Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Mind the Gap

An issue that deserves some attention is the gap between what our school district educators and staff in leadership and support positions know about how so-called 21st Century/Personalized Learning ("21C/PL") can/could/should work and what they are doing to allow it to flourish and receive critical examination in our schools. Digital skills and literacy aimed at making relevant technology a regular component of education (more than just an elective) is built on a foundation going back about 12 years (to 1999), but hitting a critical juncture about 6 or 7 years ago. The emergence of the "21C/PL" jargon and the challenge to rethink aspects of program delivery are real tests of that foundation, and make it necessary to reflect on how decisions made in the last few years will affect the passage of "21C/PL" theory into practice. Rather than build on success and respect the existing diffusion models that work among educators, our district appears to be developing its model for change in isolation and/or contradiction of relevant evidence, existing resources (human and otherwise), input from practitioners, and research initiatives designed specifically to address, examine, and assess "21C/PL."

We've seen some interesting examples in the past year of how ubiquitous technology (tablets, mobile devices, etc.) could have a major impact on the classroom and for learning in general, both positive and negative. This is accompanied by a sea of literature and online content related to"21C/PL," often cliched or poorly understood but part of our reality nonetheless. We are surrounded on TV, the web, and print media with powerful new educational uses and apps for pods and pads, and hints at what makes tech-based learning work. Locally, UNBC prof Andrew Kitchenham has recently put out 2 texts/etexts on mobile learning strategies and blended learning environments (distance + face-to-face). Our board office staff have acknowledged a need to take these ideas seriously, and have even written them into various plans, and is beginning to use the "talk" (for better or worse) of "21C/PL." The problem remains that the milieu has shifted in our district from wide-spread interest and action in the use of innovative technology to frustration over the lack of communication and support. This has been compounded by the rejection of both relevant feedback and a number of "21C/PL" proposals which would have provided teacher and student experiences to put "21C/PL" theory through its paces. I've written and spoken on these ideas enough that I'll spare the details here.

For a reference, I take "21C/PL" to be any initiative that aims at one or more of these goals:
1. Greater involvement of parents & community by allowing/encouraging/facilitating learning opportunities outside of schools
2. Wider and more effective use of distance and blended learning environments
3. New flexibility for project, course, and program options/designs by students and teachers, including a new view or curriculum as a shopping list rather than a set of prescriptions
4. Removing barriers to the uptake of new technologies and teaching/learning that incorporates mobile devices, online or cloud-based learning objects, and interactive digital systems (e.g. social networks)
5. Changing role of teaching from directing student learning and leading the inquiry to that of facilitator or "guide on the side"

A number of elementary and secondary teachers, with varying levels of access and expertise with technology, continue to make forays into these "21C/PL" goals in their lessons, student activities, project construction, unit structures, and assessment. In an effort to increase the ambition and impact of their work, at least five "21C/PL" project proposals (learning team/funding grant applications) were floated last year, all of which were ironically rejected by principals or district staff (no one is quite sure who or why, although budget shortfall was never mentioned). At the same time, a presentation aimed at gathering input on district tech directions resulted in a gloss of the issues and a brush-off to the responses. These rejections, added to the platform change and the end of many district support systems and structures (notably the DTT), has created a shockwave of distrust between teachers and admin/district staff and has made the job of "moving forward" that much more difficult. In some respects it was unavoidable as the cutbacks of 2010 surely meant there would be less capacity (staff/money/vision) for technology leadership, coordination, and collaboration. Teachers and students are used to obstacles, and so the business of learning and experimenting with new technology continues, with or without the necessary supports. This is the current milieu in which we ask questions about what we do, and in which we look for more open and sensible answers from district leadership than we have had over the last two years, well documented in the district's tech feedback wiki (now expired), and various 57 Online forums.

The "historic" milieu is also important. Teachers and students (usually with district support) have been continuously trying, mastering, discarding, renewing digital technologies and associated methods for much of the last 12 years -- websites, movie making, blogs, wikis, podcasts, mashups, digital recordings and compositions for assessment, assembling evidence, and presentation. There has been a dynamic mix of content-creation and content-consumption, each fueled by different needs and skills, but both important for teaching and learning.

The year 2004 deserves a closer look. This was a time of tech coaches, a planned system of training and workshops starting with a scope & sequence but aimed at creative, student-centered transformations, coordinated/vertically integrated leadership (from asst super though admin, tech support, tech support teacher leaders, diverse teacher leaders, teacher practitioners, and students -- all more or less committed to the same goals). In that year (give or take a few months) TLITE's first cohort was underway (SFU diploma in tech-based teaching & learning), Tech for Learning Leadership Team was established, "Key Tech Contacts" picked at every school, the District Tech Team created its first Tech Standards document, and it was the last time we saw a collaboratively constructed District Technology Plan for Student Success. 2004 marked the beginning of a process of standardization which ultimately led to the computer greening program and platform consolidation.

2004 was also when the work of "QLG" wrapped up. The Quality Learning Globally group assembled teachers and admin/district staff, most of which were tech leaders, to inquire into some key problems emerging with tech-based learning. Among other things, they met about 8 times, studied, and experimented with distance/blended/synchronous/asynchronous environments -- an early and intense look at what we now call "21C/PL." The QLG research concluded with a number of observations aimed directly at three connected questions faced by (and encouraged by) the district:
  1. What should distributed learning look like... should it occur at many schools and be integrated into the options faced by students (course selection) and teachers (course design, career specialization), or should distributed learning be the purview of our distance ed school?
  2. What technology should we use, and why... virtual classrooms, CMS, platforms, peripherals, access issues, budget & greening issues, what works in various contexts?
  3. What pedagogy emerges from, or shapes, the technology and the choice of delivery models... synchronous vs asynchronous, what degree of "blending," how is the vision, coordination, and support sustained in schools and in the district? 
The research looked at teacher and student experiences in contexts that explored as many of the possibilities brought up by these questions as possible. The QLG group asked these questions from the perspective of teachers and students, and in the end recommended:
  1. Distributed Learning should happen at every school, at any time in which teachers in these schools were willing to experiment in such a way that could be supported by administration. Teachers excited to try teaching an online course or increase the amount of interactive technology they use with regular classes are the best bet for success. Dumping online course work and new tech on unwilling teachers will not work and will halt any momentum built elsewhere. While the integration of distributed learning has a logical place at the secondary level, it should be placed within the continuum of integrating all forms of teaching and learning strategies that make use of rich media and interactive technology, not just the ones that lead to more independent (distant) student learning. This has implications for the continued promotion of technology skills and digital literacy among staff and students, and commitments to support, training, and leadership.
  2. Online and distance learning works best when the students are also connected to a learning community and teachers -- real people (with bodies and nuanced expression) and real social environments that are essential for human development, so some face-to-face is a must except for special cases and for most should be the the primary experience, even at higher grades. The group spent a lot of time on the creative/collaborative/critical process involved in building and analyzing content (distributed "learning objects," resources , courses). Some felt there should be an attempt to build original, professional resources specific to BC curriculum contexts, while others were confident that existing online (free/external) resources would increasingly meet learning needs. This has implications for inter-school communication/collaboration and the coordination of some aspects of course programming across the district.
  3. Technology and distributed learning should not remove and try to replicate the best of the classroom experience, but should seek to revolutionize the worst and most problematic aspects of the classroom experience. Thus virtual classrooms that imitate real discussions are often a step backward unless no alternatives exist. Just as the powerpoint can take a meaningful presentation and turn it into something segmented, trite, or didactic, interactive technology can create addictive, self-absorbed recluses where once were curious, social kids. The group was confident that the interactive web could extend and enrich but not replace the social fabric of schools. This has implications for school and district tech direction, planning and licensing. 
These conclusions were, for the most part, rejected or ignored. They were supported by then principal of PGSS (later an asst superintendent), but the "discussion" at the board office supported a focus on the distance ed school (rebranded the CLA) rather than widespread uptake of distributed learning and tech-based blended learning environments at many schools. PGSS was given a few "backdoors" to continue practicing some distributed learning (license shifting to allow videoconferenced classwork with McBride, more use of Coolschool, etc.). CLA took a couple of years to ponder on this and then very slowly began the process of moving courses into Moodle and offering more online learning opportunities. Some tech innovation grants created pockets of creative teaching & learning embracing these (or similar) conclusions. This helped offset the need for regular, meaningful conversations and collaboration with teachers.

These exceptions aside, the district has closed the door on most "21C/PL" projects and the buzz around educational technology has faded. Questions and invitations to dialogue from tech-leading teachers to the SBO staff remain unanswered. The coherent tech plan (which, at a minimum, was supposed to explain what's going on, why, how, when), promised in April 2010, has still not materialized. The extensive feedback on the March 2011 announcements about tech directions have been utterly ignored -- even the SBO's own plans to follow-up on the announcements appear to be on hold indefinitely. The means for collaboration on technology problems (wikis, social networking, etc.), and the external encouragements (e.g. consider Dr. Kitchenham's new texts), have never been more readily available, and yet we have entered a period of stagnation and confusion and "go it on your own" that has taken us back about 12 years, although it is still possible to see the curiosity if not the energy that accompanied the heady days of shocking new technology.

This analysis may sound a bit cold, but personally, I can't wait to be proven wrong -- those who know me realize I'll be the first to celebrate an end to dysfunction. I also realize that our SBO may no longer have the staff (budget) to keep up with the level of engagement expected by teachers. More importantly, I don't mind the chaos... it makes it clear that I have to design my own learning systems, many of which bypass technology, if I want to create rich environments for my students, and find like-minded people to help. The school district has lost the capacity to "play" at this level with the current level of funding and choice of directions. I'm ready to be challenged on this, to be shown examples of how dynamic "21C/PL" experiments are working and have also been supported by schools and the SBO. I also realize, as others have pointed out, that the technology itself, the "stuff," is not the commodity in education or our school district, the commodity is the collection of teachers and students who are excited to learn and are willing to use relevant technology to do so.

Despite my many rants on technology and educational design, I am not generally excited with the majority of implicit promises and changes suggested by "21C/PL." The most interesting part to me is not the technology or the changing roles but the possibility that more community-based learning will allow more teens to get out into natural environments more often, do something to address the "Nature-Deficit Disorder" that has grown with the digital age.  I am also concerned about the effect technology has on the teenage brain.  My wife, for whom this is an even more important issue, suggested this CBC piece to help make my point: http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/TV_Shows/The_National/1233408557/ID=1954482931

The "it" of "21C/PL" is hard to define, and for many simply means an examined life as a teacher that is willing to innovate and experiment habitually. Bring "it" on, we're ready for it, many of us have been doing it for 10 years and already know which parts to take or leave, and the SBO must surely know by now that we're also ready to talk about it whenever you're ready... you know where to find us.

No comments: