British Driving Culture

We’ve been in the UK for almost a week and yesterday spent the day skulking about London.  Like the rest of England, London makes demands on a vehicle operator’s attention that many North Americans would find onerous.  The small lanes, lack of shoulder and volume of traffic conspire to create a very intense and focused driving environment.  Efficiency of motion isn’t an option, it’s an expectation.


A few years ago they set up a roundabout in our small town in Southern Ontario.  The locals used to bring out lawn chairs and sit and watch the circus as Canadian drivers tried to negotiate an intersection that didn’t have lights telling them what to do.  At a roundabout in the UK you tend to accelerate into an opening.  If you slow down (or stop as many Canadian drivers do) before entering it, you’re going to create a chorus of honks behind you.  You can expect others to see you coming and make space, but you need to be attentive and collegial in your approach.  Ignoring others by cutting them off doesn’t fly here.  Being a waffling idiot and not taking an opening won’t make you any friends either.  A demanding kind of efficiency and cooperation that is foreign to many North American drivers is the expectation.


London traffic is that kind of urgent efficiency turned up to eleven.  Oddly, British drivers are still very polite, waving thanks and making eye contact when they are facing a problem, like cars parked on an otherwise busy road blocking an entire lane of traffic, which seems to happen constantly.  If the obstruction is on your side of the road you’re supposed to wait for traffic in the clear lane to pass, but people often pull over to let through cars that are stuck if it improves the flow of traffic and doesn’t slow them inordinately.  This kind of consideration is another aspect of North American driving that is vanishingly rare, especially in the Greater Toronto Area where drivers tend to take on more of a ‘get yours and screw everyone else’ mindset.


Based on what I’ve seen, even a hesitant, relatively slow British driver would be considered near the pinnacle of driving talent in Canada, which is one of the reasons I find driving a car there tedious.  Given a choice, Canadian drivers are content to give over about half of their attention to driving effectively, mainly because the massive roads with constant shoulders, signalling that tells you what to do rather than take initiative and minimal traffic volume encourage it.  When things do get busy, as in Toronto, asshole is the default rather than let’s all work together to make this go more smoothly.



Even with steep congestion taxes London is a constant flow of traffic, but it’s all moving, and usually quickly.  Into this maelstrom, thanks to demands of space and emissions requirements, motorcycles thrive.  My first view when we got above ground and out of The Tube was a blood delivery bike effortlessly cutting through traffic on a busy Thursday morning.  An older guy on a Suzuki Vstrom, he handled his machine with the kind of effortless grace you see of people who have a lot of miles under them.  He seemed to see everything at once and disappeared through the delivery vans and cars in a flash of effortless speed.



Two wheeled delivery vehicles thrive in London, with couriers of all shapes and sizes on everything from 50cc scooters to big BMWs making the rounds.  As we were walking toward Camden Market a rideere pulled into one of the few unused pieces of tarmac in London (the small triangle a car wouldn’t fit in before a curb) and carried out an animated conversation over bluetooth head piece with his dispatcher.


The efficiency of small vehicles like motorbikes isn’t ignored in England like it is in Canada.  Bikes can squeeze through gaps that would cause a queue otherwise and split lanes.  Parking is more efficient for bikes, so half a dozen commuters can and do park in the space taken up by one SUV.


Being a dispatch rider in London is considered a badge of distinction by motorcyclists here.  If you can survive that you’re a good rider with exceptional awareness and control.  If you weren’t, you wouldn’t last.


We’re now on a train to Norwich (my dad’s hometown) where we’re picking up a cousin’s car and driving in the UK for the first time.  I always look forward to it because it’s engaging and challenging.  You can’t eat or drink and drive here like you can in Canada, but you wouldn’t want to.  You seldom stop due to a lack of traffic lights and a plethora of roundabouts and the roads are tight, twisty and require your attention.  To top it all off everything is backwards.  For the first couple of days I chant that like a mantra inside my head when I’m driving here.  It keeps me on the right side of the road and gets me used to indicators and wipers being on opposite sides more quickly.  Within a day or two I’m acclimatized and accidentally cleaning my windows way less.



I might try and find a motorbike rental while I’m home and see if I can find out where my Granddad Bill took that picture on his Coventry Eagle and get a photo of myself on something similarly English and iconoclastic, perhaps an Ariel Ace?


The other night I was in the car back to my cousin’s house and we were intent on making time.  With the twisty, tight roads it felt like navigating a rally stage  As we thrashed down the highway a Porsche 911 blew past us like we were going backwards.  I love UK driving culture.

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The Essential Catchall

I’ve raged against the inflation of grades and streaming to minimize expectations on otherwise capable students before.  I’m at the end of another semester of teaching essential students and once again I’ve been injured by the process.  Just as in last year’s essential English class, I’m given a single class with mixed grade elevens and twelves (because teaching essential classes is easy?).  In that split focused class are a majority of genuinely essential level students who need close support and a lot of one on one attention to manage the work.  This I have no trouble with.  These students tend to be very genuine and eager, but have trouble thinking through what needs to be done.  They make me feel valued as a teacher, which is lovely.  In all cases when I bump into them in the hallway outside of class we have positive and supportive interactions with each other.


Hidden among these students (the ones least able to resist their animosity) are capable students who have matriculated into essential classes because they have failed academic and applied courses in previous years.  They haven’t failed these classes because of an inability to manage the learning, they simply haven’t done it.  These students tend to have months of absences in a semester and when they do show up you can expect disruption, disrespect and constant sabotage.  At the end of it all is an expectation to pass these students (usually with a fifty), even though they have been a poison in the room.


Needless to say, teaching in an environment like this (in a split three way classroom with a handful of saboteurs who have been carefully moulded by a system seemingly intent on not expecting anything from them) isn’t an enjoyable experience.  Halfway through the semester I had to fill out my annual learning plan and I ended up asking that the essential classes I had been working to begin for years be stopped.  If it means not catering to using essential classes as a catchall for miscreants, then I will happily make a place for genuinely essential students in my open M level classes and look after them better there without them having to sit next to a learning troll.


These poisonous apples are a tiny portion of our school’s population, I’d guess no more than thirty students out of almost thirteen hundred, but they damage whole rooms of learners and diminish the school’s ability to function.  In some cases they are hanging around the school to sell drugs, in others they are hanging around the school simply because no one else expects anything of them either.  The rest of us are going to end up spending the rest of our lives paying for these people, and the system seems intent on teaching them that they can do what they want and expect no consequences.


I’ve watched these students accumulate months of absences without any observable consequence.  When they are in class you can expect them to walk in twenty minutes late (and after initial instruction), actively disrupt any work others are doing, take twenty minute toilet breaks and then walk out early without permission.  I’m told I’m supposed to spend my lunch giving them an in-class suspension, but they refuse to attend those too.  In any case, I usually leave my room open for the other 99% of students who want to do something productive.  Given a choice I’ll look after that vast majority.  Meanwhile, back in class, I’ve watched these lost boys maliciously and intentionally break technology in my shop, driving up the costs of what I’m trying to do with no discernible benefit to anyone, themselves included.  That’s the saddest part about this, they are wasting their own potential and no one seems to want to do anything about it.


Ontario’s Bill 52:  Learning until 18, was obviously instituted with the best interests of all students, including those who would previously have dropped out, but there is benefit in having a student leave school if they are unable to make use of what is still a fairly inflexible education system.  Changing this bill to learning until 16 with a variety of options beyond sabotaging high school classrooms would be a logical step forward.  Giving apprenticeships and work to these students might prompt them to care enough make productive use of their potential.  It would also stop the system from punishing vulnerable and genuinely essential level students by dropping delinquents into their midst because the only response to a failing grade in our rigid education system is to move the offender into a different stream.



There is nothing inherently wrong with Ontario’s streamed high school system except what politics has done to it.  With some rational adjustments we could fix this for those students who have lost the ability to develop their own potential, as well as everyone else.  Going to work and getting dirty and tired for a couple of years did wonders for my educational motivation.

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Halliburton Highlands Birthday Holiday


A birthday long weekend riding holiday… based out of the Pinestone Resort in Haliburton (so easy access to the Haliburton Highlands Riding Roads).



The Ride Out:
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356kms




Haliburton Highlands Research:
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The Dynamite Loop:
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Possible Sunday Loop:

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287kms










The Ride Home:
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283kms with a stop at The Millpond Restaurant for breakfast.


Total kilometres:  926 over three days






The weather:

Sunday’s going to make for some nice, rainy photographic opportunities.

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It’s so not everyone else…

I went to Roof Helmets to see if I could find a Canadian distributor.  They put me on to Fullbore Marketing, a company that delivers motorcycle gear to retailers.  They told me that they aren’t distributing Roof Helmets any more, but they have a couple of models left over.  They put me on to Blackfoot Motorsport, and after a number of emails we got it a deal sorted out: a Roof Desmo for $400 Canadian (they usually run 469€ or about $673CAD, but you can’t get ’em here).

If you dig it, they had a pearl/white one still kicking around in XL too.  Good luck chasing the distribution flow.  If you succeed, you can get your Jo Sinnott on (Wild Camping is where I first saw the Roof and thought, wow, what a cool lid).  I’m going to!

In the meantime, I might be the only person in Canada this year with a new Roof Desmo, and it looks fantastic! (and also a crime).  All of those Arais and Shoeis on the road are going to look so… common.

  
The helmet fits my temples better than anything else previously.  It’s snug front to back, but it’s wearing in nicely.  When on it has a fantastic anime feel to it!

On the way home today it started to rain.  With a single motion I went from open face to closed face, but this isn’t just a modular helmet, it safeties as a full face helmet.  I can’t understand why these aren’t for sale in Canada any more.






There is no STEM

There has recently been a fair bit of push back against STEM as a focus in schools, but as a classroom technology and engineering teacher I have to tell you, there is no STEM.  By sticking science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an acronym, many people, especially people who aren’t in classrooms, think that this is some kind of coherent strategy, but I can assure you it isn’t, at least not in Ontario.


Maths and sciences are mandatory courses throughout a student’s career.  Technology and engineering are not, ever.  Maths gets even more additional attention because of EQAO standardized testing, so numeracy is an expectation for all teachers throughout the school.  Science is mandatory throughout elementary grades and high school students are required to take two science credits to graduate.  Maths and science are baked into a student’s school experience.


Want to feel the sting of irrelevance?  Waterloo University (and many others) do a fine job of underlining how little technology and engineering programs matter in high schools.  If you’re signing up for their software engineering program you need lots of maths… and lots of science.  Engineering for an engineering program?  Well, there’s no point in making it a requirement because it’s an optional course that is barely taught anywhere in Ontario.  At one point I heard less than 15% of Ontario schools run any kind of coherent computer engineering program.  The technology prejudice is a bit different, that’s more of a blue collar white collar thing, but engineering, as an academic focus, has been swallowed whole by science and maths.


SM has always been a foundational piece of public education, and remains so, but the entire ‘STEM push’ is really an SM push, engineering and technology remain barely taught and entirely optional and peripheral in Ontario classrooms, assuming they exist at all.  Tactile, hands on technology programs with their lower class sizes, expensive tools and safety concerns are the first to get canned when the money tightens up.  It’s cheaper to stuff 30+ kids into an ‘academic’ (aka: text based/theory) course where you can sit them in efficient rows and learn linearly until everyone gets the same right answer.  It doesn’t do much for them in the real world, but it’s cheaper.  Math and science make sense in a school system focused on those kinds of academic economics.


Governments get voted in by creating panic about student mathematics skills, and how science is taught is another political hot-spot that gives politicians lots of traction.  I have no doubt that these two subjects enjoy the attention they do because of this political fecundity.  Engineering and technology?  The skills that build the critical infrastructures that allow us to feed, connect and house people?  Not much political mucking to be done there, it just needs to work.


Last year I had a student graduate and go on to college for computer technology.  He had some trouble in school, but was on track to be a successful computer technician.  In his first post-secondary computer technology courses he was feeling well ahead of his classmates and was confident of success, but not all his classes went so well.  He ended up failing his maths course and eventually dropped out of the whole program.  Talking to his mother after this happened, she implied that I’d failed to teach him the mathematics he needed to succeed.  I didn’t argue the point (I don’t teach mathematics other than in conjunction with what we’re doing in computer technology).  There is an entire mathematics department with ten times more personnel, resources and infinitely more presence in the school than me an my oft-forgotten program, but with STEM ringing in her ears we’re all lumped into that failure.

This year I’m rocking a budget (which I’ve already exceeded in the second week of September) that is 25% of what it was a few years ago.  Everyone is seeing cuts, but the mandatory departments are protected in a way that our optional courses are not.  Where they might see a 10% cut, I’m seeing 75%, because what I teach is not a priority.  That cut is happening while I’m actually up in sections due the success we’ve had in various competitions and the media attention we’ve received (but not in our own yearbook).


You can rail against STEM all you like, but there is no such thing.  If there has been any STEM funding with this focus it hasn’t found my technology and engineering courses, because not all STEMs are considered worthy of political attention.  The best I’ve seen out of this are a few more manipulatives in maths classes based on corporate tech-in-a-box, but building a kit isn’t engineering.  When you’re engineering there are no instructions and the end goal may not even be possible, you certainly don’t end up with everyone looking at the same finished product.  That kind of stochastic process is another reason why eng/tech is frowned upon in academic settings; they like everyone to arrive at the same correct answer.  It makes for a clear sense of progress, but learning to deal with potential failure in reality isn’t wasted time in school.

 

In the article that kicked this off, you get a very articulate and scholarly take on the value of a liberal arts education and how it can free you from economic bondage in our overpopulated and automated world.  The down-your-nose ‘yeomanship’ / servitude argument pasted on STEM and CTE as a preparation for the workplace ignores the many soft skills that hands-on technical training can provide in favour of the argument that students of technology are dimensionless corporate shills whose only interest is to find work in a system that doesn’t really need them.  But aren’t we all yoked to our broken economic system?  A degree doesn’t somehow free you from that commitment, but it will bury you in debt and the attendant servitude to it.  A technical education costs less and teaches you some valuable soft skills that will help you in any vocation, while also offering you a shot at something other than general labour.  The engineering design process technology training is predicated on would help anyone in any aspect of life where they must self-organize and tackle a problem that may not have a solution.


I have a liberal arts education (English and philosophy majors) and I greatly value the discipline it has brought to both my thinking and writing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value hands-on mastery and the attendant good habits that accompany it.  It took me a long time to value my technical, hands-on skills against the constant noise of academic/white collar prejudice and privilege.  Since moving to technology from English teaching, I face that pressure daily, as do my tech-teaching colleagues.  In speaking to many people I still get the sense that technical, hands-on skills are inferior to academic skills, but I find them complimentary, not less than.  It would be quite a thing if we could value a student’s technical hands-on mastery as much as we value their academic grades… or even their sports abilities.


I get the sense that Professor Zaloom believes the future will be full of highly educated academics elucidating on the state of humanity while they float above economic necessities with their intellectual freedom.  I’d argue that learning hands-on technical skills gives you a variety of soft-skills (persistence, self-organization, resilience, humility to name a few) that will help students deal with that overpopulated, automated future every bit as much as a degree might.


If you follow that article through, it’s less about STEM and more about what we’re going to do in an increasingly automated world populated by more and more people with less and less to do.  In that no-win situation, the value of being able to repair your own technology and understand the hidden systems that regulate your life is another kind of literacy that I think all students should have, especially if they are going to depend on those systems and let them direct their lives.

A good read on the fecundity of hands-on mastery.

Technology education offers that insight along with a plethora of tough-soft skills that are wanting in many academic programs where established reality is whatever the teacher thinks it should be.  There is a hard, real-world edge to technology training that is often hard to find in the mentally constructed world of academic achievement.  Matt Crawford describes management thinking in Shop Class as Soulcraft as having a ‘peculiarly chancy and fluid character’ due to its success criteria being changeable depending on the whims of the people in charge.  That was my experience in too many academic situations.  You know where you stand in technology because reality isn’t fickle.


It’s a shame that this pointless acronym has thrown a blanket over the grossly neglected curriculums of technology and engineering, while giving even more attention to two of the Disney princesses of academia.  To be honest with you, I think technology and engineering would be just where it is now had this STEM focus never happened, which tells you something about how this ed-fad has gone down.

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Additional Reading:

The rich intersection of a liberal arts background and technology expertise:  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a must read, but so is Matt’s follow-up, The World Beyond Your Head.  A philosophical look at the power of tactile skills to free us from consumerism and the mental world of the digital attention economy.

 

Elearning: How to make the inevitable more than a cash grab

My Background in Elearning:


I’ve been elearning since the early 1990s in university.  Back then it was called distance-ed or correspondence learning.  I’d get a big parcel int he mail and work my way through paper based course work before sending it back.  When I got my ESL teaching qualifications in Japan in 1999, it was through a distance-ed school in Scotland.  Those courses were difficult and made more so by the one way nature of the communication.  As email became prevalent I was able to establish faster two-way communication with instructors.  This finally evolved into an online, cloud based elearning system in the early zeroes.


In the 90s I was working in IT, which included a lot of user training on new, cloud based software management solutions, so the elearning concept wasn’t new to me.  From the very earliest cloud based management systems, I’ve had an oar in the water when it comes to elearning.


I became an Ontario teacher in 2004 and was a summer school elearning teacher by 2005.  Those early Learning Management Systems (LMSs) were very texty.  If you wanted graphics or even links, you had to HTML code them in yourself.  All of us (my students and I) were alone in cyber-space way back then, and some wonderful things happened that demonstrated the potential of this technology.  After two years of teaching elearning through Peel’s summer school program on the ANGEL LMS, I moved to Upper Grand DSB, who hadn’t touched elearning yet.


By 2007 UGDSB was starting to get into it and I volunteered to be in the first group sent to another board to learn how D2L’s new LMS worked.  The next year I was once again teaching elearning in summer school and then also teaching elearning during the school year as part of my course load.  By that point I was also taking Additional Qualification courses (AQs) in the summer on elearning.  Rather ironically, out of all the AQs I took in English and visual art, the only one that wasn’t elearning was computer technology.


In addition to teaching remote elearning in English, I also pushed for a blended learning course in my local school that uses elearning technology in a traditional classroom so that students can get familiar with this increasingly popular option for earning credits.  That blended elearning course in career studies was very successful in terms of introducing students to elearning.  Any student who took it knew what elearning was by the end of it and whether or not it would suit their learning habits.


Way back in 2011 I was trying to wrap my head around how to get students in a 1:1 technology situation to make effective use of technology that most people consider mainly entertainment focused.  Seven years ago I was trying to help our union understand elearning and how they could support effective implementation of it.  Many educators turned their nose up at elearning and the unions would rather it not exist at all, but this kind of disruption is exactly what digital information does, and ignoring it isn’t a good idea – just ask Blockbuster.


By six years ago I was thinking about applying to become an elearning coordinator at my board.  Strangely, after going in for the interview and not getting it, I was suddenly out of the pool of elearning teachers and haven’t taught it since.  I’ve found other ways to exercise my digital expertise, but elearning has always been a fascinating union between ICT, digital media and pedagogy that I’ve never really gone away from.


With the rise of GAFE in our board, all of my classes have essentially become blended learning classes.  I didn’t make any photocopies for my courses last year because our documentation and information all flows digitally.  I expect my computer-tech students to be able to effectively use our learning management systems.  Many of them take that digital expertise and use it to effectively engage in elearning.  Many other students from across the school show up at my door unable to effectively engage in elearning courses due to a lack of digital fluency – I still help with that, though it isn’t the gig I’m being paid for.


All that to say, I have a long history with elearning and think it can be a  powerful addition to our education system.


Meanwhile, in 2019…


The current provincial government, without a lot of forethought or apparent research, have stated that all students have to take four elearning courses.  The high number of expected elearning credits and lack of infrastructure around this would suggest that this is an excuse to create giant classes, ignore pedagogy and pump out students with little or no effective learning.  If elearning is going to be used to Walmart education into cheaper, less effective process, then it’s a disaster for students, educators and the tax payers who are funding a process that isn’t effective.


If elearning is going to become an effective tool in our education system (and it really should), it can’t be an excuse to cheapen learning.  There are too many corporate interests involved that want to make it exactly that.  Those interests may well be what is behind this latest lunge at Ontario’s education system.


This approach plays to a common tactic: grossly simplifying a complex public service in order to diminish it.  Many adults flippantly state that they have to do elearning through work so kids should get with it. Teaching children isn’t like teaching adults. When a wage earning adult takes a course, it’s an entirely different situation than a child doing it. Adults (most adults, the adult ones anyway), bring a degree of self-discipline and purpose to a course of study that children are still developing, because that part of their brain isn’t done growing yet; it’s neuro-science.  Saying that children should learn like adults do is like saying children should drive cars because adults do (ie: a profoundly ignorant and stupid thing to say).


Elearning in our schools should start off as blended learning  focusing on getting comfortable with the technology and expectations of remote instruction in a familiar, face to face environment.  Most students are dumped into it without any clear idea of what it is and then given minimal support. Once the tech is in hand and a student has a clear understanding of how elearning might work for them, pedagogy and high standards are vital or the whole thing becomes a cheaper, less effective option, which helps no one and just wastes money.  Having elearning as a required blended course using elearning technology in a face to face classroom is a great idea, but dumping 4 remote courses on every student in Ontario is a profoundly ignorant thing to do; differentiation based on student need should always be a driving force in effective elearning (or any kind of learning, right?).

Integrating elearning effectively is starting to feel like a no-win scenario.  Between callous government announcements about forced elearning courses for all and the reticence of unions and teachers to embrace this inevitable technology evolution, there are few who are willing to champion it.  If Luddite teachers (and their unions) would turn down the skepticism and negativity and get behind effective implementation of this inevitable technology, there is a chance to beat the politics.


Elearning is going to happen anyway, and if we don’t engage and participate in making it as pedagogically effective as possible it’ll end up being the corporate/neo-con money grab it’s being primed to be. When that happens, students and educators alike will be hurt. So will tax payers, because they won’t be getting their moneys worth – the corporations pushing it and the governments that serve them will always cash in though.


The way forward is clear:

  • prepare students for elearning by training them in the technology and the instructional expectations in a familiar f2f environment – no one should suddenly find themselves in a remote learning situation without knowing what to do
  • provide full support for elearning students including guidance and library/research support just like f2f students enjoy
  • set high standards and hold to them, including offering outs for students the process isn’t working for
  • develop LMSes that curate a learning community in digital spaces – a sense of community is vital to any classroom situation, physical or otherwise
  • provide elearning instructors with excellent technical skills and fluency in digital environments
  • provide passionate elearning instructors and support people who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure a successful online learning experience
At the moment we have post-secondary programs that won’t accept elearning grades on par with regular credits.  What does that tell you about the current quality of elearning?  It’s about to get inflated into an even less effective learning outcome unless Ontario educators come to the aid of this emergent type of learning.  We’ve fumbled it along so far, but without all learning partners engaging in this to ensure sound pedagogy, this forced approach is going to cause a lot of damage and cost a lot of money doing it.


NOTES:

k12sotn.ca/blog/ontario-e-learning-graduation-requirement-scalability/
To better understand the level of growth that this requirement would create, it is useful to examine what we know about the level of e-learning that currently exists in Ontario.



peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Ontario-e-learning-plan-unique-in-North-America-1.pdf
Traditionally, in Ontario, students have enrolled in e-learning courses for a number of reasons: to fast-track and get to graduation early, to catch up in credits, to accommodate their learning needs, or because particular courses are not offered in their communities. E-learning has benefits for many students, and for some it is challenging. 


temkblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/does-elearning-damage-teacherstudent.html


www.reddit.com/r/ontario/comments/b2qq79/snapshot_from_elearning_that_has_since_been_taken/
Expectations change as politics dictate new directions.


temkblog.blogspot.com/2012/02/confessions-of-elearning-pariah.html


www.nationalobserver.com/2019/04/09/news/ontario-may-create-student-inequality-mandatory-online-learning-report

The digital divide is deep and wide:  temkblog.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-digital-divide-is-deep-and-wide.html  Elearning has an expensive barrier to entry in terms of in-hand technology as well as broad-band access.  It isn’t a cheap alternative, but it can be a powerful tool in our educational toolbox.

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A Year of Living Dangerously

It’s been one heck of a year. Personal tragedies aside (and they were quite epic in scale), my year in teaching has been difficult to say the least.

I began the year suddenly being asked to fill the shoes of our head of computers and IT. He is a dynamic, patient, kind man who is adored by all who know him; I am not. The chances of me filling his shoes satisfactorily were not likely, but I was the only other person in the school with any IT experience, so it fell to me.
I was asked to field a robotics team (never before done) and maintain a computer club whose sole purpose appeared to be allowing socially derelict grade 10 boys the opportunity to swear at each other using an astonishing array of racially insensitive epithets, while playing FPSs on school PCs.
With no training or planning, I suddenly found myself teaching a course I almost failed in high school and a pilot course on new equipment that didn’t work. Oddly enough, this wasn’t really a concern for me, I love in-class challenges, and I beat up the tech to make it functional. A couple of years ago I did an inter-disciplinary media arts program for (very) at-risk students. It almost killed me, but I actually enjoyed the edginess of it (it was immediately cancelled in spite of being labelled a great success), but I digress.
At first I was excited to get back into coding, something I genuinely enjoyed as a child (I used to type whole programs out of COMPUTE! magazine, then mod them, just for fun!), but that was before my computer science teacher implied that I wasn’t competent and shouldn’t be there. Still, the thought of getting back into coding really appealed, I was excited to teach the course I almost failed.
That was before I started averaging 40-50 emails a day, mostly from people who couldn’t be bothered to check if the damn thing was plugged in before contacting me. My days were spent running around the school, plugging things in and restarting them, and constantly (and repeatedly) resetting students (who seemed incapable for remembering what they’d just typed) passwords.
Between pointless support based on shear laziness, the occasional genuine problem, students vandalizing equipment and some truly odd IT purchases (a wireless TV system purchased by student council a few years before that simply would not work), I typically missed lunch, had no prep and was buried in IT support and ordering; all while trying to teach three new classes in two departments I’d never taught in before, while being a department head for the first time. I never got that chance to model teaching my own re-introduction to programming, and struggled to be able to appreciate what my students were doing from a distance… very frustrating.
I kept coaching soccer, maybe not the wisest move considering, but I genuinely enjoy doing that. I don’t really remember much from the beginning of the year. Between multiple deaths in the family and the crushing weight of work, and knowing that I couldn’t spent the time I needed to on courses I had no experience with, I felt like I was doing too much, and none of it well.
The beginning of the year madness settled down, and soccer season ended. I staggered out of semester one feeling like I hadn’t done anyone justice, but I was still on my feet.
Semester two consisted of three more new courses I’d never taught before in two departments I’d never been in before. Once again, I tried to balance the teacher in charge of computers thing with actually teaching (I imagine this is much easier when you’re teaching things you’re familiar with). Again and again I tried to go out on a limb and push technology growth in the school, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, usually to scowls and complaints.
March Break rolled around and my first ever international field trip started with me on a buzzy high. We drove down to Pearson at 2am in the morning, met up with our kids and prepared for a life-altering nine days sharing our love of Japanese culture. Out of a 3 hour line in US customs we saw some footage, but left when we were told everything was reopened. In San Francisco we got turned back. I got back into my own bed 23 hours and 9000 kms after I woke up, having had students crying on me, a strange kind of survivor’s guilt and an exhausting and pointless trip across the continent (twice). And so ended my first international field trip experience.
In the weeks that followed we were accused of incompetence for not knowing what was happening while in customs lockup (or guessing what was going to happen next at Fukoshima), we had to fight for our students to get their money back, and were treated as a bothersome inconvenience by the travel company and our board. At no point did anyone ask us if *we* were alright, even after one of us had to cut their teaching time to get a grip on things. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I think we felt that we were being blamed for even trying to stage the trip.
At the end of the year I spent my extra exam day not getting marks and comments in order, but helping prepare the school for a 70 computer update, all while hearing constant complaints from people, some of them department heads, about how we better not mess anything up, and they better not lose anything on ‘their’ computer.
Difficult administrators, puerile teachers, arrogant students, and a crushing work/life combination made this a year to remember. At our end of the year meeting teachers were being rewarded for falling out of canoes and having to teach difficult classes, I just wanted to find the door and get out. Ending the meeting with a (attempted in humor) “teachers can go on summer break and wonder what working people do” felt like the right finish to this year; I would have laughed, but I’ve lost my sense of humor.
I now know what an anxiety attack feels like, and it seems like once you’ve had one, they are much easier to get again. Jittery and exhausted is how I feel; I don’t want to go back.
My foray into department headship and my willingness to leap into the breach when needed has put me in a bad place. I said to a colleague at the end of the year, “I don’t feel tired, I feel broken.”

Winter Dreams: what I’d do the first week in January

Snow is flying outside.  It’s supposed to be -20°C by the end of the week with more snow on the way.  Working on the bike in the garage only gets me so far.  Time for some quality daydreaming…

Goal:  Find a quick bike, ride the Dragon, bring it home to race in the spring.

Looking around online I found a wounded Kawasaki ZX-6R for sale in Clinton, Tennessee for about $3400US.  It happens to be off the interstate right on the way to Knoxville (the city nearest the Smokey Mountains where the Tail of the Dragon is).  I’m a sucker for a wounded motorcycle.  The store selling it says it needs tires and they sell ’em, so I’d arrange them to do it and a tune up and then pick the bike up ready to ride.


Fixing the fairing is a little trickier, but Performance Bikes UK had an article on cheap Chinese replacement fairings which would be perfect for a bike that’s going to be all about track days and quick rides.


The only issue is whether or not I could get the bike road legal for a few days while I was down there in order to ride The Dragon.



A long drive to Clinton and a night in a hotel followed by a morning sorting out the bike and loading it into the van before driving down to Pigeon Forge for a few days riding the Smokey Mountains.


The slog back north into the frozen darkness would be a lot easier to take if I had a few days on two wheels before I had to do it.




Of course, if I’m getting a sports bike I can loose my mind on some sports bike kit.  If I’m on a quick Kawasaki I’d opt for gear that’d do me on track days as well…




Nothing like a little fantasy shopping to make the snow fly by.


Some colour matched gear to go with the new fairings and I’d be ready for race school in the spring.



Carbon fibre bits are also available for this ZX-6R, but if it’s going to be a track bike they seem like a silly expense.

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Agility Dies As Ontario Stiffens

While I was attending the Future of Work Summit with ICTC at the MaRS Centre in Toronto, just down the street Ontario’s teacher unions were having their yearly meetings.  The social media runoff from those meetings, and from Ontario Education in general, has been increasingly and overwhelmingly negative.  As I’m listening to talks about how to increase our flexibility and reduce institutional lag, the education system around me is going into a state of rigour mortis as it stiffens up to the point where nothing is acceptable and everything is rebuked out of hand.


In my time teaching in Ontario I’ve watched the provincial government break the law and end up paying millions in reparations as a result.  That mess was treated like a blip compared to what has been happening recently.  Before this new government even did anything we were warned that it was all going to hell.  Things went to hell with the previous government too, but that seemed to be ok because, ultimately, our unions had ongoing relationships with that government.  This is the first time I’ve seen Ontario education operating under a non-Liberal government and it isn’t pretty.  There was always some flexibility of approach previously, even when what has happening to us was ridiculous.  That flexibility is gone now.

Rae and the NDP pushed up our debt, but so did Harris
and the PCs. Interesting that McGinty and the Liberals
were actually more fiscally conservative than the PCs
until it all went to hell in 2008. Ontario is as in debt as
it is because it spent billions bailing out private corporations
that were playing silly buggers with the economy.

I’m well aware of what happened the last time a ‘progressive’ conservative government ran Ontario education into the ground.  At that point it was described as a needed financial correction from the previous NDP government, but the Financial Times doesn’t graph it like that.  Mike Harris and his government sold off money makers like the 407 to balance a single year and look fiscally tight.  It’s that kind of self serving short sightedness in our elected officials that frustrates me.  What I find strange is that Ontario defaulted to conservative leadership for many years, and in that time could depend on governance that wasn’t populist and myopic, but recent attempts seem to be all about violent correction catering to special interests without any long term intentions.


Ontario needs to get a handle on its debt and we need a capable leader who is willing to lead by example to do it.  The problem with Ontarians is that they won’t vote for someone like that.  Instead they are swayed by buck a beer huxtering.


Frankly, I don’t care whether they are liberal, conservative or NDP, but I do care that it happens.  We’re paying billions servicing debts we can’t afford.  If it has to be austerity, then it needs to be austerity for all.  I’d be willing to buckle down and do my best with larger classes and lower budgets if I felt that everyone else wasn’t voting themselves higher living allowances and inventing redundant jobs for friends.


Squeezing the system generally won’t yield the kind of savings we need, and it damages learning conditions for students as well as teachers.  Ontario students are some of the best in the world.  If we’re willing to sacrifice that excellence to protect a UN sanctioned publicly funded semi-private religious school system, or a questionable standardized testing regime brought to us by an under-performing US model of education, then we’re damaging our excellence to protect inequity and keep ourselves buried in debt.  There are plenty of places we could save billions in Ontario education by making systemic change while protecting the learning conditions of students.  It is only because we are trapped by our history and our selfish, short-sighted, tail-chasing political system that we can’t make the changes needed to make Ontario more sustainable.


Attending that summit once again got me thinking about how relentlessly and aggressively the best private enterprises chase efficiency.  There is nothing sacred in that environment, it’s eat or be eaten.  That kind of focus really appeals to the technician in me who builds technology based on efficiency and efficacy, but it’s short sighted when dealing with public education.  


Working for a system that is ultimately led by politicians who are in turn being led by the short-sightedness of our electorate has never been anything but frustrating.  Watching this government shore up the money-sinks while at the same time hurting learners and damaging our performance isn’t new.  Previous governments did the exact same thing.  There is nothing revolutionary or different about what’s happening now, other than the mass centralization of opposition against it.


Ontario continues to sink deeper into debt even as we’re catering to special interests as we’ve always done.  Things could be better, but the system we have does nothing to encourage intelligent decision making.  If you’re looking for change in Ontario any time soon, you’re not going to see it.  In the meantime, Ontario will drag Canada out of the top 10 worldwide as we intentionally damage one of Ontario’s most popular exports.

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Were I Home

March Break in the UK is a very different proposition to March Break in Ontario, Canada.  Here we’re looking at freezing temperatures, snow storms and general misery.  Everyone who was able has left.  A few minutes outside today in -20° wind chill left me broken.

Back home it’s mid to high teens with sunny spring days and flowers blooming.

Were I home I’d be rolling the Triumph Speed Triple out of the shed and going for a ride along the North Norfolk coast.  It’d be cool but clear.  Norfolk roads are medieval narrow, especially out in the country.  With tall hedge rows and few shoulders you don’t travel at break neck speed, but that’s kind of the point.

Enroute I’d be passing by small fishing villages, medieval priories and castle ruins.  Lunch stops could be any one of a dozen centuries old pubs.  When not doing that, pulling up a a seaside layby to watch the waves roll in would beat frostbite any day.

Do I ever miss being home sometimes.

Speaking of which, a nice little house on Beeston Hill is going for about £200k.  With a shed in the backyard to park up the motorbikes in, I’d have the ideal place to ride out into Norfolk from, and it’s less than a mile from each of the two houses I grew up in.

What would I do on these beautiful spring days?  Familiarize myself with the back roads of the country I grew up in for eight years before being emigrated to the land of ice and snow.

Triumph Scrambler might be a better choice for going off piste in deepest, darkest Norfolk where mud is the norm rather than the exception.
I’d be sharing roads that generations of my people have ridden on two wheels.  Maybe while out on those roads I’ll meet up with some family ghosts and be able to go riding with them for a while…

My great aunt died on the roads of Norfolk before I was born.  It’d be nice to be back sharing that space with her, if not the time.

 

That old Coventry Eagle disappearing around the hedgerow ahead of me could be Grandad Morris out for a spirited ride.

 

A modern roadster to tackle twisting Norfolk lanes single handed?
… or the more tractor like Scrambler to occasionally get dirty on the tractor splattered lanes of rural Norfolk?

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