When eLearning Evolves from Electronic Learning to Enhanced Learning via VR

I got into virtual reality way back in 2015, to the point where my secondary computer engineering program was making VR systems for other schools in our board and we developed a board-wide Ministry funded research project on it.  Having worked with this emerging technology from the very first commercially viable system, I’ve watched with interest as the field matures and it has me thinking about how we can move beyond the prejudices in our very conservative education system and toward a mindset where the ‘e’ in elearning stands for ‘enhanced’ rather than ‘electronic’ and is considered a necessity for a superior pedagogical experience rather than an evil to fight against or an excuse to cut funding.

Back in 2017 the only way you could do VR was with the processing power of a desktop computer.  We built those machines to spec and then set up a variety of fully interactive, high resolution headsets on them ranging from HTC Vives to Microsoft supported setups by Samsung through our board’s SHSM program.  I’m still providing hardware support for those machines years later.

We travelled to other schools and conferences around the province demonstrating immersive VR for students, parents and other educators.  In most cases they got stuck on the games, but games are often the early adopters, like the first-returners after a forest fire, they push technology and create systems that are adopted by later industries, like education.  Many people turned their noses up at VR even as they were stunned by how immersive and engaging it could be simply because it’s ‘all about gaming’, but (of course) that isn’t the case.

At Skills Canada Nationals in Moncton in 2016 I wandered the floor while our IT & Networking finalist duked it out in competition.  I came across a VR training system to operate one of the all-in-one lumber cutting systems (the kind that grabs the tree, cuts it, trims it and stacks the finished poles for transport).  These complex mechanical systems cost millions and the only way to train on them was to train on them, before VR got involved.  The VR training system they had cost upwards of $80,000 to put together, so it was far from cheap, but what it did was allow the company to train operators prior to putting them on the real multi-million dollar equipment and it reduced user-error in new operators by over 80% when they finally got into the real machine.  The end result was millions saved in broken equipment and lost productivity.

In applying immersive VR in our classroom I’ve come across instances where students with special needs could suddenly express their genius and I’ve had students produce complex VR based games that gave them the portfolio they needed to move on into high-demand post-secondary digital media programs.  It has also reframed for me how 3d modelling and emerging digital media have their own literacy requirements that many people are oblivious to.  This ongoing work culminated this year when we won Skills Ontario provincials in 3d animation and then went on to win Skills Canada nationals to become the top 3d animation school in the country.

All of these experiences and development feels like it’s leading somewhere, and that somewhere is beginning to come into focus.  A digitally enhanced classroom offers many benefits and improvements to pedagogical practice, but it requires staff and students who are fluent and proficient with the technology.  This is an ongoing problem in an education system that diminishes the potential of technology and clings to old ways, usually to the benefit of the organizations involved in public education.

Things have been, let’s say ‘rough‘ during COVID as the system fell into repeat rounds of remote learning without any kind of plan or expectations of success.  The new normal became to just do and expect less as the limited and atrophied format of elearning became evident to all, but any educator who approaches the job from that angle should probably be looking elsewhere for work.  As things come back toward some kind of normal I’m hoping we can explore virtual and digitally augmented learning without the entrenched prejudices surrounding webpaged based/screen delivered elearning because this emerging media offers some powerful opportunities.

In the time we’ve been in pandemic-limbo VR technology has moved along.  Those 2017 ‘coming soon’ stand alone systems are no longer lower resolution options and they are now pretty much where a desktop top driven wired system was in 2016, for one quarter the price.  The evolution toward fully interactive, high-resolution virtual reality will continue and education needs to get over it’s e-prejudices to better understand and leverage it.

My son gave the Hololens a go back at the ECOO conference in 2016.  It was very much a prototype-proof-of-concept device, but the idea of eye glasses sized headsets is where VR is headed.  Along with a pair of haptic gloves and other IoT type sensors, we should be seeing portable, capable, fully interactive systems in the next couple of years that continue to expand the bandwidth between us and our rapidly expanding digital infrastructure.  Interacting with digital information through a two dimensional low-resolution/screen will look as archaic as dot matrix printers in a decade.

During the pandemic I got to try Meta’s latest Oculus Quest 2 headset.  These are completely wireless, have school-day long battery life and offer interactive, immersive digital media access for close to the price of a Chromebook.  Early adopting programs (like mine) will be able to offer VR experiences much more easily with this gear, but it’s the next step that is most exciting:  the convergence of virtual, augmented and mixed reality into a readily accessible digital media-scape for most subjects of study.
“Education will be transformed into something far more vivid. History teachers will transport their students to the beaches of Normandy or the Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam. In biology class, the entire room will become the inside of a mammalian cell.”
We’re getting to the point now where the hardware engineering isn’t the limitation.  The next few years will be about developing the software engineering in this new medium because having the tech in hand doesn’t help when the media isn’t there to make use of it.  The focus I’ve placed on our game development program has always included a big push beyond games as students develop increasingly complex digital portfolios.  It’s why we’ve crept into animation and 3d modelling in our engineering as well, because these skills are going to be in short supply to fulfill the needs of this emerging medium.
Our success with Skills Canada this year in 3d animation lies very much in the realm of digital media as this kind of 3d media is exactly what is needed for both virtual and augmented reality experiences to work:
Made over 2 days (2×6 hours), our team of 2 had to storyboard, script and animate an 11 second video.  They were allowed to pre-model and rig 3d character models (the loon and the beaver) but the metal pot was a wild-card model that had to be made in the competition window.  All sounds were prescribed for all teams, so the animation is storyboarded to fit them.
Our success at Skills (and the fact that it was 2 grade 11s who achieved it) means we’re integrating 3d animation into the game development training curriculum next year.  This all grew out of me pushing for better narrative structure in last year’s game, Rigged.  That led to several students (including our Skills competitors) branching off and forming animation teams to better frame the narrative in the game:
All the modelling, animation and sounds in that video were made from scratch in our classroom by grade 11/12 students in our TGI3/4M Software Engineering/Gamedev class.  We were unable to develop a VR based game as we have in previous years due to COVID restrictions, but I’m hoping to get back to it sooner than later.
It won’t be too long until you see teachers asking students to take out their headsets and join a virtual classroom where avatars allow students to be whatever they wish and the level of interactivity means teachers will be able to know whether or not a student is engaged and present.  Many online teachers during the pandemic experienced the ‘logged-in-but-absent’ student.  That kind of low-resolution online interaction would be rendered obsolete once Meta and the rest of the industry has education-ready virtual reality ready to go.  If you’re inhabiting an avatar online you can’t hide behind privacy as an excuse to not participate, and an inactive avatar in VR would look like an inactive student in class, making avoidance much more difficult.
This also means that the idea of a brick and mortar classroom as we know it is going to quickly become irrelevant and our schools as we know them will require rethinking – something that the drag-inducers in education (the vested interests in how things run right now) aren’t going to want to cooperate with.  I fear the public education system in Ontario is going to need a hard reboot to make this happen.  That may be the only way to break our ties with a past that makes little sense in the 21st Century and craft a ‘world class education system‘.  Thinking that the way things were is the pinacle we need to get back to is a big part of the problem.
Instead of passive information delivery, interactive, immersive learning opportunities mean students will experience history, science and literature first hand, bringing formerly static information to life and allowing them to explore it rather than have it land on them.  Living Lord of the Flies is much more memorable than reading it.  I did a role play of it over a decade ago in an English class and former students still talk about it today.  Interactivity is the key to engagement with modern students as this is the mediascape they live in when not in class.  They will no longer be forced to step back a decade in terms of media in the classroom if we can engage with emerging digital mediums.
In the book (and film) Ready Player One, after the collapse of an oil based transport economy virtual reality becomes the default schooling option.  A better future would be a bit less apocalyptic but the idea that VR would augment learning and help teachers produce engaged classrooms with interactive and powerful learning opportunities also suggests that we don’t need to burn tons of diesel every day transporting students to remote schools since any local school could provide digital enhancement.  Even in augmented situations where students are building in technology classes or experimenting in science, augmented reality could offer insight and direction that would enable far more students to enjoy success while also making our schooling more green; yet another aspect of our ‘perfect’ system that never was.
From the early days up until now, virtual/immersive/interactive digital tools have offered the hope of a future that finally removes us from a static relationship with information and offers radical differentiation of learning for all students.  In our increasingly information rich (or overwhelmingly information overloaded world, depending on how you look at it) we need to find better ways to find and make effective use of the information at our fingertips, and this augmented, virtual mediascape will be the key to that as well.  That it also offers a solution to our current wildly unsustainable educational transport habits is icing on the cake.  Now it’s just a matter of getting a system mired in political self interest to move forward.

RESOURCES

VR isn’t the only emerging digital technology that can empower our pedagogical practice.  Artificial Intelligence is also opening doors to radically individualized learning opportunities that would benefit all students and make our rows of desks in overcrowded classrooms look positively medieval:

Virtual possibilities back in 2016 (education has made little effort to engage in any of them):

Our MoE grant research into VR in 2017. No follow-up there either:

Reaching out to industry at the FITC conference in 2018.  Industry doesn’t know how to engage with the prickly world of public education either:

In 2016 I was looking to escape the staid and restrictive world of #edtech in order to try and explore emerging technologies.  Six years later we’re churning out national champions in fields ranging from cybersecurity to 3d animation:

Meta’s Project Cambria, the next gen in VR:

Facebook is morphing into Meta in order to drive a more complex interface with digital information:

VR in education:

10 best examples of VR in education (Forbes):

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Beware The Dinosaur’s Lawyers!

Watching broadcast media, one of the giants birthed of industrialization in the Twentieth Century, struggle with the recent Olympics was enjoyable.

Early on, CTV’s London desk was showing video of a flash mob at Wimbledon.  The broadcast anchor said, “I don’t get this at all, why would people do this?  What a waste of time.”

He doesn’t get why people would do back flips to get on mainstream media?  Dude, your entire career is predicated on what they are doing… did you enjoy getting made up for your camera time today?  Does your agent do what those people are doing all the time just to get your mug in front of more cameras?  Do you throw a fit when they bring you the wrong tie?

The ‘let them eat cake’ distance that the corporate broadcast media has from a bunch of sweaty fools having a good time on a hill at Wimbledon underlines how truly out of touch they are.

Technology has miniaturized and communications have become a widely distributed two-way medium, yet the corporate broadcast media cling to their unidirectional economic model, frantically milking it for all it’s worth before the weight of inevitability forces change.  I’m not saying there won’t be a place for professionally created media, but technology is allowing for smaller, niche groups to make what they want, how they want, and do it well while still making a living selling to niche audiences.  The days of centrally controlled media are ending because the need for expensive corporate backing are no longer a technical necessity.

Where once an artist had to gather the corporate power of a massive enterprise behind them in order to get their hands on the technology needed to broadcast their story, they now find themselves increasingly able to create their vision and distribute it themselves, assuming the wallowing dinosaur doesn’t have a room of lawyers on hand, which they do.  Deinnovation by legislation.  Deinnovation by lawsuit.

A couple of years ago I came across Quinn Norton’s brilliant column in MaximumPC on the calamity that was Nina Paley’s attempt to express her own miserable breakup using a complex mash up of Flash animation, Annette Hanshaw’s blues, and The Ramayana.  To call this copyright theft is ridiculous… this mash up is insane (and brilliant – I use it every year teaching media arts).  Yet Paley was run out of business by copyright trolls (lawyers) who look for out of date art, copyright it, then lay in wait, hoping to squeeze money out of something they purchased from other copyright lawyers – an open market of dead artist’s work being held to prevent new art from forming.

If that isn’t an example of the desperation of the broadcast media system, I don’t know what is.  They are so intellectually bankrupt that they can only recycle and steal other ideas.  The corporate media machine continually pumps out near identical films at virtually the same time, desperately trying to tap into cultural memes that they aren’t agile enough to keep up with.  Indy and social media media create far more current, personalized and pertinent media in the early 21st Century, and younger viewers are cottoning on to it, even while everyone tries to dodge the wallowing dinosaur’s departments of lawyers.

There will always be money to be made in a good bit of story telling, and digital media is nothing if not a good bit of story telling (even the news).  What we’re seeing now is a slow, painful adjustment as the habits we invented around expensive, industrially driven broadcasting give way to cheaper, individualized, technology supported media.  Professional media isn’t dead, but we don’t require millions in corporate backing to produce it any more.  Don’t expect an industry worth more than two trillion dollars to give up on squeezing it though.

I’d hope that instead of trying to cobble together another massive production, corporate mega-media would be trying to spin off divisions that support small, agile groups feeding niche markets, but I don’t imagine that’s the case.  The problem with really big animals that are ideally suited to a specific environment is that they are horrible at adapting.  They’re great while the ecosystem stays the same, but the minute the social media asteroid appears, they just keep trying to do what they’ve always done, thrashing around, hoping to hold off the inevitable, until they are extinct.


Note: thanks to Quinn & Nina, Sita will be shown again in the middle of our Flash animation unit this year.  I’m looking forward to another year of grade tens wrestling with who owns what, what art is, how no one is free from influence, how The Beatles could steal other people’s musical influences and then lock down their own for ever, what is appropriation of voice, and the future of media art. That one little column led me to a wonderful teaching piece that is still raising hard questions for hundreds of students years later.  Thanks!

Face Your Fear! Maths Trauma & Inequity in STEM Education

In January the president of the Ontario Association for Mathematics Educators (OAME) sent me an email after seeing our online activity around game development and coding and asked if I might present at their conference in May.   If you’d have told high school me that I’d one day present at a maths conference I would have thought you’re having me on.  For me, maths and science were the hammers that the education system used to teach me that I wasn’t good enough, but I’m rethinking that egotistical framing.

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One of my co-presenters also didn’t have a positive maths experience in high school and we were both worried that it would be like being back in class again.  That’s where the teacher would single you out and make sure everyone in the room knew that you didn’t know what you were doing, then they’d fail you, usually with a caustic remark about how ‘this isn’t for you’.  I’d internalized the idea that maths (and science) went out of their way to make me feel stupid, but after doing our presentation (everyone was lovely, of course), I’m reconsidering my failures in maths and science from another angle.
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We immigrated to Canada when I was eight years old.  A lack of research had us moving to Montreal right after Bill 101 came in, which wasn’t great for a little kid from rural England.  By 1980 we’d moved to Streetsville on the edge of Mississauga and that’s where I grew up.  Various calamities happened both financially and emotionally while I was in high school.  I didn’t play school sports because I worked every day after school from the age of 12 on.  School sports, like maths and science, are for those privileged children of leisure who have the time and money to participate – that’s why we shape entire school cultures around them.
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In senior high school my dad was in a near fatal car accident that had him hospitalized for months.  During that time I was working as well as doing all the home things that he usually did.  This meant that the hours of homework meted out by maths and science teachers didn’t get the attention it demanded.  The tedious and repetitive/rote nature of S&M homework didn’t help either.  Before grade 11 science I was daydreaming of becoming an astronomer.  After I failed it, not so much.  High school accommodated my lack of socio-economic clout by guidancing me to go find a job that Canadians don’t like doing – like a good immigrant should.
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I dropped out of grade 13, worked as a night security guard (full time) while trying to attend Sheridan College for visual arts.  I dropped out of Sheridan when I couldn’t get to class after not sleeping every night before class.  Eventually I  found my way into a millwright apprenticeship which offered me the economic stability I needed to finish high school, which I did at the age of 22.  I eventually left millwrighting and went to university, finally settling on English and philosophy degrees, but even there my maths trauma haunted me.
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A requirement for my philosophy degree was to take the symbolic logic course.  My first time through it was run by a computer science prof who didn’t like how big the class was so he used every rotten maths trick in the book (surprise tests, undifferentiated instruction, sudden changes in direction, etc) to shake out the ‘arts’ students who needed it for their degree.  That course could also be used as an ‘arts’ credit for the STEM types who took it as a bird course.  That prof succeeded in chasing out all the philosophy students from that philosophy course.  The next semester I tried again, this time with a philosophy prof.  I told her of my fear of maths and she went out of her way to differentiate both instruction and assessment.  I ended up getting an ‘A’ on the mandatory course I thought I’d never finish.  I can do maths and complex logic, just not when it’s weaponized against me.
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As a millwright I never had a problem tackling applied maths when I needed it.  When I transitioned into information technology, again no issues using applied maths as I needed it to do my job.  It appeared that I wasn’t as bad as maths as the education system had repeatedly told me I was, though I still carried that luggage with me.
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My anxiety was high as I got ready for this presentation.  Alanna made a comment that resonated though.  If you work in a secondary classroom you’ve probably heard teens talking about how this or that teacher ‘hates’ them.  Alanna reminded me that this is a great example of everything-is-about-me teenage egotism.  My maths and science teachers didn’t hate me and weren’t vindictively attacking me for my failures; no student matters that much.  Having done this teaching thing for over two decades now, I can assure you that ‘hate’ isn’t something most teachers feel.  To be honest, when we’re not at work even the most difficult students aren’t on our minds.  For the teachers who do feel hate for students, you need to find another career.
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Looking past the teen-egoism of my own mathematical inferiority complex, I got along with my STEM teachers pretty well.  I certainly wasn’t a classroom management headache.  In retrospect, what happened to me in class wasn’t vindictive on their part, it was a result of my lowly socio-economic status.  Had I been a stable, well off, multi-generational settler whose ancestors were given whole swarths of Canada for free, I’m sure we’d have gotten along just fine.  Were I not in the middle of family trauma, perhaps I would have stuck it out.  Had I been a student of a less creative nature who thrived in structure and repetition, I imagine I’d have found a place in STEM even without the financial means – I did eventually embrace my technical skills despite the system’s best efforts to alienate me from myself.
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Last week one of our maths teachers emailed the entire building asking how she could punish students who are skipping tests in order to give themselves more time to prepare for them.  Our principal emailed all reminding everyone of Growing Success, but this didn’t stop a science teacher from jumping in with our written-in-the-1950s student handbook which still contains escalating penalties (including handing out zeroes) for late or missing work, even if that is directly contrary to Ministry direction.
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In my last round of IT testing for my grade 10s I left each chapter test available for three tries, and students could take it open book if they wished.  When you finished the test it would even review it for you and tell you what the correct answers were and why, if you could be bothered to do that.  Ample class time was provided to review the material both on screen and hands-on.  You could not design a more equitable and differentiated approach to learning computer technology.  Our class average on these three tries/open book tests/wildly-differentiated and in-class supported tests?  11.07/20 – that’s a 55% class average.  Even when you differentiate and build in equity to support assessment in COVID-world classes, many students won’t bother doing any of it anyway, and this is in an optional subject they chose to take!  I turned down the weight of those results, not because I think my subject doesn’t matter, but because the COVID malaise on students is real  (it’s real on staff too, not that anyone cares) and holding them to pre-pandemic standards is neither compassionate nor pedagogically correct.
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If someone wants to skip a period to get more study time in, let ’em.  What would be even better is having open and honest communications with your students to the point where they can simply ask for extra time rather than feeling like they have to skip because they know you won’t give give it to them   They probably won’t use their extra time anyway and the result will be what it is.  Clinging to schedules and testing that only examines rote memorization (another issue in STEM that produces A+ students who don’t know how to apply what they know), is the kind of undifferentiated and tedious ‘learning’ that made me despise maths and science in high school.

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After COVID swept through our family recently, my son returned to class only to get no lunches for days on end (while still recovering from the virus) as he took test after missed maths test.  When he didn’t do well on them we had to intervene and ask for some compassion.  Why do S&M subject teachers believe that curriculum comes before differentiation based on circumstances (especially IEPs!), or even basic wellness?  We’re all in exceptional circumstances.  I suspect these teachers believe that this ‘rigour’ makes them a credible and serious discipline of study.  I’m not sure how you change that rigid culture founded on privilege, conformity and exclusion.
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My maths trauma in high school sent me on a crooked path before I was finally able to come to terms with my intelligence and abilities; it made me doubt myself and misaim my expectations.  I’d hope public education would do the opposite of that, but it still doesn’t.  We’ve got too many classes still predicating success on hours of homework using undifferentiated and repetitive rote learning under the assumption that everyone has the time and inclination to find success in that.  It’s even worse now two years into a pandemic.  During quadmesters it was particularly acute with students in S&M heavy quads telling me they were expected to do 4+ hours of homework EVERY DAY – even as the working ones were forced to take on extra hours as ‘heroic’ front line workers.
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In my classroom I aim to find every students’ talents and help them find digital pathways that will support them in our technology driven economy.  My senior classes are supposed to be ‘M’ level post-secondary bound students (which is why they cap me at 31 like an academic calculus class), but in actuality the majority of my students do not attend university and good percentage go straight into the workplace.  We also frequently have essential level and special needs students finding their way in our program because we differentiate even when the system holds us all back with an inequitable distribution of resources.  My stuffed classes serving all pathways help make grade 12 academic physics classes with a dozen students in them happen because those very special kids need that credit for university.
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In order to find student strengths I focus on foundational skills like practicing an effective engineering design process, which is more about organization and self-direction than it is about technical details.  I could drill them on tests about technical specifics and fail the ones who skip rote memorizing reams of facts for a variety of reasons (they can’t afford the time, their IEP doesn’t allow them learn like that, etc), but then I’d be doing exactly what was done to me in high school.  That’d be a jerk move.
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“You! Yes, you! Stand still laddy!”
When we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children any way they could
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids”
We don’t need no education, but we all need direction to help find our strengths… especially in STEM.

 

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A Letter to Candidates: Is Anyone Interested In Changing Public Education For Student Needs?

I’ve been assisting with the Ontario Literacy test this week at school.  Watching students have to put phones away in a system that allows full access all the time is like watching a long distance runner getting a foot amputated before having to run a marathon.  Students didn’t understand the instructions and many ignored them and had to be individually assisted in unplugging themselves from their devices.  They then looked disorientated and confused, and then we hit ’em with a high stakes literacy test!

The threats and fear generated by the test are also part of this wonderful experience.  “You can’t graduate without this” is the most common refrain.  I’ve been wondering why it’s all stick and no carrot with the literacy test, and then I got one of those ‘support education’ emails that’ll send the email an organization wrote in your name to your members of parliament.

We have a provincial election approaching and the stakes are high.  My problem is that no one has any vision for Ontario’s public education system that would actually improve it or make it sustainable into an uncertain future.  Liberals are entirely invested in keeping things as they are (they’re also the main reason why things are the way they are), and the conservatives aren’t interested in improving it at all as they collect supporters intent on privatizing it.

Rather than send off someone else’s words to my representatives, I sent a suggestion for a leaner, diversity-of-pathways honouring system that might also be greener, but no one in Ontario politics has a vision for public education beyond either keeping it as it is or selling it of to their donors.  Ontario students deserve better…

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Dear Candidates,

I’m going to cut out the form letter and speak frankly.  After years of Liberal stewardship, the public education system in Ontario wasn’t in the best shape and needed an overhaul.

As a teacher in the system, I believe the entrenched political entities (councils, unions, colleges etc) have become more fixated on their own continued status quo than they have in an education system focused on student needs.

I had hoped that the current government would go about the serious business of fixing it, but they seem entirely focused on dismantling it for private benefit, which isn’t going to help anyone.

Ontario’s education system was broken by the 2006 learning to 18 amendment to the education act.  There are many pathways and learning should be a lifelong commitment; schools do not own the concept of learning.  Forcing students to stay in public schools until 18 has done irreparable harm to students and the system itself, though none of the many groups with a vested interest in a bloated public system will want you to address this.

A lean and individually responsive education system (that is also more fiscally responsible) could be achieved if we shelved this legislation and opened up pathways by allowing students who have demonstrated sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to move on if they wish.  In this way our high-stakes and expensive OSSLT would offer an opportunity rather than being a purely punitive experience.  If students were able to graduate at the end of grade 10 with a basic Ontario diploma which would allow them to pursue pathways directly into the workplace or into alternate learning situations like apprenticeships, our senior classrooms would no long be daycare centres for students who don’t want to be there.  The students in senior high school would be there with intent and the system would be able to align their limited resources to serve students who are learning with the intent to continue on into post-secondary.

This change would drastically reduce our overages on building maintenance by reducing the number of buildings needed.  It might also offer an opportunity where schools can amalgamate beyond the rigid elementary/secondary system we run now, offering hyper local schooling that drastically reduces busing costs.  In a world where fuel prices are skyrocketing and supply chains are stretched to breaking, this seems like an inevitability.  Moving towards a digitally enhanced, hyper-local future now would mean it doesn’t come as a violent upheaval later.

With strong digital/remote skills and effective leverage of emerging technologies, we could create a leaner, greener and more individually responsive public school system in Ontario.  Academic teaching in classrooms works for students who understand that they need what’s being taught in order to prepare for post-secondary, but for many Ontario students who aren’t on that pathway, these final years are torture for them and for front line education staff trying to deal with them with ever shrinking resources.

No one will consider options like this because there are far too many organizations committed to the way things are for their own benefit.  Conservatives won’t do it because their private school friends won’t like them taking away customers.  The Liberals are so entwined with unions and other educational groups that they too won’t touch this.  I hope someone can see the light here and make moves to create a more student responsive, less bloated and more environmentally responsible education system.  In such an Ontario, redundancies like multiple education systems serving the same region would also end, but no political party will touch that either for fear of upsetting status quo religious privilege

Our public education system wasn’t in great shape before the last four years beat it to a pulp.  If Doug doesn’t win again this June, whoever does will give us half of what was stripped away back and we’ll be told by the various colleges/unions/councils they’re aligned with that we should thank them for it.  I don’t want things to go back to the way they were, I want them to respect the many pathways students choose and honour those choices by not forcing students to remain in classrooms that aren’t aligned with their learning needs until they are eighteen.  Does anyone in Ontario politics have anything like this kind of vision?

Sincerely,

Tim King
Classroom Teacher
Elora, ON.

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Right Now It’s Perfect

Over heard the other day while everyone was getting ready for the first day of school:  “It’s clean, everything is where it’s supposed to be, it’s perfect!”

I disagree.  This is as far from perfect as a school can get.  Give it a few weeks full of messy, chaotic learning and then it will start to approach the kind of perfection a school is capable of.

I can’t wait to take the shine off it!








Edcamp Hamilton: Let It Flow

I attended edcamp Hamilton this past weekend.  It was my first cross country trip on my newly minted motorbike license as well as a chance to meet and self direct my professional development with colleagues from beyond my own board.  I got there heavily oxygenated and cold; the Starbucks on tap helped warm me up and then we were into sessions that the edcampers themselves suggested.

With over 140 people interested in education showing up on a Saturday morning just to talk shop, it was a busy, energizing affair.  The first session I attended started off a bit stiff, but quickly loosened up as the bar was raised on the pedagogical reflection.  Peter Skillen pitched some critical thinking on technology use in learning, and it wasn’t all the gee-wiz thinking from a few years ago.  We are such chameleons in our ability to change ourselves to fit our technology.  Peter asked some hard questions about how we’re making students connect to technology.  Educational technology seems to have reached a stage of maturity where we can ask hard questions about it.  Jane Mitchinson also brought up the idea of multi-tasking (or more accurately, rapid task switching) in terms of the information overflow students face when using digital tools.  Getting information from the internet is like drinking from a fire hose  you’ll get a face full, and it won’t be graceful or particularly useful.  Learning how to use these tools is something we’re still not very good at.  As an opening discussion it got everyone moving and for the newer edcampers it got them realizing how a single person isn’t running any of the sessions; this is a truly an open, democratic process.  It can’t be directed.

An awful lot of people meeting on their own time to discuss their profession,
I wonder how many politicians do that.

I got restless in the seconds session because it seemed to belabor a point that wasn’t going anywhere.  After listening to a bit of talk around how to keep your idealism in the current educational environment, I started getting quite negative, so I went for a wander to think about what was said and do one of the best things you can do at an edcamp – wander by rooms and stumble across awesome conversations.

In that session I left, Carlo Fusco said, “the education system was designed to sort people into jobs in order to fit them in to the new industrial model.  Education is there to sort people.”  I suspect he was being Socratic and pushing an idea so that others could question it, but my cynicism knows no bounds after the past year teaching in Ontario.  Others took a stab at it before I commented that I find it impossible to remain an idealist in the current Ontario educational climate.  With unions, governments and corporations playing games with education for their own benefit, I said I find it hard to believe in anyone’s best intentions.

The wandering broke up my negativity as I stumbled across wonderful, critical discussions about  gamification, online learning tools and what a twenty first century student needs to know.  One of the nicest things about an edcamp is that you want to be there (or you wouldn’t be).  No one is holding you to one mode of learning or thinking.

Earlier edcamps I attended had very few people in upper administrative roles attending, it was a real grass roots movement of teachers, student teachers and onsite admin, the people who work with students directly every day.  It was nice to see more senior administrative types at edcamp Hamilton, though their predilection for telling people how they should be thinking might get in the way of what edcamps are really about.  If  asking big questions settles my value theory and allows me to do my job better, then I’ll do it at an edcamp because that is where I get to direct my own professional development.  Suggesting limitations on what people should be allowed to talk about in order to promote an administrative objective strikes me a missing the point.  This has me thinking about educational leadership in a twenty first century context.  If we’re moving toward more self directed, less hierarchical ways of directing PD, how does an education leader move people in the direction they want them to?  We talk about student centered learning as an ideal to move towards.  Edcamps do that for PD, but not if we’re going to start drawing lines around what people can and can’t talk about.

I ended the day with some very interrogative discussions with people I have fundamental disagreements with about recent events in the Ontario PLN community.  This too was great PD because it allowed me to understand their point of  view and be less reactionary to it.

The last session of the edcamp still had larger groups meeting, but many smaller groups spun off and talked about what they needed to.  Ah, the freedom to not be told what to think; if only other PD had more of that.

I’ll call #EdCampHam another excellent EdCamp experience.  Thanks to the EdcampHam organizers for a wonderfully immersive day of thinking about my profession.

Some other Ed-blogs on EdCampHamilton:
Karen
Michelle
Jane
Sue
Mark
Heidi
Stephen
Aviva

BYOD: yet another edtech failure

Four years ago I was advocating for BYOD.

I was a big fan of the bring your own device (BYOD) approach to educational technology.  I’d hoped that it would diversify the technology we were using in class that looked like it was evolving toward a Google owned Chromebook driven internet and would allow the students who wanted to differentiate their digital access to do so.  It should also have left more money free to ensure that all students have some kind of digital access, therefore addressing equity of access worries.  It turns out that offering free data to students means there isn’t a lot of money left for anything and has been detrimental to teaching digital fluency.


Our school board went in early and built out wireless infrastructure and developed a BYOD network that was open to anyone entering one of our schools.  In the years since this happened the number of students bringing in their own devices hasn’t changed (most do), but the type of device they bring and fill up the network with also hasn’t changed.  Laptops and other more creation focused devices are a non-entity on our BYOD network – it is packed full of smartphones focused on personal use.  You can make an argument for these devices as creation tools, but their function is built around consumerism and the data collection that monetizes the modern internet.  The vast majority of smartphone users are consumers by design, not creators in anything other than a selfie sense.


The vast majority of those smartphones are not used for school work and are often directly opposed to it.  Our administration is now trying to manage cyberbullying that is happening in class across the entire school on networks students shouldn’t even have access to.  The problems caused aren’t just lack of student focus in class, these devices cause systemic problems as well.

No one does edtech for free.

If a smartphone is used for anything class related it is a minuscule percent of its daily use.  Many of our teachers have issues with managing off task smartphone use in class.  Earnest #edtech types (usually with corporate backing) tell us this is because we’re not doing it right and we should buy into their system.  As someone who was doing it right before your Google/Apple/Whatever certification existed, I’m here to tell you that this is nonsense.  Smartphones aren’t creative tools, they aren’t designed to be, they’re designed by data collection companies to collect data.  Trying to build your classroom around a device like that is like trying to set up a roofless tent in a rainstorm to stay dry.


Our school  board has made numerous attempts to focus network data use on learning, but students are willing to open themselves up to phishing and other hacks by installing policy banned VPN networks to bypass website filters.  Even in our carefully moderated network environment we’ve got students sharing their data through unknown off shore servers just so they can Snapchat while in class.  They do all this without a clue about what they’ve done to their data integrity.


I’m not sure at what point school boards in Ontario decided that they should be providing free internet to students, but it isn’t cheap.  Our board has struggled to stay ahead of the data tsunami caused by all these vampire smartphones clamping on to our BYOD network each day.  Apps that constantly update and stream data are the new normal and the current round of digital natives expect to be able to drink from the tap all the time in whatever manner they see fit.  This is costing tens of thousands of dollars a month at a time when department budgets are tightening up and I’m not even given enough to cover the basic costs of consumables like wiring and electrical components in my technology classroom.


I would love to see BYOD being used for its intended purpose, but instead of valuing the network they’ve been given, students see it as an expectation, like running water or electricity.  They make minimal efforts to moderate their use of it and become incensed if it’s adjusted to try and focus them on using it for school related work while in the classroom.  If it was taken away at this point I think there would be much gnashing of teeth and agonized screaming by students who think that free internet access is some kind of constitutional right.  In the meantime we’re all paying millions of dollars a  month across the province to provide these students with bandwidth that feeds their habitual technology use and is more often a detriment to learning.


I’m as frustrated as anyone, but simply offering internet for everything doesn’t seem to be working.  Once again, I come back to the lack of a digital fluency continuum of learning in Ontario.  If students aren’t shown how to use technology effectively, offering them unbridled access to it isn’t going get us anywhere.

Our implicit enabling of habitual technology use makes for whole generations of digital narcissists.



It’s been five years now and Ontario still has no mandatory digital skills continuum even though digital technology is pretty much everywhere now.  We expect students to learn foundational skills in other aspects that are curriculum wide (literacy, numeracy), but we magically expect them to understand and make effective use of digital technology.  The BYOD failure is just another symptom of this disease.


All we have to do to do it, is do it:

I don’t care whose skills development process we use, but can we start teaching technology if we’re going to use it in everything?  Digital technology is prompting systemic change in how we share information, create media and collaborate on learning.  Can we start to treat it like the fundamental skill it is?  Please?!?

 
I roughed out an idea a few years ago – in it I suggested limiting access to technology to fluency and slowly opening up that access as technical skills improved.  BYOD is a great idea for digitally fluent students who know what it is and how to use it effectively.  
 
In literacy terms this would be like slowly increasing reading difficulty as vocabulary and reading fluency improves.  What we do with digital technology is nothing at all until a student brings in their own copy of War and Peace, which they then use to prop open doors and doodle in it.


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You Didn’t Prepare Me for Post-Secondary

Over the past several years I’ve been contacted by graduates or their parents with a similar complaint:  why didn’t you prepare me/my child for post secondary math?

A few years ago it was a college bound student with learning challenges.  His mom was… outspoken (that’s being very charitable) while he was in school, but I was able to work well with him and he eventually went into information technology at a local college.  He dropped out in his first semester with failing maths grades.  Mom emailed me in a rage blaming me for this.  I pointed out that I teach computer technology and asked how he was doing in those classes (he was getting 90s).  That ended that particular interaction, but it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.

I’ve also had students who I worked closely with both in class and on school teams, students who know me well enough to be straight up, get in touch while in post-secondary to say that they too are struggling with maths.  It’s a familiar refrain; a student who got high 90s in high school maths suddenly finds themselves dysfunctional in post secondary.  A recent multi-award winning graduate put it well: “when we’re given a problem, other students apply their maths skills like taking tools out of a toolbox.  They assess the problem and then apply the right mathematical approach to solve it.  I feel like we spent all our time learning mechanics on worksheets but spent no time contextualizing what we were doing.”  This would be like trying to learn how to play hockey by drilling yourself independently on stick handling, skating and shooting, but never contextualizing those skills as a whole in a game.

When some of our most academically decorated students come back to me with this kind of feedback, I’m left wondering how to address it.  I don’t think it’s fair that the blame falls entirely on teachers.  Thanks to our community’s everyone-can-go-to-university-if-they-want-to sense of privilege, many of our academic classes are populated by students without the background or interest in using what we’re trying to teach them.  This means teachers have to simplify and compartmentalize their content to such a degree that the students who actually need it aren’t getting it.  I frequently see students with weeks of absences who are still expected to earn a credit (you got auto-dropped at 10 absences when I was in high school).  When you’ve got students who barely attend, compartmentalizing the learning becomes a survival technique.  It also makes it nearly impossible to contextualize learning beyond single period lessons.

Last year my son was told, “don’t worry, everyone fails that unit” in his grade eleven maths class.  If I had a unit that everyone failed, my first assumption would be that I’m teaching it wrong and I’d change my approach, but one of the ways we appear to drag students to the end of the Ontario maths curriculum is to just keep pushing through it, regardless of comprehension, context or mastery of previous concepts.  This isn’t a new phenomenon, it happened to me in the 1980s too.

I’d quote statistics to you about how successful our graduates are once they leave the building, but no one in Ontario public education keeps those statistics.  Instead of quoting EQAO scores, what we should be doing is collecting data on the success rates of our graduates in post-secondary.  If we all claim to be about backward design, this kind of data would make that possible on a meta-level, but it’s better to fly blind, then we don’t have to take responsibility for those failures or change anything.

There is a lot of talk around destreaming as a cure-all to systemic prejudice, but the people framing it that way are usually the ones happy to see larger class sizes for everyone at a lower cost.  Streaming wasn’t designed to denigrate anyone, it was instituted to let classes focus on learner needs with higher needs students having smaller classes and students aiming at advanced post-secondary programs working in a room where everyone is driving for the same goals.  The unfortunate truth is the destreaming has already occurred thanks in large part to parents and guidance ignoring it.  When I last taught university level classes I found that less than half the class was university bound and a number of those directionless students were put into university stream to ‘keep their options open’.  In keeping their options open these students were knocking others out of contention.  In curriculums like English and mathematics, where skills development is vital in order for students to operate at the senior end of the program, this kind of watering down of intent hurts many of our graduates.

Even in my technology courses I see this.  My ‘M’ level courses are supposed to be for post-secondary bound students but I typically see 10-20% of the class coming out of credit poor essential and applied situations who have no intention of going into post-secondary.  I then spend an inordinate amount of my time catering to these high-needs children instead of helping the students who selected the right stream get to where they want to go.

I’m not sure why, with the pressure to reduce costs, we’re not offering alternate pathways that allow the students who don’t need senior classes to take alternate pathways.  An early graduation workplace/apprenticeship pathways option for students should be available for anyone who has passed the literacy and maths testing in grades 9 and 10.  If those students who would rather be out working were, we could refocus our classrooms on preparing the students in them for post-secondary success instead of watering everything down in order to babysit those who don’t want to be there.  Instead we’re all handcuffed by Ontario’s learning until eighteen law.  If we’re all really advocates for life-long learning, then it should be obvious that this doesn’t just happen in schools.  There would be many benefits to stepping away from this mandatory restriction and refocusing our classrooms on developing rich, contextualized learning opportunities for students who show up and want to be there in order to go on and tackle post-secondary specialities.

This issue goes well beyond maths, but the structured development of skills over many years in mathematics exacerbates the problem in ways that make it much more visible.

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Dairy of a Disenfranchised Coder

The first blog entry I ever wrote (about 18 months ago), spoke of risk aversion in students, but began with a brief ‘why I never pursued computers’.  This one opens that up a a bit and looks at how childhood interests never seem to fade away.

In the 1980s, I became interested in computers because my father wouldn’t buy me an Intellivision game console.  The Vic 20 we got instead became our gaming system, but it was much more.  I’ve carried a sense of intellectual superiority over game consoles ever since.  The Vic could plug in cartridges and play games, but where it really took off was with the datasette.  When we got our hands on that, we suddenly had the ability to save our work.  Before I knew it, I was begging my parents to drive to the only computer store in the area whenever a new COMPUTE! magazine came out so I could type out the basic programs in there.

None of this had anything to do with school.  Our junior high school had 3 Pets in the library, but it was typically a 2 week wait to get half an hour on one.  You had no chance of gaining any kind of familiarity with them.

It started all about video games, but quickly turned to coding.  Instead of buying the latest game (Cosmic Cruncher?), I was saving the paper route money for a 3k memory expander (I kept filling up the 3.5k of working RAM with code).  With more room to move, I began modifying those COMPUTE! programs, turning a road racing game into a Star Wars trench battle or the 8 key sound synthesizer into full keyboard synthesizer.

I’d shown friends what I was doing and soon Ataris and Apples began to appear in the neighborhood.  We’d dictate code while the fastest typer would hammer away at it, then we’d proof and run it.  Hours of speculation and experimentation about how changes might affect things followed.

There was no grade 9 computer course in high school, but I quickly leapt at the grade 10 one in 1985.  By then I had a Commodore 64 at home and we’d all discovered that if you had a good recording deck, you could sound record the cassettes that software came on.  There was a thriving pirating hub in high school with what looked like homemade mixed tapes.  A teacher once took one that was being passed in class and tried to listen to it, it wasn’t pretty.

That grade 10 class used a card reader.  We laboriously spent hours penciling in our lines of code, and would receive a printout off a dot matrix printer (which sounded like a machine gun tearing through silk).  I lasted about a month at this before I became determined to get a printer of my own.  No one else in the school had one, and the only place to find one was half way across the city.  Four bus transfers and a long night of travel got me back home with the printer, only to discover it was defective.  Another six hours on the bus and I was home again with the only dot matrix printer anyone had.

I coded at home, printed out my results and got to bypass the agony of the card reader.  Others begged me for access.  It became a nice sideline and paid for itself in short order.

Our grade 10 computer teacher was a young guy who got the job because he was the only one who could maintain the card reader without it jamming up all the time, he didn’t actually know much about coding (and why would he, he only had a card reader to figure it out on).  I did well in grade 10 intro to computers but was really excited to get into senior computer science.  The astronomer dream had been dashed in grade 10 physics when I discovered, to my horror, that physics was really just lots and lots of math, which I found tedious and unimaginative.  Anything that had only one way to a single solution seemed mind numbingly dull.  I was still hoping to find my niche in computer science though.

Finally able to get onto the senior computer science lab (first gen IBM x86s!), I was stunned to learn that our computer science teacher wanted us to program… math. I found the assignments linear and the teacher, who already knew the mathletes in the class, didn’t have time for anyone else or anything other than mathematical certainty in coding; the opposite of my experimental, hacking approach to programming.  Five years of passionate self-driven learning dissipated in a cloud of frustration and disinterest over that semester.

My parents went to the teacher conference confused at how a kid who spent hours and hours of his free time coding could be such an epic failure in this class.  My weakness in maths was sighted as the problem.  I’d signed up for the grade 12 class in semester two, but withdrew immediately when it started.  The teacher seemed surprised that I’d signed up for consecutive semesters of comp-sci.  I was surprised that he remembered my name.  And so ended my love affair with coding computers.

Of course I maintained an interest in computers, mainly around gaming and hardware, and eventually went on to get some I.T. certifications and even worked in software implementation in a few places, but getting knocked out of the holy grail of computing, the place where you author how a machine thinks, put the idea of working fully in the field beyond reach, and created a sense of self doubt that a teen is only too willing to embrace.

I’m getting computer certified this summer as a teacher.  When I walk into that class in the fall I’m hoping that I can support as many different approaches to coding as there are students in the room.  The last thing I want to do is knock a keen, self directed learner out of a woefully underdeveloped field of study in secondary schools.

Consumerist Edtech has us all living in Hotel California

If you work in education and leverage technology (so that’ll be anyone in any classroom these days), give this a read and see if it doesn’t make you a bit uncomfortable.

Perhaps you’re thinking that your particular edtech provider isn’t like that, but they’re all coming at it from the same angle:

Apple is into it.

Google is into it.

Microsoft is into it.

And what angle is that?  Marketing for the attention economy, of course.  Big tech’s focus on a ‘total service environment’ is there to make sure you never leave:  whether it’s #tech or #edtech, we’re all living in Hotel California;  you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Platform agnosticism has been a recurring theme on Dusty World since it began.  I’ve been barking at the moon about this for years because we don’t leverage educational technology to teach how technology works, we just let it insinuate itself into all our learning while being illiterate in terms of how it influences us through media and medium.  We predicate technology use in education on media illiteracy.

Dreaming of ‘free range’ open source
technology access
in 2013.

If we taught digital fluency, anyone who became digitally skilled in our education system would be much better at identifying fake news and managing their digital presence.  If we taught digital fluency instead of depending on consumerism to do it for us we’d be platform agnostic both in hardware and software in every classroom so students understood how things work and influence their thinking instead of producing blinkered consumers for corporate consumption.

Imagine if our language and social studies teachers got certifications by certain book publishers and then only taught from that publisher’s collection in the way that their particular publisher provided; that’s what we’ve done in educational technology over the past two decades.

“In a social-science class last year, the students each grabbed a Google-powered laptop. They opened Google Classroom, an app where teachers make assignments. Then they clicked on Google Docs, a writing program, & began composing essays.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/technology/google-education-chromebooks-schools.html

We use edtech to indoctrinate students in closed digital ecosystems designed to monetize their attention.  It doesn’t matter which multinational edtech ‘solution’ your board uses, they’re all the same, and they’re all playing the #metaverse marketing game: “marketing spin on Big Tech’s increasing reach and power. It’ll be Big Tech—just as problem-riddled as now—but bigger.”

Wouldn’t it be something if we required and taught platform agnostic access to all technology in our classrooms instead of acting as a marketing arm for rich, tax dodging corporations?  These organizations are parasitic, our kids deserve better.

The ‘drink from the firehose’ approach to edtech doesn’t end when we’re told what we have to teach with.  Many teachers then brand their practice with corporate logos.

The point of that article is that a true metaverse (a shared, non-partisan online space) hasn’t existed since the dawn of the internet.  Once the attention merchants got a hold of it they subverted democracies around the world and created a privacy and security nightmare, including in education.

Perhaps the saving grace in this might be that if any of them could get past their greed, educational technology would be the place to make this non-partisan metaverse happen.  Instead of demanding control of the technology narrative to generate users, wouldn’t it be something if the technology giants and school systems around the world worked together to create an educational metaverse that was platform agnostic and open to all?

Even Hollywood can only envision a corporate owned future mind-space.

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