Tuesday, 10 April 2018

FITC: The Pitch

Dear Industry & post-secondary VR/AR Interested People,

I'm at the last day of my first FITC Conference.  I'm buzzing from talks on emerging technologies, inspirational stories of artists thriving in a complex and rapidly evolving time and futurists shedding light on what is coming next.  That last bit is the focus of this post.  


I have a number of current students and recent grads with a great deal of experience in VR, AR and the coming media evolution, and we're all eager to find people to COLLABORATE with!  


If you're in the creative industry and are interested in VR & AR but don't have much technical experience, we'd LOVE to talk to you.  If you're developing VR ready software or hardware and want to talk to us, we'd be over the moon.  If you're in Ontario post-secondary and are starting up VR/AR focused technology courses, my students are your future students and we'd love to work with you.


Sincerely,

Tim King
CWDHS Computer Technology


Here is our VR CV in glorious detail:



In 2016 the computer technology department I run at our local high school was given the opportunity by our board to explore the newly released consumer virtual reality headsets.  My background is in visual art and information technology, and my interest was in getting this visually demanding tech to work.  I'd be lying if I didn't say I also had dreams of Sword Art Online being imminent.


We purchased one of the first HTC Vives to drop in Canada and proceeded to build a PC that could run it.  Over two years ago we had working, fully interactive VR in our lab.  That summer I got put in touch with Foundry10, a Seattle based tech-in-education research group, and they helped us get into our second VR headset.  So that we could be platform agnostic we went with the Oculus Rift.

Since then we have introduced hundreds of students in our board to virtual reality.  We have done multiple grade eight technology fairs and elementary school weekend tech-days demonstrating VR to teachers, parents and students.  We're a deft hand at remote setup and breakdown now.  It never gets old watching people get floored by their first immersive VR experience.  We don't do it with phone based passive systems.  When we introduce VR our users have hands and full interactivity.

Starting last year we began building VR ready computers and packaging them with headsets to hand out to other schools.  We've built dozens of Vive based sets and this year we swapped over to cheaper but equally capable Samsung Odyssey VR based systems.  We have built mobile, laptop based VR systems and desktop PC  systems on a variety of different platforms.  We have become very adept at making VR work in a variety of circumstances.

While all that was going on we also started developing VR ready software for the hardware we'd built.  Our earlier work was built on Oculus and Vive but with the amalgamation of VR platforms on Microsoft's Windows 10 Creator's Update last fall, we are now able to build across multiple platforms simultaneously.  This spring our senior software engineering class is building two VR based titles.  You can check out the 3d models students are turning out on our Sketchfab site.



Meanwhile, I've been presenting and demonstrating VR to teachers and educational administration across the province.  I've attended the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario's annual conference the past two years, demonstrating and presenting on AR and VR.  That led to an Ontario Ministry of Education grant in student led VR and AR research.  Our groundbreaking work is helping to decide how VR will be used in education in the province.



Last summer I presented at the Ontario Teacher's Federation summer conference on Pedagogy and Technology.



We're always looking for other ways to diversify stereoscopic 3d digital interaction.  This past year we built school-branded 3d Google Cardboard viewers using a company in Toronto. We've also been in contact with Lenovo's Educational outreach over the Google Daydream platform that's about to drop and would love to get our hands on a Hololens, but that's a bit too rich for a public high school.  Which leads me back to the start.

We're tech-handy, more VR experienced in both hardware and software than most VR startups, and eager to COLLABORATE!  If you're able to reach out online, you could be anywhere, but we'd especially like to make connections with industry and post-secondary programs who are exploring this emerging medium in Ontario.  My students will become your post-secondary students and eventually the people you hire when you're developing in a
ugmented and virtual reality in the coming years.  We'd LOVE to hear from you.  If you can help enable us, we'll floor you with what we can do.

Here are some links:

To The Department:
CWDHS Software Engineering (VR development) page
@CWCompTech on Twitter
CW CompTech on Google+

To Tim King, the teacher:
On Google+
On Twitter
Direct to my work email
On 360 degree video capture - if that isn't extreme enough, how about 360 on a motorcycle?

To current student work:
To Cameron: our valedictorian who is already working on his second VR game title AND a Unity based construct for embedding 360 immersive video into - he already has experience on half a dozen 360 camera rigs from basic consumer Samsung 360s to the Insta360 professional quality 8k 360 camera.
To Nick:  also working on his second VR title and the winner last year of a specialist high skills major award for introducing a new coop program where high school technical experts go back to their old elementary schools and help them improve digital fluency.

Both Nick & Cameron are part of the Cybertitan team who are in the national finals of ICTC Canada's cyber security competition.

To Eric, one of our top 3d modelers


To recent grads:
To Zach, now at Mohawk for IT and Networking (so he's already better than he was) - he was pretty good in high school too, winning the Ontario Skills Canada provincials for IT & Networking with one of the highest technical scores in the competition  Zach can get anything to work.

To Charles: top 5 in Ontario in IT in high school, but also a metal shop work par exellance and a giant anime nerd after my own heart - Charles has the technical skills (more so now after graduating from college) and a bizarre mix of creative interests that make him able to produce truly unique digital art.

To Jake: one of the founding students that designed our software engineering program on year one - his foresight and ability to see where technology was heading was what allowed us to produce the program we enjoy today.  Jake has gone on to post secondary in coding and has hundreds of thousands of users playing his mobile game apps through Android and iOS.  He is a founder of Vulcron Games

To Maddi, who has gone into 3d modeling and video game design.  She was producing stunning work three years ago, I can't imagine what she's up to now:

Here is Maddi's portfolio of work to date... 

Speaking of which, I've been moving mountains to try and get more girls into our digital tech program (an uphill struggle in conservative, rural Ontario).  Our electronics expert in Skills Ontario (7th last year, aiming for a medal this) is the only girl in the competition.  Getting in contact with women in tech who are interested in mentoring the next generation would help support me in this.

Please don't hesitate to contact us!

Tim King

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Competitive Urges and Real World Expectations: How to Differentiate For Experts

One of the ways I differentiate my courses in order to cater to students who will become digital engineers and technicians is to find opportunities to compete in skills based competitions.  Not only does this offer them advanced study in specific areas of computer technology, but it also provides curriculum material that often trickles down into my regular course work.

In the fall we took our first run at the CyberPatriot/CyberTitan IT security competition.  Cyber-security is a high demand field we don't produce enough of in Canada.  With a very strong team of seniors we made big steps forward in each round figuring out how the competition works and what we needed to focus on to get better at it.  Once we knew to focus on Windows and Linux operating systems and Cisco networking, we got a lot better.  By the final round we'd fought our way up to the sharp end of the competition and ended up finishing in the top 10 out of 90 odd Canadian teams.  We're off to Fredericton in May to see how we fare in the national finals.


I've been looking at ways to bring cyber-security into my curriculum and this ICTC run competition has provided me with a pile of material on all levels of IT security from the desktop all the way up to networking.  In the meantime, I've got four students who are national finalists, which looks mighty fine on both a job and post-secondary program applications.  The team isn't a mono-culture either.  One student is aiming at software engineering, another at information technology, another at teaching and the last isn't ICT focused but is a strong, multi-talented student who can solve esoteric problems well.  They also work well as a team, so we're looking forward to seeing how we fare in the finals in New Brunswick.

Meanwhile, we've got four students aiming for Skills Ontario provincial finals in Toronto in May.  Unlike last year when we tried to commute into the GTA for the event (utter misery), we are lining up hotel rooms and staying overnight, so everyone will arrive early and well rested - no seven hour school bus commutes for us this time.  We've got last year's bronze medalist at IT and Networking who is angling for a higher finish, last year's 7th place electronics student in the hunt for a medal and last year's 10th place web developer looking for a top five finish.  I've also got a ringer for the first ever coding competition at Skills Ontario provincials.  Like the CyberTitan competition, I've been able to lift a lot of useful course focuses out of Skills scopes.  Our electronics have diversified and become much more complex thanks to our competitor's work in skills (and I love that she's beating the boys in a predominantly male competition).  The web development we started last year is going to provide much of the coding focus for our new grade ten computer class that starts next year.

I get a real charge out of competition.  I used to coach soccer at school but now I spend my time focused on supporting technology curriculum.  The differences are many.  Instead of only catering to students who are wealthy enough to not work and have the free time to play games at school all week, I find myself supporting a wide socio-economic range of students, which I find more gratifying.  In the process I've been able to show many of them opportunities and post secondary pathways that they hadn't considered before.  I didn't manage to produce a single professional soccer player in years of coaching, but I've managed to help engineers, technicians and digital artists begin their careers.  Of course, I don't get paid to do any of this, but finding students and helping them develop into competitive provincial and national challengers is one of the favourite aspects of my job, even though it isn't actually my job.  The hardest part is convincing them that it's possible; doubt is the hardest thing to overcome.

Meanwhile, in the classroom this semester I'm running yet another round of capped at 31 students software engineering (it's tricky to stuff 31 student computers into a classroom, but I manage it).  I started this course three years ago as a bit of a joke, but I couldn't run it like one, the opportunities it provides are too real.  Our school started offering courses in hockey and camping and I jokingly suggested I make a video game course if we're giving credits out for recreational activities.  I spent much of my youth playing hockey, camping and video gaming, so why not?  Of course, I didn't get high school credits in those things, but I digress.


Our software engineering class has become an applied coding course that focuses on engineering process rather than the mathematical minutia of coding, which I leave to computer science.  We start with IEEE's Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK) to get a handle on best practices in real-world software building, then we learn 3d modelling in Blender and scripting in C# in Unity in order to prepare everyone for some game development.


This class has produced published software since the first year it ran and has allowed students to produce digital portfolio work that has gotten many graduates into some of the most challenging post secondary programs in the province.  Like the competition opportunities described above, software engineering has turned into an intense but demanding real world opportunity that allows senior students to step up and demonstrate leading edge digital skills.


We've just finished the training portion of the course where the grade twelves introduce the grade elevens to SWEBOK, the basics of 3d modelling and the Unity game development platform.  With these basic skills in place everyone then reorganizes into startups and proceeds to develop software titles for the rest of the semester.  This time around we've got a mini putt VR simulator, a VR based survival game called Grave Dug, a nostalgia arcade title called Devil's Hollow, a two player cooperative asymmetrical puzzle game called Shield and Staff, an atmospheric stealth title called Instinct and for the first time we're also developing a non-interactive title focused on 3d animation that should offer our 3d artists a less restricted and more experimental approach to modelling without the complexities of interactivity.  We hope to use VR (Tiltbrush, Oculus Medium) and our Structure Sensor 3d scanner to produce less Blenderized looking models and experiment with our design process.


My senior computer technology (TEJ) courses also focus on real world problem solving.  We cover CompTIA industry testing for A+ technician in 3M and NETWORK+ administration in 4M, and both courses also do in-school tech support.  We're also building VR ready systems for our board SHSM program to distribute to other schools.  Working in real world situations with live problem solving and deadlines is something my students find invaluable, whether it's in class or in competition.  It gives them strong portfolio work (check out our ever expanding collection of 3d models, in 3d!) and prepares them for the intensity of life outside of the rubber walled, failure-not-an-option world of high school.  It's a lot of extra work, but I didn't get into teaching computer technology in order to be able to spin the same lessons out year after year; the constantly changing nature of the subject area is one of the reasons I chose to do it.  The real world challenges and intensity of competition keep things interesting for me too.


How to Resolve Poor Technical Fluency in Ontario Education

I'm revising my Computer Technology (TEJ) course offerings to encourage students of all technical skill levels to become more fluent with the digital tools used in pretty much every job these days. This has happened, in part, because of an article I read a few months ago about the atrocious technical skills human beings in general, and our graduates in particular, have.

Teaching computer technology has a number problems associated with it at a systemic level in Ontario education, but this is my local attempt to resolve some of those problems in terms of accessibility and functionality.


The presentation above describes how even a least a basic understanding of computer technology has become a useful skill in pretty much every pathway a student can take.  From straight into the workplace, through apprenticeships and college to PhDs, being able to make functional use of computers will assist you in many aspects of your Twenty-First Century workplace.

I was recently talking to a dairy farmer who was telling me about the computer network they use for milk capture and assessment.  This wireless system allows them to keep track of individual cow health and has produced a significant bump in the quantity and quality of their produce; he also thought it made for happier cows.  Last summer we gave a ride to a French PhD student from the University of Guelph who got stuck on a bicycle in a thunderstorm, he was a doctor of genetic engineering.  When I asked him if he wished he'd studied anything else he immediately said, 'computer programming.'  When I asked why he said that all of the gene sequencing they are doing is taking place in computer simulations and not being able to program meant he couldn't do it as well as he wanted to.  From farmers to gene sequencers - technical fluency in computer technology is influencing and redefining the work they are doing.


Individualized technology training for students at all
levels of experience and skill.
My previous approach in M-level (post secondary bound) TEJ (computer technology) courses was to focus on students looking to make a career in the field.  This intensity frightened away a lot of students who were just looking to increase their technical fluency.  I'd initially thought this might have been resolved by offering essential level computer tech courses, but the poor handling of students in this high school stream made for an expensive and frustrating semester dealing with several students who have been groomed by the system to expect zero consequences for bad behaviour.  My goal now is to make M level courses more accessible and engaging for all students, regardless of technical experience.  I'm hoping that this also brings in more female students as they are vanishingly few in our conservative, genderized school where digital technology isn't considered an appropriate course of study for a girl.

I've changed my grading and assessment from an absolute skills analysis to a vectored improvement approach.  I don't measure what students know, I measure how much their knowledge and skills have improved, and grade them based on that improvement.  In this way a student with no background in computers can still improve their fluency and get grades that don't drive them away from the course.  Post secondary focused students tend to be marks focused, so holding them to hard standards when they don't have the background means chasing people out of computer tech, but if I treat it like a form of literacy rather than a specialty, students of all experience levels can improve their technical fluency without worrying about grades.  

Research indicates that the general technical fluency of Canada's population is abysmal.  Holding students to an absolute standard isn't a way to induce them into voluntarily (unlike geography, history, phys-ed and art, ICT isn't a required course in any Ontario classroom) improving this deficit.  If we believe the simple fact that information and communication technical fluency will help you in pretty much every job these days, then this approach focused on accessibility and empowerment should be the norm, not the exception.

Ontario Education's Neglected Computer Technology Curriculum

The primary function of Dusty World is for me to reflect on my teaching practice in order to resolve problems.  This one's going to sound like a lot of complaining, but it leads directly to the following posts (resolving poor technical fluency and competition and real world differentiation) that suggest outlets and ways to manage this overwhelming curriculum.

***

I've long had difficulty managing the byzantine history and fractured approach to computer technology in Ontario high school classrooms.  Our subject council email is clogged with desperate pleas for qualified teachers to fill absences that, if not filled, will result in the closure of programs; most of them don't get filled.  Meanwhile, existing computer-tech programs are treated as an afterthought, often overloading teachers and students with multi-stacked classrooms.

A colleague recently noted that less than 30% of Ontario high schools even offer the computer technology course of study.  In 2018, being able to make effective use of computers is a fundamental skill that will assist students across the entire spectrum of employment and post-secondary training, yet few students enjoy access to this vital Twenty-First Century skillset.  If you can get a computer to work for you, you immediately have a socio-economic advantage; fluency in computer technology is foundational skill in the Twenty-First Century, but only 30% of students in Ontario can access it?  And in my school where we have a relatively healthy computer tech program, less than 10% of students ever sign up for this entirely optional course of study.


Ontario technology curriculum is based around absolute skills arranged in a hierarchy, so as courses progress they become less and less accessible to students with no previous experience.  This is at odds with the TEJ3M curriculum that describes the course as having no pre-requisite, yet the technical expectations of TEJ3M are complex and wide ranging (starting on page 76 - give them a read, they're astonishing).  In post-secondary programs and industry, any one of the strands in this curriculum would be its own course of study and most are degree programs, but in Ontario high schools they are all lumped together in a course with no previous experience required.

Many students, even those who have taken the optional junior TEJ course, struggle to grasp the wide range of knowledge and build the experience required to cover the 3M curriculum.  Senior TEJ M-level courses are the equivalent of asking a student to walk into senior advanced science with no previous experience and then study biology, chemistry, environmental science, space science and physics simultaneously.  All of this highlights Ontario education's poor handling of computer technology.  Yet fluency with information and communication technology is becoming a fundamental requirement in pretty much every pathway a student can choose in 2018, while specialists in the field enjoy clear advantages in the workplace.  I feel I'm well within my professional scope to revise and make these poorly formulated requirements more accessible for my students.  In the process I hope to address, in a small way, the digital illiteracy that plagues Canada's (and the world's) population while also supporting my digitally focused experts.

The fractured computer technology curriculum is one of many reasons why there are a dearth of educators qualified to teach computer tech (less than 30% of Ontario high schools even offer the subject).  Our subject group frequently gets emails saying programs from ICT to robotics will be shut down unless a qualified teacher can be found, but there are none available.  This seems at odds with how many computer tech programs are treated in the few places they exist.  In our own board we have schools closing down irreplaceable computer tech labs in order to support subjects more designed to entertain than employ.

The few teachers willing and able to take on digital technologies are overwhelmed by the expansive curriculum they are expected to attempt.  My technical background was as a millwright and then a computer technician.  I am professionally competent in information technology and networking and have a considerable (though not equal) amount of experience in electrical work.  My experience in electronics is passing at best, but I make do.  My coding background, which I'm also supposed to be an expert in, is mostly self-taught (Ontario has been failing to provide an applied technical education for computer focused students for decades).  Finding a teacher who can teach the Ontario computer technology curriculum is the equivalent of finding someone who isn't just qualified academically in multiple fields, but also has working experience across multiple industries - if such people do exist they are polymaths making millions.  We accept science teachers who have never worked a day in the private sector, but computer technology teachers are required to show years of industry experience in addition to academic qualifications.

Then there is cost of teaching tech.  I used to take home about $920 a week as a millwright in 1991, and that was with a full pension and benefits package.  As a senior teacher with 13 years of experience, 5 years of expensive university training and three additional qualifications including an honour's specialist I had to spend months and thousands of dollars on, I bring home about $250 more a week in 2018.  I often wonder why I'm teaching when I could have been making a lot more doing what I'm teaching, and with a lot less political nonsense.


The vast majority of Ontario Education is
designed to feed that 10% unemployment
rate
 in the Canadian youth job market.
Then there is the split focus of Ontario education with digital technologies falling somewhere in between.  If you teach in academic classrooms you're what the whole system is designed around.  If you're teaching a hard tech like transportation, carpentry or metal shop at least you fall into another category, albeit one that is often treated like more like a necessary evil than a valid pathway for millions of people.  However, digital technologies get the worst of both worlds.  Hard techs have reasonable course caps of 21 students in order to ensure safety.  Academic courses in standard classrooms get capped at 31, but digital techs have no specific Ministry size limits and are capped at whatever local admin wants.  At my school that's a class cap of 31 students, the same as a senior academic English class, which is absurd.  31 students might work (barely) when you're working out of texts in rows, but trying to teach 31 students soldering with guns running over 400 degrees, or working inside computers with power supplies powerful enough to knock someone unconscious?  

Safety is a constant stress in the computer tech lab.  We're expected to maintain all the same safety standards and testing as hard techs, but with a third more students.  On top of that, since my classes are capped at 31, if 20 students sign up for it (which would run as a section in any hard tech), my courses are dropped or combined into stacked nightmares of assessment, management and differentiation.  Classes that only load to 60% are usually cut.  Last semester I had five preps, four of them in one period.  If you think the breadth of computer technology curriculum is already too much, try teaching it in a stacked class with four (4!) different sections at once.  The majority of computer tech teachers experience this joy every semester.  Taking all of this into account, it's no wonder there aren't more computer technology courses running in the province.

With little hope of the curriculum getting sorted or computer technology being treated as anything more than an afterthought, I'm still working to try and make my courses as applied, effective and accessible to as many students as I can, because it's important that young people understand the technology that so influences their lives.  If more people knew how it all worked, we'd have less abuse of it.

I spent time on March Break getting my heart tested because I've been having trouble sleeping and have been getting a jittery feeling in my chest.  My doctor tells me I'm strong and healthy physically, the nerves and jittery feeling are a result of stress.  I can't imagine where that comes from.  He suggests I take steps to reduce it, but I told him it's not in me to mail in what I'm doing.  I find teaching to be a challenging and rewarding profession and I believe my technical background is an important field of study.  I tend to dig my heels in when I believe that something is important, even more so when there is systemic prejudice against it.  I intend to keep fighting for what I believe is important learning for my students, but this is one of those times when swimming against the tide of indifference feels overwhelming.