I am in Ottawa at the annual conference on distance education offered by REFAD. One of the opening comments was that distance education is just one of the tools we have to reach our learners and to help frame their learning. I like that the conference started off in this vein. It flows well with my own beliefs in tools – that they are just tools in service of our real work: student learning.
The task then is how best to design learning situations that take place at a distance (or up close!) to reach the needs of our learners in ways that make sense.
The answer seems to lie in relationship and intention.
These are the same themes Avi and I explored with online tutors in adult education a few weeks ago.
CORAL (Complementary Online Resources for Adult Learners) is an online tutoring service offered to adult learners from LEARN Quebec. CORAL’s Barbara and Cheryl asked us to accompany their tutors in some professional development on tutoring at a distance.
At REFAD, presenters from CEGEP á Distance (CAD) told us their story of online tutoring. They talked about the centrality of feedback for success and for fighting dropout rates and absenteeism in distance learning.
What I found especially interesting is that their tutors are all CEGEP teachers, which is a similar situation as our CORAL tutors who are all teachers within Quebec’s English sector Adult Ed system. What the CAD is doing, is providing their tutors with explicit professional development in how to provide effective, intentional feedback as the backbone of their practice.
Roselyne Boyer from Université de Laval spoke about the biggest task in online learning being to manage the human element within all of the technology and in face of the distance. That is, in fact, her vision, as shown in this image from her presentation.
It is really from this point that Avi and I framed our Professional Development with the tutors at CORAL. Our main message was that no matter where we are teaching, the student-teacher relationship frames the work.
Rather than focusing on the technology behind online learning, if we focus on student learning we can then find the tools that make the most sense for everyone within that context.
To return to what I wrote earlier – while the teacher student relationship frames the work, there is also that other human factor that is often missing from the context of the work: the social context.
P., a high school student from Ontario took both online and face to face courses at his school and he shared his experiences with us at REFAD2016. While he did well in his online courses, he preferred his face to face courses because of his friends in the room. I have a feeling that a perfect online course (if that can possibly exist…) will exist somewhere in between the online and the face to face.
So. Flexibility, differentiation, and a recognition of the human element (it is sacred) need to be key factors of learning at a distance. Not very different from learning in presence, is it?
Lately I have been involved in conversations about teaching and learning in many venues – from program implementation across the province to changing teacher practice in the classroom.
A similar thread weaves itself through all of these conversations – the (expressed) need for ‘clé en main’ resources for teachers.
Do you know why it is so hard to find ‘clé en main’ (turnkey) resources for the courses that we teach? Because they don’t exist. Nowhere else in the world is there another course exactly like the one you are teaching… Right. Now.
The content may stay the same for a period of time but the rest of the equation is made up of variables. And when just one of those variables shifts…the course is ultimately changed.
As written in this article (by I do not know who, an author who goes by the nickname Love Teach):
It is a lovely alchemic mixture distilled through …yeah, you were wondering when I’d mention it… relationship.
Our new programs in adult education (which are extensions of the competency-based reform in the youth sector) place the focus on student-centered and community-based learning – both of which are hinged on relationship.
We know that our students and communities change all the time.
Yet, a lot of time and energy is spent on either trying to create turnkey, one size fits all resources or in seeking them out.
One of my recent conversations was with Emilie, a history teacher at Nova Career Centre who was talking about why she organizes her classroom into learning stations.
Another was with Daniel, a math and science teacher at St Laurent Adult Centre who talked about how he records and shares his content with his students as well as how he wants to move towards learning stations in his classroom.
And yet another was with a group of four teachers: Natasha and Jonathan from Place Cartier Adult Centre, and Lethisha and Troy from Pearson Adult and Career Centre who got together to talk about formative assessment.
Again, there was a common thread in these conversations … but it was of a different shade, a different count. Each of these teachers said, when trying something new in the classroom, it was important to start small, to experiment, and to find out what works best for you and your students.
This thread seems much stronger to me than the one about creating turnkey resources.
(One definition of turnkey is jailer…)
(Keys generally only work for one lock and we usually use them to keep others out.)
Back in my early days of blogging…somewhere before and around 2007… there was a lot of talk about shifting priorities in education as a result of technology. Just for fun, I looked through my old blog archives and found these articles from that time:
Learning the way they’re living … where I write about the teacher’s evolving role as a connection maker, connecting students to their learning with technology.
Why technology in schools? And how do I lead something that is constantly changing? 😉…where I write about how technology can not be separated from the rest of life.
Also at around that time, I remember the hype around Shift Happens. They are a series of videos that were first published in 2007, based on a presentation created for a staff meeting in 2006, called Did You Know? Basically, the videos show us statistics about how and how often technology is used and the underlying message is that we are preparing learners for jobs that do not yet exist.
Recently I was at a Google Leadership Symposium where the facilitators were sending the exact same message – that we are preparing our learners for jobs that do not yet exist and that technology needs to play an integral role in that preparation.
10 years later and we are still preaching the same message with as much fervor.
So I ask myself – what has (or hasn’t happened) in the past ten years to replace the skip on the broken record?
Is it time to shift the shift?
A 2015 study by CEFRIO (a centre that facilitates organizational research and innovation around technology) came to the conclusion that Quebec teachers are, at best, in the infancy stage of technology use. Early adopters? That number is at less than 15% of teachers.
CEFRIO (2015) Usages du numérique dans les écoles québécoises (Use of technology in Quebec schools)
So. Preaching hasn’t worked. Scare tactic or shock videos like Shift Happens, haven’t worked as much as we might have liked them to. Targeted training by a network of consultants in technology hasn’t worked as much as we might have liked it to.
I remember a poster in the classroom of a colleague many years ago – it went something like
If you have explained it to me the same way a million times and I still don’t get it…who is the slow learner?
It was in response to well-meaning teachers or tutors who sometimes just re-explain things, only louder and slower, in the hopes that their charges will ‘get’ whatever it is they don’t understand.
So what do we do? Do we continue to offer technology training, only louder?
Yesterday I had a conversation with a colleague about how, too often, the important conversations about our students and the roles technology play in their learning are happening between the people who already agree with the outcomes.
My conclusion? Those are interesting conversations but they are not the important conversations.
EdCamps and Twitter chats – PD that happens on Saturdays, in the evenings, on our own time – are fabulous for inspiration and motivation because when we get together with like-minded people we become a mutual cheering society and that can be motivating in the We. Are. Awesome! kind of way. But again – the conversations are happening with those who already believe in the outcomes. They are interesting but not important in a change the culture kind of way.
Important conversations need to include many voices. Not only the ones that echo each other.
I think we have moved past the point where EdCamps need to remain voluntary and on our own time to be valid. What if we move the edcamp philosophy into our places of work? What if we
allow expect educators to have conversations about what is important to them as a part of their in-service PED days? It is something we are experimenting with in Quebec’s Adult Education community.
Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well. Conversation is the natural way we humans think together. We may have forgotten this, or no longer have time for each other, but it is how good thinking grows into actions that create real change.
~ quote from Margaret Wheatley
Conversations about what matters to us are necessary to the human existence. Necessary! How human to have these conversations in the places where we congregate to help people learn how to participate in society and create a better future for us all.
These conversations may be difficult ones. They may get messy. But, facilitated in a caring, open, and practical way they may likely become the important ones.
I think they will form the basis for the shift.
Over the past little while, I have participated – as both presenter and (not so innocent) bystander – in a few teacher conferences or PD sessions. At each of them, there have been major issues with the technological infrastructure (ie – the wifi!) that got in the way of the learning that was going on.
At one conference, I was asked to speak about allowing for mobile technology in the classroom. I had spent a lot of time preparing hands-on activities for the teachers who chose to participate in my workshop. Once I arrived and was ushered into a concrete block classroom with a techie who had to hard-wire my laptop to a wall so I could access my presentation and show a video…I had a feeling there might be a problem with my regularly scheduled programming…
…and I was right. The teachers couldn’t even access the Internet on their personal devices since we were essentially encased in concrete.
At another conference, I was a participant in a workshop where two teachers who had spent a lot of time preparing their presentation on using technology with their students were unable to show us some of their work because of weak wifi.
And we wonder why teachers are reluctant to use technology in their classrooms.
If anything, the scenarios described above reflect some of the frustrating reality in our centres of learning and our methods of professional development.
–> Think about it – I was presenting a session on mobile technology in a room whose very architectural structure blocked access to mobile technology to a group of teachers who were going to go back to teach in the same kinds of rooms the following Monday.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here?
So I need to start asking questions about those parameters before I plan for PD. I tend to ask conference organizers about the participants – who are they, what levels/subjects/programs/student groupings do they teach and if they allow for student devices in the room, but I need to ask questions about the classroom environments they work in. I need to ask about teaching environments and the infrastructures that support those environments within the centres as well as outside of the centre walls. Think of the usefulness of providing PD that supports tech use in an area where the majority of a centre’s clientele does not have access to technology for cultural or socio-economic reasons. That kind of data is necessary to help shape the design of my PD.
When it comes down to it, I want to make sure that what I provide for teachers is relevant and useful for them and the learners in their care. I do not want to waste their time with anything less.
On another level, we (all of us, teachers, consultants, parents, administrators, students, community partners) need to put pressure on our school boards to ensure that we have what we need to create learning environments that meet our needs – and that goes for technology as well as safety and security.
Access to technology. Technology infrastructure. These are things that we need to think about. And we need to think about them long and hard before we frustrate people with professional development that does not reflect their reality.