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Science + Tech

Learning 2.0

New breed of teacher blends Facebook with textbooks. Fourth in a Tyee reader-funded series.

Nick Smith 12 Sep

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. This series was made possible by those readers who gave to the Tyee funds for Investigative and Solutions Reporting. Donations are tax deductible and you can find out more about the Tyee Fellowship Funds here.

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'Growing Up Digital' author Don Tapscott.

Chris Kennedy asks me to call him back after he has put his children to bed. Eager to speak to the new assistant superintendent of the West Vancouver School District, I readily agree. As a school administrator in Coquitlam, he made a name for himself as an advocate of "blended learning," a fusion of best classroom practices and online tools.

"As I see it, every class of the future is a blended class," Kennedy declares when I get back to him, after he has tucked in his kids.

The implications of offering all high school courses in a blended format are perhaps more significant than we are prepared to face. Tomorrow's teachers will have to act more like hiking guides who ask of the group, "What are you guys up for? How far are you willing to push yourselves?" than the newscaster who announces, "Here are today's events."

'Growing up Digital'

Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, says that "The lecture, the textbook, homework assignments, and school are all analogies for broadcast media," whereas, "digital media allows students to be treated as individuals." Pretty soon, teachers are going to have to get with it as their students begin to demand individual feedback and guidance rather than heaps of information they could easily find themselves.

This right to be treated individually has a flip-side: warming a seat is not an option in the online component of a blended class. You have to do something to get counted. Students will have to engage, contribute and join the discussion to show that they are learning, refining concepts, making sense of the material and helping others do the same.

Chris Kennedy knows this well. He has hand-picked a group of teachers to pilot blended learning courses for the West Vancouver School District starting this September. This group will enrich courses with cutting-edge technology, while retaining the human connection essential to learning. Since these eight courses are district offerings, West Vancouver pupils will now be able to take classes with their peers who attend different secondary schools, congregating in person outside of the regular school timetable two or three times per month at one of the high schools.

Kennedy's expertise and insight have led him to focus this project upon niche courses that would never attract enough enrolment to run at any individual school. By design, they also lend themselves to having a large online component. Kennedy himself will be teaching Leadership 12 based out of West Vancouver Secondary School, in which students will be "developing effective communication and conflict resolution skills; and… developing the skills to plan, evaluate and implement ideas."

In Fashion Industry 12, students will network with like-minded peers, discussing design and fashion promotion, while creating an online portfolio of their work. They will prepare for an industry in which peer collaboration and networking will be crucial. This is not about how to sew clothing, but about making sense of how the fashion industry works in the real world.

Discussion board as classroom

Alex Kovak will teach New Media and Technology 11 for the West Vancouver District. The course stems from his belief that "there is a gap in the public school system regarding what students need to know about technology." Kovak states that this course is more about ideas than technology. The engine behind the online component, he tells me, is the discussion board, where the students will debate best uses of video on the web, how Wikipedia has changed research and whether social networking sites affect our relationships. "Right now, people don't know what Facebook can do," he declares.

Rather than just have students go from classroom to computer, this team of West Van teachers plan to push the definition of blended learning in new directions by including field trips, independent study, guest speakers (both online and in person) work experience and volunteering into the mix. "This is new ground," Kennedy affirms.

West Van has recognized that online environments are effective for certain kinds of teaching and learning while classrooms lend themselves to a whole other set of practices. A surprising aspect of online learning is how easily communities form, and how students start to rely upon one another for support rather than the instructor. I recall this from my own experiences when I blended online blocks into the face-to-face courses I taught in Vancouver. A student who posted a question directed to me in the evening would invariably have it quickly answered by a peer. Much to my morning amusement, situations were often resolved without my involvement.

Who's out there with me?

Where online learning falls short is in what we term "embodiment." For example, when Coquitlam asked Chris Kennedy to teach Advanced Placement History 12 online, he insisted that the course have a face-to-face component. "There is something about building a culture face-to-face," he explains. "To have real conversations online, you have to first get to know the people you are conversing with." In order to understand what people mean when they are communicating online, we have to be able to form a mental picture of that person in terms of body language, facial gestures, tone and timbre of voice. Only then does the person seem real to us. This takes time spent together.

With declining enrolment and tight financing, students might need to get used to communicating online, as districts, as opposed to individual schools, begin to offer courses in a blended format in order to fill classes. A school will usually no longer run a block of Earth Science 11 or English Literature 12 if enrolment slips below 20. At that point, those enrolled can take it through a distance education school; however, completion rates for these courses are poor. If more than one school in a district fails to meet minimal enrolment for any given course, those students could be pooled to create a district-level blended class. Blended courses happen to have about the same success rates as regular classroom courses in terms of both achievement and completion.

Nevertheless, getting teacher and students into a bricks and mortar classroom every week or two presents difficulties. In West Van, classes will be held outside of the regular timetable at the teacher's home school. This should work in a district with only three high schools which are near one another. Other models include having a teacher travel to the schools to work with small groups, having a designated instructor at each site, or holding classes using interactive broadcast technologies. Each model has its issues, all with benefits and difficulties.

'Open learning' in Coquitlam

James McConville, director of Coquitlam Open Learning admits, "No doubt about it. It can be tough getting students to class." Logistics are a big part of McConville's job. His distributed learning school, which enrolls 1100 students and runs out of nine sites, would be much easier to oversee if he just enrolled students strictly online, but as he says, "It is my belief that we could not lose that face-to-face component."

COL redefines what many of us would think of as a school. For the most part, it employs teachers who work at Coquitlam high schools to teach courses using a blended format, with the classroom component, which could be anywhere from 10 per cent to 49 per cent of the course, taking place after regular school hours. Says McConville, "We wanted to move away from the whole paradigm where students sit in front of teachers who tell them what to do." He goes on, "This is more like a university where students have control and have to make decisions about what they are going to be learning."

McConville recognizes that some courses will require more face time than others. Psychology 11 and Comparative Civilizations 12, where students need to grapple with ideas and develop progressively deeper understandings of complex concepts, benefit from online discussions with open-ended questions. Math courses, which demand more direct instruction, require more time with the teacher in both large group, small group and individual contexts. McConville relates, "You have to learn how to do the following equations and your teacher is not there. You look at your textbook, and it's 'Aargh, what do I do now?' Often, it is hard to know what to do next in math."

'Kids now have the technology'

In order to keep up with the next generation of learners, schools will need to start offering opportunities to learn involving more than a seat in a classroom. This likely means allowing students to use information technology tools that they are already using in their social lives in order to develop their own learning. The majority of students in B.C. have Internet access at home. Those not wired at home use computers at school, public libraries, community centres, Internet cafes and at the homes of friends. Chris Kennedy asks, "If kids now have the technology, how are we structuring the classroom to take into account how they access information, interact with it and make meaning of it?"

It does not take too adventurous of a mind to see how software applications could allow students to organize their own field trips, and create their own work experience placements, or come up with self-directed study proposals, all with the help and support of their schools. School boards may no longer be in a position to say, "It ain't gonna happen."

As Don Tapscott makes clear, "Changes to a century old system will not come about because of some top-down decree from educators." As learning opportunities beyond the mandate of public schooling become increasingly available, schools may find themselves in the position of playing catch-up with educational options far beyond their present imaginings.

An online school worldwide?

In response to Alex Kovak's statement that we don't know what Facebook can do, the group of people who run the Supercool School application figure that it is a good place to "build the first online 'World School' with millions of learners and teachers." This may not go anywhere, but schools, nevertheless, might want to keep their eyes on it, just in case. Education is rapidly becoming a life-long process that takes place in the real world, and less a series of hoops to jump through inside of a school building.

At present, public schools have a lot of advantages over Internet start-ups like Supercool School. They have educational expertise, public funding and credibility, not to mention a huge collection of very usable buildings. What they are lacking is the kind of adaptability that can only be gained by nurturing energetic and curious educators such as Kennedy, Kovak and McConville and by giving them the trust and freedom to carry out their visions.

We have to stop viewing computers as merely fun and start using them for serious learning so that students become so facile with the technology that it disappears. Schools must stop thinking about what they can control and start thinking about what is possible in terms of student learning.

Don Tapscott has observed: "Give children the tools they need and they will be the single most important source of guidance on how to make schools relevant and effective."

Times have changed when the true visionaries are no longer the leaders but the ones willing to be guided by the children. Or perhaps that is they way it has always been.

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