The Lab That Isn’t A Lab

Originally published way back in 2012 when I had the comp-tech department land on me with 3 days notice!  https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-lab-that-isnt-lab.html

I’m teaching Computer Engineering in a school computer lab.   It’s the nicest lab in the school, and I don’t want it any more.

I recently described it to my principal as, “trying to teach auto mechanics in a new car show room where you can’t touch anything.”

Computer engineering in school underlines everything I don’t like about school computer labs (and that list is long).  I don’t think school computer labs teach students anything helpful about computers.  In fact, I think they are specifically designed to be out of date, glitchy, inaccessible and frustrating – hardly the mindset you want to put students in when you’re teaching them how to learn effective operation of an extremely powerful learning tool.

Essentially, what we try to do in school computer labs is teach students how to ride a bicycle by having a professional bike rider come in when they aren’t there, maintain and ride an old bike, then leave it there for them.  We then tell the students to get on it and ride with no hands on experience, practice, training or intent.  We then get angry with them when they fall off and damage the bike, or ride it pointlessly in circles.

Whether it’s media arts labs, or school computer labs in general, I’m not a fan.  The fact that they haven’t changed significantly in form or function since I graduated from high school in 1989 should bother people, but the real bee in my bonnet is the lack of ownership in our understanding of technology.

If you want to use technology in your classroom (and in 2012 you’d have to bury your head pretty deep in the sand to not want to), then you the teacher need to understand how it works, and you need to teach this to your students.  The willful ignorance I meet in staff is sometimes good for my ego, but never productive in developing technical literacy in our students.

With our old tech, people are familiar enough to know what they are doing:

… but not so much with our new technology.  We need to address that.  Until we’re all familiar enough with the digital tools we’re expected to be literate in that their use is second nature, we need to spend time, especially in the classroom, learning what they are, and you can’t do that in a school board IT straight jacket.

I’m not advocating for a ground up build your own computer when you want to type out an English paper (that’s what computer engineering is for), but I am advocating for an open, author-able, stable, up to date system that allows teachers and students to become familiar with the options and customization available on this equipment (something impossible in our board, locked down, forget-everything-when-you-log-off terminals).

Back to the lab that isn’t a lab.

When I was doing my AQ for computer engineering in the summer, our instructor showed us his new classroom in his new school.  It was fantastic.  Work benches filled it, fabrication tools and a few tables for the odd sit down talk.  It looked like a room where making happened.  There wasn’t a single board computer in there.

Later in the summer, when I was picking up computers from a school in Guelph (a teacher, working in the summer?  Evidently), I saw their lab and it was the same idea: workbenches and stacks and stacks of parts; a room where hands-on learning happens.

I’m not entirely sure why we feel that computer engineering should be happening in a computer lab at my school.  My seniors don’t use the school computers at all, and my juniors are only on them because they are there.  I’d much rather they be hands on with machines, except there isn’t enough room in a lab full of school computers to make another network.

What do I want?  One of the de-labbed classrooms where there are plenty of electrical drops.  I’d be willing to evacuate the much in demand lab if I could get a room that let me store my equipment and set it up as I need; a room that was truly a lab where experimentation and hands-on discovery happens.

Machines That Challenge

Tim’s Motorcycle Diaries

I’ve been taking a break from writing on work over the holiday and have instead been writing about my new love: motorbikes.  In the last post I wrote about mechanical empathy and how a machine that challenges you can also encourage growth; this resonates with technology and how we use and teach it.

Using technology without understanding it is what we aim for in school because we have so many other important things to get to, I think this is a fundamental mistake.  Using a tool in ignorance means you’re never really using the tool effectively.  I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to be a computer engineer in order to use computers, but there is a fundamental level of familiarity you need in order to use any machine, including a computer, effectively.

A machine that does too much for you, even to the point of making decisions for you, is a dangerous machine indeed.  An education system that caters to this kind of thinking is equally dangerous.  Our use of technology should never be founded on ignorance.

“That a machine should place demands on us isn’t a bad thing, especially if it leads to a nuanced awareness of our own limitations.  The machine that can overextend you, challenge you, stress you, is a machine that can teach you something.  We fool ourselves into stagnation when we design machines that do more and ask less from us.”

There is a consumerist drive to produce machines that appear to be our servants, that will do what we want, sometimes without us evening knowing that we want it.  This kind of magical thinking might sell units but it doesn’t offer any room for growth. That educators are willing to cater to this approach isn’t very flattering.

I’d originally written on this from the point of view of motorcycling, which makes extreme demands on the rider.  Compared to driving a car, especially a modern car that shifts, brakes and even parks for you, riding a motorcycle is a physical and mental challenge.  In that challenge lies a great deal of risk and reward.  The opportunity to amplify your thoughts and actions through a complex, nuanced, challenging machine is a growth medium.  Growth in our students is what we should always be aiming at, even in using the tools we hand them.

In extreme cases machines take over decision making for us, reducing us to irrelevance.  Teachers need to be especially vigilant about how students use technology.  It’s very easy for the tech to take over (it only wants to help!)  and the human being it’s supposed to be assisting becomes a passenger.

When we use a machine to amplify ourselves it not only magnifies our achievements, it also subtly changes how we create.  Any teacher who has observed the digitization of student work in the past ten years has noticed how cookie-cutter the material has become.  Plagiarism is just one aspect of the cut and paste nature of modern student work.

Even in a scenario where the machine is a responsive tool, it will colour how you create.  Some technology is even predicated on this thinking.  Your degree of technical understanding minimizes this influence and allows you to side-step homogenized technological presentation.  If you don’t care that what you are producing has been cookie-cuttered into a template that looks like everyone else’s, then what does that say about what you’re learning?  If you’re using technology to do something else you need to understand the technology in order to realize how it’s colouring your learning.

It’s a shame that so many of us prefer machines that will do it all for us rather than taking up the slack ourselves.  There are two ways we can integrate with machines, I’ll always go for the road less traveled and ask for a machine that offers me more opportunity, even if it also demands more expertise.

Just Hang On…

It has been another rough week of double cohort double class teaching.  Evidently I’m one of only 5 people in our school who have been waterboarded like this.  Everyone else has been teaching up to half the synchronous face to face instructional time that I have.  My employer is nowhere in sight and neither is my union in terms of providing qualified teachers to support my classes, so on I trudge alone.

While that is happening we’re dealing with serious on-going health issues in my family and I managed to pull my back out so badly this week that I had trouble breathing.  I have no doubt that this is stress related, but no one will care or do anything until I’m broken, and then it will be the blame game.

On Monday we had a half day of PD that I was unaware of.  I couldn’t find any details about it in email and when it rolled out over the Monday afternoon I sat there wondering what was going on.  The system has been wildly out of balance all year and PD has been desperately needed though none was forthcoming, then suddenly this.  Frankly, an afternoon not having to wear PPE three sizes too small all day again made this feel like a win.  It was nice not going home with rope burns on my face.

In a rushed one hour session a man in Alberta cut open the wounded emotional body of our staff and then left.  He was desperate to establish rapport and attempt psychic surgery on us through a one way sixty minute video chat.  He lost me when he attempted to use my lack of reproductive effectiveness as a joke (why aren’t you people in Ontario pumping out more children?).  At that point I angrily started cleaning up my classroom, which is in tatters because I have been given no time to maintain it in the past year, and that’s how I pulled my back out.

I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the half day invasive PD, though when you see that many superintendents and other senior admin in a meeting you have to wonder what the intent is.  Many people seemed to find it helpful, but many people aren’t teaching all day every day all year like I am.

Tuesday and Wednesday I was in rough shape but continued to plan and oversee my class from home because you can’t expect anyone covering to do it consistently when none of them are qualified to teach the subject, not that this matters in 2021.  I’ve not been given any qualified support for coverage or remote support (which is fully half of the reduced instructional time students are expected to spend in ‘class’ this year).  While my union throws a fit about elearning classes that would at least be taught by qualified teachers, they’ve been bragging about how unqualified teachers are the solution in schools all year.  It’s this kind of political game playing and the inconsistencies that it produces that leave me wondering what the hell I’m a part of.

I would if I could sleep…

With my class split into morning and afternoon cohorts, one of my cohorts didn’t see me on Monday.  Remote expectations have been vague and are only getting vaguer as you’d expect from a system that, if it does elearning at all, does it as poorly as it can.  At this point the remote work being done mustn’t include new material, assessment or any kind of, um, teaching.  This puts even more pressure on those marathon 2.5 hour x 2 per day face to face learning sessions  The afternoon cohort ignored the instructions I left them online when our class was cancelled and I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to get most of them back on track; just what I needed this week.

Driving home Friday I was in tears.  Students are exhausted and even the strongest ones are just shrugging and walking away, and I don’t have the energy or resources to stand against the education system while trying to make what we do appear credible.

Next week I’m supposed to culminate an entire course in four days while having ignored a key component of the course (the engineering design process) because there has simply been no time to address it in our drink-from-the-firehose quadmesters where I barely have time to cover basic concepts and skills.  I’m then doing that again the week after with the other class which is also a split section senior group so I need to arrange grade 11 and grade 12 face to face work along with simultaneous grade 11 and grade 12 remote/elearning work, and monitor it all while doing 2 things at once.  I keep telling myself I just have to get to the end of this quadmester alive.

I’m looking forward to next quadmester (where I’m teaching my sixth consecutive double cohort class) when I’m told I have to provide remote support for someone else’s class that I’m not qualified to teach because that’s a ‘fair’ distribution of work.  Fair doesn’t mean anything any more.

I just have to make it to the end of my second double double (this time with an added double stacked class) quadmester… two more weeks.

Not yet…


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Full Commitment

The opportunity to go ‘all out’ doesn’t happen very often.  I’ve thought about this from a Rick & Morty perspective in 2018 and it comes up whenever I’m watching documentaries on extreme sports.  Dakar long distance race legend Simon Pavey, when asked why he puts himself through this kind of danger and torture, said it was just so he didn’t have to do any dishes for a week.  There’s a truth underneath the Rick & Morty Susan Sarandon counselor character’s, “the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die” and what Pavey said that I’m trying to dig out.

The very odd film, Up In The Air (2009), has a scene in it where Clooney, whose job it is to fire people, attempts to spin this debilitating experience as an opportunity, but I think they have it wrong.  The problem with Bob’s job isn’t that it didn’t follow his dreams, it’s that it doesn’t use him to his fullest, and in doing so engage him fully.  This only links to your dreams if you dream of challenge and growth – many people dream of ease and privilege; your dreams can be as big a trap as anything else.  In a job like that it’s always going to turn into nine to five plod because the job doesn’t ask enough of him.  Perhaps following his dreams and becoming a chef might have, but it’s the minimalist demands of his work and the salary trap that makes it an existential dead end.

In most cases everyone begins a new job hoping it will become this kind of challenge and provide a life long sense of achievement and direction, and in many cases that dead-end job highlighted in Up In The Air is the result.  Most jobs don’t want you to give your all, they want you to do what you’re told.  You’re a cog in an organization, not a human being that needs to be realized.

I was watching Moto2 motorcycle racing from last summer over the winter and came across a brilliant interview with John Hopkins, who is into coaching young riders these days.  In it John describes how he establishes trust through completely honest interactions and then, using that unpoliticised, transparent communication, creates clear step by step goals for younger riders to develop their confidence and tackle the seemingly impossible job of riding a modern race motorcycle at the limit.  There’s no mystery to peak performance, but so many organizations struggle to find it.  It never seems to happen through committee.

Netflix’s The Defiant Ones tells the story of music
producers Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. 

This weekend we watched The Defiant Ones and the story of Jimmy Iovine sheds light on the job that becomes an all consuming passion.  Jimmy’s a relatively uneducated fellow with an obvious ADHD spin to him, but he found a creative profession and threw himself into it completely.  Stevie Nicks ended up seeking him out because he was always in the studio; his commitment was absolute.

Many employers will say that they want to see this sort of commitment but it isn’t actually the case.  The nature of management in a hierarchical organization means that this kind of full commitment is a threat rather than a usable commodity.  They’re more interested in everyone supporting the corporate vision than they are in individual expression or differentiation.  Before you know it, even in a job where you think professionalism drives some kind of excellence, you’re mailing in your job and eagerly looking forward to doing anything else when you clock out.

This came up in the show New Amsterdam as well.  The maverick new medical director discovers that there are people in the hospital with forgotten, dead-end jobs that have them doing next to nothing all day.  His argument is that the x-ray technician who is collecting a paycheque for doing nothing would rather have a job that means something and helps the hospital save lives ends up being naive.  The old guy just wants to sit in his empty office with the dust covered x-ray machine collecting a paycheque until he retires; meaning has nothing to do with it – it’s all about the paycheque.  He has atrophied into laziest version of himself in order to keep collecting the paycheque.  It’s hard not to see this in education as people end their careers in an almost robotic trance, rolling out the same old lessons, doing no extracurriculars and inspiring no one while collecting the highest salary in the building.  If they’re really crafty they’ve found a way into an administrative job that doesn’t even have the demands of teaching.


In a typical year of teaching I have frustrations but I’m usually given enough latitude that we can aim at awesome.  These competitions give us a reason to step out of the ‘good enough’ of EQAO and provincial curriculum and apply ourselves more completely as human beings.  I’m often asked how we’re able to perform like we do against schools and systems with more money and resources.  The short answer is because we throw ourselves into it completely.  There is risk in this but what encourages students is that they know I’m as committed to them as they are to the contest.  In that trust lies great performance.


This year has thrown extracurriculars into the weeds.  We’ve managed to place two teams in the national finals of CyberTitan this year, but even that isn’t as easy as you’d think with students dropping out at the last minute and those left struggling to stay engaged in a schedule designed to run them into the ground.  Skills Ontario approaches and I’m still struggling to get students to commit to even minimal amounts of preparation.  This has been the year of shrug and walk away.

With competition erased or minimized and classwork crushed under unreasonable expectations, I’m finding teaching isn’t the outlet for excellence that I usually try and make it.  I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do if I weren’t this deep into the teaching thing.  I’ve walked away from lucrative jobs before because they asked too little of me, but I never had a family to support when I was doing that.  In my final decade of teaching and with family support in mind, I’ll have to find other outlets to go ‘all out’ because the classroom isn’t the place for it any more in Ontario.  The last thing I want to do is mail in my job, it’s too important for that, but I don’t know what’s left to do.

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ECOO 2013 Presentation: Harness your nerdist ways

Still thinking about ECOO in a couple of weeks.  I’ve already taken a run at it on Dusty World once.  There is a lot in this, I’m still curious to see how it will unfold.

http://lanyrd.com/2013/ecoo13/schpzd/

We live in a time of profound change. The very definition of who and where we are is constantly changing. Never before in history have people been as connected to so many different people and places as they are now. Trends suggest it will only intensify. Are we doomed to a half existence in many places, constantly distracted, unable to complete a thought? Or will the person on the other side of this technological adolescence be multi-dimensional in ways we can’t currently imagine?

Come with me on an examination of recent history and future trends. How can we integrate or separate technology to better facilitate learning? How can we prepare students for the strange world they are about to graduate into? How can we survive and thrive in these times of profound change ourselves?

What started this line of thinking was a post in Dusty World in the spring called Digital House of Mirrors.  In that post I was trying to describe how digital technology is changing our sense of self:
.

“Our selves are being stretched and amplified in ways they never have before.  Nick Carr’s The Shallows puts us on a pretty stark trajectory towards idiocy with what is happening to us.  The digitization of the self stretches us flat, making continuity of thought impossible and turning us all into distracted, simplistic cogs in a consumerist machine designed to turn us all into the lowest common denominator; none of us any smarter than our smartphones.”

http://www.robinsloan.com/epic/
Way back in 2006 a student showed me the video above.  That it was made so long ago is quite prescient.  They didn’t have the future exactly right, but they come surprisingly close in many ways.  The part that stuck with me the most is this quote:
.

“At it’s best, edited for the most savvy readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at it’s worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational.”

If that doesn’t describe the experience of most ‘digital natives’ online, then I don’t know what does.  This is exactly the kind of habitual ignorance I find in technology use.  Children who have been immersed in digital technology have only learned to do what pleases them and know nothing about the technology itself, they aren’t generally literate.  They are like self-taught readers who have memorized a single comic book.
Whereas digital immigrant ignorance arises out of fear or pride, though they do still have some sense of what they don’t know.  The digital native is blissfully ignorant of what they don’t know, though they spend most of their lives now in that virtual world they know nothing about.

That technology could retard our ability to think is a dangerous consideration that a number of people are concerned about.  I don’t doubt that digital tools can enhance us as human beings, I’m writing this and you’re able to read it entirely due to digital technology.  Digital tech lets people work around authoritarian governments and democratize media.

I occasionally see people who are able to harness technology as a personal amplifier, but for far too many it is a source of distraction, habitual time wasting and a net loss for them.

A book I half read a while back was The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick.  I wasn’t able to get through the self help bit at the back, but the first half was an interesting autobiography of a guy immersed in technology to such a degree that it derailed him.  His philosophical change allowed him to regain control of his career and put what he describes as his nerdist ways to productive use.   Rather than spending eight hours a day playing World of Warcraft, Chris chose to focus his nerdly powers of concentration on productive activities.  He describes a nerd as someone who is able to hyper focus on minutia that fascinates them.  He broke his habitual use of technology by demanding that his fixations serve him instead of the other way around.  If it can work for a nerd (and we’re all nerds according to that definition) then it’ll work for everyone.

Is always on exhausting or exhilerating?  Is it functionally better to be connected?  What is the golden ratio for communicating f2f or remotely?  How could technology itself assist us in optimizing our presence both physically and virtually?  How can we highlight ineffective use of technology, analyze it and resolve it?

I suspect this is going to become a timeline.  With a bit of perspective I might be able to make some reasonably accurate predictions about where we going, because this is one big weird rabbit hole we’re all going down together and a lot of people are getting lost in it.

The followup post analyzing the ECOO13 conference can be found HERE.

Refocusing Ontario Education on Student Learning and Equity Through Artificial Intelligence

I’ve spent almost 20 years in public school classrooms fighting for better student learning outcomes, often while facing bureaucracy that pushes back in order to retain a status quo that supports their privilege. I don’t have an office hang on to, my classroom is my office and my interests have always aligned with making that learning environment as effective as I can make it.

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on this lack of focus on pedagogy in our education system.  This past year could have been a huge step forward for Ontario education in terms of leveraging technology to produce better learning outcomes, but instead of a Bill Davis style, rational, progressive conservative clean up of an education system steeped in almost two decades of liberal ‘vision’, we got the Ford circus.  Ontario really deserves better politicians than it gets.

In my time in Ontario classrooms I’ve seen #edtech evolve at a fantastic rate and I’ve always kept up with it#Onted is a traditionalist organization with many stake holders (unions, boards, ministries, colleges and many other hangers-on too numerous to mention) who are more interested in playing politics in order to justify their role in an increasingly bloated and outdated system.  The pandemic has made it clear to me that most of these groups are focused on doing whatever it takes to keep their office jobs no matter how cruel or harmful to students the plan is.  My union just sent me another email about how we need to start another political fight over EQAO.  That this arrives in a year of historic workplace abuse in the system shows just how tone deaf my union has become.  No one seems to be focused on what matters anymore (student learning outcomes, remember?). 

Dr Sasha Noukhovitch, a fellow CyberTitan coach and colleague, shared an interesting while paper from The Canadian Commission for UNESCO on how artificial intelligence can revolutionize education.  This nuanced look at how AI could provide differentiation and support for all students regardless of their socio-economic situation (assuming we ever make a serious effort to permanently close the digital divide) represents a better understanding of the technology than that shown by the ‘robots will take our jobs!’ crowd and suggests a pathway toward a future where technology works to provide equity rather than what we’re doing with it now.

In a year where everyone likes to talk about equity while doing the exact opposite setting up hugely inequitable pandemic learning schedules, the idea that a an apolitical, rational and student needs focused system could be brought to bear is thrilling.  It’s an ongoing frustration that focusing our classrooms on pedagogy feels more and more alien; everyone in Ontario education has lost the plot and left it to exhausted and under-supported classroom teachers to make their inequitable planning work.

Artificial Intelligence offers the kind of individual support specific to student needs that the system has always struggled to provide.  I’ve been dreaming about it for ten years.  Our low-resolution bureaucracy does an adequate job of managing a mythically average student but doesn’t like to treat students like people because that costs money.  AI could do a lot to address that in ability and inequity, but rather than explore this emerging technology you can bet the privileged/political stake holders will do all they can to block it in order to maintain their status quo benefits.

This is about the UK but
the conservative playbook
looks the same everywhere.


The second article from The Guardian
about British schools offers some worrying details about how behind the curve they are in terms of technology adoption (lots of schools don’t have wifi yet?  C’mon UKed!).  It also suggests a way to improve student learning outcomes that has become apparent from asynchronous online learning: “One way to tackle the achievement gap is surely in-school lessons followed by more personalised online learning, either at home or in after-school clubs.”  Of course, in Ontario we rush to apply technology to force synchronous learning (recreating the inequities of the classroom) for political ends while further crushing students whose families can’t provide the infrastructure.

Combine the concept of immanent personalized virtual learning AIs that will tirelessly support students right where they need it and the idea that school can happen both in class synchronously and out of class virtually and at the student’s own pace and you have a recipe for a quality of pedagogy that we simply can’t produce in our status-quo, politically charged bureaucracy intent on retaining all the infrastructure (schools, board offices, union offices, educational hangers-on…) and the jobs needed to run it.  A leaner burning Ontario education system focused on student learning might have a similar number of people working in it but almost all of them would be actually involved in teaching.

The thought of a rational, politics free AI focused entirely on maximizing learning outcomes has me dreaming of an education system free of messy human politics and the self-serving political organizations that feed off it.  Decisions would be data driven, transparent and then held to accountability through more transparent data collection that would be ongoing and everywhere rather than centred in a questionable and expensive organization run by a failed politician.

I’m in my final decade of teaching and I’ve lost faith in my union and doubt the intentions of educational management all the way through the system.  The ‘support’ organizations that also feed off the education system seem to have completely lost the plot in the political haze of education in 2021 Ontario.  Spending my final years in the system making student supported AI learning tools a reality and watching them burn the status quo to the ground would be a satisfying conclusion  to a career spent focused on student learning.  I’ve long hoped to leave the system in better shape than I found it.  I think the route to that goal is through adapting emerging artificial intelligence and other digital learning tools through a ruthlessly pedagogical focus.  If that burns our bloated bureaucracy to the ground in the process then I’ll have achieved my goal of a more equitable and effective public education system that serves student needs first.

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Damned Statistics & Digital Meta-cognitive Opportunities

Tweeting my mouth off
Education would rather  focus on arbitrary and fabricated data, like graduation rates.  It’s easy to increase graduation rates, just lower standards.  It has been working for Ontario Education for years now.  You barely have to even attend a class now to get a credit, and if you fail? A teacher not even qualified in the subject area will pass you along; we call that student success.  The grade eleven university level English paper with no less than three grammar and punctuation errors IN THE TITLE was an example I saw of this.  It was given a 78% by the credit recovery teacher grading it.  That failing student will now go on to university thinking that they are an ‘A’ student (they went from failing badly to 80%!).
There is another way.  Rather than chasing our own tails by trying to improve statistics that we create ourselves, why not start harnessing data that is actually useful and relevant to students beyond the context of education?  Digital technology offers us a fantastic and under utilized avenue for collecting meaningful data on student learning; data that might actually help them beyond the walled garden of education.

Rather than addressing the distraction caused by digital devices, we ignore them, or try to ban them.  Even at our best we only tentatively use digital tools, and when we do we ignore the data they could be providing on student activity.  Digital devices could shine a powerful light on student learning, instead we call them a distraction and let students abuse them into uselessness.  Effectively harnessing educational technology could give us granular, specific data about student activity in the classroom, yet we choose to wallow in darkness.  Really useful data-driven learning is only a decision away from implementation.

Education, like so many other sectors, has become increasingly interested in data driven management.  I don’t have anything against that on principal, in fact, I’d rather be managed according to logic and fact than the usual management ethos (egomania and paranoia).  Where we go wrong with data driven educational reform is where human beings are involved.  Education, more than most fields, prefers not to reveal its inner workings.  The choices made on what data to collect and how to present it usually revolve around a sense of self preservation rather than a focus on student success.  The only data we collect is data we can control for our own ends.
The intent of the education factory is to reduce something as complex as human learning down to a percentage.  That in itself is about the biggest abstraction you could devise, what Twain would call a statistic in the truest sense.  Those numbers are ultimately useless in anything other than education.  The only time in your life your grade will ever matter is if you’re transferring from one educational institution to another.  No will ever ask what your marks were once you’re out of school.  They don’t even ask teachers what their marks were before hiring them; even educators realize how meaningless grades are.
Instead of spending all our energy fabricating meaningless statistics in the form of grades, imagine harnessing all the data that flows through education technology and presenting it in a radically transparent reporting system that connects students to their lives after they graduate. That system would provide students with a powerful tool for metacognitive review around their own learning, and their use of digital tools.  Instead of reductive grades and empty comment banks, why not offer an insightful statistical analysis of how a student uses digital tools as they learn?  The tools themselves are eager to share this data, it is only educators who are stopping it.

A student who is shown, in specific detail, why they failed a course (but watched oh so many fascinating youtube videos), is being shown their own poor choices in stark detail.  One of the great joys I have in elearning is showing students their analytics.   When I get the, “I don’t understand this!” line, I ask for specifics, which usually gets me a, “I don’t get any of it!”  I can then pull up an analysis of what lessons the student has attempted.  The student who didn’t bother to actually even try any of the lessons gets wonderfully sheepish at this point.

With meaningful data on hand about their poor choices, education’s arbitrariness instead becomes a metacognitive opportunity to adjust learning habits; something we seem loath to do on digital tools, even as we criticize how students use them.

Collecting meaningful student data would allow us to connect the abstract world of education with what students will face on the other side of graduation, especially if we continue to collect data after they move on.  Ever wondered what high school courses are actually useful (and I don’t mean in graduating, I mean in finding work, being useful, living a good life)?  How about a live stat attached to each showing employablity based on course choice?  Think you’ll move over to applied level English because your friends are in there and you don’t like doing homework? Welcome to a 14% higher unemployment rate, and a 6% higher criminality rate!  Imagine what parents and students could do if this kind of data were available.  Realizing that there are real world consequences to your educational choices would do much to remove apathy and a lack of engagement on the part of students.  Education has very real consequences beyond school but we seem intent on trying to remove any obvious connection between education and the rest of a student’s life.  With open learning data we’d have way fewer students who have missed the starting gun.
Last year my school talked about creating a cosmetology program.  This would be a hugely expensive undertaking requiring changing the face of the school.  That was OK though because the board was willing to throw tens of thousands of dollars at an increase in graduation rates for at risk girls.  What would they do with it once they were out?  It made me want to start up a video game program, not because it would do anything helpful, but because it would fill sections.  We subvert usefulness in a desperate attempt to game graduation statistics.
I couldn’t help but think of the college computer engineering program I’d been to see a few months before.  They had a 100% placement rate for grads with starting pay well above the Canadian average, but they couldn’t find enough people interested in the field to run a full course each year.  They didn’t have any females in the course at all, and were desperately trying to get more women interested.  I can’t find enough kids in my high school to run more than one combined senior computer engineering course… in a field that all but guarantees a good job when you graduate and is about as future proof as you could wish.  I don’t imagine cosmeticians are walking into that kind of employment certainty at high rates of pay, but a future out of school isn’t what we’re aiming students at, we’re just concerned with graduating them.
It sounds harsh, but one of the reasons students are so disengaged from school is because they recognize the cognitive dissonance between the world beyond school and the fabricated reality we keep them in until they turn eighteen.  If you want students to engage in their educations provide them with metacognitive data that actually helps them.  Education has gone to greater and greater lengths to try and protect students from themselves and the ‘real’ world, all to chase fictional statistics.

Digitization in the classroom offers us access to meaningful data on student learning behaviour that was impossible even ten years ago.  Instead of being ignored and treated as a distraction, we should be harnessing digital technology and communicating that data.  A student who spends less than 10% of class time working on their project before failing it?  If that data were included in assessment, a student would have a metacognitive opportunity to understand the mechanics of their own failure.  They might then also begin to harness digital tools rather than being distracted by them.  Digitization shouldn’t be an escape from accountability, it should amplify it.

In such an environment, assessment might become something more than a damned statistic.

***

I didn’t even get into how this data could serve employment after school.  Detailed data on how students tackle work would be of great interest to employers.  Even the basics like attendance and ability to focus on work would be of more interest to employers than any grade.

Imagine an Ontario Student Record that offered employers an automated resume that included attendance and other useful details like ability to complete work in a timely fashion, group/team skills, communications and approach to new challenges.  Instead of hiding education behind a curtain of graduation, we could begin to make it immediately and obviously connected to future success.

Living in an Information Rich World

The other day I had a senior high school student who has been conditioned to be helpless say, “How am I supposed to know what aperture is?  You’re supposed to teach us!”  Aside from the fact that this student has evidently won photo competitions and got an 81% in grade 11 photography, I suggested that we have this thing now called the internet that has all sorts of information on it.  I was genuinely frustrated at her unwillingness to resolve her own ignorance.

I may have been a bit curt, but this is an essential truth of our age: information is at hand.  If you think education is about imparting information you’re about to become quite redundant.  Education isn’t redundant, it’s more important than ever to prepare students for information that is no longer vetted by the forth estate for them.  Unfortunately this isn’t a focus in education where bells still signal the start of shifts, um, classes, and teachers can still be found talking the whole period long.

Digital access to information greatly emphasizes how out of touch the sage on the stage is nowadays.  The teacher who talks for an hour straight giving their students facts has failed to realize that we no longer live in an information poor world.  Instead of letting students access information pouring out of the technology that surrounds them, the sage teacher puts themselves in the middle of the class and drips information on them slowly, like water torture.

Assuming we have connectivity, something school boards aren’t very good at because they were never meant to be internet service providers (yet have taken on this task poorly), and assuming the people in the room have developed some degree of digital mastery, then information will fall to hand.  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher’s mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.

The opportunity to collaborate and support each other is continuously available and learning reverts to the self-directed and driven activity it was before we institutionalized it.  Questions of engagement quickly become irrelevant in a world where teachers aren’t vital because of facts they know.  Those sages are going to have to find other ways to pamper their egos.  If they aren’t expert learners themselves they will quickly find that they have no skill to share with students, and if you have no skills to teach you don’t serve much purpose in a world where any fact is a few keystrokes away.

There was a time when you needed a teacher to show you the way into hard to find information.  Nowadays a good high speed internet connection has that information at your fingertips, assuming you know how to use it.  Many teachers are still trying to be a font of information, even as the information revolution passes them by.  The real losers in this aren’t the teachers struggling to keep things the way they were, but the students we’re graduating who have no idea how different the world on the other side of school actually is.

Union Math

Them Unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
And that’s why you’ll never seen a Unicorn… to this very day.


I’m showing my age here but there you go.  That song came out two years before I was born and it was played in our Norfolk sea-side house regularly when I was very little.  It was playing in my head as I read an astonishing email from our local union executive this week where they repeatedly congratulated themselves on the system they now claim to have had a hand in creating in response to the pandemic.  This is suprising as earlier they claimed that things were happening without their input or consent, but historical hind-sight lets you rewrite the narrative to make it look like you did something, I suppose.


This self congratulatiory email went on to state that teachers should be assigned a maximum of 225 minutes of student instruction daily, and 75 mins of preparation time.  Having never been provided with these things I’m at a loss to explain the rhetoric in any rational terms.  So deaf has been our union that I’ve quit as our local CBC representative after numerous emails and calls for clarification and support went unanswered, even when I was advocating for other members.  I’m pro-union because I know what would happen if One Percenters had dictatorial control, but our union isn’t particularly egalitarian either, though it likes to make noises like it is.  The longer I look at OSSTF the more classist it seems, so I shouldn’t be surprised that their support only appears to apply to certain members. 

Our president says we’re lucky we don’t teach in other boards, which isn’t very ‘help one another’ of him, but I’ve found that a sense of comraderie isn’t very resonant in our small, white, privaleged district.  From throwing other districts under the bus while pandering to provinicial liberal bias to fighting for clear and transparent communication with members, I’ve found our local a difficult beast to deal with.  And this from a guy who was once mentoring under the district president and attended many weekend trainings.  A guy who regularly shows up to policial protests, tries to present our profession in an honest and postiive light to the public and has volunteered at the school and district level for over a decade in a number of roles.


The problem with the district’s current belief in this fantastic schedule is that it conveniently ignores specific situations where the board doesn’t have the resources it needs to make it happen.  I think the board made a good decision under no direction or leadership from a broken ministry of education in setting things up as they did, but we then needed a local union ready to work to protect its members when the specifics of the plan could not be met.  What we have instead are a group of self contratulatory district types with a strangle hold on control of our local who are more interested in putting out emails that sound like they were written by our employer than they are in making sure all of their members have access to the same plan in terms of work expected.

What we need, unless qualifications don’t matter, is to agree that any teacher working in a classroom should be familiar with the curriculum and qualified to teach the subject they’re teaching.  Ironically, in the same email we were told not to do any writing jobs for TVO’s upcoming elearning program because there is no guarrantee that a qualified teacher will teach that material – that’s exactly what’s happening now in our district and we are waving a victory flag about it.
I did some maths this morning to try and work out who exactly is teaching 225 minutes a day as per our local cohorted covid teaching plan:

Someone ignorant to the job might read this as teachers only working 225 mintues a day, but that’s 225 minutes of instruction.  You can’t just walk in and do that.  You have to prepare what you’re doing and also mark the results.  Teaching is more like presenting in media as a DJ or TV presenter – the part you see is only a small part of the job as a whole.  When you see radical differences in instructional time the ‘under the water iceberg’ part of the job is also magnified.  I’m having trouble sleeping and I’m often up at 4am marking or prepping for my red-all-year schedule because it’s the only time available to do it.

You have to fall into a very specific catagory to luck out and get the union advertised 225 minutes of instruction.  The tricky thing about equity is that it needs to be equally distributed.  Having said that, even the 225 minutes of instruction is no cakewalk as you’ve got to create two sets of material (one remote and one face to face) and then deliver them in two places at once all day every day.  Re-writing and splitting the curriculum into a never-before-taught format on the fly is difficult enough but there are other political factors diminishing the effectiveness of that remote elearning half of our curriculum.


As you might guess, I’ve been given 6 double cohort sections this year and have never once been given a qualified face to face relief teacher.  Teaching technology means you need to have a tech qualified teacher or students have to stop hands on work for safety and liability reasons.  Hands-on work in class is at such a premium this year (we only have 52.5 hours of it compared to 110 hours in a regular class), that tech teachers are simply staying in class in order to protect what little tactile time students have – of course most tech teachers have small, single-cohort class sizes, but not me.  I get capped the same as a university bound calculus class.  Before this all kicked off admin said to us that they expected we’d all wave off relief support anyway in order to ‘let our kids keep on learning’.  The worst thing you want to be in a pandemic is a unicorn, just as in the song, you can expect to get ignored, left behind and drown in the indifference shown to you by your union.

I’m the only person in my building qualified to teach what I teach and this isn’t an academic subject that might be taught out of a text book.  Technology, like French or other skills based subjects, needs to be taught by people who know how to do the thing they’re teaching; you can’t fake it.  Usually the union is all over this, but they’re evidently blind to it this year – unless you want to try and escape this nastiness by writing elearning courses for TVO (yes, I’ve applied).

The union has a long term hatred of elearning and have been dismissive of it outright.  Elearning is a challenge, and I’ve been involved it in since its germination, but if done right it could offer a differentiated approach to learning that could serve some student needs (that’s what we’re here for right?).  What you don’t want to do (that this government is intent on) is Walmarting elearing into a cheap and pedagogically ineffective wedge that weakens the entire education system.  You don’t stop that mean-spirited, self-serving narcisism (the Ontaro PC party has donors who are ready to leap in with charter school options) by refusing to participate in it.  What we need is a union researching best pedagogical practices in elearning including which students it actually works for, and then advocating for that.  The ‘keep everything analogue’ approach is dangerously out of touch and a sure way to make both the educaiton system and the union itself irrelevant.


Union footdragging on elearing pedagogical effectiveness has made a mess of half our ‘class time’ with our students.  Double cohorted teachers don’t get to support their own class in elearning.  If you’re one of the lucky ones you’ve got a collaborative, technically savvy, qualified colleague who is helping you manage that, though you’re still responsible for all the planning, prep and review of work – though that gets hazzy too as we keep turning down exectations (no new content, no assessment and now no attendance) in our online cohorts.

We aren’t turning off all these aspects of learning in elearning for pedagogical reasons, we’re doing it to lessen the load on remote learning support teachers as per union direction.  This means we’re now trying to pack a 110 hour course in 52.5 hours of face to face classroom learning in a dramatically accelerated schedule with little chance for review or differentiation.  This is difficult in any course but in tech courses that rely almost exclusively on tactile, hands-on learning and which have been instructed to allow NO HANDS ON WORK remotely for liability and safety reasons, it reduces pedagogical effectiveness to well under 50% just based on time alone, I won’t get into how difficult it has been to get parts in as the pandemic has worn on.

Eleaarning could have been leveraged make this time-crunch work better from a pedagogical perspective.  The first (obvious) step would be to ensure that all tech classes or other specialist taught courses are single cohort in order to ensure both teacher familiarity but also provide qualifiied and meaningful remote support, but that would neccessitate a local union that is fighting for all members, even the ones who teach specialist courses.  It would also require a provincial union that isn’t intent on belittling elearning as a tool in Ontario education’s toolbox.  We’ve got dozens of teachers not teaching and providing toilet breaks for people in the building so the money and teaching talent was there, it has just lacked focus.

The result of this game of smoke and mirrors is a steady deterioration of remote learning expectations since this year of pandemic teaching began.  Every time we go fully remote we seem to lose leverage in the remote half of our regular in-school day.


This politically motivated intentional ignoring of remote elearning has resulted in many classes (I’m told by students) who have little or no remote elearning work at all.  There are single cohort teachers doing 120 minutes (2 hours) of face to face instruction in the morning and then simply walking away from the remote half of the course.  Students in that class are earning credits and grades based on less than half the normal class work and can’t possibly be coming anywhere close to regular curriculum expectations, but when it suits the political angle the union wants to take on elearning, it’s all good.

The other result of this wildly uneven scheduling of work is that some members are being waterboarded by a brutal workload that can include more than twice the instructional time (along with all the prep, marking and logitistical time required for it).  When I pointed this out after my first double cohort double class quadmester and suggested I should have lightened remote support expectations in the quadmester where my prep period resided (something we could have worked around with a more evenly distrubuted schedule instead of clinging to the old one), I was told by admin that wouldn’t be fair and everyone has to do the same duties.  That’s exactly the moment my union should have stepped in and shown how much extra work I’d already done, but they’d rather pat themselves on the back for a job well-done for a small percentage of their members.  The equity must be great if you’re lucky enough to have it.

I don’t think the current situation is a failure of the school board.  I think they made difficult choices as well as they could with no support or leadership from the ministry.  What we needed was our local union to show up and help mould that plan into something that is actually fair for everyone involved and differentiates based on availablity of qualifications.  More supported, credible and consistent elearning expectations should also have been developed and evolved over the course of this year, but our union’s poltiics can’t get out of its own way when it comes to elearning, even when it results in members being hurt by wildly unfair and inequitable work expectations.

I look forward to the next email that looks like an advertisement for my employer and shows no awareness or concern for member circumstances.  It’s probably sitting in my inbox right now.  I’m pretty sure I pay the same dues as everyone else, too bad the support isn’t equal.

You’ll see green alligators and long necked geese
Some humpy-back camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
You’re never gonna see no Unicorn.

This unicorn with his rare teaching qualifications isn’t just dealing with another double cohort double class quadmester.  This time around it’s double cohort double classes with stacked multi-grade senior classes, which means even more prep (grade 11 face to face work, grade 12 face to face work, grade 11 remote work, grade 12 remote work), and all packed into a single class capped at 31 students – like a university bound academic class, except my class of 31 includes 10% essential students, 35% applied students and over 50% of the class has an IEP (tech tends to attact students with special needs because it doesn’t expect them to sit in rows reading out of the same textbook).  The unicorning going on here is starting to feel less like benign neglect and more like systemic bias intent on extinction, which any technology teacher in Ontario education can tell you is nothing new.

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Apps For Education That Aren’t

Facebook, Google, whatever…

As we’ve been forced to shift online during the pandemic we’ve been placing demands on
Google Apps for Education that it simply isn’t capable of.  GAFE is, at best, a bunch of cheap software cobbled together by an advertising company in order to collect user data so they can sell things.

Trying to be productive in this environment is infuriating.  This cobbled together suite of software has atrocious UI (user interfaces) that my grade 11s could do a better job with.  Google has a rep as a software company but they’re really an advertising company that buys software companies and then twists them to feed their primary business.

The other day I likened using GAFE as a productivity tool to trying to do the Tour de France on a bicycle made out of soap.  Anyone who tells you GAFE is great has probably capped their professional teaching designations with an advertising company’s logo and is more interested in selling that than they are in providing you with a working edtech solution.  I’m willing to bet none of them have ever used other business based productivity suites and don’t know what they’re missing. 

***

Our edtech ecosystems aren’t designed with pedagogy in mind and are entirely predicated on liability management at the cheapest possible price, even though they aren’t particularly good at protecting privacy or providing a secure environment either.

While chasing this freemium software, education has tied itself to these questionable systems delivered by dodgy advertising companies that aren’t designed for productivity.  This makes one of the greatest expenses in education (the professionals who provide it) less efficient than they otherwise could be.  How we got to this point where we hand teachers software that actually gets in the way of teaching is beyond me.

An example of how non-educational the apps-for-edu suite is can be found in the evolution of Google Sites.  What was once a relatively modifiable system that even let you write your own HTML has evolved into a drag and drop toy that lets people ‘develop’ websites without any understanding of what’s going on behind the curtain.  As a means of teaching web development or even just graphic design, it’s about as useful as a slideshow.  Google loves to automate things for you to make life easy, but it doesn’t do much for you educationally or productively.

If we treated digital fluency, which is a system wide expectation in all aspects of education since the pandemic, in the same way that we treat literacy and numeracy (also expected in all aspects of education), we wouldn’t be selecting tools that do things for us to replace our understanding.  We don’t use tools in literacy and numeracy that just take the hard work out of your hands and do it for you – if we did no one would be able to read, write or do maths.

Our technology stance with digital fluency is the equivalent of teaching spelling by giving all students a word-processor that reads and writes for them while we pat ourselves on the back for a 100% literacy rate.  This laziness with digital fluency seeps into all aspects of education where automated digital tools are quickly coming to replace fundamental student skills instead of supporting their development.  There are neurologically tested negative results to this kind of digitization, like the inability to recall details when entering new learning digitally.  Of course, Google has no interest in you hand writing notes because they can’t monetize that.  Reconsidering our educational digital technology would not only mean we could teach digital literacy like it mattered, but we’d also protect pedagogy throughout the system from companies that have no interest in it.

I still dream of a day where we don’t line up to spend tax payer’s money on inefficient and questionable educational technology that has no interest in providing the best possible pedagogical experience for our students while maximising teacher productivity and focus on teaching.  Working from a credible basis like that, we could build our own open source educational technology (both hardware and software) and develop the kind of deep understanding of digital tools that would make our classrooms relevant and our students world leaders in terms of technology understanding and use.

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