Copyright 2020, Maurice Barry, Performance Rights Waived
Our spirits strong; our strength not deadened, we somehow survived a snowmageddon. But twenty-twenty sneered crying, “Here, you! Hold my beer!” And now, locked in with this pandemic, the issues are much more than academic. One thing for certain is the challenge that is our next school year.
The change will happen across many layers so please don’t listen to the sad nay-sayers who think remote teaching is a wasted effort, a mere fool’s game. For our young ones are far from feral and their education won’t be in peril so long as we are willing to let our world-views be reframed.
Yes, once we viewed a learning space as a room where we gathered, face to face; a thing; a structure that owed its existence to it’s physicality. But in this time of social distance we must create a new existence. The virtual ties we build together will form our new reality.
New ways to be present; you’ve heard of Zoom? Maybe Collaborate, Webex, even Messenger Rooms? No doubt by now you’ve taken one or more out on a trial, all decked off in your new headset. But a session or two left you knackered, I bet. Seriously: getting used to this mode is going to take a while.
“Why is online so tiring?” you may have mused. Well, we we’ve had whole lives to become used to our normal senses. Now our attention is also slapped with stattaco audio, and a video soup, text chats, both individual and group; these are add-ons, and to them our brains will need time to adapt.
So as you set out to make plans for the fall it’s important to keep both your eyes on the ball. Achievement trumps all but what matters most is what studentsdo. So don’t lecture and “cover stuff” at great length. We’re not entertainers; our greatest strength comes from creating the success path and steering them all through.
Rather than preventing all distractions focus, rather, on interactions. Employ your breakout rooms and maybe bring in virtual guests. Use Collaborate, Meet, Webex or Zoom in tandem with your Google classroom. And find other ways of assessing than reliance on pen and paper tests.
Yes, breakout rooms may leave you vexed. Why they’re so cumbersome, leaves us all perplexed. Still, with practice it doesn’t have to feel all that contrived. They accomplish more than idle jaw. Organize; double up for a jig saw! And with practice your small groups will surely come alive.
When the whole class contributes to the same Google Doc and then views it as one, it’s a gallery walk! Or, given one minute and each student with their own blank page, encouraged by you to contribute their thoughts, each attending as well to their own unique spots. Your students’ minute paper will not fail to amaze and to engage.
With Xmind, FreeMind or maybe MindMup groups in breakout rooms, can do a concept map up. Or turn them all loose on a Doc to create a cool Graffiti wall. And also, since you can share your desktop, the whiteboard with software then you can swap: Lab interfacing, Desmos, Geogebra, whatever: your class can have it all.
And, as for the chaos. It’s not a rat race. Al hands will settle in once routines are in place. Set rules around cameras and use a hands-up as a talking piece. Don’t hog the mike, encourage debate. After questions are asked allow a sufficient wait. Then your class participation is guaranteed to only increase.
And always remember, if you’re patient and kind, your students’ needs and yours will remain quite aligned. And if on one slow, frustrating day, for sanity you are reaching, remember it’s straightforward; the order’s not tall so long as one truth is remembered and kept above all: It’s not science, or math, but students that you are teaching.
Maurice Barry has been a practicing educator since 1983. He is currently the coordinator of MUN’s Teaching and Learning Commons.
This was the recitation I did for the 2020 MUN Education Grads. Just realized I never shared it.
Martin stood alone, outside the big school doors and almost cried. How could he make a difference in this isolated island place? But this two-room school was his last chance, even though it was happenstance that created this new circumstance he was trying to embrace. The year was nineteen thirty three, a time historians do agree Education in this province had finally reached its poor nadir. While Martin knew within his heart he really needed a new start, he wondered what fates had played a part to finally bring him here.
He pulled one door open with a creak and inside he took a furtive peek. A porch with open classroom doors at left and right. The dark, cold room with desks in rows “That one’s mine” he did suppose. Still he wished his was the other one that looked so warm and bright. “Here. You can have this box of splits!” Martin jumped; almost lost his wits. Turned to see the other teacher’s smiling face, and a box of birch in outstretched hands. “I’m Anna and if I can bring more wood or help with anything?” “I’m fine,” he muttered, to himself wincing, knowing he really had no plan.
A short while later he heard the bell and childrens’ voices arriving as well. Looking up he saw about thirty standing by their wooden desks and chairs “You’ve work to do, so grab your books.” The students shuffled about, exchanging looks. “You heard me. Get to your studies. Why else would you be here?” One tall slim lad with short dark hair said, “Sir we haven’t said the prayer.” Martin muddled to his feet, aware of how his own cheeks did burn. Without thinking he then said the Grace, then sat back down red in the face. But the students still remained in place, their heads slightly upturned.
“We don’t have our books,” said the same slim lad. “Will I give them out?” he then did add. “No, I’ll do it,” answered Martin. “And, boy, what is your name?” “It’s Pat, Sir,” he said, his cheeks now aglow. Martin wondered why the others chuckled so as he rummaged through the books, so slow, with no one but himself to blame. The books finally doled out, Martin looked around and to no great surprise he found most quietly staring at their texts except for, well guess who. Yup. Pat again, my oh my, going from seat to seat like some gadfly. Martin thought, “Something’s wrong with that poor boy; he hasn’t got a clue!”
After what felt like years the morning passed and when the dinner bell rang at last. Martin chose to remain behind. “Should I make a swim for it?” “Could you use some help, by any chance?” He jumped, almost soiled his pants, then stood up straight, hoping his brave stance masked his non-existent grit. “No one makes it on their own and, Martin, you are not alone.” Anna’s soft insistent tone almost broke through Martin’s funk. Still Martin could not his past eschew and so he responded with great ado, “No I’ll be fine. I’ll make it through,” but his spirits further sunk.
And so it went, day after day, Martin fighting to get his way with his reluctant charges making it increasingly tough. And Pat, the worst one of the lot, going from seat to seat ‘til Martin’s nerves were shot. Until one day when he decided he’d finally had enough. “Pat, sit down!” he roared through anger pent. “And stay after school for punishment!” Pat complied, though red eyes couldn’t hide behind a soggy sleeve. When the bell rang Pat got up to go. Martin refrained from shouting “No.” “Who needs this?” he thought, although he was galled to see him leave.
For the next few days there was one empty chair. Wherever Pat was he wasn’t there. And there surely was a difference felt throughout the whole classroom. Nobody spoke, no not the one. The students like mopes. Not much got done. “My goodness,” Martin remarked at length, “This place is like a tomb.” Next Monday Pat returned at last, head hung down, arm in a cast. “What happened,” inquired Martin but Pat offered no reply. “Please tell me?” “No it’s nothing Sir.” With a twinge of shame Martin inferred. Pat’s parents crossed a line for sure, so there could be no turned turned blind eye.
“Anna, where does Pat live to?” “Next door to you. I would have thought you knew.” He grabbed his hat and coat and soon was pounding on the door. “I’m Ellen and this is Richard,” though he hadn’t asked. “Lovely to meet our neighbour at last.” “That so? Well, I’m there, aghast, because of your actions which I abhor.” “Pat’s bad in school, that’s true enough. But there’s still no need to treat him that rough.” “What do you mean?” asked Ellen. He replied simply, “the cast.” “On blaming us you seem hell bent. But it was a boating accident.” Shocked, Martin turned to make himself absent, but Ellen continued, “Not so fast.”
“Pat loves to fish and most every day takes the punt out jigging on the bay. But a few days ago the starter pin let go, and the flywheel broke Pat’s arm. But how would you know that locked away, in that lonely house day after day? Instead of thinking we had hell to pay you should know we do not harm.” “Dreadfully sorry. My mistake.” Martin turned away; his whole self ached. “One more thing.” an edge in Ellen’s voice turned him back around. “We don’t hold grudges neither Richard nor I and if at some later time you’d like to try finding some on whom you can rely, you know where we can be found.”
Hurt feelings he could not assuage he wandered down by someone’s stage, sat himself down, his legs hung over the side. Clearly, even through his disgrace he had no business in this outport place. Next steamer and he was gone he did then and there decide. “Want a penney for your thoughts?” he turned around, guts tied in knots, Anna was right beside him sot there on a pile of buoys. “I realized I do not belong.” “No, Martin, I do believe you are wrong. You just need to stop being so headstrong and open up your eyes.”
Martin stood to go and then with that, through the door of the stage, who emerged, but Pat clad in rubber boots and weathered old oil clothes. Offered “I’m heading out to jig a few.” Anna asked, “Mind if we come too?” Pat answered a bit shyly, “It’d be fine I suppose.” Martin started, “I should go home for sup…” But a look from Anna shut him right up. Soon they were all aboard with Pat trying to start the make and break “Patricia, kindly step aside.” Anna started the engine with just one try. “Pat’s a girl,” Martin himself did chide. “How stunned am I for goodness sake!”
Pat stopped the engine by and by. Passed him a thing, “Give the Jigger a try?” Martin answered, “No, I think I’m fine for now.” “Wrong answer!” Anna, to him demured. Something buried within him stirred. “I will,” he reconsidered. “But Pat, please show me how.” Pat’s face lit up and she beamed with pride. Coaching Martin as to fish he tried. All the while, he thought of how she acted just like she did at school. If I could take it back, he wished as the bottom of the boat filled up with fish. “Oh my! She was only trying to assist and I am such a fool.”
“I think we’ve caught enough for now. We’ll be ‘til dark cleaning ‘em I allow.” Anna started up the engine and Pat steered back for the shore. All the while Martin’s spirit grew. He looked all around, and it all seemed new. The place–so much more inviting and warm than it had seemed before. “Want to learn how to clean and split a cod?” “I do!” Martin’s return smile was broad. “See you in school?” Anna’s question was tinged with a little dread. “You will,” he answered. “And after today I could use some help in finding my way.” She nodded, “You will be okay,” leaving Martin hopeful for what lay ahead.
I sat with my old friend Jerome reminiscing of a time now so far
when we were both grad students, the fun and work we shared.
Things change; now only one plays guitar,
only still dreams of being a hockey star.
One of us has a Ph.D, one of us still has most of his hair.
Though somewhat different we agreed on what a fine group you all are.
And how a whole year has gone by with such great speed.
Some of it quite bizarre;
times when you felt so sub-par,
and perhaps, release and rest are what you most need.
So here you are now, finished up; everything checked,
just a few weeks away from your convocation.
It’s now time to reconnect,
to laugh and to reflect,
and come together with relief; in celebration.
But even as you watch ink dry on your degrees
there’s still room for some hesitation.
So, still in your esprit
I’m sure you’ll agree
what’s ahead can cause some consternation.
You started expecting that for clarity you’d be reaching;
and that at this point you’d all be quite sure
of what counts as good teaching,
as opposed to the preaching
you’d endured on your way to our door.
Maybe, like many others, you even started with the feeling that
you already possessed the skills needed to be your own “best.”
But that didn’t count for scat
and soon your ideas all fell flat.
There’s a lot more to the profession that you’d’ve ever guessed.
Soon enough you discovered that what seemed simple enough
was in fact tangled and complex in the extreme,
and since you weren’t inclined to bluff
you then admitted, “this stuff’s tough!”
while trying to unravel the mess that was once your dreams.
Things like Theories of Learning–so confusing; little clarity exists.
Behaviorists who conflate people with mere machines.
No, “the point you’ve missed–
the brain’s a computer, Cognitivists insist,
while Constructivists, the other groups demean.
Yet a basic grasp of Biology points the need for some correction.
You just know it can’t be as simple as all that.
A thousand trillion synaptic connections
surely count as a few objections,
making those theories ring so hollow, even flat.
And we all can agree the workload can weigh you down.
There’s more to be done than we can possibly complete.
And the funding, budget bound,
there’s never enough to go around
because with health care, for resources, we compete.
And the avalanche of new equipment: Smartboards iPads BYOD—
we’ve moved so far from chaulk slates and candles.
But the incompatibilities
between Chromebooks, Macs and PC’s!
It all seems more than one person can ever handle.
Then when you look around for the real educational “who’s who”
you’ll see it’s politicians, kooks, and powerful profiteers.
Teachers in that list? —just a few,
the viewpoint for to skew,
so the focus seems to be money and the big shots egos and careers.
And, it all sounds cynical to those who think that teachers run the show
and that, to do things they don’t want, they can’t be forced.
But outside influences overflow
to carry the day, although
those outsiders don’t have to implement the bullshit they endorse.
And if a life filled with stuff is what makes your heart thrill
then you surely will need to rethink your goals
for what teachers earn will
be enough to pay most bills
toys like quads, trucks and boats will leave you firmly in the hole.
Then again maybe the previous seems like thoughts from the abyss.
after all, sometimes it’s all about how things are framed
and if friends I won’t dismiss
were to take a read on this
I’m sure they’d think the profession of teaching was being defamed.
For most teaching veterans would entreat me to please grow up some
straighten my spine and take my lip back off my chin
reminding me it’s dumb
if to group think I should succumb.
It is a lot of work but you get out of it pretty much what you put in.
Working with students is fulfilling. Simply put you get in your volunteer time.
You’ll never come home asking, “what can I do to bring meaning to my life?”
In time it’ll come to mind
the greatest pleasure that you find
comes from watching the seeds of knowledge grow, numbers increasingly rife.
As for the onslaught of tech. perhaps we need to come around
to the notion of keeping it relevant for the students that we teach.
Besides there’s nothing unsound
with us gaining new learning ground.
It’s an opportunity for us to grow, bring new things within our reach.
As for learning theories that could leave you bound in knots
maybe it’s best to forget naive realism and to take a longer view.
The mystery requires thought—
so please don’t become distraught.
Whether you embrace it or reject it all is really up to you.
And perhaps class control or discipline is what has you most freaked
thinking you’ll spend your life in counselling while munching pills.
Just to not be bleak
this veterans’ knowledge I will leak:
it’s not that much of a problem once you just learn to chill.
And a teacher-centered classroom is not the best that you can do
If I could tell you one just one thing, this is what it’d be:
Focus on what the students do,
it isn’t about you.
Success comes when your students work hard, this I guarantee.
Stop it! I know you’re thinking, “stop being such a knob!”
finding work is something about which you cannot scoff.
Look–take those frowns off of your gobs.
With persistence and a little luck you’ll all get jobs
Hey even airplanes have to taxi a while before they can take off.
Now perhaps you’ve sat and listened carefully to these words of mine
and still it all feels like one big enormous bummer.
There’s still the bottom line,
a treasure quite divine:
for the rest of your working lives you’ll be off for the whole, damn, summer!
Best practice, Curriculum guides, Cooperative learning, Think, Pair, Share
Differentiated Instruction, Bloom’s Taxonomy
Flipped Classroom, Manipulatives, Formative, Summative
Scaffolding, Rubric, Accountability
To be teachers we aspire Am C always yearning for the place of learning
G D but we don’t know if we’ll get hired
Am and to be forthright C
it has us all uptight
Multiple Intelligence, Professional Development,
Certification, Short Attention Span
Critical Thinking, At Risk Students,
Lesson, Unit, and Assessment Plans
Authentic Assessment, Blended Learning,
In Loco Parentis, Methods Courses,
Professional Learning, No Zero Policy
Nobody Excluded, Schools Act, Literacy,
Program of Study, Busing Schedule
G D N.C
Pedagogy, IEPs, SCOs, ESL, UDL…
…Bunch of other terms as well
that now in your teacher brains do dwell
(to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel)
It would have been in most respects a normal day for an online distance education teacher in the early nineties. I settled in to my spot in the studio and made sure everything was working. First the mikes—all OK. Next the Telewriter: I picked up the pen and wrote on the screen and then remotely loaded the first ‘slide’ for the day’s lesson. Again everything was fine. As always the first thing to do would be to greet the students by name and just chat for a few minutes. Besides ensuring that the audio and graphics capabilities were working it had the much more important function of getting the students to open up, to come out of their schools, defined as they were by the walls of the classroom, and now enter into the online one defined only by who was present that day.
Today I had a new student. I was a bit surprised as it was several months into the school year. I asked her name but she did not reply. Eventually another student at that school answered for her, telling me her name and letting me know she was shy.
Over the next few weeks I did my best to get my new student—let’s call her Angela—involved, but all to no avail. She would not respond when asked a question and would not ever write on the electronic whiteboard when asked to contribute to the day’s work. Her first written work assignment was comprised of mostly blank sheets and so, I decided it was time to contact the school. I called the principal and then learned the awful truth.
In a previous job, around 14 years ago, my designation was Program Implementation Specialist and one of my initial tasks was to put together a team of online teachers who would lead the changeover from the distance education system used in my province since 1988—the one described in part above, and may be described in more detail here if you are interested. Together, the Program Development Specialist and I devised a recruitment strategy that involved an online application system that would be used to provide a short-list of candidates. Those candidates would then be interviewed by a panel of three and would be subject to a reference check. All components were scored and the scores were used to rank the potential candidates, who would then be seconded.
This system was used by me and my colleagues for seven years and provided me with a significant experience in selecting those would be well suited to online learning. Through constant use I came to anticipate the response to one particular question as it tended to give an almost instant measure of whether the interviewee was or was not a suitable candidate. The question? “What would be your response if you noticed that a particular student was not doing well in the course? That is, if you noticed that a student was not engaged, not submitting work on time or doing work that was of sub-par quality?” Typical answers included: putting on extra classes, creating tutorials, providing “worksheets” and maybe even involving disciplinary measures. None of those, however, were the one I sought. I wanted something else.
Oftentimes the truth or the best course of action is not the one that seems obvious. Take my own academic discipline—physics—for example. There’s nothing commonsensical about the majority of what is typically found in the high school physics curriculum despite the protestations of inexperienced (or just plain ignorant) instructors who claim they can “make it easy.” Newton’s first law (objects tend to remain at rest or in constant motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force) is about as counter-intuitive as it gets. Objects remain at rest—no they don’t! Just YOU try sliding a book across a floor; it comes to a stop in no time! No! Newton’s first law is the product of sheer genius; a fantastic off-the-charts insight made by a most unusual individual. Seeing or maybe creating ‘friction’ as a new construct but one that merely presents itself as a new unbalanced force—pure brilliance!
Physics is not something that is not easily absorbed; something that is only understood after a skillfully-constructed instructional framework that involves bringing students right up against their existing world understanding, clearly pointing out the deficiencies and ensuring that the student acknowledges those deficiencies and then carefully rebuilding the worldview in a different way. Not simple at all and certainly not something that happens in a day.
And so it goes with everything. To do better work you have to work hard to get beyond the obvious and, as just pointed out, this involves going up against your “comfort zone” then breaking through it with a whole new worldview. This involves breaking common sense.
Allied Bomber Command faced just such a situation in World War II.
Let me digress for a moment here. I am not one given to glorifying war. While I acknowledge that it is a reality and something that often cannot be avoided I also want to point out that there is generally no “right” and “wrong” side but instead two opposing groups who have found themselves with no alternative but to act with extreme aggression. It is a reality. Ordinary people like you and I never wish to find ourselves in it but, alas, from time to time it happens and we are faced with no choice but to do what we must. Under the extreme conditions faced by the various sides oftentimes comes the need to dig down deep and to utilize every and any opportunity that affect the balance of power. Frequently, then, wartime becomes a time of extreme innovation borne of necessity. I wish to consider one case here as it is illustrative of a point I wish to make and not for any other reason.
Bombers, with their heavy deadly loads, are slow lumbering beasts and, as such, are easy targets for fighters who desperately seek to prevent them from achieving their missions. In WW2 many that set out did not return but were instead shot down by the fighter planes they encountered along the way. Those that returned were typically bullet riddled but still able to limp back to base for repair and refitting.
One of the responses to this loss of planes was to install armour that would protect the aircraft from the projectiles from the fighters. Armour, though, is heavy and reduces the load capacity and thus the military effectiveness of the aircraft. The solution, therefore, is to place the armour only where it is absolutely necessary. Bomber command subsequently engaged in a constant, careful study of its in-service aircraft. Each time an aircraft would return from a mission it would be inspected and the location of bullet holes obtained in that flight would be recorded. Typical returning aircraft resembled the drawing below. Notice where the bullet holes are; namely on the wings, tail and fuselage. Based on that it would make sense to place the armour there since, after all, that’s where the hits were occurring, right?
Wrong. The reasoning is unsound; fundamentally flawed, in fact.
Fortunately so, too, thought the Allied Bomber Command, thanks to the insight of mathematician Abraham Wald. He assumed that the bullets were not specifically aimed at any one part of the aircraft. Aerial firefighting was much too chaotic an activity to allow for precision aiming. Fighter pilots instead aimed in the general direction of the aircraft and hoped that the bullets/cannon shells would have some negative effect. One would expect, therefore that in an ideal situation, the placement of bullet holes would be more-or-less uniform.
The placement wasn’t uniform, of course as you already noticed from the image. Wald, however went one step further by reasoning—correctly—that hits to vulnerable areas would result in downed aircraft, ones that would not make it back. Since the sample used in the study consisted of aircraft that made it back it would be logical to conclude that they tended NOT to have hits to the vulnerable areas.
Take another look at the diagram. Where are there very few bullet holes? The engine and forward cockpit. Of course! A relatively small number of hits to the engines would render them inoperable. Likewise, hits to the cockpit could result in casualties to the flight crew. In either case the plane would be lost.
Simply put, instead of looking for where the bullets were you should look for where they were not. Those are the parts that need armour, and not the bullet-riddled parts.
So what does this have to do with eLearning? It turns out that in my previous career a significant part of my efforts were dedicated to the improvement of the quality of our instructional efforts. I approached this is various ways: reading about things done differently elsewhere, researching new devices and attendant methods, conferring with teachers and interviewing successful students. These tended, at first, to be my main starting points. Over time, though, I slowly moved away from all of these somewhat.
It started in a somewhat unexpected fashion. Each year I would address all of the intermediate-secondary student teachers at Memorial University in order to explain to them how the province’s distance education program worked. As part of the presentation I would those in the audience who has received part of their high school program from the program to identify themselves and would ask them to offer up their perspectives on the experience.
Of course, in all honesty, I was, in part, “selling” the program. I was part of that same system and certainly took great pride in it and in my contribution to it. While I was making it look like I was seeking an unbiased assessment I know—now—that in the initial stages I was really seeking affirmation; an ‘independent’ external source that validated the program as being worthwhile.
To my great surprise that’s not exactly what I got. Yes, many of the students were quite positive about the experience they’d had in the distance education program, but not all of them were. Numerous students indicated that they’d not found it great or that they much preferred the more traditional face-to-face approach.
The first few times this happened I responded by downplaying the responses, merely assuming that they were just the voices of the disgruntled few who had not enjoyed success probably through their own efforts or, more accurately, lack thereof. In time, though, I came around. Rather than dismissing those voices or, worse, glossing over what they’d said I began showing active interest in their points of view. I would not just let their comments sit unacknowledged; unchallenged. Instead, I slowly came around to a practice whereby I would probe deeper whenever I got the somewhat negative responses, attempting to determine just exactly had led to what I’d found.
It was enlightening, to say the least. Space does not permit a detailed exposition of what I found but, in general, here were a couple of items that were frequently encountered:
The choice to enrol in a particular course, which also happened to be a distance education offering, was not made by the student but, rather, by the parents or, even more frequently, the school administrator or the school district office.
The instructor had not made a concerted effort to reach out to the student but seemed, rather to either just teach to nobody in particular, seldom involving anyone in the class or, instead, appeared to play favourites.
Technical issues had resulted in significant ‘down time.
Now, lest you get the impression that this post is a mean-spirited barb at my former employer, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. The pride I felt, and continue to feel in that program, is built on more than just emotion. It is, rather, something that is rooted in significant evidence that indicates its overall efficacy. The numbers don’t lie and they indicate that the students tend to do well. Just not all of them.
My point, rather, is to point out that in the later part of my career I found much more use in finding out why students did not find success than I did in identifying those factors that were associated with success.
Like Wald, I found it useful to consider the planes that did not return.
As for that telling response to the question, “What would you do if a student is not having success in your course?”
The desired response: “I would find out what was wrong.” That’s a lesson I earned through long and often painful experience.
Never mind the extra classes, the tutorials and the varied approaches, just figure out why the student is not doing well and do what can be done.
But there’s still ‘Angela,’ the student I found in my class, the one who unexpectedly dropped in and who was not finding any success. Yes, I did seek to get to the bottom of it all.
And I did.
I learned that she had just returned to her home community, after living away for several years. Her mom was a single parent but had found a new boyfriend so she’d moved away to be with him, taking her daughter with her. It became an abusive relationship and one night, in a drunken rage, the boyfriend had murdered Angela’s mom while she was present there in the apartment. She’d returned to her home community and was placed in foster care and that’s why she’d been dropped unexpectedly in my grade eleven physics class.
I tried as best I could to make things work for Angela. Unfortunately I did not succeed. I did not end up giving her a passing grade and she was not in my online physics class the following year. I do not know how she fared in life after that but do think of her often, especially when I need a good dose of humility. Sometimes, even with hard work, skill and insight you still cannot get the success you hope for. Yes, you generally do, with effort and teamwork, but not always.
Angela did not have a good experience in my Physics class. It continues to be a humbling truth.
I came across something like this “unhelpful high school teacher” meme the other day and it got me thinking about the distracted landscape our students occupy.
All too often the opinions you encounter on the web and in other parts of everyday life are one-sided; normally the work of someone with an axe to grind; someone wishing to provide just one side of a rather complicated issue and this is no exception. There are very valid reasons why educators have to be skeptical about the unrestricted use of electronic devices such as laptops and tablets in class.
In my previous job my office was located on campus at a fairly large university. It gave ample opportunity to view the electronic habits of typical students and was a never-ending source of amazement—both the good and the bad kinds.
One incident in particular stands out. I wished to confer briefly with a colleague who was, at the time, teaching a large class (around 160+ senior education students) in one of two large lecture theatres located in the basement of the building we both inhabited. I decided to just head over to the class and chat with him before it started. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I was briefly distracted, and, by the time I arrived at the door the class had already started. Out of curiosity I looked in. My vantage point was from the centre back and, as the lecture theatre slopes toward the front, I had an excellent view of exactly what the students were doing.
Almost all of them had either a laptop or a tablet device open and active. What was interesting was the fact that the majority of the students were not just taking notes on the machines but also had a web browser open. Well over half of the students would periodically switch from the note taking application (typically a word processor) to the browser. The browsers had the usual suspects, of course (Facebook, Twitter and other social media applications) but a surprising number of students were also shopping online during class time. I’d estimate now that somewhere between 10 and 20 of the approximately 150 students were doing this! Only a very small fraction—I’d estimate now around 20 to 25%–seemed to be totally focused on the lecture; at least as evidenced by their keeping the notes application open throughout the five minutes or so I was watching.
I recall the moment quite well as it was one of those times when something became quite clear to me; a time that has sparked a considerable number of subsequent informal observations. Right then and there I decided to also take a look at the other lecture theatre. This one had a 2nd semester calculus class going on and, unlike the former one, was one in which electronic devices were not that well suited to taking notes (unless, of course, you had a touch screen or some stylus such as a Wacom device in which you could render back handwriting. After all, typing calculus notes is not something anyone can do on the fly!). Guess what? Same thing! Once again I saw a sea of laptops and tablets. Not quite so many, of course—I’d estimate around 50% of the students had them open as opposed to over 90% as was the case in the education class. Once again, though, the screens were dominated by not just social media but also online shopping!
Just a thought—maybe someone should run their own set of observations and verify this. At any rate, this short anecdote lends a bit (yes, I know “piling on the anecdotes” is a very flawed form of research) of credibility to the notion that we all have of how distracted our students really are.
Which brings us to the point: as educators it is in our best interests, and those of our students, if we find effective ways of managing the many distractions that electronic gadgets bring to our classrooms. While it is certainly true that electronic devices hold incredible promise for all aspects of education it must also be acknowledged that the devices are equally effective at pulling students away from the tasks that should be at hand. The same conduit that brings research, information and activities right to the students’ foregrounds is equally adept at bringing in distractions such as off-topic interactions, irrelevant information and other distractions, particularly games that have nothing to do with learning.
Blocking unrelated content is a strategy that will never work. Go ahead and block Facebook at the Wi-Fi router. The students will hardly be slowed at all. Some will switch back to getting it through their phones, which you cannot block. Others will switch to a different social media platform—new ones pop up almost weekly, and still others will just connect through a proxy server which will just circumvent the router and firewall rules. It’s a losing game of cat and mouse.
Blocking the use of electronic devices is equally counterproductive. First of all, it drags instruction back to the 19th century—and we cannot afford to do that. More importantly, though, the whole practice of “blocking” or “banning” is anathema to the whole idea of schools as places of learning.
So what, then? What is the magic bullet? As expected, because it’s nearly always the case, there is no one simple solution. There are, however general strategies that can be applied and which will be found effective. Here are some suggestions:
Make a personal contact with the students: When students turn to the web browser they are turning away from you, the instructor. The less personal you are to the students the more they will do this.
Communicate your values clearly: Typically around 80% of people will respect your wishes so make sure they know what your wishes are. Make it clear to the students that you do value the use of electronic equipment but that they must also make the best use of their class time. To do this they should minimize distractions and, in particular, save the social networking and shopping for some other time. It’s also worth noting that of the remaining 20%, around three-quarters of them can be convinced to follow along too especially if you ensure that you move around the room to make it apparent that you are checking to see If students are engaged. It should also be noted that the small remainder—around 5% of the total—will do what they please regardless of what you do and you would be well advised that this small group may be regarded as “beyond the point of diminishing returns” so long as they do not distract others with their off-topic pursuits.
Find ways to leverage the potentially-distracting technology: You can always find ways to put the devices to some good use. Examples include: (1) getting the students to install “clicker” applications and build in “instant response” activities to your classes (2) provide electronic versions of partial notes (sometimes referred to as “gap notes”) that the students can complete online if they have annotation software (3) make effective use of simulations in class time if appropriate (4) use appropriate application software for in-class activities.
Do an Internet search using just the word eLearning or e-learning and you’ll get tens of millions of different results. You’ll also encounter a whole lexicon of new words and acronyms. It can be very overwhelming; confusing. Worse, you just know that somewhere buried among the intelligence is the usual dose of hyperbole and just plain deception that tends to accompany trendy ideas.
So, what’s with all these names? Some would like to suggest that the excessive jargon found in fields such as education serves to separate the professionals from the peasants. Besides affording the practitioners a smug sense of superiority the opaque terms also offer a shield for the guru to hide behind.
There are others who suggest that the jargon is there to help with the Bullshit process.
Henry Frankfurt’s thoroughly entertaining “On Bullshit” distinguishes BS from downright lying. The bullshitter’s (henceforth referred to as the ‘perp’) intention is not primarily to deceive. It is, rather, to impress; to make a point; to win, and the BS is used a vehicle for achieving just that. The perp is aware that much of the argument used is likely false but does not care. (S)he has a goal in mind that, to that person, justify the means. In Education the perp generally does have some personal goal such as:
Financial gain. A product or service needs to be sold and the perp’s financial future depends on it. You’ll be told whatever you want to hear just so sales will result. “Our product leverages the power of BYOD so as to achieve a constructivist approach to blended learning.”
Prestige. The perp wishes to get more respect from colleagues, nail some speaking engagements, secure tenure or otherwise ‘move up the company ladder.’ Dropping the right phrases is one way to impress the ones you need to. “I’ve been making use of a flipped classroom approach coupled with gamification techniques and have seen my classes’ standardized scores significantly increase.”
Power. Some just like getting their way, and, more importantly, being seen as getting their way. Again, the right words do tend to intimidate when needed. “The increasing ubiquity of MOOCs means that you will have to increase your pupil/teacher ratio or find some other way to remain competitive if you want to retain your provincial/state funding.”
Next (part B will be posted tomorrow evening): While there’s more than a small bit of truth in all of this, especially as it applies to some practitioners, it is perhaps better to note that a common set of terms enables people to work together across distance and time. A common language means better transfer of ideas and less opportunity for miscommunication. The italicized terms do come with caveats but they also represent powerful ideas so let’s look at them in more depth.
When the Internet began to increase in popularity in the mid-1990s it wasn’t hard to hear two loud, polarized groups within the education community. The non-adopters were stuck firmly in the past, tenaciously holding on to a correspondence-school model. In fairness to them, they had spent significant parts of their career in developing an effective correspondence model of education—carefully-constructed handbooks, mailing lists and distribution centres—and could not see how the Internet was going to make things any better. When suggestions would arise regarding the need to “move to the digital world” reasons like these would be brought forth to justify inaction:
The Internet is too slow and unreliable.
We have to provide equal access to all and the Internet is only something that a few people have.
We have excellent content available for print; much better than that amateurish-looking, hastily-constructed stuff on the web.
People won’t understand how to use it.
It’s too expensive.
Then there were the zealots. To them the Internet was the answer for everything and, thanks to it, education was about to change fundamentally. In a few years, schools as we knew them would be no more. The digital world would set us all free!
We can see now that neither group was right. In time, as the Internet grew in speed, reliability and, most importantly, popularity, correspondence courses were phased out everywhere in favour of web-based ones. As time passed hose clever but amateurish digital developers and teachers became seasoned, skillful and disciplined professionals.
Despite the zealots’ predictions schools were not left abandoned, and while homeschooling continues to be on the rise among some parts of the population, there are no serious efforts underway to eliminate so-called “bricks and mortar” (we use concrete, steel and wood in NL) schools as institutions.
Networked devices, though, are everywhere. Most students from grade 7 onward carry their own mobile devices (smartphones, tablets and “pods”) and even more have computers at home with Internet access. Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are present in a large fraction of our classrooms and most of them depend on the Internet for content. The use of multimedia sites such as YouTube is common. Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard™, Desire2learn™ and Moodle are, thankfully, finally starting to take root in our face-to-face classrooms (although not fast enough for my liking I might point out). Even some groups are coming around to the notion that social networking is not all bad.
That said, though, the question still remains: Has the widespread existence of electronic communication tools really transformed education or are current uses just extensions of methods that are really centuries old?
Think about it. Here are sentiments often expressed by many parents, educators and students:
IWBs are a waste of time and money. Many IWBs are not used in an interactive way. After all you can only hold the attention of a class for a few minutes when only one or two gets to participate at a time. Besides, truly interactive content is not as pervasive as you might think. As such they are little more than expensive projection screens that lie dormant most of the time.
Class time is boring spoon feeding. Much class work is done through PowerPoint-style presentations. While these are clearly superior to similar work done on chaulkboards or regular whiteboards, the methodology and philosophy are really not much different—specifically show students the ideas and expect that learning will take place as a consequence. Note that’s not to suggest for a minute that teachers don’t take advantage of more interactive methods—they do, but these don’t involve the IWB.
iPads and such are useless toys. iPads and related devices, while no doubt fun to use, are not often put to good use. They are expensive to obtain as class sets and, at the moment, rather hard to manage. That is, ensuring that the appropriate apps are installed is rather laborious. Besides they also offer the student an immediate on-ramp to distraction: unwanted social networking (again note that this is not to suggest that all social networking is bad. It most certainly is not! It’s only bad when it gets in the way of learning.) and irrelevant content. Besides, as was pointed out earlier, the content for pad devices is still in its infancy. Additionally while pads and pods are great tools for consuming content they are not always a great choice for creating it. In the end, at this moment, pad type devices are little more than easily-broken and rather expensive books and bad paper substitutes.
PCs are a waste of money. Finally we come to PCs. While there is no doubt of the power and usefulness of these devices, once again, much of that potential has gone untapped. While the tools for creating content, whether it be text, audio, video or some hybrid are powerful and affordable, the tools for interacting with content are still not great. Much of the available educational content amounts to little more than automated book page turners and videos—again a throwback to the sixties. Besides most of the computers found in schools are just donated leftover junk and rarely work properly when needed. When they do it’s really only at great taxpayer expense.
Well now, isn’t that a pile of negativity! Now, lest you walk away with the notion that I am anti-technology, let me state that those sentiments do not reflect my own experiences and opinions. How about letting me go back through the four bullet points, this time with opinions that are closer to my own:
IWBs are a waste of time and money. While they certainly can be a waste if misused or under-used the fact remains that a hugequantity of usefulcontent exists and is freely-available if one takes the time to find it. Furthermore when given good content, students love interacting with IWBs. It’s important to realize that the IWB is only one of many useful tools that exist in modern classrooms so you should not expect them to be the only tool used. That’s the problem—too many make a fuss about them as if there are to replace whet was there before. No! They are an addition, one that will take time to learn how to use effectively.
Class time is boring spoon feeding. Now that is just nonsense! While there are no doubt that there are teachers who insist on spending all of class time droning on, subjecting the students to “Death by PowerPoint,” these individuals are very much the minority! Besides, a well-designed presentation (clear and logical, containing good visuals and of the appropriate length) is a very effective teaching tool…one more in a large toolbox!
iPads and such are useless toys. Students love interacting with these devices and the amount of quality content out there is growing. Besides, class sets do not have to be purchased. Many students are happy to bring their own, so only partial class sets need to be available, and management software for this (which loads the apps as needed) is becoming more and more widely available. Some examples are here and here. Like them or not the fact is that for the modern child these are the books and magazines. …and so much more so suck it up!
PCs are a waste of money. Nonsense! While, yes, there is a dearth of truly immersive courseware the composition and research tools freely available already justify the purchase. While there is some truth to the notion that many schools are technologically backward the overwhelming trend across the developed world is toward increased professionalization around the acquisition and support of classroom ICLT.
So what is it I’m trying to say? Yes, it looks like this is just a bunch of waffling. In one group of bullets one point of view was presented and in another set of bullets basically the opposite was presented. So am I just wasting your time? No.
Here’s what I’m saying: those who claim that computer hardware and software is (a) useless or (b) the one best thing are equally wrong. The whole issue of Information, Communication and Learning Technology (ICLT) is far more complicated than all of that. While modern day electronic computing and communications equipment has had a profoundly positive effect on all parts of society including, yes, education the fact remains that there has been widespread wastage of money and effort and, as of now, there remains much unexplored and unrealized potential.
But the work continues.
And as long as the focus is on teaching and learning and as long as people are willing to do the hard work required to get the procedures down there will continue to be real improvements.
Just be wary of the snake oil sales force—it’s out there.
Next: There’s a lot of jargon surrounding eLearning. Besides the expected BS there’s some good ideas wrapped up in many of the the new terms.
Sometime during 2002 Mike Mooney and Perry Ward at Memorial’s PDCS showed me a Polycom videoconferencing unit they were evaluating. Up until that time they had mostly been using Intel Team Stations for videoconferencing but had discovered some of the products from that company and had decided to evaluate them. Their initial findings were positive and they shared what they had found with me. I was quite intrigued as well and they arranged it so that I could also have a look at the equipment they had obtained.
Frank and I had a chance to take a good look and our initial impression was very favourable. We had several issues that might be solved through the use of the equipment. First, CDLI’s management team was divided approximately half and half between St. John’s and Gander. While we were able to conduct most of our live meetings using vClass, the software we were using for our synchronous classes we had a need for video and, at the time, good video was not supported. In addition, the Labrador School district had much the same issue with two separate board offices separated by hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads. In both cases we had to spend considerable time and money in travel between the two centres.
We discussed this among ourselves and decided to tender for four units. We placed one in each of the four locations: St. John’s, Gander, Goose Bay and Labrador City. It took a bit of configuration to get them up and running but once we did the effect was immediate. The frequent trips stopped; not because people were ordered to stop traveling, mind you, but because people decided for themselves that most of the trips were no longer necessary. As Frank Shapleigh says, “I considered giving up my Costco membership because I wasn’t driving to St. John’s every other week for work anymore.”
Once we got comfortable using the systems for meetings between members of the leadership team we began thinking in terms of what new pedagogical tools we now could bring to bear. We immediately thought of the art courses we had and of the then fledgling experiencing music course we were developing. Good quality two-way video and audio meant students and teachers could now see what one another were doing. The experiencing music course had a small performance component and it was obvious to everyone what were the benefits to both students and instructors in this area. Likewise in art the instructors now could provide instant feedback on technique rather than doing it indirectly by looking at finished or partially finished pieces. So much better to see how things were done rather than looking at the end results!
We therefore began outfitting the student endpoints with videoconference units, starting with Art and Music sites. Soon after, Tech. Ed. was layered in and from there we continued to the remaining sites until, eventually, every distance education school was equipped.
Stubborn technical issues came early on. Videoconference units are not the kind of things you plug in, turn on, and expect to function, just like that. It took a lot of work getting the systems to work reliably.
“But what about Skype,” you ask. “All I have to do is install the software and get a user account. From then on all I have to do is call people on my contacts list and it works.”
True enough, but there are several things about Skype:
The video is generally crappy and unreliable.
The audio is generally crappy and often garbled.
It is generally not permitted on enterprise networks owing to the many security risks it brings.
To get videoconferencing working on networks you have to get the IT managers onside.
The system has to be given a fixed IP address on the network. This may be done by statically assigning it internally or by dynamically assigning a fixed IP based on the unique Media Address Control (MAC) that every networked device has. What’s more, each IP address on the virtual private network (VPN) has to be mapped to a bona fide, Internet-facing IP address so that equipment outside that VPN can communicate with it.
The firewall on the network has to be made aware of the system and has to correctly pass the network traffic intended for the videoconference unit. This generally involves ‘port mapping’ or IP mapping. If that’s not complicated enough, many VPNs actually use more than one firewall. Getting videoconference traffic successfully through a pair of firewalls can be very tricky.
When in use the devices use a large amount of bandwidth and the network has to be designed to give priority to the audio and video streams when necessary.
In theory, doing those things is straightforward enough from a technical perspective. Firewall and router settings are just table entries and systems administrators can do them easily enough. In reality, though, it’s just not that simple. School districts are all separate entities, each with their own policies and procedures. Furthermore there are other organizations that need to be in on It as well such as post-secondary schools that also may need to use the system. Some of the technical services are managed by third parties and, unfortunately, many of the interconnections between those district based VPNs can be through the public Internet (also known as the wild, wild west). In reality, getting the settings done took a lot of time and effort. There were quite a few growing pains encountered along the way. The various computer networks are segmented so throughput across the networks was often difficult. Worse, getting videoconference traffic from one network to another often resulted in one-way or low quality transmissions.
Generally the distance education classes went reasonably well enough because both students and teachers needed it to work and stuck with it until it did. The issues were solved and things stayed that way. Unfortunately, many of the early events we undertook that primarily involved adults did not fare so well. The adults had much less tolerance for fault in the early stages and, when they encountered the early growing pains, they were left with the impression that the system did not work. Many, unfortunately, gave up on it and never came back, even though the technical issues have been solved for years now.
In time, most of these issues have been solved. Some still remain. The two schools served by satellite-based Internet find the quality is not great. Since the signal must be bounced on a two-way trip of to a satellite located about 22,000 km above the equator there will always be a delay of approximately 0.8 seconds for the video to make the round trip. This makes the conversation a bit stilted. Our sites on frame relay do not have a whole lot of bandwidth to spare and find that videoconference sessions tend to result in general network congestion at the school so we only use it sparingly at those sites.
Videoconference units are, by default, point to point. That is, you can only call one other site. This poses a problem as many of the useful applications for teaching are multipoint in nature; that is, the instructor generally likes to combine several sites. For a considerable extra cost many, but not all, videoconference workstations can be upgraded so that they can connect to more than one endpoint. Three plus one (3 + 1) is a common multipoint configuration. A videoconference unit that is 3 + 1 enabled is capable of connecting to three other units. In such an arrangement the users see all four locations arranged ‘Hollywood squares’ style. Usually the 3 + 1 unit is configured so that if one site speaks for an extended period then its video grows to occupy all of the screen and remains this way until that location goes silent and someone speaks at another location. When this happens the system reverts back to ‘Hollywood squares’ unless that speaker goes on for an extended period.
At first we equipped the instructor sites with units that were 3 + 1 capable so that they could bridge in as many as three different locations at a time. Generally this was good enough but not always. Some classes were comprised of more than 3 school sites. When this happened the instructors would have to break the class up and bring them on in parts.
In time we were able to purchase a videoconference bridge. This was a device whose purpose was to combine multiple sites so that the users’ own equipment did not have to do it. The first unit we purchased was able to work with any number of combinations up to a total of 32 sites. At maximum capacity, for example, we could run a large class with 32 sites or, more reasonably, 4 classes, each with 8 sites online and so on.
We rarely ran the ridge with large groups as our teaching model did not leave us with classes comprised of large numbers of sites. Typical classes have around 20 students and the number of sites is typically between 3 and 7. Very large sessions were something we used for special occasions. Some examples included:
Schoolstock: a yearly ‘battle of the bands’ event held for several years in the mining town of Buchans. This was a day-long event and schools went to Buchans from all over the province to compete. On that day we would move the school’s videoconference unit to the gym and have it set to show the bands who were performing. We would leave the bridge open so that schools that sent bands could call in and listen to their bands or even talk to people at the site.
Lights, the Canadian performer (and others on different occasions) have generously given their time and visited a videoconference studio where we connected her to our bridge. She gave a class to all of our music students.
Education Week openings have been done live using the videoconference bridge. The opening ceremonies have been dispersed among a large number of participating sites and the rest, who did not play a speaking (or singing) role have been connected via one-way webcast.
In time, the original bridge began to show its age. The original one could not handle any content besides video (we could not show computer content such as slides, for example) and was not High Definition compatible. Last year we replaced it with one that added both those missing features and which also had a higher connection capacity. It was also considerably smaller. The original bridge was about the size of a ‘bar fridge.’ The new one is about the size of a typical PC. We have observed the overall performance on the new bridge to be much better—video is clearer and smoother.
And time marches on. Desktop video clients, such as Microsoft® Lync™ are now sophisticated and reliable enough to be used for many of the kinds of purposes we have. Presently the CDLI is in the process of implementing its own Lync server and hopes to integrate it, using the current bridge, with its installed base of dedicated room-based videoconference units. Desktop clients are are a good choice when it’s just people talking to people but the larger room-based systems still are best when we want to work with groups or see finer details—watching a student playing guitar, for example. The future is ‘looking’ bright.
Next: Yes, of course, CDLI students do science labs.
The CDLI’s implementation procedures depend, to a fair extent, on support from people at the school where the students are located. In the original pilot we worked with the concept of an mTeacher (mediating teacher) being one of the school’s teachers located onsite and who would also help out with the implementation. We imagined the role as consisting of providing basic support such as the supervision of tests and ensuring that students were adequately monitored while online.
During the spring, near the end of the pilot year I held a series of focus groups attended by the principals and mTeachers for the pilot. Doug Furey, who was serving as a program specialist assisting with the pilot in one of the districts and who was also completing his Masters of Education was visiting Memorial at the time and also asked if he could sit in on the meetings.
After the meetings got underway it became clear that not only had much been learned along the way but, much remained to be learned. To say the least, those meetings were enlightening, bringing forward problems, and as it turned out, solutions to many of them. One thing that became apparent was the range of tasks that the school found itself having to deal with. These included:
Selecting students for the courses and getting them registered.
Ensuring that appropriate space in the school was provided for the students when they were online. Regardless of whether this was part of the F2F class or a whole different room, the students needed a place.
Liaising with CDLI; learning what was up and what was new.
Supervising tests and labs.
Ensuring that students were on task
Communicating with eTeachers whenever there was an issue with Teaching and Learning that was affecting the students.
Providing basic training on how to get online for the first time and on how to use the tools.
Providing onsite tech. support. This included things like preparing trouble tickets regarding connectivity downtime, boxing up damaged equipment and unpacking and then setting up replacement equipment.
I recall that time like it was today! I took notes of what was required on a flipchart or a whiteboard and after the list was complete it was similar to the one above but in a different order. One of the principals remarked that it was an onerous one and that eLearning at the school did come at a cost. The principal went on to say, though, that this was not to be negative—the tasks got done but we really needed to find a more organized way to do them. Another principal then followed up by noting that, based on the skills of his available staff members he has actually farmed it out. Others then weighed in to say that they had done essentially the same. Together then we looked at the required tasks and looked to classify them. The list above is fairly close to the one we wound up with in the end and based on it, Doug Furey suggested that we actually stop thinking in terms of mTeachers and, instead, focus on mTeams. That was it! With that said it all became so obvious and we quickly came up with a working description of what comprised an mTeam. It had four components.
Administration: Typically done by the principal or designate, this consisted roughly of tasks 1-3 above, namely registering and selecting students and ensuring that they had an adequate, supervised space.
Coaching: Typically done by an onsite teacher this consists of tasks 4-6, namely student supervision and liaising with the eTeachers as needed.
Peer Support: Typically done by a more senior fellow student, this included some aspects of coaching as well as the basic training.
Technical: Typically done by the district technicians with help from onsite student tutors.
In subsequent years CDLI embarked on a series of mTeam training sessions. These were done for new schools and, periodically, to refresh existing schools as personnel sometimes moved on and besides, the procedures and tools were evolving anyway. These were generally held on regional basis in district offices and were attended by Frank, Bob, Me, the nearby eTachers and some of the district’s technical staff and program specialists.
Not only did these serve as valid conduits of information from CDLI to onsite staff but, just as importantly, the flow of information was two-way and mTeam training sessions often resulted in the unearthing and subsequent solving of issues.
Next: Other technologies and abilities have been added along the way. We’ll look at how video and videoconferencing has been layered in.