More Than A Book

I’ve got a nine year old son who is a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series on Nickelodeon.  It’s a huge improvement over his Spongebob period and a very intelligently written series.  I am guilty of watching it over his shoulder from time to time.

This Splinter was once a man who grew up in a family clan of ninjas who benefited from a lifetime of rich, traditional learning.  The action movie one read a book.

In the cartoon Splinter, the turtles’ surrogate father and sensei, is the descendent of a ninja clan.  He had been trained as a martial artist his entire life.  When he was mutated into a rat, he used this deep mastery to train the turtles.  Splinter is a master who is both funny, approachable and very strict.  His relationship with the turtles is deep and nuanced.

Because of this fixation with TMNT I found myself sitting in a movie theatre with my son watching Michael Bay’s ‘live’ action movie this summer.  The Splinter in the film is actually a rat.  When he got mutated (into a bigger rat) he found a book on ninjitsu and trained the turtles.  That the kids watching this film think that this is a viable avenue into mastering martial arts points to a lot of things wrong with the world today.  A lot of that thinking is driven by the ease of access to information championed by digital technology.  But information isn’t knowledge and it certainly isn’t mastery.

***

I like the concept, it’s empowering, but even the best self
directed learning is going to pale in comparison to what
you’ll develop in a rich social context.

Computers have been a hobby for me since I was ten.  I did a lot of learning on my own out of books and magazines, but the process of taking courses and certifications to become a qualified technician pushed me well out of my comfort zone and forced me to become familiar with aspects of computers that I otherwise would have stayed away from because I find them difficult.  Working with experts also let me see how they fill in the massive spaces between information.  How we manifest knowledge is more important than the knowledge itself.

I’ve always been interested in writing and philosophy, but taking degrees that oversaw skills development and demanded ongoing demonstration of my improvement with a variety of experts created something that no number of books could.

Knowledge is the start of the process, not the end.

The idea of mastery learning implies that a master passes it on to you.  My professors and mentors did a lot more for me than simply pass on information, they also showed me how it might manifest itself.  Modelling is a mighty powerful means of passing on knowledge, and you get none of it out of text.


If someone told me that I could get the same thing my degree gave me out of a book I’d call them a fool, though many people call higher education a waste of time purely on those grounds.  Information is accessible and cheap, so teach yourself!  You’ll only be as effective as your teacher, but hey, it’s inexpensive.  This feeds modern value theory that devalues human capital in favour of machine capital, in this case championing information over experience.

Mastery learning requires something more than a book.  I’m not surprised that the team of writers for that movie didn’t get that though, looking at the quality of their script.

 

It’s a trap! But watch Nickelodeon’s TV series, it’s brilliant!

 

Archive: 1999: Bloodsport, the gore of experience (points)

Piles of corpses and rivers of blood…

I’m currently swinging my way through Never Winter Nights and last night, after clearing out a room of guards, I paused for a moment. Bodies lay scattered around me and the blood was thick on the floor. In my character’s head came the thought, “I just murdered eight men.”

The bodies just fade away in NWN, it’s all very antiseptic and clean (and I imagine it makes life easier for the graphics card). Bodies don’t really fade away though do they? In a more realistic world guards and investigators would be swarming around that house shortly after the guards on shift change found their slaughtered companions. People who saw me enter and leave with heavy pockets would have been questioned, the bodies would not have disappeared, my life would have been forever changed by that action.

I think about the mountains of corpses I’ve made in this game (which I’m enjoying otherwise – it is quite beautifully rendered), and I’m only on Chapter 2! This isn’t slagging against NWN specifically, all computer based role playing games do this. I think they do it because the people who design and make the games aren’t role-players, they’re programmers and marketing types; people who think linearly and modularly. I know it’s easy for game makers to make experience = killing because it’s mechanical, and simple and it satisfies an innate human need for violence, but if graphics are getting as good as they are (almost movie quality at times), then perhaps this lazy approach to game design should finally be put aside. I don’t think it does anyone any good to control a mass murderer, especially when this usually happens for the greater good in the context of the game.

Why can’t my opponents see that I can easily kill them and surrender? Why couldn’t I earn experience by taking it away from people I subdue (that even makes sense in a balance of nature sort of way). Imagine a young fighter who gains experience and loses it too when he is subdued by a powerful foe. If he ever got knocked back down to zero experience I’m sure he’d be rethinking his career choice. It would also help in a game situation where developers wouldn’t have to worry about linear design so much. With lethality as a rare occurrence, but being subdued having an immediate effect on experience, I imagine most characters would be more careful especially if this system also took away or greatly minimized the ‘save game’ crutch. I take many more risks knowing that I’m 10 seconds of hard drive access away from trying it again. Continuity would help players develop real connection to their characters instead of using them as tools to attack a linear plot.

Why does it have to be about gallons of blood and piles of corpses? … and why does violence have to be mechanical?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a hockey player, a kendo practicioner and I’ve had a go at half a dozen martial arts; violence isn’t a stranger to me, but maybe that’s why I’ve got respect for it, because I’m familiar with it.

I enjoy a good fight more than most people, but what’s happening in NWN (and every other computer RPG I’ve played) is not a good fight, it’s a dumbed down fight against dimensionless opponents. Do you know how hard it is to find an opponent who won’t cut and run at the first injury? 99% of opponents are not commited to the fight, they are commited to their own well being (as they should be). I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people that you meet will do anything to avoid a physical confrontation and the most dangerous opponents are those who willingly consider a physical confrontation but avoid it if circumstances aren’t to their liking. In a more lawless society that might mean they’ll try and get you later when you’re busy, asleep or otherwise indisposed. That would only enrich the experience more. Having repeat encounters with a character who you first think is a coward and later learn is a vendeta ridden lunatic bent on revenge at all costs might make you reconsider being a jackass in the first place. People aren’t always what they appear at first blush; it’s part of their charm.

Have you ever been in a fist fight? Can you remember the adrenaline? That was only a fist fight! Can you imagine what it would feel like with a real sword in your hand and an opponent facing you with a lethal weapon? Wouldn’t you think twice about it if the person/monster you were facing had a hungry gleam in their eye? If you submit early perhaps you can escape intact, without losing any equipment and with a minimal experience point loss. If you mouth off and get in over your head, your teacher will certainly take more of your valuables as well as skim off more experience. You’d have to gamble to rise quickly. If you’re third level and you want to face off against a fifth level character you will probably lose, but if you win by luck or skill you would take more experience suddenly and find yourself levelling up. Wouldn’t they think twice if they saw that same look in your eye?

I’d like my role-playing battles to approach the intensity (are rarity) of the real thing. It should never be mechanical, it should never be done without thought and it should almost never end in a mortal wound. Having to submit and then being sold into slavery would greatly enrich a character’s background and provide a solid source of motivation to get better with that damn sword.

There are so many ways that a role playing world can become encompassing, but the game makers don’t seem to want to take that step. If it sells as it is why tamper with it I guess. Well here’s another angle: build it and they will come. If a designer out there can come up with a role playing game that incorporates a respect for violence and concentrates on developing a stronger tie between player and character, I’ll be the first to sign up.

Just some thoughts while standing ankle deep in the blood of guards who were just doing their jobs.

Procedural Learning

From Dusty World in December of 2014:

You can learn anywhere, but some places are better than others

We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I’m not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don’t consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We’ve build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren’t going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I’d initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn’t like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I’d like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I’d often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I’m not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don’t spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie’s equipment if you don’t appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don’t have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.

When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you’re going to run into engagement problems.  I’ll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it’ll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I’ll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won’t do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you’re some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, “the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline.”  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn’t give a care that there isn’t a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.


I’ve tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I’m speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they’ve said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

Follow Opportunities, Not Dreams

I’m up early chasing through UK documents on their worrying lack of digital skills.  A typical UK worker falls behind many other country’s workers in basic IT skills, and I suspect the same is true of many Western countries.  When the digital economy is one of the few bright spots, Western students seem to be turning away from it (unless it’s video game design, everyone wants to be a video game designer – as long as it means playing video games and not actually learning how to code).

We can’t fill jobs in computer related fields, but less and less students are considering the pathway.

One of the prime movers in this shift away from viable employment follows an idea on bad advice I saw from a tech teacher at our school:

“Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.”


As a general rule, parents and students are guided in school to do what makes them happy.  We fill up courses playing hockey, taking photos and give out credits for things kids are doing at home anyway.  It makes for shiny, happy, low stressed students and a great graduation rate, but none of it is really preparing students for the workplace.

We are frequently updated with the number of students from our school who have been accepted to university (only university, the rest don’t matter).  We never see any stats on how many of them finish the degrees they were accepted for.  I suspect that stat isn’t very flattering.  An even less flattering stat would be an income check at the age of thirty.  I wonder what the employment prospects for those university bound students are.  What is their quality of life trying to pay off debts larger than they’ve ever been in history?  Yet that’s where all our ‘good’ students are directed.

I dropped out of high school and became a millwright because I had smart hands and the apprenticeship fell into my lap.  When I didn’t feel like that was intellectually stressful enough I tackled university and then chased the opportunities that arose from it.  I didn’t become a teacher because it was some kind of magical calling, I became a teacher because I was chasing opportunities.

Much of the advice students get in school are from life-long academics.  People who went to school, attended university, and then immediately became employed for life at school again (sometimes the same school they graduated from!)  These people with their carefully proscribed lives don’t experience the world the way the rest of us do.  When I see them telling students to ‘do what makes you happy’ and ‘follow your dreams!’, I cringe.


My son has recently been wondering about getting a job so he can manage his own money, he’s eleven.  I told him, ‘do you know why they call it work?’  He looked at me for a moment and then said, ‘because it isn’t for fun?’  Out of the mouths of babes.  I only wish school guidance would realize that basic truth.

You can derive a great deal of satisfaction out of your work without it being some kind of romantic calling.  Few people live the lives of celebrities, playing a game or making art and wallowing in the money derived from it.  Insinuating that kids could be that person is dishonest at worst and deceiving at best, but how would you know if you’ve never had to struggle for work?  We can all find satisfying and challenging work if we push ourselves and chase opportunity.  Train yourself to better chase opportunity and you’ll find your circumstances will continue to change and improve.  One day you might find yourself in a well paid, challenging profession that you’d never have predicted for yourself.

Or, you know, maybe making a living…

Quinn Norton gives the blather some context.  Hobbies are for fun, your career
is probably not your hobby, and that’s fine, it’s how the world works.


Dairy of a Disenfranchised Coder

The first blog entry I ever wrote (about 18 months ago), spoke of risk aversion in students, but began with a brief ‘why I never pursued computers’.  This one opens that up a a bit and looks at how childhood interests never seem to fade away.

In the 1980s, I became interested in computers because my father wouldn’t buy me an Intellivision game console.  The Vic 20 we got instead became our gaming system, but it was much more.  I’ve carried a sense of intellectual superiority over game consoles ever since.  The Vic could plug in cartridges and play games, but where it really took off was with the datasette.  When we got our hands on that, we suddenly had the ability to save our work.  Before I knew it, I was begging my parents to drive to the only computer store in the area whenever a new COMPUTE! magazine came out so I could type out the basic programs in there.

None of this had anything to do with school.  Our junior high school had 3 Pets in the library, but it was typically a 2 week wait to get half an hour on one.  You had no chance of gaining any kind of familiarity with them.

It started all about video games, but quickly turned to coding.  Instead of buying the latest game (Cosmic Cruncher?), I was saving the paper route money for a 3k memory expander (I kept filling up the 3.5k of working RAM with code).  With more room to move, I began modifying those COMPUTE! programs, turning a road racing game into a Star Wars trench battle or the 8 key sound synthesizer into full keyboard synthesizer.

I’d shown friends what I was doing and soon Ataris and Apples began to appear in the neighborhood.  We’d dictate code while the fastest typer would hammer away at it, then we’d proof and run it.  Hours of speculation and experimentation about how changes might affect things followed.

There was no grade 9 computer course in high school, but I quickly leapt at the grade 10 one in 1985.  By then I had a Commodore 64 at home and we’d all discovered that if you had a good recording deck, you could sound record the cassettes that software came on.  There was a thriving pirating hub in high school with what looked like homemade mixed tapes.  A teacher once took one that was being passed in class and tried to listen to it, it wasn’t pretty.

That grade 10 class used a card reader.  We laboriously spent hours penciling in our lines of code, and would receive a printout off a dot matrix printer (which sounded like a machine gun tearing through silk).  I lasted about a month at this before I became determined to get a printer of my own.  No one else in the school had one, and the only place to find one was half way across the city.  Four bus transfers and a long night of travel got me back home with the printer, only to discover it was defective.  Another six hours on the bus and I was home again with the only dot matrix printer anyone had.

I coded at home, printed out my results and got to bypass the agony of the card reader.  Others begged me for access.  It became a nice sideline and paid for itself in short order.

Our grade 10 computer teacher was a young guy who got the job because he was the only one who could maintain the card reader without it jamming up all the time, he didn’t actually know much about coding (and why would he, he only had a card reader to figure it out on).  I did well in grade 10 intro to computers but was really excited to get into senior computer science.  The astronomer dream had been dashed in grade 10 physics when I discovered, to my horror, that physics was really just lots and lots of math, which I found tedious and unimaginative.  Anything that had only one way to a single solution seemed mind numbingly dull.  I was still hoping to find my niche in computer science though.

Finally able to get onto the senior computer science lab (first gen IBM x86s!), I was stunned to learn that our computer science teacher wanted us to program… math. I found the assignments linear and the teacher, who already knew the mathletes in the class, didn’t have time for anyone else or anything other than mathematical certainty in coding; the opposite of my experimental, hacking approach to programming.  Five years of passionate self-driven learning dissipated in a cloud of frustration and disinterest over that semester.

My parents went to the teacher conference confused at how a kid who spent hours and hours of his free time coding could be such an epic failure in this class.  My weakness in maths was sighted as the problem.  I’d signed up for the grade 12 class in semester two, but withdrew immediately when it started.  The teacher seemed surprised that I’d signed up for consecutive semesters of comp-sci.  I was surprised that he remembered my name.  And so ended my love affair with coding computers.

Of course I maintained an interest in computers, mainly around gaming and hardware, and eventually went on to get some I.T. certifications and even worked in software implementation in a few places, but getting knocked out of the holy grail of computing, the place where you author how a machine thinks, put the idea of working fully in the field beyond reach, and created a sense of self doubt that a teen is only too willing to embrace.

I’m getting computer certified this summer as a teacher.  When I walk into that class in the fall I’m hoping that I can support as many different approaches to coding as there are students in the room.  The last thing I want to do is knock a keen, self directed learner out of a woefully underdeveloped field of study in secondary schools.

Bending People to the Data

.

The idea of data driven learning has become very popular.  This isn’t surprising since data is beginning to drive everything.  It becomes problematic when data is manipulated for ulterior, usually political motives rather than being understood in its own context.

It’s a complex series of events that have led us to this point.  We’re living in an age of data where we are recording much of it for the first time.  We mistakenly describe this as ‘creating information’, but we’ve always done that.  What digitization does is allow us to save that data on a massive scale and then make connections in it we couldn’t before.

We’re not creating any more information than we used to, but we are recording it now at an unprecedented rate.

We’ve been experiencing this information forever.  If I went for a ride on my motorbike in the 1950s I would have experienced roughly the same ‘data’ that I’d experience going for a ride now.  The difference now is that the go-pro on my helmet and youtube means that data is saved and shared.  We’re not creating any more information than we did before, but we’re recording it and allowing others to experience data now on an unprecedented scale.

This mass recording and access to data is a relatively new phenomenon so we should take care to contextualize it, but we don’t.  We recognize that data driven methods yield results, but in our rush to enter this brave new world of data we happily ignore what doesn’t suit our goals and take other data out of context if it serves our cause.  When politics or self-promotion drive data selection the benefits of data driven management are in doubt.  Politics and self-promotion always influence data collection and presentation.

Since it is so much easier to record and share data we’re tempted to structure our activities around data creation rather than being present in the genuine experience.  I suspect we’ll get better at this as technology becomes less invasive and allows us to capture moments with minimal interference.  The evolution from TV to analogue video to digital video is a good example of this progress.  But in the early stages of this evolution we’re still awkwardly focusing on data collection rather than genuine experience.  Selfies at the Tour de France this year are an example.  If you watch any live event where people are focused on recording rather than experiencing the moment you’ll know this is endemic.  From the World Cup to the Olympics, the focus on data collection gets in the way of being there.  This creates some interesting changes in experiential value.  You now need to share the experience live rather than relating it after the fact.  Being there is less important than your recording of being there.  Every experience is one step removed.

Education is no different.  Rather than focusing on ways to capture genuine experience in as non-invasive a way as possible, we create artificial situations that produce data for its own sake; standardized testing is a fine example.  Rather than integrating literacy assessment into genuine experience driven learning, we create an artificial testing environment that is designed to produce data.  Students and the complexities of literacy are minor components in that process.  We then base management decisions on the corrupted data that is produced from these artificial situations.

If data collection is the point of the exercise then the data you’re producing is a reflection of the data collection process more than it is a meaningful analysis of whatever it is you think you’re assessing.

Technology needs to be pushed to produce non-invasive ways of collecting genuine data.  Not only will this allow people to bask in the moment rather than ignoring first hand experience to create second rate data, but it will also serve student learning by focusing on the learning itself instead of the data gathering processes.  

We need to stop bending the people to the data and start demanding that the data find us where we are, in genuine experience.  In the meantime it is vital that we don’t blindly believe that there are absolute truths in data that is produced for its own sake with ulterior motives.

The Most Underused Resource In Education

*** in Ontario teachers have to undergo an in-class review every five years by one of the school administration ***

The other day our six month pregnant one contract/LTO teacher was running around in a panic trying to get dodgey board laptops to work with dodgey board projectors on the dodgey board network.  Her panic was the result of a VP coming into her class for her review.  I’ve seen this happen with many teachers, young and old; the panic over admin coming in to review their teaching practices.

The stress of poor board technology practices aside, this review of teaching practices by admins bothers me on a couple of levels.

Back in the day, when I was in millwright training, my old Jamaican mentor told me the story of our department boss.  He had a mechanical background, but he was incredibly lazy.  His fame came from being able to slide under a truck and fall asleep on night shift for hours at a time.  He was so bad at the work that the company had no choice but to promote him into management.  I’ve since come to realize that this was a pretty pessimistic view of how managers become managers, but as an impressionable nineteen year old listening to a man who never told me a lie, it seemed the truth.  I’ve always been cautious about management as a result, never assuming that they are somehow superior because of their title.

There is no doubt that leadership in education is a vital component, and we all hope that the people playing those administrative parts do it for all the right reasons (and not because they were such a disaster in the classroom that it was better for them to manage).  What I don’t understand is why admin are mandated to come into a teacher’s class and somehow assess their ability to teach.  What makes an administrator qualified to meaningfully review classroom teaching?  Whether an administrator opted out of the classroom because they found it tedious, difficult or simply wanted a change, the simple truth is that they aren’t teaching, and in many cases didn’t for very long before they stepped into a management role. Asking them to review something they dropped after a short period of time seems… odd.  Administrators are generally not master teachers.

I have no trouble with sharing my practice and would encourage teachers to experience each other’s classrooms at every possible opportunity, this isn’t about advocating for a closed classroom, and I’m not advocating for the removal of teacher in-class review, just who is doing it.

In most cases vice principals and principals take on these roles not because they were expert teachers, but because their interests lie elsewhere.  This would suggest that teaching was never their strong suit.  Taking on school leadership roles is a very heavy load, and I can appreciate the fact that some teachers want to put the classroom behind them and take that on; it’s important work and a great challenge.  What I can’t understand is why those same people are now mandated to sit in on a teacher’s classes and review their teaching skills.

In the case of a new teacher, it seems like it might help and offer them a bit of mentorship in the process, but what about the case of the twenty five year veteran of the classroom?  The master teacher who has not only survived but thrived in the role of teacher?  How does a VP with five years in-class experience assess that?  Do they even know what they’re looking at?

Those same veteran teachers are the most underused resource in education.  Department headships, like VP and principal positions, are administrative, they offer little in the way of teaching focused career enhancement.  Telling a senior teacher that this should be their focus isn’t honouring the expertise they have developed from years working with students actually teaching.

It might seem like a rather simple idea, but why don’t those senior teachers take on this role of in-class review and mentorship?  Having a senior teacher from my own department drop in for a lesson and a talk would be instructive for me, demonstrate respect for their skills and allow expert teachers to express their mastery.  It would also create a continuous sense of valid professional development within departments.  Instead of a fairly pointless and closely monitored five year review by people who don’t even want to work in a classroom any more, how about an ongoing senior teacher review (20+ years in the classroom in order to take on that role).

The administrative arm of things does important work, but to say they have the experience and skill to determine what a front line teacher is doing right or wrong in a classroom is ridiculous.  Instead of driving our senior teachers into administration as if that is the only opportunity for ‘advancement’, why not recognize mastery in a very challenging environment, and encourage those with that expertise to share what they know?

Behold! The Essay-inator!

In this corner, weighing in as the inevitable future, I give you: the writing algorithm!
… and in this corner, weighing in as a lazy, nineteenth century habit that no one can shake: tedious, overly structured High School English writing!


The trick is going to be creating an algorithm that plagiarism checkers won’t catch.  That shouldn’t be too hard as they tend to look for matching text, and any good algorithm would put the pieces together in varying ways depending on the variables given.


With a proscribed structure similar to sports stories or financial reports, it should be fairly easy to get Narrative Science to modify their writing engine to accept key points and put together a five paragraph essay that perfectly follows the tediously exact, point-proof-explanation requirements of high school essay writing.


The process should go something like this:

  • student logs in to the website and enters brainstorming ideas based on a cursory reading on the subject matter (Macbeth should be covered in 20 minutes, tops)
  • thesis (an arguable statement) is generated based on ideas given (or offered, depending on how much you want to put into this)
  • supporting points are suggested.  The algorithm places them in order of importance based on the number of hits and positive previous reviews, student picks the ones that grab them
  • the algorithm finds quotes from the play and lit crit that relate to each supporting point
  • body paragraphs are constructed following point/proof/explanation around chosen quotes
  • introduction and conclusion are generated based on body paragraphs
  • student reviews the paper for vocabulary or wording that doesn’t suit their style
  • if too complicated a word is used, the student can right click and get a list of synonyms
  • the completed paper, using variable data, is unique, and presented in the vicinity of the student’s knowledge of the subject matter, working vocabulary and writing style
Behold my essay-inator!

The point and click essay is finally here!


The efficiencies here should be obvious.  A typical paper requires hours of reading, then re-reading looking for quotes, then formulation of ideas, then organization… hours and hours!  This process could have a student sit down with a Shakespearean play they’ve never seen before, and have a finished essay completed in under an hour, on their smartphone!

They are still the authors, we’ve just taken the tedium and soulless nature of high school writing and given it to a machine, which only seems fair.

***

This is written facetiously, but it does raise a couple of interesting questions.  If high school writing requires such heavy duty plagiarism checking and tends to be about the same subjects using the same formats, and marked with the same rubrics year after year, what is the point?

If these guys have come up with an algorithm that can write data driven, structurally sound pieces this well, how long will it be before someone has put together a five paragraph essay-inator?  The only thing more soulless and formulaic than financial writing or sports reporting is high school English writing.  Time to let the computers do what they do best and take this repetitive, tedious work and do it more efficiently!

Up next, mechanized marking of essays: time to take the tedium out of being an English teacher!

If this works out well, we’ll be able to have students ‘write’ essays, and have them ‘marked’ in a matter of seconds!

Now that’s progress!


Debates of the Future

The data wranglers sat in a loose circle behind the cameras frantically shaping the data clouds around their candidates. The debating format hadn’t changed too much, but the show certainly had. Parties no longer threw candidates into the ring alone, a successful debate required a huge, group commitment. Candidates, party members of even the general public throwing in prioritized, well timed comments could make or break at debate in the new age.

The lights in the studio blazed on the candidates while they took great care to stay away from the dreaded O.R.L.. Out Right Lies became the killer app, as long as you had a good wrangler and a responsive party. Stating an ORL was a game killer, especially if your wrangler could get the pertinent data on the screen while your opponent was still speaking it. At best you looked ignorant, at worst manipulative and dishonest, if caught speaking a lie as the facts swirled around you to the contrary.
Rehearsals for debates now more closely resembled a football practice, with researchers, commenters and wranglers, than it did the solo focus of pre-crowd sourced debates; debates were now a team sport. What you needed in your party leader was someone who knew what they stood for, didn’t have a lot of mental space for playing a crowd and could reach out and make meaningful contact with people with their rhetoric. The idea of gaming democracy was so fifty years ago.
The real danger came from the audience. The peripheries of the camera shots in three dimensions belonged to the digital crowd. Old fashioned rules surrounding civilized conduct were still strictly enforced, but comments from credible sources carried weight, and if the crowd trended a comment high enough, it could actually impact the size of the data cloud around a candidate. Parties no longer ignored a credible analyst, they feared them. Positive comments could trend very well, but a high trending negative comment could cut like a knife. When the liar tag pushed to the very edge of a candidate in a previous debate, ultimately costing them the election, politicians realized that telling mistruths was a disaster in the making, especially if you were pinned to the lie while you were still speaking it.
Next time around they all tried to avoid saying anything specific, only to be turned on by the mob once again. When given a chance, voters are happy to call their bluff, and did. You can’t speak the nonsense of empty words, or mob mockery would quickly follow. Say what you mean, and mean something. Switching party positions just to try and win votes was likely to get you a face full of contrary video clips from your own lips from previous months. Being a consistent, values driven politician who acted on stated beliefs was your own real protection.
The debate raged on, politics laid bare. Trending thoughts, data in the form of text notes, video links, charts and other statistics appeared and peeled off into separate dialogs on secondary and tertiary feeds, sometimes trending back onto the main feed again. The audience watching the debate could follow the main feed, which looked a lot like the old television version, as it followed the speakers back and forth, or they could follow trending data, a specific candidate or manually direct themselves to any of the camera feeds available.
Data stormed around the candidates as they had to lay it all bare, nothing held back, egged on by the digital mob; gladiators in a fearsomely complicated storm of ideas that everyone participated in.

Media Arts Lab 2.0

Redesigning media arts to create, not consume

http://prezi.com/9ow8h2urx1va/dream-media-arts-lab/

The Macs in our media arts lab are getting old and plastic.  They can’t push the high-def video coming out of our latest cameras, so it’s time for a hardware upgrade, but it’s not just about the hardware.

One of the biggest problems we face in our static, desktop centred lab with ordered rows of imacs are the bad habits students fall back into.  Because our lab is like every other lab in the school (factory like rows of desktops in Pink Floyd The Wallesque rows of conformity),  students do what they usually do in a computer lab; they zone out and become passive media consumers.  Passive TV viewing has evolved into passive computer use.

In a media arts class where they are supposed to be in a creative, active mind-space, this is an ongoing class management headache.  Battling the Facebook zombies and youtube droolers becomes an ongoing headache in the typical computer lab, especially with the weakest students who tend to be the most non-experimental and habitual in their technology use.

I’ve looked at this from a typical school IT/lab point of view, advocating for a mini-lab concept that emphasizes diversified, mobile technology, but this is the media-arts angle.

Many of the ideas are similar, but the idea of mobile, adaptable media tools also spurred the realization that students in front of an online desktop act much the way that students in front of a television do; they become passive, unquestioning media consumers.  In a media arts lab this is an ongoing crisis.

There is the culture of entertainment that most digital natives subscribe to.  Computers with internet access are toys to be used for entertainment.  Their habitual use of computers at home and throughout their school careers have only enforced these bad habits.  Unfortunately, those habits extend to most educators too.  From PD days where the presenter assumes that if you’re on a computer you’re not paying attention, to teachers booking labs to have a period off, computers aren’t considered anything other than an entertaining distraction by just about everyone.

We then get them into media arts where they are creating large amounts of digital media, and most of them are trapped in their bad habits and social expectations of technology.  The fact that school related computer lab time is often unsupervised only adds to the problem.

Trying to break them out of that rut in a room with rows of desktops isn’t working.  Time to free up the tech, and break the passivity.