Monday, 28 April 2014

Digital Collars

Wise Europeans have begun enacting legislation to protect people from the relentless onslaught of digital noise.  Coincidentally, I've recently had a number people lamenting the digital ties that bind them.  An article on how students can't hold a conversation any more and a moody French art film on digital alienation followed:

LOST MEMORIES (French, English Subtitles) from Francois Ferracci on Vimeo.

This past weekend I had an elearning student send an email Friday afternoon and then shrilly demand, Monday morning, a response.  I haven't heard back from them yet, but I did point out they were getting a detailed response to their email the next school day.  Ironically, that student has never logged in on a weekend and has frequently been weeks late handing in work, but perhaps we aren't all held to the same standards of immediate access.  That people can yank on that digital leash and demand our attention regardless of their own competence is an irritation.

Another teacher mentioned how his smartphone is spoiling his hunting.  He used to get himself up into his hide and then settle down for some meditative and quiet hours communing with nature.  The last couple of times, deep in the woods, he's been so busy keeping up with texts and social media that he forgot to commune with anything.  

The same teacher also mentioned that he has called students out for answering texts while in the middle of a working machine shop.  They often tell him that it's their parents texting them.  He takes the phone and texts the parents saying that the student is busy and should be paying attention to what is happening (it is a machine shop).  It seems parental expectations have piggybacked on invasive digital practices.

One of the reasons I enjoy me motorbike so much is that I can't be doing anything else while I'm on it, though apparently others have found a way.  The operation of the bike occupies my mind and body completely, it's very therapeutic living completely in the moment like that.  That the information technology around us constantly pulls us out of the present is a problem we need to resolve.  Maybe the French aren't out to lunch in trying to protect people from this expectation of being permanently leashed to our information stream.

From the frustration of sitting behind a car at a green light because the driver is distracted (thought they aren't supposed to be), to helicopter parents being constantly in touch with students, perhaps it's time for educators to start charting a more socially responsible approach to digital intrusion.

Note:  In case you think it ends there, here is another sad ode to social media, it's becoming a meme!

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dogmatic Digitization

Digital technology thrives on a covenant of radical democracy that promises information for all.  The giants of technology market themselves on this egalitarian ideal.  From Google's corporate counter culture to Apple's fixation on design to empower the user, technology companies are founded and thrive on the idea of a future of individual empowerment.  People love them for it and self identify with digital technology companies in a personal way that is quite foreign to other consumer relationships.

Social norms have changed over the past five years.  Where once pulling out a smartphone demonstrated your importance and wealth, it is now a common gesture for pretty much everyone in North America.  We've passed a tipping point, the majority of people are on a computer connected to the internet all the time.  If you don't believe me go for a walk in any public place and see how many people are operating handheld computing devices.

As the majority adopts digital platforms I've seen a consistent dumbing down of digital tools and content in order to reach as wide an audience as possible.  This is probably a complaint form many early adopters, but when I see simplicity and limitation rather than functionality and access begin to infect how we use technology in education I have to question the pedagogical value of our educational technology.

In order to cater to as many people as possible educational technology has created systems that hide much of what happens behind simplistic interfaces.  Can the promise of radical democratization of information survive when most people want to be spoon fed in the most limited manner possible?  Free access to material doesn't matter when most people only want to use the internet in the same, simplistic way.
Digital technology still presents itself with those early ideals of democratic information access and transparency, but like everything else as it matures it begins to develop a more pragmatic approach.  My feeling now is that these egalitarian, transparent technology companies are actually anything but.  No one that wealthy feels the need to be transparent, or to educate others.  When you are worth billions your goal becomes market share and monopoly.

Educational technology, as an offspring of the digital technology giants, suffers from this dogmatic stiffening of its intent.  Rather than focusing on individual empowerment and the promise of de-industrializing the education system they are happy to embrace dehumanizing, data-driven testing, especially if it offers ease of implementation.  If education technology isn't interested in offering users diverse, personally nuanced, highly adaptive, open ended digital learning tools in a transparent and universal access to information, then what hope have the rest of us in a consumer driven digital world?  We're preparing the next generation of drones.

Tweets from the ASU/GSV Summit in Phoenix
We're in a position as educators and educational technologists to try and direct digitization away from closed systems with limited access to tools and information but the money infects our good intent.  Rather than focusing on diversity and acclimatizing students to the radical openness of the internet (something that, like the Wild West, may soon disappear), we preach walled gardens and monopolistic access.  We teach students to value limited access in order to train them for a future internet controlled by the rich and we do it because it's easier, not because it's better.

For some new tools empower,
but for far too many they create
habitually driven repetiton
That this is all done under the guise of freer information for all is laughable.  How can education claim to support the ideals of the early information revolution if it is in bed with pragmatic companies pushing for tiered access to information based on wealth?  If the information revolution was ever about ideals it has long since been replaced by moneyed interest.

Between datamining users to support wrong headed standardized testing policies to simply fleecing student data to generate sellable marketing information, the flipside to education technology is complex and not particularly flattering.  As a teacher of technology I hope to empower my students with knowledge of how information technology works in order for them to remain independent entities in the brave new world we're creating.  For the other 95% who take no computer studies and yet live on this technology all day every day, I see a future every bit as dogmatic and limited as the industrial one we are now shedding.  In fact, it may be much worse because, unlike the punch card factory worker of the Twentieth Century who was reduced to a number for eight hours a day, dogmatic, digitized information demands your undying attention and submission 24/7/365.

If you can't hack it, it owns you.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Who Owns Your Data?

Tweets from the #edinnovation Summit
There was much hand-wringing over privacy and data ownership at the recent ASU/GSV conference.  Serious people in designer suits explained that security is expensive, must be shrouded in secrecy and is never full-proof.  Sounds like a great fear-sell for cash infused education systems (sic).  Fortunately you can't really oversee it either because that would be a breach of security; it's a brilliant piece of hard-salesmanship with minimal oversight.

Listen to Mr. Universe, he knows.
Listening to the urgency and paranoia in these discussions had me thinking about how privacy and data ownership are framed in digital environments.  I'm the first to suggest we be cautious with how student data is shared, but the idea that anything digital can somehow be locked down and owned is ridiculous.  I've heard ed-tech 'experts' go on about walled gardens at length.  You can leap over any of those walled gardens with a simple screen capture or text grab, and then it can go viral on the wild internet.  Trying to keep data in check is like trying to hold back Niagara Falls with a door, digital data is incredibly fluid, that's why we can do so much with it.

The second tweet at the top sheds some light on how we are misframing data as an ownable entity.  Like your appearance or your reputation, the data you give off is information you emit socially; you can't own your data any more than you can own your appearance or your reputation.  In all three cases you can, of course, influence the social outputs you're giving, but you can't own them.  Realizing this would stop us from trying to control the uncontrollable and instead let us begin teaching students (and everyone else for that matter) best practices for creating desirable data emissions (there has to be a better word for that, digital reputation? digirep? virtual scent?  vBO?).

If we begin to see digital data emissions as a natural byproduct of online interaction (and make no mistake, they are), then the idea that if we throw enough money at it we can make everyone safe gets questioned.  You're never going to hear education technology companies that market based on security suggesting this mindset, there's no money in it.

The other side of this is privacy.  The idea that we can suddenly have privacy now when we've never had it before is baffling to me.  Before we became industrialized we were mostly geographically locked to where we were born.  Without the ease of fossil fuel powered vehicles most of us never travelled more than a dozen miles from where we were born.  Do you think anyone had privacy in those circumstances?  You were a well established element in a fairly static society.  The idea that you could shield your actions from the public eye only really began in the twentieth century.  Industrialized anonymity was as much curse as it was something desirable.  It was only in the conformity forced on us by industrialization that the illusion of privacy existed.
If the NSA and CIA can't stop it, do
you think that edtech company can?

We are emerging from that drab, industrial anonymity caused by cookie cutter conformity.  The digital world doesn't expect us to be passive eyeballs counted as ratings in front of a TV screen, it demands interaction and individuality and it restores our voices.  As we emerge into an individually empowered, digitally driven world of shared information, expecting privacy is a wish for a poisonous illusion that never really existed.

Privacy isn't dead, it never existed.  Prior to industrialization we had no social privacy at all and during industrialization we were dehumanized into bricks in the wall and given the illusion of privacy because we barely mattered as individuals.

When you're online nothing you do is private, nothing you do is owned by you.  Just as you can influence your appearance by good hygiene or your reputation by performing right action, you can affect your data-appearance by presenting yourself well, but ultimately any data you give off is out there and can spread easily, just like gossip.

The nascent study of digital citizenship addresses a lot of this, but like other digital skills it is an afterthought, never integrated into core curriculum.  No wonder men in expensive suits can make lots of money preaching fear and convincing educators to spend their budgets on myth and innuendo.  Perhaps one day educators will take the job of understanding and teaching digital skills seriously and ignore the snake oil.

Data Exhaust

At a recent educational technology conference in Phoenix Constance Steinkuehler mentioned the term 'data exhaust' in passing to describe the numbers pouring out of testing.  The idea of data as pollution has been with me for a while.  The statistics I've seen derived from data in education have often been farcical attempts at justifying questionable programming.  It's gotten to the point that when someone starts throwing charts and graphs up in a presentation I assume they are hiding something.

Constance's term 'data exhaust' had me tumbling through metaphorical implications.  If the data we generate out of education is the exhaust, what are we doing when we turn the education system toward producing data exhaust for its own sake?  No student will ever face a standardized test in the working world, it's a completely unrealistic and limited way in which to measure learning let alone prepare students for the rest of their lives.  Using standardized testing to measure learning has us revving the education vehicle at high rpm in neutral; we're making a lot of smoke and not going anywhere.

Is data always useless?  Not at all, but the tendency to find patterns and turn data in statistics takes something already abstract and abstracts it even further.  That people then take these inferences and limited slices of information as gospel points to the crux of the crisis in American education.  We end up with what we think are facts when they are really fictions that use math of lend an air of credibility.

Even with statistics and data metrics off the table, the idea of looking at the data exhaust pouring out of education as a way of directing future action demonstrates staggering shortsightedness.  Education is not a data driven, linear or binary enterprise, it is a complex human one.  We are not producing expert test takers, we should be producing well rounded human beings that can thrive in a complex, competitive, data rich century.  No standardized test can measure that.

We pay less and
produce more by
focusing on pedagogy

via USC Rossier's
online Doctor of Education 
If you took your poorly running car into a mechanic and they just kept revving the engine harder and harder while watching smoke billow out of the back you'd think something was wrong with them, yet that is how American education is tuning itself.  They then wonder why they aren't scoring well in world rankings.  If we want the education vehicle to take us somewhere we need to crack open the hood and take a look at the engine, but what is that engine?  What actually makes the engine of education run well?  It isn't fixating on the data exhaust.

Canada has performed very well in world education rankings.  We find ourselves able to keep up with some of the world's best education systems, like Finland, and we do it at a much lower cost per student than the US has managed to.  It looks like all that testing and data exhaust fixation costs a lot more than your students' well being, it's also hugely inefficient.

A well running education system focuses on pedagogy.  It is what fuels it, it is what makes the system serve its students using the best possible learning practices.  Pedagogy is a tricky concept, and it doesn't offer simplistic solutions that digital technology companies can app-up, but it does give everyone, no matter how much they may disagree on the details, a common goal.

There was a lot of talk about coming together and pulling in the same direction over the Common Curriculum at this conference.  We aren't all on the same page in Canada when it comes to processes or how the system should run, but pedagogy is on everyone's mind.  Best practices have to drive education.  Having standards isn't a bad thing, but when you're so fixated on the data exhaust you're producing that you forget fundamental pedagogical practice, you've lost sight of what education should be in the data smog you've created.

ASU/GSV Summit

I went to the strangest education conference of my career this past couple of days.  Wikispaces invited me down to attend and what a learning experience it was.  Surrounded by a struggling US education system that spends more and produces less than our own, I found it difficult to follow the circumstances they've invented for themselves.

Being a stranger in a strange land I wasn't necessarily trapped by the expectations of the other people in attendance, though I wasn't the only one questioning what I saw.  There seems to be a clear split in American education.  There are the Common Curriculum fans (check out that webpage, ride the hyperbole!), and then there are parents & teachers who are questioning the value of such a regimented, testing focused approach to learning.  Strangely, very few education technology companies seem to be questioning this approach, though they all appear quite interested in education.

The whole thing occurred on the surface of a conference that was more an educational technology trade show than an examination of sound pedagogical practice.  That politics and the business that feeds it drives the US education system rather than sound pedagogy became more apparent to me as the conference went on:

The only time I heard someone actually refer to pedagogical practice, best practices in teaching and learning, was when Michael Crow, the ASU president, gave a thoughtful talk on how we adapt to technology use in changing times.  Everything else was urging people to get on board with the common curriculum (and buy our system that caters to it).  That educational technology in the States is so focused on the politics of testing rather than best practices should concern every Canadian who adopts American technology in the classroom.

I've got a lot of notes and ideas I want to chase down from this experience.  In the next week or two I'll write to them after mulling it over.

In the meantime, here are some photos of beautiful Arizona in bloom...

The ASU/GSV Summit Blog Posts:
Data Exhaust
Who Owns Your Data?
Dogmatic Digitization

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Hack The Future

Between questions of how student data is being used and technology monopolists pushing for standardization in edtech, I'm left with an uneasy feeling.  As we reach a tipping point in digital educational technology we simplify and standardize to the point where the people doing the teaching don't know or care what happens behind the curtain.  What is happening behind that curtain is being decided in closed rooms between multi-national corporations and governments.  The bait is a 'free' digital learning system for education.  The payoff is habituated users and data mining on a level unprecedented in history, and we're happy to sell our students and ourselves into it in order to get the freebies.

If this were all happening in the light of day I'd be a lot happier about it.  That it's happening behind closed doors and shouldn't be publicized is something that should concern everyone.

If you're not paying for it you're the product being sold.  Corporations may state that they do no evil but they aren't after what education is after, they are after profit.  That student information is being brokered well beyond the reach of educational institutions by these information merchants should be a cause of concern, but instead I see public educators increasingly branding themselves with corporate logos and shouting their evangelism from the social media rooftops.

Technology is exciting, and digital technology is such an intimate thing because it nestles up to our minds.  Our habit of elastically coupling with our technology suggests that digital-tech is going to become an intrinsic part of how we see ourselves.  People are already describing unplugging as feeling like an amputism, it's only going to become more entwined, especially as we begin to wear our digital selves.

I'm reminded of Kenneth Clark's unsettling end to what many consider to be the best documentary series ever created, Civilisation...
Start at 35:30 if the link doesn't take you right there.

That one of the most intelligent observers of human society was pondering this in the year I was born lurks in the back of my mind.  Machines that make decisions for us, many educators seem thrilled with this idea.  You may be all gungho over the latest shiny i-thing or googly-eyed over that app that will revolutionize your teaching, but the true costs of these things are a carefully kept secret.  At the very least, when we adopt a single digital ecosystem (no matter how free it is), we're selling our students (and our own) habitual technology use into a closed environment.

As educators it should be a goal to recognize tools in terms of what they can do rather than how easy they are and how well integrated they come.  And we should never be deciding on a tool that inserts itself into the learning process based on how little we're expected to learn about it.  Technology and the internet aren't Google, and tablets aren't Apple.  Computers aren't Microsoft.  Only by offering students access to all of these things and more are we approaching the teaching of technology in as complete and well rounded a way as possible.

Over the past ten years I've watched education stagger into digitization always hesitant to change old ways, and I've pushed as hard as I can to encourage that change.  Only by catching up to this revolution can we hope to prepare students for the strange world that awaits them.  Now that we're at a tipping point I'm watching what could be a powerful new fluency being boiled down into canned access to technology, always under a single brand.  Instead of teaching technology like it's becoming an intimate part of our lives (which it is), we pass it off with idiotic notions like 'digital native' that allow people who have no interest in learning technology to also off-load the responsibility of teaching our children about technology.  Into that ignorance vacuum corporations have crept, offering you an easy solution, and most people are more than happy to take it even if it means being walled in to a monopoly.

I wrote last on the idea of being a tech-ronin, a digital samurai without a master.  That works for me but I come from a time before data dictated who I am.   I'm worried about my students.  In a world where we've sold them into digital servitude as data sheep (call them digital natives if that makes you feel better), the only way out is to know the system well enough to circumvent it.  Instead of teaching a closed, monopoly limited mindset in technology that serves everyone except my students, I want them to develop a broad understanding of digital tools and how they work.  In a broad edtech learning environment my students will develop a meta-cognitive view of both technology and how they are represented by it.  In a time where we are increasingly defined by our data the only free people will be the ones who have a sense of themselves beyond their student record in the LMS.

My department logo has 'learn how to build the future' on it, but perhaps I need to make a change just to give my students a chance to self-realize beyond whatever data metric they are being sold into.
Rage against the machine

Saturday, 5 April 2014


The Google Apps for Education (GAFE) 'Summit' is this weekend.  I'm not there and I'm comfortable with that.  There is nothing in Google that I haven't been able to figure out on my own and I use Google extensively, they make good products.

Last week's Elearning Ontario Presentation
Last week I presented at elearning Ontario on how to create a diverse digital learning ecosystem.  You'd think that educators would want to get their hands on as wide a variety of tools as possible in order to not only provide the best possible digital learning support for their students but to also increase their own comfort zone in educational technology.  In the mad rush to digitize the vast majority of people want as little expertise to accompany it as possible, they would much rather find a closed ecosystem in which they can develop a false sense of mastery.

If you hyper focus on one thing you tend to get an inflated sense of your abilities.  I wouldn't trust a mechanic who can only work on Ford brakes or a teacher who can only work out of Pearson textbooks, I'd have to assume they've learned by rote rather than developed mastery.  I know it's hard work, but becoming fluent in digital tools requires some time, some curiosity and some humility and that's ok.

A colleague showed me this last year and it has been
on my mind ever since.
The idea that you get a qualification under a single brand and have somehow become a master of digital learning is misleading.  But the limits of evangelizing a single digital learning ecosystem go well beyond questionable professional practices around branding teachers with private company logos.  There is also the question of how these technologies are mining education for profit.  

If you live within a monopolistic education technology environment you can never be sure what they are doing with the data they are managing for you 'for free'.  That data is worth a lot of money.  Even if it's being stripped of names, the ethics of exchanging student marketing data for a 'free' digital learning environment has to be questioned.  In a monopolistic situation that questioning doesn't happen.  Only an open, fair digital learning environment allows us to demand higher standards from companies who are otherwise singularly focused on making money in any way that they can.

Wouldn't an opensource hardware model that allows us
to teach all technology platforms be a nice idea?  The Learnbook
Some links to consider:
"Google would not answer questions about whether its data-mining practices support the creation of profiles on student users.

Google also confirmed to Education Week that its general terms of service and privacy policy apply to student users of Apps for Education, a stance contrary to the company's earlier public statements."
OSAPAC has worked out a deal that doesn't sell off Ontario Students' data, but it's a secret,
and each board has to implement it themselves.  The mysteries of information in the information age...
Tweets on this weekend's GAFE summit in Kitchener/Waterloo... the koolaid tastes good.


  1. 1.
    (in feudal Japan) a wandering samurai who had no lord or master.