Sunday, 27 August 2017

Why bring a prototype technology to an #edtech conference?

I'm just wrapping up this conference in Toronto and it's another week before we're back at it in class.  This is a small conference where you get to meet and talk to many of the participants.  By the end of the three days you're familiar with a lot of faces, which doesn't happen at the bigger events.

I was invited to demonstrate virtual reality research my students and I have done in class over the past year.  Bringing all the kit involved in setting up multiple VR sets is like bringing all you'd need to project a movie... in 1930.  These are the heaviest, most awkward VR sets people will ever experience and it took a car load of tech to set up two headsets.

This 'state of the art' technology that is a pain to set up and far from perfect might seem like an odd choice to bring to a teacher technology focused conference.  Where everyone else is showing off cloud based software tools or simple electronics, I'm here with this astonishingly complex and expensive technology that clearly isn't for everyone, but that's why I brought it.

If you'd have shown up at an education technology conference in 2008 with a touch screen tablet that could run apps, create digital media and replace 80% of the work you do on a desktop computer, you'd have looked a bit mad.  Everyone there would wonder why you're showing off this stuff from Star Trek since it'll never be used in a classroom.  Eighteen months later Apple would produce the first ipad and everyone's mind would change.

When I first tried the latest evolution in virtual reality last spring I was surprised at how accessible it had become.  From bespoke systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars we suddenly saw Oculus and then HTC Vive appear with thousand dollar headsets that would run on a decent desktop computer.  It's not often you see an evolutionary leap that drastic and effective in computer technology (think ipad levels of advancement over a PDA).  The prices have since dropped again to under $600.

Bringing VR as it is now (big, awkward, complex) to an educational conference on technology was an opportunity to show people where we'll be in the next five years.  Heavy, hot, wired and expensive VR sets with lots of setup and complication won't be how many people first experience VR, but it's important for educators to be ahead of mass adoption and think about how media is evolving so that we're able to effectively harness it when that ipad moment happens.

VR is evolving so rapidly that it has reached a kind of critical mass with research and development support.  Money that used to go elsewhere is being focused on VR development which is further accelerating an already hot technology sector.  This means you'll be using VR in your classroom a lot sooner than you think.  Wouldn't it be something if teachers knew something about it before that happens?

I had a lot of people walk up to the station and ask me what company I'm with, even though this was a Minds on Media event and that means it's run by teachers for teachers.  There is a lot of subtext in the question.  The assumption that I had to be some kind of engineer with a VR company comes from a place where teachers assume they aren't experts on tech, but many are and we should make a point of recognizing those skills as they are a key to improving technical fluency in Ontario education.  The other assumption became apparent when people asked me how I could possibly have put this together in an Ontario classroom.

I'm lucky there.  My school board makes a point of exploring emerging technologies with the Specialist High Skills Major program.  Without that support my expertise as a former IT technician is wasted, but with that support we have an example of an Ontario classroom exploring the leading edge of emerging technologies.  The first thing we did after figuring out how to get VR working (and this was a team effort with myself, our board IT department and my senior computer engineering students) was to begin building and setting up VR sets for other schools.  This capacity building led to one of my students returning to his elementary school as a coop student and assisting them with their VR research which in turn led us to becoming an ICT SHSM program for the first time.  There is a virtuous circle when we enable the technical skills of Ontario teachers and use it to actively engage with evolving educational technology rather than waiting for it to surprise us.

I tend to shy away from turn-key digital substitutions of existing class work.  If it is relying on computers and networks you've introduced so much complication into something that achieves the same learning goal more simply that I don't bother.  If a poster making session in class would do it, why bother going digital?  But there are moments with technology where it offers you something so profoundly different from what you could do in an analog classroom that it begs you to use it.  VR did that for us with an opportunity to build digital 3d models and design software for VRspace.

Running Tiltbrush for art teachers from elementary to senior high school always prompted the same result.  Artists get excited by a new medium and this is that.  If you've never sculpted with light before, you can in VR.  Using something as immersive and tactile as VR is much better than explaining it.  After explaining VR many asked me what the point of it was.  After trying VR most of them were lit up by it, suddenly imagining all the possibilities, and that's what I was there for.  I'm not selling you on a platform, or a company, or a carefully designed analog replacement, I'm offering you a glimpse into the future.  If you left full of excitement at the possibilities, and pretty much everyone did, then my job was done.

VR offers 3d, immersive interaction with a digital world we've only been able to peer at through a 2d monitor before.  This will change everything, again.

Dozens of links and lots of information on how to get started in VR in your classroom, check it out!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Sky is Falling!

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

...and the counterpoint: Ignore The Bullshit: iPhones Are Not Destroying Teenagers

Is this another panicky article by The Atlantic about how digital technology is killing us?  (Remember is Google Making Us Stupid?  I do.)

The general complaint is that youngsters tangled up in emerging technology won't have the same beatific childhood we have all nostalgically invented for ourselves.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing at the best of times.  It's a fictional invention by its very nature.  Our own childhoods weren't magical bliss.  Depending on how old you are, that magical family trip you took when you were a child was done in a gas guzzling, emissions belching nightmare of a 1970s car.  We're all suffering from the results of your magical childhood road trips.  This isn't to say that those trips weren't wonderful, but they are hardly the placed on a pedestal, this is the way we should all be all the time ideas that nostalgia amplifies them into.

The distance between generations is very similar socially to the distance between races and cultures.  Especially with our rapidly evolving technology, one generation to the next might have significantly different lived experiences.  Just as racists like to emphasize differences in culture and patriots like to wave their flags over the perceived superiority of their countries, ageists like to belittle generations other than their own for their differences.  Sometimes that ageism turns into something worse.

This week in Canada the elementary teachers union in Ontario created a debate about the country's first prime minister, John A. MacDonald.  This discussion squared off people who tend toward staunch nationalism with people who tend toward staunch political correctness.  It reminded me of a story one of my history professors once told us about his dad.

In his late eighties this professor's father thought it would be nice to begin attending university classes.  The prof was delighted at the idea and encouraged his dad to give it a go.  In the first semester this elderly gentleman found himself in a class full of twenty somethings learning about the early Twentieth Century - something he had first hand knowledge of.  As they learned about suffrage (both gender and race) the ever-so-proud of their place in history young people in this class began throwing around words like sexist and racist.  The prof's dad was very upset by this.  He tried to explain that the vast majority of people at the time weren't consciously racist or sexist, but were becoming aware of how things had to change.

This is a huge realization that I think most people seem incapable of.  Our place in history is perhaps our largest single prejudice.  Those twenty-somethings in university in the 1990s were throwing around these judgments from a temporal place of perceived superiority, but I wonder how history will represent them.  Can you sit there wearing clothes made in sweatshops and burn fossil fuel to get to class and really feel that superior?  Can you live in a country that only exists as a result of aggressive colonialism and cast disparagements at the people who did the dirty work of creating it?  They could.

This feels like a people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones kind of thing, but it's human nature to grasp for and exploit any perceived superiority it can; political correctness is founded on the idea.  Humility and honesty are hard work.

When I was doing teacher's college I came across a grade 8 history text book that had a painting of the day of Confederation on Parliament Hill in 1867.  In this picture that I'd describe as more propaganda than anything else, were black, Asian and native people all walking hand in hand with white Canadians and all dressed in appropriate Victorian dress.  None of the women and most of the men in that picture couldn't vote and had nothing to do with Confederation.  If they weren't dying from smallpox they might have been building a railway or were recent refugees from the underground railroad who were now experiencing the quieter racism of British North America.  If you want a final victory for colonialism this was it - a children's history text that had rewritten history to make Canada look like something it never was (but would eventually evolve towards).  Burning books and rewriting history has a long and dark history.

Canada has a messy history.  Less messy than The States, but messy still.  Revising it isn't a way of fixing that, it's a way of hiding it, which isn't cool.  Any schools named J.A.M. should remain so - talking about history remembering the context of the time is why the study of history is so challenging, but it's something we should do or we're doomed to repeat it; I suspect we are anyway if we're not willing to ask the hard questions and fix the social inadequacies we currently exploit.  It's a good thing people in the early Twentieth Century were willing to fight for equality of access to democracy, because I'm not sure people today would.

There is little difference between George Washington owning slaves and a 21st Century North American buying sweatshop clothes from Walmart.  In fact, I'd say the only difference is that Washington did his own slave owning rather than farming the work out to multinationals.  The modern 'First World' has never paid for what things actually cost.  We can afford fossil fuels to power our massive vehicles and fly across the world because we
 stand atop centuries of colonialist policy that hasn't disappeared, it's just hiding in what we now call globalized economics.  We've never paid even a tiny percentage of what burning fossil fuels or manufacturing goods actually cost.  A future generations tax is an obvious choice we'll never make because screw our descendants, we'll get ours.  Isn't this just another kind of generationalism?

Judging newer generations who are struggling with technology change just as we all are is equally prejudicial.  Other than teens being able to publish their self involved drama, I'm not sure much has changed other than the ability to publish it, so panicking over the end of civilization because of smartphones seems a bit bombastic, but I'm sure it'll sell magazines.  When that generational prejudice begins to deny the existence of previous generations it's not going to help us fix any of our current blinds spots, of which there are many.  Future generations are going to look at us as a disaster, even as we're busy assigning blame to the people who came before us.

Jill Lapore