Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Digital Divide is Deep and Wide

The idea of computer technical proficiency has come up many times over the years on Dusty World.  Whether you want to call it digital literacy, digital fluency,  or twenty-first Century skills, there is obviously a big gap in the computer user skills we're graduating people with.  This isn't a new thing, I've been benefiting from this lack of fluency in the general public since the 1980s.

After dropping out of high school in the late '80s I started apprenticing as a millwright.  At our warehouse the new building control systems were becoming computerized and all of the very skilled welders and mechanics in our department were leery of them, so guess who got to take that on?  The new guy who had been working with computers since he was ten.

A summer job I got while going to university in the early 1990s involved converting an engineering shop over to computerized ordering (they'd hand written all parts orders and completed shipments prior to that, ironically while producing telephony computer electronics).  I got Lotus1-2-3 (which I'd never used before) working with the formatting so we could print out orders using our existing forms.  This took a bit of trial and error, but I wouldn't have described it as particularly difficult, it just took a willingness to make effective use of digital technology in problem solving.

After graduating from uni I continually found myself moved into technology implementation  simply because of this fluency I seemed to have that many people didn't.  This eventually led to me getting IT qualifications as a technician.  It even followed me into teacher's college where I found myself teaching other students software and has been a mainstay of my teaching career.

This week I came across a recent study that sheds light on all of this anecdotal experience.  The Distribution of Computer User Skills research across wealthy OECD countries point to some rather astonishing facts: 

"Overall, people with strong technology skills make up a 5–8% sliver of their country’s population, and this is true across all wealthy OECD countries.

What’s important to remember is that 95% of the general population in North America cannot make effective use of computers in resolving even simple problems or overcoming unexpected outcomes."

Computer use isn't just poor, it's astonishingly bad.  Over a third of Canadians aged 16-65 can't do anything other than simple, rote, habitual work in a digital environment.  If asked to do tasks that I would consider straightforward and with no particular digital expertise, they are unable.  Keep in mind, this is only looking at the skills of work-aged people.  It's not even considering seniors who generally have much weaker computer skills - so the actual computer skill level in the whole population is even lower than this implies.

You're probably doubting your ability to be considered an advanced user in this study, but you shouldn't.  None of these tests involved programming or having to do anything engineering wise with a computer, it's all user focused work using simple software.  To be considered a strong (level 3) computer user you had to be able to "schedule a meeting room in a scheduling application, using information contained in several email messages."  If you've ever had a group of people email and work out a date for a meeting and then you've put that meeting in Google Calendar, you're considered a high end user.  If you're reading this online blog you're probably considered a proficient, level 3, high-skills user.

The article that started this leads on to another on the digital divide, but rather than hang it all on economic factors it also considers psychological and skills based limitations.  A few years ago I attempted to provide local households that said they couldn't afford one with a computer.  It was a complete failure - like giving books to illiterate people then wondering why they weren't illiterate any more; there is a lot more to the digital divide than economic barriers, though they no doubt play a part in it.  The fast evolving nature of technology means relatively recent computers are available often for free to people who otherwise can't afford them, but the problem isn't just access to technology, it's the inability of our education system to build sufficient digital fluency in our population to make use of them.  There is no point in handing out technology to people who can't make use of it.

With all of this in mind, who are we aiming at when we introduce digital technology into the classroom?  What are we doing when we pitch elearning at a general public who have this distressingly low level of digital fluency?  The vast majority of our students (fictitious digital native prejudices aside) are functionally illiterate when using digital technologies in even simple, user focused ways.  We seem to think we are graduating students who are able to make effective use of computers - except we aren't.  Many educators dwell in that level 0 to 1 poor user category themselves.

I've been advocating for it for over five years - nothing changes.
If our digital fluency were seen in terms of literacy, we're handing out the complete works of Shakespeare to illiterates and then wondering why it isn't working and why it's being vandalized.  At some point we'll stop dumping the latest multi-national prompted tech fad (ipads, chromebooks, whatever) into classrooms and start teaching a K to 12 digital skills continuum so people can actually make use of the technology we provide.

Last week one of my essential students intentionally punched and broke a Chromebook in my classroom.  This made me quite angry because I saw a useful and expensive digital tool being broken.  After reading this report I can't help but wonder if he was just breaking a thing that he can't do anything useful with that frustrates him.

“Educational technology has failed to move the needle on either cost effectiveness or student success in the past ten years…” - Brandon Busteed, Gallup Education
(they were talking about this in Phoenix in 2014)

OECD (2016), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, France.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Diversifying Consumer VR Landscape

One of our student built PCs immersing a UGDSB
in To The Beat: a student built VR game.
We started exploring virtual reality almost two years ago in my senior computer technology classes.  In that time we've completed a Ministry of Education research grant, presented at several conferences and built over a dozen VR sets for other schools in our board.  VR checks a lot of boxes for me:
  • it's technically demanding in both hardware and software so it challenges my students with real world problems they wouldn't otherwise get to see
  • it's a new medium that has yet to be defined, so there are no established rules or right ways to do things. You can't ask for much more as a media creator and teacher.
  • it's rapidly evolving and because we early adopted we are playing a part in that evolution
With all that going for it, I've enjoyed the past could of years working out how best to get it to work, and we're not remotely done.

In October Microsoft blundered into VR with their fall Creator's Update.  Up until that point Microsoft had been quietly developing its very expensive Hololens (we tried it last year at the 2016 ECOO conference) while others went to market.  We settled on the HTC Vive as the best of the first wave of classroom ready fully immersive VR systems.  I've since put hundreds of people through their first experience with it and 99.9% of them come out of it amazed.  It never gets old watching someone experience VR for the first time.

Last year building our Vive VR kits meant building a reasonably strong spec desktop computer (a fairly simple ask for my seniors) and then installing the SteamVR drivers and updating all the firmware on the Vive before installing software.  After that we had stable, ready to roll systems that knocked out astonishing VR experiences.  Headaches were few and once up and running the systems have performed flawlessly, which isn't always the way with emerging technology.

This year Microsoft added all sorts of VR ready software to this Creators Update which has made our fall roll-out of seven VR sets for other schools a massive headache.  What once took ten minutes of installing mature, stable SteamVR drivers is now an hours long odyssey of trying to untangle immature Windows 10 VR kits that try and run the Vive as a Microsoft Mixed Reality headset (which it isn't).  I'm sure this is no accident.  If Microsoft can destabilize HTC's market dominance with the Vive by making the running of it a misery on Windows, then they would (and did).

My frustrated seniors and I were doing multiple re-installs and trying all sorts of driver voodoo to get things working.  Microsoft's sudden interest has borked our VR installs on non-Microsoft gear, but guess what works?  Microsoft's new Mixed Reality headsets.  Coincidence?  Probably not.

Having a dedicated VR pilot
at home lets me test all sorts
of software and systems!
We got a Lenovo Explorer last week when it was on sale at the suggestion of a very VR experienced teacher in our board.  It's pretty lousy using the Microsoft mixed reality software (there is barely anything there and the drivers are immature), but running it on STEAM has been reasonably problem free (the odd tracking issue with the handsets but otherwise OK).

Today I tried out Space Pirate Trainer, probably the most demanding interactive title we've tried, on the Lenovo Explorer using Windows Mixed Reality and it works a treat.  That's a $400 kit doing what an $800 HTC Vive kit with external sensors does almost as well with much less set up.  It'll only get better as those Microsoft drivers mature.

As it stands now we build a VR ready desktop for about $1400 and then get the enterprise version of the Vive for another $1500.  For three hundred bucks less we could buy the equivalent Samsung Microsoft Mixed Reality Headset and compatible laptop.  That'd be a kit that is mobile (laptop and no external sensors means easy transport and setup), and similar in resolution.

It bothers me that Microsoft has used its operating system monopoly to elbow out an existing system, but it's also a step down the evolutionary chain by not having the external sensors of the older Vive system.  That's what you get for not being first in with an emerging technology, you get to edge them out with an evolved product.

With all the driver headaches some of my students (and myself) had moments when we wondered why we're doing this to ourselves.  I finally said, "hey, if you wanted it easy you'd stick to the established technology that everyone else uses.  If we want to work with emerging tech, we've got to be ready for a fight."

The fight continues, and Microsoft's one-two punch of a simpler but effective platform and aggressive monopolistic software has got me thinking about moving on to a better solution.  Sometimes doing what the Sith Lord wants is the best way forward.


Lenovo's Explorer Microsoft Mixed Reality Headset.HTC's Vive: up until recently our go-to VR headset.

Microsoft Mixed Reality.  
And for Canada.

It's already gotten more diverse than it was when we presented this at ECOO last month.

Microsoft is pretty cagey about the specs for Mixed Reality.  They say any typical laptop or desktop can do the business, but our school's Dell i5 laptop wasn't sufficient.  If your 'typical' desktop costs north of $1500 and your 'typical' laptop costs beyond two grand, then yeah, you're ready to experience mixed reality.  They also require Bluetooth which most desktops don't have, so add that in there too... and the controllers need AA batteries, which the Vive doesn't.  

Curious to see if your typical PC can do it?  Here's the link to check your hardware.