Engage Me, Please

Very recently, I had a discussion with a colleague about students opting out of their classes to pursue “easier” options online: students dumping Math 12, for example, and finding alternate means of delivery from a never-ending list of various School District service providers. Now before I go any further, this is not a rant against online learning; nor is it an indictment of one school district over another. Instead the heart of the matter is student engagement.

Without a doubt, there are students who thrive in an online setting and for them, this environment is the most productive; however, I would argue that these students are in the minority.  The majority, I feel, would do far better within a blended model (as exemplified by the Digital Immersion and iPad Programs here at John Oliver) that gives them the online access complimented by direct instruction and the benefits of creating new meaning while sharing a physical space with their co-constructors.   But the discussion with my colleague did not address the technologically proficient student; instead, the topic found it’s focus around the issue of students doing “research” and opting for online options that provided the path of least resistance with regard to extrinsic reward (read “final mark”).

My feeling: it’s always been this way.  The rules of the game have changed but the game has remained the same. As a member of Grad ’83 I remember driving my ‘70 Plymouth Duster, skipping out to ski Cypress and daydreaming about angles I could take to make my high school experience easier. I still remember polishing and refining the dust jacket of a novel in Mr. Hawthorne’s History class so that I could pass it in as a credible book report in Mr. Charlton’s English class after the break.  The only thing that’s changed in 2012 is that now these angles are much more prevalent and readily shared.

Online learning is not necessarily an enhancement via technology and the tool is not the topic of discussion.  The technology is the vehicle (not the driver) that brings us to a larger and more productive dialogue around best practice.  For example, what’s the point of “flipping a class” if the only thing innovative is assigning the class lesson for homework?  Or as I am fond of saying, technology, if used improperly, just makes daydreaming in class a little more sophisticated.  What I’m looking for is technology in the service of instruction or as Michael Fullan succinctly puts it, “high-quality digitally based material that will furnish dynamic learning experiences – complete with access to data and to flexible but high quality instructional practices that will, for example, enable the learning of literacy and mathematics at a deep and efficient level.”

Best practice and engagement (not technology): this is what it’s all about.  Students, particularly extrinsically driven ones (which means all of them), will always be driven to find solutions.  Our role, as I see it, is to help them move from finding solutions (the sign of a good or savvy student) to discovering new ways of doing (the sign of a good thinker). This is the larger discussion predicated on developing best practice – a discussion that will always be ongoing because it is embedded within the fabric of our educational existence.

Why are these particular students dropping classes to go online?  We’re not offering what they want (and you can read this as a curricula and/or a classroom engagement issue). Yes, we need to make sure our educational system creates environments to engage technically adept students and that we use technology in our professional practice to support our students as critical thinkers, lifelong learners and ethical decision makers. But, at the core, we need to engage students in our schools; we need to speak to their interests; we need to mentor, inspire and connect; we need to help students not only master content but provide them with the opportunities to create rich, authentic work (face to face, shoulder to shoulder) during the school day.

Why are these students looking for the easy route?  I asked one student at my school.  Her response: “It’s not about the mark, Mr. Bondi. Well, it kind of is.  But I just feel like, bored, and I always have to do the same thing with everyone else.  I can do the same thing online and free up some of my time during the day.”

I asked her what she meant about “doing the same thing.”

She laughed.  “Have you ever seen Meet the Parents?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Remember that scene where he’s waiting in the airport and he’s the only one?  Well, that’s how I felt in that class.”

Here’s the scene she referred to.  My question is how many of our students and how many of you would agree with this interpretation?

  1. Interesting post Gino …
    … for your consideration.

    Whilst I concur with the argument regarding the need to enhance student engagement though improving instructional practice, I also think schools need to recognize that we are ARE in an educational market that serves “consumers with differentiated needs”. In many schools the vast majority of our students ARE engaged, however there is a market segment (parents/students) for educational services that sees high school graduation as a “entry ticket” to “brand name” post-secondary institutions; whose programs are in high demand and whose entry access operates in a highly competitive environment, driven purely by marks.

    The issue thus becomes one of shifting somewhat entrenched assessment practices that penalize students (I think you know the type of practice I’m referring to!), thus driving them to consider other options in the educational market that they perceive as better meeting their needs by providing them with the outcome they desire … better marks! In their view, they put out the same amount of time and effort into their studies, but get a better return on their investment! Which would you choose!

    • Thanks for the response, Irfan
      It was our discussion before Christmas that really inspired this post.

      We are in the service industry and we do need to realize that within the educational market, offerings are wide and varied. I just want kids to feel that the product we are offering in our school will both engage them and “reward” them. Interesting point though – is it assessment practices or is it engagement?

  2. Great post! I think there is some basic irony in the common approach to online learning (the way we do it in SD57 anyways). The conventional wisdom seems all wrong to me — take the best parts of the classroom (interactivity/expert instruction/agile assessment) and replace them with dry digital tools (CMS, virtual classrooms, self-marking tests), then take the worst parts of the classroom (worksheets, busy-work, batch-processing) and make this the primary means of course delivery. I suppose if one’s classroom is so dull that kids are climbing out the window, it should be flipped, but I still think a good teacher with solid design for learning and a willingness to change is a better bet for success than a stack of ipads. On the other hand, I keep asking my principal for a stack of ipads but he keeps saying no!

    Context… I’ve designed an online course and have been marking distance ed as side-gig to my “regular” teaching job. I was also part of a district team that met over 2 years to explore the merits of various online learning systems and environments… our recommendation to the district was to support blended learning experiments everywhere (rather than just at the local distance ed school) — this lined up with a variety of teachers ready to conduct these experiments at their schools. Ouch… they went the other way, and our online learning “best practices” stalled out in a hurry. Not all hope is lost, of course, because teachers are used to “kicking at the darkness” regardless of how well they are supported. We go underground, we figure it out with each other and the students.

    • Thanks for the comments, Glen.
      “Kicking at the darkness” very similar to my take on the educational landscape: a journey in the dark woods.
      “Figuring it out” is something we’re all doing right now and the move from the known to the unknown will always be filled with trepidation for many.
      The like minded will find strength in the “underground” – it’s where the mainstream begins!

      With regard to the iPad conundrum at your school, have your Principal give me a call – we can set up a visit to John Oliver and you can see how the iPads work with struggling readers, how our Digital Immersion Program and how it all unfolds in our Learning Commons.

      You have a standing invitation 🙂

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