Doug: Thanks for agreeing for the interview, Donna. There are so many things that I’ve always been curious about and your bio is so long. For many of us in the province, you’ve become a powerful voice at so many levels. I hope to touch them all in this interview.
Donna: Hi Doug. It is a honour to be asked to do this. Thank you for the opportunity. “Powerful voice” is something that carries with it a lot of responsibility. Perhaps a good place to start is right there. I am just a passionate educator who is determined to make sure every single child entering the public school system gets the opportunity to achieve what he or she can and wants to. There are too many kids disengaged, too many classrooms that are not environments that encourage curiosity, creativity, exploration and student ownership of learning, and that’s not okay. I should also say that in the bigger picture, ensuring there IS a vibrant accessible public school system that encourages our young people to think critically and become great citizens is what I stand for.
Doug: Let’s start with an easy question – where did we first meet?
Donna: Ah, easy. After “knowing you” online and in the computer education circles for many years, we finally met face to face at the Davinci Centre in Thunder Bay where you were speaking at SeLNO (Symposium for eLearning in Northwestern Ontario). What a treat it was to finally speak to you in person, and right on my home turf!
Doug: I think that my first contact with you was when we both were involved with eLearning in the province. While mine was pretty standard, working for a school district, you had a different role. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Donna: Sure. eLearning has been a real passion for a long time. I grew up in northern Ontario and I was keenly aware of the need for access to a wider range of choice for students in small high schools. In the mid-90’s, I was fortunate to be working with some people in TLDSB who had a vision for what eLearning could be, and in 1997 I started teaching online as part of the alternative education program in that board. We (a group of very determined online teachers) built that program up to be a very successful model with recorded synchronous online classes long before online meetings were common and before eLearning Ontario was established. The Virtual Learning Centre is still an innovative provider of public online courses. It’s a great example of what can be accomplished when innovative and determined educators work together to create learning opportunities for Ontario students.
Doug: You’ve had experience with education in both southern and northern Ontario. Is it all the same? Are kids, kids? Or are there different challenges?
Donna: Certainly there are differences, but I don’t think the division is a necessarily a north/south one, except for the challenges of distance when it comes to learning opportunities for teachers. The cost of travel, in real dollars and in time away from classrooms, has a huge impact on access to f2f professional learning.
Travel time also impacts student attendance. Some students have 4-hour drives (one-way) to the orthodontist, and many families have to take all the children with them when one has an appointment because they can’t get home on time to care for the other children after school.
It also impacts opportunities for our athletes. I remember being in Peterborough when the OFSAA Cross Country running championships were being held in Thunder Bay (2006). CBC Radio was interviewing the southeastern Ontario athletes and talking about the hardships of having to travel so far and then perform at their peak, and how unfair that was. The idea that northwestern Ontario athletes have to make that trip for every other “provincial” competition didn’t seem to enter their thinking!
In our urban schools, we have very successful sports programs, but in our rural schools, it takes hours just to get to the next school and it can cost $1300 just for a bus to play a league basketball game. The challenges of remoteness and distance are very real. They are not unique to the north, but they are more pervasive here and it’s a struggle to find ways to fund opportunities for kids that are just taken for granted in other parts of Ontario.
Every community is different. Every community and school has unique challenges and we need to work to make sure we need to meet the needs of all students no matter where we are. I think there are a few challenges we deal with more often up here.
We need to do a better job of supporting our First Nations students, particularly in the transition from band schools to publicly funded schools.
We need to figure out how to best share resources among coterminous boards so that we are not competing for students, but collaborating to best educate all youth in our communities together.
With so many of our parents working in remote locations, often for 2-3 weeks at a time, we need to better leverage technology to keep parents engaged in the school environment. And, we need to advocate much more strongly for adequate access to what others take for granted, like internet access at all schools for all students and access to learning opportunities that meet the needs of all learners. It’s not okay for that to be restricted because there are only a small number of students or because the school is far away. Technology-enabled learning has the potential to bring boundless education opportunities to remote students, but we need to figure out bandwidth issues first.
Doug: When you were principal at Nipigon-Red Rock, you were also the DeLC of Superior Greenstone District School Board. How did you manage to find time to do both?
Donna: I didn’t. I was the worst DeLC in the province! My eLC will confirm that! :)
In my first two years as DeLC, it was fine because I was supporting eLearning and with only a few courses running, I was able to handle the DeLC role. We promoted online courses, organized teacher training in the LMS, made sure students had a great orientation to eLearning, and supported teachers in their roles.
But when blended learning opened up, and we were able to hire a fabulous eLC to support blended learning in schools, I could no longer keep up with the demand of being a secondary principal by day and a DeLC at night. I was holding up the eLC in her work, so we worked together to ensure she learned all she needed to know to copy her own courses and to make sure she could meet the needs of the teachers and students without having to wait for me to catch up. I still helped in a supportive role, but the eLC took on all the day-to-day maintenance of the org. I think that balancing the eLC and DeLC roles is still challenging for boards, especially as blended learning continues to grow exponentially. Blended learning is transforming education in Ontario and we need to keep thinking about how to further support boards in their practice.
Doug: How important is eLearning to northern Ontario schools?
Donna: I think it’s critical to ensuring access to learning opportunities, but it’s more than that too.
We need to make sure that the online learning opportunities are not “just a solution” to the problems of access, but opportunities to collaborate with other students and expand learning. Online learning needs to be integrated seamlessly into the lives of students everywhere, not just in the north, and we have some ground to cover before this is a reality. The bricks and mortar school structures are not always conducive to students learning online, and we don’t have a clear shared understanding of what this can look like.
We do have many leaders, though, who are really working on this and we are making progress. Our parents need to know that eLearning is not a second rate solution for their children because they are up north. They need to know that all students in Ontario benefit from learning online from the best possible teachers using the best technology.
Doug: From your experience, is there an eLearning course that you would identify as the toughest to teach?
Donna: GLS1O/2O Learning Strategies I think that pairing learning strategies in a f2f classroom (either at the intermediate or senior level) in combination with another online course can work brilliantly. The f2f teacher uses the learning strategies course to teach the student how to be successful in the online course, and then supports the student in succeeding in the online course. But teaching learning strategies online without that support at the student desk, was very challenging. The very strategies I was teaching were the ones needed to be successful as an independent learner.
Doug: How about from a student perspective. Is there one that’s toughest to take?
Donna: I think that it really depends on the student. In all courses, that constant connection with the teacher is critical. As a principal, I was fortunate to have a Program Leader in Student Services (Jenni Scott-Marciski – she presented at ECOO13) who advocated for online learners and supported them tirelessly. All online students should have access to a f2f educator who checks in with them. As an online teacher, I could only reach students if they logged in. Yes, I called home often, but realistically, they need to log in for the teacher to reach them. A supportive adult at the home school is such an important factor in their success.
Doug: At yet, you still also found time to blog. How passionate are you about your own personal blogging?
Donna: I don’t blog as often as I would like to. However, modelling connected learning, and sharing what I am learning, is important to me. I am so fortunate right now to be able to attend so many conferences and learning opportunities, and I need to share that learning with those who can’t go. I hope others feel the same. We need to nurture those who work to share learning.
Blogging also helps me to take all the information that comes at me, and work on ways to connect it, reflect on it, and learn from it. I learn through writing and organizing ideas, so blogging is part of the learning process for me, and it helps me to keep my thinking all in one place.
Doug: Recently, you’ve taken that passion provincially with the OSSEMOOC project. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Donna: OSAPAC, the committee you know well, is changing its focus slightly so that we are also working to support learners in using digital resources. When we think about student learning, we know that teachers can’t know everything anymore, and that the new model of student-centered learning has teachers as co-learners with students.
Similarly, school and system leaders can no longer have all the answers. They need to be co-learners with teachers. The difference, though, is that school and system leaders make the big decisions around student learning, so they must have a solid understanding of technology-enabled learning and how their decisions can impact student achievement. For that to happen, we need to help school and system leaders build capacity, and connections. They need to have a good understanding of educational technology, but they also need to know who to consult with before making decisions.
So with #OSSEMOOC, we are trying to build that capacity and those connections.
We need to create a sustainable learning environment in Ontario that promotes self-directed learning for education leaders, and
- considers all learning preferences
- allows for all levels of readiness
- provides numerous entry points
- is flexible
- allows choice
- respects limitations of time
- supports a variety of learner interests
- promotes the development of connections and connected learning
It’s quite a challenge, and we haven’t solved everything yet, but we are adamant that we are learners too, and right now we are learning to share and connect in a way that engages those who are making the decisions that impact the learners in this province.
Here is a full explanation: http://ossemooc.wordpress.com/about/
Doug: OSAPAC certainly was one of my passions having served on that committee for years. As parting gifts, members from my time received amethyst gifts from Thunder Bay. Mine sits proudly on an end table. I know that you and a few other Twitter users are real ambassadors for the Thunder Bay area.
If I asked you to make a list, what are 3-5 things about Thunder Bay that, we in the south, probably don’t know, what would you say?
Donna: Wow, there are so many things that come to mind.
I think first, that the Thunder Bay/Superior North Shore region is without a doubt the most beautiful part of Ontario and so many have never seen it. Lake Superior is addictive, and just sitting at a red light in Thunder Bay, looking out over the Sleeping Giant, is such a wonder. The cafeteria at my last school was on the second floor, overlooking the lake, and I could never understand how anyone could eat lunch with their back to the window!
Thunder Bay, in spite of the name, is still very much Port Arthur and Fort William. There are strong communities like Westfort with their own downtown areas within the city limits. The cross country skiing is world class, we are still fighting to get our ski jumping facilities back open again (closed by Mike Harris). Thunder Bay is a hotbed of athletic talent, home to the National Team Development Centre for nordic skiing, hockey (think Staal brothers), a number of world class cyclists, wrestlers, swimmers and other Olympians. It is the perfect place for those who love to play in the outdoors, with unlimited crown land and some of the best ice and rock climbing in the province.
Food in Thunder Bay is very expensive to buy, but there is a very strong local food movement. You can buy flour and granola made from locally grown grain, locally made cheese and yogurt, and there is an extensive selection of local meats and vegetables. I was amazed at how well you can eat by concentrating on local produce.
It takes years to find all the best places for food in Thunder Bay, but the strong Italian, Finnish and Polish cultures mean that the city is full of tiny grocers where you can find locally made smoked meats, perogies, Italian imported foods, Finnish products and baking. Once you know where to shop, you can find the most amazing and unique food products. It takes us three to four hours to shop on weekends.
Coney dogs, Persians, Old Dutch barbecue chips – all unique to Thunder Bay and common sights at the airport after holidays as locals hoard as much of their favourite Thunder Bay foods to take back home with them.
It is really fantastic place to live. It is frustrating to me that so many people ignore this big, beautiful part of Ontario. There are two sides to the Ontario road map! I am always telling people to flip it over!
Doug: Speaking of Thunder Bay, a couple of years ago, you were a panelist for an ECOO presentation. I remember you arriving all in a huff with seconds to go before the presentation. There’s a great story behind that. Can you share it?
Donna: “All in a huff” is a polite way to say it! The full story is on my blog: http://fryed.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/my-day-on-cbc-radio-the-journey/
Essentially, being a principal at the time, I didn’t have the luxury of a day away from school for travel. I left my house at 4:30 a.m. to catch the 6:30 a.m. flight out of Thunder Bay to Toronto. That left lots of time to get to my 3:30 Panel Discussion at ECOO, right? Wrong! Toronto was fogged in and we spent hours on the tarmac at Ottawa! I arrived at ECOO at 3:31 p.m. and was walking on stage with suitcases still in hand!
However, it was worth it! Imagine being on stage with Nora Young, John Seeley Brown, Jaime Casap and Michael Fullan! It was a rare and powerful opportunity to share with the best!
Doug: Recently, you’ve taken a position as an Education Officer with the Ontario Ministry of Education. Which of your many skills and experiences do you feel bring added value to your new position?
Donna: Ah, it is always challenging to talk about strengths outside of a job interview! I work with a very skilled and passionate team of Education Officers at eLO. Change is fast in education right now, and we are working hard to support technology-enabled learning in the province. I think that having taught online for many years, having worked as a DeLC and a secondary principal as well as having system level responsibilities help me to see the challenges of implementing digital learning through several lenses.
Doug: OK, moving on then… Recently, I’ve read that you’re thinking about being involved in an edcamp in Thunder Bay. I’ve been there to do presentations a few time and educators there are so enthusiastic. When is yours scheduled? When can people start registering? What do you hope to accomplish?
Donna: The edCamp still exists in our heads, but we are progressing. One of our very active parents, Sheila Stewart, recently went to edCampLdn to get some experience in what this is all about. We have lots of enthusiastic educators who will help. I am one month away from my daughter’s wedding, and after that we will start talking dates.
Doug: You’re also a big time runner. How many km a week are you running? Is there a favourite path in Thunder Bay that you enjoy?
Donna: Running has been my space to get away and think for many years. I use it to listen to podcasts and music or just to enjoy the scenery up here. A year ago, I was heading off to work in the dark, as usual, but I was taking my son’s car instead of mine, and I misjudged the top of the car door and slammed the door on my left eye. It has left me with some issues that took me right out of the running scene for almost 9 months, and it has been a challenge getting back into it safely and symptom-free, but I have my sights set on Miles with the Giant in September. My favourite place to run in Thunder Bay is the 5 K loop around Boulevard Lake, but I run on the Sibley peninsula a lot and in the summer I train as much as possible in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. There is a 27 km trail over the feet of the giant and out to the tip of the peninsula that is perfect. I also love to run the camp roads along the shore of Lake Superior, especially with those cooling winds in the summertime!
Doug: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Donna. I know that many of us enjoy your interactions on Twitter and on your blog. Your efforts continue to motivate Ontario leaders in an ever-changing world.
Stay in touch with Donna.