Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Tyranny of Collaboration

I was talking to a digital native the other day in English class about Shakespeare.  This particular Millennial is a top 5%er who will go on to do great things.  She was wondering who the people who wrote Shakespeare were.  I was surprised at the question as I've always thought one person wrote Shakespeare.  I even have trouble with the classist conspiracy types who think an actor couldn't be that smart so a noble must have done it.  Having read a lot of Shakespeare (all of it actually) over decades, I know his voice, and it isn't a voice by committee; that kind of brilliance doesn't happen around a meeting table.

I thought it interesting that the Millennial mind assumes collaboration, infecting her own generation's constant interaction across history.  The internet has turned the digital natives who live in it into a hive mind.  They can't form an opinion without socializing or turning to the internet for information. Their waking lives are awash in constant communication.  They describe moments 'trapped' in their own mind when they are unplugged as boring.

The modern mind is open in a way that someone from 20 years ago, let alone 400 years ago, would find alarming. Our marvellous information revolution has not only made our data public, it is also changing what we think we are individually capable of.  Needless to say, if we start thinking that individual genius can't happen in the quiet of our own minds, it won't.


A smart, capable digital native can't conceive of a single mind being capable of producing great works, they must be the result of never ending communication and collaboration.  A couple of centuries from now people who have been immersed in digital communications for generations will wander around The Van Gogh Museum or read Macbeth and think that people from back then must have been mental giants to do these things alone, that or they'll reinvent history as each age does, in its own image, seeing collaboration and minds peeled open under a barrage of constant communication where none were.

Education hops on the back of this communication revolution (flood?) and has integrated collaboration into just about every aspect of learning.  Leveraging technology to find new and exciting ways of collaborating is one of the pillars of early Twenty-First Century education.  Students have lost the idea of personal mind-space thanks to current communications habits.  The classroom, one of the last places where a student might find privacy in their own heads has been crushed under the weight of expectations from this social shift.  Much of this is shrouded in talk of engagement and preparing students for the modern world.  I just hope that preparation has real advantages for the student in terms of personal development.  I'm starting to doubt that.


Brainstorming about the advantages of deep thinking in your own head - from an ENG3u class two years ago...


Saturday, 29 November 2014

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?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Procedural Learning

You can learn anywhere,
but some places are better than others
We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I'm not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don't consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We've build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren't going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I'd initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn't like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I'd like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I'd often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I'm not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don't spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie's equipment if you don't appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.


You don't have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.
When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you're going to run into engagement problems.  I'll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it'll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I'll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won't do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you're some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, "the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline."  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn't give a care that there isn't a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.


I've tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I'm speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they've said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I'm amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

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 agitators 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.


Gotta watch out for those people who drink the koolaid...
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!