It’s not that simple

My educational reading was flooded this morning with all kinds of ideas about how Online Learning will be the magic bullet – not for compulsory credits in the province of Ontario this time but for a reaction to the COVID-19 virus.

If only it was just a switch that could be flipped.

It’s being assumed to be in the category of “Kids these days”. They live and breathe technology and can handle it. Really? And, even if they can handle it, can a system?

I’d like to think it needs to be treated more like a classic scene from Modern Family “What’s the plan, Phil?”

Alfred Thompson and I had a bit of a back and forth about plans at his school where he indicated that they would “attempt” (his words) to teach online if the school was closed. The ensuing discussion was really interesting. Alfred is a Computer Science teacher at a private school so his students just may be ahead of others but he’s still realistic enough to use the word “attempt”.

I can’t help but wonder if the proponents of this approach, this quickly, might be the same that recommend that an entire province should expect students to accumulate four credits online. You know, they have a computer devoted to their personal use, have a technical support department in the building, and are accountable for ideas and not the education of many, many students in their care.

It’s not that online learning is bad. In fact, it has been proven to be a saviour for a number of students. It’s also been a challenge and a failure for others.

My experience with Online Teaching goes back to my district granting full credits for courses online. We had a number of teachers who had received the professional learning needed to get started successfully, some even authored online courses and we shared our courses with other districts throughout the province and others shared back. Ironically, Online Teaching wasn’t originally officially part of my work portfolio. The people who were in charge often were there for a bit and then moved on. I was always a “Plan B” until it was kind of made official. Throughout all this, I had access to two people who knew the system inside and out – Alison Baron and Rodd Lucier. I can’t imagine pulling it off without their support.

If you ever had a long term sickness or somehow got to go on holidays during school time, you may have asked for work to take with you. It happened to me a couple of times but typically it was busy worksheets. This is so far removed from real Online Learning.

Looking back, and my discussion with Alfred made me think that there’s a couple of categories of issues that need to be addressed for success.

Technical

  • do all students have a computer at home?
  • do all students have fast enough internet at home if videos and other multi-media are to be used?
  • are the computer or internet access current and fast enough to actually do significant work? This includes both uploading and downloading content.
  • would the school provide technology to take home? Who is kicking themselves now for 1:1 iPads? Have you ever tried to type an essay of any length on one of those? Or multi-task while researching in another window?
  • if any of these points fail, how will you address the concept of equity?
  • does the host system have enough capacity to handle the extra access? Who can forget epic fails of systems during heavy loads. There’s nothing more frustrating as “scheduled maintenance” as well.

Logistical

  • is there a course available to use or will teachers have to create curriculum using their best guess as to what will work online? Who will guarantee the standards of whatever is offered?
  • who is your technical support going to be? Don’t forget to throw multiple internet providers, multiple computer types and abilities into the mix.
  • does the course require access to specific software for success? There was a time when OSAPAC recommended the Ministry of Education license certain software titles for school and student take home use. The list doesn’t seem to be updated recently and the website itself needs a bit of updating. Could the course be addressed entirely online with various activities and simulations available?
  • are access to student accounts, LMS, email, etc. available at home? Do students know how to juggle between personal and school accounts? Is privacy for student accounts ensured when not coming from a school IP address?
  • how about two or more kids in the same household with one family computer. That’s another “dog ate my homework” moment just waiting to happen

Above and beyond all this, are teachers ready for this new approach? Forget the 1:1 moments and visible feedback that drives your regular classroom.

Now, lest you think I’m overly negative… these are legitimate questions but all of them can be overcome. There was a time when groups like the Western RCAC and COCA used to meet and address issues like these in advance of them actually happening. Nothing like that exists any more.

And, I suspect that this is the beginning. How about the change in pedagogy required for Online Learning? I know that it was a challenge with our relatively small numbers; I can only imagine how that scaffolds when a whole system adopts this approach.

At present, the message that the courses will be taught online and students won’t miss a beat may well be mostly for public relations. An entire system isn’t ready to flip a switch and move to something new without challenges. The learning has to be just as powerful and effective as the regular classroom.

I can’t help but wonder though … hospitals have plans in place for pandemics. Is this a warning that school districts should be doing the same? We’ve long talked about “blended solutions” where part of a course is done online. Unfortunately, it’s not a well adopted solution. So often, we read about how technology is used in education but those moments are often just photo opportunities. “Look, our kids are coding and learning math”, “I have a flipped classroom”, “Our students went on a virtual field trip”, … These are examples of the power that technology provides but it’s not the day to day teaching and learning that happens in most classrooms.

That’s a challenge to address the needs of all students at the best of times. Are we honestly and truthfully ready to do it everywhere?

Published by dougpete

The content of this blog is created by me at the keyboard or as a result of an aggregator of my daily reading under the title OTR Links. On Fridays, look for my signature post "This Week in Ontario Edublogs" where I try to share some great writing from Ontario Educators. The other regular post appears Sunday mornings as I try to start a conversation about things that have gone missing from our daily lives.

4 thoughts on “It’s not that simple

  1. Good morning Doug!

    I like the large collection of considerations, technical and logistical, that you have raised. There is no doubt that this is not a simple solution that can be implemented with just “the flick of a switch.” The current government seems to think that farming out online learning to some corporation and paying the cheaper rate is all that needs to happen.

    In my mind, the most significant issue that seems to be ignored in the government’s simple solution is the presence/absence of the teacher in school-based versus online-based learning. Given that kids are essentially trained in learning within a school-based environment from early ages on up, the sudden introduction of a remote-learning method with the significant change from teacher-shaped to learner-managed discipline/time-management is not insignificant. Not only does it call for a different mindset on the part of the learner, but it also calls into question who will be providing the support and supervision for the learner at-home.

    I have stated before that one of my greatest moments of disillusionment as an educator came when I realized that the importance of care-and-control of the classroom of kids for the benefit of their at-work parents during the day was more important to a school administrator than the actual value of the learning going on in the classroom. Having an adult body in the room was paramount. That learning was actually taking place was secondary. When the education minister is worried about kids being out of classroom due to job action rather than being concerned about the actual quality of the education that goes on when they are in there is the same thing, albeit on a much larger degree.

    Given all of this, a lot to say that I am supportive of learners developing greater independence in their learning strategies so as to decrease their dependence on the teacher-guided model. That “schooled” students (versus learners) still exist in post-secondary environments who are limited in their abilities at self-directed learning is problematic. However, an awareness and support for continuing to develop the inherent learner in our children from their early years until their graduation requires the careful and constant support of adults.

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  2. I can’t even imagine how this would roll out! The access to the internet alone would prevent so many from joining in. And packets of worksheets sent home…hard to say if that’s better than nothing. Would they even be completed by some?

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