Monday 4 May 2020

How to Pivot Ontario Education to Prepare for The Next Wave

I've been participating in Learning2Pivot with doctors Bryan Sanders and Verena Roberts and many others online during this pandemic emergency.   The people in these talks make a point of trying to see the forest for the trees, which is refreshing after another week in the trenches of a diabolically delivered remote learning program.  One of the main ideas in these meetings is to try and work out a pedagogically credible way forward during pandemic emergency remote teaching, so I'm encouraged to give it a go.
I've been struggling with our response to COVID19 since it started (which is why Dusty World has been busy - it's my mechanism for reflecting my way out of the frustration and hopelessness that has accompanied it).  Leveraging our considerable resources to pivot effectively is at odds with much of what Ontario has done in this crisis, but there is still time to build capacity and create a more resilient, digitally transliterate system that would not only work more efficiently face to face, but could also handle remote learning much more effectively.

OSAPAC's broken and abandoned website
- a good metaphor for educational technology
integration in Ontario's school system
When I started thinking about the logistics of actually pivoting to an effective remote learning strategy, I was looking for a way to harness the power of the digital technology at our disposal while also acknowledging the digital divide and the skills gap that has resulted from our refusal to acknowledge that digital fluency is now an integral part of literacy; this transliteracy includes emerging mediums of digital communication.  We have to apply the same rigour to learning the digital aspects of transliteracy as we do the traditional concepts we fixate on.  If we did, we could rapidly develop a much more effective and relevant education system.

Ontario had a mechanism for integrating digital technology called OSAPAC (Ontario Software Acquisition Program Advisory Committee), but funding just got cut to that even while this same government was inventing positions at EQAO for its failed candidates.  Instead of strengthening the very thing that could have provided direction and resources and even help make elearning more of a possibility in Ontario schools, our educational mismanagement has cut that and doubled down on the Educational Quality & Accountability Office, whose only function in this crisis has been to cancel everything they were doing and provide no accountability at all.

What I'm suggesting below might even be attempted as a zero cost game by taking the money being poured into an accountability office that doesn't account for anything and spending it to recreate and expand OSAPAC into the Education Relevancy & Resiliency Office.  Their job would be to put an end to the corporate branding of educational technology in our system (every board is now a Microsoft or Google board) and restore and expand Ontario's centrally managed and vetted collection of educational technology tools, while also ensuring that the system develops the capacity to effectively use them.  ERRO's first job would be to make this happen by developing platform agnostic access to a vetted ecosystem of digital technology:

If remote learning were a software systems upgrade in
a business, Ontario Education would be getting fired.
I worked in IT for a long time before I became a teacher and was reading about current best practices around upgrading software integrated into a business.  These kinds of short term contract were my bread and butter for a while in the late nineties and early zeroes, and the do-or-die, it must work-ness of these upgrades made them a pretty edgy area of IT to work in.  When you're upgrading hundreds of machines in AstraZeneca's Mississauga facility, and millions of dollars in lost production are on the line if you mess it up, the process you follow isn't political or decided by people who have no idea what they're doing (ie: how education is being run in Ontario at the moment), it's driven entirely by need and effectiveness.

Doing this wrong could cripple a business so it tends to be run with a ruthless effectiveness.  When we were doing a JDEdwards upgrade at Ontario Store Fixtures in the mid-nineties, they brought in a retired marine colonel to oversee the update - failure is not an option, and it's about much more than just making sure the tech works.

That article highlighted five vital things you need to do if you're not going screw up a critical business infrastructure upgrade and ensure it's going to work.  We've systemically ignored all of them while rolling out remote learning in Ontario in the past six weeks.

Proper planning evidently didn't happen before schools shut down because this government needed a three week freeze on everything before they were willing to respond at all.  What eventually emerged was a poorly supported off loading of all responsibility for this onto teachers in a system that has been drained of capacity over the past year.

There continues to be little or no communication between partners in the system.  Our board is continually surprised at whatever the minister decides to roll out at his increasingly oddly timed press conferences.  Leaders weren't on board because they didn't know there was anything to board - any planning appears to have been done privately and then dumped on boards to try and make happen with little or no support.

The digital transliteracy needed to remote teach in online spaces has never been developed in staff.  The digitally fluent ones have had to develop it on their own time and with their own resources.  They've had to fight to attend events like the ECOO Conference, which had its funding stripped this year much like OSAPAC's was.  This government's systemic deconstruction of public education has resulted in an atrophied response that wasn't helped by years ignoring digital transliteracy by the previous liberal government.

Our education system has some tough, resilient educators who keep fighting to build system integrity and efficacy, but many have been beaten down by the past eight years of political games.  It's hard to innovate when you're just trying to find enough space to breathe.  All that aside, let's fix this mess and pivot to a system that has the capacity to remote learn as something other than a political stunt.  Here's how to do it:


pull the plug on remote learning:  As Nam Kiwanuka suggested on TVO, it's time to stop playing cat and mouse with parents, students and educators and end this round of remote learning.  Use May to wind down remote learning, but let's not waste that time.  It can also be used to collect actionable data on the digital divide in our staff and students.

I've been collecting data on our staff this week. 24% of
our teachers are trying to remote teach on Chromebooks.
That's like trying to play hockey with a two by four.
A digital divide in staff you say?  Surely they all have digital technology at home to do this.  Well, actually they don't.  Digital transliteracy in the general population is appalling, and most teachers follow that trend.  Many don't have the tech needed to remote teach from home or the digital transliteracy to leverage it effectively.

Instead of trying to assess who has what during an emergency, why don't we keep information on access to digital technology for all?  Knowing this would go a long way to explaining why students (and staff) who struggle in school tend towards poor use of digital tools.  How can you be expected to be fluent on a device when you don't have access to it?  This is akin to being angry with a student for not learning to read and write when they don't have access to any reading or writing material.  We really have to expand our sense of literacy to include emerging communications mediums.  The printing press fundamentally changed what literacy looked like in society.  Our digital revolution is doing the same thing, we simply need to recognize this expanded idea of literacy and act on it.

While we're wrapping up remote learning 1.0, restart OSAPAC and gather all the boards together.  End the corporate branding of school boards and make a centralized agreement with all educational technology companies that gives access to vetted, secure online tools to EVERYONE.  Engage the various boards who have all specialized in different systems and bring them together to create a merged digital ecosystem of tools.  For the few who have developed best practices around video conferencing and other problematic applications, leverage that experience so we can establish a coherent, viable culture around its use in education.


Instead of cancelling PD make it mandatory for everyone in the education system.  June becomes digitally transliteracy training month.  Re-orientate on logistics for closing the digital divide in our staff and actually train them in accessing and effectively using a wider range of digital tools that aren't brand specific.

This isn't an optional training, it's mandatory.  Everyone is on the clock and we have their attention, time to fix years of lazy assumptions and develop digitally empowered transliteracy in all education staff - that's everyone from admin support to teaching assistants to building maintenance - everyone becomes minimally fluent in using digital tools to communicate.

For teachers this is a pedagogically driven process.  Best practices have been developed by digitally transliterate teachers for years now, and it's mostly ignored.  When digital technology is pushed into a resisting teacher's practice it's usually as a substitute (use Google docs instead of photocopies - it's cheaper!).  But digital tools don't just offer substitution, they offer a different way of doing things.  Watching teachers all struggling to gain access to video conferencing simply so they can digitally recreate the out of date lecturing they habitually deliver in school was a fine example of the S in SAMR.

Static lessons and rote student work that is easily plagiarized goes away when educators realize that they are no longer the font of information; we are living in an information rich age.  Students don't need to wait for you to pontificate on a subject, credible information on it is all around us.    By pivoting toward student centred learning where teachers are showing students how to access this freely available information rather than disseminating it means a fundamental shift in pedagogy from a rigid, 20th Century, information poor world to the world we live in now.  Over this month teachers would not only learn basic technical skills and familiarity with digital learning tools, but also consider a more viable 21st Century pedagogy.

There would be testing in this mandatory training that would be pass fail.  Educators who don't participate or cannot demonstrate understanding of basic principles in digital transliteracy would be expected to retake the course in the summer - they're not teaching in the fall without it - this is an emergency.


Spend the summer building capacity by working to minimize the digital divide while developing a vetted digital ecosystem for all school boards.  There are no more Microsoft boards and Google boards, everyone is both, and more.  OSAPAC is back and developing a centralized repository of digital tools.  This is an ongoing, responsive process where educators request access to emerging digital tools and OSAPAC does what it always used to do and get Ontario education access to reviewed and relevant technology at a wholesale price.

Over the summer staff would have access to an increasing pool of online learning tools as well as being delivered the technology they need to proceed with an effective remote learning program if it's needed in the fall.

July and August also gives us time to develop an integrated, grade specific curriculum that focuses students on digital transliteracy.  The goal would be to develop a two week intensive curriculum that gives students the awareness they need to proceed with digital tools in a less habitual and more mindful and coherent manner.  We'd no longer leave digital transliteracy to chance.


Leverage our transliterate school system.  In September, if we're face to face we still proceed with the opening digital transliteracy crash course, because we don't know if there will be a second wave and remote learning returns.  If it doesn't, we have a school system that has taken real steps towards being literate in a relevant way, which will improve our learning efficacy while face to face.  If we do end up remote learning again, we've actually laid the groundwork to do it with a degree of effectiveness we can only dream of at the moment.

STEP 4.1

Have a differentiation plan in place for students (and staff) who are unable to effectively leverage digital tools remotely.  These people are the ones that socially distanced in-school learning is prioritized for.  We don't approach this by throwing an elearning blanket over everything.  We differentiate and use our school infrastructure for staff and students who need it, while preventing COVID19 spreading vectors.  Student need comes before ease of management.


Continue to develop transliteracy with PD for staff that allows them to explore and share online, beyond the walls of their classrooms and schools.  Make a point of connecting educators to PLNs (professional learning networks) that have existed online for digitally fluent educators for years now.  Expect digital transliteracy in our staff, and encourage its development.  OSAPAC becomes a central repository of digital best practices and a place where educators and students can find the tools they need knowing that they are safe.  This empowered OSAPAC relevancy and resiliency in digital transliteracy also empowers other groups like ECOO, ACSE and OASBO, all of whom have the history and technical capacity to make Ontario education a world leader in digital transliteracy.  Linking up to existing programs like TVO's TeachOntario could provide online gateways to this material.


Continue to develop transliteracy in our students by inserting skills specific, focused transliteracy learning throughout the curriculum.  Make digital transliteracy an inherent part of literacy training in elementary schools.  Include basic technical comprehension and skills based digital media development for all students (and staff).  Create a mandatory digital literacy course in junior high school that all students must demonstrate proficiency in - better yet, integrate digital transliteracy into literacy, though expecting English teachers to shoulder that burden alone isn't fair.  We use digital tools (badly) in every aspect of schooling now.  Imagine how much better that could be if staff and students had more than a habitual grasp of them. 


Expand ICT networking infrastructure out of our schools by exploring emerging technologies like Google's Loon Project which can provide wide spread 3G internet connectivity for everyone.  In coordination with the federal government, make Canada's vanishing digital divide the envy of the rest of the world, and then design education systems that teach and leverage it effectively.  Continue to explore and expand Ontario's OSAPAC to include emerging technologies as they become available on a collaborative, province wide scale.

Did we hit that checklist?

Proper planning preventing poor performance 

Communication is key 

Get your leaders on board   ✔

Train the house down   

Build an innovative culture   

Yep.  This is a plan designed to build capacity and take on the challenges of remote learning, which range from technology access to digital illiteracy.  The biggest irony is that many more students (and staff) would be able to participate in elearning in order to diversify learning options for students.  Instead of demanding mandatory elearning out of nowhere, developing digital transliteracy in the system would cause it to happen anyway.

Of course, we'd have to approach this from a building-capacity-in-the-system angle to make it happen.  It looks like that's not going to happen in Ontario until after June 2, 2022, which means we've got more than two more years of misdirection and mismanagement from a government that has no interest in building capacity... unless they can just change their minds.