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Archive for November, 2011

An EdCamp Movement is spreading rapidly across the United States and beginning to pop-up in various places in Canada.  Since the first EdCamp in Philadelphia in May 2009, a series of one-day unconferences have been held attracting flocks of mostly younger teachers and IT zealots aspiring to be “21st century educators.” So far, over sixty-four such ‘open concept’ gatherings have been held across North America, including events in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City.  http://edcamp.wikispaces.com/  Apostles of the EdCamp Movement see building these constellations of teachers as the gateway to “revolutionary professional learning” and potentially ‘The Next Great Thing’ in education.

What’s inspiring the EdCamp Movement?  When asked, Dan Callahan, a recognized Co-Founder and Grade 6 LS /IT teacher, provides a rather blunt answer: “Most PD stinks!”  http://dancallahan.net/about-geekteacher   Dan (aka The Geek Teacher) is definitely not alone in trashing what North American school districts inflict on teachers as many as 10 days each school year.  It’s also a particularly damning criticism, given the millions of dollars poured each year into “in-servicing” the nation’s teachers.

Professional Development (or PD) has long been a dirty word for many regular teachers, essentially something done to them rather than with them.  Initiators of EdCamps like Mary Beth Hertz (Philadelphia) and M.E. Steele-Pierce (Cincinnati) seek to create “powerful experiences” that actually meet the needs and interests of classroom teachers.  “Unconferences,” Steele-Pierce believes, ” are part of the learning revolution. They’re participant driven professional learning gatherings.”  http://plpnetwork.com/2011/03/07/unconference-revolutionary-professional-learning/

Organizers of EdCamps go to great lengths to ensure that, like the British BarCamps,  the events provide “an ad hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment.”   All EdCamps are free to participants, non-commercial, organized in an initial morning session, and count upon participants to be presenters.   They appeal to the tech-savvy because they are created in Wikispace and all feature live blogging and tweeting to spread the word to the wider community.

EdCamps were started initially as teacher-driven, crowd-sourced gatherings, but have now been adopted by new wave “21st century educators” such as Vancouver’s David Wees.  Some Canadian EdCamps have become fronts for the rump of the “progressive” movement in public education.  In Toronto, the EdCamp held October 15, 2011 at York University was actually conceived and spearheaded by Stephen Hurley, a veteran educator who blogs regularly for  the Canadian Education Association. ( http://teachingoutloud.org/)

The Toronto EdCamp was captured on video and posted on the Wikispace site, just like the original EdCamp Philly. http://www.edcampto.org/  While billed as being inclusive, the York University event attracted a crowd of mostly wide-eyed young teachers, education professors, and faculty of education students looking for their first jobs.  “Doing your own Thing” at a PD session was something of a revelation to the  most zealous participants, far too young to remember Summerhill, the Hall-Dennis Report, or the sixties.

Critics of the EdCamps see the Movement as the progeny of educational idealists and “21st century” IT promoters seeking a kind of escape from the recent era of educational standards, testing, and accountability. Even veteran teacher activists like Doug Little of The Little Education Report remain skeptical of what looked much like a “summer camp” for grown-ups.  Most Ontario parents, including Annie Kidder and People for Education, find themselves on the outside looking-in during the camp meetings.

Long-time education reformers like Malkin Dare, founder of the Canadian Society for Quality Education, do not look kindly on the core philosophy and implicit purpose of EdCamps. “My preference would be for teachers who went to conferences to learn how to hone their teaching of basic – and not-so-basic – skills and knowledge,” she recently wrote. ” Personally, I would rather that my children’s teachers didn’t view themselves as change agents, for I see this as an attempt to tamper with the parents’ job, nor do I believe that children should be allowed to determine what they learn – since this approach will inevitably leave random gaps in what should be a solid foundation.”   http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog/read/two-different-schools-of-thought/

Why is the EdCAmp Movement gaining some traction among teachers in the public education system?  What are young and enthusiastic teachers really looking for — and what do they need to improve their craft?  Why do so many EdCamp participants emerge from the sessions describing it as their “best PD experience ever’?  If that is so, are we blowing millions on PD for teachers that has little or no actual impact on the quality of, or passion for, teaching?

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Today’s junior and senior high school students are increasingly cyber-savvy, hungering for more opportunities to use technology inside the schools, and eager to participate in genuine collaborative learning .  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/commentary/don-tapscott/logged-on-to-learn/article1853529/  Mobile learning technology has been adopted almost en mass by the Net Generation and by today’s so-called “screenagers,”  but the vast majority of Canadian  public schools remain “locked-down” to the free use of such devices outside of designated rooms or access points.

Why are Canada’s public school systems so resistant to online learning and virtual schooling?  Educational futurists may trumpet the “21st Century Skills,” but the regulatory system conspires against any and all initiatives that challenge the status quo, based upon regulations that determine when, how, and where teaching and learning take place. One of the prime obstacles to online learning remains the teachers unions, powerful organizations that exercise hidden influence over everything that happens in the schools. http://www.aims.ca/en/home/library/details.aspx/1862

Recent annual reviews of the state of  Online Learning in Canada have demonstrated that the rigid structuring of schooling constitutes the greatest obstacle in Canadian provincial education systems. Two Canadian provinces, British Columbia and Alberta, are now recognizing the enormous potential of “blended learning” combining regular  “bricks and mortar” instruction with expanded online learning opportunities. Ontario has the most disjointed system, managed by a rather diffuse E-Learning Consortium. Of all the provinces, Prince Edward Island has no real policy and Nova Scotia stands out as being the most restrictive when it comes to online learning.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union, representing 9,800 teachers, staunchly defends the provincial Collective Agreement, a 191-page contract, which spells out, in exacting detail,  the number of days of instruction, school day  hours, class sizes, and every aspect of school working conditions.  http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/collective -agreements/teachers_provincial_agreement_english.pdf    Most of these hard-won rights achieved in the mid-1970s essentially put teachers ahead of kids in the system.

Like most Canadian teacher unions, the NSTU is dead set against “Virtual Schools” and defends classroom “seat-time” rules which limit online learning to a supplemental role in the P-12 public system.  When information technology innovations arise, the union instinctively resists the introduction of “lighthouse” Information Technology programs because of concerns over the “digital divide” and the system’s inability to guarantee “equality of service “ for all students. http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/society-societe/stories-histoires/story-histoire-eng.aspx?story_id=139

Technology may be transforming our everyday life, but Nova Scotia public schools are lagging in fully embracing the potential of the Internet and in integrating online learning into the system.  E-learning courses and programs as well as virtual schools are popping-up in Ontario (Virtual High School) and British Columbia, but remain few and far between in Nova Scotia’s school system.

At the elementary and secondary school level (P-12), regular “brick-and-mortar” schools are acquiring computer hardware and software, connecting them to the Internet, installing wireless networks, and offering in-service training in ICT (Information Communication Technologies) to both novice and experienced teachers.  http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/E-learning/E-Learning_Report_FINAL-E.PDF

In spite of provincial law and regulations, distance education student enrolments are holding their own, given the limits imposed by structural impediments, regulatory constraints, and budgetary restraint programs.  The infrastructure in a surprising number of public schools now enables Internet access, student portals, digital libraries, and networks that support laptops, handheld and other portable devices.

The province of Nova Scotia  has initiated and is developing a highly centralized , province-wide online learning program – the Nova Scotia Virtual School (NSVS). http://nsvs.ednet.ns.ca/m19/  It provides a central course management platform and delegates to the eight school boards the responsibility for providing course content written by practicing classroom teachers.

Since Nova Scotia has tended to lag behind in providing province-wide high speed Internet access, concerns about the urban-rural “digital divide” exert considerable influence on educational policy-making.  Although Nova Scotia has no P-12 distance education legislation, it is heavily regulated in the Teachers’ Contract with the NSTU.

The Nova Scotia regulatory regime pays utmost respect to negotiated teacher rights.  Some 11 specific clauses in the Agreement limit the provincial government’s freedom of action in providing online learning.  All online instructors must be certified teachers, employed by the public board, and are protected by provisions limiting their number of instructional days and working hours and guaranteeing them personal days as well as dedicated preparation and marking time.

Distance education is treated like a regular in-school program with supervisors, dedicated facilities space, and class groups limited to 20-25 students.   A provincial Distance Education Committee, with teacher union representation (four of 8 positions) exists to address “issues surrounding distance education.”

Online learning has a world of potential for promoting freer, more open access to the Internet and opening the door to new innovations taking better advantage of “e-Learning 2.0.”  Here again, Nova Scotia exemplifies the defensive reflex.  Virtually all NS  e-learning programs consist mainly of instructional packets, delivered to students as teacher-evaluated assignments. Newer e-learning opportunities for students are few and far between, even in urban schools.

Social learning with Facebook and Twitter also remains extremely rare across Canada, as is the use of social media software such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, and virtual worlds.   Few traditional classroom teachers use social networking unless they are communicating with their own professional colleagues. http://www.themarknews.com/articles/2368-should-schools-friend-facebook

Virtual schools are on the horizon and offer a glimmer of hope for realizing the enormous potential in meeting the needs of today’s learners. With education authorities and unions acting in collusion with one another, the sky (in cyberspace) has definite limits for kids.

What’s the real source of resistance to Online Learning in Canadian public education? Do education authorities see the contradiction in supporting “21st Century Skills” initiatives while maintaining restrictive regulatory regimes?  What will it take to unlock and tap into the full potential of online learning and virtual schools?   

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Cheaters do not really prosper in schools, but many are now being given a “second chance.”   In a few Canadian and American school districts, giving students a second chance to pass tests, examinations, and other assignments, has actually become accepted as “student assessment” policy promoting a unique 21st century concept of “fairness.”  In Newfoundland’s largest school board, the Eastern School District, the policy was changed in October 2011 so students cheating or plagiarizing will no longer be assigned a mark of zero.  http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1075276–cheating-students-get-second-chance-in-newfoundland

The Newfoundland and Labrador school board’s policy change is not what it seemed – an isolated and rather bizarre deviation from sound education policy. The tradional “automatic zero” is dying a slow death, aided and abetted by student assessment experts, and being supplanted by “do-over” evaluation practice in schools across North America. The Eastern School Board Superintendent Ford Rice was quite accurate when he claimed that the policy was driven by “current literature in education” and was “consistent in philosophy” with policies in other boards across Canada.  http://www.cbc.ca/news/pdf/nl-evaluation-regulations-20111005.pdf

Publicly announcing the Newfoundland school board’s new policy is what really sparked a firestorm of protest. President of the provincial Teachers’ Association Lily Cole spoke out, saying that teachers were not only frustrated but very unhappy with the policy which took responsibility for teaching “responsibility, respect, honesty, and values” away from regular teachers. “This just takes it out of our hands,” she told both CBC News and The Toronto Star.

“Students will not be given zeros for cheating,” Rice insisted, because the Board’s educational philosophy was to “separate student behaviour from learning to give us a true picture of what the student knows.”  Rising to defend the new student cheating policy on the airwaves was perhaps the leading exponent of “do-over” student assessment, Ontario education consultant Damian Cooper.  In the old system, he claimed, students who “failed at the test” were “tossed onto the heap ” and branded “non-achievers or low-achievers.”   http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2011/10/25/nl-cheating-student-reaction-teachers-1025.html

A close examination of newly revised Student Assessment policies in a cross-section of school boards in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ohio is most revealing. Most of the policies are like that of the Halifax Regional School Board (C.007 Program, 1.2.6.4), clearly separating the evaluation of student achievement from that of student behaviour.  Indeed, many use the same wording when separating the two and virtually identical to that found in Damian Cooper’s book, Talk About Assessment.  http://damiancooperassessment.com/talk.html  In his more recent offering, Redefining Fair, he goes even further in trying to dispel “outdated beliefs regarding fairness” in so-called “mixed-ability classrooms.”

What’s really happening in the strange world of student assessment?  A small band of learning assessment experts, led by Damian Cooper and one of his mentors, Scarborough consultant  Ken O’Connor, The Grade Doctor, exert a tremendous influence over school administrators and consultants with little or no background in testing or evaluation. “First and foremost,” O’Connor preaches, ” accuracy requires that behaviours and attitudes be separated from achievement, so that grades are pure measures of achievement.”  According to this iron dictum, late penalties, absence, academic dishonesty, or even bonus marks have no place in determining student grades. And furthermore, awarding percentage marks is unacceptable because “no one can accurately describe 101 levels” of proficiency. http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol5/503-newvoices.aspx

Student assessment experts like Damian Cooper pop up everywhere because most school boards are desperate to improve their idiosyncratic, autonomous, teacher-driven student evaluation practices. Over the 2009-10 school year, Cooper was hired to give “Tools for Assessment” Workshops from one end of the country to another, including prominent recorded talks in Vancouver, Barrie,ON,  and Sackville, NB.  From July 5 to 8, 2010, he was the sole presenter a a two-day intensive Workshop, entitled “Fostering Assessment Literacy in Our Schools” sponsored by the CMEC -Atlantic section, and funded by NB Education and all four teachers unions.

How were Damian Cooper’s assessment theories seeded in the Maritimes?  Look no further than the the Assessment Summit, held in late August 2009, at Halifax’s World Trade and Convention Centre.  Close to 600 school officials and teachers attended the extravaganza headlined by Damian Cooper, Ken O’Connor, and Rick Stiggins, head of Educational Testing Service (ETS) Assessment from Portland, Oregon.

A Media Advisory issued by the NSTU left no doubt about the actual purpose of the education Summit. ” These most distinguished assessment experts,” the SSRSB’s Sue Taylor-Foley stated,will illustrate the fundamental purpose of assessment is not to rate, rank, and sort students, but rather to provide meaningful feedback that leads to improved student learning.”  The core theme, she emphasized, was to promote “Common Assessment” across schools in Nova Scotia and beyond.  http://www.nstu.ca/images/pklot/MA_NSELC09.pdf

Since the Newfoundland cheating policy change hit the news, an eerie silence has descended upon Student Assessment Divisions in most Canadian school boards.  Superintendent Rice and NLSBA Executive Director Brian Shortall, supported by Cooper, have been fending off a wave of vocal opposition, leveled by irate parents, taxpayers, teachers and high school students.  Over 75% of all respondents to a CBC News St. John’s  poll were adamantly opposed to “pardoning” student cheaters.  On the CBC Radio Maritime Magazine show (October 29), “Mind the Gap,”  Shortall offered a rather feeble defense of the change and received some tacit support from NB Superintendent Karen Branscombe (NB District 2, Moncton).

Not every Canadian school board has given up on curbing student cheating and plagiarism. The Toronto and District School Board policy on “Academic Honesty” stands out as a prime example.  “Cheating and plagiarism will not be condoned,” the TDSB policy (PR613) proclaims. What happens if a student violates that policy?  “A mark of zero may be awarded for the assignment in question and a repeated pattern of academic dishonesty may result in an escalating severity of consequences.”

Giving student cheaters a second chance is symptomatic of profound changes now underway in student assessment policy.  Where is the educational research to support the student evaluation theories being espoused by Damian Cooper and his cohorts?  Does separating completely student achievement from student behaviour in the evaluation process make any real sense — and what are the likely consequences? Should student cheaters be pardoned in our schools?  Taking the larger view,  is all of this threatening to produce what might be called a “do-over” generation?

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