Teachers and students – not to mention parents – are facing tremendous uncertainty heading into this fall semester. Provinces are pushing forward with in-person classes, but many critics question the move and expect a swift return to math class in sweats due to an anticipated second wave of COVID-19 cases.
Last week, more than 150 doctors and scientists published an open letter urging the Legault government to do more to ensure physical distancing and improve school ventilation systems. Meanwhile, parents and teachers in Ontario in recent weeks have been hollering from mountain tops about inadequate social distancing measures and compromised curriculums.
Everyone has to be prepared to make a seamless transition back to remote learning, says Ken Eisner director, worldwide education programs for AWS. But if that transition looks like what it did during the early days of the pandemic, we’re in trouble.
“It’s been a mess,” he said during a recent webinar hosted by AWS about remote education, referring to the mad scramble to adopt remote learning capabilities during the early days of COVID. Little consistency across school boards made it difficult for teachers to plan classes virtually, negatively impacting students the most, who were left hanging with little power to improve the situation themselves.
“How do we change the role of the teachers to enable them as real-time coaches? We’re not doing that well yet,” he said.
Kenneth Chapman, vice-president of market research, Desire2Learn (D2L), has had a front-row seat to some of that disruption over the past six months.
D2L supplies elementary schools, post-secondary and corporate environments with software that helps students and employees maximize their time and efforts through virtual education. Chapman says the technology community has to be much more flexible when it comes to helping empower parents and teachers with remote learning tools.
“You need to meet educators where they are because there’s huge variability in comfort with tech and online learning out there,” he said, emphasizing not only understanding the technology available to them but opening their eyes to what they can layer on top of it.
“Help them map their ideas for engaging and challenging students to technology opportunities – and align that to reality – what do they have the time to create, manage, provide timely feedback on,” he explained. “Take advantage of tech to help educators save time for themselves while improving the experience for students. For example, those long one-way zoom sessions could be made much more interactive by first making some quick videos to watch, re-watch, caption and then coming to the group zoom with an activity to share, debate to have, and a project to collaborate on afterward.”
And with data pointing to increased use of substances like alcohol and cannabis among teens during the early days of the pandemic – in addition to a spike in substance use over video conferencing – the importance of engaging students meaningfully and making them interested in learning remains crucial, experts on the panel admitted.
There’s also plenty of evidence pointing to the corporate world’s exhaustion with Zoom meetings, so imagine what it’s going to be like for kids absorbing school material that way for multiple hours daily, said Jennifer Griffin Schaeffer, vice-president of information technology and CIO for Alberta’s Athabasca University.
“The conversations around mental health and access to resources remain very separate,” she said during the webinar. “Those resources exist, but you still need to seek them. And if you’re more distressed, it’s going to be even harder to access them.”
Schaeffer was also quick to point out that technology isn’t helping students fully understand what they’re consuming through social media and how that factors into a learning environment. Educators have an opportunity, she says, to use social media and help them take a clunky video conference call with students to a more compelling experience that keeps everyone engaged and incorporates those real-time conversations happening on the platform.
A glimpse of the future
Canada didn’t achieve “the flying cars” of remote learning over the past six months as some people predicted, Schaeffer says, but some impressive milestones were achieved.
Athabasca University, for example, expanded on its partnership with AWS in July by moving its entire IT operations infrastructure, which includes things like the school’s learning management systems, faculty units and file-sharing systems and more, to a database hosted by AWS. The institution has been ahead of the curve in Canada when it comes to remote education. In 1995 it became the first university to offer a Canadian accredited online MBA degree.
“You just need some grit, drive and focus. We got that out West,” she said.
In the face of a global pandemic that forced 30,000 full-time students to work from home, Humber College did something Ryan Burton of the past would have considered an impossible feat.
“I would have laughed in my face five years ago,” the college’s director of digital solutions said during the webinar. “There’s no way you’re going to take an entire university or college, talk to everyone, including the faculty, students and other stakeholders, and develop a digital solution like this, and have it make sense.”
Burton explained how a project that was already in the pipeline prior to the novel coronavirus outbreak suddenly got fast-tracked and within 10 days in March, was up and running. The college had been working with Onica, a Rackspace Company, on an ERP migration project to the AWS cloud. This involved moving roughly 400 academic applications from in-house workstations to a remote server. It was a bold move, says Burton, and it ran counter to the education industry’s conservative – or some would say total lack of – response to remote learning. But the project came to fruition, even though Amazon AppStream 2.0 isn’t available in Canada. Humber is leaning on a virtual private cloud in AWS data centre in the U.S. to make AppStream a reality, and while a spokesperson for AWS did not confirm which data centre that is, Onica’s website suggests it’s the AWS’ U.S. East region. In a separate interview with TechTarget, Wendell Ying, director of cloud adoption programs at Onica, said this meant Humber College had to make an exception to its data residency requirements, which was possible because the remote learning deployment didn’t involve highly sensitive data.
Burton says the accomplishment is nothing to scoff at. By next month, he expects 80 per cent of the college’s online applications to be available via AppStream. More than 30 can be downloaded now. Combined with a computer loaning program through a recent partnership with Dell Technologies, the entire AppStream project has elevated the baseline for what’s possible when it comes to accessing resources remotely. The general approach to innovation has also been uplifted, he says.
“Until recently, we’ve only been able to go so fast. We only have so many people and capacity to deal with the demands of the institution,” he explained. “But now, we’re in a position to not have to force people down a certain direction. I love being in a position where if you ask for something, I can get it to you. Maybe even by tomorrow. I can keep up with the speed of business.”
But Burton, along with other webinar participants, were adamant that technology alone isn’t the answer to anything.
“I think that technology is a tool and it gets you a lot of the way there but I think a lot of work remains to help students in many other ways. Technology isn’t the only thing people need,” he said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed certain comments to Kenneth Chapman, vice-president of market research, Desire2Learn (D2L). It was Ken Eisner director, worldwide education programs for AWS, who said “It’s been a mess,” and “How do we change the role of the teachers to enable them as real-time coaches? We’re not doing that well yet.” IT Business Canada apologizes for the error.