Thursday, 6 July 2017

Replies to our MoE Experiential Student Research Grant

This year I applied for a Ministry grant for student driven experiential research. I've tried this before without much success, but this time we got OK'd!

We collected interested participants from schools across our board, some of whom we'd built VR computers for, and proceeded to explore the emerging technology of virtual reality from grades 4-12 across four high schools and two elementary schools.

To wrap up the project we had to complete a review of our work - below are my answers to those questions:

Describe how students were involved in designing or co-constructing the learning experience.

CW students were encouraged to volunteer for a school wide VR research group where they got priority access to the VR sets during lunch. 30+ students joined this group but only two finished their projects.  Many faded away after midterm when they needed to focus on missed school work rather than volunteer projects. Early self directed research led students into 3d modelling using VR applications, but subsequent groups and individuals looked at curriculum wide VR possibilities.

VR is also integrated into the software engineering courses we run in grades 11 and 12. Two groups elected to develop VR based applications using Unity & Blender. These groups were student directed and managed through the entire development process. HexVR is a reflex action game running on the HTC Vive. Co/Labs focused on creating a virtual classroom that would allow people to meet in virtual space from anywhere to problem solve collaboratively.

Describe how students developed and applied the knowledge and skills associated with education and career/life planning.

Software engineering students follow SWEBOK and

engineering design process planning when developing their software. The purpose of this course is to develop real world planning, collaboration and leadership skills. Many of our grads take the software they developed in class and use it as portfolio work to get into challenging post secondary programs, and in some cases to earn income to pay for their post secondary educations. As a stepping stone into post-secondary and career skills, the leadership skills learned in software engineering are a vital stepping stone.

The engineering design process we follow in software is closely linked to the iterative career/life planning process outlined in the document above - both are self correcting systems.

Describe how students reflected on and applied their learning.

In the voluntary group a rigorous reflection process was not possible and probably led to the lower outcome. In the more structured software engineering class reflection is baked into the iterative engineering design process and students were pressed to constantly assess their progress and change their course depending on how possible their final goals were. This demanding process of reflection on student knowledge and skill, and how effective it was in realizing project goals, was vital to the positive outcomes achieved.

The ministry is particularly interested in projects that promote inclusion and foster equity by focusing on the role of experiential learning to improve outcomes for a diverse group of students. What strategies did you use to ensure that every student participated and was able to derive personal meaning from the experience? *

At CW we offer computer technology courses at open levels in junior grades and at essential to M level/post secondary focused at senior grades. Students of all levels were able to access our VR technology. In addition the VR set was offered school wide and was used by students of all levels in a variety of curriculum learning situations. Our computer teacher (who is writing this) is autistic, as is his son, and his program is especially welcoming to autistic and other neuro-atypical students. Computer classes at CW tend to have very high rates of IEPed students who are able to develop complex technology skills using advanced hardware like our virtual reality sets.

Describe the planned outcomes / learning goals for students.

Students designed projects that would develop virtual reality software. These students were already experienced with 3d modelling and rendering software (Blender & Unity), but VR is such a new thing that there is very little out there to support development. In many cases these student projects were using software that was only weeks old that no one else was using. As an engineering project this was a unique goal: to build something without online support or previous versions to copy from - a completely unique piece of software engineering. Both groups working in this manner acheived working prototypes, and one group has been asked to continue developing their project by a number of interested industry partners. This may end up being the most genuine kind of project imaginable - one that becomes a published piece of software.

Describe the skills, knowledge and habits that students demonstrated related to each of the outcomes / learning goals. Cite data that speaks to the project's impact on students' attitudes, achievement and/or behaviour. Refer to Appendix E: Evidence of Impact in the Community-Connected Experiential Learning Project Handbook at

Resiliency and self-direction were the main goals of this research work, and the students who stuck with it developed a stick-to-it-ness that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. From our grade 9s who were researching and essential beta testing unfinished software in a brand new piece of hardware to our seniors who were trying to develop software for it, real-world engineering practices were vital to success. Organization and an adherence to the engineering process allowed our successful students to exceed extremely challenging goals while other students benefited from a truly unique set of peer driven exemplars.

Our greatest success came from seniors who developed software both in and out of class, but several juniors also stuck with the voluntary research and produced satisfying and complex results (shared in subsequent answers).

The failure to produce output rate of volunteer non-class related students was exceptionally high while the completion rate of students with in-class support and access was significantly better.  While student directed research has merit, it should be noted that teachers have a strong role to play in helping less developed students plan and execute such work.

Reflect on your collection of project artifacts. Select and submit at least one artifact in each category that you think would be the most valuable to other teachers who may have an interest in exploring community-connected experiential learning in their programs. Where applicable, ensure that you have necessary consents/permissions to share. Refer to Appendix D: What Makes A Good Artifact? in the Community-Connected Experiential Learning Project Handbook at

CW exemplars:
MEDIUM: Oculus Rift 3d modelling software: (grade 9 analysis & review)

Check out Co/Labs on Twitter...

Software research (grade 9):

Grade 11 VR software research
Check out HexVR on Twitter...

Grade 12 Software development:

HexVR: The pinnacle of CW’s VR research this semester:

A good examplar needs to show not just student work, but how the student played a part in designing that work.  An exemplar of a worksheet designed and given by a teacher is probably aiming for the bottom of Bloom's taxonomy and wasn't what we were aiming for in this project.

Involvement of community partner: Describe the artifact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artifact. *

Our community began when our board SHSM lead offered to support us in rolling out VR sets to schools around the board as a pilot program. That roll out created a local community of users. Our grant application grew naturally out of our independent research as we already knew of each other and were keen to work together exploring this technological learning opportunity.

Some early adopters, most significantly TJ Neal at ODSS, had been into VR since before it went public using engineering samples of early VR sets, but he was working in isolation. Our local community, started by SHSM and then supported by this Ministry grant has created fertile ground for new technology research to occur.

TJ’s early work had also put him in touch with Foundry10, a Seattle based educational research group with an interest in VR. Their support early on in providing hardware and, more importantly best practices from other schools all across the continent, allowed us to quickly overcome or avoid obstacles and get our sets running in a sustainable and safe manner.

Community involvement both locally, at the board level, and even internationally online (and in person when Foundry10 came to visit) was key to our success in HexVR as well as our other projects related to this grant.

The artifact chosen would be Foundry10's VR research which we both participated in and benefited from:

Student involvement in the design/planning: Describe the artifact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artifact.

HexVR is an astonishing piece of software - a live action 3d game that already works well after only half a semester of in-class development by our senior software engineering class. Our valedictorian designed and built most of it while guiding and mentoring a number of junior engineers. HTC is interested in seeing if he can complete his development and our board SHSM has supplied him with a VR set for the summer to do that.

To technically understand what it means to design a working VR interface like this you have to understand how complicated it would be to ray cast both hands and head in 3d space in a continuous manner in a rendered virtual space.  It's a complex and brutal piece of engineering.

This project was entirely designed and built by our valedictorian (who wants to go into software engineering). His work not only produced a working prototype, but also helped us clarify how and what to teach in future classes.  His understanding of how to implement object based programming will drive future engineering work in our class.   As an exceptional student about to pursue a professional interest, this is powerful exemplar of student directed planning, design and effective engineering process and helps define what is possible.


Connection to the education and career/life planning program: Describe the artefact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artefact.

Up until three years ago we did not offer any software engineering course at CW. This course, which runs at cap each year, allows students to experience the engineering process involved in building software using industry rules, goals and expectations.

We already have graduates who have published software and many have gone on to successfully complete in-demand, high-expectation post secondary programs in digital technologies with great success.

Cameron’s work, like the work of other grads, will go on to produce a working software title.  The difference is that Cam did it using emerging hardware and software.  As an example of industry grade engineering by an Ontario high school student, there is little better.

Application of the experiential learning cycle: Describe the artifact you've chosen to submit. Explain why you selected this artifact.

A great example of the experiential learning cycle was grade 9 Kathryn’s research into Oculus Medium.

With less than a year under her belt in high school and with little experience in self directed research and while looking at days old software on weeks old new hardware, Kathryn self organized, planned an approach and executed it, all without any grades hanging on it (she wasn’t even my student at that point, she’d finished grade 9 computer tech in semester one).

A key aspect of experiential learning is self direction. In Shopclass As Soulcraft (a book any tech teacher or maker interested instructor should read), Matt Crawford proves the importance of self direction both in skills mastery and, ultimately, professionalism. Someone who is unable to self direct their work is not a professional. To see this kind of dedication and professional focus in a grade 9 student is exceptional and underlies the importance of offering the self directed planning of projects at the high school level.

What did you learn about the development, delivery and impact of community-connected experiential learning? What worked well? What will you do differently next time? *

Offer access to a large number of interested students, you’ll lose many of them in the process, but a big group means more people still working on it at the finish (we had 3 juniors out of 40 complete their research work).

Tying it to a course so there is more support (as in the senior engineering course) made a bit difference in completion rates (100% vs 8%). Offering more support to juniors might improve that, but I’m a big believer in a sink or swim approach to technology learning, and the students not willing to get organized will expect you to end up doing it for them, which isn’t the point of the grant, nor the point of why I teach technology. Having said that, I think I’ll still offer a bit more in the way of initial organizational support to juniors if we do this again because many of them can’t see the point of doing anything unless there is a mark tied to it (and sometimes not even then).  That would be a good habit to break if we're in the business of producing life long learners.

How can the Ministry of Education continue to support your efforts to provide community-connected experiential learning opportunities that promote student engagement, improve achievement, and foster well-being and life-long learning? *

Emerging technology is a sign of our times. The nature of digitization means everyone currently in education needs to be conversant in it - just like literacy or numeracy. Digital Fluency in Ontario education is at best an afterthought. The MoE should be looking to support digital fluency in both its staff and its students. We make grade 9 Geography and Art mandatory but there is no mandatory digital technology course, yet every student is expected to know how to use it both in their learning and in any future career they might have. Thinking that students magically know technology because they were born into it is ludicrous. Do you know how to replace a clutch in a car because cars were prevalent when you were a child? Or even just change a tire? Basic digital fluency is an expected foundational skill in 2017, but we don’t treat it like one. If the Ministry wants to help at all, start there.

Digital technology is connecting us both locally and virtually in ways unprecedented in history. Teaching all of our students how to do the digital equivalent of learning to drive, change a tire or look after the oil means they keep themselves on the road and get to experience and exploit that connectivity.   You want community connected experiential learning opportunities?  Digital technology is the grease the makes that wheel turn.

I teach students from grade 9s with little experience or interest in computers to grade 12s who are going to make it their life’s work, and every single one of them across that massive spectrum of skill and experience would benefit from a province wide focus on digital skills; it would make everything work more smoothly in a changing world and prepare our graduates for whatever job they may eventually inhabit.

Experiential learning is amplified with technology (VR is an excellent example of just how

powerful that can be - try standing in a ruined Auschwitz on a misty morning alone in VR and see if it isn’t). Student engagement is spiked by technology (assuming they are capable of using those tools effectively), achievement is improved as technology skills open the door to opportunities like elearning and other non-geographically limited learning. Student well being is improved with the ability to communicate with like minded people and seek out help when it's needed, and lifelong learning is encouraged and enabled when you can make effective use of technology and then apply it non-habitually and functionally in your learning. The future’s so bright, but only if we’re ready for it, and we get ready for it by developing our hard skills in a focused, curriculum driven structure.  We all become more literate if we're all more literate.

Research work like we did in this project seems far fetched and theoretical, but it’s what is coming next, and allowing us to explore this emerging technology and see what it can do for experiential learning allows us early adopters to improve our advanced skills while laying the groundwork for wider adoption down the road. This is differentiated instruction that helps us all, and for that I thank you for the chance to do it.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

BYOD: yet another edtech failure

Four years ago I was advocating for BYOD.
I was a big fan of the bring your own device (BYOD) approach to educational technology.  I'd hoped that it would diversify the technology we were using in class that looked like it was evolving toward a Google owned Chromebook driven internet.  I also thought it would allow the students who wanted to differentiate their digital access to do so.  BYOD should have left more money free to ensure that all students have some kind of digital access, therefore addressing equity of access worries.  It turns out that offering free data to students means there isn't a lot of money left for anything and has been detrimental to teaching digital fluency.

Our school board went in early and built out wireless infrastructure and developed a BYOD network that was open to anyone entering one of our schools.  In the years since this happened the number of students bringing in their own devices hasn't changed (most do), but the type of device they bring and fill up the network with also hasn't changed.  Laptops and other more creation focused devices are a non-entity on our BYOD network - it is packed full of smartphones focused on personal use.  You can make an argument for these devices as creation tools, but their function is built around consumerism and the data collection that monetizes the modern internet.  The vast majority of smartphone users are consumers by design, not creators in anything other than a selfie sense.

The vast majority of those smartphones are not used for school work and are often directly opposed to it.  Our administration is now trying to manage cyberbullying that is happening in class across the entire school on networks students shouldn't even have access to.  The problems caused aren't just lack of student focus in class, these devices cause systemic problems as well.

No one does edtech for free.
If a smartphone is used for anything class related it is a minuscule percent of its daily use.  Many of our teachers have issues with managing off task smartphone use in class.  Earnest #edtech types (usually with corporate backing) tell us this is because we're not doing it right and we should buy into their system.  As someone who was doing it right before your Google/Apple/Whatever certification existed, I'm here to tell you that this is nonsense.  Smartphones aren't creative tools, they aren't designed to be, they're designed by data collection companies to collect data.  Trying to build your classroom around a device like that is like trying to set up a roofless tent in a rainstorm to stay dry.

Our school  board has made numerous attempts to focus network data use on learning, but students are willing to open themselves up to phishing and other hacks by installing policy banned VPN networks to bypass website filters.  Even in our carefully moderated network environment we've got students sharing their data through unknown off shore servers just so they can Snapchat while in class.  They do all this without a clue about what they've done to their data integrity.

I'm not sure at what point school boards in Ontario decided that they should be providing free internet to students, but it isn't cheap.  Our board has struggled to stay ahead of the data tsunami caused by all these vampire smartphones clamping on to our BYOD network each day.  Apps that constantly update and stream data are the new normal and the current round of digital natives expect to be able to drink from the tap all the time in whatever manner they see fit.  This is costing tens of thousands of dollars a month at a time when department budgets are tightening up and I'm not even given enough to cover the basic costs of consumables like wiring and electrical components in my technology classroom.

I would love to see BYOD being used for its intended purpose, but instead of valuing the network they've been given, students see it as an expectation, like running water or electricity.  They make minimal efforts to moderate their use of it and become incensed if it's adjusted to try and focus them on using it for school related work while in the classroom.  If it was taken away at this point I think there would be much gnashing of teeth and agonized screaming by students who think that free internet access is some kind of constitutional right.  In the meantime we're all paying millions of dollars a  month across the province to provide these students with bandwidth that feeds their habitual technology use and is more often a detriment to learning.

I'm as frustrated as anyone, but simply offering internet for everything doesn't seem to be working.  Once again, I come back to the lack of a digital fluency continuum of learning in Ontario.  If students aren't shown how to use technology effectively, offering them unbridled access to it isn't going get us anywhere.

Our implicit enabling of habitual technology use makes for whole generations of digital narcissists.

It's been five years now and Ontario still has no mandatory digital skills continuum even though digital technology is pretty much everywhere now.  We expect students to learn foundational skills in other aspects that are curriculum wide (literacy, numeracy), but we magically expect them to understand and make effective use of digital technology.  The BYOD failure is just another symptom of this disease.

All we have to do to do it, is do it:

I don't care whose skills development process we use, but can we start teaching technology if we're going to use it in everything?  Digital technology is prompting systemic change in how we share information, create media and collaborate on learning.  Can we start to treat it like the fundamental skill it is?  Please?!?  

I roughed out an idea a few years ago - in it I suggested linking access to technology to fluency and slowly opening up that access as technical skills improved.  BYOD is a great idea for digitally fluent students who know what it is and how to use it effectively.  Giving internet access to everyone equally is like giving everyone power tools; the few who know how to use them will do great things, the rest will hurt themselves.  We need to match the digital tools to the skills of students using them.

In literacy terms this would be like slowly increasing reading difficulty as vocabulary and reading fluency improves.  What we do with digital technology is nothing at all until a student brings in their own copy of War and Peace, which they then use to prop open doors and doodle in.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Changing Face of Digital Fluency

File types?  File management?  Yeah, the latest batch
of digital natives don't do that any more.
Last week during a staff meeting one of our administrators said, 'the kids are so far ahead of us" (technically).  The subtext was because they are on their phones all day they are more digitally literate than we old people (anyone over twenty).  As someone who teaches digital skills and who knows first hand how ignorant our digital natives are, I verbally disagreed quite vociferously.  A week later the digital ignorance we choose to ignore was highlighted once again.

I got a call from a business computer lab saying Photoshop wasn't opening student .jpg files.  Jpegs are a common picture file format and photoshop is more than capable of opening them.  This wasn't a technical failure, it was the much more common human kind.  I asked a student to show me how they saved their file as a jpeg.  They selected save and then typed in .jpg at the end of the file and saved.  Photoshop defaults to save in the .psd file format that is lossless and keeps layering data.  It makes for a bigger file, but you keep all your image data.  Jpeg is popular because it compresses files quite drastically with an equivalent loss to quality, the result is a much smaller and simpler file that works well online.

PSDs and JPGs are nothing like the same file.  Windows only looks to the file extension (the .jpg part of picture.jpg) to see how to open it.  If you call a file a jpeg that isn't a jpeg, you've caused the error.  This is exactly what these digital natives had done.  All they had to do was 'save as' and select jpeg for this to work, but they don't know what they don't know.

Living in the cloud means more is being taken care of for
you, meaning you know even less about what's happening
This situation points to a larger shift that has become more apparent in recent years.  Many of our students now have little or no experience with local file management.  The first Chromebooks came out in 2011 when our current high school students were in grade 4.  Many of them haven't lived in anything other than the cloud.  When they save files they don't know where they go because they aren't familiar with the basic organizational structure of a computer.  File naming so you don't get confused, saving as a file type so your PC knows how to open it, directory structures so you know where to look for files?  These kids who 'are so far ahead of us' are moving further away from that every day.

Thank goodness for preview icons, otherwise I'd have
no idea what was going on.
Local files aren't something 2017 students generally deal with.  If you ask most high school students how many mp3s that they have they'll look at you like you're crazy, they don't do local music any more.  Ask them how they organize their photographs and you'll get the same look of confusion and condescension.  Our Board network is currently broken under the weight of all these cloud based students constantly streaming media content from the internet all the time every day.  When they can't find access to the cloud they are more than willing to have their data phished and break board policy by using VPNs (see below) to bypass board restrictions, further clogging up an already overused network.  Those 'free' VPNs are closely watching a directed stream of personal data; there's money in that.

It's frustrating enough when a student says they can't find you a document they swear they made and then shows you a google docs directory full of something called 'untitled document', but the new normal is to expect students to have no idea how or where a computer saves a file.  Network dependency and having someone else manage your data is the new normal.

Do you have digital expertise or do you just have
the same simplistic habits repeated over and over?
I've said it before and I'll say it again, we have to build a digital fluency stream into Ontario's curriculum.  We expect students to magically know how to operate technology because they immerse themselves in simplistic, habitual usage for hours a day.  That limited experience does not improve digital fluency.  If we're going to expect students to know how to save files, manage their own data and protect themselves from an internet increasingly designed to take advantage of their ignorance, we need to make digital fluency something other than an afterthought, or worse, off load it on ageist stereotypes of technical prowess.

A book or an ipad, like anything else we make, is a tool.  How we use it defines our understanding of it.  A hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter is a very different tool than the same hammer in the hands of a fool.  For some strange reason (probably based on our own willful ignorance), we have imbued the latest digital tools with a magical mindset.  If you want to become a good photographer, learn how to use your camera, if you want to become a good mechanic, learn how to use your socket set.  If you want to become a digital technologist, learn how this technology works and how to most effectively use it - it isn't magical, it just requires some effort.


Virtual Private Network:  they were made so that people away from a corporate network could create a tunnel across the internet to the local network and work as though they were in the building.  Any data in that tunnel is very difficult to see.  That's what makes it handy for avoiding blocks - the board network can't easily read what's happening in that encrypted tunnel.  Needless to say, this also produces a lot of lag and network traffic as everything you access over the network is waiting on VPN relays and contains the data needed to access that VPN as well.

VPNs have turned into fake network addresses with companies offering a remote connection for a price (so you can pretend you're American and get better Netflix).  If it's free, I imagine they are mining your data in the best case or phishing for passwords and financial information in the worst case - I'm willing to bet none of our students pay for their VPN usage so they're all playing a dangerous game with hackers.  Using a VPN means you're passing all of your data through an unknown server (unless you set one up yourself - which I'm willing to bet none of our students know how to do).

Since all your traffic is coming from the VPN server address (and these change all the time), blocks to sites like YouTube don't work because it doesn't look like you're going to YouTube.  I wonder what the incidents of corrupted credit cards are with our free-VPN using student phones.  I'm willing to bet the vast majority of our VPN using students don't know what VPN stands for or what it is - it's just an app someone told them to download that means Snapchat in class.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

This One's On Me

Last year at this time I was stunned by our first Skills Ontario gold medal and suddenly found myself on Team Ontario going to Nationals.  We'd been battling in Ontario provincial competition for several years before that break through.  In the year since I'm surprised by how engaged I've been in preparing to compete again.  Being hungry after years of failure is in my nature, I'm competitive, but I thought perhaps the win would tick a box and cause me to change direction; it has poured gasoline on the fire.  I'm proud to wear that Team Ontario jacket.

This year Skills Ontario has moved to a bigger venue, which was needed.  Unfortunately, instead of it being twenty minutes away through the country, it's hours away through the worst commute in North America.  The new venue is great and it fits this huge event, unfortunately it's located on the Moon - actually the Moon would be easier to get to.

I tried to be creative and cost effective and look for ways to make this impact our competitors as minimally as possible, but the school bus route was a disaster.  We were all up at 4am on the day of competition.  We were on the road just past 5am and it took us almost three hours of fighting interminable traffic piloted by people with dead eyes to get there.  We arrived late, tired and worried that we'd missed check in; not the ideal way to start an all-day nine hours of competition.

I got my people signed in and then I could unclench.  In IT this year I had the brother of a previous competitor who I think is one of my strongest yet, expectations were high.  He ended up getting stuck on something so simple that he was kicking himself pretty much the moment the competition was over, but I think that error was more the result of four hours of sleep, a miserable commute and the stress of getting there late.  Under the circumstances I think he did a fantastic job, but I failed to provide the logistics necessary for him to produce his best work.

After the early morning, three hour commute-from-hell in and nine straight hours of competition (my student didn't feel he could take a lunch and finish in time), we had to wait for everyone to finish and didn't leave the venue until well past 5pm... straight into evening rush hour.  It took even longer for us to fight our way out of the GTA and then we thumped into the twilight along miles of potholed Ontario roads on the leaf sprung school bus.  When we finally rolled in well after 8pm I was exhausted, my sciatica was screaming at me and I hadn't spent nine hours in intense competition; I can't imagine how the kids felt.

The hardest fought bronze medal you'll see.
I went home, took Robaxacet and passed out having not eaten anything since lunch.  The next morning I was up at 6am to get back on a god-forsaken school bus at 7am to go back to the same place we'd just left for the awards ceremony.  It took us nearly three hours to get there through the angry parking lot that is the GTA.  Getting to the ceremony late, we sat through the awards in an excellent venue.  My IT competitor managed to get a bronze medal, which I think is brilliant (he thought the whole thing was a write off).  He must have aced the rest of it considering the single mistake he made meant he couldn't answer many questions.

Back on the bus again at noon, I took the competitors who hadn't eaten yet (7am departure) to lunch and we got back to the school at a perfectly reasonable time (no rush hour).  I'm already thinking about how to try and manage this next year.  My only goal is to deliver my competitors in the best possible shape early and on time to the competition.  We looked into hotels, but anything by the airport is twice what it costs anywhere else in Ontario.

There is no doubt that we needed a new venue.  They said in the ceremony that Skills Ontario has grown from two hundred to over two thousand competitors, and we'd outgrown RIM Park in Waterloo.  It's unfortunate that the only venue big enough is in the GTA, which gets further and further away from the rest of us in Ontario every year.  Having lived in Japan, it amazes me that I could access Tokyo, a city of twenty-five million, with ease, but the GTA with its paltry seven million is infrastructure inaccessible.

At lunch, one of our exhausted students asked why they have to start the competition at rush hour.  It's a good question.  Running Skills Ontario next year from 11am to 8pm would save a lot of people their sanity.  In non-rush hour times we're able to get to The Toronto Congress Centre in under ninety minutes.  Many of the student visitors don't get there until past 11am anyway, so it wouldn't impact that aspect of the show.

I'm disappointed at the results we got this year, but that's entirely on me.  As their coach, my job is to take care of the logistics and deliver them primed and ready to compete.  This year had new and difficult circumstances, but I didn't resolve them sufficiently and it hurt my students' ability to produce their best work.  That guts me.  I'll do better next time.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Positively Encouraging: Teachers Doing No Harm

In another confluence of events I'm reflecting on just how much of an effect teachers have on a student's trajectory.  A misread tweet on how damaging assessment can be was followed by a post on Google+ and punctuated by a graduated student showing up unexpectedly this week.  It all got me thinking about how damaging to students teachers can be.

I got into computers when I was ten years old.  By the time I was twelve I'd published code and was writing my own programs.  It took a single dismissive remark by my computer science teacher to knock me off that trajectory for years.

I did grade ten computer science on a freaking computer punch card reader and did well.  I'm not a mathlete and struggled with the theory, but as a hands on coder I'm more than capable - I sympathize with the machine and understand what it needs.  In grade eleven we finally got to move to 286x86 IBM PCs and I was very excited.  I'd signed up for grades eleven and twelve in consecutive semesters, but after the math teacher running the program basically turned it into a math course, I didn't do very well.  When I walked into the grade twelve class in semester two he looked down his nose at me and said, "Tim?  Really?"  I dropped the class shortly thereafter.  If you asked him now he'd probably say he was doing me a favour.  He did me no favours.

Last week I had a young man drop by who graduated a couple of years ago.  He asked me if I remembered what our computer science teacher at the time had said to him in grade eleven.  He'd basically done to this kid what my computer science teacher did to me.  Jake said he bounced back because I essentially designed our new software engineering course around his suggestions, which encouraged him not to give up on his love of coding; he's about to finish the programming course at Conestoga and he's debt free because his game studio is making him enough money to pay for his college.  Teachers who have never published anything telling people what they can and cannot do really get on my nerves.

This student and I both tend toward a right-brained approach to things, thinking laterally and often intuitively about problem solving.  We're foreign beasts to predominantly left brained math and science types.  That linear, concrete thinking allows left brained teachers to place a lot of faith in grades - they believe that they are something more than a vague, abstraction of a student's abilities.  When these mathlete computer science types look down their nose at you in condescension, they believe that the D they gave you means something.  I would posit that their certainty makes them a liability in any classroom.

Becoming a high school teacher was never a goal of mine.  With a few exceptions I didn't enjoy school when I was in it and I certainly wasn't aiming to make a career of it.  Now that I find myself teaching I'm constantly aware of just how damaging those gatekeepers in my own background were.  

In grade ten I wanted to be an astronomer more than anything else, but a series of science teachers made a point of crushing that dream.  I'm hardly stupid, and I was willing, but it was their way or the highway and I don't bow to authoritarianism very well, especially when my scrappy, experimental approach to problem solving bares fruit.  They didn't like that I struggled to a solution myself rather than following the well trodden path of 'the right answer'.  In retrospect, and with some pedagogy to back me up now, I'd wager that my hard won answer is still with me today while the A+ students who memorized the process have long since forgotten it.  Learning is supposed to be messy.

When you think in absolutes you have the potential to do some real harm to children.  Every day I make a conscious effort to consider how what I'm saying will encourage genuine learning in my students.  I'm not an easy teacher, and often have the biggest friction with the A+ crowd who just want to know what to write so they can do what they're told and get that A plus they've become accustomed to.  In those cases I celebrate their efficiency while expanding their resiliency.  You don't need to belittle someone because they do things differently to you.

As teachers we could do a lot worse than following the Hippocratic oath doctors use.  If at any point you think you're helping a student by disciplining them with assessment, you're not - that was the subtext of my tweet to the Ministry.  

If at any point you dismiss a student's approach to a subject because it's not the same as yours, you're protecting yourself more than you are helping your student.  In my experience this approach is usually founded on a lack of confidence in your own abilities.

Try and be what you're supposed to be: the adult in that student's life who can dispassionately see their potential and then do everything possible to realize it.  This can be much harder work than simply attacking kids with numbers because they don't conform to your process, but it's much more rewarding.

So many secondary teachers fall into a comfort zone around their familiarity with their subject and are unwilling to see any other way to do it.  It might take a bit of lateral thinking, but seeing the value in how a student approaches a subject instead of assessing them based on how closely they follow your methods would be a significant pedagogical step forward.  We'd suddenly be assessing how they are grappling with their learning rather than forcing our methodology on them, and that would mean far fewer teachers slamming the door in student's faces with or without realizing it.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Fake News Epidemic

I've often been at odds with how new media makes its billions.  People self-identify with new media like nothing else because it is such an intimate part of their lives.  The hardware is always at hand and the software makes personal demands on our information and our time that would have felt foreign and invasive twenty years ago, but like a frog being slowly brought to a boil, we haven't noticed how it's killing us.

We suddenly feel time compressed like never before because we have become a commodity in an always on attention culture.  The tech giants feeding from this frenzy that they have created present themselves as saviours of the people, democratizing media and making the world a better place:

If you ever want a brilliant parody of the bizarre nature
of our digital revolution, you really need to watch Silicon Valley

Yet there is a change in how we are relating to the strange new mediascape we find ourselves in.  Facts are no longer facts and the tech companies enabling this, up until recently, were willfully unaware of how damaging that can be, though more than happy to make advertising revenue from it.

The hand wringing helplessness felt over this epidemic of fake news always struck me as odd, like an alcoholic wondering why everything is going to shit when the answer if obvious (it's the alcohol).  Yet the vendors of our hangover kept it paying off until the damage was done.  

This was brought into sharp focus for me after reading this article by WIRED.  It tells the story of disenfranchised teens in a former Soviet Bloc state who found a way to make silly money by aggregating fake news.  Google, Facebook and others were only too happy to make a mint from this process in advertising revenue.

By leveraging the information collection platforms (aka 'social' media) they have created to produce targeted ads, these new media advertisers found an avenue for stale marketing budgets.  Companies flooded in to Google, Facebook and the rest, desperate to tap a younger demographic unreachable through traditional media.  But social media companies offered something more than just the vaunted Millennial crowd, they also offered targeted advertising.

You don't get Gmail, or Facebook Messenger or any of these other complex, expensive services for free.  You get them because they are constantly mining your data and using that information to target ads.  Social media companies ARE advertising companies.  How powerful is this technology?  Last year Facebook made six billion dollars more than the largest advertising agency in the world.  Google made tens of billions more.

Tech companies present themselves with noble ideas like organizing the world's information or giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected, but they aren't non-profits, quite the opposite actually.  While they might engineer their technology to organize and share, the way they pay for their private jets is to monetize those noble ideas while avoiding paying taxes as aggressively as they are legally able.  

GoogleFacebook and social media itself is now the largest advertising system on the planet.
Take the time and read that article.
It wasn't until things were on fire that any technology company took steps to stop the inferno that they'd designed.
That some shifty Macedonian teens made a bit on the side is really an afterthought.  What should strike you as most illuminating is that the multi-nationals driving social media were more than happy to make millions from obviously false and plagiarized information that was dressed up as news.  If you think this didn't have any effect, look to the damage done to one of the oldest democracies on the planet.

Google stopped cashing in on fake news when people complained,
not before, and the people who lost money on it were the website
owners, not Google, they kept every penny.
By aggregating bonkers right wing fiction into easily consumable content (usually by stealing it outright and dressing it up as news), those kids made years of salary in a month, but what are pennies on the dollar compared to the profit social media advertisers pocketed?  Google and others were not only making a fortune off the fake news epidemic, they themselves were the cause of it, using their customer data collection systems to feed lies back to the people who most wanted to read them.

It wasn't until the flaming mess of the US election that anyone stopped to consider what the ramifications of this approach were.  These tech companies love to claim the moral high ground, but their highest ideals take a back seat to greed.  Perhaps Google needs to try a bit harder with it's motto of 'don't be evil'.

Try harder.
I've struggled with how these companies have insinuated themselves into education, branding teachers and even information itself with their logo.  Looking over nearly seven years of Dusty World I can see myself slipping from a technology evangelist into an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with these companies.  As they've become richer and more influential, their ability to make decisions based on the public's best interests seems to have steadily deteriorated.  Nowhere is this more apparent than this latest social hack: design a system that feeds lies to the people who most want to believe them, and then make a profit from it.  They're making it mighty difficult to like them, let alone admire them.  

Meanwhile Britain Brexits and the US government can best be described as a maelstrom.  At least some poor kids in Macedonia made a bit of money in a world were it's usually the super rich who make something from nothing.  Maybe social media systems are blameless in all of this. After all, they only give us what we want.  If we're too stupid to educate ourselves, perhaps it's what we deserve.  Is it still propaganda if we're doing it to ourselves?


NPR tracks down a fake news maker in LA.  
"The people wanted to hear this," he says. "So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then ... our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire."

"...Coler insists this is not about money. It's about showing how easily fake news spreads. And fake news spread wide and far before the election. When I pointed out to Coler that the money gave him a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact, he admitted that was "correct."

Google and Facebook take steps to stop fake news after starting the phenomenon and making millions from it