Media Arts Lab 2.0

Redesigning media arts to create, not consume

http://prezi.com/9ow8h2urx1va/dream-media-arts-lab/

The Macs in our media arts lab are getting old and plastic.  They can’t push the high-def video coming out of our latest cameras, so it’s time for a hardware upgrade, but it’s not just about the hardware.

One of the biggest problems we face in our static, desktop centred lab with ordered rows of imacs are the bad habits students fall back into.  Because our lab is like every other lab in the school (factory like rows of desktops in Pink Floyd The Wallesque rows of conformity),  students do what they usually do in a computer lab; they zone out and become passive media consumers.  Passive TV viewing has evolved into passive computer use.

In a media arts class where they are supposed to be in a creative, active mind-space, this is an ongoing class management headache.  Battling the Facebook zombies and youtube droolers becomes an ongoing headache in the typical computer lab, especially with the weakest students who tend to be the most non-experimental and habitual in their technology use.

I’ve looked at this from a typical school IT/lab point of view, advocating for a mini-lab concept that emphasizes diversified, mobile technology, but this is the media-arts angle.

Many of the ideas are similar, but the idea of mobile, adaptable media tools also spurred the realization that students in front of an online desktop act much the way that students in front of a television do; they become passive, unquestioning media consumers.  In a media arts lab this is an ongoing crisis.

There is the culture of entertainment that most digital natives subscribe to.  Computers with internet access are toys to be used for entertainment.  Their habitual use of computers at home and throughout their school careers have only enforced these bad habits.  Unfortunately, those habits extend to most educators too.  From PD days where the presenter assumes that if you’re on a computer you’re not paying attention, to teachers booking labs to have a period off, computers aren’t considered anything other than an entertaining distraction by just about everyone.

We then get them into media arts where they are creating large amounts of digital media, and most of them are trapped in their bad habits and social expectations of technology.  The fact that school related computer lab time is often unsupervised only adds to the problem.

Trying to break them out of that rut in a room with rows of desktops isn’t working.  Time to free up the tech, and break the passivity.

Big Digital Magic

I’m really enjoying teaching English again, especially the university bound group I’ve got.  I don’t have to worry about explaining why they are there as I do in many computer-tech classes.  The students come complete with their own resilience and competitive nature.  When you’re not reduced to hand holding all the time you can get into concepts deeply and quickly.

An opening unit from the text is “Fire of the Human Spirit”.  In it we look over Mandela’s inauguration Speech, a Susan Aglukark song and a June Callwood essay amongst other media, all of it pointing at the concept of FotHS.


After a few examples and some discussion we set up a wikispace where students each found a song that they believe described FotHS.  They each made a wikipage on which they provided a link to the song, the lyrics, and a personal analysis of why this song exemplifies FotHS.

Because this class comes ready to play I tend to approach it as though I’m a participant in a hot group; I like to bring gifts to the group.  In this case I knew that I could export the content out of the wikispace relatively easily.  Since that text consisted only of the lyrics and student written analysis I thought it might be interesting to look at what we’d created from a group vocabulary usage point of view.  What words found in the lyrics of 28 songs and accompanying student analysis point to our concept of Fire of the Human Spirit?

Exporting the wiki is a one click process.  Once I had the text I had to do some magic to combine all the HTML pages into a single document.  Wikispaces also exports to text but it takes the html coding with it, which made a mess.  Google-docs didn’t seem to have the mojo I needed to combine multiple documents into a single one, but the Phantom Foxit PDF creator I had did.  Once I had a pdf with all the text from twenty eight wikipages imported together I dumped it into the text window in Wordle and voila:



Katy Perry single-handedly got ‘oh’ in there!  Looking at verb usage is interesting.  Fire of the Human Spirit seems to demand action!  The nouns are also enlightening when creating constellations of meaning around this concept.  We’re going to use this class produced conglomeration of ideas to develop thesis around the concept next week.

As an aside, several English teachers turned their noses up at what we were doing.  Apparently it’s widely believed that you can’t learn English in a digital context.  I beg to differ.  If we’re going to turn to media to teach English, I’d much rather it be personalized, self created media like this.  The students themselves were surprised at how much depth something this simple offered.  That they created it as a class seemed to produce a sense of satisfaction.

Here is a FotHS 2.0 with some common words removed to emphasize specific vocabulary:


Sympathetic Teachers

For the past couple of weeks my yoga instructor has been away so I’ve been learning with another teacher.  I’ve been with the same instructor for about a year and I’ve gotten used to her ways.  Our fill-in instructor is actually the studio owner and a more experienced teacher, but I’m used to what I’m used to and I’m finding the change challenging.

The differences in how each teaches got me thinking about how learning and the relationship it is based on works.

My regular instructor pushes herself and her students.
It works for me.

I’m the furthest thing from a yoga expert but I enjoy the process and I’ve gotten better at it in a year of practice.  My regular instructor is very focused on form and pushing through physical barriers.  Her own practice is flawless.  Our current instructor is much more mentally focused, asking us to be mindful of what we’re doing and de-emphasizing the physical side of things (though I still find her classes very physically strenuous).  Neither is right, but they are very different in how they demonstrate their mastery and what they focus their students on.  I’ve enjoyed the change but I’ve bonded with my regular instructor and I’m looking forward to getting her back.

The personal nature of the relationship between a master and apprentice is based on choices by both.  Masters tend to select for apprentices who they can work with, and vice-versa.  Back in the day when apprentices were unable to select their masters this wasn’t the case, but nowadays you see this self-selection all the time.  When a student finds a teacher they share a wavelength with they tend to latch on.  Variety is the key to this selection process.  I probably wouldn’t have stuck it out (yoga is hard work) if I hadn’t connected to the instructor’s approach enough to overcome the difficult early months.

Another philosophical thought from my regular instructor.
She wants you to develop quickly, find your limits and
then push through them. In that struggle is found yoga.

In my first year of university I asked my history TA how she knew what to focus on.  She laughed and said it was all about the prof, why else would she be doing her Masters in Scottish history?  That personal relationship is an important part of a student’s willingness to put up with the pain of learning a discipline.

In the education system you get the impression that this individualism is a bad thing.  Teachers are encouraged to adopt whichever educational philosophy is in vogue and be ready to move on to the next one when the next book comes out.  Most experienced teachers have learned to not get caught up in this kind of thinking (one of the key failures of professional development).  It tends to be the game of educational leadership to push a school-wide vision of teaching in order to establish some kind of standard.  Teacher assessment uses checklists and fill-in-the-blank templates based on the school system’s idea of an ideal teacher.  This implies that there is only one way to teach properly which would kill any chance of a student finding a teacher who speaks to them, unless your students are as generic as your teachers.  When the system assumes surrogacy for learning, human relationships are diminished and the ability to learn is compromised.

Ease of learning is another aspect of this problem.  I like my yoga instructor because she doesn’t make it easy, she demands hard work but she’s quick to praise both the effort and the improvement that comes from it.  Many students came and went but this only reinforced the success of the ones who stuck it out.  This is the opposite of the everyone succeeds approach in the current education system.  Learning is not easy, nor should it be, but that doesn’t mean a teacher should be cruel or dismissive, quite the opposite actually (watch Whiplash for a complex look at this idea).  If learning is a challenge (and someone is trying to sell you something if they say it isn’t) then a teacher should offer an individualized and sympathetic means of accessing a discipline rather than making an already difficult task harder.  Empathy is implicit in teaching, but especially so when it’s between a sympathetic student and teacher – their shared ideals allow them to tackle ever more complicated learning on the road to mastery.  Not only is this an emotional support while dealing with difficulties, but it’s also an aid to communication.  Much less needs to be explicitly stated when you’re working with someone you understand.  I’d actually argue that mastery learning can’t happen without this relationship.

The concept of edutainment seems to have infected all levels of the education system.  Fun, happy learning where the teacher must provide so much entertainment value that students don’t even feel like they’re learning (!) is the mantra of modern education.  Expecting students to put up with difficult lessons and experience failure isn’t the way nowadays.  The vast majority of the coddled students I deal with wouldn’t have come back after the first week in my yoga class.

Perhaps the gee-wiz, ‘learning is fun and easy’ philosophy of education is really another attempt to undermine the pivotal personal relationship between teacher and student.  When students aren’t expected to overcome any difficulties and can’t fail you also don’t need to depend on the personal bond between teacher and student to encourage a student to withstand defeat, build resilience and eventually experience the kind of confidence that isn’t systemically assumed.

That muppet knows mastery learning!  The modern education
version would be, “just show up (optional)
and we’ll get you a diploma.”

I was looking for a challenge when I started yoga.  I was feeling stiff and old and I was willing to work at fixing it.  Being dared by my instructor to push beyond the obvious discomfort I was feeling only worked because I respected her approach to the practice.  The first time I found my toes again or got heels down in downward dog I was ecstatic.  It took me months to get there.

Almost a year later I weigh 20lbs less, my flexibility is always improving and I find yoga much less painful than it once did.  It wasn’t easy and I was tempted to quit a number of times.  The day after often felt like I’d been ‘hit by the yoga truck‘.  I was able to see improvement, but it happened slowly and sometimes I regressed.  Trust and respect in my instructor is what got me through the urge to quit early.  Why would my instructor spend all this time on her students who stick it out, pushing herself to demonstrate her practice in order to benefit us?

I’ve taken many aspects of my instructor’s practice and made it my own.  Her practice is uniquely her’s, but as her student I’ve been able to closely observe and internalize various aspects of her practice as well as her overall philosophy in order to develop my own yoga.  As a teacher my approach tends to be copied in part by like minded students (the incompatible ones aren’t even aware there is an approach, they think it’s all about facts).  It’s thrilling for me to see a student tackle a difficult problem and see a bit of myself in it – it’s almost like I’m the parent of their practice.

I speak with the voices of the sympathetic teachers in my life, any good student does, but if we continue to push for a systematized version of teaching that de-emphasizes the human connections through which we develop resiliency and master challenging learning, we’ll end up with students who are unable to do anything other than exist within an ineffective education system.

We should be celebrating differences in teachers because they all speak to different students and allow a wide variety of learners to find their own way to mastery.  The standardized, generic teacher who follows the lesson plan template using the educational philosophy of the moment is no teacher at all (though you sure could pay them less!), and they would be teaching to a standard student that doesn’t exist.  Had I walked into that on my first night of yoga I would have walked out again.

The Lab That Isn’t A Lab

Originally published way back in 2012 when I had the comp-tech department land on me with 3 days notice!  https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-lab-that-isnt-lab.html

I’m teaching Computer Engineering in a school computer lab.   It’s the nicest lab in the school, and I don’t want it any more.

I recently described it to my principal as, “trying to teach auto mechanics in a new car show room where you can’t touch anything.”

Computer engineering in school underlines everything I don’t like about school computer labs (and that list is long).  I don’t think school computer labs teach students anything helpful about computers.  In fact, I think they are specifically designed to be out of date, glitchy, inaccessible and frustrating – hardly the mindset you want to put students in when you’re teaching them how to learn effective operation of an extremely powerful learning tool.

Essentially, what we try to do in school computer labs is teach students how to ride a bicycle by having a professional bike rider come in when they aren’t there, maintain and ride an old bike, then leave it there for them.  We then tell the students to get on it and ride with no hands on experience, practice, training or intent.  We then get angry with them when they fall off and damage the bike, or ride it pointlessly in circles.

Whether it’s media arts labs, or school computer labs in general, I’m not a fan.  The fact that they haven’t changed significantly in form or function since I graduated from high school in 1989 should bother people, but the real bee in my bonnet is the lack of ownership in our understanding of technology.

If you want to use technology in your classroom (and in 2012 you’d have to bury your head pretty deep in the sand to not want to), then you the teacher need to understand how it works, and you need to teach this to your students.  The willful ignorance I meet in staff is sometimes good for my ego, but never productive in developing technical literacy in our students.

With our old tech, people are familiar enough to know what they are doing:

… but not so much with our new technology.  We need to address that.  Until we’re all familiar enough with the digital tools we’re expected to be literate in that their use is second nature, we need to spend time, especially in the classroom, learning what they are, and you can’t do that in a school board IT straight jacket.

I’m not advocating for a ground up build your own computer when you want to type out an English paper (that’s what computer engineering is for), but I am advocating for an open, author-able, stable, up to date system that allows teachers and students to become familiar with the options and customization available on this equipment (something impossible in our board, locked down, forget-everything-when-you-log-off terminals).

Back to the lab that isn’t a lab.

When I was doing my AQ for computer engineering in the summer, our instructor showed us his new classroom in his new school.  It was fantastic.  Work benches filled it, fabrication tools and a few tables for the odd sit down talk.  It looked like a room where making happened.  There wasn’t a single board computer in there.

Later in the summer, when I was picking up computers from a school in Guelph (a teacher, working in the summer?  Evidently), I saw their lab and it was the same idea: workbenches and stacks and stacks of parts; a room where hands-on learning happens.

I’m not entirely sure why we feel that computer engineering should be happening in a computer lab at my school.  My seniors don’t use the school computers at all, and my juniors are only on them because they are there.  I’d much rather they be hands on with machines, except there isn’t enough room in a lab full of school computers to make another network.

What do I want?  One of the de-labbed classrooms where there are plenty of electrical drops.  I’d be willing to evacuate the much in demand lab if I could get a room that let me store my equipment and set it up as I need; a room that was truly a lab where experimentation and hands-on discovery happens.

More Than A Book

I’ve got a nine year old son who is a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series on Nickelodeon.  It’s a huge improvement over his Spongebob period and a very intelligently written series.  I am guilty of watching it over his shoulder from time to time.

This Splinter was once a man who grew up in a family clan of ninjas who benefited from a lifetime of rich, traditional learning.  The action movie one read a book.

In the cartoon Splinter, the turtles’ surrogate father and sensei, is the descendent of a ninja clan.  He had been trained as a martial artist his entire life.  When he was mutated into a rat, he used this deep mastery to train the turtles.  Splinter is a master who is both funny, approachable and very strict.  His relationship with the turtles is deep and nuanced.

Because of this fixation with TMNT I found myself sitting in a movie theatre with my son watching Michael Bay’s ‘live’ action movie this summer.  The Splinter in the film is actually a rat.  When he got mutated (into a bigger rat) he found a book on ninjitsu and trained the turtles.  That the kids watching this film think that this is a viable avenue into mastering martial arts points to a lot of things wrong with the world today.  A lot of that thinking is driven by the ease of access to information championed by digital technology.  But information isn’t knowledge and it certainly isn’t mastery.

***

I like the concept, it’s empowering, but even the best self
directed learning is going to pale in comparison to what
you’ll develop in a rich social context.

Computers have been a hobby for me since I was ten.  I did a lot of learning on my own out of books and magazines, but the process of taking courses and certifications to become a qualified technician pushed me well out of my comfort zone and forced me to become familiar with aspects of computers that I otherwise would have stayed away from because I find them difficult.  Working with experts also let me see how they fill in the massive spaces between information.  How we manifest knowledge is more important than the knowledge itself.

I’ve always been interested in writing and philosophy, but taking degrees that oversaw skills development and demanded ongoing demonstration of my improvement with a variety of experts created something that no number of books could.

Knowledge is the start of the process, not the end.

The idea of mastery learning implies that a master passes it on to you.  My professors and mentors did a lot more for me than simply pass on information, they also showed me how it might manifest itself.  Modelling is a mighty powerful means of passing on knowledge, and you get none of it out of text.


If someone told me that I could get the same thing my degree gave me out of a book I’d call them a fool, though many people call higher education a waste of time purely on those grounds.  Information is accessible and cheap, so teach yourself!  You’ll only be as effective as your teacher, but hey, it’s inexpensive.  This feeds modern value theory that devalues human capital in favour of machine capital, in this case championing information over experience.

Mastery learning requires something more than a book.  I’m not surprised that the team of writers for that movie didn’t get that though, looking at the quality of their script.

 

It’s a trap! But watch Nickelodeon’s TV series, it’s brilliant!

 

Archive: 1999: Bloodsport, the gore of experience (points)

Piles of corpses and rivers of blood…

I’m currently swinging my way through Never Winter Nights and last night, after clearing out a room of guards, I paused for a moment. Bodies lay scattered around me and the blood was thick on the floor. In my character’s head came the thought, “I just murdered eight men.”

The bodies just fade away in NWN, it’s all very antiseptic and clean (and I imagine it makes life easier for the graphics card). Bodies don’t really fade away though do they? In a more realistic world guards and investigators would be swarming around that house shortly after the guards on shift change found their slaughtered companions. People who saw me enter and leave with heavy pockets would have been questioned, the bodies would not have disappeared, my life would have been forever changed by that action.

I think about the mountains of corpses I’ve made in this game (which I’m enjoying otherwise – it is quite beautifully rendered), and I’m only on Chapter 2! This isn’t slagging against NWN specifically, all computer based role playing games do this. I think they do it because the people who design and make the games aren’t role-players, they’re programmers and marketing types; people who think linearly and modularly. I know it’s easy for game makers to make experience = killing because it’s mechanical, and simple and it satisfies an innate human need for violence, but if graphics are getting as good as they are (almost movie quality at times), then perhaps this lazy approach to game design should finally be put aside. I don’t think it does anyone any good to control a mass murderer, especially when this usually happens for the greater good in the context of the game.

Why can’t my opponents see that I can easily kill them and surrender? Why couldn’t I earn experience by taking it away from people I subdue (that even makes sense in a balance of nature sort of way). Imagine a young fighter who gains experience and loses it too when he is subdued by a powerful foe. If he ever got knocked back down to zero experience I’m sure he’d be rethinking his career choice. It would also help in a game situation where developers wouldn’t have to worry about linear design so much. With lethality as a rare occurrence, but being subdued having an immediate effect on experience, I imagine most characters would be more careful especially if this system also took away or greatly minimized the ‘save game’ crutch. I take many more risks knowing that I’m 10 seconds of hard drive access away from trying it again. Continuity would help players develop real connection to their characters instead of using them as tools to attack a linear plot.

Why does it have to be about gallons of blood and piles of corpses? … and why does violence have to be mechanical?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a hockey player, a kendo practicioner and I’ve had a go at half a dozen martial arts; violence isn’t a stranger to me, but maybe that’s why I’ve got respect for it, because I’m familiar with it.

I enjoy a good fight more than most people, but what’s happening in NWN (and every other computer RPG I’ve played) is not a good fight, it’s a dumbed down fight against dimensionless opponents. Do you know how hard it is to find an opponent who won’t cut and run at the first injury? 99% of opponents are not commited to the fight, they are commited to their own well being (as they should be). I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people that you meet will do anything to avoid a physical confrontation and the most dangerous opponents are those who willingly consider a physical confrontation but avoid it if circumstances aren’t to their liking. In a more lawless society that might mean they’ll try and get you later when you’re busy, asleep or otherwise indisposed. That would only enrich the experience more. Having repeat encounters with a character who you first think is a coward and later learn is a vendeta ridden lunatic bent on revenge at all costs might make you reconsider being a jackass in the first place. People aren’t always what they appear at first blush; it’s part of their charm.

Have you ever been in a fist fight? Can you remember the adrenaline? That was only a fist fight! Can you imagine what it would feel like with a real sword in your hand and an opponent facing you with a lethal weapon? Wouldn’t you think twice about it if the person/monster you were facing had a hungry gleam in their eye? If you submit early perhaps you can escape intact, without losing any equipment and with a minimal experience point loss. If you mouth off and get in over your head, your teacher will certainly take more of your valuables as well as skim off more experience. You’d have to gamble to rise quickly. If you’re third level and you want to face off against a fifth level character you will probably lose, but if you win by luck or skill you would take more experience suddenly and find yourself levelling up. Wouldn’t they think twice if they saw that same look in your eye?

I’d like my role-playing battles to approach the intensity (are rarity) of the real thing. It should never be mechanical, it should never be done without thought and it should almost never end in a mortal wound. Having to submit and then being sold into slavery would greatly enrich a character’s background and provide a solid source of motivation to get better with that damn sword.

There are so many ways that a role playing world can become encompassing, but the game makers don’t seem to want to take that step. If it sells as it is why tamper with it I guess. Well here’s another angle: build it and they will come. If a designer out there can come up with a role playing game that incorporates a respect for violence and concentrates on developing a stronger tie between player and character, I’ll be the first to sign up.

Just some thoughts while standing ankle deep in the blood of guards who were just doing their jobs.

Procedural Learning

From Dusty World in December of 2014:

You can learn anywhere, but some places are better than others

We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I’m not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don’t consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We’ve build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren’t going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I’d initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn’t like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I’d like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I’d often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I’m not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don’t spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie’s equipment if you don’t appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don’t have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.

When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you’re going to run into engagement problems.  I’ll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it’ll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I’ll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won’t do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you’re some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, “the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline.”  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn’t give a care that there isn’t a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.


I’ve tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I’m speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they’ve said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

Follow Opportunities, Not Dreams

I’m up early chasing through UK documents on their worrying lack of digital skills.  A typical UK worker falls behind many other country’s workers in basic IT skills, and I suspect the same is true of many Western countries.  When the digital economy is one of the few bright spots, Western students seem to be turning away from it (unless it’s video game design, everyone wants to be a video game designer – as long as it means playing video games and not actually learning how to code).

We can’t fill jobs in computer related fields, but less and less students are considering the pathway.

One of the prime movers in this shift away from viable employment follows an idea on bad advice I saw from a tech teacher at our school:

“Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.”


As a general rule, parents and students are guided in school to do what makes them happy.  We fill up courses playing hockey, taking photos and give out credits for things kids are doing at home anyway.  It makes for shiny, happy, low stressed students and a great graduation rate, but none of it is really preparing students for the workplace.

We are frequently updated with the number of students from our school who have been accepted to university (only university, the rest don’t matter).  We never see any stats on how many of them finish the degrees they were accepted for.  I suspect that stat isn’t very flattering.  An even less flattering stat would be an income check at the age of thirty.  I wonder what the employment prospects for those university bound students are.  What is their quality of life trying to pay off debts larger than they’ve ever been in history?  Yet that’s where all our ‘good’ students are directed.

I dropped out of high school and became a millwright because I had smart hands and the apprenticeship fell into my lap.  When I didn’t feel like that was intellectually stressful enough I tackled university and then chased the opportunities that arose from it.  I didn’t become a teacher because it was some kind of magical calling, I became a teacher because I was chasing opportunities.

Much of the advice students get in school are from life-long academics.  People who went to school, attended university, and then immediately became employed for life at school again (sometimes the same school they graduated from!)  These people with their carefully proscribed lives don’t experience the world the way the rest of us do.  When I see them telling students to ‘do what makes you happy’ and ‘follow your dreams!’, I cringe.


My son has recently been wondering about getting a job so he can manage his own money, he’s eleven.  I told him, ‘do you know why they call it work?’  He looked at me for a moment and then said, ‘because it isn’t for fun?’  Out of the mouths of babes.  I only wish school guidance would realize that basic truth.

You can derive a great deal of satisfaction out of your work without it being some kind of romantic calling.  Few people live the lives of celebrities, playing a game or making art and wallowing in the money derived from it.  Insinuating that kids could be that person is dishonest at worst and deceiving at best, but how would you know if you’ve never had to struggle for work?  We can all find satisfying and challenging work if we push ourselves and chase opportunity.  Train yourself to better chase opportunity and you’ll find your circumstances will continue to change and improve.  One day you might find yourself in a well paid, challenging profession that you’d never have predicted for yourself.

Or, you know, maybe making a living…

Quinn Norton gives the blather some context.  Hobbies are for fun, your career
is probably not your hobby, and that’s fine, it’s how the world works.


Dairy of a Disenfranchised Coder

The first blog entry I ever wrote (about 18 months ago), spoke of risk aversion in students, but began with a brief ‘why I never pursued computers’.  This one opens that up a a bit and looks at how childhood interests never seem to fade away.

In the 1980s, I became interested in computers because my father wouldn’t buy me an Intellivision game console.  The Vic 20 we got instead became our gaming system, but it was much more.  I’ve carried a sense of intellectual superiority over game consoles ever since.  The Vic could plug in cartridges and play games, but where it really took off was with the datasette.  When we got our hands on that, we suddenly had the ability to save our work.  Before I knew it, I was begging my parents to drive to the only computer store in the area whenever a new COMPUTE! magazine came out so I could type out the basic programs in there.

None of this had anything to do with school.  Our junior high school had 3 Pets in the library, but it was typically a 2 week wait to get half an hour on one.  You had no chance of gaining any kind of familiarity with them.

It started all about video games, but quickly turned to coding.  Instead of buying the latest game (Cosmic Cruncher?), I was saving the paper route money for a 3k memory expander (I kept filling up the 3.5k of working RAM with code).  With more room to move, I began modifying those COMPUTE! programs, turning a road racing game into a Star Wars trench battle or the 8 key sound synthesizer into full keyboard synthesizer.

I’d shown friends what I was doing and soon Ataris and Apples began to appear in the neighborhood.  We’d dictate code while the fastest typer would hammer away at it, then we’d proof and run it.  Hours of speculation and experimentation about how changes might affect things followed.

There was no grade 9 computer course in high school, but I quickly leapt at the grade 10 one in 1985.  By then I had a Commodore 64 at home and we’d all discovered that if you had a good recording deck, you could sound record the cassettes that software came on.  There was a thriving pirating hub in high school with what looked like homemade mixed tapes.  A teacher once took one that was being passed in class and tried to listen to it, it wasn’t pretty.

That grade 10 class used a card reader.  We laboriously spent hours penciling in our lines of code, and would receive a printout off a dot matrix printer (which sounded like a machine gun tearing through silk).  I lasted about a month at this before I became determined to get a printer of my own.  No one else in the school had one, and the only place to find one was half way across the city.  Four bus transfers and a long night of travel got me back home with the printer, only to discover it was defective.  Another six hours on the bus and I was home again with the only dot matrix printer anyone had.

I coded at home, printed out my results and got to bypass the agony of the card reader.  Others begged me for access.  It became a nice sideline and paid for itself in short order.

Our grade 10 computer teacher was a young guy who got the job because he was the only one who could maintain the card reader without it jamming up all the time, he didn’t actually know much about coding (and why would he, he only had a card reader to figure it out on).  I did well in grade 10 intro to computers but was really excited to get into senior computer science.  The astronomer dream had been dashed in grade 10 physics when I discovered, to my horror, that physics was really just lots and lots of math, which I found tedious and unimaginative.  Anything that had only one way to a single solution seemed mind numbingly dull.  I was still hoping to find my niche in computer science though.

Finally able to get onto the senior computer science lab (first gen IBM x86s!), I was stunned to learn that our computer science teacher wanted us to program… math. I found the assignments linear and the teacher, who already knew the mathletes in the class, didn’t have time for anyone else or anything other than mathematical certainty in coding; the opposite of my experimental, hacking approach to programming.  Five years of passionate self-driven learning dissipated in a cloud of frustration and disinterest over that semester.

My parents went to the teacher conference confused at how a kid who spent hours and hours of his free time coding could be such an epic failure in this class.  My weakness in maths was sighted as the problem.  I’d signed up for the grade 12 class in semester two, but withdrew immediately when it started.  The teacher seemed surprised that I’d signed up for consecutive semesters of comp-sci.  I was surprised that he remembered my name.  And so ended my love affair with coding computers.

Of course I maintained an interest in computers, mainly around gaming and hardware, and eventually went on to get some I.T. certifications and even worked in software implementation in a few places, but getting knocked out of the holy grail of computing, the place where you author how a machine thinks, put the idea of working fully in the field beyond reach, and created a sense of self doubt that a teen is only too willing to embrace.

I’m getting computer certified this summer as a teacher.  When I walk into that class in the fall I’m hoping that I can support as many different approaches to coding as there are students in the room.  The last thing I want to do is knock a keen, self directed learner out of a woefully underdeveloped field of study in secondary schools.

Bending People to the Data

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The idea of data driven learning has become very popular.  This isn’t surprising since data is beginning to drive everything.  It becomes problematic when data is manipulated for ulterior, usually political motives rather than being understood in its own context.

It’s a complex series of events that have led us to this point.  We’re living in an age of data where we are recording much of it for the first time.  We mistakenly describe this as ‘creating information’, but we’ve always done that.  What digitization does is allow us to save that data on a massive scale and then make connections in it we couldn’t before.

We’re not creating any more information than we used to, but we are recording it now at an unprecedented rate.

We’ve been experiencing this information forever.  If I went for a ride on my motorbike in the 1950s I would have experienced roughly the same ‘data’ that I’d experience going for a ride now.  The difference now is that the go-pro on my helmet and youtube means that data is saved and shared.  We’re not creating any more information than we did before, but we’re recording it and allowing others to experience data now on an unprecedented scale.

This mass recording and access to data is a relatively new phenomenon so we should take care to contextualize it, but we don’t.  We recognize that data driven methods yield results, but in our rush to enter this brave new world of data we happily ignore what doesn’t suit our goals and take other data out of context if it serves our cause.  When politics or self-promotion drive data selection the benefits of data driven management are in doubt.  Politics and self-promotion always influence data collection and presentation.

Since it is so much easier to record and share data we’re tempted to structure our activities around data creation rather than being present in the genuine experience.  I suspect we’ll get better at this as technology becomes less invasive and allows us to capture moments with minimal interference.  The evolution from TV to analogue video to digital video is a good example of this progress.  But in the early stages of this evolution we’re still awkwardly focusing on data collection rather than genuine experience.  Selfies at the Tour de France this year are an example.  If you watch any live event where people are focused on recording rather than experiencing the moment you’ll know this is endemic.  From the World Cup to the Olympics, the focus on data collection gets in the way of being there.  This creates some interesting changes in experiential value.  You now need to share the experience live rather than relating it after the fact.  Being there is less important than your recording of being there.  Every experience is one step removed.

Education is no different.  Rather than focusing on ways to capture genuine experience in as non-invasive a way as possible, we create artificial situations that produce data for its own sake; standardized testing is a fine example.  Rather than integrating literacy assessment into genuine experience driven learning, we create an artificial testing environment that is designed to produce data.  Students and the complexities of literacy are minor components in that process.  We then base management decisions on the corrupted data that is produced from these artificial situations.

If data collection is the point of the exercise then the data you’re producing is a reflection of the data collection process more than it is a meaningful analysis of whatever it is you think you’re assessing.

Technology needs to be pushed to produce non-invasive ways of collecting genuine data.  Not only will this allow people to bask in the moment rather than ignoring first hand experience to create second rate data, but it will also serve student learning by focusing on the learning itself instead of the data gathering processes.  

We need to stop bending the people to the data and start demanding that the data find us where we are, in genuine experience.  In the meantime it is vital that we don’t blindly believe that there are absolute truths in data that is produced for its own sake with ulterior motives.