Academic Dishonesty: listening to Sunday Edition

I’m sitting here listening to CBC’s Sunday Edition doing an interview with an ethics adviser for a California university. Her description of cheating isn’t one of deceit and intent, it’s one of accidental opportunism. She argues that students often don’t even realize they are cheating.

In another section of the interview a university student says that it isn’t the student’s fault, they are victims of the ease of technology. These two ideas are closely linked; accidental cheating and technological access to information. In both cases, ethical choice is removed from the ‘victim’. This is a pretty weak ethical argument. Because something is easy and readily available, it should be done? If you see a person put an ipad on a park bench and then get distracted for a few minutes, do you walk off with it? According the this victim mentality you would have no choice. The fact that all of your friends have stolen ipads from the park only makes it more acceptable.

When I think about my own university experience, it didn’t even occur to me to cheat, because of my sheer awesomeness. My arrogance ensured that I would never even consider putting in someone else’s work for my own, but then I was there to develop my own thinking. I’d walked away from a lucrative career in order to push my limits. Most of the kids I was in university with (typically 4-5 years younger than I was, many of whom dropped out) were there because they couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. You didn’t get a clear sense of who the real learning disciples were until third or forth year.

Later in the same episode, they mention that the vast majority of students in university now are there because they want a higher standard of income, they’re there for the payoff at the end. If university is really all about the money, then perhaps their victim mentality is simply the best way to morally justify taking everything you can while doing as little as possible. University should, perhaps, follow SNL’s angle from so long ago and simply accept what it is becoming.

A Psychological/Metaphysical One-Two Punch

I’m still working my way through The Science of Well Being, an online psychology course done by Doctor Laurie Santos out of Yale.  This week she got into some neuroscience around how our minds work.  I originally experienced this during my philosophy degree thirty years ago when I was introduced to Bertand Russell’s Analysis of the Mind, which laid bare the mythology we erect around our thinking.  By the end of Russell’s book I no longer believed in a consistent sense of self because such a thing is a social construct; we don’t inhabit our own being in anything like a consistent, always-on way.  Most of our lives are run out of habitual reflex with little conscious direction.  We only experience moments of conscious direction before falling back into habit, some more than others.

Santos describes this in neuro-scientific terms in The Science of Well Being as a kind of default neurological network that lights up in our brains when we’re not consciously doing something.  The parts of the mind that activate during these non-conscious moments are the same parts that light up when we’re thinking about the past and/or future.  Amazingly, we typically spend almost half our time in this state of reverie, out of touch with the world around us.

She goes on to describe this evolutionary process that appears to be unique to our species as a cognitive achievement, but one that comes at a great emotional cost.  Research into this process has demonstrated again and again that living out of the moment makes us sad; a uniquely human melancholy that we all pay for if we want to be able to think beyond cause and effect, which has obvious benefits, though we still seem exceptionally bad at it.

Santos then explains how mediation and mindfulness can decrease the impact of that default reverie thinking process that makes us so unhappy while also providing all sorts of benefits like improved academic performance and mood.  Mindfulness brain exercises proved more effective than nutrition or even sleep in improving cognitive performance, which raises some interesting questions around how we’ve arranged school to be almost intentionally non-meditative.

People who haven’t had a lot of experience with mindfulness and meditation often fall into the belief that mediation is just wallowing in that default thinking reverie, but it isn’t that at all.  This was emphasized for me in a strange media-mix-up last week.  My son Max and I have been working our way through The Midnight Gospel on Netflix, a surrealistically animated series of podcast interviews by animator Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell.

If you’re willing to do the mental gymnastics necessary, The Midnight Gospel will introduce you to a truly meta piece of 21st Century media.  The main character, voiced by Trussell, is a “space caster” who uses a universe simulator (he sticks his head into a giant vagina to activate it) to pop in to various realities where he interviews people.  The interviews are the podcasts re-jigged to fit this new format.

We’ve watched episodes on everything from Buddhism and karmic rebirth to Aleister Crowley style occultism to an explanation of the bizarre nature of North American death rituals in the 20th Century, so other than a complex subject being unpacked by smart people, you don’t really know what’s coming at you next.  This all happens while Yellow Submarine level psychedelic animation sometimes describes and sometimes does everything it can to distract you from what’s being said.  We got to the season finale of The Midnight Gospel not knowing what’s coming (because it makes it clear that you can’t), but looking forward to it.

The Silver Mouse is a breathtakingly personal finale where the animation suddenly clicks into gear with the story telling in the interview and amplifies it to such a degree that it left us speechless.

Duncan made this interview with his mother, Deneen Fendig, just before she passed of terminal cancer in 2013, and it describes her coming to peace with her mortality through meditation.  Duncan had always struggled with the idea of mediation, and Deneen’s honest, unpretentious guided meditation practice not only worked for him in the interview, but it also resonated with me on many levels.

The animation begins with Duncan as a young man and his mother as an older woman, but through the course of the episode she grows old and dies, only be reborn by Duncan himself so they can continue their conversation.  As she grows up, Duncan grows into an old man and dies himself; it’s a beautiful representation of the circle of life, carefully crafted and delivered.  For a man who lost his mother in difficult circumstances at around the same time Duncan lost his mum, it rocked me.  I’m in tears now as I write this.  I wish I could have had this conversation with my mum before she passed, but mental illness took her away from me long before she died.

Deneen’s wisdom in finding her way to a meditative awareness of not only her own being, but also to a sense of how it hangs in the firmament of the universe was told humbly, honestly and without pretense.  That she found a tangible way of escaping the non-present ruminating mind wandering we all tend to fall back into was also inspiring.  She doesn’t hang a lot of superstitious nonsense around the radical sense of self awareness that she uncovers in herself.  Many people seem to cling to belief when facing the end that comes for us all, but not Deneen.  Her bravery is inspiring and underscored for me the fact that we don’t have to believe in miracles and other historical fictions to realize our place in the universe and find peace in the face of death.

Between the psychology and science of The Science of Well Being course and the magical realism and stark emotional honesty of The Midnight Gospel, it has been a rich week of media empowered reflection that puts everything else that’s going on in perspective.  To top it all off, Max and I got to watch a spectacular, once in a lifetime lightning storm blow over us the other day.  My life feels unexpectedly rich at the moment.


Science of Well Being, Mind Control:

The Midnight Gospels:  Mouse of Silver:
original podcast:
Netflix animated series:

from Blogger on June 3rd, 2002:

Victory Lapping Like You Mean It

I’ve always struggled with the idea of victory lapping in Ontario high schools.  As someone who returned to high school to finish his final year in his early 20s, I understand the need.  Had I not been able to do that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now and paying the taxes that I am.  I can see the value in a victory lap, but I did it with purpose, doing a full semester of school while also working a forty hour week.  For those victory lappers I see returning with that kind of intent, I have nothing but patience.

Find Rick & Morty hard to stomach? Your students don’t…

Unfortunately, this past year I saw a number of victory lappers who didn’t apply themselves in school and then did the same again on their victory lap, at great expense to the system.  If it’s to get credits needed to graduate or get into a particularly difficult post-secondary program and the graduate is attacking the opportunity like it matters, then it’s obviously a good thing, but if it’s for familiarity’s sake, as has been the case this year, then I have to wonder why anyone would want to chuck their final year of income (which is usually your best one) down the toilet so they can hang out in high school for an extra year.

Just think about that for a sec.  You’re not giving up your first year of income when you victory lap, you’re giving up your last.  Students (and parents) often misunderstand this fact.  You’ll always start off at the lower end of the pay scale, but where you finish when you retire is what you’re cutting a year from because you’re starting late.  Victory lapping isn’t just expensive to the system, it’s astonishingly expensive to the student, but in a world of helicopter parents and childhoods designed to protect children from the results of poor decision making, we continue to produce graduates who want to stay in the safe, no deadline, guaranteed success of high school.

In addition to this costing each victory lapping student tens of thousands of dollars, it’s also costing the system millions.  Victory lapping isn’t a very efficient way of resolving graduates, but we do tens of thousands of times a year in Ontario.

The other night I was at our graduation where I saw all sorts of students graduating who are returning next year.  If they’re graduating then it means they’ve already gotten the credits they need to move on, so why stay?  Some will argue that they’re staying to raise their grades.  Was it worth tens of thousands of dollars to screw around in your grade 12 year instead of buckling down and getting it done?  Some are staying because they simply can’t think of what to do next and couldn’t be bothered to make plans because the system is waiting to look after them yet again.  Those students (and their parents) are putting an awful lot of weight on an increasingly underfunded school system by doing that, in addition to flushing that year of income down the toilet.

Year over year I’ve seen some radically different approaches to victory lapping.  In 2018 I had some very strong students victory lap and in doing so they did incredible, portfolio building things that helped them get into nearly impossible to access post-secondary programs.  When students do that with a victory lap, ie: ride it like they stole it, then I’d argue it’s a brilliant strategy.  They might have lost a lower last year of earnings, but they’ve gained a new career trajectory that annihilates that loss.  In the case of 2018, where our victory lappers were winning their way to national titles and opening up career opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have considered, you’d be hard pressed to make an argument, economic or otherwise, for not doing it.

A few years ago I noticed that our victory lappers were often hanging around the computer tech lab having completed the course curriculum.  In many cases they were heading into digital technologies in post secondary and needed a final boost in terms of experience and an opportunity to build portfolio.  A few years ago I developed the TEN4M course, specifically designed for digital technologies students looking to build portfolio for post secondary.  Up until this year it has worked a treat.  An opportunity to exercise engineering process and lead a self directed project that raises digital literacy in our school has been very beneficial.

The first year we did it Zach, who had struggled earlier on, was able to direct his new found maturity into his development as an IT technician to the point where he dominated Skills Ontario provincials with the highest technical score and a gold medal, and then a top five finish in Canada.  In the years since we’ve had students who have helped hone the TGI Game Development course into the weapon it is today, medal winning co-op students who have developed programs with our feeder schools to enhance both their technology and their teaching of it and a wide variety of other students who have developed the hands on technical experience needed to launch themselves into a career in tech.  Cal, our most recent Skills Ontario champion, used his victory lap to help form our first CyberTitan cyber security team and land us a national finalist position, then he went on to win Skills Ontario and get another top 5 national finish.  Cam, another of last year’s victory lappers, also helped launch our CyberTitan program and then went on to a top 10 finish in our first ever attempt at coding at Skills.  In both cases these experiences launched them into Waterloo’s Computer Science program, which is notoriously hard to access.

Finding the time to develop and explore technical skills that require hands-on experience and space to develop is especially challenging in an Ontario secondary curriculum that is still very much focused on academics.  For the students (and there are many) who want to work with their hands rather than at a desk, having an extra year to focus on applied skills is invaluable in a system where every subject is mandatory except those that teach hands-on technical skills.  For students who are trying to expand their digital portfolio in order to access difficult post-secondary options, it really is a necessity if the curriculum is going to remain as it is.

It looks like we’ve got a pretty good handle on how to accelerate students accessing a victory lap into post-secondary options, but this past year has been a victory lap disaster.  In semester one my only victory lapping student wasn’t interested in leading projects or improving school technology access and learning (the point of the course: using your digital expertise, help to improve the school’s digital access and usage).  From the year before when I had students blowing expectations (both mine and their own) out of the water, I went to 2019s flaccid VLappers who were just looking for a free go-around with no initiative or effort required.  In semester two they were so shaky they just ended up dropping out – after flushing a year of income down the toilet.  In cases like this, it’s hard to justify victory lapping in any way.

For the students who need to make up credits or align their high school trajectory with a difficult to access program, I have infinite patience when it comes to victory lapping, but for the directionless, there needs to be something in place (a charge for dropped/failed courses?) that stops this being a year of doing as little as they can while draining a system that is already being strangled financially.  If students are victory lapping with purpose, developing their capabilities using focus from late blooming maturity, then I am more than happy to pay the taxes that enable them to fight their way into a world that is more economically inaccessible now than it has been for any previous cohort.

from Blogger

Imitation Isn’t That Flattering

Yoda didn’t say that in a vacuum, he was an
attentive and differentiating instructor!

Over the past couple of years I suddenly find myself considered a ‘senior teacher’.  You might think this comes with all sorts of resources like extra time to work on training other teachers where you can show them the tricks of the trade, but this is public education so you just do it for free.  You might think that it would result in a curriculum support role where you can prompt system-wide improvements based on your decades of classroom experience and pioneering curriculum development, but those jobs are all full-time permanent gigs for very specific people with criteria for admission that I don’t evidently possess.

A previous principal told me that my classes are too difficult and I need to turn them down.  When I pointed out that no one had failed any of my courses since he’d arrived for his stint in our community, that held no weight with him; some students and parents want daycare, not education.  I have no interest in providing daycare so I simply ignored his misguided observation.  I get where it’s coming from though, daycare is much cheaper to provide than education.

One of the things we do in my program is get into Arduino microcontrollers in grade 9.  Arduinos offer a tactile introduction to basic electronics circuit prototyping with breadboards and electronics components as well as a coding connection through the C++ based language that runs the microcontrollers.  I’ve been doing this long enough and in such a brutally honest reflective practice stance that I’ve gotten pretty good at it.  One of the things that less experienced teachers (which includes many admin) fixate on is the placement of responsibility for engaging with this hands-on learning on the student.  To the unaided eye this looks like I’m chucking them in the deep end and watching them drown, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Pulling apart tech to show students how it
works is a core learning tool in my computer
engineering program. Tech isn’t magic!

I present this introduction to circuit building in a remarkably structured environment.  I build the first couple of circuits in front of the students, repeatedly reminding them that how the electricity is passing around the circuit which also has the added benefit of showing them the stochastic nature of what we’re doing.  Sometimes you do it all right but the part you’re using is broken, so you have to approach everything critically, iteratively and with sensitivity and patience.  I then leave those working 3d examples in front of them to look at.  Modelling the work establishes with them that I know what I’m doing and encourages them to ask questions.  I also show them a pulled apart breadboard so they can begin wrapping their heads around how this new-to-them (though they spend their whole social lives on it these days) technology works.

It’s that cognitive breakthrough that I’m actually looking for (the hands-on skills are just muscle memory practice).  Some students with strong tactile skills and good visual reasoning are able to imitate the circuits without understanding how they work.  This becomes a problem when they get into more complex circuits later in the unit.  When a student finally begins to see how the electrons are flowing, that’s when they begin understanding basic circuit building in our applied technology class.  If you’re not a teacher reading this, are you beginning to get a feel for the yawning gap between education and daycare?  Could you email the Ontario Minister of Education and fill him in on it too?

To support that hidden cognitive focus I’m on (metaphorical – health and safety would never go for it) roller-skates when I’m teaching grade 9s in the first day of circuit building.  Alanna knows these introduction to circuit building days are one of the toughest teaching days of my semester because I’m not focused on chucking everyone in the deep end and seeing how many fail, I’m focused on getting everyone from misplaced developmentally delayed students to the previously experienced and gifted (all dropped into the same open level tech course) over this challenging cognitive realization.

Some students require one on one support, some figure it out immediately. Some are able to imitate understanding through mimicry but then run into problems later.  I’m keeping a running tally of all of that in my head as I’m running round and round the room helping those who need it.  I’m doing all this by leveraging technical skills that took decades to hone along with teaching skills that have also taken decades to develop.  I understand that recognition is difficult for many, but just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you should simplify it so you can.

The sink-or-swim misunderstanding creeps back in when less experienced teachers watch me interact with students who aren’t engaging with the material.  When the system-trained giver-upper waves me over and tells me they don’t know what to do (after extensive set up and support), I don’t cater to their apathy inspired edu-hack (ask the teacher to do it for them).  I’m often left wondering how they got 9 years into the system without anyone calling them on this weak move, but many ‘teachers’ are all about systemic success at all costs – it makes for good statistics and happy management.  I’m in this for the teaching – which is why I’ll never find myself with the power to make system wide improvements.  For those edu-hacker students who have learned that helplessness gives them a free pass, I’ll often prompt them quite roughly with something like, “you haven’t even opened up the how-to webpage or attempted to build the circuit.  I’ll come back when you decide to make an effort.”

This often knocks them back on their heels.  A teacher expecting them to participate in their learning?  How dare they!  I’m going to get my mom to call the principal and tell him this needs to be easier (code: daycare).  Strangely enough, many of these reticent students end up gaining a great deal of confidence as they come to understand how to build circuits in in my thunderdome, it’s the first chance they’ve had to experience a genuine sense of achievement.  No one learns anything from having other people do it for them, no matter how much cheaper that is at a systemic level.  It’s a frustration that this myopia has infected people without enough classroom experience (or common sense) to know that it’s nonsense.
Fail fast only works if you have enough
skill to realize why you’re failing. Failing
fast and clueless is both expensive & pointless.

Over the past couple of years I’ve watched several teachers imitate my approach and it ends up feeling like a rather embarrassing caricature drawing (my nose isn’t that big – actually it is).  They see what looks like a rough approach that mulches students in order to look for talent, but this isn’t that.  What’s happening is that I’m creating a very structured situation for learning something hands-on and difficult (reality is a cruel teacher) while also placing the responsibility for engaging with it clearly where it belongs: on the student.

Another of the many supports in place are the GREEN BRICKS OF DOOM (!!!).  This is a spreadsheet that is put up on the projector showing who has completed what circuits (you get a greened out block in the spreadsheet when you show a working circuit).  It very quickly becomes apparent that some students are quicker than others, but I don’t consider that a secret, I use it as a learning support.  If you’re sitting next to the girl who has already done the circuit you’re struggling with, ask them what’s going wrong.  This also has the benefit of showing me those students who are faking an understanding rather than building their circuits based on deeper knowledge.  I’ve been told that slower students would find this mean, but they generally lean into the information as it helps them.  That is also recognizes students who are engaged and working it out is something I have no problem with.

I once used the term ‘pedagogy‘ in context with a new administrator and she replied with, “pedagogy? what does that even mean anyway?”  I found this response frustrating though unsurprising from someone aimed at system management where you often have to enforce cost cutting measures that cause harm in order to do the job (something I’d be bad at and another reason why I’m never likely to have any system reach).  But wouldn’t it be something if pedagogical best practices drove everything we did instead of being dismissed?  Perhaps then more people would have a better idea of what I’m doing in my classroom.

from Blogger

Free Range Computing

Originally published on Dusty World in October of 2013:

I’d initially gone into teaching computer technology with pi in the sky (sic) daydreams of students working entirely on open source hardware and software that they have assembled and coded themselves, free from the evil influences of corporations.  After attending ECOO this year I’m less on the hippy open source bandwagon and more on the inclusivity bandwagon.  It isn’t an educator’s job to ignore corporate technology, but it is their responsibility not to indoctrinate students in only one particular company’s technology because it is easier or cheaper for them.  Student digital fluency has to drive technology access, not corporate carrots or teacher laziness.

I’ve noticed a real move toward the branding of education (and teachers) by technology interests.  This is almost always done to ensure their own monopolistic dominance rather than offering students the widest range of technology experience.  In order to indoctrinate students in a single means of access (in order to later capture them as consumers), many boards are locking students into company specific technology, usually because some kind of discount being offered.  Selling out student technological fluency in order to appear more cost effective isn’t very pedagogically sound.

Would you trust the literacy teacher who only uses one publishing company and brandishes the logo like a qualification?   Does this not call a balanced approach to their discipline into question?  How can the same thing not be said for Google Certified or Apple Distinguished?

It’s one thing to get a professional certification from an platform agnostic professional organization that has no interested in monetizing you, it’s another to brand yourself with the name of a profit driven company that is intent on turning you and your students into revenue streams while limiting access to alternatives.

My knee jerk reaction to this is what had me storming off into the woods and getting all back to nature with open source hardware and software:


Raspberry Pi, almost fits in your wallet!

I’ve been thinking about the open source technology classroom I wish I could run.  Engineering based rather than brand based hardware with accessible, open software.  Hardware that could run free, crowd-sourced software.

Raspberry Pi is an obvious starting point.  As a way of showing students the basics of computing cheaply (it’ll run a full GUI OS with internet for about thirty bucks per student), it’s something that they can use to get familiar with how software and hardware work with each other.

I wish they’d come up with a Raspberry Pi à la mode, a 1 ghz 2 core unit with a gig of ram, hdmi and 2 usb 3.0 ports.  They can toss the video in and separate audio 3.5 jack out (hdmi has audio built in anyway).  If they could pull that off and keep it close to the same size I’d think twice about stepping up from the Pi.


It’s beyond the Pi that open source hasn’t developed enough high level hardware to take on more advanced learning environments, though having students build digital tools from a variety of components has its own value.

There are plenty of software options, but ready made agnostic hardware is thin on the ground.  This is when I started to think about systems that, while branded and corporately developed, might be focused on access to a variety of technology rather than the tyranny of one:


In the meantime, from the Pi how do you create a free range system that lets students experience a variety of operating systems and software?  The recent nano-desktop round of computers offer some interesting options.

Intel NUC

The NUC (next unit of computing) by Intel is an engineering platform that crams an astonishing amount of processing power into a package the size of a paperback novel.  With an i5 processor and up to 16 gigs (!) of ram, this thing is a monster.  It would handily outperform any desktop in our school right now.

If we could get a NUC sorted out in some kind of student-proof Otterbox type enclosure we’d have a tough, durable, wickedly fast, open computer that would offer students a totally customizable platform for just over $400.  Presumably we could whittle that down to cost (maybe ~$300?).

Having a dock in labs that would allow students to plug their own PCs (personal again!) in would be one means of accessing the box.  Offering a plug in touch screen peripheral that could do the job of a screen/mouse/keyboard would be another avenue that would create a very powerful laptop/tablet option.  Pica-projectors would be another way to produce screens out of thin air, and they are rapidly becoming smaller and less energy consuming.

The nicest thing about the NUC is that it could work with pretty much any operating system you could want.  Students could come to class with a paperback sized computer that could boot into Apple OSx, the Windows flavour of your choice or any of a number of Linux distros (including Chromium).  You wouldn’t have Mac labs, or Windows labs, you’d have whatever you wanted/needed to boot into.

A truly agnostic hardware platform that would offer you access to any software on any operating system.

Foxconn Nano PC

Another (cheaper) option is the Foxconn Nano PC, which retails for substantially less (only $219 retail vs. the $420 NUC).  The Foxconn unit runs on an AMD processor (not Apple friendly) but offers strong graphics performance from its (Canadian!) graphics subsidiary ATI.

It would still run any flavor of Windows or Linux you could throw at it (including Chromium) and is as svelte as the Intel option.  Education purchasing could probably get these down into the $150 range.


The real goal would be to create and have educators themselves crowdsource an open, upgradeable, accessible hardware system that is designed to teach students about technology in all its various forms.

The chance to develop personalized learning technology would take us away from the ignorance and learned helplessness we peddle today in education and offer all technology companies a level playing field on which to ply their wares.  Our students would experience a wide range of operating environments and software as well as being aware of how hardware impacts those systems.

Thoughts on mastery learning in digital spaces (from my ECOO13 presentation)

Imagine high school graduates who have worked on a variety of operating systems that they have installed and maintained themselves.

Imagine graduates who understand how memory, processor and storage work with software because they’ve experienced hands on changes in this hardware.

Imagine graduates who are able to problem solve and resolve their own technological problems because the breadth of their familiarity with technology is such that any new digital tool they lay their hands on isn’t a mystery to them.

Imagine students and educators who go to the tool they need to get the job done instead of having the tool dictate the job.

Imagine students who have enough familiarity with code that they can appreciate the complexity of the world we’re living instead of being baffled by it.

I was having doubts about putting corporate logos on my office windows, but I don’t any more.  Instead of taking down the Google stickers I’ve added Apple, Microsoft, Linux, Toshiba, Dell, Asus, IBM, Lenovo, Arduino, Raspberry Pi and will continue to add others.  The point isn’t to run off into the woods and live in vegan austerity on open source hardware, it’s to make all technology available to students so they can appreciate the astonishing variety of systems we’re immersed in, and not be made helpless by it.

2017 Update:  Building your #edtech on shifting ground.  Not much has changed in terms of corporate control of digital learning in four years since this was first written.

COVID19: Desperate Times Call for Tangible Measures

Originally published in March of 2020 at the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic which resulted in years of cobbled together, inconsistent management of Ontario public education:


My first instinct is to show some initiative and begin solving problems when things get difficult.  I’m frustrated at the lack of transparency, communication and minimal focus on effective learning process going forward.  Had I any say in how things are going down, I’d break this down into two approaches:

One unit would be working to immediately attempt to address digital divide issues and try and close the gap on the number of students without technology or connectivity at home to as close to zero as possible.  This would also have the benefit of connecting poor families as well as their children to the major source of communication the rest of us share these days.

The other unit would set up online learning officers at each school board who have the latitude to make agile changes to organize staff so that they are able to communicate with students and leverage existing digital communications to try and provide genuine alternative programming that will allow students to resume their face to face studies eventually without the time away being a complete loss.  Throwing out generic material online isn’t going to do any of that.

Being an ex-IT technician I’m very interested in trying to quickly resolve the logistical and technical issues around the digital divide:  Dusty World: Exceptional Times: Using a Pandemic to Close the Digital Divide.  I’d leave the people management to others better suited to it.

At times like this the top heavy nature of Ontario Education with all the ministries, unions, boards, colleges and goodness knows what else, really comes into focus.  We’re unable to put the focus where it should be (on enabling student learning, remember?) because they’re all too busy getting in each other’s way.

I was involved in a VoicED podcast yesterday on how student privacy could be compromised as we rapidly migrate online in response to the pandemic:  EP 06 – Special Pandemic Edition: Transforming Education Under Pressure | voicEd 

Student data privacy is already quite opaque and uncertain with boards all doing it differently, or not at all, with little ministry of government oversight and many questions around who has access to what.  A sudden shift online is only likely to make things worse, but it’s also an opportunity.  An opportunity to begin seriously teaching digital skills in a coherent and meaningful way instead of the piecemeal curriculum we’ve cobbled together to date.  With better digital fluency will come a more responsive and effective online learning response to this pandemic.

If this situation has shown anything, it’s that digital communications are vital in creating a coherent social response to this crisis.  Closing the digital divide would not only help those students on the wrong side of it, but would also create a more inclusive Canada.  We couldn’t be bothered to do it when life was easy, but maybe we could do it now when life is hard.

I’ll end this with the 3 suggestions I ended the podcast with:

1) Use existing board walled gardens (UGDSB’s UGcloud is particularly well put together) – that’s vetted material in a secure environment – all UGDSB students will know how to use it too. Whichever board your child is in, there will be an educational technology equivalent where they can work in a protected space… and communicate with classmates and teachers!

2) Parents shouldn’t stress out because of all the ‘we’re giving you the tools to home-school’ rhetoric coming out of the government. No one expects you do get a degree in teaching and begin doing it effectively. This piece from the NY Times might talk you down a bit:  Keep in mind that the ‘anyone can teach’ nonsense is recent Ontario government rhetoric and not true.  Putting that expectation on yourself at this difficult time isn’t fair to you or your family.

3) Talk to your kids’ teachers! If you’re in my board you have online access on UGcloud to do this – most other boards have similar systems. The vast majority of us want to help and want to do something. We’re generally frustrated at all the suits who keep telling us not to.  We should be signing out laptops to the students who need them and providing internet for those without, not doing PR.

Discussions about this are happening in many places:
… just not where they should be happening between ministry, boards and teachers.

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Peculiar, Chancy & Fluid

 Almost ten years ago I came across Matt Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft, a brilliant little book that helped frame the value of my tangible real-world skills after years of academic abstraction.  At that time I was changing gears from English to technology teaching and this book helped me reclaim my millwright apprenticeship and years of hands-on skills development in information technology I’d left behind when I wandered into ivory towers.

In addition to framing skills honed in the real world where results rather than opinion mattered (you can’t fake brake repairs like you can literacy test scores), Crawford’s philosophical treatise on manual skilled labour also explained the challenge of trying to manage in a world where success criteria are both invented and met in a fictional world of plausible deniability:

“Crawford also does a brilliant dissection of the ‘peculiarly chancy and fluid‘ life of the corporate manager (substitute administrator or educational consultant for equal value here). In a world with no objective means of assessing competence, the manager lives in a purgatory of abstraction using vague language “…staking out a position on all sides of a situation, so you always have plausible deniability of a failure.” Crawford goes to great lengths to point out that this isn’t done maliciously but rather as a means of psychic protection for the people trapped in this morass.”

Dusty World quoting Shop Class As Soul Craft back in 2012

This chancy and fluid nature has been stretched beyond breaking during the pandemic as the people running public education, sometimes in the same sentence, can offer completely contradictory direction.  From “students must maintain masked cohorts while in class” followed by: “everyone should leave the building in large unsupervised, unmasked groups at lunch” to the arbitrary rules around classroom layout (all tables must face the same way, unless we’re trying to stuff 31 students into your room then you can ignore that), I’ve come to find that I don’t thrive in a chancy and fluid world of conflicting absolute rules.  The past two years in OntEd provides ample examples for another Milgram Obedience Experiment.

This was cast in a stark light in a recent online PD session my lovely partner attended on equity.  This is another wildly contradictory example of what is either cynical manipulation or peculiar, chancy and fluid management think:  equity matters, but pivot online during snow days even while we refuse to provide any connectivity or technology support for students in need.  When it costs something or requires effort, equity suddenly becomes quite diffuse.

In that PD session, Alanna noted that many of the people in ‘lead’ roles aren’t walking the talk.  A righteous curriculum lead jumped in to tell her she was wrong and that everyone in administration got into it with the best intentions.  When I heard about it after I found this rhetoric interesting.  I don’t doubt administrators get into it for all the right reasons (and never because classroom teaching was something that was beating them up causing them to look for an alternative).  I’m also not so oblivious as to think that administrators have any say in what is going to happen – they’re middle management and are told what to do by people higher up.  What I am curious about is, if they’re so intent on looking after students with best pedagogical practices, why they push directives that directly hurt student well being and learning.  This has happened a lot in the past two years.

As things have staggered back from the brink last year we continue to see irrational and often cruel decisions being made, often under the auspices of public health in order to prevent an ongoing pandemic health crisis, but they seldom make sense.  I set up my room with as many tables as I could stuff into it following public health requirements and then was told to change it out of compliance with those guidelines so we could stuff more students into the room… during a pandemic.  We’re told we have to wear inferior, poorly sized PPE even when we’re willing to bring our own superior, properly sized masks.  Staff are being made to cover (but don’t call it coverage so we’re in compliance with our contract that would have limited the number of coverages) other classes putting them in front of what can end up being hundreds of students every day in order to make a cruel, marathon class quadmestered schedule work.  A schedule that is utterly meaningless as students mix freely before and after school and at lunches every day.  Yesterday I watched a dozen boys leave a washroom together, most of them not wearing masks correctly, and walk back to different classrooms.  The union is very proud of dunking our membership in this much face to face teaching every day in order to enable the directives of a vindictive government.

Nothing makes sense, in many cases it’s contradictory and completely irrational, and it’s also hurting students.  An English colleague the other day told me her applied 2.5 hour class is one step away from complete chaos every day.  Many other teachers are noting the impossibility of covering curriculum in marathon classes that directly contradict the data we’ve collected on best practices around student learning.  Yet when told to execute this cruelty everyone in management makes it happen, though, I’m sure, they all got into it for the right reasons.

I’ve been reflecting on Dusty World this fall but the negativity of the posts has me not publishing them as I’m trying to find some sense of well-being in this ongoing mess.  Wallowing in the cruelty and absurdity of what we’re doing won’t get me there, but I still record what’s happening because one day I hope the public education system does more than talk about student learning and wellbeing and actually acts on it.

These past two years have turned into a cautionary tale about what a vindictive government can do during a public health crisis.  They’ve also shown that the people running public education are willing to do whatever they’re told even when it’s contradictory and cruel.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, until education (and healthcare) can operate according to best practices rather than the whims of populist politicians this will keep happening.  I need it to stop happening.  I can do good work when given the framework or even when the framework isn’t actively working against me while trying to support student learning and well-being.

Not yet but 2022 is looming large.  COVID might be behind us by next summer, and if Ontario comes to its senses we might have a government that isn’t so maliciously short sighted.

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Royan’s Delemma

This post originally published on Dusty World, Thursday, 18 July 2013

Royan Lee’s Spicy Learning Blog (it’s in my list of favourites on the side of Dusty World), asks some hard questions as digital technology matures and reaches mass appeal…

“How are we going to do this, folks? How will we foster critical mindsets of what it means to check that I Agree button, especially in regards to students that are in our charge but not our own children?”

My response…

There is something about mass adoption that shifts a market from focusing on literate early adopters to the willfully ignorant masses.  When the herd finally adopts a technology it becomes a race to reach the widest range of people (including the lowest denominator).

When they started manufacturing automobiles in the early 1900s each one was hand crafted, almost unique and required either your own personal mechanic or you were the mechanic.  As automobiles became more popular, the landscape changed, systems became synchronized, the car became a cookie cuttered piece of mass assembly designed in more complicated ways to ask less of the driver – the only sense of individuality was found in the frantic marketing.  The technology itself matured into operator simplicity in order to get even the most incompetent people behind the wheel.

saganquoteSound familiar Microsoft?  Google?  Apple?  Fanboy/girlism is one of the clearest signs that we’ve moved past the early adopter stance on digital technology and are now catering to the main stream (I say that in the most derogatory way possible) where marketing dictates sales because the majority of people have no idea how the technology works.  It’s in this environment that giant legal documents creep in to user agreements and business finds more insidious ways to make use of the ignorant consumer.

If you look at owner’s manuals from long ago they were full of technological information on how the product worked (so you could fix it).  Nowadays you get legalese and idiot diagrams designed to hide the inner workings.  The machines themselves are even put together intentionally to prevent you from repairing them.
Most mechanical sub cultures survive and thrive on a hands-on ethos. Shed Built motorbikes in the current custom scene are a badge of pride.

The only real way to save yourself from the vapid consumerism and accompanying ignorance that drives mass adoption is through the hacking ethos of maker culture; this has never died.  Cars are being stamped out for the unwashed masses by multi-nationals but there has always been a thriving underground of maker/hackers who ignore the rules designed for the ignorant and come to relate to the technology in a direct, more complete way.

If you want to save yourself and your students from this ignorant, consumerist relationship with technology then find their inner hacker!  Get into the nuts and bolts and bend technology to your will.  Using your hands and your head to get inside the machines sold to us frees you from the consumerist trap.  Freedom is only a hack away!


Some reading to save your mind:  a brilliant, modern attack on consumerist thinking and the power of your hands to save you

… and the follow up:
I used to have links to the maker manifesto here but evidently it’s been turned into a book and isn’t available online any more.  That says something about the current state of the maker movement…

Don’t give up!  Just don’t follow the road more travelled, even if it’s paved for you by people determined to monetize you…

MediaSmarts: Battling Consumerism

Binary Thinking

More notes from Phoenix, along with some editorializing:

Education is an analogue, non-linear, complex, biological process because we are non-linear, complex, biological organisms.  Data and the technology that produces it are none of those things.  Data might point to a vanishingly small piece of this complex puzzle, but it will never explain, justify or encompass education, no matter what vested interests might tell you.

We are such chameleons. The dominant thinking of our time actually changes how we see ourselves. When the social norm was religiously defined we saw ourselves as angels and demons. When industrialization occurred we described ourselves in terms of the machines we were creating. In the information age we define ourselves in terms of digital data. It’s important to remember that we are none of these things, but rather the creator of all of them, and therefor greater than them all.

Digital technology is turning our thinking binary.  How do you feel today? A) good B) bad By participating in this data gathering process you have reduced your complex mental state to an absurdity.  Every question is reductive, every piece of data a feathery abstraction of a deeper, more complex meaning. Every time education acts on this reductive logic it becomes less a form of human expression and more an act of compliance with digitally limited technology. There is a branch of thinking that suggests that this is simply because technology hasn’t become fast and vast enough to manage the data, but even at its best digital technology will always be limited to how it works. Even at near infinite speeds with infinite amounts of data you’re still reducing reality to ones and zeroes, which it isn’t.

If digital technology forces reductive binary thinking then any cost savings realized from it will come at the cost of our ability to express ourselves in all the ways that we can.
This is a transitional thought, it led to this line of thinking:
Rigour doesn’t exist in data or the statistics derived from it, rigour exists at the limits of human expression. It is never dictated by the limits of hardware or software.

What do I mean by rigour? Thorough and careful – digital data is neither. It is accurate, but only in a very specific sense. We take that fine accuracy and direct it at a far larger array of cause and effect than it could possibly represent, mainly because recognizing the limits of data doesn’t suit the people peddling it. Statistics never encompass the truths they claim to.

Mastery is the result of genuine experience. No one ever gained mastery from taking a test.

If genuine experience is what drives leaning, why do we keep inventing abstractions like testing to drive it?

The answer to that one is obvious: it’s cheaper and easier to manage if we grossly simplify learning to the point of abstraction. Of course, that kind of hypocrisy and self-serving nonsense provokes awkward questions:

If learning is for the learner, why do we do most of what we do in education for everyone else involved?  Is education motivated by politics or pedagogy?
The easiest most self-serving way for ‘educators’ to dehumanize students is by reducing them to data. This becomes more self-evident when you realize that most data collected from education is focused on the system rather than improving student learning.


Originally published on Dusty World, March, 2014.

The Google Apps for Education (GAFE) ‘Summit’ is this weekend.  I’m not there and I’m comfortable with that.  There is nothing in Google that I haven’t been able to figure out on my own and I use Google extensively, they make good products.

Last week’s Elearning Ontario Presentation

Last week I presented at elearning Ontario on how to create a diverse digital learning ecosystem.  You’d think that educators would want to get their hands on as wide a variety of tools as possible in order to not only provide the best possible digital learning support for their students but to also increase their own comfort zone in educational technology.  In the mad rush to digitize the vast majority of people want as little expertise to accompany it as possible, they would much rather find a closed ecosystem in which they can develop a false sense of mastery.

If you hyper focus on one thing you tend to get an inflated sense of your abilities.  I wouldn’t trust a mechanic who can only work on Ford brakes or a teacher who can only work out of Pearson textbooks, I’d have to assume they’ve learned by rote rather than developed mastery.  I know it’s hard work, but becoming fluent in digital tools requires some time, some curiosity and some humility and that’s ok.

A colleague showed me this last year and it has been
on my mind ever since.

The idea that you get a qualification under a single brand and have somehow become a master of digital learning is misleading.  But the limits of evangelizing a single digital learning ecosystem go well beyond questionable professional practices around branding teachers with private company logos.  There is also the question of how these technologies are mining education for profit.  

If you live within a monopolistic education technology environment you can never be sure what they are doing with the data they are managing for you ‘for free’.  That data is worth a lot of money.  Even if it’s being stripped of names, the ethics of exchanging student marketing data for a ‘free’ digital learning environment has to be questioned.  In a monopolistic situation that questioning doesn’t happen.  Only an open, fair digital learning environment allows us to demand higher standards from companies who are otherwise singularly focused on making money in any way that they can.

Wouldn’t an opensource hardware model that allows us
to teach all technology platforms be a nice idea?  The Learnbook

Some links to consider:
“Google would not answer questions about whether its data-mining practices support the creation of profiles on student users.

Google also confirmed to Education Week that its general terms of service and privacy policy apply to student users of Apps for Education, a stance contrary to the company’s earlier public statements.”

OSAPAC has worked out a deal that doesn’t sell off Ontario Students’ data, but it’s a secret,
and each board has to implement it themselves.  The mysteries of information in the information age…
Tweets on this weekend’s GAFE summit in Kitchener/Waterloo… the koolaid tastes good.



  1. 1.
    (in feudal Japan) a wandering samurai who had no lord or master.