Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Digital Divide is Deep and Wide

The idea of computer technical proficiency has come up many times over the years on Dusty World.  Whether you want to call it digital literacy, digital fluency,  or twenty-first Century skills, there is obviously a big gap in the computer user skills we're graduating people with.  This isn't a new thing, I've been benefiting from this lack of fluency in the general public since the 1980s.

After dropping out of high school in the late '80s I started apprenticing as a millwright.  At our warehouse the new building control systems were becoming computerized and all of the very skilled welders and mechanics in our department were leery of them, so guess who got to take that on?  The new guy who had been working with computers since he was ten.

A summer job I got while going to university in the early 1990s involved converting an engineering shop over to computerized ordering (they'd hand written all parts orders and completed shipments prior to that, ironically while producing telephony computer electronics).  I got Lotus1-2-3 (which I'd never used before) working with the formatting so we could print out orders using our existing forms.  This took a bit of trial and error, but I wouldn't have described it as particularly difficult, it just took a willingness to make effective use of digital technology in problem solving.

After graduating from uni I continually found myself moved into technology implementation  simply because of this fluency I seemed to have that many people didn't.  This eventually led to me getting IT qualifications as a technician.  It even followed me into teacher's college where I found myself teaching other students software and has been a mainstay of my teaching career.

This week I came across a recent study that sheds light on all of this anecdotal experience.  The Distribution of Computer User Skills research across wealthy OECD countries point to some rather astonishing facts: 


"Overall, people with strong technology skills make up a 5–8% sliver of their country’s population, and this is true across all wealthy OECD countries.

What’s important to remember is that 95% of the general population in North America cannot make effective use of computers in resolving even simple problems or overcoming unexpected outcomes."


Computer use isn't just poor, it's astonishingly bad.  Over a third of Canadians aged 16-65 can't do anything other than simple, rote, habitual work in a digital environment.  If asked to do tasks that I would consider straightforward and with no particular digital expertise, they are unable.  Keep in mind, this is only looking at the skills of work-aged people.  It's not even considering seniors who generally have much weaker computer skills - so the actual computer skill level in the whole population is even lower than this implies.

You're probably doubting your ability to be considered an advanced user in this study, but you shouldn't.  None of these tests involved programming or having to do anything engineering wise with a computer, it's all user focused work using simple software.  To be considered a strong (level 3) computer user you had to be able to "schedule a meeting room in a scheduling application, using information contained in several email messages."  If you've ever had a group of people email and work out a date for a meeting and then you've put that meeting in Google Calendar, you're considered a high end user.  If you're reading this online blog you're probably considered a proficient, level 3, high-skills user.

The article that started this leads on to another on the digital divide, but rather than hang it all on economic factors it also considers psychological and skills based limitations.  A few years ago I attempted to provide local households that said they couldn't afford one with a computer.  It was a complete failure - like giving books to illiterate people then wondering why they weren't illiterate any more; there is a lot more to the digital divide than economic barriers, though they no doubt play a part in it.  The fast evolving nature of technology means relatively recent computers are available often for free to people who otherwise can't afford them, but the problem isn't just access to technology, it's the inability of our education system to build sufficient digital fluency in our population to make use of them.  There is no point in handing out technology to people who can't make use of it.

With all of this in mind, who are we aiming at when we introduce digital technology into the classroom?  What are we doing when we pitch elearning at a general public who have this distressingly low level of digital fluency?  The vast majority of our students (fictitious digital native prejudices aside) are functionally illiterate when using digital technologies in even simple, user focused ways.  We seem to think we are graduating students who are able to make effective use of computers - except we aren't.  Many educators dwell in that level 0 to 1 poor user category themselves.


I've been advocating for it for over five years - nothing changes.
If our digital fluency were seen in terms of literacy, we're handing out the complete works of Shakespeare to illiterates and then wondering why it isn't working and why it's being vandalized.  At some point we'll stop dumping the latest multi-national prompted tech fad (ipads, chromebooks, whatever) into classrooms and start teaching a K to 12 digital skills continuum so people can actually make use of the technology we provide.

Last week one of my essential students intentionally punched and broke a Chromebook in my classroom.  This made me quite angry because I saw a useful and expensive digital tool being broken.  After reading this report I can't help but wonder if he was just breaking a thing that he can't do anything useful with that frustrates him.



“Educational technology has failed to move the needle on either cost effectiveness or student success in the past ten years…” - Brandon Busteed, Gallup Education
(they were talking about this in Phoenix in 2014)


OECD (2016), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, France.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Diversifying Consumer VR Landscape

One of our student built PCs immersing a UGDSB
educator
in To The Beat: a student built VR game.
We started exploring virtual reality almost two years ago in my senior computer technology classes.  In that time we've completed a Ministry of Education research grant, presented at several conferences and built over a dozen VR sets for other schools in our board.  VR checks a lot of boxes for me:
  • it's technically demanding in both hardware and software so it challenges my students with real world problems they wouldn't otherwise get to see
  • it's a new medium that has yet to be defined, so there are no established rules or right ways to do things. You can't ask for much more as a media creator and teacher.
  • it's rapidly evolving and because we early adopted we are playing a part in that evolution
With all that going for it, I've enjoyed the past could of years working out how best to get it to work, and we're not remotely done.

In October Microsoft blundered into VR with their fall Creator's Update.  Up until that point Microsoft had been quietly developing its very expensive Hololens (we tried it last year at the 2016 ECOO conference) while others went to market.  We settled on the HTC Vive as the best of the first wave of classroom ready fully immersive VR systems.  I've since put hundreds of people through their first experience with it and 99.9% of them come out of it amazed.  It never gets old watching someone experience VR for the first time.

Last year building our Vive VR kits meant building a reasonably strong spec desktop computer (a fairly simple ask for my seniors) and then installing the SteamVR drivers and updating all the firmware on the Vive before installing software.  After that we had stable, ready to roll systems that knocked out astonishing VR experiences.  Headaches were few and once up and running the systems have performed flawlessly, which isn't always the way with emerging technology.

This year Microsoft added all sorts of VR ready software to this Creators Update which has made our fall roll-out of seven VR sets for other schools a massive headache.  What once took ten minutes of installing mature, stable SteamVR drivers is now an hours long odyssey of trying to untangle immature Windows 10 VR kits that try and run the Vive as a Microsoft Mixed Reality headset (which it isn't).  I'm sure this is no accident.  If Microsoft can destabilize HTC's market dominance with the Vive by making the running of it a misery on Windows, then they would (and did).

My frustrated seniors and I were doing multiple re-installs and trying all sorts of driver voodoo to get things working.  Microsoft's sudden interest has borked our VR installs on non-Microsoft gear, but guess what works?  Microsoft's new Mixed Reality headsets.  Coincidence?  Probably not.


Having a dedicated VR pilot
at home lets me test all sorts
of software and systems!
We got a Lenovo Explorer last week when it was on sale at the suggestion of a very VR experienced teacher in our board.  It's pretty lousy using the Microsoft mixed reality software (there is barely anything there and the drivers are immature), but running it on STEAM has been reasonably problem free (the odd tracking issue with the handsets but otherwise OK).

Today I tried out Space Pirate Trainer, probably the most demanding interactive title we've tried, on the Lenovo Explorer using Windows Mixed Reality and it works a treat.  That's a $400 kit doing what an $800 HTC Vive kit with external sensors does almost as well with much less set up.  It'll only get better as those Microsoft drivers mature.

As it stands now we build a VR ready desktop for about $1400 and then get the enterprise version of the Vive for another $1500.  For three hundred bucks less we could buy the equivalent Samsung Microsoft Mixed Reality Headset and compatible laptop.  That'd be a kit that is mobile (laptop and no external sensors means easy transport and setup), and similar in resolution.

It bothers me that Microsoft has used its operating system monopoly to elbow out an existing system, but it's also a step down the evolutionary chain by not having the external sensors of the older Vive system.  That's what you get for not being first in with an emerging technology, you get to edge them out with an evolved product.

With all the driver headaches some of my students (and myself) had moments when we wondered why we're doing this to ourselves.  I finally said, "hey, if you wanted it easy you'd stick to the established technology that everyone else uses.  If we want to work with emerging tech, we've got to be ready for a fight."

The fight continues, and Microsoft's one-two punch of a simpler but effective platform and aggressive monopolistic software has got me thinking about moving on to a better solution.  Sometimes doing what the Sith Lord wants is the best way forward.

LINKS:


Lenovo's Explorer Microsoft Mixed Reality Headset.HTC's Vive: up until recently our go-to VR headset.


Microsoft Mixed Reality.  
And for Canada.

It's already gotten more diverse than it was when we presented this at ECOO last month.

Microsoft is pretty cagey about the specs for Mixed Reality.  They say any typical laptop or desktop can do the business, but our school's Dell i5 laptop wasn't sufficient.  If your 'typical' desktop costs north of $1500 and your 'typical' laptop costs beyond two grand, then yeah, you're ready to experience mixed reality.  They also require Bluetooth which most desktops don't have, so add that in there too... and the controllers need AA batteries, which the Vive doesn't.  

Curious to see if your typical PC can do it?  Here's the link to check your hardware.


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Stranger in a Strange Land

We attended the POND family day a couple of weeks ago and the steady, plodding nature of drug based (forget gene therapy, it's miles away) research around ASD and the frustration expressed by some parents got me thinking about what I'd do if they suddenly could 'fix' it.

Watching my son growing up with an ASD diagnosis that I never had sheds a lot of light on how my own mind works.  When I watch him fly into a rage and begin looping I realize that he is a piece of me.  When I watch him hyper-focus and grok something completely, that's a piece of me too.  While I'm frequently frustrated by social interaction, I'm not sure I'd be as good at some of things I excel at if I weren't neuro-atypical, the same goes for Max.

My undiagnosed ASD has made for a strange educational history.  I dropped out of high school before finishing, an apprenticeship before finishing and college before finishing.  I was on my way to dropping out of university when I started battling my default approach of getting everything I wanted to out of a learning opportunity before walking away.  The social conventions around education, especially the graduating bit, has never held much sway over me.  I only started attending them at the behest of girlfriends who suggested that the ceremony mattered.  From my point of view once I'd learned what I needed to know I was done.

I played sports throughout my childhood but the getting of the trophies was always an anti-climax; something I tried to find ways out of.  I loved the competition but found no value in the social conventions around the awards ceremonies.  A lot of teammates couldn't understand my reticence, for them the glory was the point.

Social conventions have always been difficult for me to grasp.  The natural tribalism that neurotypical people seem to thrive on is foreign, abstract and often upsetting.  Obviously definable traits that other people cling to like religion, nationality and political affiliation seem like strange abstractions to me.  Even obvious associations like gender and orientation seem like affectations.  Would life be easier if I just fell into those assumptions and social conventions like most people do?  Probably.

I have few friends but that doesn't make me feel lonely.  That idea of loneliness and belonging is another one of those neurotypical assumptions that I find foreign.  When I started motorcycling a number of people immediately tried to get me into group rides; I don't get them.  The whole point of motorcycling is to feel free.  How does riding in tight formation all over the place accomplish that?  Others feel power in that social affiliation and get a real rush out of publicly expressing it.  Being out in public in a big group makes them feel noticed and important, but I just don't get it.

This has led to ongoing difficulties, especially with groups that thrive on hierarchy and social presentation (which is to say most of them).  Because I'm not bothered with the group dynamic I'm seen as an outsider and potentially disruptive to the organization.  People who get a charge out of the drama and politics of group dynamics find it easy to alienate me from a group, and tend to do so.

I generally undervalue my influence on other people because I assume they feel the same distance I do.  I'm almost pathologically unable to remember names.  This is often described in terms of introversion or shyness, but if this is what ASD feels like then it's more like being a stranger in a strange land all the time; I'm always a foreigner.  I used to think this was because of my emigration to Canada when I was a child, and that certainly set the tone, but I'd been odd like that even before we left.  My lack of belonging is endemic.  Every so often I meet an exceptional person who is able to see me as I am and not be frustrated by it, I never forget the names of those people.


As I've gotten older I've been able to better define my strangeness and I'm trying to manage it more effectively.  I find that exhausting, but not having giant lists of friends or feeling an important part of an organization?  Not so much.

This is made doubly tiring because of the career I've wandered into.  Teaching is a social process, and while I love the intellectual complexity of pedagogy, technology and curriculum I'm constantly frustrated by the political and social vagaries associated with it.  Whether it's union, administration or parental social expectation, I'm often oblivious to what people require of me and baffled by their approach.  I expect ethics and reason to dictate people's actions, but those things aren't guiding principles in many decisions.  Self interest hidden in socially normative ideas like class, religion or group politics are what drive most people.

I recently backed out of headship and tried to refocus on the parts of teaching I'm good at rather than trying to herd the cats.  Even when refocusing on teaching I find that I'm having a lot of trouble with social expectations.  In 2017 a student's attendance is voluntary, their willingness to learn optional, and any failure hung on anyone but the learner.  Parents can pull their child out of classes for weeks at a time in the middle of a semester and I shouldn't wreck their holiday by assuming they will keep up with class work while they're gone.  At some point teaching has turned into daycare, which means the things I enjoy (curriculum, genuine student growth and pedagogy) don't matter so much any more.  For someone who doesn't intuitively understand socially motivated change, this lack of clarity around the evolving expectations of our education system is very challenging; it has been a bewildering and upsetting semester at work.

So here I am, feeling quite out of place, but that's nothing new.  My very human focused job is strange and confusing, but that's also no surprise.  Do these pressures tire me out, no doubt, but if I was suddenly told that they could cure ASD with a drug would I do it?  Would I be less stressed falling into the same political motivations and social conventions neurotypical people seem to thrive on?  Would I be better off thinking like most?  Probably, if conformity is the point of us being here.

I can only speak from my own experience, but if it meant losing my ability to focus on creative and technical expression, which happens because I'm not predisposed toward social or political gamesmanship, then no, I wouldn't seek to become less of what I am.

I'd let Max decide for himself after researching the science, but I'd hope he values his independence and uniqueness of thought as well, even if it generally annoys other people and isn't the easiest way forward.


Other Related Posts:
Conformity is Happiness.
Think Different.
WIRED thinking on neurodiversity.










The only reason neurotypical people want you to think like them is so that they can predict what you'll do and manipulate it to their advantage.

Why play to that?

Sunday, 12 November 2017

#BIT17: 360 media takes a completely different approach to production

This week I brought some 360° cameras to the 2017 ECOO Conference to show how (kind of) easy it is to make immersive media for virtual reality viewers like Google Cardboard.  I brought along my favourite 360 camera, the Ricoh Theta (physical controls, good shape, very intuitive to use, easy to manage and produce files), and some others:


  • a Samsung Gear360 4k camera (harder to access physical controls buried in menus, awkward shape, files that are such a pain to use in the Samsung software that it will take you days to turn out content)
  • a 360Fly 4k not-quiet 360° camera (awkward wireless controls over smartphone, doesn't stitch together 2 180° images into a full view, water/cold proof and tough, easy to manage files, useful time lapse functions built in)
  • at the last minute I brought along the Instapro 360 8k professional camera, but it demands a special type of SD memory card so I couldn't make use of it.  The software and hardware is also very difficult to manage - it's going to take a while to figure this camera out.


360° cameras offer a unique opportunity to capture a moment in a way that hasn't been possible before.  When combined with immersive VR viewers like Google Cardboard, full systems like HTC's Vive or upcoming Google Daydream platforms, 360 video and photography allow the viewer to inhabit the media, looking out into it as a part of it rather thank peering at it through a framed window as we've always done before.

This is our presentation from our Minds on Media VR & 360 Media Station from #BIT17

This lack of perspective, framing or directional intent makes 360 video and photography a very different medium to work in.  The tyranny of the director's eye is gone, leaving the viewer to interact with the media as they see fit.  This is both good and bad.  If you're watching a film through Steven Spielberg's director's eye you're seeing it better than you probably could yourself; you benefit from that framing of a narrative.  If you're looking at an Ansel Adam's photograph you're experiencing what he saw and benefiting from his genius in the process.  That eye and the ability to effectively use a medium to demonstrate it is what makes a good film director or photographer, but 360 media tosses all that out.

The irony in all of this is that being a good 360 director has more to do with setting a scene and getting out of the way than it does with framing everything just so.  It also means that if your viewer has a trained eye they can find moments in your media that you might not even have intended.  It also means that if the viewer of your 360 media is technically incompetent or has the visual standards of an amoeba they won't find anything of value in it at all.  Suddenly the audience has a lot of control over how effective your media is when you're shooting in 360.

The examples below show just how 360 images can be directed like former 'windowed' media or left open and viewer directed:


When the media maker directs your view (these are screen grabs of the 360 image below the windowed photos), you see what they want you to see:

#BIT17 keynote about to start - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Or you can produce 360 media that the viewer controls that maybe tells the whole story.


Teaching visual intelligence will become much more important in the future if 360 media and immersive virtual media viewing become the new norm.  If your audience is too visually ignorant to make effective use of your media they won't recognize the value in it.  I wonder if you won't see directed views of 360 media done by people who can still provide the majority of people who aren't interested in building up visual media fluency the chance to enjoy media at its maximum effectiveness.


Beyond the director/audience change in power there are also a number of challenges in producing effective 360 media.  The biggest problem is that the camera sees everything, so you can't have a crew out of sight behind the lens because there is no out of sight.  We've gone to ridiculous lengths in producing 360 video for our virtual school walk through in order to try and let the viewer feel like they are immersed in the media without drawing their attention to the apparatus that is being used to create the media.

Tools like GiimbalGuru's 360 friendly gimbal that minimizes wobbles that are much queasier in immersive VR viewers than on screen help the process.  This gimbal is 360 friendly because, unlike other camera gimbals that block views to the sides and back, the GimbalGuru 360 is vertically balanced and so stays out of the shot.  One of the issues with the Samsung Gear is that the short handle means you have a lot of hand in any photo.  The shape of the Ricoh Theta minimizes that problem.  A good 360 camera should be stick shaped to minimize hand in the shot.

The last piece on 360 media making concerns the audience.  At the ECOO Conference keynote the ever aware Colin Jagoe asked the obvious question, did you get everyone to sign waivers?  It's a question you see on lots of people's faces when they see you take a 360 photo or video.  The answer to this runs back to the idea of a director or photographer directing the viewer's vision.  

If I take a photo or video of a person I'm pointing the camera at them and they are the subject of it.  As the subject of a piece of media it's fair to ask if that subject should have a say over whether or not I can make them the focus of my media making.  However, since the 360 camera isn't taking a picture of them (it's taking a picture of everything), they aren't the focused subject of my media.

The assumption they are working under is one that has been drilled into us subconsciously by the directed, 'windowed' media we've had up until now.  If someone points a camera at you it is about you, at least mostly.  If someone takes a 360 image in the same moment you are just one of many possible focuses in that image.  If I had any advice for those pursed lips I see whenever I take a 360 media image it would be, 'chill out, it's not all about you.'


The law around this is fairly straightforward:  "when people are in a public space, they’ve already forfeited some of their right to privacy... Generally, as long as the images of people aren’t offensive, defamatory or unreasonably invade their privacy, you don’t have to get every person in the crowd to sign a release."

360 media, because of its lack of point of view, is even less likely to invade anyone's rights to privacy, especially if you're taking an image in a public space with many people in it.  It's going to take a while for people to realize that 360 media isn't all about them just because they happened to be in the vicinity when it occurred.  The short answer to Colin's question on Twitter is easy, "I don't have to get a waiver from you dude!"

There are a number of production and social issues around 360/immersive media and I'm sure we'll be working them out for years to come.  Spielberg is currently working on the VR futurist movie adaption of Ready Player One, coming out in the spring.  He is developing a lot of VR/immersive/360 content for that film - it may be the first big budget picture to really embrace immersive 360 media.  I imagine he's working through a lot of these problems in post production (green screening out the crew in 360 shots?).

I haven't even gotten into the technical requirements of 360 media production.  If you think hi-def 'windowed' video makes a lot of data, 4k 360 video will knock you flat on your back.  The 8k camera I've yet to get going requires such a strange, high performance SD card that I've had to special order it.  The camera is going to use tens of gigs of data to make even short videos and post-processing on even a decent desktop computer will take 15 minutes for every minute of footage.  Working in high def 360 footage is very storage and processor heavy work.


All of this will get sorted out in time and the benefits of immersive 360 media are obvious to anyone who has tried it.  We discovered that Google Street View is now available in Google Earth VR while we were demonstrating it at the conference.  It rocked people to suddenly find themselves standing on a street in Rome in 3D high definition detail. 

In the meantime I got to experiment with this emerging medium at #BIT17 and really enjoyed both my time catching moments with it and swearing at how awkward it was to get working.  My next goal is to exercise my new UAV pilot qualifications and explore 360 media from an aerial perspective.  Hey, if it was easy everyone would experiment with emerging digital mediums.

Here is some of our 360° media from the ECOO 2017 Conference in Niagara Falls:


Using the time lapse function (one image every 10 seconds) on the 360Fly camera, here's a morning of VR demonstrations at Minds on Media on the Wednesday of #BIT17


My 13 year old son Max takes you on a virtual tour of Minds on Media on Wednesday morning using the Samsung Gear360 camera and the GimbalGuru mount to steady it.


Pushing the limits of the GuruGimbal and Samsung 360Gear - a motorcycle ride around Elora.  If you've got the patience for how long it takes to process in the Samsung  Action Director software it produces some nice, high definition footage.