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Dulling the Knives…

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

I had an extremely disappointing day yesterday. 

Some background: I’ve been teaching my Grade 8 classes about information management since the beginning of January. We started off with spreadsheets, and are wrapping up now with a unit on databases. I’ve been really happy with how things have progressed. We’ve been doing some really innovative things, and I’ve learned a tonne in the process. Judging by the work students have been submitting, so have they.

Yesterday was supposed to be the last lesson.

I had planned something awesome. In the previous semester, some of the things we had touched on, through journal entries, collaborative activities and extended research projects, were cloud computing, software-as-service, hardware & software, interface design, and business models in the tech. industry. Yesterday, we would have brought everything together through an interview with a business owner.

I had lined up a speaker who writes web-based data-management software for businesses. He co-founded a company just over 2 years ago, and I’ve watched (and helped) his product grow into something quite polished. He has designed, built and secured his own technical infrastructure, and has an extremely impressive workspace, running on a high-end platform. He makes human interface decisions on a day-to-day basis while designing software modules, and his product is completely database driven. He makes his revenue in large part through subscriptions – not by selling his software outright. And he’s managed to attract several fairly big clients.

Great software.

Great software.

I planned to set up an iChat video conference between him and my class. I would project the video chat onto the board so everyone could see. iChat Theatre would enable him to share photos of his office, and his hardware back-end. Screen-sharing would allow him to demonstrate his software, and then fire up his database server and give us a peek under the hood. We’d be able to discuss hardware, software, interface design, relational databases, and business models, all focused around a living example of what we had studied. The opportunity for reinforcement and learning would have been enormous.

“Would have.”

A week ago I started preparations to get this thing off the ground. I researched all the ports I would need opened for iChat, and compiled a list to submit to our I.T. department. The response? It would be too complicated to set up for just one lesson. I pleaded for alternatives, knowing there’s always more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to networking. Nothing worked. Finally, three hours before the lesson, still trying to ‘get out’ over the right ports, I phoned my speaker and cancelled the conference, indefinitely. Instead, I showed my students how relationships work in Microsoft Access, and then we started a unit on publishing.

My students have no idea just what they missed out on yesterday. As for myself, I was so upset that I was tempted to simply run out and buy a mobile internet stick from my ISP, so this would never happen again.

I have a huge chip on my shoulder when it comes to I.T. administration in education. In all my experiences, there seems to be an overwhelming bias against teachers. Because we are percieved to not have the formal qualifications, we are treated as liabilities – not assets – by network admins.

I’ve worked in the I.T. industry going on 8 years. I know how to program in several languages. I do graphic design. I create web applications to interface with database servers. I’ve been hired by the government, the military, higher education, and the private sector. I’ve set up networks. I’ve designed database schemas. I have a broad base of knowledge, and if I don’t know how to do something, I can get in touch with about half a dozen people who can help me.

I understand that there are a lot of people out there, working as teachers, with little to no technical knowledge. But I’m not one of them. Without a flexible network policy, and without a constant dialogue between teachers and administrators, I’m forced to abide by the same (suffocating) restrictions imposed on others ‘for their own good’.

In education, network administrators are supposed to be enablers – those that make things possible, not those that explain why things are impossible. There are times when exceptions are necessary. An inflexible network policy only stifles innovation. It imposes mediocrity. It dulls all the knives in the drawer, so nobody gets hurt. 

All I wanted to do yesterday was slice some bread.

What keeps me up at night.

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009
This misses the point entirely.

This misses the point entirely.

Assessment is the part of my job that I enjoy the least.

By a wide margin.

I’ve taught math in the past. Presently, I teach I.T. and History. All three are completely different animals when it comes to assessment, and each poses a unique set of problems that manages to keep me awake at night.

You can be ruthlessly objective when grading a math test or homework assignment: the requirements are clear, and there is (generally) only one right answer. Your numeric grade in math represents the extent to which you measure up to perfection. Plain and simple. Cold and calculating. Not particularly friendly. 1

Try throwing around a word like ‘perfection’ in a history class and you lose your credibility in an instant. In a course designed to teach students that there ultimately IS no ‘right answer’, you can’t take the mathematical approach. So how do you assess? What does that magic number represent? The extent to which you demonstrate reasoning and critical thinking skills? Well, yes. But good luck determining that objectively.

Take a moment and give your own reasoning skills a grade from 0 to 100.

… See what I mean?

What does assessment mean when it comes to  I.T.? The canned answer is “problem solving skills, naturally.” But are problem solving skills any easier to assess than reasoning skills, or critical thinking skills?

Skills are at the heart of assessment, but most assessment instruments do a poor job assessing skills. Unless you intend to measure content retention as a ’skill’, there’s really no point in giving closed-book, timed history tests. The same goes for math tests that don’t ask you to show your work. And the idea of a written I.T. exam is just laughable.

If you want to measure reasoning skills, assess the questions your students ask. If you want to measure critical thinking skills, give your students the tools and watch what they do with them. If you want to measure problem solving skills, pose a real problem, step back and watch. It’s fun.

Now, give your problem solving skills a mark out of 100.

Annoyed yet?

  1. I’m aware this is a contentious statement. In reality things are much more complicated, and good math teachers do what they can to employ alternative assessments. Collaborative work, portfolios, and independent study projects are great tools to this end. But how often do you see them stand in place of quizzes and tests?

Why Luddites shouldn’t handle policy decisions.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

I couldn’t let  this one pass by without comment.1

 A first-year student at Ryerson University faced an academic misconduct hearing this month for alleged ‘cheating’ over Facebook. Chris Avenir was ‘caught’ moderating a study group for students enrolled in a chemistry course.

When did this become a crime? Students at most universities (including Ryerson, I know for a fact), have department-endorsed study rooms where students come and go at will, swapping notes and exchanging solutions. This is virtually the same thing.

Thankfully, Avenir wasn’t expelled, but in what I view to be a gross injustice, he was given an F on an assignment and a note in his permanent record, stating he was disciplined. And they’re touting this as a huge victory for students at Ryerson, because he could have faced 147 counts of academic misconduct instead.

There is a huge problem here, and it doesn’t have to do with cheating online. The problem is that Avenir’s chemistry professor insisted that students work independently.

The expectation that students work on their own, in a vacuum, to solve problems and complete assignments belongs to a model of learning that became obsolete in the 19th century. No student is an island anymore, and nobody gets anywhere meaningful in complete isolation.

The professor, and likely the entire Faculty Appeals Committee at Ryerson, belong to an era where independent work was still valued. They also belong to an era where talking pictures were all the rage, computers were giant machines that filled entire rooms and took 5 hours to perform calculations on punchcards, and people still paid typists by the page to run off copies of their theses.

See a problem here? These people have no business shaping educational policy at a 21st century post-secondary institution. Their values are out of place, and so are their conceptions about education.

If anything, the 21st century will be all about collaborative learning and problem solving. It will be about groups of students working together, pooling all their resources, to tackle problems an entire order of complexity higher than any of them could solve alone. Good educational policy should reflect this. It should encourage students to ask each other for solutions, not penalize them with draconian policies when they’re caught doing what they’ve been doing for at least 2 decades already.

In an era where one of our world’s foremost minds has no qualms about posting his life’s work online, and calling on mathematicians, physicists and particle theorists to read, refine and augment it, you would think that a few stodgy professors at a university claiming to be at the cutting-edge of applied sciences might want to rethink their stance on collaboration.

They’re probably too busy trying to open an email attachment in WordPerfect format.

  1. By the way, thanks, CBC, for the wonderful site re-design, that offers no formatting-stripped print option. I guess I missed the memo when this became acceptable practice for reputable online news sources…

Classrooms in the Future

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

It’s no secret – I don’t write enough on my own. Someday I’ll overcome my perfectionism and take a more relaxed, casual attitude towards writing. Hopefully soon.

For now, here’s something I wrote for my technology methods class, in response to the following discussion question:

Technology has had a tremendous impact on the educational environment in recent years. It has changed the way that teachers teach and students learn. What will a classroom look like ten years from now? What about 50 years from now?    

*     *     *   

We are moving towards a society that values information and innovation over specific skills. I believe that as we move into this future, our focus in the classroom will shift from content to process. What I mean by this is, the content we teach will gradually matter less than the process whereby students learn (reflexively).

    We are at the brink of an age of unimaginable scientific and cultural self-realization. The keys to unlocking this age are innovation, creativity and forward-thinking. If we force our future students to learn at a pace slower than that of technological advancement, we will never unlock this future.

    I will be disappointed if, in fifty years, students are still learning mathematical computation skills like long division in math class, or learning orthography and grammar in language arts. I will be disappointed, because it is unnecessary. We have moved to a point in history where we can trust technology to do the grunt work, and focus on higher-order concepts at an earlier stage in our development. If every cohort of students has to re-invent the wheel (learn long division, worry about grammar and spelling), future generations will be doomed to stagnation.

    In ten years, I would hope that 3rd or 4th grade students are learning algebra and computer programming in their classrooms. With the help of technology, these students will be able to make connections that would take years to make otherwise. I would hope that, in the future, high school students learn what today’s students learn in university. Imagine what higher education could yeild if students - going in - already knew first or second-year chemistry, biology and applied sciences.

    In another half-century, I hope that the keyboard and mouse are abandoned as anachronistic. I hope great strides are taken to facilitate written communication in English (or whatever language becomes the lingua franca of the future). I want to see technology facilitate the arduous process of articulating, communicating and translating a great idea across the world.

    I am convinced, as my colleagues are, that the classroom of the future will not change in the most fundamental way. It will still be an environment that provides students with the tools of discovery and innovation. And like most future-minded thinkers, I care less about the content than the process. What the classroom of the future will look like is of secondary importance to how it will function.

    If we want to solve the world’s problems, we can’t afford to spend a quarter of our lives learning to do what a machine can do faster and better. We need to stand on the shoulders of giants, and trust them to help us reach those heretofore unattainable heights.

Review: SMART Notebook on OS X Leopard

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

  I fundamentally think that the idea behind SMART solutions is a great one. The consumer electronics industry is all abuzz over touch-screen technology, and it’s no question that many devices are heading in this direction in the coming years.

I also think that the principles behind the software, and its ideal functionality, are well thought-out. SMART Notebook provides a potentially complete feature set.

What I take issue with is completely under the hood. While 99% of all educators that use SMART Notebook will never complain about this sort of thing, I do find it sufficiently frustrating to air my concerns here.

SMART Notebook was designed, as all Windows applications, to be a stand-alone, self-contained application. As such, it has its own proprietary file format, and doesn’t “play well” with other applications.

My problem is precisely with this philosophy of software design. I believe applications should be treated as environments that perform one task, and perform it well. Abstracted this way, one would construct “piped” workflows that take the output of one environment and channel it into the input of another. What this would mean, for SMART Notebook, is that as a software environment, it would be able to tap into system level APIs that draw on the resources of other application environments. It could import and export files of any type, display schemas for files that were organized elsewhere, and rely on other applications to perform specific tasks that have been poorly implemented in Notebook’s current manifestation.

Software shouldn’t be envisioned as a vertical system. It should work laterally to provide the most effective user interface.

And yes, I’m especially bitter over this because Notebook was developed on Windows, and simply ported over to the Mac, without paying any attention to the Human Interface Guidelines that all self-respecting Mac developers follow like a bible. It doesn’t behave like any other application on my computer, and so I actually find myself discouraged from using it.

I sincerely hope SMART Tech. raises its development standards with version 11. As far as Windows programs go, it’s a fine piece of software – but the Mac platform is a little more demanding in its interface standards.

Power to the Public Schools

Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

This is simply an all-around good idea - probably one of the better ones I’ve come across. And it came from a grade 12 student, too. A year from now, 10 high schools across Toronto will be outfitted with solar panels and windmills to generate electricity, with the surplus being sold back to the province.

When the government drops the ball with education (as it has a history of doing in Ontario), public schools generally fall to the bottom rung of the upward-mobility ladder. This encourages the affluent middle-class peons to pull their children out and stick them in private schools where wealth and entitlement run as rampant as social anxiety disorder. While these childrens’ grades are being inflated, their parents’ money is no longer being siphoned through fundraising drives into the holes that property-tax revenue can’t fill.

Public schools can just accept that they’re on the losing end in this vicious cycle, or actively take steps to provide for their students. And I don’t necessarily mean by putting MBA graduates in the principals’ offices, or by requiring each school board to hire a ‘Business Supervisory Officer’ to oversee insidious and exploitative private-sector partnerships.
Let the schools compete. Let school boards accrue capital. Show students the profits. Help them think like the winning class of this historical moment. Maybe they’ll feel pride. Maybe they won’t feel the need to send their kids to a junior rotary club.

Oh, and helping the environment doesn’t hurt either.

Reflections from a forum on post-secondary education

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

I went to a forum on post-secondary education this evening, hosted by the King’s Day Students’ Society on my campus. The guests were Darrell Dexter, Francis Mackenzie and Jamie Muir. The structure was as such: each official gave a five-minute opening remark, followed by two minutes rebuttal, followed by 90 minutes of questions from the floor (mainly King’s students). I was somewhat disappointed that Dexter didn’t manage to engage the crowd, though it was ironically amusing that the Liberal premier – forbidden from speaking about his party’s platform – came across as the best speaker. 

Anyway, what I found particularly interesting about the evening was the question period that followed the half-hour of embarrassing squabbling between the Tory Minister of Education and the NDP’s premier. The themes ranged from hypothetical and historical tuition freezes to the feasibility of their outright abolition; from federal and provincial government funding models for universities, to known issues of deficiency in social welfare and student loan models; even to such trivial issues as taxation on textbooks and sources of funding for infrastructure maintenance. Though I learned quite a bit from the questions and answers themselves, what I found most startling was what wasn’t asked. 

It seemed that both the students and the officials had an unspoken understanding of the postsecondary institution funding model as a strictly-government enterprise: universities get funding from the province, the provinces get equalization grants from Ottawa, etc. However, the federal government and provinces also run the student loan programs, and they do so with public money only. If I had the time to stand in line by a microphone, I wish I had the chance to ask this in front of a room full of students that really didn’t seem to realize that nothing should be taken for granted: 

“When I graduate this year, I will have spent in excess of $35,000 on tuition and books alone. Though I’m lucky that not all of it was borrowed funding, I will have amassed a considerable debt. Now, from my perspective, it’s obvious that this debt will be paid off by the money I make from my employer. What doesn’t make sense to me is, if we’re such a socialist democracy, and if we openly admit that our educational policies are made based on the notion of education as training for work, why don’t government officials make the link between private enterprise and student funding? If private enterprise is the institution that benefits the most from our education, why don’t we see more investment in students on their part? It seems to me that the most logical, practical step to take would be to have the funding for student loans come from a pot to which private enterprise is forced to contribute as a gesture of faith in its investment. I invite the three officials at the podium to tell me how this proposal is flawed, and defend the sanctity of big business in the face of the painfully-clear relationships between enterprise and education that I’ve just underscored.” 

Of course, it wouldn’t have come out so articulate. Shame.

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