Sunday, 26 January 2014

Rebranding & Refocusing on Applied Computer Technology

After learning about the messy history of computer studies in Ontario, I've been catching up on our school's history.  The computer studies department was created just prior to the new computer curriculum in order to create a headship for a computer science teacher who has since moved on.  The headship consolidated computer technology, computer science and the school IT support role all in one place.

When computer studies (actually computer science) became its own area of study independent from the rest of computer technology in 2009, our departmental divisions minimized that damage by keeping the now separated computer studies/technology (what's the difference? It's hard to tell with the vague titles) together.
Was it a good idea to keep computer studies and computer technology (two apparently completely different courses of study) together?  I'd argue that it's a pointless distinction based on a prejudice deeply ingrained in Ontario education.  Computer science teachers, like the majority of teachers, come from university/academic backgrounds.  These teachers are catered to in Ontario education with easier access to high pay grades (it's much easier for an academic teacher to gain level 4/honours specialist).  Many technology teachers who come into teaching through industry experience and apprenticeships (many of which are as long or longer than university programs) never achieve the highest pay grades in teaching.  Teaching in Ontario is inherently geared toward academics.

When computer science was amalgamated into computer technology (as a technology course), many comp-sci teachers thought it a demotion into 'tech'.  It took them eight years to get their academic subject back.

In a perfect world computer studies would be just that - computer studies, meaning a curriculum that addresses the subject completely from the most academic/theoretical side (computer-science) to the most applied/immediately useful (information technology, computer repair).  As in science (biology, chemistry, etc), we could have teachers with different backgrounds and training teaching complimentary subjects and collaborating within the same department.  It happens throughout the school (arts, science, tech), but apparently it can't happen in computer studies.  I believe this is because it attempts to straddle that academic/applied divide.

Between the political history of Ontario's computer studies and my own school's focus on consolidating heads, it looks like our computer studies headship will go away and computer science and computer technology will fly apart.  Personally, this is a relief.  Trying to give students access to coding through a computer science department that does more photocopying than English and clings to Turing as the be-all and end-all of programming languages has been a continuing frustration.  Being able to refocus around the more open technology curriculum in comp-tech would allow me to develop real world computing skills for students, something that I think 'computer studies' has failed to do.

If applied computing is the focus of computer-technology, then I don't intend to leave coding to computer science.  They can have the theoretical end of it all, and teach to university bound students interested in advanced mathematics, but I've long contended that coding is a universal skill that everyone should at least have a passing knowledge of, especially in the 21st Century.  To that end I've been remapping our course offerings in Computer Technology (as well as rebranding my subject area, because that is apparently - and sadly - what we have to do in Ontario).

A grade 9-12 curriculum of applied computer technology study using current technologies that would give students
immediately applicable skills. A student who took this path would be literate in information technology, computer
repair, networking and coding, as well as have an understanding of industry practices in all those fields.
Would this dig into computer science's sections?  Yes, but isn't it more important to introduce a computer technology curriculum that increases digital fluency school wide?  Computers may have once been a theoretical subject area, but they've long since become a daily part of our lives.  Our computer curriculum should be introducing computer fluency to as many students as possible.  Our comp-sci department hasn't had a single girl in any senior course in the past four years.  That has to change.  Many other students who have an interest in digital technology are chased out of computer science by the photocopies, mistakenly thinking that comp-sci will teach them applicable skills.  That has to change too.

Rebranding computer studies to computer technology, because that matters to people in Ontario Education (though
it causes a lot of confusion for everyone else).  It'd be nice if pedagogy instead of prejudice dictated our computer
studies curriculums.
Here are some other pieces created for the rebranding:

Taken from's fantastic array of promotional material and ICTC's Canada specific technology industry research.
And yes, I cut out the word science after computer because that apparently causes confusion in Ontario.  Is this really
how we do computer studies in Ontario?  Yes, yes it is.

Here is the  post on the computer technology graphics.
Here is the post from grade 8 parent's night, where computer studies was still a subject headship, that's all gone now.

The computer studies prezi: showing parents a coherent focus on computer studies (comp-sci included)
The computer technology prezi: showing parents a coherent focus on applied computer technology (no comp-sci in sight).

Other Reading:

Straddling The Divide: the end of computer studies at CWDHS.
Do You Teach Computer Studies or Computer Studies?:  where Tim stumbles into the political distinctions in Ontario's computer curriculum.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Do you teach computer studies or computer studies?

Stay with me now, we're going down the rabbit hole that is Ontario curriculum for computer studies, or as it's also known, computer studies.  

What was once computer science is now called computer studies.  Shortly thereafter computer studies (same name) was created in the technology section of curriculum.  These computer studies are so different that qualification in one doesn't qualify you to teach the other (unless you happened to be already qualified in computer science ten years ago).  The descriptions of each have so many similarities that you may be forgiven for wondering why a teacher of one isn't a teacher of the other (computer studies).

Computer Studies (aka: computer science) defines itself as:

Computer studies is about how computers compute. It is not about learning how to use the computer, and it is much more than computer programming. Computer studies is the study of ways of representing objects and processes. It involves defining problems; analysing problems; designing solutions; and developing, testing, and maintaining programsFor the purposes of this document, the term computer studies refers to the study of computer science, meaning computer and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their applications, and their impact on society. The major focus of these courses is the development of programming skills, which are important for success in future postsecondary studies.

When you compare the computer studies curriculum outline with the computer studies curriculum outline you may notice many similarities.  Both begin with an emphasis on how they aren't about teaching users to use computers, and neither are limited to programming.  Both go on to emphasize a course of study focused on how computers operate, including how computers are able to create and manipulate objects and run processes.  The computer studies (comp-sci) document then goes on to state that computer studies actually means computer science, which doesn't really help clear anything up since computer studies (tech) calls it computer and information science, which may or may not be the same thing.

The computer studies (tech) curriculum is pretty much interchangeable with the computers studies (comp-sci) curriculum, but it also offers engineering focuses on electronics and computer hardware, so it might be argued that this is a more complete 'computer studies'.

The 'other' computer studies found in technology studies defines itself as:

Computer and information science is more than running application programs and programming Rather, it relates to the ways in which computers represent conceptual objects and how computer systems allow those objects to interact. Computer and information science is the study of ways of representing objects and processes. It involves defining problems, analysing and designing solutions, and developing, testing, and maintaining programs. Computer and information science education is relevant for all students because it incorporates a broad range of transferable problem-solving skills and techniques. It combines logical thinking, creative design, synthesis, and evaluation, and also teaches generically useful skills in such areas as communication, time management, organization, and teamwork. Computer and information science will prepare students for an increasingly technological world. A foundation in this discipline will introduce students to the excitement and opportunities afforded by this dynamic field and will begin to prepare them for careers in information technology.

As you can see, not only is the language used similar, but even the explanation of the scope of the subject seems the same.  I suppose computer and information science are so completely different from computer science as to make this a no-brainer.

If this wasn't muddy enough for you, there is also the issue of computer science teachers (because they were here first) getting grand-fathered in as computer studies-tech teachers, even though they may have no engineering background at all and may be as familiar with the inside of a computer as your grandmother.  This results in computer science teachers (theoretical mathematics majors) attempting to teach how to solder a circuit or build a functioning network.  More often than not, in my experience, they simply ignore this part of the subject.

If you want to be computer studies (tech) certified now-a-days you have to produce years of industry experience and professional certifications in order to even be considered qualified to begin the certification.  If you were hanging out in a math class ten years ago it landed on you.  I'm having trouble doing the pedagogical calculus with that one.

Between the confusion in subject area titles, almost identical descriptions and the right-time-in-the-right-place-with-no previous-experience history of computer studies qualifications, it's little wonder that Ontario Education in this area is, at best, confusing, and not particularly effective.  When you meet a computer studies teacher that doesn't know how to open up a computer, you have to wonder where we went wrong.

I just threw together a quick venn diagram of computer studies to try and straighten out my thinking around this.  Now, I'm not a curriculum expert at the ministry or anything, but it seems to me that arbitrarily dividing a subject into two camps isn't very pedagogically helpful, let alone logical.

I'm just spit-balling here, but wouldn't a coherent course of computer studies
that recognizes how all these parts integrate into a whole make some kind of sense?
If you consider the basics, computers run code on hardware.  If you're going to teach computer studies, I would suggest that it makes sense to recognize this and form your curriculum around this simple truth.  Rather than grand-father in one extreme end of the computer studies curriculum (computer science), why not form a coherent, single department that studies the subject in all its glory?

If you've got previously computer science focused teachers, make it easy for them to expand their knowledge of the subject into the more practical side of computing, but don't expect it to magically be there.  If you have people coming at it from the more practical side (as I did from information technology), make it easier for them to bone up on coding and the theoretical side of things.  You'd end up with a curriculum of computer studies that not only addresses the extreme ends of the spectrum (computer science up one end, electronics up the other), but also creates a sensible, interconnected and relevant understanding of computers in both staff and students.  Best of all, you'd never run into a computer studies teacher who says things like, "Oh, I don't touch computers, I have no idea how to fix one."

Until we recognize computer studies as a single, coherent course of study and integrate curriculum to support this truth, we're going to continue to limp along producing radically undertrained graduates who aren't remotely ready for what faces them.  I often meet teachers in other schools who are surprised to learn that we teach computer engineering - or that it exists at all.  When I was in high school we ran two full teachers worth of computer studies (12 sections).  The school I work at now is about the same size and runs 7.  Are computers really about half as relevant now as they were in 1986?  Students numbers would suggest this is the case.  Instead of creating a modern, adaptive, complete curriculum, Ontario has created a divisive, broken one that students ignore.

I'd like to think we'll stop the bizarre divisions currently going on in Ontario computer studies curriculum, but I get the sense that there is some history in this that won't go away.  We need a clean sheet on Ontario's approach to computer studies (starting with just one computer studies that incorporates the entire field of study), or we won't be doing this emergent and vital 21st Century subject justice.


Follow-up:  Doug Peterson pointed out what each curriculum document is supposed to be replacing on G+, so I've been trying to trace the process.  Here's what I've got so far:

There are three curriculum documents that come up for computer studies.  

  • The year 2000 Technology Studies document that contains computer studies as a complete field of study, from engineering to computer science.
  • The 2008 Computer Studies document (revised) that looks like it is separating computer science from computer studies but took the computer studies name with it (implying, I think a complete study of computers, not just computer science)
  • and the 2009 Technology Studies document (revised) that contains "Computer Tecnhology" and has stripped any computer or information science material out.
The 2008 Computer Studies (science) revised document states:

This document replaces the Computer and Information Science component of The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 and 10: technological Education, 1999, and of The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12: Technological Education, 2000. Beginning in September 2009, all computer studies courses for Grades 10 to 12 will be based on the expectations outlined in this document.

The 2009 Tech-studies document (revised) states:

This document replaces all but the Computer and Information Science component of The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 11 and 12: Technological Education, 2000. Beginning in September 2009, all technological education courses for Grades 11 and 12 will be based on the expectations outlined in this document.

From the original 2000 Tech-Studies document:

 This document replaces the sections of the following
curriculum guidelines that relate to the senior grades:
–  Broad-based Technological Education, Grades 10, 11, and 12, 1995
– Computer Studies, Intermediate and Senior Divisions, 1983
– Computer Studies, Ontario Academic Course, 1987
– Technological Studies, Intermediate and Senior Divisions, Part C: Ontario Academic Courses, 1987

I still can't help but think that the 'computer studies' title is at best confusing and at worst misleading.  I wonder at the politics that played around that course of study being created with such an expansive (and previously used) title but such a specific focus.  It would be like renaming the "biology" department "science", taking one part of a larger course of study and implying that it is the whole subject.  Computer Studies (the study of computers?) is not just computer science, or just engineering, or just information technology.  Trying to understand it in such a fractured way leads to confusion in the general public and students who then aren't taking the course.

Just to throw a wrench in things, if you're curious and look up
Ontario's technology curriculum you get the old curriculum
document first every time.  If you're not up on the secret
war between comp-sci and comp-tech in Ontario, you'll
remain ignorant looking at the old document.
If you were teaching computer studies prior to September 2009, that meant computer studies (from end to end).  If you were teaching computer studies after September 2009. it  means only computer science.  I'm beginning to see why computer science is atrophying in modern high schools.  At a time when computer studies should be offering population wide access to digital literacy, one of the foundational areas of  computer studies in it has taken its toys and gone home.

Another question (that Doug probably knows the answer to) is those early computer studies courses, were they computer science based on more general in their approach to all aspects of computing.  My own memory of taking computer courses in the 1980s was very comp-sci/math based, and the teachers who were qualified to teach computer studies were computer scientists in university.  Yet in 2000 it looks like technology education took over computer studies (including computer science), yet the amalgamation doesn't appear to have worked (hence the 2008/9 revisions).  I wonder why not.

The division seems to have happened over the past fourteen years, starting in 2000 with a failed attempt to place computer studies in technology education.  It's no better today, and I get the sense that the attempted fixes have caused more problems than they solved.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Straddling the Divide

I usually blog here to work out my thinking on a variety of education and technology situations I come across.  This one is no different.  I just read a series of suggestions for dismantling computer studies at our school.  I'm honestly curious as to the intention behind these suggestions, but in the meantime I'm trying to get the bees out of my head on this subject...

My school is odd in that it has a computer studies department.  This department is a combination of technology focused computer engineering credits (ICE/TEJ) and theoretical/math focused computer science (ICS) credits.  That our school combined these two very different disciplines into a single department has been both challenging and very forward thinking.

There is a push on now to align our headships with those of other schools.  Since the idea of a department that combines all aspects of computer technology under a single headship hasn't happened anywhere else, the urge is to dismantle computer studies.  The thinking behind this doesn't show a great understanding of what the computer subjects are (it was suggested the whole department just get put into business studies - a department that neither side of computer studies has anything to do with).  WIth so few people understanding what the fundamental computer subjects are, it makes it challenging to explain how things might evolve.  Ignorance drives many management decisions around digital technology education.

Trying to run computer studies has been a tricky ride.  Our computer science teacher only comes to our school for a semester, so the courses only run in the second half of the year.  On top of that other teachers aren't lining up to teach comp-sci.  Computer science would be better served in our school by being placed in our mathematics department and being taught by a variety of teachers, but then those teachers qualified in it should want to teach it and I get the sense that very few do.  

Computer science has been held captive by some strange teacher scheduling.  Attaching it to a larger department would be healthy for it.  I've tried to make moves in how and who teaches it, but nothing seems to have worked.  I'm frustrated and ready to hand it off.

Computer engineering is a hands-on technology course, much like auto-shop or manufacturing programs.  This course of study focuses on electronics and information technology.  Compared to computer science it's much more of a hands-on building and experimentally focused subject; it would logically belong with other technology credits.

The argument that we should re-align our headships with other schools feels like a step backwards to me though.  In five or ten years would our students be better served by a strong, comprehensive computer department, or by a traditional and arbitrary split in the subject?  Unfortunately, combining abstract mathematically focused computer programming with real-world engineering isn't easy, especially with how Ontario has handled teacher qualification in the subject.

Up until the past decade, computer science was the only computer qualification.  Like the guys in Big Bang Theory, the vast majority of computer science teachers have very strong theoretical backgrounds in the mathematics behind programming, but little experience in actually making computers work.  When computer studies was established as a technology course those theoretical computer science teachers were grand-fathered in as computer engineering teachers, though many of them had never installed a CPU in their lives and would have no idea where to even begin.  Asking them to provide onsite information technology support would be an impossibility for many of them.

That tech-ed certification took a mountain-load of paperwork
including industry certifications and proof of years of industry
experience.  If you were comp-sci when they brought it in, you
just got the certification...
So here we are in 2014 with many computer studies teachers who actually have little or no experience with the mechanical side of computing, though they have been given the OK to teach it.  This will eventually go away as those grand-fathered comp-sci teachers retire and future teachers will be expected to actually have an industry technology background in computers if they want to teach engineering.  In the meantime we've further muddied an emergent subject area that holds the key to producing  technologically fluent students who can function in the modern workplace.

What I suspect will happen with our forward thinking computer studies department is that it will be split and sent to math (comp-sci) and technology (comp-eng), and the onsite fix-it teacher role will not be considered a headship even though it manages just as much budget and far more equipment than any single department head.  This might be better for comp-sci, which has been dead-ended in our school as far as scheduling goes.  I don't think comp-eng will be hurt by moving to the tech department, so the splitting of the subjects into other areas doesn't really bother me, though it does make me wonder if we're moving in a direction opposite to social expectation.

I've been thinking about computer studies in terms of a specialization as well as a general fluency.  Perhaps future computer studies streams will include general technology fluency credits as well as specializations in engineering and coding, but I doubt it.  With computer fluency being a school (society?) wide expectation as well as the traditional fracture between computer science and computer mechanics, I fear that management energy will be spent on dividing and diminishing a subject that should instead be taking a central place as an integrated, adaptive department that produces 21st Century fluent graduates.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Marketing Education / Marketing Your Subject

Advertising for publicly funded education.
The other week I was sitting in a local movie theatre before the latest round of The Hobbit when an advertisement came on for our local Catholic board.  It strikes me as odd that they allot money for advertising, but I guess that's what you have to do in a publicly funded system that competes against itself.

The idea that we have to market our educational choices might seem mercantile to academics, but it's not always a bad idea.

The poor appearance of our departments on our school webpage came up at a recent heads meeting which tailed into a big discussion about how we lose a number of students in grade 9 to our (marketing focused) catholic competitors.  Evidently most are back by the senior grades because spending ten hours a week on a bus for what turns out to be a better advertised, if not necessarily better education, doesn't add up.  Our poor showing in marketing our public school for local consumption raised questions of what we should be focusing on, advertising, or, you know, education.

I might not understand the benefits of funding two redundant public systems that then pay to advertise against each other, but the need to market your subject area in a high school is vital for a successful program.   If we don't get students signing up, we don't get sections, so any teacher, especially one in a non-mandatory subject area, should probably spend some time ensuring that students know they are out there.


Tonight is grade 8 parent's night.  We have a large group of excited, nervous parents and students touring the school.  Each department is expected to set up a booth and ply their wares, encouraging next year's new grade 9s into taking what they teach.  I've been spending the semester beating the bushes to put computer studies in its best light.  You'd think that computer studies would be an easy sell in 2014, but not so much in rural Ontario.

I used to treat grade 8 night as just another time grab, but it's silly to ignore marketing your subject area, especially if it can help you get sections and run a more complete program.  In the case of computer studies I'm straddling the need for school-wide fundamental computer literacy as well as offering specialized courses that will prepare students for post secondary and beyond in programming and engineering.  I'm beginning to think Ontario should split its focus on computer studies and offer general technology fluency as well as specializations.

As many of the celebs mention below, a working knowledge of computers is vital to life in the 21st Century, whether you're looking to be a career computer nerd or not.

Grade 8 night was a successful evening.  With robots, quad-copters and other technology on hand, I put the department on the map.  With any luck we'll get an uptick in computer studies sign ups next year and be able to run a more complete program as a result.  You'd think a healthy computer department in any high school in 2014 is addressing an important 21st Century fluency, but if students and parents aren't aware, they won't sign up.

Here are some of the pieces I put together (thanks to for the quotes):

Taken from the quotes & Will.I.Am's webpage
Everyone should know the basics of a technology if they are going to live submersed in it every day.
Just one of the smartest guys in the world, feel free to ignore the opinion.

I did a number of posters for the department.

Extra-curriculars are a good way to support student interest in your subject.

Even if you're not headed for a career in computers, they are
becoming a vital soft skill. If you work anywhere and can
provide your own tech-support, or can problem solve even
basic coding, you have made yourself vital to the 21st Century
workplace.  Computer studies: not just for nerds any more!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Why Blog? Lisa's Meme

via Lisa Neale's Never Ever Stop Learning:  

I get the sense that a number of educators are recommitting to blogging in the new year.  This can only be a good thing.  A blogging educator not only reaches out to other teachers with a blog, but they also reach out to the general public, who seem to harbour a number of misconceptions about the profession.  Blogging is a wonderful way for individual educators to bridge that gap.

I've written for paper publication and find it tiresome.  The constant editorial revision waters down any edge in your writing and can make even the most acerbic argument seem bland.  The worry over saying anything that someone else may have already said and the resulting over-citation also takes any joy out of writing (or thinking for that matter).  I understand why many people would back away from old-school publication, it's a miserable experience.  Blogging is a way to refine your writer's craft while still enjoying the benefits of an audience.

My favourite part of blogging is that there is no captive audience, no circulation.  If people want to read it, they can, if they don't, they won't.  It's publication with none of the overhead (advertising, editors, space limitations, etc).  Blogging is an opportunity to write without having to carry a pile of other people with your words.

Lisa mentions Dean Shareski's 'excuse to write'.  With blogging you don't need an excuse, just write!  If you find you want to write about different subjects, then do that too, it's easy enough to create interest specific blogs, and it's a great way to enter the online community of your new interest.  The more you write, the easier it gets (like most things).  The trick is not to get all wound up with what you're writing, it'll get better over time.

With that all said, here is Lisa's dare:

Nominating blogger:  Lisa Neale
11 random facts about myself:  Facts?  How tedious... look me up online, it's all there if you want facts.  The fictions are far more interesting though, and much harder to find.
List 11 bloggers?  I enjoy many of the staff writers on WIRED.  Quinn Norton is a genius.  If I had to pick a local edu-blogger, it would have to be Jamie Raeburn-Weir.  She's a writer's writer, a direct, honest voice.  Andrew Campbell is another one I enjoy reading.  He writes how he talks, which probably gets him into a lot of fights.

Lisa's Questions:

favourite mode of transport:  motorcycles! The more minimal and visceral the better...

Random piece of advice:  luck is like everything else, you need to practice it to get good at it.  If you never test your luck you'll atrophy it.  Virgil understood this when he said, "fortune favours the bold."  We're all less lucky (and compassionate) than we once were because of the nanny-state and insurance.

Favourite hobby:  Reading? writing? photography? art? riding? mechanics? Whatever lets me express myself most completely in any given moment.

How do I like my eggs: sunny side up and runny.

Something I think differently about: it's not how long you're here, it's how you're here that matters.

Must watch movie:  anything by Guillermo del Toro, dude's a genius.

When nothing is pressing:  take a long ride on my motorbike.  It is meditation in the wind, you're completely in the moment.

Preferred hot beverage:  loose leaf black tea

How do you say 2014?  11111011110

First job:  delivering newspapers, refing minor sports (hockey, soccer)

Lesson learned from relationships: nobody owns anyone

I think that's it...  I've been told I haven't done this properly, but I'm ok with that.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

They Know Not What They Do

Yesterday the Waterloo Region District School Board didn't cancel school due to inclement weather.  The response they got on Twitter was, to say the least, shocking.  That students don't understand how the internet works is apparent in how they present themselves online.  Some of their comments not only reflected their ignorance but also uncovered a mob mentality that frequently appears online.  Students think they are private and anonymous when they are in fact standing on a world-wide stage making fools of themselves.

People outside of Kitchener can see Twitter? Dude!
The fellow on the left is surprised that people not from Kitchener are responding to tweets.  The entire world could see these tweets and they're now a permanent part of the digital record, you can't take back what was said in anger online.  You can only imagine what this does for their digital footprint, not that anyone is teaching them this in school.

My wife suggested that if WRDSB hadn't let all their elementary librarians go in the last ten years, those librarians might have been there to teach this generation of 'digital natives' how not to make fools of themselves online.  I only wish that were true.  The vast majority of librarians I've met are determined not to address digital citizenship because they feel that technology is a threat to traditional (book based) learning.  Alanna herself didn't get hired recently because she 'was too digitally focused'.  I fear that librarians themselves and the people who hire them aren't the ones to fix this.

So who does teach digital citizenship?  I've got a teacher at my school who does it because he feels it's a vital part of any relevant, modern civics course - he doesn't even have a full contract.  The only people addressing digital citizenship are outliers, though our students (those digital natives) are expressing themselves inappropriately through this technology all the time.

The mob mentality and the righteousness that comes with it.
Take a moment to look over the tweets directed at WRDSB in the last 24 hours and you see students making the common mistake (because the formats are similar) of assuming tweets are like texts.  In the student's mind they are texting directly to their school board but, of course, that is not how Twitter works.  You see students unaware they they are publishing death threats publicly, you see students encouraging the mob mentality that had them hurling invective at their school board.  You have to wonder what a kid in Rwanda thinks about all of these grammar impaired, spoiled, first world kids commplaining about having to go to school.  Yes, people in Rwanda can read your tweets.

So we're left with an awkward, embarrassing situation here, and not one limited to Waterloo Region.  We have students who spend the majority of their time in digital communications without realizing what it is or how it works.  We have students who are essentially making themselves unemployable by creating such deplorable digital footprints that no one would touch them.  Can you imagine what you'd do if you googled the kid who just asked for a job and found death threats against their school board published online?  It shows a startling lack of prudence.

 Instead of embracing digital communications to create a live résumé that would generate job offers for them, they are building themselves a digital ghetto, and this is happening on a massive scale.  An entire generation of students are making themselves irrelevant.  I wonder how many more times this will happen before we start to integrate digital citizenship into curriculum like it matters.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Machines That Challenge

Tim's Motorcycle Diaries
I've been taking a break from writing on work over the holiday and have instead been writing about my new love: motorbikes.  In the last post I wrote about mechanical empathy and how a machine that challenges you can also encourage growth; this resonates with technology and how we use and teach it.

Using technology without understanding it is what we aim for in school because we have so many other important things to get to, I think this is a fundamental mistake.  Using a tool in ignorance means you're never really using the tool effectively.  I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to be a computer engineer in order to use computers, but there is a fundamental level of familiarity you need in order to use any machine, including a computer, effectively.

A machine that does too much for you, even to the point of making decisions for you, is a dangerous machine indeed.  An education system that caters to this kind of thinking is equally dangerous.  Our use of technology should never be founded on ignorance.

"That a machine should place demands on us isn't a bad thing, especially if it leads to a nuanced awareness of our own limitations.  The machine that can overextend you, challenge you, stress you, is a machine that can teach you something.  We fool ourselves into stagnation when we design machines that do more and ask less from us."

There is a consumerist drive to produce machines that appear to be our servants, that will do what we want, sometimes without us evening knowing that we want it.  This kind of magical thinking might sell units but it doesn't offer any room for growth. That educators are willing to cater to this approach isn't very flattering.

I'd originally written on this from the point of view of motorcycling, which makes extreme demands on the rider.  Compared to driving a car, especially a modern car that shifts, brakes and even parks for you, riding a motorcycle is a physical and mental challenge.  In that challenge lies a great deal of risk and reward.  The opportunity to amplify your thoughts and actions through a complex, nuanced, challenging machine is a growth medium.  Growth in our students is what we should always be aiming at, even in using the tools we hand them.

In extreme cases machines take over decision making for us, reducing us to irrelevance.  Teachers need to be especially vigilant about how students use technology.  It's very easy for the tech to take over (it only wants to help!)  and the human being it's supposed to be assisting becomes a passenger.

When we use a machine to amplify ourselves it not only magnifies our achievements, it also subtly changes how we create.  Any teacher who has observed the digitization of student work in the past ten years has noticed how cookie-cutter the material has become.  Plagiarism is just one aspect of the cut and paste nature of modern student work.

Even in a scenario where the machine is a responsive tool, it will colour how you create.  Some technology is even predicated on this thinking.  Your degree of technical understanding minimizes this influence and allows you to side-step homogenized technological presentation.  If you don't care that what you are producing has been cookie-cuttered into a template that looks like everyone else's, then what does that say about what you're learning?  If you're using technology to do something else you need to understand the technology in order to realize how it's colouring your learning.

It's a shame that so many of us prefer machines that will do it all for us rather than taking up the slack ourselves.  There are two ways we can integrate with machines, I'll always go for the road less travelled and ask for a machine that offers me more opportunity, even if it also demands more expertise.