The Fake News Epidemic



I’ve often been at odds with how new media makes its billions.  People self-identify with new media like nothing else because it is such an intimate part of their lives.  The hardware is always at hand and the software makes personal demands on our information and our time that would have felt foreign and invasive twenty years ago, but like a frog being slowly brought to a boil, we haven’t noticed how it’s killing us.

We suddenly feel time compressed like never before because we have become a commodity in an always on attention culture.  The tech giants feeding from this frenzy that they have created present themselves as saviours of the people, democratizing media and making the world a better place:

If you ever want a brilliant parody of the bizarre nature
of our digital revolution, you really need to watch Silicon Valley

Yet there is a change in how we are relating to the strange new mediascape we find ourselves in.  Facts are no longer facts and the tech companies enabling this, up until recently, were willfully unaware of how damaging that can be, though more than happy to make advertising revenue from it.

The hand wringing helplessness felt over this epidemic of fake news always struck me as odd, like an alcoholic wondering why everything is going to shit when the answer if obvious (it’s the alcohol).  Yet the vendors of our hangover kept it paying off until the damage was done.  

This was brought into sharp focus for me after reading this article by WIRED.  It tells the story of disenfranchised teens in a former Soviet Bloc state who found a way to make silly money by aggregating fake news.  Google, Facebook and others were only too happy to make a mint from this process in advertising revenue.

By leveraging the information collection platforms (aka ‘social’ media) they have created to produce targeted ads, these new media advertisers found an avenue for stale marketing budgets.  Companies flooded in to Google, Facebook and the rest, desperate to tap a younger demographic unreachable through traditional media.  But social media companies offered something more than just the vaunted Millennial crowd, they also offered targeted advertising.

You don’t get Gmail, or Facebook Messenger or any of these other complex, expensive services for free.  You get them because they are constantly mining your data and using that information to target ads.  Social media companies ARE advertising companies.  How powerful is this technology?  Last year Facebook made six billion dollars more than the largest advertising agency in the world.  Google made tens of billions more.

Tech companies present themselves with noble ideas like organizing the world’s information or giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected, but they aren’t non-profits, quite the opposite actually.  While they might engineer their technology to organize and share, the way they pay for their private jets is to monetize those noble ideas while avoiding paying taxes as aggressively as they are legally able.  

GoogleFacebook and social media itself is now the largest advertising system on the planet.

That some shifty Macedonian teens made a bit on the side is really an afterthought.  What should strike you as most illuminating is that the multi-nationals driving social media were more than happy to make millions from obviously false and plagiarized information that was dressed up as news.  If you think this didn’t have any effect, look to the damage done to one of the oldest democracies on the planet.

Google stopped cashing in on fake news when people complained,
not before, and the people who lost money on it were the website
owners, not Google, they kept every penny.

By aggregating bonkers right wing fiction into easily consumable content (usually by stealing it outright and dressing it up as news), those kids made years of salary in a month, but what are pennies on the dollar compared to the profit social media advertisers pocketed?  Google and others were not only making a fortune off the fake news epidemic, they themselves were the cause of it, using their customer data collection systems to feed lies back to the people who most wanted to read them.

It wasn’t until the flaming mess of the US election that anyone stopped to consider what the ramifications of this approach were.  These tech companies love to claim the moral high ground, but their highest ideals take a back seat to greed.  Perhaps Google needs to try a bit harder with it’s motto of ‘don’t be evil’.

Try harder.

I’ve struggled with how these companies have insinuated themselves into education, branding teachers and even information itself with their logo.  Looking over nearly seven years of Dusty World I can see myself slipping from a technology evangelist into an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with these companies.  As they’ve become richer and more influential, their ability to make decisions based on the public’s best interests seems to have steadily deteriorated.  Nowhere is this more apparent than this latest social hack: design a system that feeds lies to the people who most want to believe them, and then make a profit from it.  They’re making it mighty difficult to like them, let alone admire them.  


Meanwhile Britain Brexits and the US government can best be described as a maelstrom.  At least some poor kids in Macedonia made a bit of money in a world were it’s usually the super rich who make something from nothing.  Maybe social media systems are blameless in all of this. After all, they only give us what we want.  If we’re too stupid to educate ourselves, perhaps it’s what we deserve.  Is it still propaganda if we’re doing it to ourselves?

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Facilitators

http://ift.tt/2m9Qrm4This provocative article was shared on Facebook recently.  Teachers sharing and talking about education during March Break, I know, crazy, right?

There is an technologist slant to this article that, like everything else people do in the age of information, reduces complex human interaction into a simplistic informational exchange.  We fall into this trap in every age we live in.  When society was church based we defined ourselves as souls and saw ourselves as intangible spirits in a material world.  When we industrialized people started to see themselves as machines.  In the information age, unsurprisingly, we treat ourselves like computational nodes in a network.  We always seem trapped in our sense of self by the reflection our society casts casts back at us.  In every case we’re taking what we are and reducing it to the limitations of the flawed technology we are producing.

By forcing our definition of people to fit the technology at hand we make humans an integral and exploitable part of that technology.  If you can reduce complex human social interaction into simplistic social media exchange and centralize the profits from those interactions you’ve made a fortune.  The same companies doing this do everything possible to avoid paying taxes to support the societies providing that data.  This is one of the best examples of business leaching off society (other than the stock market itself) that I can imagine.

The fortune to be made reducing students to data is often dressed up under the guise of happier more engaged children, but in my experience the self directed learning suggested by the author of this article is neither efficient nor particularly engaging. Self directed learning requires the kind of focus, self discipline and appreciation of future benefit that most children are incapable of because they haven’t developed that bit of their brains yet.  

Many adults are equally stymied by self-direction.  For most, getting into a directed course of action means happily surrendering free will in order to work out of habit.  This a much less stressful way to live a life.  Developing routines and sticking to them means you get to off-load responsibility for the outcomes of those routines onto the people or devices that manage them.  Being able to complain about this while taking no responsibility for what is happening (you’re a helpless cog in the system) is one of the most cathartic things your typical human being does in modern society.  Schools are a favorite target of the lazy or aimless; an easy institution to hate because they are trying to develop you into a more fully functioning human being against your every effort.

The brave new world of self directed child geniuses being monitored by cheap, non-professional facilitators that require no special training get a lot of neo-liberals excited about the cheap and engaging de-institutionalized future of education. In the coming age of machine intelligence computers
 will do all of the thinking and management. Human beings won’t have to do anything more than assimilate with those machines… and complain about them. 

Perhaps this writer has a point.  In 20 years when AIs are doing the jobs of most of the non-specialized workforce, why waste money educating them? Students can go to school and perform the same mind numbing habitual activities they do at home. Once we’ve achieved this nirvana we will have taken the final step toward becoming nothing more than the technology we create.

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Institutionalizing Success and Teaching Millenials

This was shared online this week and it prompts some thinking about how we deal with the generation we teach.



Four social circumstances that have millennials struggling:


1) Failed parenting strategies include children being told they are special and can do whatever they want just because they want it.  They have won awards their entire lives for simply showing up.  This award inflation devalues excellence and embarrasses the failures these children experience.  They’ve learned not to strive for excellence because it doesn’t matter.
2) Technology: Millennials are surrounded by filtered social media where everyone appears to have it figured out and puts on a good face.  On top of that they have the same relationship with social media as a gambling addict has with a casino, except this addiction is only ever a touch away.
3) Impatience:  They want to reach the summit and have a ‘big impact’ but are unaware that the summit lies at the top of a mountain.  Is this related to number one?
4) Environment:  Companies (and schools?) should be rebuilding the confidence and resilience of this generation by reconnecting them to personal relationships and long term goals.  This means stepping up to combat number 1, something that most school administration really isn’t willing to do.


Now imagine standing in front of thirty one of them.

I’ve struggled with the vagaries of the millennial mindset in the classroom many times over the past few years.  From the grade inflation of risk averse learners and five-ohs to the complaints of industry, I’m familiar with the millennial challenges Sinek refers to in his interview above.


Battling these frankly bewildering and fictionally driven parenting strategies seems to be a lost cause for most educators.  Since banks and multi-nationals decided to burn the economy down and caused years of austerity, education (and governments in general) have taken on business-think in an unprecedented manner (some kind of Stockholm syndrome?).  The modern approach seems to be ‘the customer is always right even if they have no idea what they’re doing’.  Rather than expecting competence on the part of the student I often find myself defending a failing grade from a student who has never completed any work at grade level and has missed weeks and weeks of class.  Parents don’t want to hear that their child is incapable and they certainly don’t want to accept responsibility for that incompetence.  Their only goal seems to be finding ways to blame anything else.

We’re not doing a lot of either these days.

Technology is another place where education has thrown in the towel.  Students can do whatever they want with their devices.  Any attempt to redirect a student away from inappropriate technology use is wasted as these devices are now considered to be a constitutional right.  It isn’t uncommon for me to ask a student to focus on what we’re doing and have them tell me they are in the middle of a text conversation with their parents which is obviously much more important than whatever’s happening in class.  They’re probably planning a two week absence from school for a holiday – another exciting new millennial parenting tactic that would have been foreign to my parent’s way of thinking.  Sinek’s no smartphones in a meeting rule wouldn’t fly in a modern classroom.  You can’t helicopter parent without the tether.

How education is becoming less able
to manage these dangers we face.

Patience isn’t lost in all students but even the most capable are dwindling in attention duration.  At the beginning of our last unit I showed exemplars of previous projects done over the past few years.  The top student in my class asked, “are people getting dumber and dumber?”  Good question.  They certainly seem to be less and less capable of developing skills complex enough to tackle curriculum level theory and practice.  Perhaps if they weren’t taking weeks of unexplained absences and holidays during the semester things would be better.  Perhaps if they were expected to attempt all course work to the best of their abilities skill-sets wouldn’t be deteriorating.


In modern high schools students take the courses they want, not the ones they are capable of.  Students who fail advanced courses get a variety of options to regain the credit and are seen at the same level next year regardless of how little they’ve proven they can do.  Parents demand access to advanced classes for students who barely find time to attend school and are unwilling to actually do anything.  If I fail anyone I have to justify the failure, not so the absent, incompetent student.  Even trying to offer a range of courses doesn’t work because everyone is an academic all-star who should be getting the most advanced credits.


The complaint from people in post secondary education and the work place is that we’re producing graduates incapable of working effectively in the ‘real world’.  Sinek’s comments go straight to this.  Any absence or student failure isn’t an administrative issue; the system won’t even address it.  There used to be a limit on unexplained absences and then a student was kicked out of a course, that doesn’t happen any more.  There used to be criteria for failing late work, that doesn’t happen any more.  There used to be requirements for staying within an academic stream, now it’s do whatever you want.  When a student is absent or obtuse teachers are told to contact the parents who caused the situation in the first place and work it out.  In Ontario this approach has been institutionalized using laws like school until eighteen no-matter-what.  By keeping students in school at all costs we’ve effectively removed anywhere to drop out to.  With no bottom to fall through, graduation rates are on the rise!  We’ve effectively institutionalized failed parenting strategy number one:  everyone is a winner!

The internet is full of memes that suggest the approach we’re taking isn’t helping.


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Perception is Reality, except when it isn’t

When I’m packing up the computer lab at the end of the school year I usually do it imagining that I won’t be back.  For an introvert like me, teaching is an exhausting business.  I don’t get recharged by people the way others seem to; people drain me.  The thought of disappearing out the door and not returning is a happy one.

As the year wound down I came to realize that information technology has become like plumbing or electricity: no one thinks or cares about it unless it doesn’t work.  Fortunately I’m good at IT and get a a lot of satisfaction out of solving problems in it (not to mention my staying sharp in technology allows me to teach it better), so even though it is nothing I’m contracted to do I still beaver away in the background trying to create a more accessible, current and consistent educational technology platform for our teachers to use.

I find the year end back slapping tedious at the best of times.  Everyone gets well paid to do their job and no one I know in the building stops there, but what some people do above and beyond is considered more important.  While some were having meetings and planning presentations, I was hand bombing over a ton of ewaste out the back door of the school to a local charity.  They have DD adults dismantle electronics and then make enough recycling it to pay for their charity work.  It isn’t attention grabbing, but it matters.

The energy other people are willing to spend in order to shine a light on themselves obviously pays off, I’m just not interested in it.  Fixing things that are actually broken holds much greater interest for me.  Changing people’s minds is exactly what I don’t like doing.  People should be able to make up their own minds based on the facts, not on how convincing I am.

This year has offered me some wonderful moments.  By far the most positive experience was our run at Skills Canada this time around.  Seeing my student’s surprise at winning provincials and then our experience at Nationals was awesome.

Another powerful moment was seeing software engineering actually produce viable projects this time around.  That class offers students a chance to experience team based software development and then publish code while still in high school, and it has improved dramatically year on year thanks to a lot of curriculum building.

The least professionally rewarding part of my year was participating in the school leadership team.  The work done seemed pointless and time consuming, and seemed to follow a predetermined process rather than actually being creative and meaningful in any way.  A colleague dropped out of leadership a few years ago and she claims it frees you up to spend your energy on more productive things.  I think I’m following her approach when my headship ends this year.

The summer is for finding my mojo again, and then refocusing on what works best for my students in the fall.  A list is already forming:

  • Continue developing curriculum that still challenges and differentiates even when I’m regularly expected to teach five sections of class each semester.  Skills Canada plays a big part in that, allowing exceptional students a chance to see just how good they actually are.  Skills preparation also directs all students towards higher standards.
  • Getting equipment in that allows students to learn hands-on, even when I have classes of 31 students in a room.  Have you ever tried to set up a classroom with 31 computers and then arrange additional space for students to safely solder, build electronics and dismantle additional machines with hand tools?  It requires fore-thought (and perhaps some kind of time and relative dimension in space device)
  • While all that is going on I’ll continue to apply my senior computer engineering courses to school IT support.  This year we repaired 26 chromebooks that would otherwise have been chucked (repair costs were $1250, replacement cost would have been $9100),  Having a genuine engineering challenge in front of students is invaluable to them, saves the school board thousands and keeps the teachers they are supporting in working tech, even if it is thankless work.
  • Windows 10 free upgrades end before August, so I have to get into school at some point before July 26th and update all the student PCs in my lab.  Having a DIY lab is a lot of work, but it offers students unique access to software in a building otherwise tied down to out of date board software.  It’s $135 a PC otherwise, so I’ll go in during the summer and save the board another four grand.
But first, some summer…
Note:  I usually write a draft, edit it once and then publish it on Dusty World.  This got heavily re-written three times with an eye to repairing problems rather than just complaining about them.  The end of the school year often gets me into a rather negative state of mind.

The DIY Computer Lab

Teaching computer technology has me expanding and
enhancing our program to make it as current and
relevant as possible – the DIY lab is a key to that.

My ECOO16 presentation suggestion:

We’re used to being handed locked down, turn key computer labs by our school boards, but this approach doesn’t teach technological understanding.  The future of technology is diverse and individualized and we should be striving to encourage a deeper understanding so that students can find the devices and software that suit their needs.  Many boards have suggested BYOD as a solution, but this amplifies socio-economic differences that public schools should be trying to mitigate.  There is another way.

I’m a teacher who gave back the lab that was given to me.  Over the past two years I’ve developed a digital learning space that is made by students at the beginning of each semester.  Students build PCs, upgrade parts and install and maintain software.  In doing so they learn how to build current and relevant technology to suit their own needs.

In this presentation I’ll explain the process, costs (and free things!) as well as how the lab works on a day to day basis.  DIY computer access offers students a chance to become authors of their technology use instead of being mere users.

Interested?  I’ll be presenting on this at ECOO in November.  This whole post is pasted out of my application to present.

Learning Goals
– how to make DIY technology work in the classroom
– using current (like, made THIS YEAR!) software in a classroom
– learning technology by building it rather than just using it
– developing technological fluency in students and staff
– exploring educational freeware
– exploring beta software available for free use
– how to source hardware (suggestions based on experience)
– changing students & staff from users to authors of technology

Windows 10, the latest in graphics and processor technology and twice the memory of your typical school PC.  What do we do with all that horsepower?  We run Unity (professional license given freely by Unity for our educational needs), and build 3d models in Blender.  None of this would be possible on existing school board basic Dell PCs.
With flexibility in how we build a lab, we can pursue advanced technology, giving our
students authorship over their technological fluency.
Agility is key if you want to keep up with technology – you’ll never develop it if you’re kept as a pet user.

 

A Blender model made by one of our grade 12s last year – this kind of experience allowed her to build the kind of portfolio that got her into the heavily contested Sheridan College video game design program

 

How We’ve Situated Ourselves

I’m wrapping up Matt Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and it’s leaving a lot of questions around education.


Throughout the book Crawford questions the hyper-individualized nature of our post-enlightenment selves.  He does it in the context of skilled manual labour, which does a lot to refute the ideal ‘generic/flexible intelligence’ we all value nowadays.  Skills situated in real-world demands are immune to academic flights of fantasy.

Below are some quotes I’m ruminating on:


“…manufactured experiences promise to save us from confrontations with a world that resists our will.”

Anyone teaching modern teens feels the strain of trying to haul them out of the digital trance they prefer.  I teach computers and this is acute, like trying to teach pyromaniacs how to be firemen.  Many of my students are incapable of seeing the machines they are supposed to be learning about as anything other than entertainment.  Computers are a digital window into a world where you can always be capable and rewards are continuous and timely.

The proliferation of fairly terrible flash games on the internet indicates that many students would rather exist in digital Pavlovian response environments than deal with the pesky real world.  The game play is so bad that I’m astonished anyone plays them, but play them they do, for hours at a time.  Crawford has a section on machine gambling that strikes startling (and terrifying) similarities with how I see students playing these digital games (most of which are thinly veiled advertisements).

Between an isolated and hyper-intensified (almost sacred) sense of self, and the nature of digital economics, people are immersed in a society that has quantified and actively seeks their attention for monetary gain.  Crawford describes this as the enlightenment ideal of a free self taken to bizarre extremes – but these extremes feed nicely into the neo-liberal/globalized digital economy we’ve created for ourselves.

Distraction is seen as a problem of technology, but it is actually one of political economy: “in a culture saturated with technologies for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others.”

Hack the future – or be used by it. Digital technology has
evolved into the shiny gateway to an attention economy
that is as relentless as a casino in catching eyeballs..

Worries about digital-distraction have long been tied to education and technology, but Crawford does a good job of uncovering the economic foundations of that problem.  My concern has always been that poor implementation of educational technology simply feeds students into this harvester.

If we’re delivering a single branded approach to educational technology, we aren’t teaching fluency so much as dependence.  This is why technology multi-nationals are so willing to ‘work with education’.  With students already walking into class having been digitally branded on a personal level, education has jumped on the bandwagon by following student trends (kid’s love ipads!) rather than pedagogical imperative.  If we’re going to recover students’ ability to navigate (rather be navigated by) the digital economy they are immersed in, we can’t be driven by the same processes.

If the only point of education is to put more bricks in the wall, then we should just keep on doing what we’re doing.  If we want to teach students to survive in a voracious economy that sees their attention as a commodity then we need to teach them what the technology is and how it works.  Open source software and un-locked, non-brand specific hardware would be a good place to start, but you’re not going to see lots of ads for it.


“the advent of hyperpalatable mental stimuli… raises the question of whether the ascetic spirit required for education has a chance.  The content of our education forms us, through the application of cultivated powers of concentration to studies that aren’t immediately gratifying.  We therefore had to wonder whether the diversity of human possibilities was being collapsed into a mental monoculture – one that can more easily be harvested by mechanized means.”

Student directed learning: the kind of thinking
being embraced by Ontario’s education leaders
at this summer’s conference.  This kind of nonsense
ignores how education has worked for millennia.

The “ascetic spirit” of education is long dead.  If it isn’t fun and engaging, it isn’t a correct lesson plan according to modern educational thinking.  Students treat marks as a score, demanding them immediately and ignoring feed-back.  There is no delayed gratification in modern education.  Teachers have to justify (up front) any teaching – it can never lead toward a goal that is out of sight.  Where ever possible we are asked to be as transparent and immediately gratifying as possible.  The more forward-thinking, extreme view is that teachers are no longer needed at all.  In an information rich world (conveniently delivered on closed platforms by multi-nationals), students can learn on their own with no direction.  All you need is an I.T. guy to keep everyone connected.

If we’re producing generic-intelligence graduates that are able to work anywhere for minimum wage with no real expertise other than a can-do attitude, then we’re doing a great job.  Crawford’s focus on skilled labour neatly sidesteps the ideal of the liberally educated university student who can’t do anything but is ready for everything (as long as it doesn’t involve reality).  Reality makes demands on skilled trades that most academics find beneath them.

The danger in digital technology exists in its ability to latch onto and modify our very plastic thinking processes.  A skilled-trades approach to understanding digital technology can elevate us from being users to being architects.  Nick Carr does a good job of criticizing this in The Shallows.  Crawford goes further by explaining that technology isn’t the issue, it’s the cannibalistic economics that drive it that we should be protecting students from.

By pulling back the curtain and revealing the machinery that feeds this relentless economy we enable students to dictate the terms of their digital experience.  What happens instead is that we present digital technology as if it’s just another educational tool, which allows the underlying economy to seep into education unseen, feeding students into a mechanism that wants to commodify their very thoughts.

Neurology: Is it the car, or the car and driver?

We had board PD today (a 3 hour lecture).  It was a presentation on neurology in learning and layered curriculum by Kathie Nunley.  I’m generally a fan of a nuanced scientific approach to human activity (as opposed to a simplistic approach to things that usually support buying something).  Dr. Nunley’s neurological approach to education offered a number of insights to what we’re doing wrong.  If we don’t consider biological imperatives in learning we will never be as efficient as we might be.


There was a moment where I came to the end of neurological approach and the ‘ol philosophy degree kicked in.  Nunley had a slide stressing the importance of the appearance of choice in learning.  She stressed how engaging it is for students when they feel like they can choose their learning.

My knee jerk response was that this was manipulation, which led me down a metaphysical rabbit hole.

Neuroscience, because it’s looking at the brain, comes dangerously close to itemizing our sentience.  It also tends to reduce multi-dimensional complexity into simplistic linearity.  This idea that the appearance of choice would prompt more efficient learning would encourage any right minded teacher to manipulate their students into thinking they have learning choice in order to harness better retention.  No right minded teacher should be manipulating anyone into anything.

An analogy immediately came to mind.  Is neuroscience the car or the car and driver?  On a neuroscientific level our minds are very complex mechanical devices.  Our actions are driven by a brain developed from millennia of evolution.  There is no free-will, only complex autonomous reaction.  If that is what we are, you should have no trouble manipulating these processes to get a desired result, especially if it’s a good end.  School systems should treat the people in them like cogs in a machine, because that’s all they are.

If neurology is the study of the car then we can make immediate and scientifically informed choices that will improve its maintenance and operation.  As Nunley suggested in her presentation, dietary and developmental principles can be applied to maximize the functionality of our brains.  If neurology is the study of the car and driver then there is nothing else to consider.  In addition to the spiritual considerations that a number of people would find difficult to swallow, concepts like ethics or metaphysical ideals beyond the immediately knowable world of science (like honesty) may be ignored.  Neurology is the rational tool that justifies treating people like machines because that is all they are.

One of the reasons I like teaching technology is because students don’t get to work in imaginary value structures.  Those would be places where the science of neurology reigns supreme, where the teacher should manipulate students to lead them to success.  It’s where a 60% means you’ve done enough.  In the world of hands-on experience 60% is as useful as a zero.  If you don’t believe me have 60% of your next brake job done and see how that goes.

Teaching technology means I get to take students inured to reality after years of ‘learning’ in a school system and put them in close proximity to what is rather than what we wish.  Their discomfort is obvious.  They respond with comments like, “it didn’t work, but I tried real hard.  Do I get an A?”  No, you don’t, and reality is unimpressed with your intellectual resilience and general work ethic.  Thank goodness human value structures don’t decide everything. 

Fortunately, and despite our best efforts, we don’t live in a reality based on human value structures.  The large, unknowable universe that surrounds us makes itself felt constantly.   The tiny portion of reality we feel like we have a grip on because of science is only a gross approximation; mathematics and human ideas that roughly simulate reality enough to make crude use of it.  Science thinks in terms or breakthroughs and mastery, but neither actually happens.  Neuroscience offers us some useful insight into how brains function, but it is still far from understanding our minds; the driver is still safely out of their hands.

I tend toward moral absolutism.  One of the reasons I find science so agreeable is because it attempts to tell no lies, but in the case of neuroscience it seems to make some assumptions on how much it thinks it knows about being human.  Brains aren’t all we are, even though we use them as a lens to make sense of the world.

I’m going to take many of the suggestions around how to best maintain and maximize brain efficiency from this PD, but I’m not surrendering morality in the process.  If I’m going to give a student a choice it’s going to be a genuine choice because I believe those are superior to the appearance of choice.  In ways not immediately measurable I know that treating students and the subject I teach honestly creates the kind of fecundity that science is still having trouble quantifying.

Arduinos, Galileos & Edisons

Students create astonishing work with Arduino.
Instead of electronics being something that is
done to them, Arduino lets them author their
relationship with electronics.

I’m a big fan of the Arduino microcontroller.  This tiny, inexpensive board plugs into your computer via a usb cable and lets you create circuits for lights, sounds, sensors or pretty much anything else you can think of.  You then write (or paste) some simple code into a window on your computer and send it to the board to have the lights flash, or music play, or have sensors sense.

As an introduction to how circuits work it doesn’t get much better.  Because the coding you’re doing has immediate physical results, it also makes for a tangible, tactile introduction to programming too.  You can find arduino boards for about ten bucks a pop.  With another five bucks in LEDs, wiring and other bits and pieces, you’ve got a basic electronics and coding lab that suits both tactile and non-tactile learners.  You could put together a comprehensive class set for the price of a single iMac.  If your school is chucking any electronics, suddenly you find yourself recycling lasers out of cdroms and wiring out of computers to expand your collection.

Since Arduino is open source, a variety of support programs have popped up around it.  Fritzing helps students create professional looking wiring plans, and 123d Circuits lets you create virtual Arduino projects before you plug in a single wire.  If you’re wondering how tricky Arduino might be for younger students, 123d Circuits would be a great way to test feasibility for free.

My favorite part of Arduino comes after the introduction (we use Oomlout’s fantastic ARDX introduction projects.  Students work through these and get familiar with how the Arduino works and the many components it can work with.  The real magic comes when they see how easy it is to try things on Arduino.  The summative for the unit is a self directed project where students are encouraged to experiment, fail and document what they’re doing.  It’s a great introduction to the engineering process and, for many students, the first time they are rewarded for failure at school (just know why it didn’t work and find a way forward – the engineering process is intellectual resilience codified).

We’ve recently expanded our electronics ecosystem by getting a couple of super-Arduinos.  Intel has thrown its might behind the open source movement and created a couple of very interesting Arduino related products.

The unboxing of our Galileo created a big stir
amongst the senior computer technology students.


The Intel Galileo is an Arduino board on steroids.  With 
Microsoft also throwing itself behind this, you can actually have a version of Windows running on the Galileo!  We’ve already done so much with the Arduino, I can’t wait to see what we can put together with the Galileo.

The size of an SD card, the Edison is tiny & powerful






The Intel Edison is the other experimental piece of kit we just got in yesterday.  It’s the size of an SD card, but is a multi-core computer with built in wifi and bluetooth.  This tiny Edison is at the heart of the Nixie drone – an astonishing wearable/flyable drone camera that looks like magic.

Both the Galileo and the Edison are about $100 (about 10x the cost of a basic Arduino board), so we’re going to see if they are ten times as awesome.  I suspect they will both tax senior computer tech students as they try and understand what these new boards can do.

There hasn’t been an easier time to get into basic electronics.  With the open source movement creating lush ecosystems of compatible components, you’ll find it easier than ever to put tangible electronics experiences in front of students.  In a world where electronics are something being done to society, wouldn’t it be nice to teach students how to author that influence?

ECOOs1: Nerd Machismo & Other Barriers That Prevent Technology Learning

Nerdismo works like any other kind of machismo,
insecure boys belittle others and make the most
of what little they know to establish a social
space they can control.

I attended an excellent talk by Anne Shillolo on how to engage girls in technology at the ECOO Conference this year.

I’ve been struggling for a number of years to convince girls to hang in there in senior computer classes.  In the grade nine introduction course I have a number of girls who are often front runners in terms of skills and ability to learn tech, but they all drift away in the senior grades.

Anne covered the systemic and social issues around this in great detail during her presentation.  Hopefully those issues will begin to resolve themselves now that many tech companies are conscious of the problem.  As much as I’d like to I can’t model being a woman in technology, but there are some other angles I can pursue.

In grade nine, especially in semester one, you tend not to get a lot of attitude because they are all fairly terrified to be in high school for the first time and are cautious.  As students become acclimatized to their new school they look for where they are strongest and tend to establish dominance in those areas; the jocks own the gym, the drama kids rule the stage, etc.  I was dismissively told by a university professor once that tribalism is dead as a theory of human socialization, but that guy was an idiot.  In the world of high school (and pretty much everywhere else, including online) tribalism is alive and well.  Computer society is more tribalistic than most.

In the senior grades the (mostly male) computer geeks do to computer lab what the jocks do to the gymnasium, they establish dominance.  I’ve seen a number of girls begin a senior computer studies course only to bail after the first week because of all the posturing.  The most frustrating was a coding prodigy whose parents were both programmers who vanished to take an alternate course online where she didn’t have to put up with the drama.  This nerdismo ends up damaging the field of computer studies in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is choking it of sections in high school because the vast majority of students feel ostracized by the culture of the students in the room.

Anne’s girls missing out on technology presentation led me to consider just how insular computer culture can be.  The idea of barriers to learning mathematics, sciences and technology came up in Anne’s presentation.  As someone who wanted to be an astronomer before he almost failed grade 10 physics (and did fail grade 11), I know that it takes a fair amount of effort by the alpha-nerds of the world to shake otherwise interested right-brained kids out of ‘their’ fields of study.  From the science teachers who seemed to take great joy in pointing out that this wasn’t my thing to the computer science teacher who watched me drown in mathematical abstraction with an absent smile on his face when all I wanted to do was tinker with code, I’ve experienced those barriers first hand.

As a non-linear/tactile/intuitive/experimental thinker I was intentionally bludgeoned by numbers until I couldn’t care less about computers.  Watching the tribe of like-minded students (many of whom were good friends) form around those teachers and pass beyond that semi-permeable membrane into the math/science/tech wonderland scarred me.

My tactile nature eventually paid off when I got back into computers (years later – scars heal) through information technology, but I’ve never forgotten how those left brained mathletes made me doubt myself and turn away from the computer technology I loved.  I went from being the first kid in our school to publish code and own his own printer to going to college for art (and dropping out) because that was what I thought was left to me.  There was certainly nothing like code.org leading a charge for greater accessibility in learning coding (Anne showed this in her presentation):


I can’t help but wonder how many kids we shake out of technology because they don’t approach it in an orthodox manner, or don’t fit the stereotype of what we think a person in tech is.  It might be slowly changing, but the gateway to learning technology is guarded by your stereotypical computer geek, and they are as fierce about guarding it as any athlete in a locker room. 

When I see teachers putting students in silos because of this kind of thinking, or worse, punishing students who don’t follow their discipline in the same way that they do, I can’t help but remember that I was once that kid who ended up dropping out and walking away.

Everyone can learn coding and computers.  Anyone who says, “I’m no good at that stuff” (including all the teachers I hear say it daily) are responding to the barriers that surround it.  Exclusivity driven by arrogance has defined how many people see the computer field.  Digital technology is so big now that any kind of thinker and doer can survive and thrive in the field, but we need the traditional computer experts to tone down the nerdismo.

The people who build the digital world we inhabit have as much swagger as a professional athlete does nowadays, and it starts in high school with insecure boys chasing everyone who isn’t like them out of the lab.  Until we take steps to open up technology to more diverse learners it’ll continue to chase the girls and atypical thinkers out of this left brained, male dominated industry.


Perhaps I can convince more girls and alternative thinkers to keep learning technology into senior high school by not being an arrogant git, but I’m also fighting this well established conception of what a computer geek is.  Until I can tone down the nerdismo in the classroom, I fear that preconceptions and the aggressive nerdismo in the computer lab will dictate who takes my courses.  The field of computer studies would greatly benefit from an influx of creative/alternative thinkers, but until the geeks loosen their grip, nothing will change.

Gaming Everything

Via NBCnews: the glory of the hardcore video gamer.  Not
 the kind of thing that’s ever going to challenge the Olympics
for public attention I think.

I’ve had a lot of trouble playing video games lately.  My problem seems to be around that idea of scripted experience.  If I’m playing a video game I’m working through a narrative someone else created.  I enjoy narratives but what irks me about video games is they pretend to have an element of choice in them when in fact they don’t.  They suggest that they are the next evolution in entertainment but the interactivity they offer is so limited that it’s really just a hidden script that you follow under the illusion of choice.  Gamification in general seeks to use this illusion to hook people into otherwise tedious situations.

The first step away from video gaming occurred when I found I couldn’t get into single player games anymore.  Even the good ones with epic narratives felt banal.  I went to multi-player games for several years hoping that the human element would create choice, but I find that these too are scripted, and worse, they force players into scripted responses to the point where you can’t tell the players from the bots.  When a game is so restrictive that it makes the people in it act like machines it’s not a game I care to play.

There is a particular situation in which we’re happy to turn people into bots if the illusion of engagement is preserved.  That situation also happens to be seen as quite tedious by many of its participants.  Education is eager to digitize if it ensures engagement, even if that engagement mimics the dimensionless engagement found in online activity.  Standardized testing feeds this thinking, producing learning outcomes that are easily quantifiable as data even as they fail to demonstrate learning.  Deep contextual human activities (like learning) are lost in simplistic digital data.

Doubt is cast on an individual teachers’ ability to teach a subject.  Consistency is demanded in modern education as a result of this doubt and the slippery nature of digital information encourages this by eroding the space between classrooms and lessons.  This is shown as some kind of great step forward in terms of fairness, but what it really does is reduce teaching (as it has done with many other human activities) to a vapid exchange of information, incidentally what digital machines do best. 

We fill in templates, teach centralized material and are encouraged to sync how we teach it.  Proof of success is found in standardized test scores.  There is little interest in assessing teaching or learning in any other way.

This digital infection also carries the parasitic idea of gamification, usually championed by video game evangelists who believe that the structure of gaming can overcome every obstacle.  Teachers are encouraged to design student success through scripted outcomes pretty much like a video game does.  If the game you’re playing is designed to have you eventually win it isn’t much of a challenge and certainly isn’t something you can be proud of, but then modern learning isn’t about challenge, it’s about engagement.  The idea of gamification makes me uneasy for this very reason.  When we gamify situations that aren’t games I’m afraid that we pollute complex situations with the implied success found in most gaming outcomes.  If education is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond school this isn’t going to do it.

Gaming the game has a long and storied history in geek culture. Can you suspend your disbelief if you’re always looking to subvert the delivery method?

If you offer open ended, ‘real’ experience many digital natives shy away from a situation where the rules can’t be gamed for advantage.  The hacking mindset implies that the system is more important than the content.  Perhaps that’s why I can’t play video games anymore.  It’s hard to get lost in a narrative when you’re constantly looking at ways to subvert the delivery method.

Wilful suspension of disbelief is lost in the digital age.  This is the root of the pessimism and disengagement you see in many students.  When education becomes another process you hack to guaranty your own success it becomes increasingly impossible to do anything useful with it.

This grew out of Scripted Lives which itself grew out of Unscripted Moments.  I’m pulling at a lot of threads here.  I’ve been a fan of RPGs since I got into D&D when I was 10.  I love sports and would describe myself as a serious gamer.  I’ve spent most of my life learning digital technology so I’d hardly call myself a tech-hater either, but watching digital technology and gamification aiming for society wide acceptance has made me very uneasy.