Living in an Information Rich World

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

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

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

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  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher’s mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.

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

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

what’s in your digital toolbox?

 

 

This week we’re off to the On The Rise elearning Ontario conference in Mississauga.

I’m presenting Tuesday on how to avoid the pitfalls of a single online learning environment by building a diverse online digital learning ecosystem.


 

 

I’m aiming to outline what I’ve used and how in the classroom, then I’m hoping we can crowdsource what other people have used and create a wiki of current, useful digital learning tools with explanations written by the teachers who have made them work.


 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the PREZI of the presentation:


What’s In Your eteacher Digital Toolbox?  Prezi of the presentation.

The crowdsourced links to diverse digital tools that our presentation assembled for your enjoyment…



#edtech I.T. Management

Welcome to 2010, kindof…

We’re back in school again and it’s been a bit of a #edtech mess.  Over the summer our board upgraded to Windows 7 (so now we’re only one iteration behind the most current operating system).  In the process the entire network was rejigged to fit this new desktop O.S..

Because doing a massive O.S. install wasn’t enough, we also had a major hardware update, moving both models and manufacturers from several years old MDG Intel core two duos to Dell Intel i3s.  If you don’t know the nomenclature don’t sweat it, the long and the short is that our school technology is basically completely different from what we were running last year; and it isn’t working very well.

Managing I.T. is tricky at the best of times.  Managing it in an education environment is more so due to the privacy concerns and complexity of trying to serve people ranging in age from five to sixty five and in computer skill from caveman to cyborg.  To top it off they are all going after radically different uses from physical education to theoretical physics and from pre-university to kindegarten.  Pitching to the middle of this group causes frustration at either end, it’s not like running an office where everyone has similar backgrounds, ages and a common focus.

With that much difficulty it’s not surprising that our board I.T. seems to often lose sight of what their function is.  Supporting effective use of technology in learning shouldn’t be far from anyone’s mind, but it often feels like the reason for being there gets lost in the complexity.  On top of that, board I.T. often seems strongly coloured by business thinking, which it isn’t.  One of our networks is called UGDSBcorp.  I’m not sure at what point our public school board became a corporation, but the naming says a lot about the thinking.

We’re in a transitional time in information technology.  What used to be closed systems meant to connect employees internally are migrating to web based services that are meant to offer greater communication, efficiency and utility.  Clinging to the old way of delivering I.T. results in a lot of unnecessary overhead.  An example is our email.  We cling to Firstclass as an internal client but are also running UGcloud (google apps for education which includes gmail).  We’re told to check our email each day.  Which one?  Both?  I know which one I can connect to more consistently, and it isn’t the internal board one.

With the migration of apps and systems to the cloud it might be wise to push aside the intranet 1990s thinking and consider a resilient network that simply allows easy access to the internet.  Privacy can still be protected on secure web-servers.  If you can do your banking on them, you can certainly store student records on them.  But our board clings to intranet thinking, keeping the vast majority of functionality on local servers and increasing their management work load to such a degree that they can’t keep up with basic operations.

I’ve long held that students (and staff) don’t learn responsible use of technology if you hand them hobbled technology.  No one ever got on the tour de France with training wheels.  The internet they see at home or on their phones isn’t the training-wheels internet they see at school, and this isn’t helpful.  Instead of using the internet as a babysitter in class, teachers need to be in the middle of it, calling attention to misuse and showing best practices.  A school system with less fetters would aid this and make management easier for the people who are constantly short staffed and given too little time to keep it running.

Until we have internet and technology access that rivals the up-time of what we see outside of school we have an uphill struggle convincing reticent educators and poorly trained students to learn best practices, which is supposed to be the whole point.

Machines That Challenge

Tim’s Motorcycle Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re All Just So Busy

If I hear this one more time I might pop.  We’re no busier than we ever were.  If we were all so busy we’d have solved world hunger, the impending energy crisis, unemployment, racism, our broken democracies and poverty.  If we’re all so terribly busy, what is it that we’re busy with, because it doesn’t appear to be anything important.

Most recently I heard it on CBC radio when someone was talking about an online dating site that allows you to quickly, with little more than a photo and a couple of bio points, select a date and meet them.  Not surprisingly, the CBC piece was on the disasters that have come from this.  When asked why people do it, the interviewee trotted out, “well, we’re all just so busy now-a-days.”  I would suggest that if you are too busy to develop a considered relationship with a possible life partner, then you’re getting what you deserve.

These people aren’t busy, they are distracted.

I see students who spend more than half their walking hours engaged in the (mostly) viewing and (seldom) producing of social media.  Much of this is so utterly banal that it defies belief, yet people get so wrapped up in it that they feel trapped.  For those who feel the urge to publish their every thought for the world to see, the results are often less than complimentary.

There are those who are leveraging social media in interesting ways, but for the vast majority it is a passive time sink that has conditioned them to do many things poorly and barely ever finish a thought.

This myopia feeds data bankers who make a lot of money from the freely given marketing information.  It also feeds the industry that creates a treadmill of devices to cater to the process.  Lastly, our digital myopia also feeds the egos of all the ‘very busy’ people who see themselves as a vital part of this wonderful new democracy.

At yoga the other week our instructor gave us this:  pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.  There are things we need to do in life in order to survive and thrive:  look after our bodies, look after our minds, look after our dependants, seek and expand our limitations, find a good life.  This can be very challenging, but it is dictated by choice.  When we make good choices we tend to see a reward.  Eat well and feel better, expand your mind and learn something new, look after your family and enjoy a loving, safe environment.  Poor choices lead to poor circumstances.  In a world where we have more dependable machines and efficient communication, we should enjoy a sense of ease greater than previous generations who had to tune carburetors and ring through telephone exchanges.

Make some good choices.  How busy are you really?

Digital Amplification of the Mega Self

I’ve finished Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and I’ve been ruminating on it for a couple of weeks.  Crawford makes a number of educational criticisms in this philosophical treatise that attempts to free us from Enlightenment thinking gone mad.  This post is on how digital economics amplify and feed off our sense of self.

Crawford’s historical argument is that the Enlightenment rejection of authority has been amplified by neo-liberal values and digitization, turning what was once an early scientific rejection of church authority (rationality vs. superstition) into a sort of hyper-individualism that rejects obvious facts about reality in favour of opinion.  In our modern world opinions have the weight of truth, the irony being that the Enlightenment push to free people from authority has enabled individualism to such a degree that it is now ushering in a new era of superstition.

This person-on-a-pedestal is happily embraced by modern marketing which will go to ridiculous lengths to emphasize just how individual you can be if you all buy the same thing.  The modern, insulated self is also coddled by digital media designed to cater to your every whim.  Whole worlds are made where people feel they are accomplished because they followed the script of a game.  Ask any student, they self-identify with their social standing in game play, yet their greatest achievements don’t actually exist.  The scripted interactions in gaming lead many people to believe that they’ve done something other follow a process they were supposed to complete.  You can never win a video game, you can only finish it, like a book.

Crawford uses the example of Disney’s original cartoons in comparison to the modern Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to emphasize this change in how we (teach our children to) approach reality.  The original cartoons emphasized the tension between what we want and what reality demands with characters battling the elements, often with machines that don’t work as they’re supposed to.

The modern Disney playhouse teaches children an almost deified version of technology.  The machines are psychic, performing their functions perfectly before you even are aware that you need them.  Any problems are resolved by the machines, there is never a question of them not working.  Classic Mickey can often be seen repairing broken machines, modern Mickey is permanently happy as the machines resolve every problem that might arise, it almost plays like an Apple ad.  Digital environments designed to cater to your every whim… sounds like the perfect twenty-first century learning environment.


Gamification in education tends to play much like Mickey’s Clubhouse, offering an experience so safe that it’s virtually (pun intended) meaningless.  When you can’t fail, you can’t succeed.  When you’re following a script instead of self-directing your learning, you’re not really learning.  I’m a massive fan of simulation, even digital simulation, but gamification isn’t that.  In my simulations students often fail.  If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be a worthwhile simulation.  What I hope the simulation does is give them the space away from worldly cost concerns to experiment and try more radical approaches.

When I was a younger man I played paintball a fair bit.  When I played, I often tried to live out silly movie fantasies.  I wouldn’t have done this with real bullets, but in paintball it isn’t for real, right?  One time I left my gun behind and ran straight to the other team’s flag, grabbing it and legging it while they were all standing around getting their defence set up.  I didn’t even get hit because no one was ready.  Another time I tried to do the Arnold-Terminator thing, walking down a road, slowly taking aim and shooting people and ignoring the fact that they might get me back.  I shot six people before someone calmed down enough to get me. When they play paintball, most people run and hide like it’s real.  They do the same thing in video games, camping or hiding even though the entire thing is bogus.  If simulation becomes real in the mind of the user, it ceases to have the same effectiveness as a learning tool; just ask Kirk.

Pedagogically, educational technology suffers from much of the same marketing creep as Mickey’s Clubhouse.  It often tries to do too much, but it’s also infected with attention grabbing nature of the digital economy it’s derived from.  The software we use in education is derived from platforms designed to ensnare attention for as long as possible in order to make money from it.  In an economy where nobody makes anything, the only value people have is as consumers.

Crawford goes into detail about how we don’t have a digital technology attention issue, we have a digital economics issue.  Machines are designed to keep user attention because the economy that profits from it made them that way.  We build machines to ensnare user attention (familiarity helps this, it’s why education is ‘given’ tech ‘for free’).

We children of the Enlightenment, having freed our minds from superstition and social authority by amplifying individuality, ushered in scientific and industrial revolutions.  The Enlightenment championed democracy rather than the mystical divine right of kings, but something insidious latched on to that democratic push.  Democracy became democratic-capitalism and now we’re saddled with an economic system that is happy to make use of the individualism championed in the Enlightenment.

Digital technologies latch on to our already amplified sense of self, multiplying it and allowing us to exist beyond the constraints of the real world (at least until there is an internet or power failure).  As long as that comforting digital blanket is wrapped around our minds we are free to believe whatever we want (the internet will provide proof).

If you feel like there is something wrong with how we’re doing things, Crawford’s challenging book will give you the philosophical latitude to do an end-run around this mental trap that’s been centuries in the making.


Money Clouds

You hear a lot about the magic of the cloud these days.  It’s linked to online integration, website optimization and the evolution of computers.

  Integration and optimization involve encouraging users to put information online and making that data easy for aggregators to access.  The modern, monetized internet is built around turning data into a commodity.  The 2014 web is designed around encouraging you to put as much of your life online as possible because that data has value.

The idea of computers evolving from mainframes to desktops to laptops to smartphones appears self evident, but I’m not so sure.  I’m starting to think the devices prompted us online and the evolution idea was set up afterwards as a marketing angle.  Our devices might not be a response to market needs, but a push by the data bankers to get more people producing.

When you boot up a computer you’ve created a self contained virtual environment that is designed for and subservient to your needs.  Within that machine you have security, privacy and administrative power over your data.  It’s hard to argue that this is anything other than an empowering position for a user.

When you connect to the internet you surrender administrative control.  Your virtual environment is no longer yours, your data is no longer internal and local, it’s no longer your data.  Privacy is an antiquated idea you have to let go of and security is entirely at the discretion of hackers who are increasingly supported by big business and government.  When you go online you have lost that private computing experience and thrown it wide open to many interested parties.

When you send in three one year old
broken Chromebooks you get one back, the
rest aren’t cost effective. If driving people online to

collect data is the goal, then the Chromebook is a
master stroke – disposable hardware that funnels you
into using a single browser – a branded internet.

Why have we stampeded to the cloud?  Did our devices change to serve our needs or have our devices been designed to drive us online?  Apple famously rolled out the ipad.  At the same time they put together itunes, which not only dominates media sales but has also now come to dominate app sales as well.  Selling an ipad is nice, constantly selling media is an exciting, never ending source of income.

Data as an income stream is at the root of our online migration.  Microsoft made billions selling an operating system, but the data produced inside it was very much the domain of the user.  Software we purchase for that environment had to also be subservient to the user.  This is a lousy approach if you want to monetize data and enjoy the benefits of a continuous income stream.

Blizzard realized this with the move to online gaming.  World of Warcraft was one of the first games to successfully follow the data=continual income model, charging monthly fees instead of a one time point of sale for the game.  The end result is a gamer spending hundreds of dollars on a game instead of the single $50 outlay.  If you don’t think it worked, check out how WoW compares to the other top grossing games of all time.

Google famously claims that it wants to organize the world’s information and make it available and useful.  This is always dressed in altruistic nonsense, but this is a profit driven business that goes to great lengths to not pay taxes.  Google is a data mining company, it always has been.  The happy result of this data mining is a remarkably accurate search engine that also happens to feed the data mining operation.  

Once the search engine was established Google went after traditional desktop based applications.  Lite versions of word processing, spreadsheet software and other traditional desktop apps drew users in with the suggestion that your software and data could be wherever your internet connection was.  This drove the expansion of the internet as well as the need for more bandwidth. Once the apps were rolling other data collection techniques like mapping and geo-location were added to the mining process.  The more data that feeds the machine, the more ways it can monetize it.

Claiming to be free, these apps drive users out of their private desktops and into the fishbowl of the internet.  Online apps feed data mining operations just like search engines do.  This blog is written on Blogger, a Google owned web application that encourages information to be put online so it can be mined.  Why do I use it?  Because I want to publish my writing.  In certain circumstances it makes sense to put data out into the fishbowl, but you don’t get to choose those circumstances on the web today.

The reason Google struggles with offering unmined online resources is because Google is a data mining company, it’s what they do.  This isn’t necessarily evil or nefarious, but it behooves us to understand how online companies work, especially if we’re going to get all giddy about driving students online.

A lot of infrastructure had to be put into place for your personal computer to be built, but that infrastructure is minuscule compared to what is involved in creating an internet.  The cost of building and maintaining a worldwide networking infrastructure is staggering.  The only way to make it cost effective is to make the data itself pay.  There are cost benefits to scaling up this kind of infrastructure, so online companies drive as many people into producing data as possible.

Any company that lives online can’t simply create something of value and then stand by it.  The sand is constantly falling through the hourglass, it costs bandwidth to offer even a simple online service in this expensive, complex, cut throat infrastructure.  The only way you can survive in an environment this carnivorously expensive is to make the data you’re attracting pay.  You push to schools, to charities, anywhere you can to generate input.

There is no such thing as a free online app.  The whole point of any online service is to get you producing data that can be mined.  This data is valuable even if your name isn’t attached.  Most privacy legalese attached to online services explicitly allows them to use your data as they see fit.  Cursory efforts are made to hide your name because no name = privacy, but your data is where the money is, and it isn’t yours according to most online agreements.  You surrender control of your data when you agree to use their data mining, um, nifty, online application.

Now that we’ve trained entire generations to ignore traditional media, this intrusive and invasive analysis is where market research has gone.  Multinationals don’t spend marketing dollars on TV commercials for people under thirty any more, it’s wasted money.  Instead, they drive the herd online, creating heat around exciting new smartphones / tablets / wearable computing – whatever gets people producing data to feed the network.

Again, this is neither good nor evil, but it is an evolution away from ideas of traditional advertising (which itself could be cast in a poor light).  The questions we need to ask ourselves as educators are: 

  • If we demand that students use online services that monetize the information they share, are we eroding ideas of privacy and personal security by demanding their online interaction?
  • Are we commoditizing our students’ learning?
  • Should that make us uncomfortable?

There are ways to bypass all of this, but that means turning away from the carefully designed, market driven future laid out for us.  Education could adopt open source software that offers complete administrative control.  Educators could require students to actually learn how to manage digital tools from a mastery learning perspective (instead of whatever bizarre kids-know-this-stuff-intuitively / digital native thing we’re doing now).

We could supply Tor browsers for students to use that would guarantee real anonymity and privacy.  We could expect students and teachers to learn how to manage their own online spaces and develop their own tools with education as the focus and no hidden data mining agenda.  We could leverage the sharing power of the internet to spread these tools around the world at little or no cost, but we don’t, because the future we’ve been sold is so shiny that we can’t think of anything else.

One thing is for sure, the future will be branded.  Branded
information, branded thinking, branded learning?

At the Google presentation at the recent ECOO conference the g-employee asked the room, “why aren’t you all joining Google For Education?  I’m not going to go on until someone can tell me why!”  He was very enthusiastic in his hard sell.

In a less high-pressure sale situation I can formulate a response:  I use Google tools, but I make a point of understanding what they are.  I get the impression that most Google Certified Teachers are more interested in being unpaid sales reps than they are recognizing the complexities of cloud based computing.  Any teacher who rushes into branding themselves with a private company’s logo makes me question their commitment to pedagogy.  What’s more important, using the best tool available or using the best tool from your brand?  It’s a big reason why the idea of brand specific computing devices will never get my vote.  

We’re being led to the cloud by implacable market forces who have monetized our information flow.  They offer ease of access, integration and a general malaise that many regular users of technology turn into ecstatic fandom.  You don’t need to learn this stuff, we’ll take care of all that for you, just hook yourself up to this milking machine and it’ll all be OK.

Hook up students to the milking machine and tell them it’s for their own good.  Edtech is preparing them for the future!

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.

Coding Is A Hands-on Skill

Originally published on Dusty World in July, 2013 – WIRED caught up to me in 2017 with The Next Big Blue Collar Job Is Coding.

I’m frustrated at how computer science seems to own coding.  In Ontario it is now an orphaned subject unto itself.  There is no way someone without a degree in computer science can teach coding, though coding isn’t computer science any more than auto mechanics is theoretical physics.

This reminds me of the Big Bang Theory when Leonard’s car breaks down.  He asks, “does anyone here know how internal combustion engines work?” and all the the scientists in the car laugh and nod.  He then asks, “can anyone here fix a car?” And all the heads go down and they say no.

Computer science is the theoretical end of a spectrum of coding that goes from hands-on hacking through professional coding and into academic research.  That only math quants who were looking for a second teachable pretty much like their first can teach it greatly limits its appeal to the general population.

Code.org agrees with me, as does Steve Jobs, as does Codeacademy, Khan Academy and many other online groups.  These organizations are proliferating because we are not offering our students meaningful access to computer programming.

If we’re going to treat coding (as a part of digital fluency in general) like other basic skills (literacy, numeracy), then we need to free up coding from the bizarre limitations placed upon it by the Ministry of Education and computer scientists.

Can you imagine if all the autoshop teachers had to be theoretical physicists or engineers before they could apply that knowledge to repairing vehicles?  It’s a ridiculous idea, yet that is precisely what we are doing with coding in Ontario schools.  There are many ways a teacher could approach computer programming, limiting it to an extreme, theoretical end of the spectrum doesn’t respect the variety of people who get into coding, and it doesn’t offer students that variety in the classroom.  Coding isn’t a theoretically biased branch of knowledge, in fact I’d argue that coding has much more in common with stochastic technical skills.

We are killing a vital 21st Century fluency stone dead with arbitrary limitations.  Coding should be a technology course, it should be hands on, and it should work hand in hand with engineering (because that is what it is and what it does).  That it is artificially separated into a null space between mathematics and computer studies helps no one other than old school computer scientists, and there aren’t many of them.  The irony is that many of the math teachers with comp-sci as a teachable don’t want to teach it because they never kept up with it other than as a theoretical/academic course of study in university; they don’t love coding, it was simply an easy way to extend their mathematical degree work.

Computer science, like theoretical physics, is a vital subject, but it’s highly specialized and how we teach it should recognize that.  Coding is a skill anyone can learn, and should.

Skills Canada Nationals

I’ve never been on a provincial team before, it’s quite the experience. In addition to the unnatural process of leaving school, getting on an aeroplane and flying away from the classroom in early June, it also puts you together with all the other gold medalists, some of whom you lost against in other categories, except now you’re team mates.  

There are a lot of different students on Team Ontario, from the quietest introverts to the loudest extroverts you can imagine, yet they have all demonstrated advanced skills in their particular field of study and are proven craftspeople.  They range from cocky and arrogant to nervous and uncertain; there is no typical Skills Ontario gold medalist.  

There are a lot of different ways to coach a Skills competitor as well and the teachers here reflect that, but the one thing they all have in common is engagement – I’ve yet to see a shrug of indifference from anyone.  I’ve been accused of not always playing well with others, but when the others are this capable and willing, it’s hard not to get caught up in it all.

We did a solid day of sight seeing yesterday (photos below) and today we’ve had the day off before the opening ceremonies in a couple of hours.  I’m studiously taking notes so I can understand this new part of the process we haven’t done before.

I’ve brought the most experienced IT/Networking student I’ve had to date.  It occurred to me the other night that IT, like many other stochastic technology skills, depends largely on experience driven intuition to overcome unclear problems in complex systems.  A student who was willing to try and fail many times ended up developing into my best candidate because of that resiliency.  I’ve brought students more skilled in academics to Skills Ontario, but never seen them break through because everything had to be just so.  You can’t clarify a problem let alone solve it if you aren’t willing to flounder around in the dark trying things first.  If you read any modern text on how to teach, floundering around isn’t favourable to a transparent, linear process of problem resolution.  If everyone else keeps doing that, we’ve got an edge.



If you’re involved in Ontario education at all, the hashtags to follow on twitter are #teamON and #teamOntario, and the National Skill Competition hashtag #SCNC2016.  Re-tweets of Team Ontario are appreciated (there is a team spirit award based on social media participation).

Later today and tomorrow we’ll be knee deep in the competition, and then I’ll be able to assess how well we prepared for this unknown.  Until then, isn’t New Brunswick beautiful?
Team Ontario at Hopewell Rocks in The Bay of Fundy

Pointe-du-Chêne
Dinner at Catch 22 in Moncton

9lb lobster is watching you – 9lb lobster is unimpressed