Why e-learning during a pandemic can’t work

These are challenging days. Teachers are scrambling now to find ways to teach their students using some form of e-learning. While families with multiple devices and parents at home will be able to do this, in many cases e-learning can’t work. We haven’t done the human capacity building that is necessary for this to take place.

We should have been doing this, but we haven’t done the necessary capacity building.

At my last school, we worked for over a year to build capacity with our students and teachers. We had a Chromebook for every student from grades 3-6 and they were obliged to take them home every night. We trained the kids on how to use Google tools. That was the capacity building that would need to be in place right now to make an e-learning system take place.

Students need to be taught that the computers are for daily learning and the expectation needs to be there that they will use the machines – that takes time, that is a paradigm shift.

And before you say but… this was a very poor school. With the help of our school board, we made sure the computers were always available – after school, on the weekend and if there had been enough time, for the summers as well.

We are woefully underprepared for this current situation.  We have squandered an opportunity to set up good e-learning relationships.  It would take a long time to get this set up, I am not sure why we are trying to do this now.

You can only build this capacity while you are still in school. We should have been working on this years ago, but there was no real support for this. Even a flipped classroom takes in-person time to set up.

I talked to one of my students this year who tried to set up a flipped learning system in his high school classroom. He did assign work for students to do at night that could be taken up the next day. The project failed because students didn’t see the assigned work as something they had to do.

We talked about this and realized that such a system would only work with some careful in-class learning. As in our school, a good e-learning relationship can only be set up if there is a prolonged in-person training period prior to enacting the system.

We needed a year to set up our system. Unfortunately, as soon as I left the school, the new principal stopped buying the computers our students needed and the system fell apart. There was no system-wide support for this kind of a relationship so the experiment ended.

I write this post with a certain amount of frustration. It seems that we never think of the important human relationships that we need to structure first before we plunge headlong into technical solutions to learning. Yes, we have the technology, but no we have not developed the important human linkages necessary to make this work.

It is not really the technology that is slowing us down here, we just haven’t done the necessary human face-to-face work. Yes, we could easily get the Chromebooks to the kids who need them. We could set up mobile hubs in neighbourhoods that do not have internet access. But we have not done the necessary work with our students, especially at the elementary level to make all this work.

These are extraordinary times. Our students and our families are really on their own now. Maybe we will learn from this. Maybe we will construct the necessary human linkages to make real, meaningful digital learning work in the future.

I hope people are thinking about this. Technology rarely solves important human problems.

The word is out…Students Like Their Chromebooks Blog Post #4

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A few weeks ago I read a great article from E Missourian.com

Survey: Students Like Their Chromebooks

The article was about a report written by Debbie Haley, technical director for the Meramec Valley R-III Middle School.  In the report, she outlined that through a district initiative, each student from grade 6 through 8 had received a Dell Chromebook.

The students were able to bring their new machines home while the teachers received training on how best to use the Chromebooks as a learning tool in the classroom.

The comments of the students speak volumes about programs like this:

“Having a computer to take home means I can look up stuff and learn how to do things any time without having to ask the teacher,” 

“This is the best way to do homework because if I forget my math book, it’s on the website,”

What I noticed about these comments is that the students in our school have been saying exactly the same thing for the past two years.

I recently retired as principal of a small low-income urban school.  We made the decision over two years ago that to give our students a greater chance of success, they needed to have their own Chromebook and the juniors (grades 4-6) needed to bring them home every night.

The program had its hiccups and nay sayers, but it was a success.  Teachers received good quality PD and the freedom to learn more on their own.  Students were expected to bring their machine home every night and continue work on digital programs, including Google apps for Education and Hapara that they had started at school.

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It became the expectation that a computer would be available at all times and if one broke down, it would be replaced immediately.

Our school board did some things to make it feasible to become a 1:1 school.  Chromebooks were cheap to buy, we were a Google board, so students and teachers had access to all the great apps available through Google.  Training was available to students and teachers on some of the programs that we were using every day and we did receive some computers from the school board as we were considered a high needs school.

teachers receive a certificate after a training day on Discovery Education
teachers receive a certificate after a training day on Discovery Education

While we never did a comprehensive report, I feel that the program was a success.

As part of my ‘good-bye’ from the students and the teachers, a video was created that allowed many of the students to say something they were thankful for that had taken place while I was principal.  Many of them said they were thankful for their Chromebooks and the freedom it gave them to learn independently.

I was surprised by this especially because we had just completed a major school yard renewal – with play structures – and I thought this would be what meant the most to our students.

It wasn’t – it was their Chromebooks.

To me this is really important.  By providing powerful computers to our students we were giving them a voice, we were allowing them to control their own learning.  By training the teachers, we are giving them the confidence to use the machines every day in class.

The major drawback to all this is that this was a school initiative not a district-wide project like the Meramec Valley students were part of.  Sadly, because our district cannot yet see the value in 1:1 programs, our effort to provide computers to most students will not be sustained.

It is sad to say that most administrators do not see the value in having a computer for every child.  Our district no longer gives out computers and has recently gone with a new Chromebook that is twice the price of the ones we used to purchase.

It is very hard to understand why people do not see the value in these programs and why they do not listen to the students who have been empowered by these sophisticated tools.  There now is ample evidence that 1:1 makes a real difference when done properly.  I look forward to the day when small initiatives become district priorities.

 

Implementing Digital resources at your school some points to consider.

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Today I learned that we will be losing two really important digital programs at our school.  This is a real blow for us as we are trying very hard to supply our teachers and students with excellent digital content to support the use of chromebooks in the classroom – all students from grades 3 to 6 have their own computer and the juniors (4-6) are expected to bring their machines home every night.

There are two important factors that seem to be influencing decisions about access to digital resources.  One is the expense, the other is implementation – not enough teachers across the school board are using these costly programs.  I would like to focus on implementation.

Implementation of digital content seems to be widely misunderstood.  You can’t just drop in a sophisticated digital program without a really good implementation program.  Like with everything in education, it comes down to the person.  If teachers are ill-equipped to use new programs, they will fall back on traditional teaching methods.

So what can we do?  Here are a few ideas.

  • Implementation is a long game – to successfully introduce a program, you need a full-year plan of PD and support for your teachers.  Some of this training has to be driven by the principal or someone else who is available to put on demonstrations and workshops during the day.
  • Webinars are good, but people are better.  We have found that while webinars are easier to arrange, teachers prefer to meet with a representative of the company producing the content.  When we have been able to arrange this, implementation has gone up dramatically.
  • Teachers need in-school time to experiment with the programs.  Last year, after the introductory workshops, all teachers were given release time to experiment with the programs.  They could choose what program they wanted to experiment with and many times they were able to contact the service provider to get just-in-time solutions to their problems.
  • Provide your staff with a good on-line PD resource.  We are in the second year of a partnership with Atomic Learning.  I consider this a great investment.  You cannot ask your teachers to rely on YouTube or Google when they have questions on a variety of digital programs.  They need a source for curated material delivered by professionals who are used to working with teachers.  Atomic is not the only source for this professional learning, but for us, its works really well.
  • People need to understand the importance of curated resources. Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers states that he rarely uses Google as a way to locate material for teachers.  This is a really important point.  If you want really good content, it has to be curated.  Discovery Education, for example, does an excellent job of bringing educational resources together in math, science and social studies.  Other tools like unroll.me and Scoop.it are wonderful ways to collect information of interest to you. You choose the content and receive (in the case of Scoop.it) suggestions from your personal learning community.  The important point is – curated resources can cost money.  You can’t sustain your school just using Google and YouTube.  You need to make sure the materials you are using with your students are excellent and have been selected by professionals – you can’t guarantee this with uncurated sites like Google.

Implementation is not easy.  It is much harder than simply buying machines for everyone in your school.  It is something that requires a great deal of thought and yes, sometimes, financial resources.

Why do we fear 1:1??

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I find it very common to hear all the reasons why moving towards 1:1 in our schools will not work.

We don’t have the funds, the teachers won’t use them, I don’t understand how to use them, collaboration is better – the list can go on and on.  In my mind, these are all just excuses for not taking the creative leap to provide a computer for each student.

We work at a school in a high poverty area.  Every student from grade 3 to 6 has their own laptop.  The grade 4’s are expected to bring their machine home every day and work on various programs to supplement their in-school learning.

The prevailing wisdom seems to be BYOD (Bring your own device) which makes no sense.  While this allows schools off the hook for paying for computers, it creates an opportunity gap between rich and poor schools.  Our parents don’t have the money to buy a computer for their child. We, therefore, are obliged to find the money to invest in machines.

The main reason I am so keen on 1:1 is because the daily use of computers has really revolutionized the teaching and learning at our school.  Teachers have been open to learning new programs like Mathletics, Prodigy Math, the Discovery Education Science Techbook, Google apps and Hapara as a learning management tool.  They are getting into coding and robotics and our kids are very keen on makerspaces.

I can’t claim that all of this is because of the fact that we moved to 1:1, but it did change how we do things here.  The teacher is no longer the sole provider of information.  The teacher is a co-learner with the student.  Teachers are more apt to encourage students to find their own answers to their inquiries rather than depend on one adult.

If these are just some of the benefits we have seen over the space of our first full year as a 1:1 school, why are others so hesitant?

I have no good answer for that question, but for us there will be no going back.