Sunday, 29 June 2014

Naked Lies

When you're using digital tools to assist your writing process, you're not only getting grammar and spelling support, but you're also performing your writing process in a fishbowl.  It's amazing how many digital natives seem to be unaware of this.  When you create online you're creating in a radically transparent environment.  If you're going to do something less than honest, it'll show.

I had a series of plagiarism issues teaching elearning this semester.  In one case a student handed in the same thing copied off the internet in two different assignments.  Worst. Plagiarizer.  Ever.

Turnitin lights up copied text and links you to where
the material came from online, very handy.
The Ontario elearning system has built into it, so catching the plagiarism was a matter of opening the report, screen capturing it and sending it on to the student.  When it's that easy, it's not even particularly time consuming to call a student on copied text.  I often have students try to beat turnitin in order to show them how it works.  They leave with an appreciation of how easy it is for the teacher to wield and how hard it is for a student to beat.  It's easier to just write it yourself.

When I catch a plagiarizer I usually just show them the report without explanation and then see what they say.  I've gotten some funny responses to this, like the time the rural Ontario farm kid stole an essay from an honours student from India.  When I asked him what a 'chap' was, he said it, "was a kind of stick."  That's some quality plagiarism.  To most English teachers it's patently obvious when plagiarism occurs.  When a kid who appears to have a vocabulary mainly consisting of swear words suddenly starts dropping four syllable terms in picture perfect compound sentences, alarms go off.

Since we've gone to Google-docs it gets even more transparent.  A colleague told me about a student who handed in a suddenly perfect French paper.  She opened up the editing history and say that the boyfriend had logged in (under his own account) and edited the entire thing.  When called on it the student said she'd had to use his account because she couldn't get into her's... but she'd shared the file from hers.  It's hard to make lies stick when it's all out there.

Until students realize just how transparent working online is, they are labouring under a huge misconception.  That misunderstanding is based on the false sense of anonymity they feel when they are online.  Because they feel that eyes are off them, they are more likely to push moral boundaries, but they don't understand that digital processes are documenting their every move.

Here is yet another example of how 'digital natives' fail to grasp the basic concepts that drive digital processes.  We shouldn't be smitten with familiarity, we should be advocating for understanding... at least if we're still trying to educate people (which may not be the case).  From that neo-lib point of view, the digital native is one of those magical assumptions that integrate digital technology into the very biology of our students, it becomes a fundamental truth we base learning on, but it's just a convenient assumption that frees us from taking on the responsibility of understanding it ourselves.

Someone shared The Brave New World of 21st Century Teaching the other day in our teacher Facebook group.  I responded:

The subtext of 21st Century skills is the de-branding of educators as teachers and the re-branding of educators as facilitators. Edtech could be used to enhance pedagogy and individualize learning, instead it will be used to Walmart education into a process overseen by centralized administration and bereft of teachers, and it has the convenience of being much more 'efficient' (read: cheaper) than our current system.  It's also more controlable than trying to manage a bunch of professionals bent on something as airy fairy as pedagogy.

Technology doesn't appear to be moving the needle on student success, yet we're pushing into 21st century skills as though they will resolve all ills.  I'm a strong advocate of mastering technology, but integrating it in ignorance is a disaster in the making.  It caters to exactly the kind of blind faith in technocratic neo liberalism that is infecting everything else.  When we adopt machines in ignorance we let their limitations become our limitations.  Those machines are all created and owned by very politically motivated interests.

For someone who has always been involved in the advancement of educational technology, it's heart-breaking to see it implemented as a means of diminishing the teaching profession and placing human learning in the context of a software environment.  I'd always thought pedagogy would drive educational adoption of technology, but as in the rest of society, there is something much more sinister at work in digitization.

The constant downward pressure on freedom of information and the push to striate and own data (including the data users willingly give) points toward a dystopian and authoritarian end to our digital frontier.  The very processes that monitor plagiarism above can as easily be used to invade privacy, grossly simplify learning and itemize people for political reasons, and they are.

I'm glad it's summer.  Time to put this down for a while before we walk straight into another round of manufactured austerity and digital marketing.  I wonder how much longer education can withstand these social forces.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The End of Public Education

What if public education was merely the result of the need
for factory workers in a newly industrialized society?  What
if education has never been anything more than an
expression of economic need?

I was directed to this interview about capitalism and education by the wise woman of twitter.  It always amazes me that intelligent people are able to see where society is going and can do nothing to avert the disaster.  History is rife with intellectuals warning of impending doom, but the doom happens anyway because the weight of social expectation crushes any individual insight.

You can find all sorts of people abolishing slavery before it finally turned into globalism and got hidden from sight in the third world.  Slavery was abolished and re-instituted for centuries, and still exists today because it provides an economic advantage to the rich.  If the rich can't use you, then society is changed to suit.  What is worrying about that article (which you really should read) is that the moneyed class no longer has need of a large swath of society.  If the public education system was created to support industrialization, it's about to lose that support as human capital becomes worthless.

"as automation and globalization renders whole swaths of the labour force useless to capital. .. From the perspective of capital, an ever-increasing portion of the population is no longer seen as a resource to be cultivated"

I believe that public education is one of the most powerful things we've ever created as a species.  It leverages more of our population to maximize their potential than anything else we've come up with (yes, even democracy, capitalism or free markets).  Even if it was slovenly economics that prompted it, the benefits of public education go well beyond making a few rich people richer.  What's worrying about that interview is that David Blacker has pretty much seen the future as it will unravel, though there is little we can do to stop the social momentum we carry.

His description of schooling is sickeningly accurate:

"in cities and other places, my argument is not that schools are going to dry up and blow away, that we will stop having things called schools. In fact, we might have quite well-funded places called “schools.” Prisons are more expensive than schools. So I think even though the things are called schools, their internal nature is moving further away from citizenship goals, forget learning for its own sake. Those institutions, their level of funding may even increase. To do surveillance and warehousing… maintenance of a school-to-prison pipeline can be quite expensive. So I wouldn't see an increase in funding of school systems and school employees and school buildings as any particular cause for optimism."

This warehousing is already happening in Ontario education.  The learning to eighteen laws enacted in Ontario in 2006 ensure that students are warehoused in schools until they are eighteen years old by placing punitive limitations on them to ensure compliance (parents and students can be charged for not attending school).  An increasing amount of money is spent in Ontario education every year to try and cater to a vanishingly small percentage of students who would rather be elsewhere, but the warehouse is where they must stay.  I'd suggest that the edutainment and student engagement push in education also caters to this kind of thinking.

The real crush comes when governments decide to cut education even while expecting it to move from a training to a holding role.  It's a no win situation for educators who are stuck between having to cater to high needs students who don't want to be students at all and a system that wants to cut their pay, demand extracurriculars and increase class sizes.  It's especially confusing when many teachers assume that their job is still one of teaching.  

The problem is that governments are treating schools more like prisons than they are schools, but when  you're trying to game an economy designed around the devaluation of human capital by forcing kids to stay in school, the increasingly worthless people (that would be all of us) are the ones who lose.  The only political cost is the vilification of teachers, something many people in the general public are happy to do.  In the meantime we're all trapped in a neoliberal agenda with no way out (unless you're Iceland).

We're not even arguing about the same thing any more, education isn't about teaching people or training them for jobs, it's about storing all that now worthless human capital.  If we accept that then the attack on teaching as a professional activity suddenly makes a very different kind of sense.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

No Heroes & Distractions

I suspect the general public thinks that teaching is easy.  I'm not talking about classroom management, that everyone agrees is difficult, but teaching, the process of enabling learning, is generally seen as easy.  Anyone can tell someone else what to think, right?  Pretty much everyone has been through school, so they all know what it is and how it works.

I've talked about the terrifyingly vast concept of pedagogy before, but most lay-people have never heard the term and so don't know or care about its complexities.  Strangely, few teachers or administrators seem to want to talk about it either, but that's for another post.  The process of creating a rich learning environment is subtle, ever changing and very difficult; reflection is a good teacher's best defence against this challenge.  By constantly reflecting on our teaching, we hope to cull bad habits and maximize the learning environment around us.  Honest reflection isn't something that seems to come up much in PD either.

Normally pedagogy would be my focus, one of the joys of my job is how intellectually challenging it is.  I use this blog mainly to try and tackle the challenges of pedagogy in a rapidly changing technological situation, but for the past month I and many teachers I know in Ontario have been distracted by politics.  We have to be because the circus that is modern politics oversees our profession, and we are one of their favourite whipping boys.

Unlike heroic police officers, firefighters and doctors, teachers don't get a halo.  If the internet doesn't convince you of the banality of teaching turn on the TV.  How many heroic teacher shows do you see on there?  Emergency services are protected by their halo, and since we're all public servants it's pretty obvious who is going to get thrown under the austerity bus.  Whenever the political class decides to vilify public servants to collect some vapid public support we know it'll be us, hence the distraction.

The public perception is that teachers are overpaid, under-worked and largely clerical in what we do.  Unlike those men (and women, but let's face it, the hero professions have a male face to them) of action, teachers are presented publicly as female, supportive and administrative rather than as action heroes.  Any time a government wants to take a swipe at public servants teachers make an easy target, like last year when teachers across the province had their wages and benefits illegally stripped even as the OPP enjoyed big year on year raises; it's a financial emergency, but not for everybody.

In a climate like this our unions urged us to carefully consider our votes in strategic terms because the Ontario Progressive (sic) Conservative party had adopted tea-party American ideologies and was prepared to cut Ontario to pieces while following Michigan and the rust belt down the rabbit hole.  That urge to strategically vote worked very well encouraging many public servants to participate in this election, it also unified and focused non-conservative votes.  The result deposited the morally bankrupt Liberal party into a four year majority.  This was the same party that stripped contracts and forced work conditions through illegal legislation.  It's also the same party that will do what Hudak and the PCs promised, they just won't do it on an election year.

It begs the question, is it better to be stabbed in the front or in the back?

Teachers seem to be relieved by the Liberal win, but our profession with its poor public perception will be the first (again) to be thrown under the bus by Wynne and the Liberals.  It's ironic that the meritocratic Liberals are going to throw a world-class education system under the bus because of optics.  If we do our difficult job well it won't matter because ignorant people think we're lazy and poll chasing politicians can use that.  The social and political environment we've been draped in for the past two years makes basic positivity difficult, let alone cultivating an attitude of improvement, and improvement is where we have to be if we want to maintain our excellence and keep up with the technological revolution happening all around us.

There are a lot of ways we could make education more efficient in Ontario rather than just cutting people's wages and benefits and worsening their work environment.  When I first started teaching there was a guy who ran the Simpsons in his class and then sat in the English office eating his lunch at 10am.  He later got suspended for over a year while they reviewed claims that he'd slept with a grade 11 student.  They are a small minority in the system, but there are teachers who are incompetent or simply unsuited for the profession, and the system as it stands makes it almost impossible to remove them.  As a Liberal (that's a large L Liberal who believes in the values of liberalism rather than blindly voting for a political party) I'd be all for making the removal of incompetent teachers easier, though not if it's done by administrators who haven't been teaching for years or pencil pushers who have never taught a class in their lives.  Peer review by a group of experienced, working teachers would be a fair way of doing this, but if it ever does happen it'll be forced on us, probably by illegal legislation that punishes us for political advantage.  It would be nice to work in a system focused on excellence instead of political gain.

Then there is the whole weird duality of the Ontario public school system, but no one will touch that... the optics are bad, and you'll never pry a publicly funded private religious system out of the hands of a majority, even if the UN does object.  It's hard to consider hack and slash politics like Bill 115 fair when the system protects incompetent teachers and encourages very one sided religious favouritism.

There is a storm ahead for educators in Ontario and it's going to be hard to focus on the complexities of pedagogy, the challenges of technological change and all that social work that we do as people with little or no understanding of education make decisions based on optics rather than reason or fact. 

Doctors and nurses won't be expected to justify their profession, police officers and firefighters will continue to produce heroic television, and I'll be painted as a lazy clerical worker doing a job that anyone could do.  While all that's going on I'll do everything I can to prepare my students to hack a technocratic neo-liberal future that makes it harder and harder for young people to find good work and become independent.  The same thing stepping on our profession is stepping on our students.