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Archive for the ‘E-Learning’ Category

‘Everyone is doing their best’ was the prevailing narrative during the COVID-19 school disruption.  That may explain why school authorities either suspended system-wide student tracking or chose to conceal data collected relating to student progress and engagement.  A June 2020 CBC Investigation into this issue in four Atlantic Canadian provinces came up almost empty  and revealed that no one was able to provide any credible information on how many students went missing during pandemic distance learning.

“Doing Our Best” education may well have lasting consequences for students. Coming out of a three-month suspension of in-person, face-to-face teaching and learning, we are beginning to confront the hard realities: the coronavirus generation has fallen months behind, most housebound children were bored and disengaged, and struggling students have lost the most ground.

What we know about the real COVID-19 impact on children and teens did not emanate from education officialdom. With senior education leaders and school districts remaining tight-lipped, public opinion survey pollsters stepped up to fill the vacuum and assist intrepid education reporters trying to penetrate the wall of silence. Back on May 10, over a month ago, the Angus Reid Institute broke the code: “Canadian children are done with school from home, fear falling behind, and miss their friends.” The kids, it turned out, were not alright.

What actually happened during the COVID-19 crisis is coming into clearer focus with the benefit of hindsight. For the first month,  ministries of education, school districts, and educators scrambled to fill the learning gap with “emergency distance learning,” building upon patchy online infrastructure and cobbled together together curriculum combining e-learning and hastily-assembled ‘learning packages.” With few exceptions, Canadian K-12 education was completely unprepared for the system-wide shutdowns.

Thrown completely off-kilter, educational leadership was left fumbling around in the dark looking for the proverbial light switch. Perpetually optimistic technology-driven educators found ‘silver linings amidst the dark clouds, progressive educators focused on responding to children’s “fears, anxieties and trauma,” and global thought leaders rhapsodized about a “better normal where Maslow (finally triumphed) over Bloom. With little warning, parents were expected to guide “Home Learning” with their housebound children.  It looked ominous, but most educators sounded upbeat, made the best of an unsatisfactory situation, and retained some hope that it would all work out somehow.

Taking a closer look at the May 2020 Angus Reid survey, it’s now clear that, despite everyone’s efforts, the COVID-19 educational experience was decidedly substandard for the vast majority of Canada’s five million K-12 students, and possibly damaging for those from disadvantaged and racialized communities. Here’s a succinct summary of the worrisome findings:

  • The biggest worry for over half of all children (ages 10-17) surveyed was “missing out on  work” this school year and next, roughly equal the proportion who feared getting sick themselves.
  • A clear majority of children “attending” school online (60 per cent) were bored or  unmotivated, not very busy with the work, but still “keeping up” with the reduced academic expectations.
  • Children and teens, outside of homework, spent the vast majority of their time glued to small screens, dominated by watching TV/Netflicks, You Tube (88 per cent), and playing video games (74 per cent).
  • Parents may have been doing their best, but it was not good enough, because over half of teens ages 13 to 17 reported needing more help with their work.
  • Some 70 per cent of children and teens reported missing seeing friends and participating in extra-curricular activities, but fewer than 1 in 10 (8 per cent) were willing to concede that they missed going to school.

Missing so much regular schooling, after two of the three months, was already having adverse effects. Most of the students reported that they were “missing out” on school work and were struggling to remain positive, mainly because of deteriorating friendships and relationships.  The so-called “home education blues” were real and, for the most part, went unacknowledged and unreported by Canadian school authorities.

Close education observers and inquisitive parents seeking straight talk about the actual impact of the COVID-19 school shutdown invariably come up empty when seeking answers to questions or any evidence to support periodic accounts of heroic individual efforts or hopeful reports of ‘silver linings.” Education reports out of the United States provided us with a much-needed wake-up call when it came to getting the straight goods on what was really happening to students and parents during the school shutdown.

Two key U.S. education stories exposed the harsh realities of COVID-19 education for students, parents and teachers and raised serious questions about the veil of silence shrouding Canadian K-12 education. New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein blew the lid off the real story on June 5, 2020 with a feature demonstrating the impact in terms of learning loss.  By September 2020, she reported, most students would be “months behind” with “some losing the equivalent of a full year’s worth of academic gains.” Furthermore, “racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps” would “most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”

A Boston Globe feature on May 23 confirmed that the COVID-19 disruption exposed the reality of digital divide. One in five Boston Public Schools children were found to be “unplugged” from Google Classroom and disengaged to the point where they were essentially “virtual dropouts.” Significant education technology challenges and language difficulties were keeping children from continuing school online. That finding was confirmed in a large-scale study of some 800,000 students conducted by a team of Harvard and Brown university researchers. Mining academic research into student use of Zearn, an online math program, they reported that student progress in math between March 15 and April 30 decreased by some 48 per cent in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, and by one-third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, in microcosm, the extent of the public disclosure deficit in our provincial public education systems. Without American investigative education reporting, we would probably know little or nothing about the stubborn COVID-19 problems of getting students to engage in distance learning or the incredible proportion of children and teens who skipped out on home learning or lacked proper access to the alternative programs.  Knowing that the kids are not alright should spark some needed public discussion about working together on developing and acting upon a comprehensive, evidence-based learning recovery plan.

What happened to the initial plans for COVID-19 Home Learning in Canadian K-12 education? How did most children and teens fare in terms of “continuous learning” during the COVID-19 school disruption? Why were provincial and district education authorities so tight-lipped about the state of distance learning?  Should ministries of education and school districts be responsible for monitoring, collecting and reporting on alternative distance learning programs?  Does the public have a right to know how many children logged-in, remained engaged, and met the expected curricular standards? 

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What a difference a global health crisis has made in Canadian K-12 education.  All of a sudden everyone has been thrust into “online learning” for weeks on end and “learning packets” are something housebound parents and children see as a welcome break from staring at small screens. It’s a completely new experience for the vast majority of students, teachers and parents with a few notable exceptions — those living in North American school districts with established E-Learning Day programs to support students during unplanned school closures.

eLearning2019DaysCoverThe unexpected and unplanned COVID-16 school closures catapulted teachers into the unfamiliar territory of e-learning, forcing most to learn to use the new technology on the fly. It was no less a shock for parents, scrambling to grapple with Learning at Home programs while tending to their children cooped-up in social isolation. Now that there’s a glint of light at the end of the first wave COVID-19 school shutdown, it may be time to consider being better prepared the next time.

Some North American school districts were far better prepared than others for the radical shift to COVID-19 emergency online learning. Which ones?  Those in the twelve American states which had already adopted E-Learning Days as a means of making-up lost instructional time as a result of winter storms or unexpected calamities.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville made that exact point in a recent interview in the Harvard Gazette (April 10, 2020).  While assessing the paradigm shift to e-learning now underway, he mentioned that school districts in New Hampshire with established e-learning days were far better prepared and made a much “easier transition” because they already had “a back-up online learning system.”

No region in North America cancels school days with the frequency and duration found in Canada’s Maritime provinces. Introducing E-Learning Days in the Maritimes had been proposed, considered, and tossed aside several times in the preceding decade. For those who may have forgotten what transpired, a refresher might be in order.

Since a Nova Scotia Storm Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of  recouping learning time and the number of days lost to storms almost doubled over the intervening years.

A succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred some promised action.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Education Minister Casey drew what sounded like ‘a line in the ice’ and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for some five lost days.

The resulting furor actually set back the cause. Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays. Nothing more happened.

EDaysCartoonIndyStar

Five years ago, E-Learning Days were proposed in media interviews and in a series of commentaries for the Maritime Canada media and local news talk radio stations. Embracing E-Days and providing students without internet access with so-called “blizzard bags” was endorsed in editorials recognizing it as a ‘smart solution’ to appropriating school holidays or extending the school year.

Replacing Storm Days with E-Learning Days was advanced as a way of protecting learning time, clicking-in after five days of school were lost to storm day cancellations.  The mere idea of providing “homework pouches” for those children without internet access was mocked by skeptical teachers as totally impractical and of little value to children or families.

A December 2019 progress report on the spread of E-Learning Days, produced by the U.S.-based Digital Learning Collaborative, demonstrates the gradual spread of E-Learning Days and its vital role in expanding digital learning in mainstream American school districts.

E-Learning Days are now used in a dozen states to fill the specific need to “maintain instruction during unplanned school closures.”  Six U.S. states, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, all have their own policies and exemplary programs.

While the prime use remains as a means of ensuring ‘continuity of learning’ during adverse weather conditions or natural disasters, they are now being employed during “widespread illness” and for parent-teacher conferences or teacher professional development purposes.

Much like COVID-19 Home Learning Days, E-Days work best when they follow a simple, predictable daily schedule. Students access online instructional modules from home or elsewhere, usually in the mornings and submit work at day’s end.

Using a leaning management system, teachers post digital instructional materials and assignments, as well as refer students to core texts or resource books at home. Video conferencing is used periodically for brief check-ins. School systems expect teachers to be available during specific hours in case students have questions or to gather-up and date-stamp assignments. Learning packets are provided to students without access to ed tech or internet.

Critical lessons learned in implementing E-Days prove extremely useful during prolonged periods of school shutdown. “Planning, preparing and implementing E-Learning days well,” the recent report points out, “requires significant effort, and without significant planning and preparation, E-Learning days are unlikely to result in meaningful learning.”

Implementing E-Days now looks entirely feasible in the wake of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. With such a back-up plan, school districts everywhere would definitely be much better prepared next time an epidemic knocks out regular in-person classes.

What stood in the way of adopting E-Learning Day plans and programs before the COVID-19 pandemic?  Why is it that some American states have proven much better equipped for a smooth transition to primarily online learning?  Why did previous Public Health pandemic plans simply default to cancelling school and sending students home without any real continuity of learning plan?  Which Canadian education authority will be the first to establish an exemplary E-Learning Day policy and program? 

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Our whole world has been turned upside down and none, more so, than the educational world inside Canada’s provincial school systems. Previous assumptions have been shattered by the frightening COVID-19 virus. Fierce ideological battles over the introduction of high school online courses, which dominated Ontario education warfare for the past two years, have subsided, for now.

What K-12 education is experiencing, going into a second month, may be a school shutdown, but it’s more like a power outage which has left students, teachers, and parents in the dark. Fumbling around to find the light switch is enough of a challenge without having to master unfamiliar education technology tools and completely re-invent the delivery of teaching.

E-learning has arrived, by default, and ministries of education and school districts are scrambling to fill the gap with patched together ‘continuity of learning’ programs.  Even the charter members of the C21 CEO Academy who’ve been espousing “21st Century Learning” dogma for years are suffering culture shock. Especially so, when compelled to make radical readjustments, following lock-step with public health directives. It’s what online learning expert Michael K. Barbour aptly described as  triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system.

With children and families essentially quarantined and homebound, educating children, for the first few weeks, has fallen largely upon parents and guardians. Resuming contact with students on the phone or by Zoom is a good, positive first step, but very soon most parents are going to be desperate for meaningful learning activities to keep their children and teens on track and out of trouble. Interactive games and videos won’t be sufficient if the school hiatus lasts until the end of the year.

Systems under such stress either rise to the dramatically new challenges with smart, innovative plans to bridge the torrent of change – or cling to comfortable structures, revert to familiar policy responses, and apply band-aids.

The COVID-19 has really wacked Canada’s provincial school systems and educational leaders initially lost their bearings, like everyone else. The first and most instinctive response was to reaffirm ingrained and practiced policy nostrums, such as providing equal opportunities for all children and addressing educational inequities first.

With such a mindset, the focus is almost exclusively on ‘worst-case social policy:’the belief that any policy initiative or program that may not reduce social inequities should not be undertaken at all.  In this case, e-learning was initially seen as problematic because of digital access inequities and so, in spite of the system outage, it should not be pursued until we were able to meet everyone’s needs all the time.

Schools and their teachers filled the vacuum and responded in sometimes radically different ways. Some super-keen educators seized the unexpected opportunity to try something new and to provide their students with short video chats, online learning and/or ‘lesson packets’ during the period of social isolation.  For others, the protracted shutdown provided a respite from in-person teaching and so there was no rush to resume parent or teacher-led education, essentially leaving kids and families to fend for themselves.

Some provinces such as Alberta and Ontario have moved quickly to establish Continuity of Learning portals, posted online course material, made e-learning resources readily available, and set explicit expectations for teachers in terms of the assignment of work and the delivery of content. Some provincial responses, most notably Nova Scotia’s Learning at Home program, announced March 30, 2020, took a “feel-better” approach, providing a set of broad guidelines and a smattering of hastily-assembled resources, emphasizing interactive games, fun activities, and healthy living exercises.

E-learning programs require far more planning and preparation than is possible right now in the throes of the coronavirus emergency. Teachers, willingly or not, are being expected to become online instructors on the fly, while everyone struggles to adjust to the brave new world of social distancing and almost everything going digital.

Existing educational inequities may be exacerbated by the current global crisis. Students of upwardly mobile, university educated parents may surge ahead, with more exposure to a knowledge-rich curriculum through Khan Academy, the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and the Discovery Channel.  Poor and marginalized kids and families without access to technology or safe, secure home study space will suffer more than others.

Relying solely upon standard provincial elementary curricula with a well-being focus emphasizing SEL (social and emotional learning) may not serve to advance achievement. In some cases, it might well deprive children of sound, evidence-based instruction in the fundamental skills of reading and mathematics.

“Learning loss” during the shutdown may be a concern of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, but it’s  the farthest thing from our minds when we’re in the path of a potentially devastating pandemic. Ringing arm bells about students falling off the COVID-19 educational cliff and losing ground to those of other nations pale in significance in such times. Right now, it’s all hands on deck.

Sooner or later, the real impact of the shutdown of K-12 education will hit us. When the black hood of COVID-19 lifts, the imapact will be more apparent.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario), April 8, 2020.

What impact did the COVID-19 Pandemic have on school system leaders from province-to-province across Canada?  Why does the term “triage” coined by Michael K. Barbour seem particularly appropriate in describing the e-learning responses of provincial school systems?  Will the COVID-19 health crisis spark lasting changes or not in the conventional mode of operations?  When might it be the time to examine the impact in terms of student learning loss? 

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Shaking hands is, for now, socially unacceptable and ‘keeping your distance’ is the new normal in all public settings. Following the strict advice of our Chief Medial Officers of Health, the vast majority of citizens, groups and organizations are complying with ‘physical distancing’ to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.  If the new public health conventions become ingrained and persist beyond the immediate crisis, the fundamental change in social norms outside the household sphere will profoundly alter life in public settings, particularly in K-12 schools and classrooms.

Seeing images of public schools in Taipei, Taiwan, in full operation during the COVID-19 heath crisis, is jarring, if not downright shocking. Based upon hard lessons gleaned from the 2003 SARS pandemic, Taiwanese authorities, including school heads, were quick to recognize the crisis and activated stringent emergency health management plans to keep schools running instead of simply closing them down.

School life during COVID-19 was transformed into a virtual health protection zone. Students at Daija Elementary School in Taipei were asked to disinfect their hands and shoes before entering the school building, while a security guard took their temperature, and, once in class, the children were seated in separated rows wearing masks.  What set that school apart, and drew international attention, was the sight of elementary children eating their own lunches while sitting behind bright yellow dividers on their desks.

With the frightening pandemic upon us, education planners and policy-makers need to look beyond the immediate crisis and start making plans for the resumption of in-person schooling, likely months from now.  A whole generation of students, parents and families, having survived the ravages of the virus, may be not only more receptive to online learning, but expecting, a different kind of K-12 day school education.

School practices intended to promote social distancing may well be an unintended legacy of the current crisis.  If and when influenza pandemic control measures become higher priorities, social distancing conventions that increase space between people and reduce the frequency of contacts may well overturn progressive teaching methodologies and spell the end, in real time, of clustered seating, learning centres, and interactive small group learning.

Today’s student-centred, interactive classroom based upon ‘hands-on’ learning was, it is becoming clear, greatly advanced by the widespread adoption of vaccines and school-based vaccination and related health programs. The emergency health risk posed by COVID-19 is more reminiscent of the scourge of childhood diseases, unchecked by vaccines, up until the 1960s. While class sizes were larger then, the traditional classroom exemplified social distancing  because children were seated in individual desks, spaced apart, lined-up before moving from place to place, and taught personal hygiene in elementary classes.

Classroom design and seating since the 1970s has tended to focus on creating settings that supported ‘active learning’ and reputedly ‘progressive’ teaching methods, such as learning circles, cooperative learning, and project-based groupings.  Scanning the North American physical classroom environment research, it’s striking how may action-research projects were undertaken to demonstrate that teaching children sitting in rows was detrimental to student engagement, widely considered an end in and of itself.

Neglected research on physical proximity and anxieties about crowding will get a much closer look in the post-COVID-19 era of education. Coming out of household quarantine and re-entering school, students, parents and teachers will be far more conscious of infectious diseases and the physical conditions contributing to its transmission. Ministries of education, school districts and principals will likely give a much higher priority to providing face-to-face teaching and learning in classrooms meeting stricter health protection standards.

Academic studies of “peers in proximity” and the few analyzing the “mixing patterns of students in school environments” do provide us with signposts for deeper dives.  One 2015 Dutch study of interpersonal processes in the classroom, conducted by Yvonne Van den Berg, demonstrates how  “a careful management of physical distance between classmates” can improve classroom climate, but it focuses almost exclusively on rectifying identified imbalances in social status in classes where students choose their own seats.

The role of children in the community spread of respiratory diseases such as H1N1 and COVID-19 identified by medical health authorities has attracted relatively little attention from education researchers based in graduate schools of education. One Canadian health policy study, produced in 2013 by University of Toronto researcher Laena Maunula may have compounded the problem. It claimed that public health messages were “dangerous” because they reinforce “bio power” and “governmentality” (i.e., a coercive state reducing citizens to ‘trained subjectivities.’)

For more promising disease prevention studies, we have to look to Europe and the pioneering work of two research teams, led by Marcel Salathé of the Salathe Lab at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Juliette Stehlé of Marseille, working with the University of Lyon-based National Influenza Centre. Utilizing wireless sensor network technology, they have studied the social networks in both primary and secondary schools which facilitate infectious disease transmission. Logging the data for CPIs (close proximity interactions), the researchers honed-in on the problem presented by schools as high potential sites for pandemic spread. Follow-up studies by American health researchers applied this research and concluded that extensive alternative school-based interventions regulating free student movement, as an alternative to school closure, can significantly reduce contacts and potential exposure to infectious diseases.

A more recent 2018 Rand Corporation study, building upon the close proximity studies findings, examined American school influenza pandemic policies and practices. It found that, while strictly limiting student interactions in hallways and classrooms reduced transmission rates, only four of 50 U.S. states ( Georgia, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia) had firm policies authorizing the full range of social distancing regulations. Ontario’s 2013 Health Plan for an Influenza Epidemic, much like those south of the border, relied upon school closures and made no provision for resumption of school after a pandemic outbreak.

Near future schools reopening after the hiatus will not look or feel the same, given the prospects for a second wave.  Taiwanese schools during the current pandemic might represent an extreme akin to a dystopian village, but post-COVID-19 K-12 public schools will in all likelihood incorporate some of those rigid protocols, at least until student, parent and teacher anxieties subside in the coming years.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 26, 2020.

What will classrooms look like following the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic?  Will the heightened awareness of the threat of epidemic diseases impact upon attendance monitoring, classroom design and layout, and teaching methodologies?  Will the post-COVID-19 classrooms look more like those in Taiwan during the pandemic?  How much e-learning will survive when face-to-face, in-person teaching resumes in the coming months? 

 

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A tectonic shift is underway in global K-12 education in response to the rapid and unpredictable spread of the frightening COVID-19 pandemic. Schools, colleges and universities have shut down almost everywhere leaving students, teachers and families in uncharted territory. With our educational institutions closed, parents are stepping-up to provide improvised ‘homebound’ education and educators are abruptly transitioning, almost by default, to e-learning in the form of distance education or video enhanced online programs. Provincial school authorities are playing catch-up and trotting out hastily-packaged Learn at Home distance learning programs to fill the extended interruption of regular, in-person classes.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, gave the first signal on Saturday March 14 of a significant change in the official public health response to the pandemic. Public health officials right across Canada are now routinely forecasting lengthy school closures beyond two weeks and possibly until the end of the year.

Closing schools for an additional two weeks after March break came first, and now educators are scrambling to make the sometimes rough and difficult transition to providing e-learning for students unable to report to ‘bricks-and-mortar’ schools. Some schools districts may be able to patch-together short-term e-learning modules, but few are prepared for the shift to online leaning on a system-wide scale.

The global COVID-19 pandemic looks like the realization of the wildest dream of the purveyors of technology-driven “disruptive innovation.” Almost overnight, the competition for online learning is not face-to-face, in-person classes, because those classes are cancelled. Now, it’s down to two options — distance learning and online teaching or nothing at all.   It’s happening so fast that even champions of radical technology innovation such as Michael B. Horn of the Christensen Institute are fearful that it may actually backfire.

Transitioning online cannot happen overnight. Recognized experts on digital learning, including the University of Limerick’s Ann Marcus Quinn, warn that technology is essentially a tool and transitioning is for more complex than simply swapping traditional textbook content for digital material is not the answer.

“Online teaching takes preparation and planning,” says Michael K. Barbour, co-author (with Randy LaBonte) of the annual report, The State of Online Learning in CanadaIt requires “the careful consideration of the tools,” their strengths and ,imitations,  and the adoption of “pedagogical strategies” best suited to the means of delivery. “The situation we currently find ourselves in is one of triage,” Barbour claims. “It is’t online teaching, it is remote teaching in an emergency situation.”

Closing schools makes good sense in the midst of acute public health emergencies if it helps to save lives. Yet it does not necessarily have to mean suspending all teacher-guided instruction and learning.  While Alberta announced on March 15, 2020 that all of its K-12 schools and day care centres were closed indefinitely, elementary and secondary teachers are at school and engaged in developing plans for e-learning to support students.  In the case of the Calgary Board of Education, the top priority became gearing up to offer learning online, especially for high school students in their Grade 12 graduating year.

Much can be learned from the abrupt change to distance learning in countries ravaged by the pandemic.  Surveying the challenges faced by China over the first month of school closures, Adam Tyner, a former American visiting scholar at Shanghai’s Fudan University, identified  some vitally important lessons.

  • Expand your learning management system capabilities so that teachers can post videos and interactive content, students can submit work, and teachers and students can easily engage in ongoing communication.. Upgrade your limited, ‘bare-bones’ student information management system by adding a new module, and hold teacher training sessions to bring teachers up to speed on how to utilize the tech tools;
  • Increase your bandwidth and assume that not all students own smartphones or have computers at home.  Regular television stations can be required to air community programming and to include televised elementary school lessons, on a rotating basis, grade-by-grade during the daytime hours. Secure free internet access, for the duration of the crisis, following the lead of major Chinese providers such as Huawei.
  • Encourage teacher experimentation with every means of communication to maintain active links with students.  Lessons and teacher-guided activities can be delivered in small videos or on podcasts, and mini-lessons or discussions carried out utilizing Zoom and other commercial apps.
  • Address the technology access digital disparities gap: Purchasing 4G-equipped tablets and service may help to bridge the “digital divide” between ‘haves’ and have nots’ when it comes to access to technology and the Internet.
  • Plan for Learning-Challenged Students: Switching from in-class to distance online learning is jolting for many students, and particularly for those who are struggling, need more attention, and perform better in guided activities.
  • Tailoring E-Learning for High School: Teenage students experiencing more freedom than usual need more motivational strategies, ongoing monitoring, and accountability to keep them on track with their learning plans.

Ministries of education and school leaders are gradually recovering from the school culture shock delivered by a totally unexpected and dire public health emergency. Some school district superintendents have lost their bearings and continue to promote conventional system-bound thinking in a rapidly changing educational order. With students being educated at home during the regular school hiatus, e-learning has emerged, almost by default. First off the mark were Alberta and New York City schools,, Ontario is now on board with the March 20, 2020 launch of the first phase of its Learn at Home e-learning initiative.

New challenges are surfacing as high-tech entrepreneurs and dominant learning corporations such as Nelson LC see an opportunity to expand their market share in K-12 education.  Educational leaders, closely aligned with learning corporations and working through the C21Canada CEO Academy, see an opening to advance “21st century learning” as the best preparation for the workplace of the future. Teachers’ concerns, on this score, about the encroachment of corporate interests and the fuzziness of such programs are well founded.

Educational technology has its place when it’s serving the needs of teachers rather than complicating and overburdening their working lives. A brand-new book, Daisy Christodoulou‘s Teachers Versus Tech ?, tackles the question squarely and demonstrates its value, particularly in the case of spaced repetition adaptive algorithms and comparative judgement assessment. 

Seasoned technology learning analysts, such as Henry Fletcher Wood  recognize that online learning has, so far, over-promised and under-delivered when it comes to improving teaching and raising student achievement. Practicing classroom educators like Minnesota K-6 teacher Jon Gustafson are actively engaged in translating and adapting “effective principles of instruction” to online and blended learning. Eschewing jazzy e-learning strategies such as student-centred “PBL/inquiry projects” and video chats, Gustafson is applying best practice, including retrieval practice, explicit writing instruction, and formative assessment.

Getting schools, teachers and students prepared for a longer period of distance learning is fast becoming a priority for provincial education policy-makers and school-level management and curriculum leaders. Let’s hope that evidence-based pedagogy and best teaching practice do not get swept aside in the transformation to e-learning in K-12 education.

How is student learning changing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis?  What is emerging in the hiatus to fill the gap left by the prolonged cancellation of K-12 schools?  Should classroom educators be wary of learning corporations appearing bearing charitable gifts to school systems?  Why are teachers so skeptical of system-wide e-learning and online learning panaceas? Going forward, will teachers and ed tech find a way to live in peaceful coexistence in K-12 education? 

 

 

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The global footprint of coronavirus – COVID-19 – is expanding and national governments as well as regional school districts are making the difficult decision to shutdown the schools. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared it a “pandemic” and all of Canada’s education ministers participated in a teleconference to discuss the situation and potential policy responses, specifically following the annual March break for students and teachers.

Political leaders at the highest levels, working closely with public health authorities, are weighing their emergency measures options to combat the pandemic, ranging from school closures to mass quarantines. Closing schools may be politically expedient, but its effectiveness in curbing transmission is far from clear.

School closures have already interrupted the public education of some 300 million students across the globe. The first nation to close schools was Hong Kong, back in January, then Japan on February 27, and now many more jurisdictions have followed suit, including Italy, South Korea, Iran, France, Pakistan, New Delhi, the New York City region and northern Washington State.

Deciding to close schools in the case of COVID-19 is particularly challenging for one major reason. In the initial wave, the novel coronavirus, unlike HIN1 in 2009, had not affected children at high rates. Out of 44,672 initial confirmed cases in China, fewer than 2 per cent occurred in children under 19 years of age, and no deaths were recorded among those younger than 10 years old. That may be a low estimate because the attack rate for children, at a later stage in Shenzhen, was 13 per cent.

Closing schools, in some previous epidemics, has proven helpful in reducing transmission of seasonal flu among children. One 2013 British Medical Journal report, based upon a systematic review of epidemiological studies, concluded that school closures contained rates of transmission, even in the absence of other intentions. Yet determining “the optimal school closure strategy” remained “unclear” because of the wide variation in its forms of implementation.

Tracking the impact of school closures has proven tricky for researchers.  Some closures were limited to individual schools and, in other cases, whole school systems. Closing before the peak of the outbreak or well into the outbreak suggests that decisions are being made as either a precaution or a reaction to rising student influenza-related absenteeism. In some cases, schools close so children can receive antiviral medicines or vaccines, or in conjunction with a strategy of “social distancing.”  Such wide variations in implementation strategies makes it a challenge in determining which change actually affected transmission.

The body of research on school closure impacts during epidemics is surprisingly large, encompassing the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the 2002-03 SARS pandemic, and the 2009 HINI flu outbreak.

Yet the results of those school closures have been mixed. Closing schools for more than two weeks has been linked to lower transmission rates in Hong Kong (seasonal and pandemic flus) and in England (H1N1), but not so in Peru (pandemic) or the United States (during seasonal flu epidemics).

The 2008 Hong Kong outbreak, the 1957 epidemic experience of France, and the 1918 pandemic records in some U.S. cities demonstrate that shutting schools can have no discernible impact, especially if decisions come too late in the cycle of the outbreak. Relying upon older parents or grandparents to be caregivers during closures may actually increase mortality rates among more susceptible populations.

Public heath experts caution educational leaders and school principals against basing decisions on the North American H1N1 experience. “The sensitivity of the 2009 pandemic to school closures probably relates to the high attack rates in children compared with adults,” the BMJ study pointed out. “Outbreaks in which children are less affected” such as COVID-19, “might be less sensitive to school closure.”

Closing schools also has broader socio-economic impacts and unrecognized health effects. There are trade-offs in being overly cautious by closing schools, including potential lengthy disruptions in student learning and compelling parents to stay home from work. Students from lower socio-economic neighbourhoods would also be deprived of school meal programs and cost-free supervised athletics activities.

The most authoritative study of school closure impacts, in the August 2009 issue of The Lancet, actually assesses broader community impacts. If all U.K. schools closed, some 30 per cent of health and social care workers would be taken out of commission, compounding adverse effects on the financial health and viability of communities.

School authorities would be well-advised to consider the potential duration of closures in their emergency response plans.  While it is probably wise to err on the side of caution with school-age children, the longer the closure lasts, the more problematic it becomes, especially in the absence of e-learning bridge programs.

Closing schools for more than two weeks to combat COVID-19, as in the case of Hong Kong, could have a detrimental effect upon the school schedule, year-end-examinations, and the conventional grade- promotion system. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that students will be seriously set back by missing so much instructional time.

Implementing “e-learning plans,” including digital and distance learning, is recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s a major problem with that constructive proposal in its guide for school administrators. It’s feasible in e-learning ready school systems like those in Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and the State of Ohio, but not yet in our provincial school systems.

Few Canadian school districts are prepared or trained to implement e-learning days system-wide, and they have, with few exceptions, resisted piloting e-leaning modules during winter season storm days.  Scrambling to implement hastily prepared distance learning or online courses will not prove effective at all. Nor are schools fully equipped to administer year-end assessments online or to report the results electronically to students and parents.

Closing schools may be expedient in assuring the concerned public that actions are being taken to control the spread of the contagion. This is especially so now that managing the fears and anxieties of children and families is emerging as a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the lower attack rates for children and the weight of research evidence, it’s much harder to make the call to dismiss classes and suspend school for what may well be an indeterminate period of time.

 Should schools be closed to contain and reduce the transmission of the 2019-20 coronavirus?  What does past experience closing schools during epidemics tell us?  Should schools be closed early in the cycle as a precaution or in reaction to escalating attack rates among children and their teachers? How prepared are school districts to implement e-learning as a bridge in the teaching-learning process?  If schools do close, the question is — for how long given the unpredictability of the spreading contagion?  

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 11, 2020. 

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The Ontario government’s multi-headed education announcement, released on March 15, 2019, gave new meaning to William Shakespeare’s infamous dictum, “Beware the Ides of March,”  judging from the chilling effect it had on educators and close observers of the school system.  Rooting out ‘Discovery Math,’ restoring the basics, and realigning an ‘age-appropriate’ sex education curriculum were entirely expected, but not the declaration that all secondary school students would be required to take four online courses. Mandating online courses appeared to come out of nowhere.

Secondary students will be required to take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to earn a Grade 12 Ontario Secondary School Diploma, equivalent to one credit per year of high school. All we really know about implementation is that the changes will be phased-in starting in 2020-21 and that the delivery of the e-learning courses will be centralized.

Where the online learning initiative originated and what it actually meant for students and teachers generated plenty of speculation. That was largely because Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced it as a fait accompli with nothing approaching a detailed rationale.

Now that the furor over mandating online courses has subsided the question of where it came from can be pieced-together. It is looking, more and more, like a foray into ‘disruptive innovation’ rather than another sleight-of-hand scheme to reduce the $26.6 billion education budget.

Online learning and virtual schooling show great potential for transforming student learning, but Ontario like other provinces has pursued a ‘growth-management’ strategy quite different than most American states. Unlike the U.S., the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent.  South of the border, “virtual schooling” outside of bricks-and-mortar schools has grown by leaps and bounds in a largely unregulated education environment.

Online learning in Ontario evolved out of what were known as provincial correspondence courses. Since 1994-95, many of the province’s school boards have established their own district programs and then in 2006 twenty of the boards formed the Ontario e-Learning Consortium (OeLC).  That joint venture has helped increase course offerings and the sharing of resources with positive results.

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From 2008-09 to 2009-10, online student enrolments in OeLC boards jumped from 6,276 to 9,695. The consortia model has also been replicated by Ontario’s French language boards and by the province’s constitutionally guaranteed separate Catholic school boards. In 2010, a Northern e-Learning Consortium (NeLC) was established to allow remote northern Ontario school districts to address shared challenges (Ontario Education 2011).

Ontario’s regulatory regime, outlined in the 2006 E-Learning Strategy and codified in school regulations initially imposed limits on the delivery of online learning.   “In some instances,” North American online learning expert Michael K. Barbour reported, “the Ministry requirements were once quite restrictive.”

Originally, the Ontario provincial Learning Management System (LMS) could not be used for either blended learning or the professional development of teachers. That led school districts to run parallel systems, the provincial LMS as well as their own separate LMS for those other purposes.

Ontario has gradually loosened its regulations and, in September 2011, finally embraced blended learning as part of the system. By 2013-14, it was estimated that 52,095 students were taking e-learning courses, including summer school, from school boards through the Ontario Ministry’s virtual learning environment. In addition, 20,000 Ontario students were enrolled in correspondence courses and about 6,000 in private online schools.

The leading Ontario parent lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, emerged after 2013-14 as a champion of “digital literacies” (information, media and ICT) and the promotion of ICT to enhance student learning.

Expanding e-Learning became a contentious issue at the bargaining table. Back in 2010, the big issue, for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) was not quality programming but rather closing the so-called “digital divide” separating students fully equipped with the latest e-tools and those without such access.  Closing the “ICT competency divide” between urban and rural Ontario proved to be a stumbling block to progress.

Online learning has grown, but at a carefully managed rate. Today, the Canadian e-Learning Network estimates that only 65,000 Ontario students (2017-18) take at least one online course and that represents approximately 10 per cent of all high school students. If the PC plan goes forward, the numbers enrolled will balloon to as many as 630,000 students a year.

Such a dramatic change is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen and his Harvard University Institute team of researchers mean by ‘disruptive innovation.’  The goal of such a change is to open the door to a whole new population of consumers (students) at the bottom of a market access to a product or service (online learning) that was previously denied to them and accessible only to the few with the access, resources, or expertise.

Lifting technology use regulations and removing barriers may be messy and fraught with risk, but students, according to Christensen, thrive in such a dynamic, competitive learning environment. Free to embrace e-learning in all its forms, they gain access to the full range of teaching modalities, ranging from strictly online, self-paced learning to blended learning combining online and face-to-face classroom instruction.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative education ‘brains trust’ has definitely latched onto technology-driven educational change. Mandating online high school courses is a clear sign that the Department has embraced the kind of market experimentation and disruptive innovation common in the United States.

Education reforms implemented in Florida from the late 1990s to the 2000s, spearhead by Republican Governor Jeb Bush and known as the “Florida Formula,’ now hold sway among PC education policy-makers at Queen’s Park.  Ford’s “Back to Basics” education reform echoes most of the five key Bush policies – high expectations, school accountability, student performance targeted funding, teacher quality standards, and school choice.

Florida, under Jeb Bush, was among the first to mandate online learning as a secondary school graduation requirement.  Today, five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Virginiarequire one compulsory online course.  Some other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts and West Virginia, have passed legislation or approved regulations supporting the inclusion of online courses. No state goes as far as requiring the four courses stipulated in the Ontario plan.

Ontario’s shotgun online learning initiative deserves to be challenged. Classroom teachers and informed researchers have much to contribute as school systems wrestle with how effectively integrate technology into classroom practice. Front-line practitioners bring real life experience and a healthy skepticism to bear on ephemeral fads and what might be termed ‘hair-brained’ transformation schemes.

Top-down educational initiatives, especially in ICT and technology integration, die a quick death or simply languish without the active support and engagement of regular classroom educators.  That is why innovative and disruptive ideas like the ‘flipped classroom’ and a Virtual Enriched learning environment dreamed up by corporate change management  experts and delivered from on high have, so far, not succeeded in changing the trajectory or improving the quality and variety of student learning in K-12 education.

What sparked the Ontario Doug Ford government’s move to introduce compulsory high school online courses? Was the policy announcement driven by change-management theory, sound e-learning research, or a commitment to reducing education costs?  Is it feasible to expand online courses so significantly over such a relatively short timeline? Will it now be possible for Ontario educators to come to terms with the change? Is “disruptive innovation” destabilizing, by definition, or potentially beneficial when it sparks new ways of thinking and deepens learning for students?  

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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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Grade 1 teacher Tammy Doyle is positively euphoric about the return of school.  After 25 years in the elementary classroom, the Ottawa Catholic School Board teacher featured in a recent Canadian Press story no longer considers herself a “teacher” of children. She now calls herself a “learning partner.”

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Play learning is making a comeback in the Digital Age. “We want to stop having education delivered and make (the children) creators of their education,” Doyle says of the efforts to “build a more collaborative classroom” with the help of technology. “I think it’s incredible if we can empower our kids for tomorrow– not looking back to yesterday or even today…That’s the definition of empowerment and innovation and it begins with that simple shifting mindset. ”

What has come over Tammy and some of her elementary school confreres?  It’s called “New Pedagogies for Deep Learning” or NPDL for short, the latest innovation concocted by Dr. Michael Fullan, Canada’s globally-renowned school change theorist.  The Three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) are passe to Fullan and his new disciples because Deep Learning seeks to develop what are termed Fullan’s Six Cs: character education, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. 

The Ottawa Catholic Board is one of 15 school districts in Ontario and Manitoba working to implement  and “disseminate” these ideas in practice. It’s all being done in advance of developing instruments to assess and support the new outcomes.  Creating “digital ecosystems” in the classroom is, all of a sudden, more important than teaching effectiveness, mastering the fundamentals, and improving student math outcomes.

The latest iteration of 21st Century Digital Learning has just sprung out of a project, spearheaded by Sir Michael Barber and Pearson Education, involving some 100 school districts in 10 countries as part of a global push to reshape education for the Digital Age. While Barber has conceded that, so far, educational technology’s impact on “learner outcomes” has been “disappointing,” the technological revolution, in his words, “does not allow us to abandon our ambition to use technology in classrooms.” That’s why he commissioned Fullan, his Chief Research Officer Maria Langworthy and other “leading education thinkers” to reinvent teaching pedagogy to deploy technology in ways that will “transform learner outcomes.”

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In his Foreward to to the January 2014 White Paper, A Rich Seam, Sir Michael Barber lauds Fullan and Langworthy for conceiving of the “new pedagogy” based upon “a learning partnership” between and among students and teachers. In one memorable passage, he also concedes that “much of what Fullan and Langworthy describe is not new at all,” but building upon the so-called “Progressive” tradition going back through to Piaget, Vygotsky and other key theorists.”

If so, why do it all again? For two reasons: First, the “new pedagogy” was emerging — he claimed– “not in laboratories or universities, but at the frontline, in classrooms” across the globe in response to “the crisis of boredom and frustration among students and career disillusionment among teachers.”  And secondly, educators had little choice, fully immersed in digital ubiquity and struggling to stay Alive in the Swamp, but to integrate technology into their classroom practice.

All of this demonstrates that what British teacher Tom Bennett termed the “Cult of Shift Happens” has now surfaced in Canada (Ontario), the United States (California), the United Kingdom, and four other countries. in a new guise. The familiar Shift Happens mindset, sparked by Barber in his 2000 OECD Rotterdam Address, and immortalized in Colorado teacher Karl Fisch’s viral futuristic Did You Know? YouTube video, is back in a peculiar fusion of old, unproven, pseudo-scientific innovations, borrowing heavily from Project-Based Learning, Cooperative Learning, and Change Leadership, now from the Middle (LftM) rather than the Top or Bottom of school systems.

Some current advocates of NPDL like Richard Messina, Principal of the OISE’s Institute of Child Study Laboratory School, favour Inquiry-Based Learning, a pedagogical model with proven benefits for academically-able students. Such innovative approaches work better in “hot house” elementary education environments than in what Barber describes as the “ordinary schools.”  In Messina’s Toronto private school, it’s easy to imagine Grade 4 students creating their own science experiments, generating their own curriculum, and utilizing technology programs such as Knowledge Forum to assist with research. So far, it hasn’t worked notably well in mainstream classrooms.

“New Pedagogy” zealots such as Tammy Doyle and her Director of Education Denise Andre sound born again in espousing the latest educational fad springing from the still fertile mind of  Michael Fullan and his coterie.  While Doyle sees “a bit of chaos” as up to 80 six-year-olds wander in and out of their four Grade 1 classrooms, she’s all revved-up about their excitement.  “It’s unlike education that we have ever had and experienced,” she says, because “the kids are going home excited and talking about it.” Then comes the ever-popular 21st Century Learning mantra: “We’re preparing kids for jobs we don’t know are going to exist in the future.”

What’s so new about integrating technology into the learning process?  How many of the “new pedagogies” accept the critical need for explicit instruction, particularly in certain cumulative subjects?  Is the Deeper Learning movement really a venture aimed at undercutting and eventually eliminating provincial core subject assessments?  How wise is it to implement Michael Fullan’s Six Cs when we have no reliable, research-based way of assessing such competencies? 

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Among the Canadian provinces Nova Scotia was an “early adopter” of incorporating coding into its Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. Basic coding was introduced in September 2015 to all students from kindergarten to Grade 3 and Education Minister Karen Casey has been boasting that Nova Scotia is already “a national leader” in teaching computer coding to elementary school kids.  That’s a bit of political puffery because, in doing so, the province is actually following a few other educational jurisdictions, including Great Britain (2014-15) and the State of Arkansas, and only slightly ahead of British Columbia and Finland.

BeebotsNSKidsIn announcing $1-million more in 2016-17 funding for the Coding for Kids project, the Nova Scotia Department trotted out a pair of Grade 6 students to demonstrate how to program “beebots” — small, yellow-and-black robot toys shaped like bumble bees. A cleverly titled Canadian Press story on the photo op by Keith Doucette captured the moment with an ironic twist: “‘Beebots’ to teach coding in Nova Scotia classrooms.” A recent series of CBC Radio interviews featuring Ryerson Communications Technology professor Ramona Pringle merely confirmed the impression that coding was being promoted as another vehicle to advance “play learning” rather than introductory computer programming.

Teaching “coding” to young children is the latest exemplar of so-called “21st century learning” and it amounts to introducing basic “programming” in the early years, instead of waiting to offer “computer science” in the junior and senior high schools, as was the case from the 1960s to the early 1980s.  That early curriculum essentially withered and died with the arrival of mass word processing and the spread of computer applications courses.

While teaching coding is heavily promoted by the global high tech industry and local off-shoots like Code Kids.com and Brilliant Labs, the emerging coding curriculum philosophy and activities stem from other sources.  Leading advocates such as best-selling author Douglas Rushkoff, former UK coding champion Lottie Dexter, and  CBC Tech columnist Pringle see coding as a “new literacy” symbolically described as “the Three Rs plus C.”

In a summary of his 2011 book, Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff put it succinctly: “As we come to experience more and more of our world and one another through our digital interfaces, programming amounts to basic literacy…. Once people come to see the way their technologies are programmed, they start to recognize the programs at play everywhere else – from the economy and education to politics and government.”

Introducing coding has generated a robust and enlightening debate seemingly everywhere but in Canada. The Year of Code initiative launched in 2014 in the United Kingdom drew plenty of critical fire and actually claimed a victim, its chief promoter Lottie Dexter.  After flaming-out on the British TV show Newsnight, her rather giddy performance was became fodder for skeptics who saw the coding curriculum initiative as an “elaborate publicity stunt designed to falsely inflate the UK’s tech credentials.”

CodingforKidsCoverCritics of the British coding initiative focus on the wisdom of latching onto the “latest language” and introducing it to very young students.  “Coding is seen as the new Latin,” claimed Donald Clark, the former CEO of the firm Epic Group and a self-described technology in education evangelist.  ” (Coding) is a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch onto ‘reports’ by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda.” One British technology expert, Emannuel Straschnov, goes further, claiming that today’s  coding and programming languages will likely become obsolete in the future.

Coding skeptics are clear on one key point of criticism. The early adopter educational jurisdictions suck as the U.K., Nova Scotia and Arkansas, lack enough teachers with the coding experience and relevant computer science knowledge to effectively introduce the new programs of study, across the board,  from kindergarten to high school. A frontline teacher in Bristol, England, spoke for most when he decried the “lack of support” and distinct feeling that “it wasn’t clear what was going on” with the initiative until far too late in the implementation.

Software engineer Tristan Irwin of Sioux City, Iowa, sees a deeper problem stemming from the confusion over what we are actually teaching in the schools. On an April 2011 Quora discussion thread, he drew a sharp distinction between the “programmer” and the “coder,” noting that the former was a creator, while the latter was essentially “an assembly line worker.”  As Software Engineering has become more commodified, he added, there’s less demand for programmers and more demand for coders.  His analysis strongly suggested that teaching coding may only succeed in producing a whole generation of “code grinders” in the workplace.

Prominent Mathematics educators like Barry Garelick are sharply critical of the new coding curriculum and its associated pedagogy.  In August 2016, Garelick took direct aim at the Nova Scotia initiative. He’s particularly concerned about its dumbing-down of “coding” into “pictoral symbols for commands” and the total absence of explicit instruction in the recommended teaching strategies.  Most Math teachers fear that “coding” will further erode classroom time for Math and do little or nothing to prepare students for true computer programming, AP-level Computer Science, or a STEM career.

The Nova Scotia coding curriculum, outlined in the August 2015 NS Information and Communication P-6 Guidelines, are surprisingly skimpy, especially given the dollars now allocated for “innovation and exploration kits” and tech toys for every elementary school. For P to 3, for example, the ICT guideline identifies nine “essential learning outcomes,” only two of which relate to technology productivity and operations.  The clear priority is on teaching “digital citizenship” and “computer applications” rather than on basic coding.

Making coding mandatory from K to 9 is not proving to be the preferred implementation model.  In the case of British Columbia, coding will only be compulsory from Grades 6 to 9 and supported by $4-million in teacher training and equipment/resources funds.  It is integrated into a much broader #BCTECH Strategy and will not be rolled-out until September 2018.  In Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), coding is not a stand-alone initiative but rather an integral part of the system’s K-12 STEM Strategy designed to foster collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Why the rush to introduce coding in the early grades — and what will it supplant in the crowded curriculum?  Is the current version of coding just another example of teaching “discovery learning” with simplified coding and high tech toys? Where are the teachers coming from to deliver the more challenging Mathematics-based aspects of computer science?  How much sense does it make to introduce elementary level coding without a broader commitment to preparing students for careers in STEM or related technical fields?

 

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