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School systems across Canada, from province to province, are in crisis.  The massive school shutdown during the first phase of COVID-19 was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in Canadian K-12 education.

EmptyClassTorontoLifeWhat emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

Charitable observers described emergency home learning as “Doing Our Best Education” under impossible circumstances. It was so sub-standard that harsh critics applied the label “a failure of pandemic proportions.”

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The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders played for time and eventually took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. The famous German sociologist Max Weber provided us with the very helpful metaphor of the “Iron Cage” capturing well the nature of a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a system of order, rationality, predictability, conformity and control.

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Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives.  Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Hardening of the Bureaucratic Education State

The modern bureaucratic education state has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep.  Since the rise and expansion of the modern bureaucratic state over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with students, families, teachers, and communities. Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.

Voicing concerns about the state of our public schools can be exceedingly frustrating – and more often than not, an exercise in futility. Parents advocating mathematics or reading curriculum reforms, families seeking improved special needs programs, or communities fighting small school closures regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. During the COVID-19 school shutdown the fragility of the impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. What my new book provides is a reality check on what’s happened to Canada’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools and a plan to reclaim them for students, parents, teachers, and communities alike.

Sources of Unease and Stress

Today’s schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K–12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the System over students, parents, teachers, and the engaged public  Putting students first has little meaning in a system that gives priority to management ‘systems,’ exemplifies top-down decision-making, thwarts community-based schools, and processes students like hamburgers in a fast-food operation. Graduation rates have risen so dramatically that high school diplomas are awarded to virtually everyone who meets attendance requirements.

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The System, originally conceived as a liberal reform enterprise aimed at expanding mass schooling and broadening access to the populace, largely achieved its goals twenty-five years ago. Having achieved near-universal access, school authorities in the 1980s began to pivot toward introducing bureaucratic managerialism in the form of “instructionally focused education systems.”

In a North American wave of structural reform, the systematizers saw the ‘incoherence’ of instruction from one classroom to another as a problem and teacher autonomy as an obstacle to further modernization. School change came to mean supplanting didactic instruction, knowledge-based curricula, and the teaching of basic skills, while embracing “ambitious instructional experiences and outcomes for all students.” At the school district level, it was reflected in new forms of school consolidation aimed at turning loose aggregations of schools into school systems.

Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, big-box elementary schools, and super-sized high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of local education democracy, are now considered simply nuisances and fast becoming a threatened species.

The teaching of foundational skills and knowledge was subsumed in a new school system improvement agenda focused on ‘educational excellence and equity.’ The shift also exemplified the logic of standards-and-accountability, resisted by classroom teachers as another encroachment on their prized autonomy as professionals.

Centrally established accountability infrastructure continued to encounter resistance when it came to penetrating what American education analyst Larry Cuban termed the “black box” of classroom practice. That may well explain why growing numbers of classroom teachers are drawing the line in defense of what’s left of teacher autonomy and breathing life into a movement for education on a more human school-level scale.

Education – What Kind and for Whom?

The System, as exposed during the COVID-19 disruption, is not working for students or teachers in the classroom. Educational gurus spawned by the school improvement industry have succeeded not only in commandeering school districts, but in promoting a succession of curricular and pedagogical changes floating on uncontested theories and urban myths. This trend is most visible in the development and provision of resources by commercial purveyors closely aligned with learning corporations, curriculum developers, and faculties of education. Challenging unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Re-engineering the System in the wake of COVID-19 has never been more urgent. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for student learning and the quality of public education. The time has come for us to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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Slowly but surely the evidence is gathering that the three-month-long 2020 experiment with “emergency home learning” was an “unmitigated disaster.” A recent Toronto Life feature story by investigative journalist Raizel Robin painted an alarming picture of the Toronto District School Board’s rollout of online learning in March and April of 2020. “Teachers flailed, parents lost it, and kids suffered,” the article summary declared. “Chronic squabbling between Queen’s Park (the Ontario Government) and the unions” was “mostly to blame — and that all spells a chaotic school year ahead.”  While the TDSB may be an extreme example, the general pattern was repeated from province to province, school district to school district, right across Canada.

The rapid and unplanned transition to distance learning turned the Canadian school system upside down and disrupted the lives of some 5 million children and families, and their teachers. Our system, reputed to be one of the world’s best, experienced a power outage, leaving educators scrambling to master new technology and the vast majority of children to “do their own thing” in family isolation operating, for the most part, under a vague and changing set of home learning guidelines.

Student surveys, school district reports, and investigative journalism are beginning to reveal where distance learning went off track and what needs to be corrected the next time. What follows is a brief diagnosis of what went wrong and a proposed prescription for getting the most out of the online learning experience.

The School Shutdown and its Impact  — A Diagnosis

Slapped together distance learning was a mass application of the triage system in the educational Emergency Room. Provincial authorities produced hastily assembled Learn at Home programs and posted broad student homework expectations with a dramatically reduced number of “hours of work” per week. In actual practice, these programs took on a crazy-quilt pattern ranging from high tech to low tech to no tech, highly dependent upon a student’s school district, individual school or classroom teacher. Deciding to guarantee students their March grades removed most of the incentive to work until the end of the year. The most vulnerable children and neediest students living in poverty or facing severe learning challenges lost their “system of supports” and, without in-person education, their families were left to fend for themselves.

Normal student attendance and achievement tracking appears to have mostly evaporated. TorontoDSB’s outgoing director John Malloy put such trust in his teachers that he considered it “very inappropriate” to keep track of how much time teachers were spending in direct contact with their students because it would demonstrate a lack of confidence in them as professionals. He and other system leaders, we have learned, did not think it was their job to establish or enforce teacher-led activity guidelines or track student work completion.

Many students, an estimated one out of four in junior and senior high schools, went missing or completely unaccounted for, according to the CBC News Investigation unit in the Maritime provinces.  No school authorities, including the TDSB, have yet produced a reliable, comprehensive report on student participation rates, attendance at scheduled sessions, achievement levels and graduation rates.

Getting it Right the Next Time — A Prescription

Concerned parents and the vast majority of students were so  poorly served that, by June 2020, most clamoured for a full return to in-person school in September 2020. Once school was dismissed for the summer, organized parent groups surfaced demanding full-time school for all grades under safe health conditions. Lobbying for a hybrid model combining in-class and remote learning, popular among teachers, gained little traction and, aside from some implementation in high schools, gradually died down. Seven provinces eventually opted for a full resumption of regular classes, and the remaining three, Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba, continued with some form of online learning from Grades 9 to 12. In most provinces, the near exclusive focus of debate was on implementing “COVID-19 health and safety” regulations to address residual parental fears and anxieties.

The biggest lessons , based upon my own “rapid response” analysis, were:

Teacher-guided instruction:  Be far more explicit in setting out teacher expectations when the system defaults to distance learning.

Only two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, attempted to include teacher expectations in the March-April 2020 home learning guidelines.  In Alberta, the student work guidelines specified that the hours of work would be assigned by teachers. Ontario’s guidelines described the work as “teacher-led” activities. Initially, there was no mention whatsoever of any explicit requirement for time commitment on the part of teachers. In the midst of the pandemic, the conventional administrative “span of control” was relaxed and teachers, for the most part, left to exercise their professional judgement, heeding the advice and counsel of their unions.

Synchronous Learning: Focus on maintaining daily contact with students and give a much higher priority to sustaining real time interaction and engagement with students on an individual and small group or class basis. Interacting twice a week in half-hour sessions proved insufficient to securing and maintaining student attention, participation, and meaningful engagement.

Simulating, as much as possible, in-person teaching involves giving a much higher priority to synchronous learning or real time online teaching utilizing video, interactive media, or text messaging. During the initial trial run, most teachers turned to assigning regular homework and continuing, where possible, with their preferred strategies, short posted or e-mailed assignments and project-based learning (PBL). This is known as asynchronous learning because it involves assigning work to be completed later in a day, week, or term. It is not generally interactive or engaging for students, especially after a few weeks of uninterrupted home learning. Ontario’s August 2020 education directive (Regulation 164) addresses the problem with an explicit mandate for utilizing synchronous learning strategies in the online learning environment.  Assuming 300 minutes of instructional time a day, it’s likely unwise to require, in Grade 1 to 12, exactly 75% of the time to be allocated to synchronous learning activities.

Supporting the Neediest and Marginalized:  School systems exist to support everyone and especially those children and teens living in poverty or struggling with learning challenges or complex needs — and that definitely needs to be addressed the next time.

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Inclusive education needs to be factored into future plans during the default to distance education because far too many students, some 15 to 20 per cent in most school districts, are dependent upon either “learning supports” or intensive “special education services.” While congregated classes are not ideal for every special needs child or teen, they tend to be smaller in size and small enough to classify as ‘classroom bubbles’ meeting most public health pandemic guidelines. Some educational jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, for that reason, opened schools in June 2020  for the expressed purpose of supporting both special needs students and the children of essential workers. This policy option should be on the table next time around in the current pandemic cycle.

Student Assessment and Reporting: Establish and maintain a fair, consistent and predictable system of student evaluation irrespective of the mode of curriculum delivery and continue to issue student progress reports with clear, easy to understand marks.

Student marks and grading are ingrained in the system and form a critical part of the terms of engagement. Suspending grading of term tests and assignments affects student motivation and makes it even more challenging to hold and sustain their participation in an online environment. Abandoning grades or reverting to pass-fail marking systems sends out the implicit signal that somehow the work does not count or is of lesser importance to their overall academic performance. It also fuels the widespread phenomenon of grade inflation widening the gap between student performance and rewards for that performance.

Provincial Testing and Accountability:  Commit to maintaining provincial and national student testing systems so students, parents and the public can assess student achievement and have some gauge of how the school shutdown actually impacted the acquisition of knowledge and the development of academic skills.

Three months of school shutdown is bound to have affected student achievement, particularly in the development of fundamental skills in Grades 1 to 6 and in academic preparation for higher education and the modern workplace. Suspending provincial testing, as Ontario has done in 2020-21, is unwise because it will deny educators, parents and the public of one of the most objective and validated forms of student assessment. Shortening the advance preparation time for such tests makes good sense, but not suspending the evaluations altogether. No one expects students to perform as well after a prolonged absence from regular in-person classes. We do need some kind of reliable yardstick to identify learning loss and to provide us with a benchmark for remediation.

Educators everywhere are committed to doing better the next time with their newly acquired knowledge and skills in education technology. Coming out of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will all be better prepared and educators have every right to expect enhanced support in terms of training, resources, and ongoing professional support. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on “COVID safety” and health protection, it’s time to give more attention to what ultimately matters — teaching and learning — the core function of K-12 education.

What are the biggest lessons coming out of the COVID-19 school shutdown and that frightening pandemic?  Was the radical and abrupt transition to distance learning a failure of pandemic proportions?  Should we be focusing on the positive and highlighting examples of its “silver linings”? Is it possible that educational conditions could get worse in the coming year? What’s the best way to build back our shaken and fractured K-12 school system? 

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‘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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Laptops, tablets, and SMART boards were all hailed in the early 2000s as the harbingers of a new era of technology-driven educational transformation. It was just the latest in successive waves of technological innovation forecast to improve K-12 education. Billions of education dollars were invested in education technology in recent decades and yet a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report has demonstrated that such investments have led to “no appreciable improvements” in educational achievement.

As a new high school English teacher in London, UK, back in 2007-08, Daisy Christodoulou was typical of most educators at the time. She was wowed by whiteboard technology and committed to taking advantage of the latest ed tech gadget to facilitate interactive student learning.  Once in the classroom, in spite of her best intentions, Daisy turned it into a regular classroom projector and rarely used the more sophisticated features. She was not alone because that’s exactly what  most of us did in those years,

Optimistic forecasts of the transformative power of classroom computes and Internet access never materialized.  Spending on IT in U.K. schools quadrupled during the SMART Board phase, but it was a bust and dismissed in 2018 as another example of “imposing unwanted technology on schools.” A $1.3-billion 2013 Los Angeles Unified School Board deal with Apple and Pearson Learning to supply iPads was jettisoned a year later because of security vulnerabilities, incomplete curricula, and inadequate teacher training. Many onlookers wondered, if the giants can’t make it work, can anyone?

The promised ed-tech revolution that never seems to arrive is the central focus of Daisy Christodoulou‘s latest book, Teachers vs. Tech?, released just as the COVID-19 school shutdown thrust millions of teachers into the largely uncharted territory of e-learning on the fly.  It also raises the vitally important, but discomforting question: Why has education technology failed in the past, and is it destined to fail in the future? We may well find out with the biggest global experiment in ed-tech e-learning now underway.

Christodoulou’s Teachers vs. Tech? tackles what has become the central issue in the unsettling and crisis-ridden  COVID-19 education era.  It’s an instantly engaging, highly original, and soundly researched guide to identifying the obstacles to harnessing ed-tech in schools, a deadly-accurate assessment of why teachers retain a healthy skepticism about the marvels of ed tech, and a constructive prescription for re-purposing those 21st century machines.

What’s absolutely refreshing about Teachers vs Tech? is the author’s consistent commitment to reasonably objective, evidence-based analysis in a field dominated by tech evangelists and tech fear mongers. Common claims that teachers are conservative and change-averse, by nature, or that education is a “human” enterprise immune to technology do not completely explain the resistance to ed tech interventions. New technologies come with embedded educational pedagogy, she contends, that embraces pseudoscience theory and cuts against the grain of most classroom teachers.

Christodoulou effectively challenges ed tech innovations free riding on unfounded educational theories. Over the past 70 years or so, she correctly reports, cognitive science and psychology have discovered much about how the human mind works and learning happens.  Many of these discoveries came out of scientific investigations associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and information technology. What’s peculiar about this is , in Christodoulou’s words, the gap between what we know about human cognition and what often gets recommended in education technology.”

Education technology is rife with fancy gadgets and fads, most of which are promoted by ed tech evangelists,  school change theorists, or learning corporations. The author finds it very odd that “the faddiest part of education” is the aspect supposedly rooted in scientific research. “Far from establishing sound research-based principles,” she writes, “technology has been used to introduce yet more pseudoscience into the education profession.”  There’s still hope, in her view, that the evidence- based research underpinning learning will eventually find its way into the new technologies.

She does not shy away from tackling the most significant and disputed issues in the integration of education technology into teaching and learning. What are the biggest lessons from the science of learning?  Can technology be effectively used to personalize learning? What’s wrong with saying ‘Just Google It’?  How can technology be used to create active learning? Do mobile smart devices have any place in the classroom? Can technology be employed to build upon the expertise of teachers? How can technology improve student assessment for teachers? All of these questions are answered with remarkably clear, well-supported answers.

The book makes a strong and persuasive case for incorporating the science of learning into technology-assisted classroom teaching.  Drawing upon her first book, Seven Myths about Education (2013), Christodoulou explains how cognitive science has shed new light of the efficacy of explicit instruction for improving student learning.  Direct instruction is judged to be more effective in developing long-term memory to overcome the limitations of short-term memory. Her plea is for ed tech and its associated software to tap more into that form of pedagogy.

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Teachers will be drawn to her thought-provoking chapter on the use and misuse of smart devices in today’s classrooms. Jumping right into the public debate, Christodoulou demonstrates how today’s mobile phones interfere with learning because they are “designed to be distracting” and absorb too much time inside and outside of school. Citing a 2017 meta-review of the research produced by Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere, she points out the “negative relationship” between academic achievement and social network activity among young people. Popular claims that adolescents are better at “multi-taking” are judged to be completely unfounded. She favours, on balance, either strictly limiting smart devices or convincing the tech giants to produce devices better suited to teaching and learning environments.

Christodoulou identifies, with remarkable precision, what technology can bring to teaching and student assessment.  Teachers, she shows, have real expertise in what works with students, but they also have blind spots. While there is no substitute for human interaction, ed tech can help teachers to develop more consistency in their delivery and to tap into students’ long term memory,

One of the authors greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to discover, hone-in on, and apply technological solutions that make teaching more meaningful, fulfilling and less onerous when it comes to workload and paperwork. Spaced repetition algorithms, are highlighted as a specific example of how technology can aid teachers in helping students to retain knowledge.  As Education Director of No More Marking, she makes a compelling case for utilizing online comparative judgement technology to improve the process and reliability of student grading.

Christodoulou’s Teachers vs Tech? provides a master class on how to clear away the obstacles to improving K-12 education through the effective and teacher-guided use of technology. Popular and mostly fanciful ed tech myths are shredded, one at a time, and summarized succinctly in this marvelous concluding passage:

Personalization is too often interpreted as being about learning styles and student choice. The existence of powerful search engines is assumed to render long-term memory  irrelevant. Active learning is about faddish and trivial projects. Connected devices are seen as a panacea for all of education’s ills, when they may just make it easier for students to get distracted.”

Implementing ed tech that flies in the face of, or discounts, teacher expertise lies at the heart of the problem. “Successful disruptive innovation solves a problem better than the existing solution,” Christodoulou claims. “Too many education technology innovations just create new problems.” ‘Looking it up on Google,’ she points out, is actually just “a manifestation of discovery learning, an idea which has a long history of failure.”

Technology skeptics expecting another critique of the dominance of the technology giants will be disappointed. The title, Teachers vs. Tech?, ends with a well-placed question mark.  While most of the current ed tech innovations perpetuate an “online life” that is “not on the side of the evidence,” Daisy Christodoulou shows conclusively that we (educators) have only ourselves to blame. “If they’re promoting bad ideas,” she notes, ” it’s at least partly because we’ve made it easy for them to do so.”

What’s the source of the underlying tension between teachers and education technology?  What has contributed to teachers’ skepticism about the marvels of ed-tech innovation?  How was the teachers vs tech tension played out during the COVID-19 school shutdown?  If the latest ed-tech toys and software were programmed with educationally sound, evidence-based pedagogy, would the response of educators be any different?  

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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.

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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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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 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.

eLearningOntarioLogo

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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“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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