Monday, 31 January 2011

back from the future

Ever wondered what it would be like to teach a class where all students have their own laptop? Anyone reading this has probably spend some time wondering what it would be like to have internet access and computers for all students. No digital divide...

I'm just wrapping up a semester where I was asked to pilot the elearning version of the Career Studies, grade 10 half semester course. I was teaching all of the career studies in a school of approximately 1500 students. We have a workplace focused high school in our board, but it's far enough away that most parents opt to keep their children in the community at our school, as a result we have a full spectrum of students, all of whom must take this mandatory class.  The students in the open career studies course ran the gamut from highly at-risk and barely literate to students already attending lectures at The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. The grade range ran from end to end (from 0 to 100%).

What follows is a review of the elearning pilot, with some supporting statistics and observations.


If I had to summarize quickly, I'd say that doing career studies in a hybrid elearning class was very useful. Students assume they know more about computers than they actually do (partly due to the fact that we keep telling them that they are digital natives). Doing elearning in a hybrid/introductory way does several things:

it shows many of them how hopelessly addicted to Facebook they are (which created some interesting self-reflexive analysis in the classroom)

Any review of network traffic showed Facebook returning page views at a rate of 50 to 1 over ALL OTHER INTERNET TRAFFIC COMBINED. They are unable to turn it off and are constantly distracted by it. Turning it off at the router caused a minor uprising where they all suddenly appear to have grown Law degrees and a working knowledge of the Constitution.

This broke the myth of the digital native for me.  When I asked them to estimate their own expertise on computers, I (like most others) expected this:
The FAKE stat.
... but I got this:
The real stat.
...which looks mighty similar to the ability curve you get in the general population.

This elearning course, the first for all of these students, pointed out a number of challenges:

  • it makes students aware of how little they know about basic computer functionality (file types and organization, how to edit simple documents, basic network and computer operation, online digital tools that are available - not one of them had heard of Prezi or knew that their hotmail accounts would allow them to save documents online). Less than 1/4 had ever used googledocs.
  • it makes those students that do have technical literacy appreciate (and be appreciated for) what they know (instead of telling them that they all know it because they are teenagers, when they clearly don't, which devalues the knowledge).  Student tech-wizes are as rare as tech-wizes in the general population, but we belittle their knowledge by assuming they all 'know computers'.
  • it gives students a fundamental understanding of the elearning system. A few will see it as an avenue for success (which is good), but many who suddenly find they may need elearning to graduate will see far greater success because of their exposure here.

How the course went:

Doing it as an open/full spectrum course clearly shed light on what I've always found to be true; elearning's self-directed element is what kills it for most at-risk students. It introduces a medium between the student and the material that gives them an excuse not to do work, usually while clearly highlighting their lack of digital skills (which causes embarrasment and some difficult classroom management situations).

I did elearning in Peel, and as far back as 2005, Peel was aiming elearning at University level students who had shown a clear aptitude for self-directed learning and strong computer skills. Without either of these skills (skills I'd argue that are developed much more significantly in academic/university level classes), elearning is likely to result in very poor success rates, specifically in non-academic streams.

Unless we're going to focus on developing self-directed learning and digital competencies in non-academic classrooms it will continue this way.

As things developed, I had to go through the course, collect together all the summative pieces and print them out on paper for about 1/3 of the students in order for them to complete the required material. They did not have the technical skills to edit documents in a word processor and upload it to the elearning system, let alone keep their digital selves organized enough to find assignments they started (many never named files and copied over previous work with the same default file name).  There was little sense of continuity from class to class in these students, most of whom saw it as a Facebook miasma, rather than a course to pass.

A student's ability to organize becomes much weaker when I would find the vast majority of the machines a student brought to me with a problem running Facebook in the background (it's hard to stay organized, it's harder to stay organized when facebook constantly interrupts you with pointless trivia).


I think the real problem is the myth of the digital native. We got shown this last year. Have you seen it? This kind of thinking drives me crazy. Computer skills are taught, they aren't some kind of natural occurance based on your birth date. What this really is is fear. Older and/or less technically inclined people who feel overwhelmed by technology dress up kids today in this because they see them hop onto a computer without worrying about doing something wrong. Being familiar with something doesn't indicate skill. If you actually observe what they are doing, you'll see (as I did during this course) that weak students are digital serfs - they don't know how to do anything, solve anything or look into new things, they only know how to do one or two things (usually Facebook and youtube: the internet for the dim).

What's worse is that students who have developed real skill have it belittled when some Luddite says, "yeah, you guys all know this stuff, you're digital natives." (subtext: now I don't have to address it or waste valuable class time trying to teach it to you)

Digital literacy should start in the junior grades, and they should be developing specific skills (data management, media creation, file management). In grade 9 there should be specific digital literacy targets in core subjects, but there aren't (mainly due to a dirth of teachers who feel comfortable enough themselves to teach it). We expect them to know this stuff intrinsically, which is ludicrous.  21st Century skills will be much more vital to student success than 19th Century skills like sitting in factory organized rows listening to a teacher speak, but we don't teach them.

In the meantime, boards propagate the myth of the digital native that excuses us from addressing digital literacy as a serious issue (they showed us that video above at a staff meeting).

Familiarity with computers isn't a developed skill-set.  Self-taught digital skills are mostly just habit forming. Watching those careers students struggle with basic issues made me realize that elearning is really only designed for success for the top third of digitally literate students. The rest don't have the vaguest idea of what they don't know:

"Hey, I can't edit this document!"
"You're looking at it in WORD viewer..."
blank stares...

"I can't find my file"
"You've saved all of your files in the course as the same name and over written it again and again.  That is why you have fourteen documents called document(1), document(2)..."
blank stares...

Some Other Observations:

Even though perhaps a quarter of our students come from rural/farming backgrounds, high speed internet penetration is quite good. This is probably due to two main factors: it's now seen as a requirement for academic success (at home) and prioritized, and long range wireless (wimax, etc) has become standard in the area. 

 I suspect the real dividing line now is purely financial, which begs the question: when are we going to support students in getting over the digital divide?

When given a choice about whether they could have taken this class as elearning or in a traditional class, almost two thirds opted for the regular class. There was a real lash back against using computers for something productive - it spoiled/interfered with their only purpose (Facebook/Youtube access).  It's hard to convince people that a toy is actually a tool.
As you can see, the same students willing to take the course over again in a hybrid classroom, are also willing to kick the training wheels off and do elearning completely remotely. If they get it, they get it.

An interesting discrepancy between technical skill and willingness to self-direct learning. The whole student centered thing is still pretty new, but getting students to direct their own learning is like pulling teeth. This goes beyond juniors in an open careers class. My university grade 12 computer science students were just as unwilling initially. In their case it was risk aversion. They were so afraid of not getting the numbers they need to go to university that they had no interest in doing open research that wouldn't lead to a perfect result. 

Whether it's how we've taught them to be dependent or how we've taught them to be terrified of errors, we aren't producing self-directed learners, which is a tragedy.

The last one is hardware specific. The netbooks were coveted at the beginning of the course, but their limitations quickly became apparent. I posted the most common complaints (too slow, though this had more to do with the school network than the netbooks, but the digital natives didn't comprehend that), and the tiny screen. Elearning is set up in long, texty pages. Students who aren't strong readers go bonkers trying to read it on a 600 pixels tall netbook screen. Stronger readers can deal with it (and remember what they're looking at), but for the weak readers, every scroll or paging action is another excuse to click on that Facebook tab and get hit by lots of disconnected, pointless information (the way they like it). 

The course would have been better served by a device that rotates for reading longways, then rotates back for data entry (or a big square screen, I guess).

The raw data from the student survey is below. This pilot was a very useful program that shed light on all sorts of issues. I was happy to do it and would like to see it continue, but I fear that it uncovers so many holes that it will quietly disappear back into the ether. Here's hoping it doesn't.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask. The data was collected from 52 students in November, 2010, and 46 students in the second week of January, 2011.

The raw data can be found here (Excel format):

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Emergency Memo: Post Peak, Nov 2014


NOTE: This memo is being sent to all staff within the board. Following the upheaval and violence over the summer, and the Federal Government applying the War Measures act on a national scale in August, the combined RCMP/Police/Military presence has restored some order. Fuel is being rationed by the Federal Government and the Provincial Government are being asked to enact emergency measures to normalize the situation and reduce chances of mass starvation and freezing as winter approaches. One of the key aspects of the plan is to normalize and enable basic rights, including the right to education. What follows is GRDSB’s plan...

The sudden, sharp rise in fossil fuel prices (here for information) have forced our board to make some dramatic policy revisions in order to match the new emergency management plan recently presented by the Ministry of Education, Province of Ontario.

A typical school bus run now costs approximately $550 in fuel costs alone, and is expected to become even more expensive, making this option economically untenable. With the various unions, we have tried to maintain the collegial relationship of previous collective bargaining agreements while working to create a sustainable public education system in our area. These changes are brought on by world-wide resource issues beyond our control, and we have to modify our approach to education in order to continue maintaining a sufficient level of service. The followings steps will ensure this:


1) Teachers are still required to attend the nearest school them, preferably without the use of petrochemicals. Those schools with a sufficient number of local teachers will remain open while being retrofitted with sustainable energy devices. In many cases, if you can see a wind turbine or mini-hydro project being built near you, this will indicate a public school.

Note: This is a provincial and federally mandated program in order to ensure ‘energy islands’ in as many communities as possible. The lack of fossil fuels makes mega-infrastructure such as non-localized power generation unsustainable. All communities will now be responsible for generating their own power.

2) If you live out of the board area, it is suggested that you consider relocation, or contact your local board for employment opportunities. We will do everything we can with neighboring boards to ensure that teachers are able to make this transition. If you do neither, and you are no longer able to able to fulfill your contract, you will be declared surplus and released.

3) If there is no local school within walking distance of your home location you may:

a) Apply to the provincial elearning initiative. With this initiative any household with

children under the age of 18 may receive free wireless high speed internet, meaning many students will take this opportunity to learn online. As an eteacher you would also

qualify for sponsored high speed internet at home. You would then resume your duties

by teaching remotely.

Please click HERE to contact the board elearning conversion initiative.

b) Apply through our board for a provincial grant to open a learning centre. If you own or have access to a building that would provide a suitable environment for a micro-school, and there are enough local students you can consolidate your area students into this structure and initiate your own k-10 program. Since all schools are now k-10 schools, you would be in a very similar teaching environment to your colleagues. LCs will be developed where-ever a 10-1 student-teacher ratio can form.

Please click HERE to contact the board provincial liaison for learning centre creation.

4) Curriculum has been revised and the law altered to reflect our new circumstances. The old standardized tests have been removed and in their place the New Ontario Diploma now exists. This diploma follows previous standards, but offers students earlier departure (students may now graduate between 15-16 years of age) while ensuring that fundamental skills are still evident. The NOD review is highlighted on the updated Ministry curriculum page. It is a two week series of literacy, numeracy, citizenship and general knowledge assessments designed to ensure that a graduating student has sufficient skills to survive in the new economy.

Please click HERE to see the NOD initiative and the new requirements for graduation.


Ontario curriculum will now be revised and the law changed to reflect our new reality. Students are legally required to be in a virtual or physical personal learning plan until the age of 16. During their 15th or 16th year, students may take the Literacy & Numeracy Review. A mark of 70% or higher in both of these reviews will grant them a NOD (New Ontario Diploma). NOD now takes the place of the OSSD.

Students who fail the NOD at the end of their 16th year are assessed and presented with a Sub-NOD rating. SNOD60 would indicate a student at 60% NOD requirements. SNOD30 would indicate a student at 30% of NOD requirements.

Young adults who have finished school at 16 may choose to return, but like ANOD students, they will be required to support their learning financially.

Following passage of the NOD, students may choose to:

1) WORK: the reduction in mechanization has put a premium on physical labour, and graduates will have no trouble making a living wage in the new economy. Jobs in agricultural and infrastructure labour are not only available but in great demand. One of the key reasons for reducing the graduation age was to fulfill this need. We can no longer afford to hold willing workers in public institutions until they are 18.

2) APPRENTICESHIP: the various trades have made agreements with the Ministry of Education and post secondary institutions in order to encourage and maintain high skill positions. Students may choose, after completing their NODs in their 15th or 16th years to begin an apprenticeship in any one of dozens of trades. These apprenticeships often involve moving away from home. The Ministry will continue to track and support these students until they reach journeyman status (usually in their 5th year of apprenticeship). Regular reviews will ensure students are in productive, safe, learning and working environments.

3) ANODs: students interested in pursuing academic streams may choose to complete their Advanced New Ontario Diplomas. These courses are designed to be completed by a capable student within one year. As a result, funding is only available for the 12 months following successful NOD graduation. Students taking longer will have to fund their own studies, including the costs of energy and school access.

Graduates with ANODs will be able to apply to one of the four remaining universities in the province. Entry into these institutions is very competitive. Only students who complete ANODs on time (or early) with exceptional grades should apply. Courses in post-secondary now tend to be much more applied in nature. Universities are intent on turning out doctors, engineers and teachers rather than unused undergraduate degrees. Students who do not know their major, will find access to university very limited. Students who do not have a working plan for their academic studies will also find post secondary access challenging.

The new streams are designed around an expected distribution of 60% NOD to the workplace, 30% apprenticeship and 10% ANOD graduates. Food production and distribution alone requires this kind demographic.


The Federal and Provincial mandates recognize that the era of cheap energy is over, and our society needs to adapt in order to maintain and improve our technical skills and preserve the rights found in the Constitution. Public structures such as law and education can ensure that human rights are not being violated and children still have an opportunity to become educated, effective members of our brave new world.

Children and the poor are at risk of being tyrannized as their value as manual labour has increased and the petro-chemical basis of pre-peak social justice is broken. Without a presence in every community, the weakest members of society are at risk of abuse. With this in mind, it is vital that our public education system reassert itself with the support of regionalized arms of the provincial and federal governments.

By normalizing schools and supporting local sheriffs, we hope to rebuild a safe and fair society. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Please consider being part of the solution, it’s time to let go of the past.

Stay warm as the weather is getting cold and ensure that your lodgings are able to withstand a non-chemically heated winter.

Best of luck,

Your Superintendent.


ps: as further information becomes available, and the board network comes back up under its own power, I will continue to email the latest.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Conformity is happiness

Having a son a lot like myself, I'm watching in dismay as the school system does to him what it tried to do to me. A quiet, shy boy who likes to do his own thing, my son gets very anxious in group situations and tends to shut down, go off into his own head. I suspect that when this happens his teachers think that nothing is happening, that he's just standing there blank, but I know this isn't the case, because I do the same thing.

When people are too much with me (which happens in large groups or very loud situations), I daydream to give my mind some place to play. Standing in a large, noisy group of grade ones repetitively voicing lyrics for the Christmas concert would have lost me quickly, as they did my son. Somehow, his music teacher believes this means he is a failure in music. I'm not sure how group choral singing and dancing is the sum total means of assessing musical skill, but I suppose in some people's minds it is.

Ultimately, it seems that, to an elementary teacher, an unresponsive child is somehow blank. I teach myself, so I recognize the challenges of trying to get an accurate assessment of skills in a classroom full of students, but a lot of this can be mitigated by differentiating instruction and differentiating evaluation. Many opportunities to demonstrate a skill in different contexts is, again, a challenge, but if we're not there to try and create circumstances in which a student can show their best selves, why are we there?

Last year I was at a PD in which the instructor said that he was astonished to see so many secondary teachers out, because usually they don't care anything for PD, differentiating instruction, collaborative assessment or technology in education. My department head and I looked at each other and asked the obvious question, "why would you want to antagonize your audience in the first five minutes?"

He went on to (admiringly) describe elementary teachers as paragons of modern educational philosophy, masters of DI, experts in assessment, the very flowers of the education system. He was then frustrated that his room full of secondary teachers appeared unwilling to interact and ask questions during his presentation.

So here I am, looking at the system as a parent for the first time. In my view, the elementary system is designed around standardized testing. The curriculum is so tightly prescribed and detailed that teachers have little latitude in how they can present it and how long they have to assess it. As a result, they are approaching the education of younger students in a very mechanical, statistical manner. This is something that somehow proves to those in charge that elementary teachers are superior - working within a coherent system that produces students who all think similarly and demonstrate the same skills at the same skill level. Administrators must love this; what a great opportunity to produce STATISTICS.

I have no doubt that there are secondary teachers who love this kind of order (most become administrators). A wonderful world of easily organizable human beings who all do the same things, the same way at the same level. It's the stuff curriculums are made of. But in my experience, especially in the humanities and the arts (and increasingly in science and even math), secondary teachers are actually more interested in trying to arrange conditions for success with their students, rather than comparing them to an artificial and arbitrary set of standards being designed by a MINISTRY somewhere.

One way this happens is by recognizing that teaching and learning are a biological process, and that they happen for students at different times in different ways. This isn't to say that there shouldn't be expectations of what a human being is capable of, the last thing I'd advocate for is a lowest common denominator approach to human being, but an education system that is overly prescribed is probably serving its own bureaucracy rather than its students.

The board keeps showing us Sir Ken's mighty speech: You've probably seen it. Watching it at this last PD through the lens of a frustrated parent of a grade one boy born in October, I was most struck by his comments on our infatuation with date of manufacture. We have built one of the largest public institutions around this idea, mainly for the convenience of the bureaucracy that runs it. (I live in hope that peak oil will break this tyranny: )

In the meantime, I've been talking to colleagues who have atypical children and their only advice is cry long, cry loud and never let them become complacent. It makes me feel sorry for all those kids whose parents are too intimidated, or uncaring, or too busy to advocate as loudly.

There has to be a better way, for everyone involved.