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.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

ECOO16: Virtual Reality & The DIY School Computer Lab

A chance to see some of my favourite
people and study one of my favourite things!
ECOO 2016 is coming this week.  As a chance to catch up with tech-interested teachers from across the province it's unparalleled.  It's also a wonderful opportunity to see what those people are doing in their classrooms and get tangible information on how to work with technology in a classroom.  I end up with a full brain and a great deal of enthusiasm after a few days at the annual ECOO conference.

I'm beginning the conference on Wednesday by  demonstrating virtual reality to teachers from across the province at Brenda Sherry and Peter Skillen's Minds on Media.  MoM (or in this case MEGA MoM) is a showcase of #edtech in action, and a must see event.  As an emerging technology VR is going to have a profound influence on education in the future.  Having a chance to give people a taste of that future is exciting.  The only reason I've been able to explore VR as it emerges is because of the DIY lab I'm presenting on Friday.

I get to spend the Thursday soaking up the latest in technology and how it can amplify pedagogy.  On Friday I'm presenting on why you should develop your own do it yourself school computer lab and how to do it.

I first presented the concept at ECOO four years ago.  It's taken me that long to develop the contacts and build a program that can do the idea justice.  I've always felt that offering students turn-key no-responsibility educational technology was a disservice, now I'm able to demonstrate the benefits of a student-built computer technology lab and explain the process of putting one together.  I realize I'm swimming upstream from the put-a-Chromebook-in-every-hand current school of thought, but that's my way.



There are a couple of things that have changed over the years that have made this once impossible idea possible.  Our board's IT department underwent a major change in management and philosophy a few years ago.  The old school was all about locking everything down and keeping it the same for ease of management.  The new guard sees digital technology as a means of improving teaching rather than as an end in itself.  They encourage and enable rather than complain and prevent.

The other major change was that my department got reintegrated into technology (it was formerly a computer science based mini-department of its own).  Back in tech I was suddenly able to access specialist high skills major funding and support and found I was able to build the DIY concept - something I could never have done without our board's tech-support funding model.

Thanks to that new, adaptive, open concept IT approach I'm able to access a BYOD wireless network with anything I want.  I don't have to teach students on locked down, board
imaged, out of date PCs.  My computer engineering seniors helped me build what we now have and the results have been impressive.  In addition to students in our little rural school suddenly winning Skills Ontario for information technology and networking, we're also top ten in electronics and, best of all, the number of students we have successfully getting into high demand, high-tech post secondary programs is steadily rising.

When I thought it might be interesting for students to get their hands on emerging virtual reality hardware in the spring it was only a matter of finding the funding.  We built the PC we needed to make it happen and then it did.  We've had VR running in the lab for almost half a year now at a time when most people haven't even tried it.  Because we were doing it ourselves, what costs $5000 for people who need a turn key system cost us three thousand.  We're now producing those systems for other schools in our board.

A do it yourself lab is more work but it allows your students and you, the teacher, to author your own technology use.  Until you've done it you can't imagine how enabling this is.  My students don't complain about computers not working, they diagnose and repair them.  My students don't wonder what it's like to run the latest software, they do it.  Does everything work perfectly all the time?  Of course not, but we are the ones who decide what to build and what software to use to get a job done, which allows us to understand not only what's on stage but everything behind the curtains too.

If that grabs you as an interesting way to run a classroom, I'm presenting at 2pm on Friday.  If not, fear not, ECOO has hundreds of other presentations happening on everything from how to use Minecraft in your classroom to deep pedagogical talks on how to create a culture that effectively integrates technology into education.  

Thursday's keynote is Shelly Sanchez Terrell, a tech orientated teacher/author who offers a challenging look at how to tackle technology use in education.  Friday's keynote is the Jesse Brown (who I'm really looking forward to hearing), a software engineer and futurist who asks tough questions about just how disruptive technology may be to Canadian society.

If you're at all interested in technology use in learning, you should get down to Niagara Falls this week and have a taste of ECOO. You'll leave full of ideas and feel empowered and optimistic enough to try them.  You'll also find that you suddenly have a PLN of tech savvy people who can help, enable and encourage your exploration.  I hope I can be one of them.


If you can't make it, you can always watch it trend on Twitter:





note:  to make a feed embed on twitter, go to settings-widget-create new and play with it, very easy!