Thursday, May 24, 2018

Is no news good news?

Last night I was speaking to my son.  I say "night" because it was 11.30 pm and I was in bed.  As Joal is currently walking the Pacific Crest Trail, the times when I can speak to him are determined by our different time zones, but more importantly by when he is able to get an internet connection, as most of the time he is in wild regions without a signal.  As a mum, I've been nervous about this trip for a while, as there are certainly dangers.  Last year I believe 11 people died on this trail, mostly through a lack of water or, conversely, by too much water, being swept away in river crossings.  When I go for multiple days without hearing anything, then of course it's a bit of a worry.  Well last night Joal was talking to me about the fact that on the trail people are now nervous because of a mountain lion attack which killed someone on the Appalachian Trail.  That seemed a long way away from where he is, however after finishing our call I couldn't get to sleep.  So in the middle of the night, I got up and Googled "mountain lion kill in US" and what did I come up with but an article in The Independent entitled "Cyclist mauled to death by mountain lion on forest trail near Seattle."  Hmmm - not the Appalacians then, but a place where my son and his girlfriend will actually be trekking though sometime soon.  And this death happened 4 days ago!  Needless to say, this story wouldn't have got onto my radar, had I not Googled it.  I wasn't on the BBC news for the regions I follow, for example.  After a sleepless night I'm asking myself, is no news good news?

I've been thinking about news recently as a couple of days ago I was asked to develop a workshop on information literacy.  There is so much "fake news" at the moment that I've been asking myself what it's important to teach students so that they become more critical about what they read.  I've also been listening to the podcast Note to Self, which did a recent episode about bots, in particular on Twitter, which are insidious, being aimed to promote fake news and sow chaos.

I also read a great article this morning by Dr Alec Couros and Katia Hilderbrandt from the University of Regina about the critical literacies we should be developing in our students at a time when the boundaries between real and fake news seem blurred and uncertain.  They point out that fake news is often generated using social media in order to increase web traffic and ad revenue, and also to discredit a public figure.  For example there have been numerous stories about the role of the Russians in the recent US elections as well as the Brexit campaign.  In fact today anyone can publish anything, real or fake, very easily, especially as we now have the ability to change people's facial images and voices on video to spread fake messages and trick people.  How do we teach students to validate information in this new digital age?

A couple of days ago I was talking to our iCommons Coordinator at school about checklists for evaluating information.  She talked about how she teaches students to use CRAPP (which she refers to as CAARP), but how useful are such tools when we are dealing with an avalanche of information, when fake news is becoming increasingly more sophisticated, where authorship  and origin can be falsified, and where world leaders themselves are spreading the falsehoods online?

Dr Couros and Katia Hilderbrandt have 3 strategies for dealing with the deluge of fake news which I'm summarising below and thinking about how we can teach these to elementary school students:

  1. Develop and employ investigative techniques.  They suggest knowing about and using sites such as Snopes that will help identify accuracy.  I love their suggestion, which I've also used with students, about using Google reverse image search to check whether images have been altered.  We do ask students to look critically at websites, but studies show that people are still hugely influenced by false elements of websites such as logos and domain names.  In fact the best way to check is to look outside the site itself to see what other sites are linking to it.  Finally it's important for students to understand what bias is.  We are currently teaching this to our Grade 4 students, however for older students the site Checkology is great for helping students to identify what is news, opinion, entertainment, advertising, publicity and propaganda.
  2. Use rich examples.  For many years we have taught our upper elementary students how fake websites can look real.  We've used Dog Island and the Tree Octopus among others.  Couros and Hilderbrandt write that it's also important we use fresh and authentic examples in class, for example things that students might encounter in the news.
  3. Nurture a critical disposition.  Often students (and adults) believe everything they see, hear and read, so in schools we need more focus on approaches to learning such as critical thinking and questioning.
The article, which I really recommend you read, contains an interesting graphic about where popular media fits in a scale of fact to fabricated information.  Even with reliable sources that do report facts and news, such as the BBC, New York Times, Time magazine, The Economist and so on, there are still biases, with some skewing more liberal and others more conservative.  I was interested to see that CNN is seen as media that moves between a fair and an unfair interpretation of the news, being full of opinion, giving selective or incomplete stories and at times unfair persuasion.  Other media such as the Daily Mail and Fox News and not simply skewed, but also often give unfair representations of the news and contain propaganda and misleading information (Fox also includes inaccurate and fabricated information).

So back to my dilemma.  In searching for information about the progress of my son on the PCT I've come across many blog and vlog posts, as well as other stories about hikers who have gone missing from the trail.  I've been trying to put all of these into perspective.  For example, yes, someone was mauled to death by a mountain lion on a forest trail a few days ago, however it has only been the second fatal attack by a mountain lion in Washington state in the past 94 years.  Really, cycling to work in London every day, was more risky for Joal.

If you want to know more about Joal and Jenny's walk on the PCT, you can follow their blog JWalking.

Photo credit:  Personal photo of their first 100 miles of the hike.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Can technology bridge the gap? part 2

In my last post I was exploring whether introducing technology into some of the NGO schools in India can help close the achievement gaps with our most disadvantaged students.  I was interested to read another study today based in Los Angeles where in 2013 students were given tablet computers equipped with digital curriculum.  This area also had a high number of disadvantaged students, with 76% of the receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

Although it seemed that this initiative was likely to bring about a huge leap into the digital age, the reality was not so positive.  Looking back, it's clear to see that what went wrong was that teachers were not well trained on how to use the tablets:  in fact the school district had simply purchased a lot of expensive new technology without any clear plan for how to use it.  I've written about this a lot before on this blog.  Training teachers and giving them time to use the tools themselves is vital for success - the focus of the roll out has to be preparing teachers to use the new technology and supporting them through implementation.

There's a happy end to this story however.  Two years ago, the district adopted the new ISTE Standards for Students where the focus has been on competencies for students to be successful in a digital world.  ISTE's CEO Richard Culatta writes, "The standards provide a pathway to create global citizens who will live in a world where all their work, much of their civic engagement and a huge part of their personal experiences are going to happen in digital spaces."

So the secret to student success is teacher success!  If teachers are not using technology successfully, how will they help students to be prepared for today's digital world?  It's also worth considering the advice given in the infographic below.  Successful teachers start with the WHY rather than just jumping onboard with the "latest and greatest" new tools, they embrace change and they share their learning with others.  There are a huge amount of educators who will be happy to help and give advice if you reach out.  Supporting teachers to be comfortable with using technology themselves is one effective way to help bridge the attainment gap.

Photo Credit: Simon Daniel Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Christopher Combe Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: 2bmolar ~ Off & On Flickr via Compfight cc

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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