Sunday, 25 October 2020

A Vision of Elearning Focused on Pedgagogy

I've been a student and then a teacher through the earliest iterations of online learning.  At university I took one of the last mailed correspondence courses in the mid-nineties and I've been online since BBSes and user-groups in the early 90s.  That whole time I was working summers and holidays in IT jobs, though they weren't called 'IT jobs' yet.  For two summers I helped Unitel Engineering digitize their paper based parts ordering system at their electronics shop in Scarborough by moving everything in their decades old paper based system from filing cabinets to Lotus123 on DOS/early Windows.

After graduation I got my first full time gig at Ontario Store Fixtures where I was attached to the programming team that was converting their old DOS based manufacturing system to JDEdwards OneWorld integrated management process.  This was a very early server based system that was the step between desktops and the cloud based systems we use today.  Two years teaching overseas in Japan showed me the technology that was soon to arrive in North America, such as digital cameras and high speed home internet.  I played Diablo with a friend in Mississauga from my apartment in Akita City and watched Y2K pass over us at a thousand year old temple.  When I wasn't doing that I was helping engineers and doctors translate their work for international consumption, working on everything from electronic/robotics systems that helped parallelised people move their limbs to the latest in LCD technology coming out of the NEC factory near where we lived.

By the early naughties we were back in Ontario and I was a certified IT and network technician and working full time in the field.  I changed directions into teaching in 2003/4 and my first teaching job in Peel Region had me setting up the first wireless router in the board in our library so students with their newfangled Blackberries and wireless laptops could get online - it would be years before board IT caught up with us.  The next summer I got a job in their new elearning summer program.  We were using the Angel online system which was a rudimentary webpage with such basic media that you had to hand code the html if you wanted it to be anything other than text.

One of my favourite elearning experiences came in those early days.  Peel didn't run elearning as a credit factory.  They focused on strong students with digital experience and then pushed for advanced course delivery.  In our Grade 12 academic class we had students from across Ontario as well as international students from Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai who were taking the course to prove they had the English language skills necessary to attend university in Canada.  Working with this international group felt like what the future of teaching could be.

A good example of the above and beyond nature of these students was the final exam, which happened in a live two hour window.  The students overseas were up in the middle of the night and when the internet went down in part of Mississauga my student who was in that blackout called around, found a friend with working internet and rode her bike over there to complete the exam on time.  Back then elearning wasn't an excuse to do less, it was a reason to do more.

I continued to teach elearning in summer school for the next five years as I moved to my current school board and they started up their own elearning program (I volunteered to be in the inaugural group and was the only one in it who had actually taught any).  This branched out into blended face to face and elearning classes ranging from career studies to a specialized locally developed media arts program for at risk students as well as the usual online English courses.  Early versions of video conference like Adobe Connect came up and I always seized this emerging technology to develop better learning relationships and bandwidth with my students.  One day we were all on a live video conference working independently when one of the student's moms came in and asked if he wanted takeout hamburgers for lunch.  She laughed when we all replied that hamburgers sounded great.  That was in 2008 before unions and school boards conspired to take video conferencing off limits.  It took the education minister in a pandemic emergency this past spring to get Ontario's education system to begin using this technology again... twelve years later.  Sabotage by political interests in Ontario education are a big reason why we are still so bad at elearning.

Rather than focus on students who needed access to courses and had highly developed digital skills and resilience, elearning devolved into a way of offering credits for at risk students that didn't want to attend school.  It was then decided to give elearning sections to teachers in smaller schools that were losing population instead of giving those sections to teachers who had the experience, skills and interest in making this challenging emerging learning situation work.  The end result was students and teachers who didn't want to be in elearning.  As that all happened I found myself removed from teaching it and by 2012 I was no longer doing any elearning at all.

In the meantime I've developed a very successful computer technology program, so my journey into digitally enabled pedagogy has not stopped.  My students and I built some of the first virtual reality systems used by students in the province and we've tackled all sorts of IT challenges including Skills Ontario and then CyberTitan and cybersecurity.  We've created a unique software engineering/video game development program that has already launched a number of careers and we have grads working everywhere from Tesla and Google to Electronic Arts while others have started their own companies.  In aid of that I've become a Cisco Netacademy Instructor which offers my students one of the most advanced elearning management systems in the world, and I'm constantly exploring online coding LMSes such as and for my students.  If anything, stepping away from elearning, especially after what it had become, gave me the flexibility to explore digital pedagogy more than staying in it would have.


Elearning implementation has always suffered from a lack of vision.  It stumbled into existence as a substitute for mail order courses in the late 90s and early Zeroes because it was cheaper and faster than all those stamps.  In the early days it was tentatively adopted by programs like Peel's independent summer school but it has never been adopted into specialized virtual schools and was still struggling for acceptance up until this year when suddenly everyone was an elearning/remote teacher.

Even in 2019 unions were attacking elearning as a 'lesser than form' of teaching in an attempt to stop government attacks on public education.  That Ontario's anti-education government was suggesting stuffing 40-50 students into elearning classes shows how this scalable system is prone to abuse and pedagogical deflation.  Those union attacks annoyed many members like myself who have been working on developing this emerging medium of learning for most   of our careers.

There is nothing education does better than look backwards and poorly handle change.  If it does adopt technology it's usually to try and redo what it has been doing for decades as a cost saver.  Google Docs instead of photocopies, online forms instead of quizzes, worksheets on screen instead of paper; educational adoption of digital tools is all about the Substitution in SAMR; use it while keeping things as much the same as possible.  As I said earlier, elearning implementation has shown a startling lack of vision and leadership.


There was a time when you had a choice...
I recently didn't get an elearning job, but that's OK because the last thing I want to be doing is middle managing to the status quo, What I want to do is explore and expand our best digital pedagogical practices; seeing how cheaply we can do the minimum doesn't do anything for me (or anyone else not in management).  There still seems to be a lot of pressure to overload elearning classes with students and then using limited corporate walled-garden systems from attention merchants like Google.  This is baffling from a f2f teacher perspective where I'm seeing people getting paid teacher salaries while not actually doing any teaching.  We could leverage the influx of teachers into the system much more effectively than we are to quickly create smaller remote classes that would involve teachers actually teaching and supporting learning instead of babysitting.

I'd want to advocate for smaller class sizes in elearning, especially in higher needs classes where remote teachers are also doing the jobs of guidance counsellors and special education support in a dangerous time.  I'd also want to advocate for an efficient system for vetting alternative online systems that offer greater bandwidth with our remote students, but most boards have equated student privacy and cybersecurity with exclusive deals with tax dodging advertising/technology giants rather than looking to create a diverse yet secure ecosystem of online digital tools for learning.  Signing an agreement with an attention merchant to indoctrinate the students in your care in their advertising systems so you can hand them graduates familiar with their products is an easier box to check.


What would my dream elearning job be?  Let me take my digitally expert senior students in software engineering/game development and computer engineering, give us leading edge tools and let us see what digital learning is capable of in 2020.  By exploring emerging technology we could not only make elearning more effective, but also ease the social distance anxiety many people are feeling.

Just before school started this year in its masked, socially distanced, quadmestered and frankly diminished capacity, I saw this tweet from Jon Resendez.  It stayed on my mind as we launched this uneven and unsustainable (for the people doing double cohort, double classes remotely and f2f all day every day simultaneously) quadmester.  More pedagogically sound elearning processes wouldn't just help remote teachers at the moment, they'd help everyone since we're all remote teaching in one way or another, it's just that some of us are trying to do it while face to face with students at the same time.

There are two sides of elearning I'd want to explore with my digitally skilled students.  My computer engineers could focus on the physical hardware that might improve remote learning outcomes and my senior software engineers would be able to explore and even write the software we need to explore and expand communications between remote teachers and their students.

One of the exciting evolutions happening right now is in virtual reality.  We've been exploring this through our board's forward thinking SHSM program since 2015.  As the technology has matured prices have tumbled.  The Oculus Quest 2 runs at a resolution that would have required a $1000 VR system connected to a $2000 high speed PC back in 2015, but it now costs less than $500 (very close to what a Chromebook costs).  What might a class equiped with immersive, fully interactive virtual and augmented reality look like?

Experiential learning takes a huge leap forward in VR.  Giving students a chance to virtually explore Anne Frank's house instead of talking about it or passively watching a video makes the benefits of immersive experiential learning obvious. 

If you're more future thinking how about a detailed 3d model of the ISS that you and students could explore:

... or a universe simulator that lets you create gravitationally accurate solar systems?  You can explore the deep ocean or amaze yourself in Google Earth VR, which is so engaging that you often forget you have the headset on while you're in it.  It was a lifesaver for me during lockdown when travel wasn't happening.  Seeing parks on the south tip of Africa closed for COVID also brought home for me the world wide nature of what's happening.

The benefits of experiential learning in VR can even extend to giving everyone a feeling of what it's like to be autistic.  Students who experience VR tend to feel that they've actually experienced it.  This is a big step away from passively reading a webpage or watching a video, which is about as far as elearning goes these days.  Bringing experiential and immersive experiences to elearning will revolutionize the process and radically change what our ideas of a field trip is (elearning students don't currently have field trips).

Beyond the experiential benefits of elearning, what I'd really like to go after is using virtual and augmented reality as a work around for social distancing.  This is leading edge stuff - labs are looking into it now, but from a business perspective.  Education won't stumble into it for years, but wouldn't it be something if we could leverage this current technology in time to help us all manage the social isolation we're all feeling?

In 2018 Nick (our national finalist CyberTitan) led a team that developed a VR title they called a 'virtual classroom'.  The idea was to let students use 3d avatars to meet in virtual reality.  All VR headsets have microphones, speakers and cameras build in, so they're already inherently designed to be communications tools... and that was more than two years ago...

Our kung-fu in the software engineering class has only improved since.  Not only could we explore existing virtual and augmented software opportunities for educational use, we'd also be capable of developing our own VR classroom 2.0.  We just need the room and support to make it happen.  What would room and support look like?  I'm currently looking at 31 students with a waiting list in software engineering next semester.  If we're still waterboarding everyone with quadmesters in semester 2 then splitting that massive class into two sections of 20 each would mean we could all meet face to face in the morning to resolve problems and take aim at new ones and then go virtual in the afternoon to test what we're working on instead of the current schedule that would have me trying to be in two places at once while depending on another teacher who has no idea what we're doing to 'support' the remote learning.  In short, it would mean arranging the class around pedagogical effectiveness rather than seeing how many students we can stuff into one section.


Beyond the hardware and software research, I'd also like to address the massive gap we're experiencing in our current elearning charge.  The digital divide is deeper and wider than you think because it's not just about a lack of connectivity and available technology at home, it's also about technological illiteracy because Ontario education assumes that students and staff all know how to use digital tools rather than training and teaching them in it.

We hand students digital technology in the early grades and just assume they understand what it is from home use, but that home use, if it exists at all, is usually habitual and very limited.  Just because students aren't afraid of technology doesn't mean they understand how it works.  Every year I see grade 9s who think they're digital experts because they've owned a series of game consoles since they could walk.  Their parents' choice to digitally impoverish them by only ever handing them toys instead of tools makes it even more difficult to teach them computer engineering because they think they know everything when they don't even know how to share a document, or unzip a compressed file.

It would be a satisfying thing to develop a hands on mandatory technology curriculum that makes all students literate in technology use in the same way we expect them to be literate and numerate in languages and mathematics.  Like those other foundational literacies, digital/media literacy is a foundational skill if we're using this technology in every class (as we are).


There is much to do in remote elearning in order to make it a viable learning strategy both during the COVID19 pandemic and beyond, but we need vision and the will to explore where this is going instead of just waiting for business to hand us down their leftovers or an uncaring government to use it as an excuse to Walmart education into pedagogical irrelevance.

I was once talking to an administrator who said, "I hate the word pedagogy, what does that even mean anyway?"  The complexity in the concept is exactly what we should be protecting as we continue to evolve learning in our digital age.  Pedagogy is not a concept that plays well with a management approach that is looking for cheap and easy solutions.  Perhaps that's why I always feel like I'm the one fighting for it when I'm talking to educational management, but we should always be working toward it even if it's difficult.

Developing a more pedagogically powerful elearning system won't just help us manage this pandemic crisis, it would also help us manage the looming environmental crisis of which this pandemic is just a symptom.  If we could get elearning to begin approaching the pedagogical complexity and interpersonal bandwidth of in-class learning we could be restructuring education so it isn't pumping millions of tons of carbon emissions into the air from bussing students to remote locations every day.  A truly digitally empowered local school could be a k-12, walk-in experience for all but a few students because engaging, high bandwidth virtual communications and connectivity would mean we'd no longer have to burn the world to keep education looking like it did in the 1950s.

There are so many reasons why we need to develop vision and stop reflexively supporting status quo thinking in Ontario education.  Leveraging experts in the system for their expertise rather than populating the system with middle managers intent on maintaining the status quo would be a great place to start.



I was having a chat with one of our business teachers last week about this article that she shared about a student's response to emergency remote learning in the spring.  I liked the student's resiliency in the face of that emergency situation.  Many others (staff and students) did as little as they could under difficult circumstances.

The only part I took exception to was “Obviously it’s no one’s fault that learning loss occurs when classes move online."  The only obvious thing is that it is specific people's fault that elearning failed us so completely in the spring.  We could have had a mature, well developed elearning system with experienced, expert teachers and administrators and, perhaps most importantly, a well thought out system of ensuring technology distribution to close the digital divide in an emergency situation.  The mess we had was a result of the failure of Ontario education management to develop elearning as a meaningful avenue of instruction.

The public education system has no interest in developing elearning as a meaningful alternative.  The system is committed to its status quo because the people who run it are paid that way.  Changing things might put management jobs at risk, which it the primary function of the system:  to protect the lifelong management jobs people who run the system occupy.  Keeping Ontario schools as much like 1975 as they can is their goal.  The atrophied elearning mess we were handed in March, with systems that are radically different in each school board because there has been no central development from years of liberal and now conservative political mismanagement, was an intentional fumble.

Unions have no interest in developing elearning and were attacking it during the lock down even while they had (a few) members trying to make it work.  With no advocates for effective development of elearning within the public education system, that business teacher suggested something shocking: privatize it..  My knee jerk reaction was, 'no way!', but incentivizing elearning only doesn't work if we incentivize it the wrong way.  We need to aim it at student learning success and not plan it as a credit mill.  In any case, even the worst private management of elearning would probably be better than what the public system has managed in the past fifteen years.  In the past ten years of teaching I've come to believe that the best thing that could happen to public education is that it gets unhooked from the selfish and vindictive politicians that mis-manage it.

If we incentivized privatized elearning around student learning success with regular testing of elearning students against their in class peers, not only would private business focus on pedagogy and learning effectiveness, they might actually cause the monolithic public education system in Ontario to move with the times.  At the very  least we'd see an end to post-secondary institutions treating elearning students like second hand graduates.  Instead of giving bonuses to middle managers for fumbling their way through a poorly planned reopening that's costing them millions, we'd see bonuses based on positive student outcomes.  Wouldn't that be something?  Seeing education management getting bonuses based on competency rather than self-congratulations?

Saturday, 17 October 2020

The One That Got Away

I got into elearning early on, before there were Learning Management Systems or plug and play anything.  My first elearning class required that I code HTML in order for students to see the material.  I'd just come out of over a decade working in IT so I was one of the few people in the system who could engage with elearning early on.  I was deeply involved in virtual learning until I attempted to apply for an elearning management position.  After not getting it I was also suddenly also not an elearning teacher any more.  I moved in other directions and have developed a successful and competitive computer engineering program instead.  In the process I've won a couple of awards for integrating technology into teaching and my students have won all sorts of things, so I'm happy with where I'm at.

These days everyone is an elearning teacher.  Thanks to a virus dictating pedagogy we're leveraging digital communications in education like never before.  This unique situation  has even led to strange advancements like Stephen Lecce actually improving Ontario education by demanding the use of video conferencing when all the other partners had done everything in their power to make it a career ender.  That it took a government intent on dismantling public education to move the powers that be in education forward says all sorts of things about how the system works.

I enjoy teaching and I'm proud of what my students and I have achieved in the past seven years.  That much of it has been despite the system rather than because of it makes what I do more difficult than it needs to be, but then something came up last week that messed with my pride and I couldn't not do it.

I didn't volunteer for remote teaching even though there is huge demand because I didn't have a medical reason not to and I greatly value the hands-on learning we do in my computer technology classroom.  Until we were handed incorrectly fitting PPE and given a dual cohort schedule with twice the preparation, no time to do it and then simultaneous remote and face to face teaching all day every day I was looking forward to coming back to school.  Like many I've been crushed by this absurd schedule.  On top of that my classroom has a long history of HVAC issues and we were running into the thirties Celsius on the warmer days in early September.  To say I'm struggling with this quadmester with its absurd lesson preparation expectations, demands of being available simultaneously virtually and face to face all day every day, lack of online and in-school support for students with special needs and ill fitting PPE is an understatement.

As if on cue a job came up for an Information Technology Support Teacher for online learning.  I do this job now in our school (and beyond) voluntarily because I can't sit by and watch my colleagues struggle with technology that I know my students and I can sort out for them.  The idea that I could be given the time and space to do technology support at 100% and on a board wide scale rather than in addition to this absurd quadmestered, cohorted teaching load was appealing.  I fired my resume and a cover letter at it that contained references from presidents and educational technology icons from across the province and got an interview.  This caused me great anxiety.  I've built a successful program out of a crack in the sidewalk and walking away from it would doom it (our school has just cancelled face to face computer science classes so viable 21st Century pathways aren't high on the to-do list).  On top of that I wasn't sure how I'd get along on the other side of the curtain in a board office job.

I didn't get the job.  Based on an interview with no technical questions they went with someone else whose answers they liked more.  To be honest I think I dodged a bullet there.  The moment you step out of the classroom you aren't working for students any more, you're working for the system, and the system and I have never gotten along particularly well.  As their IT support teacher I would have improved access to tools in a platform agnostic way.  I would have found ways to make things work and improve our bandwidth with students instead of telling people to do less with the limited resources they're handed.

My vision of elearning has little to do with what we can and can't use today.  If Minister Lecce has taught me anything it's that the powers that be in education are more interested in maintaining the status quo and seeing how little they can do with digital technology than they are in exploring the possibilities to be found in virtual learning.  A job holding that status quo has little interest for me and I argued with myself all weekend about what I'd do if I got it.  The only part that bothered me when I asked for some clarity on why this other candidate was chosen was the sweeping statement, "all the candidates had excellent technical credentials."

I'd be happy to go toe to toe with anyone in our school board, our IT professionals included, on technical qualifications.  I've been an industry certified IT technician and network administrator since the early naughties and had worked in various IT roles for thirteen years before I became a teacher.  Since becoming a teacher I've picked up two computer technology AQs and multiple Cisco networking qualifications including becoming the first high school instructor (and still maybe the only one) who is qualified to teacher Cybersecurity Operations.  My qualifications also express themselves through my students' success; we're Skills Ontario medalists for the past four years in IT & Networking Administration and provincial champions twice, we're also three time national finalists in CyberTitan.  I'm not sure what made the other candidates 'excellent' in terms of their technical qualifications, but I'd love to see our qualifications and experience in IT all lined up side by side.  There are a number of reasons why another choice might be better than me, but falsely levelling technical expertise and experience isn't one of them.

I'm a keen amateur mechanic.  I've taken motorcycles out of fields and restored them to operation multiple times.  I've rebuild cars and pulled engines.  I'm capable enough that I trust my mechanical skills with my life (I do my own brakes and other maintenance on machines with very thin margins for error).  I have built up a working garage space, have the right tools and know how to use them, but I'd never tell a qualified mechanic that I'm their equal.  The difference between a professional and an amateur should be fairly obvious, yet Ontario education clings to the idea that a university degree trumps any kind of skilled trade... like information technologist.  If they want to go with a status quo middle-manager who is aiming for administration then that's their choice, but belittling my expertise in the process was annoying, though it highlighted an ongoing prejudice in the system.  Ask tech teachers why they make less on average than everyone else in the building and you'll see that academic privilege and skilled trades devaluation is a systemic prejudice.

A few years ago a colleague who is handy with computers (as everyone should be, they aren't that complicated) casually mentioned that he should go and get his qualifications as a computer technology teacher.  He has a university degree so he's used to doing whatever he likes in the education system; it's made by and for people like him.  I told him that he might find it difficult to generate five years of industry experience on top of professional accreditation in order to qualify for the AQ.  Just because you're a keen amateur doesn't mean you have the professional expertise to teach the subject, though we're especially bad at recognizing technical skills in computing in both staff and students in education.

Having highlighted that academic prejudice, Ontario's absurd additional qualifications rules also railroad professional expertise from the skilled trades side of things as well.  I had to almost produce a blood sacrifice to OISE to be accepted into the computer technology AQ because they wouldn't accept my industry certifications and experience without putting me through a grinder.  When I got to my AQ class most of the other people in the program had no background in computers at all.  They were teachers from other technology disciplines ranging from cooking to media arts and hair dressing who were allowed to take another technology qualification because they already had one.  OISE made it sound like I was going to be dropped into a program full of Grace Hoppers and Bill Gateses, instead I found I was one of the most technically proficient people in the room.

These stupid little short cuts in teacher training belittle the work people put into their professions and undermine expertise in the system, but as long as they are self serving and cheapen the costs I doubt we'll see anything change.  It's hard to find fault with administrators belittling the hundreds of hours of training, industry qualifications and thousands of hours of work experience I've achieved when the system gleefully does it automatically.

I got into class the next day still of two minds about not getting that job until I started teaching again and remembered that what I'm doing here is the single most important thing I could be doing.  My students love what we do, I enable them to do things they didn't think they were capable of and I end each day feeling like I've done something genuinely useful and fecund.  I think I only considered leaving the classroom because I'm in such physical distress from poor PPE and this absurdly scheduled school year that I grasped at it.  Any other year I'd have let it pass by so a future administrator could pad their resume.  I am still frustrated at not being able to explore future technology assisted pedagogy on a wider level, but that's why I blog... that'll be the next post because even though I'm overwhelmed in the classroom, I can't let it keep operating at this poor status quo, especially when there is all this fantastic technology around to help us circumnavigate this lousy pandemic.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

When a Virus Dictates Pedagogy

What's it like teaching in a pandemic?  Frustrating and exhausting.  My best guess is that we're running at about 60% of what we usually cover curriculum wise.  There are a number reasons for this but the underlying one is that we're letting a virus dictate our pedagogy.  SARS- CoV-2 is dictating a lot of things about being human at the moment so it isn't surprising that it's also dictating how we educate our children, but COVID19's ways are alien and harsh.  SARS-CoV2 might be even more mean spirited than the politicians we have running Ontario at the moment.  It's at least as equally short sighted, self-serving and cruel.  It's no wonder that the two get along so well together, COVID is the hammer this government has been trying to hit us with for the past two years.  They'll still be gleefully holding our heads under water for weeks after the rest of the province has shut down.

For those of us trying to ride this out in the system, COVID19 throws everything into a permanent state of panic.  The system, which has been struggling under political attacks for over two years now, has been forced into reopening without any central plan or consistent support.  The result is a calcified, wounded thing lacking in flexibility and responsiveness.  In the rush to force school re-openings a number of strange inconsistencies have shown themselves.  If students aren't in the building it's perfectly OK to stuff up to forty of them on a poorly ventilated school bus for up to an hour at a time while transporting them to and from their socially distanced classrooms.  There is minimal oversight on masking policies at that time as the only adult in the vehicle is busy operating the vehicle.  Students then disburse from their crowded buses into carefully sized cohorts of under 20 so they aren't in big groups... like the one they just sat in to get to the school.

You might think the walk-in students in the afternoon cohort are managing better but driving home I regularly see large groups of 20+ students not wearing masks while play fighting and jumping on each other after a long afternoon of mask compliance and rigorous rules.  When COVID dictates your school's daily activities it's with an iron grip of fear and blame.  I don't remotely blame those kids for jumping on each other after a frustrating afternoon of being kept apart and muzzled, but we're kidding ourselves if we think all the rules are reducing transmission routes, the water's just running around the rock that is the school.  Meanwhile, in school, we're making classroom maps of who is sitting where so we can trace contagion in the place it's least likely to happen.  We don't trace it anywhere else because it doesn't affect system liability?  Compliance with liability issues appears to be what drives system decisions, not efficacy against this virus.

There is a reason we don't didn't do quadmesters when viruses weren't dictating our school schedule.  Human attention is a limited resource (these days it's being strip-mined too).  In education speak this is often referred to as engagement.  Some media has conflated this into a reduction in attention spans but my experience in the classroom doesn't support that.  I've watched CyberTitans and Skills Ontario competitors peak perform for hours at a time so sustained attention is something today's students are more than capable of, but it only seems to happen during genuine learning opportunities.  Overly fabricated lessons with fictional connections to the real world are where engagement fails.  Since being instructed to not refer to the pandemic we're in or use it to focus curriculum outcomes, our hands are tied by irrelevance.  Students can quickly see through that kind of fabricated doublespeak.  You might get away with inauthentic learning in a 76 minute class but in a 150 minute class you're going to run into problems because the light is on what you're trying to do for a very long time.

The quadmester fire-hose curriculum is problematic on a number of levels.  Fast moving students who are fluent in the system can adapt and even benefit from that kind of focused attention on a subject, but for the other seventy percent of the class, massive burst f2f and then remote/elearning classes are damaging their ability to learn, but we're not dictating pedagogy any more, a virus is, and the virus actually benefits from disaffected, frustrated people.  It's odd that we keep handing these kinds of people to the disease.  SARS-CoV2 isn't intelligent in the traditional sense, but it is a reflexive opportunist that will and does benefit from our ham-handed responses.

In addition to student focus, quadmesters produce a number of other issues that are especially difficult to manage during a world wide medical emergency.  I've just spent three weeks trying to order IT parts in for my second grade 9 class.  The first one took out enough of what parts we had in the lab (many of which were in rough shape because we'd been in the middle of using them before March break) that I couldn't do the IT unit with the second class.  In a normal year I'd have weeks to sort that out, in the drink-from-the-firehouse quadmester curriculum where we're covering 4+ days of material each day and almost a month a week, there is no time to wait on parts.  They take longer to source and deliver anyway because there's a pandemic happening.  I'm now trying to line up a month's worth of coding curriculum to deliver next week instead - online and f2f at the same time all day every day.

Another one of those inconsistent system responses is the withdrawal of support services within the school.  Special education support rooms are closed, guidance is closed and  libraries are closed, presumably so students aren't mixing in school.  When you're facing 16 bused in students every morning who are bringing over 500 secondary connections with them into your classroom, the idea that sending students who need support to specialists who can help them, or sending one of the many students I've had in emotional distress over the past few weeks down to guidance seems like a reasonable expectation, but evidently it's absurdly dangerous.

COVID19 seldom transmits through airborne droplets.  You'd have to be within two meters of someone when they sneezed or coughed while not wearing a mask while you're also not wearing a mask (though COVID can infect through eyes too) to even have a chance of transmission that way.  Yet we fixate on masks and ignore the most common means of transmission.  The single thing that's made SARS-CoV2 so difficult to manage is its ability to survive on surfaces.  Smaller groupings and frequent spot cleaning is what will strangle this thing, not myopic mask fixations and shell games with student grouping sizes.  Following the actual pathology of the disease, there is no reason why we can't apply effective cleaning regimes and distancing to guidance, spec-ed support and library access, but we don't because we'd rather panic and shut them down while giving the virus the frustrated people it needs to thrive.  Less is more when it comes to ignoring special needs in a pandemic.

While quadmesters are problematic in a lot of ways, the dual cohort is also an imperfect solution to a problem we're only half addressing.  The initial idea was to make every classroom teacher do twice as much prep work designing both face to face and online instruction and then being both online and face to face with alternating halves of the class all day.  In practice the splits didn't happen evenly because we're a country school and way more students get bused in than walk, so our morning/bus cohorts are often 2-3 times bigger than our afternoon cohorts (16 vs 6 last week for me).  Our union then worked out how to provide us with prep time by having covering teachers come in for 30-45 minutes in each two and a half hour marathon face to face session, but in practice I've yet to have a covering teacher qualified to teach what I teach and none of them have the faintest idea what we're doing.  From a safety perspective, if the covering teacher isn't tech qualified I'm supposed to pull students off hands-on work (which is the main focus in technology classes) and do seat work (which isn't)... with someone who has no background in the subject?  We were told to just work through our preps.  It's bandaids all the way down in 2020.

Having to produce days of remote lessons for the half of the class not face to face is another place where a bandaid was thrown on.  The teachers covering the online work?  Yep, they're not qualified to teach my subject and have no background in it either.  Furthermore they were told that they are to do no marking and make no material for the class, so they're... what?  Taking attendance?  On any typical day I'm trying to teach a face to face class while also trying to respond to online emails from students at home at the same time.  Not only is this an incredible burden to bear for classroom teachers, but it also casts the no-contact rules with people still doing support work in a stark light.  If feels like we're expected to go over the top every day into no-man's land while other staff are experiencing minimal workloads.

Overflow classes for students who need special one on one support?  That would have been a good use of teachers not in the classroom.  We could have pivoted around student need instead of ignoring it.  Emotional support spaces for students struggling with the last six months?  That would have been a good use of teachers, but thanks to an arbitrary and rather inconsistent response, support is dead while people on the front lines are being snowed under.

The reflexive tightening of the system while under this extraordinary pressure while also two years into a provincial leadership vacuum has resulted in an inflexible response that is providing the appearance of safe, face to face schooling without actually delivering it.  I struggled early on with system leaders telling us to just provide day care and not worry about curriculum, but I didn't take years of schooling to provide day care, though, of course, I'm very cognizant of my students' mental well being.  Others have suggested that it doesn't matter if we cover curriculum as long as we just make sure the kids are OK, but that's very difficult to do when the very systems in schools that ensure child well-being are inaccessible.  Do you want to be having surgery done on you by COVID-grads who never actually completed a credible education system?  Do you want them fixing your brakes?  Building your bridges?  We ignore expertise at great cost to our society.  We have to get back to maximizing human potential because that's what society needs us to do - our students need us to do that too.  Summer should have been all about planning and organization, but it is clearly evident that the government and the ministry its mismanaging didn't plan anything.  We're watching boards scramble with no clear funding or central planning by provincial governance to try and make this work, and it really isn't.

Where to next?  Well, Ontario's second wave is breaking on us quickly.  Where is it coming on strong?  In school aged kids and the people most likely to be in contact with them.  Some have suggested that younger children aren't at risk because they're not showing a lot of high positives, but considering COVID19's strange habits, such as the fact that the vast majority of under twenties who get it show no symptoms at all, and considering that Ontario's half-assed back to school plan has had parents missing work to take their kids with colds, asthma and allergies to day-long line ups to get COVID tested, I'm not surprised.  We're good at skewing our own data.

Here's a happy thought for you:  what if students are freely spreading COVID19 on overcrowded buses and before and after school by being non-compliant with safety protocols (young people are the most likely cynical spreaders, along with conservatives, so our area is doubly blessed).  They then take it home where older siblings and parents produce the biggest spike in cases.  Give it a bit of time and it'll spread to older groups where it is much more likely to be fatal.  After a week in school, a weekend visit to grandparents might be about the nastiest thing you can do.  It took less than two weeks for me to personally know a teacher who was sent home to wait on a COVID19 test.  Don't think it can't happen to you, it's inevitable.

How to fix it?  It's self correcting.  Thousands of parents are starting to see the holes in this government's lack of planning and are pulling their children back home for fully remote learning.  As in everything else in this pandemic, people are leveraging their socioeconomic advantage and privilege to look after themselves.  Rather than creating fictions around a normalized return to school (for the kids' mental health!), we need to focus face to face schooling on the students and families that specifically need it.  Instead of using the school system as an underground transmission system for the virus, we should be using it to focus on providing equity and support for people in distress.  I've spent a lot of time over the past few weeks (when I'm not teaching face to face and online simultaneously in an accelerated curriculum all day every day) talking down students and their parents - both of whom I've seen burst into tears while venting.

We realized an important distinction early on in the emergency cancellation of classes in the spring: this isn't elearning, it's emergency remote learning, and expecting students to be open and able to learn while under that kind of stress isn't reasonable.  I knew we were going to struggle to get through curriculum in the circumstances, I just didn't expect the system to redesign itself to make it harder as well.  We've tried to reopen schools while our pedagogy is being driven by a virus rather than how people best learn.  The result is a system of delivery that is causing more problems than the virus itself.  We've lurched from video communications getting you fired to video communications being essential in a matter of one weekend, and we're still working out the social conventions around that.  But that stumbling forward into readily available technology also suggests a pathway out of this mess. I honestly believe that our reluctance to understand and explore the possibilities of digital communications has put us on our back foot over and over again in this medical emergency.  If we embraced the opportunities to be found in digital pedagogy we could not only provide a pathway around COVID limitations but also reveal enrichment opportunities that we could continue to leverage well after this pandemic has passed.

Face to face schooling has always been a series of compromises, but the pandemic has made those compromises increasingly stark while also ignoring a number of health gaps that might end up hurting people.  It's difficult starting another day of trying to be in two places at once knowing that students in crisis have no where to go.  I'm not going to leave them dangling, but there is only so much of me to go around.  All in all we're just another brick in the wall.  I always keep that song in the back of my mind when I teach so I see my students as people.  SARS-CoV2 doesn't see them as people, it sees them as a resource to be used up.  I wish the people running our education system didn't see our classrooms in the same way a virus does.  I wish we could find a way forward that leverages the technology we have so we could focus our limited face to face resources more effectively and sustainably.

For me it's another week back in the trenches being told to drag kids in distress through a sped up schedule designed by a virus.  I'm not sure how long we can all keep this up, pandemic or no pandemic.

Does education have to be about bricks in the wall? It seems to be what we're reduced to during this pandemic piled on top of two years of government abuse.  This has to end eventually, surely.