Saturday, 13 July 2019

Elearning: How to make the inevitable more than a cash grab

My Background in Elearning:

I've been elearning since the early 1990s in university.  Back then it was called distance-ed or correspondence learning.  I'd get a big parcel in the mail and work my way through paper based course work before sending it back.  When I got my ESL teaching qualifications in Japan in 1999, it was through a distance-ed school in Scotland.  Those courses were difficult and made more so by the one way nature of the communication.  As email became prevalent I was able to establish faster two-way communication with instructors.  This finally evolved into an online, cloud based elearning system in the early zeroes.

In the 90s I was working in IT, which included a lot of user training on new, cloud based software management solutions, so the elearning concept wasn't new to me.  From the very earliest cloud based management systems, I've had an oar in the water when it comes to elearning.

I became an Ontario teacher in 2004 and was a summer school elearning teacher by 2005.  Those early Learning Management Systems (LMSs) were very texty.  If you wanted graphics or even links, you had to HTML code them in yourself.  All of us (my students and I) were alone in cyber-space way back then, and some wonderful things happened that demonstrated the potential of this technology.  After two years of teaching elearning through Peel's summer school program on the ANGEL LMS, I moved to Upper Grand DSB, who hadn't touched elearning yet.

By 2007 UGDSB was starting to get into it and I volunteered to be in the first group sent to another board to learn how D2L's new LMS worked.  The next year I was once again teaching elearning in summer school and then also teaching elearning during the school year as part of my course load.  By that point I was also taking Additional Qualification courses (AQs) in the summer on elearning.  Rather ironically, out of all the AQs I took in English and visual art, the only one that wasn't elearning was computer technology.

In addition to teaching remote elearning in English, I also pushed for a blended learning course in my local school that uses elearning technology in a traditional classroom so that students can get familiar with this increasingly popular option for earning credits.  That blended elearning course in career studies was very successful in terms of introducing students to elearning.  Any student who took it knew what elearning was by the end of it and whether or not it would suit their learning habits.

Way back in 2011 I was trying to wrap my head around how to get students in a 1:1 technology situation to make effective use of technology that most people consider mainly entertainment focused.  Seven years ago I was trying to help our union understand elearning and how they could support effective implementation of it.  Many educators turned their nose up at elearning and the unions would rather it not exist at all, but this kind of disruption is exactly what digital information does, and ignoring it isn't a good idea - just ask Blockbuster.

By six years ago I was thinking about applying to become an elearning coordinator at my board.  Strangely, after going in for the interview and not getting it, I was suddenly out of the pool of elearning teachers and haven't taught it since.  I've found other ways to exercise my digital expertise, but elearning has always been a fascinating union between ICT, digital media and pedagogy that I've never really gone away from.

With the rise of GAFE in our board all of my classes have essentially become blended learning classes.  I didn't make any photocopies for my courses last year because our documentation and information all flows digitally online.  I expect my computer-tech students to be able to effectively use our learning management systems.  Many of them take that digital expertise and use it to effectively engage in elearning.  Many other students from across the school show up at my door unable to effectively engage in elearning courses due to a lack of digital fluency - I still help with that, though it isn't the gig I'm being paid for.

All that to say, I have a long history with elearning and think it can be a  powerful addition to our education system.

Meanwhile, in 2019...

The current provincial government, without a lot of forethought or apparent research, have stated that all students have to take four elearning courses.  The high number of expected elearning credits and lack of infrastructure around this would suggest that this is an excuse to create giant classes, ignore pedagogy and pump out students with little or no effective learning.  If elearning is going to be used to Walmart education into cheaper, less effective process, then it's a disaster for students, educators and the tax payers who are funding a process that isn't effective.

If elearning is going to become an effective tool in our education system (and it really should), it can't be an excuse to cheapen learning.  There are too many corporate interests involved that want to make it exactly that.  Those interests may well be what is behind this latest lunge at Ontario's education system.

This approach plays to a common tactic: grossly simplifying a complex public service in order to diminish it.  Many adults flippantly state that they have to do elearning through work so kids should get with it. Teaching children isn't like teaching adults. When a wage earning adult takes a course, it's an entirely different situation than a child doing it. Adults (most adults, the adult ones anyway) bring a degree of self-discipline and purpose to a course of study that children are still developing, because that part of their brain isn't done growing yet; it's neuro-science.  Saying that children should learn like adults do is like saying children should drive cars because adults do (ie: a profoundly ignorant and stupid thing to say).

Elearning in our schools should start off as blended learning  focusing on getting comfortable with the technology and expectations of remote instruction in a familiar, face to face environment.  Most students are dumped into it without any clear idea of what it is and then given minimal support. Once the tech is in hand and a student has a clear understanding of how elearning might work for them, pedagogy and high standards are vital or the whole thing becomes a cheaper, less effective option, which helps no one and just wastes money.  Having elearning as a required blended course using elearning technology in a face to face classroom is a great idea, but dumping 4 remote courses on every student in Ontario is a profoundly ignorant thing to do; differentiation based on student need should always be a driving force in effective elearning (or any kind of learning, right?).

Integrating elearning effectively is starting to feel like a no-win scenario.  Between callous government announcements about forced elearning courses for all and the reticence of unions and teachers to embrace this inevitable technology evolution, there are few who are willing to champion it.  If Luddite teachers (and their unions) would turn down the skepticism and negativity and get behind effective implementation of this inevitable technology, there is a chance to beat the politics.

Elearning is going to happen anyway, and if we don't engage and participate in making it as pedagogically effective as possible it'll end up being the corporate/neo-con money grab it's being primed to be. When that happens, students and educators alike will be hurt. So will tax payers, because they won't be getting their moneys worth - the corporations pushing it and the politicians that serve them will always cash in though.

The way forward is clear:
  • prepare students for elearning by training them in the technology and the instructional expectations in a familiar f2f environment - no one should suddenly find themselves in a remote learning situation without knowing what to do
  • provide full support for elearning students including guidance and library/research support just like f2f students enjoy
  • set high standards and hold to them, including offering exit strategies for students the process isn't working for
  • develop LMSes that curate a learning community in digital spaces - a sense of community is vital to any classroom situation, physical or otherwise
  • provide elearning instructors with excellent technical skills and fluency in digital environments
  • provide passionate elearning instructors and support people who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure a successful online learning experience
At the moment we have post-secondary programs that won't accept elearning grades on par with regular credits.  What does that tell you about the current quality of elearning?  It's about to get inflated into an even less effective learning outcome unless Ontario educators come to the aid of this emergent type of learning.  We've fumbled it along so far, but without all learning partners engaging in this to ensure sound pedagogy, this forced approach is going to cause a lot of damage and cost a lot of money doing it.

To better understand the level of growth that this requirement would create, it is useful to examine what we know about the level of e-learning that currently exists in Ontario.
Traditionally, in Ontario, students have enrolled in e-learning courses for a number of reasons: to fast-track and get to graduation early, to catch up in credits, to accommodate their learning needs, or because particular courses are not offered in their communities. E-learning has benefits for many students, and for some it is challenging.
Expectations change as politics dictate new directions.

The digital divide is deep and wide:  Elearning has an expensive barrier to entry in terms of in-hand technology as well as broad-band access.  It isn't a cheap alternative, but it can be a powerful tool in our educational toolbox.

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Victory Lapping Like You Mean It

I've always struggled with the idea of victory lapping in Ontario high schools.  As someone who returned to high school to finish his final year in his early 20s, I understand the need.  Had I not been able to do that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now and paying the taxes that I am.  I can see the value in a victory lap, but I did it with purpose, doing a full semester of school while also working a forty hour week.  For those victory lappers I see returning with that kind of intent, I have nothing but patience.

Find Rick & Morty hard to stomach? Your students don't...
Unfortunately, this past year I saw a number of victory lappers who didn't apply themselves in school and then did the same again on their victory lap, at great expense to the system.  If it's to get credits needed to graduate or get into a particularly difficult post-secondary program and the graduate is attacking the opportunity like it matters, then it's obviously a good thing, but if it's for familiarity's sake, as has been the case this year, then I have to wonder why anyone would want to chuck their final year of income (which is usually your best one) down the toilet so they can hang out in high school for an extra year.

Just think about that for a sec.  You're not giving up your first year of income when you victory lap, you're giving up your last.  Students (and parents) often misunderstand this fact.  You'll always start off at the lower end of the pay scale, but where you finish when you retire is what you're cutting a year from because you're starting late.  Victory lapping isn't just expensive to the system, it's astonishingly expensive to the student, but in a world of helicopter parents and childhoods designed to protect children from the results of poor decision making, we continue to produce graduates who want to stay in the safe, no deadline, guaranteed success of high school.

In addition to this costing each victory lapping student tens of thousands of dollars, it's also costing the system millions.  Victory lapping isn't a very efficient way of resolving graduates, but we do tens of thousands of times a year in Ontario.

The other night I was at our graduation where I saw all sorts of students graduating who are returning next year.  If they're graduating then it means they've already gotten the credits they need to move on, so why stay?  Some will argue that they're staying to raise their grades.  Was it worth tens of thousands of dollars to screw around in your grade 12 year instead of buckling down and getting it done?  Some are staying because they simply can't think of what to do next and couldn't be bothered to make plans because the system is waiting to look after them yet again.  Those students (and their parents) are putting an awful lot of weight on an increasingly underfunded school system by doing that, in addition to flushing that year of income down the toilet.

Year over year I've seen some radically different approaches to victory lapping.  In 2018 I had some very strong students victory lap and in doing so they did incredible, portfolio building things that helped them get into nearly impossible to access post-secondary programs.  When students do that with a victory lap, ie: ride it like they stole it, then I'd argue it's a brilliant strategy.  They might have lost a lower last year of earnings, but they've gained a new career trajectory that annihilates that loss.  In the case of 2018, where our victory lappers were winning their way to national titles and opening up career opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have considered, you'd be hard pressed to make an argument, economic or otherwise, for not doing it.

A few years ago I noticed that our victory lappers were often hanging around the computer tech lab having completed the course curriculum.  In many cases they were heading into digital technologies in post secondary and needed a final boost in terms of experience and an opportunity to build portfolio.  I developed the TEN4M course, specifically designed for digital technologies students looking to build portfolio for post secondary.  Up until this year it has worked a treat.  An opportunity to exercise engineering process and lead a self directed project that raises digital literacy in our school has been very beneficial.

The first year we did it Zach, who had struggled earlier on, was able to direct his new found maturity into his development as an IT technician to the point where he dominated Skills Ontario provincials with the highest technical score and a gold medal, and then a top five finish in Canada.  In the years since we've had students who have helped hone the TGI Game Development course into the weapon it is today, medal winning co-op students who have developed programs with our feeder schools to enhance both their technology and their teaching of it and a wide variety of other students who have developed the hands on technical experience needed to launch themselves into a career in tech.  Cal, our most recent Skills Ontario champion, used his victory lap to help form our first CyberTitan cyber security team and land us a national finalist position, then he went on to win Skills Ontario and get another top 5 national finish.  Cam, another of last year's victory lappers, also helped launch our CyberTitan program and then went on to a top 10 finish in our first ever attempt at coding at Skills.  In both cases these experiences launched them into Waterloo's Computer Science program, which is notoriously hard to access.

Finding the time to develop and explore technical skills that require hands-on experience and space to develop is especially challenging in an Ontario secondary curriculum that is still very much focused on academics.  For the students (and there are many) who want to work with their hands rather than at a desk, having an extra year to focus on applied skills is invaluable in a system where every subject is mandatory except those that teach hands-on technical skills.  For students who are trying to expand their digital portfolio in order to access difficult post-secondary options, it really is a necessity if the curriculum is going to remain as it is.

It looks like we've got a pretty good handle on how to accelerate students accessing a victory lap into post-secondary options, but this past year has been a victory lap disaster.  In semester one my only victory lapping student wasn't interested in leading projects or improving school technology access and learning (the point of the course: using your digital expertise, help to improve the school's digital access and usage).  From the year before when I had students blowing expectations (both mine and their own) out of the water, I went to 2019s flaccid VLappers who were just looking for a free go-around with no initiative or effort required.  In semester two they were so shaky they just ended up dropping out - after flushing a year of income down the toilet.  In cases like this, it's hard to justify victory lapping in any way.

For the students who need to make up credits or align their high school trajectory with a difficult to access program, I have infinite patience when it comes to victory lapping, but for the directionless, there needs to be something in place (a charge for dropped/failed courses?) that stops this being a year of doing as little as they can while draining a system that is already being strangled financially.  If students are victory lapping with purpose, developing their capabilities using focus from late blooming maturity, then I am more than happy to pay the taxes that enable them to fight their way into a world that is more economically inaccessible now than it has been for any previous cohort.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Privilege Masquerading as Superiority

Last year while at the CyberTitan National Finals in Fredericton I happened to be standing by Sandra Saric, ICTC's VP of talent innovation, during a photo opportunity where the fifty or so student competitors were all together on a long stairway.  Under her breath she wondered, "where are all the girls?"  There were maybe three or four female contestants.  Sandra's comment resonated with me and I became determined to put together a female team that would get their own points and where no one is 'just a sub'.

CyberTitan and Cyberpatriot have doubled down on this focus on bringing women into a cybersecurity industry that has only moved from 11% to 20% female participation in the past five years.  For the
2018-19 season any all-female teams had their costs waived.  For a program that isn't rolling in support, that made a big difference and enabled me to pursue this inequity.

Graduating girls into non-traditional careers is an ongoing challenge in education.  Pushing against social norms is never easy, particularly so in our conservative, rural school where gender expectations tend to be even more binary and specialized program support significantly lower than in urban environments.  I've managed to have one or two graduating female computer technology focused students each year, but even that small step has only come after massive effort, and it's not nearly enough.  Even with all that stacked against us, we still managed a 33% female participation rate in CyberTitan this year, and of our six Skills Ontario competitors, two were female.  We're aiming to raise that even higher next year.

This year CyberTitan made a point of trying to address the very one sided gender participation in the cybersecurity industry by making the national wildcard position open to all-female teams.  There were only 15 out of 190+ teams in the competition, and our Terabytches finished in top spot.  We were delighted to discover that one of our boy's teams actually finished one place out of the top four eastern teams.  A number of people (oddly all male)  grumbled about the all-female wildcard spot, but the irony is that we knocked ourselves out of the finals.

Taking an all-female team meant that I needed a female chaperone with us.  Fortunately, our board's head of dual credit programming is a triple threat.  Not only is she very tech focused (her student just won top secondary brick layer in Ontario!), but she's also computer science qualified and an absolute joy to travel with (I went to Skills Canada Nationals in Edmonton with her last year), so I quickly asked her to join us when the call came through to bring our girls to nationals.  Not only did she not need coverage herself, but she kindly covered mine so my school literally paid nothing for this trip.

I like to think I'm pretty sensitive to gender roles in the first place, but taking an all-female crew to this event had me constantly seeing micro-aggressions I might have otherwise missed.  Within five minutes of picking up the Toronto (all-male) teams on the bus ride to Ottawa, one of them had intimated that we were only there because we're a girl's team.  Another later said that it's not fair that girls are getting special attention.  It must be tough when everything isn't about you all the time.  These comments were a daily occurrence from all the other teams, even the two co-ed ones, one of the girls of which said that she was just the sub.

That same Toronto team was able to attentively listen to a male speaker during the visits to cybersecurity companies in the Ottawa area after the competition, but the moment a woman stepped up to speak they began a loud and rude conversation among themselves.  I wonder how often these little princes (who did ever so well in the competition) have had their gender superiority enforced to develop such outstanding habits.

Walking in to the competition, our team had all signed in but one and as she reached for the pen a boy from another team stepped in front of her like she wasn't there.  Talking to Joanne and the team about it after, they shrugged and said, "you get used to it."  By that point I'd been triggered by this so much that my already light grip on my aspie-ness was slipping and I was starting to get right angry, but even that anger response is couched in a male sense of privilege.  When a man gets angry it's seen as assertiveness, when a woman gets angry she's a bitch, which brings up yet another point.

After fighting to get a team together against overwhelmingly genderized expectations in our community, and encouraging that team to develop a representative sense of identity in an overwhelmingly male contest, and then having to push back when the powers that be didn't like the name, you'd think this was all starting to get too heavy, but it has only clarified my sense of purpose.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if girls didn't have to get used to being invisible and could self-identify without being told what they can and cannot be called?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could be what they are and explore what they could be without some small minded traditionalist trying to put them in a superficial box?  When you push back against that social apathy you get a surprising amount of kickback from the people it benefits.  Ontario's current political mess is entirely a result of that conservative push back.

You even get kick back from the people it subjugates.  At an ICT teacher's meeting earlier in the year, a teacher from an Ottawa school said she would never run an all female team because it isn't fair to her boys.  Were everything else level, I'd agree with her sentiment, but in the landslide of unfairness around us, you'd have to be wilfully blind to ignore historically integrated misogyny in order to be 'fair to your boys'.  This teacher taught at the local International Baccalaureate school, which brings up yet another side of competition and privilege.

Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver... Fergus.  Your
usual expected centres of digital excellence.
We're a rural composite school that spreads itself thin catering to our entire community.  The major industry in our region is farming, we recently had our annual Tractor Day.  Our school contains programs for developmentally delayed students and has a sizable special needs student population.  We also manage to run a number of successful academic programs, but these are by no means our sole purpose.  Tech exists in there somewhere.

As far as computer technology goes, our lab is a room full of ewaste we've re-purposed to teach ourselves technology.  Thanks to some board SHSM funding and an industry donation from AMD we got the cheapest CPUs and motherboards we could find and put them in ten year old ewasted board PC cases running on ancient hard drives and power supplies.  My students have never touched a new keyboard or mouse in our lab.  We have to clear away our practice networks built of garbage because we have the largest tech classes in our board and province and we have no room in the lab to leave those networks set up with classes of 31 coming in next period.  I don't imagine any of the other schools operate in a similar environment.

We returned the board desktops in our room to the school who redistributed that money into other departments because you can't teach digital skills on a locked down machine.  We've received no school funding for the current lab.  Looking into the backgrounds of who we were up against in this competition, every other school is a specialist school from an urban centre.  In many cases they only teach top academic stream students pulled from other schools, and yet they can't put together an all-female team for this competition?  One wonders if those competition focused, talent skimming schools inherently encourage gender imbalanced technology with their incessant focus on winning.

We're built on sweat and tears.  Our disadvantage is also
our strength, but when it comes to competition it
gets frustrating not getting to run the same race
as everyone else.
The socio-economic side of privilege is every bit as battering as the sexism.  One of the little princes from Toronto was telling a Terabytche about his parent free March Break touring Europe with his friends.  She replied, "Hmm, I spent the week playing video games in Fergus..."  Last year half of our CyberTitan team had never left Ontario before, let alone had a week in Europe with their buddies.  The students who attend these specialized schools tend to come from economically enabled backgrounds and have parents looking to leverage that advantage.  The amount of support those wealthy families rain down on these specialty programs is yet another advantage we can only dream of.

Think the privilege ends there?  Because we cater to the full spectrum of students in our community, my classes are huge in order to reserve smaller sections for high-needs students (even though many of them also take my courses).  In talking to other coaches, my class sizes were the largest by a range of 20% to a staggering 50%, and their operational budgets ranged from five to twenty times what mine are; I teach up to twice as many students with a fraction of the budget in a lab made out of garbage.

We were surprised to learn that we would be beginning the competition short-handed because one of the IB schools had exams some of their competitors had to write, so to keep it fair we'd all start short handed.  Right.  Gotta keep it fair.

That these urban, wealthy, gender empowered, privileged kids are flexing that privilege doesn't surprise me.  That they continually complained about special treatment for a group of underfunded, rural, girls busting through gender expectations in technology, and who fought their way to these nationals literally using ewaste, only underlines the expectation that comes with their privilege; the expectation of winning.

In spite of these society-deep gender inequities and our specific socio-economic circumstances, the quality of my students continues to shine through.  Finishing fifth last year with only four team members and two broken competition laptops was just the kind of awesomeness I've come to expect from our kids.  It didn't occur to me to have the whole competition changed to make it fair for them.

This year we managed a ninth place finish out of ten teams, only beating the intermediate team who can't really compete with older more experienced teams anyway.  That earned another round of, 'you're only here because you're girls' from other teams.  After careful consideration I think my response is: if you came from where we came from, I wonder where you would have finished.

Is winning more about how you perform, or how you are economically and socially engineered to succeed?  I'd love to give gender and social equity to those complaining about our presence.  Having those boys experience people talking over them and stepping in front of them like they aren't there would be good for them.  Facing down gender based prejudice in an industry where women are a small minority is an act of bravery, not special treatment.  Wouldn't it be nice to bring everyone up instead of holding people down?  To do that we need to recognize what winning is, and how privilege enables it.

Next year we have returning students for the first time in this competition.  I'm aiming to put a co-ed team of our fiercest veteran cyber-ninjas together, build tech out of garbage and then win anyway.  Nothing gets me going more than an underdog fight against privilege, especially when those with that privilege like to selectively ignore it.

I hope we'll be back with another all-female team too.  Many of the Terabytches are interested in returning, but I can understand their hesitancy.  Working through this competition has challenged them in ways that were unintended.  If it was just about technical skill, then we'd have been much further down the track, but when you have to fight to be noticed and are constantly talked down to, it's exhausting.  I get why they might think twice about going through the never-ending online and face to face sexism all over again.  It'd be nice if other schools would pick this up and run with it instead of rolling their eyes at it.

Last year was all about giving the haves a black eye, and it thrilled me.  We didn't return home with a trophy or a banner, but we were running a different race.  I'm not even sure how anyone could make this an even race.  Teaching technology is dependent upon access to it, and the digital divide is deep and wide.  This year it was about something even bigger.  Yet again we came home empty handed, but I think what we won was worth more than any of the prizes.  I hope the girls see that and come back to defend their title.

An amazing opportunity and a chance to begin to create balance in an industry that lacks it.  Great work ICTC!

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Good Will: it's what holds the education system together

As thousands of young teachers are handed pink slips and those left behind are looking towards a system intent on cramming as many students into a classroom as possible, good will is drying up in Ontario education.  You might not think that this matters, but it does.  Good will is what has teachers doing hundreds of hours of volunteer work each year to maximize student experience in school.  All of the teacher coaches and club leaders spend time enriching their schools with these efforts.  I'm hard pressed to think of a single teacher I work with who doesn't do some kind of volunteer work in addition to their paid work.

Beyond the volunteerism, there is a general misunderstanding in the public about how well teachers are paid.  From reflective edu-blogging and sharing best practices on a Saturday to marking on a Sunday morning, most teachers aren't work free when they aren't at work.  You might think this extra effort is well funded, but it isn't.  With five years of university and the massive debt that accompanied it, ten years of industry apprenticeship and experience, five summers of additional qualification training and fifteen years of teaching in Ontario classrooms, I take home about $58k a year.  I don't work all year round, true, but on the weeks I do work I typically average about 10 hours of work a day on teaching related activity and about five hours per weekend.  I typically put in at least 6-8 hours of work a week during holidays as well, just to keep up on marking and planning.  Out of my fifteen teacher summers off I taught summer school on five of them and took additional qualification courses that I had to pay for myself in another four.  On other years I've presented at conferences and learning fairs.  I don't think I've had an actual summer off yet, so don't get too carried away with those 'summers off'.  The vast majority of my summers have been work related, and often at my expense.

Some Teacher Math:
2000 hours of work while teaching daily (40 weeks per year, 5 days a week, 10 hours a  day)
+160 hours over weekends (40 weekends per school year, 4 hours per weekend)
+25 hours over stat holidays (Xmas and March Break, Easter, etc)
=2185 hours of work.   That's not counting the week before school starts when I'm usually in pretty much every day until things are ready to go, or extended field trips when I'm essentially at work 24 hours a day, or the times in the summer when I'm training, or presenting at educational conferences.  Nor is counting any of the hundreds of hours I spend working on Skills Ontario, CyberTitan or other extracurricular student enrichment.  Sure, not all teachers hit it this hard, but you'd be surprised at how many do.

At my $58,000 take home a year that's about twenty six bucks an hour - and I had to spend huge amounts of money and years of my life to get myself trained to the point where I could even begin to do this job - a job that I still have to do even when I'm sick (teachers plan their own absence when away ill).  I then had to spend fifteen years teaching at lower salaries and paying for additional qualifications to get to where I am at the top of the pay scale.  If you factor in all the extracurriculars that many people believe should be a requirement of my job, my take home pay for the amount of time I put into this gig is about twenty bucks an hour.  If you think teaching is about the money, you have no idea what you're talking about.

When I left millwrighting in the early 1990s I was taking home $918 a week for a forty hour week.  If I took an extra half shift, which I often did, my take home was more than I make now as a teacher some thirty years later.  Of course, when I did overtime in the private sector I got paid for doing overtime.  When I do overtime as a teacher, I get attacked by my employer.

I think teachers get paid sufficiently, but you'd have to be nuts to say it's extravagant.  Unlike provincial politicians, Ontario teachers haven't seen cost of living increases that keep up with inflation in the past decade, and we've had all sorts of contractual obligations illegally stripped in the same period.   So, if it isn't the money and safe working conditions that keeps people at this, what does?  It's good will.  Teachers go above and beyond for their students.  All they ask in return is to work in a system that honours that effort with equal bonhomie.

When we get into a situation like we have now, where a government uses our profession as a scapegoat for all of society's ills, that good will evaporates at a startling rate.  A difficult but satisfying job becomes just difficult.  Young teachers who have been battling for years to find permanent work are shaken out of the system and the best senior teachers start thinking about all the other ways they could make a living with less hassle elsewhere.

Good will is a fickle thing and it seldom beds well with politics.  As our populist regime with a mere 23% of Ontarian's votes steamrolls our public support systems while paying off friends and family, the feeling that this is about balancing a budget feels less and less true.  If Ontario were to attack its financial imbalance in all areas, I think education would be more than willing to do its part, but when MPPs are voting themselves cost of living increases while removing many teachers' ability to make a living at all, it's hard to feel like we're all pulling together.  As things tip further and further out of balance, there will be a brain drain from Ontario, which is a loss that is already hurting our classrooms and one that will cost the province for years to come.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

What's In a Name?

Last year we drove across Canada.  We were having breakfast in Drumheller, Alberta when a big family came in.  The grandfather/patriarch of the family was talking to a granddaughter he obviously dotes over.  She was going into high school the next fall and he asked her what she was looking forward to and she said, "wood shop!"  He immediately responded, "why would a pretty girl like you want to do that?"  She did the only thing she could think to do without causing a scene and laughed.  I didn't laugh, I was staggered by that exchange.  Welcome to the world of #girlsinSTEM.


We're taking our second run at the CyberTitan cybersecurity competition this year.  Last year's success suddenly meant a surge of interest, so I was able to quickly put together two teams.  When none of them were female (again), I started asking the keenest girls from my junior classes if they would be interested in forming an all-female team.

Cyberpatriot, the competition that Canada's CyberTitan works out of, has also recognized how few women there are in STEM in general and information technology / cybersecurity in particular, so offered to waive the application fee for all-female teams this year.  At national finals last year an ICTC organizer noted how few girls were in the competition.  With that observation and support I was encouraged to convince six of my strongest former grade 9 girls to give it a go.

Early on I noticed how differently they approached the intensity of the competition from the two all-male teams.  Where the boys tended to specialize and generally work independently, the girls were constantly conscious of how everyone on the team was contributing and were always finding ways to integrate each other into what they were doing.  In some cases, members of the male teams did very little, but none of the girls were so relegated.

All three teams were new to this (all of last year's team graduated), so no one had previous experience of the competition, but the sense of ownership was much more absolute with the male teams.  That sense of male ownership and dominance has been an ongoing theme in teaching technology - I've been writing about it for years.

One of my standard team building approaches is to encourage the teams to name themselves to help bring them together.  Both male teams took names that were almost an afterthought because they were only loosely teams and didn't feel like it mattered, because it didn't - they all feel empowered and capable.  The female team came back to me with something that spoke to their experience, charged them up and created a sense of identification and belonging vital to survival in such a difficult circumstance.

I have to admit, the name did cause me to pause, but my first reflex was to support this sense of edgy self-identification, especially when I saw how it unified the girls and helped them deal with the pressures on them.  I passed on the name to admin and it was ok'd for competition with no discussion, which surprised me a bit, but also delighted me because it meant (I thought) that the the difficult circumstances of this team were being recognized.

A byte is 8 bits of information - typically a byte is used to denote a character in a computer using ASCII code, so each letter you see in this blog is a byte of information.  A terabyte is an almost inconceivable number of bytes - about a trillion of them.  How big is a trillion?  If you spent a million dollars a day since year zero to now in 2019, you still wouldn't have spent a trillion dollars.  It's a powerfully big number used in the male dominated field of computer technology to denote massive amounts of memory.

The girls' team came upon the idea of combining terabyte with bitches into the Terabytches.  I doubt the grandpa telling his granddaughter to do girl-appropriate things would approve, but anyone with any degree of feminist sympathy would recognize the power in combining a traditionally derogatory term used to limit and belittle women (especially smart, vocal ones) with a powerful technology term from deep within tech-bro culture.

The Terabytches put up with the condescension (most of it unconsciously delivered without malice) of their male colleagues throughout the competition by looking after each other and generally ignoring it.  In our conservative, rural school, the idea that tech is for boys is firmly entrenched in spite of my ongoing best efforts.  At one point one of my seniors who is also an engineering lead (and a genuinely nice kid) said, "why are there so many girls in here?" at lunch one day.  There were two girls in a room of 20+ people.  I immediately called him on it and said, "you mean the two girls in here are too many?" and he quickly backpedaled, but the assumptions implicit in the comment still echoed around the room.

My male teams both did very well in this competition, but at no point did they ever feel like they shouldn't be there, the girls frequently questioned their presence in it.  This was a subject that boys did in a room almost always full of boys.  Even in my most gender diverse class I'm lucky to approach a 20/80 gender split, most are much less.  Many of these culturally enabled boys will go on to successful careers in digital technology while being told, 'atta boy' by family and friends.  Meanwhile, girls are being asked why they are wasting their prettiness on technology... and that's the nicest kind of negativity they'll get.  More often it's outright dismissive chauvinism.  The fact that they had each other to lean on allowed them to battle on in a chauvinistic field of fierce competition.

I had a female teacher tell me last week in Ottawa that she won't run all-female teams because it's unfair unless all of her students can participate.  That kind of pick-and-choose-equity when it comes to fairness is very frustrating to hear, especially from a female colleague.  When we don't live in a remotely equal society, saying that everyone should get the same supports is really code for maintaining status-quo prejudices.

The chauvinism the Terabytches face hasn't been limited to passive aggressive face to face situations.  When we discovered that they had gotten through to nationals and neither of the male teams had, the first thing out of most of the boys was, 'they only got through because they are girls.'  My response would be, 'they got as far as they did in a workspace and field of study that they were continually alienated and dismissed by."  That included barbed comments from anonymous people online and having to study material written almost entirely by men for men while competing in a contest created almost entirely by men for men.  A better question would be, with all of those advantages, why didn't you boys do better?  The Terabytches finished right behind our senior all-male team in points and beat them in some aspects of the contest.

Picking a sharp name that counters stereotypes is not only a smart move from a competitive point of view, it also highlights all of those assumptions people make around gender and technology.  Male teams can name themselves after historically white rapists and murderers, using names that glamourize violence.  They can be raiders with creepy viking logos and (white) crusaders battling (brown) infidels, they can be marauders and pirates, cavaliers and knights.  Pick your strong male historical context and there's your team name.  The male culture of team naming also likes to identify with violent animals and revel in that association with male predators.  If you see a bird logo it's a male-centric one.  The cardinals are red, the blue jays are blue, the orioles are orange and the falcons are big and burley and aggressively male in appearance.  If you want to go mythical, you'll see all sorts of griffins, dragons and argonauts, but medusas, sirens and harpies?  Not so much, because the connotation is different.  History and culture aren't kind to strong female stereotypes.  When 'babe bunch', 'daisy dukes' and 'fembots' are in your list of 'top powerful female team names', you know we have a long way to go on this.

With media attention ramping up now that the Terabytches are the top all-female team in Canada, concerns have arisen around the name.  Worries about how the media will spin this to create sensationalism are fair, but my first reflex is still one I'm comfortable with, especially knowing how intelligent and outspoken these Terabytches are.  Having any male tell these young women that they can't create a strong, edgy team name that speaks to their experience in facing obvious and open sexism while outperforming all-male teams from all over the country is something I'm going to dig my heels in about.  Should they face reductive, sensationalist press in the process of being national finalists, I have no doubt that everyone on the team will be a spectacular ambassador for girls in STEM.

Jaime, the reporter at out local paper, had a great interview with the girls the other week.  She has written a newspaper article about it, but it's only the tip of a thirty minute interview that had the Terabytches talking so frankly about the challenges of competing as girls in such a male dominated contest that I was tearing up.  The fact that they are an all-female team has allowed them to weather the negativity and succeed in spite of it.  Though several of them are very competitive by nature, they all want to reform the team again next year and aim even higher.  This is about so much more than where you place in a competition.

Competitive teams tend to double down on the male stereotypes when identifying themselves.  If a female team attempts to do the same thing from their own lived experience, there are questions around appropriateness that start to feel like status quo sexism.  Competing in the bro culture of technology in the male dominated world of cybersecurity in a conservative, rural community was always going to be an uphill struggle.  I know the Terabytches are up for it.  I need to lean on the strength of my convictions and back them through the continuous and sometimes overwhelming static.  If every educator approached the sexism systemic in our subject areas with the same zeal, we could eventually level the playing field and let everyone participate on equal terms.

In the meanwhile, I'm proud to be a Terabytch!

Think I'm over stating male dominance in cybersecurity? As one of the most conservative specialties in a male dominated industry, women in cybersecurity face challenges a lot more perilous than an edgy team name. If you're an ally, be an ally:
Are you a woman in technology? Help ICTC advocate for a more gender balanced field!

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Class "Caps" are a Low Resolution Solution to a High Resolution Problem

I'm going to do what I do best and annoy everyone by not agreeing with anyone.  I'm  so perverse, sometimes what I don't necessarily believe what I write, but if it serves to push my thinking, then I leave it in.  Come down the rabbit hole with me to the magic land of Ontario Education where everything and nothing is data driven and very little of it makes sense... unless you're a politician.


I'm just spitballing here, but after reading dozens of articles on the impending loggerheads between Fordnation and every public school teachers' union in Ontario over class size averages ("caps" if you're using inaccurate Minister of Ed lingo), I thought it might be a good idea to think outside the box seeing as no one else is willing to.

Education minister Lisa Thompson seems to be getting deeper and deeper into the doublespeak as she tries to justify increasing class sizes for high school students by over twenty percent, offering up such nuggets as, it'll make them tougher and more resilient, or, students can teach each other.  If we don't dehumanize our kids in school, how are they ever going to make it in the world of work isn't a great selling point when justifying this approach to parents.

On the other side the hyperbole is coming on song with teachers and unions talking about how class sizes are what saves students, but as someone who has been working in a classroom in Ontario since 2004 (and not in a union office or support role out of the classroom), I'm here to tell you that our current process doesn't work very well at all.  All this noise about it in the media means we're going to claim this as the hill we die on as Fordnation gleefully turns up the heat until we're locked out or on strike.  These violent delights will have violent ends, but I sincerely hope the people and organizations involved are looking for a solution rather than a fight.

I don't see any of this as a winnable scenario.  If the unions somehow find a way to win, all we get is the same inflexible and stratified system we currently have that produces a lot of people supporting already overfilled classrooms.  If we lose we get that system made worse.

The idea of an average class size of 22 means that we're funded at that level per teacher.  For every 22 students in the system, we get money from the Ministry to hire someone.  Funding at that level means we have lots of people in support roles at school, board and ministry levels.  For every one of those people not teaching, we have a classroom with over 22 students in it to justify their existence.  I'd love to see the data on the number of teachers we have in the system that aren't teaching, but that sort of thing doesn't get out.  When they say we'll have classes of 35 or 40 if the class average is raised to 28, they're talking about how we currently have classes with up to 31 while working off a 22 average.  Small classes and teachers not teaching result in many larger classes to get us back down to that 22 average.  Lots of people in the general public haven't wrapped their heads around this, but they should.  Bigger classes don't help students or teachers, and we already have them.

What's strange is that any talk of raising averages doesn't seem to impact the people in supporting roles and just trickles down directly to classroom teachers who are already over that average to support those secondary roles.  There are many people who do those supporting roles exceedingly well, but there are also a number who are doing them because they don't like teaching in a classroom and are looking for an out.  Still others are doing jobs that require nothing teacher related, but are still getting paid as a teacher.  If you're doing health and safety or shuffling paper in an office, I'd suggest you should be getting paid accordingly, and not as a teacher.  If we reviewed all those seconded teacher jobs and actually paid them inline with what the job was, there would be many more teachers in the system who, you know, teach.

As far as teachers in supporting roles go, those roles should be have expectations at least as stringent as the work a classroom teacher has if we're expecting a teacher to do it.  If a support role is being used diligently (and by diligently I mean with the same rigour that your classroom teacher works while preparing hours of daily instruction and then delivering it in a live, dynamic and differentiated manner to 70+ students every day), then I'm all for it.  I've met 'teachers' who haven't taught a class in Ontario in over a decade.  They're often considered to be experts in teaching.  Some of them appear in my classroom periodically and proceed to assess me on my ability to teach, something they themselves haven't done in years, and didn't do for very long when they did (I've had a bee in my bonnet about this since 2011).

There are other supporting roles that get calcified into a permanent job.  This should never happen.  Any seconded teacher should be a short term contract with specific goals to be met and then they return to the classroom.  Not only would this stop nepotism, but it would also mean more cross training and wider experiences as more people cycle through seconded opportunities.  Instead of seeing the same old seconded crew at the board, it would be fresh faces all the time.  Pushing that further, I'd like to see anyone involved in assessing teachers actually, um, teach.  VPs and principals should dip a toe in the classroom every few years  just to remember what the job is and help create a leaner, more teaching focused system.  Class sizes drop even with a higher average if more people in the system are teaching.

All of this would require flexibility in the system and a management team that is lean, agile, and adaptable.  It's totally doable.  We have the talent, we just don't have the culture.  If changes are coming, knocking the stratified, hardened nature of support roles loose may not be a bad thing.  The only reason teachers would be wary of this is because usually change is focused on cheap, not better, and usually any changes land hardest on the people on the front line.

I assume there are ever so smart people in the Ministry and boards across the province who have been seconded from teaching who should be doing this sort of thinking, but that's ok, I'll take my weekend to iron it out for you all so I can be back in the classroom next week doing what I do  - ignore that link, and all of these, and these ones - all of those conferences I've presented at, or learning fairs I've attended in the summer, or additional qualifications I've done in the summer, or Ed-camps on weekends or competitions I've taken days away from my family for, that's all volunteer work.  What I get paid to do is teach students in class every day - all that extracurricular work is done on my own time for no pay, but I think that's what being a professional means, doing extra work to ensure my effectiveness - I'm responsible for making my teaching practice better.  Having never been paid to do the array of work I do beyond the classroom while still being in class (with the highest class cap sizes in the province), I can't help but wonder about seconded teachers and what it is they do when it isn't obviously apparent.  It always should be, otherwise they should be teaching.  For those of them that would do anything to not be teaching (and I've met a few), perhaps it's time to find another industry to work in?

Here's how we can fix this no-win mess in Ontario Education that our government and unions are walking us into:

The 28 student average sized class (aka cap that isn't a cap) is now a talking point for this government and they can't back off it.  The 22 student average sized class is where our unions are going to hold the hill to the last of us.  Getting rid of these averages entirely isn't going to happen, too many people have a stake in that thinking, so why not create a system that is actually reflective of student need in each classroom while retaining the cap fixation?

This government has surely realized by this point that throwing special needs students under the bus isn't just mean spirited and hurtful, but also has terrible optics.  They need a win with the special needs community, and increasing class averages of 28 with no other changes to the system ain't going to do it.

How about this:  actually give Individual Education Plan (IEP) students with special needs some weight when it comes to the classes they'll be in.  This should be data driven and transparent.  All students are considered a 1 in the low-res class average system we have right now, but anyone who has taught a class knows that not all students = 1.  Off hand, my IEPed students can range from a 1.1 (barely needing any more than non-IEPed students), to a student I have right now that I'd rate at 4+.  Some IEPs suggest small supports that don't ask too much of a teacher.  Other IEPs make many demands on a teacher's time and ability to support both that one student and everyone else in the room simultaneously.  Don't forget, every time an IEP demands extras, like one on one instruction and differentiated delivery of material, that's an expectation that requires time spent away from everyone else both in class and in extra preparation time out of it.  The current system does nothing to acknowledge or support that.

I have an open junior high school class at the moment which is capped at 27, but over half of the students in this class have IEPs, and in several cases they have exceptional needs beyond what I'm able to do in a class of 27.  Using this individually weighted system to generate averages based on where I think my time is spent in that class (I finish each period in there sweating and exhausted because I'm trying to be in four places at once), this class is the equivalent of 38.3 non-special needs students, which I think is about right.  I'd be just as frazzled and wrung out trying to serve the learning needs of 38 non-special needs students in the same circumstance.  Ontario risks damaging good teachers (and then paying for their absences) by running the whole system into the ground with massive class sizes.

Had I 27 students with no special needs (IEP special needs are dictated by psychological analysis by professionals, these aren't arbitrary decisions), then I think I could manage this class effectively and be everywhere a student needs me when they need me.  If I take half of that class of 27, let's say 14 of the most high needs students, one of whom is the most challenging student I've dealt with in the last ten years, the needs-adjusted cap equals 24.3 students.  In that class, two more students with lighter special needs loads would bring it to the current cap of 27.  I would find that class of say, 16 students just as difficult to manage and provide effective learning as I would the class of 27 non-special needs students.

We say students have special needs in Ontario Education and then ignore the workload that comes from it.  If the PC government wants to place 28 student average sized classes on us, this special needs weighting would go some way toward making that a viable possibility for the teachers actually working with those students in the classroom.  In a strange way, smaller class sizes would give a teacher a heads up on what's coming.  How I approach a smaller, high-needs class would be very different to how I approach a larger, non-special needs class.  Differentiation of instruction to promote positive outcomes for everyone is the goal, isn't it?

If done right, this system would automatically size streamed classes based on the learners in them.  I teach open level classes so get the full gamut of learning needs all at once, and suffer that lack of resolution our vague system provides now.  Academic, applied and essential classes have lower caps as student needs increase, but that wouldn't be necessary if we had weighted students tied to their individual needs.  Most essential classes are IEP heavy and would automatically get downsized to make them more effective (smaller class sizes work more effectively with high-needs students).

A weighted IEP system that acknowledges students with special needs would make a 28 cap tenable.  Making teachers seconded from the system short term, contract specific and then getting them back to teaching would be another way to make a higher cap possible.  For jobs that aren't at all teaching based (health and safety, office work at the board), don't pay them as teachers because they aren't.

Debt went up with all three parties at the helm - even
during Mike Harris's legendarily fiscally focused years.
The liberals were doing well until the US dragged the
world into a financial crisis orchestrated by private business.
I'm OK with seeking efficiencies in Ontario education, but
not at the expense of student achievement and not while
the government is paying friends and voting themselves raises.
Is fiscal balance a high urgency goal or not?
Ontario has the highest sub-national debt load of any jurisdiction in the world.  We pay billions in debt management every year.  Creating a leaner education system focused on putting teachers in front of reasonable numbers of students would protect our excellent education reputation.   Ensuring that everyone who is paid as a teacher directly impacts the classroom would be a good way to get sag out of the system while doing our part to make Ontario more economically sustainable.  That leaner system would still be able to support those teachers in special education, student success and learning commons who enrich learning for all both with and without special needs (students can suddenly become special need because of changing circumstances, having experts in the school to assist with that is vital).  You'll notice flexibility and responsiveness to individual student need is a driving force here.

Our education system would need to be more fluid, flexible and less stratified than what we have now.  That agile system would be focused on classroom resources first and foremost.  In doing so we might be able to manage a higher class averages while still retaining the excellence Ontario's education system has become known for.  Higher class averages could help create a more lean but equally effective system that still looks after special needs, but that doesn't appear to be Doug Ford's conservative mandate.

If we're just looking for a fight, then that's what this will turn into, but for the sake of our students and the already stretched teachers working in classrooms all over the province, I sincerely hope we're looking for better and not to burn it down.  Lockouts, strikes and impending doom aren't doing anyone any good.  If nothing else, consider this a search for better solutions to what I hope is a commonly shared goal:  the best possible outcome for every student in our system.


  • weight IEPed students when calculating class caps so high needs students are able to find success in classes better suited for them.  In classes with low IEP counts, higher numbers mean more students moving more efficiently through the system
  • Destratisfy seconded teaching and make these jobs short term contracts that seldom have a teacher out of the classroom for more than a year.  Set specific, high expectations for seconded teachers, encourage more teachers to cross train and experience secondment in a short term way (this would reduce burnout and improve the system understanding of more classroom teachers)
  • Don't pay teachers doing non-teaching seconded jobs as if they are teachers (health and safety, office administration, etc).  In some boards this is already the case, but not in all.  No teacher should be driving up class average sizes doing a job that isn't teaching related.
  • Set high, specific expectations for support role teachers in schools.  Make those supporting roles contract based and short term, so more teachers experience the role.  This cross training would improve school communication and effectiveness.
  • Encourage excellence in support roles by removing people who can't or won't demonstrate beyond expectation work in the role.
  • Anyone who is looking to avoid teaching in a classroom at all costs should be assisted into another profession.
  • Administration should keep a toe in the water and teach a class every few years.
  • Instead of suggesting that increased caps are going to land on classrooms, look at rejigging the system to put more teachers in classrooms so increased caps don't hurt us where the rubber hits the road.
  • Board and Ministry jobs are constantly evolving and are team based as new people come and go through existing initiatives.  This is the end of lifers in those jobs.  If you're an Ontario teacher you've taught in a classroom in the past three years.