A TEXT POST

Orcs must die so that I can learn.

Listening to the soundtrack to Warcraft 2, a game I played obsessively as a child, I find myself wondering about the fantasy I had as a child- what if I were a masterful general, a skilled fighter, a seasoned warrior. I envisioned myself so many times as a silver clad footsoldier slaughtering untold numbers of orcish enemies. But these days, I’m a software engineer, and I envision squashing nasty bugs in the latest beta.

Honestly, I like being a software engineer. I enjoy living in an era where that’s an option. Going into pike based warfare would suck.

That being said, I was really good at that game. And a very small part of me does feel like a lot of General potential is going to waste.

Of course I’d probably be a terrible general, but thinking back on my video gaming experience, I got an early start on the following fields: Larceny, (Thief- Note, I’ve never stolen anything in my life aside from a lego man in 3rd grade, but that’s aside the point) Combat (Half Life and it’s numerous mods), Urban planning (Sim City), Tank Warfare (Bolo), Political oppression (Exile: Escape from the Pit), Military Tactics (Warcraft series, Starcraft, Red Alert, Etc.), and psychology (Spec ops-The line).

And suddenly I’m finding the value when people obsess about gamification. It allows for early access as well as a emotional connection.  Now I’m sure there’s some game to make being a software engineer interesting and edge of my seat, but currently, Uplink doesn’t cut it anymore, and honestly, twas just weird.

In time there will be options for everything. I just saw on Steam a car mechanic simulator. I’m wondering when steam will offer more vocational tech courses in the form of games.

A TEXT POST

Not the what, but the why.

I’ve been running a thought experiment in my head based on the diversity of skills IT workers have and the lack of a generalized curriculum that addresses it well in k12. Now with Gates pushing for CS in the Common Core, I’ve come up with two questions I want to run by anyone who is a tech worker, or is aspiring to become one.

1. If you could teach a group of kids three things about tech, what would they be?

2. To what end would you want to teach these skills, patterns of thought, etc. and why?

For example, given a bunch of kids, I’d teach them how to be digitally literate. I’d give them tech problems, and watch them figure them out. I’d show them what could be done- my raspberry Pi is now a retro gaming device. My phone is now jailbroken. I’m now running SteamOS. But I wouldn’t show them how I did it, exactly, I’d try to help them work it out by searching for information online and making a lot of mistakes, with the ultimate goal of technological literacy- once that takes hold, they’ll be ready for the future.

Which comes to the why. Technology keeps on speeding up. There are kids out there that are growing up without smartphones. Imagine in 15 years, when they stare at the wrong eyescanner drone without wearing retina masking contacts, and now some AI working for the Chinese mafia has their identity and bank account. It’s not about making singularity happen sooner. A small percentage of people are going to make that happen, and they’re probably well on their way. It’s for making the rest of the 99.7% of people able to survive, thrive, and not be left in the dust, nothing but, in best case, a walking wallet for the future powers that be.

And I kind of want to spend the next 10 years of my life working on trying to solve this issue.

A TEXT POST

CS in the common core

Interesting review of Gates’ involvement in pushing for CS in Common Core from Slashdot.

I have so much to say about the state of CS, and how it should be taught. In comparison with a lot of other fields, I don’t think there’s a real easy or coherent way to teach it, seeing as the field itself only became particularly mainstream in the past 25 years or so.

When I was trained as a science educator, we had an exercise where we looked at different types of scientists- a Botanist, a theoretical physicist, a neuroscientist, and a marine biologist. Very disparate fields, appearances, and methods, but they were held together by one thing- the scientific method, and that was one of the biggest things that should be taught to students- that these facts can be proven, and have been- and you can try it yourself. This is how the world works. We have more work to do, but here’s what we know now.

Now, let’s take a look at four different IT people. One’s a mobile developer, one’s a support tech, one’s a systems administrator, and one’s a network admin. You look at these four people in your mind, and you see someone sitting at a computer- you wouldn’t be able to tell apart the mobile developer from the sysadmin. However, the work they are doing couldn’t be more disparate- One is focusing on creating code to build and maintain an app, while the other is making sure a medium sized business has all it’s tech needs. So, what should we be teaching? Is putting Java into the hands of every kid k-12 going to fix everything? (No it isn’t.)

Another interesting thought experiment, or actual experiment. Go to 5 different IT people, and ask them, if they were to teach kids 3 things about technology, what would be they. I did this once, and got very different answers. Some people wanted to focus on network theory, others of basics of programming, others on security, others of troubleshooting basics, the list goes on. Now, I imagine you could do the same experiment with 5 historians, 5 mathematicians, 5 scientists, or 5 writers, but there’s been a lot more history of these fields to get it right and come up with something coherent as far as a curriculum goes. (Even though the current state of things wouldn’t show it.)

So the big question then is what is the solution for increasing CS education in schools? I have a feeling like there really isn’t any good solution, and the end result will be massive failure. Like any institution that is overworked and underfunded, addition of complex systems generally results in a lot of problems. (Which is why I am very wary of any k12 system that tries to do hybrid or online learning without proper funding and guidance.)

I’m also very wary of the idea that tech *needs* to be taught in k12. Many people in the industry currently, myself included, taught themselves tech. I grew up building my own gaming PCs so I could do LAN gaming with friends. I have a bachelor’s in psychology and a MEd in Education. The extent of my formal IT education amounts to an A+ cert I got many years ago. And yet I’m a software engineer for a fortune 500 company, and most of my work focuses on mobile security solutions- something that was not covered in the A+ exam, nor was it really a thing.

The reason I’ve been able to succeed at my job is a high degree of tech and digital literacy. The ability to intuitively understand what is going on with a complex system is not something that will be acquired by telling kids to memorize network diagrams or java code. The intuitive understanding and digital/tech literacy is the one thing that the IT/CS people of the future will need, and I fear that this is something that can not particularly be taught, nor will it be.

I don’t think everyone is cut out to be in IT. I definitely think there should be options, but I don’t think it should be common core. By forcing someone into IT, which is a very alien field to many, you risk alienating them from technology at an early age, creating the future headache users for tomorrow’s desktop support techs. Furthermore, teaching them esoteric things that will not exist in two years, you give them a sense of wasted time. Instead, focus on creating more tech electives. Let kids self select into it, as the kids that want to get into tech are going to get into tech regardless, I believe. Most kids in the Calculus class are going to grow up to be mathematicians, but they’ll use the mental rigor they gained in that class as an adult, presumably.

In the end, it’ll be interesting nonetheless. Personally, if you asked me what I thought kids should know about IT, I’d say being safe with your personal data. Aside from that, just give them opportunities to learn all kinds of stuff.

A TEXT POST

Gambling for grades

I attended PAX, and had the great pleasure of attending a lecture by Tyler Black, a Child and Adolescent psychiatrist who has a special interest in gaming. Usually his panels focus on dispelling the myths about videogames and aggression while pointing out some of the serious concerns about the plethora of games that encourage addictive behavior by variable ratio/unscheduled reinforcement, in particular many of the MMOs and more recently some of the free to play games that feature in game purchases that can encourage a number of problematic behaviors.

After the lecture, I asked him what his thoughts were on the Khan Academy issuing badges that, in at least one case, have caused a fifth grader to become downright addicted to doing math. (Couldn’t find the article, curse my metal body, but the gist of it is there’s (at least one) 5th grader who, using khan academy, is on the same math level as high school seniors.) Tyler Black considered the question, but ultimately came to the conclusion that, within a learning environment, gamification of learning using badges and similar tools is a positive thing, even if it emulates the same principals used to keep people slaving away at World of Warcraft and slot machines.

At this point, I’m not fully sold. I think that while gamification in learning, when done correctly (and I think Khan Academy DOES do it correctly) is a fairly good thing, I have some concerns about what that means for a deeper math curriculum. It turns math equations into something as simple as pulling a slot machine handle so to say, while a really strong math curriculum brings in a lot more value. That being said, there’s plenty of proponents and classrooms where the sort of insert problem produce answer model of direct instruction is seen as a perfectly valid model of teaching mathematics, so I doubt anyone is going to have too many problems with it. Aside from me.

So, I suppose my thoughts on gamification of learning is that while the gamification thing can make the actual processes of learning fun, there needs to be more than that. The learning must be applicable, relevant to the real world (not badges, although then again, what’s employee of the month, or a diploma?), and to some degree interdisciplinary, I think the Khan Academy does a very good job of ‘decent’ math education. It will help students pass math tests, which in turn, open doors.

I remember an interview with Bill Gates concerning the Khan Academy (curse my metal body, I can’t find that either- I’ve tried for months) where he talks about a single mom who couldn’t get her nursing degree because she couldn’t pass an entrance math exam. The Khan Academy offered a solution, and with that, she was able to pass the math exam and start the program, ensuring that she would have a decent career to support her and her family. I think for situations like that, the Khan Academy is perfect. But if you want to create engineers*, which I believe Bill Gates does want to do, I think you need a bit more.

*And just a point on that concept of creating engineers and this idea of a tech shortage, there is no such thing. There’s enough data out there to show that there is a plethora of underpaid engineers and techies who can’t make it into positions because employers (read: HR departments) want Unicorns with 10 years of experience and pay far less than what that should constitute, and unfortunately, hiring agencies that bring people from India cost far less than the American ones. So, that’s just a huge problem there, but this idea that there’s a tech shortage in America is just daft. Unfortunately, the testing paradigm introduced by NCLB is driven by such misconceptions.

A TEXT POST

ChronoZoom

Today I had the awesome opportunity to chat with some folks at Microsoft Research about some really incredible elearning stuff. One of the things we discussed was ChronoZoom, a project he’s been working on. It’s at it’s core, a scaled map of history that is open source, and can be fit into any teacher’s curriculum to show the scale of history. However, I think once this gets out and folks start playing with it, there’s some really amazing possibilities.

pime taradox!

One thing I’d like to see is it combining with Google Maps or some similar online mapping software, in a way where you could click on a spot in Chronozoom (say, 1750) and it would pop up events occurring in random places geographically. So, for example, you move the slider in Chronozoom to 1750*, and click on the Earth logo. There, in a simplified Earth view, you can zoom to various locations and see what’s going on, possibly collecting some data from Wikipedia (a cool history teacher could give his students credit for placing the event pins in their correct geographic location).

So, imagine a tool that you could use to travel through time, then view what’s going on in Earth at that time. Various tools could highlight warring regions, catastrophes, or migrations. You could zoom into a region, and see where significant figures are being born, dying, or events are occurring.

Imagine being a student and having this resource.

Hell, imagine being bored and having this on a rainy weekend. I wouldn’t go to bed till 4am.

I’ll probably have more information on Chronozoom soon. This is a really, really exciting educational technology. TELL YOUR FRIENDS. TELL YOUR TEACHERS. IF YOU HAVE TEACHERS WHO ARE ALSO FRIENDS, TELL THEM TO TALK TO ME. (ABOUT CHRONOZOOM AND MAYBE ELEARNING AND PROBABLY COOL BUGS.)

*Speaking of 1750, check out Hannah Snell.

A TEXT POST

Without effective e-learning practices, the future of education is screwed.

So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the cliff- a lot of teachers are on the verge of retirement, paving the way for an influx of new teachers. The STEM field is really dying for highly qualified teachers, and I’ve heard that if you want to get a teaching job, you can’t go wrong with math, or to a slightly lesser degree, science. I saw this with my Master’s, when I found that a quarter of my tuition was being mysteriously paid for by the federal government. We need more science and math teachers and we needed them yesterday.

But the other thing I saw with my master’s program was where a lot of the graduates were a year afterwards. A number were not actually working in America, having decided to take up teaching jobs in other countries. Quite a few looked at how much they would make as teachers, vs. the freedom and financial incentives of remaining in the private sector, and decided to stay there, having realized that to make as much money as the older teachers they were replacing, they’d have to be there for a very, very long time, which was becoming less and less attractive given the five figure debt attached to their name to get this low paying job. A few of us dropped out, or didn’t pursue our teacher’s cert. I actually failed at student teaching, although I feel it wasn’t a good fit, and a series of deaths in the family didn’t help.

So, out of a class of 20 or so future science teachers, I’d estimate that maybe 10 actually obtained teaching jobs. Furthermore, I don’t know what sort of retention will be seen in 5 years, when these individuals realize that, hey, I can make twice as much, work from home, relax, and not be held to insane standards and administrative bullshit (or as much of it.)

So, with people pursuing education, but being burned out by it, or realizing that a career in education is not as lucrative or illustrious as they had once imagined and hoped, the cliff of teacher retirement, those baby boomer teachers who are retiring in droves, leaves a huge gap in education, especially in the science and math areas, as well as SPED.

So, one thing I began to consider is educational automation through e-learning, and how imperative it is that we as a nation get it right. Thus far, from what I have seen, we are not. The public education’s offering for online schools has been meager at best, often times throwing RIF’d teachers into an online teaching environment when they have a hard time figuring out how to attach a file to an email, much less manage a LMS. While there are some exciting new technologies coming out, including some of the Google Education stuff, I feel that this technology has a long way to go.

In my research, one of the biggest predictors for effective online learning usage that I found was youth. Young (typical male) teachers tended to be the best tech users. (Females tended to use it fairly well, but guys tended to have a sort of geeky ‘this is a neat toy’ attitude that wasn’t seen as much with girls, although I think this will change significantly soon, if it isn’t already.) They had the highest levels of technology integration and blended learning, and tended to embrace new educational technologies. As the cliff approaches, and more young teachers filling the ranks, I believe we will see an increase in elearning. However, there are so many things currently mucking up the works. Administrators may or may not see the elearning as conducive, (or may not have the resources to support it effectively). Standards can be challenged. There is little coherency between teacher’s implementations of technology.

That being said, I believe things are going in the right direction, but I think they have a long way to go as well. One event I see on the horizon is a major incorporation of cloud based education, where as teachers and students begin to embrace social media for educational purposes, (I could go on about social media and why being friends with your students on facebook is weird.) teachers begin to gain the ability to network and teach larger populations across fields, and trade expertise and help each other.

This brings up one of the biggest issues I’ve seen with science education- an absolute lack of proficiency in the actual sciences. For example, I passed my science teaching exams easily, scoring nearly perfect scores in all but physics, which is one of my weaker areas. I have no background as a scientist, and save for immersing myself in science since a very young age and having it as a hobby, there are huge gaps in my knowledge (mostly because I was a hobby scientist, the parts that bored me got ignored. I run into difficulty with physics concepts, but let me tell you about social insects!) This level of patchy science knowledge was paramount, and there were times when our head science professor would show some scientific model related to astrophysics, and no one in the class (except myself and one other who also watched a lot of sci fi) would understand what it was. It struck me as mad, that there are such gaps, but then it makes sense when one thinks about it. Most of the students came from very specific backgrounds, and for them to be able to encompass the vast fields that are expected by state standards is unreasonable at best.

Thus, I feel that by decentralizing science education to some degree and helping teachers network with each other using both social networks and elearning, we will have a better shot at fixing this educational mess we are speeding towards as the cliff draws closer. Furthermore, I feel by enabling this sort of elearning automation, we can actually free up teachers to focus on other issues, rather than constantly having to review new material for themselves, which honestly, can be a very bad thing. (I have witnessed teachers flat out getting things wrong in their description of things like cell anatomy. However, this was also related to them wanting to teach to a test, which didn’t require complex narratives about protein synthesis, so they dumbed it down to the point where it was a nice analogy, but fundamentally wrong on every level.) By giving teachers greater resources to experts within their own network, they can have greater levels of collaboration and success.

The big question is, then, what will this social network look like, and how will it work? Will it actually be feasible? I really don’t know, but I think this is the direction science and math education (as well as many other fields) will be going, if they aren’t already. Will it be through any official channels or LMSes, or just a grassroots thing? I really don’t know. But I am excited about it.

A TEXT POST

Time to think about the future of student debt.

Writing this, I’m roughly 250 away from completing paying off my student debt. This liberation from the responsibility of repaying the large sum I accumulated in obtaining a graduate degree has placed me in a very different mental space. Suddenly, I have realized that I have spent a year of my life working in the tech industry just for the purpose of paying off this debt. Not that I mind working in IT, but it’s not what I went to school for. While on some level it does help me gain the technical prowess I would like to have to accentuate my elearning expert resume, it just seems strange that right out of college, I jumped directly into the tech field, almost panicked by the huge sum of debt I had attached to my name. Rather than taking some time off so I could relax and enjoy a bit of peace after completing my thesis, I ran straight into the workforce, and a year later, I am beginning to feel the exhaustion. I haven’t had a real break from anything, weekends are painfully short, and the only time I ever take days off is on Fridays for the odd convention, which usually exhausts me even more.

But now that I am almost free of this burden, I have realized that my life is now in a holding pattern, I am making money, but I am not doing what I was trained to do. I am also very wary of the next steps, and the cost of that- and that scares me.

My goal is to get more experience, specifically in educational technology and effective application and implementation within schoolwide and college settings. I want to be well rounded enough to be able to set up a learning management system and maintain it, from the top level of setting up the LMS and setting up courses, to the bottom level- keeping the servers running. While I feel that such positions are ideally done by multiple people, there is no harm in being involved and functionally aware of the entire system, so it can be managed and optimized. However, I have much larger goal- to research the impact of instructional technology implementations on education, and what works, what doesn’t, and how to utilize it in a way that is accessible for the modern student’s brain. This is a huge field, and is something I would like to spend 5 years of my life studying.

However, I spent a year artificially aging myself, feeling my body get more and more out of shape and unhealthy as sleep deprivation and stress took their toll, just to pay off two years. Two years tuition, with a quarter of it paid by government grants and scholarships.  And now, I’m looking at five years.

It has been sobering, facing this imminent debt, for a path that I am not required to take, save for this abstract feeling of destiny and family legacy. It is so sobering that I have considered leaving this path, for simple fear of the cost. And this unpleasant reality is likely experienced by many individuals who would like to go into higher education. It is absurd, that as a country, to train people to become productive and skilled, so that they may become financially stable, we consistently throw them into a well of debt so that they are completely unable to take part in the larger economy. Whoever thought that was a good idea is an idiot, or more realistically, very, very greedy, and probably sociopathic. Furthermore, it scares possible talent away from pursing any fields that may not be lucrative, over fear that they will be in debt until they are 70.

I do not know if there is data on how many people are pursuing PhDs and other higher degrees. Last I heard, more and more individuals were to stay abreast of the difficult job market, but in doing so, ensuring (hopefully) employment (although not necessarily), while damning themselves into crippling debt. I then find myself speculating, what is the damn point? Go get your master’s degree. 30k later, you get a job making 40k a year, and are stuck paying off debt for years, while your standard of living has changed very little. This has been similar to my experience, and I find myself wondering, why am I living in a shoddy apartment? Didn’t I go get my higher degree? Don’t I get a house, a golden retriever, and a SUV now? (I actually just want a camera, a server, and a HEV suit.)

I suppose that’s where I am now. I am nearly free of my debt, and then the next question becomes, what do I do now? I could climb the corporate ladder and make more money and save up for a PhD that I may or may not ever get, depending on what happens from there. Or, I could take a pay cut and get into educational technology, but never have enough to even think about financing a PhD without casting myself into unimaginable debt.

It is a tough conundrum. I don’t have a good answer at this time. But it does frustrate me, as I would like to have a better life, possibly even consider having kids, but with the way educational costs are going, I don’t think starting a family and getting a PhD can coexist peacefully. I lived off cheap food and garage sale clothes for two years while my mother got her master’s, and while I didn’t mind, I don’t want to think of what five years of poverty, distance, and emotional alienation would do to my child’s mind.

Oh well, this is a total first world problem, but I do think it is one that is solvable, and must be solved if we as a nation want to have competitive job market.