How Cybersecurity Might Become More Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive

One of the benefits of working in the same home office as one of the top teacher librarians in the country is that we’re able to bounce ideas off each other. Making cybersafety awareness a part of every educator’s professional standard of practice isn’t a nice idea in 2022, it’s a necessity, but the industry continues to have trouble attracting talent.  Alanna has listened to me lamenting the lack of diversity in the field for many years but this week she linked the DEI research she has been doing to develop an inclusive information management system with that lack of diversity in cyber.

You might not think that creating a digital media cataloguing system would require much in the way of equity awareness, but it does. How we categorize and deliver data requires a working awareness of DEI or it quickly becomes another means of systemic discrimination. Having used it, Alanna suggested Building Movement Project’s  Social Change Ecosystem Map as a tool for challenging some of the masculine cultural cues that usually define cybersecurity as a discipline.

Considering diverse talents and motivations could work as a way to bring more diversity into the field of cybersecurity.

Characteristics of the Roles

Weavers: I see the through-lines of connectivity between people, places, organizations, ideas, and movements.
Experimenters: I innovate, pioneer, and invent. I take risks and course-correct as needed.
Frontline Responders: I address community crises by marshaling and organizing resources,
networks, and messages.
Visionaries: I imagine and generate our boldest possibilities, hopes and dreams, and remind us of our direction.
Builders: I develop, organize, and implement ideas, practices, people, and resources in service of a collective vision.
Caregivers: I nurture and nourish the people around me by creating and sustaining a community of care, joy, and connection.
Disruptors: I take uncomfortable and risky actions to shake up the status quo, to raise awareness, and to build power.
Healers: I recognize and tend to the generational and current traumas caused by oppressive
systems, institutions, policies, and practices.
Storytellers: I craft and share our community stories, cultures, experiences, histories, and
possibilities through art, music, media, and movement.
Guides: I teach, counsel, and advise, using my gifts of well-earned discernment and wisdom.
Cybersecurity had strong ties to the military early in its development, which attracted the ‘frontline responders’ already working there. Military roles are traditionally male dominated and so cyber began as a predominantly male field, but applying these other roles would open cybersecurity to a more diverse range of interests, skills and motivations, but it requires a significant rethink of the assumptions that surround the subject. If you consider cybersecurity as a combination of security and computer science, both fields have a history of male dominance, though in the case of computer science the patriarchy was a recent event (it happened just as computer science was becoming profitable because that’s how glass ceilings work).
The problem with clinging to this cultural predisposition in cybersecurity is that it continues to create a male focus in hiring. Women may struggle to see how they fit in a field that presents itself with such a masculine bias. Getting away from the military/first responder mindset might be a way to recast cybersecurity in a different light.
Looking at the less represented roles in the social change ecosystem, weavers would bring connectivity and communications to the field – something it currently lacks. Visionaries would bring the perspective and scope needed to move cybersecurity out of its often reactive stance, though that would also mean giving up the unquestioned control that accompanies emergency response; that may be the hardest ask of all.
Recasting cybersecurity in terms of caregiving and healing was where Alanna saw the most gains. Cybersafety is a foundational skill in an increasingly connected world, yet its treated (if it’s acted on at all) as an emergency response after the fact, becoming a self fulfilling prophecy for the first-responder mindset. By finding a place for caregivers and healers on cybersecurity teams, the approach to user training and even post-breach response would be significantly different. Can you imagine cyber support that isn’t emergency response defined? Neither can many of the people in the industry because they can only conceive of it through their own cultural background and motivational approach.
Digital skills remain poor and continue to represent
the most successful avenue for cyberattack.

Other atypical motivators also have a role in cybersecurity. Storytellers and guides are motivated by sharing narratives and teaching complexity and empathy rather than fixating on problem solving. The vast majority of cyber-incidents are the result of user ignorance and error. Most malware ends up on a network because a user mistakenly put it there, not because a ‘super hacker’ got in. If we hope to address this primary form of ingress (atrocious user digital literacy), we need to bring in people who can create meaningful narratives and engage with learning because it’s their primary motivation.

Of course these roles aren’t absolute, no one is just one of them, but by considering the social change ecosystem we might identify biases implicit in cybersecurity culture that disclude anyone but those interested in heroic intervention or technical response. By considering alternate motivations and skillsets, hiring practices in cybersecurity would become more inclusive. That inclusivity does more than check a DEI box. A diverse workforce offers a richer range of approaches to problem solving and prevents blind spots based on privilege that would make this critically important discipline more resilient, accessible and effective.

Resources

The Building Movement: https://buildingmovement.org/ supports and pushes the nonprofit sector to tackle the most significant social issues of our times by developing research, creating tools and training materials, providing guidance, and facilitating networks for social change.

THE SOCIAL CHANGE ECOSYSTEM MAP (2020)https://buildingmovement.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Ecosystem-Guide-April-2022.pdf

A History of Cybersecurity: https://cyber-security.degree/resources/history-of-cyber-security/

Empowering women can help fix the cybersecurity staff shortage: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/09/cybersecurity-women-stem/

Occupational digitalization trends in Canada, 2006-2021: https://fsc-ccf.ca/research/race-alongside-the-machines/

Global Digital Skills Index, 2022: https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/salesforceresearch/viz/shared/NNRKYDH37

Future Skills: https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2022/10/2022-tmc7-research-symposium-table.html

If we would redefine digital skills through a media literacy lens, we would also open up these pathways to a wider variety of learners. Defining digital skills as ‘coding’ is reductive, unhelpful and excludes a number of alternate learning motivations.


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Digital Disruption, The Collapsing 4th Estate and Foreign Inference in Canadian Media

Toronto’s traffic misery means I don’t fight my
way into The Six as often as I might, glad I
did on this occasion though.

We battled our way into The Six last night to attend TVO Today Live’s: Can Democracy
Survive the Collapse of Media
? The documentary is the story of the Toronto Star as it struggles to survive in our diverse mediascape. Digital disruption came to newspapers at the same time the change from broadcast to the individualized, 2-way media access (aka, the internet) unhinged other traditional media giants. Many newspapers are hanging on by their fingernails as they struggle to develop a business model that would allow them to survive in the 21st Century.

The documentary raised difficult questions around the importance of an independent press as a means of holding government and business to account. It follows The Star as reporters exposed the many failures by the Ontario government during the COVID pandemic. By the end of the documentary it was hard to argue against the importance of an independent press as a pillar of democracy, though how they operate can no longer assume that they are the ‘information celebrities’ they were in the broadcast age.

The premier took place on the
UofT Campus, just south of
Yorkville, which is surreal at
the best of times.

There was a lot of blame in both the documentary and the round table discussion afterwards aimed at ‘tech’ companies like Google and Facebook. While those companies depend on new digital media delivery systems, they seldom engineer their own tech. Google and Facebook aren’t tech companies, they are advertising companies who have exploited digital disruption in order to eat traditional media company’s lunches.

The fall-back position of the Fourth Estate (professional journalism) is that they provide an important balance in any country claiming to adhere to democratic principles. Transparency isn’t something that comes easily to people when they gain money and power, which tend to get used to gain more privilege and power. This is a difficult truth to dispute, though how the professional press operated in the time of broadcast media when profit margins were huge and they were the only voice to be heard came with its own problems.

I found the documentary interesting in terms of tracking our dance into the datasphere two decades into our information technology/media revolution. The problems from clinging to an out of date business model (predicated on privilege and a lock on the media people see), were clearly defined, but what prompted me to get up and ask a question in front of Toronto’s intelligentsia was the ignoring of foreign influence in this imbalance.

Next week I’m attending KnowledgeFlow & NATO Association of Canada’s DEFUSE project focused on how to battle disinformation in Canada’s fractured mediascape, and I’ve spent the last month attending cybersecurity conferences that made Canada lack of cyber-resilience when facing foreign cyber-powers terrifyingly apparent. Listening to reporters blaming advertising companies for how unfair it is that they share their journalism without any economic support pales in comparison to this more clear and present danger. 

We live in an increasingly interconnected world, much of which does not place any value in the balancing act of a functioning democracy. I’d go so far as to say many of these unfriendly governments see Canada’s unregulated approach to online media as an opportunity to spread disinformation and fracture political cohesion. These unfriendly powers tend to focus on developing massive military cyber operations, some of which are larger than the entire Canadian military.

What finally got this introvert on his feet was Senator Pamela Wallin’s repeated statements that the Canadian government has no place in supporting an independent press. The question that sprang into my head was, why is the Canadian government so worried about staying out of influencing media when so many unfriendly foreign governments are actively engaged in spreading disinformation in Canada?

The Senator’s feelings are understandable as she used to work as a professional journalist and deeply believes in keeping government influence out of an independent press, but that ignores all those other governments who are already spreading misinformation in our country. Canadian professional journalists have to adhere to legal codes of conduct that anonymous, foreign backed social media ‘influencers’ and the new-media advertising ‘tech’ companies who deliver them to every Canadian blithely ignore.

There are a couple of ways the Canadian government could protect professional journalism, assuming the battered fourth estate can get past its own privileged past and focus on journalistic best practices rather than chasing the same advertising that the tech giants are. Funding with no editorial influence for news outlets that are providing fact-based, Canadian information is a good place to start. That funding should come directly from the new-digital advertising delivery services (Google, Facebook and the rest) who distribute professional journalism without supporting it in any way. By requiring the online advertisers to pay Canadian content creators for their journalism, this could be an influence free source of stability for the fourth estate. It would also help Canada moderate foreign influence in social media by enabling more transparent, Canadian made, fact-checked information online.

Bolstering fact-based Canadian journalism means Canadians are more likely to be seeing vetted information rather than foreign backed disinformation, but we also need to aggressively pursue anonymous sources of funding. The fourth estate could help there to. Transparency of online information funding should be another priority. By providing data on social media funding, the federal government would be publicizing data on information transparency that would assist academic and journalistic research into foreign influence in Canada.

In response to my question, the Senator emphasized the importance of understanding and preventing foreign influence, making specific reference to China’s worldwide disinformation campaign. She wrapped it up by noting that education is the key, which makes me happy as a cyber-educator, but it isn’t enough. We need intelligence apparatus that is providing much needed transparency into how social media is twisting our national conversation, otherwise we’re at the mercy of well funded, organized unfriendly foreign governments who are already neck deep in twisting our national media.

https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/beijings-global-megaphone
Canada is up against giants, and our unregulated online media makes for easy access to  Canadian politics by governments who happily leverage our lack of awareness for their own ends. Canadian journalists can’t get paid for producing fact-checked local content, but the lunatic fringe gets paid by enemy states to flood Canadian screens with disinformation. There is clearly a role for the federal government in Canada’s media engagement.

Tax this and then use the funds to support fact-based, Canadian journalism.

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2022 TMC7 Research Symposium: Table Talks and Future Skills

We just returned from Treasure Mountain Canada, the 7th iteration of the Canadian School Libraries national research conference.  Like the best professional development, this was self-directed and therefore relevant and meaningful to the people in attendance.  Library learning commons have been under a lot of pressure despite the fact that these centres for information management are key to getting us though the maelstrom that is our information revolution.  Listening to people on the front lines talking about the challenges and opportunities was enlightening.

Round table discussions based on the many papers submitted for the symposium happened throughout the day.  The first I sat in on was by Lila ArmstrongShe talked about the ‘hub and spoke model’ as a way to standardize digital skills development in the absence of a comprehensive digital literacy curriculum (Ontario isn’t the only province who continues to lag behind in this regard).  Lila is a bit of a unicorn because she has recently moved between elementary and secondary panels, something few teachers do in their careers.  Equity and inclusion play a central role in Lila’s research and had me thinking (once again) about how fractured Canada’s education landscape is in terms of making its students future ready.

The next table talk was with Melanie Mulcaster, who is now seconded to TVO where she is working on digital content development and curation.  The pandemic chaos highlighted for Melanie how behind many LLCs were in terms of curating online content.  Through rolling lockdowns the lack of credible resources that were easy to navigate became a central issue in library management.  Mel’s honest assessment  of our slapdash attempts to make digital content work, and then her choice to engage with building these missing tools, was brutally honest and insightful.

Ontario used to have a comprehensive online set of vetted digital tools and resources called OSAPAC, but a lack of foresight in any recent provincial government (not just the current one), has left Ontario scrambling for online resources on a board by board basis.  This is incredibly inefficient as boards repeat the same work instead of working from a centralized resource; it’s a massive failure of vision and leadership.  It also speaks back to Lila’s paper on equity in terms of access to coherent digital skills development.  Students fortunate enough to be in a school with a well developed digital skills program were at an advantage, those that weren’t are even further behind.

I’ve struggled with the willy-nilly nature of the educational ‘maker space’ fad since it was all the buzz at the ECOO conference way back in 2015.  I next sat with Marc Compton, who teaches at a private school in B.C. and has successfully implemented maker spaces into his LLC.  Marc also manages a STEM program so has a better understanding of the engineering design process in terms of creating viable engineering opportunities for his students.  Marc’s common sense approach to getting tools that work and then using them is contrary to the usual typical maker-space buy in (get whatever kit was hyped up at that conference you went to and then wonder why it’s gather dust in your ‘maker space’).  It’s amazing what a bit of common sense can do in terms of providing viable hands-on learning opportunities for your students.

Just when I thought we were wrapping things up, Carol Koechlin noted that the ideas document we were all working on isn’t just about catching up to current best practices, but also a pathway to future digital literacies we haven’t considered yet.  This got me thinking about all the emerging technologies we ignore because we still haven’t caught up with established digital skills in education.  Here’s a quick list off the top of my head:


EMERGING DIGITAL LITERACIES THAT WE DON’T TEACH BUT ARE ALREADY HERE:

Understanding 3d Digital Media

If you can’t do this don’t know how 3d modelling
and animation work, you probably shouldn’t be
teaching media arts in 2022.

I’ve been banging the drum about 3d media literacy for years.  Our game development
program
prepares students for an industry significantly larger than the ailing traditional media industries that most high school media arts programs still cling to.  After attending the FITC conference in 2018, I realized that 3d media awareness goes well beyond creation; being unable to comprehend what computer generated imaging can do makes you susceptible to misinformation in advertising.  Understanding 3d CGI is a vital media fluency in 2022, yet almost no one is teaching it

Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning: human-machine collaboration

We got involved with IBM in 2019 in order to access their IBM Watson AI core.  Watson is the AI learning system that beat the reigning Jeopardy champ, but in our case we got access to a cloud based chatbot program and this gave students their first taste of AI supported coding.  Accessing the Watson core allowed students to create criteria rather than specific values for variables.  Instead of having to list every possible name that a user might enter, using AI, students were able to train the system on the concept of names and then it would automatically assign any name given to that variable.  It’s a small step, but understanding how AI and machine learning works allowed students to interact with it more effectively.

At the same time our game development class was getting a handle on more advanced enemy AI in the games we were developing.  The introduction to Watson in the junior classes quickly amped up our game based intelligence development in senior classes.

The as yet untaught emerging skillset here is human-machine collaboration.  After we got
going with Watson, one of my seniors co-oped with me in the lab and she went after developing a machine learning algorithm that would learn from its mistakes and draw useful data out of massive datasets.  This past spring, when I became aware of Github’s Co-Pilot, rather than banning it as many teachers have, I encouraged using it along with assessing its strengths and problems.  One of our seniors took it on for his grade 12 final project, his conclusion?  It helps but if you don’t know how to code it often loses the plot.

Familiarity with machine learning is going to become a vital skillset for our grads, but almost no one is teaching it.  In the meantime it’s what many students are using to answer poorly designed lessons that many teachers still haven’t bothered to update.  None of these AI generated papers will light up a plagiarism checker because it’s all original work.  We’re so technology-illiterate in education that we don’t even know what we don’t know.

CODING is not DIGITAL LITERACY

… any more than grammar is all there is to language literacy.  Of course it’s a part of it, but just a small part.  The technology stack we’re living in starts with basic electronics and works its way up through information technology and networking through IoT and robotics to cloud computing and emergent artificial intelligence.  In that hardware structure there are numerous software offshoots, all of which are viable and important components of a comprehensive digital literacy strategy.  If you think coding is digital literacy then you’re probably looking for an easy way out.  What I’ve discovered about people looking for an easy way out of difficult work is that they’ll usually find one.

Cybersecurity

I’ve saved the scariest for last.  I’ve been banging the drum for better (or any) cybersecurity education for years.  When I show up at a conference to present on it, educators can’t run away fast enough, yet they depend on it everyday to make their networked educational technology enabled lessons happen, and they expose themselves and their students to potential harm when using this connected tech with such willful ignorance.

It seems pretty obvious to me that, if we’re going to use networked educational technology in every classroom, it is incumbent upon us to teach cybersafety and privacy to our students from the moment we make them vulnerable.  The idea that cybersecurity is someone else’s problem is both naïve and selfish, yet that has been education’s approach.

I first got involved with cybersecurity through CyberTitan, Canada’s national student cybersecurity competition, which runs in conjunction with CyberPatriot, run by the U.S. Air Force Association in America.  CyberPatriot is now in its fifteenth season and has tens of thousands of students in many countries all learning hands-on defensive I.T. skills and deep cybersafety awareness that will assist them in any future career.  As you may expect, Canada has far too few of them.

There are many industry and government organizations that want to bolster cyber-education.  A more cyber-educated society makes for a more protected Canada in an interconnected global economy that isn’t exactly stable, yet the reflex in education is to think of this as someone else’s problem, even as we become increasingly dependent on networked ed-tech.  Ontario is now requiring mandatory elearning for high school students, but has nothing in place to teach safe use of that mandatory, network dependent technology; we couldn’t put the cart any further ahead of the horse if we tried.

In my new role we just ran National CyberDay, which reached over 2000 students nationally – there are almost seven million students in Canada, meaning less than 0.0003% of students participated (in the middle of cybersecurity awareness month), yet almost all of them will be on networked educational technology everyday this week.

Cybersecurity education may be the toughest nut to crack, but my recent experiences at conferences on the subject have only intensified my desire to climb this mountain.  Digitally skilled librarians would be a great place to begin this change towards a more secure and digitally literate Canada.  LLCs running CyberDay activities and engaging reluctant classroom teachers in cybersafety and privacy awareness is a great first step.  As awareness builds, librarians taking on CyberTitan coaching roles could introduce emerging cyber-skills to middle and high school students, opening up pathways into a desperately under-served industry in Canada.



There are so many emerging digital mediums.  I haven’t touched on the metaverse and how virtual and augmented reality are going to change human interaction in the next decade, or how wearable technology will revolutionize the smartphone yet again, but these are all emerging elements of digital literacy that we will need to address.

There is much work to do, but events like Treasure Mountain Canada are exactly how we’re going to escape our silos and develop a cohesive national approach that is both equitable and scalable.  Nothing else is going to solve the depth and breadth of the digital literacy problems that we face.


The hackneyed approach to digital skills development in education in Canada (and elsewhere) has produced a scarcity of much needed digitally literate graduates. Emergent skillsets such as in cybersecurity are particularly absent.  There is much to do.


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2022 Treasure Mountain 7 Research Symposium & Thinktank: MediaSmarts Keynote & Digital Tools and Expertise for Resilient Learning


The seventh iteration of the Canadian School Libraries Treasure Mountain Canada Research Symposium just wrapped up in Vancouver, BC.  Canada is one of the only countries in the world without a national education strategy, though weirdly we have an international education strategy – just not one for Canadians in Canada.  That is strange, right?

TMC is an opportunity for teacher librarians to escape Canada’s provincial education silos and share common challenges (which are very similar).  By sharing these problems and brainstorming solutions, best practices and future-ready strategies emerge. Wouldn’t it be efficient if the whole country were engaged in this powerful professional practice instead of repeating the work over and over (if at all)? Yet many provinces were not not in attendance. I’m still struck by how there is no such thing as “Canadian Education”, which has lasting implications for equity in our country.  Some provinces have cut teacher librarians entirely from their schools, preventing any of their students or staff from benefitting from these information literacy specialists – and these cuts happened during an information technology revolution when a guiding hand would have been most helpful.

We’re in the middle of an information
revolution and your school system
wants to remove all the information
specialists
?  What an odd choice.

I’m not a librarian, but I’m married to an awesome one.  Last time we flew out for a Treasure Mountain conference in BC my son and I went for a long ride up the empty coast of Vancouver Island while the librarians gathered, but this time I was in the room as the paper Alanna and I co-authored was featured in the event.

Treasure Mountain attracts librarians who are working to put school library learning commons squarely in the role of digital literacy development. This event was full of energetic thinkers who were digitally literate and well aware of the ongoing digital skills crisis happening across Canada.

Our presentation was about how using industry standard project management tools and organizational strategies not only prepares students for life after graduation, but also provides them with the organizational tools they need to be both resilient and successful, even when our school systems stagger under the weight of multiple pandemic shut-downs.

Being able select the right tools and move between digital and real-world information allows students to attend class, stay organized and continue to author their own student-led projects no matter how much chaos surrounds their learning.  Digital skills development and knowledge of a swiss-army knife of readily available digital tools could make our education systems pandemic-proof, if only we’d do it.


We shared examples of successes that demonstrated equity and inclusion as well as providing other examples of student-centred empowerment in learning through effective project management.  The tool we used was Trello, based on the academic research Alanna was doing at Royal Roads University in the spring of 2020 when things fell apart.  The project management theory her post-graduate class was studying was applied directly in my game-development class, saving both student-led projects from almost certain disaster; it’s a great example of a cross-pollination of ideas and shows how having a masters-TL in the room can help even a veteran teacher find effective learning tools.


***

Treasure Mountain is very much a hands-on experience with everyone participating and collaborating on developing ideas.  Those ideas are brought forward by the participants.  This year there were 27 (!) papers submitted on subjects ranging from how to audit your book collection to enhance diversity and how to keep an LLC operational during a pandemic, to how to embrace emerging digital literacies.  In my new role at ICTC I am especially interested in that digital literacy development.

Another example of the many cracks in
Canada’s siloed education approach.

The morning keynote by Matthew Johnston, the educational director of MediaSmarts, an organization dedicated to improving media literacy in our students, focused on explaining how things had changed since pre-internet broadcast media.  The multi-directional web of media we now find ourselves in implicitly demands digital fluency, yet we still fail to engage these digital literacies by systemically teaching them.


This isn’t just a Canadian problem, as code.org states, most schools don’t have a computer science program (ours got locally cancelled during the pandemic).  Even though there has been a recent push to put coding into Ontario elementary curriculum, it’s being delivered by teachers with little or no technology fluency themselves, and coding is only a tiny part of a much larger and more complex digital/media literacy framework.

Library learning commons are an ideal place to begin this work as (when they’re well run) they act as a shared space for engaging with emerging digital/media fluencies.  Librarians have always been information management specialists – the mediums may change, but the fundamentals of rigorous inquiry and source assessment don’t.  A digitally fluent librarian makes the LLC central in 21st Century learning models that effectively leverage digital tools.

Before the Friday night awards ceremony, Alanna and I did an interview with Dr. David Loertscher, one of the conceptual founders of the learning commons model.  David was curious as to how digital tools could be used to amplify and organize student-directed/inquiry based learning models, and our talk gave us a chance to clarify our own understandings too.  It’ll eventually be available on Dr. Loertscher’s ALiVE Virtual Library.  It’s collaborative opportunities like these that help pave a pathway into the future that will not only make library learning commons relevant to student experience, but will also provide the framework for much needed digital skills system building capacity.

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The 2022 BCTLA Conference

 


The BCTLA conference prior to Treasure Mountain Canada 2022 (where Alanna I were presenting) was challenging in all the right ways.  David Robertson’s opening keynote cajoled the audience with humour and deeply personal insights around why it’s so important to give indigenous authors (ideally through an indigenous press) control of their own stories as a vital part of reconciliation. As a writer myself I’ll go out of my way not to write indigenous characters in, no matter how well intentioned, because that has been happening for far too long.

David’s talk was full of humour and hope. He wrapped it up by pointing out how far Canada has come in the past two decades. There is still much to do, but librarians making sure books by indigenous authors about indigenous lives are on the shelves is a big step toward helping Canada wake up from its troubled and often hidden colonial past.

Ivan Coyote’s closing keynote was equally powerful. I’ve learned that it isn’t a BCTLA keynote unless you cry. Ivan has a magical ability to move between poetry and accessible, colloquial prose that is both jarring and profoundly honest. I’ve long struggled with my own gender and don’t feel comfortable with my pronouns, but I am what I am and, also being autistic, don’t have the social energy or expertise to fight that battle.

The stories of non-cis kids leaving small towns even as those same small towns complain about a lack of doctors and other professionals was both funny and sad, and rang true with my experiences trying to provide safe spaces for ‘atypicals’ in my own small town school where gendered sports teams based on cisgendered norms drive school community in almost every sense.  Ivan’s honesty made me more vocal about my own differences during our presentation and might let me get a bit closer to what I am when I’m not pouring myself into the mould that everyone expects when I’m in the public eye.  That’s a powerful influence from a conference keynote!


In between the keynotes I attended a great engineering design process seminar with UBC’s GeeringUP engineering outreach students.  UBC’s GeeringUP program offers many online STEM resources for students and educators.  Are Ontario colleges and universities doing this kind of k-12 engagement?  If not, why not?  Fortunately, UBC isn’t stingy about sharing its engineering resources.

When I wasn’t in keynotes or seminars I was getting the broken school wifi to work so I could support rookie CyberTitan coaches five time zones away as they took their students through the first round of CyberPatriot.  That a major school system in one of the biggest urban centres in the country struggles to provide basic connectivity says something profound about the digital divide Canada is facing.  There are many components to developing effective digital learning, starting with connectivity and technology access.  If we have trouble making the fundamentals work in a place where there are really no excuses, how are the millions of rural educators and students (including the vast majority of indigenous educators and students) across Canada feeling everyday?  You can’t even begin to address digital illiteracy when there is no connectivity.  There is much work to do.

We wrapped up the BCTLA conference in a state of emotional exhaustion, but with minds brimming with possibilities.  To see librarians taking on these national equity initiatives through ensuring access to books and media by and for the persecuted, often with unclear support from their own school systems (there was much talk about hate-filled attempts to co-opt trustee positions), was both inspiring and frustrating.  Just when you think Canada might wake up from its shadowy, hate-filled colonial history and take a step into a brighter more inclusive future, that darkness reappears as twisted jingoism.

The BCTLA Conference was powerful in many ways, and after only a couple of hours to catch our breaths we were back at it for the Treasure Mountain opening dinner.

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Creating A Canadian Cybersecurity Ecosystem

Last week I attended my first conferences in a long time. Someone will have to explain to me why classroom teachers have no access to professional development like this. On Wednesday and Thursday morning I was at SecTor in Toronto, making many new contacts in industry and realizing that the vast majority of companies on the front lines of cyber-defence in Canada are eager to help both the public and public education get a handle on cybersafety and digital hygiene. On Thursday afternoon and Friday I was at the University of Waterloo for their Privacy & Cybersecurity Conference. These were two very different conferences with SecTor clearly focused on industry and sales and Waterloo’s CPI on academic research and strategic thinking, but you’d be amazed how well the two fit together. I really wish they’d arrange things so people could do one and then the other instead of overlapping them, but that failure to look after each other symbiotically is emblematic of a larger problem in Canada.

I had a great chat with a colleague at ICTC a few weeks ago where he described his approach as ‘serving the ecosystem’, which I intend to emulate.  He sees ICTC’s role as helping everyone working in Canada’s digital skills development space to meet the council’s mission, which is to strengthen Canada’s digital advantage in an ever more connected and volatile global economy.  This sounds like a big ask but I believe in the goal, and that belief gives me the energy to take on this seemingly insurmountable task.
One of my favourite moments from the Waterloo CPI conference was when one of the audience, after listening to how five universities are connecting to each other, interrupted with a clear and present warning.  He guaranteed that in the next five years Canadians are going to be sitting in the dark after a cyber-attack from a well developed foreign aggressor.  When we’re all sitting there in the cold and dark with no electricity, gas or communications, will we think we’ve done enough?  Intense, right?
Early in the talk that question came up in, the head of TMU’s CyberSecure Catalyst was talking about how he headed to Israel to see how they created a world-class cybersecure ecosystem in the most challenging of circumstances.  His takeaway?  The Israeli system is predicated on familiarity, trust and connectivity.  After only a month and a bit observing Canada’s approach, it seems we’re doing the opposite.  I’ve stumbled across excellent resources in both government academia and industry, but each one is working from its own funding formula and entirely focused on meeting the targets in that formula.  Even our connectivity is fractured with numerous ‘networks’ forming independently of each other, all with the idea of uniting us.  It’d be funny if it weren’t so absurd.  Here are a few of them:
They’re all doing good work, but they’re doing it in silos and in many cases repeating material found in other programs.  It’s neither efficient nor is it anything like the Israeli approach of centralized trust, familiarity and cooperative development.  I’m not surprised that, after announcing yet another Canadian network that’ll cure our cyber-skills shortage (which is so bad that the government says we need to bring in talent to fill the gap), that guy in the audience lost his patience.
“The siloed approach we know doesn’t work anymore. We think it should change and this budget didn’t give us the warm fuzzies.”
Christyn is exactly right, Canada’s initial approach of jumpstarting as many programs as it could to try and cover the cybersecurity shortfall doesn’t scale well now that cybersafety is a part of everyone’s lives from individuals and small businesses all the way along to multi-national corporations and federal governments.  COVID only accelerated our dependence on digital connectivity yet we continue to lag behind in terms of cyber capacity, especially in education.
At the conference, Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development representative kept describing Ontario’s many cyber-focused companies and educational organizations as an ecosystem, but a lot of potted plants all sitting in the same area are not an ecosystem, which is exactly Canada’s problem.
How Canada is approaching cybersecurity capacity development.

 

How Israel does it – with trust, interconnectivity and familiarity – no silos, and everyone looking after each other.

 

Canada needs to work together to create a national focus on cybersecurity skills development starting in elementary school with integrated digital hygiene and cybersafety learning that leads to middle school access to programs like CyberTitan that introduce students to hands on I.T. skills that demystify the subject and open up pathways.  In high school everyone should be learning essential digital skills (which are atrociously poor – more than 80% of successful cyber-attacks are the result of user ignorance) as a mandatory course. Students interested in pursuing cybersecurity should have early access to coop and STEM programs that will set them on the right track for post-secondary – no adult upskilling required.  This is also where we need to address how our high schools genderize pathways, knocking many girls out of these opportunities.
If we can demystify cyber in k-12 we will be able to graduate cyber-safe students who are able to operate in our interconnected digital economy in every pathway.  Digital fluency and access to cyber-opportunities is, of course, also an equity and inclusion issue; these opportunities aren’t just for wealthy, urban boys, though they continue to dominate the industry.  Emerging digital careers tend to be more future proof and higher paying, and everyone deserves a crack at them.
Canada is the only major federation and one of few countries in the world without a national education standard, leaving our minors open to wildly differing political influences and support in our schools; there is no such thing as ‘Canadian Education‘.  Rather than start with central administration, I think Canada should start with a canadian student bill of rights to protect minors from these changeable winds, but I digress.  Canada’s fractured approach to education (like its fractured approach to cyber) means that we need to reach a critical mass with government and industry partners in order to break into the siloed world of canadian public education.  But with no central authority to get onside, a win in Ontario does not mean a win in Quebec, or anywhere else in the country.
Canada’s patchwork approach to governance along with its challenging geography means we’re facing barriers that Israel and other world leaders in cyber have never had to contend with, which is precisely why we need to pool our resources, grow an interconnected ecosystem of pubic and private cyberskills supporters and then take on this seemingly insurmountable task.
Cybersecurity might sound like an esoteric reason for this big of a challenge, but cyber lives at the pointy end of a pyramid of digital infrastructure needs that Canada is still sorely in need of developing.  Focusing on cyber means we’re also focusing on equity and inclusion by connecting everyone, including remote northern communities, new Canadians and people who can’t afford Canada’s monopolistic telecom infrastructure, to the digital economy.  To get to cyber we need to get through device accessibility, network connectivity and digital skills development, which is why it’s a worthy strategic goal.
The trick is going to be getting all these disparate interests to unite in order to tackle Canada’s unique and challenging geography and history – otherwise we’re all going to be sitting in the cold dark in a few years wondering why we didn’t do more when we could have.

The 4th Industrial Revolution

 

An early 20th Century office – you don’t have to think too hard to see what classrooms were modelled on. Teaching tech in one isn’t any fun, especially when you’re buried in massive classes.

If you’re in education you’re probably still teaching ‘the’ industrial revolution.  Our subjects are still siloed and scheduled that way.  There is little different in school organization and planning from how an early 20th Century office operated… and we’re still focused on producing graduates for that non-existent office.  It’s probably just a habit.  Public education was formed in the first industrial revolution and copied many of the forms from that time.  What’s frustrating is that these systems are unable or unwilling to change now.

When I became a technology teacher I quickly learned that there is ‘hard’ tech and ‘soft’ tech.  I found those descriptions amusing because the hard techs often had low expectations and my ‘soft’ techs had more demanding expectations, to the point where my principal told me I had to make them easier.  I preferred using traditional tech and future tech, which turns out is how most of the world sees them.

In traditional tech you’re doing wood and metal working and auto mechanics following Industry 2.0 processes (hands on fabrication).  Having come from millwrighting and spending a significant proportion of my free time working on mechanics, I have a love of working in these traditional skills, but if we’re aiming students at skilled trades we’re decades out of date.

Yep, there are four industrial revolutions, and most of the world is at about 3.2 on their way to 4.0.  In education we’re still rocking Industry 2.0 in most tech classes.

 

There are inherent dangers with traditional techs.  Industrial machines can cut and burn you if you aren’t careful, especially if you’re going to teach these skills in an Industry 2.0 hands-on way.  As a result, these classes are capped at 21 students and often run with significantly fewer.  My ‘soft’ tech classes, even though we were operating soldering irons and power tools and working with live electricity that could kill, were capped at 31 and ran in a classroom rather than a dedicated technology space.  The icing on the cake was when, during COVID scheduling, all my colleagues went home at lunch to ignore eLearning in the afternoon (because you can’t teach ‘real’ tech like that) while I was teaching my second cohort of students in-class while simultaneously juggling eLearning because there were no other qualified teachers to do it.  This might sound like a lot of moaning but it demonstrates in a systematic way how education is mis-labelling in-demand skills and unevenly distributing limited resources to teach what is actually needed.  It turns out what we were covering in ‘soft’ tech has more to do with manufacturing than most of what was happening in ‘hard’ tech classes.

The rest of the world has already experienced three industrial revolutions and is now deeply immersed in an emerging forth one.  If you’re going to be teaching skilled trade technologies you need to be focusing on robotics and IT automated systems, and that’s if you’re aiming at the last Industry 3.0 targets.  If you’re aiming to make students ready for the world of work they’re going to enter, you should be teaching machine learning, IoT (internet of things – ie: smart devices with networked sensors) and even AI (also things we cover in computer technology, except it’s all applicable to manufacturing).

Cloud based computing?  Cybersecurity?  Autonomous robotics?  Big data analytics?  IoT?  Augmented reality?  Every single one of these things we covered in my computer technology class.  If education wasn’t stuck in a when-it-was-formed mindset, we’d be able to prepare students for the world they’re going to graduate into.

The nomenclature matters because it’s used to direct funding.  The current government in Ontario is very focused on skilled trades, which is a good thing because our academically run education system isn’t kind to non-academic students, but the definitions it operates with aren’t accurate.  My son just started working at the factory around the corner.  They’re in an Industry 3.0 strance with non-machine learning (programmed) robots doing repetitive work (including welding which is still taught by hand in manufacturing classes like it’s 1960).  They need humans to do the in-between work, but the new factory going in next door will be fully automated and will leverage Industry 4.0 to the point where there will be few manual labourers but many more IT and robotics technicians (if they can find them) along with a plethora of support services such as cybersecurity and cloud services to make this highly efficient process hum.

Guess where all those manufacturing job skills are happening?  In poorly resourced/treated as a second thought computer technology classes.  Ontario needs to wake up and revise its technology curriculums to align with the technology students will be expected to know when they leave the make-believe world of education.

I was talking to the dad of a former student a couple of weeks ago.  His son got into robotics in my program about 5 years ago.  He graduated, went to college for a robotics technician qualification and has never been unemployed since.  He currently works for Toyota Canada and is being sent down to the States to learn the new welding processes their robots will use.  Those are the same robots my son is working with around the corner.  This is pretty thrilling for me as a teacher from a manufacturing pipeline perspective.  I have a former student coding the robots that recent grads are using in their work… in manufacturing.

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CyberDay & CyberTitan: cybersecurity in your classroom for cyberawareness month

The idea of bringing cybersecurity awareness into a public school classroom makes many people uneasy, but as I said in a recent interview, “Cyber is never as complicated as you think it is, don’t let the lingo and media scare you off.”   There are a couple of events happening in October, which is cybersecurity awareness month in Canada, that’ll give you the resources and connections you need to explore cybersafety in your classroom.



CyberDay is the gentle introduction to cybersafety, privacy and cybersecurity.  


It’s happening on October 18th and the Knowledgeflow Cybersafety Foundation has been working like beavers to put together interactive resources and talks with experts that’ll make cyber accessible to everyone.

CyberDay is all online and you can pick and choose what you want to use in your classroom.  It could be a short lesson, a longer activity or even a whole day event depending on how you want to use it.

Sign up is on the site and you can even do some preliminary learning with it by having students submit questions to experts.  If you don’t think you have students in your class who are curious about hacking then you’re not getting where they spend most of their time (it’s online).  In this event students can ask white hat hackers and pentesters about their work.  That might lead more students to consider cybersecurity pathways which are in such short demand that Canada is looking overseas to bring people in because we’re not producing these careers at home.

As they say on the site, “Cybersafety is a team sport”.  You’re not alone in broaching this sometimes unnerving subject, you only need to connect to CyberDay to see how much help is on hand.


In case the ease of access isn’t compelling for you, perhaps the idea that if we’re going to use interconnecting education technology in our classroom, we should be covering best practices with our students will.  I attended a conference last week where Michael Canuel from LearnQC trotted out some current stats that should make you sit up and take notice:
  • (a staggering) 98% of data breaches are caused by user error or cyber-illiteracy. If we took steps to improve cybersafety awareness in education, we would all but solve the current wave of cyber-attacks on the education sector.

  • cyber-awareness is vital to protecting our critical infrastructure. Canada now considers information technology to be a critical infrastructure (because it also runs all the other ones)
  • cyber-skills are part of a collection of digital literacy skills that extend well beyond coding
The need for better cyber-awareness should be self evident, but what isn’t (to me) is why public education seems to go out of its way to ignore it.  While listening to Michael’s talk about the poor state of cyber-skills in Canadian education, I couldn’t help wondering if it isn’t intentional.  Many public education organizations have vested political interests in keeping the status quo.  From a professional perspective I was left desperately hoping that educators aren’t intentionally ignoring privacy and cybersafety skills in order to sabotage eLearning.  CyberDay would be a great first step in proving that skepticism misplaced.

One of the angles I was considering for CyberDay was just how well suited it is as a library activity.  I did a piece for the Ontario Library Association’s Teaching LIbrarian online magazine about how cybersecurity (as a digital literacy) makes a perfect connection with the roll a modern learning commons has in our schools.


Library learning commons are often the first point of contact for emerging technology.  Way back in middle school in 1982, I first laid hands on a computer in our school library when we set up Commodore PETs and saw the neon green wonder of coding for the first time.

I’m hoping I can connect with the OSLA about reaching out to librarians over the next couple of weeks in order to empower them to take on this latest in a long line of emerging digital literacies.  Cyber isn’t as scary as you think, and it’s a great opportunity for iterative and immersive learning.


CYBERTITAN:  Canada’s student cybersecurity competition


CyberTitan has been running since 2017/18 in Canada as part of CyberPatriot, the US Air Force Association’s now international student competition.  If you’re read Dusty World before you know that this contest has not only opened up pathways for my students, but also played a major role in my own professional development.  I’m a huge fan of the competition and would love to see more Canadian educators get on board with it.

CyberPatriot has a live map of registered teams on their site.  As you can see, compared to the United States, Canada’s engagement with the competition has been… less.  I’m particularly focused on connecting under-represented groups in the competition.  When I coached the first ever top all-female team to the national finals in 2019, I became aware of just how toxically masculine cyber can be.  I’d move mountains to get more female (including non-binary and female identifying) students into it.  I’d move more mountains to get BIPOC and indigenous students on board too.  The finalist teams all tend to come from major cities and specialist schools which tend to cater to socio-economically advantaged youth.  Cyber isn’t an urban/wealthy issue, it’s an all-of-us issue, and rural communities, families and businesses are just as in need of safe and secure connectivity as everyone else.

You can see what the competition is about from this Prezi that the mighty @oksarge and I presented at ECOO summer camp in 2020.  Students learn hands-on defensive IT skills by fixing compromised WIndows and Linux operating systems in virtual machines.

Learning to wrangle virtual machines is a big part of CyberPatriot.  You’ll find this technology to be an incredible tool for teaching computer technology. You can abuse VMs in all sorts of ways that’d make your IT department faint, and when it all goes wrong?  Just close the window.


VMs are simulated computers that happen inside a window, so you could run Apple OSx in Windows, or Windows in Linux using a VM.  Because it’s all virtual there is no chance of spreading malware from inside a VM, which is why they’re used in cybersecurity.  Learning virtualization technology like this is really eye opening for students, and it’s not nearly as tricky as you think it might be.


Our lab goes full disco during a CyberPatriot round.  It’s a six-hour competition window.  Pizza is brought in and snacks are available.  Students dig right to the end, making a mockery of the idea that kids today have no attention span.

The competition is exciting and students genuinely enjoy it and return year after year.  Live world wide scoring pits them against students from around the world, so if they’re competitive they can follow the scoreboard and dig for points, but CyberPatriot can also be played from a purely educational perspective where students still benefit from the teamwork, iterative problem solving and cyber-skills development.  Our junior teams are always reminded that this is a reconnaissance season with no expectation of winning.  Learn the ropes and get into it.  Many become competitive anyway because (here it comes again): cyber isn’t as complicated as you think it is.

Sign up is due by October 5th, but no money is due then (fees are waived for non-male teams) and I’ve always found that SHSM and other student success initiatives are eager to help cover costs (which aren’t due until mid-November).  The swag is excellent (t-shirts, medals!) and once students understand how it all works they always say the same thing (here it comes again), “it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.”  That’s cybersecurity in a nutshell.

Libraries would be another great focus for CyberTitan, where students could access the technology they need and develop their library and librarian coach into a cyber-aware school-wide resource.  My students have used the skills learned in CyberPatriot to help our school with technical support and many went on to support local businesses as well.  The benefits from this are many, we just need to get more Canadian educators to take that step and sign up a team. Once they do, they’ll be back!

It’s still true!  If you’d like to talk about running a high school team, I’ve got lots of experience and would be thrilled to help you get going.  Krista ran a very successful middle-school team in her first year coaching and can talk you through what to expect in that division.


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Crooked Paths are the Ones that Lead to Enlightenment

I’ve been relentless in my own research and development into emerging digital trends since I started teaching computer technology ten years ago – it’s why we’ve won more medals in more different Skills Ontario/Skills Canada categories than any other classroom in the province over the past six years.  Our competition successes in CyberTitan/Cyberpatriot, along with our work in Skills Ontario/Canada is one side of the equation, but where I get a real charge is hearing back from grads.  This is somewhere that public education studiously ignores (collecting data on graduates).  If I had one immediate wish for a change in public education, it would be to collect data on graduate success across all pathways.  We love flying blind in public education, that way we’re not responsible for anything other than a graduation founded on our own criteria.

A colleague is sending her son to college this year and they told incoming students that those who have taken a year off before beginning postsecondary are much more likely to finish their program.  Those who take two years off before returning are even more likely to see success.  This jives with my own post-secondary experience where I, as an adult student who left work after three years to return to school, was one of the few who could be bothered to get in for 9am classes.  It also aligns with anecdotal evidence I’m hearing from my own graduates.  It is strange that I repeatedly hear students being told that if they don’t go straight into post-secondary they’ll probably never do it.  It rates right up there with, “you’re a smart kid, why wouldn’t you go to university?”  When that advice isn’t being tested with success data, this approach seems remarkably flippant and privileged in tone.

I ran into a former student in the spring who went straight into university only to drop out in second year.  He’s now a barista.  Yesterday I had lunch with one of our strongest IT students in the past ten years (he was the only one to earn multiple CompTIA industry certifications while still in high school.  Industry certifications like this are often dismissed by traditional education institutions (mine were by the Ontario College of Teachers who gave me years of static before ‘letting’ me, a certified IT technician with years in the trade, take my computer technology teaching qualifications).  This student is currently in his coop placement in college and is taking a year off because his coop wants to hire him for a contract (in Germany!).  The college isn’t being very helpful about his stepping outside of their program plan either.  Institutions like to make sure they are at the front of the line in terms of benefitting from ‘your’ educational pathways.

I’m not the only one advocating for
a less institutionalized approach to
learning.

A career support teacher once described my own development through visual arts, millwrighting and IT to university and teaching as a ‘crooked path‘, but there is no straight path.  If you’re on that one it means you’re following institutional convenience and are and educational consumerist rather than a self directed learner.  If you’re a cradle to grave institutional educationalist (k-12 student, university student, teachers’ college student, teacher, etc), you’ve demonstrated a remarkable commitment to institutional thinking, but for those of us who want to combine complex skills across varying disciplines, or who simply would like to direct our own educational outcomes, crooked paths are the ones to enlightenment.

I struggled in public education as a student, dropping out of my grade 13 year and then following college, apprenticeship and then university pathways as I found my way to what I was supposed to be (author, artist, technician, teacher).  These decisions were often based on socio-economic difficulties (being a poor immigrant often excluded me from academic opportunities).  Something else those institutionalized pathways are is steeped in privilege.  The kids whose parents were paying for it all were also the ones who couldn’t be bothered to wake up for those 9am classes.

I’ve always considered my first-hand knowledge of the many different pathways available to students to be of great benefit as a teacher.  I can speak to students about the benefits and challenges of workplace, apprenticeship, college and university routes without having to refer them to boilerplate descriptions usually written by academics fixated on championing the institutional pathways they themselves have marched.  I’m proud of how many of my students have gone in many different directions and found success.  My own son just graduated high school and is just starting his first full time job in manufacturing in a state of the art factory and I couldn’t be prouder (he’s also making twice what the barista is and isn’t paying off student loans that never produced anything).  One of our CyberTitans from 2021 is in the process of applying directly to the Canadian Navy after working for a year (he is facing similar economic difficulties to what I faced as a young man).  I’m as proud of those students as I am of the grads who have toughed out challenging post-secondary academic programs.  Those crooked pathways aren’t easier, but they are richer experientially and no one handed them to these kids, which results in a different kind of educational empowerment.

There are forward thinking organizations out there who aren’t interested in maintaining traditional educational power structures so much as they are in empowering individuals so that they can leverage this information technology revolution we find ourselves in.  We live in a time of unique opportunities where learning could be more accessible, less restrictive and more individualized than it has ever been in history, but only if we can reduce the institutional drag we’re currently hauling with us into the future.

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Dancing in the Datasphere 2022 Edition: AI Refined User Interfaces!

This quote is 12 years old now, but it’s more true than
ever, and our technology is about to take another leap
forward that will make our current passive information
/screen based approach to digital information look
as outdated as a fax machine.

Way back in 2011 I made one of my first presentations for a provincial education conference (Dancing in the Datasphere).  Leveraging years in IT prior to teaching, I tried to edge teachers closer to an understanding of how the rest of the world had moved on in terms of their digital engagement.  Stepping out of IT in 2003 to become a teacher felt like time warping back 20 years, so out of date was the use of technology in education.  In 2019 I attended Cisco Live and discovered that the rest of the world has moved on again, leveraging cloud based systems in a way that no one in education is, so the anti-tech habits of education are still there.  The need for online/cloud based systems in education is apparent (especially since the pandemic began), but poor cybersecurity management is often used as an excuse to stay out of it.  We’re still the only school in South Western Ontario doing CyberTitan and one of only five in the province with any kind of cyber-focus.

In the past decade education has staggered into the 21st Century, though Ontario has gone out of its way to fear and shun it until all the tech-haters suddenly desperately needed it during the pandemic.  The past two years have forced a recognition of the importance of digital fluency, though there are still no mandatory digital literacy courses in any Ontario high school.

On To The Future, Ready or Not…

With all that in mind, what’s coming next offers some exciting possibilities, not that education will leverage them before I retire.  Machine learning and the artificial intelligence growing out of it is already offering students a silent AI partner for coding with Github’s Copilot.  The GPT-3 OpenAI system Copilot runs on is already producing original text, and perhaps even some of the original essays that teachers think are written by students.

As systems become smarter information falls to hand more readily and old habits become irrelevant (like memorizing phone numbers).  With all that in mind, I’ve had grade 10s building IBM Watson AI powered chatbots for several years now, and this past semester several of my seniors used Copilot to make their culminating coding projects.  Being able to communicate effectively with ML & AI is going to become increasingly important in the next decade.

But what really excites me about intelligent machines is how they’re able to simulate activities with human users in order to streamline and improve the human-machine interface.  Last week we were watching FITC’s Spotlight UX, an online conference about the multidisciplinary field of User Experience (UX) based on digital design, ergonomics and user interfaces.  UX opens things up to consider all aspects of digital design from a user’s point of view; it has a lot in common with student centered learning in education.  The opening speaker was formerly an ethnologist before getting into UX and her background allowed her to dismantle many of the assumptions that alienate users, especially in online systems that may be designed in one country and used many others.

At the same time I was reading Guy Huntington’s piece on The Coming Classroom Revolution.  One of the things he covers is the concept of a virtual-self personal learning assistant.  Guy is looking at the AssistBot from a legal/privacy perspective in the article, but a complex digital model of a students’ learning habits offers some interesting possibilities.  What if the virtual student could be run through simulations using various software?  User interface issues could be recognized even before a student picks up a new device or software for the first time.  Interfaces that have been refined by AI driven user simulations would feel intuitive in a way they never have been before because each user would be interacting with digital information on an interface that was custom designed for them based on thousands of hours of simulation prior to them ever picking it up for the first time.

The learning benefits should also be apparent if everyone is walking around with a digital doppelganger in tow.  A teacher might pitch a lesson into a simulation space and the virtual student-bots would be able to show where it does and doesn’t work for them, and the lesson could then be customized for each student as needed prior to them ever seeing it for the first time.  Classrooms would become radically personalized after over a century of factory conformity and low resolution information sharing.

A buzzword flying about at the moment is ‘metaverse‘, especially after Facebook rebranded itself Meta.  In the last post I talked about my long involvement with interactive and immersive virtual reality, and after years of development we are close to finally making it happen on a system-wide scale, but it’s going to happen while the systems themselves are becoming intelligent and the web itself is attempting to evolve itself past the attention merchant economy that web2.0 became.

Back in April I watched FITC’s big early conference and they had Jared Ficklin keynoting about how web3 (driven by blockchain encryption) might give us back control of our own data and change the paradigm we’re stuck in online with multi-nationals selling our data as if they owned it.  It was a thrilling talk and I’ve since come across similar thinking in WIRED.

Web3’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast thanks to crypto and the mess it has made, but the possibility of individuals owning their online presence is a thrilling return to what the internet once was and might be again.

Combining all of these converging ideas into a viable technological future is ambitious, but it’s something worth pursuing because if you don’t push for the best outcome for the most people we end up with what we have now.

Could the internet provide us with secure interaction and storage without abusing our information?  Could we move past the low-resolution two dimensional windows that we all peer into the datasphere with now?  Could we leverage machine intelligence to treat each other in a more human way than our ‘superior’ one teacher to 30+ student brick-in-the-wall classrooms continue to do even now?

Imagine if you will a future where you are able to move in and out of digital information at will without it ever distracting you from the real world as it does now.  Peripheral user interface ergonomics will drastically improve as we get clear of the smartphone myopia we’re currently stuck in.  When deep diving into digital data you’ll be able to do it using complex multi-dimensional interfaces that make our current screen fixation look positively archaic.  Haptic IoT devices mean you’ll interact with data with more than your fingers, allowing for much more nuanced control of your digital interactions.  Your awareness of that environment will also be dimensionally greater than peering through a 2d screen.  Moving three dimensionally in digital data offers you a much richer connection to your digital self.

A better interface with digital information is already here and will only improve, and though Web3 struggles to make sense at the best of times, the idea that we could bring our shared network back to a user-centric experience where our privacy and personal information is owned and controlled by users points to a possible future beyond the tyranny of the attention economy.  But what’s most exciting to me is the idea that we can have virtual versions of our habits that we can run simulations on in order to produce software experiences unlike any we’ve had before.  The efficiency in that combined with all these other converging technologies points to a digital future much richer than the step we’re stuck on now.

Imagine opening up a brand new app to discover that it intuitively makes sense to you because it was designed using thousands of simulated hours with your digital avatar.  This also offers some interesting security opportunities because no two interfaces would be the same since each would be tailored to its user.  Combined with a more privacy friendly web, multi-dimensional user interfaces and machine learning that enables us to refine the human-machine connection even before first use, the cybernaut of the future will be doing things in digital spaces that will challenge what we think is possible, which is vital because we will interacting with more and more complex artificial intelligences when digitally connected and if we don’t refine and improve our ability to operate in digital spaces, we’ll rapidly lose touch with what these automated intelligences are doing.

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