When Your Learning Space is a Loud Close Talker

Originally published Sunday, 21 April 2013 on Dusty World

Tools provided and time to practice the theory learned.  Skills are expected to be demonstrated.

A couple of weekends ago I went to Conestoga College and took my motorcycle training course.  Other than about an hour on a dirt bike a year ago I’d never ridden a motorbike, but it has been a lifelong dream to do it; I was pretty pumped.  Learning to ride was a pedagogically charged process for me, going from near zero to basic competence in a single weekend.

This weekend I’m at the Ontario Google Summit.  I’m an advanced digital technology user and I’m attending this conference to look at ways to manage technology and ease adoption for beginners.  This isn’t a learning challenging situation for me, but I love the subject area (I teach it) and I’m a trained professional in information technology.  I’m keen to see technology use improve in education.

I’m finding myself comparing the two learning experiences.  Bike course and Google Summit are both expensive in terms of time and money: both demand your time on a weekend and neither are cheap: motorbike: $18.33/hr, Summit: $17.83.hr.  This kind of time and money commitment suggests an intensive, impactful learning opportunity for motivated students.  Unmotivated students wouldn’t spend the time and money to attend these things.  With that as a foundation I couldn’t have had more different experiences at these two events.

At the motorbike course there were six expert instructors for 26 students for a better than 5 to 1 student/teacher ratio.  They moved logistical mountains to provide working technology for all students: over thirty bikes tuned, fueled and ready to use every day along with safe space to use them and a fully equipped classroom with digital media to cover theory.   Because a 1:1 student/technology ratio was guaranteed, the focus was all small group, intensive hands-on instruction with lots of one on one instructor feedback.  This was vital because the bike course had a theory and practical (road) test at the end, both clearly defined and focused on throughout the course.  If you were unable to demonstrate what you knew by Sunday afternoon you just spent over four hundred bucks without getting the license or insurance discount.  Attendance was absolutely mandatory, you got dropped for not showing (one guy got dropped Sunday morning after showing up nearly two hours late).  You had to bring your own safety kit but the most expensive technology (the bike) was provided, and it got used roughly and dropped by a number of students.  You also had to provide your own food and drink and there was time time given to consuming it (we ate during in-class sessions).  Intensive, focused and hands on with lots of expert help.  A number of of people learned that they shouldn’t be riding motorcycles by the end of the weekend and left very disappointed, but safer for it.

At the end of  the weekend you knew what you knew (or didn’t) and had demonstrated qualitative improvement (or hadn’t), resulting in the license and savings.  On a more pedantic level, you were provided with the room you needed to learn.  You had desk space in a large classroom for learning theory.  You had acres of pavement outside for developing hands-on skills in a closely watched and personally assisted learning intensive process.  It was a pedagogically credible, physically and mentally challenging process that made demands on you in order to see improvement.  My taking the course will probably save my life at some point, as well as saving me money.  I left that course having a very clear idea what I’d paid for and no question as to the value of it.

Lecture time! Sit and listen! The ‘educators’ are remarkably lazy about pedagogy. The technology doesn’t seem to be helping.

The Google conference is lecture driven (a necessity of the 100:1 student:teacher ratio).  The keynotes have been excellent and the audience response very positive.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the keynotes.  It’s fallen apart for me in the ‘learning’ sessions though; I’ve been unable to attend the sessions I’ve wanted to because the venue (a high school they presumably got access to for nothing) has classrooms designed for thirty odd students.  These rooms often had upwards of fifty people jammed into them, sitting on the floor, standing around the edges, all breathing on each other (yes, I have issues with that).  I didn’t have the space I need to be comfortable let alone to learn.  The provided internet is the best I’ve experienced at a tech-conference, so that’s in place, but the physical space, other than the auditorium I’ve been in all weekend, isn’t remotely up to the task of learning.  As I consider the lecture based, knowledge (rather than experience) learning focus of this GAFE Summit, I’m left wondering why educators do this to each other, and how we hope to improve educational technology when we continue to teach it like a poorly designed academic class instead of a set of demonstrable hard skills.

What is it about professional development that has teachers punishing other teachers in order to learn?  Ironically, we spent time talking about the Third Teacher and how the learning environment plays such a vital role in learning.  We then demonstrate how not to do it in vivid detail with overcrowded rooms and people sitting on floors in order to desperately hear a bit of knowledge out of the mouth of a sage on a stage who are part of a company that wants to radically decentralize and democratize knowledge for everyone… or just squeeze education for some certification money.

There has been a lot of opportunity for learning at this conference for me.  The back channels and keynotes have been very engaging.  Oddly, the learning sessions haven’t been where learning has happened.  Had this been the bike course, I would have spent that weekend sitting on the floor, jammed between other people, watching someone else riding a bike before I went and rode around on my own without any feed back; not the ideal way to learn is it?  You’d think teachers would know better.


note: this is six months later, right after the ECOO13 conference (not a summit?) not to mention EdcampHamilton.  My feelings about GAFE have only intensified.  GAFE is a money grab, designed to funnel teachers into a branding process with Google.  After speaking to others at ECOO I’m more than ever convinced that it is a teacher’s professional duty to not brand themselves and offer their students an unbiased access to any and all technology currently in use.  Anything less is a limitation to students and irresponsible on the part of the technology educator.

The End of Knowledge

I’ve just wrapped up a grade 11 university level English class.  I only tend to teach these classes once every couple of years now, so I see real differences in how academic students are evolving with technology use.

This time around we have a Google Apps for Educators system well established and I assumed academically focused students would be very handy with it.  I shouldn’t assume these things.  Once again I’m surprised at how habitual digital natives are with their technology use; they know how to do the few repetitive things they use technology for very fluently, but asking them to extend that fluency to other software or hardware results in the same kind of frustration you see in anyone.  Technology use really needs to be a generally taught skill – teaching specific apps on specific hardware doesn’t create genuine understanding of information technology and what it can do for you.

Beyond the typical tech-incompetence that we prefer to ignore rather than resolve, there were some deeper implications to technology use that became apparent while marking the final exam.  As a general rule, I encourage productive use of online information resources.  I consider a student who can meaningfully and accurately use the internet to enhance their knowledge to be in a good place academically.  I’m starting to rethink that position.

Marking these exams, I was surprised at how many of the students I thought were A+ English students couldn’t see the figurative implications of a fairly basic piece of satire.  This article from The Onion was included on the exam, but a frustratingly high number of students thought it was about ants.  Those that did pierce the literal barrier more often than not thought it was about the government (?) in spite of me telling them again and again that figurative meaning isn’t your opinion, it’s there in the text.  Less than 1/5 of the class were able to recognize the obvious references to religion and see that article as a satire about it.

Google doesn’t know anything.  The confusion between
information and knowledge is now rampant.  It’s
based on misunderstanding how technology works.

I’m left wondering, as I finalize grades in this class, how many students didn’t so much understand Macbeth as spout internet revelations about it.  In class, students would frequently answer questions from the smartphone Google search in their laps.  I once lamented, “there is no intelligence left, just high speed internet.”

Perhaps the future of learning is the opposite of what it has always been.  Instead of internalizing information and creating constellations of meaning within our own minds, we only need know how to find what someone else said about it on the interwebs.  This raises some scary questions around what understanding is.  Complex ideas, like being able to see into figurative meaning in a text, aren’t a matter of looking up what to say on the internet.  Skills like these are based on interrelated knowledge and practice.  If it isn’t internalized, no matter how tedious digital natives may find that process, you don’t know it.

That digital natives, even the really capable ones, are shying away from internalizing knowledge in favour of getting highly proficient at finding other people’s thoughts online is a real problem.  General ignorance around how digital technology works allows people to say stupid things like ‘Google knows everything!’  Educational technology happily exists in that ignorance, encouraging the use of technology without understanding the hows of it.  Rather than question technology use in learning using epistemology and pedagogy, we try to mimic its general use in society where it is driven by market forces.  If the kids are carrying smartphones around with them everywhere, they should be in class too.  BYOD, wifi everywhere, a screen for every student; these things aren’t going to necessarily increase learning.  When you’ve got Google in your pocket you end up questioning nothing.

Learning has always demanded the internalization of information in order to form knowledge.  This was due in part to the scarcity of information in the past, but it also developed the kind of self discipline that allowed knowledgeable people to do their own research.  In our information rich world the struggle for knowledge is everything modern education is turning away from.  Student centred learning, 1:1 technology, de-emphasis on traditional learning methods – all of this is the new normal.  What was once a mentally rich and demanding internal process is turning into flat, generic, external fact regurgitation.

Digital natives live in a world of media at their finger tips.  The information revolution is, for them, an entertainment revolution where digital delivery systems create a personalized cocoon of immediate and continuous whim satisfaction. The personalization of media has created the impression that technology is there as either distraction or, at best, a shortcut to easy answers.  When all our knowledge is reduced to information we might be able to spout facts, but we understand nothing.


After repeatedly being told verbally and in writing that you can’t have an electronic device within reach during a formal exam, one of those grade 11s had his cell phone fall out of his jacket pocket while writing.  He wasn’t cheating with it, he just thought all those warnings didn’t apply to him because asking him to leave his phone at the front of the room is the equivalent, in his mind, of asking him to pull off his ears.  The digital revolution is fusing itself to our bodies and our minds, and it isn’t always an improvement.

Thoughts on how information becomes knowledge.  We simplify a complex process that demands focus and self discipline
when we infect human knowledge with machine fact.


Which Digital Overlord Do you Bow To?

I’m pretty handy when it comes to technology, but the past week has really underlined for me just how proprietary digital technology has become.  In the past seven days I’ve had to root my phone and I’m still struggling to free the magazines I have purchased from the clutches of Apple.

With content so closely tied to software delivery, and more and more of that software delivery being locked to specific hardware, you seemingly have to accept the fact that you don’t own anything you legally download from the internet without also accepting that the only way to view it is through a multinational’s proprietary ecosystem.

While the tech giants are holding each other off with proprietary technology, the humans run for cover.  Tech used to be all about user empowerment, its first duty now is to the multinational that created it, users are way down the priority list.

I’m just over two years into a three year contract with Telus.  Last year Samsung decided that my Galaxy Note2 wasn’t allowed to update the Google Android operating system that runs on it.  I normally wouldn’t care, but Google Play keeps updating the apps I have on the phone, eventually making a number of them incompatible with my stale version of Android.

Why would Samsung do this?  It’s been two years, it’s time to force me into an upgrade to a new phone.  This wouldn’t be an issue in most markets where telecoms can’t bully customers, but it’s only recently that Canada decided to join the rest of the first world in limiting its cellular carriers in terms of abusive contracts.  Why would Telus shrug about my phone problems?  Because they are selling me a new phone early, even while I’m still on a contract that was deemed unfair to consumers.

What’s left for the user?  The hacker community, thankfully.  After having a chat with my students (all of whom have hacked their phones), I found Jedi X and installed it on the Note2.  Suddenly the phone is faster than it’s ever been, no stability issues at all, lots of extra features that I got to select, and best of all, I’m not forced to run any of the cruft that Telus and Samsung demand I run ‘under contract’.

I’m suddenly no longer the owner of a phone that bricks itself every two hours and needs the battery pulled to restart it.  I’m also the owner of a Note2 that makes lightsaber noises whenever you take the stylus out (I can’t express how happy this makes me). Without the modding community I’d be stuck with a useless phone and paying my way out of a contract that wouldn’t be legal in most of the world, and isn’t legal any more in Canada.

So, with the phone hacked and sorted, I turned to Apple’s Newsstand.  I’ve been using an ipad mini to read, but some magazines on the newsstand are locked to aspect ratio and zoom.  Since they were designed for a regular ipad, they don’t present well on the mini.  Fortunately, after much searching, I’ve found a tablet that I actually enjoy using.  The Microsoft Surface is a tablet that also lets me snap a keyboard on and do work as a full Intel i5 laptop.  I can even do photoshop and video editing on it!  Its high resolution screen is comfortable for reading too.

Like my Microsoft iPad?
It can also be a Microsoft
Android tablet, or a linux
PC, or, you know, a
Windows PC.

Should be no problem, right?  Just install itunes and I’ll be able to access the content I paid for.  Um, no.  Apple locks that content to an i-device.  You don’t own the magazine you paid for, it only exists when you’re looking at it through an Apple iOS screen.  I don’t save money buying electronic subscriptions, each magazine costs me $3.99 instead of $6.99 for a paper copy, plus the price of an ipad.

As you might imagine, Apple doesn’t make an ipad emulator, but lots of other people have.  A couple of downloads later (and a second OS install) and I’m in business, reading the content I paid for on the device of my choice.  I can also boot the Surface into Android mode and view Google Apps on it.  I’m sure this is breaking all kinds of Apple, Microsoft and Google legalese, which is really the point of this whole piece.

There was a time when digital technology was designed to empower users at all costs; the user wasn’t the first thing, they were the only thing.  Users weren’t a data point to be mined, or consumer to be duped into committing to a closed ecosystem, they weren’t buried in legalese and they could expect hardware to run software without worrying about the brand on it.

In the earlier days of digital technology, before these digital giants (who are now synonymous with high-technology) turned this into a vicious game of one-upmanship capitalism, we could depend on digital tech to offer real improvements over the way we used to do things.  Recently I’ve found myself instead wondering what the angle is every time I see a new digital delivery system.

The good news is most people aren’t bothered to learn ways around it and just keep feeding the giants money.  For the few who are willing to learn and experiment, there are always work arounds.

Is The Digital World A Branded World?

Who Is Paying For This?

I’m at the Google Apps for Educators Summit in Kitchener on a Saturday morning.  I’m a Google fan.  I Android, I use UGcloud for school work, I use Google+.  I’m aware that all of these services require a means of income or they’ll evaporate, hence the Google ads I see on them; I’m OK with that.  In a field that can get grabby and greedy, I think Google is more balanced in how it performs its business than most.

As a teacher I’m a bit more cautious about how online tools are framed in terms of learning.  This morning’s keynote with Jim Sill asked what kind of world do we live in.  I suspect the desired answer is a giddy, Silicon Valley logo filled blurt:  I live in an Instagram world! I live in a Google world!  I live in a Facebook world!  When the question turned to how you access this magical world, it revolved around brand names for apps.  Tying brands to information offers you a unique way to infect unrelated material (and learning itself) with your logo and corporate image.  Google has done this perhaps better than anyone (though Facebook takes a pretty good run at owning friendship).


Is the 21st Century really an information revolution, or a branding revolution?  I watched We Are Legion: The Story of Hactivists last night and I’m feeling the dissonance this morning at a conference that is all about companies branding information and funneling it to eager teachers who want to be relevant to their students.  I’m not saying yea or nay to this kind of business, I’m just wrestling with the chaotic freedom the information revolution inspired in hactivists last night and the business of information this morning.

If the information revolution really is about a radical change in how information moves (and I think it is), then talking about apps and brands is akin to focusing on the make of hammer you purchased when you’re learning carpentry.  It would seem strange if, in learning carpentry, the master carpenter went on and on about the brand of hammer they are using.  They might mention why they like it briefly, but they wouldn’t start calling carpentry “Mastercraft hammer”, that would be odd.

Google: a great tool, but be careful not to brand
learning and information with it

People identify with brands, it gives them a sense of belonging, it offers them a ready-made identity in a field where they might not know much else. Excessive brand loyalty is usually the result of ignorance.  I’m less interested in the kind of hammer you’re selling and more focused on how the wood is being fitted together.  I happen to enjoy using my Google hammer when online, I just don’t know that I identify an important revolution in human development with their peppy logo, and I’d hope they’d be OK with that.