In June of 2016 I wrote something on the future of report cards for TVO.org. Here’s an excerpt:
The digital revolution has transformed every area of our lives by changing how we send, receive and use information. Information is plentiful, easily accessible and flows freely and at high speeds, allowing people to make better, more effective decisions. The use of information technology has transformed many of the ways we educate students, with one notable exception – the school report card.
Twice a year parents open envelopes containing folded sheets of paper and see five months of learning reduced to letter grades or percentages and a few comments. Educators decide how to effectively communicate a student’s learning journey, and which of the thousands of learning moments are significant and deserve to be shared.
If this sounds a lot like the kind of mass communication your parents would feel comfortable with, it is. Many aren’t surprised we still use such an antiquated system, because schools are often criticized for being outdated and slow to modernize. Fortunately, there’s evidence that how educators communicate about learning is finally moving into the digital age.
I began writing about French Immersion on this blog in February of 2013, and then later that year in The Globe and Mail. Shortly after my piece was published in The Globe and Mail I was interviewed by a Vancouver radio station about French Immersion.
This year, The Globe and Mail’s Caroline Alphonso applied a much needed critical perspective to French Immersion programs in Canadian schools. Alphonso’s investigative articles kicked off a month of meaningful public debate about the implications of the French Immersion program for public education in Canada.
Egan wondered whether the growth of French Immersion would lead to English becoming a “speciality program” in the English Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). Worryingly, Pino Buffone, the OCDSB’s superintendent of curriculum responded “That’s possible, depending on the interests of our parents and guardians.” English a marginal program in an English language school board. Hmmm…
“I think the piece around equity was very important to me, that we have lower uptakes in the French immersion program for certain groups of students. People coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, English language learners, students with disabilities, and male students … take early French immersion and middle French immersion at lower rates than the rest of the population.”
Even in Ottawa, Canada’s most bilingual city, French Immersion classes aren’t reflective of the school population. If Ottawa is struggling to make French Immersion work, what hope is there for the rest of Canada?
Shortly after the OCDSB decision I was invited to discuss my thoughts about some of the problems with French Immersion on the CBC Radio show The 180 .
The concerns raised about French Immersion programs over these last few months are:
French Immersion is negatively affecting the quality of education offered to non-FI students.
French Immersion classrooms don’t reflect the diversity of Canadian society. French Immersion students are more likely to be richer, better educated, girls, native English speakers, non-immigrant, white and less likely to have special education needs.
The rate of attrition from French Immersion programs is unacceptably high.
There aren’t enough qualified French Immersion teachers and resources to offer a high quality program.
French Immersion isn’t very effective at teaching students how to be fluent in French (i.e. many have stated the goal of FI is to produce bilingual citizens).
There was really only one substantive mainstream reply to this maelstrom of criticism, and it didn’t really come from the French Immersion “community”. Graham Fraser, The Commissioner of Official Languages, wrote in The Globe and Mail “Of course French immersion is not perfect“. In this piece, Mr, Fraser basically agrees that, yes, there are problems with French Immersion, but argues that the benefits outweigh them. Not exactly a stunning endorsement.
The largest advocacy group for French Immersion, Canadian Parents for French, kept mostly to the fringes of the discussion and continued their grass-roots lobbying of school board trustees. This make s sense, because, ultimately, their goal isn’t to ensure we have a healthy, functioning public education system, but rather to make sure that, no matter the cost, French Immersion, in it’s current form, will endure.
It now falls to our elected officials, the school board trustees and Members of Provincial Parliament to step forward and begin an evaluation of French Immersion. Until that happens, they are avoiding their responsibility to ensure that all students have the an education that meets their needs.
I went to a Canada Post outlet to mail a package to Laos. The Canada Post representative looked at the address of the package suspiciously and said “Laos? That’s not a country..that’s in Vietnam”.
“No, it’s next to Vietnam, but it’s a separate country” I helpfully replied. She shook her head, unconvinced, but turned to her computer anyway, just in case she might be wrong. Unlikely.
“Well, it’s not listed here. Are you sure it’s a country?”
I assured her that Laos was in fact a country, and to help prove the point I showed her the Wikipedia page for Laos. She was unimpressed by this so she, naturally, asked her manager for help.
“Lay-Os? I’ve never heard of that. Are you sure it’s a country?” he said. I assured him it was and I began looking around for the hidden camera that surely must be there.
“Maybe it’s on one of those terrorist watch lists like I-Raq??” (he said “eye-raq” like I imagine Sheriff Pepper would’ve to Roger Moore). I reassured him Laos wasn’t part of the axis of evil so he walked away.
The first rep returned and said “Well, it’s not on our computer”. I pointed out to her that I had completed the Customs Declaration form on the Canada Post website, as required by Canada Post, and it showed Laos as a country. I showed her this on my phone but she was unconvinced.
“I’ll take the package but if it doesn’t get there it isn’t our fault and I don’t want you coming back and complaining about it”, she said. I assured her that if I was paying to have a package delivered and it didn’t get there I would indeed be coming back and complaining about it.
In response she placed my package on the counter in front of me, wiped her hands clean and walked away. The ultimate power move.
Confused, I politely said “Excuse me?? Are you refusing to deliver my package?” This was apparently the right thing to say because she stopped dead in her tracks, turned, walked back and picked up my package, while giving me a death stare.
She began looking on her computer again and as she did she said “I’ve been working here for 21 years and I’ve never heard of a country called Lay-Os. It’s not in our system”. And then she tried to catch me out by saying “Which continent is it in??”.
This is a tricky question for a grade 5 student, but I’m not one of those, so I was ready and said “Asia”. She wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she began angrily tapping the keys again.
I suggested “Maybe you could call someone and get some help?”. She stalked over to the phone and called the Canada Post Help Line.
While she was on hold her boss came over and confirmed to me that “It isn’t in the system”, which seemed a bit redundant since I already knew that and I didn’t really care if it was in the system. I just wanted them to take my parcel so I could get the hell out of this bizarro parallel universe I’d stumbled into.
After a few minutes on the phone she turned back to the counter and said, in an obvious attempt to make sure I could hear her conversation “yes, and can you give me your name and a confirmation number because if this package isn’t delivered I want to be able to prove that it wasn’t my fault”. She angrily wrote down the information on a piece of paper and stowed it away in a drawer in a way that would’ve made Gollum jealous.
She then printed the label and postage and attached it to my parcel, which was impressive since she was also locked in a “to the death” staring match with me.
After placing the package in the appropriate bin she took a breath, smiled the most insincere smile ever and said “thank you for your patience. That will be $14.62”.
I paid and immediately left. I’m still confused about what to make of it. What a bizarre 20 minutes.
One of my first roles as a teacher was to spy on students. I was offered a teaching job at one of the first schools in Ontario to have a school-wide network. The principal wasn’t entirely sure what a network was, and so she needed some help.
I was hired to teach grade 8, but I was also in charge of the school First Class network. I spent a lot of time reading students’ messages, flagging problems and revoking student privileges. I felt very uncomfortable doing this. I was relieved when a significant problem gave us a reason to shut down the chat function. Ever since I’ve been very uneasy with schools surveilling students.
Supervising students is important and necessary for safety, but secret surveillance runs counter to the goals of schools. How can we create safe, trusting learning environments, when we are secretly watching students? Internet filters and security cameras scream that, in spite of statements to the contrary, we don’t trust students.
Jane Mitchinson’s post “Big Brother in Our Schools” does a great job of outlining the issues with internet filters in schools. Jane explains that Guelph based company Netsweeper “…offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis”. This is the same Netsweeper that sold internet filtering software used to censor the internet in Pakistan. It’s a disturbing thought that schools might treat students with the same callous disregard an oppressive government shows its’ citizens.
Internet filters prevent learning. They are never 100% accurate, no matter how well managed they are. If a site is at all questionable it will be blocked. It’s frustrating to both teachers and students to find a legitimate resource blocked. Mitch Wagner outlines several examples of how internet filters harm schools.
Internet filters don’t prevent motivated students from accessing inappropriate material. I’ve never seen an internet filter that a motivated 13 year-old can’t bypass. Internet filters don’t work even in China, home of the “Great Firewall“.
From “What is missing from the kids’ internet?”
Internet filters also prevent students from becoming digital citizens.
“Is there anyone who believes that your kids will never get unfiltered internet access? When (not if) they do, how will you have prepared them to use it responsibly? What life-skills will you have equipped them with? Abstinence-based education is not evidence-based education.” (Doctorow)
How will students develop the digital literacy required to be responsible digital citizens if we never let them experience the real internet, and let them test the skills and strategies they need to be safe?
Finally, as Jessy Irwin explains in “Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance“, internet filters, desensitize students to surveillance. They make surveillance the norm, and make students much more willing to accept mass surveillance as adults. These practices threaten all students, but are especially dangerous when applied to our most vulnerable students.
Given all this, why do we do this to our students? Why do so many schools use internet filters?
Certainly, students need supervision when they’re online, but part of the role of educators is to supervise and guide students. Why do we need another layer?
What’s really at fault here isn’t students or technology but how we combine the two in the classroom. Too often, technology is the focus of learning rather than a support that helps students learn. Rows of students staring glassy eyed at screens isn’t more progressive or effective than students robotically chanting their times tables. Schools trying to prevent students from accessing inappropriate internet content would do better to ensure that learning is engaging.
Internet filters, rather than being the cause of the problem, are really just a symptom of the misguided ways we use technology in schools. Our focus shouldn’t be on creating systems to help keep students safe, but rather on creating students that don’t need to be surveilled.
There are many good reasons to question the increasing use of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs in schools. BYOD brings income inequity into the classroom in a way that directly affects instruction. Families that don’t provide “up to date technology” limit students’ ability to learn. BYOD also affects the kind of learning that can be done in the classroom and creates a host of technical issues for educators. In fact Gary Stager has called BYOD the “Worst Idea of the 21st Century“.
In spite of these concerns BYOD continues to become common practice in schools. People for Education’s 2014 report found that BYOD was used in 58% of Ontario schools, with more all the time.
From Digital Learning in Ontario Schools: The ‘new normal’ (2014)
The popularity of BYOD in schools is driven by economics rather than pedagogy. Cash strapped schools are desperate to use more technology in the classroom, but don’t have the money to pay for it. So they turn to families, asking students to use their personal devices for learning. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Now we can add another reason to the list of reasons schools shouldn’t use BYOD. Student privacy.
If privacy is now a commodity, bought and sold, then privacy must be the new digital divide. As we approach a society where everyone is connected, what separates the rich from the poor is the ability to afford privacy. The devices poor families can afford are less secure, the poor more often must access the internet through less secure WiFi, and the poor often have to trade their personal data to get services.
From “Privacy is the new ‘digital divide’”
When schools implement BYOD they require students from low-SES families to use cheap, insecure devices for educational purposes. Students use insecure devices over insecure public WiFi (libraries and coffee shops) for academic purposes. Now students must risk their personal academic data in order to learn. That’s not a choice any public school student should ever be faced with having to make.
How can the problems with BYOD be mitigated? Here’s a couple of ideas.
Many school boards have successfully implemented large scale “one to one” computing programs where all students are provided with a device. One-to-one programs are a clear statement that technology is an essential core requirement for learning, while ensuring that every student has a secure device for learning
A second way schools can minimize some of the issues with BYOD is to assist families in purchasing their own technology. This is what the Peel DSB did in 2014 as they negotiated with technology vendors, on behalf of the families they serve, to make the purchase of secure technology affordable for all students. Currently, families with students in Peel DSB schools can purchase a new $60 netbook or a new $110 desktop to support learning both in the classroom and at home.
The responsibility of schools to protect student privacy and meet the needs of students from low-income families can no longer be ignored. It’s time for schools to step up and implement technology plans that address the divergent needs of all families. It’s time we start ensuring school technology plans meet the needs of all our students, especially our most vulnerable.