Thursday, 30 April 2020

A Teacher Response to Nam Kiwanuka's No more extensions: It’s time to cancel the school year

In response to:

Nam Kiwanuka's opinion piece on TVO about why it's time to cancel the school year highlights many of the problems with technology integration in Ontario's education system.  As a computer engineering teacher I've been continually frustrated by Ontario's lack of focus on developing digital transliteracy in our education system.  There are no clear expectations around staff using digital tools and little to no PD around developing fluency in them.  Student digital transliteracy is at best sporadic and usually based in if they happen to luck out and get one of the minority of teachers who have personally decided to make themselves literate in 21st Century communications mediums.

Here are some of my reflexive responses to Nam's article:

"When the government announced its plans for e-learning, I was excited."

I was not excited, I was frustrated that weeks had gone by with no direction.  I was frustrated that at a ministry level we evidently had no emergency planning in place at all since it looked like it was being made up on the spot.  I was frustrated that at a board level we had no idea what digital infrastructure our staff or students had at home.  That mismanagement aside, I was worried about what was about to happen.  I've taught elearning for over a decade and I'm well aware of the challenges involved in it.  It came as no surprise that this mandatory elearning government was going to move aggressively in that direction and I knew how unprepared the vast majority of staff and students were to make that move.

"the technology that is being used is problematic. Some of the links the teacher sends work only on certain platforms. So if you’re using a Mac, surprise (!) — you need a PC to access the video. Teachers also send scanned documents that need to be printed, filled in, and then uploaded to Google classroom. So you don’t just need computers and Wi-Fi: you need printers, too."

There was little or no direction on how teachers should be rolling out remote learning.  Other than teachers themselves successfully re-framing this as emergency remote learning instead of elearning (because this is much more than just elearning), we were left in the dark.  With the vaguest of directions in terms of hours of work expected (which brutally ignores how students with special needs are supposed to address the work load) and many staff without the necessary tools let alone the skills needed to use them, the best that can be said about emergency remote learning is that it has cast a bright light on our digitally illiterate system.

There are digitally transliterate teachers and organizations who have for years advocated for a coherent development of these skills.  The platform dependent work Nam describes above is a great example of digital illiteracy, though I have to admire the teachers in question for trying.  It's like watching someone who can't read and write scrawl out chicken scratch on a page that no one else can make sense of.

Gary Stager's principles for teaching online recognizes the limitations of the medium (and the situation) and offers clear and simple steps to making online learning work, but nothing like this was shared with teachers in Ontario.  The two weeks of silence following March Break were followed by an announcement that teachers will take it from here.  What we were taking and where we were taking it never came up.

"What kids are missing during this pandemic is not homework. What they’re missing are daily interactions with their teachers and their friends."

The frustration here is that we are actually at a point where our technology could have done this for us, but we're not literate enough to use it effectively.  There are a number of reasons why we can't leverage technology in education to meet this need.

Firstly there is the digital divide in socio-economic terms.  If you fire up your video sharing and get 17 of your 28 students on there I suspect most remote learning teachers at the moment would be giddy with that participation rate, but that's only about 60% of your students.  A number of them won't have a device that can do it, the bandwidth to see it or the technical skill needed to put all those pieces together, which itself is predicated on access to technology they can't afford or haven't prioritized at home.

Let's say we level the playing field in terms of access.  School boards across the province have done back-flips (with no direction or support from the Ministry as near as I can tell) trying to get tech out into student's hands.  A number of years ago I worked with our student success teacher getting refurbished computers out to families in need, but it was a disaster.  If you hand people who can't read a pile of books it doesn't help them read any faster.  All that effort is yet another cart before the horse example of Ontario education's backwards approach to technology integration.

The second key piece in this is that we haven't developed the digital transliteracy in our system to make remote digital learning a possibility.  Complex tools like video chats require infrastructure, knowledge and familiarity to work.  Our board doesn't enable video chat in our Google apps for Education system for students, so expecting familiarity with it isn't reasonable, others evidently do and then there are pockets of tech literate teachers who are just doing it outside of the vetted, secured systems used by their school board.  This is another example of the lack of centralized administration.  The teachers trying to meet that important psychological need Nam mentions are taking huge risks, possibly to their careers, by going cowboy with this.

For those of us comfortable in digital mediums video chat seems like a no brainer, but it depends on complex digital transliteracy and if you don't have it, you can't effectively make use of it.  In that familiarity lies a hidden third layer that everyone is struggling with.  Zoom bombing is an example of digital illiteracy at work and highlights the cybersecurity and privacy considerations that most of the general population is truly oblivious to, even as we drive people into digital spaces.  Zoom was a rushed, unencrypted communications tool that used toys to hook people into using it.  A digitally transliterate user could set passwords and lock out Zoom bombing, but oblivious users didn't and a company unfocused on cybersecurity exacerbated the situation.

For all its problems, Zoom does address one glaring issue that many other video chats don't.  The backgrounds you can put into Zoom would mitigate one of the major privacy concerns highlighted so well in this blog post by Alanna King.  If a government run school system requires you to video in during remote learning what are you expected to share?  Video chats often show more detail than we'd like.  We've all seen just how unprepared adults have been to use video sharing tools when working remotely (digital transliteracy is remarkably poor in the general population - which is probably why education is so slow to develop it), but when a government requires minors to show the insides of their homes and themselves remotely it should sound a lot of alarm bells.

A tech-fluent teacher was trying to set up video with his students in the opening weeks of remote learning and wanted to post the videos on YouTube.  He was going to show student work on the video in a kind of lecture format.  Using digital communications to replicate classroom experiences is one of the biggest failures in education.  It shows just how stuck we are in our way of approaching learning, but that aside, are you, as a parent, comfortable with your child's work being published on YouTube?  Are you comfortable with Google making advertising revenue from it?  In other cases I've seen teachers record video chats with students and publish them on YouTube.  The same questions apply, but now they include, are you comfortable with your child and your home life being published on the internet without your say so or oversight?  Are you comfortable with Google making advertising revenue from that?

We have the technology to close the gap Nam's kids are feeling during this pandemic, but we haven't developed the technical skills or clarified the social expectations needed to do this effectively with adults, let alone children.  That all of this technology is trotted out by tax dodging multi-national technology corporations whose main intent is to monetize your attention is just another problem we've ignored as we make our public school boards either Google or Microsoft boards.

"While it’s the right thing to keep schools closed, learning from home is not working for all Ontario students, and that’s why the government needs to follow other jurisdictions, such as New Brunswick, and cancel the rest of the school year."

I had mixed feelings about this.  I've hurt myself trying to make this work.  My digital expertise is abused and ignored variously and inconsistently because I suspect it has never been valued by the system.  I've agitated for supports for students and staff based on this complex and evolving situation even as the system has stumbled from one inconsistency to the next.  My self-selected group of digitally transliterate students are a tiny minority who volunteer to take my optional courses (I teach less than 7% of the students in my school).  I don't have the digital transliteracy issues other teachers are battling with, but then the mental health and socio-economic problems became apparent.  Students passing out at work and clocking 50+ hour work weeks while being expected to produce hours of school work seemed cruel and inhuman. Seeing my own family bending under the stress of this ongoing crisis means I can't do my job as effectively as I usually do as well.

Nam mentions elsewhere the lack of report cards and missed days of school this year.  I can't help but feel that this remote learning caper is just the latest cat and mouse game being played by a government that is still very much intent on dismantling public education so it can sell it off to friends and family in the private sector.  Whether it's driving for elearning contracts with multi-nationals or just crippling our classrooms to the point where private schools seem like a viable option, I'm exhausted by this intentional mismanagement.  Maybe pulling the plug on the whole thing is the right way out, but if it is you can bet that Lecce isn't done playing cat and mouse with us yet.  Perhaps, as Nam suggests, this time could be better spent training and enabling our atrophied digital transliteracy instead of stressing families, but don't hold your breath. Building capacity isn't what this government is about.

"When a board’s solution to a lack of Wi-Fi access to is to advise its students to access it via a school parking lot, maybe that should be reason enough to rethink our government’s e-learning approach."

Even something as straightforward as this is a roll of the dice.  Our board looks like it has turned it off entirely.  Other boards have opened it up to the public.  Even with something as clear as connectivity we have no central direction or organization.  That sitting in a school parking lot is one of the best ways we can attempt to close the connectivity divide says a great deal about our atrophied management of technology integration.

I suggested using this emergency to close the connectivity gap by connecting with Google's Loon program and expanding connectivity using their 3g technology.  Even lighter than air broadcasting devices connected 100 metres above our schools would have the range to effectively close the connectivity gap to near zero, but this kind of system wide management isn't what we get, and individual boards don't have the resources to go about this themselves.

"We’ve also made assumptions about teachers. We assume that all teachers are tech literate and have set-ups at home to manage this work."

Which isn't remotely true.  I stumbled across this OECD computer skills survey a few years ago and was flabbergasted at how poor digital transliteracy is in our population.  Being at the top of that chart meant you could do simple things like take dates from an email and make an online calendar entry from them.  It wasn't even coding or IT know-how, just simple computer use, and most people are staggeringly ignorant of it.  Teachers follow the rest of society in this regard.

I'm currently talking to other teachers in my school who are trying to navigate remote digital learning with 80+ students on a Chromebook with a 14" screen.  My digital fluency has led me to get the tools I need to interact in digital spaces effectively, but for many others it isn't a priority and they don't have the tools let alone the digital transliteracy to make this work.  When the system was doing back-flips to get tech out to kids who don't know how to use it, few efforts  were being made to do the same for staff.

Of interest in that survey, it turns out that younger people do have marginally better computer skills, but only slightly.  One of the reasons we've done next to nothing in developing digital transliteracy in our schools is the asinine myth of the digital native - the idea that if a child is born in a time when a technology is in use they'll magically know how to use it - you know, like how we all knew how to drive because cars existed in our childhood.  This kind of nonsense has been used as an excuse to do nothing for decades now.  I teach computer technology and I can tell you that students are as habitual in their use of technology as anyone else.  They might be cocky and comfortable with laying hands on tech, but move them out of their very narrow comfort zone of familiar hardware and software use and they are as lost as any eighty year old.

This crisis has shown me things I never thought I'd see:  proudly digitally illiterate teachers participating in video staff meetings, boards actually doing something to try and address the digital divide at home, and kids performing feats of endurance for atrophied student minimum wages while being called heroes by the guy who reduced their minimum wage.

After the year we've had (and I won't even get into how our family has had to fight cancer and limp along on partial salaries for months on end waiting for anyone to help us), I think I'm ready to put it down, I only wish this government would too, but I know they won't.

I said it in response to Alex Couros on Twitter and I'll say it again, maybe the best thing that will come of this is that we'll start to recognize what literacy is in 2020 and begin to integrate technical and media digital transliteracy into our curriculum for all students and teachers in a mandatory, credible skills focused curriculum.  Given time, we could develop a system that is resilient and able to respond to a challenge like remote learning using our formidable digital technology effectively and quickly - completely unlike how this has gone down now.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Pandemic Reflections from Week 3: Maslow's Hierarchy, the end of differentiation and labour abuse

Emergency remote teaching during this COVID19 pandemic is turning out to be quite unsustainable.  I staggered to the end of last week feeling stretched to the point of breaking by the endless administrative push to make arbitrary and pedagogically suspect Ministry of Education remote learning expectations happen.

Three hours per class per week might have sounded like a reasonable though random expectation when it was dreamed up a few weeks ago, but it raises a lot of questions.  Here are some from me in no particular order:

1) Basic Needs Have to Come Before Curriculum

How can we set an arbitrary time limit on acceptable work when we're ignoring basic needs?

Trauma causes a disruption in the foundations need to bring students to learning.  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs came about in the 1950s.  Abraham Maslow, the psychiatrist who invented the concept, uses it to show how complex human thinking, like learning, can't happen without basic needs being met.

The current emergency situation has damaged our ability to mitigate the shortcomings students may be experiencing while trying to learn at home.  Those students who counted on our school's breakfast program to be fed aren't being at the moment.  Those students who depended on our developed one on one special education support services in school aren't getting them at the moment.  Even students who may have enjoyed physiological security before the pandemic shutdown might now be experiencing scarcity for the first time as parents are suddenly laid off.

With all of that under consideration, dropping blanketed, mandated hourly expectations on all students regardless of their circumstances is callous to an inconceivable degree.  Where is the compassion?

The 'this isn't elearning or even remote learning, it's emergency response learning" doesn't seem to have registered with the people who run things, though it certainly has with all the front line education workers in Ontario who are trying to force this square peg into an infinite variety of unique, never before seen student learning circumstances.

I was so wound up about this on Thursday night after a week of communicating with students and parents in various states of crisis that I was up at midnight trying to think my way out of it on Prezi:

That we've also piled transliteracy expectations that many staff and students don't have on top of a decline in the basic needs required to learn makes the circumstances even more untenable.  There are no skills based requirements and next to no mandatory professional development for teachers in becoming digitally transliterate.  It only happens with our students when they're lucky enough to get a teacher who spends their own time and money on developing that critical 21st Century literacy.

A coherent, skills based, mandatory approach to digital transliteracy should be a priority when we return.  How this is all going down could be significantly different if we were approaching this with digitally transliterate and enabled staff and students.  We certainly wouldn't have wasted the first three weeks trying to find out if our staff and students even have ICT technology at home before moving into remote learning using tools most of them don't know how to use effectively.

2) Why is differentiation always the first thing to die when the system decides to act unilaterally?

Three hours for one student isn't three hours for another. Are teachers being expected to design individual work for the dozens upon dozens of students they are trying to direct through remote learning?

Let's say Maslow's basic needs were somehow addressed and we ensured that every student in Ontario has food, shelter and the other basic needs required to climb the hierarchy to a point where they can focus on learning.  We didn't come close to addressing it when times were good (actually, the government in charge is actively working against it), so doing it during a pandemic emergency seems even more unlikely, but let's say we manage it.  Let's say we also suddenly have staff and students who are digitally transliterate (again we're miles away from this, but let's pretend).  Even in that perfect Ontario the three hours per week per course per week expectation would be startlingly insensitive to how students learn.  Wouldn't it be great if people were all the same?  It's so hard to manage otherwise!  It might have been easy to trot out a suggestion like that, but 3 hours of work is different for pretty much every student, and trying to assess that through atrophied and inconsistent digital technologies is nearly impossible, even for a digitally transliterate teacher.

I have one gifted, ASD student who had to back off on the third year university equivalent artificial intelligence project she was working on remotely because she doesn't have the mathematics foundations needed to comprehend it (she was worried this would hurt her average - it won't).  I have another gifted ASD student whose anxiety has been triggered by this pandemic to such a degree that he's unable to do anything (he's also worried about it hurting his average - it won't, though that's me, not system-think).  That's happening with two students with similar IEPs!*

* IEPs are individual education plans that all special education students have, though I think every student should have one since they're all special and many less fortunate students don't have parents with the resources to weather the IEP process even when they should have one.  In Ontario even our spec-ed support is predicated on privilege.  We had to put out thousands in testing to get my son's ASD diagnosis accepted.  If you can't afford that, you can't access the support.

Now think about the other three dozen IEPs I'm juggling, but because I'm not an insensitive jerk I treat every student like they have an IEP because you never know what's happening in a student's life.  Trauma like divorce, a death in the family or parental loss of income can negative influence a student's learning at any time.  Like the kid whose dad emailed me this week in response to my contacting them about a lack of  weekly engagement (we're required to pester people every week if they're not engaged).  His grandmother just passed from the pandemic, but this interfered with our systemic 3hr/course/week mandate and the systemic response we've built to force, um, I mean support it.

I have nearly seventy students this semester.  Others have over 90!  But bigger class sizes are coming because we're about to agree to a contract under duress that further deteriorates learning environments by cutting funding and forcing more kids into each class - evidently the pandemic emergency means it's ok for our government to force (another) illegal contract on us using this emergency as the excuse, but I digress.

Am I supposed to custom design 3 hours of work for each one of my remote learners based on what little knowledge I have of them after a frequently interrupted term one?  Or just throw what three hours of work would look like for a fictitious 'average' student (there are no average students in a pandemic) at everyone?  Even if it might take some of them 10 hours?  Even if some of them can't do it at all in these circumstances?

Three hours per course per week is the worst kind of reductionist system-think.  The project work I set up for my students is based on self reporting, but still has expected outcomes because the way this is going, we'll be asked to assign grades to work, and if I don't have that work then a student's grade will suffer.  The people who set this as a requirement shouldn't be working in education.

OSSTF has suggested pass fail (though it's evidently a secret), which is a step in the right direction.  I'm going to take it a step further, grades or pass/fail.  No one is going to have this situation diminish their grades, period.  Assessment should never be used as a weapon.  It would be nice if the Ministry mandated this, but if no one making the big bucks can make a compassionate decision that acknowledges the mess that this is, I will.

3) and what about the labour abuse?

If a student is working absurd hours, why are they still being held to arbitrary expectations around time spent in class?  Why is no one looking to labour abuse with Ontario's students?

It's the ministry of work now.
Labour sounded too dignified.
The education system didn't just passively let this student labour abuse happen, it caused it to happen when it suspended classes.  I happen to be teaching three graduating classes this semester.  I'm hearing from many of them that they are working more than forty hours per week, in several cases over 50 hours per week in their 'heroic' emergency services wage slave jobs.  I had one fifteen year old tell me he just came off a 44 hour work week and was sorry he couldn't do the remote learning because he kept falling asleep while attempting it.  I'm supposed to put 'does not meet expectations' in his work for week three of remote learning because he's less than three hours on the clock.  I'm also supposed to bother him and his parents (who have been laid off during the pandemic shutdown) every week asking why he isn't meeting remote learning expectations.

Students in Ontario make an even more miserable minimum wage than the Fordnation reduced adult minimum wage.  He likes to call them heroes, but he won't pay them any more to be heroes during an emergency.   He just offered a smaller professional group that doesn't grapple with minimum wage a raise, but not the kids who we took out of school in order to protect them (or at least not be liable for them) so they could go and work in much more COVID-spreadable minimum wage jobs.  Step one would be to realize we didn't shut down schools to protect students, we did it to protect system liability.  Step two would be to ensure all students are rewarded for their 'heroic' efforts.  I think a $20/hour minimum student wage during the pandemic for critical service work is a start.  Step three would be to forgive education hourly expectations for any student working more than the 28 hour a week student limit.  I don't imagine any of those things will happen though.  I'm left wondering if many of these students are still being paid student minimum wage, because over 28 hours a week they should at least be making adult minimum wage.  Betcha they aren't.  If that isn't the very definition of child labour abuse, I don't know what is.  It's shameful.


Being asked to deal with student learning difficulties, socio-economic challenges and even their psychological issues isn't new for me as a teacher, but being expected to be their main point of contact through remote learning during an emergency for all of these things isn't just overwhelming, it's emotionally exhausting.  I'm occasionally reduced to tears of frustration by the school system, but last week was a new peak - not that teacher burnout is on anyone's radar.

When a colleague finally forwarded an inactive student to admin for support the other week the first thing they were asked to do was contact them in more ways.  I'm sure everyone who isn't trying to communicate on a strict weekly schedule with dozens of students in multiple classrooms through the limited bandwidth of phones and online communications is very busy having meetings (I was dragged into no less than 4 last week and I'm a front line teacher), but those of us in the trenches would appreciate some immediate pickup rather than an attempt to off load even more onto us.

While I'm spending my own money on technology, heating, electricity, internet, telephone and burning through more sanity than I should in order to 'be the education system' for the sixth week in a row, I'm told that we now have a tentative contract because students need stability at a time like this.  I'm not sure why they didn't need stability last year, or why I had to take another strike day pay cut in the face in order to end up agreeing to what was being offered then anyway, but that looks like how it's going to go.  After a year of outright abuse which has included illegal bargaining (good faith bargaining is protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, and there has been little of that this year) and repeatedly demeaning our profession, this government (when they aren't making up fictitious stories about supporting students in remote learning) are going to use this pandemic to increase class sizes and cut learning supports.  We haven't heard the details yet.  I'm sure we'll get a very streamlined process designed to force compliance.  It's hard to work in a system where trust has been compromised in so many places.  I just have to remember what's most important: don't let it hurt the kids, though at some point I'll have taken so many bullets that I don't think I won't be able to take any more.

It hasn't been a great week three in remote learning during a pandemic.

Friday, 17 April 2020

COVID19 Reflections: Status Quo, Enthusiasm & the Compassionate Path

This is a first draft, feel free to enjoy the writing process, but there is a revised and updated version on Mechanical Sympathy

The other week Alec Couros asked for predictions on what will come of this pandemic remote learning situation.  I find myself straddling this divide.  On the one side you have the powers that be who have no interest in changing a status quo that has put them in charge.  On the other you have technology multinationals and the branded teachers who support them wanting to use this situation as an opportunity to push a more technology dependent evolution in schooling.  In between them all are working teachers who are just trying to make this work.

Six years ago I found myself in Arizona at the Education Innovation (sic) Summit at the invitation of Wikispaces (who have since evaporated).  I say sic because it had very little to do with education or innovation and a lot to do with market share and the rollout of an inflexible digital delivery system (or LMS if you prefer).  There were a couple of comments from that conference that are resonating with me during this pandemic emergency response.  I overheard a senior VP at a multi-national tech company you'd have heard of that likes to 'certify' and brand teachers say, "with the new common core curriculum and the charter school push, this is our moment to strike!"  You could almost hear the drool hitting the floor from the predators who filled up this 'education innovation' summit.  This should sound strangely familiar to Ontario educators after this past year.

An opposing moment came as a round table of Ph.Ds talked about data exhaust and tracking the vast improvements that have happened in education and learning thanks to our adoption of digital technology.  The problem is that there is no such data.  Countries that adopted digital technology in learning early on show little or no statistical change in learning outcomes.  This is what happens when we adopt digital technology primarily to reduce photocopying budgets instead of applying pedagogy to leverage new communication mediums.

In the six years since that conference I've watched our school systems lurch toward the stake I claimed on the digital frontier, adopting wireless and cloud based technologies and expanding general student access to edtech, but the learning outcomes are seldom different because we have done little to improve digital transliteracy.  Students who struggled before tend to actually struggle more in the digital cesspool of conflicting mediums.  Now that I'm teaching computer technology full time, I see it happening on a province-wide basis; technology isn't the great equalizer.  Instead of adapting and engaging with new mediums and developing transliteracies around them, we've reduced digital technology to a cost saving measure that doesn't actually save any money.  We don't teach digital fluency, we just magically expect it, and in the meantime we're buying mounds of technology that almost no one knows how to leverage effectively.

At the end of 2019 a novel virus that we've never seen before began spreading across the world.  Unchecked it would kill millions and overwhelm our austerity riddled medical systems.  After a year of bullying Ontario education with absurd threats of mandatory elearning courses for all, COVID19 suddenly delivered the perfect opportunity to prove that it's possible.  What's happening with remote learning right now isn't designed to deliver the best possible learning outcomes using the all of the digital tools at our disposal, it's a marketing exercise.

I'm in a position where I teach digital technology to a self selected group of students who are much more likely to be connected, have their own technology AND (most importantly!) know how to use it.  In our first week of remote learning I've got eyes on every one of my students and a 100% engagement rate across all classes, but to use this as proof that elearning might work is the worst kind of skulduggery.

When this all kicked off I was keen to move quickly, take initiative and demonstrate what our digital fluency could accomplish.  While the rest of the system lost initiative in two weeks of silence, I had a number of students who were already crushing what would become the radically reduced expectations that the Ministry eventually worked out.  

Three hours of remote learning per week per course?  We spend over six high bandwidth face to face hours a week in class and senior students usually drop another couple of hours in on top of that.  Three hours of remote learning is a tiny fraction of this.  How tiny?  The introduction to networking piece we usually do in a blended online LMS and F2F grade 10 class on Cisco's Netacademy takes one week to finish - I've given my remote learning grade 10s an entire month to do the same thing, and many won't manage it, in some cases because the locked down Chromebooks they were shipped won't install the software, in other cases because a lack of space or time, and in others because without an adult present some students just won't do anything.  There are so many reasons why this shouldn't work, but we keep adding more reasons on top.

If we prove this works at all (and many are having trouble reaching even that lowered target), we've proven that remote learning is only fractionally as effective as face to face learning, which was why so many teachers fought this government's callous mandatory elearning push in the first place, and that's not even getting into digital divides, equity and digital illiteracy.  In a perfect case with carefully selected students with the tech, connectivity and skills required, remote learning is 25% as effective as what we usually do.  In reality it won't even come close to that.


My 'let's floor it and show everyone what digital fluency can do' approach changed dramatically over the first few weeks as remote learning finally rolled out.  Colleague Diane's comment in the union portion of our first online staff meeting (another impossibility - our union is famously anti-tech) began a shift in my thinking; this isn't an opportunity to push elearning, it's an emergency response.  How we name it might sound pedantic, but it isn't.  Names carry implications, and even though Ontario's emergency response remote learning is pretty much entirely elearning based, it shouldn't be, as this article from the Broadbent Institute suggests...

"To roll out what has been a specialized program serving a minority of students to the majority of students in an emergency — sets up expectations against which we are poised to fail."

"The provincial “Learn at Home” approach draws not only on a fantasy of eagerly connected students with ample resources, but also on a fantasy of home free from conflict and space constraints, supported by caregivers who can and will provide structure, motivation, and mediate learning between the teacher and their child."

There is a lot of fantasy in how this is all unfolding.  Over the years I've often found myself surrounded by perfectly operational computers that were destined for landfill.  At one point I got our student success person on board and built free, Linux based computers to hand out to families in need - it was a disaster.  When you hand out unfamiliar technology that people don't know how to use, they don't know how to use it - how's that for a stunning revelation?  We've just done logistical backflips on a system wide scale in Ontario during this remote learning crisis to do exactly that.  How bad is digital fluency in Canadian society?  Worse than you think.  The belief that 'digital natives' who are familiar with habitual use of technology somehow have mastery of it is just another fantasy we can't be bothered to dispel.

The remote learning push will be what it will be, and what it ends up being will be nothing remotely close to what it could have been thanks to our wilfully oblivious approach to digital divides and transliteracy.  We've done what we always do: drastically simplify a complex situation for appearances, but it's to be expected when a critical service like education is run by politics.  Handing out books to illiterate people isn't going to prompt a lot of reading - but that's exactly what we're expecting with our sudden onset elearning plan.

Other pedagogically focused educators I look to when reflecting and adjusting my teaching have also emphasized the importance of re-framing this situation away from a digital technology marketing opportunity.  Zoe and Brenda have both emphasized the importance of a compassionate, considered approach rather than driving for curriculum consumption. Alanna's blog post on social media distancing with students changed my mind about trying to recreate a classroom environment by driving for video chat access.  Knowing that my students are digitally skilled and connected, I was frustrated when I didn't have quick pickup from my seniors, only to discover that the quiet ones had suddenly been pressed into 40+ hours a week of reduced minimum wage work and were sorry for not doing the 3 hours per class that private school Stephen who didn't need a job in high school has decided is appropriate.

*** I like to see us adopt a coherent digital skills curriculum with specifically identified and developed skills?  Yes, I would.  I'd like us to become authors of educational technology rather than just consumers or branded representatives of multi-nationals.  I seek a nuanced, transliterative use of digital technology and an adaptive, self-aware pedagogy that leverages these new mediums of communication to maximize learning outcomes for everyone.  I've been advocating for a digital apprenticeship for our students and staff for over a decade and I don't see that changing, but using an emergency situation to push that agenda is inappropriate, and what we've done in terms of expecting miracles from it has cast a harsh light on our myopic approach to digital transliteracy to date.

The irony of this crisis is that it has improved digital transliteracy in one of the hardest to crack bastions of the education system.  I've seen staff who I would never have imagined on video chats, and doing that while they're also having to integrate unfamiliar digital tools in a live learning environment (such as it  is).  If Alec is still looking for a bright side in what comes out this maybe it's that more educators begin to understand the possibilities of digital transliteracy in learning.  Perhaps then enough educators will know enough about it to create a sea change in how we approach our digital transliteracy, because it sure ain't coming from the top down.

Related Material:
ECOO 2011 Presentation: Dancing in the Datasphere - we cling to outdated concepts of information and communication even as a digital revolution envelops us
ECOO 2016 Presentation:  The DIY Computer Lab - differentiating technology use to raise digital fluency
2017:  The Digital Divide is Deep & Wide - access to digitally enhanced learning is about much more than just technology and connectivity
2018:  How To Resolve Poor Technical Fluency - courses that teach digital transliteracy are few and far between in Ontario classrooms, yet every class expects fluent use of digital tools

Digital Fluency: it kicked off Dusty World and is a recurring theme in it (because it has never been addressed)

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Simple Remote Learning Fixes

Windows 98 is in the house!
I was asked what our spec-ed teachers can do to help students with IEPs who are struggling with technology at home.  This might not be the answer they expected, but here's 30 years of IT experience at work, and it follows the screensaver I always ran when I was a full time IT technician:  SIMPLIFY!

For many 'tech' is something out of their comfort zone which means you're battling a confidence issue as well as the tech problem.  For others, especially younger people who have been told they're digital natives who intuitively understand technology (which is hooey) you get the Dunning-Kruger Effect in full blossom and have have to back them out of the assumptions they jump into too quickly.

Here are the simple how-tos for tech support which will resolve the vast majority of technical problems you'll face in our bizarre new world of COVID19 bubble remote learning (you'll be building digital fluency in your users too!):


1. Have you tried turning it off and on again?  You'd be amazed how often that solves things.  There is a lot of data moving around in a computer and the person using it may very well have interrupted some of those processes.  Rebooting a computer lets it sort itself out and undo those interruptions.

2. SLOW DOWN! (it's a theme) Actually read the error - the computer is trying to tell you something, slow down and read and understand it. Many people tend to make assumptions and then start mashing buttons and messing with settings.  This makes it even harder to fix the probably simple issue that kicked this off.

3. Get good at searching online for a solution.  Don't paraphrase, put the specific message you're getting in the search and you'll get specific how-tos, you'll also get a sense of how common what's happened is.  Include details.  What operating system are you running?  Windows 10?  Windows 8?  Windows 7 even though it is no longer supported by Microsoft but your school board won't update?  Mac OSx?  ChromeOS?  What model of computer are you using - it's stamped on it somewhere.  Get details and use them in your online search. 

4.  Having said number 3, the internet is populated with idiots, so don't believe everything you read on the inter-webs - be critical!  Look for quality answers from a good source (it's NEVER Reddit - see the brilliant commentary on the right).
A Chrome answer from a Google page?  A Windows answer from a Microsoft page?  A Mac answer from an Apple page?  That's where you want to look - and then SLOW DOWN (theme, remember?) read and understand what they're saying.

5.  Make one change and test it.  As Charles from MASH once famously said, do one thing at a time, do it very well, and then move on.
Running off half cocked is what too many people do.  They end up making things worse by digging into settings and mashing buttons.  If it worked before, it's probably a single thing that changed.  Slow down, read and understand what's happening, isolate the problem, solve it - then reboot to let the computer sort itself out!

The technical side of things is only one part of the technical support equation.  Dealing with user psychology is the unspoken, secret side of the business.  User resilience plays a big part in why you're facing the many technical issues you've been tasked with solving.  It's a lack of confidence that prevents people from solving many of these issues themselves, not the technical complexity of the issue itself.  As my Dad once said, if a person built it, I can fix it.  Until we're facing alien technology, you got this.

If we can build confidence and encourage everyone to take on responsibility for using the tech, everything tends to work better, the user included.  Don't ignore the psychology - make a point of congratulating yourself or your user for resolving their own technical challenges - it helps bridge that confidence deficit.

6. BONUS:  it's usually something simpler than you think it is.  When I was looking at blade server failure that had just knocked over 600 employees off the network for no reason everyone else in the department wanted to dive into software settings.  I went and looked at the thing and realized it had been plugged in to the wrong breaker (plug), and it kept popping when over 400 connected at time.  Others wanted to get into settings, I checked to see if it was plugged in properly.

Mike Meyers has a similar story in his CompTIA A+ Study manual:  a colleague was bragging about how great his security firewalls were on a new server.  Mike bet him he could get into it and the guy took the bet.  Mike put on overalls, walked into the office saying he was there to do some maintenance and the receptionist waved him in.  He walked into the server room, unplugged it and walked out of the office with it under his arm.  The receptionist didn't notice because her internet was down (he'd just walked out with the thing that served it).

7. SUPER BONUS!!!  PUSH YOUR UPDATES!  If you're on Windows type in update in the search bar and it'll walk you through them - being out of date can stop your machine from working properly, especially in our interconnected techosystem (see what I did there?).  Being out of date also opens you up to all sorts of cybersecurity headaches.  If you're on an Apple product, the process is similarChromebooks need updating love too, don't forget it!

There is nothing magical about digital technology, or any technology really.  Our inability to manage it usually comes down to either a confidence problem around a lack of familiarity or an over falsity of confidence based on a lack of genuine expertise.

When you're trying to get students connected during an emergency situation don't over-complicate things and look for the easiest fix first.  I've seen 'experts' diving into Chrome settings and spending an hour messing with things and still coming up short.  The IT tech in me always wonders why they don't spend five minutes uninstalling and reinstalling it.  The point isn't to show off your prowess (though I'm not sure that wandering through settings randomly trying things for an hour would do that), it's to make things work.

In short, be humble, be helpful and be solutions focused which includes addressing where your user is in terms of psychology.  That'll get 99% of your technical challenges sorted in our bizarre #COVID19 remote learning bubbles.  For the other 1%, that's why we have IT departments.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Pandemic Reflections: F2F Has Way Better Bandwidth

I'm a teacher with a lot of technical expertise.  I don't just teach effectively with digital technology, I teach the subject itself.  Fifteen years working in information technology in roles ranging from systems implementation to technical support and training are what led me into teaching the subject.  When I began teaching in 2004, elearning was beginning to evolve out of distance (ie: mail order paper based) material.  I jumped on it the summer after I started teaching at Peel DSB.  At that point elearning was a very loose HTML webpage where you had to write code to display the content properly.  I had some very interesting experiences teaching senior, university bound English on that system.  When I moved to my current board I volunteered for their pilot elearning program and taught a variety of elearning courses purely online, and then did a blended face to face introduction to elearning while teaching the mandatory career studies course.  One of the best things to come out of that project was that all of those students had a very clear idea of whether or not elearning would work for them.  A third of the class never wanted to see it again, and the correlation between students with IEPs and students who had trouble with elearning was nearly 100%.

All that to say, I've spent a great deal of my career exploring how digital technologies might augment our teaching, but I'm also well aware of the shortfalls.

The recent pandemic shutdown has driven a lot of teachers and students online, and the framing by our Ministry early on was very elearning focused, but a colleague in our first ever staff video conference said something that resonated with me:  this isn't elearning, it isn't business as usual, this is emergency response remote learning - we're not 'going online' we're doing everything we can to keep education alive at a time when it's too easily dismissed.  This might sound like an arbitrary distinction, but it isn't.  Not everyone needs to go online, and in many cases (as in the 2011 career studies experiment above), we have a sizable portion of our student population who cannot learn effectively in that space.  When you also toss in the inequity of online learning, it leaves option looking like a very poor go-to.  As educators, whenever we see the system roll out an undifferentiated, blanket response to an issue (like EQAO), we should take a hard pedagogical look at it.  Uniform responses that don't honour our student (and teacher's) individual approaches to learning and teaching are, by definition, unresponsive and ineffective. 

Since the school closures happened I've been very conscious of the economically disadvantaged students who have been cut off at home.  This may very well be a home that isn't safe, isn't providing adequate care and isn't where the student wants to spend their time.  The "stay at home" message that started this off is couched in privilege.  For many students home isn't a nice word.  I've been frustrated by the lack of initiative shown in this crisis, but the digital divide many of our students face was something we could have addressed before, but didn't.  Some leaders are now using that lack of equity as an excuse to do nothing, which strikes me as the worst kind of hypocrisy.  If we messed it up before, we're messing it up now for even more people because what we didn't do before is an excuse to do nothing now?  Wow.

I'm also staggered that there is evidently no one in the largest school system in the country who is responsible for emergency response planning.  We seem to be making it up as we go and delivering planning by press conference (evidently this are no communications going to boards before hand to begin preparing), and we've already lost three weeks planning something that should have been in place from the go.

You know what's harder than teaching remotely?  Teaching remotely using unclear and constantly changing expectations.

So here we are, in a pandemic situation that people have been warning is coming for years.  Our solution is to throw elearning at it, and (so far, 3 weeks in) do nothing to address the fact that thousands of Ontario students don't have the devices at home and/or the internet connectivity to access it - and those are the students who most needed education to support them from the beginning.

There is a reason why we truck in students on diesel fume spewing school buses each day to a face to face learning environment; public education is the great equalizer.  More than anything else it helps us find the best in our population and enable them to achieve beyond the socio-economic situation they find themselves in.  For wealthy students school can feel like a step down from a life of choice and excess, but for others it is a bastion of reliability; the only time in their day when they're talking to dependable, capable adults.  For some it's the only time when they aren't hungry, and our solution in an emergency situation that demands isolation is to ignore them?
Level 3 means you can take a time and date out of an email
and put it in an online calendar, this isn't rocket science.
Let's say we get the digital divide under control and manage to get everyone connected (we haven't and we won't, but let's imagine we did).  Now that we have everyone online and using an appropriate device, we need the majority to leverage digital skills they haven't developed and get them learning remotely.  Ontario doesn't have a digital skills continuum, other than some vague language dropped into other subjects here and there, yet we were increasingly expecting students and teachers to use digital tools in school and now they have suddenly become a necessity.  I teach computer technology and have a well developed program, but I only reach about 100 students out of the 1300 in our school.  If you count the business tech courses and media arts that also build digital fluency, all together we'd be lucky to reach a quarter of our student population, the rest have basic, habitual digital experience - like most of the population.  What we're doing with elearning is akin to handing out books to illiterate people so they can learn at home with them.

Could elearning work?  It has in my experience, and I'm seeing some of my very digitally fluent seniors doing outstanding work online now.  I've had some very positive elearning teaching experiences where we leveraged technology and created a remote learning environment that was rich and responsive.  When it has happened, it was with a digitally focused and experienced teacher and voluntary students who also had the resilience and technical expertise to make it happen.

When you teach online it feels like you're looking at your students through a wrong-way-around telescope.  I described this recently in terms of bandwidth.  When you're face to face with someone you're able to read their body language in fine detail.  The tone of their voice isn't a dimensionless thing coming out of a tiny computer speaker, but it doesn't end there.  I've had students with obvious (when face to face) hygiene issues that I'm able to notice and subtly address by getting our councillors involved.  I'm able to leverage the fantastic food school resources our school offers to get hungry students fed when we're face to face.  I'm able to overhear student conversation in class that gives me the context I need to connect with them more effectively.  I'm able to present body language and nuance of voice that develops trust and a human relationship.  I'm able to differentiate instruction with students quickly and effectively while face to face.  I'm able to close the digital divide for all my students when they enter my lab.   Doing all this in school means I'm also doing it in a place with social conventions aimed at teaching and learning that define and direct what we're doing - you don't get any of that online.  There is a reason we learn best face to face, it has way better bandwidth than any digital option.  Even if you and your students are digital ninjas, remote/online learning is always going to be a lower bandwidth, less effective option that face to face learning.

In a perfect world we'd develop our staff and student's digital fluency and engage in augmented 21st Century learning using digital tools and connectivity to enhance our ability to collaborate and communicate (and be ready for bizarre emergencies like this one), but it makes for a poor replacement; educational technology for augmentation is a worthy pedagogical goal.  Educational digital technology replacing face to face learning isn't pedagogically motivated, it's usually tied to scalability and the resultant monetization of a platform, usually with an eye to reducing costs and centralizing control.  The elearning push by Ontario's current government was entirely focused on this without any thought given to the digital divide, dearth of digital skills and pedagogically reductive nature of remote elearning.

This pandemic has shone a harsh light on the inadequacies of our system in terms of emergency response and digital skills training, as well as highlighting the ongoing digital divide.  A good that might come of it is that we begin to address all of these issues and build a more resilient and effective education system that is able to take initiative and respond to an emergency situation without taking a month to think about it.  The resultant remote learning will still be inferior to what we can do in school, but as it stands now we've taken too long to do something we're not ready to do anyway.  As we limp out of this situation, we need to take a long hard look at how unprepared we were to deal with this.