How are we Defining the Canadian Digital Learning Landscape?

                            Posted by Emile Ferlisi in Effective Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age - @HCTLLP on Oct 30, 2015 7:30:00 AM                                             

                    

Thanks to a special offer posted right here on teachontario, I was able to attend the 6th Annual Canadian Edtech Leadership Summit, presented by Mindshare Learning with a colleague of mine, mariafava . The theme of this learning summit was "Defining the Canadian Digital Learning Landscape". Insightful education professionals who are influencing the ways in which technology can improve our teaching practice and empower our students were on both sides of the stage in the MaRs Discovery District auditorium. We were immersed in an environment filled with hope, ideas and the promise of something more than what we are doing right now in education (even though many educators are doing some great things!). The speakers ranged from innovative educators to hopeful entrepreneurs to leaders who are making changes to education on the systemic, provincial level and beyond. As an educator with a lot to learn and a desire to do so, I found myself excited by the possibilities and perhaps even more excited in that I felt a strong connection to both the attendees and the speakers; I felt like I was surrounded, for the most part, by like-minded individuals with whom I shared many hopes and beliefs. Here are some thoughts on an experience that reinforced many of my most hopefully ideas.

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Name tags are always a nice souvenir

 

Andreas Schleicher, director for the directorate of education and skills for the OECD, started our day via Skype by reminding us that the point of technology, particularly in our classrooms, is to mobilize, share and connect. He went on to explain that, as many of us would have guessed, studies have suggested that too much use of technology actually has negative effects on student outcomes while too little also has negative outcomes - balance, he concluded, remains the key. Before bidding us farewell, he was sure to reiterate a personal favorite of mine, "great technology never replaces great teaching". I was particularly pleased to hear that cliche because, while I am not a fan of overused expressions in general, this is an idea that I think we simply can't repeat enough: great technology never replaces great teaching. If we don't beat that drum once in a while, those who are resistant to change will label the innovators as "the ones who want to let the computer teach the kids". Perhaps most importantly, if we don't constantly remind ourselves of this truth, we run the risk of believing that the digital tools are enough; we run the risk of forgetting that the most significant part of teaching is our students and how we, the teachers, connect with our learners (not how they connect to technology).

 

Jordan Tinney, an innovative superintendent in Surrey B.C., followed. Tinney explained how leaders have to give teachers something that will actually make their job better - that something, in MOST cases CAN be connected to technology. Tinney was keen to point out that using technology was not the "be all to end all", and that any system needs dissenters. For the most part, however, Tinney explained how teachers can and will thrive when they are provided with the right digital tools to allow for a transformation in both their students' learning and their teaching. He talked about how structures need to be challenged and how flexibility needs to be built into our teaching ecosystems. Tinney also discussed the deprivatization of our teaching practice (collaboration and sharing effective practice with our peers and other stake holders) and an approach that allows teachers to be the designers of their programs. Essentially, he pointed to a curriculum that leaves learning outcomes vague and, therefore, allows the educators to develop approaches and employ tools that will fit the learning needs of their individual classes year after year. Perhaps the most important truth that Tinney reminded his audience of is that the core of teaching has never really changed; educators have always worked to support their students' ability to think critically and pick up several individualized skills along the way (perhaps not in that order, of course). In the digital age, however, it's the critical thinking and collaboration skills that our students will need the most since these are the skills that we simply cannot automate.

 

Tinney.jpgJordan Tinney's key beliefs

 

Brian Aspinall was possibly the easiest speaker to connect to for classroom educators. As an intermediate teacher in Chatham, Ontario he's improved student outcomes through creative teaching and the use of coding as well as encouraging his students to become content creators. Aspinall's take on the digital age is that we have these great tools at our fingertips, so "it's all about enabling teachers and learners to do great things". This kind of thinking is pretty straight forward for those of us who understand the potential of app creation, mine craft and other tools that allow students to create but the main difference for Brian Aspinall is that he doesn't just talk about the potential for creation, he guides his students through the process of actually becoming creators while they learn. In particular, Aspinall has unlocked his students creativity through 'scratch' as a coding platform; his students have done some remarkable things, including creating a probability experiment that had to flip a coin one million times (very cool app created by students!) to prove that experimental and theoretical probability really are closely connected thanks to the law of large numbers.

 

There was one point, however, during his talk that Brian posed a question about how he could present the things that his students had digitally created as "assessment". His rationale was that, when using a rubric to assess, a student who had completed what parents would consider to be a "real" project or assignment would simply "have to" receive a higher grade. This is where I wanted to jump onto the stage and interrupt (which of course I didn't!). As a special education teacher I am more than comfortable explaining to a parent how differentiation works. In fact, demonstrable tasks, digitally recorded work, audio recordings and a whole slew of other mediums are perfectly acceptable and, I would say, often more effective forms of assessment. Despite the fact that his presentation was great, I was left wanting to collaborate with Brian to help him understand that his assessments are very much in line with where education is already supposed to be in the province of Ontario (his concern was with parents' expectations). Ultimately, Brian reminded me that we all have something to learn from one another and, in many ways, that fits the theme of the event perfectly.

 

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Mindshare Learning founder and CEO Robert Martellacci was pleased after the summit

 

Our day ended with a great talk and product pitch (that's what it was) from Lane Merrifield who has already had great success in the edupreneur world. Lane was the creator of Club Penguin which has been acquired by Disney. After a well-received introduction about how the software that educators are stuck with is sub-par to say the least (our current IEP writer fits this category, if I'm honest), Lane reminded us that, for some reason, education has not changed all that much for the past 35 years. He's right, of course. Especially when we are talking about assessment (which ties nicely into Brian's issue AND Lane's new software, of course) and reporting. Lane explained how technology could make a teacher's work not only more effective, but more engaging and meaningful to educators, learners and parents. With his newest software, Freshgrade, Lane Merrifield hopes to take teaching one step closer to the following metaphor: "If teachers are like Ironman, then edtech needs to be like Jarvis". The idea is that education technology will continue to improve until it finally gets to the point where it is responsive to a teacher's needs (intuitive even) and simply doesn't create "an extra layer of work" for the teacher. Lane's software definitely seems to be heading in this direction and I'd be surprised if several school boards don't look to using Freshgrade as a means to meeting the "Pathways to Success" expectations that Ontario schools are currently being asked to satisfy.

 

I'm very thankfully to have taken part in the Edtech Leadership Summit. I've been reminded of how thankful I am to be an educator in a time where change, continuous learning and both initiating and embracing innovation is not only welcomed, it's required. I am excited to see what's to come, but even more excited to help create it!