Proliferation of Fifties

Our school is the only local high school in the area.  If students want Catholic or special education, they get on a school bus for over an hour a day of commuting down to Guelph.  I’m a big fan of choice so, while I think it mad, I don’t have much to say about a student who wants to spend over 194 hours a year (that’s over 8 full days of riding 24 hours a day) on a bus to Guelph and back for specialized education, as long as it’s a choice they’ve made.

Ontario’s high school streams seem pretty straightforward,
they are anything but in practice.

Our public board think it wise to ship our essential level students down to Guelph for special education.  This isn’t a choice, it’s a system driven process.  The Guelph school for this doesn’t fill up with locals so the surrounding community schools are expected to ship their most at-need students out of their home communities every day.  This is an ongoing pressure in our community.

At our recent heads’ meeting there seemed to be support for the idea of our school being a comprehensive, community school that serves everyone, but we struggle to run essential sections because parents resist putting their children into it, the board doesn’t section us to run smaller essential classes and many teachers in our school would rather be teaching academic students.  It’s an uphill struggle to create a comprehensive local school that supports everyone in our community.

Because we aren’t sectioned for essential classes (those smaller sections are given to the specialist school in Guelph), we end up populating applied level classes with essential students.  It is so difficult to align parent perception, board support and student ability that we place all non-academic students into the same room.  This is where the proliferation of fifties comes in.

A teacher in our school recently said, and in retrospect I agree, that we place essential students into applied classes and lower course expectations to accommodate them.  This not only does the essential students no favours, it also dilutes applied curriculum goals.

The people running the education system tend to be successful professional educationalists; very experienced with the system having spent little time outside it.  These educators see kindred spirits in academically streamed students who are successful in school and make effective use of the system.  These teachers want to teach students like themselves.  Asking them to work with students who find school a challenging environment or aren’t on the same academic trajectory they experienced is difficult for them.

The predisposition of teachers makes academic curriculum somewhat sacred, but applied classes aren’t.  Applied students should be on apprenticeship and college skilled labour tracks that demand hands on (applied?) skills.  While less theoretical in approach, applied classes are supposed to be rigorously skills focused.  When you put students who lack basic literacy and numeracy into a grade 10 applied class you make grade appropriate learning nearly impossible.

How do teachers manage this?  If you fail a student, you get called into promotion meetings at the end of the semester where the grade you’ve given becomes the starting point for an inflationary process that floats fails up to passes.  The best way to avoid this is to simply award a 50%.  What is a fifty when it’s really a 42?  At its best, a fifty means a student has not reached minimal expectations for a class.  Would you want the mechanic working on your brakes to have gotten there with fifties?

The teacher I was talking to suggested that the number of fifties being handed out has mushroomed in the past few years.  Those statistics aren’t made available to us because they would make a travesty of curriculum expectations, but I suspect he is right.  A fifty means the government gets to say graduation rates are up.  A fifty means the ride ends at graduation because no secondary program would accept a student with a D average.  A fifty means you’re not sitting in promotion meetings watching your semester of careful assessment being swept away to support policy.

The range of student skill in my classes is astonishing.  My current grade 9 classes range from students who could comfortable complete grade 11 computer engineering curriculum next to students who appear unable to read, yet I’m supposed to address that range of skills in a 50-100% range in a single course.

Perhaps we will find a way to reintegrate Ontario’s carefully designed secondary school streaming system, but considering the various pressures on it in our area, it’s going to be an uphill struggle.


NOTE

Re: school busing children…

Time isn’t the only resource being spent.  School buses get 6-8mpg, Guelph is about 15 miles away.  A (very conservative) 30 mile round trip (it’s much higher if you want to consider all the pickups and drop-offs) is a (very conservative) 15 litres per day of diesel (probably double that for your typical start/stop run), per bus, and we have a number of buses making that trip 194 days per year.

Someone better than I can calculate the overall environmental impact (how many other vehicles are also held up burning fuel while these buses grind down to and back from Guelph every day?).  Making an economic (let alone moral) argument for shipping our essential students out of their home communities seems impossible.

Cookie Cutter ‘Formal’ Exams

We were recently told that our board is moving to a formal exam for every course model. We’re told that this needs to happen because if we don’t use formal exam days for formal exams, we’ll lose the days.  Perhaps we should lose the days.  Formal exams are an echo from the past.  Desperately trying to ‘keep’ them by forcing them on everyone isn’t the best approach to learning, it never was.  Clinging to status quo thinking seldom produces outstanding results in anything.

This conundrum once again has me feeling the friction between academic and technology classrooms.  To the majority of subjects in our school, an exam for every class simply means setting up more desks and running off more photocopies.

One of our auto-shop teachers tried running a ‘formal’ exam this semester.  He had tinkered with a car and then had students diagnose it.  Since he doesn’t have a 24 bay garage, he has to have students approach the car one at a time in order to diagnose it.  Because he is expected to have all students in the room at the same time (exams are blocked into two hour scheduled time periods, one per day), he had students come up one at a time to diagnose and resolve the problems while the rest wrote written tests that  did not reflect how students had learned in his class during the semester.

Cookie cutter exam schedules for cookie cutter learners.

The formal exam structure didn’t work at all in the shop.  The first kid up shouted out, “do you want me to change out this fuse?” and suddenly everyone in the room knew an answer.  It then kept happening.  When you’ve been teaching students to collaborate on diagnostics all semester, why would you suddenly have a summative that demands they don’t?  Even if that’s what a ‘formal’ exam is?

All that effort to create a genuine assessment within a standardized exam structure was wasted, but that doesn’t stop us from being expected to bring meaningful assessment to all our technology students in this cookie cutter final exam format.  How meaningful can this two hour window be when our courses are tactile, stochastic and experiential?  In a class where there is a linear progression from question to answer, and were the skills are assessed on paper this works a treat, but not in tech.

Coop avoids the exam problem by creating individual summatives (each student has an interview).  Of course this means that each teacher is handling 25+ hours of assessment for each class they teach.  I’m surprised that they can stuff all that meaningful assessment into a single exam week.  While this resolves the problem of trying to fit individualized exams into cookie cutter academic schedules, it doesn’t address the complexity of creating an entire class set of experiential problems of equal complexity (you couldn’t have the same problem because the first student out would happily tell the rest what they are about to face).  Creating individualized, immersive simulation for each student might be the ultimate in summatives, but a factory styled school system isn’t remotely designed to produce that kind of individualized learning opportunity.

Is this what an exam for every course looks like?  Kinda like
the floor of a very serious factory, or a university…

Would I like to create a ‘formal’ exam that offers my computer students real-world, immersive, experiential computer technology problem solving?  You bet, but expecting me to do that in a two hour window for dozens of students at a time suggests that the actual goal here isn’t meaningful and genuine so much as generic and formulaic, like most ‘formal’ exams.

‘Formal’ exam is code for a university-styled, written, academic assessment.  It typically involves lots of photocopying and students sitting in rows writing answers to the same questions.  The teacher then spends a lot of time trying to assign value to this dimensionless form of assessment.  Like many other aspects of high school, formal exams are high school teachers imitating the university professors they wished they could be.

For hundreds of thousands of dollars with corporate sponsorship
and post-secondary support, Skills Ontario championships
create meaningful, experiential tech-assessment.

If you’re looking for an example of an immersive, complex, skills based assessment, we have a fantastic home-grown example.  Skills Canada does a great job of creating experiential assessment of technology knowledge and tactile abilities, but with million dollar budgets and support from all levels of government, private business and post secondary education, they exist in a different world from my classroom.  They’re also catering to the top 1% of 1% of technology students.  I have to cater to the other 99.9% with nothing like that kind of budget.

I’ve been mulling over how I’m supposed to create meaningful assessment for my technology students in that two hour time slot and I’m stumped.  No budget is forthcoming to purchase equipment and tools so that I can have every student doing the same thing at the same time – I don’t even have enough screwdrivers for all students to be building computers at the same time, let alone the computer parts needed to build them.  Those would be computer parts that some students would not ground themselves properly when installing.  Funding wouldn’t just need to be there for tools, it would also have to be there to replace breakage due to incompetence.

Technology teachers already struggle trying to explain technology costs to academics with only a vague understanding and little experience in apprenticeship and the trades.  When students are heavy handed or absent minded it costs us money to replace what they break, yet we struggle to get funded on par with academic courses that do most of their work on paper.

Now we face the prospect of being forced to reduce our tactile, experiential, immersive learning into cookie cutter summatives that jive with the pre-existing academic scheduling.  Just when you think we might be evolving beyond the 20th Century factory model of education it rears its ugly head and demands reductionist assessment for all.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we were looking to diversify summatives instead of cramming them all into the same schedule that existed fifty years ago?

Bending People to the Data

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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.

Failing Forward

Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.  – C.S. Lewis

Four years ago I decided to show what we know in the information technology focused computer engineering course I teach at Centre Wellington DHS.  The Skills Canada I.T. and Networking Administration contest seemed custom tailored to do that for us.  That first year we took two competitors down to Guelph and finished second and third to an urban(e) high school in the regional competition.  We took what we learned from that first round and applied again the next year, this time winning our way through to the provincial competition for the first time.  Had we not known the competition by failing at it the first time, we never would never have been able to re-orientate ourselves and get out of the regional battle. 

That first student we sent to provincials was a polymath, gifted at pretty much everything, but once again we were unprepared and we ended up finishing fourth overall.  Like mechanics and other stochastic skills, I.T. is experiential.  You can be the sharpest person in the room, but the more experienced technician will usually figure it out first because the problems aren’t always obvious and linear; instinct based on experience plays a surprisingly large part in analyzing problems.  Still, fourth in the province wasn’t bad for our second go at it.   Our competitor came back and debriefed on the provincial competition just as our previous students had with the regional competition.
 
Our third go at it had two competitors having to face off challengers regionally.  They finished 1-2 and we were off to provincials again.  Our second run at the big competition showed just how much the scope of the competition could change year to year.  We once again finished in the top ten, but didn’t medal.  As before, our competitor came back and did a thorough debrief, helping the next candidate (the one who’d finished second regionally) get ready in more detail than ever before.  The old adage goes: I was able to reach so high because I stood on the backs of giants.  In our case this is completely true.  Had those previous students not leapt into the breach and shown us the way, we would never have seen the steady improvement that we did.

We just got back from provincial competition once again.  We gold medalled in I.T. and then finished top three in all technology competitions combined – meaning we didn’t just beat other competitors, we also got a near perfect score in the process.  The first thing Zach, our gold medalist, did when he found out he won was shout out to the people who came before him, thanking them for the doing all that dangerous reconnaissance blind.
 
We’re off to Moncton next month to compete in Skills Canada at the national level.  Ontario’s is the biggest provincial skills program with the toughest competition, and we scored highly, but it’s our first time nationally.  I didn’t consider changing our approach.  Our goal is to go there and learn.  Zach has benefited from the failures of previous students, and now it’s his turn to go first and pave the way. 
Can a small town school compete against massive, urban
school boards?  Yes, yes we can.

At first glance it might look like those previous students failed, but they didn’t, they were part of something bigger than themselves that has succeeded.  I know some people look at competitions like Skills Canada and wring their hands over how harsh it is on tender adolescent egos, but our failures made us better and our approach meant we were resilient in the face of those failures.  Even when we were sending different individuals year on year there was a team feeling as new competitors read over the notes, advice and encouragement of now long graduated students (all of whom are enjoying post-secondary computer focused success).  In many cases current competitors connected with grads through social media in order to further develop this mentorship.

The education system has focused relentlessly on student success.  A big part of that push is to mitigate failure wherever possible.  When failure is removed from learning you can’t develop nonlinear, experiential skill-sets or take risks on new challenges because those things in particular demand failure in order to learn.  You also can’t learn to fail forward or consider your learning to be a part of something larger than yourself.  No fail learning is remarkably selfish on a number of levels, damaging not only a student’s ability to learn stochastic skills, but also weakening their resiliency, resolve and humility before a task.

The concept of no-fail learning is very academic in origin, no real-world learning process would consider such an approach viable.  It’s unfortunately ironic that one of my best teaching experiences and a unique learning opportunity for many students has to happen outside of the classroom, where the many benefits of failure are still allowed to happen.

 
A couple of years ago I realized were were on a multi-year trajectory, so I started putting up posters in the classroom for each competitor so that new students would realize they are part of a dynasty!
Our school mascot is a falcon… geddit?  For the less sports focused among us, a predatory bird doesn’t really jive with what we’re doing.
 
 

Tough Durable Tech

Tough tech!

This is one of my favorite bits of digital technology:  A Casio Pathfinder wrist watch.  What’s so cool about a watch you ask?  They’re SOOO 20th Century!

Well this one is also an altimeter, barometer, compass and thermometer.  It’s also a stop watch, alarm clock and just plain old watch.

But none of that is what makes it cool.

What makes this piece of tech one of my favorites is that it isn’t tethered to anything; it’s one of the few pieces of digital technology that I own that is entirely self-contained, and that’s somewhere that I want all my hardware to go.

This watch is fantastically accurate, but what makes it even better is that it picks up a signal and keeps itself atomically accurate.  It’s a watch that never has to be set.

It’s also a watch that never has to be wound or have the battery replaced.  The face is also a solar panel that recovers enough charge out of even a well lit room to recharge itself.

On top of all that, it’s virtually indestructible.  It’s encased in a rugged body that can withstand a car driving over it, it’s freeze proof to well below zero, waterproof to diving depths and probably bullet proof as well.

Fragile energy vampire!

What I’ve got here is a tough, self-reliant piece of technology that always works no matter where I am.  When I look at my choices for computers, tablets or even smartphones, I’m looking at fragile, energy vampires that are lucky to work a day in regular use without the need to draw from a socket.

Faster is nice, but I’m also looking for tough and self contained.  Until I can lay in the bath with my e-reader or turn to my phone without seeing red low battery warning lights, the digital tech isn’t nearly as tough and self contained as I need it to be.

The edtech question to ask is should we be putting fragile tech into the slippery hands of teens and children?  The repair/replacement rate of these fragile little digital flowers are going to be much higher than they are in the steadier hands of adults.

Until digital tech is as tough as the analog it’s replacing, it’s an edgy proposition to push it as the main focus in instructional tools.

In the meantime, Casio keeps evolving the tough tech.  Soon enough I’ll have a watch PC that will communicate wirelessly with peripherals and power itself (hope hope).

Casio is also heading into something other than watches!  If there’s a phone, perhaps a gshock tablet can’t be far behind!  That’d take on those slippery student fingers, and look tough while doing it!

The Mediocrity Virus

So I’m sitting there with a room full of people who have just won the bronze medal world-wide in the most recent round of ‘who’s got the best education system’. After years of diligent effort and insightful leadership, Canada is ranked third worldwide in educational performance, and is very close to toppling the two leaders. In every metric you care to apply, we are awesome.
 
We’ve applied differentiated instruction, we push technology as far as our budgets will let us, we professionally consider every angle that we can to improve student achievement, from student centred learning to expanding non-academic stream programming in order to meaningfully serve our entire student base.
 
Are there still problems? Certainly. We still have to work to get every member of our team to produce a peak performance, but this too is happening. Our professionalism, our dedication and our society’s values allow us to compete at the highest level.
 
Into our victory celebration comes a guy from a team that didn’t even make the olympics. They’ve suffered a precipitous drop in performance, dropping from the mid-teens (the highest they’ve ever been) to thirty-third over all in terms of student performance. Their teaching profession is in shambles, and their society generally views educators as over paid loafers who take summers off. Their public education system (like their prison system or their military) is being taken over by private contractors who are more focused on simplistic metrics, like their own profitability.
 
He tells us that we have to drastically simplify what we’re doing, go back to drilling students on facts, strictly limit teachers to curriculum and install discipline back into education; this is the only way we will get them all back on a college track.  He exemplified teachers who drill their students and run their classes with a simple, military efficiency. He floated odd statistics like, students who already know a lesson will learn 400% better if they are made to repeat what they already know over again, rather than differentiating and enriching their specific learning.
 
He was statistics driven and awash in his country’s educational expertise (almost exclusively driven from privatized schools). He suggested that we might be ‘a bit ahead’.
 
The coach in me suggests that if your team is performing well, you keep doing what you’re doing. Certainly you tweak it here or there, but when you turn in a world class performance, you don’t bring in a coach from a team that didn’t even make the show to give suggestions, but we did, because we’re Canadian, and the one thing we have even more than an awesome education system is a giant inferiority complex with our big cousins to the south.

Secondary Like We Mean It

We’re getting squeezed for sections this year because bankers and multi-nationals wanted to play silly buggers with the world economy.  Watching my school cut English sections down to the bone is making me question the validity of requiring mandatory English throughout high school.

Academic English is very university focused with the almighty essay as the be-all and end-all of high school writing.  I’m an English major, I love essays, but I recognize that the vast majority of our students, even the university bound ones, will never write another essay in their lives after high school.  Asking senior academic English teachers to consider reports, or labs, or articles, or any other writing output is an uphill battle.  They don’t want to water down their subject; the essay is sacred.

I get that, so perhaps it’s time to water down their population.  Instead of dragging all senior students through years of mostly irrelevant English skills development, why not separate the vital from the overly specific?  Literacy is a vital skill the general population needs to have, regardless of whether they major in English in university or work at a cash register.

prezi.com/o3bt2rpkzl5f/reconfiguring-for-21st-century-education/

One of the biggest challenges in English is facing an always packed class (never off the cap) full of an astonishing range of students.  A typical academic English class will contain barely literate non-readers whose parents don’t want them to give up academic options (and who may be more than capable in numeracy, science or technology).  Academic English bludgeons them with essays and Shakespeare.  The solution is to pare off literacy from what is really a specific skill set needed only by advanced students of the arts and humanities.

The idea for mandatory grade 9 and 10 literacy and numeracy courses comes from this logic.  The grade 10 course is a survey/review course that works to assess students literacy skills in a granular and meaningful way.  The opposite of a standardized test, these courses challenge students in order to accurately assess their skills in numeracy and literacy in detail.  The end result would be a certification in two important foundational skills.

Students who are able to demonstrate these foundational skills are able to continue in high school in which ever direction they choose with a clear idea of their strengths or weaknesses in fundamentally skills, or move beyond the building and into apprenticeships or the work place knowing that they have displayed an appropriate level of literacy and numeracy.  Their proven ability in these two vital skill sets will resolve many of the fears surrounding letting students leave school early.  Those that stay in high school are offered a plethora of courses, local, remote or a hybrid of the two, that allow them to develop interests and abilities that are flexible, encourage their strengths and change with the times.

Those interested in post-secondary can still take advanced English and mathematics courses, but these are entirely optional.  They may also be specific to future needs.  Science and technology students may take English that focuses on report writing and presenting analysis in clear and concise ways.  Arts and humanities students may focus on more traditional English, such as literature and essays.

If we’re not going to do literacy and numeracy properly by underfunding it into oblivion, perhaps it’s time to separate the vital skills from overly specialized, academic English and mathematics and reconfigure for flexibility in our curriculum.

Forming an ECOO Presentation

Originally posted on Dusty World in October, 2012

There were three key books I read in the past year that have clarified for me a direction we could head in educational technology.  Ideas from each of those books, which at first appear to be in direct odds with each other, helped form the content of my ECOO presentation this year.

After reading The Shallows, Nick Carr’s carefully constructed argument held a lot of weight – the internet and how it is being adopted by the general public is actually making people less effective as both thinkers and doers.  As educators, we should all be concerned about this result.  At a conference this year a frustrated, thirty-something CEO said of the twenty-somethings she’s tried hiring recently, “I just wish they could finish a thought!  I can’t even get them to close a sale because they are checking Facebook!”  This problem goes well beyond education (where any teacher can tell you it’s an epidemic).  Everyone involved in education should read this book, especially if they are trying to implement technology in the classroom.

From The Shallows I took a serious concern about technological illiteracy and habitual use of computers actually injuring people’s ability to think.

I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularlity is Near as a counterpoint to Carr’s very accurate, and very depressing Shallows.  Kurzweil’s giddy optimism in our engineering skills verges on evangelism.  He is a wonderfully interesting and eccentric character.  His belief goes well beyond merely living in a time of transformative change.  The singularity he refers to is a moment in the near future where we are able to develop a greater intelligence than a single human brain, or even a group of them.  He goes into mathletic detail about exponential growth and how this is occurring in computers.  Very soon we’ll understand things in finer and more complete detail than we’ve ever been able to before and our management of the world will take on omniscient proportions.  Technologically enhanced humans exist beyond the technological singularity – living in a world that looks as alien to us now as ours would to someone from the middle ages.

From Kurzweil I recognized how technology is evolving in increasingly personalized ways.  This is an argument Carr makes from the other side too.  From external machines, we are on a journey to technological integration.  This integration is going to well beyond smartphones, that’s just the latest step in an inevitable trend.  If education does everything it can to present technology as generic and impersonal, it is failing to notice a key direction in technology, it’s failing to produce students who will be useful in their own futures.  This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of my BYOD/differentiated technology argument, but I believe it’s a fundamental part of our technological evolution.  Computers want to become a part of us.  We’re not going to develop a Skynet or Matrix that will take over.  Our technology IS us, and it wants a more perfect union.  This probably scares the shit out of most people.  My argument to that is: if you’re going to amalgamate with other systems, make sure you the one directing them effectively.

Matt Crawford’s wonderful philosophical treatise on the value of skilled labour goes well beyond simply being handy.  He argues that skilled labour psychically protects you from consumerism and makes management doublespeak and creative economies an obvious joke.  The value he places on objective, quantifiable skills development often savages the feel-good ethos of a lot of educational theory which then sounds like management double-speak nonsense.  I read the book after taking my AQ in computer engineering, and it made me re-evaluate (and recognize) the value of my skilled labour history – something I’d walked away from in becoming a teacher.  I’m loving being a tech teacher this year and working with my hands again.

From Shop Class For Soul Craft I took a recognition of the importance of hands on, skill based learning.  It brings real rigor to learning, and should be a vital part of developing past the poor digital literacy I see around me.  One other experience kicked this up a notch.  In the summer we visited the Durnin farm and Heather talked about how her husband teaches people to use the farm equipment.  He gives them the tools, and expects them to figure it out and get it done.  It’s a high expectation, immediate result environment that puts a great deal of expectation on the student; Crawford would approve.  I tell my students, “no one ever learned how to ride a bike by watching someone else riding a bike” – it’s an experiential thing that offers real (often painful) immediate feedback… what effective learning should be.

Into that mix of big ideas of warning, optimism and rigor I also mixed in the standard PLN secret sauce.  Concerns over BYOD abound with teachers online.  The idea that BYOD should just be thrown into curriculum struck me as simply wrong.  As Andrew Campbell suggests, it’s more about stretching a divide (or Carr would argue intellectually crippling idiots) than it is about increasing digital fluencies.

Teaching competency, flexibility and self awareness on digital tools should be a primary goal of current educational practice.  We’re graduating students who are dangerously useless to employers.  The idea of a continuum of digital mastery based on objectively developed skills linked to a gradual loosening of restrictions and access to increasingly diverse tools and online content was the result.

I present on Thursday, and I’m more interested in the discussion that ensues than I am in telling anyone anything.  ECOO is a wonderful braintrust, and usually super-charges my educational technology awareness.  I’m looking forward to the brain soup we create out of this!

Diversifying Edtech: the key to a digital skills continuum

 

Copyright is sticky business

I read this which led me to this, which made me want to write this: (!)

Copyright is a sticky business. More often than not it isn’t the artist that is being protected by copyright so much as the distribution company that owns the rights. The music industry is still trying to get itself out of being a manufacturing and distribution concern, which is where the copyright habits we’ve developed with music started.

When you’ve got to justify stamping millions of CDs to make music financially viable, the focus shifts from the artist to the manufacturing/distribution system (where big infrastructure costs exist). In order to protect this distribution system, a robust, aggressive and quite jackassey legal specialization developed that has nothing whatsoever to do with the art it claims to protect.

It seems we’ve arrived at an age where an artist can be stimulated by influences and then effectively prevent anyone else from evolving ideas out of them. The Beatles, perhaps one of the biggest offenders in this, freely stole ideas and even whole pieces of music from the black R&B musicians in the US that proceeded them. Later in their careers they made art by evolving influences from Indian and other world music as well. They then aggressively locked down the rights to the art they freely took from other people.

It seems that Boomers are unique in many ways, not the least of which is their self-claimed right to take everything that came before them and own it entirely forever. US copyright has led this erosion of artistic license for many years, continually expanding and pursuing the entertainment industry’s right to own a piece of music, eventually (they hope) forever.

One of my favorite cautionary tales is Sita Sings The Blues. An artist going through a breakup creates an animated piece that integrates the 1920s music she is listening to at the time with an ancient Indian myth and her own relationship disaster. It’s very thoughtfully done. Give it a look if you’ve never seen it before. The details are on the website, but here’s the summary: when she went to get the copyright for the 1920s recordings (long out of copyright) that she wanted, she discovered a copyright law firm (one of many that buy up copyright-passed, older material) contacted her back and wanted a quarter of a million dollars for songs they didn’t own by an artist they never represented.

This is the state of copyright nowadays: a savage wasteland of corporate vultures looking to pick the bones clean of any work of artistic merit. It’s a completely unsustainable system that stifles art and kills creativity. Had Shakespeare been alive now, he would not have been able to publish any of his work (almost all of which borrowed heavily from proceeding material). Corporate vultures would have swooped in and killed Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth or Hamlet stone dead.

I make no bones about artists being able to make a living from their work, I’m an artist myself. My hope is that digitization of the workflow will free us from the vultures that have been feeding (and killing) the artistic process for the past 60 years.

Many artists are beginning to push content directly to fans. Courtney Love famously once said, “I work for tips” when she was talking about how little she made from CD sales. Doing tours made more, but even live performance requires covering a lot of hangers on.

The irony in all of this is that the music industry claims to be the protector and savior of music, yet it is the very thing stifling creativity, and it’s doing it to protect an archaic manufacturing system that barely exists any more.

Ok, so after all that? I think NerdyTeacher’s blog is a great opportunity for Taylor to step into a new era and develop fan based appreciation through Twitter and social networking. Those students, and the people who see the performance will know of her willingness to share her art. What I fear is that she isn’t the one to make this decision. A legal firm representing her music industrial complex will make that decision, and it won’t go well.

Thanks to @dougpete and @TheNerdyTeacher (and twitter) for the impetus to write!

The New Literacy

I recently became the head of Computer & Information Technology at my high school.  To many this might cause confusion, not many schools appear to have a head of digital technology.  When recently asked to join up with the other two heads of Comp/Info tech in our region I discovered that there aren’t any, I am the sole head of digi-tech in my area.

A day in the life of that rare creature: the head of info-tech

I was supposed to be meeting up with them to plan our upcoming PD day.  Being the resourceful fellow I am, I started putting together ideas for the pd on prezi.  In thinking it through, I want to go after three ideas:  how we administer computer studies, how computer studies are presented in ministry curriculum (and the problems around that), and what the future of computer studies holds.

The general response I get from teachers around digital technology is that very few know anything about it, but they’re all expected to be comfortable with it.  The other response is that the digital natives won’t learn anything from us because they already know everything.

The myth of the digital native is just that, a myth.  Student digital fluency is pretty much the same as the general population, except they spend a lot more time doing the same, limited activities in digital space.  The digital native is, in  many cases, actually the digital serf.

After working my way through thinking about computer studies and how it’s taught in my school (and board), I want to try and change the way computer studies are delivered.  The current state of curriculum is that of a still maturing discipline, hogtied to its past.  In talking to other computer teachers, they find themselves (variously) under math or business headships as a sub-department.  On top of that computer studies are divided into two sections: computer engineering (hardware) which falls within the tech department (along with carpentry and automotive repair amongst others), and computer science (programming), which tends to get swallowed by business or math.

It’s common for computer science teachers to have nothing whatsoever to do with computer engineering teachers.  This makes it tricky to develop coordinated curriculum, share resources, plan field trips or even just advocate effectively to hire the vanishingly few qualified computer teachers there are out there.

As I mention in the prezi, this is the equivalent of us teaching music by having a course on maintaining, tuning, building and repairing musical instruments, and then having a completely different course on how to read and write music; theory separated from mechanics.  In the case of music, an ancient discipline that has evolved over millenia, we recognize an obviously unified course of study.  Computers do not have the benefit of these years of evolution.  We need to start unifying these skills.

The division of the discipline results in crushingly small numbers in computer science.  When I was in computer science in the 1980s, we ran six sections of senior computer science a year… on card readers!  Last year my high school (roughly the same size as the one I attended back in the day), ran a single, mixed (academic/applied) section of computer science at the grade 12 level, and it wasn’t full.  Did computers hit a high point in the 80’s and become a less relevant part of modern life?  Why on Earth would we teach fewer people how they work now?

Computers are a part of everyday life in 2012.  We have come to expect a level of competency in our population equivalent to the universality of literacy or numeracy, but we don’t teach to this need, and it is largely unmet.  We are instead producing graduates who teach themselves bad habits on computers and then we fear their apparent familiarity; we wouldn’t dream of teaching literacy or numeracy like this.

A coherent push to unify computer studies would reduce staff technology fears, improve digital pedagogy, build digital fluency in both staff and students and actually prepare people for the digital world that is being built around them.  Failure to do this is sending our students into the future without addressing an increasingly urgent and important skillset.