Sunday, 4 December 2016

Gamer culture, the alt right and online sexism

That link above takes you to a vetted story by our national broadcaster about a PhD student's academically researched work on gamer culture.  If you can find an academically vetted refutation of these facts (not some dude's YouTube video) then I'm all ears.  I doubt such a thing exists.  Merely implying that this isn't true isn't an effective response either.

It's a salty but accurate explanation
of how the early internet evolved
toward what we have today.
This idea that online gaming culture may act a petri dish for alt-right thinking doesn't surprise me.  Every year I have grade 9 boys begin my program, find out I game, and immediately begin testing the waters with shockingly racist and sexist language to see if I speak the lingo.  I don't.  I come from an earlier internet where trolling and trash talk were used to instruct and support the kind of radical egalitarianism the early web was promising, not to protect the diminishing historical privilege of white males.  I used to think their offensive language was a function of living in a rural, conservative community but now I'm thinking that a pervasive, new online culture might be the cause.

The podcast above describes astonishingly sexist online situations and suggests that these aren't rare.  I've run into similar problems teaching computer technology. Trying to keep girls in these courses is an ongoing frustration.  Back in 2014 I called this poisonous environment "nerd machismo" and had a great deal of trouble redirecting how many tech focused boys treated these classes like their own private domain.  In retrospect, if they were immersed onlline in the kind of sexism shown in the podcast above, it's little wonder they were acting this way.  The odd girl who did appear in senior computer classes tended to drop out after a couple of days of listening to this bluster.  I could hardly blame them.

Girls are being chased out of ICT courses by an online culture that can
be best described as incredibly misogynistic.  In the process they are
missing a job sector with great prospects.
In managing my own online presence I've removed any online discussion functionality.  I'm happy to talk to people about what I write and thrilled if they share it but I'm not in the business of vetting comments and weeding out the increasing toxicity I was experiencing.  It became tedious and depressing trying to manage these idiots.  Online flaming has decreased in intelligence and increased in misdirected usage to the point where I don't read (especially anonymous) online comments any more.  By default now my blogs and other online media do not allow for comments.  I don't want to spend my time reading and erasing offensive material.  If people want to discuss it intelligently they can leverage their own social media presence to do it.  In some small way this mitigates the savage idiocy of the anonymous online flamer by assigning at least a minimal kind of ownership.  If I'm cutting and running from online engagement (a white, male, early adopter), I can't imagine what kind of negativity has chased out others.


Last month at the ECOO Conference Andrew Campbell did a great presentation on how computer science was stolen from the pioneering women who did much of the coding in the early days:

When you consider how misogyny has directed the field of computer science in the past forty years it's little wonder that the online culture arising from all that coding tends toward the same thinking.  The medium delivering the message is being made by the same special interests.  This is the worst kind of systemic sexism.

Between this podcast, my own experiences and Andrew's presentation I seem to be at a confluence of ideas all pointing to a kind of misogyny that I thought was going extinct.  It's 2016 but we seem to be wrestling with ideas that would look more comfortable in pre-suffragette days a century ago.

I'm a firm believer in developing technical prowess in everyone.  Democratizing technical know-how is the best defence we have against being manipulated by increasingly invasive digital systems continually being rolled out by billionaires.  Excluding half the population from technical literacy simply because of their gender plays right into their hands.  No wonder political movements like the alt-right find such a comfortable home online where the powers that be don't want you thinking about how it works.  In that place ignorance is power.  In the meantime I get to go to school and interact with children who think this is how you should talk to women:

Screen grabs of what women experience online.
In addition to experiencing harassment much more regularly, young women also experience a much wider
variety and intensity of harassment online.  If you experience this online how must you
look at the people you meet in real life?  I'd be constantly wondering what they really think.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

VR: visualizing data and realizing potential

I spent Saturday morning in the next town over demonstrating virtual reality systems at our board's Digital Saturday.  We had a line up the whole time and put dozens of kids through their first VR experience.  You get to see their first moments when they realize just how immersive this technology is, and then you get the follow up when they start thinking through the implications of what they just tried.  The next ten years aren't going to be like the last ten years.

Our choice for first VR experience has always been Google's Tilt Brush.  Users get used to the 3d experience in virtual space by sculpting with light.  This time I launched the Vive using Google Earth VR, which just came out last week.  If you're looking for shock and awe Google Earth in VR will do it for you.

There was a moment last week when I was looking for Machu Picchu in Google Earth VR.  I was hovering over the Andes about ten miles up looking at various peaks, trying to isolate the ruins.  I looked up to my right and could see across the curve of the Earth into the Amazon basin.  To my left the Pacific receded into the distance.  Looking up I could see the Andes like a bumpy spine up the back of South America.  I was in this huge space looking to distant horizons in all directions.  People often talk about how intimate it feels being inside a headset but in this case I felt more like an ISS astronaut.  This kind of visualization is thought provoking.  It changes how you conceive and manage complex data.  It changes how you interact with digital information.

The first thing many people do when they first enter Google's virtual Earth is to go somewhere they long for.  One of our business teachers went to her Grandmother's house in northern Italy.  I went home to the north Norfolk shore.  We both got quite emotional about getting to go home even if it's only virtually.  Our sense of place is really just immersion in the literal sense.  Virtual reality mimics that feeling remarkably well.  Don't underestimate VR's ability to provoke an emotional response with immersion.  How we manage that emotionally powerful response is important, especially if it's being used for educational purposes.

While at the recent ECOO conference I gave the Microsoft Hololens a try and was surprised at how effective it was for an engineering sample.  It isn't a full virtual device like the Vive or the Oculus,  instead it inserts digital information into the world in front of you as augmented reality.  Only the user could see a ballerina dancing on the conference floor or digital information like distance and size overlaid on real objects.  The resolution is surprisingly good and the fact that it's wireless (battery powered and wifi) is totally next level.  This experience suggests that fully immersive virtual reality and augmented reality might start to move off in separate directions in the future.  The Hololens doesn't send you elsewhere like the Vive and Oculus do.

What's next for VR?  I'm not sure, but software is constantly probing the limits of what this new display technology can do.  Having data all around you in resolutions you haven't seen outside of a 4k display means we're going to be forging new relationships with the digital world.  The days of accessing digital information through a window (screen) are numbered.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

ECOO16: the DIY approach protects you from the tyranny of technology

The perils of presenting last; you've got other things on
your mind instead of what you planned to present,

but it helped!
By the time I got to my presentation in the last slot on Friday I was brain full, exhausted and not entirely sure I would be coherent.  After a rambling review of what got me to the DIY lab concept I finally got rolling on the building and operation of your own classroom computer lab.  I hadn't intended to, but a moment from my time as a high school dropout was on my mind as I began the presentation.  Vocalizing the story helped connect several ideas that explained where the DIY technology idea came from.

Being handy I ended up working at a Canadian Tire for a couple of months as the tire change guy before I started apprenticing as a millwright.  One day early on I was watching one of the mechanics diagnosing a Renault Fuego.  As he moved around under this unfamiliar car he burned his arm on the exhaust pipe.  In a fit of rage he threw his spanner across the shop and then stormed off, shouting that he was going to make the customer buy a new exhaust system (the car was in with carburetor issues).  The customer, having no idea what happens under the hood of her car, reluctantly accepted the 'fact' that she needed a very expensive exhaust system replacement.  This moment stayed with me because it not only taught me what ignorance can cost you, but also made me question the veracity of 'professionals'.

My father is an industrial heavy machinery mechanic and told me, even as my technology got increasingly complicated (bicycle to car, Meccano to early computers), that if something was built by people he could figure out how it worked.  I'd internalized that idea from an early age.  My second bicycle was home made, after buying early software I started writing my own.  We spent cold hours on the driveway replacing head gaskets and tuning carburetors.  I came to the point where I'd never shrug off the complexity of technology and trust it to someone else.

This doesn't mean I'm an expert at everything, but I always have a look under the hood and grasp the basics before I use a technology, whether it's smartphones, the internet or a motorcycle.  Since cars became dependable enough the vast majority of the public have lost any interest in their inner workings, but that wasn't always the case.  Early adopters of automobiles were their own mechanics.  The maker movement is a step back towards that kind of technical familiarity, but it takes a special breed to maintain that level of curiosity and ownership of technology.

The difference between digital technology and automotive technology is that the digital stuff insinuates itself into your relationships and becomes a 24/7 part of your life.  It affects your thinking rather than your muscles.  Not knowing how a car works might occasionally inconvenience you and cost some money, but not understanding digital technology when you spend hours a day socializing through it or (worse) teaching with it, is a disaster waiting to happen.  It isn't a disaster for tech driven multinationals who live off your data though.  They will happily convert you and your students' ignorance into profit.

This growing ignorance is what prompted the do-it-yourself classroom computer lab.  Handing students turnkey digital tools like Chromebooks might suit Google's market penetration strategy, but it doesn't teach students about the tools they are using.  Some teachers have said that they are teaching their curriculum and not technology but if you're going to use it you should, as a teacher, understand it, otherwise it will make decisions for you.  That is neither professional nor desirable.  If you can't be bothered to understand it, don't use it - but you risk quickly becoming irrelevant.

I'm in the strange situation of teaching the technology that the vast majority of Canadians use but no one wants to understand.  A general understanding of how digital technology works is vital if you're going to have it participating in your life all day every day, and especially if you're going to teach and learn with it.  You don't need to be an expert, but you do need to have some conception of how this potentially invasive thing works.

ICTC posts Canadian statistics in digital technology
jobs each month.  Yet Geography is a mandatory course
while computer technology is an afterthought.
I look at Ontario curriculum and fail to understand how digital technological literacy isn't a fundamental requirement.  The vast majority of Canada's population uses personal, digital technology and in many cases that use is almost continuous, yet very few people understand how it works.

We're graduating students into a millennial unemployment rate of over 14%, but it drops to 6% if they are information-communication technology focused.  Even if they aren't specializing in technology, every graduate we produce is going to use ICT/computers in their job in some capacity or another.  Our graduates don't have the option to ignore digital technology as so many educators have.

The DIY lab I presented might be a bridge too far for many teachers, but for digital technology teachers or anyone whose curriculum depends implicitly on digital technologies (business tech, media arts) I think it should be a requirement.  The teachers presenting this technology to their students owe it to them to develop a deeper understanding of the tools they are using.  For everyone else (teachers and students), an understanding of what's under the hood should be an essential requirement, otherwise they are teaching and learning in ignorance, which isn't helping anyone.

It turns out that walking in to the presentation unfocused allowed me to laterally connect a lot of the foundational ideas around this do-it-yourself philosophy of educational technology use.

ECOO 2016 Reflections: maker spaces and iteration

The maker movement isn't a fad to
engage students.  The people who
believe in it live it.
Back from the 2016 ECOO Conference, I've let things mull over for a couple of days before reflecting:  

On maker spaces...

Last year's conference was very excited about Maker Spaces, and that focus seems to have died down.  To develop meaningful maker spaces means believing in and adopting the thinking behind it.  The people behind the maker movement believe in it passionately, they live it. Education's ADD means that making was never going to go that far in the classroom.  The moment I heard teachers complaining about the extra work makerspaces created I knew it was doomed.  Most teachers aren't curious about how things work and don't want to play with reality, they're concerned about delivering curriculum.  

I suspect many maker spaces in classrooms have become either dusty corners or play areas.  It was nice to see the monolithic educational system flirt with something as energetic and anarchistic as the maker movement though, even if it was only for a short while.

On Iteration...

This came up a several times in the conference.  A couple of years ago Jaime Cassup gave an impassioned keynote on the value of iteration.  His argument, based on the software industry's approach to building code, was to fail early and fail often.

This time around Jesse Brown brought it up again, citing Edison's, I didn't fail a thousand times, I found a thousand ways that didn't work quote.  He then (strangely) went on to compare his being let go as a radio broadcaster and lucking in to a tech startup as an example of iteration, which it isn't.  Doing one thing and then stumbling into something completely unrelated when it ends isn't iteration.

In education this misunderstanding is rampant.  Good students learn to do what they're told as efficiently as possible in order to succeed in the classroom ('lower level' students are much more willing to take risks - they're not as invested in the system).  A misunderstanding of iteration is what we use to justify and even encourage failure.   It has become another way to let digital natives' video-game driven process of learning have its way, but it isn't very efficient.

There is iteration in the engineering process, but it's never
a fail early, fail often approach. If you don't know why you
failed then you shouldn't be rushing off to fail again.
The other week I gave my grade 12 computer engineers detailed explanations of how to build a network cable, a video showing it being done and then posted wiring diagrams showing the proper order.  The most capable students followed engineering process (a directed iterative process, rather than a random one) and produced working network cables more and more quickly.  The end result was no real cost for me (all my ends and wires were made into functional cables).

The majority of the students, perhaps because they live in our brave new Google world of fail often and fail early, or because people keep misquoting Edison at them, didn't read the instructions (who does any more, right?) and just started throwing ends on cables, crimping them badly and producing failure after failure.  This is great though because they're engaged, right?

When I got angry at them they were belligerent in return.  How dare I stifle their creativity!  Unfortunately, I'm not assessing their creativity.  They are trying and that's all I should be asking for!  I'm not grading them on engagement either.  I have been brandishing the engineering process throughout their careers in computer technology, but these video-game driven iterators think their die early, die often approach in games is perfectly transferable to the real world.  Bafflelingly, many educators are gee-whizzing themselves into this mindset as well.  You'll quickly find that you run out of budget if you do.