I Know It’s Just a Number: 30K

I just turned forty four; that’s just a number.  A day later Dusty World is going to cross the thirty thousand page view mark.  That’s just a number too, but I like it a lot more than forty four.

Blogging started as a bit of catharsis; a chance to reflect on my profession.  I picked up the idea from ECOO a few years ago and hit 5000 page views in February 2012, just over two years after I started posting.  I was overjoyed then.
In June of 2012, just four months later, Dusty World passed ten thousand page views.  Once a backlog of posts builds, people wander in off the internet looking at old posts as well as new.  This is my 168th post.  I tend to stay away from the picture and/or short comment posts.  When I write it tends to be about me trying to develop an idea, usually with graphics and a lot of hypertext to support it.  
I love how blogging has sharpened my voice and I love talking to people about ideas reading a post has sparked in them.  I even love listening to the disagreements; most times I agree with them.  When I write a post, I have to follow the idea all the way down the rabbit hole, it’s why I do it.  Blogging has let me shake the dust of my English and philosophy degrees and exercise them.
Posting has become a natural part of my reflective process.  I sometimes don’t even necessarily agree with what I end up working out in Dusty World posts, but they always offer me some perspective on what I’m wrestling with.
During the worst of the job action in Ontario this past year Dusty World occasionally wandered into politics. After being bitten by all sides of that dissonance I’m thinking that nothing is to be gained from trying to untangle the nasty politics around education in Ontario.  The interests are so deeply ingrained and self involved that coming out on one side or the other is essentially meaningless if you’re interested in supporting education itself.  My energy is better spend focusing on the unnerving, exciting and revolutionary technological change we’re going through.  It not only frightens and excites me, but it also makes for a rich source of reflection, especially when I see students being experimented on with it every day.  How technology is changing our society is always a source of interest and something I’d never want to stop looking at.
The bizarre future we’re making for ourselves is going to make existing political structures around education increasingly tenuous and inconsequential.  If I have to take a side it would be the side that doesn’t exist yet, but it will.  I’m OK with being the villain for thinking in a way that is only just beginning to exist.
Dusty World is going to keep its eye on the prize and speak to the radical changes we’re all going to have to adapt to in the coming years.  Meanwhile, thirty thousand is a nice number to think about.

Noon on May 18th!!!

Straddling the Divide

I usually blog here to work out my thinking on a variety of education and technology situations I come across.  This one is no different.  I just read a series of suggestions for dismantling computer studies at our school.  I’m honestly curious as to the intention behind these suggestions, but in the meantime I’m trying to get the bees out of my head on this subject…

My school is odd in that it has a computer studies department.  This department is a combination of technology focused computer engineering credits (ICE/TEJ) and theoretical/math focused computer science (ICS) credits.  That our school combined these two very different disciplines into a single department has been both challenging and very forward thinking.

There is a push on now to align our headships with those of other schools.  Since the idea of a department that combines all aspects of computer technology under a single headship hasn’t happened anywhere else, the urge is to dismantle computer studies.  The thinking behind this doesn’t show a great understanding of what the computer subjects are (it was suggested the whole department just get put into business studies – a department that neither side of computer studies has anything to do with).  WIth so few people understanding what the fundamental computer subjects are, it makes it challenging to explain how things might evolve.  Ignorance drives many management decisions around digital technology education.

Trying to run computer studies has been a tricky ride.  Our computer science teacher only comes to our school for a semester, so the courses only run in the second half of the year.  On top of that other teachers aren’t lining up to teach comp-sci.  Computer science would be better served in our school by being placed in our mathematics department and being taught by a variety of teachers, but then those teachers qualified in it should want to teach it and I get the sense that very few do.  

Computer science has been held captive by some strange teacher scheduling.  Attaching it to a larger department would be healthy for it.  I’ve tried to make moves in how and who teaches it, but nothing seems to have worked.  I’m frustrated and ready to hand it off.

Computer engineering is a hands-on technology course, much like auto-shop or manufacturing programs.  This course of study focuses on electronics and information technology.  Compared to computer science it’s much more of a hands-on building and experimentally focused subject; it would logically belong with other technology credits.

The argument that we should re-align our headships with other schools feels like a step backwards to me though.  In five or ten years would our students be better served by a strong, comprehensive computer department, or by a traditional and arbitrary split in the subject?  Unfortunately, combining abstract mathematically focused computer programming with real-world engineering isn’t easy, especially with how Ontario has handled teacher qualification in the subject.

Up until the past decade, computer science was the only computer qualification.  Like the guys in Big Bang Theory, the vast majority of computer science teachers have very strong theoretical backgrounds in the mathematics behind programming, but little experience in actually making computers work.  When computer studies was established as a technology course those theoretical computer science teachers were grand-fathered in as computer engineering teachers, though many of them had never installed a CPU in their lives and would have no idea where to even begin.  Asking them to provide onsite information technology support would be an impossibility for many of them.

That tech-ed certification took a mountain-load of paperwork
including industry certifications and proof of years of industry
experience.  If you were comp-sci when they brought it in, you
just got the certification…

So here we are in 2014 with many computer studies teachers who actually have little or no experience with the mechanical side of computing, though they have been given the OK to teach it.  This will eventually go away as those grand-fathered comp-sci teachers retire and future teachers will be expected to actually have an industry technology background in computers if they want to teach engineering.  In the meantime we’ve further muddied an emergent subject area that holds the key to producing  technologically fluent students who can function in the modern workplace.

What I suspect will happen with our forward thinking computer studies department is that it will be split and sent to math (comp-sci) and technology (comp-eng), and the onsite fix-it teacher role will not be considered a headship even though it manages just as much budget and far more equipment than any single department head.  This might be better for comp-sci, which has been dead-ended in our school as far as scheduling goes.  I don’t think comp-eng will be hurt by moving to the tech department, so the splitting of the subjects into other areas doesn’t really bother me, though it does make me wonder if we’re moving in a direction opposite to social expectation.

I’ve been thinking about computer studies in terms of a specialization as well as a general fluency.  Perhaps future computer studies streams will include general technology fluency credits as well as specializations in engineering and coding, but I doubt it.  With computer fluency being a school (society?) wide expectation as well as the traditional fracture between computer science and computer mechanics, I fear that management energy will be spent on dividing and diminishing a subject that should instead be taking a central place as an integrated, adaptive department that produces 21st Century fluent graduates.

A Media Comparison: Hactivism Then & Now

In 2012 I saw We Are Legion – The Story of the Hactivists at the Toronto Hot Docs film festival.  It’s a full length film so it’ll take a while to get through, but it’s worth it.  It’s an inside look at the birth of hactivism from its early roots in 4Chan to the birth of Anonymous.  It’s edgy, funny and surprisingly gripping…

There is a kind of poetry in the chaos of those early moments of online activism, it makes me hopeful.  Technology used to overcome tyrannous governments, churches and corporations?  Technology used to bypass media control and free information?  I’m a fan.

Fast forward six years and we seem to be on the other side of this revolution.  Instead of technically skilled mischief makers fighting against systemic inequality, we have Nazis using that same technology to self-organize, tech-corporations removing net-neutrality and making advertising revenue from fake news and foreign governments disrupting elections.  The technology that once promised to set us free is being used to craft even thicker chains.

You can always count on WIRED
graphics to back up a powerful story

WIRED has hit this from a lot of different angles, all of which prompt some hard questions about how the technology we thought would free us has turned into a means of disenfranchisement and control.  Here are a couple of articles that highlight this change:

It’s a difficult thing to see such a promising revolution end up serving the moneyed interests it claimed to stand against.

from Blogger http://ift.tt/2BRXcjL

Bizarre Insurance

It pays to give your insurance broker a call each year and make sure you’re paying the best rates available.  In my first year of insurance I went through the best insurance company for a starting rider and paid $1250 (this is in Ontario).  I called this week to make sure everything was in order and suddenly found my rates dropping by over $200.  

It turns out that Echelon Insurance has some strange ideas about how to judge your insurance rates.  According to them if you live in a rural area (with less people and less chance to run into them) you pay more in insurance.  You’d think that most insurance companies would consider urban and city areas more accident prone because, you know, they are, but Echelon doesn’t.  If you live in a rural area (I know most people don’t, but I happen to), then make sure you keep looking for alternatives to Echelon.

RidersPlus checked out alternatives for me and found Intact insurance doesn’t have Echelon’s bizarre logic when it comes to insuring motorcycles.  Suddenly I’m paying $1015 a year for insurance on the same bike because Intact doesn’t work under the strange idea that riding alone in the country is somehow more dangerous than being surrounded by distracted drivers in the GTA.

It pays to check with your insurance broker each year as you renew your insurance.  Don’t just renew, have a conversation.  That quick talk saved me a couple of hundred bucks this year.

The End of Rain Crotch

What came of me almost losing my mind while riding underwater a few weeks ago?  I finally got to test my rain gear from Royal Distributing.  It did the business in light rain, but after a couple of hours in steady downpours they leaked through the waist leaving me with a nasty case of wet crotch and a foul attitude.

The key to happiness seems to be a zip up coverall rain suit.  No seams means no leaks.  Failing that, a pair of pants with a bib would prevent rain from working its way into the front of the jacket.  I’m bound to want something not sold here, so I immediately found a rain-suit that I’d like that isn’t available for sale in Canada.

The Kawasaki rain-suit is sold in Europe and Asia, but not North America.  Sigh.  Fortunately, a German bike accessory company has it for sale on ebay and is willing to ship to Canada.

I’ve put in a request for sizing and shipping information, we’ll see what comes of it.  In the meantime I found some waterproof bib-rainpants at the local TSC for $85.  Since the Kawi-rain suit is only $40 more, I’m going to hold out and see if I can nab one, but the cost of importing it might make that impractical.  Why doesn’t Kawasaki offer this suit everywhere?  It does rain in Canada.

If you’re ever looking for stuff tough enough to bike with TSC offers an interesting alternative.  TSC sells farm-ready work-wear, so everything is super tough.  It doesn’t come with fancy bike related logos on it but it’ll do the business.  A set of work boots that cover the ankle would be half the price of bike boots.  Leather work gloves (they have very nice mechanic’s ones) are double reinforced at 1/3 the price of ‘bike’ gloves.  Jeans and jackets can be found with double stitching and thick material for a fraction of the cost of bike specific gear.  Likewise, their rain gear is classed to industrial levels of water resistance and durability at much less than branded bike wear.  If you’re looking to bike on a budget TSC might be the ticket.

In the meantime I’ll keep the Royal Distributing rain suit handy and hope it isn’t too torrential while I wait for a reply from zee Germans.

Neck to ankles – that should keep it out.

Individual Education Plan

Many moons ago as I was finishing up my B.Ed. at Nippissing U. we got invited to an educational technology symposium for special needs students.  We were shown the (then) cutting edge Kurzweil speech to text software, fantastic education tools to use with Palm Pilots and other PDAs (!) and even early online access to text books.  I thought it was all wonderful, but I couldn’t help but wonder why this technology was reserved for special education students, wouldn’t everyone’s learning have less friction with these tools?

Except you’re not, are you? Some of you get individual
education plans, the rest get the system.

Today I’m going to the latest IEP meeting for my son.  As a teacher I’ve never understood the individual education plan in Ontario education.  Like that technology all those years ago, wouldn’t every student benefit from an IEP?  Doesn’t every student deserve one?  Aren’t they all individuals?

I’m gong to argue for my child’s special needs again today and wonder why I have to do that.  Is it so the school can do well on standardized testing?  Is it so my child isn’t run over by a teacher who is determined to get him to conform to bench marks decided by the Ministry?  Is it so he can conform and be more easily manageable?  My son is not rude, or nasty, or dangerous, he is a delightful fellow who thinks laterally the way most people think linearly.  His problem isn’t that he can’t do things, it’s that he does them differently from how most people do them.  Watching the education system try to force his circle into a square hole isn’t easy.

As a parent I’m even more baffled by education than I am as a teacher.

A number of years ago my fearless wife demanded an IEP review.  It was grudgingly given, and after some expensive private psychological review (that many families would not be able to afford) a formal IEP was prepared.  At first I was against the idea, but as I continued teaching and saw the number of times a student is held academically accountable by teachers for circumstances beyond their control, I started to realize that an IEP is nothing more than a shield against a system intent on enforcing conformity; protection against teachers who think they are producing widgets instead of people.  Our nineteenth century school system is still building human cogs designed for production lines.  The fact that there aren’t a lot of people working on production lines any more seems to have slipped their minds.

In these IEP meetings my son’s educators are facing off against two parents with all sorts of familiarity with the system and credentials that help them deal with it.  What happens to the child who should have an IEP but doesn’t because their parents are intimidated by the panel of ‘experts’ in front of them?  What happens to the student who doesn’t have a parent who can get to those interviews?  Who wouldn’t even think to ask for one because they are a single parent working sixty hours a week?

What about the student who is going through a nasty divorce at home?  The student being abused?  The student who has to work a full time job outside of school to support themselves?  The student who has fallen into drugs?  No IEP for them, though they need individual education plans every bit as much.

If every student in Ontario had an IEP what would it look like?  How would that change the process of teaching?  Instead of trying to catch students out or stream them for post secondary, what if every student was using an IEP to reach their maximum potential?  What if there were no standardized tests but individualized education was put at the forefront of everything we do?  What if there were no streams?  We’re not in the factory business any more, almost no one is.  Robots do a lot of that work now.

The nail that stands up gets the hammer.

Years ago in Japan a student told me about a Japanese saying when I asked about conformity and how it’s viewed there.  They told me, “the nail that stands up gets the hammer.”  That kind of brick in the wall thinking might have served Western education in the last millennium, but it’s a foreign way of thinking in a post-industrial world.

I’m going to walk into the education factory today and ask them to not hammer my son into a slot that he doesn’t fit into.  Fortunately the IEP shield is in effect, so he’s protected from the worst of the hammering (he just has to suffer the small day to day whacks).

I wonder what happens to all those kids who aren’t individual enough to be entitled to an individual education plan.

Followup:  posted by a very forward thinking Ontario Educator this morning:

“The most effective way to provide enrichment to every student at a school is already in front of us. All children, in all schools, should have an IEP. Grade levels in classes should be eliminated. High stakes testing should be dropped. Lockstep schooling should be eliminated [to end comparison thinking] There would no longer be “third grade” or “tenth grade”. All students should work toward mastery learning. When they have mastered a skill they move on to the next one. When they finish the required and elective curriculum, they graduate. Slower learners are never “held back” . . . There is no grade to be in. . . . They learn at their own pace, moving through the learning at the pace at which they can show they have mastered the curriculum.” (189).
Jensen, Eric. (2006). Enriching the brain: How to maximize every learners potential.
San Francisco, USA: Jossey-Bass

Cheaper Teachers for a Cheaper World

I’m reading The World Beyond Your Head, the latest from Shopclass As Soulcraft writer Matt Crawford.  In this chapter he’s been working out how experts manipulate their environment in order to expedite their mastery.

How an expert arranges the space around them in order to perform allows non-experts a window into skills that might otherwise be beyond them; you can comprehend mastery indirectly by observing how an expert arranges the space around them.  The difference between an amateur and professional chef becomes obvious from this assessment.

This is an interesting observation that goes to the core of much of the friction in teaching nowadays.  Most of the lay public has no idea how teaching works yet they feel capable of criticizing the profession.  ‘I was once in school, so I know how to teach’ makes as much sense as, ‘I once had surgery so now I’m a surgeon’.  By looking at how teachers ‘jig‘ learning spaces someone who has never taught might get a glimpse into the complexity of the craft.

The idea that experts manipulate the space around them is something that many people might intuitively understand without thinking through the why.  With few exceptions a master will create an organized system around them that allows them to efficiently operate; the space around them becomes an extension of their mind used to organize and expedite their activity.  The process of learning how to jig your environment to support your expertise is one of the most obvious indicators of mastery.  Disorganization, clutter and lost tools are an apprentice’s battle.  This sheds some light on my mechanic father’s constant frustration at the state in which I left his work bench.  

The generic workspace is even worse.  This space is designed for you by the thinking class and you are reduced to a simplistic component with limited expectations.  You don’t need professionalism or mastery in an environment like that.  This is the world most teacher critics inhabit. Their limited education has made them ideal simplistic components.

What a jig is and how it’s vital to the expert.  Do you jig your
classroom, or do you rock the assembly line?  Via Google Books.

You can often see expertise in teaching through how a teacher arranges their classroom.  The learning environment that is jigged by the teacher to enable them to educate more effectively also reflects a deeper understanding of the art of instruction.  This teacher’s classroom contains nothing extraneous.  The teacher knows where everything in there is and how to use it.  There are no dusty, unused text books on shelves or out of date posters on the wall.  You can see intent in how the classroom is designed.

Not only is the equipment at hand, but how its arranged can also facilitate how a lesson is presented; structured meaning is hidden in everything from floor plans to decorations to seating arrangements.  By contrast the classroom that looks like an assembly line indicates a teacher of the McDonalds variety.  It’s hard to argue for professional dignity in teaching when so many teachers are more than happy to follow fast food methods.  Take a walk around any school.  Do all the rooms look the same?  Are they expected to?

A great example of how an expert creates and uses their own jigs to
enable them to produce results well beyond the layman.

The idea that a job can be done more efficiently (read: more cheaply) using a tightly controlled, top down system is the way of things in our increasingly computerized world.  We have machines making life and death decisions for us now instead of demanding human expertise.  Machines are only going to get better at making these decisions as humans only become more atrophied at them

The comparison between the McDonald’s assembly line with its rigid, dictated jig and the cook who controls her own space is stark.  Both environments are designed to aid the person inhabiting them create a better product, but one is authored by the person themselves while the other is instituted (and enforced) by unseen management.  One is designed for cogs, the other demands expertise.  One demands respect for the worker’s mind, the other makes them disposable hands.

We’re offloading the value of skilled labour onto organizational structures.  The initial idea is that this saves money, but I suspect the long term implications are lowered expectations, workers made powerless and ultimately a less democratic division of knowledge.  If mastery is dying thanks to a neoliberal drive to lowest cost production (experts are more expensive and difficult to manage than easily exchangeable and cheaper unskilled labour, especially when we can oversee them with continually improving surveillance technology), we can expect some of the last bastions of professionalism to eventually dry up and take on the minionized labour processes that have infected private business.

Cheap men need expensive jigs; expensive men need only their tools” rings true in the direction many people seem to want education to go.  A centrally controlled system with ‘facilitators’ instead of ‘teachers’ that lean on the burgeoning might of educational technology not only satisfies the possibility of selling technology to education systems (perhaps even monopolizing them!), but it also scratches the itch of the moneyed class to centralize both profits and knowledge.  We can expect less from facilitators in pre-jigged classrooms with assembly line learning couched in centralized cloud based computing with ready made lessons aimed at standardized tests.  You need only show up, start the video and let Khan at ’em on their clearly branded corporate learning devices.  You could probably hire three facilitators in that environment for the price of one teacher:  cost savings!

It’s much cheaper to watch sanitized  media and sit in rows preparing
for standardized tests than it is to actually do things.  Fortunately, people
who actually do things aren’t really needed in our efficiently designed future.

Since going mainstream digital technology is intent on market share rather than serving the user. Getting machines into as many hands as possible is the mandate now and that mandate is served by simplistic, closed ecosystems designed to create consumers.  I’m not sure if neoliberalism has incorporated digital technology or it’s the other way around, but no matter how you look at it the two social influences work hand in glove.

The expectation of mere competence, let alone mastery, is dying.  You can observe this by watching how fewer and fewer employees are expected to jig their own environments to serve their process (the process isn’t theirs any more).  Workplaces are now assembly lines of the mind with dictated jigs.  Employees are assessed on their willingness to adjust to these systems, the less free thought the better.

We are centralizing expertise on a massive scale (just follow the money) and creating a future where everything will look similar and pre-decided, but ever so efficient. The classroom is one of the last bastions of professionalism where an expert can apply their own jig but the days of reasonable class sizes and hands on learning that allow for this kind of jigging are drawing to a close.  Teachers should enjoy the final days of self determination in their workplace, the future is designed for cheap, disposable people.  Fortunately the world is full of them.

Once in the top five, Canada is beginning to follow the US down the education rankings as de-professionalization reduces teachers (and the students they teach) into low paid, disposable labour.

Yamaha PW80

After doing a partial dismantling of my son’s new (to us) ’04 Yamaha PW80, I put it back together again and learned a valuable lesson in dirt bike ownership:  always turn off the fuel tap.  Other than carb pressure and gravity, there is nothing else stopping your garage from smelling like gas and a puddle forming.

The second dismantling came when it wouldn’t start after the flood.  The spark plug was always dodgy, so I’ve gotten a pair of new ones (no problem finding them at Canadian Tire).

Good advice, straight from Yamaha

A tiny amount of Googling found me the Yamaha shop/operating manual, that covers everything from not carrying dogs on the bike with you to how to tear down the engine.

This is such a simple machine that it’s a great way to get a handle on the basic motorbike system.  If you want to get handy with bike maintenance, start with a dirt bike (I started with a Concours…).

The next strip down has been more comprehensive, though to remove the tank, fairings and seat takes all of seven bolts.  The air filter was pretty bad with chunks of mud in the air box.  It’s a shame that people treat a bike like that then just chuck in storage.  Why not clean it first?  In any case it’s clean now.

The metal shop at school
sorted out the broken muffler.

I’ve got a busy hands afternoon after work checking the new plugs for spark (it’s definitely getting gas) and putting it back together again knowing that I’ve taken it right down to the engine.  With how it took off last weekend (I impromtu wheelied down the driveway thinking it would barely be able to move me on it), I’m looking forward to seeing how spunky it is with a complete tune up.

With a new plug in it has strong spark – the carb is stinking of gas and it still won’t start.  Time to pull the carburetor and sort it out before giving it another go.  Leaving it open overnight doesn’t appear to have done it any favours.

The unhappy carburator
A Yamaha PW80 down to the mechanicals

I’ve got to get my mits on a me-sized dirt bike so we can go into the woods together up at the inlaw’s cottage.  That DR600 Dakar is still for sale, I wonder if he’d take a grand for it.  It’s a bit more than a mid-sized dirt bike, but it would do the business and also eventually adventure bike for me too.

It’d make a good Swiss army knife bike.

BYOD: yet another edtech failure

Four years ago I was advocating for BYOD.

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

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

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

No one does edtech for free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learned Helplessness

Reading often creates strange resonances.  Most recently the latest edition of WIRED struck a chord with Paul Theroux’s 1975 classic, The Great Railway Bazaar.  What could a travel book from the seventies have to do with a Twenty-first Century technology magazine?

Theroux was on a train trip across Asia.  In India he came across a taxi driver who did a brilliant job of looking after him.  After weeks on the road he found himself becoming desperately dependant upon this support.  I’ve read a lot of Theroux and he circles this theme again and again; the idea of how the ease that accompanies wealth leads to a kind of learned helplessness.

Way back in 1974 Theroux suddenly found his confidence eroded by an assistant too good for his own good.  Sahib is one of those words loaded with colonial weight.  In India it was used as a title of respect toward European men.  Theroux takes that supposed superiority and dismantles it with American anti-classist zeal, describing the wealthy people who came to depend on their servants as childlike in their helpless.  It’s an interesting twist.  

In The Happy Isles of Oceania, Theroux lives the high life for a week in a luxury hotel cottage used by the PGA.  He becomes frustrated at how isolated, unproductive and paranoid he felt by the end of it, even though his every need was taken care of.  The next week he tried to live on one thousandth the money, or four bucks a day.  By the end of that week spent living rough on an empty beach and kayaking about, he felt empowered, productive and alive.  What most people do with money (having other people serve their needs) often leads them to a state of childlike dependence.  Theroux is often tempted by it and then hates himself for doing it.

In WIRED this week the Angry Nerd goes on a rant about Google’s gmail predictive text technology that keeps jumping in front of you as you’re trying to write an email.  No, I’m not a fan of this use of AI, I can type quickly and it breaks my flow.  There is a function for AI in writing, but leaping in front of composition, or worse yet, replacing the writer entirely, isn’t it.  The Angry Nerd is especially worried about the inflationary nature of this interference:

“Once we embrace the personalized simulacrum, we start letting AI speak for us. Soon we let it speak as us. It’s … almost soothing. Frees up time. I’m nearing inbox zero! Ah, Grandma just checked in. She’s not feeling well. I’ll select “Oh no!” Yes. She’ll care that I care. And she’ll reply, so kindly, so expediently: “Thanks so much!””

Before we know it the ever so helpful, never resting artificial intelligence is speaking for us, replacing our voice in our most intimate relationships.  This echoes Theroux’s eroded competence, but the way AI is doing it is much more insidious than the old fashioned human servant.  The AI never rests, is always there and is always looking for ways to step in front of you and help until you become so atrophied that it assumes your voice.  Worse still, the companies peddling these virtual assistants aren’t interested in small scale adoption, they want everyone to have the luxury of a virtual servant.

Between the industrial scale of adoption and the dissemination of personal electronics into all aspects of our lives, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all as atrophied and helpless as Theroux feared.  If we don’t start setting limits on AI to prevent it replacing human being, we’re in for a rough ride.  Don’t expect the Silicon Valley giants to do what’s best for humanity.  They’ve already proven that profit comes first. They’ll happily create a society of illiterate social idiots as long as the money keeps pouring in.

Now, more than ever, we need some Asimovian laws in place to moderate the introduction of artificial intelligence.  We’ve already run into problems with digital technologies in terms of news and politics.  If we leave artificial intelligence to develop without ensuring it isn’t atrophying human potential, it will relentlessly drive us into a dystopia we’ll all be too helpless to recognize, let alone escape.

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