeracy in the 21st Century.

I'm still not sure where I'm going with ECOO13...

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Learning Goals & Success Criteria

Learning Goals & Success Criteria

This past week we had a department heads visioning day.  One of the focuses (from the Ministry through the Board) was a concerted focus on clearly articulating learning goals and success criteria.  This goal/criteria approach has a lot of traction in current educational thinking.  Clearly stating the point of a lesson allows for greater focus for the teacher and greater fairness in instruction for the student.  In the ideal classroom clearly articulated learning goals along with specific criteria that demonstrate success allow everyone to work to a commonly understood end.

Learning goals and success criteria offer a trendy sense of student centered equality and transparency with no chance of nasty teachers changing up goals to suit their own megalomania.  In the process of establishing these learning goals and success criteria, teaching becomes a linear, reductive process that anyone with the right flowchart could follow.

There has been an ongoing attempt to simplify teaching in order to more efficiently (read: cheaply) manage it.  This is often hidden in business terminology like data driven analysis or goal orientated production.  The urge to simplify teaching offers some real financial payoffs.  If teaching is something that can be reduced to piece work we can drastically reduce professional expectations (and what we pay for them).  This cynicism is what I approached this latest PD with.  Do the powers that be want me to do this for the good of my students or for the good of the system?  The two things are often not mutually compatible.

Like many other previous educational fads LG/SC seems to have come from elementary classrooms.  In a grade two class where you need to provide structure around early student learning in order to show them the way this might have a credible place.  With sixteen year olds on the verge of moving beyond the classroom, clearly articulated goals and criteria could as easily obstruct the purpose of the lesson as it does help students.  In complex learning environments the teacher can often use the process of self-directed discovery to empower student learning.  If we are working in a lab on an experiment, clearly articulating the goal and success criteria to get you there reduces the complex process of scientific experimentation to a series of if/then statements.  In a room where experienced students are working with advanced ideas, learning goals seem like a simplistic step backwards.

In the working world you don't often find yourself with clearly articulated goals and criteria.  Workplaces and even post secondary education are complex environments in which self directed learning, organization and initiative are valued more than your ability to follow clearly articulated goals, assuming you're given any goals at all.  Asking high school teachers to focus on this means of 'student success' is like asking capable bicycle riders to put training wheels on in order to not fall over so much.  The intent might be to offer them a greater sense of safety and focus, but the result is a capable rider not being able to test their limits on the bike.

Schools already do a great job of atrophying initiative, creativity, self-direction and differentiation of learning in students.  That a new system hopes to close that off even more is worrying.  Where is there space for initiative, self directed learning or differentiation in classroom focused on listed goals and criteria?  Clearly articulated goals might help those who have no idea why they are in school, but they limit everyone else, especially at a secondary level, and even more so in non-deterministic learning situations.

I teach computer engineering and like many technology classes the students are asked to work in a stochastic, non-deterministic learning process.  As we push learners into more advanced learning situations clear goals become a detriment to their learning, much like any other expectation.  Rather than being able to discover direction through research and experimentation, the goal orientated classroom is barren and linear.  Perhaps it works for academic subjects but it never has in my experience, and the academic teachers it does work for aren't teachers anyone brags about.  If education is about discovery and engagement then ideas like goals and success criteria need to be handled very lightly, not suggested as a school wide success strategy by class room reviewers.

Many of the heads at our meeting weren't interested in picking up another one year fad from the Board, though they didn't articulate why other than simply being tired of them.  For me this latest educational focus raises some fundamental questions about education.  Are we teaching students to learn or are we teaching them curriculum material?  Since those two things often conflict with teach other, it would be good to hear what our overall goal is.  I'm all for learning to learn, and to do that you can't be trying to reduce learning to a flowchart of actions.  Learning is a fantastic and fantastically complicated process, and teaching someone how to do it goes back to the old adage about teaching a person to fish as opposed to giving them a fish.

Learning goals and success criteria fit nicely into the data driven educational management paradigm.  I have a number of concerns about driving education by the numbers.  Data (statistics) might offer some insight, but to drive education policy based upon them seems a cart before the horse approach.  I'd much rather follow a vision than my own tail (the stats from last year).  Following the numbers smacks of the kind of self-justifying business think I and others have railed against.

Teacher Intent

Teacher intent: pure evil? If so,
learning goals can save you from
Teacher intent is probably the most important piece of this puzzle.  A teacher who doesn't know what they are doing or is doing it maliciously is the kind of teacher that needs learning goals and success criteria in order to be fair to their students; goals and clearly stated criteria stop that kind of teacher from doing damage.  Anyone teaching from a place that needs learning goals and success criteria in order to be fair to their students shouldn't be teaching.  A powerful learning environment is safe enough that students can be humble without feeling inferior and a teacher can let compassion rather than megalomania direct their ego when they are trusted with that most fragile of vessels, an ignorant human being.

In Ontario we've done everything possible in the past year to damage teacher intent.  From governments to media to political parties to ministry to boards and unions; teacher intent has taken a beating from pretty much everyone.  Into this low place we're delivered the latest silver bullet in education that seems designed to replace teacher intent entirely with data driven, linear, flow chart orientated goal setting.

Is teaching an art or a flowchart?  Is it a complex human endeavor or a business process?  I know many education managers and their financial overlords would like to turn what we do into (data driven) piece work, but that will result in an Americanization of our education system that will cause a plunge in quality much like they have experienced south of the border.  Simplifying education hurts everyone.

Teacher intent is the elephant in every room whenever I hear anyone talk about teaching and learning. Politicians love to take it out and abuse it for their own shabby ends, the general public only remembers their worst experiences in school and belittle teachers for it, and unions refuse to even consider teacher intent because it would call into question the competence of their own members.  Meanwhile, many teachers question it in themselves and in their colleagues.

If your teachers are caring, careful, professionals who approach each lesson with the intention of maximizing their student's potential,  you're going to have a positive learning environment.  Making teachers write that intent on the board won't stop bad teachers from being unfair, and good teachers will find it limiting.  How often have you started a lesson only to have to make an abrupt change because student understanding or mood isn't where you need it?  If you've already written up what you're doing it makes what should be a graceful, responsive changes into an awkward situation in which you've emphasized student ignorance.

The mindset a teacher enters a classroom is pivotal to successful learning in that classroom.  A teacher who is resilient, mentally agile, even handed and humble before their own power is the most powerful thing a student could hope for in learning.  That teacher happily bounces out that door to do extracurriculars, works with colleagues beyond their own classroom and encourages personal growth rather than data collection in their students.  They aren't trapped in myopic data collection, they don't see people as data, they see them as people.  A happy, capable teacher is a wonder.

Rather than frankly examining, understanding and improving teacher intent we get professionally developed toward systematic, process orientated teaching practices that feed data into the education machine.

Students aren't the only bricks in the wall.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

#edtech I.T. Management

Welcome to 2010, kindof...
We're back in school again and it's been a bit of a #edtech mess.  Over the summer our board upgraded to Windows 7 (so now we're only one iteration behind the most current operating system).  In the process the entire network was rejigged to fit this new desktop O.S..

Because doing a massive O.S. install wasn't enough, we also had a major hardware update, moving both models and manufacturers from several years old MDG Intel core two duos to Dell Intel i3s.  If you don't know the nomenclature don't sweat it, the long and the short is that our school technology is basically completely different from what we were running last year; and it isn't working very well.

Managing I.T. is tricky at the best of times.  Managing it in an education environment is more so due to the privacy concerns and complexity of trying to serve people ranging in age from five to sixty five and in computer skill from caveman to cyborg.  To top it off they are all going after radically different uses from physical education to theoretical physics and from pre-university to kindegarten.  Pitching to the middle of this group causes frustration at either end, it's not like running an office where everyone has similar backgrounds, ages and a common focus.

With that much difficulty it's not surprising that our board I.T. seems to often lose sight of what their function is.  Supporting effective use of technology in learning shouldn't be far from anyone's mind, but it often feels like the reason for being there gets lost in the complexity.  On top of that, board I.T. often seems strongly coloured by business thinking, which it isn't.  One of our networks is called UGDSBcorp.  I'm not sure at what point our public school board became a corporation, but the naming says a lot about the thinking.

We're in a transitional time in information technology.  What used to be closed systems meant to connect employees internally are migrating to web based services that are meant to offer greater communication, efficiency and utility.  Clinging to the old way of delivering I.T. results in a lot of unnecessary overhead.  An example is our email.  We cling to Firstclass as an internal client but are also running UGcloud (google apps for education which includes gmail).  We're told to check our email each day.  Which one?  Both?  I know which one I can connect to more consistently, and it isn't the internal board one.

With the migration of apps and systems to the cloud it might be wise to push aside the intranet 1990s thinking and consider a resilient network that simply allows easy access to the internet.  Privacy can still be protected on secure web-servers.  If you can do your banking on them, you can certainly store student records on them.  But our board clings to intranet thinking, keeping the vast majority of functionality on local servers and increasing their management work load to such a degree that they can't keep up with basic operations.

I've long held that students (and staff) don't learn responsible use of technology if you hand them hobbled technology.  No one ever got on the tour de France with training wheels.  The internet they see at home or on their phones isn't the training-wheels internet they see at school, and this isn't helpful.  Instead of using the internet as a babysitter in class, teachers need to be in the middle of it, calling attention to misuse and showing best practices.  A school system with less fetters would aid this and make management easier for the people who are constantly short staffed and given too little time to keep it running.

Until we have internet and technology access that rivals the up-time of what we see outside of school we have an uphill struggle convincing reticent educators and poorly trained students to learn best practices, which is supposed to be the whole point.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Ghost In The Machine

Watching how people drive cars is a study in their true nature.  In a car, much like being online, people feel anonymous and powerful.  They are less fearful of physical response and more likely to be adversarial, aggressive and greedy.  After driving a couple of thousand miles in the past week down and up the crowded east coast of North America I've a clearer idea of just how confused we are in this era of human/machine symbiosis.

Internet Disinhibition
Last night as we pulled into a parking lot after a long day of driving, a man backed out of his parking spot without so much as a shoulder check and almost t-boned us.  When we yelled for him to watch out he became incensed and started screaming back about how it was our fault that he almost ran into us.

This was an interesting reaction.  Had he walked into someone on the street he probably would have apologized and backed off, but in his car he immediately went on the offensive, like a small dog barking at someone from behind its owner's legs.

People do this online all the time, it's called flaming or trolling.  They shoot their mouths off without fear of consequence.  Technically this is called the Online Disinhibition Effect; an abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions because people feel insulated by their anonymity online.  They experience the same false sense of empowerment while driving.

There seems to be a dishinhibition effect whenever people identify themselves through technology.  This is very odd because human beings are almost always the weakest link in any vehicle being driven or computer being operated.  That they hide their inferiority in the power the machine is truly perverse.

We drove miles out of our way to get off the crowded,
angry interstates
Driving out of Virginia Beach on the worst designed freeway I've ever been on we were stuck in stop and go traffic for the better part of an hour while people blasted up the clearly marked merging lane to pull in at the front of the line.  Their behavior was what was causing the slowdown, though they were the ones most angered by it.

The police ended up pulling up to the front and ticketing people who were driving up the shoulder to further slow down the flow of traffic.  People weren't just making use of  the merging lane, they were pulling out into it to pass everyone else and further compress traffic.  In their cars these people are immediately willing, in front of a large audience of their peers, to ignore everyone's best interests in order to serve their own ends.  I recently saw a link to self-driven cars and how they will be arriving soon; they can't arrive soon enough.  Human beings aren't capable of acting in everyone's best interests, machines are.

I'm about to return to the classroom and teach students how to make effective use of technology in their lives, but there is virtually no examination of the effects on human psychology by these technologies.  I see it every day when students do inappropriate things online and are then astonished that they are reprimanded for it - they are used to online spaces being a free-for-all, the wild west.  Where they actually are is in a virtual place that is recording their every action.

Whether it's on the road or online we increasingly identify our selves and our abilities through the machines that enhance us, but the motive power of a car or the communication reach of online tools are not ours to claim, we are merely the ghosts that inhabit and direct these machines, and many people do so poorly without any idea of what they are, how they actually work, and (as a result) how to make them work to best effect.

Humility, civil interaction and a clear sense of our limits seem to be the first victims of our increasingly virtual sense of self.  That so many of us, especially younger people, are wallowing in these delusions does not bode well for the future.  Technology should offer us insight into our selves, instead we are using it to hide our deficiencies.