Students and teachers rewired for the digital age

Originally published on UAlberta News.

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According to a Statistics Canada study, there is nearly one computer per student in Albertan schools. // Creative Commons

Pop culture is full of cyborgs like Darth Vader in Star Wars, the Borg in Star Trek or Neo in The Matrix. While cybernetic organisms are a mainstay of science fiction, Secondary Education professor Cathy Adams sees them everywhere, even in classrooms. Whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket or the computer you work on, Adams says technology is a cybernetic enhancement and it functions as an extension of who we are, how we live and how we learn.

When it comes to technology in the schools, there is no shortage of debate on the impact it can have on students or if it should be there at all. Adams, who researches digital technology integration across educational environments, as well as ethical and pedagogical issues involving digital media in schools, says it’s not a simple discussion.

Can you explain what you mean when you say students and teachers are cyborgs?

Adams: We tend to think of ourselves as autonomous from our technologies and our technology-textured environment; we are free to choose this or that technology and we alone decide whether we use it for good or for ill. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that technologies are not neutral, and that we have become the human beings that we are today only in and through our relationships to our technologies. Our professional practices, our political and cultural lives, and even our personal relationships are increasingly supported by and made possible by and through our technologies. We need to see that we humans are–and always have been–cyborgs.

Actually, most theorists don’t describe us “cyborgs”; the word in the academic literature is “posthuman”, which tries to take account of the socio-materiality of our situation. When I talk about teachers and students as cyborgs, I am drawing attention to this special human-technology relationship and posing some key questions about our future with technology.

Some parents are concerned about their children having too much “screen time”. How can an educator balance those concerns with integrating technology in the classroom?

Adams: There are different ways of approaching this question. One way is through media ecology. To see a classroom in terms of media ecology means to reflect on what a healthy, balanced and diverse media environment ought to be, especially in relation to different development moments in a young person’s educational life. Of course, most teachers often don’t have a lot of choice in the types of technology they have in their classrooms, but it is still possible to be thoughtful and deliberate in choosing when and how to use it and plan to do so in a way that is balanced and developmentally-sensitive.

When a particular technology is introduced into the classroom, we need to ask: what changes does that enact? Pencils, paper, desks and a chalkboard create a very different environment than one-to-one laptops and interactive whiteboards. Clearly new kinds of activities and ways of thinking are made possible in a new media environments. But there is a basic law of media that we all need to be aware of: every technology enhances one or more aspects of our lives, but it always comes at a cost.

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Dr. Cathy Adams

What do people find surprising about this concept of technology users as cyborgs?

Adams: In my course, EDSE 577 Pedagogy of Technology: Teachers and Students as Cyborgs, one of our exercises is a 24 hour technology “fast”. Before embarking on this, we talk about which technologies we are going to abstain from using, since it’s nearly impossible to be without any technologies. We’d have to be naked in a forest somewhere! We usually limit the fast to 21st century technologies, which means not checking email, social media or even looking things up on the web. Of course, the day tends to also be interrupted by phantom cellphone vibration and periods of boredom.

In the end, it’s not unusual for one or two of our class to not make it the full 24 hours–but that is learning. But overall, the message is clear: our lives are intimately entangled in our devices.

Technology is changing rapidly. How can educators keep up with limited budgets?

Adams: I’m a strong advocate for coding in Kindergarten to Grade 12 because computing science is core to much of the infrastructure deciding and supporting almost every aspect of our lives today. Just as we need to learn mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology to understand our world, so too with computing science. I’m not talking about turning everyone into programmers, software architects or data scientists, but of developing this basic literacy for a more critically-informed citizenship. And I’m also not talking about students learning how to use digital technologies. I’m talking about learning some of the basic principles behind this powerful science, how software and hardware are designed and built, the special languages used to write software programs, about algorithms and why should we care about them, how to think computationally and more.

Some are surprised to learn that there is actually little need for any sophisticated technology or even a computer to teach some of the most basic principles of computing science. While these technologies are powerful cognitive tools that our children need to use early so they can leverage them later, there are also some good reasons for not including them in the early grades, such as developing basic literacies first and focusing on social development.

Digital technology is a very big ticket item in often very limited school budgets. We need to step back and consider when, how and more importantly why we are bringing each and every digital technology into the classroom, especially in the early years.

What are some ways educators can integrate coding into their classrooms?

Adams: Today K-12 coding is a global movement. On account of this, some excellent educational resources are out there and freely available to teachers and parents. I recommend checking out code.org for example: the online lessons are fun, current and easy to set up. Both children and adults will benefit from trying these out, and gain a new understanding of what is meant by “coding”.

A number of years ago, Tim Bell and his New Zealand colleagues developed a curriculum called Computer Science Unplugged. It consists of social games and simple practical activities for kids to try out and learn some of the basic principles of computing science without ever needing to touch a computer or look at a screen. These lessons will serve our children extraordinarily well in understanding and being able to critically assess our changing digital technology environment, now and into the future.


To learn more about Dr. Adams’ research about technology in  K-12 classrooms, check out her book Researching a Posthuman World: Interviews with Digital Objects or watch this interview with Global News Edmonton.

A year of stories: 2016 in review

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Top L-R: Leila Fanaeian and Jesse Kwasny in a waste audit, a spread of David Lewkowich’s graphic novels, Jason Wallin channels Norwegian black metal, Jerine Pegg shows off a tiny worm, Minecraft (cc), and a CTS class demonstrates their skills. // photos by k.barnes

Thinking back on the past year, it’s easy to conclude that I am lucky. I work with fascinating people, and I get to share their stories. Experiencing that kind of trust is humbling, and for that I’m grateful.

This year, the stories immersed me into the nitty-gritty details of waste management, introduced me to the concept of “math rappers” and gave me VIP access to a black metal and tattoo festival in Bergen, Norway. Despite this diversity, a few themes emerged: sustainability, pop culture in the classroom and hands-on learning.

Sustainability

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Jerine Pegg adamantly believes that for students to learn science, they need to do authentic science. This value resulted in her taking composting worms up to Nunavut for local students to continue learning about waste management, gardening and healthy eating. It also aligns with what the folks at Energy Management and Sustainable Operations did on their waste audit – they have to do real science to know if the university’s sustainable practices have buy-in from the campus community.

Read more about Jerine and her worms and how waste management works at the University of Alberta.

Hands-on learning

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“It was amazing because I didn’t know what to do, so I just started doing things.” – Jason Wallin

“I’ve never touched any construction or woodwork, so this is a lot of firsts for me, but I’m having lots of fun and making a lot of cool things.” – Jamie Lambert-Brown

Whether it was future Career and Technology Studies educators constructing projects in a workshop, or faculty member Jason Wallin’s on-the-fly documentary film-making in Bergen, trying your hand at something new and having a great time doing it was incredibly inspiring, and something I need to try more often.

Read about Jason’s film-making adventure and check out the CTS students’ projects.

Pop culture in the classroom

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From math raps, Star Wars, Minecraft and more to graphic novels in teacher and librarian education, pop culture has a place in education. David Lewkowich uses graphic novels to help future teachers reflect on their own education experiences, while Elementary Education alumna Jessica Maloughney uses a variety of pop culture touchstones to bridge gaps with her second grade students (Lydia Menna and Jason Wallin provide expert comment).

Read about why David uses graphic novels and how Jessica connects with her students.

 

Comics draw out classroom discussion of hate speech

Originally posted on illuminate and cross-posted to UAlberta News.

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Illustration from Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project (2016)

For some students, school can feel like the furthest thing from a “safe space.” As anyone who has gone through the K-12 system can attest, school is sometimes a site of persistent anxiety and antagonistic social interactions that can follow students from the classroom to the home—especially in the age of social media.

“The way that hate lives with students and the way it can be such a crushing and suffocating force—it becomes all consuming,” says Jason Wallin, associate professor of curriculum and youth culture in the Faculty of Education’s Department of Secondary Education.

“Forget all the other parts of school. I remember enough about being a teenager to remember that much.”

An anti-hate comic project

Hateful attacks are particularly damaging when they are made against a young person’s racial, cultural, gender or sexual identity. The large, instantly accessible audience provided by social media platforms makes things that much worse.

“What has become common sense on social media often carries underlying messages of discrimination and alienation,” says Wallin. “It also has the staying power to last forever. If someone attacks you online, there is an archive of it that can be brought up at any time. There are no take-backs.”

Although many of these conflicts take place outside of the classroom, Wallin wants to help teachers move the conversation about hate and hate speech into the curriculum with a graphic resource for teachers. Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project is designed to help pre-service and practicing teachers discuss tough topics such as cyberbullying, microaggressions and harmful labelling with their students.

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Illustration from Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project (2016)

The comics are a part of Project Someone, an anti-hate pedagogy initiative based at Montreal’s Concordia University that involves more than 20 collaborators across Canada.

After Wallin’s experience with a graduate course focusing on graphic novels, he knew he wanted to incorporate comic books into this project.

“Comic books are a successful medium in terms of reaching people with its ease of communication,” Wallin says. “Anyone can pick it up and engage with it. And that’s what we wanted for these comics––we wanted them to produce questions. That was our major intent with these comics––to create resources that would catalyze conversation around how hate lives and is encountered by youth today.”

Research produced by students in another one of Wallin’s graduate courses was ultimately translated into comic book format by artist and Faculty of Education doctoral student Jessie Beier.

“The goal was to really focus on youth experiences and what youth have to deal with daily in terms of small instances of discrimination and hate,” Beier says. “I worked with lots of different formats––for some I created infographics, some are like comic book pages, there’s a Mad Magazine-style fold-in. I drew on a lot of popular culture and things I see online, what I think youth are engaging with, the formats they’re familiar with, turning those on their heads so people have to look closer and see that those platforms are maybe not so neutral.”

Wallin plans to use the comics in his classroom with his undergraduate students in the hope that these materials will inspire the next generation of teachers to find their own ways to start the discussion with students about hate speech.

“These teachers don’t necessarily need to use the comics,” he says, “but they can take on their own process as a way to begin to uncover a curriculum that is often quite hidden in schools.”

Watch an interview with Jessie Beier and Jason Wallin of University of Alberta about Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project on Vimeo.