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How to Salvage BC’s School Year Using Digital Learning

We’ll need fast training with good tools. As an online teacher, here are my suggestions.

Nick Smith 30 Mar

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia.

Parents and students have a lot of questions for B.C.’s ministry of education and local school districts at the moment. Mostly, they come down to wondering what public education in B.C. is going to look like for the remainder of the school year, especially when it comes to academics for students in late-intermediate elementary and secondary schools.

Since I am a public school teacher, I have had a number of people reach out to me over the last week or so to glean some information on what to expect from my insider’s view. The truth is, even at the very end of spring break, I know little more than anyone else.

What we know is that students have been told that they will pass on to the next grade. Grade 12 students have been assured that they will graduate. Questions regarding credentials have, for the most part, been answered.

What is left pending is a concrete plan for what student learning will look like. What do I tell the student who wants to be a lawyer, and who is less than halfway through Law Studies 12? Or the parent of a grade seven student who struggles with reading and knows that he won’t feel ready to face high school in the fall? Then there are teachers like myself, all too familiar with the backslide resulting from a two-month summer break, considering the consequences of a six-month gap.

Murky guidance so far

For their part, the authorities have been reassuring without providing specifics: There will be “continuity of learning” which “could include online learning.” On Friday, the Ministry of Education unveiled their new website called Keep Learning BC which refers to “implementation of remote learning processes.” The message is murky.

We have been told by the ministry that “each school district… will develop a plan that best responds to the needs of their local community.” We know that we will be expected to “reach out to students.” I can imagine that many teachers are already figuring out how they will put their materials online and that they are exploring videoconferencing and so forth. They will want to provide as much familiarity as possible.

I have been teaching online in the public system since 2002, and my experience tells me that this “local community” approach won’t work. This is to say that I don’t believe that it will be able to achieve its purpose of giving students an equivalent education as they would receive in a classroom. Even in the instances where it works the best, it won’t even be close.

What it will take for online learning to succeed

It isn’t that online education isn’t effective. In many respects, online courses are able to exceed the outcomes of their face-to-face equivalents. The issue is that online teaching requires a different set of skills and attitudes than classroom instruction. Though we might imagine that it is like going from a typewriter to a word-processor or a chessboard to a computer chess program, it isn’t. It is more like broadcast TV to social media.

Thankfully, it isn’t necessary. All of the academic courses for grades five through 12, as well as scores of electives, have already been developed and are being used in distributed learning programs which run throughout the province.

The Western Canadian Learning Network, for which I have written a dozen courses over the past decade or so, has just announced that all of their courses will be made freely available for the duration of our current crisis to all teachers in the province, whether or not their district has paid the annual licensing fee. These courses include all of the required content — updated in accordance with B.C.’s new curriculum — as well as quizzes, assignments, tests and projects.

Teachers will be able to select the relevant units remaining for the school year, and work with the students to complete just those. Teachers, administrators and support staff can register with a school district email address in order to preview any of the courses.

The courses do require hosting on a local server. Fifty of B.C.’s 60 districts already do this, so it is just a matter of scaling up.

Keep in mind that this is just one resource. There must be many more complete courses out there which have been developed by districts, programs and individual teachers such as myself, though some means would have to be made at the provincial level to make these all available. Instead of spending time looking for resources, teachers can invest their efforts in familiarizing themselves with courses that have been developed and curated for each grade level.

The challenge will be training teachers. Shortly after I started teaching online, I began a master’s degree in educational technology in order to get an overview of this field. It still took me years to master the craft which differed in kind from classroom teaching. However, with proper training, the average teacher could pick up a lot of what I do in a week or less.

If districts just leave teachers to their own devices with these courses, I’d be afraid that they might develop a worse idea of e-learning than when they began. It is a different process than classroom teaching and the differences are not intuitive.

Myths, challenges and advantages of online teaching

One of the issues with online courses is that they look so complete — everything from start to finish is right there in one package. They give the illusion that students can just be dumped in and will teach themselves. The teacher’s role, at that point, is just marking machine. Online courses don’t function like that though. Students can work their way through to a certain extent, but as soon as they get stuck, they need a teacher to show them the way forward. Teachers need to know their students: their strengths, weaknesses, attitudes and habits of mind; in order to give them useful feedback.

No district is going to require teachers to enrol all of their students into these online courses in order to finish the year. However, with some provincial leadership and political will, this could be set up so that it is clearly an easier and more effective option than using blogs, email and other free software.

Training hundreds of curious and willing teachers, just well enough to get by in the short term, presents some challenges. We have to take stock of the advantages of the situation though. Districts have programs staffed with teachers who know how to teach online. Online environments lend themselves to the topic at hand here. In this regard, we really couldn’t do better.

We would want to start with a course developed at the provincial level which covers best practices in online teaching. We could enrol cohorts of classroom teachers taught by experienced online teachers who could mentor them until June.

One concern regarding online education is equity of access. Not all students have laptops and high-speed internet. Courses developed by the WCLN take this into account. For the most part, they take little bandwidth and they can operate on older computers. With the use of a free app, they can run on tablets and smartphones. In fact, courses can be tweaked, district by district, to make these courses even more mobile-friendly. For example, assignments which require students to create a document in a word-processor can be changed so that students can type into a textbox on their phone.

There will be cases where students do not have access to any kind of device, but these can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Today’s online courses don’t lend themselves to being printed, however. Math lessons consist of animated tutorials, history lessons rely on videos, and science courses include links to relevant websites.

Getting to the other side

In the past week, several students have contacted me through the messaging system in the courses that I run. They have been asking me one of two questions: Am I really off the hook for this school year? Or, do I get to finish my course with you?

In both cases, my answers have been as vague as the ministry directives. I have been telling them that at this point I haven’t been told much more than to enjoy spring break, and that I will let them know as soon as I hear anything more specific than that.

I have been able to feel confidence about one point of clarity. I have a son in grade 12 who is graduating from the local high school, but who is enrolled in two online courses with me. I know that he will finish them, and will do well, in preparation for whichever path he chooses post-secondary.

For now, I will hold on to that certainty. I know my own students and many others across the province need some stability. Best practices in online teaching and learning can be a rope teachers and students can grab to lead us out of this whiteout called COVID-19.

Tomorrow afternoon: Teacher Nick Smith follows this piece with tips and tools for teachers without a classroom.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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