Yesterday evening the government announced a new lockdown for those living in Auckland. We will be in Level 3 for at least the next seven days, during which time I will be teaching remotely yet again.
Slowly as we have more and more situations such as this I am getting used to virtual learning. It is still greatly challenging - especially in the case of teaching kids who have inconsistent internet connections and/or unreliable technology. My own connection at home is flaky, with Google Meets often dropping mid-call or uploads being interrupted.
Despite the fact that we have been doing this for close to a year now, I think that we as educators still have much to learn. The technology hasn’t gotten that much better over this time, and I am still not sure about the strategies many of us are taking to ensure a productive remote learning environment.
I am not sure what the answer is. I don’t know if anyone does. If anything, I think this pandemic continues to show us how ill-prepared many of us are. A vaccine is thankfully around the corner, but what will the next pandemic make of us?
A lot has happened since my last post but I will keep it brief.
I started a new role at a new school here in Auckland. It has been just over two weeks since I began and we unfortunately just went into another Covid lockdown from yesterday, but otherwise things have been going well. My classes are a range of junior and senior, teaching predominantely art with one DVC technology class as well.
Getting back into teaching has been that everything to do with school has taken priority over everything else. I haven’t really had a chance to settle down and work on my own material for a few weeks now. Hopefully I can change this over the coming weeks.
There are a few interesting websites that I have been keeping an eye on and following their material. One is Astral Codex Ten, the new blog of Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex fame. He has a long history of blogging and writing about various topics, including mathematics, science, politics and technology. I really enjoy his writing and highly recommend you subscribe to his Substack page.
Through Astral Codex Ten I recently also discovered the work of the Qualia Research Institute, a non-profit that describes itself as “studying consciousness in a consistent, meaningful, and rigorous way.” I have been working through their core research papers which can be found on their research publications page.
Happy new year!
It has been a lovely summer so far here in Auckland. There are some new emerging technologies that I have come across the past few weeks which excite me both as a teacher and researcher.
Comma.ai is a fully FOSS Level 2 autonomous driving startup based in San Diego, founded by George Hotz (also known as geohot, a hacker and computer scientist whose work I have admired since he first jailbroke the iPhone in 2007). They are now selling a device, the Comma Two, which can be installed on most mainstream Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais etc to enable full Level 2 autonomous driving. If Tesla and their Autopilot software is iOS, then Comma and their implementation (called “Openpilot”) is Android. The next car I purchase will be one that I know is compatible with Comma, and I look forward to seeing how this software develops this year.
DALL E by OpenAI
This is a recent neural network developed by OpenAI that creates images from text captions, done in completely natural English. For example, typing the text prompt “an armchair in the shape of an avocado” will generate an image of a chair as such. It is an extension of their breakthrough autoregressive language model GPT-3. As a visual art teacher, I have no idea what this potentially means for the creation of art and where the artist stands in a situation like this, but I am still looking forward to embracing this technology and seeing how it can help us develop long-term.
Simula is a VR window manager that is built on top of the Godot Engine, programmed in Haskell and developed by George Singer. While I don’t currently have a VR headset that I can use to test this, I think that the notion of spatial computing is an exciting one (especially in cases of limited physical space that might inhibit the use of multiple monitors).
=> This post is also available on gemini
Since July this year I have been working at Westlake Boys High School as a DVC teacher. I picked up a selection of Junior and Senior classes part way through their projects and tried to find my place in the school as smoothly as possible. Despite entering a new school and all the disruptions that had been caused by multiple Covid-19 lockdowns, I wanted to give everything I could to my students so that they had the best shot for success.
The classes I had were made up of many different boys, each with their own unique backgrounds and skillsets. In some of my Junior classes there was a great disparity between the most technically adept students and the lowest, but I wanted to create lesson plans and projects that would allow all these students multiple ways of approaching their work. The lockdown proved to be the greatest challenge in this regard, as not all students had access to reliable Internet or computer equipment that allowed for working from home.
With one anonymous survey that I ran on a Year 12 class, most boys cited the lockdown as being the greatest obstacle in their learning from this year. They said that the uncertainty around this period, coupled with practical issues such as a lack of space and access to DVC equipment that was stored at school inhibited their ability to succeed as well as they could have. I felt as though these students produced some fantastic work regardless, but that things could have been a lot more different. From a teaching perspective, my biggest concern was the wellbeing of my students, especially those who went completely MIA and could not be accounted for.
As my role at Westlake was a fixed-term contract, my position at the school concluded at the end of this year on Tuesday 8 December. I was able to learn a lot from these past six months and gain some great friendships and connections. The students and staff of the school have been nothing but supportive in my time here, and this made an otherwise tricky year a very positive one.
I begin a new role in January next year. While I will miss the people and culture that I came to love at Westlake, I see this as another chapter in my teaching practice. Thank you Westlake - I will see you again soon.
While this is often overused, I feel as though the following Maori proverb sums up the most important thing in education and schools:
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.
=> This post is also available on gemini
It has been approximately a week since Auckland, New Zealand went back into Level 3 lock-down over the Covid-19 pandemic. Since Thursday last week I have been teaching my students remotely through live conferencing software such as Microsoft Teams in place of physical lessons. This is my first time teaching remotely, and there are a few things that have arised which I didn’t expect.
I (foolishly) assumed that most of my students had some grasp of how to navigate different systems and services. Given that they are young and part of what is considered Generation Z, I thought that nearly all of them would have at least some level of digital literacy (and if not that they knew where to look). However, this stint in remote teaching has highlighted to me just how wrong I was - there is a vast difference in abilities around using computers among my students, right down to the most basic and fundamental functions like copy and paste.
Most of my time online since starting remote teaching has been spent troubleshooting and diagnosing issues raised by students. I was wary that not every student would have a stable Internet connection before I started my teaching programme, so I tried my best in implementing lessons that were both low bandwidth intensive and not reliant on powerful hardware (since not everyone had access to a decent computer - for some a smartphone is their primary computing device). In hindsight, I should have thought even further back and thought of those students who have almost no idea of basic computing concepts, doing everything to stamp out any potential dark patterns so that I don’t need to retrofit fixes later down the line.
One of the primary issues my students have experienced is signing up for accounts on certain services. Since most sign ups are handled via email it requires for the user/student to have some understanding of how this works - the confirmation of verification links, checking in spam for missed messages and so on. Some of these students know how to install and use a VPN on their phone, yet are completely stumped when it comes to using email. Why is this the case?
I think part of the issue is because of the smartphone app paradigm. If every function and service is reduced to an app, it is segmented as a little icon on your screen and often abstracts any logging in or processes to a black box. These dark patterns, a commonplace in everyday apps today, are harmful to the user in that it oversimplifies systems to the point where everything is done automatically. Confronted with a system that doesn’t fall into this paradigm, it is no wonder that the user would find it confusing or bewildering.
If one of my students wishes to use a smartphone app to complete the same work I have no issue with this. I believe this is a level of flexibility I should consider under UDL. In the future, I will consider a Plan A, B, C, and D, because technology is far from perfect. Nothing that I have done so far has gone according to plan, and almost always the reason is down to technology. It is frustrating, but the best thing that I can do is always have a wide spread of options incase things don’t work out.
I work at a highschool in Aotearoa that is considered a “Microsoft school.” Depending on the type of infrastructure that the respective school decides to use it will be dubbed as “Microsoft school”, “Google school”, “Schoology school” and so on. Having avoided Microsoft products for the past few years, going back to using them for work has been an interesting experience.
I think that Microsoft has come a long way over the past few years since Satya Nadella became CEO. It’s clear that their new focus is on the cloud and cloud product offerings, and Office 365 is no exception. I really appreciate some of the accessibility features built in by default with tools like OneNote having a dictation mode, or being able to navigate something like Teams entirely via the keyboard. For teaching students who are all unique and different, these types of design choices make it much easier for someone like me to implement UDL into my teaching practice.
There are a few rough spots though. OneNote frequently likes to crash, and has a very weird way of rendering text where the top half of letters get cut off by the sentence above. Teams can be buggy as well, with window resizing sometimes causing the app to freeze up completely as well as files occasionally refusing to sync with my filesystem on OneDrive. These bugs don’t happen often and are still miles better than some of the monstrous legacy software tools used by some schools in Aotearoa, but there’s definitely room for improvement.
Still, I would always advocate for a stack that is libre, open and transparent by default over something proprietary. If I had the choice, I would use and recommend software such as Standard Notes for note-taking, Matrix for communication and Syncthing for cross-system file synchronisation. Keep the user in control of their data!
Quite a bit had happened in the last few weeks but I haven’t had the time to properly reflect on it all. Hopefully I can do this soon, but in the meantime there are a few things on the horizon:
Merveilles is currently thinking about creating another jam where everyone puts together a drawing/graphic for a zine using PostScript
starting to focus more on systems-level programming, especially with languages like C and Go to create my own little programs
developing a greater understanding and practice of UDL with how I approach design
Looking forward to processing this all once everything settles down. Until then, I’ll be spinning in the air like an omelette
I only recently got the chance to read Marc Andreesen’s widely discussed post titled “It’s time to build”. In the post, Andreesen describes how due to a failure of action people around the world were totally caught off-guard by the Covid-19 pandemic. The tact of the post is to say that old methods of doing things is holding back progress, and this is an issue that has been prolonged by both sides of the political spectrum - the right not aggressively investing in new industries and technologies (rather sticking to what they know), and the left holding a bias to “protect” public institutions (rather than prove that they are superior to their private counterparts).
I sympathise with the general message Andreesen is addressing here. While I don’t necessarily agree with all his points regarding the public sector, especially with regards to healthcare, other aspects I can favour more and work with.
For example, the public transport system here in Auckland is an absolute mess. The decisions made by public bodies is often questionable at best and downright laughable at worst (an example being taking over 20 years to build a railway from the airport to the CBD). Housing has also been a great issue, with prices skyrocketing due to limited supply and speculation, not to mention a lack of a capital gains tax preventing those with massive properties portfolios to use houses solely for investment purposes.
As a citizen it is frustrating to live with all of this. I have voted for politicians based on their policies regarding housing and then been totally left behind when it came to deliver. Half of the MPs who supposedly represent me have their own multi-million dollar property portfolios so implementing a CGT would hurt their bottom line too much.
In answering Andreesen’s call to build, I say we should take some time to reflect first. Let’s think about the mistakes we have made before steamrolling ahead with building new things. Maybe it isn’t even a matter of building new things at all, but rather fixing what we already have and making that better.
I am a big fan of VS Code. When I am working on a project I normally work between Micro and VSC, but have found VSC to be fantastic for anything web related. Despite it being built on top of Electron (which has a stereotype of being bloated and slow), Microsoft has clearly done a lot of work in optimising the speed and performance of this editor. In my opinion it has completely superceeded its predecessors like Atom and Brackets, both of which are also built using Electron.
Last night a stumbled upon code-server, a program that allows one to run VSC on essentially any device with a web browser. VSC is rendered and run on your own server, allowing it to do all of the heavy lifting (test, compiling of code etc) and giving you access to a full IDE from any device (even a phone!). This would have many benefits for developers, including saving battery power on their portable machines if they are on-the-go, using public computers to access work remotely and unifying all dev work into a centralised environment.
Development on a phone using this method would still be a bit cumbersome, as typing on a touchscreen would be much harder compared to a physical keyboard for longer dev sessions. However, on a device like an iPad which has more screen realestate and supports Bluetooth keyboards it would make for a nifty portable dev environment!
I am going to try testing out deploying my own code-server instance and will update this post after giving it a go!
(UPDATE 9/8/2020) - After having used code-server for a few weeks now, I think this would be excellent for any developing working from machine to machine. I personally don’t really need this as I normally am just using my own machine, but I’m still glad this exists!