Let’s make democracy great again

The English novelist George Orwell once observed that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. If this is accurate, then the Internet and the tsunami of so-called ‘fake news stories’ now jamming our online news feeds and flooding the collective social media landscape, makes all of us potential revolutionaries.

The recent world-wide condemnation and outcry over president Donald Trump’s immigration, health care and environmental policies, indicates that many people are finally waking up and fighting back with their own forms of ‘culture jamming’.

Massive astonishing and spontaneous public rallies in cities across the globe, not seen since the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980’s, are signs that those citizens who sat on the sidelines during past and recent political elections, are not willing to accept alternative facts.

statue_liberty

Other forms of dissent involve the propaganda war, where the cyber-weapons of choice are stinging satirical memes and endless streams of phony and real news stories, all intended to persuade and convince by flooding an opponent’s news feeds.

Creators of ‘fake news’ stories have been implicated in manufacturing everything from Obama citizenship conspiracies theories, to linking Republican senator Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination and tilting the result of the recent American election in Trump’s favor. In today’s ‘give me entertainment or give me death culture’, where puny attention spans and instant gratification are king – it’s not necessarily the detection of fake or fabricated news that is the issue.

In today’s ‘give me entertainment or give me death culture’, where puny attention spans and instant gratification are king – it’s not necessarily the detection of fake or fabricated news that is the issue.

With so many compelling and alluring forces vying for their daily attention: work, family, the Internet, binge-watching and dizzying array of the latest smart phones and associated apps – most people do not have the time or the inclination to fact check every pseudo-story that litters their social media news feeds or jams their inbox. Enter the newest technical audio-video manipulation advancements that will soon obliterate any existing line between what is considered fake and real.

In a paper published last year by professors at Stanford University and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg – researchers discovered that technologists could record video of someone talking and then change their facial expressions in real time. The technology demonstrated how the facial expressions from a news clip of Russian president Vladimir Putin could be altered in real time in difficult-to-detect ways.

Other initiatives like the ‘Digital Emily Project’, a study where researchers used digital characters in place of real people, further blurs the line between fantasy and reality, making truth detection that much more elusive. Seamless digital technologies now employed by Hollywood and video-gaming industry artists, make the detection of real actors from digital avatars virtually impossible.

Advancements in audio technology have also made truth detection an increasingly daunting task. At a developer conference this past November, Adobe touted its new product nicknamed ‘Photoshop for audio’. The product allows a user to transfer around 10 to 20 minutes of their voice into the application, then allows them to type words expressed in that exact voice. The result does not sound computer-generated in the least, but uncannily real.

Imagine how real video and audio interviews of political leaders could be seamlessly twisted to further nefarious ends. For instance, audio of a comment could be generated and inserted before or following an interview (heard over a hot microphone) of a world leader making threatening comments toward another country.

Of course, all this assumes that some people still actually care whether the stories in their newsfeeds are real or fake. Increasingly, consumers of social media seem more concerned that the rivers of content cascading through their media streams support their worldview, as opposed whether any of it is true.

Historically, autocrats rely on the indifference of the masses to maintain their grip on power. Give the masses ‘bread and circuses’ and they will be happy. Given the choice between the awesome power and responsibility of the freedom to choose what’s in the interest of the common good versus ‘bread and circuses’ – I would suspect those in power hope the people continue to choose the latter.

Ironically, it may just be the Orwellian policies of the Trump administration that stir the consciences and souls of the multitudes that tip the balance in making democracy in America great again. The alternative is a darker world, where, theoretically, two plus two could equal five.

Sources:
Vanityfair.com – http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/fake-news-technology
1984. George Orwell.

Photo Credit: Michael Redfearn

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An Open Letter to All Students

Everybody at the speed of light tends to become a nobody.  – Marshall McLuhan

An Open Letter to All Students,

Look up! That’s right, put your smart phones away, look me in the eye and listen to me for just a few minutes. Seriously, I mean it; your future may depend on it!

Don’t worry. I am not going to tell you how you should NOT use your mobile device or judge you. I have taught, observed and spoken with enough of you about digital technology over the years to know that the vast majority of you are decent, respectful human beings who, like me, make mistakes from time to time.

I know that your time is precious and that there are a gazillion things you could be doing with your mobile device right now, like chatting and playing online games with your friends via at least a dozen trendy social media and gaming apps; or capturing cool photos and videos of one another, tagging and uploading them to the internet.

You might even be texting, blogging or video-calling about how much you love your new sneakers or the amazing adventures you have planned for the summer. These are all valid and wonderful ways to celebrate the miracle of digital technology. You should keep doing these things!

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I just want a minute or two to share three suggestions that may enhance your valuable time and perhaps alter, for the better, your life’s path.

  1. Always be positive. Whether you are online or offline, in person or in cyberspace, strive always to be upbeat, kind and gentle with yourself and others. Use digital technology and social media to stay in touch with family and friends and create a positive digital identity that you, your parents and teachers would be proud of. Build one another up by sharing all the incredibly wonderful things you are already doing in your school communities (charity fundraisers, arts, science and technology fairs, community partnerships etc.). If you are always positive and THINK before you speak or post online – this will go a long way in helping you to construct a positive persona and digital footprint, thereby avoiding potentially embarrassing, hurtful and perhaps tragic situations.
  2. Strive for balance in everything you do. It doesn’t take a genius to know that spending too much time doing anything: sleeping, listening to music, playing video games, or watching videos, is likely not good for your physical, emotional, intellectual or social well-being. Take some time every day to go outside and walk, run, or cycle in the natural environment. This would be a perfect chance to exercise your body and clear your mind, while celebrating, appreciating and enjoying nature.
  3. Be thankful. Make time to slow down, meditate, reflect on and be thankful for all the gifts in your life: family, friends, shelter, food, health and the natural environment. By slowing down, being appreciative and thankful for the people and possessions in your life- you will gain a deeper understanding and respect for them.

Remember, all it takes is one thoughtless moment: sending an angry text, posting or sharing online an inappropriate or embarrassing comment, photo or video of yourself or others – to derail your dreams. Ironically, by slowing down, thinking, being thankful and periodically looking up from your digital gadgets – you may just find a sense of peace, balance and new appreciation for life and all its wonders.

Photo Credit: jesslef


Passing The Torch: #bit14

They were born well before the dawn of the Facebook and YouTube generation, watched VHS movies on VCR’s and listened to their favorite music via portable cassette tape players. But, ultimately, it was the internet and 21st century technology (LinkedIn) that allowed two of my former students, Monika Bural (1986-87) and Pat Downey, (1987-88) to stumble upon and connect with their former high school English literature teacher.

How ironic that these same two individuals attended the only two schools spanning my entire 21 years in the classrrom, my first 3 at Philip Pocock Catholic High School in Mississauga and the following 18 at St. David Catholic High School in Waterloo.  Imagine how delighted I was to discover that they had both become teaching colleagues at the Dufferin-Peel CDSB and were searching for someone to help them navigate the rocky path of 21st century learning and digital technology. It was a bit of deja vu all over again and back-to-the-future combined.

When I learned that Monika and Pat would also be attending the recent ECOO BringIt Together Conference in Niagara Falls and that they wanted to reconnect after almost 3 decades – I immediately agreed to meet up with them. After reconnecting, we opened and dusted off our collective ‘time capsule’, sharing a few memories from days gone by.

Bold makeup, bracelets and crimped Madonna-esque hair adorned the hallways and classrooms of Philip Pocock Catholic secondary school in 1987.

Pocock

Chillin with my grade 10 English ‘peeps’  circa 1986-87. Monika Bural is 3rd from the left in the photo.

It was fitting that the three of us meet at BringIT Together, a cutting-edge educational technology conference that connects educators and information technology support staff from school districts far and wide, encouraging them to share ideas and collaborate so that students can benefit.

A highlight of the conference was sitting in on a Android Tablets and Google Play EDU presentation by the Upper Grand DSB. While there I saw an engaged information technology specialist from my former school district (Waterloo CDSB). It was incredibly encouraging to see school district technology consultants and IT support staff sitting in the same room, side-by-side, grappling with challenging technological issues and working together to help break down barriers to create a more authentic and engaging learning environment for all students.

L to R - Monika Bural, Michael Redfearn, Pat Downey

L to R – Monika Bural, Michael Redfearn, Pat Downey reconnect at Bring IT Together 2014.

An artifact and metaphor that dominated the BringIT Together conference was a green VW microbus with a sign above that read, What will education look like in 25 years? Conference participants were encouraged to write their responses to the question in marker somewhere on the bus.

If the past 25 or so years in education is any indication – the next 25 years will also contain its share of challenges and obstacles. But judging by the energy, enthusiasm and hope expressed by the #bit2014 conference delegates and presenters – the next 25 years in education should be filled with a host of wondrous new digital technologies, a dynamic culture of learning, sharing and collaboration and, most importantly, passionate educators, eager to pass the torch of learning to the next generation.

Web site:  http://bringittogether.ca/


Technology in the Classroom


Waterloo Region Record
Mar 6 2014


Embracing the gift of learning: Catholic Education Week

It does not happen very often, but when it does – it is sheer joy to witness. Pedantic sounding phrases like ‘collaborative inquiry’ or ‘differentiated instruction’ are pale shadows set against the dazzling colors, sights, sounds and wonder of real learning.

In such a magical place, students are truly engaged, not so much with shiny new tools, as with how those tools are used to effectively create the conditions for the miracle of learning to occur.

Welcome to Rolland Chidiac’s learning environment, where the world and its boundless lessons are one vast inviting sandbox.

My personal journey with Rolland began a few years ago when I offered to let he and his students experiment with an iPod touch. Rolland reflected on this pilot in a May 2011 guest blog post. Since then, Rolland has more than heeded the words of the late Pope John Paul II, “Do not fear the new technologies”. Whatever the learning tool: pencil, iPod/iPad, interactive projector, livescribe pen, digital camera etc., Rolland has consistently and whole-heartedly embraced these wonderful gifts to humanity and the countless opportunities for learning they provide.

A leader and mentor in the integration of educational technology at his school, Our Lady of Fatima, Rolland models servant leadership. Like Christ who fed the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes, Rolland feeds his flock of students and teaching colleagues not with bread but with the simple joy and love of learning.

His recently accepted ministry of education-sponsored TLLP project (Teacher Learning & Leadership Program) involves leveraging technology (iPADs) to increase and enrich the learning experiences of autistic learners at his school.

Like pearls, learning experiences of this quality are inspirational and rare. That I have been able to be part of Rolland’s wondrous journey is indeed a gift.

Rolland continues to collaborate with his peers and share his learning experiences with a growing audience via his The Digital Citizen blog  and Twitter PLN via @RChids.

Related links:

The Digital Citizen blog

The Rapid Development – Apostolic Letter by Pope John Paul II

Photo Credit:
Atlas, it’s time for your bath by Woodley Wonderworks Photostream


Lighting a lamp

Grace

There is a stillness
simpler than silence
a peace deeper
than calm.
There is a shimmering
in the dark soil,
shades of trees,
in old moss, and the twisted
forms of branches,
that hold us, carry us
and nurture us.
In the flash of the eye,
laughter, or a tear.
No effort needed, no self to seek,
just grace remains.

~Svein Myreng

Has it really been two decades since I first asked the students in my grade 11 World Religions class to gather in the school’s chapel to do something that most of them had never done before?

No doubt, guided Zen meditation in a darkened, quiet setting was furthest from the minds of these mainly hormonal 16 and 17 year-old learners. Yet the experience was so foreign and far from the reality of the typical teenager’s daily routine that it had a profound impact on some of them.

The reactions to the soothing sounds of the ocean and calming voice guiding them to focus only on the ebb and flow of their own breathing, ranged from the silly to the sublime. Within a few minutes one or two students would make mock snoring sounds. Some of the more hyperactive students would fidget and giggle for a few minutes and occasionally, one or two would genuinely drift off to sleep.

After these initial minor disruptions and protestations, most of my students would let themselves be swept along in the rejuvenating current of Zen. Many of them seemed to luxuriate in and look forward to these weekly meditation sessions. I suspect for most it was a welcome, peaceful and refreshing relief from the constant noise that permeates modern life.

Which brings me to my own recent joyous encounter with a weekly restorative yoga class offered at my health club. The sense of peace and overall wellness that yoga or any form meditation or breath control exercise yields is well documented in numerous studies. The mere fact that the class attracts young and old members reveals the enduring power of these ancient eastern practices to heal and recharge mind, body and soul.

In the ‘always on age’ of internet, social media and ubiquitous wireless mobile gadgets – never in our history has there been such a visceral need for humans to periodically ‘disconnect’ from digital technology and reconnect to their families, neighbors and inner selves.

There is a Buddhist belief that if you light a lamp for somebody, it will also lighten your own path. Thank you students, for becoming the teachers and helping illuminate my way.

Photo Credit: ‘Solitude’ by jhoc


Why WiFi?

Has anyone at OECTA head office every stopped to consider that chalk dust or even some of the chemicals found in common tap water may pose more of a health risk to our children than WiFi?

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), there are links between chalk dust and allergy and asthma problems. Why has the OECTA Health & Safety committee not investigated eliminating chalk from our schools?

Why they decided to target WiFi in schools via its recent position paper,  A position regarding the use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, including WiFi, in the workplace, and in conjunction with the Ontario Teacher’s Federation, its AGM Action directive 37, is beyond me.

“That the Association through the Canadian Teachers’ Federation lobby the Federal Government to review Safety Code 6 with respect to lowering the current Threshold Limit Values (TLV) regarding electromagnetic radiation, especially in the microwave WiFi frequency band.”
OECTA AGM Action Directive 37

Here’s why I believe we need to oppose any further attempts by teacher associations to limit  or restrict WiFi access in our schools:

1. A June 2011 fact sheet by the World Health Organization indicates that “research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. In short, according to Health Canada & WHO – both widely respected and expert organizations in determining risk factors to public health & safety – there is no conclusive or convincing scientific evidence that electromagnetic fields from wifi is doing harm to humans.

2. At a time when most school districts are struggling to equip antiquated classrooms with 21st century learning tools (E.g. Interactive projectors, wifi networks, e-Tablets, integration of teacher & student-owned personal electronic devices) all of which would help differentiate learning and engage students – lobbying the Federal Government to lower the current Threshold Limit Values regarding electromagnetic radiation would further discourage the use of wifi in schools and be counter-productive to the efforts of those who are struggling to equip many of today’s under-funded classrooms with digital technology that help would position students and teachers in 21st century learning environments.

3. OECTA’s position that we advocate on behalf of the purported 3% of the Canadian population that are affected by ‘environmental hyper-sensitivity’ – is prudent in the extreme, but rather than deny 97% of the student population the potential academic benefits of internet access (research) via wifi networks using board issued and their own electronic devices – OECTA Health & Safety should develop strategies to safeguard the 3% who may be affected by ‘environmental sensitivity’. E.g. have the 3% attend class out-of-range of wireless base units.

4. There has been enough damage already to OECTA’s reputation by recent sensational media coverage of the OECTA publication, A Position on the Use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation Including WiFi in the Workplace. Passing AGM disposition 37 may cause further negative media coverage by further painting OECTA as ‘overly-reactionary’ and ‘anti-technology’ – while also unnecessarily feeding the irrational growing ‘anti-Wi-Fi’ movement in Ontario and across Canada.

Much of what we do in life involves some risk and it is prudent to try and minimize these risks. But when educational leaders ignore the reasonable conclusions of  respected organizations entrusted with our physical well being, I suppose they get the educational system they deserve.

Though it’s unfortunate, especially for our students, that it may look more like the school house on the prairie with straight rows and blackboards, than the truly dynamic, collaborative and interconnected learning community it could be.

Photo: Hope in a better future by Massimo Valiani

Sources:

WHO Fact Sheet #193

Health Canada – WiFi Equipment

A Catholic teachers association looks to ban WiFi. What’s next, coffee?

Ontario Catholic teachers union recommends pulling plug on wi-fi in school

Ban WiFi in classroom, Ontario teacher union urges

(OECTA) A position regarding the use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, including WiFi, in the workplace