Tuesday, 15 December 2020

A Bits & Bytes Reboot

 Hello TVO,

I'm active on Teach Ontario and my wife has been a regional councillor with you; we're both big supporters of TVO.

A long time ago as a 10 year old new immigrant to Canada in the early 1980s I came across Bits & Bytes as I was teaching myself how computers worked.  This became a career in IT that has since morphed into a career in education where I've coached students in my small town to national championships in Skills Canada and ICTC's CyberTitan Student Cybersecurity Competition.

I frequently write about the dearth of computer skills in the education system and society at large.  This one from 2017 is a good exampleThe article that kicked off that blog post offers a staggeringly dark view of digital fluency not just in Canada but around the world.  We have all become increasingly dependent on computer technology while simultaneously wallowing in ignorance around how it all works.

I think back to how Bits & Bytes influenced a whole generation of Ontarians to take on this emerging technology and think it's time for a reboot.  If we're going to plug our children into networks for their learning and live our lives in digital spaces then we all need to have a basic understanding of how these digital technologies work, or we're inviting abuse and manipulation.  ICT (information and communications technology) is now considered a critical infrastructure by the government of Canada, yet most Canadians are essentially illiterate in it even as they come to depend on it more and more.

If you ever decide to put together a B&B reboot and are looking for people to work on it I'm all in.  TVO's mandate is to transform learning through digital technology, but if we don't understand that technology then we're nothing more than easily manipulated consumers.  Addressing this illiteracy would also raise Ontario's place on an increasingly interconnected world stage.  Bring back Bits & Bytes 21st Century Edition and help educate Ontarians on the technology we're all living our lives through!


Tim King

Elora, ON

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Academic Integrity And Other Lies in Pandemic Teaching

My son works hard at school and just got his grade 10 honour roll in the mail.  At the same time we got his first quadmester of pandemic learning report card and we were all shocked to see a precipitous drop in grades that means he won't be on next year's honour roll.  Unlike previous years where the school made a point of acknowledging his individual education plan and supported him by 'encouraging' teachers to follow the medical recommendations on it, this year any support provided had to be snuck in because all support has been officially cancelled due to COVID19.  Classroom teachers can have double cohorts of 20 students coming off busses with 35+ students on them every day, but all supports are cancelled because we don't want to spread the virus.  Keeping up with the demands of SAFETY when they are so arbitrary and ineffective is exhausting and frustrating.

As a parent of a child with an IEP I'm concerned that our double digit drop in grades is a system wide situation affecting hundreds of thousands of students with special learning needs across the province.  Talking to parents of students with special needs, this seems to be what is happening everywhere.  Kid's with special needs are getting ground down by this rushed and cruel schedule.

The pandemic schedule slapped together by school boards is different all over the province as the Minister and Ministry of Education failed to demonstrate any leadership in planning a centralized response to this emergency.  The result is a cobbled together mess that makes a mockery of educational expectations in (what was once) one of the highest ranked public education systems in the world.

I've worked in Ontario's public education system for sixteen years and while the system has been far from perfect it has always made attempts to follow data driven, responsible pedagogy.  The other night I attended an online meeting of Ontario Education Workers United who are trying to stop stacked simultaneous face to face and online classes.  It was jarring to hear them talk about pedagogical best practices because it has been so long since I've seen any.  I've always been led to believe that we follow the research in order to produce the best possible educational outcomes for the widest variety of students.  Those days focused on best practices are far behind us.  I'm still trying to work out how we were on strike last year trying to protect student learning, but this year a virus gives us an excuse to throw it all in the toilet.  I really don't know what any of the players in public education (unions, school board, ministries, colleges of teachers, etc) that I pay for actually stand for as 2020 closes.  It certainly isn't equity and support for students with special needs.

What I do see in public education, especially in the past two years, is a government intent on dismantling it for private, for-profit interests.  Meanwhile, as the funding dries up, educational management (which you can only join with a raft of post-graduate degrees) operates on their usual bias of protecting the students most like themselves.  This is upsetting both as a parent and a teacher.  When money is thin those special needs are just an expensive and expendable bother.  This is starting to feel like an unwinnable battle as the parents of special needs kids have to stand up against a biased system and a political party that seems determined to hurt them.

COVID has only intensified this inequitable situation.  This slapped together, high-speed schedule that fakes an appropriate amount of instructional time (we're at 52.5 hours of face to face instruction down from 110 hours) has no room for students with special needs.  I'd love to see the live data we've already got for quadmester one but no one will want to show it because it won't be flattering.  We only follow the data when it suits us these days.  The credit completion rates of fully remote elearning will pile on top of the grade drops and failures with face to face students to paint a damning picture of this 'new normal', but no one wants to work from that kind of data.

I sympathize with teachers struggling to retain some form of academic integrity when the system itself has made a mockery of it.  Ontario curriculums are designed to be 110 hours long.  Teachers are desperately trying to meet those requirements while being given a fraction of the time needed.  We're doing 52.5 hours of in-class instruction in multiple cohorts so students are in either face to face in the morning or the afternoon.  This is done to keep group sizes under 20, which is wise during a pandemic, though when they stream off buses with up to 40 students on them (while f2f spec-ed support is cancelled) you have to wonder where the random lines are being drawn, and why.

More confusing are the instructions around the online half of the school day students are 'supposed' to be doing at home.  That remote work is where we're supposed to make up the other half of lost course time, but we've been told we can't assess anything done remotely and students and/or parents can opt out of it entirely while still earning a credit.  Most teachers seem to have responded to this by marking in a way that is specifically damaging to students with special learning needs, all in the name of academic integrity.

An argument might be made that if the same qualified teacher is running their own remote cohorts then a degree of online instructional effectiveness might be achieved, but I've yet to have a teacher qualified to teach my subject as remote support and I'm currently remote supporting a class I'm not qualified or experienced in.  My make-work job there is reduced to helping students find links and make things work online, if they bother to show up, which a third of the class (the third with IEPs) aren't doing anyway.  We could have limited class sizes to single cohorts for classes with only one qualified teacher in the building, or even connected remote teachers between schools for specialized classes, but none of that happened because qualified teachers and even instructional time doesn't matter anymore.

You can find this right on the Ministry webpage, but it isn't true in a pandemic.  The only thing your child with special needs can expect at the moment is to get run over by speeding quadmesters.  Do try and keep them engaged and upbeat during a marathon health emergency though because you can't expect their schools to be doing it.

Many IEPs will state that a student needs extra time in order to see success in their class, and board administration is expected to adhere to supports for these special needs.  Our own experience getting run over by a rushed quadmester with little or no communication and sudden drops in marks without explanation, support or even an option for extra time is the result of teachers clinging to academic integrity when no one else is, from the Minister on down.  It's a war parents of kids with special needs can't win because it seems as if the entire education system has come out in favour of punishing students with IEPs.

Special education is a human rights issue, but you can bet the lawyers are all over the health & safety not withstanding piece in there right now, though they're strangely quiet about 40 kids on a bus.  Discarding spec-ed supports is a top down decision done by a government with a history of special-needs abuse

At a time when everyone is under exceptional stress and trying to deal with a seemingly never ending health crisis you'd think the education system would focus on equity and support for those students most in need, but the opposite has happened.  Service providers have an obligation to accomodate a person's needs but this pandemic has unfortunately shown the true colours of both this government, the ministry it has infected and school boards who were more focused on rushing out a solution instead of looking after our most vulnerable students.  Now that the new system is in place you can expect it to continue running over students with special needs which now includes an increasing number of non-IEPed students who are facing anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic.

Expecting reason and compassion from the minister is a lost cause.  I can only hope people in leadership positions elsewhere in the system take their responsibilities more seriously and start acting to support students and redirect teachers away from playing a part in this latest round of systemic inequity.  We need to stop the myth that these cobbled together pandemic quadmesters have any kind of academic integrity, equity or kindness.  Only then can we fix it, and fix it we must.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Psychology, Cybersecurity and Collaboration in Educational Technology

We were beta testing Field Effect's state of the art Cyber Range online cybersecurity training system this week in our grade 10 TEJ introduction to computer technology course.  Our skill levels in that open class range from two students who are top ten in Canada in the CyberTitan student cybersecurity competition in their respective disciplines, to students who have never owned a personal computer at home because their parents thought a series of gaming consoles would adequately prepare them for life in the Twenty-First Century.

The challenges of keeping students with such diverse skillsets engaged in a single classroom aside, I'd agreed to beta-test this software because it offers a way past one of the biggest blocks to schools entering the Cyberpatriot/CyberTitan competition.  To participate in the competition you need a desktop or powerful enough laptop computer being run by an operating system that can do more than just browse webpages through a single corporation's lensVirtual machines are whole computers that can be simulated in a single window, and they offer a valuable tool in examining cybersecurity issues without putting your school network or computers in peril (installing a virus to see what it does on a school computer would produce obvious headaches).  If things go wrong in a virtual machine you just shut the window.

The Field Effect remote software ran fantastically well on our DIY student built classroom desktops and would work equally well on something as simple as a Chromebook,though trying to do this through a single, tiny 1366 pixel wide monitor would be a headache.

Once we got everything up and running I reminded students that they were manipulating a remote, virtual computer stored on a server in Ottawa.  When you're aware of what's happening behind the screen, seeing what we can do on networks with enough bandwidth, like the one we now have at school, is mind blowing.

The cybersecurity gurus at Field Effect didn't muck about when they set up this virtual online image.  When you first boot up the compromised Windows 10 image you're met with a full screen warning with flashing lights and a locked screen telling you that you've been ransomwared.

Even though students had been repeatedly prepared for this and I'd explained what a virtual machine was and how whatever happens in it doesn't hurt anything, this threw half of them into a panic.  The responses ranged from randomly mashing buttons to giving up, sitting back and loudly commenting on how stupid everything was.  That's in an optional course full of students who have demonstrated an interest and willingness to learn computer technology.  The vast majority of students (and staff) in education don't get nearly that much training, yet they're all still increasingly depended on digital technology in every class they're in.

The psychology of the attack was interesting.  The flashing warnings and countdown timer did what it was supposed to do with anyone lacking in digital skills (which is a startlingly large number of people in Canada in 2020).  Cybercriminals depend on this technical illiteracy.  My CyberTitans and many of the other digitally savvy kids in the room right clicked on the flashing screen and exited 'full screen' mode, which brought them back to a desktop, which some then got lost in:

This 'geek prank' fake WindowsXP desktop was also on 'full screen' behind the ransomware fullscreen warning, but even when others showed students trapped by the ransomware screen the same F11/exit full screen way out of it, many had already succumbed to frustration and had given up (again).  Several spent long minutes in the fake XP desktop trying to do things even when it said 'fake XP simulator' right on the screen.  Being unresponsive to what a computer is telling you when things aren't working right is a common response in weak users.

The digitally skilled CyberTitans were past the two blocks in seconds and were figuring out how to secure this hacked Windows 10 laptop and restore control for the proper user on it.  More than 70% of the class were stuck in two hacks that were so easily resolved that I was left wondering how we could back things up and restore their mangled pride.  Many of them, only a few days before, had done "my-experience-with-technology" presentations where they'd described themselves as digitally savvy, on Thursday morning this was in tatters.

The actual work of a cybersecurity operator in a case like this is not just to return things to normal but also to diagnose and identify the attack vector.  In an administrative user account that shouldn't have been on the machine there were files and instructions for how to run the malware, and even some background in downloads and browser histories that explained why this other employee had done what they did, but many of the students - including the quick movers, quickly deleted the evidence instead of forensically examining it.

This brought up the opportunity to talk about how much of what information security professionals do in our very networked world is more like a detective than a traffic cop.  It isn't just a matter of making sure every user complies with expectations, it's also vital to understand how the system was compromised because this will guide future security defensive settings.  It's things like this that have me wondering why there are no cybersecurity courses running in any Ontario high school, or no mention of cybersecurity in Ontario computer technology curriculum.  Any mention of security in the curriculum is rooted in 20th Century ideas of passwords or at best wifi encryption, the world has moved on.  The cloud-based networked world we're all leveraging in every classroom in Ontario goes unmentioned.

Once we got past the opening chaos, many students got into the detail work of repairing settings deep inside Windows, restoring control to the correct user and locking down firewalls that the ransomware had opened up.  If this all sounds greek to you it shouldn't, you're using all those things right now to read this.  And you and your students are using them every time you have them login to a cloud based service.  We're all offering an 'attack surface' to cybercriminals whenever we go into the cloud, but pretty much everyone is blissfully unaware of it.  People (users) are part of that cyberattack surface.  Not addressing cyber-illiteracy means you've just opened up opportunities for bad actors.

The problem then became all the wounded male pride in the room.  The students who struggled and gave up were also the ones who adamantly refused to get up and collaborate with the other people in our mono-gendered morning cohort.  Fragile male pride means you can't be asking for help - or collaborating, especially in a subject where you've convinced yourself you're an expert.  The more gender balanced afternoon cohort was constantly communicating and hive-minded their way through the infected image so effectively that most of them actually finished it with a perfect score.

The opening hacks were a source of laughter rather than long faces in the afternoon group.  The lack of collaboration in the morning cohort and then the negativity that descended was something I'm thinking about as we proceed into our violently crushed quadmester.  I've encouraged collaboration in face to face computer tech classes as no one works alone in modern tech jobs, yet the boys seem at a distinct advantage when it comes to creating or engaging in collaborative work, though even a small population of girls changes this dynamic.

This is an even bigger problem in my conservative country school where girls are peer and system pressured out of taking technology courses.  I'm lucky to have 10% female participation in my junior computer technology courses.  In senior courses we're lucky to have a single girl in any of the classes of up to thirty-one students.  The is problematic beyond our classroom.  Women are least engaged in engineering and computer science where the most lucrative careers currently are.

At the end of the day many students got their first glimpse into cybersecurity and a number of them are curious, which is good because we need to open up this pathway to students.  My original intent in giving this a try was to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their technical skills, but a surprisingly large chunk of the class, including students I thought would dig through it more effectively, were startlingly quick to give up and get pwned by some pretty simple hacks.  This is making me wonder how Ontario students are doing in our half elearning face to face and fully remote learning courses during this pandemic.  I fear our level of technical fluency is so shallow that unless online teachers are all doing simplistic, repetitive tasks that require no actual digital fluency, they and their students are unable to effectively engage.  This goes a long way to explain poor online engagement.

From the latest attempt to encourage Ontario
Educators to integrate cybersecurity into their
practice, especially if they're putting children
on hackable online devices.
I realize that cybersecurity scares the daylights out of most people (I've spent the past 3 years trying to engage Ontario educators in it to poor effect), but if we're going to be putting more and more of our education system into digital spaces then we're all responsible for raising digital fluency to the point where everyone can demonstrate resiliency in the face of unexpected outcomes.  At the moment, throwing up your hands in the air and giving up seems to be the solution for too many people.  Hopefully things like ICTC's work with Field Effect will help spread a deeper and more resilient tool for improving cyber-fluency.  Everyone working in the cloud needs this.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Surveillance Capitalism and Educational Technology

I'm currently finishing Matt Crawford's third book, Why We Drive.  His first book, Shop Class As Soulcraft arrived just when I was transitioning out of years of academic classrooms into technology teaching and it helped me reframe my understanding of my manual skills that are generally seen  as less-than by the education system I work in.

Why We Drive looks at how we're automating human agency under the veil of safety, ease of use and efficiency.  But in examining the work of the technology companies providing this technology, Crawford ends up uncovering a nasty new version of voracious surveillance capitalism at work in the background.

In an education system that can't get into bed with the masters of surveillance capitalism quickly enough (we're a 'Google Board' full of 'Google Teachers'), this makes for particularly uncomfortable reading.  Crawford makes persuasive, well researched arguments for why we shouldn't be leaping into Google's brave new world.  Meanwhile I'm watching public education indoctrinate children into feeding the cult of Google.

Crawford comes at this from the point of view of driving because Google and the other attention merchants are very excited about moving us to driverless cars in the near future, and Crawford is skeptical about their motivations for doing this.  From Shop Class As Soul Craft to The World Beyond Your Head and now in Why We Drive, Crawford has always advocated for human agency over automation, especially when that automation is designed to simplify and ease life to the point where it's obvious we're heading for a Wall-E like future of indolent incompetence in the caring embrace of an all-powerful corporation.

Situated intelligence is a recurring theme in Crawford's thinking and he sees it as one of the pinnacles of human achievement.  He makes strong arguments for why surveillance capitalists aren't remotely interested in human agency and the situated intelligence it leads to, and he fears that this will ultimately damage human capacity.  Among the many examples he gives is that of London taxi drivers:

Google isn't the only target in this book.  Tesla's misleading manipulation of crash data in self driving cars and Uber's manipulation of markets using its capitalization to dismantle existing industries that were providing a service within market forces are also targets.  Uber and Tesla's goals align with feeding the Google engine more human experience (that's where the money is), though this is often hidden behind marketing around safety, ease of use and efficiency closely tied to unarguable issues like climate change .  The quote above describes the difference between a London cabbie who has to commit to years of 'deep cognitive accomplishment' in order to become a driver in the city.  Uber's thinly veiled attack on an otherwise viable career by using untrained, underpaid and ultimately disposable drivers to break that livelihood before replacing them with automation is damning.  What 'tech' companies say seldom aligns with what they do.

'Free' means something different in surveillance
capitalism.  Note the accessibility and simplicity,
a common idea in edtech marketing, because
learning digital tools doesn't mean understanding
them, it means learning to consume on them.
I can't help but see parallels with educational technology.  We recently had another technology committee meeting where it was decided that once again we would buy hundreds of Google Chromebooks: "simple yet powerful devices with built-in accessibility and security features to deepen classroom connections and keep user information safe"   Notice the hard sell on safety and security, like something out of Tesla and Uber's misinformation marketing plans.  The reason your student data is safe is because Google is very protective of 'its' data, and make no mistake, once you're in Google's ecosystem, your data IS their data.

These plug in to our 'walled garden' of Google Education products that keep iterating to do more and more for students and staff until they're sending emails no human wrote and generating digital media automatically, all while saving every aspect of user input.  Board IT and myself argued for a diversity of technology in order to meet more advanced digital learning needs, but advanced digital learning isn't what we're about, even though we're a school.  Digital tools now mean ease of use and cost savings (though this is questionable), they are no longer a tool for learning as they increasingly do the work for us.

As Crawford suggests, the intention of these tools is ultimately to automate our actions and direct us towards a purchase.  That fact that we're dropping millions of dollars in public funding at best familiarizing students with their future consumer relationship with technology is astonishing.  As big tech gains access to increasingly personal information, like your geographic location, patterns of movement and even how you ergonomically interact with a machine, personal data gets harder to anonymize.  The push is to get into all aspects of life in order to collect data that will serve the core business... 

Crawford offers example after example of technology companies that offer ease of use and accessibility under the unassailable blanket of safety, ease of use and efficiency.  This too has crept into education technology, where instead of taking personal responsibility for our use of technology we surrender that critical effort to the inscrutable powers that be.  One of the intentions of the new normal is to produce people that do not question authority because a remote, cloud based authority is unquestionable.

From Shop Class forward Crawford has been critical of the 'peculiarly chancy and fluid' character of management thinking, which also falls easily into the safety/automation argument being provided by the richest multi-nationals in the world.  That system managers fit in well with system think shouldn't be a surprise, but for anyone left in the education system who is still trying to focus on developing situated intelligence, it's a completely contrary and damaging evolution.  I shouldn't be surprised that the people running things want to cut out the complexity in favour of safety and ease of use (even if that isn't what's really being offered), but any teacher thus focused has lost the plot.

Google and the rest don't 'give' software to education any more than they 'give' software to the general public.  All of their instruments 'serve its core business of advertising'.  Andrew Campbell has long had an eye on this, not that any critical analysis has stopped Ontario's educational management from hopping into bed with Google and the rest as quickly as it can.

And how do you automate people?  Get them in the system as soon as possible and make it familiar.  Forcing children to learn corporation specific tools instead of offering them platform agnostic access to educational technology is a good starting point.

There are still questions around how student data is used by Google. Crawford highlights how location data can't be anonymized (it's like a finger print and very individually specific), so even if your corporate overlord isn't putting a name on a data set, they can still tell whose data it is.  Location data is a very rich vein of personal information to tap if you're an advertising company, which is why Google is interested in developing self-driving cars and getting everyone into convenient maps.  Unless you're feeding their data gathering system they don't lift a finger.

Towards the end of the book Crawford leans heavily on Shoshana Zuboff's (Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus in case you're questioning the validity of this research)  Surveillance Capitalism, which came out in 2019.   Zuboff makes multiple appearances in Netflix's The Social Dilemma, which explains how surveillance capitalism has developed as a cancer immune to society's protective processes because it goes after something that has no legal protections:  our digital/cloud based data.  As an economic weapon, a US law from the late nineties that absolved social media companies from responsibility for what appears on their sites under the name of 'internet freedom' has done untold damage around the world.

Crawford goes so far as to describe this as a new kind of colonialism that we're all under the yoke of, but passive analysis isn't the end goal.  He shows experiments like Pokemon Go (created by Google) as a test in active manipulation.  The goal isn't to create a new level of advertisement based on predictive algorithms, it's to build an adaptive system that can sublty manipulate user responses without them even realizing it.  In doing so he also explains why so many people are feeling so disenfranchised and are making otherwise inexplicable, populist political decisions:

Google's mapping projects are situated in colonialist intent (empires make maps in order to control remote regions).  By mapping the world and giving everyone easy access to everywhere, local knowledge becomes worthless and a remote standard of control becomes a possibility.  Smart cities are shown in this light.  The language around all 'smart' initiatives from edtech to smart cities all follow the same ease of use/efficiency/safety/organizational marketing language.  This language is unassailable (are you saying you don't want efficiency, safety, ease of use and organisation?)  This thinking is so ubiquitous that even trying to think beyond it is becoming impossible.  Though tech-marketing suggests that ease/efficiency/safety is the intent, the actual point is data collection to feed emerging markets of predictive and influencer marketing; digital marketing is Big Brother.  Orwell was right, but he couldn't imagine a greater power than centralized government in the Twentieth Century.  The Twenty-First Century produced the first world governments, but they are corporations driven by technology enabled mass data gathering that are neither by nor for the people.

There is no way out of the endless cage Google is constructing.  Self-driving cars and driving itself are the mechanism by which Crawford uncovers an unflattering and insidious form of capitalism that has already damaged our political landscape and looks set to damage human agency for decades to come under the guise of safety, efficiency, ease of use and security.

Any criticism of this is in violation of the cartel that supports and is supported by it and results in a sense of alienation that leads to anger and populist resentment.  Governments, including public education, can't tap into this 'free' technology fast enough, but of course it isn't free at all, and what we're giving up in the pursuit of easy, efficient and safe is at odds with the freedom of action it takes from us.

I've long held that understanding technology allows you to author it instead of it authoring you.  In the detailed Guardian surveillance capitalism article by John Naughton, Zuboff makes a point of stating that digital communications are not inherently monopolistic in intent which is something Matt hasn't done in Why We Drive (I get the sense that he doesn't like digital technology in any capacity):

"While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those."

There was a time when digital technology wasn't being driven by advertising.  The early internet wasn't the orderly, safe and sanitized place it is becoming, but it was a powerful change in how we worked together as a species.  I don't know that I buy in to all of Matt's arguments in Why We Drive, but his fundamental belief that we should be using technology to enhance human ability rather than replacing it is something I can't help but agree with, and any teacher focused on pedagogy should feel the same way.

Why We Drive is the latest in a series of books and media that is, after years of political and psychological abuse, looking to provide society with a white blood cell response to surveillance capitalism.  Rather than taking some of the most powerful technology we've ever created and aiming it at making a few psychopaths rich while enfeebling everyone else, my great hope is that our understanding of this nasty process will give us the ability to take back control of digital technologies and develop them as tools to enhance human capabilities instead.  We need to do that sooner than later because the next century is going to decide the viability of the human race for the long term and we need to get past this greed and short sightedness in order to focus on the bigger problems that face us.  We could start in education by taking back responsibility for how we use and teach our children about digital technologies.


I've long been raging against the corporate invasion of educational technology:


Saturday, 21 November 2020

Thankless Jobs and Crooked Paths

Top to bottom in education. There's a
workplace stream 'beneath' vocational,
but that isn't worth mentioning?
The prejudice against manual skill is ongoing in Ontario education.  I was chatting with one of our auto-shop teachers the other day and we were both lamenting the abuse of our manual skills in the halls of academia.  A teacher who was musing on why students 'waste their time' taking tech courses the week before was begging this same auto-shop teacher to change her snow tires a week later, even though she knew he had no students available to do it.  He is a qualified automotive technician, but he isn't paid to be one when he's at school, he's paid to teach, but that doesn't stop people who only operate in the rarified realm of ideas to expect free access to the hard earned, hands-on skills he has taken years to develop.  He talked about how he was often at school hours after everyone else had left finishing automotive repair jobs for people who pay for his time and expertise with their earnest thanks and little else. He's still expected to do the make-work extra duties that the academics have worked out for themselves.

I'm in the same boat in terms of information technology skills. I spent years of my life and my own money becoming qualified as a technician.  I can fix pretty much anything, but that's not what I'm being paid for when I'm at school.  I've opened up access to in-school IT support because it gives my students an opportunity to develop genuine, experientially driven skills that widen the scope of their learning.  Last year, in spite of  my making numerous suggestions that would have kept computer science alive in the building (it's since been cancelled on-site) as well as keeping a senior computer engineering class available in each semester to provide needed in-school IT support, one of my senior sections got cancelled.  This hasn't stopped the expectation that I provide IT support in the school even when I'm being double doubled by an absurd schedule.  I'm able to help and the last thing I want to see is a colleague in distress because their tech isn't working, but asking for that effort  to be recognized is a step too far.

Now that I'm out of that cruel always on in two places at once schedule I asked if my hours of extra support work (I was the only teacher in the building still doing their usual extra duties) be acknowledged and was told they wouldn't - I get to do the same make-work as all the academics, just like our auto-teacher who is here for hours doing work for the school 'community' of which we are clearly not equal members.  The logic for this is that my extra duty work is equal to another teacher standing in the cafeteria watching teenagers eat lunch (what most teachers do as extra duty).  What I'm doing took years of training and numerous professional qualifications, what they're doing requires a pulse - except they aren't even doing that because no one is eating lunch in school at the moment, though everyone has doubled down on tech use and the support it requires.  Why is this the outcome?  Because in the minds of graduate degree educational management manual skills are treated as next to worthless.  This is a value theory decision.  Ignoring the value of expertise means you can treat it as a free expectation.

This happens to many technology teachers.  They get paid less because teacher pay is wrapped around academic/university achievement that the vast majority of the people running the system are products of.  My own experience in trying to apply my vocational experience even while already an academic teacher demonstrated this prejudice in startling clarity.  The College of Teachers can understand a degree with little effort, but show them a decade of industry qualification and experience and you can expect it to be dismissed out of hand.  Tech teachers make less but are expected give away the skills that make them qualified to do what they do in a way that other teachers simply aren't.  We go so far as to invent meaningless make-work extra duties (like cafeteria duty) so the academics can top up their time with minimal effort (and no chance of getting their hands dirty).

A few weeks ago my IT qualifications got dismissed by another administrator who equated years of training, experience and multiple industry certifications with watching a few hours of video and writing a multiple choice test.  Academic prejudice is real and everywhere.

I fired a Statistics Canada research piece on Canada's poor handling of women in STEM and particularly in engineering and computer science to our SHSM, guidance and administration, which prompted a good talk with our local SHSM head.  My argument was that academically focused girls are directed out of engineering and technology pathways toward more 'gender appropropriate' pathways (that are also usually far less lucrative) by peer pressure.  My experience at last year's CAN-CWiC Conference repeatedly told the story of women who regretted not pursuing technology related pathways in high school and having to expensively pivot later in life.  Sexism, under the guise of peer pressure and student choice, play a big part in this, but it also reflects a lack of appreciation for alternative pathways inherent to our academically prejudiced education system.

A teacher who got straight A's in high school, went straight to university and got straight A's there too and then went straight into teacher's college (straight A's again) before being deposited into yet another classroom for the next twenty-five years of their lives are going to carry academic prejudices with them because they know of no other experience.  Any student not on that straight and narrow path of 'excellence' is less than.

I frequently see the system make aggressive resource grabs to ensure academic courses run.  University bound sciences will run at less than 50% capacity while workplace and applied courses are frequently bundled together or cancelled and non-academic students are just dropped into academic sections because they are all that's available.  An example of academic protectionism are french immersion courses where academic students are protected in classes that are often a fraction of what they should load to because those students are special.  Everyone else has less to ensure system resources are focused on the academic streams even though these students are frequently the ones most capable of doing more with less.  My own school sports a higher than 50% graduation into the workplace statistic while spending the vast majority of its resources protecting university pathways.

Our SHSM head said a colleague of hers once described the route that students not on the straight and narrow academic route take as the 'crooked path'.  I've walked this path, unlike the majority of teachers.  I dropped out of grade 13, worked in an apprenticeship as a millwright, attended college then dropped out and then went back into summer school and high school in my early twenties to graduate before going on to attend university.  I then worked in the world for over a decade before becoming a classroom teacher - a job I never thought I'd be doing after my own negative experiences as a student in the same system.

That crooked path is seen as less-than by academics.  Students who would benefit from my M (college/university - essential doesn't run because it would mean reducing the number of students they can stuff into my shop) technology program are told not to 'waste their time' taking tech when they could take three sciences they don't need because they are more credible when applying to university.  That's backed up by backwards universities demanding irrelevant but 'difficult' courses to access their STEM program, ignoring TE even when it's a TE program!  Academic prejudices learned in universities trickle down.

Tactile skills training has always had trouble fitting into academic education.  The extra costs and safety concerns make rows of robots, I mean students, doing 'academic' (white collar office) work much cheaper - it's also cheaper to apply digital technology too as our recent school decision to buy nothing but Chromebooks even as board IT and I suggested differentiating our technology to meet specific needs (again - we've bought nothing but Chromebooks for years).  Whether you want to look at resource allocation, guidance direction or even just how teacher duties are assigned, the prejudice against hands-on skills is systemic.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

A Cruelty Free Response to Pandemic Response Teaching

Instead of double doubling classroom teachers with absurd remote/face to face simultaneous instructional expectations and a schedule that fires a month of work at students that teachers are then expected to prep, deliver (in two places at once) and mark with no time given, let's review and improve this situation.

Course duration has always been set in Ontario at 110 hours, but instructional time has been systemically devalued by waiving expectations for remote learning and dropping unqualified teachers into make-work support roles instead of using them for what they should be in schools for.

In a pandemic where everyone is stressed, a schedule that is uneven and cruel has put unnecessary pressure on both staff and students.  Let's take a step back and see if I can't spitball a better solution.  I ain't no senator's son sitting in an office deciding these things, I'm just one of the people who is being waterboarded by them, but I'll take a swing at that difficult job anyhow.


A teacher typically teaches three classes of 20-31 students per semester.  Let's say that's 75-80 students you're responsible for (some semesters I've had 90+).  If we made all classes capped at 20 students (a single cohort), each teacher would be responsible for 80 students (I'll explain why it's x4 instead of x3 in a minute), which is where most of us normally are.

We have way fewer students in schools right now because many have opted for fully remote learning, so there are empty classrooms all about not being used.

We have a shortage of specialist teachers and can't provide qualified coverage for them.

We cling to the idea that we need to keep prep periods in our schedule and then fill them with meaningless, un-pedagogically sound busy work while causing always on quadmesters where your prep isn't happening even as you're being asked to rejig a curriculum to a schedule no one has ever seen before.

Students with special needs are swamped by the machine gun like efficiency of quadmestering.

Students without special needs are overwhelmed by the drink from the firehose curriculum of quadmestering.


  • in semester 2 return to semestered schedules
  • each week is one class with a three-day weekend to de-COVID the place
  • make every Friday an independent review and catch up day for students to give them time to make sense of the hectic influx of material
  • Friday without students in the building means we have a 72 hour break between classes which Canada Health defines as the maximum time it takes for COVID on surfaces to die off, so extra cleaning wouldn't be necessary
  • on those Fridays staff are given time to mark the week's work, contact students with updates and concerns and prep for the next week's influx of material (a day at COVID speed equals just over 4 normal instructional days so marking comes thick and fast)
  • each month/4 weeks is a complete tumble of the schedule
  • teachers don't have prep 'periods' (that turned into weeks under quadmestering). Instead they have Fridays and smaller classes to manage
  • teachers all provide their own remote learning support so a qualified person is teaching students they are familiar with providing a much higher rate of qualified teacher to student instructional hours than currently being delivered
  • leverage the empty classes generated by fully remote learning to spread out cohorts and cover the bump in classes running
  • leverage the teachers currently brought in at teacher salaries to babysit to actually teach classes
  • each day is a three hour face to face morning session (12 hours of instructional f2f time per four day week)
  • each class has a 2 hour remote/online expectation for review and consolidation of learning WITH THE SAME QUALIFIED TEACHER
  • teachers can leverage their relationships with students to engage them in online work
  • at five hours per day of instructional time, and 16 weeks of class (4 tumbles through the schedule), students would experience 48 hours of face to face instruction and 32 hours of guided online instruction with a qualified teacher familiar with them from face to face learning.  They would also have 5 hours of Friday consolidation of learning time each week for a total of 20 hours in the semester.  That adds up to one hundred hours of learning at a pedagogical effectiveness we can only dream of right now
  • even with the Fridays removed, we'd still be at 80 hours of combined instruction which is significantly better than the 52.5 hours of face to face instruction happening now
  • remote/elearning would be credible instead of incredible because that instructional time would be provided by a qualified and personally acquainted teacher
  • add in an exam/culminating presentation day per class at the end of the year and you'd be at 103 hours of instruction with credible culminating grades generated (exams are cancelled currently)
  • students cannot opt out of remote learning and every effort will be made to ensure they have connectivity and technology at home with which to do it (this is happening now anyway - not the opting out part, evidently parents can opt out of remote learning which means students are earning credits at less than 50% usual attendance)


  • smaller cohorts to reduce the chance of COVID transmission
  • no classrooms shared by multiple cohorts in the same day (reducing transmission)
  • more classes running so students can access more courses without conflicts
  • a qualified instructor who knows students providing remote learning
  • a much higher quality of remote learning
  • a 30%+ increase in actual instructional time compared to cohorted quadmesters
  • a teacher not expected to be online and in class simultaneously
  • time given for meaningful one on one feedback both face to face and remotely
  • time given for redesigning an entirely new curriculum schedule on the fly
  • time given to recognize the cognitive load on students trying to cover a month of material each week during a crisis
  • time given for pedagogically sound learning by spacing things out and providing meaningful online support
  • time given for students to review their learning and consolidate it
  • students with special needs would have extra time come to terms with their learning (all spec-ed support is currently cancelled - Fridays could be spec-ed support remote check in days too)
  • a more reasonable schedule that is evenly distributed and isn't running people into the ground with unrelenting stress during a pandemic (there's a sentence I never thought I'd have to write)
  • restore credibility to online/remote learning after a year of the Minister and now boards suggesting it's optional and doesn't matter by cancelling assessment in the spring and now ignoring class duration requirements by faking remote learning


We've clung to some assumptions (teacher semestered prep periods in scheduling) while tossing out others (time spent in a course doesn't really matter).  Our priorities are out of whack and the result is hurting people and damaging learning.  Things are never going to be as they were prior to COVID while we're under the weight of this pandemic, but we can get closer with a bit of flexibility and kindness.

Teacher prep periods have remained even though they make no sense in a quadmestered system.  The result is a massively uneven quadmester schedule that waterboards staff with high class caps in one and leaves them with make-work in the other.  There is enough real work to go around.

By leveraging the empty space we currently have in schools due to fully remote learners and adjusting the work load by producing smaller class sizes and spreading out instruction, we could have a schedule that comes much closer to providing a kinder and more effective learning environment while also giving students access to more courses.

The question is, will the people who set this up be willing to change it?

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Is It Over?


No, it isn't.  Prepare to get maytagged by quadmesters for the foreseeable future

I'm staggering to the end of this absurd quadmester. When it started I wondered if less was all we could manage, and it turns out that it is.  From administration dismissing concerns about masks that don't fit (or really matter when you can catch COVID through your eyes) and are so far beyond of Health Canada and local health unit expectations that they end up being more restrictive than needed and not at all designed for all-day use (especially while performing instruction), to a schedule that seems explicitly designed to download an abusive amount of work on classroom teachers with the highest class caps, this quadmester has been a disaster.

The lack of focus on what we're supposed to be doing (providing effective and differentiated instruction that maximizes student learning, remember?) suggests that these things never really mattered in the first place.  Got special learning needs?  Too bad, special education support is cancelled.  Find keeping up with school difficult?  Too bad, we're going to fire you through courses at record pace even though everyone is reeling from a pandemic.  Don't worry though, it doesn't really matter if you keep up or not because you're getting credits regardless.

I'm able to provide interactive, relevant online learning opportunities for my students and even I still struggled with between 20-40% disengagement in remote learning this quadmester.  I've heard of other classes that just did nothing online.  If you talk to admin about it they'd rather pretend it's happening than do anything to ensure it is with anything like quality in mind.  I had a class drop down to twenty students which means it could have become a single cohort and I could be their online instructor, but making a change for pedagogical effectiveness that would have alleviated a staff member's medically supported issues with the provided face masks wasn't something anyone had any time for.

I recently learned that students can opt out of remote learning entirely if they want.  This has resulted in kids who have attended less than fifty hours of instruction earning Ontario high school credits this quadmester (Ontario high school courses are supposed to be 110 hours of instruction).  Remote learning with a teacher unqualified or even knowledgeable about the subject (as was my case with both of my online support teachers) can't be called instructional time anyway.  'Quadmester' should be changed to 'freemester' or 'fakemester'. 

This kind of inflation is exactly what the current government has been trying to do over the past two years by pushing massive class sizes (even during a pandemic) and devaluing complex pedagogical practice in order to cheapen public education.  They couldn't stuff more students into classes, so they reduced expectations and lowered the efficacy of the system to the point of absurdity while handing out credits like candy, and the people making it happen are getting bonuses for devaluing our education system!  They must be very proud.  Fear not though, PC party backers are ready to step in with private for-profit options that are likely to perform worse and cost more.


As I wrap things up from my double cohort/teaching continuously all day/double class/teaching continuously every week quadmester one I'm struck with how this drink-from-the-firehose schedule that doesn't remotely meet Ontario standards not only injures already traumatized students and staff but also removes the most challenging work I do in class.

We got to the culminating projects (exams are cancelled - as is all safety paperwork because why not) and I found that my grade 9s have not had the opportunity to develop a rigorous and resilient engineering process in the way that they would in any other year, though considering the class is half as long as it should be I shouldn't be surprised.  I've been able to cover the basic material, though the speed at which that came at students was overwhelming even to the stronger ones.  Neurologically speaking, you need time to reflect and internalize new learning, but best pedagogical practices have long since been flushed down the toilet.

I keep hoping that we'll make adjustments toward making Ontario education more equitable and fair to everyone as this slow burn pandemic grinds on, but the powers that be appear to believe that they are finished and are ready to fire us through quadmester after quadmester rather than responding in a best practices-continuous evolution.  I've suggested previously that the week-on week-off is already problematic, so why not just go back to week on week off semesters?  If we did that with a Friday fully remote review day we could also give teachers and students the headspace they need to consume new learning, but the new normal is too waterboard everyone with a pedagogically bankrupt schedule that only has the appearance of credibility.

As we lurch into quadmester two with no quadmester ending in sight I'm looking forward to not being waterboarded any more, but I've still been handed another technology course with two cohorts and a teacher who has no background in my speciality 'covering' the remote part of the course, so I can expect another poorly engineered schedule designed to hand out cheap credits.  I got handed the same thing (a course I'm not qualified to teach) to provide remote support in even while I'm still providing technical support to people across the school and beyond.  There is evidently no way to differentiate teacher schedules to give them time to provide system support either.

I'll do what I can to mitigate this poor scheduling (again), but since the system has downloaded all guidance and special education expectations on me as well I'll be stretched (once again) to the breaking point trying to protect students from a schedule designed by people who don't seem to care for their personal circumstances and well being... while struggling through a pandemic with my own health concerns.

Even evidence that the system think types are evolving this in the right direction would be helpful, but communications are nearly non-existent and there is no sense of vision or even an acknowledgement that what we're doing isn't kind, let alone working.  The new normal is a cruel, undifferentiated and ultimately meaningless place.  With a complete lack of leadership from the Ministry or Minister, we're likely to see Ontario plunge in years of darkness as a result of this overwhelming and cruel schedule.