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Can You Really Escape?

Escape

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about the downside from immersing ourselves in technology. From the far too many data breeches to warnings about too much screen time to predictions of artificial intelligence taking over the world, it’s pretty hard to escape.

But suppose you really did want to escape.

A writer for Gizmodo decided to test that premise and find out what happens if she said goodbye to the big five: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Or if it was even possible.

People have done thought experiments before about which of the “frightful five” it would be hardest to live without, but I thought it would be more illuminating, if painful, to do an actual experiment: I would try to block a tech giant each week, to tell the tale of life without it. At the end of those five weeks, I’d try to block all of them at once. God help me.

She found out very quickly that her experiment would require some special tech expertise, including a custom VPN that the average person wouldn’t have access to.1

Each of the six parts to this story are a little long and can sometimes get somewhat geeky, but I think it’s all worth your time. If you teach high school kids, this would be some good stuff to have them explore as well. I doubt they have any idea how far the threads from even one of these companies are woven into their lives.

For myself, I already know that there’s no way I can extract myself from Apple. Not without replacing lots of expensive devices I use every day. Plus Apple Music, iCloud, and who knows what else.

Google is another tech giant that would also be hard to leave completely. Even if I switched to Duck Duck Go for search, stopped using the Chrome browser, and relied on Apple Maps for directions,2 their code is still in the background of practically every site on the web. They’ve become very good at tracking me.

The same is true for Amazon. Even if you never bought anything from the company (or any of the many companies they’ve bought), their Amazon Web Services hosts tens of thousands of other websites. Even some of their retail competitors. They’re also very good at tracking people, even into the real world.

The segment on Microsoft surprised me a little. I thought I had cut the cord with them when I left the overly-large school district that employed me. Kill my Outlook account and delete Office. Done. I didn’t realize their software was behind the screen in my car.

And then there’s Facebook. I have an account that I open infrequently, usually to see photos from friends and family, and to catch up with the latest strips from Bloom County. Despite never posting anything original,3 I still see evidence of Facebook lurking all over the web.

Anyway, as I said, take some time to read this series. Even if you have no interest in escaping from any of these tech behemoths, everyone needs to understand how they are collecting and using our data.


Image: Escape by d76, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I suspect that the average person doesn’t even know what at VPN, virtual private network, is.

2. Apple Maps is actually excellent, certainly much better today than it was when introduced almost seven years ago. Google’s Street View, however, is still the most compelling reason to stick with their mapping service.

3. I have a few images on Instagram, posted before Facebook bought them, and I regularly open that app because that’s where some photographer friends post their images.

Preparing for ISTE

IMG 0827 IMG 0828

Very soon I’ll be leaving to attend the ISTE conference, which begins Sunday in Chicago. I’m going as much to see some old friends and explore the city as to attend the event. But it’s a good excuse to do both.

While planning for the trip, I realized that the last time I was in Chicago was 2001, a visit that also included the conference then known as NECC. The bag shown in the pictures above was given to every attendee that year and is illustrative of how things have changed in 17 years.

For one thing, the bag is faux leather with embroidered logos and was stuffed full of paper, including a thick, ad-filled conference program. As opposed to the flimsy bag made of recycled material and containing much less paper we’ll probably be getting at registration this year.

No complaints about the more ecological approach, however, although the heavier canvas bags of ISTE/NECC past do make wonderful reusable grocery bags.

NECC in Chicago 2001 was also memorable for the opening keynote speaker, Steve Jobs. As I recall, the speech itself was not very good. He did a lot of promotion for the then relatively new iMac and other Apple products, and offered very little visionary inspiration. But I’m not sure most other ISTE keynoters are much better.

Jobs’ appearance and the expensive conference bags his company paid for were only part of Apple’s high profile at the conference. They also occupied a huge booth on the vendor floor and I still have one of the polo shirts (mere t-shirts were not good enough) they gave away.

Apple will certainly have a presence at this year’s ISTE but mostly in the form of the wide use of their devices by participants and many vendor sessions (with long lines) on using their products.

They won’t be in the expo hall. The large space at the main entrance they used to have will now be occupied by Google. Which also illustrates how things have changed in the business of edtech over the past two decades.

Both companies are selling millions of devices into the classroom, but only one is making most of it’s profits from them. The other is in the business of selling ads and data. It should make you wonder why they’re such a major presence at an education conference.

Anyway, that’s a rant for another day. I have some packing to do.

I should also charge the many batteries I’ll be taking to Chicago. Another big difference between now and 17 years ago. Did we even have wifi in 2001?

The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.


The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

Conversational Code

You won’t find Swift anywhere on that map.

Speaking of computer science for all (as in a post from last week), Apple CEO Tim Cook was visiting a college in the UK to promote the company’s Everyone Can Code curriculum. The UK Guardian was one of the news organizations that covered Cook’s stop, as they might for a visiting rock star.

Although the headline (“Apple’s Tim Cook: ‘I don’t want my nephew on a social network’”) hints that the article will focus on the newly-discovered issue of tech overuse, most of it is a largely flattering profile of Cook. Plus some information about the financial and tax problems Apple is facing in both Europe and the US.

But buried in the small section about whether everyone should learning programming, we find this idea from Cook.

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

I’m one who would disagree.

Coding is largely a global standard, but it is not a language for communications. Learning to code does not help students understand the world outside their borders and offers no insight into another culture. It is not more important than learning a conversational language that is not their own.

If a school was, for some reason, forced to make a choice between the two, their students would be far better off in a Spanish or Chinese language course than they would be learning to code.

No Simple Case

You may have recently heard on the news about the conflict between the FBI and Apple. It’s one of those geek stories that leaks out into the mainstream media, which then completely drains the issues of all context and creates a simple, easy to tell, two-sided narrative.

Big brother demanding new spy tools vs. company trying to defend the privacy of it’s customers. Or noble law enforcement tracking down terrorists vs. evil company trying to defend their profits.

It ain’t that simple, as explained by a digital security expert in the Washington Post (ironically, about as mainstream media as you get).

What the FBI wants to do would make us less secure, even though it’s in the name of keeping us safe from harm. Powerful governments, democratic and totalitarian alike, want access to user data for both law enforcement and social control. We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

Either everyone gets security or no one does. Either everyone gets access or no one does.

There is much more to this story beyond one particular phone, including mistakes made by investigators and lots of uninformed, headline-grabbing rhetoric from politicians and others who should know better. Start with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s summary of the facts and the implications this controversy could have for everyone’s privacy.

Sadly I suspect the outcome will leave everyone’s devices – and the personal information they contain – just a little more open to both the “bad” guys and the “good” guys.

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Image: Sticker available from EFF Shop.

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