Stuart Spence Blog

Computer scientist and educator. Creator of ChessCraft. Senior computer scientist at Environment Canada.

Tue 27 January 2015

Things McGill Education Students Don't Know

Posted by Stuart Spence in Blog   

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Is this a real exam, or a fiction fabricated by someone frustrated with the bachelor of education program? You decide.

More seriously, here are some details if you're interested. The parody exam spawned from my frustration that McGill university in Montreal (which is supposedly one of Canada's top schools) is doing a horrible job of teaching future teachers about technology.

Before I start I'd like to make one thing clear: I'm not targeting McGill's education program, or Canadian teachers. Instead, I am sure this is generally a problem all over the world and we should work together to improve this abysmal situation.

Now that I've taken the only two education technology courses, I have a good sense of what graduates will generally know. Here I've written about

some of the things that were never covered - not in lectures, readings, assignments, whatever.

1. The Cloud

How is the cloud convenient and inconvenient for schools? Who has control of our student data and where is our data? Is our student data worth anything to the people we're giving it to? What type of cloud software can teachers rely on for years, and what type of cloud software might disappear tomorrow, beyond our control?

Why this is important: in addition to the obvious student privacy concerns, this is a matter of control. A school that gives all control to a software company is subject to the whims of that company. If they get lazy, expensive, or go out of business, your school needs to follow them to the grave or start over from nothing. The cloud can be an amazing tool for classrooms but teachers and school boards should understand the compromise they're making by using it.

2. Intellectual Property Law

What videos, music, and other media are teachers allowed to show their class without asking permission? What is fair dealing? What specific Canadian laws exempt educational uses of media? What is the CRTC and how is it related to education?

Why this is important: I once showed my class clips of the James Bond movie Goldeneye (1995) for examples of realistic and unrealistic "hacking". I was confident that it constituted fair dealing for educational purposes, but I know my mind wouldn't have considered such a lesson if I weren't somewhat comfortable with copyright law. When a teacher is uncertain about what they're allowed to show in class, it has a chilling effect on the kinds of lessons they imagine at all.

3. Control your Damn Computer!

At McGill I've seen professors fail to operate basic presentation equipment like computer projectors – then they give up and refrain from using the projector. I've also seen students and professors alike mistakenly blast a Youtube ad during their presentation instead of the video they need. Both these cases could be remedied with 5 minutes of instruction.

Instead students are given the impression that a teacher losing control of their personal device during a presentation is perfectly acceptable - because professors do it too. But losing control during a presentation should be embarrassing - not a bonding moment.

Why this is important: Marketing campaigns have no place in the classroom. A teacher that cannot insulate their classroom from the business interests of the outside world has failed as a teacher. Also, projectors are incredibly useful instructional devices. It's just plain ridiculous for a teacher to give up on using a two thousand dollar projector because they opted out of two minutes of instruction.

4. Linux

What is Linux? Which schools in which countries are using it? Why?

Why this is important: Linux is a free alternative to Windows and MacOS. It's not perfect but it's making big news. The city of Munich (Germany) saved 15 million dollars by switching to Linux. Nations like China and Brazil are bringing Linux to millions of their students because it's free, it runs modern software, it's fast on old computers, and it comes with tons of free education software.

Forget discussions: McGill B.Ed. students have mostly never even heard of Linux. When a Québec school proposes switching to Linux to avoid paying for expensive hardware upgrades and software licenses, what happens? Teachers who graduated from McGill will be too afraid of change to support it.

5. Closed Source and Open Source Software

What is closed source and open source software? What are the implications that most software in Québec schools are closed source? Why do private businesses provide cheap licenses of their software to schools and students? Under what circumstances is this partnership between schools and private business unethical?

Why this is important: When a student asks a teacher how closed source software works, the teacher must answer “sorry, we're not allowed to know the answer to that question” (Stallman). Sometimes closed source software is a necessary evil. Sometimes not. It's important for teachers to be able to tell the difference.

Often when software companies offer free and cheap software licenses to students they are trying to inject dependency into society. This benefits them, not schools. They want students and teachers to become comfortable with their software, even if there are good free alternatives, so that these students and teachers will become dependent on that software and eventually pay full price for it. A teacher that falls for this trap needlessly is failing to foster independence in her students.

6. Net Neutrality

How does net neutrality impact online education resources and websites? What can teachers do about this issue? What is the FCC and CRTC and how do their decisions impact schools in Québec?

Why this is important: Schools today benefit from a cornucopia of free services, educational videos, and web apps for the classroom. Services like the Khan Academy tutorial videos are amazing and free. However all of these services started off as puny seedlings.

Net neutrality allows new ideas to grow online. Without it, starting an educational website could have been just as hard as starting a new educational television channel. If net neutrality collapses, starting new internet services will get harder and harder to do. Imagine if in its early years Youtube had to directly compete with Bell. Bell would have crushed them.

Let's Completely Ignore All of the Above!

As a technology enthusiast with a passion for education technology, I can confidently say that these are core issues that schools today must consider. Yet all of them are essentially ignored by the undergraduate education program. I believe “Linux”, "fair dealing", “net neutrality” and “CRTC” were not even mentioned once in the lectures or readings in all the courses I've taken so far.

I believe it's important to provide recommendations and not just whine. So here goes:

Recommendations to Universities

  • Encourage computer programming professors to teach and design courses in the education department. Alternatively, discourage education professors with no academic or professional technology experience from teaching and designing these courses.
  • Education technology courses should have a major focus on the topics I listed above.
  • Recognize that there are more types of educators than just certified classroom teachers. Everyone I've spoken to, everyone, who is taking education courses but not pursuing a B.Ed. has suffered from a tremendous lack of support from the administration.
  • Encourage the education department to cooperate with the science department. Computer science students could have projects and courses where they work with education students to create software, websites, assessment tools, and education games. These assignments may turn out to be useful in the real world.
  • Discourage professors from choosing a physical textbook for education technology courses. One education technology textbook I used predated the very first iPhone. It also referred to web services that ceased to exist almost a decade ago. Printed text is not the way to teach education technology.
  • Professors can have a class project where the students create their own education technology textbook. Perhaps use a wiki.
  • There's a "computer games and computer science" program, so why not have an “education software development” program? This should combine computer science and education courses in equal parts. Currently doing so is administratively impossible. It has been suggested to me by many advisers and professors that strict rules from the Quebec ministry of education (MELS) makes creating such a program overly difficult for McGill.

Recommendations to MELS

  • Require more technology courses for teacher certification.
  • Recognize that there are more types of educators than just certified classroom teachers. Make it easier for universities to offer education courses and programs to non-education students.
  • Create a philosophy of education technology course. This could explore the ethics and societal impact of the issues and technologies I've mentioned above.
  • Pay current teachers to attend more technology workshops.
  • Require current teachers to attend (their choice of) technology workshops.
  • Ask for workshop proposals from students and professors with experience in computer programming and technology.

Wow! You made it. Thanks for reading. Let's tackle this monster together.