Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Temporal Prejudices

Recently a friend on Facebook shared this Washington Post article about Winston Churchill. I tend to shy away from hero worship, it isn't really in me to do, but I am motivated to try and address one of our last blind spots when it comes to prejudice.

I've seen people time and again criticize those who lived before them as being immoral and somehow answerable to the laughable ethics of our own time. That article on Churchill, a man who lived at the end of the British Empire and spent much of his career trying to hold the tattered pieces of it together, often using the same kind of bombastic rhetoric you still see today, is no doubt accurate, but the re-defining of statements made over a century ago based on modern values is neither fair nor particularly useful, unless you're a politician trying to win a point.

There is a real danger in interpreting historical people from a modern perspective. We are all creatures of our time - it dictates our thinking more than our culture, language or economic status does. To criticize someone for a lack of understanding at a time when it didn't exist is itself a kind of prejudice. A fairer way to judge them would be to consider if they helped move us toward the clarity of thought we think we enjoy today.

This first became obvious to me when a history professor told us the story of his father coming back to university as a retiree. The man was well into his eighties and he thought it would be fun to take early Twentieth Century history since he'd lived through it. He quickly became so despondent with the course that he dropped it. The young students in the class ripped into what they called the rampant racism of the time. He tried to explain to them that racism wasn't rampant, it was how society functioned back then, but they didn't want to hear it. It's hard to understand his point unless you're aware of just how blinkered you are in your own time. Most people are happily ignorant of these prejudices.

Everyone, as they get older, must experience this strange kind of temporal emigration. We all move away from the values we grew up in. I suspect it's one of the things that wears out seniors the most, society moves on without you. Newer people change the rules and things change (hopefully for the better, but there is certainly no guarantee of that). I imagine most aging people feel like the world has become a foreign place to them.

Based on the myths Western society is founded on, you'd assume that this is a case of continual improvement with us becoming the shining zenith of civilization, but human history suggests otherwise. We have moments of rationality that become eclipsed by our own darker nature. When that happens you'd better hope there is a Winston Churchill to fend of the Nazis of the world. There are racist imperialists and there are racist imperialists - had the other guy won the definition of racist imperialist would have ascended to new heights. Starving people in India to feed soldiers during a war is a very different thing to active genocide.

There are a number of points made in that article that, while true, ignore the circumstances they were made in. Dresden fire bombings are described as an unmitigated act of terror. In retrospect the Allies won World War 2, but this was by no means a certain outcome. In an all-out war with both sides intent on the complete subjugation of the other, the Allied firebombings not only severely affected the German war machine's means of production, but it also struck fear into an enemy drunk on its own sense of superiority. You don't win wars by pulling punches. Was Churchill an imperialist? No doubt, and he shared the racist views of his culture and time period, but to rewrite history to suit your own values without recognizing that cultural influence is itself a kind of prejudice.

We go to great lengths to acknowledge history these days, and I think that's an admirable thing, but we are still blind to so many influences. The recent Oscar ceremony was doing back-flips to acknowledge the rampant racism and sexism implicit in the business, but then proceeded to give a standing ovation to an American soldier who proudly stated that he went to a country half way around the world (Vietnam) to kill the people there for not capitulating with his government. Imperialism is alive and well and we dress up celebrities in fancy dress to give it standing ovations and world wide TV coverage. I wonder what the people of Vietnam thought of that magical Oscar moment. Perhaps all we've done in our post-colonial world is hide it behind rhetoric and politics better than we did in the past.

There is something to be said for the clarify of purpose and honesty with which people used to go about the business of empire. At least back then you knew what people stood for. In Canada this looked like outright oppression, religious indoctrination in residential schools and overt colonization. Today all that is hidden behind a quiet racism and just enough prosaic government support to make the people its supposed to be helping helpless. In 150 years it might be said that all we've gotten better at is management. While all that's going on we're removing John A. MacDonald from that embarrassing historical record. At this rate we'll have history scrubbed clean with our revisionism in no time. Don't worry though - the racism and cultural inequalities will stay safe and warm under that revisionist blanket.

We often sit up here in the 21st Century criticizing the shortsightedness of the people before us. I wonder what our descendants, looking at us sitting on our high horses while appearing blissfully ignorant about our hypocrisy, will say about us.

We're burning a hole in the world with fossil fuels, industrial farming the earth into a desert to feed a never ending population explosion, wearing clothes made by third world workers in economic slavery (itself based on the remnants of colonialism), creating the worst economic disparity in human history and proudly supporting martial force when it suits us, which usually means when we need what they have. They only difference between imperialism a century ago and imperialism now is the marketing we put on it. We used to be honest about our imperialist intentions, now we tell everyone we're exporting freedom.

We're all blind to the things our time period is unwilling or unable to address. This is as true for Churchill as it is for Mr Tharoor. A good dose of humility is what we need here, not more rhetoric by a politician. A bit more awareness of circumstance and compassion for historical circumstance might also translate into a less judgmental view of our own elderly. Trying to understand someone from a different culture is something we say we value. Recognizing that people from other time periods are essentially from a different culture as well might make us a bit more aware of our own hypocrisy.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

When Assistive Technology Doesn't

Recently, my son was undergoing his IPRC process to enter high school and I'm suddenly privy to how parents experience this aspect of the public education system.  The parties at this meeting seemed to genuinely have my son's best interests at heart, but there are unseen forces in the education system more interested in saving money than promoting pedagogy.

One such area is technology support for IEPed students.  The goal here is to provide digital tools that allow students with special needs to keep up with their class work.  In many cases this can mean something like a Chromebook, which is essentially a web browsing laptop.  I'm not a fan of Chromebooks, they are a corporate means of collecting users into a closed ecosystem.  The intent of Chromebooks is to pass any online experience through Google's corporate lens (Chrome) and to keep people within that singular view in order to benefit what is very much a for-profit business.  

Google struggles to treat education and students in particular as anything other than a commodity because people's internet attention is why Google is one of the richest companies in the world.  Google is very aggressive about maintaining its monopoly which is why I'm reticent about things like GAFE, evangelizing groups like Google Certified Teachers and Chromebooks.

Google is a powerful tool, no doubt, but if it's the only way you ever interact with digital technology then you aren't particularly digitally fluent, any more than you could call yourself truly literate and knowledgeable if you only ever read one publisher's books.

The default response from the school board when we began talking about replacing my son's very old (he takes good care of it) laptop was to give him a Chromebook.  Since we only pay lip service to developing digital fluency in Ontario and graduate a large majority of digital illiterates, this seems like a cheap and easy way to hand out tech, but in this case it is a kid who is already digitally skilled and who intends to make computer technology his life's work.  He is already competing in robotics competitions and building computers.  The courses he has signed up for in high school focus on digital engineering.  Giving him a Chromebook is like giving a carpenter a toy hammer and expecting them to frame a house.  It's neither individually appropriate nor particularly useful.

I have been pushing to get him the tools that he needs to pursue his interests, but I'm speaking for the trees here as well as for my own son.  I teach computer technology and have a high preponderance of ASD students who have a great interest in and a neuro-atypical approach to technology that allows them to tackle it in interesting, unique but usually never time efficient ways.  Handing any of those students a Chromebook is like giving a mechanic a twelve millimeter wrench and then telling them to disassemble an engine with it, in an hour.

When he is learning electronics next year in grade 9, he'll need to install Arduino on his computer and then use it to code circuits.  It's free on a 'proper' computer running Windows, Linux or OSx, but Arduino can only be done on a Chromebook with a monthly fee (not covered by the school board).   If he wants to run RobotC for his robotics classes, he can't do it on a Chromebook.   If he wants to run 3d modelling software?  Code in the IDE of his choice?  Run the plasma cutter software?  Sorry, none of those happen on a web browser.  If all we're aiming to do is teach kids how to browse the internet like the consumers we want them to be and through a single, corporate lens, then we're doing a great job pitching Chromebooks at them.

A Chromebook isn't cheaper than a basic Windows laptop.  It is only a browser whereas the Windows PC can install a massive ecosystem of programs for a wide variety of purposes.  The only advantage is that the Chromebook is easier to manage.  Because you can't install anything that isn't a simplistic Chrome extension on it, you have less headaches with software conflicts; it does less, is easier to manage and does a great job of performing its primary function:  feeding the Google data mining machine with much needed fuel.  Pedagogy designed to expand digital fluency in our students isn't the reason why Chromebooks are now ubiquitous.  Management of educational technology is easier if you drink the koolaid and get on the magic Google bus where you don't have to worry about all that messy digital diversity and the complications of actually teaching students (and teachers) how technology works.  Google (and Apple, and Microsoft) are happy to usher your classroom in to a closed system for your own ease of you, learning how technology works be damned.

In discussing this issue with the school board I was told that my son doesn't need a full laptop because the specialty classes that require that software will supply it in class.  His IEP specifies that he be given extra time to complete work, but that is impossible if the technology needed to do his class work is only available in a particular classroom.  How does that help him finish his work after school, or on a weekend?  It doesn't help him if he is trying to do work during his GLE support period either because other students are using the in-class equipment while he is elsewhere.  There is no guaranty that the technology would be available at lunch or before or after school either, so the 'what he needs will be in the classroom' answer seems to be intentionally ignoring the extra time his IEP clearly states he needs.

Differentiation of assistive technology with an eye on customizing it to specific student needs is exactly what the IEP (INDIVIDUAL education plan) is supposed to be doing.  If we were going to begin to take digital fluency seriously, assistive digital technology that encourages a diverse digital ecosystem and renders a wider understanding of how technology works would be a great place to start, especially with digitally interested students.  

A Chromebook should be the last thing suggested.  This, or course, begs the question:  if Chromebooks aren't any cheaper and don't improve digital fluency, why are we using them at all?  Well, it makes our monopolistic corporate overlord, um, partner, happy while not being any cheaper and doing less, but it sure is easier to manage.  

Whoever this is a win for, it isn't providing my son with the technology he needs to succeed.  It also puts the pedagogy around understanding the technology we've made an intrinsic part of our classrooms on the back foot.  As near as I can tell, other than feeding a corporate partnership and rolling out something so simple it can't really break (or do much), there is little to recommend the Chromebook, especially as an assistive device for a student who will need things it can't do in his classes next year.