Sunday, 28 May 2017

BYOD: yet another edtech failure

Four years ago I was advocating for BYOD.
I was a big fan of the bring your own device (BYOD) approach to educational technology.  I'd hoped that it would diversify the technology we were using in class that looked like it was evolving toward a Google owned Chromebook driven internet.  I also thought it would allow the students who wanted to differentiate their digital access to do so.  BYOD should have left more money free to ensure that all students have some kind of digital access, therefore addressing equity of access worries.  It turns out that offering free data to students means there isn't a lot of money left for anything and has been detrimental to teaching digital fluency.

Our school board went in early and built out wireless infrastructure and developed a BYOD network that was open to anyone entering one of our schools.  In the years since this happened the number of students bringing in their own devices hasn't changed (most do), but the type of device they bring and fill up the network with also hasn't changed.  Laptops and other more creation focused devices are a non-entity on our BYOD network - it is packed full of smartphones focused on personal use.  You can make an argument for these devices as creation tools, but their function is built around consumerism and the data collection that monetizes the modern internet.  The vast majority of smartphone users are consumers by design, not creators in anything other than a selfie sense.

The vast majority of those smartphones are not used for school work and are often directly opposed to it.  Our administration is now trying to manage cyberbullying that is happening in class across the entire school on networks students shouldn't even have access to.  The problems caused aren't just lack of student focus in class, these devices cause systemic problems as well.


No one does edtech for free.
If a smartphone is used for anything class related it is a minuscule percent of its daily use.  Many of our teachers have issues with managing off task smartphone use in class.  Earnest #edtech types (usually with corporate backing) tell us this is because we're not doing it right and we should buy into their system.  As someone who was doing it right before your Google/Apple/Whatever certification existed, I'm here to tell you that this is nonsense.  Smartphones aren't creative tools, they aren't designed to be, they're designed by data collection companies to collect data.  Trying to build your classroom around a device like that is like trying to set up a roofless tent in a rainstorm to stay dry.

Our school  board has made numerous attempts to focus network data use on learning, but students are willing to open themselves up to phishing and other hacks by installing policy banned VPN networks to bypass website filters.  Even in our carefully moderated network environment we've got students sharing their data through unknown off shore servers just so they can Snapchat while in class.  They do all this without a clue about what they've done to their data integrity.

I'm not sure at what point school boards in Ontario decided that they should be providing free internet to students, but it isn't cheap.  Our board has struggled to stay ahead of the data tsunami caused by all these vampire smartphones clamping on to our BYOD network each day.  Apps that constantly update and stream data are the new normal and the current round of digital natives expect to be able to drink from the tap all the time in whatever manner they see fit.  This is costing tens of thousands of dollars a month at a time when department budgets are tightening up and I'm not even given enough to cover the basic costs of consumables like wiring and electrical components in my technology classroom.

I would love to see BYOD being used for its intended purpose, but instead of valuing the network they've been given, students see it as an expectation, like running water or electricity.  They make minimal efforts to moderate their use of it and become incensed if it's adjusted to try and focus them on using it for school related work while in the classroom.  If it was taken away at this point I think there would be much gnashing of teeth and agonized screaming by students who think that free internet access is some kind of constitutional right.  In the meantime we're all paying millions of dollars a  month across the province to provide these students with bandwidth that feeds their habitual technology use and is more often a detriment to learning.

I'm as frustrated as anyone, but simply offering internet for everything doesn't seem to be working.  Once again, I come back to the lack of a digital fluency continuum of learning in Ontario.  If students aren't shown how to use technology effectively, offering them unbridled access to it isn't going get us anywhere.


Our implicit enabling of habitual technology use makes for whole generations of digital narcissists.

It's been five years now and Ontario still has no mandatory digital skills continuum even though digital technology is pretty much everywhere now.  We expect students to learn foundational skills in other aspects that are curriculum wide (literacy, numeracy), but we magically expect them to understand and make effective use of digital technology.  The BYOD failure is just another symptom of this disease.

All we have to do to do it, is do it:





I don't care whose skills development process we use, but can we start teaching technology if we're going to use it in everything?  Digital technology is prompting systemic change in how we share information, create media and collaborate on learning.  Can we start to treat it like the fundamental skill it is?  Please?!?  

I roughed out an idea a few years ago - in it I suggested linking access to technology to fluency and slowly opening up that access as technical skills improved.  BYOD is a great idea for digitally fluent students who know what it is and how to use it effectively.  Giving internet access to everyone equally is like giving everyone power tools; the few who know how to use them will do great things, the rest will hurt themselves.  We need to match the digital tools to the skills of students using them.

In literacy terms this would be like slowly increasing reading difficulty as vocabulary and reading fluency improves.  What we do with digital technology is nothing at all until a student brings in their own copy of War and Peace, which they then use to prop open doors and doodle in.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Changing Face of Digital Fluency

File types?  File management?  Yeah, the latest batch
of digital natives don't do that any more.
Last week during a staff meeting one of our administrators said, 'the kids are so far ahead of us" (technically).  The subtext was because they are on their phones all day they are more digitally literate than we old people (anyone over twenty).  As someone who teaches digital skills and who knows first hand how ignorant our digital natives are, I verbally disagreed quite vociferously.  A week later the digital ignorance we choose to ignore was highlighted once again.

I got a call from a business computer lab saying Photoshop wasn't opening student .jpg files.  Jpegs are a common picture file format and photoshop is more than capable of opening them.  This wasn't a technical failure, it was the much more common human kind.  I asked a student to show me how they saved their file as a jpeg.  They selected save and then typed in .jpg at the end of the file and saved.  Photoshop defaults to save in the .psd file format that is lossless and keeps layering data.  It makes for a bigger file, but you keep all your image data.  Jpeg is popular because it compresses files quite drastically with an equivalent loss to quality, the result is a much smaller and simpler file that works well online.

PSDs and JPGs are nothing like the same file.  Windows only looks to the file extension (the .jpg part of picture.jpg) to see how to open it.  If you call a file a jpeg that isn't a jpeg, you've caused the error.  This is exactly what these digital natives had done.  All they had to do was 'save as' and select jpeg for this to work, but they don't know what they don't know.


Living in the cloud means more is being taken care of for
you, meaning you know even less about what's happening
This situation points to a larger shift that has become more apparent in recent years.  Many of our students now have little or no experience with local file management.  The first Chromebooks came out in 2011 when our current high school students were in grade 4.  Many of them haven't lived in anything other than the cloud.  When they save files they don't know where they go because they aren't familiar with the basic organizational structure of a computer.  File naming so you don't get confused, saving as a file type so your PC knows how to open it, directory structures so you know where to look for files?  These kids who 'are so far ahead of us' are moving further away from that every day.


Thank goodness for preview icons, otherwise I'd have
no idea what was going on.
Local files aren't something 2017 students generally deal with.  If you ask most high school students how many mp3s that they have they'll look at you like you're crazy, they don't do local music any more.  Ask them how they organize their photographs and you'll get the same look of confusion and condescension.  Our Board network is currently broken under the weight of all these cloud based students constantly streaming media content from the internet all the time every day.  When they can't find access to the cloud they are more than willing to have their data phished and break board policy by using VPNs (see below) to bypass board restrictions, further clogging up an already overused network.  Those 'free' VPNs are closely watching a directed stream of personal data; there's money in that.

It's frustrating enough when a student says they can't find you a document they swear they made and then shows you a google docs directory full of something called 'untitled document', but the new normal is to expect students to have no idea how or where a computer saves a file.  Network dependency and having someone else manage your data is the new normal.


Do you have digital expertise or do you just have
the same simplistic habits repeated over and over?
I've said it before and I'll say it again, we have to build a digital fluency stream into Ontario's curriculum.  We expect students to magically know how to operate technology because they immerse themselves in simplistic, habitual usage for hours a day.  That limited experience does not improve digital fluency.  If we're going to expect students to know how to save files, manage their own data and protect themselves from an internet increasingly designed to take advantage of their ignorance, we need to make digital fluency something other than an afterthought, or worse, off load it on ageist stereotypes of technical prowess.

A book or an ipad, like anything else we make, is a tool.  How we use it defines our understanding of it.  A hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter is a very different tool than the same hammer in the hands of a fool.  For some strange reason (probably based on our own willful ignorance), we have imbued the latest digital tools with a magical mindset.  If you want to become a good photographer, learn how to use your camera, if you want to become a good mechanic, learn how to use your socket set.  If you want to become a digital technologist, learn how this technology works and how to most effectively use it - it isn't magical, it just requires some effort.


NOTES

Virtual Private Network:  they were made so that people away from a corporate network could create a tunnel across the internet to the local network and work as though they were in the building.  Any data in that tunnel is very difficult to see.  That's what makes it handy for avoiding blocks - the board network can't easily read what's happening in that encrypted tunnel.  Needless to say, this also produces a lot of lag and network traffic as everything you access over the network is waiting on VPN relays and contains the data needed to access that VPN as well.


VPNs have turned into fake network addresses with companies offering a remote connection for a price (so you can pretend you're American and get better Netflix).  If it's free, I imagine they are mining your data in the best case or phishing for passwords and financial information in the worst case - I'm willing to bet none of our students pay for their VPN usage so they're all playing a dangerous game with hackers.  Using a VPN means you're passing all of your data through an unknown server (unless you set one up yourself - which I'm willing to bet none of our students know how to do).

Since all your traffic is coming from the VPN server address (and these change all the time), blocks to sites like YouTube don't work because it doesn't look like you're going to YouTube.  I wonder what the incidents of corrupted credit cards are with our free-VPN using student phones.  I'm willing to bet the vast majority of our VPN using students don't know what VPN stands for or what it is - it's just an app someone told them to download that means Snapchat in class.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

This One's On Me

Last year at this time I was stunned by our first Skills Ontario gold medal and suddenly found myself on Team Ontario going to Nationals.  We'd been battling in Ontario provincial competition for several years before that break through.  In the year since I'm surprised by how engaged I've been in preparing to compete again.  Being hungry after years of failure is in my nature, I'm competitive, but I thought perhaps the win would tick a box and cause me to change direction; it has poured gasoline on the fire.  I'm proud to wear that Team Ontario jacket.

This year Skills Ontario has moved to a bigger venue, which was needed.  Unfortunately, instead of it being twenty minutes away through the country, it's hours away through the worst commute in North America.  The new venue is great and it fits this huge event, unfortunately it's located on the Moon - actually the Moon would be easier to get to.

I tried to be creative and cost effective and look for ways to make this impact our competitors as minimally as possible, but the school bus route was a disaster.  We were all up at 4am on the day of competition.  We were on the road just past 5am and it took us almost three hours of fighting interminable traffic piloted by people with dead eyes to get there.  We arrived late, tired and worried that we'd missed check in; not the ideal way to start an all-day nine hours of competition.

I got my people signed in and then I could unclench.  In IT this year I had the brother of a previous competitor who I think is one of my strongest yet, expectations were high.  He ended up getting stuck on something so simple that he was kicking himself pretty much the moment the competition was over, but I think that error was more the result of four hours of sleep, a miserable commute and the stress of getting there late.  Under the circumstances I think he did a fantastic job, but I failed to provide the logistics necessary for him to produce his best work.

After the early morning, three hour commute-from-hell in and nine straight hours of competition (my student didn't feel he could take a lunch and finish in time), we had to wait for everyone to finish and didn't leave the venue until well past 5pm... straight into evening rush hour.  It took even longer for us to fight our way out of the GTA and then we thumped into the twilight along miles of potholed Ontario roads on the leaf sprung school bus.  When we finally rolled in well after 8pm I was exhausted, my sciatica was screaming at me and I hadn't spent nine hours in intense competition; I can't imagine how the kids felt.


The hardest fought bronze medal you'll see.
I went home, took Robaxacet and passed out having not eaten anything since lunch.  The next morning I was up at 6am to get back on a god-forsaken school bus at 7am to go back to the same place we'd just left for the awards ceremony.  It took us nearly three hours to get there through the angry parking lot that is the GTA.  Getting to the ceremony late, we sat through the awards in an excellent venue.  My IT competitor managed to get a bronze medal, which I think is brilliant (he thought the whole thing was a write off).  He must have aced the rest of it considering the single mistake he made meant he couldn't answer many questions.

Back on the bus again at noon, I took the competitors who hadn't eaten yet (7am departure) to lunch and we got back to the school at a perfectly reasonable time (no rush hour).  I'm already thinking about how to try and manage this next year.  My only goal is to deliver my competitors in the best possible shape early and on time to the competition.  We looked into hotels, but anything by the airport is twice what it costs anywhere else in Ontario.


There is no doubt that we needed a new venue.  They said in the ceremony that Skills Ontario has grown from two hundred to over two thousand competitors, and we'd outgrown RIM Park in Waterloo.  It's unfortunate that the only venue big enough is in the GTA, which gets further and further away from the rest of us in Ontario every year.  Having lived in Japan, it amazes me that I could access Tokyo, a city of twenty-five million, with ease, but the GTA with its paltry seven million is infrastructure inaccessible.

At lunch, one of our exhausted students asked why they have to start the competition at rush hour.  It's a good question.  Running Skills Ontario next year from 11am to 8pm would save a lot of people their sanity.  In non-rush hour times we're able to get to The Toronto Congress Centre in under ninety minutes.  Many of the student visitors don't get there until past 11am anyway, so it wouldn't impact that aspect of the show.

I'm disappointed at the results we got this year, but that's entirely on me.  As their coach, my job is to take care of the logistics and deliver them primed and ready to compete.  This year had new and difficult circumstances, but I didn't resolve them sufficiently and it hurt my students' ability to produce their best work.  That guts me.  I'll do better next time.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Positively Encouraging: Teachers Doing No Harm


In another confluence of events I'm reflecting on just how much of an effect teachers have on a student's trajectory.  A misread tweet on how damaging assessment can be was followed by a post on Google+ and punctuated by a graduated student showing up unexpectedly this week.  It all got me thinking about how damaging to students teachers can be.

I got into computers when I was ten years old.  By the time I was twelve I'd published code and was writing my own programs.  It took a single dismissive remark by my computer science teacher to knock me off that trajectory for years.

I did grade ten computer science on a freaking computer punch card reader and did well.  I'm not a mathlete and struggled with the theory, but as a hands on coder I'm more than capable - I sympathize with the machine and understand what it needs.  In grade eleven we finally got to move to 286x86 IBM PCs and I was very excited.  I'd signed up for grades eleven and twelve in consecutive semesters, but after the math teacher running the program basically turned it into a math course, I didn't do very well.  When I walked into the grade twelve class in semester two he looked down his nose at me and said, "Tim?  Really?"  I dropped the class shortly thereafter.  If you asked him now he'd probably say he was doing me a favour.  He did me no favours.

Last week I had a young man drop by who graduated a couple of years ago.  He asked me if I remembered what our computer science teacher at the time had said to him in grade eleven.  He'd basically done to this kid what my computer science teacher did to me.  Jake said he bounced back because I essentially designed our new software engineering course around his suggestions, which encouraged him not to give up on his love of coding; he's about to finish the programming course at Conestoga and he's debt free because his game studio is making him enough money to pay for his college.  Teachers who have never published anything telling people what they can and cannot do really get on my nerves.

This student and I both tend toward a right-brained approach to things, thinking laterally and often intuitively about problem solving.  We're foreign beasts to predominantly left brained math and science types.  That linear, concrete thinking allows left brained teachers to place a lot of faith in grades - they believe that they are something more than a vague, abstraction of a student's abilities.  When these mathlete computer science types look down their nose at you in condescension, they believe that the D they gave you means something.  I would posit that their certainty makes them a liability in any classroom.

Becoming a high school teacher was never a goal of mine.  With a few exceptions I didn't enjoy school when I was in it and I certainly wasn't aiming to make a career of it.  Now that I find myself teaching I'm constantly aware of just how damaging those gatekeepers in my own background were.  

In grade ten I wanted to be an astronomer more than anything else, but a series of science teachers made a point of crushing that dream.  I'm hardly stupid, and I was willing, but it was their way or the highway and I don't bow to authoritarianism very well, especially when my scrappy, experimental approach to problem solving bares fruit.  They didn't like that I struggled to a solution myself rather than following the well trodden path of 'the right answer'.  In retrospect, and with some pedagogy to back me up now, I'd wager that my hard won answer is still with me today while the A+ students who memorized the process have long since forgotten it.  Learning is supposed to be messy.

When you think in absolutes you have the potential to do some real harm to children.  Every day I make a conscious effort to consider how what I'm saying will encourage genuine learning in my students.  I'm not an easy teacher, and often have the biggest friction with the A+ crowd who just want to know what to write so they can do what they're told and get that A plus they've become accustomed to.  In those cases I celebrate their efficiency while expanding their resiliency.  You don't need to belittle someone because they do things differently to you.

As teachers we could do a lot worse than following the Hippocratic oath doctors use.  If at any point you think you're helping a student by disciplining them with assessment, you're not - that was the subtext of my tweet to the Ministry.  

If at any point you dismiss a student's approach to a subject because it's not the same as yours, you're protecting yourself more than you are helping your student.  In my experience this approach is usually founded on a lack of confidence in your own abilities.

Try and be what you're supposed to be: the adult in that student's life who can dispassionately see their potential and then do everything possible to realize it.  This can be much harder work than simply attacking kids with numbers because they don't conform to your process, but it's much more rewarding.

So many secondary teachers fall into a comfort zone around their familiarity with their subject and are unwilling to see any other way to do it.  It might take a bit of lateral thinking, but seeing the value in how a student approaches a subject instead of assessing them based on how closely they follow your methods would be a significant pedagogical step forward.  We'd suddenly be assessing how they are grappling with their learning rather than forcing our methodology on them, and that would mean far fewer teachers slamming the door in student's faces with or without realizing it.