Archive for September, 2021



Education technology researcher Audrey Watters has a peculiar fascination with pigeons and their behaviour. The common domestic birds appear regularly in her popular education technology review Blog, Hack Education, and one adorns the flyleaf of her searing and insightful new book, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning. That affectation is inspired by none other than the infamous Harvard psychology professor B.F. Skinner, his “teaching machine,” and lab experiments with pigeons.

            Skinner and his experiments with pigeons, some of which he trained to play ping-pong, provide Watters with an ingenious way of conveying the hidden dangers associated with early teaching machines and their contemporary successors, personal computers. While at Harvard in the 1950s, Skinner was a leading proponent of behaviorism, a school of psychological thought now in disfavour. The foundation for early forms of education technology, such as Skinner’s mechanical teaching device, she points out, was to give students – just like his pigeons—positive reinforcement so that students, again like pigeons, would learn new skills.  

            Watters provides a very thorough, impeccably researched look at Skinner and his role in the launch of ‘Didak 101’ to teach spelling and his repeated, mostly futile, attempts to promote the widespread adoption of early teaching machines. She is particularly effective in demonstrating how the media shapes people’s perceptions of such inventions and raises public awareness of the psychological theories underpinning the latest ‘tech toys.’ Adopting a broader societal approach, the author analyzes the machines in the context of education reform, particularly the global impact of Sputnik in the 1950s, the explosion of the textbook industry, and the advent of every-student assessment.


            Skinner claimed that his teaching machines allowed students to learn at their own pace, a cardinal principle of today’s “personalized learning.” Yet Watters’ research and writing demonstrates its unintended effects. By their design and operation, such devices (much like contemporary ed tech) not only limit what students learn but lead to the standardization of the teaching and learning process. More profoundly, while behaviorism (i.e., animal behaviour training and operant conditioning) is considered passe, it continues to inform and influence a new generation of education technology.

            Watters’ much-anticipated and long-in-the- making book fills a gaping hole in our understanding of the origin and implementation of education technology. Her earlier writings, including the four-part “Monsters of Education Technology” series and regular barbed online commentaries earned her a reputation as “ed-tech’s Cassandra.” This major piece of work will establish her as the foremost public intellectual and independent scholar in the field.


Reviewer Peter Greene hit the nail on the head in his recent Forbes Magazine assessment.  It’s an amazing accomplishment when a single, compact and readable book manages to “connect the dots” as well as “bridge the gaps between history, technology and education.” The book also provides plenty of evidence in support of the recent work of American education technology critic Justin Reich, exemplified in his 2020 book, Failure to Disrupt, excoriating ed-tech hype and demonstrating why more recent technological marvels will not transform education.

            The founder of Khan Academy, Salman Kahn, author of the 2012 best-seller The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, provides a convenient foil for Watters because he demonstrates a deeply flawed grasp of the evolution of teaching and learning.  Like many others, including the late Sir Ken Robinson, he perpetuates the ingrained mythology that the American and Canadian education system remained “static” or unchanged from the late 1890s onward for over a hundred years. While the invention of the Internet had an impact, the ed-tech and classroom apps of today are more of a continuation of inventions and trends going back as far as the 1920s, to the days of Sidney Pressey and the earliest teaching machine pioneers.

            The prevailing assumptions and fallacies perpetuated by education technology evangelists and high-tech corporate business executives come in for some telling and deadly accurate analysis. Most know little or nothing about history and base their decisions on often faulty perceptions. Whether they fully understand the context or not, they simply proceed to build ed tech products, promulgate policies, and predict the future based upon such “futuristic” visions. They do use history “willy-nilly,” as American education historian David Tyack wisely observed. Watters’ book will go a long way to setting the record straight.

            Teaching machines matter in education and that’s why Watters’ book is such a welcome addition to a field well-stocked with titles extolling the virtues of ed-tech and heralding the imminent arrival of ‘the next big thing.’  Technological innovations from the early teaching machines to now are interwoven into the evolution of modern school systems as well as classroom teaching and learning practices. That’s where the book excels – in helping us to understand the technocratic culture that dominates K-12 education.

            Teaching machines, as Watters amply demonstrates, are not just ‘flashes in the pan’ but harbingers of successive changes in the ‘warp and woof’ of systems and classroom culture. “Their ongoing influence,” she contends, is embedded in the contemporary push for both “personalized technologies and behavioral engineering” in the schools. The real legacy of a succession of machines lies precisely, in her words, in “the technocratic culture that they helped engender in education.” 

Why is the history of teaching machines littered with failed experiments?  What motivated B.F. Skinner and the early inventors of teaching machines?  Why did his early teaching machine take the educational world of the 1950s by storm?  Whatever happened to the curricular mutation known as “programmed learning” popular in the 1970s?  Will machines and apps programmed to provide “personalized learning” ever displace humans in the classroom?  

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Canada’s schools and the K-12 education system are weathering the most profound crisis and, over the past 18-months, many certainties have dissolved in the face of the seemingly never-ending succession of COVID-19 disruptions. Emerging out of the maelstrom, we are now in a better position to see, grapple with, and set aside a few “zombie ideas” in education.

Prevailing assumptions about mass schooling, ingrained beliefs about ‘minimally-guided’ student learning, and idealized visions of ‘21st century learning’ have been severely tested and found mostly wanting. Entering the school year, our five million students, their teachers and families, are far more attuned to the impact and realities of “learning loss” and the current challenges of tackling the impact upon student achievement and well-being.

What’s most amazing is that a surprising, although diminishing, number of school administrators, education professors, and educators continue to deny the existence of “student learning loss” to the point where it may now qualify as the latest example of a “zombie idea” in K-12 education.

“Zombie ideas,” New York Times commentator Paul Krugman argues are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Nine years ago, American education historian Larry Cuban, alerted us to their prevalence, especially in relation to popular and inflated claims about “online instruction.”

School closures have cost the ‘pandemic generation,’ from province-to-province, from 8 (Quebec) to 24 (Ontario) weeks of regular, in-class instruction. Prominent Canadian public policy analyst Irvin Studin, president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, estimates that some 200,000 students, poor and affluent, have been “lost” or excluded from participation in any form of schooling.

Topsy-turvy pandemic education definitely left marginalized and special needs students more vulnerable. That is not in dispute, but there is still a residue of what might be termed ‘learning loss’ denial, perpetuated mostly by education theorists and their allies imbued with romantic ideas once associated with ‘progressivism.’   

A recent examples of this Canadian education school of thought was the response to the “pandemic catastrophe” produced by University of Toronto Schools teacher Josh Fullan, echoing the sentiments of  a vocal group of colleagues at the University of Ottawa faculty of education. Fullan and the University of Ottawa contingent continue to see ‘silver linings’ and urge schools to “honour what students gained amid the pandemic.”  

Learning was disrupted and often imperfect, Fullan contends, but not lost.  “Strong public systems,” “allies at school and home,” and the “adaptability of students” deserve more credit than they are receiving, according to Fullan. That is why he believes that phrases like “catching up” or “closing the gap” should be avoided and, rather remarkably, the term “learning loss” stricken from the lexicon in K-12 education.

Such assertions are simply outlandish on the heals of a global crisis affecting schools, students, teachers and families everywhere. Claiming that “learning loss” either doesn’t exist or is inconsequential (after 18-months of school disruptions) is one “zombie idea” without a shred of supporting evidence and one that “refuses to die.”

A profoundly important recent Ontario study, produced in June 2021 by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and a team of Ontario Science Table university researchers, documented the extent of system-wide school closures and flagged the problem of “learning loss,” identified and being researched in education jurisdictions around the world.

While the researchers recognized the limitations of the current system-wide student assessment model, they noted the absence of any “learning loss” data in the province and identified the blind spot that compels researchers to utilize and apply research findings from other comparable jurisdictions.  That simply would not be necessary if the “zombie idea” that “learning loss” doesn’t matter was not already heavily influencing the prevailing research agenda in our ministries of education and education faculties. 

 Closing provincial school systems for weeks on end has got to have some academic impact; otherwise, one might ask – if learning is so natural, why do we go to school in the first place?  Without sound, reliable student assessment data, we can only assume that missing huge chucks of schooling, lurching back-and-forth into remote learning, and rapid adjustments to hybrid secondary school schedules, has already produced significant academic and psycho-social consequences for kids and teens.  

            “Zombie ideas” never seem to go disappear in K-12 education. A few months ago, Bryan Goodwin, head of Denver research institute, McREL International, created quite a stir with an ASCD commentary identifying six “zombie ideas” that refuse to die. Learning styles, unguided discovery learning, whole word reading, and teach critical thinking rather than facts made that ignominious list. The peculiar fallacy that “learning loss is of no consequence” never occurred to him, likely because it’s so implausible.

School closures have cost the ‘pandemic generation,’ from province-to-province, from 8 to 24 weeks of regular, in-class instruction and thousands opted-out of any form of schooling. Surely that matters and will have consequences, down the line, for our elementary and secondary school-age students.

Why do “Zombie Ideas” persist in K-12 education?  Is “Learning Loss is of little consequence” the latest “Zombie Idea” to surface and persist 18-months into the massive disruption of regular schooling?  Is it persisting because of educators’ passive and determined resistance to the resumption of system-wide student assessment?  If we keep delaying student testing, how can we possibly know the extent of the “learning loss” in terms of knowledge and skills?


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At the end of July 2021, University of New Brunswick president Paul Mazerolle posted a remarkably upbeat and positive COVID-19 community update. “We are approaching September with optimism and excitement,” it read, and, after 18-months of implementing health restrictions, the university would be opening up its campuses and returning, as much as possible, to normal. 

While that communique was being drafted and posted, many North American colleges and universities were announcing strict policies requiring students, staff and faculty to be vaccinated for COVID to come on campus for the coming year. Leading American universities, including UC-Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale led the way. By the first week of August, some 664 U.S. universities and colleges had required students or employees to be vaccinated before returning in September 2021. 

Our universities and colleges were much slower to react to the resurgence of COVID-19 in the form of the much more transmissible Delta variant. First out of the gate in Canada was Toronto’s Seneca College, which announced July 12 students and staff on all campuses would be required to be vaccinated with a Health Canada approved vaccine. A couple of days later, Cape Breton University broke ranks with other Atlantic universities and required vaccinations for all students living in residence. 

Seneca president David Agnew attracted considerable attention and much praise for his stance. “Everything that we’re doing as a country is trying to beat this virus,” he told the National Post. “We know the way we can do that is to get vaccinated and stop the spread. It was just the right thing to do to continue to protect the health and safety of our community.” Exemptions for medical reasons are being respected, with proper documentation, and it does not apply to students studying exclusively online. 

An international debate over vaccinating returning students may have been swirling outside gates, but UNB officialdom remained unmoved for months, much like the vast majority of their counterparts throughout the Maritime region. Halfway down the list of “de-escalation plan” guidelines earlier this month was the simple statement of policy: “COVID vaccinations are not required at UNB, but they are highly recommended to keep you and your community safe.” 

With faculty clamouring for tougher COVID-19 measures, some universities and colleges soon opted to follow Cape Breton University in requiring vaccinations for residence students and others, most notably Brock University, the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto decided in July to require vaccinations for varsity athletics. 

Civil liberties advocacy groups, including the Constitutional Rights Centre (CRC), which represents Children’s Health Defense Canada, then jumped in, sending a legal notice to Ontario’s Western University claiming that “mandatory vaccines” violate individual rights and “have no place in a constitutional democracy.” Many legal experts dispute this claim, pointing to children’s vaccination requirements in elementary school grades. 

Two law professors, Amit Attaran of the University of Ottawa and Jacob Shelley of Western University, created quite a stir with their comments in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine. With just 38 per cent of university-aged adults (18-29) fully vaccinated in June, they claimed that Canadian universities were running the risk of being “the dunces of COVID-19” by not requiring vaccinations. 

Such arguments seemed to hold little or no sway in New Brunswick. Inquiries to local universities made in researching this commentary throughout the summer elicited some vague and non-committal replies. “The University is working to have more in-person classes and activities on campus this year, following Public Health guidelines” and is “strongly encouraging” everyone to get vaccinated before returning to campus, Mount Allison University communications officer Laura Dillman assured me. 

Far more cautious than New Brunswick universities in the Atlantic region was Memorial University of Newfoundland. President Vianne Timmons announced that a hybrid model will again be in place for students this coming fall semester. When pressed for the rationale, she said the decision was made a month earlier, based upon medical evidence available at that time. 

Most regional higher education institutions spent weeks talking positively and sounding surprisingly complacent with the Delta variant rising and universities elsewhere tightening their vaccination policies. Inquiries about forecasted enrolments after 18 months of the pandemic went unanswered and were intended to be kept under tight wraps until early October, just like any other year.

 Our universities seemed to be COVID-proof, if we were to believe the official pronouncements, published data, and curated answers to pointed questions.

“Universities are pretty optimistic in terms of applications,” said Peter Halpin, Executive Director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. “You could look at it as a ‘double cohort year,” he added, referring to the expected bump from students who may have deferred university last year to wait out the pandemic. 

Much of the optimism seemed to spring from the favourable reputation for public health management and infectious disease prevention earned over the past 18 months of pandemic conditions. “We developed an international reputation as being a relatively safe place to go to university,” Halpin said.

Higher levels of trust in public health authorities are also helpful. That may explain why New Brunswick universities and colleges thought they could rely upon moral suasion without the clear need for mandating vaccinations as a condition of returning to campuses. 

Higher education expert Ken Steele, CEO of Eduvation, provides weekly updates on COVID-19 announcements and policy changes, covering universities and colleges right across Canada. Since the advent of the pandemic, he found Atlantic universities to be quieter than usual and content to fly below the radar. “Informed optimism” is the phrase he used to capture the general tenor of COVID-19 university communications. 

Policy experts and health professionals outside the Maritime region were more adamant about the need to get university and college students and staff vaccinated as soon as possible. Canadian universities, according to University of Ottawa health law professor Attaran, are underestimating how important it is to get everyone vaccinated and lacking the courage to mandate vaccination certificates.


“Would they merely ‘encourage’ their students to install smoke alarms in their residences? I think not,” he stated. “There are no legal barriers to requiring vaccination as a condition for attendance.” 

Health law and policy researcher Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta put it more gently. There’s evidence of complacency in Canadian universities, he said, and offering carrots to raise the vaccination rate may not work with this age cohort of the population. It’s “crunch time,” he said back in mid-July, “and I think we need to think more seriously about sticks,” especially if we are “going to get to herd immunity” in the wider community. 

Perhaps that explains the sudden change of heart in so many Atlantic universities. Within a matter of days in late August, Mount Allison University, the University of New Brunswick, St. Thomas University and the Université de Moncton announced some combination of mandatory vaccination or rapid tests would be required, after all. With the rapid reversal still sinking in, precise details for most Atlantic schools still need to be worked out.

Making predictions and taking bold actions is risky after what we have learned about the unpredictability of the pandemic. With Delta rising, complacency also carries certain risks. It seems those risks finally had an effect on Maritime Canadian universities’ back-to-school plans – almost too late to be implemented in time.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Telegraph-Journal and all daily newspapers affiliated with Brunswick News.


Why were most Canadian and virtually every Maritime university so slow to react during the Summer of 2021 in response to the pandemic resurgence? What explains the abrupt about-face within a few short weeks of university reopening?  When it came, why was it in a cascade of copy-cat announcements? Are there lessons here about the dynamics of decision-making in Canadian higher education?


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