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Digital Education Is So Much More Than Coding!

By Kieran Nolan, Education Technologist

What is at the heart of all your work as an Education Technologist?

I think it’s centralisation. That’s number one, and how education relates to the idea of centralisation. So if you sort of think about the way everything works, from the monetary system to local bank, to education systems work, how government works, they are all set up, technologically speaking, around single points of failure. And as soon that point fails, everything is done. 

However, to change the technology, we need to educate from the ground up, on decentralization and distribution. We need to understand about distributed networks, as opposed to all these single points of failure for all these systems.

So you look at like, department of education, for example, and it’s top-down hierarchical and how they have systems in place that double handle everything and ask what can be done. 

For example, recently Jennie [Vine] and I delivered papers in Sydney at the Edutech conference. You might imagine that a technology conference would have systems in place that had thought of inefficiencies…  like you’d think, “No brainer.” Yet there we were, two people from one primary school, and no one connecting us to optimise what we had to say and show about our work. That’s huge! 

Because you have these single points of failure that participants must go through, it kills innovation and it stops education. 

So what happened was that Jennie was at one end of the conference and I was at the other.  But it goes deeper than space allocation. Just getting the Department’s permission to go to Edutech was an uphill battle because of the bureaucracy and centralization of power. 

If you think about that at every level, whether it’s computer networks, whether it’s coding, whether it’s education, why central networks are a bad idea. What you have to show is  it’s decentralization and educating people on decentralization and challenge the belief that it’s normal for humans to gravitate towards centralization and hierarchical structures. So I think that’s the genesis of all my work.

What do students need to understand about a distributed network?

I think it has to be different for every student. Technology is just a tool to get access to knowledge. So it’s about how to use those tools. So educating students on how to use those tools to access knowledge, rather than just learning how to use the tool as an end in itself. 

That’s why having an agnostic approach to technology is important. You look at a lot of schools and they’ll go, “Oh, we’re going down the path of.. Chromebooks or iPads, or whatever it is. Or whatever cloud platform, which is centralized as well. 

We have a Blockchain platform our students are looking at using, they don’t necessarily have an agnostic approach to that. So I think that’s really important, and experiencing that from a young age through a range of technologies. Kids should be exposed to android technology, Chromebooks, Windows, and different macros, Linux in particular. I think Linux is probably the most important thing that nobody teaches. But then, like another layer on top of that, it’s having exposure to different cloud platforms and different operating systems, and then on top of that, is network infrastructure. So I think they’re probably the depth of understanding that kids should reach for from a young age.

Where are we up to with operating systems talking to one another?

I think for the most part they all talk to each other. But I think that the big problem is that the major technology companies are not looking at distribution, and decentralisation. 

Google, for example, hold all your data, so it doesn’t belong to you. So I think ownership of data is another key element that we are rapidly understanding that we have to tackle as well. We need to move students towards having ownership over their own content and their own data, and knowing the difference between the two is crucial. So if you’re utilizing Google apps, or you’re using Microsoft 365, or whatever it is, like, whatever cloud platform it is, or Facebook.

At present, all the data belongs to the technology giants, as opposed to students being able to hash their own content. So kids don’t know the difference between the two states. So I think that if you look at what should be consider the basics of education, it is being taught how to find knowledge online, that’s key. Jennie will probably speak to that as well.

 And then having the skills to be able to choose how you’re going to do that. And then there’s the whole issue of financial literacy. No one teaches you that at all, anywhere. You go from primary school right through to Harvard, into the workforce, and no one bothers to teach you what money is or where it comes from. Like that’s just outrageous really.  

Children see adults using currency every day.  From prep onwards they should be given the message. “All right guys, you’re going to use this thing in the future, I guess you better know what it is and where it comes from.” But nobody knows. No one knows about central banking or fractional-reserve banking, or any of it. It’s really, really, mind-blowing.

Where do internet service providers fit in all this?

I think they’ll become more distributed too. The internet works through ISPs that are very centralized. So there are countries like the Syrian government who are able to take down the internet infrastructure instantly because it’s so centralized. But Syrians using Twitter worked through surrounding countries, one computer connected to the next one, so authorities can’t take the system down. 

But really there are no really alternatives at the moment to the centralised systems of ISPs. There’s a few companies, one was called The Outernets, they were looking at using satellites for free internet program, but I don’t know what happened to that organisation. 

So, I think that at the moment we’re beholden to the ISPs. We still need connectivity to the internet through Blockchain technology to work. Record our admission at work eventually. It probably will migrate to that eventually, but it’s just going take time, and people understanding the difference between centralized network and decentralized network.

For example, we had the Department of Education, Netpark, coming to the school. Just 20 up 20 down, which is by U.S. standards, not broadband. So anything below 25 up, 25 down, is considered below broadband. In the United States, they’re expecting to run a whole school off that. It’s like not fit for one person, it’s crazy. So, when I started at the school, I knew we had to fix that. So we got a second pipe into the school, and got a 100 up 100 down through broadband solutions, and that ended up being the infrastructure for the kids. So that the student network, use the old network for whatever stuff we have to do with the department, really fast. Connection is up and down on that.

And then we’ve recently got NBN, so we’ve aggregated these two links. So we’ve actually got three links coming into the school. So it gives you some redundancy as well, so if one sort of fails, you can use the other one, that sort of thing. So I think that’s important. 

If we were going through department, everything would be blocked. For example, YouTube is blocked for most schools. That too is crazy because kids don’t look for info on Google, they go straight to YouTube. Blocking that in a school where you need to be learning, is just like, “What?”

What’s your approach to code and coding?

Coding is definitely important. I think that it’s probably more important now but, ironically, there’s too much of a focus on it as a discrete, unconnected thing in digital education. My belief is that not every kid is going to be interested in coding. But there’s a range of other technologies that they could be interested in that is not really getting look at, for example, think of what’s involved with creating an app. 

So you create an app, and it’s the world’s best app, but you haven’t thought of the computers or infrastructure to run it on. So you haven’t been taught how to set up a network. You haven’t been even taught how to build a computer and actually run the app. 

What we should be learning all these things, or at least facilitating that within a school people can build the infrastructure to run that at that piece of code that you’ve written, right? It’s really really fascinating that they haven’t put that together particularly from a digital curriculum point of view. Instead from the federal government to local schools, it’s  “Coding, coding, coding, and STEM. 

My question is  “Okay, what about the rest of it?” They’re not really thinking it through.

Implementation of STEAM centre

We’ve got the centre. It will be opening officially right off then we’ll have the STEAM Centre up and running. It will include the Teleport space, Virtual reality, and one space dedicated to engineering. So Cisco engineering… Well, I don’t think it will be Cisco, just network engineering because Cisco hasn’t really supported anything.

And then there will be the Maker-Space, like 3D printing and that sort of thing. So once you get the Maker-Space up and running, it will help a lot, because at the moment, we’ve just got the Enigma portal, and there’s only so much you can do in there, for example, building your computers and that sort of thing. As it’s a walkway, we’ve often come in the next day, and everything’s just been wrecked.

Having a dedicated space means we can lock it up and continue working on projects the next day. It’s going to be awesome. I’m looking forward to it really. I believe it will make a big difference.

Then there’s our plans for the fourth container focused on video production. We’ve priced it at about 50,000 for all the equipment. I’m on the lookout for grants that can help finance it. We’ve applied for a few, but I want just focus on video production. 

Then there’s the Blockchain Rocketshoes project which on the website is described as follows:

Introducing RocketShoes

A next-generation education platform

RocketShoes is an educational platform designed for a learner centric approach and providing powerful tools to manage content in a decentralised way. Learners will be able to produce and keep track of their own learning materials, including assignments, notes, and digital assets. Organisations can manage large amounts of content in a way that is not possible with today’s systems, allowing for radically new functionality, and deep integration with the Blockchain.  

Here I see how just with a USB we start recording. It’s got a green screen and everything. Students will record what they want to do, or describe whatever they’re working on, and it puts it straight onto the USB, and they can hand it in and, like, “Oh that’s really cool.” It’s recorded in that space. So that will be awesome.

There will also be some important conceptual stuff that needs to flow back out to the classrooms.  So often, due to kids coming into the technology space with an unrealistic view, they can tackle, for instance, the amount of work they need to do to create even two minutes of video. It will bring in programming through game making and that sort of thing. 

We’re going to be a participating school for RocketShoes. The program basically aims to enable students be able to take their data, hash it on the named [SP] off-chain using a protocol called IPFS which stands for InterPlanetary File System which I really like. It sounds funny but the concept looks at the lag between here and the system and protocol you need in place so that nodes can talk to each other.And then you look at like countries where they don’t necessarily have internet, this protocol still allows them to have connectivity. Having that set this up in the school will be a good basis for the kids an understanding that they can have ownership over their data as opposed to putting it on a learning management system. That’ll be sometime next term as well. There’s a lot going on.

And that’s the other thing I suppose. There’s so much going on in the school which probably doesn’t get communicate enough. Like, I’m always into social media and everything but a lot of the staff aren’t so they don’t know what’s going on. 

It’s interesting because I’ve got a lot of people outside the school that say to me, “Oh, actually, there are people in the school like you Kieran and that I follow on Twitter.” But it’s a little hit and miss when compared to Merrylands up in Sydney that have a uniformed approach. They have a Twitter account for the whole school.  The principal’s constantly on Twitter tweeting everything and then all the teachers are communicating on Twitter all the time, tweeting about what’s happening in the classroom and then everyone has access to the school account. So, you can just tweet about what’s happening in the school. I like that. It’s awesome. It really gives you like a chance to be reflective and expressive.