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Archive for the ‘Online Learning’ Category

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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“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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Digital learning is on the rise in Canadian K-12 schools and is now emerging as a critical education policy issue in most of the nation’s ten provinces and three territories. Annual reports on K-12 Online Learning from 2008 to 2015, mostly researched and written by Canadian information technology expert Michael K. Barbour, demonstrate steady and incremental growth in the implementation and practice of distance, online and blended learning.

CaneLearnNov14TitlePageWithout a national education authority and public education governed by the provinces and territories, accurately assessing that growth in a country with 5.3 million K-12 students and 15,000 schools remains challenging for researchers. Based upon increasingly reliable annual surveys, the numbers of tracked “distance education students” have risen from some 140,000 (0.5%) in 2008-09 to 332,077 (6.2%) in 2013-14 (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).

The use of blended learning is also spreading, even if the reported data is rather patchy. With the 2012 formation of the CAN eLearning Network, a national pan-Canadian consortium focused on K-12 online and blended learning, better data may be generated, making tracking much more accurate and reliable for policy analysis and decision-making (Barbour 2013, CAN eLearning Network 2015 ).

Compared with the recent explosion of digital learning schools in the United States, online and blended learning in Canada’s K-12 public schools has followed a decidedly different pattern of evolution (Finn and Fairchild 2012; Barbour 2012). Much of the online learning in parts of Canada remains an outgrowth of correspondence school education, involving e-format programmed units, audio distance learning and video conferencing. The radical variations, free market experimentation, and ‘disruptive’ innovation found in the United States (Chubb 2012; Christensen et al. 2013) have not been replicated in Canadian public education.

The primary drivers in Canadian provincial and territorial systems are government authorities, while learning corporations serve as contractors providing content, learning technologies, and support services to the government-run operations. In spite of the tremendous potential for expansion in online learning programs, the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent. Provincial or school district authorities promote a ‘growth-management ‘strategy where online and blended learning are considered the next evolution of effective technology integration (Barbour PTDEA 2015).

Significant gaps still exist in service levels and barriers stand in the way of expansion into un-serviced frontiers, particularly in the Far North and First Nations communities. Only British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have, so far, proven to be fertile ground for private school ventures in the form of virtual or online schools.(Barbour 2010, 41; Kuehn, 2013).

Virtually all Canadian educational systems remain designed around seat time, defined as providing in-school classes of regulated size with a minimum number of instructional hours (Jenson et al. 2010; Powell et al. 2015). Some private sector virtual schools have recently arrived and thrive outside the mainstream system.

No full-time online public charter schools exist, even in Alberta, the only province in Canada with Charter School legislation (Bennett 2012). The rise of virtual schooling delivered by ‘cyber charter schools’ has surfaced as a public policy issue in Alberta, where a University of Alberta research unit, Parkland Institute, released an October 2013 report warning of the dangers of “pedagogical innovation” in the form of privatization presented as a way of easing “budgetary constraints” (Cummins and Gibson 2013).

CANeLearnOnlineEnrolments2014The growth of online learning in Canada may be more significant than reported by provincial and territorial authorities. While Quebec and New Brunswick both reported modest distance education enrolments in 2013-14, estimates for teachers using the curriculum in blended format are much higher. From 2011 to 2014, to cite another example, the Ontario Ministry of Education coordinated an initiative to expand access to blended learning for all K-13 students, which generated almost 240,000 blended learning enrolments in the provincial learning management system during the 2013-14 school year (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).

The national advocacy group 21C Canada holds some sway over provincial ministers of education (C21 Canada 2015), but, so far, the implementation of 21st century learning and the explicit teaching of ‘digital literacies’ is very uneven, particularly outside of the recognized lead provinces, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta (People for Education 2014).

The natural evolution of online and face-to-face education from 2008 until 2015 is exemplified by the spread of blended learning.  Newer blended learning models, promoted by the Christensen Institute (Powell et al. 2015), are beginning to emerge in the so-called “hybrid zone” in what might be termed ‘lighthouse’ schools.

While provinces such as BC, Alberta and Ontario actively promote eLearning, innovation is limited by the current structural boundaries and education authorities are only beginning to track blended learning enrolment. In 2012-13, British Columbia enacted legislation enabling “flexible learning choices” and, with the support of the BC Distributed Learning Administrators’ Association (BCDLAA), blended learning and “flipped classroom” practices are becoming more mainstream (Barbour 2013, 61-62).

National online education survey reports, produced by the CAN eLearning Network (Barbour and LaBonte BIT 2015), testify to the steady growth of distance education and online programs, but identify the need for “better data” and more evidence of the transition to blended ‘competency-based learning’ in Canada. Evolution rather than revolution appears to be the Canadian way.

What’s really driving the growth in Canadian K-12 online and blended learning?  Where is the initiative coming from – from the top-down or the schools-up? What advantages does the “managed-growth” approach over the “destructive innovation” doctrine prevalent in some American states? Would Canadian students and families benefit from more “flexible learning” choices in K-12 public education?

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School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?

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“Personalized learning” is the latest iteration of “21st Century” innovation in education. Since 2010, it has emerged to fill what New Zealand education commentator Benjamin Riley aptly termed “an empty vessel” in the peculiar world of global education reform. Into that vessel can be poured any number of theories of learning or pet educational policies. “A term that can mean anything,” he warns us, “often signifies nothing.”

personalizeLearningIf “personalized learning” turns out to be more illusory than real, then North American school districts from “Crossroads of the Future” County (Iredall, NC) to the Province of British Columbia are embarked upon an experimental  education project of little substance and destination unknown. In the case of Canada’s Pacific province, that would be catastrophic coming in the wake of the current prolonged and bitterly divisive BC Teachers’ Strike.  At the very least, the growing concerns being raised about the wisdom and practicality of “Personalized Learning” should be enough to slow down, if not, derail, the latest educational bandwagon movement.

BCEdPLanThe B.C. Education Plan known as “Personalized Learning,” hatched in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012, is an ambitious  attempt to answer the call for “bold innovation” in public education. Inspired, in part, by Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 TED Talks and supported by Pearson International, the world’s largest global learning corporation, it is in the vanguard of such projects worldwide.

In the rather grandiose BC Learns vision, progressive education pioneered by Chicago Lab School educator John Dewey has been ‘rebranded” for the 21st century. The new educational cant is a familiar one: “The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.” Such individualized learning will allow students to apply learned skills to real-world scenarios, says B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender.

Technology and ‘teaching machines’ rather than students seem to lie at the centre of the latest educational change movement. What its promoters seem to mean by “personalized learning” is that it should involve using technology to give students more freedom to control their education experience.  That sounds good, but what does it mean in practice?  American “Disruptive Innovation” theorist Clayton Christensen, provides this answer: “Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, meaning increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of his or her learning.”

We must “empower learners to learn any time, any place and at any pace, both in school and beyond,” proclaims the recent Aspen Institute report, Learners at the Center of the Networked World.  “Instead of organizing students by age and giving them all the same lesson, [students may] initiate their own learning, may follow different paths, and seek varied resources to help them meet their goals,” according to Alex Hernandez of the  Charter Schools Growth Fund.

The central arguments mobilized in support of such initiatives are highly suspect. Benjamin Riley’s recent June 20, 2014 commentary, “Don’t Personalize Learning,” exposed the fallacies associated with two of the core assumptions: (1) Students will learn more if they have more flexibility to choose their own “path” and what to learn (“the path argument”); and (2) students will learn more if they have more power over when they learn (“the pace argument”). Both of these assumptions, it might be noted, are also cardinal principles of the failed “progressive education” movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

First, the “path argument “assumption that students always benefit from “constructing knowledge” is at odds with what we know about cognition or knowledge acquisition. Most of the educational research demonstrates that knowledge is cumulative. What a child is capable of learning depends upon her stage of development and what she already knows. When a child encounters new information, lacking the preexisting knowledge to put the information in context, she invariably becomes frustrated and finds it difficult to learn.  When learning is “personalized” students are left more on their own, and many – perhaps most-  are not really properly equipped to make sense of new information. Allowing students to “pick what comes next” may be fashionable, but professional teachers are still, for the most part, better at guiding student paths to learning.

Second, the problem with “the pace argument” is that it runs counter to cognitive science research.  We now know that the human brain is not naturally built to think. Students, left to their own devices, tend to choose ‘the easy route’ and to avoid thinking. That’s because thinking is hard and many students need to be challenged to raise their sights.  Introducing technology may promote more student engagement, but it’s a safe bet that many will continue to shy away from activities that they find hard and unpleasant. The “fun’ of initial discovery can be short-lived when it comes to applying those ‘learnings’ to solving deeper, more complex problems.

Registering such sound objections to “personalized learning” opens skeptics like me up to charges that you are archaic in your thinking or worse, wedded to the old “factory model” of education.  Defenders of futuristic education also jump to the conclusion that you are against technology in schools. Such allegations levelled at critics like Riley and Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Kids Like School?are patently false. Indeed, most of the leading critics are also attuned to the need to integrate ICT effectively and meaningfully  into today’s classrooms.

Personalization of learning is foundering, particularly in BC, because it is founded more upon progressive ideology than on sound, research-based pedagogy. Promoters of Personalized Learning in B.C. and Iredell County, NC, are implementing a pedagogical theory that runs counter to what we now know about how the mind works. If, as Dan Willingham has demonstrated, “children are more alike than different in how they think and learn,” then the whole initiative has been launched on a false set of assumptions. Betting big on Personalized Learning believing it will improve student learning is foolhardy in the face of cognitive science evidence to the contrary.

Signs are emerging in Canada that “Personalized Learning” is losing its allure.  A recent Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) Discussion Paper,  written by Penny Milton and released in April 2014, appropriated much of the C21 Canada vision exemplified in Shifting Minds, but studiously avoided any mention of the BC iteration or any specific reference to “personalized learning.”  In spite of its claim to being “bold and innovative” in approach, it attempted to occupy the middle ground.  Much of the proposed NSSBA agenda was ‘boilerplate’ thinking stemming from the usual Canadian “research” sources, C21 Canada and  the Canadian Education Association. It’s also notably non-commital on student testing and assessment and focused mostly on rather mundane ‘in-the-box’ alternative programs.

What’s behind the recent appeal of Personalized Learning as an answer to the call for 21st Century innovation in education?   Why is Personalized Learning coming to be viewed as the progressive education cant re-branded for the 21st century classroom?  What are the chances that the BC Education Plan will actually work to improve student learning? Most importantly, how can we sensibly and effectively integrate IT into the classroom without completely dumbing-down curriculum and, once again, giving kids a virtual license to ‘do their own thing’ with questionable results?

 

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Educators are well known for recycling.   The so-called “21st Century Learning Skills” are a classic example of the phenomenon. Anyone familiar with North American education over the past few decades like Bob McGahey of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation  is immediately taken aback seeing such old panaceas  being repackaged around technology as the solution to education’s current problems. 

RetroSpace21CA group of six ‘Young Turks’, funded by the Action Canada Foundation, has produced yet another report on the state and future of Canada’s provincial education systems. The latest offering, a rather thin 16-page paper, published in February 2013, carries an auspicious title, Future Tense: Adapting Canadian Education Systems for the 21st Century. Upon its release, the paper relatively little attention for good reason – it simply offers nothing much that’s new. After identifying the yawning gap between official policy rhetoric and school-level reality for teachers, the Action Canada report parrots the standard 21st Century Learning platitudes and puts its faith in the anemic Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) to lead us to the promised land.

The Action Canada Fellows accept, rather uncritically, the familiar late 20th century knowledge-based economy tenets and skills now recast as 21st century competencies:

Creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation;

Critical thinking;

Computer and digital literacy;

Character.

The “Young Turks’ operate based upon the rather broad assumption that the ‘critical core competencies’ are absent in the current educational system.It is also abundantly clear that they think such skills are newly discovered concepts emerging fully formed from the fresh air generated by 21st century winds. It is difficult to discern, however, whether this is a reflection of youthful idealism or simply naivete.

The Action Canada report focuses on five Canadian provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec.  Its  analysis, based upon a survey of 920 teachers, conducted in December 2012 and January 2013, and attempts to assess the “salience” of each of the core competencies in provincial education policies and practices. The Policy Review revealed “little consistency between provinces” as to the substance of 21st century learning or the goals (p. 7).  The five provinces, simply put, were all over the map in their policies and implementation.

Among the Canadian provinces British Columbia and Alberta fared best, demonstrating more integration of 21st century skills and more evidence of policy implementation, including a focus on “innovation.” Ontario specializes in promoting critical thinking and character development, but shows “lack of attention to computer and digital technologies.”  New Brunswick was found to be in limbo, following the abortive 21st Century Learning initiative, halted by the David Alward government.  Quebec policy proved to be the most archaic, with no policy initiatives on “computer or digital technologies in the last decade.”(pp. 7-9).

The Teacher Survey was quite revealing, identifying a significant gap between the promise and delivery of educational policies. Descriptive thinking and writing still ranges between 38% and 46% of the curriculum, and teachers with graduate degrees are more likely to set higher analysis/evaluation expectations.    Classroom IT use remains surprisingly low in all provinces, and even in New Brunswick where all teachers have personal laptops.  Character development is strongest in Alberta and weakest in Ontario, where it is a stated provincial curriculum priority. Overall, Canadian teachers aspire to demonstrate creativity, but “conventional modes of teaching” remain prevalent. (pp. 10-12).

One of the report’s real revelations is how much the the New Brunswick 21st Century Learning initiative, launched with tremendous fanfare by Shawn Graham’s Liberal government, has fizzled. After 3 school years, classroom computers are still used very rarely in the province’s schools. It’s anyone’s guess why the initiative’s champion,  former Deputy Minister John Kershaw, was chosen as a mentor for the group (p. 7) that produced this report.  Only in education are architects of programs asked to evaluate the success of their creations.

The report’s Recommendations are incredibly disappointing, particularly given the teacher survey findings. Since Dr. Paul Cappon, the Canadian Council on Learning, and most educational policy analysts  consider CMEC to be a weak sister, and a poor substitute for a national education agency, putting such faith in that body to deliver is likely doomed to failure. Sinking more financial resources into promoting teacher professional development has to be questioned given the lukewarm response from regular teachers skeptical of technology-driven solutions.

The sad state of commuter integration in the classroom and online learning, documented in the report, warrants more action and the authors completely ignore the specific policy proposals set out in the SQE research report, The Sky Has Limits, released a year ago. Top down solutions proposed in Future Tense rarely work, especially when so many structural barriers to online learning and virtual schools remain in place in our provincial school systems.

Why is the Action Canada team’s prescription for 21st Century Learning such an anemic and conventional policy reform document?  What’s become of the ‘Young Turks” that we look to to shake up the educational system? Where did the Action Canada team develop its abiding faith in the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) to actually step up to the challenge of national leadership? Whatever happened to the more robust agenda advanced in the October 2011 Final Report of the Canadian Council on Learning?

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