Time to think

20160505_212235-1.jpgI’ve been doing quite a lot of walking/running recently and it provides me not only with a well-needed brain break from the computer, leg-stretch from a chair and eye break from a screen but also time for my brain to slow down and stop thinking. Well, maybe not stop thinking but it helps me to filter my thoughts, get them in some sort of order through disordering them, breaking them up and somehow putting them back together again. I don’t necessarily gain any answers but they get “un-piled”!

Data has been top of mind in my work in the last few weeks. What is data? Despite myself, but also because I am a competitive soul, I can’t go for a walk or a run anywhere without trying to do it faster than the time before. I find myself calculating how many minutes it takes me to walk a kilometre, how many kilometres I can walk in an hour, was it faster than last time, slower, was the terrain similar, how much should I take off for stopping to take a photo, should I take anything off? If I hadn’t had to wait 45 minutes in the gully while everyone went through the hole in the rock, and then another 20 minutes for people to cross the river and climb the 3m rope climb how long would I really have taken to walk/run 23km and how would that equate to a half marathon…? But it is clear that those calculations are not just based on pure numbers, on data, they are based on human action, on nature, on the terrain, on feelings, on emotions, on abilities and competencies and relationships. Relationships between people and the environment, on rational and irrational fears, on prior experience and knowledge and understanding.

Take this weekend, for example. As part of the event I participated in we had to squeeze through a hole in a rock wall to get out of a gully. ‘Squeeze’ is an interesting concept – it was clearly not that small a hole as plenty of large-ish men got through with relative ease. My prior knowledge and experience of caves and caving meant that I was unafraid, eager, in fact to face the “challenge”. People around me who didn’t have that knowledge were fearful, anxious, uncomfortable. Feelings that were made more acute by the wait and the conversations and the “chinese whispers” passed back – the “fishermen’s tales” – “the hole is tiny!!” with hand gestures that indicated the smallest of gaps. But with support from those of us who did know, with encouragement, explanations and modelling of how to do it, with patience and with care everyone got through.

If this had been a test for which we were being assessed, I would have got top marks. My prior knowledge meant that the test was easy, my experience and my preparation meant that I had no problems slipping through. I may have also gained extra credit for being a “leader”. For others it was not the case, they may have been ‘judged’ not to have got top marks because they hesitated, or didn’t slide so gracefully through, or took too much time.

Personally, I think their achievement was all the greater. The obstacles they overcame to get through; emotional, physical, rational, irrational made their achievement more meaningful. Give me a situation where I have no prior knowledge, no confidence, no experience, irrational fear and I wonder how I would have fared.

So, how do you measure that sort of data when you assess people in academic tests? How do you compute immeasurable data such as emotions, human nature, social background, with knowledge and experience to make meaning, build connections and create pathways for learning?

This evening, I was talking with some friends. Both teachers and ex-colleagues. One of them is a drama teacher and some of her students do extremely well. Students who don’t do so well in other subjects. Students whose motivation for coming to school sometimes is simply because they have drama that day. Part of her inquiry this year is looking at why those students are motivated and engage in drama but not in other subjects. She said that one of the things she does is talk to her students about who they are, about their families, what they like doing, what their parents do, how many siblings they have, where they are in the family, what they do when they aren’t at school, where the family comes from, who they live with, who they spend the most time with; she finds out what makes them tick. She builds a relationship with them, trust, respect, interest, she cares. That’s what makes those kids come to school. That’s what makes those kids do well in drama.

So, in schools we need to look at our students, not just as they are in front of us, but who they are in their family, their community, their social groups, what they do in the classroom, of course, but what they do on the sports field, in the arts, in the community. Build on their experience and use all of that information, that data to gain insights, and generate meaningful action to personalise learning for them, give them and their whanau a voice, a stake in their decision-making and the pathways they choose.  That is the rich data. It’s not all about test scores. It’s about who we are, it’s about building relationships, making connections, trust, respect, humanity.

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#edblognz Challenge: Learning with Media

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Arc du Carousel, Paris 1975

At the GAFE Summit in Auckland this week there was a lot of interest, in fact more than interest – fascination, excitement, an insatiable curiosity for VR in various forms.  Jim Sill‘s sessions on the Google Cultural Institute and the VR experience through Google Cardboard were well over-subscribed and there were at least three other sessions on 360° photos and Streetview.

The opportunities that being able to see the world in 3D offers for education are undeniably huge. We can send our students on virtual field trips – indeed LEARNZ already

“assists New Zealand teachers to provide online experiences for their students that are

  • interesting
  • relevant
  • real
  • flexible
  • safe
  • 21st century”

Geography teachers can enable students to immerse themselves in the volcanic landscapes they are studying and see the impact on landforms without leaving the safety of the four walls of their classrooms, history teachers can visit archaeological ruins, battlefields, museums, and sites of significant historical importance, English students can put themselves in the shoes of the characters of the books they are studying and walk down the streets of the novel’s setting, and art students can visit galleries, see artworks so close that they can explore the brushstrokes and details of the colour they couldn’t possibly see even in real life.

But where am I going to here? The Edblognz challenge for April is;

THE LOVE-HATE RESOURCE: Re-evaluate an old resource in your subject area.

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Champs de Mars from the Eiffel Tower 1975

As a language learner and teacher being able to immerse myself and my students in the culture is a key element to successful language acquisition.  Capturing the curiosity and fascination of a country, its people and its culture is what engages us to want to learn more about the language.  My first memories of learning French in the early 1970s were at the age of 9 when our teacher showed us grainy black and white images of Paris via a manual filmstrip projector (can’t for the life of me find an image of one!) but I was hooked. I wanted to go and actually see what those blurry buildings really looked like in colour. My desire to travel was sealed then and there. Likewise in geography, our teacher showed us slideshows of his travels – snapshots where the scenery looked so far away but a glimpse was tantalising enough to whet my appetite.

In the mid 1980s as a new teacher, I remember winding similar film reels on to the bobbins of the projector and showing photos of France – by now in colour – to my students. Over the years slides gave way to videos, videos gave way to DVDs, DVDs to Youtube films and now we have 3D and Virtual Reality.

The power of images and especially moving images to capture the imagination and excitement of learners is not in dispute. However, my wonderings last week as we explored what the Google Cultural Institute offered, and the “surround sound” experience of Google Cardboard went like this;

  • Are we taking the “comfort zone” out of field trip experiences? Much of the learning happens when we are outside our comfort zone, when we have to “mind the gap” and adapt to new surroundings, new experiences – are we sanitising exploration too much?
  • Can we really learn about culture, language, history without being able to touch, smell, hear, connect, communicate and build relationships with the people and the place?
  • Are we taking so much of the mystery out of the world around us that our young children will not seek to travel and experience the “real thing”?

A while back I wrote this in a blogpost called the Blimage Challenge:

“We can learn about the world from books, from the internet, we can “see” the world through the millions of photos , videos and TV documentaries and we can learn about cultures and people. But travel offers the chance to touch and feel and smell and taste and hear.  How do you transfer those tangible aspects of knowledge to a machine? These are the things that give understanding and compassion to knowledge.  …….  A sense of belonging to the world, of having your place in the world, interacting with people , the culture and the environment.”

Grainy black and white photos inspired me to learn languages and to travel but for some of my classmates it was enough just to see the pictures.  I loved being able to show my students photos of France and Spain and other places I had visited – images and videos, used appropriately, are a powerful way of engendering interest and engagement which leads to deep learning.

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Google Cardboard 2016

Google Cardboard and the Google Cultural Institute are the natural next step on the continuum of media use that has underpinned my language teaching. My latest “thing” is taking 360° photos, uploading them to Streetview, exploring photos that are already there and looking at them through my Google Cardboard. I love the sense of “being there” that they provide. I know that for many VR experiences maybe the only way they can “be” in these places and I certainly wouldn’t deny anyone the chance to have them as there is so much we can learn from them. But, like any resource, beware the way you use it in the classroom. It is a bright, shiny, exciting, tool so keep learning and the learner at the heart of how you use it and it will send students into another dimension of learning.  Hopefully, they will still have the opportunity to connect with people and touch, feel, see, smell and taste the world around them and let those experiences inform who they are and make a difference to their lives.

 

PS – just because I can ….. check out my 360° photo of Mount Thomas in Okuku, Rangiora and this one of Mount Eden , Auckland.

All images used in this blog taken by Anne Robertson- CC BY-NC-SA

Finding the Balance – and taking the plunge!

Finding the Balance

This evening I did my first Eduignite presentation! Very nervous and I am sure I gabbled but it seemed to be well received. What is an Eduignite evening? 20 slides on a fifteen second auto transition which gives you five minutes to speak on any topic dear to your heart! We heard eight inspiring talks this evening interspersed with good conversation and drinks and nibbles. The aim is to bring educators together to share and learn from each other in an informal gathering. There are Eduignite evenings held throughout the country usually in the penultimate week of each school term. Although we are often tired and feeling the pressures of the end of term by then if you make the effort to get to one it certainly gives you a boost in terms of ideas and creativity.

Here is the transcript of my presentation – the link to the slides is above.

Connections are important – our first connections with our parents help us to develop who we are, how we behave, how we interact with other people. Those habits inform our interactions with the the global online community.

It is important to maintain some balance in our relationships and our lives so that we don’t lose sight of our humanity in a world that is increasingly played out online. We have to maintain connections, build relationships and stay grounded.

We have to nurture our connections to nature if we are to maintain our dignity and humanity in the face of constant change. Maoist philosophy sees life as endless change in which we have to keep our minds open to grow and learn.

For me humanity is our ability to empathise, to care, to connect, to communicate, to feel, to believe, to be spontaneous; it is the spirituality that you can’t pin down but you know to be the essence of our relationships.

People are the root of our connections to the earth and our humanity so this sculpture called “Tangata Whenua” represents the idea of humanity. My son’s hand connects with the sculpture, connects him to the earth and to the people who inhabit it.

In adverts for new technology – I don’t know if you have seen the adverts for Corning Glass, nature often seems to be missing from visions of the future. Everything is white or glass and sterile. But I was struck by this description of an exhibition at the Hamilton Sculpture Park. ‘We sometimes forget our connection to nature and our instinctual selves when we are immersed in a society of fast information and constant stimulation.”

One of the artists suggested that our own experiences inform how we see the future, how we interact, how we cope with change. Is the past a beginning that opens up and generates connections? Does the past empty into the future? And is there a danger that our potential is limited by the limits we impose on ourselves.

So what effect has technology had on society and our humanity? Wide swathes of native bush and forest were cleared in the 1870s to make space for the extraction of gold. Massive stone pillars, towering buildings and huge cyanide tanks dominated the landscape which was once home to native flora and fauna.

Just over 100 years later nature has reclaimed the land. The amazing technology that belched steam, smoke and poison into the atmosphere has gone; the remnants of a once powerful technology are overgrown with flowers and shrubs and the birds are starting to return.

The online world has the capacity to reach across the world, across continents, into our living rooms, into the palms of our children’s hands. We have to engender a sense of responsibility, a sense of morality, a sense of belonging to a world that feeds us and nurtures us.

Nothing else has had that power since, perhaps, Gutenberg’s printing press, radio and then television. It is up to us to teach our children to filter, to be critical, to assess and to analyse what they see, hear and read; to consider their digital footprint as well as their environmental one – they are, after all, inextricably linked.

Midway is an island in the North Pacific 2000 miles from the nearest continent which is the subject of a film. It explores the plight of Layson albatross who ingest the plastic waste that we carelessly discard. It is a graphic and shocking expose of how our actions impact on nature and the environment.

And if our thoughtlessness about physical waste wreaks untold damage on the other side of the world, what might carelessness with our personal information do to humanity? Do we consider how what we post, how we share and how we interact with each other online affects other people and ourselves.

Technology is part of our lives. Technology is everywhere; In school we use pens and pencils, books, slates, blackboards, whiteboards, interactive whiteboards, tape recorders, computers, CD players, video players, data projectors.

At home we use telephones, mobile phones, dishwashers, washing machines, we watch television, we listen to radio, toast bread in toasters, heat food in microwaves. We drive cars, we have electric lights, heaters to keep us warm and air conditioning to keep us cool. The list is endless, so what is the problem?

What we accept today, without even thinking about it, is the disruptive technology of the past. Technology that made people stop and think about the status quo, it challenged people’s thinking, it changed the environment for better or for worse, it changed society and the way that we behave communicate, connect and interact.

There is always something new, but how long will it last? And what will be along to take its place? How does the way we use technology affect our humanity? If technology is always and has always and will always be with us, then we have to find our place within it. Where do we fit in as teachers and learners?

I believe there will always be a need for face to face teaching and learning. Online courses provide an extra dimension; they democratise education = anytime, anyplace, anywhere for anybody. But technology is just another tool to enhance learning….

The key to effective learning according to Dr John Hinchcliff is relationships and you really need to be face to face, in the same room to build relationships, don’t you?

John Hinchcliffe says “learning is taken to a higher level when it is done with humility, and with unconditional personal regard.” Which brings us back to relationships, to the way we interact, to the way we make connections and to humanity.

#edcmooc What it is to be human; Part 3 True Skin

TRUE SKIN from H1 on Vimeo.

True Skin raised more questions than I can answer or have time to think about in the short time we have in edcmooc.  This short has really got me thinking; it raised lots of issues about life, society, equality, ethics, morality and especially what it is to be human.

It made me think of “Sight” that we watched last week (or was it the week before?!) Anyway, the glasslike, piercing quality of the eyes and the invasiveness of the technology on the mind were disturbing .

Interestingly, my first thoughts were around the idea that in general we often resist new ideas on instinct; a sort of defence mechanism, that life is all good and we don’t really want to rock the status quo. A few seek the new things, the different things, while the rest of us watch and wait.  Slowly we start to see the attraction, curiosity gets the better of us and more of us try the new thing, the different thing.  There is a pivot point of adoption; the point where more people have the new thing than the rest and that is when everyone has to have it.

It made me think of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”. It is a story of humanity, of choices, free will, control, existentialist and dystopian but also utopian in the end – true humanity comes through.

It made me think about the increasingly blurry line between humans and machines.  If we can “back-up” our memories like computers where doe the human end and the machine begin?  When our hard drive gets full we can archive old memories and make space for more or store them to review later. It is not a new concept – J.J Rowling’s character Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter used a pensieve to store his thoughts!

If we will be able to store our thoughts, our knowledge, our feelings, how will that impact on learning?  As we age all those things will not be lost – they will be retrievable (as long as we store them logically).  But will they become distorted?  Will they evolve in the telling and remembering as our memories tend to now? Will we be able to “save as” but keep the original?  How much of our ability to empathise, to understand, to feel, to analyse will be lost?  Will the nuances of our memories  remain, the context, the reality?

I was also prompted to think of man’s age old quest for eternal youth (also a theme in Harry Potter!); the idea that we can regenerate, get a new body to replace an old worn out one but maintain our memories, thoughts and experiences.  How much of our humanity are we prepared to sacrifice for that?

not hiring naturals

In the short those who had not chosen (or maybe could not) to “enhance” were seen as second class citizens, old, sick, pathetic, destined to beg for their survival in the street, unable to get jobs.

“Let’s face it, no-one wants to be like them, entirely organic”.  “No-one want to get sick and old and die”.   

If there is a world where the sick and the old are percieved to be irrelevant, surplus to requirements where will that end?  Relationships, family, society, community, the ability to care for each other, nurture, revere, respect, communicate, connect, hope – they are the human qualities that give our lives meaning.  Without them we are reduced to machines.  The lines will no longer be blurred.

What it is to be human; part 2 #edcmooc

I found Gumdrop altogether different from Robbie; where Robbie had some depth and integrity I found Gumdrop shallow and flighty. Perhaps it was her character, her role as an actress that made me think that? Maybe it was her voice that was so human that it was difficult to reconcile with being a robot when Robbie sounded as I expected a robot to sound? Nevertheless there were several aspects of the film that I found interesting;

Gumdrop was scared of losing control.  However, she also says that she likes things that disturb her both of which are very human traits and which add some extra dimension to her as a character. Her mannerisms and the way she used language which was appropriate to the context was also very natural.

To me Gumdrop and Robbie represent different aspects of being human; they each have characteristics that suggest that they are ‘humanised”. Gumdrop represents a lighter side of life; she is a robot that has been assimilated into the world of humans and is part of it as opposed to Robbie who seems to be on the edge, not quite part of the gang, so to speak.  Maybe Gumdrop’s time is much further into the future when technology has developed to a greater extent.

However, I am curious about her appearance – she is almost a parody of what we expect a robot to look like – a stylised quasi cartoon robot. I would have thought that in the future, if we can create robots that are totally accepted into our society as Gumdrop appears to be, we would have the ability to make them look much more human.   Having said that, I think I would find that quite disturbing which leads on to a whole new train of thought…..

 

What it is to be human… Part 1 #edcmooc

Robbie – A Short Film By Neil Harvey

I was moved by this film and Robbie’s humanity touched me. In a world who’s history has been littered with episodes of extreme inhumanity his tenderness, pacificity and acceptance of his lot in life was strangely refreshing. I struggle for the right word – refreshing doesn’t really express what I mean. He is almost more human than real humans if we accept that humanity is having the ability to think, to empathise, to reflect and analyse and certainly more human than those who commit atrocities. However, if one of the keystones being human is the ability to make choices, to have the freedom to be autonomous, to forge our own paths and create our own destinies, sadly Robbie is far from human and simply a slave to the human who created him. Where do we stand ethically when we create a “being” with feelings but with no ability to choose?

In the forum discussions other people talked about the idea of friendship; did Robbie really have friends or was he merely projecting the pre-programmed concept of friendship that had been given him on the people around him? Was this another cruel illusion allowed him by his creator? Surely true friendship is a two way thing, communication, connectedness, reciprocal.

He says his memories are “real”memories of his experiences but that he can only visualise simulated environments; I wonder if the children in “A Day made of Glass” will also only be able to visualise the simulated environments of their online learning environments?

Which brings me to the question “What is real life?” The boundaries are becoming ever more blurred. For Robbie his life was real enough – it is interesting that he talked of himself as a “person”.  I also find it intriguing that he felt a need to adopt a religion; was this, like many “real people”, a need to have something higher to believe in, to depend on, to offer comfort, feel a sense of belonging. Maybe that was programmed into him as an act of kindness? After all, stranded in space for 4 thousand years all alone, the ability to imagine, to dream, to hope, to believe at least allowed him to exist in a fantasy utopian world.

Death is a stange thing and it is something that many of us fear but Robbie seems to have accepted that his life is coming to an end. He has decided to spend the last hours of his battery life looking down on his “home” – earth. It is strange that even though he hs not been on earth for four thousand years he still sees it as home. We have emotional attachments to the places we grew up in, the places we have been happy, the places where people we love are.  However, as an immigrant to New Zealand I am interested in the concept of what people call home.  I have observed that people who have had little choice about leaving their country of birth don’t really see their country of residence home. Others, who have made a conscious choice about emigrating, are possibly less nostalgiac and although they certainly miss aspects of their home country, and probably more specifically their family, they accept more whole-heartedly their adopted country as “home”.  Choice, freedom to choose, freedom to forge our own destiny, freedom to not be controlled by technology, is that what it is to be human?