Bleeding Edges

Originally  posted on Dusty World in 2014…
One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed computers is because I tackle them like an engineering problem to be solved.  I’m less interested in using them as an appliance than I am as an experimental tool.  My interest in machines generally leans this way: what is the machine capable of rather than its typical operational parameters.

One of the frustrations in teaching with technology is that I have to retreat from that edge and use computers in typical way.  I once asked our food school chef why he didn’t want to take over the cafeteria and produce lunches for the whole school.  He said it would turn an exploration of food preparation into a production line; I know exactly what he means.

I’m proud of the lab we build from scratch each semester.  Using old, discarded parts and Betas of Windows and Linux, we cobble together a full, working lab of 26 desktops, most with multiple monitors and operating systems that allow students to experiment with computers instead of just using them.  But just when it’s about to get interesting we have to back off because we need to use these computers to access our Google online services and use them like chromebooks.  It’s not possible to use our computers as experimental sandboxes and an appliance at the same time, any more than it’s possible to use your top-fuel dragster as your daily commuter.

I don’t get budget to build my lab, it’s all done from handouts and leftovers.  With bits and pieces always rare, and inexperienced students not following direction and grounding themselves properly, we have a lot of static-fried components each semester.  Those errors are important learning experiences, but they aren’t free in the same way that a spelling error is.  The machines we cobble together end up being quite valuable because we’re so light on parts.  What I could do if we didn’t have IT forced on us through board budgets and could select our own bits and pieces.

When we shift from building and experimenting to using we lose the advantage I thought we were creating.  We start being able to build just about anything but end up aiming for the beige mini-van because students have no background in supporting their own technology, and constantly swapping out parts isn’t possible due to the lack of availability.  We end up running the machines as plain old desktops because I can feed them into your typical edtech: Google Classrooms, shared documents and web access; that’s what edtech has become, a pathway to online services.  Anything else is considered to be expensive and irrelevant.

In this land of online=edtech I find myself looking for opportunities to exercise my talents (as do many of my strongest students).  This week a colleague lost the file system and partitions on her USB memory stick (including all her marks).  I spent an enjoyable hour looking up the latest in data recovery tools and restoring her data (I started with Recuva and ended up having to use testdisk and Photorec to rebuild the master boot record and partition tables before being able to access the lost files).  It felt good to dig deeply into my field and experience my own trial and error process rather than the surface skimming I seemed doomed to repeat in the classroom.

That surface skimming is, to a great extent, dictated by the expectations of education.  The system and especially the students trained by it expect computers to be appliances, maintained by other people, with software installed and networking taken care of.  Many people drive cars like that now, though you couldn’t have fifty years ago.  We find ourselves in an age of consumers, trained to expect technology that serves them with no expectation of how it works.

Like our school chef, I hesitate to put students in a position where they are responsible for looking after our education technology.  In addition to reducing an experimental learning opportunity into a simplistic production line, students have also been trained out of the approach needed to perform this role.  They aren’t just missing the experience and skills needed, they are also missing the mindset.  Being trained to consume technology puts you in a passive, minimal relationship with it.  Rather than understanding what you’re using, you’re barely understanding what you’re told to do with it.

I’m going to try and break out of the build a lab and then use it mindset I’ve got going on right now and push for continual development.  Part of the problem is having to share that lab with grade 9s who are just getting into technology and seniors who could do so much more with it.  Maybe next semester I can seek to separate the two.