Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Can technology bridge the gap?

Last Friday some teachers came in for a meeting from 2 of the NGOs we support:  Apni Shala and Khoj Community School.  These organisations had been given a donation of iPads and they were keen to learn about what apps could be used with their students.  Let me first tell you a little about these organisations:

Khoj Community School is a school launched in June last year in a slum area of Mumbai.  The vision of the school is to create experiential educational opportunities for these students to explore and pursue their dreams, and to develop skills and attitudes to help them engage with and thrive in a multicultural and diverse world.  The school started with 26 students in Kindergarten and the number will grow each year as a new grade is added annually.  The parents pay 250 rupees a month to send their children here (around USD 3.50/GBP 2.50).

Apni Shala is an organisation that also uses experiential learning methods such as art, drama, games and community projects to help children develop social and emotional skills.  This is a larger organisation dealing with around 6,000 children across 40 schools.  Apni Shala focuses on life skills programmes to help students develop their personality so that they are able to make positive changes in their lives.  Life skills that are intentionally developed are communication, confidence, teamwork, taking initiative and empathy.

Now I've often said that the work I've done with local educational NGOs is the best part of my 6 years in India - if you are to say there's a reason for everything I would say that the reason I was meant to come back to India was to work with the teachers who have given their lives to the most disadvantaged of children.  As a technology teacher I'm always asking myself whether technology can bridge the gap for these students, allowing them access to learning that they wouldn't otherwise have.  For example in many of these schools there is no money to pay for textbooks - instead the teachers can show students how to tap into the wealth of knowledge found for free on the internet.  It also allows them access to learning opportunities they would not find in the schools themselves.  Free videoconferencing tools can bring experts into their classroom, helping them to learn from people they would never usually meet.  Another way I think that technology can help is through personalising learning.  We were keen to show the teachers apps that students could work on at their own pace, developing skills that they need.  Students who need help mastering a particular concept are no longer left behind just because other students are not struggling with the same concept at the same time.  I truly believe that technology can help students to overcome geographical and socio-economic barriers as well as racial and cultural injustices:  it provides powerful tools that can help to increase access to learning to help bridge the gaps.

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Artificial intelligence -v- intelligence augmentation

A couple of days ago a video was released on the AFP news agency channel about how some Swedish people are having microchips implanted into their hands which allows them to do things (so far only things like access a gym, get into their apartments, and purchase train tickets).  Looking at this video it struck me that we have already moved from using technology, to wearing technology, to implanting it.  The claims are that implantables makes life more convenient.  Of course the other side of this is that there could be more privacy and security issues.  We have seen that connecting devices has already led to large scale DDOS attacks and data hijacking.  Next we will be facing implant hijacking.  I watched an interview with Ben Libberton from the Karolinska Institute who claims:
It's relatively uncertain how they will be used or what kind of information will be transferred from these chips and where it will be going, so I think that it's important to consider these implications to make sure every step along the way of this technology development that the security and ethical implications are considered fully.
These videos reminded me of another video from last year where futurist and technology expert Scott Klososky talks about augmented intelligence and claims it won't be long before implantables are very normal and where schools may have to have classes for augmented kids (with a brain computer interface and retinal projection) and non-augmented kids.  Scott claims we will be the last generation to be un-augmented.  He talked about this when he came to ASB Un-Plugged earlier this year as well - personally I find this very scary, especially when you consider what will happen when students leave school and go for jobs.  Clearly if some people are augmented, then those people will get the best jobs and the highest salaries - increasing inequalities.  If you start to think about the consequences it's really frightening!

I've been thinking about data and student achievement recently.  I was reading about soft data in Daniel Sobel's book Narrowing the Attainment Gap: A Handbook for Schools where Daniel argues that the attainment gap is mostly to do with soft data (motivations and barriers for students).   At the same time I'm seeing more and more schools focusing on big data.  A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Consilience's data scientist, Sujoy, who claims that in fact the power is in "small data" looking at individuals and what helps each child to progress.  And as Tricia Wang says, "Relying on big data alone increases the chance we'll miss something, while giving us the illusion we know everything." (She recently did a TEDtalk about the human insights missing from big data that is worth watching.)

Let's pull these thoughts together.  Currently many details of our lives are captured and traded by data-mining companies.  You only have to pause a little over someone's Facebook post, and related ads seem to flow into your email and messages.  For example a couple of days ago I paused over an ad for microblading (I didn't have a clue what it was) and suddenly I'm getting ads all the time about beautiful eyebrows!  Data is collected from the websites we browse, what we buy, social media posts, loyalty cards, the music we listen to, the movies we watch online and so on.  I've stopped giving out my real phone number when asked while making purchases as I'm flooded with spam messages afterwards, with companies targeting me in marketing their products and services.

But can "big data" really be useful in education?  Does it allow schools to better understand how students learn and how best to support them?  Around 6 months ago the IB published an article about data entitled Big Data, Big Problems?  The question this article addresses is this:  do the numbers tell the whole story?  I was interested to read a comment by Allison Littlejohn, Professor of Learning Technology at the Open University in the UK who claims "We can look at trends ... and connect that with employment within countries.  Depending on what the future job opportunities might be, schools can then adapt the curriculum."  Really?  Good lord, I'd have thought it would take a little longer than this to adapt, write and implement a new curriculum!  However I do agree with something else she writes, "We need to be sure that students are properly prepared so that when they do leave school, they're able to aim for jobs that still exist, and later change careers, which they're very likely to do throughout their lives."  I think it is true that schools may be able to target support that students' need when everything is more transparent, but perhaps the question then is what is being measured (is it just what is easy to measure in schools?  What about the environmental factors outside of school that motivate students?)  Littlejohn argues further that the success of collecting the data depends on how well coders, teachers and people who understand learning can work together.  She states, "It's very difficult to actually gather the data that you need to come to the conclusions that you want to reach ... a lot of what we measure and analyse is an approximation of what people's actually ability is."

At school I work closely with our iCommons teacher/librarian and recently we've been having a big push with our Grade 4s about bias.  In fact we came across a great online resource called Checkology, though a bit old for our Grade 4s, but I'm sharing it here because it provoked interesting discussions about bias in media.  At the same time we are aware (and letting students know) that Google's autocomplete feature can produce a biased result while searching, perpetuating gender and racial biases which reinforce rather than eliminate discrimination, and which ultimately can negatively affect development.  I'm thinking about this now in terms of smart speakers as well, such as Echo and Google Home who are "always listening" to us, and which pretty soon are going to start talking to each other.  What information are they giving us - knowing what we want to hear?  And here is a question that Scott left us with in one of his Un-Plugged presentations:  When machines can learn faster than humans, what will be the most valuable areas of learning for humans?  Something to think about as teachers right?

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Say no!

Lots of you reading this blog know that I've gone through a hard time this year, with having to leave India and with the decline in my mother with her dementia.  There have been many days when I have felt truly awful, for example the day when I heard my mother was rejected from a dementia care home, and yet when I meet people and they ask how I'm doing I still find it incredibly hard to say what I'm feeling.  In fact many of us smile and say polite things, even when we don't feel like it.  And in the long run, this causes a problem.  We tell "white lies" and agree with people who we actually don't agree with.  We stay silent when we hear something that we really should challenge.  We pretend to be friends with people that we dislike.  And because of this, because we know other people are also doing this, it can lead to a lack of trust, where you're unsure if someone is really saying what they mean, or just what they think you want to hear.  This goes along with social media likes:  some people feel so much pressure to be liked that they reconfigure their entire personality to get other people's approval.  In fact it's almost as if we have been indoctrinated with the belief that we need to be as accepting and affirmative as possible.  But, Mark Manson writes in his book The Subtle Art ..., we need to reject something, otherwise we stand for nothing and therefore live our lives without purpose.  He writes:
We are defined by what we choose to reject.  And if we reject nothing (perhaps in fear of being rejected by something ourselves), we essentially have no identity at all.
So perhaps I have to start saying no a little more.  Am I doing OK - well often the answer is no:  I'm packing up, I'm sorting out, I'm throwing out.  It's tough.  I hang onto the thought that something good will come of this, but getting through these last few weeks is hard.  I've said no to meetings and social events recently and I feel better for it.  Thankfully I have amazing colleagues who are kind, caring and who show me every day that what I've done over my 6 years here has been impactful and influential - on them and on our students.  This is just the end of one chapter - it's not the end of the book.  There's another chapter waiting to be written, and pretty soon I'm going to be doing just that.

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Do something!

Earlier this year I think I used the term "paralysed by indecision" as I considered all the options for moving to the UK.  At the time I think I was like a deer in the headlights as I worried about the myriad of decisions that needed to be made, but as a result of a coaching conversation I came to realise that what I needed to do was simply to make the first decision and that others would fall into place naturally after that - a bit like a series of dominoes that needed the first one to fall and give the rest of them a push.  And truly, having started the push, I do feel a lot better - more in control.

In The Subtle Art Mark Manson writes "Action isn't just the effect of motivation; it's also the cause of it."  It's true that most of us only act if we feel motivated to do so, however the reverse is also true:  action can lead us to become inspired, which in itself can lead to us being motivated, which can then lead to more action.  Sometimes you just have to do something, even if you initially lack the motivation to make such an important change, and then harness the reaction to that action as a way of motivating yourself.

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Growth is an endlessly iterative process

We learn a lot in life from being wrong.  One example of this is that last year when given the choice of summer reads, I immediately rejected one of the books after reading the title and a bit of the first chapter.  It's only recently, when I found a used copy of the book lying around at school, that I picked it up and thought I'd give it a try.  While I don't agree with everything the author writes, it does give me a new perspective.  Today on the way to work I read the chapter about being wrong.

Sometimes we think it is bad to be wrong (or conversely that it is better to be right).  However what Mark Manson writes about being wrong is that we need to see it as an opportunity for growth.  He writes "Growth is an endlessly iteratively process.  When we learn something new we don't go from wrong to right, but from wrong to slightly less wrong ...  we chip away at the ways we're wrong today so that we can be a little less wrong tomorrow."

The other thing that I've thought about while reading this is that there is not often an absolute right - what we can hope for is finding what is right for us, and that may actually be wrong for someone else.  All of us have our own ideas of what our lives mean and how we should live them.

At school today I was talking to a colleague about the short video Why incompetent people think they're amazing.   It's a case of "you don't know what you don't know".  And yet people who don't know, are certain that they are right.  Manson writes that certainty is the enemy of growth.  What we need to do is to doubt the future, and that will push us to get out and create it for ourselves.  I'm thinking this is true for me.  My upcoming move back to the UK is full of uncertainties - I need to be proactive about getting what I want into that new life.  As he points out, it's all too easy for us to assume we know how the story will end - actually none of us do.  As John Lennon said, "It will all be OK in the end - if it's not OK that means it's not yet the end".  That means we shouldn't settle - when it's not OK it should push us out to do more.  The possibility of change is actually an opportunity for growth.

And here's the interesting thing:  we often don't know at the time what a positive or negative experience is.  We may find something incredibly stressful to live through, yet that something may end up taking is in new directions, forming us in different ways, motivating us to do new things.  Let's hope so.  As I wind down my time in India my life is full of not-OK days, but perhaps in the future I will be able to look at these more positively.  Already I find these not-OK times have been opportunities for people to reach out in kindness to me, and that in itself is very precious.

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Staying connected

Yesterday I met Edna Sackson.  She is someone I've "known" online for around 8 years.  We first "met" as part of the blogging alliance set up by Kelly Tenkely in the 2009-10 school year.  We became part of a network of teachers who exchanged our ideas and shared our practice.  Edna was in Mumbai this week running a PYP workshop about getting connected.  It was truly amazing to meet her in person after all this time.  And it got me thinking about ways I get connected in my personal as well as my professional life.

Over 30 years ago, when I was 23, I went to India.  The only real way of staying connected with my parents was to write letters.  But it wasn't really a connection - it wasn't two-way communication.  I would write a letter and they would not be able to write back as I was on the move a lot.  Only once, in the whole time I was there, did I managed to make a phonecall to them, and that took a lot of organising and booking a specific time for a "person to person" call.   Even so that was better than the situation faced by a friend of mine who went to work with the Antarctic Survey team, who was told he could send 60 words a month to his parents!

My son is currently walking the Pacific Crest Trail.  Although he is out in wilderness areas, in mountains and deserts, he's managed to stay in regular contact for the weeks he has been away.  We use Whatsapp to talk to each other, but we communicate in lots of other ways as well.  For example he drops photos into a shared iCloud folder for me to see.  He has left me voice notes which I have turned into blog posts, which then get sent out via email and Facebook.  He has an Instagram account where he posts photos and video.  Although he is a long way away without much of a connection for a lot of this time, I still feel pretty connected, and when we actually speak it's as clear as if he is standing in the next room.

I know in this I'm blessed.  On days when I don't hear from him I've taken to reading posts about the sections he is walking from other hikers who did the trail last year.  Some of them have posted videos so I can see the terrain he is walking through.  My own parents didn't have a clue where I was or what I was doing when I was overseas in my 20s, in the case of my son I have a pretty good idea what he is doing almost every day.

How do you stay connected?

By the way, if you want to follow his progress along the PCT, here is a link to his blog (he's currently done about 10% of the walk).

Happy Mother's Day everyone!

Voice, choice and ownership

This is going to be a personal post, not about technology.  If you're not interested in personal stuff you might like to skip this one.  I'll be writing a post about getting and keeping connected using technology after this, so you might want to fast-forward to that.

Voice, choice and ownership have been in my mind for around a year now.  I started thinking about them as part of a design challenge to re-envision technology at ASB last year, and of course agency, covering all 3 of these, is at the heart of the workshops I've been designing for the IB.  Yet at the same time over the past year I've felt powerless in my own personal life.   Circumstances outside of my own control are driving me out of India.  I've been wracked with guilt about my inability to provide adequate care for my mother who has dementia.  In less than a month now I'll be leaving India and starting the journey home.

Reading on in The Subtle Art ... I came across this:
If you're miserable in your current situation, chances are it's because you feel like some part of it is outside your control - that there's a a problem you have no ability to solve, a problem that was somehow thrust upon you without your choosing.  
When we feel that we're choosing our problems, we feel empowered.  When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will, we feel victimized and miserable.
What this post is about is choice.  We often don't have any control over what happens, but we do have control over how we respond - in fact even not responding is a choice we make.  Basically it's like this:  we are responsible for our experiences - we are always choosing - we have ownership.

I had a bad day on Friday.  In the afternoon one of my colleagues said to me "You have to take back control" and it's true.  In The Subtle Art the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" gets turned around.   Now it's "with great responsibility comes great power".   The more we accept responsibility, the more ownership we have, and the more power we have over our lives.  Accepting responsibility and ownership is the first step to solving a problem.

So here's another thing that I've been thinking about:  there is a difference between fault and responsibility.  Fault is something that is in the past - those choices have already been made.  Responsibility is the present - it's to do with the choices you are currently making.  It doesn't do any good to blame someone else for your situation - they might have caused the situation (fault) but they are not now responsible for it.  You get to choose.  You get to see things and react to them the way you want.

Life is like a game of cards.  We all get dealt different ones, and some get better cards than others.  But the game is played by the choices you make about using the cards you have in your hand, the risks and opportunities you choose to take, and the consequences you choose to live with.

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