Big Brother in our Schools

Courtesy of Nighted, Deviant Art
Courtesy of Nighted, Deviant Art

Did you know that all schools providing registered childcare in the UK use a Canadian-made Internet filtering system to deter children from becoming terrorists?

Good grief. Kindergarteners are plotting terrorist activities? How they fit all that in between fingerpainting, learning to count to 100, and taking naps, I’ll never know.  Sound a little extreme to be true? Check the news release on Waterloo-based Netsweeper’s own website. Thank goodness we haven’t gone over the edge of paranoia in our schools here in Canada.

According to the Cambridge Times, that same company, Netsweeper has offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis. This comes on the heels of a request by school trustees including Cindy Watson, Natalie Waddell, and Kathi Smith to hire “experts” in Internet filtering after one Cambridge couple complained their child had seen pornographic content at school. While I sympathize with the parents, I believe we may be treading in dangerous waters here.

Netsweeper is the same company Toronto’s CitizenLab discovered in 2011 to be blocking sites in Pakistan. Waterloo-based Netsweeper was hired by the Pakistani government  in an effort to block any sites that would seem blasphemous to a muslim-majority, as well as those featuring political discourse, and the news outlet CNN.

Normalizing surveillance in society leads to the eventual acceptance of blocking freedom of information and freedom of speech. That’s a direct hit to democracy.  Am I over-reacting? Well, that’s why I started this post with the story about the terrorist plotting kindergarten kids in the UK! You see, this is how it all starts. Yes, filtering pornographic and racist material makes sense. Of course we want to protect our children. But, we need to consider how best to do that while being cognizant of the short and long-term effects and trade-offs.

There’s always a cost involved when hiring “Internet filtering experts”. Besides the high potential for computer algorithms to inadvertently block perfectly innocuous material and affect access and freedom of information, companies never give anything away for free. We need to consider our children’s privacy as many of these companies are in the business of data mining, especially if offering free services.

So, what’s the practical way to deal with censorship and surveillance for the sake of our children? With 571 websites created every single minute on the Internet, harmful sites are bound to slip through the best content filtering algorithms. That’s why WRDSB teachers use a user-based monitoring system called School Connect where they are able to monitor students’ screens in their classroom. There’s nothing better than this. Teachers act not just as filters intercepting inappropriate content, but as guides and educators, they are able to interject and have a discussion with students about content. This is what we call “education” and “media literacy”.

Is it any wonder the Board has delayed its decision on stricter Internet filters? They’ve got a lot to ponder.


Considering “Audience” in TPAK

Inserting "audience" in TPAK
Inserting “audience” in TPAK. “Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by”

School’s out but I’m just revving up. Right now I’m teaching an ABQ course at Queen’s University while taking my Librarianship Qualifications at OISE. The lack of sleep and pots of coffee cause my mind to wander and stumble upon topics I just can’t stop mulling over in my mind. The latest obsession falls on the TPAK model for technological integration in education. “There’s something missing!”, I think to myself. The interconnection of pedagogy, technology and content needs to have some sort of glue that holds it all in place. After 2 cups of my morning brew, I can finally pinpoint what it is. It’s the people element. The missing “A’ in TPAK is “AUDIENCES”. It’s the intersection of representation and interpretation of communicated messages.

Now, this should have been an obvious addition for me, coming from a media background. I’m reminded how Stuart Hall’s theories of dominant and oppositional readings are all shaped by the various filters each one of us carries with us. And aren’t those filters really central to how we use content, implement pedagogy, and construct media representations with technology? Of course they are. It’s all about our own bias. Take a moment to view the list of filters and think about how each may affect each of the three current elements of TPAK.

  • race
  • gender
  • culture and hegemony
  • ability/disability
  • geography
  • politics
  • economics
  • religion/beliefs/values
  • power and authority
  • media bias

TPAK creator Matthew Koehler recognizes that the transactional relationships between the elements is unique due to the various contexts that interplay. Koehler says, “Effective technology integration for pedagogy around specific subject matter requires developing sensitivity to the dynamic, transactional relationship between these components of knowledge situated in unique contexts. Individual teachers, grade-level, school-specific factors, demographics, culture, and other factors ensure that every situation is unique, and no single combination of content, technology, and pedagogy will apply for every teacher, every course, or every view of teaching.” I can’t help feeling that this is of most significance and it’s been buried and hidden from the graphic representation. It’s really the place where we all need to start.

Why do we need to start with audience? Audience defines our purpose for communicating. How and what we say is shaped and interpreted by our own filters and those of others. The purpose here is not to strip away at those filters to create a uniform equalization. It’s to acknowledge that the filters create a unique perspective. This is personalization.

So let’s put it into application.

Students in my grade 12 college level English class did a guided research and inquiry project for their summative that allowed them to focus on communicating for a specific audience but allowed them choice in production of a media representation. The project was presented to them as a question so that they could focus on their personal connection and a targeted audience. “If you could go back and tell your grade 9 or 10 self one really valuable piece of advice, what would it be?” The students were to leave their legacy by presenting in small groups to rotating groups of younger grades (thank-you to Karen Blaak for creating the project). The topics students came up with were varied and included (to name just a few):

  • how to use technology to organize your high school life of academics, activities, social lives, and after school jobs
  • maintaining a healthy teen lifestyle through diet and exercise
  • how to save money to buy a car and your independence
  • maintaining good attendance and punctuality in the school setting
  • avoiding social isolation and depression

These topics may seem very simple, but each presentation had a personal story that supported the authenticity of the purpose behind the presentation. These students were sharing their experiences and coming up with solutions through experience, discussions with others, and research. Not only that, but these experiences and solutions are transferrable life hacks.
Though the focus was on communicating with an audience, TPAK was applied to the project. Here’s a quick overview of the three areas that needed to be combined so that transformation learning could take place.
Technology (as tools/support):

  • The assignment was posted on Google Classroom so that students could have 24/7 access to any needed documents.
  • Video tutorials and online guides were made available for using the various technologies
  • Google Docs, presentations, and forms were used for 24/7 accessible collaboration, gathering and enacting active research, and representation

Pedagogy: Inquiry based, project-based, problem solving

Content/Knowledge: English curriculum expectations on reading, writing, research, representation, presentation skills, combined with personal experience/connections

Now, here’s where the exciting transformation takes place as the elements of technology, pedagogy, and content/knowledge combine. Students selected the medium that best suited their targeted audience, researched topic, perspective, interest, personality, and skill level to communicate their message. Here are some example of the types of media presentations students produced:

  • a video of a series of interviews conducted of experts, youth, and parents; followed up with an online survey
  • a fictional diary that was read to the younger students and used for a guided discussion
  • a series of games the students played to initiate problem solving in the selected topic area
  • a series of pamphlets and posters providing information and tips, along with an online poll to gauge impact and opinion
  • pecha kucha style presentations, followed by online quizzes and verbal discussion

Students really bought in to the project as they were able to express themselves with media in whatever way they wanted to. They followed the guidelines of a research-based inquiry model and English curriculum expectations, kept the targeted audience in sight, and used technology to analyze and synthesize content, produce media representations, and personally express themselves. The wide variances in topics and representation serve to highlight the overarching impact that the “people element” makes in this personalized learning process. Place any of the filters listed above over the media products and the personalized voice of the author shines through. As mentioned at the start of this post, the missing “A’ in TPAK is “AUDIENCES”. It’s the heart of representation and interpretation of communicated messages.

A Matter of Equalization

Ever the optimist, I ended a recent online group hangout about danah boyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated” with hopes that we would someday find something in our tools that would help move us towards the equalization of voice and representation on the Internet. I don’t consider myself a techno-utopian and hopefully by the time you read to the end of this post, you will realize I’m not a hardcore technological determinist either. But, isn’t there some chance of shifting just a little closer to equalization through the Internet?

What factors do we need to alter in online spaces as we move towards equalization? Are they age? Race? Gender? Anonymity? And what factors can be hidden or manipulated so that others are not aware of them in online public spaces? The massive online role-playing game Second Life was supposed to do just that before it turned into a wasteland of virtual sex. In SL, participants create an avatar, most going in with hopes that their experiences may change from those they have had in real life, experiences that are shaped by their defining characteristics of age, race, gender, and even ability. A female avatar may be operated by a human male and vice versa. A person in a wheelchair has legs through an avatar. Inevitably though, we end up giving ourselves away…our use of language, our beliefs and values still end up coming through our mediated avatars. So does our knowledge of the world. And for many left in the virtual space of SL, some of our basest desires.

Most people using the Internet have accepted the belief that we should be the same person online as we are in the real world, though we do construct our identities in ways that are favourable to us. The Internet still affords us access to others we may not have met in RL. Ask any tech-savvy teacher who goes to an educational conference and they’ll point out any number of people they met through Twitter before meeting them in person. The Internet affords us wider audiences. They are there for the taking if we know how to navigate them.

A few years ago, students at a local high school in Waterloo started a Facebook campaign to save a custodian’s job who was being moved to the night shift. The popular custodian was known to whistle tunes in the halls and smile and talk to the kids. Hundreds of kids signed online petitions, organized rallies and the distribution of promotional items for their cause, such as t-shirts. Although Facebook afforded students opportunity for public discourse, a wider engaged audience, and access to people of all ages, the campaign failed and the custodian was moved back to the night shift. The students felt disempowered. What they failed to recognize were the existing power structures that live outside the Internet. You see, the custodian was being moved to the night shift because he was only filling in temporarily. The regular full-time employee was coming back from leave. The students had no understanding of the power structures of a union. They thought their voice and numbers would be enough. They thought wrong.

Equalization does not come through the tools. Until age, gender, and race are no longer a shaping factor in our knowledge and beliefs, we will not achieve any advancements in equalization. Until existing societal structures can be navigated, we will not achieve equalization. Until the digital divide of access to technology is erased, we will not achieve equalization. Tools aside, it’s really about shifting pre-existing judgement. That’s why Media literacy and education will always be the cornerstone of any of those shifts, however slight, that we make towards equalization.

You can view the original hangout here on danah boyd’s book. It was a great opportunity to share thoughts on the book with educators from all over.
It’s Complicated

Evolving role of technology in Differentiated Instruction

culinary-fruits-front-view_lAuditory, kinesthetic, visual. Why is it that when we talk about differentiated learning, we so often focus on just the sensory aspect of communicating how we learn best? Applying Dr. Howard Gardner’s inventory of multiple intelligences towards differentiated learning and instruction adds another layer through manipulating interest-driven categories for the sake of engagement and identifying strengths and skills. This is all good stuff and we could all put our heads together and write a huge list of technological tools that would aid us in meeting goals of differentiated instruction on this basis. Heck, we could even Google it. But how else can technology be used to aid our various learners?

We talk about the engagement and input/output communication pieces in differentiated learning. But, we don’t always talk about differentiating the “processing” piece on the road to cognition. We see the words, “more time needed” under accommodations on IEPs, but this really just addresses the issue of speed and has little to do with key entry points of time during the learning process. This is where technology’s strength comes in. Besides holding various forms of communication (sensory included), technology’s brawniness is in it’s access, and access allows us to play with time. Instead of focusing on just the speed of processing, we could be thinking about how technology can help us manipulate “when” in the learning the differentiated aids for processing can step in.

The processing entry points we’re all most familiar with take place during and after the lesson, a carry-over practice from the late 20th century. I believe part of the reason why “flipped learning” has become so popular is because it addresses an earlier point of entry by allowing learners to “play” with the content first and make their own meaning and connections with it. Technology allows us to post content in an effort to initiate learning before that content is addressed in a face-to-face location. It also serves to lengthen the time of processing between learning stages by adding reflection time. This is a key strategy for some learners who may rely heavily on this early stage in the learning process for fuller comprehension.  It’s also worth noting that flipped learning could employ more than just posting videos before class. Remember, teachers are working to address all types of learners at various stages in the learning process.

How are you using technology to aid differentiated learners through these stages of process and reflection? If you use the flipped learning model, do you continue to use technology in differentiated ways through these stages to reach all learners? Would love to hear some of your stories.

Thanks to Carlo Fusco, Christy Wood, and Elaine McKenzie for challenging me to think more about technology’s role in differentiated learning while at the very recent Eduhop event in Kitchener.

Photo credit: / CC BY

Eduhop: A Relaxed Model for Professional Learning

(a last-minute promo for Eduhop)

For the last couple of years, a group of secondary school teachers has been meeting regularly for breakfast at a local diner to talk about tech and education. People come and go as their schedules allow amidst plates of bacon and pancakes and cups of steaming coffee while we share ideas about instruction, implementation, cross-curricular connections, and new and evolving tech.

On one sunny Spring day, as the group exited the diner, a group of elementary school teachers were gathering just a block away for mid-day snacks and discussion at a local restaurant. We connected through Twitter and after leaving the breakfast diner, I found myself heading over to meet with this group. After great discussion, we decided we should bring the two groups together. Jeff Pelich suggested an extension of the two meetings into a full day affair of “eduhopping”. Breakfast, lunch, and supper venues were planned and invites sent out via Twitter for all to attend.

You know how people are always saying that the learning and connections they get most excited about take place over lunch at conferences? Even Owen Harrison, father of the open space meeting was told by participants the coffee breaks were the best part of his events. And that’s how this whole day is framed. Whoever comes are the right people, whenever it starts is the right time, wherever it take place is the right place, whatever happens is the only thing that could have, and when it’s over, it’s over. Except, in this case, Harrison’s framework is applied to the coffee break.

I can’t begin to write down what we collectively learned at Eduhop. It was different for everyone who attended. But, I can tell you that it was a rich opportunity to dialogue, form relationships, and make partnerships with people from various divisions and subject areas, all with a keen interest to move education forward in the best interest of our students. Much the same as anyone attending and enjoying the coffee breaks at any conference. One discussion in particular was bouncing around inside my head all day to the point that I need to write a full separate blogpost on tech’s pedagogical role in differentiated learning. Stay tuned.