Opinion

This grand distance-learning experiment's lessons go well beyond what the students are learning

Teachers are swimming upstream in unfamiliar waters with little training and a patchwork of resources, but what they learn could help the current generation of students truly benefit from the potential of ed-tech, writes Paul W. Bennett.

With little training and a patchwork of resources, teachers are learning and adapting on the fly

Technology was hailed in the early 2000s as the harbinger of a new era of educational transformation, but in many ways it hasn't lived up to the hype. The question is whether COVID-19 'emergency' distance learning will turn out to be different. (Juliya Shangarey/Shutterstock)

This column is an opinion by Paul W. Bennett, the research director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax and national coordinator of researchED. He wrote the chapter on Canada in the Springer Handbook on Digital Learning for K-12 Schools. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Some Quebec schools are reopening, but the COVID-19 pandemic has, for better or worse, catapulted the vast majority of K-12 schools and teachers into what radio commentator Anya Kamenetz described as "the biggest distance-learning experiment in history." Going into our second month, it has also aggravated deep-seated and sublimated tensions between teachers and educational technology.

Educators are swimming upstream in unfamiliar waters. With little training and a patchwork of resources, they are making an abrupt transition from a conventional "bricks-and-mortar" face-to-face education system, to educating from a distance online.

Meanwhile, successive waves of ed-tech innovation over the years have tended to promise far more than they delivered, breeding scepticism.

Laptops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards were all hailed in the early 2000s as the harbingers of a new era of technology-driven educational transformation, forecast to improve K-12 education. However, while billions of dollars have been invested in education technology in recent decades, a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report says they have led to "no appreciable improvements" in educational achievement. The effective use of technology is associated with "positive learning effects," but cognitive scientist Paul A. Kirschner and his Belgian and Dutch research associates see little or no correlation with improved student performance.

The question is, will COVID-19 "emergency" distance learning be different?

As more provinces move to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic parents are expressing concerns about accessing the programs and what the expectations are. 2:03

While digital learning was growing before the COVID-19 outbreak, part of the reason for the slow uptake was that it poses a significant threat to the provincially regulated, growth-managed Canadian e-learning environment. Our provincial systems are not only circumscribed by physical schools, they're also designed around seat time -- defined as providing in-school classes of regulated size with a minimum number of instructional hours.

Teachers and educational technology also co-exist uneasily in many Canadian schools. Introducing high school online courses is enough to spark management-labour warfare focused on digital inequalities, but fueled in part by fears that it will cost teachers their jobs.

And while private educational technology providers such as Google exist in the Canadian market, they are strictly limited by licensing agreements with provincial education authorities. Overly cautious school administrators have also been quick to jump in when new technologies are suspected of infringing on children's privacy rights, effectively curtailing the expansion of popular interactive videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Google Hangouts.

A new book, Daisy Christodoulou's Teachers vs Tech?, appeared in the midst of the COVID-19 school shutdown, providing penetrating insights into what needs to change for educational technology to gain wider teacher acceptance and realize its potential. Without trashing technology, the author provides a frank assessment of the sources of teachers' healthy scepticism about the marvels of ed-tech, and points to a more constructive way forward.

She says commonly repeated claims that teachers are protecting their jobs, that they are conservative and change-averse by nature, or that education is a "human" enterprise immune to technology, do not completely explain the resistance to ed-tech. Rather, new technologies come with embedded educational pedagogy which, Christodoulou contends, embrace unfounded "pseudoscience theory" and cut against the grain for many classroom teachers.

Over the past 70 years or so, cognitive science and psychology have discovered much about how the human mind works and how learning happens. Many of these discoveries came out of scientific investigations associated with artificial intelligence (AI) and information technology. Yet there is, as Christodoulou shows, a discernible "gap between what we know about human cognition and what often gets recommended in education technology."

Ontario announced that schools will remain closed until May while schools in other provinces are closed indefinitely, changing the way kids are learning during the pandemic.  2:02

Ed-tech is rife with fancy gadgets and fads that are promoted by ed-tech evangelists, school change theorists, and learning corporations. The author makes the case that only when ed tech is based more upon proven, evidence-based cognitive science will it be able to prove its worth to teachers in the classroom.

Meanwhile, the school shutdown has forced a new and unexpected phase of teacher experimentation with new technologies. The radical COVID-19 shift to e-learning has essentially compelled more teachers than ever before to grapple with and learn to use technology, mostly on the fly. For many and perhaps most classroom practitioners, mastering the tools and finding digital resources compatible with their preferred pedagogical style will constitute a formidable challenge.

Teachers will learn to use these technologies out of necessity, but in doing so they'll also discover that heavily promoted ed-tech "discovery learning" pedagogy has its shortcomings – and needs to be redesigned to meet their real and practical needs.

Where do we start? Recent research in the science of learning provides important lessons, particularly with respect to multimedia programs that provide students with autonomy, minimal teacher guidance and freedom to learn at their own pace. Such an approach has been found to be detrimental to learning for a majority of students.

Those research findings point to the effectiveness of explicit instruction in improving student learning. Among other things, direct instruction has proven to be more effective in developing long-term/working memory to overcome the limitations of short-term memory.

Simply put, what we really need is ed-tech and associated software which taps more into what works in face-to-face teaching.

Learning expert Joanne Dominico answers your questions about studying at home and distance learning. 22:57

Technology can contribute to the improvement of teaching and student assessment. While there is no substitute for human interaction, ed-tech can help teachers develop more consistency and effectiveness. Two specific examples cited in the book, spaced repetition algorithms and comparative judgement technology, can improve students' retention of knowledge and make marking writing assignments less onerous and time-consuming for teachers.

Still, clearing away the obstacles to improving K-12 education through the effective and teacher-guided use of technology will not come easily.

Popular and mostly fanciful ed-tech myths need to be exposed, including the 21st century sacred cows of personalization, Googling information, active learning, and constant mobile device connectivity. But simply pointing fingers at the high-tech giants dominating K-12 education will get us nowhere.

After struggling to navigate the unfamiliar e-learning universe thrust on them by the COVID crisis, educators will likely emerge far more attuned to what works and what doesn't when it comes to improving student learning. And that's where this grand distance-learning experiment could pay off for both the education system and students.

If the global learning corporations are promoting the wrong ideas, it's time for educators to set them straight so that the current generation of students can truly benefit from the potential of ed-tech.


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