Saturday, 31 December 2016

Institutionalizing Success and Teaching Millenials

This was shared online this week and it prompts some thinking about how we deal with the generation we teach.

Four social circumstances that have millennials struggling:

1) Failed parenting strategies include children being told they are special and can do whatever they want just because they want it.  They have won awards their entire lives for simply showing up.  This award inflation devalues excellence and embarrasses the failures these children experience.  They've learned not to strive for excellence because it doesn't matter.
2) Technology: Millennials are surrounded by filtered social media where everyone appears to have it figured out and puts on a good face.  On top of that they have the same relationship with social media as a gambling addict has with a casino, except this addiction is only ever a touch away.
3) Impatience:  They want to reach the summit and have a 'big impact' but are unaware that the summit lies at the top of a mountain.  Is this related to number one?
4) Environment:  Companies (and schools?) should be rebuilding the confidence and resilience of this generation by reconnecting them to personal relationships and long term goals.  This means stepping up to combat number 1, something that most school administration really isn't willing to do.

Now imagine standing in front of thirty one of them.
I've struggled with the vagaries of the millennial mindset in the classroom many times over the past few years.  From the grade inflation of risk averse learners and five-ohs to the complaints of industry, I'm familiar with the millennial challenges Sinek refers to in his interview above.

Battling these frankly bewildering and fictionally driven parenting strategies seems to be a lost cause for most educators.  Since banks and multi-nationals decided to burn the economy down and cause years of austerity, education (and governments in general) have taken on business-think in an unprecedented manner (some kind of Stockholm syndrome?).  The modern approach seems to be 'the customer is always right even if they have no idea what they're doing'.  Rather than expecting competence on the part of the student I often find myself defending a failing grade from a student who has never completed any work at grade level and has missed weeks and weeks of class.  Parents don't want to hear that their child is incapable and they certainly don't want to accept responsibility for that incompetence.  Their only goal seems to be finding ways to blame anything else.

We're not doing a lot of either these days.
Technology is another place where education has thrown in the towel.  Students can do whatever they want with their devices.  Any attempt to redirect a student away from inappropriate technology use is wasted as these devices are now considered to be a constitutional right.  It isn't uncommon for me to ask a student to focus on what we're doing and have them tell me they are in the middle of a text conversation with their parents which is obviously much more important than whatever's happening in class.  They're probably planning a two week absence from school for a holiday - another exciting new millennial parenting tactic that would have been foreign to my parent's way of thinking.  Sinek's no smartphones in a meeting rule wouldn't fly in a modern classroom.  You can't helicopter parent without the tether.

How education is becoming less able
to manage these dangers we face.
Patience isn't lost in all students but even the most capable are dwindling in attention duration.  At the beginning of our last unit I showed exemplars of previous projects done over the past few years.  The top student in my class asked, "are people getting dumber and dumber?"  Good question.  They certainly seem to be less and less capable of developing skills complex enough to tackle curriculum level theory and practice.  Perhaps if they weren't taking weeks of unexplained absences and holidays during the semester things would be better.  Perhaps if they were expected to attempt all course work to the best of their abilities skill-sets wouldn't be deteriorating.

In modern high schools students take the courses they want, not the ones they are capable of.  Students who fail advanced courses get a variety of options to regain the credit and are seen at the same level next year regardless of how little they've proven they can do.  Parents demand access to advanced classes for students who barely find time to attend school and are unwilling to actually do anything.  If I fail anyone I have to justify the failure, not so the absent, incompetent student.  Even trying to offer a range of courses doesn't work because everyone is an academic all-star who should be getting the most advanced credits.

The complaint from people in post secondary education and the work place is that we're producing graduates incapable of working effectively in the 'real world'.  Sinek's comments go straight to this.  Any absence or student failure isn't an administrative issue; the system won't even address it.  There used to be a limit on unexplained absences and then a student was kicked out of a course, that doesn't happen any more.  There used to be criteria for failing late work, that doesn't happen any more.  There used to be requirements for staying within an academic stream, now it's do whatever you want.  When a student is absent or obtuse teachers are told to contact the parents who caused the situation in the first place and work it out.  In Ontario this approach has been institutionalized using laws like school until eighteen no-matter-what.  By keeping students in school at all costs we've effectively removed anywhere to drop out to.  With no bottom to fall through, graduation rates are on the rise!  We've effectively institutionalized failed parenting strategy number one:  everyone is a winner!

The internet is full of memes that suggest the approach we're taking isn't helping.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Virtual Possibilities

I was asked the other day what virtual reality could do beyond the obvious entertainment it provides. A bit of online research shows VR moving in a number of directions beneficial to education.  

Below is a list that covers everything from currently available software to academic research and emerging uses.  It isn't even remotely complete.


VR for physio therapy

Phantom Limb Pain Recovery

When I worked in Japan I did a lot of work with a local doctor who was researching therapeutic muscle stimulation in patients recovering from paralysis.  A lot of that physiotherapy was very hard work for both the patients and the people working with them.  VR would offer a way to produce more natural, targeted and full range interaction without the tedium and limitation of repetitive exercise.

The CBC piece above is talking about how amputees with phantom limb syndrome use VR to reconnect the neural pathways that used to operate the missing part.  Body confusion over the missing part appears to be the cause of phantom pains in missing limbs.  The immersive nature of VR allows patients to exercise those neurons and reduce instances of false pain responses.

Physical Therapy VR Research
If you've ever immersed yourself in VR you quickly become aware of how elsewhere you feel.  I've felt vertigo while standing on a cliff in Google Earth.  As a tool for balance and movement it has obvious immediate applications.

A Home-made VR Motion Sensor and Data Collection Tool
Currently, my senior computer engineering students are designing an Arduino based virtual reality movement sensor that will collect data on a user's movements while immersed.  They are programming a Java based back end in computer science to collect the data streaming from the ultrasonic sensor in order to create data-sets of movement while immersed.  This data could be used to measure the depth of immersion the user is experiencing.  More immersed people tend to physically interact more with the virtual environment - that physical interaction can be used to collect data.

Analysis of the data means they might be able to produce accurate information on how well a user is playing a game, how effectively an athlete is following a VR training regimen or perhaps if a patient recovering from an injury is making the right motions in physio.  It should be able to isolate and describe the physical limitations of a user in VR.  Unlike previous digital experiences through the window of a monitor, VR offers immediate physical feedback that we're going to record.

Digital interaction is going to be much less sedentary in the future.

VR and Autism

Floreo Autism Therapy
Founded by two dads of kids with autism, Floreo explores VR as a therapy.  I like their approach: autism isn't seen as a defect but a difference that we can support with therapies designed to allow these different thinking kids to survive and thrive with everyone else.

Austism Speaks on Virtual Reality 

Autism Speaks is a science focused advocacy group that is encouraging a seed change in how society views the spectrum of atypical autism related thinking.  

In this article they are funding research into a VR based social cognition training in order for autistic people to function more effectively with others.  The complexities of autism means they need to proceed carefully with data collection.  VR's unique sense of immersion means they can simulate social situations (and the anxiety that arises from them) more accurately and produce responses that reflect it.  The data collected from this specifically targeted research is vital to creating tools to help people with autism practice social skills more effectively.

Having kids who are already comfortable with VR means that when this therapy is ready they won't have to get familiar with the technology before they benefit from the therapeutic value of the program.

Sensitivity Training for Neurotypicals
We're currently using a 360 camera to create a VR based tour of our school.  In it students get to move around the building looking where they want in order to begin to get a sense of where everything is.  Editing 4k 360° video is a challenge - I have to use the best VR PC we have to do it (when it isn't running VR), but we'll get there.

In the meantime, I came across this immersive video made by the UK's National Autistic Society.  Designed in collaboration with autistic people, it gives you some idea of how overwhelming the world can be when an autistic child has a panic attack.  It's overwhelming watching it on the screen.  Watching it in VR I was in tears...

If you're not in VR and haven't done 360° video before, you can move the point of view around with your mouse as you watch.  As a way of trying to explain to others how it feels to have a panic attack when you're autistic, it's a powerful tool.

Using VR to Teach Autistic Teens How to Drive
Another ready-now application for VR is in vehicle operation.  High performance operators such as racers use it to learn tracks.  Heavy equipment operators are using it to train people on expensive industrial machines before they ever get into the cab for the first time.  Pilots have to log flight time in a simulator as part of becoming qualified on a new plane.  As a way to get people familiar with a complex machine it's cheap and effective.

In this case VR is being used to ease the anxiety of learning to drive in teens with autism.  Every high school in our board has driving instruction starting in their parking lots.  They should all be adopting this first step in order to ease anxiety before putting any kid behind the wheel for the first time.

General education links

The Virtual Reality Society
Based out of the UK, this group offers a great resource site to get your feet wet in VR.  They are also very interested in how VR can be used in teaching and learning and a lot of their links will take you emerging uses of this technology.

That Tim King Guy

There's this guy in Canada who jumped into this early and has his students building VR kits for other schools.  He's out and about often demonstrating the technology in his school, his board and his province to anyone who will listen.  He and his students have put hundreds of people through their first experience with VR.

His interest is in the engineering that creates the immersive VR experience.  It takes astonishing amounts of computing power to produce 3d immersive simulations.  Astonishing amounts of computing power are what got his attention in the first place.

Education isn't  usually responsive to emerging technologies but this guy's MO is to explore new technologies, and this one is going take immersive simulation (something he's always been interested in) to unforeseen levels.

VR and Mathematics
Experiential algebra in VR.  The benefits of visualizing mathematics in 3d are obvious.  This is one of many academic papers on the subject.
Geometry is another obvious use for 3d data visualization.  This is another academic paper on using VR in teaching geometry.

VR and Chemistry
Chemistry is one of those hands on teaching environments that have a lot of safety oversight.  Using VR to familiarize students with the safety needs of the lab could drastically reduce damage costs.  The safety training applications school-wide in technology and science are obvious.

These guys used Unity just like my software engineering course does - this is something that capable high school students could render.  Perhaps we will next semester.
Drop into a chemistry lab and explore.
Data visualization is a huge part of VR.  Chemistry researchers are already envisioning how it could be used to better understand advanced chemical interactions.
An academic paper on how immersive simulation can advance the learning of chemistry.

A trip through the body.  You can observe infections happening at a microscopic level.  It has my twelve year old talking about viral nucleocapsids - I have no idea what he's talking about.

Gender and Virtual Reality
There has been a lot of talk about gender in schools this year.  The immersive nature of VR means empathy can go from difficult to access to something approaching a lived experience.  Having a red neck experience the looks of distrust aimed at a black man or a misogynist spend an hour as a woman would go a long way toward addressing inequity.  It's hard to hate or belittle someone when you've spent some time in their shoes.

Foundry10 Virtual Reality Research

Foundry10 has been a fantastic resource in our exploration of virtual reality.  They are a Seattle based research group focused on how VR might be used in education.


Does VR have any value beyond entertainment?  It's an explosive new area of technological growth and we've barely begun to explore what it can do.  Even so, there are already hundreds of immediately useful educationally focused VR apps, and more come on line every day.

VR as a tool for pain management

Sunday, 11 December 2016

World Class.... again

The PISA results for 2015 have been published and Canada is once again top ten (6th) in the world.  I imagine this means I'll once again attend a bunch of Canadian educational conferences with American (30th best in the world) speakers who want to tell us how we need to completely re-imagine our (their) failed system.

I tend to take statistics as less of a truth and more of a vague indicator of what's happening.  They don't explain complex systems like human education very well but they do take the temperature.

Since Ontario is the largest single education system in Canada we lend a lot of weight to the country's successes and failures in these UN tests.  If Ontario is performing well it tends to push the country's scores in that direction, so we must be doing a pretty good job if we're sixth in the world.

There are a variety of statistics pulled out of the OECD PISA data that are interesting to consider.  To begin with, the top Asian countries only pitch their most gifted students at PISA while Canada, Finland and Estonia are representative of their entire populations.  From that perspective all Canadian students were only beaten by the highest streamed students in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.  If this were an apples to apples comparison we'd have done even better.

Another interesting statistic is truancy (on the left).  There are a number of countries, Finland among them, that have seen a surprising jump in truancy.  Unsurprisingly, the countries that are only putting their strongest students in also don't tolerate truancy.  Canada, as in every aspect of the results I've seen so far, exceeds the OECD average and performs well in this area, even when we include all socio-economic and geographic areas of the country.

The other argument I'd be expecting from the neo-con right is that we pour tons of money into education so of course we get good results, except we don't.  When compared to OECD countries world-wide, Canada is mid-pack in percent of GDP spent on education.  Australia spends slightly more than us and the US only slightly less to get significantly worse results.  Finland spends significantly more of their GDP on education than Canada does and finished behind us this time around.

It's a quiet time in Ontario education right now but I'm sure the Ontario Liberal party is already concocting stories in order to villify Ontario educators in the next round of bargaining.  While that's going on I guess we'll just keep producing world class results at a reasonable cost.


Playing with the data in the World Bank is always interesting:

The official results page:
Teacher pay by country.

I wonder if publicly funded private religious education systems in Canada brag about these UN numbers because they ignore this:

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Gamer culture, the alt right and online sexism

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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