What 2020 Taught Me

This is the fifth attempt at this post.  Sometimes, reflecting your way out of dark place professionally takes some iteration.  Previous attempts ended up heaping frustration on top of frustration until it seemed overwhelming again – not the best way to resolve a metaphysical crisis even if it is all true.  I’m not the smartest, most upwardly mobile educator in the world, but I know my craft and I’m good at getting students to express their talents.  I’m also effective under fire and can always find a way to get back on my feet again when the going gets tough.  This year has been a test of that resilience and at times it has broken me, but reflecting on a year where Ontario education has lost the plot more than once has me thinking about a Banksy piece:

I’ve been tempted to leave education a few times over the past year for pastures less politically misdirected, but I genuinely enjoy my work, recognize its social importance and don’t want to walk away while my profession has forgotten its primary purpose in a fog of political misdirection and pandemic panic.  Education matters.  It matters even more in a crisis.  That’s a simple truth 2020 has taught me.  What else has this epically crappy year taught me?


LESSON 1:  The people running ‘the system’ aren’t focused on pedagogy, they’re focused on making it run (at all costs, even if it makes people sick or abuses their lack of privilege)

I’ve known this since I got thrown under the bus for handling my mother’s suicide too slowly, but 2020 has reminded me of systemic intent by shining a harsh light inside the process.  From taking multiple pay cuts to protect student learning in January while admin sat in empty schools collecting salary, to watching the system lurch back into the classroom unprepared in September, 2020 has shown that the most important thing to people running Ontario education is making a schedule and then ensuring it happens.  Pedagogy and equity might come up in the marketing material, but action around it is non-existent.  Threaten the schedule though and you’ll get an immediate reaction.

This came into focus in November when we watched Ontario Education Workers United’s live webcast on how to stop the ‘pedagogically impoverished‘ hybrid/simultaneous online and face to face learning model.  I’ve had a go at this unsustainable and problematic smoke screen of an approach on Dusty World previously.  There was a great deal of dissonance in listening to educational experts like Doctor Beyhan Farhadi talking about pedagogy when the system itself seems to have turned its back on it entirely.

Our absurd pandemic teaching approach reduces in-class instruction to less than half the normal face to face instructional time while making no changes to curriculum expectations because it’s important to retain the appearance of credibility.  Actual pedagogical credibility, let alone equity, compassion and even teacher burnout doesn’t appear to be a consideration unless it’s an email or newsletter – board newsletters have proliferated this year.  2020 has taught me that the system must run at all costs – even at the cost of the people it serves.

Our broken pandemic teaching models also demand that teachers be simultaneously teaching online and face to face to two different groups of students simultaneously all day every day while throwing about a month’s worth of material at students each week.  It’s doing this having cancelled face to face special education support which has led to even further inequity in the classroom.  It’s an approach that has hurt my son directly.  Listening to parents of students with IEPs begging for support and compassion is heart breaking.  I’m going to make a point of honouring that need even if the system appears to be deaf to these calls for help.

The paradigm shifting moment during that OEWU webcast was a Toronto teacher and union activist who approached the fight from a very pragmatic angle.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing), that the system is only interested in making sure the system works and if you want it to take notice you have to stop if from working.  Killing yourself to make a bad system run and then complaining about it isn’t an effective approach.  System administration will only pay attention to you if you stop the system from functioning.  I’m not sure where to take that truth in 2021, but it’s something to keep in mind if you see systemic abuse occurring and want to stop it.

The Ministry mandated full day of racism training we got in September prior to starting an unprecedented change in schooling feels more like a smokescreen rather than any kind of genuine attempt at addressing inequity.  Trot out a day of racism training (entirely delivered by ‘woke’ white women) and then execute a schedule designed to suit privilege while crushing students who don’t have it.

2020 has taught me to see actions, not words, as the real barometer of an institution’s intent.


LESSON 2:  “This isn’t elearning, it’s emergency remote learning”

A wise colleague said this in one of our earliest online remote meetings and it changed my mind about how to teach in a pandemic.  My reaction in a crisis is to display initiative and work to help people, but systemic paralysis was followed by a lurch into elearning with zero support and then a series of baffling changes of direction by the Ministry in terms of what technology we can use.


Ontario’s experiment in remote learning ended when Stephen Lecce came on one Friday afternoon and told students across the province that marks don’t matter in remote learning, which has established a culture of irrelevance in remote learning that continues.  We aren’t supposed to grade any learning that happens remotely and many teachers have given up on it entirely due to poor student engagement.  The system’s zero support is ongoing – we’ve been given no PD or even time to redesign the entire curriculum for remote learning on the fly.  The metaphor of building a plane in the air hasn’t changed, and we’re going back to full remote learning tomorrow.  How do you think that will fly?

2020 has taught me that curriculum is less important than student and staff welfare. It’s a pity the people in charge only pitch wellness emails at this ongoing mental health crisis, but as a classroom teacher my ever shrinking sphere of control still allows me to address it with my  particular students, and I intend to.  While other teachers are crushing students (especially the ones with IEPs) in a desperate quest for academic credibility in a system that’s only pretending to have it, I shall not.  This involves differentiating, which is another one of those pedagogical best practices we’ve burned to the ground during this crisis.

Some students, like myself, want to be engaged and kept busy lest they go mad with frustration!  For those students I will offer the variation and enrichment I’ve always pursued (yes, even in a pandemic), but for the vast majority less is their new normal.  For this group (which includes many teachers), being gentle is more important than being productive.  2020 has taught me that for the majority of people, when the going gets tough, waiting to be told what to doing as little as possible is the way forward.  It doesn’t bode well for a future bulging with ever increasing overpopulation in a limited ecosystem, but it’s the world our systemic myopia has brought us to.

2020 has taught me that pushing broken people only breaks them more, so I won’t be doing that even if the system demands it.

This is indeed emergency remote teaching.  It isn’t a ‘new normal’ and we shouldn’t all be waving flags proclaiming, ‘I got this’.  What we should be doing is looking after the children in our care, supporting their families and our colleagues and making sure that everyone is alright instead of pretending that everything is business as usual.  We can always learn what we missed on the other side of this.  Meanwhile, we’re getting strident ‘you have to provide blah blah minutes of synchronous instruction online‘ directives as we return to our second bout of emergency remote teaching.

There are too many system-people hanging on too tight that need to unclench.  I realize that this is being driven by a sabotaged Ministry, but enforcing it makes you complicit in it.  I’m going to look after my little patch (even the ones with special needs!) and push back if my student wellbeing first approach isn’t deemed appropriate by the powers that be.


LESSON 3:  Most people just want to be told what to do, even in a crisis…

My first instinct in a crisis is to show initiative and try to act in a way that helps, but the system thinkers don’t want you doing that, they want you to fall in line and do what you’re told.  This is problematic for me as my raison d’être in teaching is my agency as a teacher.  When the best I can hope from the system is benign neglect I can get a lot done in my immediate space, but when the system is in crisis it insinuates itself into my classroom and this is infuriating.  If I wanted to give up my idealism I’d go into management.


I’m able to do what I do in the classroom because I have agency.  One of the reasons I enjoy classroom teaching is because I have the latitude to make decisions that aim at the highest ideals and see them through without having to water them down.  In a crisis it seems that systems clamp down on individual agency and demand compliance.  My issue with that is that I’ve never done the bare minimum, always do excessively more and my students benefit from that in many ways.  I refuse do my job in an online lockstep of systemic expectations, especially if they’re designed for marketing a fiction of a full school experience during a pandemic that is preventing exactly that.  I have no interest in misleading people, most especially my students.


Not all teachers are above-and-beyonders, but I gotta tell ya, the vast majority are.  You’d be hard pressed to find a single teacher in my school that doesn’t do extracurriculars and work on the weekend.  Given some latitude they’ll do more than the minimum simply because they are professionals.  2020 has taught me that I don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom, but I would like to work for a system that recognizes my professionalism and honours it instead of treating me like an errant child.

Many people want to be told what to do and wait for that direction.  You’d think that would change in a crisis but it seems to intensify.  I’ve occasionally had leaders who recognize my need for action and honour it, but they are a minority.  I suspect this is a control issue for most.  Many people find invasive and systemic control a comfort, but for some it feels like strangulation.

Reading Matt Crawford’s latest book, Why We Drive, this fall while I was getting waterboarded at work taught me how to differentiate to students in a crisis by recognizing the need for human agency in an increasingly automated world.  Some people need clear direction and eased expectations while others want to exercise their agency and do something to help.  I only hope that the people running things recognize that.  We could get a lot more done if the doers weren’t being strangled by system lockstep thinking; we need to do much more than we are.

***

We’re about to step back into emergency remote learning after the mid-winter break, which hasn’t been much of a break at all.  Everyone looks grey, stressed out and exhausted.  We are probably not even half way through this pandemic marathon but I’m not about to let it diminish my professional scope.  My classroom will recognize that my students might be providing daycare for their siblings or working to support parents who have lost their jobs.  Others may live in rural locations with spotty internet or might be trying to do remote learning on ancient or poorly working technology that they only have occasional access to.  The school system likes to ignore these issues while sternly demanding full days of remote synchronous instruction.  I’m not going to demand that because I have no interest in maintaining a vicious government’s fiction of business as usual in the classroom.  What I am going to do is help where I can, give each student what they need to feel like they’re achieving something (anything) in this crisis, and make sure the ones who want to do more have the tools and material to create the agency they crave at a time of forced helplessness.  If everyone wakes up the next day feeling recognized and enabled then that’s a sound pedagogical goal.

Personally?  2020 taught me not to throw myself into the massive gap between the system’s failure to do what it should and what my students need, because it’s unsustainable.  I’m not helping anyone if I hurt myself trying to make up for the lack of vision demonstrated by the thousands of people ‘above’ me on the org chart.  I’ll read my Tao Te Ching and follow Lao Tsu’s advice and withdraw when my work is done.  2020 has taught me that the system will happily let me burn myself out attempting to resolve its shortcomings.

To hold and fill a cup to overflowing Is not as good as to stop in time.
Sharpen a sword edge to its very sharpest, And the (edge) will not last long.
When gold and jade fill your hall, You will not be able to keep them.
To be proud with honour and wealth Is to cause one’s own downfall.
withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s Way.


2020 also taught me that the education system’s academic focus is a fiction we all tell ourselves to justify its existence, but it’s actually much more foundational than that.  The deeper truth is that the system should be less about curriculum and more about equity and inclusion.  Public education is one of our best tools for socially enabling everyone to become their best selves.  If we approached this pandemic by differentiating our expectations and working from a place of compassion and inclusion instead of fake academic integrity we’d do more good and teach students about things that genuinely matter, like kindness.  Ultimately, education should be about recognizing individual needs and enabling students to express their best selves, the rest is paperwork.

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The Most Underused Resource In Education

*** in Ontario teachers have to undergo an in-class review every five years by one of the school administration ***

The other day our six month pregnant one contract/LTO teacher was running around in a panic trying to get dodgey board laptops to work with dodgey board projectors on the dodgey board network.  Her panic was the result of a VP coming into her class for her review.  I’ve seen this happen with many teachers, young and old; the panic over admin coming in to review their teaching practices.

The stress of poor board technology practices aside, this review of teaching practices by admins bothers me on a couple of levels.

Back in the day, when I was in millwright training, my old Jamaican mentor told me the story of our department boss.  He had a mechanical background, but he was incredibly lazy.  His fame came from being able to slide under a truck and fall asleep on night shift for hours at a time.  He was so bad at the work that the company had no choice but to promote him into management.  I’ve since come to realize that this was a pretty pessimistic view of how managers become managers, but as an impressionable nineteen year old listening to a man who never told me a lie, it seemed the truth.  I’ve always been cautious about management as a result, never assuming that they are somehow superior because of their title.

There is no doubt that leadership in education is a vital component, and we all hope that the people playing those administrative parts do it for all the right reasons (and not because they were such a disaster in the classroom that it was better for them to manage).  What I don’t understand is why admin are mandated to come into a teacher’s class and somehow assess their ability to teach.  What makes an administrator qualified to meaningfully review classroom teaching?  Whether an administrator opted out of the classroom because they found it tedious, difficult or simply wanted a change, the simple truth is that they aren’t teaching, and in many cases didn’t for very long before they stepped into a management role. Asking them to review something they dropped after a short period of time seems… odd.  Administrators are generally not master teachers.

I have no trouble with sharing my practice and would encourage teachers to experience each other’s classrooms at every possible opportunity, this isn’t about advocating for a closed classroom, and I’m not advocating for the removal of teacher in-class review, just who is doing it.

In most cases vice principals and principals take on these roles not because they were expert teachers, but because their interests lie elsewhere.  This would suggest that teaching was never their strong suit.  Taking on school leadership roles is a very heavy load, and I can appreciate the fact that some teachers want to put the classroom behind them and take that on; it’s important work and a great challenge.  What I can’t understand is why those same people are now mandated to sit in on a teacher’s classes and review their teaching skills.

In the case of a new teacher, it seems like it might help and offer them a bit of mentorship in the process, but what about the case of the twenty five year veteran of the classroom?  The master teacher who has not only survived but thrived in the role of teacher?  How does a VP with five years in-class experience assess that?  Do they even know what they’re looking at?

Those same veteran teachers are the most underused resource in education.  Department headships, like VP and principal positions, are administrative, they offer little in the way of teaching focused career enhancement.  Telling a senior teacher that this should be their focus isn’t honouring the expertise they have developed from years working with students actually teaching.

It might seem like a rather simple idea, but why don’t those senior teachers take on this role of in-class review and mentorship?  Having a senior teacher from my own department drop in for a lesson and a talk would be instructive for me, demonstrate respect for their skills and allow expert teachers to express their mastery.  It would also create a continuous sense of valid professional development within departments.  Instead of a fairly pointless and closely monitored five year review by people who don’t even want to work in a classroom any more, how about an ongoing senior teacher review (20+ years in the classroom in order to take on that role).

The administrative arm of things does important work, but to say they have the experience and skill to determine what a front line teacher is doing right or wrong in a classroom is ridiculous.  Instead of driving our senior teachers into administration as if that is the only opportunity for ‘advancement’, why not recognize mastery in a very challenging environment, and encourage those with that expertise to share what they know?

A Bits & Bytes Reboot

 Hello TVO,

I’m active on Teach Ontario and my wife has been a regional councillor with you; we’re both big supporters of TVO.

A long time ago as a 10 year old new immigrant to Canada in the early 1980s I came across Bits & Bytes as I was teaching myself how computers worked.  This became a career in IT that has since morphed into a career in education where I’ve coached students in my small town to national championships in Skills Canada and ICTC’s CyberTitan Student Cybersecurity Competition.

I frequently write about the dearth of computer skills in the education system and society at large.  This one from 2017 is a good exampleThe article that kicked off that blog post offers a staggeringly dark view of digital fluency not just in Canada but around the world.  We have all become increasingly dependent on computer technology while simultaneously wallowing in ignorance around how it all works.

I think back to how Bits & Bytes influenced a whole generation of Ontarians to take on this emerging technology and think it’s time for a reboot.  If we’re going to plug our children into networks for their learning and live our lives in digital spaces then we all need to have a basic understanding of how these digital technologies work or we’re inviting abuse and manipulation.  ICT (information and communications technology) is now considered a critical infrastructure by the government of Canada, yet most Canadians are essentially illiterate in it even as they come to depend on it more and more.

If you ever decide to put together a B&B reboot and are looking for people to work on it I’m all in.  TVO’s mandate is to transform learning through digital technology, but if we don’t understand that technology then we’re nothing more than easily manipulated consumers of it.  Addressing this illiteracy would also raise Ontario’s place on an increasingly interconnected world stage.  Bring back Bits & Bytes 21st Century Edition and help educate Ontarians on the technology we’re all living our lives through!

Sincerely,

Tim King

Elora, ON

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Academic Integrity And Other Lies We Tell About Pandemic Teaching

My son works hard at school and just got his grade 10 honour roll in the mail.  At the same time we got his first quadmester of pandemic learning report card and we were all shocked to see a precipitous drop in grades that means he won’t be on next year’s honour roll.  Unlike previous years where the school made a point of acknowledging his individual education plan and supported him by ‘encouraging’ teachers to follow the medical recommendations on it, this year any support provided had to be snuck in because all support has been officially cancelled due to COVID19.  Classroom teachers can have double cohorts of 20 students coming off busses with 35+ students on them every day, but all supports are cancelled because we don’t want to spread the virus.  Keeping up with the demands of SAFETY when they are so arbitrary and ineffective is exhausting and frustrating.

As a parent of a child with an IEP I’m concerned that our double digit drop in grades is a system wide situation affecting hundreds of thousands of students with special learning needs across the province.  Talking to parents of students with special needs, this seems to be what is happening everywhere.  Kid’s with special needs are getting ground down by this rushed and cruel schedule.

The pandemic schedule slapped together by school boards is different all over the province as the Minister and Ministry of Education failed to demonstrate any leadership in planning a centralized response to this emergency.  The result is a cobbled together mess that makes a mockery of educational expectations in (what was once) one of the highest ranked public education systems in the world.

I’ve worked in Ontario’s public education system for sixteen years and while the system has been far from perfect it has always made attempts to follow data driven, responsible pedagogy.  The other night I attended an online meeting of Ontario Education Workers United who are trying to stop stacked simultaneous face to face and online classes.  It was jarring to hear them talk about pedagogical best practices because it has been so long since I’ve seen any.  I’ve always been led to believe that we follow the research in order to produce the best possible educational outcomes for the widest variety of students.  Those days focused on best practices are far behind us.  I’m still trying to work out how we were on strike last year trying to protect student learning, but this year a virus gives us an excuse to throw it all in the toilet.  I really don’t know what any of the players in public education (unions, school board, ministries, colleges of teachers, etc) that I pay for actually stand for as 2020 closes.  It certainly isn’t equity and support for students with special needs.

What I do see in public education, especially in the past two years, is a government intent on dismantling it for private, for-profit interests.  Meanwhile, as the funding dries up, educational management (which you can only join with a raft of post-graduate degrees) operates on their usual bias of protecting the students most like themselves.  This is upsetting both as a parent and a teacher.  When money is thin those special needs are just an expensive and expendable bother.  This is starting to feel like an unwinnable battle as the parents of special needs kids have to stand up against a biased system and a political party that seems determined to hurt them.

COVID has only intensified this inequitable situation.  This slapped together, high-speed schedule that fakes an appropriate amount of instructional time (we’re at 52.5 hours of face to face instruction down from 110 hours) has no room for students with special needs.  I’d love to see the live data we’ve already got for quadmester one but no one will want to show it because it won’t be flattering.  We only follow the data when it suits us these days.  The credit completion rates of fully remote elearning will pile on top of the grade drops and failures with face to face students to paint a damning picture of this ‘new normal’, but no one wants to work from that kind of data.

I sympathize with teachers struggling to retain some form of academic integrity when the system itself has made a mockery of it.  Ontario curriculums are designed to be 110 hours long.  Teachers are desperately trying to meet those requirements while being given a fraction of the time needed.  We’re doing 52.5 hours of in-class instruction in multiple cohorts so students are in either face to face in the morning or the afternoon.  This is done to keep group sizes under 20, which is wise during a pandemic, though when they stream off buses with up to 40 students on them (while f2f spec-ed support is cancelled) you have to wonder where the random lines are being drawn, and why.

 


More confusing are the instructions around the online half of the school day students are ‘supposed’ to be doing at home.  That remote work is where we’re supposed to make up the other half of lost course time, but we’ve been told we can’t assess anything done remotely and students and/or parents can opt out of it entirely while still earning a credit.  Most teachers seem to have responded to this by marking in a way that is specifically damaging to students with special learning needs, all in the name of academic integrity.

An argument might be made that if the same qualified teacher is running their own remote cohorts then a degree of online instructional effectiveness might be achieved, but I’ve yet to have a teacher qualified to teach my subject as remote support and I’m currently remote supporting a class I’m not qualified or experienced in.  My make-work job there is reduced to helping students find links and make things work online, if they bother to show up, which a third of the class (the third with IEPs) aren’t doing anyway.  We could have limited class sizes to single cohorts for classes with only one qualified teacher in the building, or even connected remote teachers between schools for specialized classes, but none of that happened because qualified teachers and even instructional time doesn’t matter anymore.

You can find this right on the Ministry webpage, but it isn’t true in a pandemic.  The only thing your child with special needs can expect at the moment is to get run over by speeding quadmesters.  Do try and keep them engaged and upbeat during a marathon health emergency though because you can’t expect their schools to be doing it.


Many IEPs will state that a student needs extra time in order to see success in their class, and board administration is expected to adhere to supports for these special needs.  Our own experience getting run over by a rushed quadmester with little or no communication and sudden drops in marks without explanation, support or even an option for extra time is the result of teachers clinging to academic integrity when no one else is, from the Minister on down.  It’s a war parents of kids with special needs can’t win because it seems as if the entire education system has come out in favour of punishing students with IEPs.

Special education is a human rights issue, but you can bet the lawyers are all over the health & safety not withstanding piece in there right now, though they’re strangely quiet about 40 kids on a bus.  Discarding spec-ed supports is a top down decision done by a government with a history of special-needs abuse

At a time when everyone is under exceptional stress and trying to deal with a seemingly never ending health crisis you’d think the education system would focus on equity and support for those students most in need, but the opposite has happened.  Service providers have an obligation to accomodate a person’s needs but this pandemic has unfortunately shown the true colours of both this government, the ministry it has infected and school boards who were more focused on rushing out a solution instead of looking after our most vulnerable students.  Now that the new system is in place you can expect it to continue running over students with special needs which now includes an increasing number of non-IEPed students who are facing anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic.

Expecting reason and compassion from the minister is a lost cause.  I can only hope people in leadership positions elsewhere in the system take their responsibilities more seriously and start acting to support students and redirect teachers away from playing a part in this latest round of systemic inequity.  We need to stop the myth that these cobbled together pandemic quadmesters have any kind of academic integrity, equity or kindness.  Only then can we fix it, and fix it we must.

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Behold! The Essay-inator!

In this corner, weighing in as the inevitable future, I give you: the writing algorithm!
… and in this corner, weighing in as a lazy, nineteenth century habit that no one can shake: tedious, overly structured High School English writing!


The trick is going to be creating an algorithm that plagiarism checkers won’t catch.  That shouldn’t be too hard as they tend to look for matching text, and any good algorithm would put the pieces together in varying ways depending on the variables given.


With a proscribed structure similar to sports stories or financial reports, it should be fairly easy to get Narrative Science to modify their writing engine to accept key points and put together a five paragraph essay that perfectly follows the tediously exact, point-proof-explanation requirements of high school essay writing.


The process should go something like this:

  • student logs in to the website and enters brainstorming ideas based on a cursory reading on the subject matter (Macbeth should be covered in 20 minutes, tops)
  • thesis (an arguable statement) is generated based on ideas given (or offered, depending on how much you want to put into this)
  • supporting points are suggested.  The algorithm places them in order of importance based on the number of hits and positive previous reviews, student picks the ones that grab them
  • the algorithm finds quotes from the play and lit crit that relate to each supporting point
  • body paragraphs are constructed following point/proof/explanation around chosen quotes
  • introduction and conclusion are generated based on body paragraphs
  • student reviews the paper for vocabulary or wording that doesn’t suit their style
  • if too complicated a word is used, the student can right click and get a list of synonyms
  • the completed paper, using variable data, is unique, and presented in the vicinity of the student’s knowledge of the subject matter, working vocabulary and writing style
Behold my essay-inator!

The point and click essay is finally here!


The efficiencies here should be obvious.  A typical paper requires hours of reading, then re-reading looking for quotes, then formulation of ideas, then organization… hours and hours!  This process could have a student sit down with a Shakespearean play they’ve never seen before, and have a finished essay completed in under an hour, on their smartphone!

They are still the authors, we’ve just taken the tedium and soulless nature of high school writing and given it to a machine, which only seems fair.

***

This is written facetiously, but it does raise a couple of interesting questions.  If high school writing requires such heavy duty plagiarism checking and tends to be about the same subjects using the same formats, and marked with the same rubrics year after year, what is the point?

If these guys have come up with an algorithm that can write data driven, structurally sound pieces this well, how long will it be before someone has put together a five paragraph essay-inator?  The only thing more soulless and formulaic than financial writing or sports reporting is high school English writing.  Time to let the computers do what they do best and take this repetitive, tedious work and do it more efficiently!

Up next, mechanized marking of essays: time to take the tedium out of being an English teacher!

If this works out well, we’ll be able to have students ‘write’ essays, and have them ‘marked’ in a matter of seconds!

Now that’s progress!


Psychology, Cybersecurity and Collaboration in Educational Technology

We were beta testing Field Effect’s state of the art Cyber Range online cybersecurity training system this week in our grade 10 TEJ introduction to computer technology course.  Our skill levels in that open class range from two students who are top ten in Canada in the CyberTitan student cybersecurity competition in their respective disciplines, to students who have never owned a personal computer at home because their parents thought a series of gaming consoles would adequately prepare them for life in the Twenty-First Century.


The challenges of keeping students with such diverse skillsets engaged in a single classroom aside, I’d agreed to beta-test this software because it offers a way past one of the biggest blocks to schools entering the Cyberpatriot/CyberTitan competition.  To participate in the competition you need a desktop or powerful enough laptop computer being run by an operating system that can do more than just browse webpages through a single corporation’s lensVirtual machines are whole computers that can be simulated in a single window, and they offer a valuable tool in examining cybersecurity issues without putting your school network or computers in peril (installing a virus to see what it does on a school computer would produce obvious headaches).  If things go wrong in a virtual machine you just shut the window.

The Field Effect remote software ran fantastically well on our DIY student built classroom desktops and would work equally well on something as simple as a Chromebook,though trying to do this through a single, tiny 1366 pixel wide monitor would be a headache.

Once we got everything up and running I reminded students that they were manipulating a remote, virtual computer stored on a server in Ottawa.  When you’re aware of what’s happening behind the screen, seeing what we can do on networks with enough bandwidth, like the one we now have at school, is mind blowing.


The cybersecurity gurus at Field Effect didn’t muck about when they set up this virtual online image.  When you first boot up the compromised Windows 10 image you’re met with a full screen warning with flashing lights and a locked screen telling you that you’ve been ransomwared.


Even though students had been repeatedly prepared for this and I’d explained what a virtual machine was and how whatever happens in it doesn’t hurt anything, this threw half of them into a panic.  The responses ranged from randomly mashing buttons to giving up, sitting back and loudly commenting on how stupid everything was.  That’s in an optional course full of students who have demonstrated an interest and willingness to learn computer technology.  The vast majority of students (and staff) in education don’t get nearly that much training, yet they’re all still increasingly depended on digital technology in every class they’re in.

The psychology of the attack was interesting.  The flashing warnings and countdown timer did what it was supposed to do with anyone lacking in digital skills (which is a startlingly large number of people in Canada in 2020).  Cybercriminals depend on this technical illiteracy.  My CyberTitans and many of the other digitally savvy kids in the room right clicked on the flashing screen and exited ‘full screen’ mode, which brought them back to a desktop, which some then got lost in:


This ‘geek prank’ fake WindowsXP desktop was also on ‘full screen’ behind the ransomware fullscreen warning, but even when others showed students trapped by the ransomware screen the same F11/exit full screen way out of it, many had already succumbed to frustration and had given up (again).  Several spent long minutes in the fake XP desktop trying to do things even when it said ‘fake XP simulator’ right on the screen.  Being unresponsive to what a computer is telling you when things aren’t working right is a common response in weak users.

The digitally skilled CyberTitans were past the two blocks in seconds and were figuring out how to secure this hacked Windows 10 laptop and restore control for the proper user on it.  More than 70% of the class were stuck in two hacks that were so easily resolved that I was left wondering how we could back things up and restore their mangled pride.  Many of them, only a few days before, had done “my-experience-with-technology” presentations where they’d described themselves as digitally savvy, on Thursday morning this was in tatters.

The actual work of a cybersecurity operator in a case like this is not just to return things to normal but also to diagnose and identify the attack vector.  In an administrative user account that shouldn’t have been on the machine there were files and instructions for how to run the malware, and even some background in downloads and browser histories that explained why this other employee had done what they did, but many of the students – including the quick movers, quickly deleted the evidence instead of forensically examining it.

This brought up the opportunity to talk about how much of what information security professionals do in our very networked world is more like a detective than a traffic cop.  It isn’t just a matter of making sure every user complies with expectations, it’s also vital to understand how the system was compromised because this will guide future security defensive settings.  It’s things like this that have me wondering why there are no cybersecurity courses running in any Ontario high school, or no mention of cybersecurity in Ontario computer technology curriculum.  Any mention of security in the curriculum is rooted in 20th Century ideas of passwords or at best wifi encryption, the world has moved on.  The cloud-based networked world we’re all leveraging in every classroom in Ontario goes unmentioned.

Once we got past the opening chaos, many students got into the detail work of repairing settings deep inside Windows, restoring control to the correct user and locking down firewalls that the ransomware had opened up.  If this all sounds greek to you it shouldn’t, you’re using all those things right now to read this.  And you and your students are using them every time you have them login to a cloud based service.  We’re all offering an ‘attack surface‘ to cybercriminals whenever we go into the cloud, but pretty much everyone is blissfully unaware of it.  People (users) are part of that cyberattack surface.  Not addressing cyber-illiteracy means you’ve just opened up opportunities for bad actors.

The problem then became all the wounded male pride in the room.  The students who struggled and gave up were also the ones who adamantly refused to get up and collaborate with the other people in our mono-gendered morning cohort.  Fragile male pride means you can’t be asking for help – or collaborating, especially in a subject where you’ve convinced yourself you’re an expert.  The more gender balanced afternoon cohort was constantly communicating and hive-minded their way through the infected image so effectively that most of them actually finished it with a perfect score.

The opening hacks were a source of laughter rather than long faces in the afternoon group.  The lack of collaboration in the morning cohort and then the negativity that descended was something I’m thinking about as we proceed into our violently crushed quadmester.  I’ve encouraged collaboration in face to face computer tech classes as no one works alone in modern tech jobs, yet the boys seem at a distinct advantage when it comes to creating or engaging in collaborative work, though even a small population of girls changes this dynamic.

This is an even bigger problem in my conservative country school where girls are peer and system pressured out of taking technology courses.  I’m lucky to have 10% female participation in my junior computer technology courses.  In senior courses we’re lucky to have a single girl in any of the classes of up to thirty-one students.  The is problematic beyond our classroom.  Women are least engaged in engineering and computer science where the most lucrative careers currently are.

At the end of the day many students got their first glimpse into cybersecurity and a number of them are curious, which is good because we need to open up this pathway to students.  My original intent in giving this a try was to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their technical skills, but a surprisingly large chunk of the class, including students I thought would dig through it more effectively, were startlingly quick to give up and get pwned by some pretty simple hacks.  This is making me wonder how Ontario students are doing in our half elearning face to face and fully remote learning courses during this pandemic.  I fear our level of technical fluency is so shallow that unless online teachers are all doing simplistic, repetitive tasks that require no actual digital fluency, they and their students are unable to effectively engage.  This goes a long way to explain poor online engagement.

From the latest attempt to encourage Ontario
Educators to integrate cybersecurity into their
practice, especially if they’re putting children
on hackable online devices.

I realize that cybersecurity scares the daylights out of most people (I’ve spent the past 3 years trying to engage Ontario educators in it to poor effect), but if we’re going to be putting more and more of our education system into digital spaces then we’re all responsible for raising digital fluency to the point where everyone can demonstrate resiliency in the face of unexpected outcomes.  At the moment, throwing up your hands in the air and giving up seems to be the solution for too many people.  Hopefully things like ICTC’s work with Field Effect will help spread a deeper and more resilient tool for improving cyber-fluency.  Everyone working in the cloud needs this.

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Debates of the Future

The data wranglers sat in a loose circle behind the cameras frantically shaping the data clouds around their candidates. The debating format hadn’t changed too much, but the show certainly had. Parties no longer threw candidates into the ring alone, a successful debate required a huge, group commitment. Candidates, party members of even the general public throwing in prioritized, well timed comments could make or break at debate in the new age.

The lights in the studio blazed on the candidates while they took great care to stay away from the dreaded O.R.L.. Out Right Lies became the killer app, as long as you had a good wrangler and a responsive party. Stating an ORL was a game killer, especially if your wrangler could get the pertinent data on the screen while your opponent was still speaking it. At best you looked ignorant, at worst manipulative and dishonest, if caught speaking a lie as the facts swirled around you to the contrary.
Rehearsals for debates now more closely resembled a football practice, with researchers, commenters and wranglers, than it did the solo focus of pre-crowd sourced debates; debates were now a team sport. What you needed in your party leader was someone who knew what they stood for, didn’t have a lot of mental space for playing a crowd and could reach out and make meaningful contact with people with their rhetoric. The idea of gaming democracy was so fifty years ago.
The real danger came from the audience. The peripheries of the camera shots in three dimensions belonged to the digital crowd. Old fashioned rules surrounding civilized conduct were still strictly enforced, but comments from credible sources carried weight, and if the crowd trended a comment high enough, it could actually impact the size of the data cloud around a candidate. Parties no longer ignored a credible analyst, they feared them. Positive comments could trend very well, but a high trending negative comment could cut like a knife. When the liar tag pushed to the very edge of a candidate in a previous debate, ultimately costing them the election, politicians realized that telling mistruths was a disaster in the making, especially if you were pinned to the lie while you were still speaking it.
Next time around they all tried to avoid saying anything specific, only to be turned on by the mob once again. When given a chance, voters are happy to call their bluff, and did. You can’t speak the nonsense of empty words, or mob mockery would quickly follow. Say what you mean, and mean something. Switching party positions just to try and win votes was likely to get you a face full of contrary video clips from your own lips from previous months. Being a consistent, values driven politician who acted on stated beliefs was your own real protection.
The debate raged on, politics laid bare. Trending thoughts, data in the form of text notes, video links, charts and other statistics appeared and peeled off into separate dialogs on secondary and tertiary feeds, sometimes trending back onto the main feed again. The audience watching the debate could follow the main feed, which looked a lot like the old television version, as it followed the speakers back and forth, or they could follow trending data, a specific candidate or manually direct themselves to any of the camera feeds available.
Data stormed around the candidates as they had to lay it all bare, nothing held back, egged on by the digital mob; gladiators in a fearsomely complicated storm of ideas that everyone participated in.

Surveillance Capitalism and Educational Technology

I’m currently finishing Matt Crawford’s third book, Why We Drive.  His first book, Shop Class As Soulcraft arrived just when I was transitioning out of years of academic classrooms into technology teaching and it helped me reframe my understanding of my manual skills that are generally seen  as less-than by the education system I work in.

Why We Drive looks at how we’re automating human agency under the veil of safety, ease of use and efficiency.  But in examining the work of the technology companies providing this technology, Crawford ends up uncovering a nasty new version of voracious surveillance capitalism at work in the background.


In an education system that can’t get into bed with the masters of surveillance capitalism quickly enough (we’re a ‘Google Board’ full of ‘Google Teachers’), this makes for particularly uncomfortable reading.  Crawford makes persuasive, well researched arguments for why we shouldn’t be leaping into Google’s brave new world.  Meanwhile I’m watching public education indoctrinate children into feeding the cult of Google.

Crawford comes at this from the point of view of driving because Google and the other attention merchants are very excited about moving us to driverless cars in the near future, and Crawford is skeptical about their motivations for doing this.  From Shop Class As Soul Craft to The World Beyond Your Head and now in Why We Drive, Crawford has always advocated for human agency over automation, especially when that automation is designed to simplify and ease life to the point where it’s obvious we’re heading for a Wall-E like future of indolent incompetence in the caring embrace of an all-powerful corporation.


Situated intelligence is a recurring theme in Crawford’s thinking and he sees it as one of the pinnacles of human achievement.  He makes strong arguments for why surveillance capitalists aren’t remotely interested in human agency and the situated intelligence it leads to, and he fears that this will ultimately damage human capacity.  Among the many examples he gives is that of London taxi drivers:

Google isn’t the only target in this book.  Tesla’s misleading manipulation of crash data in self driving cars and Uber’s manipulation of markets using its capitalization to dismantle existing industries that were providing a service within market forces are also targets.  Uber and Tesla’s goals align with feeding the Google engine more human experience (that’s where the money is), though this is often hidden behind marketing around safety, ease of use and efficiency closely tied to unarguable issues like climate change .  The quote above describes the difference between a London cabbie who has to commit to years of ‘deep cognitive accomplishment‘ in order to become a driver in the city.  Uber’s thinly veiled attack on an otherwise viable career by using untrained, underpaid and ultimately disposable drivers to break that livelihood before replacing them with automation is damning.  What ‘tech’ companies say seldom aligns with what they do.


‘Free’ means something different in surveillance
capitalism.  Note the accessibility and simplicity,
a common idea in edtech marketing, because
learning digital tools doesn’t mean understanding
them, it means learning to consume on them.

I can’t help but see parallels with educational technology.  We recently had another technology committee meeting where it was decided that once again we would buy hundreds of Google Chromebooks: simple yet powerful devices with built-in accessibility and security features to deepen classroom connections and keep user information safe”   Notice the hard sell on safety and security, like something out of Tesla and Uber’s misinformation marketing plans.  The reason your student data is safe is because Google is very protective of ‘its’ data, and make no mistake, once you’re in Google’s ecosystem, your data IS their data.


These plug in to our ‘walled garden’ of Google Education products that keep iterating to do more and more for students and staff until they’re sending emails no human wrote and generating digital media automatically, all while saving every aspect of user input.  Board IT and myself argued for a diversity of technology in order to meet more advanced digital learning needs, but advanced digital learning isn’t what we’re about, even though we’re a school.  Digital tools now mean ease of use and cost savings (though this is questionable), they are no longer a tool for learning as they increasingly do the work for us.

As Crawford suggests, the intention of these tools is ultimately to automate our actions and direct us towards a purchase.  That fact that we’re dropping millions of dollars in public funding at best familiarizing students with their future consumer relationship with technology is astonishing.  As big tech gains access to increasingly personal information, like your geographic location, patterns of movement and even how you ergonomically interact with a machine, personal data gets harder to anonymize.  The push is to get into all aspects of life in order to collect data that will serve the core business… 

Crawford offers example after example of technology companies that offer ease of use and accessibility under the unassailable blanket of safety, ease of use and efficiency.  This too has crept into education technology, where instead of taking personal responsibility for our use of technology we surrender that critical effort to the inscrutable powers that be.  One of the intentions of the new normal is to produce people that do not question authority because a remote, cloud based authority is unquestionable.


From Shop Class forward Crawford has been critical of the ‘peculiarly chancy and fluid‘ character of management thinking, which also falls easily into the safety/automation argument being provided by the richest multi-nationals in the world.  That system managers fit in well with system think shouldn’t be a surprise, but for anyone left in the education system who is still trying to focus on developing situated intelligence, it’s a completely contrary and damaging evolution.  I shouldn’t be surprised that the people running things want to cut out the complexity in favour of safety and ease of use (even if that isn’t what’s really being offered), but any teacher thus focused has lost the plot.

Google and the rest don’t ‘give’ software to education any more than they ‘give’ software to the general public.  All of their instruments ‘serve its core business of advertising‘.  Andrew Campbell has long had an eye on this, not that any critical analysis has stopped Ontario’s educational management from hoping into bed with Google and the rest as quickly as it can.

And how do you automate people?  Get them in the system as soon as possible and make it familiar.  Forcing children to learn corporation specific tools instead of offering them platform agnostic access to educational technology is a good starting point.


There are still questions around how student data is used by Google. Crawford highlights how location data can’t be anonymized (it’s like a finger print and very individually specific), so even if your corporate overlord isn’t putting a name on a data set, they can still tell whose data it is.  Location data is a very rich vein of personal information to tap if you’re an advertising company, which is why Google is interested in developing self-driving cars and getting everyone into convenient maps.  Unless you’re feeding their data gathering system they don’t lift a finger.

Towards the end of the book Crawford leans heavily on Shoshana Zuboff’s (Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus in case you’re questioning the validity of this research)  Surveillance Capitalism, which came out in 2019.   Zuboff makes multiple appearances in Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, which explains how surveillance capitalism has developed as a cancer immune to society’s protective processes because it goes after something that has no legal protections:  our digital/cloud based data.  As an economic weapon, a US law from the late nineties that absolved social media companies from responsibility for what appears on their sites under the name of ‘internet freedom’ has done untold damage around the world.


Crawford goes so far as to describe this as a new kind of colonialism that we’re all under the yoke of, but passive analysis isn’t the end goal.  He shows experiments like Pokemon Go (created by Google) as a test in active manipulation.  The goal isn’t to create a new level of advertisement based on predictive algorithms, it’s to build an adaptive system that can sublty manipulate user responses without them even realizing it.  In doing so he also explains why so many people are feeling so disenfranchised and are making otherwise inexplicable, populist political decisions:


Google’s mapping projects are situated in colonialist intent (empires make maps in order to control remote regions).  By mapping the world and giving everyone easy access to everywhere, local knowledge becomes worthless and a remote standard of control becomes a possibility.  Smart cities are shown in this light.  The language around all ‘smart’ initiatives from edtech to smart cities all follow the same ease of use/efficiency/safety/organizational marketing language.  This language is unassailable (are you saying you don’t want efficiency, safety, ease of use and organisation?)  This thinking is so ubiquitous that even trying to think beyond it is becoming impossible.  Though tech-marketing suggests that ease/efficiency/safety is the intent, the actual point is data collection to feed emerging markets of predictive and influencer marketing; digital marketing is Big Brother.  Orwell was right, but he couldn’t imagine a greater power than centralized government in the Twentieth Century.  The Twenty-First Century produced the first world governments, but they are corporations driven by technology enabled mass data gathering that are neither by nor for the people.

There is no way out of the endless cage Google is constructing.  Self-driving cars and driving itself are the mechanism by which Crawford uncovers an unflattering and insidious form of capitalism that has already damaged our political landscape and looks set to damage human agency for decades to come under the guise of safety, efficiency, ease of use and security.

Any criticism of this is in violation of the cartel that supports and is supported by it and results in a sense of alienation that leads to anger and populist resentment.  Governments, including public education, can’t tap into this ‘free’ technology fast enough, but of course it isn’t free at all, and what we’re giving up in the pursuit of easy, efficient and safe is at odds with the freedom of action it takes from us.

I’ve long held that understanding technology allows you to author it instead of it authoring you.  In the detailed Guardian surveillance capitalism article by John Naughton, Zuboff makes a point of stating that digital communications are not inherently monopolistic in intent which is something Matt hasn’t done in Why We Drive (I get the sense that he doesn’t like digital technology in any capacity):

“While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those.”
There was a time when digital technology wasn’t being driven by advertising.  The early internet wasn’t the orderly, safe and sanitized place it is becoming, but it was a powerful change in how we worked together as a species.  I don’t know that I buy in to all of Matt’s arguments in Why We Drive, but his fundamental belief that we should be using technology to enhance human ability rather than replacing it is something I can’t help but agree with, and any teacher focused on pedagogy should feel the same way.

Why We Drive is the latest in a series of books and media that is, after years of political and psychological abuse, looking to provide society with a white blood cell response to surveillance capitalism.  Rather than taking some of the most powerful technology we’ve ever created and aiming it at making a few psychopaths rich while enfeebling everyone else, my great hope is that our understanding of this nasty process will give us the ability to take back control of digital technologies and develop them as tools to enhance human capabilities instead.  We need to do that sooner than later because the next century is going to decide the viability of the human race for the long term and we need to get past this greed and short sightedness in order to focus on the bigger problems that face us.  We could start in education by taking back responsibility for how we use and teach our children about digital technologies.


***


I’ve long been raging against the corporate invasion of educational technology:

 






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Thankless Jobs and Crooked Paths

Top to bottom in education. There’s a
workplace stream ‘beneath’ vocational,
but that isn’t worth mentioning?

The prejudice against manual skill is ongoing in Ontario education.  I was chatting with one of our auto-shop teachers the other day and we were both lamenting the abuse of our manual skills in the halls of academia.  A teacher who was musing on why students ‘waste their time’ taking tech courses the week before was begging this same auto-shop teacher to change her snow tires a week later, even though she knew he had no students available to do it.  He is a qualified automotive technician, but he isn’t paid to be one when he’s at school, he’s paid to teach, but that doesn’t stop people who only operate in the rarified realm of ideas to expect free access to the hard earned, hands-on skills he has taken years to develop.  He talked about how he was often at school hours after everyone else had left finishing automotive repair jobs for people who pay for his time and expertise with their earnest thanks and little else. He’s still expected to do the make-work extra duties that the academics have worked out for themselves.

I’m in the same boat in terms of information technology skills. I spent years of my life and my own money becoming qualified as a technician.  I can fix pretty much anything, but that’s not what I’m being paid for when I’m at school.  I’ve opened up access to in-school IT support because it gives my students an opportunity to develop genuine, experientially driven skills that widen the scope of their learning.  Last year, in spite of  my making numerous suggestions that would have kept computer science alive in the building (it’s since been cancelled on-site) as well as keeping a senior computer engineering class available in each semester to provide needed in-school IT support, one of my senior sections got cancelled.  This hasn’t stopped the expectation that I provide IT support in the school even when I’m being double doubled by an absurd schedule.  I’m able to help and the last thing I want to see is a colleague in distress because their tech isn’t working, but asking for that effort  to be recognized is a step too far.

Now that I’m out of that cruel always on in two places at once schedule I asked if my hours of extra support work (I was the only teacher in the building still doing their usual extra duties) be acknowledged and was told they wouldn’t – I get to do the same make-work as all the academics, just like our auto-teacher who is here for hours doing work for the school ‘community’ of which we are clearly not equal members.  The logic for this is that my extra duty work is equal to another teacher standing in the cafeteria watching teenagers eat lunch (what most teachers do as extra duty).  What I’m doing took years of training and numerous professional qualifications, what they’re doing requires a pulse – except they aren’t even doing that because no one is eating lunch in school at the moment, though everyone has doubled down on tech use and the support it requires.  Why is this the outcome?  Because in the minds of graduate degree educational management manual skills are treated as next to worthless.  This is a value theory decision.  Ignoring the value of expertise means you can treat it as a free expectation.

This happens to many technology teachers.  They get paid less because teacher pay is wrapped around academic/university achievement that the vast majority of the people running the system are products of.  My own experience in trying to apply my vocational experience even while already an academic teacher demonstrated this prejudice in startling clarity.  The College of Teachers can understand a degree with little effort, but show them a decade of industry qualification and experience and you can expect it to be dismissed out of hand.  Tech teachers make less but are expected give away the skills that make them qualified to do what they do in a way that other teachers simply aren’t.  We go so far as to invent meaningless make-work extra duties (like cafeteria duty) so the academics can top up their time with minimal effort (and no chance of getting their hands dirty).

A few weeks ago my IT qualifications got dismissed by another administrator who equated years of training, experience and multiple industry certifications with watching a few hours of video and writing a multiple choice test.  Academic prejudice is real and everywhere.

I fired a Statistics Canada research piece on Canada’s poor handling of women in STEM and particularly in engineering and computer science to our SHSM, guidance and administration, which prompted a good talk with our local SHSM head.  My argument was that academically focused girls are directed out of engineering and technology pathways toward more ‘gender appropropriate’ pathways (that are also usually far less lucrative) by peer pressure.  My experience at last year’s CAN-CWiC Conference repeatedly told the story of women who regretted not pursuing technology related pathways in high school and having to expensively pivot later in life.  Sexism, under the guise of peer pressure and student choice, play a big part in this, but it also reflects a lack of appreciation for alternative pathways inherent to our academically prejudiced education system.

A teacher who got straight A’s in high school, went straight to university and got straight A’s there too and then went straight into teacher’s college (straight A’s again) before being deposited into yet another classroom for the next twenty-five years of their lives are going to carry academic prejudices with them because they know of no other experience.  Any student not on that straight and narrow path of ‘excellence’ is less than.

I frequently see the system make aggressive resource grabs to ensure academic courses run.  University bound sciences will run at less than 50% capacity while workplace and applied courses are frequently bundled together or cancelled and non-academic students are just dropped into academic sections because they are all that’s available.  An example of academic protectionism are french immersion courses where academic students are protected in classes that are often a fraction of what they should load to because those students are special.  Everyone else has less to ensure system resources are focused on the academic streams even though these students are frequently the ones most capable of doing more with less.  My own school sports a higher than 50% graduation into the workplace statistic while spending the vast majority of its resources protecting university pathways.

Our SHSM head said a colleague of hers once described the route that students not on the straight and narrow academic route take as the ‘crooked path’.  I’ve walked this path, unlike the majority of teachers.  I dropped out of grade 13, worked in an apprenticeship as a millwright, attended college then dropped out and then went back into summer school and high school in my early twenties to graduate before going on to attend university.  I then worked in the world for over a decade before becoming a classroom teacher – a job I never thought I’d be doing after my own negative experiences as a student in the same system.

That crooked path is seen as less-than by academics.  Students who would benefit from my M (college/university – essential doesn’t run because it would mean reducing the number of students they can stuff into my shop) technology program are told not to ‘waste their time’ taking tech when they could take three sciences they don’t need because they are more credible when applying to university.  That’s backed up by backwards universities demanding irrelevant but ‘difficult’ courses to access their STEM program, ignoring TE even when it’s a TE program!  Academic prejudices learned in universities trickle down.

Tactile skills training has always had trouble fitting into academic education.  The extra costs and safety concerns make rows of robots, I mean students, doing ‘academic’ (white collar office) work much cheaper – it’s also cheaper to apply digital technology too as our recent school decision to buy nothing but Chromebooks even as board IT and I suggested differentiating our technology to meet specific needs (again – we’ve bought nothing but Chromebooks for years).  Whether you want to look at resource allocation, guidance direction or even just how teacher duties are assigned, the prejudice against hands-on skills is systemic.

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FITC: The Pitch

Dear Industry & post-secondary VR/AR Interested People,

I’m at the last day of my first FITC Conference.  I’m buzzing from talks on emerging technologies, inspirational stories of artists thriving in a complex and rapidly evolving time and futurists shedding light on what is coming next.  That last bit is the focus of this post.  

I have a number of current students and recent grads with a great deal of experience in VR, AR and the coming media evolution, and we’re all eager to find people to COLLABORATE with!  

If you’re in the creative industry and are interested in VR & AR but don’t have much technical experience, we’d LOVE to talk to you.  If you’re developing VR ready software or hardware and want to talk to us, we’d be over the moon.  If you’re in Ontario post-secondary and are starting up VR/AR focused technology courses, my students are your future students and we’d love to work with you.

Sincerely,
Tim King
CWDHS Computer Technology

Here is our VR CV in glorious detail:

In 2016 the computer technology department I run at our local high school was given the opportunity by our board to explore the newly released consumer virtual reality headsets.  My background is in visual art and information technology, and my interest was in getting this visually demanding tech to work.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say I also had dreams of Sword Art Online being imminent.


We purchased one of the first HTC Vives to drop in Canada and proceeded to build a PC that could run it.  Over two years ago we had working, fully interactive VR in our lab.  That summer I got put in touch with Foundry10, a Seattle based tech-in-education research group, and they helped us get into our second VR headset.  So that we could be platform agnostic we went with the Oculus Rift.

Since then we have introduced hundreds of students in our board to virtual reality.  We have done multiple grade eight technology fairs and elementary school weekend tech-days demonstrating VR to teachers, parents and students.  We’re a deft hand at remote setup and breakdown now.  It never gets old watching people get floored by their first immersive VR experience.  We don’t do it with phone based passive systems.  When we introduce VR our users have hands and full interactivity.

Starting last year we began building VR ready computers and packaging them with headsets to hand out to other schools.  We’ve built dozens of Vive based sets and this year we swapped over to cheaper but equally capable Samsung Odyssey VR based systems.  We have built mobile, laptop based VR systems and desktop PC  systems on a variety of different platforms.  We have become very adept at making VR work in a variety of circumstances.

While all that was going on we also started developing VR ready software for the hardware we’d built.  Our earlier work was built on Oculus and Vive but with the amalgamation of VR platforms on Microsoft’s Windows 10 Creator’s Update last fall, we are now able to build across multiple platforms simultaneously.  This spring our senior software engineering class is building two VR based titles.  You can check out the 3d models students are turning out on our Sketchfab site.

Meanwhile, I’ve been presenting and demonstrating VR to teachers and educational administration across the province.  I’ve attended the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario’s annual conference the past two years, demonstrating and presenting on AR and VR.  That led to an Ontario Ministry of Education grant in student led VR and AR research.  Our groundbreaking work is helping to decide how VR will be used in education in the province.

Last summer I presented at the Ontario Teacher’s Federation summer conference on Pedagogy and Technology.



We’re always looking for other ways to diversify stereoscopic 3d digital interaction.  This past year we built school-branded 3d Google Cardboard viewers using a company in Toronto. We’ve also been in contact with Lenovo’s Educational outreach over the Google Daydream platform that’s about to drop and would love to get our hands on a Hololens, but that’s a bit too rich for a public high school.  Which leads me back to the start.

We’re tech-handy, more VR experienced in both hardware and software than most VR startups, and eager to COLLABORATE!  If you’re able to reach out online, you could be anywhere, but we’d especially like to make connections with industry and post-secondary programs who are exploring this emerging medium in Ontario.  My students will become your post-secondary students and eventually the people you hire when you’re developing in a
ugmented and virtual reality in the coming years.  We’d LOVE to hear from you.  If you can help enable us, we’ll floor you with what we can do.

Here are some links:

To The Department:
CWDHS Software Engineering (VR development) page
@CWCompTech on Twitter
CW CompTech on Google+

To Tim King, the teacher:
On Google+
On Twitter
Direct to my work email
On 360 degree video capture – if that isn’t extreme enough, how about 360 on a motorcycle?

To current student work:
To Cameron: our valedictorian who is already working on his second VR game title AND a Unity based construct for embedding 360 immersive video into – he already has experience on half a dozen 360 camera rigs from basic consumer Samsung 360s to the Insta360 professional quality 8k 360 camera.
To Nick:  also working on his second VR title and the winner last year of a specialist high skills major award for introducing a new coop program where high school technical experts go back to their old elementary schools and help them improve digital fluency.

Both Nick & Cameron are part of the Cybertitan team who are in the national finals of ICTC Canada’s cyber security competition.

To Eric, one of our top 3d modelers

To recent grads:
To Zach, now at Mohawk for IT & Networking (so he’s already better than he was) – he was pretty good in high school too, winning the Ontario Skills Canada provincials for IT & Networking with one of the highest technical scores in the competition  Zach can get anything to work.

We have other grads, like Maddi, who have gone into 3d modeling and video game design.  She was producing stunning work three years ago, I can’t imagine what she’s up to now:

Speaking of which, I’ve been moving mountains to try and get more girls into our digital tech program (and uphill struggle in conservative, rural Ontario).  Our electronics expert in Skills Ontario (7th last year, aiming for a medal this) is the only girl in the competition.  Getting in contact with women in tech who are interested in mentoring the next generation would help support me in this.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us!

Tim King
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