Tech Solutions for People Problems

In this blogpost I mention serious issues such as bullying, accessing inappropriate material and plagiarism. It is not my intention to minimise these as the potentially harmful concerns they are. I mention them to offer another perspective from which to consider these issues, and others like them. If you would like help with online abuse, and are based in New Zealand, may I suggest NetSafe as your initial port of call.

With the increasing number of devices in schools, there can appear to be an increasing number of problems that need to be addressed. And with firewalls, filtering, blocking, plagiarism checkers, monitoring software, and more, there are technical solutions to all kinds of problems schools and their learners can face.

It seems reasonable. Because learners can access the internet, they’re more likely to be distracted by Facebook or other social media platforms; they’re more likely to stumble across inappropriate material; they’re more likely to copy and paste from one site into their own work.

Back in the day, I could have copied my friend’s assignment, or her older brother’s assignment from when he did the course, but now I can access a thousand papers from a thousand writers from across the globe at the click of a button. It’s more tempting, and heck, just a lot easier.

Back in the day, when I was bullied in high school, the bullying pretty much stopped at 3:30pm. There were a couple of incidents where my rather determined bullies made some cruel late-night phone calls – to the landline, of course! – but once I left the school gates, I left the bullies behind. Not their words or their harm, unfortunately, but that’s another story for another time. Now, between my smartphone and laptop or tablet, I’m pretty well constantly connected to all my friends… and to all my bullies too. There’s little to no escape, and little to no refuge.

Back in the day, we could look up the rude words in the dictionary or encyclopedia and have a nervous giggle about what we found. Now, even an innocent key word search in Google can result in unexpected and unwanted material.

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Image by Kwi, Public Domain

To my mind, the thing technology has done is to increase access and volume. There is easy access to more information than you can shake a stick at. Technology has not created plagiarism, bullying or offensive materials, but it has increased significantly my likelihood of encountering these problems.

So technology is not actually the problem. The problem is with the people.

This is why technical solutions, like the ones mentioned above, will only ever go so far in addressing the issues. Ultimately, the problem lies with the mindset and choices of the individual concerned.

If I have an assignment that piques my curiosity, is open, authentic and relevant; and I understand about intellectual property, creative commons and have critical research skills, then, plagiarism checker aside, I will be more likely to create a response that is genuinely my work, and accurately attributed in the places where I have built on the ideas of others.

If I have empathy for my fellow learners, live in an open, accepting and respectful culture, and understand my rights and responsibilities as a (digital) citizen, then, monitoring software aside, I will be more likely to be a positive, contributing member of the various communities I belong to.

If I have am (digitally) literate and fluent, am supported by excellent teachers and librarians, and have robust research skills, as well as having good support networks, then, firewalls and filtering aside, if I come across offensive material as I learn, I know where to go and what to do about this.

Seeking technical solutions to people problems results in a false sense of security, and, I would argue, less capable learners. I’m not necessarily endorsing a firehose approach where filtered water is better, but I am arguing for looking at our philosophies and our teaching and learning practices. The internet is always on. And our hearts and minds are too.

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Vanilla

So I recently saw the film Arrival. I really enjoyed it. In case you’re not familiar with its basic premise: a bunch of weird huge pod-like structures have descended from a planet unknown in cities around the world and there’s a rush to figure out who these aliens are and what they want. Our heroine, a linguistics professor, works conscientiously to learn the aliens’ language in order to best understand their intentions. It’s a story of language, culture and time.

For me, it’s a ‘first contact’ metaphor and a reminder that language, worldview and culture are inextricably intertwined. That we cannot understand another people without knowing their language. And that language is not neutral. It conveys our values, beliefs and understandings about the way the world works. In the film, without giving away spoilers, the crucial understanding is about time. The film deliberately plays with the white, Western, belief that time is linear, to clever effects.

But it less about time that I’m thinking about here, and more the concept of how language imbues culture.

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B. Navez CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve been privileged recently to be on a writing team. The task has been to use plain English words to capture ideas that will help schools identify their strengths and weaknesses in a particular area. On this team has been two exceptional Māori educators, and they have, in a respectful yet insistent way, challenged me to consider my use of inclusive language.

You see, I intentionally used the word ‘school’ in the previous paragraph. Ordinarily, with the sincere desire to be inclusive, I would write ‘school/kura’ so that Māori medium learning environments would be captured. But ‘kura’ is not a synonym for ‘school’. A kura has its own way of being, its own processes and educational aspirations for its learners – its ākonga. And for me, this is the real challenge of living in a bicultural country that privileges Pākehā over Māori. With the very best of intentions, I adopt (co-opt?) Māori words and phrases into my lexicon, but without the understanding of the cultural concepts these kupu contain.

As we were working as a writing team, trying desperately to express abstract ideas in practical, functional English language, every now and then one of the Māori educators would say: “Vanilla!” as a reminder that we were using exclusive language that conveyed the assumption that how English medium schools operate are the way all educational environments work, and this is simply not the case. It’s been a real wake-up call for me.

Returning to my regular work, I was reviewing another piece of writing I was working on. Again, something intended for use by schools/kura. I had been very happy with how the work was progressing. As I looked at it again with fresh eyes, I heard my colleague in my head: “Vanilla!” I could see that what I had written was totally Pākehā-centric and that kura would not be able to ‘see’ themselves in it. I was excited by my self-realisation, but equally frustrated that I did not know how to un-vanilla my writing.

For now, though, I am pleased to have this new perspective and this reminder as a call to personal action. I have been wanting to increasing my knowledge of te reo Māori, but now I know I must. I cannot understand the Māori worldview without doing so. This is my own arrival.

I’ve not left teaching, I’ve just left school.

Last night I dreamt I was a primary school principal (male, of course. Don’t you love the weirdness of dreamscapes?!) and I was directing the school show. It was chaos but we were having a ball.

Ah, back to school dreams. (Aside from the obvious complications of never having been a) male b) a primary school teacher c) a principal.)

Except, this year, for the first year since 1999, I haven’t gone back to school.

Some people were shocked when it was announced I was leaving my high school teaching job for a new adventure with The Mind Lab. I do love the classroom. I love being paid to talk books all day. I love teenagers. I love school. And yes, I’m worried that I’ll miss all of those things.

But, these days, I kind of have a bigger picture in mind for education. Being a part of #edchatNZ, and learning through my PLN, and attending conferences like ULearn, has taught me to want more. And shown me that I can play a part in bringing more to New Zealand education.

I think we should be offering a 21st Century education for our 21st Century learners. I believe that the purpose of education is to empower citizens. I believe that design thinking can help to energise and spark a transformation along these lines. I believe that the key to achieving this is by reaching teachers. And I don’t believe I can achieve this from my classroom on the kind of scale I imagine.

I believe assessment is driving education. I believe many of our secondary school learners are impeded by the keeping of learning areas in discrete silos. I believe that a timetable is not just a schedule for ordering the day, but a hiding place for a closed mindset and upholding status quo.

I want change. Wholesale, drastic, transformative change.

So, here’s what I’m doing. I’m helping organise #educampwelly (have you registered yet?!), I’m helping run #WellyED (follow us on Twitter @Welly_ED), I’m a CORE eFellow (as I may have mentioned before), and I’m the Postgrad Programme Director (Wellington) for The Mind Lab by Unitech. And I’m going to change New Zealand education one teacher at a time. I love teaching. I’m an educator by vocation. I just don’t work in school anymore.

Now there’s a dream.

Image source: http://th05.deviantart.net/fs48/PRE/i/2009/192/2/5/Just_a_Dream____by_enricoagostoni.jpg

I touch the future; I teach – reflecting on Keri Facer’s “Learning Futures”

Let's touch the stars

On the recommendation of Steve Mouldey I purchased and read the truly thought-provoking book by Keri Facer: Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change.

In this well-structured and coherently argued book, Facer builds a compelling case for maintaining physical schools in the light of increasing claims about what the future will mean for education, such as those here.

While, of course, Facer’s “future-building school” of 2035 represents a significantly different educational institution to those of the local school down the road today, it is undeniably a physical presence in a literal building where human relationships are key.

Facer begins her book by exploring some of the exciting and some of the alarming potential futures ahead.  In so doing though, she continually emphasises that the stories of the future she outlines are just that – potential narratives – just versions of what may or may not be.  She calls us to take action now – not to see the future as something pre-determined, but as something that is created step-by-step from the decisions that we make today.  The ‘ending’ of the story can be changed.  And schools have a critical role to play in shaping the future – not just in churning out workers for jobs – but as nurturing citizens who may well have to grapple with environmental, biological, technological, generational and societal issues.

And, for me, it is this emphasis on the future as a story that particularly resonated: “The future is not something that is done to us, but an ongoing process in which we can intervene.” (p. 6) While there are indeed significant challenges ahead, and Facer argues that schools must become democratic hubs where learners explore how to live in an equitable, sustainable, connected way, ultimately I was left with the very hopeful feeling that teaching is really a tangible expression of optimism – that what we do can, and indeed should, make a difference.

So while I generally avoid such cheesy sentiments as those in my title, I too recommend to you Keri Facer’s Learning Futures as a place to go to think about why education and schools are so crucial because in teaching we have the opportunity to ‘touch the future’.