An early 20th Century office – you don’t have to think too hard to see what classrooms were modelled on. Teaching tech in one isn’t any fun, especially when you’re buried in massive classes.
If you’re in education you’re probably still teaching ‘the’ industrial revolution. Our subjects are still siloed and scheduled that way. There is little different in school organization and planning from how an early 20th Century office operated… and we’re still focused on producing graduates for that non-existent office. It’s probably just a habit. Public education was formed in the first industrial revolution and copied many of the forms from that time. What’s frustrating is that these systems are unable or unwilling to change now.
When I became a technology teacher I quickly learned that there is ‘hard’ tech and ‘soft’ tech. I found those descriptions amusing because the hard techs often had low expectations and my ‘soft’ techs had more demanding expectations, to the point where my principal told me I had to make them easier. I preferred using traditional tech and future tech, which turns out is how most of the world sees them.
In traditional tech you’re doing wood and metal working and auto mechanics following Industry 2.0 processes (hands on fabrication). Having come from millwrighting and spending a significant proportion of my free time working on mechanics, I have a love of working in these traditional skills, but if we’re aiming students at skilled trades we’re decades out of date.
Yep, there are four industrial revolutions, and most of the world is at about 3.2 on their way to 4.0. In education we’re still rocking Industry 2.0 in most tech classes.
There are inherent dangers with traditional techs. Industrial machines can cut and burn you if you aren’t careful, especially if you’re going to teach these skills in an Industry 2.0 hands-on way. As a result, these classes are capped at 21 students and often run with significantly fewer. My ‘soft’ tech classes, even though we were operating soldering irons and power tools and working with live electricity that could kill, were capped at 31 and ran in a classroom rather than a dedicated technology space. The icing on the cake was when, during COVID scheduling, all my colleagues went home at lunch to ignore eLearning in the afternoon (because you can’t teach ‘real’ tech like that) while I was teaching my second cohort of students in-class while simultaneously juggling eLearning because there were no other qualified teachers to do it. This might sound like a lot of moaning but it demonstrates in a systematic way how education is mis-labelling in-demand skills and unevenly distributing limited resources to teach what is actually needed. It turns out what we were covering in ‘soft’ tech has more to do with manufacturing than most of what was happening in ‘hard’ tech classes.
The rest of the world has already experienced three industrial revolutions and is now deeply immersed in an emerging forth one. If you’re going to be teaching skilled trade technologies you need to be focusing on robotics and IT automated systems, and that’s if you’re aiming at the last Industry 3.0 targets. If you’re aiming to make students ready for the world of work they’re going to enter, you should be teaching machine learning, IoT (internet of things – ie: smart devices with networked sensors) and even AI (also things we cover in computer technology, except it’s all applicable to manufacturing).
Cloud based computing? Cybersecurity? Autonomous robotics? Big data analytics? IoT? Augmented reality? Every single one of these things we covered in my computer technology class. If education wasn’t stuck in a when-it-was-formed mindset, we’d be able to prepare students for the world they’re going to graduate into.
The nomenclature matters because it’s used to direct funding. The current government in Ontario is very focused on skilled trades, which is a good thing because our academically run education system isn’t kind to non-academic students, but the definitions it operates with aren’t accurate. My son just started working at the factory around the corner. They’re in an Industry 3.0 strance with non-machine learning (programmed) robots doing repetitive work (including welding which is still taught by hand in manufacturing classes like it’s 1960). They need humans to do the in-between work, but the new factory going in next door will be fully automated and will leverage Industry 4.0 to the point where there will be few manual labourers but many more IT and robotics technicians (if they can find them) along with a plethora of support services such as cybersecurity and cloud services to make this highly efficient process hum.
Guess where all those manufacturing job skills are happening? In poorly resourced/treated as a second thought computer technology classes. Ontario needs to wake up and revise its technology curriculums to align with the technology students will be expected to know when they leave the make-believe world of education.
I was talking to the dad of a former student a couple of weeks ago. His son got into robotics in my program about 5 years ago. He graduated, went to college for a robotics technician qualification and has never been unemployed since. He currently works for Toyota Canada and is being sent down to the States to learn the new welding processes their robots will use. Those are the same robots my son is working with around the corner. This is pretty thrilling for me as a teacher from a manufacturing pipeline perspective. I have a former student coding the robots that recent grads are using in their work… in manufacturing.
The idea of bringing cybersecurity awareness into a public school classroom makes many people uneasy, but as I said in arecent interview,“Cyber is never as complicated as you think it is, don’t let the lingo and media scare you off.” There are a couple of events happening in October, which iscybersecurity awareness month in Canada, that’ll give you the resources and connections you need to explore cybersafety in your classroom.
CyberDay is the gentle introduction to cybersafety, privacy and cybersecurity.
It’s happening on October 18th and the Knowledgeflow Cybersafety Foundation has been working like beavers to put together interactive resources and talks with experts that’ll make cyber accessible to everyone.
CyberDay is all online and you can pick and choose what you want to use in your classroom. It could be a short lesson, a longer activity or even a whole day event depending on how you want to use it.
Sign up is on the site and you can even do some preliminary learning with it by having students submit questions to experts. If you don’t think you have students in your class who are curious about hacking then you’re not getting where they spend most of their time (it’s online). In this event students can ask white hat hackers and pentesters about their work. That might lead more students to consider cybersecurity pathways which are in such short demand that Canada is looking overseas to bring people in because we’re not producing these careers at home.
As they say on the site, “Cybersafety is a team sport”. You’re not alone in broaching this sometimes unnerving subject, you only need to connect to CyberDay to see how much help is on hand.
In case the ease of access isn’t compelling for you, perhaps the idea that if we’re going to use interconnecting education technology in our classroom, we should be covering best practices with our students will. I attended a conference last week where Michael Canuel from LearnQC trotted out some current stats that should make you sit up and take notice:
(a staggering) 98% of data breaches are caused by user error or cyber-illiteracy. If we took steps to improve cybersafety awareness in education, we would all but solve the current wave of cyber-attacks on the education sector.
cyber-awareness is vital to protecting our critical infrastructure. Canada now considers information technology to be a critical infrastructure (because it also runs all the other ones)
cyber-skills are part of a collection of digital literacy skills that extend well beyond coding
The need for better cyber-awareness should be self evident, but what isn’t (to me) is why public education seems to go out of its way to ignore it. While listening to Michael’s talk about the poor state of cyber-skills in Canadian education, I couldn’t help wondering if it isn’t intentional. Many public education organizations have vested political interests in keeping the status quo. From a professional perspective I was left desperately hoping that educators aren’t intentionally ignoring privacy and cybersafety skills in order to sabotage eLearning. CyberDay would be a great first step in proving that skepticism misplaced.
One of the angles I was considering for CyberDay was just how well suited it is as a library activity. I did a piece for the Ontario Library Association’s Teaching LIbrarian online magazine about how cybersecurity (as a digital literacy) makes a perfect connection with the roll a modern learning commons has in our schools.
Library learning commons are often the first point of contact for emerging technology. Way back in middle school in 1982, I first laid hands on a computer in our school library when we set up Commodore PETs and saw the neon green wonder of coding for the first time.
I’m hoping I can connect with the OSLA about reaching out to librarians over the next couple of weeks in order to empower them to take on this latest in a long line of emerging digital literacies. Cyber isn’t as scary as you think, and it’s a great opportunity for iterative and immersive learning.
CyberPatriot has a live map of registered teams on their site. As you can see, compared to the United States, Canada’s engagement with the competition has been… less. I’m particularly focused on connecting under-represented groups in the competition. When I coached the first ever top all-female team to the national finals in 2019, I became aware of just how toxically masculine cyber can be. I’d move mountains to get more female (including non-binary and female identifying) students into it. I’d move more mountains to get BIPOC and indigenous students on board too. The finalist teams all tend to come from major cities and specialist schools which tend to cater to socio-economically advantaged youth. Cyber isn’t an urban/wealthy issue, it’s an all-of-us issue, and rural communities, families and businesses are just as in need of safe and secure connectivity as everyone else.
You can see what the competition is about from this Prezi that the mighty @oksarge and I presented at ECOO summer camp in 2020. Students learn hands-on defensive IT skills by fixing compromised WIndows and Linux operating systems in virtual machines.
Learning to wrangle virtual machines is a big part of CyberPatriot. You’ll find this technology to be an incredible tool for teaching computer technology. You can abuse VMs in all sorts of ways that’d make your IT department faint, and when it all goes wrong? Just close the window.
VMs are simulated computers that happen inside a window, so you could run Apple OSx in Windows, or Windows in Linux using a VM. Because it’s all virtual there is no chance of spreading malware from inside a VM, which is why they’re used in cybersecurity. Learning virtualization technology like this is really eye opening for students, and it’s not nearly as tricky as you think it might be.
Our lab goes full disco during a CyberPatriot round. It’s a six-hour competition window. Pizza is brought in and snacks are available. Students dig right to the end, making a mockery of the idea that kids today have no attention span.
The competition is exciting and students genuinely enjoy it and return year after year. Live world wide scoring pits them against students from around the world, so if they’re competitive they can follow the scoreboard and dig for points, but CyberPatriot can also be played from a purely educational perspective where students still benefit from the teamwork, iterative problem solving and cyber-skills development. Our junior teams are always reminded that this is a reconnaissance season with no expectation of winning. Learn the ropes and get into it. Many become competitive anyway because (here it comes again): cyber isn’t as complicated as you think it is.
Sign up is due by October 5th, but no money is due then (fees are waived for non-male teams) and I’ve always found that SHSM and other student success initiatives are eager to help cover costs (which aren’t due until mid-November). The swag is excellent (t-shirts, medals!) and once students understand how it all works they always say the same thing (here it comes again), “it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.” That’s cybersecurity in a nutshell.
Libraries would be another great focus for CyberTitan, where students could access the technology they need and develop their library and librarian coach into a cyber-aware school-wide resource. My students have used the skills learned in CyberPatriot to help our school with technical support and many went on to support local businesses as well. The benefits from this are many, we just need to get more Canadian educators to take that step and sign up a team. Once they do, they’ll be back!
It’s still true! If you’d like to talk about running a high school team, I’ve got lots of experience and would be thrilled to help you get going. Krista ran a very successful middle-school team in her first year coaching and can talk you through what to expect in that division.
I’ve been relentless in my own research and development into emerging digital trends since I started teaching computer technology ten years ago – it’s why we’ve won more medals in more different Skills Ontario/Skills Canada categories than any other classroom in the province over the past six years. Our competition successes in CyberTitan/Cyberpatriot, along with our work in Skills Ontario/Canada is one side of the equation, but where I get a real charge is hearing back from grads. This is somewhere that public education studiously ignores (collecting data on graduates). If I had one immediate wish for a change in public education, it would be to collect data on graduate success across all pathways. We love flying blind in public education, that way we’re not responsible for anything other than a graduation founded on our own criteria.
A colleague is sending her son to college this year and they told incoming students that those who have taken a year off before beginning postsecondary are much more likely to finish their program. Those who take two years off before returning are even more likely to see success. This jives with my own post-secondary experience where I, as an adult student who left work after three years to return to school, was one of the few who could be bothered to get in for 9am classes. It also aligns with anecdotal evidence I’m hearing from my own graduates. It is strange that I repeatedly hear students being told that if they don’t go straight into post-secondary they’ll probably never do it. It rates right up there with, “you’re a smart kid, why wouldn’t you go to university?” When that advice isn’t being tested with success data, this approach seems remarkably flippant and privileged in tone.
I ran into a former student in the spring who went straight into university only to drop out in second year. He’s now a barista. Yesterday I had lunch with one of our strongest IT students in the past ten years (he was the only one to earn multiple CompTIA industry certifications while still in high school. Industry certifications like this are often dismissed by traditional education institutions (mine were by the Ontario College of Teachers who gave me years of static before ‘letting’ me, a certified IT technician with years in the trade, take my computer technology teaching qualifications). This student is currently in his coop placement in college and is taking a year off because his coop wants to hire him for a contract (in Germany!). The college isn’t being very helpful about his stepping outside of their program plan either. Institutions like to make sure they are at the front of the line in terms of benefitting from ‘your’ educational pathways.
A career support teacher once described my own development through visual arts, millwrighting and IT to university and teaching as a ‘crooked path‘, but there is no straight path. If you’re on that one it means you’re following institutional convenience and are and educational consumerist rather than a self directed learner. If you’re a cradle to grave institutional educationalist (k-12 student, university student, teachers’ college student, teacher, etc), you’ve demonstrated a remarkable commitment to institutional thinking, but for those of us who want to combine complex skills across varying disciplines, or who simply would like to direct our own educational outcomes, crooked paths are the ones to enlightenment.
I struggled in public education as a student, dropping out of my grade 13 year and then following college, apprenticeship and then university pathways as I found my way to what I was supposed to be (author, artist, technician, teacher). These decisions were often based on socio-economic difficulties (being a poor immigrant often excluded me from academic opportunities). Something else those institutionalized pathways are is steeped in privilege. The kids whose parents were paying for it all were also the ones who couldn’t be bothered to wake up for those 9am classes.
I’ve always considered my first-hand knowledge of the many different pathways available to students to be of great benefit as a teacher. I can speak to students about the benefits and challenges of workplace, apprenticeship, college and university routes without having to refer them to boilerplate descriptions usually written by academics fixated on championing the institutional pathways they themselves have marched. I’m proud of how many of my students have gone in many different directions and found success. My own son just graduated high school and is just starting his first full time job in manufacturing in a state of the art factory and I couldn’t be prouder (he’s also making twice what the barista is and isn’t paying off student loans that never produced anything). One of our CyberTitans from 2021 is in the process of applying directly to the Canadian Navy after working for a year (he is facing similar economic difficulties to what I faced as a young man). I’m as proud of those students as I am of the grads who have toughed out challenging post-secondary academic programs. Those crooked pathways aren’t easier, but they are richer experientially and no one handed them to these kids, which results in a different kind of educational empowerment.
There are forward thinking organizations out there who aren’t interested in maintaining traditional educational power structures so much as they are in empowering individuals so that they can leverage this information technology revolution we find ourselves in. We live in a time of unique opportunities where learning could be more accessible, less restrictive and more individualized than it has ever been in history, but only if we can reduce the institutional drag we’re currently hauling with us into the future.
This quote is 12 years old now, but it’s more true than ever, and our technology is about to take another leap forward that will make our current passive information /screen based approach to digital information look as outdated as a fax machine.
Way back in 2011 I made one of my first presentations for a provincial education conference (Dancing in the Datasphere). Leveraging years in IT prior to teaching, I tried to edge teachers closer to an understanding of how the rest of the world had moved on in terms of their digital engagement. Stepping out of IT in 2003 to become a teacher felt like time warping back 20 years, so out of date was the use of technology in education. In 2019 I attended Cisco Live and discovered that the rest of the world has moved on again, leveraging cloud based systems in a way that no one in education is, so the anti-tech habits of education are still there. The need for online/cloud based systems in education is apparent (especially since the pandemic began), but poor cybersecurity management is often used as an excuse to stay out of it. We’re still the only school in South Western Ontario doing CyberTitan and one of only five in the province with any kind of cyber-focus.
In the past decade education has staggered into the 21st Century, though Ontario has gone out of its way to fear and shun it until all the tech-haters suddenly desperately needed it during the pandemic. The past two years have forced a recognition of the importance of digital fluency, though there are still no mandatory digital literacy courses in any Ontario high school.
On To The Future, Ready or Not…
With all that in mind, what’s coming next offers some exciting possibilities, not that education will leverage them before I retire. Machine learning and the artificial intelligence growing out of it is already offering students a silent AI partner for coding with Github’s Copilot. The GPT-3 OpenAI system Copilot runs on is already producing original text, and perhaps even some of the original essays that teachers think are written by students.
As systems become smarter information falls to hand more readily and old habits become irrelevant (like memorizing phone numbers). With all that in mind, I’ve had grade 10s building IBM Watson AI powered chatbots for several years now, and this past semester several of my seniors used Copilot to make their culminating coding projects. Being able to communicate effectively with ML & AI is going to become increasingly important in the next decade.
But what really excites me about intelligent machines is how they’re able to simulate activities with human users in order to streamline and improve the human-machine interface. Last week we were watching FITC’s Spotlight UX, an online conference about the multidisciplinary field of User Experience (UX) based on digital design, ergonomics and user interfaces. UX opens things up to consider all aspects of digital design from a user’s point of view; it has a lot in common with student centered learning in education. The opening speaker was formerly an ethnologist before getting into UX and her background allowed her to dismantle many of the assumptions that alienate users, especially in online systems that may be designed in one country and used many others.
At the same time I was reading Guy Huntington’s piece on The Coming Classroom Revolution. One of the things he covers is the concept of a virtual-self personal learning assistant. Guy is looking at the AssistBot from a legal/privacy perspective in the article, but a complex digital model of a students’ learning habits offers some interesting possibilities. What if the virtual student could be run through simulations using various software? User interface issues could be recognized even before a student picks up a new device or software for the first time. Interfaces that have been refined by AI driven user simulations would feel intuitive in a way they never have been before because each user would be interacting with digital information on an interface that was custom designed for them based on thousands of hours of simulation prior to them ever picking it up for the first time.
The learning benefits should also be apparent if everyone is walking around with a digital doppelganger in tow. A teacher might pitch a lesson into a simulation space and the virtual student-bots would be able to show where it does and doesn’t work for them, and the lesson could then be customized for each student as needed prior to them ever seeing it for the first time. Classrooms would become radically personalized after over a century of factory conformity and low resolution information sharing.
A buzzword flying about at the moment is ‘metaverse‘, especially after Facebook rebranded itself Meta. In the last post I talked about my long involvement with interactive and immersive virtual reality, and after years of development we are close to finally making it happen on a system-wide scale, but it’s going to happen while the systems themselves are becoming intelligent and the web itself is attempting to evolve itself past the attention merchant economy that web2.0 became.
Back in April I watched FITC’s big early conference and they had Jared Ficklin keynoting about how web3 (driven by blockchain encryption) might give us back control of our own data and change the paradigm we’re stuck in online with multi-nationals selling our data as if they owned it. It was a thrilling talk and I’ve since come across similar thinking in WIRED.
Web3’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast thanks to crypto and the mess it has made, but the possibility of individuals owning their online presence is a thrilling return to what the internet once was and might be again.
Combining all of these converging ideas into a viable technological future is ambitious, but it’s something worth pursuing because if you don’t push for the best outcome for the most people we end up with what we have now.
Could the internet provide us with secure interaction and storage without abusing our information? Could we move past the low-resolution two dimensional windows that we all peer into the datasphere with now? Could we leverage machine intelligence to treat each other in a more human way than our ‘superior’ one teacher to 30+ student brick-in-the-wall classrooms continue to do even now?
Imagine if you will a future where you are able to move in and out of digital information at will without it ever distracting you from the real world as it does now. Peripheral user interface ergonomics will drastically improve as we get clear of the smartphone myopia we’re currently stuck in. When deep diving into digital data you’ll be able to do it using complex multi-dimensional interfaces that make our current screen fixation look positively archaic. Haptic IoT devices mean you’ll interact with data with more than your fingers, allowing for much more nuanced control of your digital interactions. Your awareness of that environment will also be dimensionally greater than peering through a 2d screen. Moving three dimensionally in digital data offers you a much richer connection to your digital self.
A better interface with digital information is already here and will only improve, and though Web3 struggles to make sense at the best of times, the idea that we could bring our shared network back to a user-centric experience where our privacy and personal information is owned and controlled by users points to a possible future beyond the tyranny of the attention economy. But what’s most exciting to me is the idea that we can have virtual versions of our habits that we can run simulations on in order to produce software experiences unlike any we’ve had before. The efficiency in that combined with all these other converging technologies points to a digital future much richer than the step we’re stuck on now.
Imagine opening up a brand new app to discover that it intuitively makes sense to you because it was designed using thousands of simulated hours with your digital avatar. This also offers some interesting security opportunities because no two interfaces would be the same since each would be tailored to its user. Combined with a more privacy friendly web, multi-dimensional user interfaces and machine learning that enables us to refine the human-machine connection even before first use, the cybernaut of the future will be doing things in digital spaces that will challenge what we think is possible, which is vital because we will interacting with more and more complex artificial intelligences when digitally connected and if we don’t refine and improve our ability to operate in digital spaces, we’ll rapidly lose touch with what these automated intelligences are doing.
Back in 2017 the only way you could do VR was with the processing power of a desktop computer. We built those machines to spec and then set up a variety of fully interactive, high resolution headsets on them ranging from HTC Vives to Microsoft supported setups by Samsung through our board’s SHSM program. I’m still providing hardware support for those machines years later.
We travelled to other schools and conferences around the province demonstrating immersive VR for students, parents and other educators. In most cases they got stuck on the games, but games are often the early adopters, like the first-returners after a forest fire, they push technology and create systems that are adopted by later industries, like education. Many people turned their noses up at VR even as they were stunned by how immersive and engaging it could be simply because it’s ‘all about gaming’, but (of course) that isn’t the case.
At Skills Canada Nationals in Moncton in 2016 I wandered the floor while our IT & Networking finalist duked it out in competition. I came across a VR training system to operate one of the all-in-one lumber cutting systems (the kind that grabs the tree, cuts it, trims it and stacks the finished poles for transport). These complex mechanical systems cost millions and the only way to train on them was to train on them, before VR got involved. The VR training system they had cost upwards of $80,000 to put together, so it was far from cheap, but what it did was allow the company to train operators prior to putting them on the real multi-million dollar equipment and it reduced user-error in new operators by over 80% when they finally got into the real machine. The end result was millions saved in broken equipment and lost productivity.
All of these experiences and development feels like it’s leading somewhere, and that somewhere is beginning to come into focus. A digitally enhanced classroom offers many benefits and improvements to pedagogical practice, but it requires staff and students who are fluent and proficient with the technology. This is an ongoing problem in an education system that diminishes the potential of technology and clings to old ways, usually to the benefit of the organizations involved in public education.
Things have been, let’s say ‘rough‘ during COVID as the system fell into repeat rounds of remote learning without any kind of plan or expectations of success. The new normal became to just do and expect less as the limited and atrophied format of elearning became evident to all, but any educator who approaches the job from that angle should probably be looking elsewhere for work. As things come back toward some kind of normal I’m hoping we can explore virtual and digitally augmented learning without the entrenched prejudices surrounding webpaged based/screen delivered elearning because this emerging media offers some powerful opportunities.
In the time we’ve been in pandemic-limbo VR technology has moved along. Those 2017 ‘coming soon’ stand alone systems are no longer lower resolution options and they are now pretty much where a desktop top driven wired system was in 2016, for one quarter the price. The evolution toward fully interactive, high-resolution virtual reality will continue and education needs to get over it’s e-prejudices to better understand and leverage it.
My son gave the Hololens a go back at the ECOO conference in 2016. It was very much a prototype-proof-of-concept device, but the idea of eye glasses sized headsets is where VR is headed. Along with a pair of haptic gloves and other IoT type sensors, we should be seeing portable, capable, fully interactive systems in the next couple of years that continue to expand the bandwidth between us and our rapidly expanding digital infrastructure. Interacting with digital information through a two dimensional low-resolution/screen will look as archaic as dot matrix printers in a decade.
“Education will be transformed into something far more vivid. History teachers will transport their students to the beaches of Normandy or the Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam. In biology class, the entire room will become the inside of a mammalian cell.”
We’re getting to the point now where the hardware engineering isn’t the limitation. The next few years will be about developing the software engineering in this new medium because having the tech in hand doesn’t help when the media isn’t there to make use of it. The focus I’ve placed on our game development program has always included a big push beyond games as students develop increasingly complex digital portfolios. It’s why we’ve crept into animation and 3d modelling in our engineering as well, because these skills are going to be in short supply to fulfill the needs of this emerging medium.
Our success with Skills Canada this year in 3d animation lies very much in the realm of digital media as this kind of 3d media is exactly what is needed for both virtual and augmented reality experiences to work:
Made over 2 days (2×6 hours), our team of 2 had to storyboard, script and animate an 11 second video. They were allowed to pre-model and rig 3d character models (the loon and the beaver) but the metal pot was a wild-card model that had to be made in the competition window. All sounds were prescribed for all teams, so the animation is storyboarded to fit them.
Our success at Skills (and the fact that it was 2 grade 11s who achieved it) means we’re integrating 3d animation into the game development training curriculum next year. This all grew out of me pushing for better narrative structure in last year’s game, Rigged. That led to several students (including our Skills competitors) branching off and forming animation teams to better frame the narrative in the game:
All the modelling, animation and sounds in that video were made from scratch in our classroom by grade 11/12 students in our TGI3/4M Software Engineering/Gamedev class. We were unable to develop a VR based game as we have in previous years due to COVID restrictions, but I’m hoping to get back to it sooner than later.
It won’t be too long until you see teachers asking students to take out their headsets and join a virtual classroom where avatars allow students to be whatever they wish and the level of interactivity means teachers will be able to know whether or not a student is engaged and present. Many online teachers during the pandemic experienced the ‘logged-in-but-absent’ student. That kind of low-resolution online interaction would be rendered obsolete once Meta and the rest of the industry has education-ready virtual reality ready to go. If you’re inhabiting an avatar online you can’t hide behind privacy as an excuse to not participate, and an inactive avatar in VR would look like an inactive student in class, making avoidance much more difficult.
This also means that the idea of a brick and mortar classroom as we know it is going to quickly become irrelevant and our schools as we know them will require rethinking – something that the drag-inducers in education (the vested interests in how things run right now) aren’t going to want to cooperate with. I fear the public education system in Ontario is going to need a hard reboot to make this happen. That may be the only way to break our ties with a past that makes little sense in the 21st Century and craft a ‘world class education system‘. Thinking that the way things were is the pinacle we need to get back to is a big part of the problem.
Instead of passive information delivery, interactive, immersive learning opportunities mean students will experience history, science and literature first hand, bringing formerly static information to life and allowing them to explore it rather than have it land on them. Living Lord of the Flies is much more memorable than reading it. I did a role play of it over a decade ago in an English class and former students still talk about it today. Interactivity is the key to engagement with modern students as this is the mediascape they live in when not in class. They will no longer be forced to step back a decade in terms of media in the classroom if we can engage with emerging digital mediums.
In the book (and film) Ready Player One, after the collapse of an oil based transport economy virtual reality becomes the default schooling option. A better future would be a bit less apocalyptic but the idea that VR would augment learning and help teachers produce engaged classrooms with interactive and powerful learning opportunities also suggests that we don’t need to burn tons of diesel every day transporting students to remote schools since any local school could provide digital enhancement. Even in augmented situations where students are building in technology classes or experimenting in science, augmented reality could offer insight and direction that would enable far more students to enjoy success while also making our schooling more green; yet another aspect of our ‘perfect’ system that never was.
From the early days up until now, virtual/immersive/interactive digital tools have offered the hope of a future that finally removes us from a static relationship with information and offers radical differentiation of learning for all students. In our increasingly information rich (or overwhelmingly information overloaded world, depending on how you look at it) we need to find better ways to find and make effective use of the information at our fingertips, and this augmented, virtual mediascape will be the key to that as well. That it also offers a solution to our current wildly unsustainable educational transport habits is icing on the cake. Now it’s just a matter of getting a system mired in political self interest to move forward.
VR isn’t the only emerging digital technology that can empower our pedagogical practice. Artificial Intelligence is also opening doors to radically individualized learning opportunities that would benefit all students and make our rows of desks in overcrowded classrooms look positively medieval:
In 2016 I was looking to escape the staid and restrictive world of #edtech in order to try and explore emerging technologies. Six years later we’re churning out national champions in fields ranging from cybersecurity to 3d animation:
Watching broadcast media, one of the giants birthed of industrialization in the Twentieth Century, struggle with the recent Olympics was enjoyable.
Early on, CTV’s London desk was showing video of a flash mob at Wimbledon. The broadcast anchor said, “I don’t get this at all, why would people do this? What a waste of time.”
He doesn’t get why people would do back flips to get on mainstream media? Dude, your entire career is predicated on what they are doing… did you enjoy getting made up for your camera time today? Does your agent do what those people are doing all the time just to get your mug in front of more cameras? Do you throw a fit when they bring you the wrong tie?
The ‘let them eat cake’ distance that the corporate broadcast media has from a bunch of sweaty fools having a good time on a hill at Wimbledon underlines how truly out of touch they are.
Technology has miniaturized and communications have become a widely distributed two-way medium, yet the corporate broadcast media cling to their unidirectional economic model, frantically milking it for all it’s worth before the weight of inevitability forces change. I’m not saying there won’t be a place for professionally created media, but technology is allowing for smaller, niche groups to make what they want, how they want, and do it well while still making a living selling to niche audiences. The days of centrally controlled media are ending because the need for expensive corporate backing are no longer a technical necessity.
Where once an artist had to gather the corporate power of a massive enterprise behind them in order to get their hands on the technology needed to broadcast their story, they now find themselves increasingly able to create their vision and distribute it themselves, assuming the wallowing dinosaur doesn’t have a room of lawyers on hand, which they do. Deinnovation by legislation. Deinnovation by lawsuit.
A couple of years ago I came across Quinn Norton’s brilliant column in MaximumPC on the calamity that was Nina Paley’s attempt to express her own miserable breakup using a complex mash up of Flash animation, Annette Hanshaw’s blues, and The Ramayana. To call this copyright theft is ridiculous… this mash up is insane (and brilliant – I use it every year teaching media arts). Yet Paley was run out of business by copyright trolls (lawyers) who look for out of date art, copyright it, then lay in wait, hoping to squeeze money out of something they purchased from other copyright lawyers – an open market of dead artist’s work being held to prevent new art from forming.
If that isn’t an example of the desperation of the broadcast media system, I don’t know what is. They are so intellectually bankrupt that they can only recycle and steal other ideas. The corporate media machine continually pumps out near identical films at virtually the same time, desperately trying to tap into cultural memes that they aren’t agile enough to keep up with. Indy and social media media create far more current, personalized and pertinent media in the early 21st Century, and younger viewers are cottoning on to it, even while everyone tries to dodge the wallowing dinosaur’s departments of lawyers.
There will always be money to be made in a good bit of story telling, and digital media is nothing if not a good bit of story telling (even the news). What we’re seeing now is a slow, painful adjustment as the habits we invented around expensive, industrially driven broadcasting give way to cheaper, individualized, technology supported media. Professional media isn’t dead, but we don’t require millions in corporate backing to produce it any more. Don’t expect an industry worth more than two trillion dollars to give up on squeezing it though.
I’d hope that instead of trying to cobble together another massive production, corporate mega-media would be trying to spin off divisions that support small, agile groups feeding niche markets, but I don’t imagine that’s the case. The problem with really big animals that are ideally suited to a specific environment is that they are horrible at adapting. They’re great while the ecosystem stays the same, but the minute the social media asteroid appears, they just keep trying to do what they’ve always done, thrashing around, hoping to hold off the inevitable, until they are extinct.
Note: thanks to Quinn & Nina, Sita will be shown again in the middle of our Flash animation unit this year. I’m looking forward to another year of grade tens wrestling with who owns what, what art is, how no one is free from influence, how The Beatles could steal other people’s musical influences and then lock down their own for ever, what is appropriation of voice, and the future of media art. That one little column led me to a wonderful teaching piece that is still raising hard questions for hundreds of students years later. Thanks!
In January the president of the Ontario Association for Mathematics Educators (OAME) sent me an email after seeing our online activity around game development and coding and asked if I might present at their conference in May. If you’d have told high school me that I’d one day present at a maths conference I would have thought you’re having me on. For me, maths and science were the hammers that the education system used to teach me that I wasn’t good enough, but I’m rethinking that egotistical framing.
One of my co-presenters also didn’t have a positive maths experience in high school and we were both worried that it would be like being back in class again. That’s where the teacher would single you out and make sure everyone in the room knew that you didn’t know what you were doing, then they’d fail you, usually with a caustic remark about how ‘this isn’t for you’. I’d internalized the idea that maths (and science) went out of their way to make me feel stupid, but after doing our presentation (everyone was lovely, of course), I’m reconsidering my failures in maths and science from another angle.
We immigrated to Canada when I was eight years old. A lack of research had us moving to Montreal right after Bill 101 came in, which wasn’t great for a little kid from rural England. By 1980 we’d moved to Streetsville on the edge of Mississauga and that’s where I grew up. Various calamities happened both financially and emotionally while I was in high school. I didn’t play school sports because I worked every day after school from the age of 12 on. School sports, like maths and science, are for those privileged children of leisure who have the time and money to participate – that’s why we shape entire school cultures around them.
In senior high school my dad was in a near fatal car accident that had him hospitalized for months. During that time I was working as well as doing all the home things that he usually did. This meant that the hours of homework meted out by maths and science teachers didn’t get the attention it demanded. The tedious and repetitive/rote nature of S&M homework didn’t help either. Before grade 11 science I was daydreaming of becoming an astronomer. After I failed it, not so much. High school accommodated my lack of socio-economic clout by guidancing me to go find a job that Canadians don’t like doing – like a good immigrant should.
I dropped out of grade 13, worked as a night security guard (full time) while trying to attend Sheridan College for visual arts. I dropped out of Sheridan when I couldn’t get to class after not sleeping every night before class. Eventually I found my way into a millwright apprenticeship which offered me the economic stability I needed to finish high school, which I did at the age of 22. I eventually left millwrighting and went to university, finally settling on English and philosophy degrees, but even there my maths trauma haunted me.
A requirement for my philosophy degree was to take the symbolic logic course. My first time through it was run by a computer science prof who didn’t like how big the class was so he used every rotten maths trick in the book (surprise tests, undifferentiated instruction, sudden changes in direction, etc) to shake out the ‘arts’ students who needed it for their degree. That course could also be used as an ‘arts’ credit for the STEM types who took it as a bird course. That prof succeeded in chasing out all the philosophy students from that philosophy course. The next semester I tried again, this time with a philosophy prof. I told her of my fear of maths and she went out of her way to differentiate both instruction and assessment. I ended up getting an ‘A’ on the mandatory course I thought I’d never finish. I can do maths and complex logic, just not when it’s weaponized against me.
As a millwright I never had a problem tackling applied maths when I needed it. When I transitioned into information technology, again no issues using applied maths as I needed it to do my job. It appeared that I wasn’t as bad as maths as the education system had repeatedly told me I was, though I still carried that luggage with me.
My anxiety was high as I got ready for this presentation. Alanna made a comment that resonated though. If you work in a secondary classroom you’ve probably heard teens talking about how this or that teacher ‘hates’ them. Alanna reminded me that this is a great example of everything-is-about-me teenage egotism. My maths and science teachers didn’t hate me and weren’t vindictively attacking me for my failures; no student matters that much. Having done this teaching thing for over two decades now, I can assure you that ‘hate’ isn’t something most teachers feel. To be honest, when we’re not at work even the most difficult students aren’t on our minds. For the teachers who do feel hate for students, you need to find another career.
Looking past the teen-egoism of my own mathematical inferiority complex, I got along with my STEM teachers pretty well. I certainly wasn’t a classroom management headache. In retrospect, what happened to me in class wasn’t vindictive on their part, it was a result of my lowly socio-economic status. Had I been a stable, well off, multi-generational settler whose ancestors were given whole swarths of Canada for free, I’m sure we’d have gotten along just fine. Were I not in the middle of family trauma, perhaps I would have stuck it out. Had I been a student of a less creative nature who thrived in structure and repetition, I imagine I’d have found a place in STEM even without the financial means – I did eventually embrace my technical skills despite the system’s best efforts to alienate me from myself.
Last week one of our maths teachers emailed the entire building asking how she could punish students who are skipping tests in order to give themselves more time to prepare for them. Our principal emailed all reminding everyone of Growing Success, but this didn’t stop a science teacher from jumping in with our written-in-the-1950s student handbook which still contains escalating penalties (including handing out zeroes) for late or missing work, even if that is directly contrary to Ministry direction.
In my last round of IT testing for my grade 10s I left each chapter test available for three tries, and students could take it open book if they wished. When you finished the test it would even review it for you and tell you what the correct answers were and why, if you could be bothered to do that. Ample class time was provided to review the material both on screen and hands-on. You could not design a more equitable and differentiated approach to learning computer technology. Our class average on these three tries/open book tests/wildly-differentiated and in-class supported tests? 11.07/20 – that’s a 55% class average. Even when you differentiate and build in equity to support assessment in COVID-world classes, many students won’t bother doing any of it anyway, and this is in an optional subject they chose to take! I turned down the weight of those results, not because I think my subject doesn’t matter, but because the COVID malaise on students is real (it’s real on staff too, not that anyone cares) and holding them to pre-pandemic standards is neither compassionate nor pedagogically correct.
If someone wants to skip a period to get more study time in, let ’em. What would be even better is having open and honest communications with your students to the point where they can simply ask for extra time rather than feeling like they have to skip because they know you won’t give give it to them They probably won’t use their extra time anyway and the result will be what it is. Clinging to schedules and testing that only examines rote memorization (another issue in STEM that produces A+ students who don’t know how to apply what they know), is the kind of undifferentiated and tedious ‘learning’ that made me despise maths and science in high school.
After COVID swept through our family recently, my son returned to class only to get no lunches for days on end (while still recovering from the virus) as he took test after missed maths test. When he didn’t do well on them we had to intervene and ask for some compassion. Why do S&M subject teachers believe that curriculum comes before differentiation based on circumstances (especially IEPs!), or even basic wellness? We’re all in exceptional circumstances. I suspect these teachers believe that this ‘rigour’ makes them a credible and serious discipline of study. I’m not sure how you change that rigid culture founded on privilege, conformity and exclusion.
My maths trauma in high school sent me on a crooked path before I was finally able to come to terms with my intelligence and abilities; it made me doubt myself and misaim my expectations. I’d hope public education would do the opposite of that, but it still doesn’t. We’ve got too many classes still predicating success on hours of homework using undifferentiated and repetitive rote learning under the assumption that everyone has the time and inclination to find success in that. It’s even worse now two years into a pandemic. During quadmesters it was particularly acute with students in S&M heavy quads telling me they were expected to do 4+ hours of homework EVERY DAY – even as the working ones were forced to take on extra hours as ‘heroic’ front line workers.
In my classroom I aim to find every students’ talents and help them find digital pathways that will support them in our technology driven economy. My senior classes are supposed to be ‘M’ level post-secondary bound students (which is why they cap me at 31 like an academic calculus class), but in actuality the majority of my students do not attend university and good percentage go straight into the workplace. We also frequently have essential level and special needs students finding their way in our program because we differentiate even when the system holds us all back with an inequitable distribution of resources. My stuffed classes serving all pathways help make grade 12 academic physics classes with a dozen students in them happen because those very special kids need that credit for university.
In order to find student strengths I focus on foundational skills like practicing an effective engineering design process, which is more about organization and self-direction than it is about technical details. I could drill them on tests about technical specifics and fail the ones who skip rote memorizing reams of facts for a variety of reasons (they can’t afford the time, their IEP doesn’t allow them learn like that, etc), but then I’d be doing exactly what was done to me in high school. That’d be a jerk move.
“You! Yes, you! Stand still laddy!”
When we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children any way they could
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids”
We don’t need no education, but we all need direction to help find our strengths… especially in STEM.
I’ve been assisting with the Ontario Literacy test this week at school. Watching students have to put phones away in a system that allows full access all the time is like watching a long distance runner getting a foot amputated before having to run a marathon. Students didn’t understand the instructions and many ignored them and had to be individually assisted in unplugging themselves from their devices. They then looked disorientated and confused, and then we hit ’em with a high stakes literacy test!
The threats and fear generated by the test are also part of this wonderful experience. “You can’t graduate without this” is the most common refrain. I’ve been wondering why it’s all stick and no carrot with the literacy test, and then I got one of those ‘support education’ emails that’ll send the email an organization wrote in your name to your members of parliament.
We have a provincial election approaching and the stakes are high. My problem is that no one has any vision for Ontario’s public education system that would actually improve it or make it sustainable into an uncertain future. Liberals are entirely invested in keeping things as they are (they’re also the main reason why things are the way they are), and the conservatives aren’t interested in improving it at all as they collect supporters intent on privatizing it.
Rather than send off someone else’s words to my representatives, I sent a suggestion for a leaner, diversity-of-pathways honouring system that might also be greener, but no one in Ontario politics has a vision for public education beyond either keeping it as it is or selling it of to their donors. Ontario students deserve better…
I’m going to cut out the form letter and speak frankly. After years of Liberal stewardship, the public education system in Ontario wasn’t in the best shape and needed an overhaul.
As a teacher in the system, I believe the entrenched political entities (councils, unions, colleges etc) have become more fixated on their own continued status quo than they have in an education system focused on student needs.
I had hoped that the current government would go about the serious business of fixing it, but they seem entirely focused on dismantling it for private benefit, which isn’t going to help anyone.
Ontario’s education system was broken by the 2006 learning to 18 amendment to the education act. There are many pathways and learning should be a lifelong commitment; schools do not own the concept of learning. Forcing students to stay in public schools until 18 has done irreparable harm to students and the system itself, though none of the many groups with a vested interest in a bloated public system will want you to address this.
A lean and individually responsive education system (that is also more fiscally responsible) could be achieved if we shelved this legislation and opened up pathways by allowing students who have demonstrated sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to move on if they wish. In this way our high-stakes and expensive OSSLT would offer an opportunity rather than being a purely punitive experience. If students were able to graduate at the end of grade 10 with a basic Ontario diploma which would allow them to pursue pathways directly into the workplace or into alternate learning situations like apprenticeships, our senior classrooms would no long be daycare centres for students who don’t want to be there. The students in senior high school would be there with intent and the system would be able to align their limited resources to serve students who are learning with the intent to continue on into post-secondary.
This change would drastically reduce our overages on building maintenance by reducing the number of buildings needed. It might also offer an opportunity where schools can amalgamate beyond the rigid elementary/secondary system we run now, offering hyper local schooling that drastically reduces busing costs. In a world where fuel prices are skyrocketing and supply chains are stretched to breaking, this seems like an inevitability. Moving towards a digitally enhanced, hyper-local future now would mean it doesn’t come as a violent upheaval later.
With strong digital/remote skills and effective leverage of emerging technologies, we could create a leaner, greener and more individually responsive public school system in Ontario. Academic teaching in classrooms works for students who understand that they need what’s being taught in order to prepare for post-secondary, but for many Ontario students who aren’t on that pathway, these final years are torture for them and for front line education staff trying to deal with them with ever shrinking resources.
No one will consider options like this because there are far too many organizations committed to the way things are for their own benefit. Conservatives won’t do it because their private school friends won’t like them taking away customers. The Liberals are so entwined with unions and other educational groups that they too won’t touch this. I hope someone can see the light here and make moves to create a more student responsive, less bloated and more environmentally responsible education system. In such an Ontario, redundancies like multiple education systems serving the same region would also end, but no political party will touch that either for fear of upsetting status quo religious privilege.
Our public education system wasn’t in great shape before the last four years beat it to a pulp. If Doug doesn’t win again this June, whoever does will give us half of what was stripped away back and we’ll be told by the various colleges/unions/councils they’re aligned with that we should thank them for it. I don’t want things to go back to the way they were, I want them to respect the many pathways students choose and honour those choices by not forcing students to remain in classrooms that aren’t aligned with their learning needs until they are eighteen. Does anyone in Ontario politics have anything like this kind of vision?
Over heard the other day while everyone was getting ready for the first day of school: “It’s clean, everything is where it’s supposed to be, it’s perfect!” I disagree. This is as far from perfect as a school can get. Give it a few weeks full of messy, chaotic learning and then it will start to approach the kind of perfection a school is capable of. I can’t wait to take the shine off it!
I attended edcamp Hamilton this past weekend. It was my first cross country trip on my newly minted motorbike license as well as a chance to meet and self direct my professional development with colleagues from beyond my own board. I got there heavily oxygenated and cold; the Starbucks on tap helped warm me up and then we were into sessions that the edcampers themselves suggested.
With over 140 people interested in education showing up on a Saturday morning just to talk shop, it was a busy, energizing affair. The first session I attended started off a bit stiff, but quickly loosened up as the bar was raised on the pedagogical reflection. Peter Skillen pitched some critical thinking on technology use in learning, and it wasn’t all the gee-wiz thinking from a few years ago. We are such chameleons in our ability to change ourselves to fit our technology. Peter asked some hard questions about how we’re making students connect to technology. Educational technology seems to have reached a stage of maturity where we can ask hard questions about it. Jane Mitchinson also brought up the idea of multi-tasking (or more accurately, rapid task switching) in terms of the information overflow students face when using digital tools. Getting information from the internet is like drinking from a fire hose you’ll get a face full, and it won’t be graceful or particularly useful. Learning how to use these tools is something we’re still not very good at. As an opening discussion it got everyone moving and for the newer edcampers it got them realizing how a single person isn’t running any of the sessions; this is a truly an open, democratic process. It can’t be directed.
An awful lot of people meeting on their own time to discuss their profession, I wonder how many politicians do that.
I got restless in the seconds session because it seemed to belabor a point that wasn’t going anywhere. After listening to a bit of talk around how to keep your idealism in the current educational environment, I started getting quite negative, so I went for a wander to think about what was said and do one of the best things you can do at an edcamp – wander by rooms and stumble across awesome conversations.
In that session I left, Carlo Fusco said, “the education system was designed to sort people into jobs in order to fit them in to the new industrial model. Education is there to sort people.” I suspect he was being Socratic and pushing an idea so that others could question it, but my cynicism knows no bounds after the past year teaching in Ontario. Others took a stab at it before I commented that I find it impossible to remain an idealist in the current Ontario educational climate. With unions, governments and corporations playing games with education for their own benefit, I said I find it hard to believe in anyone’s best intentions.
The wandering broke up my negativity as I stumbled across wonderful, critical discussions about gamification, online learning tools and what a twenty first century student needs to know. One of the nicest things about an edcamp is that you want to be there (or you wouldn’t be). No one is holding you to one mode of learning or thinking.
Earlier edcamps I attended had very few people in upper administrative roles attending, it was a real grass roots movement of teachers, student teachers and onsite admin, the people who work with students directly every day. It was nice to see more senior administrative types at edcamp Hamilton, though their predilection for telling people how they should be thinking might get in the way of what edcamps are really about. If asking big questions settles my value theory and allows me to do my job better, then I’ll do it at an edcamp because that is where I get to direct my own professional development. Suggesting limitations on what people should be allowed to talk about in order to promote an administrative objective strikes me a missing the point. This has me thinking about educational leadership in a twenty first century context. If we’re moving toward more self directed, less hierarchical ways of directing PD, how does an education leader move people in the direction they want them to? We talk about student centered learning as an ideal to move towards. Edcamps do that for PD, but not if we’re going to start drawing lines around what people can and can’t talk about.
I ended the day with some very interrogative discussions with people I have fundamental disagreements with about recent events in the Ontario PLN community. This too was great PD because it allowed me to understand their point of view and be less reactionary to it.
The last session of the edcamp still had larger groups meeting, but many smaller groups spun off and talked about what they needed to. Ah, the freedom to not be told what to think; if only other PD had more of that.
I’ll call #EdCampHam another excellent EdCamp experience. Thanks to the EdcampHam organizers for a wonderfully immersive day of thinking about my profession.