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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today’s junior and senior high school students are increasingly cyber-savvy, hungering for more opportunities to use technology inside the schools, and eager to participate in genuine collaborative learning .  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/commentary/don-tapscott/logged-on-to-learn/article1853529/  Mobile learning technology has been adopted almost en mass by the Net Generation and by today’s so-called “screenagers,”  but the vast majority of Canadian  public schools remain “locked-down” to the free use of such devices outside of designated rooms or access points.

Why are Canada’s public school systems so resistant to online learning and virtual schooling?  Educational futurists may trumpet the “21st Century Skills,” but the regulatory system conspires against any and all initiatives that challenge the status quo, based upon regulations that determine when, how, and where teaching and learning take place. One of the prime obstacles to online learning remains the teachers unions, powerful organizations that exercise hidden influence over everything that happens in the schools. http://www.aims.ca/en/home/library/details.aspx/1862

Recent annual reviews of the state of  Online Learning in Canada have demonstrated that the rigid structuring of schooling constitutes the greatest obstacle in Canadian provincial education systems. Two Canadian provinces, British Columbia and Alberta, are now recognizing the enormous potential of “blended learning” combining regular  “bricks and mortar” instruction with expanded online learning opportunities. Ontario has the most disjointed system, managed by a rather diffuse E-Learning Consortium. Of all the provinces, Prince Edward Island has no real policy and Nova Scotia stands out as being the most restrictive when it comes to online learning.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union, representing 9,800 teachers, staunchly defends the provincial Collective Agreement, a 191-page contract, which spells out, in exacting detail,  the number of days of instruction, school day  hours, class sizes, and every aspect of school working conditions.  http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/collective -agreements/teachers_provincial_agreement_english.pdf    Most of these hard-won rights achieved in the mid-1970s essentially put teachers ahead of kids in the system.

Like most Canadian teacher unions, the NSTU is dead set against “Virtual Schools” and defends classroom “seat-time” rules which limit online learning to a supplemental role in the P-12 public system.  When information technology innovations arise, the union instinctively resists the introduction of “lighthouse” Information Technology programs because of concerns over the “digital divide” and the system’s inability to guarantee “equality of service “ for all students. http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/society-societe/stories-histoires/story-histoire-eng.aspx?story_id=139

Technology may be transforming our everyday life, but Nova Scotia public schools are lagging in fully embracing the potential of the Internet and in integrating online learning into the system.  E-learning courses and programs as well as virtual schools are popping-up in Ontario (Virtual High School) and British Columbia, but remain few and far between in Nova Scotia’s school system.

At the elementary and secondary school level (P-12), regular “brick-and-mortar” schools are acquiring computer hardware and software, connecting them to the Internet, installing wireless networks, and offering in-service training in ICT (Information Communication Technologies) to both novice and experienced teachers.  http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/E-learning/E-Learning_Report_FINAL-E.PDF

In spite of provincial law and regulations, distance education student enrolments are holding their own, given the limits imposed by structural impediments, regulatory constraints, and budgetary restraint programs.  The infrastructure in a surprising number of public schools now enables Internet access, student portals, digital libraries, and networks that support laptops, handheld and other portable devices.

The province of Nova Scotia  has initiated and is developing a highly centralized , province-wide online learning program – the Nova Scotia Virtual School (NSVS). http://nsvs.ednet.ns.ca/m19/  It provides a central course management platform and delegates to the eight school boards the responsibility for providing course content written by practicing classroom teachers.

Since Nova Scotia has tended to lag behind in providing province-wide high speed Internet access, concerns about the urban-rural “digital divide” exert considerable influence on educational policy-making.  Although Nova Scotia has no P-12 distance education legislation, it is heavily regulated in the Teachers’ Contract with the NSTU.

The Nova Scotia regulatory regime pays utmost respect to negotiated teacher rights.  Some 11 specific clauses in the Agreement limit the provincial government’s freedom of action in providing online learning.  All online instructors must be certified teachers, employed by the public board, and are protected by provisions limiting their number of instructional days and working hours and guaranteeing them personal days as well as dedicated preparation and marking time.

Distance education is treated like a regular in-school program with supervisors, dedicated facilities space, and class groups limited to 20-25 students.   A provincial Distance Education Committee, with teacher union representation (four of 8 positions) exists to address “issues surrounding distance education.”

Online learning has a world of potential for promoting freer, more open access to the Internet and opening the door to new innovations taking better advantage of “e-Learning 2.0.”  Here again, Nova Scotia exemplifies the defensive reflex.  Virtually all NS  e-learning programs consist mainly of instructional packets, delivered to students as teacher-evaluated assignments. Newer e-learning opportunities for students are few and far between, even in urban schools.

Social learning with Facebook and Twitter also remains extremely rare across Canada, as is the use of social media software such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, and virtual worlds.   Few traditional classroom teachers use social networking unless they are communicating with their own professional colleagues. http://www.themarknews.com/articles/2368-should-schools-friend-facebook

Virtual schools are on the horizon and offer a glimmer of hope for realizing the enormous potential in meeting the needs of today’s learners. With education authorities and unions acting in collusion with one another, the sky (in cyberspace) has definite limits for kids.

What’s the real source of resistance to Online Learning in Canadian public education? Do education authorities see the contradiction in supporting “21st Century Skills” initiatives while maintaining restrictive regulatory regimes?  What will it take to unlock and tap into the full potential of online learning and virtual schools?   

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Students went back to school in September with a controversy over Technology in Schools swirling in the halls and inside the 21st century classroom. Canada’s largest public school board, the Toronto District Board, accepted the ever-present reality of students armed with smartphones and relaxed its ban on most hand-held technology devices. That move signaled the beginning of a profound shift, opening the door to the digital classroom.

Most junior and senior school students in Canada and the United States are already sneaking their phones and iPods into class in backpacks, so the move was likely inevitable. “Teachers just can’t sit at the front with the chalkboard anymore,” IT consultant Todd Sniezek conceded,” because that won’t engage them and we have to engage them using their tools.” http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/primary-to-secondary/back-to-school-for-smartphones-toronto-loosens-ban-on-devices/article2156008/?service=mobile

Allowing more open access to IT in the classroom came amidst fresh controversy over the questionable impact of hi-tech on student learning and performance. A New York Times series “Grading the Digital School” led off with IT reporter Matt Richtel’s September 3, 2011 feature story reporting on stagnating test scores in schools championing the technology-centric classroom. After analyzing the Kyrene School District, reputed to be a model high-tech school district, Richtel came to a startling conclusion: student test scores were still languishing.

Across the United States, where nearly $2 billion is now being poured into IT software alone, Richtel sounded an alarm bell. “Schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay-off teachers,” he declared, “with little proof that this approach is improving learning.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/technology/technology-in-schools-faces-questions-on-value.html?pagewanted=all

Promoters of the headlong rush to digitize our schools got a jolt. There was, Larry Cuban told Richtel, “insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money. Period, period, period.” Cuban also “pooh-poohed” the “student engagement” argument for computers. “There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he contended.

Brave critiques of 21st century digital orthodoxy, such as Richtel’s feature article and Nicholas G. Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows, perform a vital role in alerting us to the spell cast by the Net and to the perils of giving it free rein in our schools.

What should we make of the recent revelation? A Senior Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Peter Meyer, provided the best and most insightful answer. While Richtel covers most of the essential bases, he simply doesn’t grasp the significance of good, sound curriculum. In Educaton Gadfly, Meyer pointed out that Richtel – like the IT zealots–is slow to recognize the most critical element in education — the importance of knowledge.

The central question, What should kids know?, still eludes education technologists and far too many education reporters.

Meyer offers these words of wisdom: “It can be done. When Ron Packard was starting his pioneering internet school, K12 Inc., in the late 1990s*, one of the first things he did was to convince Bill Bennett, the education “czar” under Ronald Reagan and co-author (with Checker Finn) of The Educated Child, to join him. This was 1999 and a major coup, in no small part because Bennett and Finn had written that there was “no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning.” …. Equally important – though less publicized – was Packard’s next move: hiring John Holdren, who had overseen E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge K-8 Curriculum Sequence, to design K12’s curriculum. What Packard appreciated, and too many education technologists still don’t get, is that content counts.” http://www.educationgadfly.net/flypaper/2011/09/wakeup-call-for-the-digital-revolution/

Computers are here to stay and so is IT in schools. Simply providing the latest IT gadgets and providing open access to the Web is, and never will be, enough to fully engage students in guided learning. That master “Word Processor” Nicholas G. Carr describes well how increasing numbers of “digital citizens” now report that “the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, and turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks.” (The Shallows(2011), p. 226)

Will recent Wake-up Calls for the Digital Revolution in education register where it counts, in Departments of Education and among education policy-makers? With all the high-tech gadgets in our hands, are Tony Wagner’s “21st century skills” apostles leading us astray? Why do we tend to ignore the essential fact that knowledge and good teaching still matter most? Will the low technology of good teaching and sound curriculum eventually win the day?

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The recent deaths of three teenagers victimized by bullying has sent shock waves through Nova Scotia and have now been featured in national media reports, including CBC-TV’s The National. Jenna Bowers-Bryanton and Courtney Brown, students in Chignecto-Central Board schools, are only the latest tragic human casualties. But in the wake of their deaths, harder questions are being asked about what is being done to safeguard vulnerable teens and what strategies might work in combating the insidious, silent torment of cyberbullying.

Bullying is an age-old problem, but it has taken on new forms, online as well as face-to-face in and around schools. Highly-publicized teen suicides prompt outpourings of grief and promises of remedial action, like the Nova Scotia Task Force, announced April 5 by Education Minister Ramona Jennex. Everyone agrees that online harassment is totally unacceptable, but the proposed remedies are all over the map.

The Truro Police Department’s answer is “Cyber,” a cyberbully-fighting robot that has been touring the Chignecto Board elementary schools for the past two years. So far the “Cyber” sound-and-light show, led by Const. Todd Taylor, has been given to 7,000 Primary to Grade 5 pupils and is being touted as one possible antidote to the problem.

“Cyber the Robot” has replaced “Elmer the Safety Elephant” in today’s social media saturated school culture. It certainly catches the kids’ interest and generates excitement, but does the scary pyrotechnic message actually work?

One of Canada’s leading experts, Shaheen Shariff of McGill University, has her doubts. Without wanting to rain on the Cyber parade, Sharaff says it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of such deterrent programs and there is little or no long-term research to see if such early interventions work to reduce online harassment.

Online harassment is so widespread in today’s junior and senior high schools that principals have been forced to intervene. When they do go poking around Facebook and other similar sites, they are treading on uncharted disciplinary territory in the tricky parent-school relationship, running the risk of “crossing the line” with parents.

“There’s no escaping it on the Internet,” says Bill Belsey, an Alberta schoolteacher who has spearheaded the Canadian campaign against cyberbullying. A survey released in July 2008 by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation painted an alarming picture. One out of three Canadians polled knew of a child who had been bullied online over the past year and 20% claimed to know of a teacher who had been similarly victimized.

The Canadian Teachers’ Federation followed up its survey by weighing in with a set of proposed anti-cyberbullying policies. Since then, many school boards have followed suit, including those in Nova Scotia. “Cyber the Robot” was the Truro-based Board’s answer to the problem.
The public outcry over cyberbullying has provoked overreactions, particularly in some American states. One of the leading U.S. authorities, Nancy Willard, takes a dim view of “fear-mongering” about social networking. Her book, Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens (2007), urges parents and adults to resist simple solutions such as banning Facebook from the schools.

Much of the “techno-panic” is driven by parents disturbed by the prevalence of pornography and inappropriate messaging on the Internet. Being cut-off from Facebook she likens to “excommunication,” putting teens at greater risk and making them more fearful of talking openly with adults about their serious personal concerns.

Imposing a strict “lockdown” on social networking makes it more difficult for students to access the “interactive technologies” so essential in preparing them for further learning, the workplace, civic responsibilities, and their personal lives. If and when students “cross the line” with inappropriate images, physical threats, or degrading, hurtful comments, then schools simply cannot turn a blind eye. But it’s not solely a matter of deterring students with scare stories or harsh disciplinary penalties.

Local medical authorities on teenage aggression like Dr. John LeBlanc of the Dalhousie Medical School see bullying of all kinds as ingrained in today’s youth culture. “The best approach,” he insists, “is to build upon a child’s assets, investing your energies in fostering healthy social relationships.”

There are no “quick fixes” when it comes to combating online harassment. It’s simply not possible to contain “cyber-savvy teens” by introducing a 21st century form of prohibition. Nor is it possible to turn schools into so-called “electronically fenced play yards.” Cyber the Robot’s school visits are simply one piece of the strategy, but only one small part of the needed longer-term community-building effort.

Cyberbullying is becoming a 21st century disease affecting millions of schoolchildren, including as many as 1 in 5 teens in Grades 6 to 8. What can schools do to combat cyberbulling and curtail persistent online harassment? Why is combatting cyberbullying such a challenge? Can we find a policy that actually works? Is it possible to balance the insatiable desire for online communication with the priorities of schooling in the 21st century?

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School is resuming for another year and the hottest issue is “Facebook in Schools.” On September 1, CBC-TV’s The National ran a story focusing on a Grade 7 teacher Colin Kristoff and his successful campaign to bring Facebook into Catholic public schools in Regina, Saskatchewan.  While it’s popular with most students, teachers remain deeply divided on whether popular social network sites have any place in today’s classrooms.  Even his own school principal, Jamie Neigum, is dubious about its merits.

Facebook, for better or worse,  is coming to a classroom near you.   After years of blocking the popular social networking site from schools, Canada’s largest public school boards have decided to embrace it instead. Public boards in Toronto, Vancouver, and Waterloo Region have relented and are permitting classroom access.  Atlantic Canada’s biggest board, the Halifax Regional School Board, remains an outlier, blocking student and teacher access in its 137 schools.  Every school in that system, and many others, is “locked down” even though students use social media virtually everywhere else these days.

Ontario’s  Waterloo Region District Board was one of the first to “crack”  on the issue of access to Facebook. Back in April 2010, the Board went on record as encouraging the use of Social Media in the schools, with proper guidance.  Assistant Superintendent of Learning Services, Peter Rubenschuh, fronted the initiative. “We are looking at social media tools to support the learning agenda,” he told the Kitchener Waterloo Record. Starting this September, the board allows Facebook to be used in its schools for students aged 13 and older. It will be moderated, and it will be used for such things as discussing issues that come up in the curriculum, or offering extra help.

Facebook is omnipresent in early 21st century life.  The site now has 500 million users around the globe, many of them young people, who are living out their lives in an online world.  Teens and children, some as young as nine years old, are fixated with the social network site.  They now acquire most of their information from the social media, in addition to socializing almost incessantly with friends. Most teens use it to tell what they’re up to, post pictures, take quizzes and play games, and comment on their friends’ pictures and activities. Some spend several hours a day on Facebook and other social network sites.

The Waterloo Board’s Rubenschuh is a real convert to its value.  “This is their world,”he says. “This is how they connect.” And he thinks some students might connect better to school if they can use the method of communication they prefer.  For example, some students don’t like speaking up in classroom discussion. But they might feel differently about giving their opinion if the discussion is online instead. It’s even democratic!  “To some degree, you empower them with a voice”

The idea for the change came about, oddly enough, as Rubenschuh was considering  promoting character development.  After bringing 200 people together last school year, including teachers, administrators and students, they discovered that everyone had a “ digital footprint” and it strongly reflected their values and attitudes. It became clear that Facebook had to be addressed by such a character education program.  Simply put, promoting “respect, kindness, and integrity” means engaging students where they live, in “the digital world.”

Few school issues today spark as much passionate debate as the role of Facebook and social networking sites in our publicly-supported schools. Does Facebook have any place in our schools?  Should school boards maintain their current “lockdown” policies concerning Internet access to Facebook and the social media?  And should school systems or individual schools decide?  Let’s hear from you.

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