Following Ghenyk, Ben and Jack: Toward a New Culture of Education Technology

At our PEI Home and School Federation board meeting this week we got a demonstration of the extent to which we limit our children’s access to technology in the name of protecting them from technology and protecting technology from them.

Ghenyk, a grade 9 student at Birchwood Intermediate School, walked us through the process of trying to take an photograph from a USB stick and edit it on a PC in the school library. It was an almost-comical display of technology-gone-wrong, with numerous “Windows needs to install driver software” pop-ups, and, once the USB stick was recognized, the need for “shhh, don’t tell anyone how to do this” hacks to open Windows Explorer to be able to actually see the files on the stick.

It would be truly comical if it wasn’t so spirit-numbing: somehow we have managed to take the most engaging and flexible technologies that humans have ever invented and, in the name of “protection,” turned them into inflexible, hostile technologies that stymie rather than enliven student learning.

And yet we regard these limitations we’ve placed on the system as rational: the frustrating dance required to extract a photograph from a USB stick means everything’s working exactly as it’s supposed to.

The really frustrating thing? This isn’t anybody’s fault.

Everyone in the education system, from the Minister on up, is doing their job.

The provincial IT Shared Services branch, which maintains the technology, is doing its job to maintain computers and the network.

The Technology in Education branch of the Department of Education is doing its job to filter the Internet and locking down the computers to prevent modifications.

The Minister, through his Minister’s Directive on Acceptable Use of Communication and Information Technology, is doing his job to ensure that parents and students know and understand the limitations placed upon them.

Everyone is doing their job, and yet the end result is a hobbled system that, every day, frustrates teachers and students, and turns them against the technology rather than having them embrace it.

Sometimes this frustration boils over, and its absurdity sees the light of day. Increasingly we’re starting to see students themselves rattle the bars of the digital cages we’ve forced them into.

Last month, for example, Ben, at Stonepark, launched a campaign to see wireless Internet provided for students in his school, and this became the topic of a story on CBC Island Morning:

Back in 2011, Jack, a student at Birchwood Intermediate, was asked to test Flip cameras that had been acquired by the Teachers’ Resource Centre to see if they could be used by students to shoot videos. As you might imagine, the answer was “no,” and Jack shot a video to demonstrate why:

Jack’s teacher at Birchwood told us that Jack made the video, in part, to try to change things for the better so that his younger brother wouldn’t be subject to the same onerous technology situation. Alas his brother is now in Birchwood, in the same class Jack was once in, and the situation is at is ever was.

And it’s not just students: principals and teachers are finding ways to route around limitations, doing things like installing bootleg networks to allow them to access the actual Internet. At Prince Street Elementary School we have a home and school-supported and system-sanctioned wireless Internet pilot project that provides 20 Mbps of drastically-less-filtered bandwidth to educators; here’s how one teacher is using it:

I spend a lot of time at home finding appropriate sites and activities around what the children are learning and bring them into my classroom.  Before the wireless this meant cutting and pasting the sites into an email to send myself which I would open at work.  Many times I would not be able to access the sites on my school computer.  I would need to give the site addresses to our IT person or to the principal so they could arrange to have the sites approved.  This was a lengthy process and often by the time I was able to get into the sites, my children had gone onto other interests, needs or skills. 

In other words, they’re using the wireless network as a simple way of routing around the filtering they encounter on the official network.

Conversations about technology in education are difficult ones because the older generations — parents, teachers, administrators, politicians — are often completely unaware of what “technology in education” means. We tend to view it as a force to be contained and feared. Or a “side dish” that can add to but is not central to the process of learning, often expressed variations of the “there weren’t any computers in the schools when I was there and I turned out all right” line.

Inside the digerati it is common to confront this situation with derision: if only administrators and politicians would “get with it” and understand the need for unfettered high-quality education technology (and then fund it), everything would be okay; those of a contrary point of view are regarded as “backwards” and not worthy of dialogue.

Neither those inside Internet culture nor those on the sidelines are making much effort to understand the other: the “I turned out all right” set seem comfortable in their ignorance while being regarded by the digerati as simply beyond reach, and thus not worth of advocacy or education.

Nobody seems to making much of an effort to take a broad systematic view that squares our dramatically changed world with the beliefs and attitudes of a population unaccustomed to its promise.

Which is why, fundamentally, this isn’t a resource issue, but rather a matter of culture and educational philosophy.

I have the benefit of insight into this from the unique perspective of a child schooled in Ontario in the early 1970s, which was the last time that education technology was going to change everything: Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario, known otherwise as the Hall-Dennis Report, was a document that had a profound effect on my public school education. Here’s an excerpt:

A whole new field of exciting educational aids and facilities is becoming available for our use. Educational television is currently the most spectacular of these but the media may be as old as the cave drawings or as new as computer-assisted instruction. Educators ought to employ every conceivable device and means that society can make available. But a word of caution is in order. The majority of audio-visual aids that the Committee has seen in use have been employed in a narrow, didactic manner and with groups of children all presumed to be learning the same thing at the same time. Our perception of how learning takes place, and of the kind of teaching that facilitates the process, requires that the teacher understand the use of a variety of techniques in the interests of every child. Information contained on film, records, and tape, and in pictures and books must be accessible to each child when he needs it. The technology to make this a reality is feasible; the dangers of thought control, passivity, and a stultifying uniformity are too grave to permit indiscriminate use of films and educational television.

By the time I started school in 1972, the changes to Ontario education recommended by Hall-Dennis were in full flower: schools without walls were under construction; televisions were purchased for classrooms; the notion of a “student-centred education” was in the air.

By the time I hit grade 7, in 1979, though, most if not all of these revolutionary corner-turns had come to an end, and the balance of my education was, while certainly markedly different from that of my parents’ generation, in effect a “recoil” back to a pre-Hall-Dennis model.

Why? Among myriad reasons the foremost was that the education system went through a dramatic infrastuctural and philosophical change but did so without sufficient thought as to how to retrain teachers and parents to embrace this change. They changed the hardware and the operating system, in other words, but not the software: the result was that teachers and parents rebelled. The schools-without-walls quickly had walls, literally and figuratively, reconstructed inside them. While vestiges of the Living and Learning philosophy remained, the backlash against its thinking was profound and long-lasting.

And we are there again.

The use of technology in education — and even writing that seems as absurd as writing “the use of oxygen in breathing” — and the availability of the Internet, has changed everything.

It has rebalanced the relationship between “teacher” and “student,” reduced the need for rote memorization of facts to an absurd make-work project, seen the ability to think critically and navigate through a sea of information become preeminent, and changed our notion of geography and time and friendship.

And it has forced us reconsider our definition of “learning resources” from “textbooks that we purchase and control the contents of” to “the collected knowledge of all humankind, good and bad, at your fingertips.”

Central to this all is a fundamental lack of control: where once parents, educators and administrators could finely control and manage the education experiences of students because we had complete control over the setting and the resources, by allowing the network into the school, we now have no control at all.

And that is terrifying.

Rob Paterson expresses this well in his book You Don’t Need a Job (The Rise of the Network):

You manage a network by managing the health of the ecosystem. You cannot manage complexity directly. Think of how you really raise your children. You may pay attention to meal times, to brushing their teeth and so on. But what you really do, for better or for worse, is to provide an ecosystem. You create a culture that has a few rules for how things get done at home. Machine organizations try and manage everything, This is why they get overwhelmed and this is why people in them feel so bad.

Is it any wonder, in light of this terrifying new reality, that the software installed on every school computer is called, somewhat desperately, Full Control (software that, among other things, disables the Windows “Start” button for students).

Or that, in response to a PEI Home and School resolution calling for a simplification of the Acceptable Use Policy, the Minister of Education’s response was, in part:

The computer and information access can be a very dangerous process, and I believe the document adds clarity to the expectations of the users and should not be left to common sense of impressionable users to determine the suitability of their access.

Enlightened managers of digital ecosystems don’t installed software called “Full Control,” nor do they regard the Internet as a dark force from which our children must be protected to the exclusion of all else. These are the actions of a system under stress, of a system that’s running scared, not running proud.

It is in this environment that Ghenyk, Jack and Ben are saying, with enviable calm and consideration given the extent of the limits we put on them, give us better tools to help us learn.

I would like to humbly suggest that we listen to them.

Hall-Dennis said this about democracy:

Democracy implies the freedom to think, to dissent, and to bring about change in a lawful manner in the interest of all. It is a flexible, responsive form of government, difficult to describe in fixed terms. Democracy does not arise as a result of imposed or structured political practices, but as a dynamic, liberating force, nurtured by the people themselves. It can thrive and flourish only when its citizens are free to search continually for new ideas, models, and theories to replace outmoded knowledge in an effort to serve an ever-increasing populace tomorrow. A true democracy is a free and responsible society, and one aspect cannot exist or have meaning without the other.

I hold that the Internet and the technologies and attitudes surrounding it are the greatest tool we have ever built to allow the true expression of this democracy, to enable this freedom “to search continually for new ideas.”

When we seek to place arbitrary limits on this tool, to carve away vast swaths of the Internet because they are deemed inappropriate “social networking,” to take infinitely flexible machines and, in the name of “protection,” to kneecap them down the inflexibility of toasters, to cower in fear from the possibility that the Internet may inflict harm while ignoring its potential to do the opposite, we are, among other things, telegraphing clearly to our children that we do not trust them, that we do not regard them as responsible, and that they are not welcome to participate in this unfettered search for new ideas.

Our students are saying “give us better tools to help us learn,” and, despite having the keys to those tools in our hands, we are saying “no, sorry, dear: we know better.”

That is, beyond any immediate curricular impediment, an abgrogation of our responsibility to our democracy itself. It is also, as it happens, placing our children at a tremendous disadvantage in a society, and an economy, that has the network at its heart.

This has nothing to do with all our children will becoming computer programmers for a living, for what we are in the midst of is a much broader phenomenon that touches all aspects of society; Rob puts it this way:

Here is a phase shift from values that are rooted in an external locus of control to one that is rooted in an internal locus. We move from “belonging” to “self initiating.” We move from “obedience” to “participation.” We move from a leadership style that is a “manager” to one that is at the least a “facilitator” to at best one that is a “collaborator.”

If our schools exist to equip our children to be citizens, surely we must consider the challenges of being a citizen in a networked world to be primary among our goals. To do this effectively, we must look beyond our own terror at a new world we don’t completely understand and seem unable to control as we have been used to.

We must become uncomfortable with a system where, despite everyone doing their job, the result is frustrating to the point of being inoperable.

We must find a way clear to working together to become acclimated to the new chaos.

And we must stop blaming others for this situation and see it as a personal and collective responsibility to make it right.

And to start, we must simply listen (and feel a debt of gratitude) to Ghenyk, Ben and Jack.