This is the end, my beautiful friend

With apologizes to the Doors, I begin my final blog for EC&I 830. I will start out with my thoughts on last night’s debate about unplugging from technology. I have finished reading all the articles supplied by both sides and I feel as strongly now as I did at the end of the debate. I strongly side with the “Agree” side of the argument – I do believe we need to put down the devices and get back in touch with ourselves and with those people in our lives. I am not a complete Luddite as I do see the value in using apps like skype to keep in contact with far-flung friends and family but I think we are isolating ourselves from those people right beside us. My wife and I went out for supper recently and I observed a couple come into the restaurant and spend the entire time glued to their phones with nary a word between them (I couldn’t help notice them as they were sitting at the table next to ours). This was not an isolated incident. I’ve observed these same behaviours played out by people everywhere – both singly and in groups – and I find it very disturbing. I’ve witnessed young people driving by me on the road while they are completely absorbed in looking at their phones. I have a friend, who is an RPS member, and he refers to these self-absorbed people as “prey items”. They are simply not aware of their surroundings and will come to grief at some point by being preyed upon by those individuals who are aware. They become walking, texting Darwin Award recipients.

The argument for being continually connected was a non-starter for me. It lacked substance and the idea there is no difference between our on-line persona and our physical presence is ludicrous. The idea of technology making us more human, as advanced in the O’Reilly video, springs from a deeply flawed premise. It presupposes that we require technology to lead more complete, richer lives. Now, before the village breaks out the torches and pitchforks, just remember this is my personal opinion and my opinion is ‘this is horsehockey’.

Yes, I do have a cell phone (for texting with my family and for calling) and I have this laptop, as well an ipad I use for reading, but I don’t use social media apps because I don’t feel the need to share my rather boring life with a bunch of strangers – with exception of this rambling little blog. I use technology as a tool. I’ll admit it, but I prefer to sit somewhere like on my back deck, read a novel and drink coffee. There is so much more to life than constantly wondering what others are saying when you’re not there…

On a related note, I am kind of sad to end this class. I have reached the end of the road of my Master of Adult Education degree and it’s been a long, difficult, but rewarding 5 years for me. I have undergone significant personal transformation and I have been very fortunate to have learned from all of my instructors and fellow students along the way.

Thank you.

My Summary of Learning (I hope)

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Well… I finally hacked my way through the video production of my summary. I more or less taught  myself the rudiments of iMovie using an old Panasonic Lumix camera, a tripod, a magnetic whiteboard, and a whole shwackload of children’s magnetic letters. I slammed all the bits and pieces together and voila! Here is the slightly frayed around the edges product. Enjoy. Oh by the way, you may want to make sure there are no small children or animals present in the room when you view this baby…

Here it is:

A faustian bargain?

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400-04209518 © danomyte

Last night’s debate about the role / influence of corporations in education was a very timely one. Yesterday saw the announcement from the Government that they were not going to pay their full share to honour the contract signed with the STF, but would instead download a portion to the various school divisions to make up the difference. I felt, prior to the debate, this was opening the door to the private sector to slide in and attempt to create for-profit schools. I still think that is a possibility and it makes me very worried for the long-term sustainability of publicly funded education in this province. There is an article in the Huffington Post about the rather disturbing state of Charter schools in North Carolina and the influence wielded by the Koch brothers and their multiple ‘foundations’ that seek to champion for-profit schools to the detriment of publicly funded education.

Now, before you think I’m a cranky old bastid, I understand the relationship that exists between suppliers and schools. We use the products offered for sale by Supreme Basics and I order (or try to order – but that’s another story for another time) scientific supplies from the good old Boreal catalogue o’ fun. These types of relationships are time-honoured and allow our program to function smoothly. Our student association has even struck deals with vending machine companies to supply those necessities of life like Diet Coke and Doritos at rates cheaper than the crappy unnamed company that runs our cafeteria (cough, cough..Aramark..cough,cough). The SA makes some dough and we collectively get to stick it to man.. What I do have a bit of a problem with is how some textbook suppliers have captured the market for our course materials. Choice has been winnowed down to a select few publishers, with the content of those few textbooks being dictated by bigger markets like Texas. The texts I use in Biology and Chemistry have no Canadian content and certainly no First Nations perspectives – even American First Nations. This leads to a homogeneity of thoughts and perspectives that are distinctly American.

Publicly funded schools in this province must be protected from those corporate interests that place the bottom-line over student welfare. We don’t want to turn out students like those colorless drones in the 1984 Apple commercial. The Guardian published an article about Pearson, a multi-national company, and its influence on educational policy. In the article, US author Diane Ravitch states “The corporation is acting as a quasi-government agency in several instances, but it is not a quasi-government agency: it is a business that sells products and services”. This intrusion of free-market economic beliefs into the sphere of education can be laid at the feet of the late Milton Friedman and should be rebuffed at every level if it ever rears its ugly head in this province.

Update:

This is the second part of this blog. I was going to make another blog entry about Audrey Watters and the great conversation the class had with her on Tuesday night but I noticed that some of my colleagues had combined the debate and the conversation together. Now I know what you are thinking, constant reader, and the answer is “Yes indeedy, I would jump off that particular cliff if some of my classmates did too.” as this cartoon by Gary  Larson sums up nicely.

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Gary Larson – Wiener Dog Art (1990)

It was an engrossing conversation and I was shocked and appalled that ed-tech in the US is primarily used for standardized test-taking. There is widespread usage of the MAP series of tests that look at reading and math skills of students. These tests are administered 2 or 3 times a year and tie up staff and resources. The tests are completely computer based and there is evidence to support the criticism they are biased towards students who are computer literate. The NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association) corporation has developed the MAP tests with the aim of providing administrators and parents with feedback on the academic levels of students. This is taken from the NWEA website:

                “Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®) creates a personalized assessment experience by adapting to each student’s learning level—precisely measuring student progress and growth for each individual. You’ll have essential information about what each student knows and is ready to learn within 24 hours.” (NWEA website)

At first glance this appears to be a laudable goal, but on closer examination of the content of the website one soon discovers the company’s goal is to sell a learning environment that revolves around the tests themselves. There are even professional development packages NWEA sells to administrators with this promise:

                  “Create a culture of growth and change by partnering with NWEA Professional Development! We’ll help you make the most of your NWEA assessments, master classroom formative assessment practices, and create and empower leaders at all levels. Explore our customized professional development for teachers and educational leaders  who want learning they can use to truly help students.” (NWEA website)

There is nothing like creating a culture of good little do-bees where everyone bows before the gods of the standardized test and curriculum centres around teaching to the test. I know there was an attempt by the Saskatchewan Party in 2013 to introduce standardized tests across the province as part of their on-going war on education but they backed off when there was push-back from the STF and others. The problem I have with standardized testing is this: I have worked dang hard to get accredited in my subject areas (Biology and Chemistry) and I am constantly working to keep my knowledge current – which is not an easy feat – so why would I bother to do this if I had to teach to the test? It would be like being back in my first year of teaching when I had to teach to the departmental exams.Boy, who can forget those happy times?

Does Technology ruin childhood?

technology-childhood

courtesy sunshineandhurricanes.com

Sooo…Does Technology ruin childhood? Before we go any farther here please use your cranky, old person inside voice to answer the question. I’ll wait….. OK, we’re back. My initial reaction to this statement was “Dang Tootin'” and I started to come up with reasons  as to why. I realized I was looking at the present through my past experiences. On reflection, my answer to that question is a resounding “No”. I will use a couple of points to tell you why I decided on No.

Point Numero Uno – Look, Technology has always been with us. From the time our ancient ancestors harnessed fire to use for exciting things like cooking food or keeping big nasty creatures at bay at night, right up until the adaptation of 3-D printer technology to make tissue, we have used our intellect to experiment with the world around us. When I was a young lad (back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) our society was making the slow transition (at least in Saskatoon) from radio as a primary entertainment source in the home to black and white television technology. The early TV sets were rather crude, tube driven affairs with the princely choice of 1 channel – the CBC. My parents always were after my brothers and I to sit at least 6 feet back from the tube lest we become irradiated monsters. Speaking of monsters, nuclear power / weapons were on the minds of most of my parent’s generation because they had witnessed the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This fear was played out in such great Saturday afternoon movie fare as

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or one of my personal favourites

 These, and other B-grade science fiction flicks of the ’50s, played upon our darkest fears about technology we did not understand. Was splitting the atom going to lead to the destruction of all mankind? Was sitting too close to an old black and white going to make us all sterile? Why couldn’t we just forget that new-fangled technology and go back to the good old days? WE COULDN’T BECAUSE IT WAS NO LONGER POSSIBLE (sorry for the shouting). Society had undergone a paradigm shift and was no longer going to be the same. The same thing applies to today’s technology – whether it’s found in smart phones, the internet, or with advances in 3-D printing and nanotechnology. It’s here and it’s not going to go away. Strap in, keep your hands and feet inside the ride, and hang on…

Point Number Two (Sorry I used up my extensive knowledge of Spanish in the point above). The second point I would like to make is this: Technology doesn’t ruin childhoods – Shitty fucking parenting does. I apologize for the language but come on,  you need a license to drive or buy booze and smokes, but any two brain-dead, mouth breathing humps can get together and whelp offspring. I seen the end results of such matings and they ain’t pretty. These poor kids have 2 strikes against from the beginning. I’ve worked with students who have fought and struggled to escape their families of origins and just when they thought they had finally left it all behind something happens to drag them back into the fire. So, no, I don’t think technology ruins childhood. I think we do a fine job of that ourselves. Hey…if you are reading this and you have small children please give ’em a hug and let them know you love them….

Thoughts on the equity debate.

 

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I’m going to start with the debate I was fortunate enough to be a part of (Hint. Hint. It was the one about equity and technology). My partner in crime was the incredibly talented Katherine Koskie  and I thought we did pretty dang good, if I don’t say so myself. Seriously ‘though, the usage of technology to work toward providing equity for students (or anyone else for that matter) is a serious topic that is not going to go away. We have to acknowledge the elephant in the room and deal with it before it destroys the furniture. We get caught up in the idea of technology just being the latest electronic gizmo, whether it’s the latest laptop or tablet or a smartpen for that matter but I also think of useful technology as being something as simple and life changing as LED lights in Himalayan villages as part of the Village Lighting Project or the recycling of computer systems as part of the Computers for Schools initiative undertaken by the SaskTel Pioneers.

I am a huge advocate for getting the appropriate tools into the hands of those with learning difficulties. I realize I have used the phrase “Learning Disability” in the past – even during the debate – but I view it more as a difficulty. I have ADD and I speak from personal experience when I tell you it made my life very, very difficult. It was only after my diagnosis that I discovered assistive technology. Was assistive tech the magic bullet that saved the day and made my life perfect? Nope. Not by a long shot. Did it help me stay organized and help me with all the myriad details, stresses, and strains of a Masters program? Absolutely. I have primarily used 2 pieces of assistive tech – a livescribe smartpen for taking notes in class, and dragon dictate for writing papers and blogs.

I realize that there are critics out there that view assistive technologies as being affordable only by the affluent and thus driving the gap between lower socio-economic groups and the upper middle class but please take a moment to read a paper by Johan Borg (2011) about assistive technology in the third world. I absolutely agree that we in the west can’t blunder into other countries and try to impose our cultural imperatives on those societies. It is doomed from the start if we take approach. We must work together to come up with a solution that fits the needs (and budget) of the participants. People with disabilities / difficulties must have the tools available to them so they can compete with their more able-bodied peers. To do anything else is to deny them basic human rights…

Whadda ya mean it’s permanent???

The title for this blog entry comes from one of my students (a 24 year old woman) who was quite appalled when I told her that everything she had ever posted was stored on a server somewhere. She had, in her youth, sent a boyfriend some photos of the “Nudge, Nudge, say no more”variety. She later found out that he had forwarded them to a couple of friends and they had forwarded them on…you get the idea. Nothing we do online ever truly goes away – even snapchats are stored somewhere in the electronic ether – and these little electronic indiscretions can haunt us and turn up when you’d least expect them.

The Madden & Smith article makes some interesting points about the age gap that exists when digital footprints are studied. My daughters (aged 23 and 25) are extremely cautious about the information they share on the web. This wasn’t always the case as both were incredibly indiscreet about sharing personal information when they were in their early teens. They both had the idea that the stuff they posted on Myspace (anyone remember Myspace?) was only seen by their friends. I had to show them both that, yes indeed, I could see everything they had posted. Since that time, they both have come to realize that social media can have a dark, ugly side and so they take great pains to make sure private information is kept private.

I, on the other hand, don’t really have much of a digital footprint. It was only recently that I even bothered to google myself. I didn’t realize I lived in Victoria, B.C. , was deceased, or was an engineer in Nigeria. I lead an interesting life! I tend to be a very private person and thus I don’t have an active Facebook account (I briefly used to, but couldn’t see the point) and I don’t have a Twitter account.Call me old fashioned, but I really don’t see the need to share my every waking moment with my “friends”. Most people’s lives (mine included) as not that interesting.

On the positive side, I do maintain 3 different e-mail accounts – my personal e-mail, my work e-mail, and my gmail account that I set up for the purposes of the class – so I can be reached via the internet and so I’m not completely off the grid :).

From the amount of havoc being wreaked in my student’s lives by the indiscreet sharing of deeply personal information, it has fallen to me to provide information to them about what can / should be shared and what to look for in the security settings for some of these apps. I find this frustrating from a professional standpoint because this isn’t part of my job description. I realize I sound a tad cranky and one could say “Bob, you don’t have to do that extra work” but I do it because otherwise I waste more time putting out the fires caused these internet imbroglios. These stinky, on-going issues of sharing personal information with a largely anonymous base of users just reinforces my belief of “post in haste, and repent at leisure”. Forever is a long time…

 

Is technology having an impact on the health of our children (and us)?

I will start this week’s postings with comments about the technology and health debate. I have decided not to pick apart each of the accompanying articles, for the sake of sparing the reader, but will concentrate on those ideas that highlight both the for and against sides.

Before I get into those ideas, I came across an excellent article in the International Journal of Obesity ((2005) 29, 925–933)) , by S. Kautiainen, et al., entitled ‘Use of Information and communication technology and prevalence of overweight and obesity among adolescents’. The researchers examined the use of cellphones, computers, and video games by Finnish teens aged 14, 16, and 18 years old to determine if there was a correlation between time spent using these technologies and the rates of overweight and obesity. I was more than a little surprised to find that, contrary to my own beliefs, computer usage and television viewing were associated with weight/obesity issues for girls of all the age groups studied, and for boys in the 16 y.o. group. I had assumed that video games would be the culprit here, instead of computer use, but that was not the case. It appears that game players are using both hands and are too busy concentrating to eat :).

Moving on, there are physical issues associated with the use of technology, as alluded to in the Huffington Post article, and these would fall into the musculoskeletal category of health concerns (texting thumb, carpal-tunnel syndrome to name two) but this has been the case throughout history whenever new technology has become mainstream (cue a rambling story by Grandpa Simpson). It was thought, at one point, people riding in a car would suffocate if the vehicle travelled faster that 20 miles per hour (that’s 32 kilometers per hours to you young whippersnappers), or television would ruin your eyes in you sat too close.

What I personally have concerns about are the long-term effects technology is having with respect to mental health and with the re-wiring of our brains. I’m not if our society has become more self-absorbed or narcissistic, or if the rise of social media has allowed the vapid among us a wider audience to ‘entertain’. Most people’s lives are simply not that interesting, but so much time and energy is spent on checking Facebook accounts for positive strokes from ‘friends’ that real intimacy is missed. We only have one life – it’s a shame to waste it looking for external gratification.

On a more positive note, technology – particularly wearable biometric technology – can have very positive effects on a person’s health. I suffer from Myasthenia Gravis, a progressive neuro-muscular disease, and I can personally attest to the value of wearable biometric devices. I use an apple watch that is paired with my phone and has been an important way for me to track my drug schedule, my energy levels, daily food intake, and my insulin dosages. I can then share this data with my family physician, neurologist, and endocrinologist so everyone is on the same page treatment-wise.

I get excited reading articles about the future of wearable biometric devices ( coming from a Biology background, I define the term wearable biometric device as any technology that captures biological metrics while being worn by the user) and I think we are on the cusp of using wearables to move the management of our health away from the healthcare system and back onto our selves. Let me clarify that last statement, the healthcare system is pretty good at dealing with problems after they occur – we tend to expect the system to ‘make us better’ – but using wearables allows us to take better control over our own health and wellness and to become part of our own care.

I leave you with a humorous  meme about how I see myself

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image courtesy of memecenter.com

What the heck should we actually be teaching?

Other than finding the question Schools should not be teaching anything that can be googled to be a tad confusing (maybe ’cause I’m old and cranky) this debate raised some very fundamental questions about where education is headed. 

I was fascinated to realize that both the agree side and the disagree side of the debate were arguing the same points. Both sides agreed the over reliance on Google is altering  how we think and it’s not for the better, trust me. I’ve experienced this first hand in my own classroom. My students, who are all adults older than 21, have this uncritical acceptance of information they have looked up online. The prevailing attitude is one of “well if it’s found on Google, it has to be correct” and this has led them to spout some rather specious information during class discussions in Chemistry and Biology.

 

As part of both courses, I have the students do a research project on a topic of their choice that interests them as long as it is based in either Chemistry or Biology. One of the things I go over with them is not to believe everything they come across when doing research. I’ve had to explain, and discuss, the differences in .com, .org, .gov sites and how to tell if the information is valid. One great Google resource that I do share is the scholar.google.ca website that I was shown at a library workshop at the beginning of my grad studies. I do this because I want to assist my adult learners to become net-savvy consumers of information and to help them navigate through an ever expanding sea of nonsense out on the web.

The other side of this debate deals with rote memorization or automaticity. Both the concepts of rote memorization and automaticity are ideas we use every day. Driving a car? It’s an automatic function because we offload new repetitive information into muscle memory and drive without thinking about the tasks involved. Learning math? Same idea – we need to memorize and internalize key fundamental concepts so that we don’t waste time ‘re-inventing the wheel’ every-time we perform mathematical calculations. This same thinking about internalizing fundamentals also applies to language. We didn’t learn English by treating individual words as units to be switched around when needed. We learned language first by understanding the alphabet and the sound each letter makes when spoken and then started to build on that framework to learn words by sounding them out.

In both my Chemistry 30 and Biology 30 classes I expect my students to memorize key basic information. In Chemistry 30, the expectation is for them to memorize the first 17 elements from the Periodic Table because those elements are most commonly found in our  course work. This basic framework leads directly into the Mole and balancing reactions (also key concepts in chem.). In Biology 30, I expect the memorization of key ideas like the structure of DNA and RNA, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, the 5 kingdoms and good old classification ( remember King Phillip Came Over For Gene’s Special ?). You may see me as a dinosaur, but rote learning has a place in the classroom and can hinge very nicely with google if time is taken to integrate this for the benefit of the student.

Here is a quick little youtube video from Mike Bell. Enjoy 🙂

Why rote learning has value

Thoughts on the first debate

As an educator, I have mixed feelings about the role of technology in the classroom. My classroom, for example, is decidedly low-tech. I have a ceiling mounted projector, 2 whiteboards, and a smart-board. My desk computer is interfaced with the projector so I can show videos but there is really nothing fancy. My students can either bring in their own laptops/tablets or use the 1 student computer.

We, as a staff, have discovered that the students don’t use their phones, etc. for learning purposes – they tend to use them for personal use during class time. As a result, the program has developed usage criteria for the handling of BYOD situations.

This situation ties in with the central premise of the first debate – “Technology in the classroom enhances learning.” – and I must say I fall into the disagree camp on the topic. I found the articles presented by the disagree team to be of great interest, particularly the BBC article by Sean Coughlan, and the adjunct article by Andreas Schleicher. Schleicher’s point about students merely copying and pasting information in order to answer questions with no understanding of that information is, I suspect, a situation we all have found ourselves in. It has been my experience technology does more to damage the academic success of those students who would fall into the low-achiever category within the classroom by allowing them to be distracted by that same technology…

How some of my more-easily distractible students use techonology to wander away… Image courtesy of Bill Watterson.

 

Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Photo on 2016-05-15 at 11.41 AM

This is the first, and probably the last, blog I will ever set-up and use. I will admit at the outset that I am a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to social media so be warned.

I work in the adult program at the Regina campus of Saskatchewan Polytechnic as an instructor of Biology 30 and Chemistry 30. The use of social media apps is very limited within our program, with myself and another instructor using remind to notify students of upcoming assignments or exams. The students, on the other hand, are extremely comfortable with both Facebook and Twitter as tools to exchange information.

My goal, with this course, is to become more comfortable with using social media as a way to add another learning dimension in my classroom.