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Archive for the ‘Computers in Schools’ Category

Why do so many “Digital Age” Ed-Tech initiatives run aground in the classroom? That was the critical question that I tackled on September 10, 2016, at the researchED 2016 National Conference in London, UK.  My short presentation set out to confront the significant challenges posed for classroom teachers by initiatives attempting to usher in what is now termed the “Brave New World” of 21st century learning. It also attempted to pick-up and further develop insights gleaned from Tom Bennett’s thought-provoking 2013 book, Teacher Proof, an indispensable little handbook for every teacher who’s been introduced to an ‘innovative’ teaching strategy or ‘new’ curriculum and been told that it is “based upon the research.”

elearningred2016coverThe current 21st Century Learning mantra likely found its origins in a very influential November 2000 OECD Schooling for Tomorrow address by Sir Michael Barber, British PM Tony Blair’s chief education advisor. In his sppech, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Re-conceptualizing Public Education,” he provided the essential narrative, replicated in most of the derivative education initiatives:

The explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning, combined with the growing power of technology, creates the potential to transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of the teacher and the learner. Moreover, huge social changes, such as growing diversity and population mobility, present educators with new and constantly changing circumstances. As a result, the characteristics which defined the successful education systems of, say, 1975, are unlikely to be those which will define success in the future.”

Barber and his disciples unleashed what I term “Big Idea mimmickry” that popped up in a whole series of top-down education policy spin-offs ranging from the infamous June 2009 UK “Your Child, Your Schools,Our Future” declaration to New Brunswick’s short-lived 2010 “21st Century Learning” initiative (NB3-21C) with its bizarre CRT2 formula, with C standing for “Creativity,” R representing “Relevance,” the first T signifying “Time” and the second one “Technology.” In the case of New Brunswick, it provided a convenient new pedagogy to accompany the mass distribution of laptops to all of the province’s teachers. While the NB plan fizzled and died, its initiator, Deputy Minister John D. Kershaw, resurrected it and took it nation-wide rebranded as C21 Canada: Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, championed by the Council of Ministers of Education and bankrolled by Canadian branches of the world’s leading learning corporations.

Most “Digital Age Revolution” plans, like the September 2015 North Carolina version, promote “binary thinking” pitting the “old” against the “new,” analogue vs. digital, and traditional vs digital age/progressive.  It all rests upon the purely theoretical assumption that constructivist learning is better than explicit instruction, and proceeds to perpetuate such false dichotomies. The latest iteration, Michael Fullan’s “New Pedagogies of Deeper Learning,” hatched with Barber and Pearson Education, is the most recent example of Digital Age pedagogical theory rooted in such fallacious thinking.

cyclinguphill21ctrilling2009Twenty first century learning advocates set out to “Shift Minds” utilizing You Tube videos mimicking Colorado IT teacher Karl Fisch’s 2006 smash hit, Shift Happens.  Riding that 21st century bicycle has proven difficult, facing an uphill climb against stiff headwinds emanating from resistant classroom teachers and legions of concerned elementary school parents.

Three dominant ideologies have recently arisen to propel the latest phase of high-tech education: personalization, robotization, and Goolization. Mass introduction of ICT is now packaged as a way of “personalizing” education for today’s students, allowing them to work more independently and to proceed at their own pace.  Preparing pupils for a life “dancing with robots” is now accepted uncritically as a necessity in the 21st century workplace.  School districts once cautious about technology integration are turning to Google for single-source agreements to get free or heavily discounted access to Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Few  education bureaucrats seem to question these priorities or the implications of such technological initiatives.

Education policy analysts like Stanford Education professor Larry Cuban and Hack Education blogger Audrey Watters have issued periodic warnings about the impact of “machines” on teachers in the classroom. In Teachers and Machines, Cuban examined previous cycles of classroom technology from film strip projectors to calculators. Every new innovation, he shows, has followed the same pattern in the classroom: adoption by teachers, inflated claims by enthusiasts, deflated expectations, then followed by a new technological panacea.

So far, ed-tech has not transformed how teachers teach in the classroom. That’s the firm assessment of Larry Cuban in a June 2015 piece posted on the Education Week Digital Learning Blog. It also prompted me to dig a little deeper to find our why there is such teacher resistance to initiatives seeking to introduce widespread e-learning in K-12 schools.

Based upon my own recent research, conducted for an upcoming chapter in the Springer Guide to Digital Learning in K-12 Schools (September 2016), the explanation is deceptively simple. Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels tend to falter and rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. The potential of e-learning will only be realized when initiatives enjoy the support of regular classroom teachers and engage those teachers from the school-level up.

sheepdippingukTop-down initiatives simply do not work in education, and a succession of struggling high-tech education initiatives are proving this every school day in classrooms world-wide. Four critical factors come into play in undoing such initiatives: great teaching still matters most, “sheep dip” tech-ed training does not last, new pedagogies are merely ‘warmed-over’ constructivist ventures, and teachers integrate IT only when it demonstrably improves their teaching effectiveness.

All is not lost when it comes to introducing technology and e-learning in the classroom, if the hard lessons are absorbed by wise education policy makers and head teachers, capable of tuning out 21c learning missionaries and IT zealots. It will take what I describe as a “flexible, agile, responsive approach” starting with teachers themselves.

To that end, at researchEd 2016 in London, I proposed four strategies with a better chance of succeeding in winning over today’s teachers.

1: Support Early Adopters committed to Technology Integration and initiating Blended Learning Programs

2: Strengthen and expand Existing and ‘Seed’ New Self-Directed Online Learning Programs

3: Focus on building the A La Carte  Model of Blended Learning Programs in Junior and Senior High Schools

4: Build School Leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation

5: Develop and test (before proceeding large-scale) more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations.

What is really needed is a much more strategic, longer-term Technology Integration plan in our school systems. Teachers must be in full control of the technology— to produce true deeper knowledge of much greater benefit to students.  Students and teachers are yearning for more stimulating and engaging classroom instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning. We deserve much more from our schools.  My presentation was intended, in a small way, to demystify e-learning in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Why do high-sounding 21st century learning initiatives fail to gain traction among classroom teachers?  When will high-tech education advocates begin to demonstrate that their have absorbed the hard lessons?  Is my modest set of proposals worth pursuing?  Would it work – where it counts – with teachers and students in the classroom? 

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“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.

MinecraftFatherSonA ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children.  Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools.  A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.

One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.

“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”

After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.

ChildUtopiaThe Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.

Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”

MinecraftJuneauClassMicrosoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”

The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory.  In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance. 

Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds?  Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools?  What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports?  Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past? 

 

 

 

 

 

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The World Wide Web is an amazing human creation with unlimited potential to advance the education of children and youth. In its first phase, it was exciting and wide open, stimulating innovative thinking, sparking incredible creativity, and fomenting a little anarchy.  Out of this creative chaos emerged a master integrator known as Google. 

GAFEBoysWith its global mission—“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”—and its much-quoted mantra, “Don’t be evil,” Google won converts worldwide. More recently, Google Apps for Education (GAFE) has taken K-12 education by storm. School systems have adopted and embraced GAFE with remarkable zeal and surprisingly little critical analysis of its impact upon the way we think,  the personal privacy of students, or the implications for professional development. Google now competes with Microsoft and a few smaller players for a large share of the $8-9 billion market for software for elementary and secondary schools.

Google Apps for Education, first introduced in 2006, attracted some 30 million users (students, teachers and administrators) by 2013-14 before it hit a bump in the road. While Google kept GAFE advertisement-free, they did scan the contents of students g-mail accounts, gathering information that could be used to target ads to those students elsewhere online.

In 2013, students and g-mail users in California banded together to sue Google, claiming that e-mail scanning violated wiretap laws. During the litigation, Google conceded that they were scanning emails sent and received by students using GAFE.  Faced with a wave of popular opposition and media criticism, Google announced, in April 2014, that it would no longer mine student email accounts for ad-targeting purposes. That followed a decision made two weeks earlier that a competitor, InBloom, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was shutting down its operations.

The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) is one of hundreds of school systems that have jumped on the latest 21st Century digital learning bandwagon. Three years ago, without much fanfare, provincial school authorities announced that they would be signing an agreement with Google to implement GAFE in the public schools.  After piloting the program in a number of schools in 2014-15, the DoEECD  decided to make GAFE available to every single child and teacher in the 400 schools across the province.

The Nova Scotia GAFE service, according to high school teacher Grant Frost, provides every student and teacher user with their own g-mail account, as well as several useful applications, including Google Docs, a leading edge word processing program, Google Sheets, which outperforms Excel, and Google Slides, which is a more integrated multi-platform version of PowerPoint. Users also have access to Google Classroom, where, with a click of mouse and a one time code entry, they can sign up for a class and receive notifications about upcoming events, class assignments and ask about homework questions with their teacher via his/her cell phone at all times of the week.

Twenty thousand out of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 students are now using free computer software from Google as part of their classroom activities. Provincial education officials expect Google Apps for Education to be nearly universal by the end of 2016-17.  The cloud-based suite of programs can be accessed on any electronic device with an internet connection and a web browser. It includes email, word processing and assignment management software. Some school boards have chosen to issue students $200 devices called Chromebooks to let them access Google products at school and at home.

Google Apps for Education is spreading quickly and teacher training summits have been held or are scheduled to be held in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and BC as well as Nova Scotia.  In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is now transmitted on-line, and more readily accessible if you have the electronic tools to access the information.

Google provides access to Apps for Education to schools for free, along with unlimited electronic storage on Google’s servers, with the expectation that students will be ‘inducted’ through education into the World of GoogleDr. Mike Smit, a computer scientist and associate professor at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management, told CBC News Nova Scotia  that the cost per student, per year of the free access is negligible for a company as large as Google. Besides, he said, Google has all the training modules and infrastructure in place to minimize its costs of implementation.

Many educators like Grant Frost express grave concern about the “digital divide” and the inequities in terms of student access to computers and digital devices. In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is available on-line, if one only has the means to access it. Its hard to expect full student participation when,  according to a 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, 1 out of every 5 children living in Nova Scotia in 2012 was living below the poverty line.

Canadian universities, like K-12 school systems, have embraced “cloud technologies,” turning either to Google or Microsoft as the favoured vendors for outsourcing of  their eCommunications services. Ontario’s Lakehead University was early out of the gate late in 2006 and became the legal test case for the legality of storing sensitive personal data outside the country.  After it was settled in a 2009 arbitration decision ruling in favour of outsourcing, most universities went that route. More recently, academics Heidi Bohaker and John M. Dirks, have raised serious questions about the impact of outsourcing on “digital archives” containing personal user accounts, organizational memory, external and internal online conversations.

Student privacy concerns have not gone away in the United States. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint on December 1, 2015 with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches. It also launched a “Spying on Students” campaign, which launched today. to raise awareness about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software.

EFFSpyingonStudentsThe EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and found holes in the protection of student privacy and evidence of unfair trade practices.  While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on the inexpensive brand of Chromebooks sold to schools.

The California-based advocacy group claims that the “Sync” feature allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.  Since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are left unaware of the scanning of student data and unable to prevent Google’s data collection.

Does the spread of Google Apps for Education raise unresolved student privacy issues and the spectre of major corporations mining metadata to shape their messaging? Is student and teacher data stored with “cloud technologies” safe, secure and free from domestic spying operations? What’s the impact on education when whole school systems outsource to one supplier whether it be Google or a competitor? Is it possible for Google to virtually subsume professional development through system-wide online training and the enlisting of Google certified teacher-trainers?

 

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Introducing computer coding in the early grades is now emerging as the favoured strategy for ‘seeding’ entrepreneurial skills in the schools. Since former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed in his famous 2012 New Year’s resolution to learn code, digital industry leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have rallied around Code.org, a movement to get school children to learn about programming. Every year since, in early December, millions of students world-wide have participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code, a week-long event designed to promote the renewal of computer science education.

CodingKidsInitiativeThe so-called CodeKids movement, inspired largely by Microsoft-funded Code.org, is spreading like wildfire in and around North American school systems. Acadia University president Ray Ivany’s 2014 Now or Never report, effectively declared the Maritime province of Nova Scotia an economic ‘basket case” and called for urgent action to stoke-up “entrepreneurship” and implant it in the rising generation. It then emerged as one of six major “action points” branded as “our ICT Momentum” hoisted up by the subsequent One Nova Scotia Coalition as key strategies to revitalize the province’s struggling economy.

Computer coding for students is seen by One Nova Scotia zealots as a critical part of the teaching entrepreneurship agenda. With the support of New Brunswick CodeKids champion David Alston, younger Nova Scotians such as Jevon MacDonald of Volta Labs, succeeded in September 2015 in bringing “Brilliant Labs” promoting STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) to a first cohort of pilot schools. In late October 2015, Nova Scotia Education minister Karen Casey went one step further, announcing that “mandatory coding” would be taught in every grade from Primary to Grade 12 in the province’s 400 public schools.

The Nova Scotia curriculum initiative, purportedly the first in Canada, presented “coding” as the primary means of implanting entrepeneurial skills. “We know that coding promotes problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation and creativity,” Casey claimed. “And we know that these skills are directly related to industries like computer programming, manufacturing, communications and more.”

Education Minister Casey’s implementation plan proved less convincing.  Mandatory coding courses would start in a few months, September 2016, and be implemented by existing teachers retooled to teach introductory computer science. That professional development training, she added, would be provided by staff from IBM and Google brought in to instruct the prospective teachers.

However laudable the initiative, the Nova Scotia implementation strategy left a lot to be desired. No specific reference was made to the existing Brilliant Labs pilot project, to the current competencies of teachers, the state of the school-level technology infrastructure, or the potential for ongoing business partnerships. While the plan was lauded by Nova Scotia’s relatively small private business class, including Jordi Morgan and the CFIB Atlantic, it was presented as yet another ‘inside the system’ project.

Many national and local businesses actively promote technology education and specifically programming in the schools.  Most promoters of teaching code are convinced that ICT (Information Communications Technology) is not only the wave of the future but the gateway to most jobs for today’s students. Mesmerized by the Internet revolution, they see an urgent need for teachers and their schools to finally get on board.

Nova Scotia is in economic decline and ripe for urgent action. In the province, ICT accounts for 8.2 per cent of the business sector and is considered a potential future growth sector. To retain young Nova Scotians, the province is scrambling to support its fledgling, mostly grant-funded “start-up” community, seeing them as sources of future employment. The strategy is one of necessity, given the slow decline of traditional private sector employment industries like pulp and paper, fishing, and resource development.

Computer coding may be a rather narrow base upon which to launch the needed entrepreneurial transformation. Computer Science died out as a credit subject in Nova Scotia schools over the past two decades, as it did in most other provincial school systems. It was approached as a branch of Mathematics where students were barred from entering without first acquiring higher level Math competencies. Faculties of education stopped training Computer Science teachers because demand dried up while industry and commerce was becoming more and more driven by the latest technology. Students resorted to learning programming on their own or later in the changing workplace.

Technology is here to stay but as a tool to unlock new knowledge not an end in itself.  Current teachers “assigned” to teach computer coding may not be the best ones to actually deliver the new program. Judging from the Ontario SNOW program, focusing on providing Special Education teachers with the latest assistive learning technology, employing technology tends to introduce new challenges in class management. Planning for successful implementation will involve supporting teachers in new and unfamiliar pedagogical terrain outside their normal teaching comfort zones.

The private business sector has been crying, in recent decades, for more graduates with computer science knowledge or higher level technological competencies.  Former teachers like Halifax technology expert Ari Najarian have been sounding alarm bells and even presenting new curriculum for junior and senior high schools. It was next-to-impossible to get those inside the system to pay much attention until Gates, Zuckerberg and Alston forced their way onto the public agenda.

The American promoters at Code.org and the annual Hour of Code attracted millions of students and thousands of teacher converts. In Nova Scotia, it took the “shock treatment” administered by Ray Ivany’s dire economic forecast.

Will introducing mandatory computer coding at all grade levels drive the change? Are school systems awakening to the need to fully embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in slow growth regions? Where will the capable, qualified teachers of computer science come from? Will the focus on developing fundamental reading and numeracy skills be helped or hurt by the ICT initiative? How long will it take to produce a new generation of computer savvy, technologically proficient graduates?

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Technology and the Social Media are growing like a weed almost everywhere except inside the schools.  Prominent digital learning advocates like Alberta’s George Couros (@The Principal of Change) and New Yorker Tom Whitby (@My Island View) have both recently expressed exasperation with school districts and teachers who remain oblivious to the potential for learning unleashed by the spread of social networks. With traditional institutions like the churches taking advantage of Facebook, Twitter and You Tube, education observers are beginning to wonder whether the schools will be the “last hold-outs” in the 21st century digital learning revolution.

Connectivity is spreading rapidly and fundamentally altering the way we live and learn outside the system. While Social Media is fast becoming dominant in every facet of society, including the 2012 London Olympics, Couros still sees “many schools and school districts fearful of what social media can do” to impact negatively on their “business” or on their “reputation.” http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/3108   Both he and Whitby are concerned about the stubborn resistance to Internet connectivity and digital learning among administrators and teachers in the regular public school system. http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/teachers-are-poor-consumers-of-learning/

Leading Canadian school change wizards such as Michael Fullan and Ken Leithwood have, until recently, remained curiously silent, perhaps assuming that digital technology was a fad that might blow over.  After spending decades espousing educational change theory and promoting “teacher-driven, system-wide reform,” one would expect them to be on the leading edge. The publication of Michael Fullan’s latest book, Stratosphere (June 2012), makes it abundantly clear that the Fullanites are coming late to the digital learning movement. http://www.amazon.ca/Stratosphere-Integrating-Technology-Pedagogy-Knowledge/dp/0132483149

Michael Fullan may be late on arrival, but his new book has been heralded as the 21st century  ‘New Testament ‘ by Toronto’s digital technology crowd.  In a June 2012 MindShareLearning promo video, Dr. Fullan was lauded for being “Canada’s leading school change expert ” and given free reign to explain his latest theory.  “System-wide reform” was now passe, and a little boring, he conceded, so he was turning his attention to the “Stratosphere” — that land beyond the clouds –where information was flowing freely and can now be accessed with our own portable devices.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYimGuToREU

Fullan’s “whole system change” initiative has, by his own admission, plateaued and the book signals his determination to get back “ahead of the curve.” What Stratosphere really signifies is his discovery of “connectivity” and an attempt to get back in the game of meaningful school reform. It’s clear that the “wild growth” of technology and online learning has shaken him to the core. “Motion leadership” was going nowhere on planet earth and he’s awakened to the need for “change managers” to gain control of the powerful forces reshaping how we grow and learn outside of school.

Where have we gone wrong?  The latest Fullanite revelation is that the chasm between technology and educational change can be bridged by bringing pedagogy, change management, and technology together.  It forms a “triad,”, according to Fullan, and “change management” can bring technology under control, making it more palatable to educators and useable in his flagging schemes of “system-wide” reform.

Fullan’s Stratosphere is worth studying because it will likely be adopted in Ontario where Fullanites tend to command most of the educational resources and drive the school system.  Whatever his motives and agenda, the book does zero -in on some critically important criteria for embracing 21st century digital learning. It must be: 1) irresistably engaging for all stakeholders; 2) elegantly efficient and easy to use; 3) technologically ubiquitous 24/7; and 4) steeped in real-life problem solving.

Fullan is warming to the idea that children can and do learn a great deal from Social Media and free access to the Internet.  Though still a child of the print culture, he’s awakened to the excitement of Web 2.0 and its enormous potential to reshape the way we live, play, and learn. Having said that, Canada’s renowned school change wizard  continues to inhabit what George Couros termed the “culture of fear.”  He’s plainly worried about the “weed-like growth of technology” and fears that “our brains” are being “distorted” into “a permanent state of hyper-distractionism.”  Recent ed-tech crazes have left a legacy of what he describes as “Digital Disappointments” and “Digital Dreaming.” http://mindsharelearning.ca/2012/06/06/book-review-stratospher-by-michael-fullan/

For Fullan and his camp followers, the best defense of the existing Ontario “change management” system is to mount a good offense.  Technology will only improve learning if it can be reined-in and harnessed for “teacher-driven, system-wide” reform focusing on “improving learning outcomes for all.”  American public school reform, focusing on school choice, testing, and accountability, scares him to death and so does the rather vacuous pursuit of generic “21st century learning skills.”  He even takes a totally unwarranted pot shot at Alberta Education’s “Inspiring Action in Education” mandate, labelling it “inspiration with no perspiration.”

Fullan’s book Stratosphere signifies that he and his OISE entourage will be wading into the so-called “technology malaise” in public education. True to form, he’s trying to recapture the “leading edge” and to put his “system management” stamp on the “wild, irregular, spreading weed” of technology.  He’s even trying to apply his familiar systematic “change agent skills”: knowledge and skills; a plan to action; strategies to overcome setbacks; a high sense of confidence;  monitoring progress; a commitment to achieve; social and environmental support; and freedom, control and choice.(Fullan, 67)”

Sincere advocates of Social Media and digital learning will likely be skeptical about Fullan’s conversion and attempt to bring systematic change theory to the digital learning revolution.  What explains Dr. Michael Fullan’s entry into the public policy debate over the purpose and future direction of digital learning?  To what extent is the rise of virtual learning and connectivity threatening Ontario’s  patented “system-wide” but “system-bound” reforms?  Will Fullan’s intervention help or hurt the advance of online learning in Canada and the growing diversity of alternative learning programs?

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America’s undisputed champion of Social Media in education, Tom Whitby, was recently jolted by an exchange on Twitter with a professional colleague.  Big ideas in education were “getting drowned out, ” his tech savvy friend remarked, as a result of the endless discussions about Social Media and the heavy emphasis on promoting “connectedness for educators.”  Social Media is a powerful medium that can be used to learn, but our near obsession with it may be at the expense of other powerful ideas. His Twitter friend went even further: ” it’s still all pretty much primordial soup.”  http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/social-media-help-or-hindrance-to-education-reform/

Sparked by that intellectual challenge, Tom took to his blog An Island View (May 29, 2012) to make the case, once again, for today’s educators to take full advantage of the Social Media in leading a 21st century revolution in education.   As the founder of  PLN, the Professional Learning Network, he can be quite passionate about its power to create “professional learning communities” spanning whole continents. Like Canada’s 21st Century Educator, David Wees, he credits Social Media for giving him a new lease on life.  It has certainly made a difference in their professional lives spawning #edchat and attracting a legion of camp followers.   Whether it is the harbinger of a new age education revolution is more open to question.

Since the explosion of Twitter, early adopters have been mad about its miracle powers. Back in September 2010.  Sarah Kessler sung its praises in “The Case for Social Media in Schools.” A year after Grade 7 teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom, Kessler claimed that it worked like magic with kids.  Some 20% of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50%, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third. For the first time in its history, the school met its “adequate yearly progress goal for absenteeism.”  http://mashable.com/2010/09/29/social-media-in-school/

Social Media was trumpeted as the next great thing in inspiring learning and student engagement.   Zealots like Kessler made a compelling case and rhymed  off its advantages: 1. Social Media is Not Going Away;2. When Kids Are Engaged, They Learn Better; 3. Safe Social Media Tools Are Available — And They’re Free; 4. Replace Online Procrastination with Social Education; 5. Social Media Encourages Collaboration Instead of Cliques; 6. Cell Phones Aren’t the Enemy.

Her conclusion was a call to action. “Nobody would dispute that the risks of children using social media are real and not to be taken lightly. But there are also dangers offline. The teachers and parents who embrace social media say the best way to keep kids safe, online or offline, is to teach them.”

Since then, educators have become far more tech savvy, and, inspired by enthusiasts like Tom Whitby and David Wees, have adopted Social Media as a primary Professional Development tool and begun to introduce it into the kingdom of the classroom.

Promoters of Social Media can sound messianic. “We all learn from other people….”  but now” face to face connections have never been completely replaced, but rather enhanced, by technology.”  Borrowing freely from Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenburg Galaxy, they trace the steps from pen and ink to the printing press to electronic media. In Whitby’s words:  ” Technology historically allowed learning to expand from face to face contact to distances beyond the limits of both time and space, and the Internet has moved that to a whole new level.”  It is, he insists, time we began empowering educators with the Hi Tech tools and preparing students for life in this century.

Visionaries like Whitby are even dreaming of Schools that function like Twitter. ” I wish all educators had Professional Learning Networks like mine, but it is not a style of learning suited for everyone., ” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I began wondering what it would be like if the types of sharing, collaboration, reflection and discussion that are continuing activities on Twitter could at least be attempted in the school building environment.”  http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-if-school-was-more-like-twitter/

Promoters of Facebook and Twitter in schools have run into roadblocks on the North American educational highway. In many School Districts, they hit brick walls, especially so in Canadian K-12 school systems. That’s fully documented in my January 2012 SQE study, The Sky Has Limits, a recent look at the impediments to online learning and virtual schools in all 13 provinces and territories. http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/theskyhaslimits   Teachers are free to experiment with Social Media and to attend Ed Camps on their own time.  Far too many schools are “Out of Bounds” and an amazing number of elementary schools remain under IT lock-down regimes.

Fascination with Social Media is growing rapidly among teachers.  Some estimates are that  there are as many as 500,000 connected educators, globally using social Media for professional learning. That sounds astronomical until you realize that there 7.2 million educators in the United States alone.

Skeptics about the value of Social Media can still be found everywhere in the “bricks and mortar” school system.  High schools are full of contrarians who delight in quoting the latest commentary from Nicholas G. Carr and other leading critics. His Blog, Rough Type, is a veritable treasure trove of barbs and amunition for foes of the high tech revolution. Hot on the heals of his brilliant critique, The Shallows, he is fond of lampooning those addicted to Social Media.  His recent post comparing Various types of Social Networks to “recreational drugs” cuts close to the bone. After reading it, Facebook does seem like “pot” and Twitter may well simulate the effect of  “Black Beauties.” http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2012/04/social_networks.php

Breaking down the barriers in schools can be exhausting, sucking away energy and draining us of ideas.  Many gifted educators seek solace and refuge in the simple pleasures of a good book and a receptive class of students. Pushing Social Media, like flogging IT, is all too often about the process rather than the substance of education, teaching, and learning.   Learning how to learn seems to have supplanted the core mission of education — learning something that is worth knowing and actually matters.

Is Social Media a help or a hindrance to improving the quality of education in schools?  Is introducing the learning tools crowding out important ideas associated with education reform or, pedagogy, or methodology in education? Is it a distraction rather than a means for transformation? In short, have Big Ideas gotten lost in the scramble?

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Ontario’s flagship program, e-Learning Ontario, proclaims  that “The sky is the limit!” in its marketing message , but the reality is markedly different in most Canadian schools.  Online learning is very much in vogue, as are futuristic calls for public schools everywhere to embrace “21st Century Learning Skills.”  A small band of Information  Communication Technologies (ICT) innovators , inspired by futurists like Toronto author Don Tapscott, New Brunswick IT guru William Keirstead, and Vancouver teacher David Wees are certainly out there championing the cause.

My brand new Canadian study covering all provinces and territories , commissioned by the Toronto-based Society for Quality Education,  demonstrates that, with the exception of British Columbia, the spread of online learning and virtual schools has stalled and, for the vast majority of Canada’s 5 million K to 12 public school students, “the sky has limits.”   http://societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/theskyhaslimits

 Whether it’s Ontario or anywhere except for B.C., ministry of education authorities  still remain wedded to modes of teaching and learning circumscribed  by the ‘brick and mortar’ model of public schooling.  New online learning initiatives are viewed as potential threats to the prevailing status quo, buttressed by a resistant organizational culture, public sector contract entitlements, and regulations designed to contain the spread of e-learning.

After enjoying an initial advantage, Canada has been overtaken by the United States  in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years.  In 2010-11, Canadian distance education plateaued at 207,096 students or 4.2% of all students.  While online learning continues to grow in British Columbia, the provincial leader with 88,000 enrolled students,  those gains are offset by static numbers and losses in other provinces such as New Brunswick and Quebec.    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadian-schools-falling-behind-in-online-learning-report-says/article2312713/

America’s leading private enterprise promoting online public schools,  K12 Inc., founded in 2000, has expanded into 28 different states, boasts of having delivered over one million online courses to students, and foresees skyrocketing  growth . A newly acquired Division of Pearson Education, Connections Education , now operates in 21 states and forecasts unlimited growth potential.  In late 2011, The New York Times also flagged the tremendous proliferation of full-day virtual charter schools.

Online learning is now accepted in Canada as a critical component of the future in K-12 education.  So why the hesitancy to move forward?

The first instinct of educational policy-makers, senior administrators, and teacher unionists is to monitor, regulate and control the educational domain.  While other factors come into play, that reflex reaction is particularly pronounced when it comes to the dynamically changing field of e-learning and the frontier of mobile social media.

Educational officialdom is inclined to speak glowingly about the potential of unlocking “21st Century Skills” in our classrooms.  Yet the same key system stakeholders are consumed with promoting educational equity and few recognize the fact that federal infrastructure investments have already ensured that Canada’s poorest communities, such as Labrador, actually enjoy the best access to ICT.

Whether it is Ontario, Nova Scotia, or even Nunavut, educational researchers tend to focus on the so-called “digital divide, promoting quality of access to ITC and seeking to close the “competency gap” faced by students in lower socio-economic or remote communities.  Research ventures such as that of Dianne Looker at Mount Saint Vincent University tend to support policy initiatives directed more at bridging the divide  than on generating prosperity and unleashing the creative potential of learning technologies.    http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/society-societe/stories-histoires/story-histoire-eng.aspx?story_id=139

Most provincial teacher unions show tepid support for online learning, holding fast to labour contract agreements which effectively limit online learning to a supplemental role in the K-12 public system. Even in B.C., where “distributed learning” is well-advanced, the provincial teachers’ federation remains torn on the question.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union collective agreement, running to 191-pages, limits innovation with its 11 different clauses specifying the number of days of instruction, program hours, group sizes, and working conditions.  Union activists, such as those in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF),  pass resolutions to block virtual school initiatives and to hold the line until “equality of service “ can be guaranteed  for all students.

Free from public sector constraints, private educational ventures like Virtual High School (Ontario) and Christian Heritage Online School (BC) have jumped-in to fill the need for innovative, online learning school options and are growing by leaps and bounds.

The recent successes of VHS (O) and more than 14 such schools in B.C. directly challenge the ‘one-size-fits-all’ public system in districts where school options were once strictly limited for students and parents.  Such “lighthouse school” ventures  offer a glimmer of hope that school choice, innovation, and quality, first seeded in Alberta, may yet spread to other Canadian provinces. (Reprinted from SQE Quick Study, January 2012)

Why are Canadian public school systems, with the exception of B.C.,  lagging in implementing online learning and distance education?  What is British Columbia doing that is worthy of emulation?  Why are leading IT experts in Canada  inclined to accept the status quo in terms of “bricks and mortar” school organization, teachers agreements, and learning boundaries? What can be done to promote more openness and flexibility east of the Rockies?   

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