Types of Genius

I just re-read a fantastic article in WIRED about types of genius.

After examining art history, an economics professor noticed two distinct expressions of genius. There is the Conceptualist, who usually goes right after her goals with a preconceived notion of how to get there. Conceptualists usually peak early and loudly, they are the ‘typical’ kind of child genius people think of, like Mozart. The less well known creative genius is the Experimentalist. They slowly develop across their lives and their greatest work usually comes later in life.

Someone like Jackson Pollack didn’t really start producing until his thirties and didn’t really hit his stride until well into his forties. His early work is terrible. He developed his style through years of trial and error, hence, an experimentalist.

Picasso’s greatest works came early and created an incredible shock wave. He had a preconceived notion of what he wanted to do and did it. As a conceptualist his work presented a radical change in how things were done. While he produced many great works across his long life, it is generally understood that his early work presents his strongest.

I’ve always liked Robert Frost, and now that I know his history, I see he’s an experimentalist, just like me. It’s nice to be in such good company. As a late bloomer myself, I remember the painful efforts of my teachers to educate me when I simply wasn’t ready for it. I was always a good reader and writer, but even my English teachers (I now have an honours degree in English) couldn’t reach me (“a disruptive influence in class”). I finally had the sense to drop out (something kids aren’t allowed to do any more) and work for a few years before I went back and graduated at the age of 22.

It makes you wonder just what a FAILURE in a course really means. I had my fair share of them, and they weren’t exactly great for my slow-motion approach to development.

The recent round of ‘your son is not up to STANDARDS’ from his elementary teachers had me very worried, but when I dug up this article again, I feel a bit better. Even geniuses can arrive last, being off-average in school is by no means an indicator of your actual abilities, it’s simply a system based on averages. Exceptionality lives outside of those averages, I’d rather be there than in the NORMAL range.

Archive: 2007: Artist Training With Historical Context

Summary of: http://atking.ca/timothy/arttraining.htm

Art education has evolved to meet the needs of the human society in which it exists. In a less complex, earlier society, the apprenticeship system offered a mirror of the human family structure that allowed practitioners to work in an intensive, personalized environment. As the population grew, this one on one instruction was no longer possible. Educational expectations made it financially impossible for a teacher to only have handful of students over the course of their careers. Apprenticeships became guild affiliated and finally the training of visual arts became the purview of specialized institutions of higher education. During this advancement, the personal/mentoring aspect of the apprenticeship system has been lost.

The modern view of visual arts is complex. Once a straightforward trade based entirely on quantifiable and observable skills development surrounding the recreation of natural forms, the visual artist has become something of a hybrid, straddling the lines between the experiential, materials handling, hand-eye skills associated with a skilled trade and the mental disciplines associated with aesthetics, philosophy, art history and the development of a personalized and unique artistic sensibility. The requirement of both of these rigorous mental and physical aspects within the field of visual arts is quite unique. Few other disciplines require the mental athleticism and hand eye skills that a mastery in visual arts demands. Teaching to this requirement is an ongoing struggle.

The benefits of this research in terms of presenting art history are fairly straightforward. What is perhaps more valuable to me is an awareness of just how difficult it is to balance the widely differing needs of visual arts in one course of study. My own background suggested that high school visual arts attempts to focus too much on the mental aspects of the discipline and leaves the challenging (and often repetitive) hand-eye skills development to college. My initial drive in reviewing the history of art and art training was to resurrect an interest in improving the technical proficiency of the high school visual arts student by recreating something of the intensity I experienced while apprenticing.

In retrospect, I think this will not work. As an apprentice, I was financially and professionally obliged to work through some very difficult material. Dropping out would have cost me a great deal of money, not to mention lost me my job. High school students do not have this motivation, especially in visual arts which is not even a mandatory course. In order to serve as wide a public audience as possible, it makes sense to design visual arts curriculum around Socrates’ view of visual arts, as a course designed to create an interest in the visual arts as part of a liberal arts education. This would, of course, require students to become aware of the means of production of visual arts (so studio work is still an important portion of the curriculum), but it would not require the students themselves to be artists with the associated intensity of expression. I find this very similar to the current atmosphere in English, where literacy is stressed, but the teacher isn’t looking to cater to student writers. It is assumed that these students will display competence in the basic skills and find ways to express their writing skills in specialized courses or outside of the curriculum.

I find it unfortunate that curriculum can not cater to mastery focused students in this way. Visual artists in high school would simply, for them, an empty survey of the subject matter while they wait for an opportunity to really exercise their creativity in a post-secondary situation more suited to their need for specialization. This situation makes me wish for a means of bypassing years of unproductive basics, especially if a student wants to specialize intensively in a particular subject. An early graduation for these students might be a suggestion to move them into more effective learning. If an exceptional fine arts student demonstrated sufficient technical ability and the wish to more aggressively pursue their discipline, the opportunity to apply to post-secondary institutions at the age of 16 or 17 might make public education more than simply waiting to turn eighteen.

Note: Interestingly, the high skills arts major became an option only two years after this was written.

Note: Interesting tie in with the Mastery Blog entry from last week.

Information – Skills – Mastery

I was chatting with @banana29 about that learning thing on the weekend. She’d been wrestling with the idea of skills based learning, ultimately finding it too limiting in describing what we’re actually aiming for in education.

After we ruminated for a few minutes, we came up with the idea of Mastery. We don’t teach students information, or even skills, but what we look for ultimately is mastery (something more encompassing and complex than knowledge or simple skills development).
This bounced me back to a conversation I’d had the other week at a heads PD on assessment. The teacher I was chatting with had been heavily involved with the Hockey Canada coaching program. While in it, they were told that in order for a player to have gained a mastery of the game, they need to have put ten thousand hours into to it. While talking to him, we brought up Wayne Gretzky. I saw an interview with his Dad, Walter, back in the day. The interviewer was saying how Wayne was a natural and Walter just shook his head and laughed. He then told the story of Wayne’s childhood. He’d get up, and go play hockey before school, he’d play hockey on recess and at lunch, he’d come home and… play hockey. In the winter he averaged 4-6 hours a day on the backyard rink; in the summer he played ball hockey. Wayne Gretzky wasn’t a natural, he was a master, who’d put the hours in and learned (and earned) his mastery.
Back to the skills talk: the idea of skills is inherently limited. A skill is defined by its limitations; it’s one of the ways we’re able to focus on them and perfect them. To take the hockey metaphor again, skating is a skill, stick handling is a skill, shooting is a skill. These and many others work in complex ways to develop something that relies on them and many other indirect and seemingly esoteric skills and knowledge to create an encompassing and complete mastery.
Perhaps this is that missing piece everyone seems to be looking for in education. We focus on knowledge and information, we focus on skills development, but we never look for mastery, or encourage it in all its esoteric forms. Mastery training can get awfully abtruse too, bizarre even. I once saw the Detroit Red Wings playing hackey sack before a playoff game; masters getting Zen while warming up their hand/foot/eye coordination, teamwork and focus? or guys screwing around?
Mastery assumes a level of professionalism and focus that isn’t in question. We have trouble doing that in PD, let alone with students. If we can’t trust teachers to apply themselves to their professional development in a self directed, meaningful way (something a master will do no matter what), the idea of students doing it approaches absurdity. Perhaps mastery is more than we can expect from the education system.
Another problem in elementary and secondary education (it happens in post secondary) is being able to focus on a specific field in order to develop mastery. In Ontario, this is changing now with High Skills Specialists and other focuses beyond the bland, traditional subject haze that students have been dragged through.
The problems don’t end there. In a system that prides itself on segmentation and order, mastery becomes a slippery concept that doesn’t fit well into curriculum documents, class bells, mid term reports and percentage grades. Mastery leaves all of that nonsense behind, the master becomes an embodiment of their discipline.
That ‘nonsense’ is vital to an apprentice though. Without structure, and planned practice that develops the knowledge and skills needed, someone working toward mastery will take much longer to embody their expertise. Perhaps the fact that mastery isn’t mentioned, or even understood to be the point of the educational process, is where we run into trouble. Structure is vital to learning, but it seems empty and pointless if there isn’t an ultimate goal beyond the skills and knowledge happening right in front of you. The student being drilled on grammar or working to develop their sentence structure has no sense of what it is they are pursuing: the mastery of a writer. If they aren’t pursuing mastery, they are spending all of their time getting drilled in stick handling, passing and shooting and never getting to play a hockey game.
The problem there might be that the masters teaching aren’t really masters themselves, but rather experts in running drills and practicing. It’s not always easy to convince a master to teach their discipline to the unwashed masses, they tend to want to pick and choose their apprentices, looking for people who demonstrate the kind of personalities and inherent abilities that will improve chances of success. Spending time and energy on an unworthy apprentice is exhausting and wasteful.
Ultimately, mastery, or even the striving for it, ends up seeming exclusionary, but training with no purpose creates skills and knowledge without context, which is very hard to explain or justify.
Last year I had a student who earned a 46% in grade eleven college level English. He thanked me profusely for ‘giving’ him a 50% and a pass. I told him it was no favour, moving him to grade 12 was going to be very difficult for him. His response was, “it’s ok, I just didn’t try this year, I’ll try next year and get the B average I need for college.”
He didn’t get that 70%, in fact, he dropped the course on his first go around and is now at a loss on what to do. His problem wasn’t effort, his problem was that he couldn’t spell, his grammar was atrocious, I’d seen grade 9s with better vocabulary and he had virtually no understanding of sentence or paragraph structure. He could try as hard as he wanted, but his complete lack of a workable foundation in English is where the real problem lay.
In a system that feels to many students like random, fractured, pointless skills development with wads of knowledge dumped on top, the idea that they need to be developing toward something other than their next summative assessment is foreign. It’s foreign for many of their teachers too.

Backwards edtech

At PD this week we were working with arts teachers, many of whom were technically disinterested if not outright techno-phobic. Watching them work with our frustratingly slow network while trying to show them basic Google tools only amplified their distrust. One asked me, “why would I wait around to see if this works? Why not just TALK to the students?”
EDTECH TRUTH: poor network delivery weakens all aspects of online educational support.
  • It’s frustrating to see all of that good stuff, stuff I can use fluently and easily at home, grind to a stop while on the board internet.
  • It makes teaching others how to use it almost impossible
  • It makes doing elearning at school agonizing (for teachers and students)
  • It makes edtech seem like a giant time-sink, when it’s supposed to be an efficiency booster.
  • It calls into question the competency of the people trying to show the material in the minds of new tech learners (when it won’t load, it looks like we don’t know what we’re doing)
The problem is that we still think IT delivery in education revolves around access to machines (still mainly focused on desktop computers). The vast majority of students have their own technology to access the internet. Cheap smart phones, netbooks and tablets have de-centralized online access, but we still spend all our time and money on maintaining easily (and often) vandalized desktop labs. These time and energy sinks should be kicked to the curb.
When I think about the labs in my school, I think only the CAD/design and media arts labs needs full desktops (they need the CPU horsepower and big screens). Every other lab would work better as a mobile netbook lab or mobile tablet lab. The cost of a desktop lab of 24 machines? About $45,000. The cost of a mobile lab of 30 ipads? About $18,000 (and that includes a teacher macbook, charging cart, the works! Isn’t that cool?), a better than 2 to 1 price advantage. Imagine swapping out all of your labs at a 2 to 1 ratio and replacing them with ipads, or netbooks (which are actually cheaper – under $10,000 for a 30 laptop lab). I won’t even get into the energy savings (mobile devices use way less electricity, create less heat and lower A/C costs too).
Edtech is staggering in this direction, years behind where business is. In 2002-3 when I was working as an IT technician, my offices were all being converted to laptops. Those same offices are now a mix of smart phones, tablets and laptops, depending on what the employee needs access for. I think the servers are the only thing left that look desktoppy. The office runs multiple overlapping wireless networks that automatically switch traffic depending on load through two IPs. They also shape traffic based on values; you can access facebook and youtube, but those packets are deprioritized over machine to machine and other internet packets (I’ve asked our board to do this and they say they can’t). They’ve had no downtime in two years thanks to built in redundancy; no single points of failure.
After becoming a teacher I was flabberghasted to see the labs still modeled on 80’s tech, and they’re still here. My first year teaching I told our librarian about wifi, he’d never heard of it before. He was excited about trying it out because so many students were bringing their laptops in and couldn’t access the internet. The computer club I founded got a wireless router and plugged it in behind a book case. For less than a hundred bucks dozens of students were able to get online. Some careful setup allowed them only onto the internet and not the board network. It took board IT a year to notice it and demand that it be removed, though not a single problem had occurred while it was running for that year, and the library became the place to go to get your research done; obviously not what should be happening in a library.
Here I am, seven years later. Wifi is now available school wide, but it typically takes 10 seconds to load a single page and has the most asinine security I’ve ever seen (open network with a pointless login that makes mobile devices go crazy). Our board has spent big money to create a fibre optic school to board office network, with a single internet connection to feed all schools through the board, and now it’s overloaded.
I wonder when they’ll catch up to my office from 2003.

Do Or Do Not, There Is No Try

I just got back from a morning session of department head PD looking over Damian Cooper’s ideas on assessment; it was a lot to take in and I’m trying to give some voice to the doubts while also sorting through what I liked about Cooper’s ideas.

Time management is a concern I have. It’s one thing to suggest that assessment be the result of diligent and ongoing consultation with students, but it’s another to ask that this be done when you have 90+ students in a single semester. A system that is still mired in 19th and 20th Century ideas about reportage and teachers who want to make assessment meaningful are about as far apart as two things can get. Teachers trying to do this in the current framework would be stretched mighty thin.

Our reportage is still very much time specific and causes a great deal of stress with teachers and students. We’re coming up on midterms now, we’ve been given a specific time (down to the minute) when percentage grades, specific learning skills and precise comments are required. In the next breath we’re being told to open up assessment, despecify grades into learning levels and provide constant meaningful assessment as feedback.

Perhaps the most valuable thing Cooper’s ideas can do is create a political movement for change at the Ministry level. By changing parental (and teacher) expectations around assessment, perhaps we can move towards a more flexible, meaningful reporting environment that still provides post secondary education with the yard stick they need for entrance, but also allows us to focus more on developing student learning.

Imagine a system where teachers and students create a constantly evolving assessment space that is open to parents, completely transparent. Rather than trying to hit specific timelines behind closed doors, teachers are able to develop assessment with students and constantly update how students are transitioning through the curriculum. The criteria are open and wide ranging, taking into account everything from soft skills like teamwork and self directed learning, all the way to curriculum specific hard skills. This open system would have to get rid of the edu-speak because students and teachers must be able to observe and participate in it while parents would be able to look in; a truly transparent and meaningful exercise in assessment. A less rigid grading system not dictated by mid-term specific timing, or percentage marks means that grades could evolve and develop while a student is with a teacher, allowing for latest, greatest results without math games like weighting creating even more abstract results. Grades would be end-of-course-weighted to ensure a better look at what students have actually learned in the course, rather than forcing early grades before they can demonstrate best work.

The Khan Academy concept of competence would be, perhaps, a better way to consider whether or not a student has actually attained mastery of a concept. Percentage grades are an abstract concept. I got low Cs in high school math up until grade 12, and in my 2 senior years I ended up getting 50s and failing, because I had nothing like the foundation needed to succeed. 50% is an abstract concept, it has nothing to do with whether you know the subject or not, yet we think of it as a pass. Would you want this level of grading to apply to the mechanic who just fixed your brakes? Or the pilot landing the plane? The static, percentage system has somehow become a habit that is seen to have academic validity, because it’s harsh? It seems to offer some kind of certainty? When it comes to hard skills in curriculum, a student knows it or they don’t, they can demonstrate it or they can’t. This isn’t a question of whether they are present or participating, it’s a matter of skill.

The Khan idea is that you either understand the concept and can demonstrate it consistently, or you don’t. If you don’t, you keep hacking away at it without fear of failure, until you get a handle on it. One of the big fears we face in the class is risk aversion, which is almost entirely a result of the arbitrary, static and specific grading and reporting system we use. I couldn’t get grade 12s to try things and fail, they only wanted to do it right the first time (“because I have to get high marks to get into university”). We feed that fear with midterms and percentage grades.

If we’re assessing skills, do you really want to assess it based on “they kind of know it” (is that what a 64% says?), or “they pretty much know it” (77%)? There is no validity in this, just a vague kind of petty certainty, put in place to make it easy for post secondary education to think they are accurately separating the wheat from the chaff; it doesn’t serve learning at all.

I guess I like Damian’s ideas, but simplifying grading from percentages to levels doesn’t go far enough. It really comes down to you can demonstrate what you know or you can’t. You can do this in many different and meaningful ways, but you either can or you can’t.

Do or do not, there is no try.

Do you know it or don’t you? Can you demonstrate big understandings or not? This certainly applies to literacy and numeracy, and I’d argue that any subject area that has any kind of coherent development of skills (ie: all of them).

In that brave new world of assessment, post secondary institutions would have to stop thinking that 83% describes a person’s knowledge of a complex field. To begin with, they should start basing entrance on learning skills, which could easily be expanded to target successful criteria for post secondary students (self discipline, ability to overcome learning obstacles, attendance and punctuality, timeliness, peer pressure skills, etc). If teachers could get away from agonizing over abstract percentages that have no real world meaning and simply look at whether or not a student grasps the skills they need to have, we’d finally have assessment serving learning.


FUTURE SCHOOL:  A bit of fiction about an open, individualized education system after the Singularity.

DIY Electrical Generation Should Be A Mandated Future

Everyone is wringing their hands over the disaster in Japan, questioning nuclear energy (usually while using it to power their computers to post complaints about it). I’m a fan of nuclear energy, but it does come with risks, especially when you hit well run facilities with a massive earthquake and then a ten metre wall of water. In these circumstances a disaster is immanent.

If we really want to deal with our electrical dependency we need to change the way we’re using it. We only develop industrial scale electrical generation to keep prices artificially low and hide the costs of generating it. Don’t think it’s hidden? Do you have a nuclear/fossil fuel fired/wind farm generating system near you? If you do, you don’t think it’s hidden.
Eventually what you want is locally generated electricity. If this is done on small, local scales it doesn’t have to be painful. The NIMBYism that surrounds generation is because industrial scale operations are planted in people’s back yards. A personal wind collector isn’t that big a deal, dozens of three hundred foot tall towers are.
Conservation shouldn’t be a choice, it should be a standard. From the existing infrastructure a cap of 100kWh/person/month in a residence could be a starting point. We need existing infrastructure to maintain this standard for us. That means continuing to use nuclear and fossil fuel generators.  If you want to generate your own after that you’d have first dibs on using it (it would be added to your total usable amount). Whatever you don’t use in a month is refunded back to you. A family of three who generates 200KWhs a month would be able to live much as we do now (we average about 500kWh a month in a 1700 sq ft house in Canada). A dozen solar panels on the roof would exceed this if well placed and maintained. Our neighbor has just done this very thing, they are making more electricity than they use in a month now. Three houses could share the cost and maintenance of a small scale wind generator and live at current consumption levels comfortably.
This is with existing technology. Future technology in both concentrated solar and lighter than air wind turbines that hang above the boundary layer of air are much more efficient. Focused solar produces stunning amounts of energy in a short time and lighter than air wind turbines resolve many of the problems surrounding noise while at the same time making use of the more constant and efficient air streams above the turbulent air that flows over the ground.
A mandated push into self generated electricity would put an end to industrial scale mega projects (nuclear, wind farm, fossil fuel burning or otherwise). The problem we have is that we want other people to do all the work to generate electricity out of sight and out of mind. We take no responsibility in what we consume and then complain about how it’s all being done. In many cases we’re completely ignorant of how these systems work, and after reading the panicky comments on the internet this week, I’ve realized many people are happy to live in fear and ignorance of nuclear power generation as long as their bills are low. How someone can attack nuclear power generation while using it to power their house and post stupid comments on the internet is an irony of our times. It’s time we started taking responsibility for what we are using.
Decentralizing the electrical system means making a system that is less a one way delivery system from industry to consumer and more a web of interconnected users and generators. This smart grid would encourage and make use of locally developed energy generation. Even if you aren’t using your solar at a given moment you could be using your neighbor’s wind or locally developed hydro. By using local sources the losses in transmission fall dramatically. Our current industrial/remote generation model loses about 6.5% of the energy produced to transmission. The further you have to transmit, the more you lose. Those long transmission systems are the sources of failure in ice storms and what over heat when energy use is too much. Transmission is our greatest single point of failure (though generation is giving it a run for its money in the news this week).
Until we take responsibility for generating at least some of the energy we want to use, we will keep making massive, industrial scale power generators that cause local problems. Taking the money spent on new, large projects and applying to locally generated power is a first step. Not forcing industrial scale energy production just because it’s sustainable (a question in itself), but truly democratizing energy production. Existing infrastructure could be modernized and eventually downsized as the power grid becomes decentralized, more efficient and a true multi-directional conduit for us to share our power amongst ourselves.
In that future, Japan would have had fewer nuclear power plants operating when the tsunami hit, locals in Wellington county wouldn’t be upset over heavy handed provincial plans to force massive wind farms on them, and we’d pour money into the companies that are doing R&D on more efficient solar and wind systems. That future might have solar energy collecting windows in every home, focused solar collectors that rise out of the ground every morning and disappear at night, and turbines hanging in the steady winds hundreds of metres up, constantly generating in a small but sustainable way.
There is no doubt that large scale electrical production still needs to occur. Nuclear systems need to become even more efficient, and eventually lead to fusion and other more advanced energy systems. We learn a lot from generating nuclear energy (more than we do from doing what cavemen did on an industrial scale by burning fossil fuels). What we learn from those big projects might eventually lead us to orbiting energy production and other space based solutions.
Even at its best a massive population centre would have trouble keeping up with demand. Businesses are by far the largest energy hogs. Stories last summer about stores leaving their doors open and air conditioning on full blast so customers would be enticed in on a hot day are representative of how businesses don’t think about conservation. A 100kWh/1000 sq/ft/month limit unless they begin to generate their own would be a start. Having much larger roofs, these stores could easily produce much more electricity if they wished, and perhaps they’d be a bit more reticent about flushing it out the door on a hot day if they were paying properly for it.
If we could begin the process of diversification by demanding legislation that requires an energy network rather than a distribution system (this is already happening), and encourages people to take on the responsibility of at least some of their own energy generation and consumption, then at least we’d be moving in a better direction than our current one of ignorance, fear and NIMBYism.

an immanent disruption

We’re on the verge of a market change due to digital distribution, very similar to what happened in the music industry a decade ago. Just as music changed from a manufactured, industrial medium (CDs) to a digital, fluid medium (mp3s), text books (and books in general, but especially texts because of the ludicris overhead) will begin to ‘leak’ digitally.

As the means to access digital texts becomes more available, the medium will force a change in how distribution occurs. Because (like the music industry before them) the text book publishing industry has a huge industrial infrastructure they have to try and continually justify, they will not adapt to the new means of text transmission. Disruption is immanent and unavoidable.

This certainly doesn’t mean the end of the traditional textbook, but if the existing publishers follow the footsteps of other industries in trying to resist this disruption rather than adapt to it, expect plenty of angry stories about the evils of internet “piracy,” with little recognition that piracy isn’t the problem at all.”

Already open source publications have started to appear.

The text book publishing industry has fed at great expense from the public (and private) school systems almost since the beginning. The change of transmission medium poses some interesting challenges for teachers, but also many opportunities for authors and editors, especially in locally developed courses. Without having to carry massive printing and shipping costs, and all the sales and marketing infrastructure that has to force it into a high volume industry to stay financially viable, text books could easily be developed at very local levels quite affordably. Ministries could share resources across common curriculum and the results would be locally grown content that fits our specific needs. No more mass market American focused text books that we have no choice but to buy into. The elearning system has already proven the viability of this.

Academics have long peer edited, reviewed, assessed and produced their own literature. Teachers are more than capable of doing the same, and I know many who would happily take a period in a semester to build a new e-text for board or provincial distribution. In house, without the weight of paper publication attached, educational texts could become much more current and specifically designed for student needs, much as the OERB and elearning courses have been written by Ontario teachers for Ontario students. In many cases, that same material could be re purposed to an e-text format without having to reinvent the wheel. Because the material is owned communally and locally, it could easily and often be updated and maintained for continuous consumption. Following the idea of a modular text book, teachers could even assemble specific material in a specific order prior to beginning their class – a digital version of those booklets you used to buy from professors with the selected readings bound in them.

No more 15 year old texts warning of the impending release of Windows XP, no more mold, no more focuses on other countries because our choices simply didn’t offer a Canadian equivalent.

This is my kind of disruption.

To push things along, I’m presenting an ereader pilot tomorrow at our heads’ meeting. We’re hoping to see where the technology is and how etexts might work in the classroom. There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong side of the fence when everything changes. Go look up one of the modern history texts in your school this week and find the chapter on the recent collapse of the iron curtain, and you’ll see why.

Want to see a future text book? Have a look here. Whether it’s ipads, Knos, laptops, PDAs or one of a million variations on the Android tablet, we’re on the verge of making digital content easier to access than paper based content. The education system, the main source of income for this fumbling giant, will need to find a better way as it collapses, and collapse it will. No one invested in billions in infrastructure and decades of consistent market place dominance will even know how to begin to adapt, even if what they are doing is wasteful, expensive and self serving.

Peak oil is all about peak food production

You can’t feed six billion people without it. I’m reading The End Of Food right now. The level of societal change we would have to undertake to revert 80% of the population to manual food production would (will) be impossible. The fact that we don’t even see it coming is just absurd.
The whole middle east uprising isn’t about freedom or democracy at all, it’s about food. Prices skyrocketed, wheat yields in Africa collapsed starting 2 years ago, corn is unavailable so Americans can drive pickup trucks, and not even iron fisted dictators can stop a hungry mob. The amount of press afforded the “Arab Awakening” in terms of freedom, democracy or the even more crass “power of social networking” is completely out to lunch.
Middle east uprisings aren’t about democracy, or rights, but food prices and cost of living. I read an article on the ug99 crop fungus in WIRED last year. Unconnected? I suspect not.
A verilent new version of a crop disease that almost crippled the world in the 70s (saved by some gene splicing and dna magic) has figured out how to overcome the GM crops designed to resist it – it starts in Northern Africa, causing wheat to all but disappear from the market, corn has since been diverted to ethanol production, making it in short supply… chaos ensues, but we try and say, “it’s because they want to be like us!”
Who said colonialism is dead?
The future looks bleak If we want to be teaching useful education, we should be teaching them how to grow their own food, without oil, immediately. Instead we spend a fortune running a school that is, on net analysis, doing more damage to the world than good – and we’re in the business of making better people! Imagine what the net worth of a self-serving business is in a world of dwindling resources.
Instead we complain about high gas prices, irrationally saying that they should be lower because that is more convenient for us and go on buying gene-copyrighted crops (that are about to fail wholesale) from Monsanto from the lowest bidder.
Local sustainability should become an immediate local, provincial and national mandate. Globalism has collapsed, but we’ve become so dependent on a broken system that we are virtually helpless.
We’ve taught ourselves to be helpless on the eve of the greatest disaster in human history.

elearning and the teacher/student relationship

A little while back I caught a National Geographic show studying human intelligence. In studying various great ape social groups they narrowed down perhaps the most exceptional aspect of human being: our ability to teach each other. Most of the technology we develop is keyed to enhancing this aspect of human civilization.  What began as the transmission of basic skills has evolved into a world wide civilization that has peaked into the heart of matter and seen to the edge of the universe. We suddenly find ourselves holding immense power, and only seek to discover more. The ability to learn and teach are powerful skills indeed.

The fundamental relationship at the heart of this transmission of knowledge: master/apprentice, teacher/student, mentor/mentee, exists in every human (and, it appears, any intelligent animal) society, and is generally acknowledged as one of great importance. Whether you’re a Sensei in a dojo, a master craftsman passing on the skills of your trade, or a teacher in a modern education system, the fundamental nature of your job is the same: transmission of knowledge through human contact.

Transmission of knowledge occurs very effectively through these human relationships. When I think about key teachers in my life, they ring true for me because they were people of exceptional emotional honesty, as well as knowledgeable people. They related to me on many levels. I see students cotton on to various teachers in the school because, on many levels, they vibrate at the same frequency. From an administrative point of view, this is why it’s vital that schools have many different kinds of teachers who teach in different ways. It’s also one of the fundamental problems with trying to systematize the transmission of learning.

We’ve got the elearning Ontario conference coming up and I’m just coming off a semester where I had to manage no less than 6 elearning courses. Having now taught elearning remotely and in-class, I’m trying to wrestle with the challenges of teaching through the elearning system. In-class, I found good students frustrated because they felt isolated from the teacher (because of the split focus between the online course and the physical presence of the teacher). I found weak students frustrated because of poor computer literacy. They didn’t want or seek a stronger relationship with the teacher, but couldn’t access the course information or assignments behind a digital veil; anger was often the result.

Over the years I’ve had some wonderful teachable moments with remote students. Sometimes through text (with exceptional writers and readers in 4U English), but more often through video conference (which doesn’t demand a poet’s touch for honest, direct contact). A while back, our board set up an Adobe Connect server allowing me to talk to students directly. While still not as immediate as an in-class relationship with a student, the video link does a lot to mitigate the sense of isolation. Unfortunately, the html only elearning system has no intrinsic ability to make this multi-media link possible.

As we begin to move from oil dependence, elearning is going to become a more critical means of delivering curriculum. Being physically present in the same place at the same time will become increasingly expensive. At the moment, elearning does a lot to minimize the personal nature of that teacher/student relationship. Much of this revolves around bandwidth, technology accessibility and lack of experience in both students and teachers. I’ve been sitting in school waiting 10 seconds for *every* page to load while working through elearning – and those were text pages. In addition to the technical issues, elearning also contains courses not written by the teachers delivering them. Any teacher who teaches other people’s material knows how awkward this can be. Elearning is still new, and is having on going problems in its completion rates due to these difficulties.

At home I’m an online game player. I have lists of friends, very few of whom I’ve met in person, many of whom I feel I know well. We’ve fought zombies, explored strange wildernesses and worked together through all sorts of adventures. With sufficient bandwidth and technology on site, multimedia information can flow between people in surprisingly complex and meaningful ways. It’s still not the same as being in the same place, but it can come astonishingly close. If you ever have a chance to play WoW, or another in-depth online game, you know what I’m talking about.

I’m not in elearning because it will solve all of our problems instantly, that is ridiculous. I’m in it because it is embryonic. Using technology that people couldn’t even imagine 2 generations ago, I want to try to find a way to bring the essence of that fantastically ancient learning relationship alive, not just through eyes, vocal chords and ears, but through fibre optics, interactive media and the cybernetics that have become a part of who we are.

It’s as close as I can get to sci-fi while teaching. Frustrating? Sure, but I get to “boldly go…”, and that is priceless.



This is a post from a few weeks ago on that elearning pilot program. It includes a review of the student survey statistics from the end of the course.

back from the future

Ever wondered what it would be like to teach a class where all students have their own laptop? Anyone reading this has probably spend some time wondering what it would be like to have internet access and computers for all students. No digital divide…

I’m just wrapping up a semester where I was asked to pilot the elearning version of the Career Studies, grade 10 half semester course. I was teaching all of the career studies in a school of approximately 1500 students. We have a workplace focused high school in our board, but it’s far enough away that most parents opt to keep their children in the community at our school, as a result we have a full spectrum of students, all of whom must take this mandatory class.  The students in the open career studies course ran the gamut from highly at-risk and barely literate to students already attending lectures at The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. The grade range ran from end to end (from 0 to 100%).

What follows is a review of the elearning pilot, with some supporting statistics and observations.


If I had to summarize quickly, I’d say that doing career studies in a hybrid elearning class was very useful. Students assume they know more about computers than they actually do (partly due to the fact that we keep telling them that they are digital natives). Doing elearning in a hybrid/introductory way does several things:

it shows many of them how hopelessly addicted to Facebook they are (which created some interesting self-reflexive analysis in the classroom)

Any review of network traffic showed Facebook returning page views at a rate of 50 to 1 over ALL OTHER INTERNET TRAFFIC COMBINED. They are unable to turn it off and are constantly distracted by it. Turning it off at the router caused a minor uprising where they all suddenly appear to have grown Law degrees and a working knowledge of the Constitution.

This broke the myth of the digital native for me.  When I asked them to estimate their own expertise on computers, I (like most others) expected this:

The FAKE stat.

… but I got this:

The real stat.

…which looks mighty similar to the ability curve you get in the general population.

This elearning course, the first for all of these students, pointed out a number of challenges:

  • it makes students aware of how little they know about basic computer functionality (file types and organization, how to edit simple documents, basic network and computer operation, online digital tools that are available – not one of them had heard of Prezi or knew that their hotmail accounts would allow them to save documents online). Less than 1/4 had ever used googledocs.
  • it makes those students that do have technical literacy appreciate (and be appreciated for) what they know (instead of telling them that they all know it because they are teenagers, when they clearly don’t, which devalues the knowledge).  Student tech-wizes are as rare as tech-wizes in the general population, but we belittle their knowledge by assuming they all ‘know computers’.
  • it gives students a fundamental understanding of the elearning system. A few will see it as an avenue for success (which is good), but many who suddenly find they may need elearning to graduate will see far greater success because of their exposure here.

How the course went:

Doing it as an open/full spectrum course clearly shed light on what I’ve always found to be true; elearning’s self-directed element is what kills it for most at-risk students. It introduces a medium between the student and the material that gives them an excuse not to do work, usually while clearly highlighting their lack of digital skills (which causes embarrasment and some difficult classroom management situations).

I did elearning in Peel, and as far back as 2005, Peel was aiming elearning at University level students who had shown a clear aptitude for self-directed learning and strong computer skills. Without either of these skills (skills I’d argue that are developed much more significantly in academic/university level classes), elearning is likely to result in very poor success rates, specifically in non-academic streams.

Unless we’re going to focus on developing self-directed learning and digital competencies in non-academic classrooms it will continue this way.

As things developed, I had to go through the course, collect together all the summative pieces and print them out on paper for about 1/3 of the students in order for them to complete the required material. They did not have the technical skills to edit documents in a word processor and upload it to the elearning system, let alone keep their digital selves organized enough to find assignments they started (many never named files and copied over previous work with the same default file name).  There was little sense of continuity from class to class in these students, most of whom saw it as a Facebook miasma, rather than a course to pass.

A student’s ability to organize becomes much weaker when I would find the vast majority of the machines a student brought to me with a problem running Facebook in the background (it’s hard to stay organized, it’s harder to stay organized when facebook constantly interrupts you with pointless trivia).


I think the real problem is the myth of the digital native. We got shown this last year. Have you seen it? This kind of thinking drives me crazy. Computer skills are taught, they aren’t some kind of natural occurance based on your birth date. What this really is is fear. Older and/or less technically inclined people who feel overwhelmed by technology dress up kids today in this because they see them hop onto a computer without worrying about doing something wrong. Being familiar with something doesn’t indicate skill. If you actually observe what they are doing, you’ll see (as I did during this course) that weak students are digital serfs – they don’t know how to do anything, solve anything or look into new things, they only know how to do one or two things (usually Facebook and youtube: the internet for the dim).

What’s worse is that students who have developed real skill have it belittled when some Luddite says, “yeah, you guys all know this stuff, you’re digital natives.” (subtext: now I don’t have to address it or waste valuable class time trying to teach it to you)

Digital literacy should start in the junior grades, and they should be developing specific skills (data management, media creation, file management). In grade 9 there should be specific digital literacy targets in core subjects, but there aren’t (mainly due to a dirth of teachers who feel comfortable enough themselves to teach it). We expect them to know this stuff intrinsically, which is ludicrous.  21st Century skills will be much more vital to student success than 19th Century skills like sitting in factory organized rows listening to a teacher speak, but we don’t teach them.

In the meantime, boards propagate the myth of the digital native that excuses us from addressing digital literacy as a serious issue (they showed us that video above at a staff meeting).

Familiarity with computers isn’t a developed skill-set.  Self-taught digital skills are mostly just habit forming. Watching those careers students struggle with basic issues made me realize that elearning is really only designed for success for the top third of digitally literate students. The rest don’t have the vaguest idea of what they don’t know:

“Hey, I can’t edit this document!”
“You’re looking at it in WORD viewer…”
blank stares…

“I can’t find my file”
“You’ve saved all of your files in the course as the same name and over written it again and again.  That is why you have fourteen documents called document(1), document(2)…”
blank stares…

Some Other Observations:

Even though perhaps a quarter of our students come from rural/farming backgrounds, high speed internet penetration is quite good. This is probably due to two main factors: it’s now seen as a requirement for academic success (at home) and prioritized, and long range wireless (wimax, etc) has become standard in the area. 

 I suspect the real dividing line now is purely financial, which begs the question: when are we going to support students in getting over the digital divide?

When given a choice about whether they could have taken this class as elearning or in a traditional class, almost two thirds opted for the regular class. There was a real lash back against using computers for something productive – it spoiled/interfered with their only purpose (Facebook/Youtube access).  It’s hard to convince people that a toy is actually a tool.
As you can see, the same students willing to take the course over again in a hybrid classroom, are also willing to kick the training wheels off and do elearning completely remotely. If they get it, they get it.

An interesting discrepancy between technical skill and willingness to self-direct learning. The whole student centered thing is still pretty new, but getting students to direct their own learning is like pulling teeth. This goes beyond juniors in an open careers class. My university grade 12 computer science students were just as unwilling initially. In their case it was risk aversion. They were so afraid of not getting the numbers they need to go to university that they had no interest in doing open research that wouldn’t lead to a perfect result. 

Whether it’s how we’ve taught them to be dependent or how we’ve taught them to be terrified of errors, we aren’t producing self-directed learners, which is a tragedy.

The last one is hardware specific. The netbooks were coveted at the beginning of the course, but their limitations quickly became apparent. I posted the most common complaints (too slow, though this had more to do with the school network than the netbooks, but the digital natives didn’t comprehend that), and the tiny screen. Elearning is set up in long, texty pages. Students who aren’t strong readers go bonkers trying to read it on a 600 pixels tall netbook screen. Stronger readers can deal with it (and remember what they’re looking at), but for the weak readers, every scroll or paging action is another excuse to click on that Facebook tab and get hit by lots of disconnected, pointless information (the way they like it). 

The course would have been better served by a device that rotates for reading longways, then rotates back for data entry (or a big square screen, I guess).

The raw data from the student survey is below. This pilot was a very useful program that shed light on all sorts of issues. I was happy to do it and would like to see it continue, but I fear that it uncovers so many holes that it will quietly disappear back into the ether. Here’s hoping it doesn’t.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. The data was collected from 52 students in November, 2010, and 46 students in the second week of January, 2011.

The raw data can be found here (Excel format):