The high-sounding North American vision of “21st Century Learning,” actively promoted by educational leaders and global learning corporations, has had real trouble taking-off in Atlantic Canadian school systems.
New Brunswick was first out of the gate in May 2010 embracing “21st Century Learning,” but that province’s flirtation with technology-driven school reform amounted to a flash in the pan. Four years later, an upbeat and visually attractive Nova Scotia “21st Century Learning” discussion paper appeared parroting, virtually word-for-word, the “technology shift” vision of our national education technology lobby group C21 Canada — and its dramatic call to action merely floated above the schools.
How and why the “21st Century Technology Shift” plan ran amok and what can be learned from that whole venture is the prime focus of my latest AIMS research report, E-Learning in P-12 Schools: The Prospects for Disruptive Innovation.
Since the bold, top-down New Brunswick initiative to introduce 21st Century Learning capsized five years ago, the region’s leading educators have been leery of the pan-Canadian movement promoting 21st century learning and technology-driven education.
Nova Scotia’s flirtation with “21st Century Learning” did not really register with students, teachers or parents, nor did it figure in either the October 2014 Education Review or the eventual Three Rs Education Reform Plan, released in late January 2015. A well-funded attempt to introduce the innovative ideas of American education technology guru Salman Khan into the teaching of Grade 7 Mathematics and Science in Nova Scotia schools did not fare much better.
Instead of promoting technology innovation, a January 2016 Nova Scotia Education CANeLearn presentation extolled the virtues of the centrally-managed Nova Scotia Virtual High School, enrolling just 500 of the province’s 118,000 students. It also chose to highlight Article 49 of the Nova Scotia Teachers Contract, limiting online classes to between 22 and 25 students and confining instruction to regularly scheduled school times.
Taken together with previous ventures, the CAN-e-Learn presentation confirmed that not much had changed in the Maritimes. Containing and managing online learning and limiting the creative potential of “disruptive innovation” remained the prevailing mode of operations.
Skepticism about passing educational fads is healthy and perhaps understandable, but structural barriers and resistance to technological innovation in the schools are now holding us back.
My AIMS report sought to spark the needed “disruptive innovation” in our school system and to incite deeper learning for students. Such a strategy, initially built around supporting core innovation teams in each school, would include demonstrations of effective blended learning activities, the introduction of A La Carte model school courses, lifting of provincial restrictions on online classes, establishing reliable measures of “learning competencies,” and transforming our ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system into a “portfolio” of schools offering the full range of face-to-face, online and blended school programs.
The official reaction of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to my report was totally bizarre. Turning teaching and IT services over to Google and partnering with Pearson International/Power School are perfectly fine, but– according to a peculiar May 18, 2016 media release—the “sentiments” expressed in my policy paper were downright dangerous. Teaching innovations, it appears, are welcome as long as they follow the prescribed curriculum within the ‘brick-and-mortar’ school model.
What’s really strange about that NSTU release was that the report was actually a call for teacher autonomy and freedom from the constraints inhibiting technology innovation in the schools. It all looked very much like the latest example of an all-too prevalent form of cognitive dissonance known as “bias confirmation.” That’s the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms preconceived beliefs and to rule out other alternative explanations.
Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. Introducing Google Apps for Education, piloted last year in Nova Scotia schools, broke the mould and could well be a step in the right direction, but it’s still too early to tell.
The potential of e-learning will only be unleashed if we work with regular classroom teachers, and mobilize those teachers from the school-level up. My nine school-based, teacher-friendly policy recommendations may bear repeating:
- Support early adopters committed to initiating Blended Learning Programs, giving them the freedom and resources to innovate outside the framework of the traditional classroom;
- Strengthen, expand and seed self-directed Online Learning Programs, especially in areas such as elementary literacy and mathematics, remedial tutoring, high school credit recovery, Advanced Placement coursework, and co-curricular gaming activities;
- Focus on building the A La Carte model of Blended Learning Programs in junior and senior high schools, offering engaging, substantive, and meaningful courses otherwise unavailable to students;
- Clear away the current structural barriers and regulatory constraints, like Article 49, to encourage more flexible, responsive online learning program initiatives outside the normal boundaries of brick-and-mortar schooling;
- Build school leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation, providing principals and instructional leaders with the competencies and skills required to nurture, support and protect innovations in Blended Learning;
- Develop and test more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations, including more reliable ways of measuring “learning competencies,” assessing the acquisition of core knowledge, and improving levels of student performance;
- Broaden the range of E-Learning Innovation policy initiatives through expanded school program choices, greater teacher autonomy, more flexible staffing formulas, expanded student learning time, and accredited, autonomous virtual high schools:
- Foster the development, school-by-school, of more agile, flexible and adaptable alternative school programs, including incubator (e-learning) schools;
- Transform traditional top-down school management systems into true “communities of schools” providing face-to-face, online and blended learning program choices.
Students and teachers yearning for more stimulating and engaging high quality instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning, deserve much more from the school system. Skillful teachers properly supported and equipped need to be feed-up and given more scope to innovate in our schools. That might well be dangerous — to the status quo.
What’s standing in the way of teacher-led initiatives in e-learning that incite deeper learning? How can we transform school systems into “communities of schools” offering face-to-face instruction, online learning, and blended learning program options? Where do the constraints originate and how can they be cleared away? What would it take to empower skillful teachers equipped with educational technology to go deeper with students?