Saturday, 18 October 2014

Collegiality vs Teamwork and Digital Technologies

We re-aligned our computer courses last year.  Our school formerly was one of the few with a Computer Studies Department, with computer science and computer technology courses all existing under a single banner.  Last year the department was dissolved and computer science was put under the Mathematics Department while computer technology was re-integrated with the Technology Department.

I transitioned from Computer Studies Head to a co-head of Technology, but I'm finding working in such a diverse (we cover everything from metal work to food school to digital design) department challenging.  With so many horses pulling in so many directions, I can't help but feel that digital technologies tends to be a second thought.  Rather than feel excluded I've been finding ways to develop a stronger digital technologies continuum.

The computer lab has always been next to the design lab, though run by different departments.  Now that we're on the same team so to speak, I've been re-thinking how digital technologies, always minimally represented in terms of classes, should work within the school.  We've been developing an integrated digital technologies curriculum in order to facilitate that.

With the dissolution of Computer Studies the realigning of our school's digital technologies was inevitable.  No longer is Technology Design the lone digitally focused technology course in the department.  Combined with Computer Technology, our digital technology courses can now offer a continuum of learning across a wide variety of digital platforms.

I initially felt that dissolving the computer department was going to be bad for the discipline, but now I'm feeling a new synergy.



By drawing together our digitally focused technology courses under the many common threads they share we're able to offer 9-12 curriculum in a wider variety of areas.  For students in a rural area where digital-tech doesn't have the social impact it has in more urban settings this is a big deal.

The first step was to diversify our high-tech offerings.  I argued successfully at Heads for Tech-Design to offer Robotics (our tech design teacher has a background in it).  I also argued successfully for a Software Engineering option that would allow students interested in the field to experience industry standard practices around software development rather than the mathematics focus offered by computer science.



From the junior grades students get a wide variety of choice in 11 & 12 around what aspects of digital technology they want to pursue.  And even if the student isn't going into a tech-focused profession, they are at least able to develop the kind of digital fluency that will be handy in any 21st Century workplace.  Of course, digital-tech doesn't end at the workplace.  If we're going to graduate citizens capable of communicating in the 21st Century, they need to have digital fluency.

I always felt isolated as the head of computers with only a part time comp-sci teacher who wasn't interested in collaborating.  Now that I'm the co-head of tech, or perhaps Head of Digital Technologies fits better, I'm able to empower our tech-design as well as my own computer-tech fields and build a more complete set of options for our students to benefit from.

Change isn't always easy, but in this case I feel like it's led to a good place where teamwork and a common goal has replaced cold, distant collegiality.


A 9-12 Digital Technologies Continuum with a healthy variety of choice that will develop graduates ready to take on the challenges of the 21st Century:



The layout is so helpful I've expanded it out to the Technology Department as a whole:


Friday, 17 October 2014

Poetry

We're moving into poetry in the senior academic English class I'm teaching.  Poetry is one of those things that can seem a bit pretentious, especially to high school students.  We looked at contemporary lyric poems to begin with.  After some Practical Magic and other free verse I thought it might be time to take a swing at it ourselves.  I'm curious to see what students bring to class today.  Hopefully writing about something that interests them will remove that pretension and let them get some ideas on paper in the relatively unencumbered contemporary lyric format.

In My Pocket

あ and ん
alpha and omega
binary beginnings and silent ends.

ones and zeroes?
no,
math is an abstraction
but
certainty is in the machine.

waves relentlessly pound our shores,
pass through us
quantify us
connect us
ensnare us
constant attention demanded
by
this raging sea of yes and no,
profound and banal
personal collective
private crowd.

information constellations
in magnetic grips
lighter than a glance,
more certain than a second thought.

frozen moments of certainty
tumble to an event horizon
making sense of the senseless
at a ferocious rate.

I have a text!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Literacy, Engagement and Marketing

The latest WIRED has an editorial by Clive Thompson about Minecraft and literacy.  In the article it is suggested that Minecraft (and other video games) have engaged reluctant readers to the point where they are able to overcome their reading problems and devour challenging texts with near perfect accuracy.

I usually enjoy Thompson's reach, he tends to push back assumptions, but in this case it feels hyperbolic.  "Minecraft is the hot new videogame among teachers and parents".  It was three years ago, but then it hasn't just been sold to Microsoft for billions (with a "B") of dollars.  Sometimes I can't tell if it's hyperbole or marketing.

Thompson goes on to state: "Minecraft is surrounded by a culture of literacy." So is any hobby, video games are not magical because of this.  Motor vehicles are surrounded by a 'culture of literacy' - look in any magazine rack.  Back in the day Dungeons and Dragons was surrounded by a 'culture of literacy' with books and magazines galore.  Movies are surrounded by a 'culture of literacy' (IMDB, Entertainment Weekly etc), so is technology in general (WIRED).  That we read and write about the things that interest us is hardly a shock.  Why should video games be any different?  Many reluctant readers are willing to read material about a subject that interests them.  That this is newsworthy is a bit baffling, what is more surprising are the assumptions further on in the article.

Interest and engagement are key elements in developing basic literacy skills, no doubt, but the article goes on to imply that engagement through video games can somehow overcome illiteracy.  This is going from hyperbole to gross over-simplification.  I've already got my doubts about gamification, but championing gaming engagement as the solution to illiteracy isn't respecting the complexity of the skill, though it does sync well with valuations in gaming companies.

Back in 1973 when I was a three year old learning to read my grandmother would read me a bit of The Magic Faraway Tree and then say she was tired and put it down, usually at a critical part of the story.  I'd struggle through the text using the light from the doorway, desperately trying to find out what happened after she left me to go to sleep.  I have no doubt that she knew what I was doing.

I suppose WIRED might have written an article about that, but Enid Blyton doesn't have the market reach of Minecraft or the magic we desperately want to believe inhabits our brave new and oh-so-very-valuable media.

I'm a strong reader.  I can't remember a time when I couldn't read.  For me it meant independence and the ability to satisfy my own curiosity.  There is no doubt that my determination created intense engagement at a time when reading wasn't easy for me, but it was just the first step on the long road of literacy.  I wasn't displaying illiteracy one day and then suddenly became a fluent reader the next because I was "really, really motivated".

Thompson quotes Constance Steinkuehler (of whom I'm a fan) on the effects of video game focused literacy.  Middle and high school struggling readers were asked:

"...to choose a game topic they were interested in, and then she picked texts from game sites for them to read—some as difficult as first-year-college language. The kids devoured them with no help and nearly perfect accuracy."

How could they do this? “Because they're really, really motivated,” Steinkuehler tells me. It wasn't just that the students knew the domain well; there were plenty of unfamiliar words. But they persisted more because they cared about the task. “It's situated knowledge. They see a piece of language, a turn of phrase, and they figure it out.”


Situated knowledge plays a key role in literacy.  Scaffolded understanding and context awareness are inherent to good reading.  On a micro level it assists vocabulary and parsing written conventions like punctuation and grammar.  As we build our understanding of written language we're able to comprehend more complex texts using previous experience; literacy builds on itself in this way.  

Contextualization also assists a reader at the level of themes and ideas.  Being conversant in a video game allows you to make assumptions about words and concepts you would otherwise have no link to through the text.  No doubt many of those struggling readers were able to accurately guess vocabulary and concepts from their own experience, the text becomes a secondary resource, literacy a secondary skill.  Large scale contextualization can help a strong reader parse a complex, unfamiliar text, but if it is being used to parse familiar concepts and materials I'd argue that it isn't assessing literacy that effectively.

Literacy isn't merely the repetition of familiar ideas, at its best it is the ability to deeply comprehend new ideas through a written medium.  Video games might offer a hook that helps reluctant readers engage, but to suggest that Minecraft or any other game could act as a solution to illiteracy is more than misleading, it's dishonest.  It's also why complex, long term skills development like literacy is best left to education, where quarterly earnings and attention grabbing don't attempt to outsell learning.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Anti-Edtech or Anti-Distraction?

Is technology in the classroom a distraction or a tool for improving learning?  The results of vastly improved student learning from technology haven't materialized, yet we continue to throw money at educational technology hoping that it will help.

A wise internet jedi recently shared an article in which a new media professor is putting an end to digital distraction in a class in which he teaches about digital distraction.  A better person to explain the assumptions we make about digital technology you'd be hard pressed to find.  He had a couple of quotes that really punched assumptions about edtech use in the face.

"Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption."


"Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting; when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change."


The concept of multitasking has long been championed by the rise of the digital native crowd.  It's something we poor immigrants to this brave new world simply can't do like they can, except it isn't.  If you want to follow the science rather than the marketing, you'll find that multi-tasking is indeed a myth.  If you want to do something well, you focus on it.  That might seem like simple common sense, but you'll find a lot of digital education evangelists pushing for it anyway.

For the Luddites that want to attack computers themselves for this dilemma, he had this:

"programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go."

As a philosophically minded technologist I straddle this uneasy divide between the tech-hater and the fan-boy/girl, and I like neither.  Where I see computer technology as a tool to use, many others either vilify or champion it from an emotional angle.  I struggle mightily in class to get students to stop this emotional love/hate relationship with computers that many model on the adults in their lives, but it's a simple truth when Shirky says our computers are now designed to be distractions.  If you're only going to be a user, you're going to be a loser.

Clay Shirky goes on to describe the intellect as the rider atop an elephant of emotions, desires and urges.  The rider may direct the elephant occasionally, but when the two are in conflict the elephant will usually win.  This is what happens when you put a distraction engine like the modern internet in front of a child whose rider is still working out how to direct the elephant (not that many adults are better).  No wonder I find it a continual frustration to direct students... and I'm teaching computers designed to distract!

The engagement game we play in education nowadays is based on this battle with software designed to distract.  As Shirky says, we're bringing whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and losing badly.  When we decide to get in sync with the modern world we are actually downgrading education in order to play the distraction game in the same split attention, broken thinking world that has people driving into each other.

Educational IT should be the leading edge, designed to vary student access to digital technology in order to promote pedagogy at every step.  What it shouldn't be is what it is, a hand-me-down variety of the very software and hardware that is causing the problem in the first place.  This realization puts concepts like BYOD, tech-branded education and open internet access in a very awkward place if you want to champion learning over engagement, though I get the sense that engagement has infected educational management much as it has everything else.


This infected thinking, the kind that has monetized the internet and made a generation of software engineers billionaires, demands constant human attention.  When everything touched by technological integration gets infected with the idea of deep psychological engagement, people in the world become little more than variables in an economic equation.

Education is now just another enabler in a digital distraction  end game that is infecting society as a whole.