Patti Bacchus: Checking in on 21st century learning

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      Did you complete your MOOCs (massive, open online courses)? Did you flip your classroom? Did 3-D printing revolutionize your school? Are those expensive smart boards getting lots of use? We all know how to code now, right?

      The dawn of the third decade of the 21st century seems as good a time as any to reflect on whether we’ve “transformed” education, and if all that money and excitement spent on educational technology—commonly referred to as ed tech—has changed much in today’s K-12 classrooms.

      And, yes, we still have classrooms. Thank goodness.

      As a school trustee from 2008 to 2016, I endured many briefings, workshops, and conferences where some man (it was almost always a man) excitedly went through a slide deck that started with a picture of an old rotary-dial phone and went on to tell us about how we all agreed education needed to be either reformed or transformed, or something.

      Trips were organized to tour High Tech High, a California charter school, with stops at Apple and other ed-tech corps where school-district officials were dazzled by “game changing” products that were going to personalize everyone’s learning, or some such.

      Today’s jobs won’t exist tomorrow, they told us. Teachers will stop being the sage on the stage and become the guide onside (as if they hadn’t already, where appropriate). We need to prepare everyone for tomorrow, and that will require a laptop/tablet/own device for all, and everyone will take advantage of the miracle of online learning.

      Despite all the fanfare—and many cozy get-togethers where tech corps wined and dined (and provided high-end hotel rooms and airfare) public-school superintendents—classrooms today look much the same as they did back in the 1990s.

      Some positive changes

      Like always, teaching strategies continue to evolve and tech tools are far more common in schools today than they were 20 years ago. B.C. has an updated curriculum, that allows for more flexibility and to some extent, more personalized learning.

      Almost all schools have reliable Internet access, and most high school students have smartphones. Many school districts have adopted online reporting tools that allow parents to closely monitor their children’s progress, or lack thereof.

      Students in remote communities can access courses online that aren’t otherwise available to them locally. Students anywhere can work their way through school more quickly by taking courses online and in summer school. Those are good changes.

      What hasn’t happened

      I got thinking about this topic over the holidays when I came across a piece online by education writer Audrey Watters titled “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade”. which was a blunt reminder of the many expensive and failed promises we’ve heard in the education sector since the turn of the millennium.

      Watters painstakingly documented what she describes as “a decade of ed-tech failures and fuck-ups and flawed ideas”, in what reads like a cautionary tale for those still riding the ed-tech bandwagon and blabbering on about transforming education through technology.

      Despite all the precious education dollars spent on ed-tech products and services, students with special needs are still struggling and falling through the cracks in our school system. Teachers are still overwhelmed by unmanageable class sizes and a lack of support for students who need extra help. Most students still go to bricks-and-mortar schools, and too often those schools are in terrible, and even unsafe, condition.

      Most districts don’t want to talk about completion rates for online courses, and for good reason. They’re poor.

      Kids from wealthy families still outperform those from low-income families and communities. Math is still hard for many, and those who can, resort to human tutors, although some use online supports like Khan Academy videos. Most classes are still the same way up they always were (not flipped), because do you really think you can get an entire class to watch an online lesson before each class?

      I also wonder how many of those expensive “smart” boards all the PACs seemed to be fundraising for a few years back are gathering dust or being used as whiteboards? Sure, I’ve seen some impressive demonstrations of what they could do, but getting there takes dedication and training and convincing teachers they’re worth the bother when teachers still don’t get nearly enough time to get up to speed on all the new tools that come available, much less adapt their lesson plans to a new curriculum.

      Even more worrying is how much of students’ personal information is now in the hands of tech corporations, as many districts eagerly embraced “free” applications and products without understanding that students may end up paying a very high price for those “free” tools. Then, of course, there were blatant privacy breaches, including a lost unencrypted hard drive containing personal information from 3.4 million records. Oops.

      And let’s not forget the detested B.C. Enterprise Student Information System (BCeSIS), the student information system widely viewed as an expensive, time-wasting boondoogle that was finally replaced in 2015. Teachers warned us all about that, too, but government and school boards pushed ahead with it anyway.

      What still matters

      Education is, and always will be, a people-powered undertaking, and relationships between teachers and students are still the key to successful outcomes. School libraries, staffed by teacher librarians, are arguably more important than ever, in this troubling era of fake news and information that is designed to mislead.

      Skilled teacher librarians are experts in finding and evaluating quality information, and they can help students learn to critically assess sources. There are fewer and fewer of them working in schools. We should be adding more.

      While today’s school libraries look a little different than they used to, as they’ve become more portals to information accessed online than the book depositories they once were, books still really matter.

      Getting kids hooked on reading is a big predictor of success in school. Having school libraries stocked with age-appropriate popular books is a great way to ensure all kids have access to the kinds of books that make them excited about reading.

      Textbooks are still important as well. It turns out a lot of us learn better when working with an actual textbook instead of looking at a screen.

      Lessons for 2020 and beyond

      The one group I didn’t see jumping recklessly on the tech bandwagon during the past 20 years was teachers. They quite wisely urged caution and restraint when it came to regarding expensive new tech tools as a panacea, and they were right.

      Let’s hope education leaders take a measured approach to buying the promise of technology, particularly when it comes to spending their cash-strapped budgets on unproven products being pedalled by corporations that seek to profit from the education sector.

      I’d like to see school-district leaders—especially their superintendents—take a vow promising they won’t accept freebies, fees, or hospitality from those who seek to sell products and services to their districts.

      That would include declining invitations for trips to tech-corporation-funded “conferences” like those convened by organizations such as the Education Research Development and Innovation (ERDI) and C21 (Canadians for 21st Century Learning & Innovation), which have been popular events for several of B.C.’s public-school superintendents in the past.

      Collectively, B.C.’s school superintendents advise their elected trustees on how to allocate billions of dollars in public funds that have been earmarked for education. They need to do so free from any influence from ed-tech corporations, and that starts by giving industry-funded events a pass.

      Instead, school district leaders need to listen to teachers, and other independent education experts, about how to spend the public’s money most effectively in order to get the best outcomes for students.

      B.C.’s education system has much room for improvement, but it’s better than most. As we head into this decade, let’s resolve to hold back on the new, shiny things being marketed to us. Instead, ask teachers what they need to ensure their students succeed, and give it to them.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.