Sacrificial Laptops

Personalizing of technology will one day reach education (hope, hope)

I went to my principal last year and suggested we try the mini-lab idea, wherein a technology curious/experienced teacher collects a class set of digital tools around themselves in order to develop some digitized pedagogy.  Alas, we couldn’t go all in.  The idea of a teacher directly selecting diverse technology and then going off the school/board controlled and organized IT system was more than even our forward thinking principal could take.

The end result was a laptop cart of netbooks, one for each of our three floors.  The idea of the mini-lab is a constellation of differentiated technology orbiting a specific teacher. The variation in technology encourages wider digital fluency, and the single teacher focus produces a strong sense of ownership that helps reduce neglect and misuse.

Acer Netbook  


It was great to get these machines unhobbled by board IT.  The last time the board issued a cart of netbooks, they’d erased the manufacturer’s fresh Windows 7 and installed the board’s ten year old Windows XP package complete with numerous driver problems (companies don’t make a new laptop then spend a lot of time building drivers for an operating system no one has used in three years).  The results were disastrous.  These new netbooks are no slouches (dual processor, decent memory, the latest software), they worked right out of the box, but they didn’t have anything to do with the antiquated board network.

I had real trepidation about how to administer these carts.  The massive job of unpacking and setting up 70 odd netbooks seemed overwhelming, but a couple of pizzas and some helping hands later it got done over lunches; then came the putting them into operation part.

At the staff meeting I showed everyone the cart and explained that these are not board issued laptops.  This involved answering a number of questions around what that means.  No, the school server with it’s piddling 10 megs of memory per student isn’t available, but Googledocs is with 8 gigs, or Microsoft’s Skydrive is waiting for you to use for free with 25 gigs.  No, you can’t print to school printers, they’re all on a closed network, but if you had to print, you could always have students email you work, or, you know, don’t print it and just look at it on the screen.

I also stressed that these are our computer carts.  The board isn’t going to maintain them, so benign neglect isn’t an option.  If you’re booking a lab so you can ignore your students for the period while you mark, these are a poor choice.  Tech-keen teachers on each floor were given the happy job of looking after the carts.  In many cases this allowed them to make use of the carts, which they have done eagerly.  Adoption by other teachers has been slow, but it has steadily improved, which worries me.

The first problem resolved around poor student privacy habits.  When a class ends the vast majority of students simply shut the lid and walk away, leaving themselves logged into Facebook (which they are inevitably running in the background), and saving whatever they are working on to the desktop.  Soon Macbeth papers, history essays, moderns translations and other digital flotsam, all named document1, document2, etc, bloomed on the desktops.  The inevitable Facebook spamming ensued, which greatly upset the students too lazy or clueless (or both) to bother logging off before putting the machines away.

Concern has arisen around plagiarism (taking essays found on a laptop and handing them in because an essay left by someone on a desktop called document3 HAS to be worth copying), and the opportunity for digital bullying with the not logging off the social network they’re not supposed to be on anyway.

Today I got my first broken hardware issue.  Apparently a key ‘popped off’ the keyboard.  Those things are like popcorn, sometimes they just come flying off by themselves.

We’re getting out of the initial roll-out phase of the off board IT netbook experiment.  The novelty is wearing off and teachers who wouldn’t otherwise use them are starting to book them for periods they aren’t actually in the school so the kids can play online (yes, we made a rule about that, but some teachers can be remarkably lackadaisical about rules when it means they have to be there to enforce them).

The digital coaches I’d envisioned in the mini-lab are still competently using the carts regularly, but as the carts find their way into the hinterlands of our school, teachers who don’t understand (or care to understand) how to use digital devices in class to actually, you know, teach, will book out the carts and return them in a steadily deteriorating state.

We’ve done well with the initial portion of the roll out, putting the laptops together and having digital coach types making good use of them early, now comes the mediocrity.  One of the things we strive for is equal access to technology in education.  Unfortunately, we don’t encourage development of digital competency in teachers and the end result is a lot of extra work for the few educators who are interested in making education meaningful and relevant to a new, digital millennium.

Simulation: the ideal summative

I’ve been a RPG (role playing game) player since I wandered into the original Dungeons & Dragons at eleven years old.  My adolescence revolved around marathon games when I wasn’t working.  My first non-family road trip was a drive from Toronto to Milwaukee in 1988 for GENCON, the original D&D and RPG convention.  For the next four years that trip became a staple of our August holiday, though the first time in a barely functioning Chevy Chevette stuffed with four of us was by far the most epic (and least likely to succeed).

I quickly found myself in the Dungeon Master’s chair when playing.  I had a talent for creating consistent, exciting worlds that balanced on a knife edge, often determined by the roll of a dice.  I was a  natural at paracosmic world building without realizing it.  When others took the chair they tried to force the story back on to their planned narrative if the dice didn’t cooperate, which made the entire experience fall apart.  Random influences were vital for the game to become alive, a bad DM would break the forth wall when they tried to force the story back onto a planned track.

I recall one game where I’d planned out the evening in more detail than normal.  The beginning of the game was supposed to start with the players mocking Death (as in the grim reaper), and getting killed as a result.  The story would then continue in the after life.  But telling players they are just dead goes against everything the game is about, the dice have to decide, so I gave the last standing player a 1 in 20 chance of successfully assassinating death, assuming it would never happen, but it did.  I had to change direction and start laying track down in front of them in a new an unexpected direction.  I’ve seen a lot of classroom teachers stubbornly try to force a class not in the right mental space in the same fashion.

Those DMing experiences greatly influence how I teach in the classroom.  I keep the big ideas in mind, but try and lay down track in which ever direction students in the class seem intent on going.  One of the ways to feel like I’m not standing there with no pants on is to put them in a transparent simulation.

Simulation is an edu-speak friendly word for what many of these students spend vast amounts of their free time doing.  World of Warcraft?  A massively-multi-player simulation (it often feels like a D&D table with a hundred people sitting at it).  Even online shooters reach into the RPG bag of tricks to introduce team based game play in a consistent simulation  that people find very engaging.

A simulation in class can often work to the big ideas you’re going after, while giving students the power to get there themselves.  As I often say in class, “I could show you how to do it, but then you’d know how to ask me how to do it.  If you figure it out for yourself, you’re much less likely to forget it.”  The sim lets students know the goal (so it’s very backward planning friendly), but doesn’t goose-step them through a process to get there.  By the time you’re doing a summative, you need them to find their own way through a forest they are now familiar with.

If learning is about developing a new way of getting something done, then simulation is the ideal last step in summative assessment.  Before a sim you’d do the basics around concepts, language, skills development and make sure all students are in the ZPD.  Once the foundation is laid, it’s time for them to show what they can do, it’s time for a simulation.

Reclaiming Educational Computing For Learning

Sources for this year’s ECOO:
The mini-lab: mobilizing and differentiating the school computer lab
Dreaming of a new media lab: differentiating technology to prevent passive media consumption

I just threw my hat into the ring for ECOO12 proposals.  Last year I did a philosophical look at what the digital future holds with Dancing in the Datasphere.  There was a small but interested group who were honestly curious (and more than a little worried) about where digitized humanity is going.  I enjoyed the talk and got a lot out of it.  

Having become the Computer/IT head at my school this year, I’m constantly bombarded by how inadequate the typical school model is around information technology.  While businesses have mobilized and personalized digital access, education still clings to 20th Century ideas around centralized control.  I think I’ve found my focus for this year’s ECOO: educators reclaiming educational computing for learning.

One problem with this is that many of the digital immigrants at ECOO tend to be platform dependent – they know how to do specific things on specific devices.  This is a great first step, and certainly puts them ahead of anti-tech Luddites or digital natives who barely understand what they are doing, but it shouldn’t be the end of their journey.  There are many tools, both software and hardware, that can lead you to a  technologically fluid, collaborative learning place.  Making students access digital learning through limited hardware and software is ultimately self serving to the teacher and damaging to the technical literacy of the student.

My vision for effective computer implementation in education depends on a platform agnostic approach, preferably with a strong open source component.  Information longs to be free, and it won’t be as long as you believe a single means of delivery or a single app is the only viable solution.

I write this on a Win7 laptop (that dual boots into Ubuntu too), use an Android phone and have an ipad.  At home I use a Win7/Win8/Linux multiboot PC and an imac, I’m not picky and just enjoy good design, whether it’s from Cupertino or Taiwan.  The large, full spectrum display on the Mac makes working on photos a beautiful (and colour accurate) experience.  When I’m doing heavy processor work like video editing I go to the PC with a pile of cores and twelve gigs of memory.  Using the best tool for the task at hand only makes sense.

In the past year I’ve overseen installs on a class set of Kindles, a DD class set of ipads and 3 carts of Windows 7 notebooks, I’ve also beaten up several old laptops and installed Linux on them, giving them another year or two of usefulness.  The days of static, centrally controlled, singly formatted computers in shared labs are soon to be over.  Instead of the bureaucratic organization of information technology into a department of non-teacher IT experts, education will finally gain control of its own information technology.  Pedagogy, rather than convenience, will become the focus of that new paradigm.

My goal at ECOO?  To point the way towards a freer educational computing paradigm where students and teachers are free to experiment and try a variety of technology in order to  get the tightest fit with their needs and proclivities; a truly technologically differentiated pedagogy.

As Ira Socol says so well, “I’m not ‘Platform Agnostic’ because I’m a crazed techie, I’m ‘Platform Agnostic’ because I work in education, and education is about helping students prepare for any possible future, not my particular vision of a future.”  

Words to teach by.

Hey Dalton, Surfed PISA lately?

Originally published on Dusty World:  Sunday, 6 May 2012

The latest round of bankruptcy lawyers (the same ones who work with our bailed out banks) have shut down collective bargaining again in Ontario.  It looks like impending labour distress for any public service workers in Ontario because Dalton’s Liberal government, that came to power with public employee support in the last election, has decided to go after populist, right wing, inaccurate US policy around public services.  Though the private sector caused a financial crisis, it appears that nurses, doctors, teachers, and emergency service workers will be paying for it.

Being a teacher, I’m most interested in how we’re wasting money in education.  Fortunately, the UN offers all sorts of information on how Canada (led by Ontario – we have the largest population in the country) is performing world wide.

We are mid-pack on what we spend on education, but the results are world class.  We are outperforming everyone but Korea, Finland and China, and do it for less than Hong Kong, about what Finland pays and more than Korea pays.  Any country of similar background (Commonwealth, western democracy) offers an inferior, and often more expensive educational system.

The US, who Dalton seems determined to follow on educational ‘reform’, spends more and does less:

“The strongest performers among high-income countries and economies tend to invest more in teachers. For example, lower secondary teachers in Korea and the partner economy Hong Kong-china, two high-performing systems in the PisA reading tests, earn more than twice the per capita GDP in their respective countries. in general, the countries that perform well in PisA attract the best students into the teaching profession by offering them higher salaries and greater professional status.”

With our government intent on gutting teacher’s contracts and diminishing both what they earn along with their status as valued members of society (those public employees are just leeches, they don’t provide value to the economy like ‘real’ jobs in the private sector do), we seem destined to lose our place as a finalist in world education rankings.

It appears that in Dalton’s Ontario, when you do your job exceptionally well for a reasonable cost, you’re a failure.  Perhaps we should have pushed the teacher pension into funding sub-prime mortgages.  When that happens federal and provincial goverments leap to the aid of the poor, ailing, private corporations that need their help.

Only when the injury is self inflicted does the government consider supporting it.  If you spend your days teaching children, saving lives or protecting society from itself, you’ve obviously been wasting everyone’s time and money, no matter how well you’ve been doing it.

Head over to OBAMA POSTER MAKER to have some fun…

Educational Snake Oil

Originally published: Sunday, 6 May 2012 on Dusty World

I’ve recently cut most of the ‘educational consultants’ from my twitter feed.  I found the tweets, blogs and emails I was getting from them had a funny, self interested smell.  If I have to pay for entry into their private realm of secret ideas about how to become a super teacher, then what am I really paying for?  It reminds me of other groups that want to get me on a pyramid and get themselves another believer (with cash).

Can I not do this with any PLN?  Ask a colleague, it’s cheaper, and more honest

I realize that Educational Consultants have to make a living, but the constant up-sell I’ve been getting on work email, and the secretive approach to building closed groups who will ‘show you the way’ that can only be entered through joining the club to learn insider information gives me the willies.

I don’t even feel comfortable when public educational computing leans heavily on private companies to run their computers.  Our own board has a strange affiliation with MDG, Microsoft and Wordperfect that defies logical description (as well as expensive, foreign, consultant/keynotes when we have locally relevant talent available).  When open source, free, democratically (and transparently) developed not-for-profit operating systems and software are available for educational use, why would we be in tightly worded, long term contracts with for profit companies like these?  There might be a situation where a private option is the only one, but it appears to operate the other way around; the private option is the only option.  Ed-consultants seem to work under the same logic.

Given a choice, I think I like my professional development on an open source model; freely shared with people who, you know, actually teach, instead of just talking about it (from a country that has gutted its own public education system).  I know it’s exciting to get some big money, charismatic cult-sultant up from the States (because evidently they like to export their poorly performing educational system world wide), and many senior educational administrators feel that this is real value, but after tasting the freedom of unconferences, ed-camps and keynotes from professors who are working to understand the complexities of change in 21st Century education, I’m wondering why we keep going back to the (expensive) snake oil.

It worries me to think that even educators would rather be told what to think than try and work it out for themselves.  It doesn’t bode well for a 21st Century classroom when we ourselves aren’t willing to be the experimental, freely collaborative learners we expect our students to be.

Speaking With Dead Voices

I’m still mulling over the discussion we had around what teaching is at EdCamp Waterloo the other week.

In teacher’s college what seems like a long time ago, one of our profs tried to get us to explain what the process of learning was in a typical classroom.  He asked, “is what  you’re doing more difficult than surgery?”  The general answer was, “no, surgery requires precision, great expertise and can kill people if done wrong; it’s more difficult (and important).”

Our prof went on to try and describe what happens in a classroom as we teach people new ideas in a way that allows them to retain the knowledge and make it their own.  It’s complicated in social, psychological and physical ways, and you don’t get to focus on one person at a time, like that surgeon does, you typically have 90 students in circulation each semester and you’re dealing with 30 at a time.  Considering the circumstances, it’s amazing that teaching and learning happen as well as they do.

At Edcamp a discussion wandered into focus on this, and the complexity of the process is quite staggering.  If you truly care to understand how we teach and learn from each other, you’ve got to recognize the uniqueness of this ability (#11) in humans.

“Children expect to be taught, a vital difference (between humans and apes).  While most apes can copy, they do not teach each other.”

Teaching isn’t purely a learned behavior as many would have you believe… we’re hard wired to learn!  This begins to explain why classrooms are able to teach as well as they do; it wouldn’t work as well in a room full of chimpanzees.

It also helps explain why teaching is such a personalized set of skills.  Many teacher’s colleges, educational experts and administration would love to develop that perfect teaching algorithm that allows them to streamline the process, make it cost effective and minimize differences in education.  This approach fails to recognize the complexity of the process.

When I became a teacher, I was surprised at how much I was imitating those teachers who had a positive effect on me when I was young.  The job is challenging, overwhelmingly so for many people.  Those who stick it out and begin to develop some mastery in this very slippery (psychological, sociological) profession might have used the same process.  

When I was a student, long before I thought of becoming a teacher, I was subconsciously apprenticing.  From Mr Rattray in grade four to Mrs Thomas in grade six, Mrs Fraser in grade seven, Mr Stern in grade 13, I was seeing what worked in master teachers, and then subconsciously imitating it when I suddenly found myself in front of a class years later.

I find it strangely comforting to sometimes find myself speaking with those voices, some of which are long gone from the Earth.  It’s one of those ways that teaching reaches deep into what we are.  But if you’re unlucky enough to be in a college that doesn’t help you understand how vital you are to the process (by over-emphasizing curriculum, or administration, or control), you will end up a cardboard cutout, someone not being human in this most human of activities.

You might try to approach teaching as a science.  If you do, I suspect you are either not going last in the profession long, or you’re going to get out of classroom teaching as soon as  you possibly can and administrate.  There is something unique and personal to every successful classroom teacher.  Some can be the stern disciplinarian and be very effective as that teacher, others can be personable and relaxed with their students and approach the same level of effectiveness as a teacher from a completely different path.  Whatever it is that they do, if it’s ‘put on’, disingenuous, then students won’t do what they have a predisposition for: learn.

Those that try and distill this most complex of professions, one that actually defines us as a species, into a statistically, standardized process fail to grasp that teaching and learning, more than medicine, science or even religion, is what makes us uniquely, and powerfully human; it has been the single most important defining factor in our evolution as a technologically advanced species.

You Can’t Cancel The Redundancy!

Ah, the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT).  An annual event in which we sit down all the grade ten students across the province and spend four and a half million dollars to tell the ones who are already failing English that they can’t read or write very well.  It also fails the ones who might read and write well but have anxiety about writing tests, but highlighting their weaknesses is just an added bonus!

I think the monkey’s got it

Without this redundancy where would we be?  Does a standardized test create quality or accountability?

Of course it does!  The only real way to ascertain a student’s ability to read or write is to put them in an unfamiliar situation and then drill them with specific questions about subjects they may or may not know about in a test format not followed anywhere else in the curriculum.  Literacy is nothing if not a test of your ability to handle stress in unfamiliar situations.

Some say that the OSSLT is an empty bureaucracy created by an educationally bankrupt, long-gone provincial government in order to create the illusion of credibility.  This is obviously not true.  The OSSLT is a shining beacon of hope in an educational system that is in obvious crisis.  By population, Ontario is a key piece of the Canadian educational system, yet Canada’s poor performance in reading and the importance of literacy in all subject areas clearly necessitated this pedagogically vital and expensive standardized test.

To date we’ve spent well over fifty million dollars on this pivotal piece of our literacy puzzle!  Just because there is a financial crisis in Ontario and drastic cuts are needed so our government can financially justify supporting failing American car companies and banks, does not mean we should consider cancelling this pivotally important and expensive opportunity to further belittle our weakest students.

Without intentionally and clearly marking our literacy challenged students, we can’t hope to improve Ontario’s dismal performance in education.

In this case, the money doesn’t matter, it’s all about quality, accountability and the ongoing repairs to our crippled educational system.

Confessions of an Elearning Pariah

The OeLC Conference (Feb, 2012) approaches and I’m considering the agenda.

I find elearning in my board to be a tricky proposition.  I’d like to do it, I’ve spend a lot of time (much of it my own), working on elearning in one way or another.  I’ve adopted many web2.0 tools into normal classroom situations, doing wikis in English, Nings in media arts and message boards in everything from English and computers to career studies.  I’ve also worked in multiple LMSs from Angel to D2L.

Having an online location to share resources, information and communicate with students, whether in class or out, is where education should be.  I don’t run a course now without having an online means for students to reach me.  It comes in handy in everything from exam review to student absences to extended absences due to vacations or overseas exchanges, and saves me and my department(s) hundreds of dollars a year in paper.  Last semester I did $17 in copying, the top copier in our department was over $350.

I don’t need to go to a conference to learn how Jing works.  I’m already a carpenter, I don’t need to learn how to hammer nails.

I’m a 21st Century tool who really enjoys digital learning opportunities, and I want to be involved in how these learning processes, which are in a seminal phase, are being developed; elearning itself has barely begun!  I’ve found the best opportunities to do this through social media and PLN building, and ECOO and OTF conferences rather than within elearning.

Which brings me to the OeLC conference.  I’d like to go, but I’m not actually teaching any elearning classes.  I’m not teaching elearning classes because the development of elearning in our board has been, at best, inconsistent, and at worst actively dismissive.  Teachers who go out of their way to take the training, find nothing available to teach.  I’ve found myself teaching elearning or blended learning (elearning supported courses in physical classrooms) only as a pinch hitter, either doing courses no one else wants (summer school) or taking over courses that other teachers were given.

For someone who has consistently (even before my current board began elearning – in a previous board) demonstrated an interest in elearning, I’ve found opportunities to teach it to be vanishingly small.  Whether politically or financially motivated, this shifting ground makes it hard for me to get excited about this conference.

In the meantime I’m creating language around elearning for our union (OSSTF).  Our contract is about to be negotiated and the union is very suspicious of elearning and what the board will expect teachers to do with it.  Their track record around elearning expectations hasn’t been spectacular, and there are real concerns about how elearning will be used as a means of watering down teaching, or forcing multiple classes and higher class sizes on single teachers.

The rock and a hard place feeling has been around for me since I began teaching.  As a new teacher who left behind a career in IT, I found myself digitally literate in a profession that seemed (s) to pride itself on not being.  One year I’m trying to overturn board doctrine around digital access, only to have them say back to me (word for word) what I’d been telling them previously.  I’m OK with that as long as the changes are happening, other people can play the politics.

The union also wants to try and slow what I see as an inevitable societal shift.  Both union and board still word their contract negotiations around brick and mortar, industrialized, 19th Century teaching habits; I think both sides find the clarity of bells, sages on stage and physical classrooms comforting.  They make a lot of noise around student centered learning, digital education and experiential classrooms, but they don’t write this into the rules we all live by.  Contractual language is couched in the way we’ve always done things, it’s safe and familiar to both sides.

So here I am, an active web2.0 teacher who doesn’t particularly like LMSs, finds himself outside of whatever the board wants to do with elearning (if there is actually a plan), constantly finds himself pushing against pointlessly restrictive board digital policy, and who continually butts heads with his union colleagues who see elearning as a debilitating attack on the sanctity of their profession.

… and there’s this conference coming up…