The Digital Divide is Deep and Wide

The idea of computer technical proficiency has come up many times over the years on Dusty World.  Whether you want to call it digital literacy, digital fluency,  or twenty-first Century skills, there is obviously a big gap in the computer user skills we’re graduating people with.  This isn’t a new thing, I’ve been benefiting from this lack of fluency in the general public since the 1980s.

After dropping out of high school in the late ’80s I started apprenticing as a millwright.  At our warehouse the new building control systems were becoming computerized and all of the very skilled welders and mechanics in our department were leery of them, so guess who got to take that on?  The new guy who had been working with computers since he was ten.

A summer job I got while going to university in the early 1990s involved converting an engineering shop over to computerized ordering (they’d hand written all parts orders and completed shipments prior to that, ironically while producing telephony computer electronics).  I got Lotus1-2-3 (which I’d never used before) working with the formatting so we could print out orders using our existing forms.  This took a bit of trial and error, but I wouldn’t have described it as particularly difficult, it just took a willingness to make effective use of digital technology in problem solving.

After graduating from uni I continually found myself moved into technology implementation  simply because of this fluency I seemed to have that many people didn’t.  This eventually led to me getting IT qualifications as a technician.  It even followed me into teacher’s college where I found myself teaching other students software and has been a mainstay of my teaching career.

This week I came across a recent study that sheds light on all of this anecdotal experience.  The Distribution of Computer User Skills research across wealthy OECD countries all point to some rather astonishing facts: 


“Overall, people with strong technology skills make up a 5–8% sliver of their country’s population, and this is true across all wealthy OECD countries.

What’s important to remember is that 95% of the general population in North America cannot make effective use of computers in resolving even simple problems or overcoming unexpected outcomes.”

Computer use isn’t just poor, it’s abysmal.  Over a third of Canadians aged 16-65 can’t do anything other than simple, rote, habitual work in a digital environment.  If asked to do tasks that I would consider straightforward and with no particular digital expertise, they are unable.  Keep in mind, this is only looking at the skills of work-aged people.  It’s not even considering seniors who generally have much weaker computer skills – so the actual computer skill level in the whole population is even lower than this implies.

You’re probably doubting your ability to be considered an advanced user in this study, but you shouldn’t.  None of these tests involved programming or having to do anything engineering wise with a computer, it’s all user focused work using simple software.  To be considered a strong (level 3) computer user you had to be able to “schedule a meeting room in a scheduling application, using information contained in several email messages.”  If you’ve ever had a group of people email and work out a date for a meeting and then you’ve put that meeting in Google Calendar, you’re considered a high end user.  If you’re reading this online blog, you’re probably considered a proficient, level 3, high-skills user.

The article that started this leads on to another on the digital divide, but rather than hang it all on economic factors it also considers psychological and skills based limitations.  A few years ago I attempted to provide local households that said they couldn’t afford one with a computer.  It was a complete failure – like giving books to illiterate people then wondering why they weren’t illiterate any more; there is a lot more to the digital divide than economic barriers, though they no doubt play a part in it.  The fast evolving nature of technology means relatively recent computers are available often for free to people who otherwise can’t afford them, but the problem isn’t just access to technology, it’s the inability of our education system to build sufficient digital fluency in our population to make use of them.  There is no point in handing out technology to people who can’t make use of it.

With all of this in mind, who are we aiming at when we introduce digital technology into the classroom?  What are we doing when we pitch elearning at a general public who have this distressingly low level of digital fluency?  The vast majority of our students (fictitious digital native prejudices aside) are functionally illiterate when using digital technologies in even simple, user focused ways.  We seem to think we are graduating students who are able to make effective use of computers – except we aren’t.  Many educators dwell in that level 0 to 1 poor user category themselves.

I’ve been advocating for it for over five years – nothing changes.

If our digital fluency were seen in terms of literacy, we’re handing out the complete works of Shakespeare to illiterates and then wondering why it isn’t working and why it’s being vandalized.  At some point we’ll stop dumping the latest multi-national prompted tech fad (ipads, chromebooks, whatever) into classrooms and start teaching a K to 12 digital skills continuum so people can actually make use of the technology we provide.

Last week one of my essential students intentionally punched and broke a Chromebook in my classroom.  This made me quite angry because I saw a useful and expensive digital tool being broken.  After reading this report I can’t help but wonder if he was just breaking a thing that he can’t do anything useful with that frustrates him.

“Educational technology has failed to move the needle on either cost effectiveness or student success in the past ten years…” – Brandon Busteed, Gallup Education
(they were talking about this in Phoenix in 2014)




OECD (2016), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, France.

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The Future of Work: Bridging The Digital Skills Divide

Bridging the digital skills divide

Once again I seem to have found my way into an upper management summit.  I imagine I’ll be the only classroom teacher in there, but that’s no bad thing.  If more front line people were directly connected to decision makers, our policy decisions wouldn’t seem as fictional as they sometimes do.  The other nice thing about a summit like this is that I get to dust off and exercise the philosophy degree, which in a computer technology classroom sometimes lays dormant for too long.


The keynote for this summit is Cheryl Cran, an author and speaker on the future of work.  Her approach seems to be very human resources based, which is appealing to a teacher who works with those humans every day.  Digital transformation tends to diminish a company’s need for human resources since it’s really just another form of automation/mechanization.  Can digital disruption actually lead to better relationships with the humans in your organization?  Perhaps for the few that are left.  If digital disruption is going to lead to mass unemployment, then how effective our companies run is going to be the least of our problems.  Making too much of the human population redundant never ends well for the society that does it.  This is a very difficult path to tread, so I’m very curious to hear how Cheryl presents it.



Cheryl sent out a pre-summit Q&A on where attendees think the future of work lies.  Here are the questions and my responses:



1. In your opinion what does the future of work look like? 


The social contract between employers and employees will continue to deteriorate.  Private employment will be limited to short term as needed contract work for the vast majority.  This is dressed up in “always be retraining/adapting” corporate speak, but the end result is usually downward pressure on everyone’s work/life balance.  The ‘try harder’ language of private business can get hard to believe when you’ve retrained (paying for your own training) multiple times only to be be made redundant again.  Meanwhile wealth is being concentrated into an ever decreasing class of ultra-wealthy entities.


Only the management class will still consider themselves employees of a single company. A universal wage may be instituted to stabilize and pacify a large under-employed working class. Even specialized skills will increasingly become redundant under more advanced automation.  This is less about profit than it is about control.  Machines are much less demanding than people.


2. What do you think are the current challenge for employers right now in regards to attracting youth to work for their companies?


Companies tend to approach employee relations in a conservative fashion with little change in approach from previous years.  GenZ expectations around work have been formed by evolving educational experiences.  With the school system no longer holding students to deadlines and graduation standards much more flexible than they used to be, employers find dealing with young employees who have never had to work to a deadlines challenging.  Attracting youth to a company successfully would have a lot to do with clarifying expectations in the workplace and training to cover that gap between an employer’s expectations and the young employee’s experience.


3. What do you think needs to happen to prepare today’s youth for the future of work? 


Our education system (in Ontario at least) has already started moving towards a universal pay standard by moving from graduation by proven skill to graduation as a general expectation.  This was largely motivated by Ontario’s learning to 18 legislation.  As education has reorientated on a graduation for all approach, there has been increasing friction between graduates and workplace expectations.  If k-12 is an experience everyone is expected to graduate from, then it will fall to post-secondary education to provide support for students as they transition into the workplace.  That support is vital as students are not being taught that deadlines nor even attendance are mandatory.  If we can’t train to bridge that gap, then the workplace itself will have to evolve to expect employees who may or may not be there and may or may not meet deadlines.  From a social efficiency point of view, that obviously isn’t the way forward.


4. What inspires you about today’s youth? Why? 


They are as bright and capable as any other generation.  Only lowered expectations create a social perception of laziness and lack of focus.  One need only attend Skills Canada Nationals or CyberTitan to see just how capable this generation can be of mastery learning.  Whenever I hear someone slagging young people I remind myself of all the great students I’ve seen graduate who have produced world-class results in spite of a system that did not encourage it.

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Naked Lies

When you’re using digital tools to assist your writing process, you’re not only getting grammar and spelling support, but you’re also performing your writing process in a fishbowl.  It’s amazing how many digital natives seem to be unaware of this.  When you create online you’re creating in a radically transparent environment.  If you’re going to do something less than honest, it’ll show.

I had a series of plagiarism issues teaching elearning this semester.  In one case a student handed in the same thing copied off the internet in two different assignments.  Worst. Plagiarizer.  Ever.

Turnitin lights up copied text and links you to where the material came from online, very handy.

The Ontario elearning system has Turnitin.com built into it, so catching the plagiarism was a matter of opening the report, screen capturing it and sending it on to the student.  When it’s that easy, it’s not even particularly time consuming to call a student on copied text.  I often have students try to beat turnitin in order to show them how it works.  They leave with an appreciation of how easy it is for the teacher to wield and how hard it is for a student to beat.  It’s easier to just write it yourself.

When I catch a plagiarizer I usually just show them the report without explanation and then see what they say.  I’ve gotten some funny responses to this, like the time the rural Ontario farm kid stole an essay from an honours student from India.  When I asked him what a ‘chap’ was, he said it, “was a kind of stick.”  That’s some quality plagiarism.  To most English teachers it’s patently obvious when plagiarism occurs.  When a kid who appears to have a vocabulary mainly consisting of swear words suddenly starts dropping four syllable terms in picture perfect compound sentences, alarms go off.

Since we’ve gone to Google-docs it gets even more transparent.  A colleague told me about a student who handed in a suddenly perfect French paper.  She opened up the editing history and saw that the boyfriend had logged in (under his own account) and edited the entire thing.  When called on it the student said she’d had to use his account because she couldn’t get into her’s… but she’d shared the file from hers.  It’s hard to make lies stick when it’s all out there.

Until students realize just how transparent working online is, they are labouring under a huge misconception.  That misunderstanding is based on the false sense of anonymity they feel when they are online.  Because they feel that eyes are off them, they are more likely to push moral boundaries, but they don’t understand that digital processes are documenting their every move.

Here is yet another example of how ‘digital natives‘ fail to grasp the basic concepts that drive digital processes.  We shouldn’t be smitten with familiarity, we should be advocating for understanding… at least if we’re still trying to educate people (which may not be the case).  From that neo-lib point of view, the digital native is one of those magical assumptions that integrate digital technology into the very biology of our students, it becomes a fundamental truth we base learning on, but it’s just a convenient assumption that frees us from taking on the responsibility of understanding it ourselves.

Someone shared The Brave New World of 21st Century Teaching the other day in our teacher Facebook group.  I responded:

The subtext of 21st Century skills is the de-branding of educators as teachers and the re-branding of educators as facilitators. Edtech could be used to enhance pedagogy and individualize learning, instead it will be used to Walmart education into a process overseen by centralized administration and bereft of teachers, and it has the convenience of being much more ‘efficient’ (read: cheaper) than our current system.  It’s also more controlable than trying to manage a bunch of professionals bent on something as airy fairy as pedagogy.

Technology doesn’t appear to be moving the needle on student success, yet we’re pushing into 21st century skills as though they will resolve all ills.  I’m a strong advocate of mastering technology, but integrating it in ignorance is a disaster in the making.  It caters to exactly the kind of blind faith in technocratic neo liberalism that is infecting everything else.  When we adopt machines in ignorance we let their limitations become our limitations.  Those machines are all created and owned by very politically motivated interests.

For someone who has always been involved in the advancement of educational technology, it’s heart-breaking to see it implemented as a means of diminishing the teaching profession and placing human learning in the context of a software environment.  I’d always thought pedagogy would drive educational adoption of technology, but as in the rest of society, there is something much more sinister at work in digitization.

The constant downward pressure on freedom of information and the push to striate and own data (including the data users willingly give) points toward a dystopian and authoritarian end to our digital frontier.  The very processes that monitor plagiarism above can as easily be used to invade privacy, grossly simplify learning and itemize people for political reasons, and they are.

I’m glad it’s summer.  Time to put this down for a while before we walk straight into another round of manufactured austerity and digital marketing.  I wonder how much longer education can withstand these social forces.

ASD Heroes and Where To Find Them

Seeing a neuro-atypical hero who resembles yourself is jarring.
Seeing one that defies toxic masculine stereotypes is thrilling,

bad probably for business.  People prefer reductive stereotypes.

Throughout my life I’ve been kindly described by friends and family as ‘marching to the beat of a different drummer’. In less supportive circumstances I’ve met people who take an immediate and intense dislike to that difference.  When I was younger this often involved a gathering of like minded people and me getting a beating.  It persists into adulthood and frustrates many of my attempts at socializing.


As an adolescent I tried to harness the anger I was feeling in those beatings and express it physically but just couldn’t. The thought of hurting someone else while I was in a rage was something I couldn’t bring myself to do. I recall several instances when a part of me was impassionately observing my assailants. The look of sheer, savage joy on their faces was utterly foreign to me; it’s something I couldn’t begin to emulate.  Knowing that this kind of viciousness is pretty common in human beings is one of the reasons I’m so cautious with them.  I’ve yet, at nearly fifty years old, laid knuckles on anyone else in anger, it just isn’t in me though I’ve often wished it were – it would make being male much easier.  I suspect my gender dysphoria is at least in part due to this sense of alienation with what most consider to be appropriate male behaviour.


Being the bottom feeder it is, media is only happy to capitalize on this base, stereotypically reductive male behaviour.  Unless your hero is an aggressive sociopath he isn’t a real man.  You’d be hard pressed to find any male hero that isn’t written into this bizarre little box and then used as a dimensionless plot device to drive adrenaline fueled violence.  For men looking for another way of being male that isn’t founded on this mythology, there isn’t much out there.  For a neuro-atypical male the opportunity to see heroes that in any way reflect my experience is pretty much a zero game, I never see anyone like myself on film.


Last weekend we went to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest Harry Potter film. I’d almost been talked out of seeing it by CBC’s movie critic Eli Glasner, who seemed to dislike every aspect of the film, but especially the main character, Newt Scamander, who he described as awkward and unlikeable. I don’t disagree with Glasner’s analysis of the plot, I think JK(Rowling – the author) tried to fit too much into one film and it gets a bit jumbled (I’d love to see an edited version that cleans up the plot), but when it comes to Eddie Redmayne’s character Newt I was annoyed at Glasner’s neurotypically prejudiced response to his complex, non-typical heroism. Fortunately, I’m not the only one:

(at 9:12 on): “Newt exhibits the characteristics of someone on the autism spectrum. He’s awkward in social settings. He doesn’t like being touched. He feels intense empathy for others but has trouble connecting to people and making friends… careful viewers will notice his aversion to direct eye contact…. Newt’s social anxieties are not framed in the stereotypical ways we’ve come to expect from Hollywood.”

That description of what ASD can feel like certainly resonates with me.  What a stark difference it is to every other male hero you see in film.  Newt’s neuro-atypicality allows JK to avoid the toxic masculine stereo-trap while also presenting a viable alternative hero.  Many examples are shown in the video above of the kind of sociopathic, violent movie hero we show our boys in film.  The majority pick this up quickly and then weaponize it socially as shown in Ontario’s recent boys’ private school scandal or pretty much any sports locker room.  Fantastic Beasts has managed to side step the stereotypically male hero, but avoidance may also be its downfall.

I’m glad we didn’t let Glasner talk us out of seeing Fantastic Beasts.  His dislike of the main character is in tune with criticism found all over especially North American reviews and another reminder of how hard it is to find a male movie hero who isn’t toxically reductive.

Fantastic Beasts goes well beyond toxic masculinity by actually showing us a nuanced, non-stereotypical ASD hero, which is quite frankly astonishing, and perhaps unique. The instinctive dislike of him by most people (as evidenced in pretty much every movie review you’ll read) reflects my own experience and will be why the franchise fails.  It will become yet another reminder to those on the ASD spectrum, or any male that doesn’t want to put on the toxic masculinity society expects of them,of  just how peripheral they are.  Reductive toxic male stereotypes are the only ones that sell.

We’re surrounded by toxic masculine heroes that trivialize what being male could mean to all men while at the same time encouraging gender driven violence.  Fantastic Beasts’ ASD hero sidesteps this trap and breaks these conventions.  It’s a shame that it won’t sell to the North American public because it doesn’t pander to their prejudices.  Fortunately, it’s doing better on the rest of the planet.

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ECOO BIT18: Reductionism and Ignorance in Educational Technology

I’ve been ruminating over the latest ECOO conference for a couple of days now.  Strangely, this technology conference began and ended for me with others suggesting that digital technology is a dangerous waste of time and that we should step away from it in our classrooms.  Looking at my ECOO reflections over the past eight years I’m seeing a clear shift from optimism that we will get a handle on the digital revolution to caution and now a determined luddite push to walk away from it entirely.  The now obviously deleterious effects of the attention economy seem to have produced an unprecedented negativity around educational digital technology in 2018, and ECOO book-ended it for me.

These aren’t toys, they’re tools!
Calling them toys says a lot
about how YOU use them.

I opened the conference bringing armfuls of emerging technology to Minds on Media.  I’ve long tried to avoid the ‘here’s-a-turnkey-tech-tool’ presentation because it usually comes with corporate compromises.  That split focus in a lot of ‘edtech’ means much of it isn’t really so much about learning as it is about data collection or closed ecosystems that drive profitability.  Besides, I’ve long advocated for teachers who push technology to actually understand the technology they are requiring students to use.  That kind of technical fluency means you don’t get sucked into absurd situations like giving away student data for a ‘free’ service or driving students into expensive, proprietary, closed technology designed to make a profit when it inevitably breaks.

As in previous ECOO MoM demonstrations, I brought a variety of tech from different manufacturers and simply encouraged educators to become aware of an emerging new medium, in this case virtual reality.  I have no agenda and nothing to sell.  I get nothing for showing the technology and don’t benefit from anyone buying one thing or another.  This platform agnosticism means I can talk about the tech without prejudice or hidden agenda.  I was happy to be attending another MoM day and looking forward to showing people this emerging medium.

At least I was until Peter went around the room having the stations introduce themselves.  It all went well until we got stuck on one station that repeatedly described what everyone else was doing in the room as ‘playing with toys’ while describing their own noble pursuit as being ‘real’ and technology free (though without ICT infrastructure they couldn’t have done what they were doing at all).  This attitude isn’t new.  A surprising number of educators refuse to leverage digital tools to make their teaching more effective, but to hear someone shit can what everyone else is doing at this edtech conference was shocking.  There was no opportunity to call her out on it then, but I can now:

Too bad we don’t teach it like it matters.  Critical InfrastructureJobs in ICT.

This Minds on Media presenter monopolized the microphone to suggest anything digital was essentially meaningless (a toy) and that when people were ready to stop playing with their toys here she was ready to show them something real.  As a technician who trains engineers and technicians to run the world we live in, this made me angry, especially considering it was done at an educational technology conference that should be advocating for technical fluency across our education system in order to understand and effectively participate in the world we live in.  This didn’t put me in a great frame of mind to start the conference, but I soldiered on.

Cybersecurity in our classrooms.

I did two other presentations during the conference.  Both were presenting on platform agnostic technology opportunities that would teach students and teachers about a critical infrastructure (cybersecurity) and addressing our collective ignorance of 3d media.  In both cases I was advocating for not-for-profit digitally powerful learning opportunities that would enable Ontario educators and students to leverage the digital TOOLS at their disposal.  This is the opposite of the reductive and now recessive thinking I kept experiencing.

3d media in marketing & learning

There is now a two pronged attack on digital technology in the classroom.  The corrosive ra-ra edtech crowd seems increasingly determined to brand themselves behind proprietary corporate systems designed to deliver technology with no understanding required (and with lots of hidden profit centres), while the increasingly loud anti-tech crowd rises up against them, advocating that we receded from technology because it’s a distraction and a waste of time.  Both sides seem determined to ignore a simple fact: we’re supposed to be TEACHING students how this all works, not branding them or hiding them in a cave.  What edtech there is seems determined to follow consumerism into the most simplistic and ignorant relationship with digital tools possible.  In 2018 you can get branded or abstain from tech entirely and then feel mighty righteous about it.  Is anyone left just, ya know, teaching it any more?

There are technicians and engineers all around the world who provide digital infrastructure that we all depend on.  These people understand this technology and are much less likely to act like the sheeple who stare slack-jawed at their phones for hours on end.  To digitally literate people this technology is a powerful tool that is enabling us to do everything from gene editing diseases and linking disparate areas of study to creating more efficient critical utility systems.  Digital technology has become a vital part of the infrastructure around us, yet the vast majority of us, including many teachers, are completely ignorant of it.


For some baffling reason we seem intent on ignoring the actual teaching and understanding of these powerful digital technologies in favour of using them with the same perverse ignorance, and now fear, as the general public.  What is our role as educators in terms of technology if we aren’t producing technically competent graduates who can successfully navigate and participate in the digital world around them?  By the way, our ignorance of digital technologies is staggeringly bad. If you haven’t followed any of the supporting links in this so far, follow that one.

 

The closing keynote ended the conference by banging the same drum as that ‘when you’re done playing with these toys come and do something real’ comment that kicked it off.  This time one of the engineers of the attention economy that is causing so much damage earnestly suggested that we need to recede from digital activity in order to preserve not just learning but our very humanity!  Rather than acknowledge the potential for digital technology to enhance learning, his entire talk was aimed at retreating from it.

This particular group of Silicon Valley architects now wants to save the consumers they got wealthy commodifying.  I get the impulse.  If I had a bank account full of blood money like that I’d feel bad about it too, but as a means of resolving this technological adolescence we’re all living in, it won’t work – they can’t see past the mess they’ve made and they certainly aren’t approaching it from an educator’s mindset – but then neither are the educators.

There was not a single example of how digital technology might amplify or improve learning outcomes – a decidedly odd way to wrap up an edtech conference.  Our speaker went on to encourage the removal of personal technology from the hands of students and get back to a pre-digital time when everything was better.  As a digital immigrant I know that there was no such time.  If you think students weren’t distracted in class in the 1980s you weren’t a student in the 1980s.  These Silicon Valley wolves can’t see people as anything other than the consumer sheep they used to prey on.  I’d hope that teachers see much more potential in their students than these attention peddlars do, but I’m starting to think that vapid consumerism is the only relationship we’ll ever have with digital technology.

Invent a crisis and then offer a solution
to it. American business in action.

From an educational perspective digital technology offers a powerful tool for learning, but it doesn’t work if the teachers, administrators and government driving it are ignorant of how it works.  If the teachers and parents can’t manage the tech, then we can hardly expect students to.  I’d hope that ECOO and other curriculum support organizations would understand that and advocate for understanding and the development of broader technical fluency rather than encouraging willful ignorance.


Hiding digital tools and telling people to ignore the way the world works is a poor way to run an educational system, unless your goal is to produce ignorant consumers.  Instead of running away from the digital revolution that is driving innovation and increasingly managing the infrastructure around us, we should be teaching self regulation of personal technology and comprehension of how it all works in order to generate a genuine understanding the world we’re creating.  Teaching effective digital fluency means we’re less likely to be taken by the consumerist wolves and are able to effectively use digital tools rather than being used by them.


I’m all for being challenged in my thinking and often go out of my way to try on difficult ideas just to see how they fit.  I’ve weathered Nick Carr’s The Shallows and watched society wobbling under the weight of the robber barons of the attention economy.  Now I’ve attended an educational technology conference that began and ended with an ignorant and frankly dangerous dismissal of digital technology as a toy for idiots that should just be taken away.  Meanwhile digital infrastructure made that very event happen.  It fed the people who attended it and provided them with the resources they needed to travel to it, yet it isn’t worthy of teaching in our schools?  And teaching it is precisely the problem.  We pick up edtech and apply it without teaching it to staff or students, and now we’re shocked that it isn’t working well?  Sometimes I wonder how educationally aware our education system is.


I’ve been banging my head against this call for technology fluency for so long that I can’t help but feel like this dismissal of technology both by participants and the conference itself in that closing keynote is a betrayal of what I thought were shared values.


I first attended ECOO in 2010.  I joined Twitter, began meeting other technology interested teachers, started blogging and became part of a vibrant online PLN as a result of attendingOver the years ECOO has given me ideas and offered me a platform to present my own.  What I’d always hoped was an evolution towards greater understanding of the digital revolution we are all living through has faltered now.  We don’t want to learn how the world we’ve built works.  Pro-edtech educators want to keep the curtain firmly in place and leave the understanding and management of technology to others while the increasingly noisy anti-tech crowd are advocating receding from it entirely.  Our only contact with digital technology is through the lens of vapid consumerism and the only response we can have to that other than participating is to run and hide.


I’m frustrated, tired and losing hope in our ability to manage an understanding of the digital revolution that surrounds us.  Education seems particularly incapable of seeing their way out of this digital hole we’ve dug for ourselves.  The answer has always been to teach technological fluency, but ironically, I’m finding it harder and harder to find anyone who wants to.

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nosce aspie te ipsum

This past week I was taking first aid (again).  I’ve been first aid qualified since I first did it in air cadets thirty three years ago and needed to be current to take my cyber-security team to the national finals in New Brunswick next month.  As we were wrapping up the course our instructor First aid instructor shared a Will Smith video about surrounding yourself with good people:

It’s a good piece of advice from a talented fellow who has made a lot of conscious decisions to nurture and grow opportunities across many genres; you’d think this is good advice that would apply to everyone, but for a lot of people building this kind of social network is nearly impossible.

I’ve been recently reviewing various situations that have happened to me through an aspie lens.  It does a lot to explain why I’ve run into the problems I have.  Knowing myself in this way earlier might have helped me understand why I was doing what I was doing and might have led to different outcomes.  Being aware of a diagnosis would also have helped others understand why I’m not acting in a way they consider normal.

Back in air cadets I went for my pilot’s license.  I did well at the training, commuting for the better part of three hours every Saturday to get myself down to where we met at the opposite end of Mississauga; commitment wasn’t a problem.  I ended up missing a single meeting due to a work conflict and even though I communicated this, the guy in charge took the opportunity to drop me from the application for the summer flying scholarship course, even though I had the highest score in powered flight that year.  I ended up despondent and frustrated by the process, hundreds of hours of volunteer effort disappeared in a moment.

That situation ended up ratcheting up an already awkward relationship with that officer and did much to prevent me from advancing through the ranks.  In an organization I’d spent thousands of hours volunteering for, and one that I thought might lead me into a career, I ended up peripheral and bitter.  As I got older I began taking opportunities to sabotage situations and undermine the command structure.  I didn’t do this out of a maliciousness, I did it out of a sense of disenfranchisement.  I was capable, I was dedicated and I was keen but I was dismissed as a kid they neither liked nor trusted because I didn’t fit into the hierarchy and act like everyone else.

In school at about the same time, I was hanging out with a bunch of kids who started to get into teen-related nonsense, from smoking to drugs and other darker experiments.  Rather than value emotional connections with people over the nonsense, as everyone else did, I simply walked away.  This wasn’t easy, and I was lonely, but it wasn’t in my nature to prioritize friendships first and follow those guys down the rabbit hole.

That approach to things has always made me socially peripheral even though I played team sports throughout my childhood.  In many cases I played isolated positions like goalie that further limited my ability to interact with team mates, but then that was never the point of playing for me, as it was with pretty much everyone else.  As an adult, I couldn’t hang on to hockey because so many adult teams are friendship based and I was never good at prioritizing that aspect of the game.  The mandatory after game beers in any sport seemed like an awkward social moment, but for many of the guys there it was the point of coming out.

In university I managed to alienate a professor I thought was one of the best I’d ever had.  He got us to aggressively question the foundations of what we were doing, but in a case of Aspergers gone too far, I ended up questioning the group think he had generated in the class room and in doing so, once again made myself a pariah. I’m a perennially bad joiner.

At work I’ve run into similarly problems.  When I moved out of the city and up to a rural small town school I immediately ran into complications.  Being a big, white guy, you’d think the all white, all Canadian, mono-cultural class I suddenly found myself in would have felt more comfortable than the multi-cultural classes I’d just left, but the opposite was true.  In the previous multi-cultural environment, everyone tended to fall back on a more rational approach to interaction because cultural norms couldn’t be assumed, but in a mono-cultural, rural classroom all sorts of really offensive (to only me apparently) norms were accepted.  Students would use terms like, “he jewed me out of five bucks”, and drop the ‘n’ word in class like a  password.  They were doing this to confirm cultural conformity with each other.  It made them feel secure and meant they all believed similar things, it drove me around the bend.

I ended up showing this senior English class the Canadian-written academy award winning film Crash, as a way to make them question their overt racism and discriminatory thinking.  It’s a challenging film, but then that was kind of the point.  It put an end to kids talking like that in my class, but it also got me removed from the school.

Once again, I’d failed to adopt social norms and conform to group-think and instead went after a moral absolute.  People really don’t like that.  What people like is when you reinforce their prejudices and act like they expect you to.  In this case, one of the students in the class was the daughter of a local church leader and he decided this would be an excellent excuse for a good old fashioned witch-hunt.  I got moved out of there by the school board before things got sillier.  I’m sure nothing has changed up there and everyone is still more than happy being racist red necks – and this is precisely my problem.

When our teacher’s union lost the plot I couldn’t help but make a stand based on principle rather than supporting the people in the organization no matter what.  I’m a staunch believer in unionism – left to their own devices, the rich would happily disenfranchise everyone and return us to the middle ages.  An argument could be made that I should have supported the union at all costs considering this ever-present threat to the middle class, but I don’t think that way.  When the union broke its own rules around fair voting practices and forced an illegal contract on our members, I fought it tooth and nail.  No one had to strike and members got a contract (albeit an illegal one that has since cost tax payer millions), shouldn’t I have encouraged that?  I could have complied and ingratiated myself to the powers that be and found myself rising up the hierarchy, but not doing that is precisely my problem.  Rising up hierarchies depends on conformity of thought and valuing relationships before principles.  This is the single reason why I don’t pursue leadership positions.

Back to Will Smith’s advice.  I’ve always found it hard to make friends, let alone find supporters who will stoke my fire, though I’ve never lacked for flames.  I’m driven and capable, but I find it impossible to put social expectation above rational and moral consideration.  An inability to do that means I never develop the deep levels of trust that other people lean on in their careers.

Yesterday at PD we were looking at White Ribbon scenarios and they all seem absurd to me.  Cases where teen age boys agree to isolate drunk girls to take advantage of them?  Evidently it’s a thing now in Toronto where groups of high school boys are convincing girls to perform sex acts for money.  If that’s what neuro-typical, socially focused people end up doing with those tight networks they develop, then I’m glad it’s beyond me, but then so is Will’s empowering social network.

Of course, there are precedents for aspies building great success, but in a lot of cases they don’t do it with a supportive social network, they do it through sheer malicious will.  I tend to fixate on creative and technical challenges, people domination isn’t in my wheelhouse.  Most business-successful aspies are fixated on that kind of dominance.

Finding people with complimentary skills sets is a way around this impasse.  The problem for an aspie is that the people who tend to be very good at social discourse find our lack of it trying and don’t associate with us.  In many cases, those are precisely the people who have attacked me socially.  It has been the rare socially skilled person who has been able to see past my lack of tact and recognize what lies beneath.  Finding a leader who stokes my fire rather than pouring water on my inabilities is a rarity.  I long to find people worthy of being loyal to, but they are vanishingly rare.  When I do find people like that, I’m the staunchest ally imaginable, as long as we fighting the good fight.

Looking for people to fan your flames is a difficult proposition at the best of times.  Without the deep at-all-costs social ties most people leverage, the aspie is left depending entirely on their technical skills to get anywhere.  Most people factor in trust when making hiring and promotional decisions.  That trust is usually based on their sense of how loyal a person is to them.  In almost any management decision this emotional bias means the technical aspie loses out to nepotism – something that has happened throughout my life:  don’t expect fair or skills based promotion, expect nepotism.  In a world where who you know always takes you further than what you know, this is perhaps the single largest disadvantage this aspie has faced.

NOTES:
Asperger’s inside the ASD spectrum: high functioning autism without specific titles.
A survival guide for people with Aspbergers
ASD and aging: peaks and valleys of youth and old age
Zuckerberg: coping with Aspbergers
ASD as flavour:  this kind of thinking gives me hope that my son won’t suffer the same prejudices that I have – perhaps he’ll even be given a chance to take Will’s advice and build that empowering social network.
An interesting piece of ASD media:  Roman J. Isreal Esq

The dreaded online personality test:

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When Assistive Technology Doesn’t

Recently, my son was undergoing his IPRC process to enter high school and I’m suddenly privy to how parents experience this aspect of the public education system.  The parties at this meeting seemed to genuinely have my son’s best interests at heart, but there are unseen forces in the education system more interested in saving money than promoting pedagogy.


One such area is technology support for IEPed students.  The goal here is to provide digital tools that allow students with special needs to keep up with their class work.  In many cases this can mean something like a Chromebook, which is essentially a web browsing laptop.  I’m not a fan of Chromebooks, they are a corporate means of collecting users into a closed ecosystem.  The intent of Chromebooks is to pass any online experience through Google’s corporate lens (Chrome) and to keep people within that singular view in order to benefit what is very much a for-profit business.  

Google struggles to treat education and students in particular as anything other than a commodity because people’s internet attention is why Google is one of the richest companies in the world.  Google is very aggressive about maintaining its monopoly which is why I’m reticent about things like GAFE, evangelizing groups like Google Certified Teachers and the Chromebooks.


Google is a powerful tool, no doubt, but if it’s the only way you ever interact with digital technology then you aren’t particularly digitally fluent, any more than you could call yourself truly literate and knowledgeable if you only ever read one publisher’s books.


The default response from the school board when we began talking about replacing my son’s very old (he takes good care of it) laptop was to give him a Chromebook.  Since we only pay lip service to developing digital fluency in Ontario and graduate a large majority of digital illiterates, this seems like a cheap and easy way to hand out tech, but in this case it is a kid who is already digitally skilled and who intends to make computer technology his life’s work.  He is already competing in robotics competitions and building computers.  The courses he has signed up for in high school focus on digital engineering.  Giving him a Chromebook is like giving a carpenter a toy hammer and expecting them to frame a house.  It’s neither individually appropriate nor particularly useful.

I have been pushing to get him the tools that he needs to pursue his interests, but I’m speaking for the trees here as well as for my own son.  I teach computer technology and have a high preponderance of ASD students who have a great interest in and a neuro-atypical approach to technology that allows them to tackle it in interesting, unique but usually never time efficient ways.  Handing any of those students a Chromebook is like giving a mechanic a twelve millimeter wrench and then telling them to disassemble an engine with it, in an hour.


When he is learning electronics next year in grade 9, he’ll need to install Arduino on his computer and then use it to code circuits.  It’s free on a ‘proper’ computer running Windows, Linux or OSx, but Arduino can only be done on a Chromebook with a monthly fee (not covered by the school board).   If he wants to run RobotC for his robotics classes, he can’t do it on a Chromebook.   If he wants to run 3d modelling software?  Code in the IDE of his choice?  Run the plasma cutter software?  Sorry, none of those happen on a web browser.  If all we’re aiming to do is teach kids how to browse the internet like the consumers we want them to be and through a single, corporate lens, then we’re doing a great job pitching Chromebooks at them.



A Chromebook isn’t cheaper than a basic Windows laptop.  It is only a browser whereas the Windows PC can install a massive ecosystem of programs for a wide variety of purposes.  The only advantage is that the Chromebook is easier to manage.  Because you can’t install anything that isn’t a simplistic Chrome extension on it, you have less headaches with software conflicts; it does less, is easier to manage and does a great job of performing it’s primary function:  feeding the Google data mining machine with much needed fuel.  Pedagogy designed to expand digital fluency in our students isn’t the reason why Chromebooks are now ubiquitous.  Management of educational technology is easier if you drink the koolaid and get on the magic Google bus where you don’t have to worry about all that messy digital diversity and the complications of actually teaching students (and teachers) how technology works.  Google (and Apple, and Microsoft) are happy to usher your classroom in to a closed system for your own ease of you, learning how technology works be damned.




In discussing this issue with the school board I was told that my son doesn’t need a full laptop because the specialty classes that require that software will supply it in class.  His IEP specifies that he be given extra time to complete work, but that is impossible if the technology needed to do his class work is only available in a particular classroom.  How does that help him finish his work after school, or on a weekend?  It doesn’t help him if he is trying to do work during his GLE support period either because other students are using the in-class equipment while he is elsewhere.  There is no guaranty that the technology would be available at lunch or before or after school either, so the ‘what he needs will be in the classroom’ answer seems to be intentionally ignoring the extra time his IEP clearly states he needs.


Differentiation of assistive technology with an eye on customizing it to specific student needs is exactly what the IEP (INDIVIDUAL education plan) is supposed to be doing.  If we were going to begin to take digital fluency seriously, assistive digital technology that encourages a diverse digital ecosystem and renders a wider understanding of how technology works would be a great place to start, especially with digitally interested students.  


A Chromebook should be the last thing suggested.  This, or course, begs the question:  if Chromebooks aren’t any cheaper and don’t improve digital fluency, why are we using them at all?  Well, it makes our monopolistic corporate overlord, um, partner, happy while not being any cheaper and doing less, but it sure is easier to manage.  


Whoever this is a win for, it isn’t providing my son with the technology he needs to succeed.  It also puts pedagogy of promoting an understanding of the technology we’ve made an intrinsic part of our classrooms on the back foot.  As near as I can tell, other than feeding a corporate partnership and rolling out something so simple it can’t really break (or do much), there is little to recommend the Chromebook, especially as an assistive device for a student who will need things it can’t do in his classes next year.

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Why You Shouldn’t Base Your Classroom On Hacker Mythology


Like many social trends, hacking came into education late. Decades after the concept reached world wide understanding in technology, education took it up as a great leap forward and a way to catch up with the times, except everyone else has moved on, again.  WIRED recently published an article that demonstrates technology’s evolving relationship with the hacker ethos.  In questioning the value of hacking as a moral and useful way of thinking, this article raises some interesting questions about the many teachers who want to hack the classroom, or teach children the magic of hacking.


Honesty, ethics and scientific method?  Surely it’s much
better to be a cool hacker in a classroom, right?

If, as Joi Ito suggests in that article, “the hacker archetype had found its highest articulation in one Donald Trump”, then perhaps it’s time for educators to rethink their hacking fandom.  At its roots hacking is an act of hubris designed to beat a system at all costs.  It is driven by pride and arrogance and the results always justify the means.  A successful hack is a forced, rushed, short-term result that only has value to its user.  Hackers don’t build things, they break things, twisting the intentions of designers and diverting shared resources for their own needs; hacking is an inherently self serving and destructive act.


…but I can hack a fix that will save us in this moment
but will take weeks afterwards to undo or everything
will fall apart – hacks have nothing to do with sustainable
engineering.

In certain circumstances (say, Scotty on the Enterprise jury-rigging together some dilithium crystals to make the warp drive work and save everyone’s lives), a hack might be just what you need, but to base your personal knowledge on hacks, or worse, teach it to many people as curriculum, is madness.  Whenever someone hacks together a solution in a complex system, it weakens the system.  You might get what you want out of it in the short term, but capable people will need to come in afterwards and repair what you’ve done or else the system will eventually fail.


It might seem romantic and exciting to call hands on learning hacking, but it’s also very inaccurate, to the point of being damaging to the students learning it because it doesn’t teach them effective engineering.  It is akin to teaching accounting by showing students how to cook the books, or teaching a sport by showing students how to cheat to win it.  As they mention in the WIRED article, the Russian team’s hacking of the last Olympics shows a staggering lack of understanding; the point isn’t winning at all costs.


As a former IT technician and now technology teacher I’ve always wondered why I find the whole hacker thing so eye-rollingly tedious, but in retrospect it was because I was the one who had built the thing they broke, and then had to fix their ‘ingenious hack’ so that the whole thing would work again.  It’s difficult to see a hacker as some kind of genius when you build and service a complex hardware and software network that serves hundreds of people well only to watch it get broken to serve one selfish person.  Yet many educators hold up hacking as this magical process that lets you beat technology.  Perhaps that’s what’s at the bottom of this, and opportunity to attack the technology that so many people feel is enabling them to belittle themselves.

“There is a trend in software development away from the ‘hacker’ jury-­rigging into a mature field, where things are ‘proven’,”

Virgil Griffith

You don’t have to advocate for technological terrorism
to get into teaching science & technology, you just
need to spend some time understanding it.  It
isn’t magic, it’s knowable and teachable.



That mature field is called engineering.  It doesn’t have the gung-ho and catchy mythology of hacking, but it’s what builds space shuttles, Internets and makes the rest of modern society possible.  It is a creative and powerful expression of human thought made tangible and something that everyone should have at least a passing experience in otherwise they are ignorant of how the Twenty-First Century works.


If you want to have Maker Spaces and encourage hands-on learning I’ll be the first to applaud the effort, but you don’t need to dirty the name of technical creation with hacking, because it has nothing to do with it.  You’re encouraging a cheating-to-a-solution-at-all-costs mentality when you use the term hacking.  Engineering is a collaborative act of creation with a result that is beneficial to many people.  The reason hacking isn’t is because it has little to do with creation and is usually motivated entirely by selfish need, that’s why it’s usually a solo effort.  Is that really what you want for your students?  Ruthless, deterministic and selfishly motivated hands-on learning?


As educators I think we can do a bit better than that.







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ECOO 2017: building your Edtech house on shifting ground

These are the big 3 that are somehow branding
entire school boards, but the education
software sector is a 10+ billion dollar industry
beyond even them.  Happy to make money
from education, not so happy to pay taxes
to provide that education in the first place.

I attended a panel discussion yesterday a #BIT17 between educators and education IT support that jumped up and down on a number of hot button issues.  One thing that’s always struck me about attending a conference like ECOO is the point of view of the support people in education; they don’t seem to get the support piece.  Our function is to educate.  Not provide PD for teachers, or build an IT network.  Those things are there only to support the main function of what we do: educate children.


In the course of this discussion it was suggested by curriculum support people and board IT professionals that teachers should be spending an inordinate amount of their time closely reviewing the legal documentation around software applications and vetting software.  I thought we had people for that.  Having a teacher do that is akin to pulling all your commandos off the front line in a war and having them do paperwork.


Once I got past everyone who doesn’t work in a classroom earnestly telling me I should be doing their job for them (odd that teachers never suggest that of other education employees), we continued to pursue the topic of heightened responsibility – the term that was used to shut down my suggestion of using your online PD community to source new technology ideas for your classroom.  From my point of view, if a number of educators I know personally suggest trying a new app or other piece of educational technology, that’s a fantastic resource.  I was told by a panel member that this stifles innovation.  I always thought it was a source of innovation.  Perhaps this was a misunderstanding in terminology.  I used the term crowdsource to describe my process of vetting a new piece of software.  To the CIO and curriculum experts on the panel, this meant trusting strangers on the internet.  That isn’t my experience with online learning communities at all, it’s anything but dealing with unsubstantiated strangers.  Maybe that’s how they tentatively work online though.  Let’s call that one lost in translation.


Michelle Solomon from the Association of Media Literacy was on the panel and created an awkward moment when she suggested that using even board/ministry sanctioned software like Turnitin.com (a private, for profit company that uses student data to make its money) was morally ambivalent.  The CIOs and curriculum experts were quickly able to compartmentalize that truth and function again within their fiction, but it knocked the floor out of what we were talking about for me.


When describing themselves and their school boards, the IT people in the room said, “we’re a Google board” and “we’re a Microsoft board” as a means of stating their, what, affiliation?  Their purpose?  You’re public school boards here to promote and deliver public education; what you aren’t is a multi-national media company that undermines democracy and avoids paying taxes anything.


The ‘stop loading malware onto our networks/teachers should be happy with less choice and spend more time pouring over software legalize‘ angle was designed to create a locked down, heavy drag system where innovation and moving with trends in data management would be years behind what everyone else is doing.  I have to wonder just how bad the teachers-installing-malware issue is, because I haven’t heard anything about it.  This invented and absurdly low threshold for software access (watch out, everything might be infected!) then had the blanket of heightened responsibility thrown over it all.  Of course, you know what the answer to all these technically incompetent teachers installing malware is?  Get a corporate system!  Become a Gooplesoft board!


Except, of course, those earnest, well meaning multi-nationals, from their totalitarian labour to expert accountants, aren’t in it for education, they’re in it for money.  You want to talk about malware?  It’s all malware!  Google promises not to advertise to your students while they are in Google Apps for Education, but they can’t stop mining data on what students do in GAFE because Google is a data mining advertising company, it’s how they make their money.  They always serve themselves first.


I left this talk with my head spinning.  I feel like we were talking in circles about a fiction that

doesn’t exist.  We could have a self-built, non-corporate technology foundation for Ontario Education, but it would be hard work and would require technical talent to achieve.  Why do that when we can give in to the hype and Vegas-like allure of the educational technology juggernaut?  Pick your poison, but if you’re going to use educational technology none of it is blameless, it’s all built on shifting grounds undermined by hidden revenue streams.


At one point it was suggested that we need to build media literacy in order to battle this situation.  It needs to start with the educators and technologist working in the industry.  If we’re too busy drinking the koolaid to recognize just how twisted this all is, then there is little hope of graduating students who anything more than consumers.

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Stop Trying To Help Me

The other day I was driving my better half’s car.  I don’t usually drive it and it’s still relatively new so each time is an adventure.  It was a busy day on the main street of our village, so I was parallel parking into a spot with a row of traffic lined up behind me.  It’s a smallish vehicle so this is pretty straightforward, or it would be.  Shifting into reverse I backed in to the spot only to have the emergency warning systems start bleeping at me frantically whenever a car passed by.  This system is supposed to be there to make the car safer, but in interrupting my parking process repeatedly it actually kept stopping me because I thought we were about to have an impending impact.  I’d have been better off without the frantic bleeping and would have parked the car more efficiently, quickly and safely without it.

It’s a pretty thing and very efficient for what it is,
but this Buick likes to get in the way of my
driving process.

Pulling out after our stop I backed up to clear the car in front and the mirrors aimed down – I presume to make sure I’m not running over any small animals, but when I started driving forward all I could see out of the wing mirror was the ground, which isn’t very helpful when I’m trying to pull out.  I’d have been better off without the squirrel saving rear view mirrors.  I can always actually move my head if I want to see down through the mirror, it doesn’t need to move at all.  The worst part about all of these interrupting technologies is that in addition to actually making driving more difficult, they are also another thing to break over the life of a car.


I’m all about technology assisting a process, I’m happy to use the rear view camera to make centimeter perfect parking, but there is a big difference between interfering and assisting.  When you’re backing a car up and it starts bleeping at you about impending impacts that aren’t happening it isn’t helping, it’s introducing false and interrupting signal to your process.  When your car aims its mirrors at the ground and then leaves them there thus preventing you from using them to assess incoming threats, they are a hazard rather than a help.


This ‘we’ll do it for you‘ technology sets all sorts of dangerous precedents:




This ad doesn’t make me think, gee, I need a Kia so when I’m operating a two ton vehicle like a clueless git it’ll save me from myself!  It does suggest that there should be far fewer people with valid licenses on the road.  Driver intervention tools like this muddy the line between expectations of driver competence and technology’s ability to take care of things.  How often do educational technologies do the same thing in the classroom?


But what about technology like anti-lock brakes that actually outperform most people in emergency situations?  I pride myself on my ability to modulate brakes very effectively, but modern anti-lock systems are so capable that I can’t keep up, and I consider them a requirement on a modern car.  This isn’t an anti-technology rant, technology should be able to help us do things better, but when it doesn’t it drives me around the bend, and it doesn’t whenever it tries to do too much for us, and especially when it starts to assume responsibility for the very human parts of driving (like paying attention), or the very human parts of learning, like demonstrating skills.


Self driving cars are on the horizon.  For many people this will be a great relief.  Those who hate driving and do it poorly will all be better off for it, and so will the rest of us when they are no longer operating a vehicle.  I have no doubt that for the vast majority self-driving cars will drastically reduce accidents, but they also mean those of us who are willing and capable lose the chance to learn how to do something well.  The fact that I can toss pretty much anything into a parallel parking spot (I did in in a van… in Japan… with the steering on the wrong side) is a point of pride and a skill I took years to develop.  If machines end up doing all the difficult things for us, what’s left for us to do well?  If machines end up demonstrating our learning for us, what’s left for us to learn?


Based on what I’ve seen recently, I’m more worried that machines will unbalance and panic us while they are taking care of us.  I don’t look forward to that future at all.  Perhaps clueless, bad drivers won’t notice any of this and will do what they’re doing now, minus the actually controlling the car part.  Perhaps poor learners will happily let AI write their papers and answer their math quizzes, and never have an idea if what they’re doing for them is right or not.


I often frustrate people by second guessing GPS.  Mainly it’s because I know how hokey the software is that runs it, so I doubt what it’s telling me.  When GPS steers me up a dead end road I’m not surprised.  Maybe I’ll feel better about it when an advanced AI is writing the software and it isn’t full of human programming errors.  When that happens maybe it won’t matter how useless the people are.  There’s a thought.


I’m a big fan of technology support in human action, but it should be used to improve performance, not reduce effort and expectation.  It should especially not damage my ability to operate a vehicle effectively.  The same might be said for educational technology.  If it’s assisting me in becoming a better learner, then I’m all for it, but if it’s replacing me as a learner, or worse, interfering with my ability to learn, then the future is bleak indeed.

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