The ideal digital learning tool

I’m thinking about what the ideal digital tool would be for student learning.

It has to offer strong reading and browsing abilities as well as data entry.  I want the benefits of a passive consumption device (like a tablet) with the benefits of an active media production device (like a laptop).  My ideal device must have a keyboard and mouse pad, but also offer touch screen functionality.  It’ll also rotate to use the screen more effectively as a reader/tablet.

It also has to be ruggedized (I have no misconceptions about how hard kids are on electronics).  It would also be built like lego (compartmentalized and accessible to easily replace failed parts).  The goal weight would be under 3 pounds.  At three pounds we’d be providing a device that can easily carry all the student’s text books, binders and loose paper without injuring them or destroying the planet.

Some devices I’d shamelessly steal brilliant design ideas from:

Dell’s latest round of ultrabooks with a flippable screen offer the kind of flexibility I’m looking for – the benefits of a rotating tablet screen (allowing you to turn a widescreen to a tall screen for reading), light weight, flexible, powerful…

In fairness (and because I have one), HP has been making touch screen/tablet laptops for years.

I don’t care which technology gets used (which ever is more durable), but the idea of a lightweight touch screen reader AND a laptop that allows for full media creation is vital!

Horizontal wide-screens are designed for entertainment, but reading only happens well when you’ve got continuous text you don’t have to constantly scroll through a narrow window.  These learning tools MUST allow for the most accessible e-reading experience – meaning a device that can mimic a tablet.  

The end result has at least a 128GB solid state drive (SSD), that allows for multiple OS installs if a student wants them.  The hardware would be able to run CHROME OS, LINUX, OSx and Windows (depending on student experience, preference and ability).  The choice to upgrade on-device storage would be easy because the SSD it comes with would be a standard 2.5 inch laptop hard drive bay that would take any of many choices of hard or solid state drive.

Basic connectivity to the device would be through USB3 and video out – mini-dvi (for sharing presentations).  No manufacturer specific connectors (Apple, I’m looking at you and your weird dongle fixation).

The screen would be a 13 inch unit with a standard resolution of 1366×768, though a student who wants a higher (retina) level display could always upgrade to one (since they bolt on, this would be a matter of standardizing monitor connectors and offering variations in resolution and colour quality based on cost and need.  

While we’re standardizing things, these digital tools would use standardized screws and fasteners that make repairs easy (are you still listening Apple?).  Any high school would have its own genius bar/nerd cave where students in senior computer engineering can repair and upgrade equipment at minimal cost.

The compartmentalization is vital to this tool.  The screen needs to detach logically and easily for replacement, same with the memory, hard/solid state drive, CPU, battery and keyboard.  Compartmentalization allows for much cheaper upkeep.  I’d also like all the pieces to be easily recyclable as well as replace/up-gradable.

The end result would be an easily upgrade-able, component replaceable device that is operating system agnostic, highly adaptable and tough.

The idea of an environmentally sensible laptop isn’t a pipe dream.

Google could easily make this happen working with their hardware partners (an Edu-Nexus?) – Microsoft and Apple seem intent on closed eco-system models, even for education, but I live in hope.

It’s already the end of 2012.  I’d love to see the silicon valley geniuses recognize that digital literacy is vital for education (and for the future of industry too – we’re not producing digitally literate graduates!).

If we could get our hands on that modular, easily upgrade-able/maintainable, ruggedized transformable laptop/data creation, tablet/content consumption device, we’d be one giant step closer to helping students grasp opportunities for digital literacy.

I think we could mass produce these things for $300 for a basic one up to $600 for a tricked out one.  The revolution is well underway, it’s time for someone to give us the classroom tools we need to teach it.

Digital Skills Continuum

 I’ve recently thrown my hat in with a rough bunch of commando teacher types (@stevewynen, @mrmarnold) who have applied for TLLP funding.  My wife, Alanna (@banana29), saw my ECOO presentation on integrating BYOD into a digital skills continuum (instead of just instituting the policy randomly with no thought to pedagogical need).  The idea of doing some action research into developing a digital skills continuum was the foundation of the application the four of us have forwarded.

One of the arguments I made was that bringing your own device to class does not imply technological skill, and may ultimately hurt a student as much as help them.  It certainly does nothing but disrupt learning in a class if no one in the room actually knows how to problem solve and/or effectively use the device – especially a device where familiarity is founded upon its entertainment value – using that device for a previously unexpected purpose is perilous indeed!  Students who own their own device but have very little actual facility with it aren’t served by trying to include it, unsupported, in an effective learning environment.

From the student who got the two thousand dollar camera and was going to return it because ‘it took bad pictures’ (it was set on web-sized 600×800 pixels, it was a 24 megapixel DSLR…), to the student with the new laptop that only has stolen games, videos, pornography and oodles of viruses on it, unstructured BYOD is a technological (and learning) quagmire in the making.   The assumption that because someone owns a digital tool that they know how to effectively use it is just that, a huge assumption; not exactly sound pedagogical practice.

How we assess and teach digital fluency lacks any cohesion at all, yet everyone is itching to throw ipads at students.  The problem goes well beyond student technological prowess to include many teachers as well.  If we’re going to produce students ready and relevant to future workplaces then we really need to get a handle on our expectations around effective use of digital technology.

To that end it is well past time to begin developing a digital skills continuum – an objective, mastery based learning continuum (no, 50% is not a pass).  You either know how to use digital tools effectively, or you don’t, and it’s time to figure out who knows what.

It’s early days yet, but it seems to me that digital fluencies break down into two fundamental areas, like the technology itself.  One side is communication/data driven and involves effective management of information in digital environments.  The other side is the technical/hardware side of the equation and how fluent you are with using technology to access digital information.  Both sides can be broken down further…

Any one of these particulars may be further developed to create a more nuanced understanding of a person’s digital fluency.  Even regular users might be surprised by their lack of breadth in this area.  Knowing how to do one thing, over and over again on a specific (single) device well does not make you an expert.

Many years ago when I went for my Comptia A+ and Net+ certifications, I became aware of what the differences between a keen amateur and a professional were when it comes to computer technology.  The first time I took a practice exam I was stunned to be getting in the forty percents, I thought I was an expert.  That testing process is grueling and requires a 75% pass rate.  You don’t get to call yourself an expert by getting it half right (why we think 50% is a pass is beyond me).  I’d like to bring some of that objective credibility to this digital skills continuum.  People need to be able to articulate and demonstrate what they know.  Guessing is where we are now, we need to move beyond that.

I’d also like to hook up differentiation of and access to technology based on how people are able to demonstrate their digital fluency.  A teacher with low digital fluency can access a supported lab, but the more advanced teacher can access diverse mini/mobile labs or even, eventually, a bring your own device model of learning, but only if they have clearly demonstrated the mastery needed to make that quagmire actually work.

BYOD – MINILAB – SCHOOL LAB: diversified technology digital skills continuum

We’ve painted ourselves into an ineffective corner when it comes to teaching digital literacy, and as a result we’re graduating students who are having a great deal of trouble transitioning to the twenty first century workplace.  This technology change is happening so quickly that society and the education system that serves it, is having trouble keeping up.  Digital fluency (where it exists at all)  has generally been self taught, and as a result it is unevenly distributed and almost impossible to quantify; it’s all quite magical.  Teachers who don’t have much in the way of digital fluency aren’t being assisted to improve it, meanwhile the rogue, commando types are just going off and doing it on their own.  Classrooms within the same department in the same building appear completely different in terms of teaching digital fluency.

A ministry initiative to develop a continuum of learning around the digital skills of everyone involved in the learning process would be a great place to start.  I hope our board and the ministry itself recognizes what an important and timely piece of pedagogical development this is and gives us a chance to further develop it.

Between a rock and a hard place

Imagine you’re the head of the English department at a high school.  Your job is to support the English teachers in your department, help develop consistent and meaningful curriculum, buy department supplies and act as your teachers’ voice at school directions team meetings.  It’s one of the biggest departments in the school, you may have up to a dozen teachers, some teaching English full time and some part time, all of them with clear qualifications in their field.  You have the benefit of all those varied opinions, but you also have to try and get them moving in roughly the same direction too.  You’ve got your school’s library of novels and other texts to maintain, all the time knowing that every student in the school is going through your program which teaches vital literacy skills.  Students cannot graduate without demonstrating those literacy skills.  Your job isn’t an easy one, but its importance is self evident.

I am the head of computer studies at my high school.  I’m a department of one, which makes developing consistent and meaningful curriculum for my subject area rather difficult (and lonely).  I don’t have a collection of professionals to bounce ideas off.  I have to maintain text books, and equipment, but for vanishingly few students – computers just aren’t on the must-take list at my school (there’s no future in them?).

There’s a twist to this headship though: when you’re the head of computers, you’re not just the head of a small, unimportant department, you’re also responsible for your subject area school-wide, and it’s a growing, vital piece of modern educational practice.  Internet failures now begin to look a lot like power failures in the last century.


Imagine you’re that head of English again, except now you’re not just responsible for your department, but for English usage in the entire building.

Every time a student or teacher makes a grammar mistake or needs some reading material or writing stationary, you’re the one they turn to.  You’ve got your department to run, but you’ve also got to oversee the execution of your discipline throughout the entire building.  You spend your time correcting people’s reading, buying them pens and paper, and proofreading and correcting their mistakes.

They don’t hand this to you because they want to be illiterate, they do it because the school board wants to retain control of their stationary – which means its better to read and write everything for people than it is to let them learn how to become literate themselves; control is more important than learning.

The school population is capable of learning how to read and write, but remain illiterate because their employer finds that easier to manage.  In that building of illiterate people, your ability to read and write raises you to otherworldly status, people seek you out to do the impossible and read the printed page.

This isn’t entirely without historical context.  There was a time when reading and writing was a mystery of the learned class, a means of separating knowledge from the proles.  Whole alphabets were conceived around the idea of making it more difficult for commoners to become literate, churches kept literacy from the masses.  Knowledge is power and literacy is the key to knowledge.

I fear something similar is happening with computers now.  There is little doubt that they are becoming intrinsic to the functioning of modern life, but a smaller and smaller group is able to grok computing.  Overcoming intellectual barriers like this should be the primary directive of public education, yet we’re falling into the gap between the digerati and the rest.


It sounds ridiculous, but enforcing enforced ignorance is what I’m facing as the Computer Studies head.  I have almost no time to actually nurture the anemic department I’ve inherited because I’m looking after the people who have been taught to be helpless by their employer.  I spend most of my time managing the budget of school IT, ordering equipment and repairing or passing along problems to board tech support.  My own department is an afterthought, the actual teaching of computers to students is an echo of what I experienced in the 1980s when we barely had any computers.  My time is spent supporting a system that encourages ignorance, and it’s a system that is insinuating itself into education practice more completely every day.

This is a headship like no other.

I was thinking about this as I was doing my weekly ‘fair share’ of extra duties and covering the library so the librarian could go to lunch.  I haven’t had an uninterrupted lunch since school began.  I haven’t had an uninterrupted prep period since school began.


I’m feeling pretty down on the job, but it’s more a matter of appreciation for the work involved than it is the work itself.  I genuinely enjoy technology.  I’ve had my hands in computers since I was a child, it was one of my first serious hobbies.  When people say things like, “computers are making people stupid” or, “computers are making people autistic” I get angry.  Ignorance injures people, tools are only helpful in skilled hands, otherwise they can injure as easily as assist.

Computers are one of the most powerful tools we’ve invented, up there with harnessing electricity as a means of empowering us.  How we teach computers directly influences how well we’re able to grasp a better future, I honestly believe this.
Watching the taught helplessness of the school computer lab makes me fear for that future.  Just as we teach drivers the responsibility of operating an automobile, so we should be teaching both teachers and students how to grasp and manage the powerful computing tools we now have at our disposal.  We all need to be responsible for the technology we wield.
Fire can save you, or burn you…

Students (and educators, and education systems) who view computers as a distraction instead of an empowerment, who enforce simplistic, habitual use instead of exercising human/computer potential are more than a tragedy, they are the genuine threat that Nick Carr suggests.

It’s a tough situation, being trapped between what appears to be an increasingly vital skillset and an education system intent on not teaching it.

The frustration at not having your work recognized is one thing, but when that work only reinforces a system founded on spreading ignorance, the whole thing gets quite unbearable.

I hope one day we wake up and change how we use computers in schools.  I guess my way forward is to keep pushing for what I think should be a self evident truth: if you don’t learn how to use the technology, the technology will learn how to use you.

Aiming For The Future

I came out of business in 2003 to become a teacher in 2004.  I walked out of being IT support in an increasingly mobile office that had converted from desktops to laptops in ’02-’03 and was starting to integrate the new Blackberry/smartphone trend.

I walked into a series of schools with centrally administrated desktops modeled on a working environment I hadn’t seen since the nineties.  Workplaces evolve very quickly – mainly because of competitive pressure and a dictatorial approach to work (this is faster, adapt to it, I don’t care about your opinion or habitual usage; if you don’t like it, quit).  It’s a harsh environment, and not always a productive one, but it is more willing to experiment and evolve.

I’ve always struggled with what I know to be current trends outside of school and what I’m seeing in school. If preparing students for the world they’re walking into is one of our primary goals, educational techno-phobia and fear mongering Board IT myopia isn’t getting us any closer to it.


Come into my office! Could this be how we interact with colleagues in the future? 

I’m still developing my talk for ECOO.  This always happens.  I have an idea I want to go with, then feel the need to make it feel as speculatively plausible as possible.  I end up radically retooling it before I go.  I like to get up there and see what I’m going to say, it’s often a nice surprise.

When I begin my presentation I want my mind-space familiar with current technology and trends.  This article helps cast a net over what might be coming.

Future workplace trends wouldn’t be a bad place for high schools to start developing meaningful curriculum around technological familiarity.  If giving students an idea of what environment they’re going to be working in when they graduate is one of our goals, we ought to be seeing where industry speculation is going.  Soon enough our students will be out of our classrooms where we do everything we can to discourage technological adaptation and into employment that will discard them if they don’t quickly adapt to new technologies.


Tech Cloud Brainstorming

I started with the Mini-lab idea for my ECOO talk. I’m still working along those lines, but the idea of a personal tech cloud seems like it will become even more integral to how we work with technology in the future.  From desktop adoption to laptops to smartphones, miniaturization is apparent, as is personalization.  Digital technology seems intent on integrating itself with us in the most intimate ways possible – which seems obvious as it is trying to interface with our most personal, mental selves.

I’ve said before, we live in a time of unprecedented technological growth, even the industrial revolution pales in comparison as a means of changing how humans live on this planet.  How we integrate technology into our lives will be key to us dealing with the population and resource challenges we face in the future.

Our technology continues to find ways to connect and amplify us.  Hand tools made our hands more capable, mechanization allowed dominion over our physical environments by reducing the need for repetitive work, and now our technology is creeping into our minds, offering us better memory recall, improving our senses, helping make our discoveries accessible and meaningful in ways we might not have otherwise seen.

One goal of my ECOO talk is to imagine a future classroom and what steps we might take to get there.  The idea of ubiquitous computing, technology that subtly permeates and enhances our thinking, and what an education in this world looks like is frightening, fascinating and challenging… just what I’d hoped the future would be.

Diary of an Cyber-Settler

There’s something to be said for being the first settler.  You have to be self directed, self sufficient, an explorer.  You experience the risks, suffer the failures alone and get a feel for the new world you find yourself by spending quiet moments in silence together away from the static of opinion and politics.

Later, as waves of immigrants reach a critical mass you see them bringing all the bad habits of the world they left behind with them.  They never had the opportunity to learn what the new world is telling them because they’ve never been alone in it.  They aren’t interested in what the new world offers, they want to recreate what they left behind.  Whole political and social structures make this migration.

In the summer of 2005, only a year after I became a teacher, I signed up for summer school teaching only to have them ask (based on my technical background) if I’d be willing to give elearning a try.  I leapt at the opportunity.  Summer school was run in Peel by a separate business entity, and they were aggressively pursuing alternate means of course delivery.  It was an exciting opportunity that came to me years before the Ontario Ministry of Education even started on elearning.

The online Learning Management System Peel summer school had selected was Angel.  It was HTML friendly but often required hands on coding to get graphics and other information online.  What it had going for it was flexibility and freedom.  It was a blank slate that I could populate with my own material.  I could easily add links to outside resources and quickly got a handle on how to post up to date statistics to give students constant feedback.

I had students from across Ontario, 3 other provinces in Canada, Tokyo, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand.  Peel summer school offered the course globally (overseas students could use the grade in proving their ESL proficiency prior to going to an English speaking university).  I was buzzing with the possibilities of what a global classroom would look like because I was observing one of the first.  The student conversations were wonderful to follow, so full of curiosity.

This was the year after Zuckerberg left Havard to found his little startup.  This was years before the first tweet.  Phones were still phones.  In the dark fibre of the Internet before social media, we had a global classroom.  This was before the majority of students were psychologically (pathologically?) locked into the same three webpages whenever they went online.

You couldn’t walk into the digital Wild West like that and expect to serve everyone.  The admission requirements demanded that you were proficient on a computer, knew how to get about on the internets, and were a capable student.  There wasn’t a lot of room in the digital wilderness for spoon feeding the directionless learner.  The teacher knew how to code webpages, knowing how to simply open a browser was insufficient.  The students were digital ninjas, doing everything from their own IT support to working a system that still had the wrapping on it.

There was no real idea on how to do final exams.  We elected to run them in a 2 hour window on the last day of the course.  You had to login to the course, have your IP validated by me, and then write the final exam online, live, while I observed remotely.

One of the student’s internet went down just as the exam started.  She called around until she found a friend out of the affected area, then she jumped on her bike and pedaled over there, got back online and finished the exam… on time, and well.  She also got barbaric yawps from myself and the rest of her classmates who recognized the energy and thinking that went into a fix with no excuses.  The students in Tokyo and Bangkok?  Up at 2am in the morning to write the exam.  They sent up webcam pictures of themselves with the city lights on outside… it was a sunny morning in Ontario.  That exam ran simultaneously in 7 timezones.

The Ontario Ministry of Education
works its way into elearning

I ran that course again the next summer (how could I not?).  When I moved to the rural board in which I lived, I suddenly found a dearth of elearning opportunities.  It took a year before they started to develop elearning, and I leapt into the fray once again.  In that time the Ministry had worked its way online like a lumbering kraken awaking from the deep, getting its tentacles into everything!

Elearning was now going to be organized, efficient, and a cure-all for every credit poor student.  They gave me a class full of drop outs from non-academic English.  In the first week fully half of them failed to login.  There was no local support for these digitally and traditionally illiterate students.  It was a stark contrast from my first experience with elearning where students would perform super human feats of daring-do in order to get it working – the course was aimed at those students; a higher bar to strain the limits of the gifted learner.

Half a dozen survived to the end of the basic level English course, which I had to keep cutting content out of because the poor English students were drowning in the text-heavy online deliver system the Ministry had adopted.  It was a disaster, and utterly frustrating – and every student was from my board, the furthest only 60 kms away.  It was about as magical as road kill.

The next year they changed the head of elearning and in the Byzantine logic of my board, other teachers, many with no experience at all, were handed elearning courses.  I could get none.

Blended learning stats from 2010

I came back to elearning obliquely the year after by being handed a blended learning course.  The idea was to run elearning in-class with students to familiarize them with the system, so when they got to elearning they weren’t lost at sea.  The Ministry and Board were still set on using elearning as a cure all to limited access courses and credit poor students.

The stats from my blended class supported my suspicions about what a successful elearner looks like – the vast majority of students don’t have the technical aptitude or the literary chops to manage elearning, especially when it’s in an embryonic, text-heavy stage.  I ended up having to print out sections of the course so the weakest literacy students could manage the material.  Many more had a devil of a time trying to do anything useful with a computer and the internet, which they had only previously experienced as a toy and time waster (a new socialization that wasn’t an issue eight years ago).  

The intrinsically motivated learner who explores independently and develops their own understandings, who spreads their knowledge where it wants to go, unrestricted by curriculum or what comes out of a teacher’s mouth… that elearner is a small proportion of the general population.  I’d noted that the same division lies in just about everyone, including teachers.  Intrinsically motivated learners are a rare breed.

That year I heard of Digital Natives and almost threw up in my mouth.  There is no such thing.  There are capable, early adopter students who are self directed in their learning and can manage digital tools, and then there are the other 80%, most of whom are capable of learning what is needed to survive if not thrive in online learning.  The weakest 10%, dogged by weak literacy skills (no doubt a result of their poor learning habits) were incapable of interacting with computers in any meaningful way.

The fact that we are beginning to expect this proficiency in all students is worrying, especially if we’re reaching for it at the cost of basic skills, like literacy.

So here I am, about to go back into an elearning class for the first time in several years next semester.  I fear the digital stupification of people – though that’s not an accurate representation.  It’s more a matter of these hordes of digital immigrants flooding the new world with their analogue habits; people being led here by social expectation rather than any particular predilection or interest on their part.

As someone who had a farmstead on the frontiers of the digital world since the early days, I’m looking at these wide-eyed, immigrants with a steely eye, my hands calloused with the work of building the digital frontier in which they want reside, but have no interest in understanding what it is or how it works.

I’m glad I had a chance to do elearning clear of the politics and the expectations of a bunch of bureaucrats who knew nothing about what they were demanding out of a new technology.  In those vast, empty digital plains, we took elearning places where it can’t go any more because of MinistriesConsortiums , funding formulas and the modern expectations and demands of carefully managed and coddled digital usage.

Dire Straits:  Telegraph Road

Looking Forward to Teaching Technology

The other night Alanna noted that I seem much more intent on presenting my best work during my computer engineering qualification than I have in others.  This stirred up a whole pile of history for me.

I completed my honours BA in English and philosophy from the University of Guelph in 1995.  I staggered out of my four year program elated, dissolussioned and fairly determined not to wade back into academics again.  I found a subset of professors (the young up and coming type usually) close minded, aggressive and cliquey.  Many of the post grads I met were intellectually cannibalistic, competitive and cruel.  That feeling kept me away from Teacher’s College for many years, and still has me firmly refusing to consider a Master’s program.  The arbitrary, cliquey nature of academics was alienating.

In university I approached liberal arts liberally, trying one of each subject area in my first year.  One of the reasons I cottoned on to English was that I was good at it.  Being drilled in reading and writing let me resolve a skill; I improved in noticeable ways.  My profs were hard but the skills continuum was pretty clear.

Where I got into muddy water was in philosophy.  The vast majority of my profs were older and tended to approach it in a friendly hands-off manner; I remember those profs fondly.  The younger ones, as mentioned above, seemed intent on discouraging interrogative learning and appeared constantly in a state of dismissive negativity, unless undergrads were fawning idiots.   Philosophy seemed to be about collecting disciples rather than understanding some of the greatest thinking in history.  Being an older student, I tended to be of an age with many of these life long academics, though having come from a school of sweaty warehouses and machine shops.

Ironically, many of the best teachers I had growing up weren’t teachers at all, but rather senior mechanics who were willing to take time to help along a young apprentice.  It was a learn fast or get caught on fire kind of environment, but learn I did, and the power structure was never arbitrary.  You either knew what you were doing, or your work spoke for you.  It was never a matter of how much money my parents had spent on tuition or what your academic pedigree was that dictated relationships.

Taking my first tech-qualification this year as a teacher feels like coming home.  I’m going to miss teaching English, but I’m not going to miss the sweatshop approach to English and literacy in high school where every class is at cap and the rooms are filled with students being forced into a mandatory subject.  I love English.  The reading, the writing, Shakespeare…  Watching how it’s made into work, overfilled and underfunded is depressing, I won’t miss that.

So here I go into the tech classroom where I think I’m going to channel my apprenticeship experiences over my academic experiences.  What we’re learning isn’t easily politicized, or easily based on classism or culty academia.  Teaching tech includes an element of objective quality, it works or it doesn’t, you know how to do it or you don’t.  I’m looking forward to that solid ground.

Finding The Edge

I turn fifty in a few months and the nature of aging occupies my mind.   The increasing worry is that I’ve done everything I’m going to do of note and the rest is just living in those memories, but I’m not happy with that diagnosis.  The way of things seems to be that as people get older they become increasingly cautious, especially physically, until they are maintaining themselves to death.  If all I have left is a continuous receding of activity into a safety cocoon designed to keep me alive as long as possible, I’m bereft of hope.  If that’s the trajectory I need to do something about it because it’s causing me a great deal of anxiety.

This isn’t so much about thrill seeking as it is about finding meaningful ways to challenge myself.  I’m not looking for overt or pointless risk, I’m looking for ways to engage and challenge myself physically and mentally.  Motorcycling, for me, is a lifeline to that realm of vital engagement – it can turn even a simple commute into an adventure.  To accept the challenge of motorcycling well you need to acknowledge the risks and manage them effectively.  You can’t do it with one hand on the wheel and your thoughts elsewhere as so many other road users do; motorcycling well demands that you live in the moment.

The meditative nature of riding can’t be overstated, especially in my case.  It’s taken me most of my life and my son’s diagnosis to realize I don’t think like most people.  Whereas others find great traction and joy in social interaction, I’ve always found it confusing and frustrating.  People are takers who are happy to demand my time, attention and expertise and offer little tangible in return.  I spend my days in this social deficit where many  around me seem intent on using me for what I can do for them but are unwilling to offer anything in return.  The only currency many of them trade in is this slippery social currency, which I find difficult to fathom and so avoid.  Given the opportunity, most people disappoint, and often do it with and edge of cruelty and selfishness that I find exhausting.  Nothing lets me find balance again better than a few hours in the silence of the wind getting lost in the physical and mental challenge of chasing bends on my motorbike; the machine is honest in a way that few people are.

I started riding a motorcycle just over five years ago, after my mother died.  It was a secret as to why motorcycles were forbidden in our family.  A death no one talked about produced a moratorium on riding that prevented me from finding my way to this meditative state for decades.  I didn’t realize that the motorbiking gene was strong in my family until I bypassed my mother’s fear and found my way back to that family history.  Riding is something we’ve done for generations, but a single accident produced fear that kept me from what should have been a lifelong passion.  Wondering about what could have been is another one of those traps that people fall into as they get older, but rather than wonder about it I’d prefer to make up for lost time.

There are many aspects of motorcycling that I’d like to try, from exploring the limits of riding dynamics on a track to long distance and adventure travel journeys, or even retracing family history.  Last year I did some off road training and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of me looking happier.  Doing something new and challenging with a motorbike is where I find the edge.  It’s also where I find the head-space that eludes me in my very socially orientated professional life.

Unfortunately, I live in the wrong country for exploring the challenges of motorbiking.  Whereas in the UK you can find cheap and accessible trackdays for bikes all over the country, in Canada they simply don’t exist.  My only option is to pony up for a thousand dollar course that puts me on a tiny, underpowered bike for one weekend.  In the UK you can green lane and trail ride all over the country, but in Canada that’s called trespassing.  We also happen to have some of the highest motorcycle insurance rates on the planet  and one of the shortest riding seasons.  In the UK you can ride virtually the whole year around and the range of biking interests are wide and varied.  In Canada riders are thin on the ground and often interested in aspects of riding that I find baffling.

As I’m getting older I hope I can continue to find ways back to the meditative calm of riding.  It isn’t an end in itself, but it sure works as a tool to help me manage my other responsibilities, and as fodder for writing and photography I haven’t found much better.  Motorcycling lets me plumb Peisig’s depths and clarifies my mind.  Along with that meditative silence, motorcycling also offers a direct line to a thrilling and challenging craft that demands and rewards my best efforts.  Even the most mundane of riding opportunities offers a chance to find that edge, and it’s on that edge that I’m able to find my best self, the one I want to hone and improve.  Being able to bring that refined self back into the world doesn’t just help me, but everyone that has to put up with me too.

from Blogger

Credible Work

I just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class for Soulcraft”, a philosophical look at the value of skilled, physical labour.  Having come from a mechanical background into an academic one, a philosopher-mechanic’s critical examination of the ‘creative economy’ we’re all dying to jump into was refreshing.

I’ve often missed the clarity and satisfaction I found in repairing machines, and now I have a philosophical explanation of that sense of loss.  Crawford delineates meaningful work in terms of objective standards, a sense of community and individual agency.  He then goes on to disembowel the MBA speak found in the otherworldly knowledge economy that can only exist in an entirely abstract sense of work, one I fear that has been applied to the skilled trade of teaching courtesy of lawyers and politicians.

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished the book.  I’m finding that the lasting impression is one of embracing my smart hands again.  The idea that mind work is somehow superior to hand work is nonsense, though our school is streamed according to that logic (academic/applied, university/college).  The argument that we discover the truest aspect of human intelligence when we work our minds through our hands continues to ring true for me.

The other, unintentional side effect has been a re-awakening of my love of motorcycles.  I’d originally gone after one when I was 16, but my parents offered to up what I’d saved to get me into a car.  It’s probably one of the reasons I’m here today, it was a smart move.  At 43 I’m not interested in wrapping myself around a pole.  Riding is a way to be alone with your thoughts, no obtrusive media, and the development of a constant awareness; you can’t let your mind wander on a bike, they are ruthlessly observant of incompetence. Riding also offers an intimate familiarity with a machine in a very minimalist way that is appealing.

I come by my urges honestly.  Here is a picture of my Grand-dad Bill in the late nineteen forties… I need to get myself some white riding shoes!

I hope to be licensed and riding in the spring.

Your Tech Cloud

I’m trying out some introductory ideas for computer studies in the Fall…

Your tech cloud is the digital equivalent of ‘who are you wearing?’ on the red carpet at the Oscars, except for geeks.  And like high fashion, we fetishize the the personal electronics we surround ourselves with, identify with them, identify ourselves through them.  Your digital persona is an increasingly important means of self expression.  The tools you use to create your digital self have a lot to do with how you present yourself.

From a meta-cognitive point of view, this might be a handy way to start a discussion, do a tech-introduction and get to know my classes of computer-interested students.  Having said that, it would work in any class where you’re considering media or technology and how we use it to express ourselves.

HERE is my tech cloud:

The (4yr) old laptop, the Rogers trapped smartphone situation, the even older (5 yrs old) desktop.  I’ve got kit, but it isn’t what I wish I had.  About the only things I’d keep are my awesome new Olympus EPL-3 (though I desperately need to lens up), and the brilliant HAF case (which I’d gut and put a new i7 system in).  I’m hooked on Androids though, and after trying ipads and Android tablets, I think I’d just give the whole tablet thing a pass and get a phablet.  A phone/tablet combo is as far as I’m willing to go with tablets.


If I had the means, I’d get the ultrabook I think is so pretty it works in a high fashion shoot (and has a battery that lasts me all day at a conference), lens up the Olympus, and drop the tablets and the string of broken Rogers Sony phones, and the lousy service.  I’d then phablet up with the Samsung Galaxy Note with Telus.  The desktop would get a much needed upgrade from the old AMD to an i7 Intel system with a spanking new video card and SSD.  The whole thing would be a quad-booting monster, getting me into Win7, Win8 beta, Linux and OSx all on the same machine.  I’d want my tech cloud to demonstrate my Jedi tech skills!

Feel free to grab the blank tech cloud prezi and make a copy.  Show what you’ve got and what you wish you had!

Share away!

All Hands On Deck

One of those fun things about Twitter is that you can end up communicating with unexpected people.  The other day I got a response from the Press Secretary for the Ontario Liberal party.

We’re in a bit of a mess in Ontario.  Economically we’re on the wrong end of history.  Once Canada’s manufacturing heartland, now that North Americans don’t make anything and just wait for shipping containers to arrive, Ontario has fallen on rough times.

To resolve these economic issues, and perhaps to catch some soft righties in the next election, our liberal minority government has decided that they don’t have to negotiate contracts, can mandate teachers, doctors, firemen and other unions back to work, and will drastically scale back our agreements to balance a budget that got blown to pieces by a financial crisis the public sector had absolutely nothing to do with (bankers aren’t being looked at to chip in on the deficit).

From the twitter feed:

The STRONG ACTION being referred to by the Liberal Press Secretary strikes me as disingenuous. From what I’ve seen of what’s coming, strong action means freezing the pay of the lowest paid teachers and extending the pay grid so that the lowest paid teachers take even longer to make what more senior teachers doing the same work make.
Teachers new to the profession are a pretty easy target.  They have little or no say in the union that will arbitrate the contract and they’re so desperate for work, dangling at the bottom of a seniority system that cuts them first as our population produces less and less kids, that they’re not likely to struggle too much as they get neutered.
My comments on twitter stand.  If this is really an emergency that requires STRONG (or even just drastic) action, then let’s get serious about streamlining the education system without simply attacking its weakest employees.  My greatest fear is that gutting teacher pay will reduce the quality of the profession and ultimately jeopardize Ontario’s excellent record in education.
EQAO is a massively expensive standardize testing system that we brought up from New Jersey that has produced nothing of value.  The US system which is so enamoured with standardized testing has dropped like a stone through world rankings, while Canada and Ontario especially have continued to produce some of the strongest students in the world.  Finland, one of the few places ahead of us, has removed standardized testing entirely.  Instead of cutting the income of thousands of young teachers across the province, that same generation you’re frustrated with for not powering the economy like previous generations did, cut the EQAO, the entire thing, bin it.
Know how many places publicly fund Catholic schools like we do in Ontario?  None, just Ontario.  If we’re really in a financial emergency, why is this a sacred cow?  Amalgamating Ontario’s English Public, French Public, Catholic English and Catholic French schools into one system would allow for economies of scale and would prevent unfair distribution of resources.  It would also be fantastically cheaper than the current four tier system.
I have no problem with people funding their own education if their religious views and pocket books are deep enough, but expecting an evidently broke government to do it seems ridiculous. How about some real strong action Dalton?  If you’re going to attack the youngest, lowest paid teachers, why not address gaping inadequacies in the system?
I used to teach in the GTA.  My public school worked hard to integrate Canadians from all over the world, many of them ESL.  Whenever we saw Catholic school data from the same area, their ESL programs were drastically smaller.  Hearing them then crow about how high their literacy test scores were in comparison just made me angry.  When you can pick and choose your teachers and students to create a mono-cultural climate, you’re likely to do better in standardized tests because you’ve standardized your population.  Let’s get rid of that.
This isn’t an indictment of religious or social expression in schools either.  My current school runs a religiously based international mission to great success, and it is open to all denominations.  At previous schools I’ve seen energetic and popular Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and other student groups who had a very positive influence on the school community.  Then again, I’ve also seen gay-straight alliances doing that, but only in public schools.
My last shot is at the union (of which I’m an active member).  Selling out our youngest members isn’t a solution.  If this really is an ‘all hands on deck’ emergency, let’s spread the joy.  How about teachers who stay past their retirement date not getting paid sick days?  These teachers are making top salary and are often staying on to plump up their already sizeable pension (one that will evidently have evaporated by the time boomers are done with it).  For every ten of them you shake loose into retirement, you’d be able to hire ten young, energetic new teachers at a 50+% saving… and then they could afford to start families, and buy houses and cars, which, you know, help the economy.
If this really is an emergency, I’m left wondering why the lowest paid people on the totem pole are bearing the brunt of it.
If this really is an emergency, I’m left wondering why we aren’t cutting redundancy and pointless systems.
If it’s just politics, then I can expect to pay for everyone else again and no amount of reason will change that.  My gen-x scepticism is running high.