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But slapdash implementation is not the answer
On March 16, Premier Stephen McNeil announced that all Nova Scotia schools and daycares would be closed after the March break for at least two weeks. That followed a tumultuous week during which Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney first floated, then proposed, system-wide P-12 school closures. Now it’s safe to assume that schools everywhere will be shut down for far longer.
Closing of schools, colleges and universities has brought much-needed relief in a dire health emergency, but has left students, teachers and families in uncharted territory. It’s now dawning on us that closing schools for two or three weeks will be insufficient time to “flatten the curve” and smooth out the impact of the quietly raging virus.
Once the novelty of being liberated from school wears off, education authorities will be under pressure to patch together online bridge programs to support students. Even now, educators across Canada are, on their own, transitioning, almost by default, to e-learning in the form of distance education or video-enhanced teaching programs.
Students and families will also soon be looking for more precise plans to ensure the continuity of learning and to reassure high school students that their graduation status will not be jeopardized by the crisis. Extending the school year will, in all likelihood, evaporate as a preferred option following a draining experience like the virus.
The global COVID-19 pandemic looks like the realization of the wildest dream of the purveyors of technology-driven “disruptive innovation.” Almost overnight, the competition for online learning is not face-to-face, in-person classes, because those classes are cancelled.
Now, it's down to two options — distance learning and online teaching or nothing at all. It's happening so fast that even champions of radical technology innovation such as Michael B. Horn of the Christensen Institute are fearful that it may actually backfire.
Transitioning online cannot happen overnight. Recognized experts on digital learning, including the University of Limerick's Ann Marcus-Quinn, warn that technology is essentially a tool and transitioning is far more complex and simply swapping traditional textbook content for digital material is not the answer.
“Online teaching takes preparation and planning,” says Michael K. Barbour, co-author (with Randy LaBonte) of the annual report, State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada. It requires “the careful consideration of the tools,” their strengths and limitations, and the adoption of “pedagogical strategies” best suited to the means of delivery. “The situation we currently find ourselves in is one of triage,” Barbour claims. “It isn’t online teaching; it is remote teaching in an emergency situation.”
The province is actually better prepared than others in terms of e-learning readiness. In 2018-19, the national CANeLearn study reported that 98,000 out of 120,604 students (81 per cent) were enrolled in K-12 blended learning programs. That’s the highest percentage across Canada and largely the result of the recent system-wide implementation of Google Apps for Education (GAFE).
That gives Nova Scotia a real advantage in transitioning to blended learning (i.e., offering hybrid courses combining in-class teaching with online learning). While the conventional model Nova Scotia Virtual School remains limited in its reach, with 1,366 students enrolled, and correspondence courses enrol only 1,015 students, the widespread access to GAFE provides a platform for expanding e-learning to support more programs for homebound students.
Closing schools makes good sense in the midst of acute public health emergencies if it helps to save lives. Yet it does not necessarily have to mean suspending all teacher-guided instruction and learning.
While Alberta has closed all of its schools and daycares indefinitely, elementary and secondary teachers are at school and engaged in developing plans for e-learning to support students. In the case of the Calgary Board of Education, the top priority became gearing up to offer learning online, especially for high school students in their Grade 12 graduating year.
Much can be learned from best practice in digital learning and the abrupt transition experienced in China and other countries ravaged by the pandemic:
Solidify and expand your learning management system, enabling teachers and students to post and share videos and interactive content.
Increase your bandwidth, assume that not all students own smartphones or have computers at home, and consider using local television stations to telecast elementary school lessons.
Encourage teacher experimentation with e-communications, including generating videos or podcasts and enabling mini-lessons or discussions carried out using Zoom and other commercial apps.
Address the digital disparities gap: Purchasing computer tablets and services may help to bridge the “digital divide” between “haves”and “have nots” when it comes to access to technology and the Internet.
Plan for learning-challenged students, meeting their needs for more individual attention and more teacher-guided instructional modalities.
Differentiate for high school students, most of whom may require more interactive content than found in textbooks, as well as ongoing monitoring and accountability to keep them on track.
Getting schools, teachers and students prepared for a much longer period of school closure means ramping up e-learning capabilities. Let’s hope it involves enrolling students in e-learning programs developed collaboratively by classroom teachers working with system-level managers and curriculum leaders.
Paul W. Bennett, director, Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, wrote the chapter on e-learning in Canada in the Springer Handbook on Digital Learning for K-12 Schools (Springer Switzerland, 2017).