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 work 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 experience or do you just have the same 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.

NOTES

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.

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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.

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