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  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher's mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.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.