Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Free Range Computing

I'd initially gone into this with pi in the sky (sic) daydreams of students working entirely on open source hardware and software that they have assembled and coded themselves, free from the evil influences of corporations.  After attending ECOO this year I'm less on the hippy open source bandwagon and more on the inclusivity bandwagon.  It isn't an educator's job to ignore corporate technology, but it is their responsibility not to indoctrinate students in only one particular company's technology because it is easier or cheaper for them.  Student digital fluency has to drive technology access, not corporate carrots or teacher laziness.

I've noticed a real move toward the branding of education (and teachers) by technology interests.  This is almost always done to ensure their own monopolistic dominance rather than offering students the widest range of technology experience.  In order to indoctrinate students in a single means of access (in order to later capture them as consumers), many boards are locking students into company specific technology, usually because some kind of discount being offered.  Selling out student technological fluency in order to appear more cost effective isn't very pedagogically sound.

...but I'm certified with screwdrivers!
Would you trust the literacy teacher who only uses one publishing company and brandishes the logo like a qualification?   Does this not call a balanced approach to their discipline into question?  How can the same thing not be said for Google Certified or Apple Distinguished? 

It's one thing to get a professional certification from an platform agnostic professional organization that has no interested in monetizing you, it's another to brand yourself with the name of a profit driven company that is intent on turning you and your students into revenue streams while limiting access to alternatives.

My knee jerk reaction to this is what had me storming off into the woods and getting all back to nature with open source hardware and software:


Raspberry Pi, almost fits in your wallet!
I've been thinking about the open source technology classroom I wish I could run.  Engineering based rather than brand based hardware with accessible, open software.  Hardware that could run free, crowd-sourced software.

Raspberry Pi is an obvious starting point.  As a way of showing students the basics of computing cheaply (it'll run a full GUI OS with internet for about thirty bucks per student), it's something that they can use to get familiar with how software and hardware work with each other.

I wish they'd come up with a Raspberry Pi à la mode, a 1 ghz 2 core unit with a gig of ram, hdmi and 2 usb 3.0 ports.  They can toss the video in and separate audio 3.5 jack out (hdmi has audio built in anyway).  If they could pull that off and keep it close to the same size I'd think twice about stepping up from the Pi.


It's beyond the Pi that open source hasn't developed enough high level hardware to take on more advanced learning environments, though having students build digital tools from a variety of components has its own value.  

There are plenty of software options, but ready made agnostic hardware is thin on the ground.  This is when I started to think about systems that, while branded and corporately developed, might be focused on access to a variety of technology rather than the tyranny of one:


In the meantime, from the Pi how do you create a free range system that lets students experience a variety of operating systems and software?  The recent nano-desktop round of computers offer some interesting options.

Intel NUC
The NUC (next unit of computing) by Intel is an engineering platform that crams an astonishing amount of processing power into a package the size of a paperback novel.  With an i5 processor and up to 16 gigs (!) of ram, this thing is a monster.  It would handily outperform any desktop in our school right now.

If we could get a NUC sorted out in some kind of student-proof Otterbox type enclosure we'd have a tough, durable, wickedly fast, open computer that would offer students a totally customizable platform for just over $400.  Presumably we could whittle that down to cost (maybe ~$300?).

Having a dock in labs that would allow students to plug their own PCs (personal again!) in would be one means of accessing the box.  Offering a plug in touch screen peripheral that could do the job of a screen/mouse/keyboard would be another avenue that would create a very powerful laptop/tablet option.  Pica-projectors would be another way to produce screens out of thin air, and they are rapidly becoming smaller and less energy consuming.

The nicest thing about the NUC is that it could work with pretty much any operating system you could want.  Students could come to class with a paperback sized computer that could boot into Apple OSx, the Windows flavour of your choice or any of a number of Linux distros (including Chromium).  You wouldn't have Mac labs, or Windows labs, you'd have whatever you wanted/needed to boot into.  

A truly agnostic hardware platform that would offer you access to any software on any operating system.
Foxconn Nano PC

Another (cheaper) option is the Foxconn Nano PC, which retails for substantially less (only $219 retail vs. the $420 NUC).  The Foxconn unit runs on an AMD processor (not Apple friendly) but offers strong graphics performance from its (Canadian!) graphics subsidiary ATI.

It would still run any flavor of Windows or Linux you could throw at it (including Chromium) and is as svelte as the Intel option.  Education purchasing could probably get these down into the $150 range.


The real goal would be to create and have educators themselves crowdsource an open, upgradeable, accessible hardware system that is designed to teach students about technology in all its various forms.

The chance to develop personalized learning technology would take us away from the ignorance and learned helplessness we peddle today in education and offer all technology companies a level playing field on which to ply their wares.  Our students would experience a wide range of operating environments and software as well as being aware of how hardware impacts those systems.

Thoughts on mastery learning in digital spaces
(from my ECOO13 presentation)

Imagine high school graduates who have worked on a variety of operating systems that they have installed and maintained themselves.  

Imagine graduates who understand how memory, processor and storage work with software because they've experienced hands on changes in this hardware.  

Imagine graduates who are able to problem solve and resolve their own technological problems because the breadth of their familiarity with technology is such that any new digital tool they lay their hands on isn't a mystery to them.

Imagine students and educators who go to the tool they need to get the job done instead of having the tool dictate the job.

Imagine students who have enough familiarity with code that they can appreciate the complexity of the world we're living instead of being baffled by it.

I was having doubts about putting corporate logos on my office windows, but I don't any more.  Instead of taking down the Google stickers I've added Apple, Microsoft, Linux, Toshiba, Dell, Asus, IBM, Lenovo, Arduino, Raspberry Pi and will continue to add others.  The point isn't to run off into the woods and live in vegan austerity on open source hardware, it's to make all technology available to students so they can appreciate the astonishing variety of systems we're immersed in, and not be made helpless by it.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

BYOD: Build Your Own Device

Proof of mastery: you build your own tools.

Perhaps we can work this Jedi logic into education?  

Want to make use of educational technology?  Unless you've built it yourself you don't get free access, you haven't demonstrated competence!  Access to technology based on demonstrated understanding rather than the net income of a student's parents?  That sounds like a more sound pedagogical model than current BYOD policies we have.  It's time for education to take technology fluency seriously.

I've already argued for a pedagogical model for technology access...
I think I rushed into mastery too soon there, it's commonly overused in education anyway.  Unless the digital wizard can produce their own wand they haven't demonstrated real mastery.  Recognizing all elements in your discipline is a vital element to mastery, including the tools that you need to demonstrate your mastery!

The hunter who hunts with the bow they made?  The rider who rides a bike they built?  The artist who stretches their own canvases?  No one could argue that their understanding of their craft isn't deeper than a consumer who purchased off the shelf, yet we've modeled educational technology on consumerist ideals rather than pedagogical imperatives.

From board provided technology to a mini-lab to bring-your-own-device to build-your-own-device, there is the new continuum.  Until you've built your device from the components up and mounted software on it, you haven't demonstrated mastery of technology, you're still just a user.

Until we begin to do this in education we'll continue to produce technologically incapable students who are slaves to their habitual technology use.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

ECOO 2013 Presentation: Harness your nerdist ways

Still thinking about ECOO in a couple of weeks.  I've already taken a run at on Dusty World once.  There is a lot in this, I'm still curious to see how it will unfold.
We live in a time of profound change. The very definition of who and where we are is constantly changing. Never before in history have people been as connected to so many different people and places as they are now. Trends suggest it will only intensify. Are we doomed to a half existence in many places, constantly distracted, unable to complete a thought? Or will the person on the other side of this technological adolescence be multi-dimensional in ways we can't currently imagine?

Come with me on an examination of recent history and future trends. How can we integrate or separate technology to better facilitate learning? How can we prepare students for the strange world they are about to graduate into? How can we survive and thrive in these times of profound change ourselves?

What started this line of thinking was a post in Dusty World in the spring called Digital House of Mirrors.  In that post I was trying to describe how digital technology is changing our sense of self:

"Our selves are being stretched and amplified in ways they never have before.  Nick Carr's The Shallows puts us on a pretty stark trajectory towards idiocy with what is happening to us.  The digitization of the self stretches us flat, making continuity of thought impossible and turning us all into distracted, simplistic cogs in a consumerist machine designed to turn us all into the lowest common denominator; none of us any smarter than our smartphones."
Way back in 2006 a student showed me the video on the right.  That it was made so long ago is quite prescient.  They didn't have the future exactly right, but they come surprisingly close in many ways.  The part that stuck with me the most is this quote: 

“At it’s best, edited for the most savvy readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader, and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at it’s worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, and sensational.”
If that doesn't describe the experience of most 'digital natives' online, then I don't know what does.  This is exactly the kind of habitual ignorance I find in technology use.  Children who have been immersed in digital technology have only learned to do what pleases them and know nothing about the technology itself, they aren't generally literate.  They are like self-taught readers who have memorized a single comic book.

Whereas digital immigrant ignorance arises out of fear or pride, though they do still have some sense of what they don't know.  The digital native is blissfully ignorant of what they don't know, though they spend most of their lives now in that virtual world they know nothing about. 

That technology could retard our ability to think is a dangerous consideration that a number of people are concerned about.  I don't doubt that digital tools can enhance us as human beings, I'm writing this and you're able to read it entirely due to digital technology.  Digital tech lets people work around authoritarian governments and democratize media.

I occasionally see people who are able to harness technology as a personal amplifier, but for far too many it is a source of distraction, habitual time wasting and a net loss for them.

A book I half read a while back was The Nerdist Way by Chris Hardwick.  I wasn't able to get through the self help bit at the back, but the first half was an interesting autobiography of a guy immersed in technology to such a degree that it derailed him.  His philosophical change allowed him to regain control of his career and put what he describes as his nerdist ways to productive use.   Rather than spending eight hours a day playing World of Warcraft, Chris chose to focus his nerdly powers of concentration on productive activities.  He describes a nerd as someone who is able to hyper focus on minutia that fascinates them.  He broke his habitual use of technology by demanding that his fixations serve him instead of the other way around.  If it can work for a nerd (and we're all nerds according to that definition) then it'll work for everyone.

Is always on exhausting or exhilerating?  Is it functionally better to be connected?  What is the golden ratio for communicating f2f or remotely?  How could technology itself assist us in optimizing our presence both physically and virtually?  How can we highlight ineffective use of technology, analyze it and resolve it?

I suspect this is going to become a timeline.  With a bit of perspective I might be able to make some reasonably accurate predictions about where we going, because this is one big weird rabbit hole we're all going down together and a lot of people are getting lost in it.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Value of Losing

I'm currently teaching two grade nine classes of introduction to computers and coaching the senior boys soccer team.  In both situations I'm trying to understand and develop their response to failure.  This is something we're singularly bad at in education.  Instead of developing resilience around failure we try to mitigate failure entirely.

The soccer team has shown such a lack of resilience that they are essentially in tatters.  When given opportunities to recover from failure they have responded with dishonesty, poor sportsmanship and a lack of character.  Continually trying to coax them into right action has been exhausting and ultimately a failure on my part as a coach which I find very distressing.  There is a culture on this team that I'm finding impossible to overcome.

The grade nines, while tackling Arduino for the first time, are also running into failure though they are handling it much better than the soccer team.  When they realize that they won't be made to suffer for failure (this involves overcoming years of training by our education system), they begin to play with the material in a meaningful and constructive way.  Removing fear of failure from the equation has been successful in both classes and the confidence that results is based on real, hands-on, experiential learning.
So much of what we do in a classroom is artificial.  Artificial challenges in an artificial environment producing artificial assessments while working on artificial timelines.  The same can be said of those epic wins players think they own in video games.

This brought me back to an article I read in WIRED a long time ago called Generation Xbox wherein they talked about the culture of gaming in such a forthright way that it stuck with me.  Anyone who has been teaching kids in the last ten years will see a lot of truth in these observations.

One of the reasons gamification has connected with education so comfortably is that the two things deal in artificialities.  Both focus on engagement and subvert realism in order to ensure continued attention.  Being in a classroom is much like being in a game complete with rules to follow and points to be scored.  We grade students in much the same way that a game gives out points - we award players for willingly submitting themselves to the rules of the game; submission is a prerequisite for victory and victory is given rather than taken.

When you win in a video game or in a classroom you aren't experiencing success in a real way.  It is an artificial environment designed to breed success, you are in a place designed by committee to appeal to the widest range of people.  The attention and engagement of the student/player is the goal, everything else is in support of it.  Yet people develop very real senses of themselves around these false victories.  Our self image is molded around what we think we're good at and many digital natives consider themselves masters of the universe because they have played games successfully.  Many academics believe that they are masters of the universe because they were able to submit to education successfully.

If social constructs like games or education or economics are designed to focus entirely on inclusive engagement then the result is a population with no ability to think outside of these social constructs.  They don't develop meaningful meta-cognition or resiliency.  When you've been beaten badly it shows you something about yourself.  When you've been beaten badly it knocks you out of habitual response and into a new and potentially more successful means of overcoming your failure.  In that scenario even a less painful loss could be seen as an improvement, but we are doing all we can to remove pain from everything.

One of the reasons gamers migrate to multi-player versus games is because you can test your ability against someone who isn't a benign agent of the game's mediocrity engine.  As in sports you are able to test yourself against your peers.  You can bet that the human being on the other side won't bell-curve their play to suit your level.  That's how you end up with 9-1 soccer games, or getting pwned online.  It's in these extremes that gamer culture and sports seem most alien to educators.  It's in these extremes that my soccer players have nothing in their vocabulary to respond honestly and constructively to failure.

When starting the circuit building unit in computer studies the grade nines were overwhelmed by something completely new to them.  I gave them detailed instruction and support but would not do it for them.  I did stress that if they weren't paying attention to what they were doing they would find this impossible and when one would ask for help while simultaneously looking at their smartphone or with an error I'd already helped them with once I'd walk away.  Circuit building wouldn't bell-curve for the class, it wouldn't simplify things to make it easier if students didn't get it.  They had to respond to reality and reality wasn't interested in making it easier.

At one point a colleague from the English department wandered in and watched them working on their circuit building for a few minutes.  He said, "it's nice to be in a classroom where the students are actually doing something."  then, after a pause he added, "you really don't have to worry about engaging them do you?  They're all right into it..."  Reality can do that to people, it's a genuine challenge.  My job as a teacher is to give them the time and materials to figure it out for themselves.

If you're excited about gamification then you're excited about what is simply a new layer of artificiality around an already artificial situation.  Not everyone should see success in every endeavor.  It's good for you to fail every once in a while, it makes you more compassionate, humble, creative and self aware; all areas I see the digital native struggle with because their virtual wins have more to do with entertainment than they do with reality.

If you've seen success in a system designed to provide it you've got to question the value of that success.  If you want to earn success look for a challenge that wasn't designed by committee mainly to keep you engaged.  Whenever what you're doing has engagement at its heart you'll find the victory to be false because it was designed to ensure it for you in order to keep you playing.