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 code.org and codehs.com 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.
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