I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in Canadian classrooms from St John’s to Vancouver over the past year. Canada is the only developed country in the world without a national education strategy, so this isn’t something many educators get to experience. The only people who do span our country are the edtech companies that have surged into being to resolve a digital skills gap that doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon.
At its heart the widening digital divide is a inclusion and equity problem. Students who can’t afford tech at home lack familiarity and fall behind when schools bring it in with no training for staff or students. It would be more productive if education in Canada did more than talk about DEI, but that would require vision which we lack.
In my travels I’ve come across many edtech ‘solutions’. These often involve off-the-shelf technology that has has been branded to meet a specific need in a ‘turn-key’ way so learning essential digital skills doesn’t actually require any on the part of the instructor. Of course, this all comes with a huge bump in price. I love seeing $15 open source Arduino microcontrollers paired with $10 in sensors and called a ‘climate change’ edtech kit, yours for $80! In many cases a hard sell accompanies these kits that are guaranteed to teach the STEM skills you don’t have. UNESCO has something to say about this global phenomenon:
The frustration around this has been gnawing at me and when I woke up this morning I had the edtech hockey stick floating in my mind, so I made some marketing for it:
It’s satire, it’s supposed to be over the top or it won’t land the satire.
The hockey metaphor (I hope) brings home the absurd nature of the edtech dance we’re in. Anyone who actually plays hockey will take one look at it and laugh. It looks like it might work like a player goalie stick, but it will actually do neither job – it’s the product catering to ignorance.
The actual solution is to learn digital technologies and media from the ground up instead of implementing patches like Chromebooks, the edtech hockey stickest of them all. This is a one trick pony that ties learning to a single multi-national’s browser and cannot provide any locally processed content. The cloud is where edtech solutions thrive because you can easily monetize access. The hard sell for strapped school IT departments is that Chromebooks don’t give you network headaches because they can barely do anything. Like the edtech hockey stick they look like they can do it all.
There is no such thing as “Canadian Education”. The PISA results everyone waves the flag about happen on the back of the four largest provinces. If you’re elsewhere in the country you may be below the world average.
“PISA results show each of the Big Four provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia achieving significantly higher average reading scores than all G7 member countries except, of course, Canada. The Big Four also outperformed five of these six G7 countries in math and science (the exception being Japan, which scores below Quebec in math and below Alberta in science).”
“…if we only consider PISA results for the remaining smaller six provinces, Canada fares much worse, placing 17th in reading (below the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan), 18th in science (again, below Japan, the U.K. and U.S.) and 30th in math, just below the OECD average.”
That edtech companies are feeding off this siloed inequity is part of a larger problem. Next round of PISA is looking at digital skills (because we’re in a global shortage). I’m curious to see how that gets politicized. Wouldn’t it be something if we actually did something about it?
To my surprise I made the finalists list out of hundreds of applications from across the globe (Netacademy runs in almost every country in dozens of languages – it’s a truly global platform). When I read about some of the other finalists I was thrilled just to be included with them.
On August 15th I was driving through the countryside to the University of Waterloo, listening to the awards being announced on spotty cell phone coverage. It cut out just as the innovation architect award was announced and then came back for the next award, so I didn’t hear I’d won when it happened.
At CEMC at UWaterloo I took a room full of computer studies teachers through cyber-range activities and while that was going on we heard that I didn’t just win the Innovation Architect Award, but also the Shooting Star grand prize which has me in NYC in mid-September for the Global Citizen Festival.
.As part of the prize Cisco gave me some communications and asked for shoutouts, and there are many. Innovating can often feel like a lonely exercise where most of what you’re doing seems to aggravate management, but it’s really a collaborative exercise, otherwise you’re by yourself in a room doing cool things that no one else knows about. The idea of a lone inventor hidden away working on their own is a fiction.
I could never have built the program I developed without getting my school board onside. There are two people in particular who became supporters and advocates for the unique work we were attempting. Charles Benyair was our SHSM lead and he provided the resources that my school would not to get us in motion, and Sandro Buffone in our IT department made a point of understanding what I was trying to do and helped clear away the technical bureaucracy to let it happen.
Convincing students to take on an international competition in a subject we’d never studied before was a challenge, but Cam, Cal, Nick and Justin were seniors in 2017 and bravely jumped into cybersecurity with me. We learned new concepts and got a handle on things to such a degree that we discovered we were going to the first Canadian national cybersecurity finals in Fredericton. Three of those students had never left the province or been on a plane so you can imagine the impact.
As the teams gathered for a photo I happened to be standing next to Sandra Saric, the vice-president in charge of CyberTitan at the Information & Communication Technology Council (ICTC). As the photo got taken she said under her breath, “where are all the girls?” Out of seventy odd students only a handful were girls. That observation put me on a mission.
Sandra went back and established a program for encouraging all-female teams to sign up and I went back to my junior computer technology classes (the exacting gender expectations of our rural high school make sure that there were no girls in senior computer tech classes) and cajoled six girls to give it a try. That next year we had three full teams instead of two-thirds of one. I encouraged them to find a name that speaks to their experience and the girls came up with the Terabytches (terabyte with a twist).
Those six pioneers faced derision from our school and when they went to nationals a member of one of the other all-male teams said to one of them, “you’re lucky you’re pretty, because you suck at this.” That year emphasized for me how important it is to give girls their own space away from the often corrosive male culture that forms around technology.
In a radio interview in Ottawa at those finals Rachel said something that stuck with me. “We used this name so that it couldn’t be used against us.” 2019 was an incredible year for getting my head around diversifying access to technology learning, particularly in the hyper-male dominated field of cybersecurity. But it was also a year of finding allies. Joanne Harris at the school board enabled us to attend nationals by coming along as our female chaperone and I got to meet Diana Barbosa, Sheena Bolton and Hayley Heaslip who ran the competition.
That summer Philippe Landry from Cisco Canada got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in working toward my CCNA Cyber Operations Instructor qualification. My last I.T. certification was CompTIA’s Network+ way back in 2002, so this would be my first run at a technical certification in seventeen years, and in a subject I’d only been looking at for a couple of years. Claude Foy at FTI in Quebec was my instructor and he was patient and very giving of his time. Over the summer I became familiar with Wireshark and all sorts of other cyber-tools and in September I wrote the exam and became the first K12 teacher in Canada qualified to teach cyber operations – I think I am still the only one five years later. Yes, innovating can sometimes feel a bit lonely.
Attending Cisco Live in the fall of 2019 I was again reminded of just how cloud based (and cybersecurity dependent) things have become. I also attended my first University of Waterloo Cybersecurity & Privacy Institute conference (bringing a bus load of students with me) which opened my eyes to the current state of networked technology where we’re barely hanging on. To underline that I had my local OPP detachment asking if I could forensically analyze digital evidence for them because they weren’t resourced to do it themselves.
We ground through the pandemic but CyberTitan was one of the few events that never cancelled on us. The diverifying of our teams in 2019 led to a richer and more effective co-ed senior team. Some of the girls wanted to join the best of the boys and that mix of skillsets led to a string of top five finishes including a top defender award. The girls team also continued, missing nationals in 2020 but earning top wildcard spots in the ’21 and ’22 finals.
In 2022 I discovered that I had been seconded to ICTC for the year to advocate for and support cybersecurity education nationally. In this role I’ve been in classrooms from Newfoundland to British Columbia and many points in between. I’ve supported two new provinces in joining the competition and continue to bang my drum for recognition of essential Twenty-First Century digital skills that are so often ignored in our school systems, like cybersecurity.
This spring I joined Katina Papulkas’ Dell K-12 Education Innovation Accelerator, Part of that program was an opportunity to mentor with someone in the edtech space and I was lucky enough to be placed with Julie Foss, who helped me re-contextualize myself in my first role out of the classroom in two decades.
The experience empowered me to apply for the Cisco award. Had I remained lost at sea in terms of understanding how to do what matters in my new role, I would never have done it.
Innovation is often lonely work. It can antagonize status quo types who are intent on maintaining a system that put them in charge, but innovation is also thrilling and can empower those not privileged by that status quo. If you’re serious about diversity, equity and inclusion, innovators aren’t people you want to be labelling as troublemakers, they’re simply committed to finding a better way.
The other nice things about innovation is that you meet the most interesting people. From Ella in UBC to Kyle at Inspiretech to Eric George at the CPI, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some fascinating people who don’t status quo anything and are always looking for that better way. Cisco, both as a company and as individual employees, have been wonderful enablers of innovation, providing me with resources in a subject that everyone uses all day every day in every classroom, but almost no one teaches. Being acknowledged as an innovator by such a forward thinking organization makes me think that I’m on the right track, even if annoys some of the powers that be.
Imagine you’re buying a car from a reputable manufacturer. That manufacturer doesn’t build all the components itself. It partners with other reputable manufacturing specialists and works with them to tight tolerances so that all the bits fit together and work properly.
In a tightly controlled supply chain like that you end up with complex systems that can take you hundreds of thousands of kilometers through extreme environments with only regularly maintenance. When engineering is taken seriously like this, amazing, resilient machines are the result.
If your car was built like the cloud infrastructure your business/school/government depends on to operate every day, your ‘manufacturer’ scours the internet looking for free bits and pieces of code that will do a job that they can’t be bothered to code themselves. This freeware, often taken without consent and seldom supported, becomes part of a stack of under engineered software that makes your magical, money saving cloud infrastructure work. Any time someone decides they want additional functionality, another piece is patched into this mess.
Imagine if your car was built like this. Every tire would come from a different manufacturer with different specs but they all got chucked onto the car because they filled a need at that particular moment. Some of the tires come from tire manufacturers, some came from a guy who thought he could build a better tire in his shed, and they’re all different makes and sizes. Some are tested for safety, some aren’t even legally tires. The other parts of your franken-car would also be sourced like that, with simplistic needs met but with little thought for integration or upkeep. Some parts of your rolling nightmare are updated regularly, others never have nor will be, meaning what fit together this week might not next.
One day your engine bolts might update themselves and suddenly the motor won’t start because nothing fits. The horn that got installed might not actually be a horn but a fire hazard waiting to burn your new car to the ground when you press the button. You might be running a 1990s transmission with a 2023 chassis that only superficially work with each other but will fly apart the first time you take a corner.
If there were any consistency in how open source software is integrated into business systems, this might work, but in most cases complex cloud based information management systems are cobbled together collections of corporate systems and under-resourced open source freeware. Why would this chaos suit some companies?
The stack of hardware and software your data passes through to use the internet is staggering. On your computer (laptop, smartphone, whatever, they’re all computers) you’re using a browser likely made by one company on an operating system made by another. The drivers that run the hardware that connects you online are a third company and in all three cases they may well have ‘grabbed’ some open source software to make their piece of the puzzle work. Once your data actually leaves your device it hits your router that is running another bunch of hardware and software before getting fired out to your internet service provider (ISP), who is running goodness knows what (but probably with ample amounts of ‘free’ open source software). From your ISP your data bounces from server to server on its way to its destination. If you’re reading this through social media connections you’ve now picked up all their bad habits (Twitter, Meta, Google, though notice that they all make monetizing free software like a community service). In many cases they throw trackers on your network traffic so they can sell to you.
This mad hack-fest is how the internet works and it’s how the cloud based programs everyone finds so convenient are built and maintained. Your ‘mission critical’ new cloud based accounting software depends on the slap dash engineering to work… all day, everyday. This approach almost begs to be abused, and it is.
How can we possibly secure this mess? Well, it’s nearly impossible, which is why you see so many criminals taking to this new frontier. The people using this technology are now decades into a digital skill crisis that shows no signs of ending, so the people who drive these terrible cars don’t have the skills to know just how bad they are. Our information and communication technology illiteracy also affects management who make ill informed decisions about how to integrate technology with resilience and best engineering practices first.
Imagine that you are the under-resourced mechanic for that franken-car. When something breaks you may find that it doesn’t fit into what the car has changed into as other parts got upgraded. You might find that the intention of the part you need to replace was misunderstood and it wasn’t the right thing to use in the first place. Whenever you open the hood you’re not expecting to see branded parts that were designed to be engineered together, you’re seeing a hodgepodge of bits slapped together to work in a given moment. Your maintenance of this car becomes a panicky grab at anything that might make it work, which only makes things worse.
That under-resourced mechanic has a lot to do with cybersecurity specialists. When I read an article like this scattered piece in the Globe and Mail I get a sense of just how panicky and clueless management is. What’s particularly galling in that article is the insinuation that many cybersecurity experts are somehow untrustworthy criminals because they’re able to recognize the under resourced mess we’re sitting with. Incredible.
Cybersecurity is an uphill struggle. You can expect the systems you work on to be cobbled together messes, your operators don’t know what they’re doing and the people working against you (many with organized crime or foreign government support) only have to get it right once while you have to get it right (on a nightmare software stack) everyday. It’s no wonder we’re in a decades long shortage of cyber-talent and seeing burnout becoming a major factor.
The decision to start taking online security from software development up seriously is going to take a revolution in thinking. Perhaps the coming quantum disruption to encryption in cybersecurity will prompt this change. The hacked together mess we’re working with today is begging to be burned down and redone properly.
“Talking Points – Canada was short on cybersecurity workers five years ago and the problem has only worsened – One in six jobs goes unfilled in protecting data and critical infrastructure – the cybersecurity workforce is older, whiter and more male than the general population”
When things get hacked in school boards, the learning stops pretty quickly as most now depend entirely on networked education technology to communicate lessons and learning. Cybersecurity also underlies the supply chains that provide the fuel and food we depend on and the financial systems that grease all those wheels. You’d think support of it would be obvious.
It’s Twitter though so self interest will always trump the collective kind – until there is no food, gas or electricity because our critical infrastructure is crippled in a cyber-attack. What struck me about this response was how insulated the thinking is.
The response that education shouldn’t chase job training is a common one in education. As a poor immigrant kid whose family struggled to make ends meet, it’s also one dripping in old settler generational comfort and privilage. If you are so sheltered that you can spend your time in public education finding yourself, then good for you; the rest of us are trying to feed ourselves.
Perhaps watching my family crash through bankruptcy while I was in high school put a unique spin on my experience. I dropped out and went to work because it’s what I had to do. A bit more time in class helping me find what I’m good at and then directing me into it would have been appreciated. It doesn’t all have to be about job preparedness, but stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it at all feels politically self serving.
When I started teaching in my mid-thirties, one of the senior guys in the department asked at lunch, ‘do you know why you never see a guidance councillor looking out the window in the morning? Because then they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.’ I’d only just started teaching and didn’t know many guidance councillors, but my experience as a student with them wasn’t positive. What I can say after 20 years in public education is that guidance is one of those roles that you never see people leave. Classroom teaching is tough. You seldom even have time to go to the toilet. You’ll see a lot of people try it for a couple of years and then bail on the profession entirely. You’ll see others work their way into ‘support’ jobs outside of the classroom as soon as they can. Bright eyed twenty-something VPs are a fine example. My litmus test for if those jobs are easier than the classroom is how often I see people move back to teaching to get out of them. The answer is: you don’t.
A few weeks ago I found myself at dinner with a very smart person who is a leader in educational training. They said something that stuck with me. The problem with the education system is that it’s mainly populated by people who have never done anything else. The vast majority of educators attended K-12 schooling (where they felt very comfortable), went straight into university, got their undergraduate degree and then bachelor of education, and then immediately returned to K-12 education. They have never been in any other circumstance beyond the education system. They have never worked in a non-unionized environment. If we’re wondering why education has trouble evolving, this is at the core of it.
That insolated world view is where you get comments like, ‘education isn’t job training!’ Perhaps that should read, ‘education was job training for me, but it isn’t for you!’ That explains the politically self-serving piece.
A quick fix would be to require all teacher candidates to have at least one year of life experience beyond the education system they’re so comfortable in. Perhaps then the status quo wouldn’t seem quite so inevitable.
Back in 2014 I had one of those strange moments when I suddenly found myself freed from the day to day necessities of the classroom and thrust into a space where I had time to think about pedagogy. I once had an administrator tell me, “what does pedagogy even mean anyway? It’s one of those words that doesn’t mean anything.” I’ve never felt that way but perhaps that’s because I’ve focused my career on teaching rather than getting out of the classroom at the earliest opportunity. Throughout that career I’ve clung to moments of pedagogical best-practice in a sea of compromises.
The main purpose of schools is to run a schedule that has students in set places at set times to the benefit of adults. You can call it daycare if you want to, many people treat it like one. Order and regularity are the primary functions of school organization, not learning; hence that astonishing observation from someone who is focused on managing it. Being a teacher committed to teaching has often put me at odds with this reality.
I hesitated to get into education for a long time because I found it a dehumanizing experience as a student.
This is the expectation people have around technology integration – it’s supposed to improve learning! But scores continue declining.
Over the Easter long weekend in 2014 I was invited down to the ASU/GSV Summit in Phoenix. Stepping out of the moribund but relatively well funded Canadian education system into the ‘breaking bad’ of America where teachers live just above the poverty line and everyone is fixated on common curriculum success dictated by standardized testing (you don’t get to be the 25th best education system in the world by chasing pedagogy!), I wasn’t sure what to expect, but there were a lot critical thinkers at this summit.
One that really rocked me was Brandon Busteed who stated (to the astonishment of everyone present) that, ““Educational technology has failed to move the needle on either cost effectiveness or student success in the past ten years.” He then showed statistically significant drops in literacy and numeracy even as the buzz around educational technology as an answer to everything was at a fever pitch. You’d think we’d have come around to a sensible integration of digital technology in learning nearly a decade later, but post pandemic things are even worse.
PISA Results from that time show statistically significant drops in learning. Things haven’t improved even with accelerated technology use. On top of that, COVID proved that we were unable to leverage ICT even during an emergency to preserve essential learning.
Post COVID we’re in a recovery situation because we couldn’t leverage technology to work through pandemic lockdowns. We had the tools but most people in education (children and adults) have no idea how to use technology to actually improve (or even provide basic) learning opportunities. On the back of forced rapid technology integration due to the pandemic, our learning outcomes have gotten even worse. Our information revolution has made data so much easier to access and manipulate, but not in education where we used digital to imitate the paper based systems we clung to long after the rest of the world had moved on.
Looking back over a teaching career spent in the middle of an ‘education technology revolution’, I’ve been frustrated at how technology has been applied in the classroom. Coming out of information technology into education in 2004, I found that classrooms were a decade or more behind the businesses I’d just been supporting. I was even more surprised to see schools going out of their way not to engage with digital learning opportunities – banning them for the longest time before reluctantly adopting them with no training or education (for staff or students) around their use. This delay resulted in educators being LESS digitally literate than the students they serve. As a result, digitally delayed teachers weren’t thinking about how edtech could enhance pedagogy because they were some of the least capable of doing so. Delaying digital integration has damaged both staff and students.
We’ve fumbled one of the greatest opportunities to improve education in the past century and have integrated technology so poorly that it actually reduces student success rather than amplifying it. We turned generic, paper handouts into generic, online documents, ignoring opportunities for collaboration and individualization that fluid digital information systems offer.
That rush to imitate paper based education on screen resulted in a drop in photocopying budgets which thrilled administration, but what we lost in printing costs we more than made up for in having to buy screens for everyone (something we still struggle with). Neither way is particularly environmental, but the screen route produces more waste and uses far more energy while reducing learning outcomes in digitally illiterate classrooms where students taught on home entertainment systems can only see digital devices as toys. This shell game of showing small cost reductions moving away from paper while ignoring the massive costs of edtech has further diminished our ability to focus on pedagogical best practices. Less money in the system is less money in the system.
We’re facing a generational digital skills shortage that highlights our failure to engage with digital literacy in a meaningful way. Teachers are less digitally literate than the general public because they’ve been working in this moribund system determined to ignore the benefits of digitally enhanced pedagogy. We have digitally oblivious teachers depending on students who have been told that they are digital natives and don’t need to learn how technology works because they can turn on an X-Box. You don’t need to look hard to understand why education makes such a juicy target for cyber-criminals. When I reach out in my current capacity as a cyber-focused educator I’m told by ministries of education across the country that online safety is covered in health class. Yes, you heard that right, phys-ed teachers are covering cybersecurity training for our students (or more likely skipping it).
What we’re heading towards if we continue to ignore digital pedagogy! This was made with the Dall-E 2 AI image generator!
How would this educational technology revolution that never happened have gone down in a better world? We would have started integrating digital technologies as they emerged and teaching cross curricular digital media literacy as soon as we began using the technology. Rather than offloading digital fluency to home life and creating a skills gap that widens inequity, we would have taken responsibility for the technology as we adopted it.
As digital media literacy improved, teachers wouldn’t be behind the rest of society in terms of technical fluency and would have worked towards developing digitally empowered pedagogy that uses the benefits of easily accessible and malleable information to create a radically individualized approach to learning that produced truly equitable learning outcomes for all. This targeted approach to learning also streamlines the industrial education system into a more efficient and agile format.As cloud based technology emerged, these digitally fluent teachers engage data science to produce deep understandings of each student’s learning journey. These personalized data clouds are leveraged to produce bespoke learning outcomes. Instead of using digital technology to imitate class based, low-resolution lessons from the age of paper, we leverage our ICT revolution to take advantage of the fluidity of digital information. As we move away from the old, low resolution model we start to see astonishing efficiencies in student learning.
Our schools have evolved in the past two decades from age-based 19th Century storage units to smaller, agile, digitally empowered community learning centres where students work towards their own learning mastery. This individualized learning environment empowers students to take control of their own educational journey. School is no longer something being done to them but something they discover about themselves.
That education system resiliently leveraged digital empowered pedagogy to individualize and empower students across all interests and subjects. During the pandemic this education system leveraged its digital expertise to connect students, reduce social anxiety and keep learning alive by using our networked world effectively rather than treating our illiteracy in it as an excuse to quit.
Rather than being an easy target for cybercriminals, education is fortress of cyber-fluency where staff and students demonstrate exemplary digital awareness and integration. Instead of being the most likely to click on a phishing email, teachers are the least likely to infect their own networks. Schools are community centres of digital excellence that support their community families and local businesses in terms of technology support.
This better education system is agile and responsive, offering learning opportunities and variations in support for every student based on a detailed understanding of their needs. As a result, resources are applied in targeted, financially effective ways Low resolution reporting processes like report cards are a quaint memory. Learning reaches demonstrated thresholds of understanding leading students to graduate through curriculums at their own pace. Parents can access this data in real time and are partners in their child’s learning rather than arms-length critics. Some students would graduate in their early teens, others later, but everyone would graduate with mastery knowledge of the fundamentals including the digital fluency needed to succeed in the world beyond school.
Education delayed engaging with digital technology for as long as it possibly could, putting it and everyone in it at a distinct disadvantage in the modern world. This frustrates parents and anyone else outside of education systems to no end.
The delay in digital engagement has resulted in entire generations of teachers and students who are less digitally literate than the general population.
When digital adoption finally took hold education used it to replicate the same lack of individualization that characterized the paper based learning that proceeded it.
Technology integration in the classroom depends on digital familiarity at home because many teachers were less digitally familiar than the general population and most schools still struggle to provide equitable access to hardware.
The digital divide has grown because of this ‘leave it to the parents’ approach because some simply can’t provide this essential media literacy.
Classroom management headaches due to students misunderstanding that digital technology is a tool and not a toy are the direct result of this approach.
I was listening to CBC’s The House a few weekends ago. In it Scott Brison described the federal service as “offering BlockBuster service to a Netflix clientele”. We’ve been Dancing in the Datasphere in an ongoing information revolution for over two decades. Education has missed opportunity after opportunity to meaningfully engage with technology itself and the digitally enhanced pedagogy that should have grown from it. As it falls behind our schools feel less and less relevant to the society they claim to serve. As Brison suggested on Day Six, education isn’t the only government service struggling to integrate technology in a manner that citizens have come to expect. It’s particularly impactful in education because we’re hurting the people who need digital fluency the most: students facing a future immersed in it.
Instead of developing coherent digitally enhanced pedagogies and designing our schools around them, we use technology to stuff as many students as possible into an eLearning class that most of them don’t have the digital fluency to navigate. The eLearning course will likely be created using paper based, classrooms lessons converted to a digital format. If technology is engaged with at all it’s usually as a way to save money, but never to rethink how we might produce better learning outcomes.
It’s never too late to start developing digital mastery in a coherent, curriculum wide context. It’ll be an uphill struggle swinging one of the most backwards institutions around to catch the digital wind and sail into the future, but it could still be done…
“We’ve all become used to thinking of Gen Z as the first truly “digital native” generation. They were born when the internet was available to everyone and don’t remember a time when it wasn’t normal to carry a smartphone wherever they go and document their lives on TikTok and Instagram. Unfortunately, it turns out that this form of digital native might not translate to being able to work with the tools and technologies that are expected to shape the 21st century.”
The digital skills gap is an ongoing concern, but in building a successful digital skilling program over the past two decades I’ve trial and errored my way to an efficient process for getting students from thinking they have digital fluency to actually having it. Here’s how:
Step 1: Start Where People Are Most Familiar (I.T.!)
Information Technology (or I.T.) is where most people have regular contact with digital technology, though many people don’t know what I.T. stands for. The devices we live our lives on in 2023 all depend on digital infrastructure and incredible engineering to do what they do. To unpack all that and make people aware of how this technology works, you build it!
RCT Ontario is the local branch of the Computers For Schools national program that takes off-lease technology and gives it to schools and others in need. They are all you need to get hands on with digital technology. I’ve found that building a desktop computer from scratch is a great way to get past the bluster of self-professed computer experts (aka: students who have been told they are digital natives) and let them show what they actually know.
All digital technology follows the same basic foundation of hardware, firmware, operating system, software. The desktop is a modular, relatively easy to assemble example of this architecture, but everything from laptops to smartphones to ATMs to Teslas uses the same stuff in the same way.
By building their own PCs from scratch, students who have some experience fill in gaps and students with no tech background find that they have a clear understanding based on hands-on familiarity. This also does a lot to clear away misconceptions and myths around digital tech (like that digital native one).
Another good resource is PC Part Picker that lets students theorize their perfect PC. Once they have an understanding of the hardware and how it goes together, suddenly customization becomes a possibility and the generic tech that most people live with isn’t enough. Many of my grade 9s have built their own PC at home by the time I see them again in grade 10.
Cisco’s I.T. Essentials course is available for free on Netacademy and offers media rich, current online learning support for this hands on I.T. exploration. It also makes students aware of the world of industry certifications out there in information technology. Students starting in I.T. Essentials can work towards their CompTIA A+ computer technician certification which is the first step towards moving in many directions in the industry.
Once everyone has their hardware worked out, it’s time to get into operating systems. Like I.T. hardware, people have experience with OSes but seldom get under the hood. A good way to expand familiarity and get students interested in OS options is to have them build a multi-boot system on their DIYed PCs.
Our record OS stacks in grade 9 had many operating systems ranging from various versions of Windows (XP, 7, 8, 10, server, etc) along with multiple Linux distributions (an OS most students haven’t touched but one that runs behind a lot of the tech we use) all bootable off one desktop. Familiarity with many different operating systems is a powerful step forward from the ‘we just use Chromebooks’ approach many schools have adopted (Chrome OS is actually a version of Linux).
We can usually do the PC builds and OS stacks in a week of classes (about 6 hours of instructional time). In an intensive course you could get everyone hands-on and familiar with the architecture of computers and operating systems in a day (6-7 hours).
Step 2: Use Your DIY TechTo Scale Down and Explore Electronics & Coding With Arduino
The Arduino micro-controller is a simple digital device that does a great job of showing the basics of how computer code performs with hardware. It also introduces students to circuits and the electronics fundamentals that drive all digital technology.
Arduino is open-source (like Linux) and doesn’t usually come in a pre-fabricated activity/kit from your friendly neighborhood edtech for-profit with pre-set lessons and learning outcomes (a sure way to fail at developing real digital fluency).
With relatively small outlay you can collect together Arduino microcontrollers and basic electronics like LEDs and resistors and facilitate a hands-on understanding of the electronics that make the modern world work. Kits with many parts cost less than $80 and if you’re crafty, far less). We always used Abra Electronics in Montreal to keep it Canadian.
There are piles of Arduino projects that students can try, but we always worked through the ARDX Arduino circuits to get everyone familiar with how breadboards and circuits work first. The Arduino plugs into the student-built desktops with a USB cable and then runs software that lets students explore both coding and circuit building in a very real way.
This is another area where the bluster gets cleared away by demonstrated mastery. If a student tells me they already know all about electronics, I tell them that they only have to do circuit number five and then can go right into designing their own project. A few can show what they claim to know, but many struggle and then I gently redirect them to doing the circuits as a ‘refresher’. By the end of the Arduino unit everyone has tactile knowledge of the basics in circuit building and coding.
Introducing Arduino and running through the basic circuits typically takes about a week of high school classes, so it would be another day (6-7 hours) if students were in focused training to quickly develop these real digital fluencies.
Step 3: Using Your DIY Tech to Scale Up And Explore Connectivity & Networking
To get students the Arduino software and access to circuits on their desktops, you would have to connect them to the internet. After Arduino, students are more comfortable with their PCs and how they work, so it’s time to go upstream and tackle networking!
This is another intimate aspect of people’s lives that is often misunderstood. By having students build local networks with each other’s machines and pass data across, they again benefit from direct, tactile, experiential learning.
We then connect these local networks together into a class-wide network and watch data travel across it in real time, but the favourite part is stress testing the network to see how much data it can handle. Tools like LOIC (low orbit ion canon!) can be used to DDOS machines off the network by overloading them with data. At this point complex, multi-disciplinary specialities in digital technologies (like cybersecurity) start to glimmer in the distance. Anyone trying to teacher cyber from a place with none of these foundational understandings in place is going to have trouble.
Another good stress test is to set up an older LAN based game which requires inputting IP addresses and other details. It’s not often students have playing a multi-player game as a classroom learning target. You can guess how popular that is.
Tools wise, Cisco offers their Packet Tracer network simulator for free (you can become a Cisco Network Academy at no cost, which makes dozens of introductory ICT, networking and coding courses available). Packet Tracer lets students build complex theoretical networks and then push data through them to see if and how they work.
The networking unit typically takes another week of high school classes, so could be managed in a single 6-7 hour day. By the end of it students are experimenting with their DIY desktops on their DIY networks. The learning doesn’t get any more genuine than this and the result is students who are tangibly developing real digital fluency.
Step 4: Using Your DIY Tech to Explore Data Management and Programming Through an Introduction to HTML and How the Web Works
Coding takes time to develop, but an introduction to web design typically takes about a week to get students to the point where they know enough syntax to build a simple webpage. What’s nice about HTML is that there is an immediacy to it. You put in a command and immediately see the result.
Step 5: PLAY!
When you’ve got foundational digital fluency, you can chase down NASA complex projects! Here CyberTitans Vlad & Wyatt (also a 2x Skills Ontario medalist in IT & Networking) are building a Beowulf supercomputer!.. out of ewaste!
I’d run this in adult up-skilling as an intensive week of digital fluency training. The final day would be a student directed mini-project. For those who dug PC building, they can build something to a specific purpose. For those who dug the Arduino and electronics, opportunities to explore await, and for those intrepid few who enjoyed networking and data management/programming, they can chase down more complex connectivity or web development.
When I did my A+ training way back during Y2K it was an intensive week which gave me enough context to chase down my certification in a few months of practice and study. I’ve had a few students manage to get A+ certified as a computer technician while still in high school, but it’s a challenge due to the breadth of material. I.T. techs need to be familiar with older tech and newer tech as well as what’s current. That experience takes time, which is why my seniors do in-school I.T. support. Being dropped into real world technology complications helps they hone the skills they need to be an effective technicians.
Why Do this?
This level of hands-on technical familiarity could be established in 35 instructional hours. When I see Ontario dedicating more time to mandatory courses like ‘Career Studies’ I shake my head. This kind of digital fluency would actually lead to a career, but instead we have grade 10s, most of whom have no idea what they want to do for a living, spinning in circles for half a semester (it’s also one of the most failed courses in the curriculum). We could be delivering digitally competent students and close the digital skills gap, but instead we mandate mandatory eLearning, then we’ll wonder why that didn’t work either.
For those tackling adult re-skilling, I see a lot of cybersecurity ‘bootcamps’ that assume much of this digital fluency (much like K12 does) and then wonder why their dropout rates are so high. Cybersecurity is a multi-disciplinary specialization within ICT and you can’t get to it directly any more than you can expect an illiterate adult to tackle romantic poetry; you need foundations skills before you take on that kind of complexity. It isn’t an impossible ask, but it is one that needs to recognize the need to start from where people are at, which is further back than we think they are.
Resolving the digital skills gap and providing everyone with the fluency they need to operate effectively in digital spaces isn’t an option in 2023, yet we still treat it like one. Here’s the fix.
If you’re not paying attention to quantum technology development, you’re missing out on the most exciting tech evolutions happening. Quantum computers are still in development, but as MIT suggests, “Thanks to some recent breakthroughs, aggressive roadmapping, and high levels of funding, we may see general-purpose quantum computers earlier than many would have anticipated just a few years ago”.
Had I remained in the classroom this year I would have been building a library of quantum computing resources that I could introduce to my seniors in hopes that some of them might consider it as a viable (and much supported) pathway in their post-secondary journey. But I’m not in the classroom, so I’m considering quantum on a much bigger scale, ideally a national one where I can connect educators to accessible quantum technology learning opportunities for students both in STEM and in non-technical fields of study.
Back in January, the Minister of Innovation, Science & Economic Development for Canada (ISED), François-Philippe Champagne, announced Canada’s Quantum Strategy. Looking past the ambition in the announcement, Champagne described Quantum as “…not vertical, it’s horizontal. Like AI, it is going to have an impact on everything.” This emphasizes the breadth of this new discipline even more than the hundreds of millions of dollars.
When electronic computers caught on at the end of the Second World War an industry needed to grow up around them to support their rapid development. There will certainly be a need for quantum algorithm creators who emigrate out of traditional computer science programs to explore this new and quite different form of programming, and there will be a need for engineers to design the complex systems needed to create stable superpositioned qubits at near absolute zero temperatures in environments screened from all interference. But there will also be places for human resources professionals, marketing types and other personnel who need a working understanding of quantum technologies in order to understand the business model and support the engineering needed to make it happen.
Pathways development in information and communications technologies are what I’m working in at the moment and ignoring quantum possibilities, especially with the resources being poured into it and the rapid improvement it has prompted would be short sighted. As I said to open, had I still been teaching in class I would be introducing my graduates to quantum computing so that they can consider it moving forward.
Being in a strategic place this year, I’m more concerned with finding a way of introducing quantum opportunities to a wider range of students. Business students need to understand what fundamentals quantum requires in order to keep the lights on. Communications students need to wrap their heads around the tech, at least enough to be able to be able to create accurate outreach for it, and educators need to be aware of it because it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that’s about to get even bigger.
To that end, here are some quantum learning opportunities. Keep this on your radar! Your students will appreciate the heads-up.
I’m currently working with partners developing curriculum that creates an understanding of how computers work. The challenge is in getting adult focused instructional designers to recognize the enormous gaps students have in terms of their understanding of computer technology. Digitally fluent adults assume young people have an intuitive understanding of how these machines work, but they don’t. If you assume this you end up with frustrated and confused students.
We rolled back initial lessons to the point where we’re introducing students to how computers store local files, but even that wasn’t far enough. With no coherent digital skills curriculum in our schools, you have to clear away a lot of misconceptions and back up the truck all the way before you can start building a coherent understanding of how digital technology works. As in the case of most problems, thinking about pizza helps…
Only Old People Use Computers…
‘Wait a minute!’ you say. ‘I’m super cool! I don’t use old fashioned things like computers! I’m a digital native who lives on their phone.’
Newsflash! Smartphones are computers! So are tablets, Chromebooks, laptops, desktops, IoT devices like your smart thermostat or the Alexa that’s listening all the time. Because they’re all fundamentally the same thing, you can understand and fix them when they go wrong. You’re using a computer to read this right now, it just might not look like one.
ALL COMPUTERS ARE LIKE A PIZZA
If you think about pizza when you’re diagnosing a computer (which might look like a phone, car fuel injection system, laptop or smart fridge), it helps you to isolate where the problem is and clarifies what you need to do to fix it. All electronic computers share the same fundamental components, and those components are pizza-licious!
The Dough: HARDWARE
This is the part of the pizza that can look very different. The physical shell we put a computer in can range in size from a smartwatch to building-sized supercomputers. Generally, the smaller they are the slower they are because electronic computing generates heat and that’s hard to get rid of when you can’t install fans and other cooling stuff to get the heat out and let the processor run at top speed.
That’s why desktops always feel faster than laptops. Their architecture can be designed for speed because engineers can get rid of the heat made from running a processor fast. Mobile processors are often throttled down desktop hardware. Even smaller computers tend to be specialists only having to do a few tasks that engineers can optimize the hardware for. Phones can only run certain apps, watches are even more limited and single function computers like ATMs or smart thermostats can optimize all of their hardware to a single task.
If you’re having hardware headaches, like a computer overheating and locking up, you can fix it like a mechanic, with tools (and thermal paste) and some physical attention. If you get handy enough, you can even start building your own crusts.
The Sauce: FIRMWARE
Computer hardware doesn’t know what it is – it’s just STUFF. When you first power up a computer (phone, desktop whatever), you often see text appear for a second and then disappear. That’s the saucy FIRMWARE. Firmware is software that’s written onto a chip in the computer that tells it what kind of hardware its running on.
Firmware is sometimes called BIOS, which stands for Basic Input/Output System – which is literally what it is; software that tells the computer what hardware it has that takes care of inputting and outputting data. UEFI replaced BIOS on modern computers, but it’s just a fancy BIOS with graphics that make it easier to navigate. It’s pointless acronym expansion like this that puts people off learning about computers!
The Cheese: OPERATING SYSTEMS
On top of the firmware sauce you have the cheesy OPERATING SYSTEM. You’ve seen logos for them for years, but probably don’t give them much thought. If you’re a PC type person you’ll have seen Windows evolve through XP, 7. 8. 10 and now Windows 11 versions. Apple people know OSx (Operating System 10), and if you know any nerds they’ll tell you about Linux – the free, open source operating system that gives you great power to modify.
OSes are the software that span the gap between users and the machine itself. OSes have a lot of work to do running an incredible variety of applications, some of it very poorly made, without crashing, though sometimes they do. OSes have to integrate all the different input methods (touchscreen, mouse, trackpad, keyboard, etc) and all the possible output methods like screens, printers, haptic feedback or even the LED lights on the computer itself. Juggling all of that hardware and software, all of it engineered to different standards and coded with varying levels of skill, is a might task, though that doesn’t stop people from ripping on the cheesy OS…
Apple came up with a series of Mac vs. PC ads back in the day. Someone came up with the parody above – it’s funny, but the stretch operating systems have to do to bridge the gap between clueless users and complex layers of hardware and software is a massive.
It’s in the cheese of operating systems where you run into a lot of headaches, unless you make a computer so absurdly simple that it can only do one thing. Rather than learn the complexity computers are capable of in order to leverage the flexibility that a general purpose machine can perform, we’ve surged toward simplicity. It started with Apple’s ‘walled garden’ approach to iOS, where apps must comply with (and pay for) strict standards. This allowed the iPhone to create a larger user base because it simply worked – just not in as many ways as it might.
Android came along with a more open approach and took back some market share, but most people would rather do less if it means not having to learn anything about computers. Nowhere is this better shown than with Chromebooks. Chrome OS that runs on a Chromebook is actually a flavour of Linux designed to give you only a browser. They’re great because you can barely do anything with them and they’re easy to manage – which is why we use them in schools to teach digital fluency.
Of course, if you’re crafty you can work around all these blocks. You can ‘jail break‘ Android and iOS phones to allow you to update the OS (many companies freeze you out of updates after a couple of years in order to force you to buy a new device). Jail breaking usually involves finding a hacked firmware (remember the sauce?) that has removed any locks on what kind of OS can be installed. You overwrite the official firmware with deristricted firmware sauce and then you can keep updating your Android or iOS versions or install software on the device that the manufacturer blocked.
The Toppings: APPLICATIONS and PROGRAMS
A pizza wouldn’t be a pizza without some toppings that customize it to your taste. When you first start up a new computer it’s a plain cheese pizza. Your dough (hardware) powers up and runs your sauce (firmware), which makes the computer aware of its hardware and then hands it all off to the cheese (operating system), which loads you into a plain pizza starting environment.
If you’ve got any problems that prevent you from getting to your OS starting screen then you know where to look in the boot process to solve the problem. If the machine doesn’t power up, you’ll be working with the dough. If it powers up but gets stuck in a text screen before the OS logo appears, you’re focusing on the sauce. If the OS logo appears but you don’t get to the start screen, you’re fixing the cheese.
As you customize your pizza computer to your needs, you install apps adding another layer of complexity to your poor old operating system. Generally, the longer a computer has been with a user, the more toppings they’ve piled on. This gets complicated by apps and operating systems getting out of date, then you might have rotten toppings wrecking your otherwise yummy pizza. You’ve got to keep your toppings (OS cheese and even your FIRMWARE sauce) up to date or you can end up with problems. The vast majority of pizza lovers aren’t very good at looking after their cheese wheels, which makes hackers very happy.
If you really like pizza, you’ll make your own…
These PC pizzas were just coming into being when I was growing up in the 1980s. Early machines came complete as a ‘deluxe pizza’ with the crust, sauce and cheese all per-selected for me. My first two PCs, a Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64, offered crust upgrades (memory I could plug into the expansion port), and gave me control of the toppings, which we quickly learned how to customize.
In the late 80s/early 90s I got into i386 IBM clone computers. This was my first go at a truly DIY pizza PC. I got to select components to customize my crust, the sauce firmware comes with the hardware, but then I could pick my OS cheese too. I haven’t owned a ‘deluxe’ pre-made pizza PC since. My current desktop is a custom case I selected for its big fans so that it runs quick, cool and quiet (it also happens to look like the bat mobile). To that I added a high-speed motherboard, fast processor and lots of RAM (fast memory), so it never hesitates, even when I’m running many applications at once. A VR ready video card means my graphics are super quick and the whole thing is aimed at precisely what I want to do with it. Custom crusts are the way to go.
For the cheese I always install multiple operating systems. Right after my firmware sauce finishes it gives me a menu that lets me choose between many different OS cheeses depending on what I want to do. My desktop will boot into two versions of Windows, three versions of LInux (each customized for a specific task) and it even ‘hackintoshes‘ if I need to test something in an Apple environment. My pizzaPC changes its cheese based on what I need it to do!
The Pre-made Pizza Dilemma: DELUXE PIZZAS USUALLY AREN’T
The urge to Chromebook us has always been with us. The ‘game system’ industry is a Chromebook for games.
Pre-selected crust, sauce and cheese lead to a limited selection of
toppings (games), but this simplification and one trick pony reduction of multi-purpose computers into toys is where the money is.
When we simplify computers to satisfy simple people
needs, we end up even more oblivious to how they work. When I first started teaching computer technology in high school, I could assume my incoming grade 9s knew how to navigate file management in a computer (that’s deep in the cheese). But as Chromebooks took over I realized that (thanks to cloud based everything), students had lost their understanding of how local files are stored.
RESOURCES IF YOU WANT TO MAKE YOUR OWN PIZZA PC
If you’re curious about customizing your own pizza PC, PC Parts Picker is
a great place to start. Once you realize what’s available in terms of
doughy hardware and what you can do with your cheesy operating systems,
computers suddenly turn from something you barely understand (even
though you use them every day) to a tool that you can fix and customize
to your needs.
But the best possible way to get these concepts across to students is to have them build desktops with their own hands and you can do this FOR FREE! Find the COMPUTERS FOR SCHOOLS program in your province and they will happily provide you with computer hardware to DIY your PC builds. I’ve worked with RCT Ontario for many years and they are fantastic, providing teachers who want to build genuine technology fluency in a hands on way.
Students love building their own machines, but the best part is the EQUITY and INCLUSION it enables. For students who don’t have a computers at home, they can build one and then take it home, making this one of very few times where the education system is actually closing rather than widening the digital divide.
All sides are going to drag their feet for as long as they can with the new teacher contracts in Ontario. I’d certainly like my pay to keep up with inflation, but that hasn’t happened in any time recently, so I’m not sure why it should be a show stopper now. My buying power, even with the sub-par increases we’ve eked out, is significantly less than it was in 2010. This isn’t a ‘this government’ thing – the last one was pretty good at making us poorer each time too. The difference these days is that this one also likes to cripple learning conditions.
A problem with how we get to a contract in Ontario is that you’d be lucky to find anyone at the table who has been in a classroom teaching recently. Most professional unionists have levitated out of classroom teaching, in some cases for decades. On the other side of the table there is most likely no one who has ever taught a day in their lives. These are the people deciding teaching working conditions and student learning conditions in our schools.
I’m already out of pocket significantly, so another 1% per year raise isn’t going to do much, but I know where resources could be put that would make a difference both to myself as a teacher and to my students as learners. I’d accept a three year deal that gets us to the end of this provincial government’s mandate with NO RAISE, but only if we also did the following:
2) Restore public education funding to prepandemic levels. In 2021, while COVID droned on, almost a billion dollars was cut from education in our province. Restore that.
That gets us back on an even keel by removing the system damaging politics that have withered public education in Ontario. With the politics deflated, lets look at how we can make the system more efficient so that we can maximizing our funding and produce better learning outcomes. I suspect many teachers would be willing to focus on improving our classroom learning because student learning conditions are also our working conditions.
Here are some ways to shake the tree and put the focus back where it belongs (…with kids’ learning? …in classrooms? No?).
3) THE FLUSH: Any teacher past retirement age is welcome to stay on, but they aren’t seconded and doing office work in a board or ministry or elsewhere. I’ve seen too many ‘teachers’ who are collecting top tier teacher pay who haven’t taught in a classroom in years (sometimes in decades). In many cases they are doing ‘support’, but how can you possible support a classroom that you have no experience in? If the last time you taught was in 2007, you have no idea how much things have changed no matter how well intentioned you may be.
3.1) THE FLUSH Part 2: make cross training is the point of curriculum support. No more life-time non-teaching roles for teachers. Every teacher can have a two year secondment to curriculum support, but must be back in the classroom for two years before being able to apply for another one. This would go far to end the nepotism and favouritism that defines many of these roles.
This focus on classroom familiarity includes vice principals. They should be teaching one class a year. You could then have more VPs in training in schools with the money saved. Cross training and future career progression should be the focus of curriculum support and junior administration roles.
4) THE REBOOT: do the maths. With this many resources on the table (restored funding, no extra money needed for raises, expensive senior teachers retiring etc), what could we do to bring class sizes down? If you told classroom teachers that their class caps are all dropping by 20% in the new contract, I imagine they’d be very happy. No one wants to lose kids in need in overcrowded classrooms. I suspect classroom teachers would be thrilled with this approach, but they aren’t the ones at the table.
4.1) REBOOT part 2: as part of class size restructuring, include multipliers for students with special needs. If I have a class cap of 24 students, none of whom have special needs, the learning will be equitable and the class manageable. If I have a class with ten students with special needs and they are weighted (for example, a student with high needs might weighted as a 2.2 in their IEP under the new, lower class caps), then the class cap wouldn’t be 24. That 2.2 student alone would lower the class cap to 23 and other IEP students would lower it further. Quality of learning is maintained because we’ve focused greater attention where it’s needed.
We currently have an Individual Learning Plan (IEP) system that is vague about students with special needs and offers little in terms of in classroom support. If you want students to learn productively (especially in destreamed classes), and good teachers to stay in the profession, include mechanisms that automatically reduce class sizes for students with special needs so that teachers can do what they are trained to do: help. Watching the system systemically work against that goal is one of the saddest things about teaching in Ontario these days.
5)Give classroom teachers time for professional development and improve their practice. PD has died in Ontario education in the past couple of years. The Great Squeeze has chased many teachers away from the profession and created a shortage. Encourage young teachers and potential new ones to come back to the profession while looking after them as they develop best practices. Currently classroom teachers are in such short supply that teachers are given no time to improve their practice. It’s demoralizing.
6) Offer earlier retirement. Teacher retirements haven’t changed in years. The pension fund is healthy. If it can offer tired pre-retirement teachers who have fought their final years through COVID and plummeting work quality a way out, then it should. The system benefits from this as senior teachers with maximum qualifications make more than twice what a new teacher with beginning qualifications does. You’d think senior teachers would be helping junior teacher training (they do, but they aren’t compensated for it). The people who are compensated for training teachers often have only a fraction of the classroom experience needed to do the job (see #7).
7) Honour classroom specialists by giving them time to support newer teachers. My last two teaching reviews were done by administrators with less than a quarter the classroom teaching experience I’ve had. I’ve worked with classroom specialists who are Jedi masters in terms of classroom and learning management, but they never get a look in on teacher training or reviews. Honouring expertise in education from actually working in classrooms isn’t something that happens, but it should. The education org chart is remarkably rigid and, frankly, quite top heavy. Teachers who pass into support or administration roles can find themselves reviewing and supporting teachers who have done the job for 10x longer than they ever did.
It’s the combination of worsening learning/working conditions and pay cuts for years on end that have driven many away from teaching in Ontario. Smaller caps with even lower limits for classrooms with high needs learners seems like a logical move that would also make destreaming make some kind of pedagogical sense instead of being used as an excuse to stuff more kids into a room in the name of equity. Many students in non-academic streams aren’t less capable, they are struggling with learning challenges, so modifying class caps to focus more teacher attention in classes with these students seems obvious, but has never happened other than in streaming, which we’re in the process of cancelling.
This round of contracts will end up being whatever it ends up being – classroom teachers won’t have much say in it, but it’d be nice if Ontario decided that reasonable funding focused on smaller classes with more equitable learning outcomes for a wider range of students is something we could all get behind. Would I like to just once not get a pay cut thanks to inflation? Sure, but it isn’t likely any time soon. In the meantime, focus resources on improving learning conditions (which are also teacher working conditions).
I recently did a talk with the awesome Heidi Siwak about how educators might understand and engage with emerging artificial intelligence technology rather than doing what education usually does and bury its head in the sand.
A few days later I’m reading WIRED and Kevin Kelly nails down not only a way to migrate into this disconcerting future full of AIs, but also how it works and why everyone shouldn’t be terrified of it:
“Generative AI will alter how we design just about everything. Oh, and not a single human artist will lose their job because of this new technology.”
That’s a pretty daring prediction, but Kelly goes on to explain that most AI generated visual art isn’t being used in traditional places. Instead it’s a deeply person form of visual expression hyper focused on the co-creator (the human working with the AI). As a result, much of the art produced by AI acts as a kind of art therapy. That hyper personal focus is something education systems (based on 19th Century factories) really struggle with, but it’s the future if honouring equity and diversity matter in any real way..
What has me most excited about AI is precisely that it treats people more like individuals than people do. If a future education system has AI teaching assistants that radically individualize instruction, then I consider that a massive win for children and a huge step forward in terms of pedagogical best practice. The only resistance to this individualized, equitable technology enhanced future would be the people managing the current status quo to their own benefit.
Instead of a teacher who barely remembers your child’s name, let alone his reading level or his neurodiversities, an AI that responds to his needs precisely and when he needs it to sounds like the kind of future I want to live in. We’re currently happy with loud attention seekers getting most of the attention in class while the quiet ones fall through the cracks, and by ‘we’ I mean the people running public education.
No humans may lose their jobs with visual arts AIs in circulation, but I suspect some teachers might. The ones making all the noise about banning AI are the very ones Clarke was talking about in his famous quote. A hybrid AI assisted classroom can offer the kind of individual attention that our schools have always struggled to provide, but not if education bans it and hides from this inevitable future for as long as it can.
In the article, Kelly goes on to talk about how AI democratizes visual arts. There is a follow up piece that talks about the 19th Century panic around the emergence of photography (painting is dead!). Each of these technology disruptions put visual mediums into more people’s hands. There was a similar panic when smartphones made everyone a photographer in the early 21st Century. Just because you have a camera in your hands doesn’t make you a photographer, any more than waving a paint brush makes you a painter. There is intentionality implicit in art that technical skill is only a part of. Machines that make it more accessible don’t give the users those esoteric art skills needed to make art, but they do offer a ‘lowercase’ opportunity to visually express your ideas.
Knee jerk reactions to these technological disruptions give Kelly a chance to talk about the ‘tech panic cycle‘. This is another not very flattering mirror for education to peer into. This cycle of panic defines how education has stumbled when facing every emergent technology in the past 40 years.The latest AI panic is just another in a long line of poorly managed evolutionary opportunities. Education has always been more interested in maintaining a self-serving status quo rather than exploring enhancements to pedagogy. The digital skills crisis and flurry of successful cyberattacks we’re in the middle of are the result of systemic failures to teach emerging digital media literacies that stretch back into the 1980s.
The presentation Heidi and I put together gives examples of how two teachers focused on evolving pedagogical best practices have explored AI in our classrooms. In my case we got into it five years ago when a parent who happened to be on the IBM Watson team offered to get us going on coding AI powered chatbots. We found this so easy to do that it ended up being part of our grade 10 coding curriculum along with web development. At the same time my game development students were discovering that we needed to get a handle on enemy AI scripting in Unity or our games wouldn’t play well (stupid enemies are boring). The introduction to AI had students learning about intents and thinking about coding in a collaborative rather than dictatorial way. This not only enriched our game development scripting, but it also led to seniors exploring adaptive algorithms in large data-sets and exploring GitHub’s CoPilot. This approach has had us learning ‘AI Whispering’ years before it became an emergent media literacy…
“Behind this new magecraft is the art of prompting. Each artist or designer develops a way of persuading an AI to yield its best by evolving their prompts. Let’s call these new artists AI whisperers, or prompt artists, or promptors. The promptors work almost as directors, guiding the work of their alien collaborators toward a unified vision. The convoluted process required to tease a first-rate picture out of an AI is quickly emerging as a fine-art skill.” – WIRED
Heidi leapt into ChatGPT when it first arrived and has done the hard work of building this new media literacy of ‘AI Whisper’. From there she early adopted Education CoPilot, which promises to be a time saver for teachers who want to spend more time individualizing their students’ learning rather than making tedious, one-size-fits-all lesson plans. The majority of our presentation had Heidi walking teachers through how ChatGPT works and showing examples of how Education CoPilot can produce excellent highly-stylized materials (like lesson and unit plans).
Reading Kelly’s article focused on AI visual design a week after doing that AI in the classroom presentation resonates. The one time I was allowed to teach visual arts in high school, I was given a grade 9 curriculum that was so prescriptive that the projects in it sounded like directions for an AI: ‘Make an acrylic painting using the techniques practised in class in the style of the Group of Seven’. ‘Using perspective drawing techniques, draw a picture of a room in your house’. I understand the need for these skills focused assessments, but the opportunity to create wasn’t something grade 9s were being encouraged to do. The entire course was entirely focused on lowercase creativity making it very easy for an AI to do the work. Maybe the seniors got to explore uppercase creativity, but I never got a look in at any of those classes. This raises difficult questions around how we’re going to develop skills when AI keeps stepping in to do work that students only see as busy work.
The other thing this visual arts department fixated on was photography, which they described as ‘real’ photography complete with dark room and chemicals. The follow up WIRED art history piece on the 19th Century photography panic casts a poor light on that thinking. Photography was considered the ‘end of painting’ when it first appeared, but nothing of the sort happened. What the new medium of photography did was create new influences that enriched both painting and the emerging medium. AI visual design will likely follow a similar path. What doesn’t work is clinging to an old way of thinking rather than encouraging this enriching influence.
Dall-E AI generated future makerspace
I took photography as a unit in art college and it bankrupted me. I loved it and I was good at it, but ‘real’ photography seems to be a be-spoke, privileged medium that the idle rich seem to find their way into. The cost of it caused me to eventually drop out because I couldn’t juggle 40+ hours of night shift work a week with full days in class. At the time I believed this was a great personal failure on my part, but with the benefit of hind-sight, I’m amazed at how much my immigrant socioeconomic status defined my access to and success in education, and especially in the arts.
I found my way back into photography when we lived in Japan after I graduated from university with massive student debts (another economically dictated decision). Digital cameras were just coming out in Japan in the late 90s and I got my hands on them early. This technology democratized photography and let me get back into it without bankrupting me. Hearing an arrogant gatekeeper-to-the-arts telling me that what I did wasn’t real photography was difficult to take. This approach to the arts is quite common in high schools.
Dall-E AI Generated: future classroom
Kelly suggests that AI supported visual arts won’t stop human made art because it serves a different need. In this way, like photography before it, AI visual co-creation will bring the ability to produce visual representations of their thinking to more people – providing we start teaching this new media literacy of ‘AI whispering’. AI art generation is a fascinating new combination of language skills, visual media and technology, and utilizing it will bring visual expression to more people. The only ones getting angry about it are those who are guarding the privileged gateway to it.
So much technology use is hobbled by the politics of education. Black and white politicizing means unions paint technology as teacher replacing evil, which gives politicians interested in pushing education into private hands exactly what they need to do that. When no one is focused on improving pedagogy, we all lose. What education should be focused on is using every means at out disposal (technological, social or otherwise) to individualize and amplify student learning. Sometimes that might mean technology supplants a teaching position, but more often it should mean we are reorganizing how we do things to produce better learning outcomes though intelligent use of emerging technologies.
AI will certainly shake the foundations of education. The dinosaurs fixated on taking us back to the good ‘ol days of rote learning and mono-cultural absolutism where all students learn rigorously in the same way should be far behind us, but those are the days every anti-technology educator longs for – when things (like photography) were ‘real’ and inaccessible to the proles.
The thing I’m most looking forward to with AI in education? It so quickly makes what we’re doing in our low resolution factory-designed classrooms look poor that it will turn over the apple cart and force public education to reboot into a more individually focused, student-success driven model. In those future schools students will experience mastery learning based on their own abilities and will be supported individually. Students able to may graduate high school at 15 years old, others may need it until they are 20. Learning would be hyper personalized and teachers would be conducting an orchestra of supports and data rather than overseeing a low-resolution classroom where individuals matter less than their age.
Education will focus on making this not true for as long as it possible can, but it shouldn’t.
From an artist’s point of view, Kelly doesn’t explain the place of human made art in a future where ‘lower case’, ‘rote’ art, ie: what is evidently taught in most schools, will be machine created. This raises some interesting questions about how we teach complex skill sets (like photography or painting) in a world where the skills are expressed by machines rather than people. If machines are reading to you and writing for you, do we need to know how to do those things either? Chasing that goal would lead to dire consequences. There are real benefits to human beings learning complex, tangible skills, both psychologically and economically.
When I take my decade old SLR out and catch a moment in nature because its talking to me, I’m not
chewing through processing resources so that a machine
intelligence with no understanding of nature creates an inherently abstract representation of what I’m experiencing. I take photographs to catch the light and make a moment permanent, so you can float in it. Technology assists me in doing that by helping me collect and share the data from that moment, but that data has a realness to it that no AI abstraction, no matter how well generated, will manage – because the AI and the media it creates is implicitly not in the world experiencing it directly.
When I was out in the polar vortex, I discovered that the ice crystal structures forming were incredibly complex compared to what I usually see, so I started working the macro lens as though I were seeing Joan Miro paintings. Imperfections and unconscious details render a natural truth in the photograph. Technology assists, but doesn’t replace the subject.
Dall-E understands macro photography and ice and creates a credible copy, but its always going to be inherently ethereal because it is an abstraction rather than a moment. Even well worded, maximum-AI outputs are going to lack an inherent realism until the AI itself is put into contact with nature directly – which too will eventually happen!
I’m also not tied to the internet
while I’m out in the world photographing. At its very best, an AI might be able to imitate
getting close to nature, but it could never actually do it because of
what it is. In the same way that a spectacular CGI effect in a film is
almost too realistic, a good old-fashioned stunt with IRL effects offers
nuance that makes it feel more genuine (because it is).
No matter how good AI gets, it’ll always be imitating that immediacy until it gets to experience it directly and then express its understanding of that experience.
Thanks to Ridley Scott we were imagining intelligent machines reflecting on their experiences back in 1982. AI may eventually replace human artists, but they would need to inhabit a physical body that lets them experience reality directly. “All those moments, lost in time…” Current AI cannot come close to that, but it can help democratize visual arts.
Is having machines do it all for you really good for you?
Kelly also doesn’t mention what all of this accessibility to visual expression for everyone is costing us in terms of resources. AI will get better in terms of energy consumption, but it isn’t a very efficient way to do simple things that people are too lazy to learn how to do themselves (like draw). If we’re going to keep off-loading work people are more than capable of doing in a world where we have more and more people and fewer resources to burn, does pouring billions into AI make any sense for anyone but billionaires looking for even cheaper labour?
I (like WIRED) still fall on the side of exploring and integrating emerging technology if it means better learning outcomes for students. One of our greatest underused resources are all those humans we’ve got out there struggling to make ends meet. A dozen of them are the Einsteins we need to solve the global problems we face. If AI can help us realize more students’ potential, then surely we should always be coming down on that side of things, even when it’s scary and involves us changing old habits.