Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Hack The Future

Between questions of how student data is being used and technology monopolists pushing for standardization in edtech, I'm left with an uneasy feeling.  As we reach a tipping point in digital educational technology we simplify and standardize to the point where the people doing the teaching don't know or care what happens behind the curtain.  What is happening behind that curtain is being decided in closed rooms between multi-national corporations and governments.  The bait is a 'free' digital learning system for education.  The payoff is habituated users and data mining on a level unprecedented in history, and we're happy to sell our students and ourselves into it in order to get the freebies.

If this were all happening in the light of day I'd be a lot happier about it.  That it's happening behind closed doors and shouldn't be publicized is something that should concern everyone.

If you're not paying for it you're the product being sold.  Corporations may state that they do no evil but they aren't after what education is after, they are after profit.  That student information is being brokered well beyond the reach of educational institutions by these information merchants should be a cause of concern, but instead I see public educators increasingly branding themselves with corporate logos and shouting their evangelism from the social media rooftops.

Technology is exciting, and digital technology is such an intimate thing because it nestles up to our minds.  Our habit of elastically coupling with our technology suggests that digital-tech is going to become an intrinsic part of how we see ourselves.  People are already describing unplugging as feeling like an amputism, it's only going to become more entwined, especially as we begin to wear our digital selves.

I'm reminded of Kenneth Clark's unsettling end to what many consider to be the best documentary series ever created, Civilisation...

Start at 35:30 if the link doesn't take you right there.

That one of the most intelligent observers of human society was pondering this in the year I was born lurks in the back of my mind.  Machines that make decisions for us, many educators seem thrilled with this idea.  You may be all gungho over the latest shiny i-thing or googly-eyed over that app that will revolutionize your teaching, but the true costs of these things are a carefully kept secret.  At the very least, when we adopt a single digital ecosystem (no matter how free it is), we're selling our students (and our own) habitual technology use into a closed environment.

As educators it should be a goal to recognize tools in terms of what they can do rather than how easy they are and how well integrated they come.  And we should never be deciding on a tool that inserts itself into the learning process based on how little we're expected to learn about it.  Technology and the internet aren't Google, and tablets aren't Apple.  Computers aren't Microsoft.  Only by offering students access to all of these things and more are we approaching the teaching of technology in as complete and well rounded a way as possible.

Over the past ten years I've watched education stagger into digitization always hesitant to change old ways, and I've pushed as hard as I can to encourage that change.  Only by catching up to this revolution can we hope to prepare students for the strange world that awaits them.  Now that we're at a tipping point I'm watching what could be a powerful new fluency being boiled down into canned access to technology, always under a single brand.  Instead of teaching technology like it's becoming an intimate part of our lives (which it is), we pass it off with idiotic notions like 'digital native' that allow people who have no interest in learning technology to also off-load the responsibility of teaching our children about technology.  Into that ignorance vacuum corporations have crept, offering you an easy solution, and most people are more than happy to take it even if it means being walled in to a monopoly.

I wrote last on the idea of being a tech-ronin, a digital samurai without a master.  That works for me but I come from a time before data dictated who I am.   I'm worried about my students.  In a world where we've sold them into digital servitude as data sheep (call them digital natives if that makes you feel better), the only way out is to know the system well enough to circumvent it.  Instead of teaching a closed, monopoly limited mindset in technology that serves everyone except my students, I want them to develop a broad understanding of digital tools and how they work.  In a broad edtech learning environment my students will develop a meta-cognitive view of both technology and how they are represented by it.  In a time where we are increasingly defined by our data the only free people will be the ones who have a sense of themselves beyond their student record in the LMS.

My department logo has 'learn how to build the future' on it, but perhaps I need to make a change just to give my students a chance to self-realize beyond whatever data metric they are being sold into.
Rage against the machine

Saturday, 5 April 2014


The Google Apps for Education (GAFE) 'Summit' is this weekend.  I'm not there and I'm comfortable with that.  There is nothing in Google that I haven't been able to figure out on my own and I use Google extensively, they make good products.

Last week's Elearning Ontario Presentation
Last week I presented at elearning Ontario on how to create a diverse digital learning ecosystem.  You'd think that educators would want to get their hands on as wide a variety of tools as possible in order to not only provide the best possible digital learning support for their students but to also increase their own comfort zone in educational technology.  In the mad rush to digitize the vast majority of people want as little expertise to accompany it as possible, they would much rather find a closed ecosystem in which they can develop a false sense of mastery.

If you hyper focus on one thing you tend to get an inflated sense of your abilities.  I wouldn't trust a mechanic who can only work on Ford brakes or a teacher who can only work out of Pearson textbooks, I'd have to assume they've learned by rote rather than developed mastery.  I know it's hard work, but becoming fluent in digital tools requires some time, some curiosity and some humility and that's ok.

A colleague showed me this last year and it has been
on my mind ever since.
The idea that you get a qualification under a single brand and have somehow become a master of digital learning is misleading.  But the limits of evangelizing a single digital learning ecosystem go well beyond questionable professional practices around branding teachers with private company logos.  There is also the question of how these technologies are mining education for profit.  

If you live within a monopolistic education technology environment you can never be sure what they are doing with the data they are managing for you 'for free'.  That data is worth a lot of money.  Even if it's being stripped of names, the ethics of exchanging student marketing data for a 'free' digital learning environment has to be questioned.  In a monopolistic situation that questioning doesn't happen.  Only an open, fair digital learning environment allows us to demand higher standards from companies who are otherwise singularly focused on making money in any way that they can.

Wouldn't an opensource hardware model that allows us
to teach all technology platforms be a nice idea?  The Learnbook
Some links to consider:
"Google would not answer questions about whether its data-mining practices support the creation of profiles on student users.

Google also confirmed to Education Week that its general terms of service and privacy policy apply to student users of Apps for Education, a stance contrary to the company's earlier public statements."

OSAPAC has worked out a deal that doesn't sell off Ontario Students' data, but it's a secret,
and each board has to implement it themselves.  The mysteries of information in the information age...
Tweets on this weekend's GAFE summit in Kitchener/Waterloo... the koolaid tastes good.


  1. 1.
    (in feudal Japan) a wandering samurai who had no lord or master.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

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...

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Learning Curves

Following up on the 'just tell me the answer' post last week, I've been trying to find ways to articulate what I'm attempting to do with students so that they don't become frustrated.  It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, but what I'm hoping is that familiarity breeds confidence and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of student knowledge.  

The germination of self-directed learning should be the goal of instruction in any teaching.  A student who is forever dependent upon a teacher is a poor student indeed.  With that goal in mind I'm working out the process of developing self directed learning in students using Prezi to map out how familiarity breeds confidence and self direction.

Some brilliant Google+ sharing by Liz Krane &
Carmelyne Thompson via Josh Kaufman
Explaining this to my senior computer engineers I tried to stress that this process is what I'm looking at, not necessarily what you know.  Even though the seniors are supposed to have previous experience many don't so the course needs to be flexible in how it approaches a wide range of abilities.  If I see steady growth in familiarity through guided instruction the inevitable result should be the formation of self-directed learning demonstrated through experimentation, collaboration and troubleshooting.  Looking for what a student knows is much less important than looking for where a student is in this learning process towards mastery.  Mastery itself is really just another word for a person who knows enough to error correct and self direct their learning - expertise never came at a teacher's hand, mastery is always self taught.

Josh Kaufman's TEDtalk on how 20 hours takes you through the initial steep climb (humbling and intensely rewarding) when picking up a new skills is telling:

We fail to do a lot of these things in school.  Distractions in the form of bells, announcements, lousy chairs and tables, large classes, and dozens of other interferences break focus.  I like to say, "stop learning now, you have to leave" to students when the bell goes and students who were lost in what they were doing are jarred back into the present.

Kaufman's learning curve,
seems perfectly sensible...
On top of school itself we now have digital technology which is most effective at monetizing us if we 'surf' rather than focus.  The habits we develop while being consumers online plague educational technology as students who are used to being digitally shallow out of school bring the same lack of focus to their learning.  That we ignore digital habits and corporate influence in educational technology will probably be the reason it never does what it promises it might do.

Beyond industrialized settings and digital distractions education systems fail to recognize the basic process of learning and in doing so spend a lot of time and money producing under-performing students.  When 50% is a pass even a perfect pass rate isn't saying much.  If our learning happens on a curve as Kaufman suggests, then we are doing this wrong in just about every possible way.

About a year ago I took a weekend course in order to begin riding a motorcycle.  Difficult and uncompromising it demanded my full attention both in the classroom and for hours in the saddle.  Not paying attention resulted in possible injury (and several people were).  That weekend course might seem too short but it just happens to be about twenty hours long (what Kaufman suggests you need to get over the steepest part of the learning curve).  With the right kind of support (small class size with a 1:4 instructor/student ratio and everything we needed to learn the skill including bikes, space, etc) and an expectation of focused learning, that twenty hours got me over the hump and able to continue developing expertise in a complex skill set that I had no previous experience in.  I'd have to say, anecdotally, that Kaufman's 20 hours seems right on the money.

We don't think about learning curves in school.  We don't consider how students feel when they are picking up a new skill and feel inadequate; feelings aren't in the curriculum.  Worse, we consider learning to be a twelve year long marathon in school rather than a series of short sprints.  Student goals aren't always clear or consistent, failure isn't considered an option and learning itself is less a focus than are irrelevant personal details like your age.  We'd rather bunch students by age than where they are in their learning process.  We lose sight of the possibilities and challenges inherent in the first twenty hours of new learning in favour of decade long statistical growth.

Can you imagine a school guided by Kaufman's logic?  Students are given focused learning to get them into a self correcting phase and then are expected to self-direct their learning. There would be classrooms with very high student:teacher ratios where the focus is on early learning.  There may be other times and spaces where students are entirely independent and producing their own directed learning.  Instead of a blanket approach our classrooms and schedules would reflect our variable learning curves; our schools would be responsive to how we learn instead of the other way round.

Digital technology would lend itself to this kind of learning by offering information, collaboration and communication to students on a profoundly personalized level.  If we don't begin taking the training of digital tools seriously the consumerist habits developed by everybody (students and staff) outside of school won't allow us to de-industrialize education and adapt it to how we learn.