Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Sand in the Sahara

The other day I was trying to work out how experiential and academic learning interact.  In the process I also found myself assuming things about fundamental learning skills that don't necessarily exist in many modern classrooms:

Foundational skills are changing now that information is no longer scarce

It used to be that literacy and numeracy were the student skills we felt they needed to succeed.  Information fluency was less important because the gatekeepers of knowledge (teachers) and the limited nature of published paper meant you didn't have access to what you needed to know so you needed an expert to direct you.  In a world with limited information having a guide direct you to a scarce resource is invaluable.

When I was in high school information was hard to come by.  You needed access to a limited number of books and if you had a question a teacher would provide you access to that information.  Because of scarcity, verbal transmission of information (teacher's mouth to student's ear) made sense.  Many teachers still cling to that model because it's the only one they've ever known and they identify their profession through that process.  In 2014 they they are trying to sell sand in what has become the Sahara.

Information is abundant and accessible with only a basic understanding of the technology that provides it.  A modern student who looks to a teacher to give them facts has been conditioned by teachers to be helpless.  Teachers who jealously guard and distribute knowledge in predigital ways are the ones crying about how technology lets students plagiarize or collaborate with each other, or share information - it's really all the same thing.  Students who are able to find, critically assess and organize information are the ones modelling 21st Century skills.  The ones who have been taught to be passive receivers in a sea of information are a failure in an education system set on maintaining traditional habits.

Considering how information fluency has changed from a passive to an active pursuit (in much the same way that passive TV watching has evolved into active video game participation), it would behoove the education system to recognize the need to integrate information fluency into early education in order to produce self-directed, empowered learners who are able to leverage the ocean of information that surrounds them.  Ignoring this new fundamental skill is producing whole generations of digital serfs.

There is no doubt that literacy, numeracy and the basic socialization of early school is still the foundation, but upon that foundation we should be building information fluency in order to produce people who are not overwhelmed or habituated into a dangerously simplistic relationship with information technology.  By the time a student reaches secondary school they should be sufficiently skilled in literacy, numeracy and information fluency to be able to self direct many aspects of their learning.  In that environment a classroom teacher would very much be a facilitator rather than a traditional teacher, but it's never going to happen if we don't take information fluency as seriously as we do literacy and numeracy.

Building foundational learning skills should result in empowered, self-directed learners who can
survive and thrive in an information rich world.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Learning Expert & The Skilled Master

The other day a tech-handy colleague said over coffee, "I should get my tech qualifications in computers, what did you have to do to take the course?"  I replied that I had to provide five or more years of industry experience and recognized qualifications in order to qualify for the training; he seemed put off.

I understand his response, I battled the same one when I was applying to get qualified.  It was a kind of knee jerk reaction, a 'how dare you ask for specific qualifications!  I'm an expert learner with years of educational experience!'  I dug up my references and certifications and went through the process after putting away that ego.

This has me thinking about the duality of my educational background.  From high school dropout I attended a year of college before dropping out.  I then apprenticed as a millwright and returned to high school to graduate.  This eventually led me to university.  After university I was once again working in the trades as a automotive technician before eventually finding my way into information technology and finally teaching.  In the trades I worked in mastery focused experiential learning situations that were intense and demanding.  Academics were also demanding, but in a different way which usually had more to do with figuring out how to feed myself.  I got paid to apprentice in a trade, you are a customer when you are working through post secondary academics.  I saw a number of people being passed through that process simply because they wouldn't quit.  You saw less of that in the trades because if you couldn't do it, you often got injured and/or fired.

I took English and history as my teachables because it was easier to simply toss my degree into the ring than it was to cobble together all those technology requirements.  Most teachers in a high school are academically produced, the minority get into teaching through experiential/trades learning.  Those academically produced teachers are expert students themselves, they had to be or they wouldn't have survived the educational process.  An expert student is as much a politician as they are a learner, they've figured out how to survive in what is really an arbitrary social construct.

Having worked on the experiential and the academic sides of learning, I'm now trying to define the differences in the two types of learning:

Experiential versus discovery learning.  When you're learning a stochastic (experiential, non-linear) skill, you
need an expert in that experience to guide your progress.  When you're learning academics you need an
expert learner to show you how to self direct your learning and survive the system.
I'll talk about fundamental learning skills in another post, but in this case I'm focusing on the secondary learner who has already developed fundamental learning skills.  That student is capable of self-directing their learning, and in an information rich world like the one appearing around us this is a vital portion of their engagement in the learning process.  Where once we expected students to sit in rows and be portioned out information, nowadays teachers should be facilitating self-directed learning.  A 21st Century teacher's greatest ability is their own expertise in information fluency, which they provide in order to produce similarly self-directed learners.

'That's academic' has long meant a course of action that has no practical purpose, but academics do generally produce self-directed learners who have had to survive the vicissitudes of many education systems over the years and have become self-taught in spite of the best efforts of many of their educators.

In management and education the goals are
abstract, fabricated and ultimately political
In comparison to my academic background my experiential learning has been uncertain and demanding with no guarantee of success.  The tension between success in a fabricated situation and success in a genuine situation that allows for failure became more apparent to me as I proceeded through university.  Matt Crawford brings this up in Shop Class As Soulcraft when he refers to the magical thinking conjured up by management to justify their decisions.  Education, like business management, is a social construct and produces what Crawford describes as 'psychedelic' justification for its own existence.  As his quote here suggests, when you're learning experientially in a realistic environment you don't get to say, 'hey! great job!' if you're looking at your dismembered finger laying on the floor; reality doesn't put up with that crap.

As someone who has bounced back and forth between both sides of the education spectrum I can see the value and challenges in both.  What surprises me is how unwilling academic educators are to appreciate the advantages found in the hard-knocks school of experiential learning compared to the complex political dance of the academic classroom.

I know a lot of teachers who get angry with Shaw's pithy little quote about a character who is upset with his writing teacher, but I know a lot of teachers who teach writing who don't do it themselves.  I know a lot of teachers in a number of subjects that don't practice what they teach; it's hard not to see some truth in that statement.

Watching some teachers struggle with the surging availability of information makes me wonder what they'll do when an algorithm is created that does everything they do (I give it ten years).  There will come a time when our learning management systems become sufficiently intuitive and make the learning expert teacher redundant (while simultaneously personalizing education in a dramatic way).

It's a tough thing to be made irrelevant, ask many factory workers.  The teachers who will avoid being replaced by software in this inevitable future are the experiential masters who are guiding learning through doing, yet another reason why I reopened my experiential past and got tech-qualified.  It's too bad that not everyone practices what they teach.

Friday, 14 February 2014

One Day Edtech Will Amplify Pedagogy Rather Than Stealing From It

Pedagogy ORIGIN: late C16th: from French pédagogie,
from Greek paidagōgia , from paidagōgos,  
Sometimes etymology can be wonderfully ironic.
This one is complicated.  Trying to work out the relationship between pedagogy, technology and money is the trial of our times.

The other day Alanna was reading a passage about how little technology has affected pedagogy.  Rather than revolutionize how we teach, technology has merely become a new, more efficient medium for the same practices, it's done nothing to advance pedagogical practice.  This got me thinking about the relationship between pedagogy and technology.  As I was pondering those two, money crept in, as it always does.

Pedagogy is a rather terrifyingly open concept, but I've always found its breadth to be its saving grace.  With a sweeping definition like "the method and practice of teaching", pedagogy is applicable to the full spectrum of teaching and learning, and that range is truly staggering.  Pedagogy can be found in everything from the coach who reduces their players to mush after a hard practice to the use of a chalkboard in a math class.  It lives in the first turn of a wrench by a budding mechanic and the circling of a grammar error by an exhausted English teacher.  That pedagogy is in everything related to teaching and learning is its greatest strength, it becomes an ideal in an education system that otherwise exists as a series of compromises.

In our real world of compromise pedagogy often makes uncomfortable demands.  This is where money sneaks in.  When we consider sound pedagogy, we consider best teaching practices to maximize learning.  But we don't go searching for best practices in an ideal environment, instead we attempt as much effective pedagogy as the money allows.  Good pedagogical practice costs money.  Educational technology costs (a lot of) money.  Both are reaching for the same finite, decreasing pot of funding; this can't end well.

Does this mean more money always equals better pedagogy?  Not at all, but pedagogy is one of the first things you see diminish in money challenged situations.  Poor schools tend to lack the student to teacher ratio or basic equipment to provide strong pedagogy.  Rich schools can offer smaller class sizes and better trained teachers, both of which support sound pedagogy.  That these pedagogically proven concepts have to compete with the same funding that feeds ed-tech is where the equation gets more complicated.

Digital technology, an expensive new medium of communication, offers unprecedented access to information and democratizes publication.  There is no doubt that it is important as both a skill to learn and a tool with which to learn other things (though education seldom recognizes that distinction and just assumes digital natives magically know how to make technology an effective tool).

Outside education, digital communication has revolutionized everything from manufacturing to broadcasting.  Inside education it has let students type the same essay assignment they would have done on pen and paper twenty years ago, though it has made plagiarism easier.  Instead of making a poster for a presentation, students can now make digital presentations.  All technology has done in education is to offer a faddish means of producing the same old work we've always done.  That faddishness appears to take care of the dreaded engagement problem, which excites many boring people.

Digital technology hardly seems revolutionary in the school context.  If all we're using it for is as a replacement for paper then it's just a new, more expensive, less environmentally friendly way of doing what we've always done.  If technology doesn't have an additive relationship with pedagogy it's a lost cause, and from what I've seen it doesn't.  It does however take a lot of limited funding away from other, proven pedagogical strategies.

The money creep goes further than stagnant pedagogical practice.  It turns out you can make a lot of money convincing educational systems to buy in to technology.  Even if your teachers aren't considering digital pedagogy, someone still gets rich pushing it.  There is no doubt that money and technology go hand in hand, and with limited funding, as edtech eats more everything else gets diminished by necessity.

When ed-tech eats a big piece of the education pie the assumption arises that the technology itself provides the pedagogy, so you don't need to (that appearance of engagement pushes this thinking).  Giving students already overdosing on habitual, uninspired technology use technology in the classroom is a recipe for pedagogical disaster.  The relationship between technology and the actual process of learning is tenuous at best.  It only gets worse if we assume the use of technology will magically produce engaged, productive learners.  Engaged maybe, productive?  Not so much.  This peaks when the teacher then throws the same assignment they've been doing for fifteen years on a Google-doc and calls it 21st Century learning.  What we end up with is a poor learning environment ripe with distractions that encourages the same habitual use students are already mired in.

The engagement we're so excited about in educational technology is a smoke-screen.  It is little more than us giving addicts access to more of what they already have too much of and don't know how to effectively leverage.


What is digital pedagogy?  What does digital educational technology allow us to do better in terms of the actual learning process?  Until we answer this question edtech is nothing more than an expensive environmental disaster that has us producing digital dummies.

To appreciate what technology could do for education it might help to see what it's doing for
The Third Industrial Revolution
everything else.  Manufacturing, once a large scale, capital driven process, is becoming accessible to smaller and smaller concerns.  Where once you had to buy million dollar milling machines and the experts to maintain and run them, you can now manufacture complex parts in a small machine shop using digital tools.  Not only  does this free us from a production line mentality, it also frees us from production line products.  We're moving further and further away from Henry Ford's idea of product customization.  Digitization is allowing for smaller runs of customized parts in more niche workshops.  As the Economist says in the link above, this really is the birth of a third industrial revolution, the re-democratization of craftsmanship and personalization in production.

Broadcasting has been staggered by digitization.  From a music industry that was forced to change decades of old habits to television that has had to diversify offerings just to remain relevant in a world that can suddenly tell its own stories, digital media and the internet have fundamentally changed how we see ourselves in media.

1920s office, look familiar?
Over the course of the Twentieth Century education has been influenced by industrial methods of production even more than business itself.  The classroom, the school bell, the rows of desks, it all points to a Taylorist love of systematization.  It seeks to quantify and sort people in the most cost effective manner possible.  In order to do that it clings to ideas of standardization because it believes this leads to credibility.  It happily ignores sound pedagogy in a blind charge toward clinical efficiency, it's the most perfect example of a production line ever developed.

What if, as in broadcasting or manufacturing, education were to consider how digital technology could re-individualize education?  Instead of producing modernist widget-students we could use digitization to embrace radical customization.  The systemic methods we use in education - the marking, the timed classrooms, the report cards - are there to process as many students as possible as efficiently as possible.  We reduce them to numbers because we don't have the resources to treat them like people.  What if educational technology solved that problem instead of replacing paper?

A sufficiently complex Learning Management System would assist in assessment and maintain a current and complex analysis of student achievement.  We see this in a very rudimentary way in online systems like Code Academy, where students are able to review their learning and get acknowledged for their achievements but can only proceed when they have demonstrated sufficient understanding.  The immediate benefit is that each student can move at their own pace.  LMSs should be driving toward this level of complexity, instead they are used as replacements for handouts.

Digitization offers us an opportunity to individualize learning once again.  After a couple of centuries mimicking industrial practices education has a chance to reinvent itself as a digitally empowered, personally focused system of learning, like pre-industrial apprenticeships but on a massive scale.

What does a post-industrial, digitally enhanced, individualized education system look like?  In that relationship, technology enhances pedagogy, it doesn't eclipse it.  In that relationship there may be monetary efficiencies, but they are a byproduct rather than the point of technology implementation.  In no instance would pedagogy be financially victimized by educational technology.

If you're still 'teaching' information, you'll quickly find yourself irrelevant in a post industrial education.  In a world where information is abundant, the ability to access it is more important than the ability to afford a teacher to say it to you.  Skills development will still be a vital piece of the education puzzle, and skills based teachers who develop understanding through experience will always have a role, but information delivery is a dying art, assuming we begin teaching effective technology use.

The LMS used in future school is a constantly evolving construct that can access all facets of a student's learning.  This virtual assessment tool doesn't just review a student's ability to retrieve information, but instead looks at them holistically.  In assessing their skills and knowledge, a future LMS would consider learning habits and then suggest individualized tactics for producing best results.  A teacher would be able to see a student's zone of proximal development before trying to assist them (I have a live graphic playing in my head of what this would look like).  Your progress as a learner includes everything from demonstrated writing ability to the most complex numeracy you're shown.  It considers your patterns of absence, when you produce your best work and who you do it with.  That future LMS is actually an learning management system, not a glorified webpage.  It can reach across other systems to see examples of student progress in a variety of ways.  When a student activates their LMS it supports their learning and aids a teacher in both teaching and assessment.  Perhaps the modern, virtual equivalent of a paidagōgos.

Instead of being an onerous task done poorly by time harrowed teachers through a computer system that merely mimics the paper based reporting system before it, post-industrial student assessment is detailed, accurate, holistic and personalized.  The machine assists the teacher in customizing the education of each student instead of just producing neater, printed reports of letters, numbers and generic comment banks.

Wouldn't that be something, if digital technology were to amplify sound pedagogy and revolutionize our industrialized education system into something personally meaningful?  Until we break the mould and begin leveraging digital technology for what it is capable of, we're just diverting money from the task at hand: effective pedagogical practice.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Once more into the breach dear friends!

From thirteen years old in Air Cadets onward I've taken leadership courses.  I think I have a pretty good grasp of the mechanics, though its often hard to see my own shortcomings in the process.  One of those short comings is I tend to leap into the breach rather than direct the battle.  I'd rather be hands-on and leading by example, but this creates its own problems.

This past couple of years I've been working as Head of Computer Studies.  I inherited that job and the rather unique responsibilities that came with it, but rather than moan about it I stepped up and did everything I could to make it work.  While I was running one of the only remaining integrated computer studies departments in the board I was also managing an increasingly complicated IT budget (which I had suggested in the first place).

Ten years ago there was one kind of printer in our school and it was tightly integrated into a closed, wired board network.  In the past three years especially, our board (in a very forward thinking move) began to diversify technology beginning with wifi a couple of years ago.  This has peaked with the introduction of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative that has caused a diaspora of technology in our school.  Where once we had a single kind of printer, now we
You need to be wearing this shirt yourself
have dozens.  Where once everyone was on the same kind of desktop on the same operating system with access to the same applications, now we have hundreds if not thousands of combinations of hardware and software in the school.  I think this is a good thing, but it asks a lot of questions of teachers when they are expecting students, who aren't as digitally native as you might think, to get work done.  Many of those teachers aren't interested in being their own technology support either.

While all this has been happening, due to politics beyond their control, our IT budget has been slashed and the amount of support we get has dried up.  Where once we could expect our centralized board IT department to support a monolithic technology environment, we now have a diverse technology wilderness.

Into that wilderness I tried to maintain the level of support our staff and students had become accustomed to.  Being 'mixed' into a headship, our key computer teacher position was at best vague, and as the undercurrents in technology trends and support became clear, the job became heavier and heavier, to the point where I was taking days off from teaching to move labs around because IT couldn't manage it.

One of the reasons I'm good at this sort of thing is because I throw myself into it, body and soul.  With that emotional energy I get a lot done, and it stings when it isn't recognized or appreciated.  As the headship restructuring occurred it was hard not to take the dismissal of any role I had at the table personally.  That is one of the short comings of my approach to work, lots gets done, but I take it personally.

My main concern is successfully engaging staff and students with vital 21st Century digital fluencies that our graduates will need outside the walls of our school.  Perhaps plugging in network cables for people isn't the best way to achieve that goal.  One of the problems with being a go-get-em type problem solver is I tend to have a myopic view of the bigger picture, especially when circumstances conspire to bury me in tech support.

When I came into teaching in 2004 I was shocked at how far behind education was compared to the business environment I'd just been an IT coordinator in.  In 2003 we'd already moved most staff to one to one technology (laptops) and our ordering system was accessible online.  In 2004 teachers were still filling in bubble sheets for attendance and having a secretary run them through a card reader (like it was 1980).  What few labs there were old desktops running six year old versions of windows that barely had any network functionality.

I started a computer club at my first school in Brampton and we put a wireless router into the library - the first one in the board as far as I know.  Students immediately began using it and our librarian was overjoyed, he could suddenly supply internet to all sorts of students.  That would be BYOD and wifi, in 2004 in an Ontario public high school.

I've pushed and pushed to connect education to more current information technologies, and there has been constant if slow improvement.  We've now caught up with 2004, we're probably well into 2007 by now.  Of course, when students graduate they aren't going to be expected to have a firm knowledge of 2007 digital workflow, so I'll keep pushing.  

One of the reasons young people look so out of touch with business need is due to our outdated handling of technology in their education; it's tough keeping up with a revolution in a system as conservative as education.

... but not until you've done due diligence, check the plugs,
check Google - tech support starts with you!
This matter of technology support is something I've got to reconsider, especially if we aren't going to make a space for it locally.  The goal was never to do everything for everyone, the goal was to teach people how to perform basic troubleshooting themselves in order to make digital tools available when they need them; I'm not sure how that will happen in the future.  I don't think a strong central support role is something that will return.  We need to find a way to integrate digital fluencies, including a basic understanding of how to get computers working, across the curriculum so that all teachers and students feel responsible for their own tech-use.  The idea is to see an acceleration in how current educational technology compares to what happens outside of the walls of a school.  This disparity causes tensions in both graduates and students who strain at the differences between school-tech expectations and how they are experiencing technology in the rest of their lives.

I'd make the argument that if you're going to drive a car you should know how to change a tire and take care of basic maintenance, but many people can't be bothered (though they are quick to complain about how much it costs to have other people do these things for them).  The same thing happens with computers.  Not everyone needs to be able to rebuild a computer from the ground up, but if you want to use one you should be able to do basic troubleshooting in order to have the technology work when you need it to.  How to create that self sufficiency is the question.

I'm not sure how that's going to happen in the future, but I'm still determined to create an educational experience that produces digitally relevant graduates.  Rather than leaping into the breach and doing onsite technology support I have to find another way of getting more people technologically self sufficient.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Thin Ice

I came from the relative security and certainty of teaching English onto the thin ice of an optional subject area.  Now it's an optional subject area that I think is vital to student success in the 21st Century, but it's optional none-the-less.

Why did I spend north of four grand to get qualified in computer technology?  Because it has been a part of my life for so long and I wanted to acknowledge that by teaching it.  By recognizing my industry experience I feel like getting qualified in computer technology has honoured the work I did before I was a teacher.  It also opens up the door to students gaining real world technology experience before becoming swamped in it.  I'm passionate about teaching technology expertise to both staff and students.

Teaching a subject like this is perilous.  You've spent a lot of money and time to get the qualification and then you suddenly find the ground has shifted and you aren't teaching it.  This happened to me before with visual art.  I took the AQ hoping to teach it and suddenly the door closed and someone is transferred in.  That might have been a one off, but it happened again with computers, so I'm twice bitten twice shy.

Today I staggered out of a heads' meeting that offered three future headship structures, my job as computer head didn't exist in any of them.  I attempted to argue my case, and a number of heads kindly spoke for me, but when administration presents your choices and what you do isn't on any of them, you have to wonder if what you're doing is considered valuable, or even helpful.

There was a lot of talk about what the future holds for our school and how our headship structure should support that future.  Apparently computers and a supportive technology environment don't have a place in our school's future.  That is only slightly less exhausting than the idea that what I've been doing in the school has hurt rather than helped.  It was suggested that everyone should wait months for support, even in cases where I could get things going in moments.  This is the future we're aiming for because we don't want a headship centred around computers?

Technology use isn't decreasing in our school, and how we're making use of technology isn't nearly as monolithic as it once was; the variety of tech in our school has exploded.  Ten years ago we had a single kind of printer in our building, now we have more than thirty different kinds.  Ten years ago the board used to take care of things like network cables and lab setup, not any more.  In a proliferate, increasingly complex and less centrally supported technology environment, we balk at localized support?

The role of computer support in our school is onerous, but one of the things it does for me (sometimes, when I'm not getting bumped for a colleague from another school), is to ensure that I'll be teaching at least some computer technology classes.  Seeing the work I've done as a head given no future has left me wondering if I've asked my family to spend thousands of dollars on qualifications that I won't be able to exercise in the future.  That is frustrating on a lot of levels.

There are a lot of ups and downs in teaching.  The political ground on which you stand is often not what it appears to be, and while many people seem to act out of a sense of certainty, what we are asked to teach is actually very perilous and subject to the whims of others.  

It's a cold Monday night in February and I'm finding the extra energy I've thrown into my profession over the past several years to be in question.  It's not the kind of place you do your best work from.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Student Driven Curriculum

One of the nice things about teaching computer technology is that you tend to get a lot of fanboys in the class.  They're already giddy about the subject and keen to explore it (something sadly missing from many English students).  I'm hoping to harness that experience and energy this semester in senior computer engineering.

Ontario Comp-Tech, everything from programming to robotics!
Last summer I took my final, senior computer technology AQ, and we did a fair bit of focusing on curriculum expectations.  Those expectations are so broad that finding a teacher who is an expert in all of them would be pretty much impossible.  Fortunately for me I love being taught by my students (I'm as giddy and curious about comp-tech as they are).

Rather than present yet another linear, teacher-centric semester plan, we're going to have a con-fab and talk about how to address the curriculum expectations.  They are trapped in the prehistoric tree sap of Ontario Ministry of Education documents which, at best, make for dry, inaccessible reading for students.  To make it accessible I summarized the key points in a prezi.  When the semester starts tomorrow we're going to self organize around what we need and how we're going to reach the remarkably diverse goals of the computer technology curriculum.

Hopefully the prezi format will make the goals of the course more accessible and allow us to plan out an approach that gets to all the expectations while allowing students to self direct their learning - a vital skill in an engineer.

There are threads in the course that run through the many diverse fields found in the curriculum document.  The design process is one of those keys to engineering that will serve us well while we plan out how to approach our learning.

The engineering design process is basically a forced feed-back loop that self corrects, leading to a solution.  It would work on everything from essay design to project management - it also leads to successful engineering projects.

If it works for NASA, it'll work for us!
In our case we're going to apply it to the curriculum of our courses.  Based on the time we have, access to equipment and experience in the class, we're going to create a customized, student driven curriculum plan that (I hope) will also encourage student buy in.

I want to make our lab into a maker space, so my focus is going to be on facilitating equipment in order to feed hands on engineering projects.  As long as students are effectively exploring computer technology and expanding both their interests and the breadth of their knowledge, then I'm happy with the process.  My role will be to amplify their learning rather than direct it, and I hope to start that process with a self directed semester plan that we generate together next week.

While I'm at it, I'll also get some feedback on my expansion plans to computer technology.  Who better to ask than my target audience?