In considering education and how it should evolve to best prepare the class of 2030, we should look at it like we look at Frankenstein. Remember? That cautionary tale warning of the evils of science? Well, not really, it is more the tale of a scientist who longed for things in the past and, using science, worked to alter the future with little consideration for the impact on the present. Education can be a little like that.
They are common phrases: “it worked fine for me” or “I learned that way and I turned out alright”. They reflect a longing for the past and resistance to change and the unknown. We implement change within the structures of the past and very often don’t consider how it will actually affect the present. The problem is not the change or lack of change, it is the focus. Changing for the sake of change is unnecessary and dangerous because repercussions are all too often not considered. For example, we live in an age of tech, so, with no focus, the change that is implemented is “use tech in school” because that will prepare the child for the future. This is not so. Using tech just for the sake of using tech does nothing mostly because it is not focused on what is necessary – how a child learns and what will best support the child. Tech does not improve learning by itself, just like the typewriter did not improve writing. It made it more efficient, faster, but that doesn’t mean it was good writing. The same goes for tech. Tech shouldn’t be the focus: it is a tool, just like the typewriter.
This may be sounding like I am anti-tech, but this can’t be further from the truth. I think tech can be a wonderful addition to education when embedded thoughtfully with a purpose. Using tech does not make a student ready for the future. A solid educational foundation that encourages critical thinking, creativity and collaboration does. Can tech enhance the learning of these skills? Certainly. Just thinking about the collaboration we have due to programs like Skype, translator apps, or Microsoft OneNote and Microsoft Teams where people can work simultaneously on a single project is stunning. Using tech to enhance learning in these ways will help make them future ready. Just replacing one way of doing something with tech will not.
In Ontario, there is a new push to require e-learning as a graduation requirement to complete high school. The reasoning that this is being done is to make students future ready. While the premise of helping students become more future ready is laudable, the method is flawed. It is a little like the Frankenstein problem: the consideration of the impact on the present is missing and that impact is far-reaching and multi-faceted.
First: Internet Capabilities.
Below is a map produced by the CRTC highlighting internet service available in Ontario.
Purple = Cable; Blue = DSL/Fibre; Green = Fixed Wireless; Yellow = LTE; Deep Red, Red, Orange, and Pink all represent unserved and underserved populations
This second map from Connected North, shows more distinctly the unserved and underserved population in just a portion of Ontario.
The expectation of completing a 4-credit e-learning requirement to graduate high school effectively marginalizes rural and Northern students solely due to unavailable and poor internet service.
Right now there are approximately 50 000 students across Ontario registered in an e-learning course. There are 628 032 secondary school students in Ontario, if we divide that number by 4 we get an approximation of how many students there are per grade in high school, or 157 008 (Ministry of Education, 2017-2018). So, by just adding one grade taking one course each into the e-learning system, we have an influx triple+ the size of those currently enrolled. Scaling to that level creates its own issues and we will be scaling to over 600 000!
At present, the existing e-learning program is of high quality (i.e., several consortiums report a 90%+ pass rate). In order to maintain this success, the Government will need to ensure that teachers have the initial teacher education – as well as the on-going professional development – to be able to design, deliver, and support high quality e-learning. The Government will also need to make sure that the level of technical assistance that is provided to the students, teachers, schools, and school boards is increased at an appropriate level. If e-learning is no longer a choice for students, the Government will also need to ensure that students have equal access to their e-learning outside of the traditional school building and school hours, as well as providing a much higher level of technical support to parents and the home. These factors are all issues that need to be planned for with such a significant increase in the number of e-learning students, to ensure that the existing high quality program is scalable to the degree that the Government has indicated in this announcement.
The other problem is the focus. Brian Aspinall, in his new book Block Breaker, deftly states:
“All the technology in the world won’t make our classrooms 21st century ready. Redefining our roles as educators will.”
Requiring e-learning won’t make students future-ready, just as using a typewriter doesn’t make better writers. Focusing on the skills that will make students future ready; critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity, is necessary and taking e-learning doesn’t guarantee any of those skills.
Victor Frankenstein sought to create life, but did not consider the repercussions of his actions; he accomplished that goal, but with disastrous consequences. In reimagining our education system to prepare our students for the future, let us not be like Victor Frankenstein. Let us instead carefully consider what it is we require, how to get there and what the consequences will be.