Innovation and Equity in the Time of Digital Education

A curious thing happened at an event this past Saturday.

I was at the Latin American Education Network’s—LAEN Toronto’s—annual education conference; the topic this year was “From Dialogue to Action.” I was there to promote Homework Help. Midway through the opening remarks, after setting the table and preparing myself for what I thought would be a routine day of outreach, I was jolted from my reverie by an impassioned speech from the stage. The speaker, Dr. Cristina Guerrero, an Instructional Leader for TDSB, was presenting slides on Proyecto Latin@, a University of Toronto project that analyzed the state of Latin youth education in Toronto. The numbers weren’t pretty and Guerrero made sure all of us in attendance knew.

Now, contrast this speech with the opening presentation I heard at another event I attended a couple of weeks ago. This one featured whimsical, futuristic portraits of classrooms powered by technology, from the early 20th century. It was presented by Audrey Watters for a talk she called the “History Future of Education.”

That presentation was part of an event that was held on February 19th at Ryerson University. It was hosted by the Chang School of Continuing Education and was the inaugural episode of their ChangSchoolTalks 2015 series. It was called “Digital Learning Reimagined.”

ChangSchoolTalks 2015

On the face of it, even though both events were about education, they couldn’t appear more dissimilar. LAEN Toronto’s conference revolved around themes addressing the gaps in education services for immigrant, specifically Latino, communities; of access, equity and human rights. ChangSchoolTalks’ focus was on the confluence and application of technology in modern classrooms; of the promise and perils of a rapidly changing pedagogical landscape.

Put more crudely: if one was about the heart, the other dealt with the mind.

The tenor and scope of the subject matters discussed were certainly different. At the LAEN Toronto event, after Guerrero’s presentation, the participants were directed to workshops held in different rooms in St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School, the site of the conference. Within the always familiar yet faintly foreign confines of painted cinderblocks, dusty chalkboards and bright fluorescent lights, the attendants joined conversations on youth education, parent involvement, daycare services, and so on.

The one I attended consisted of community workers, educators and activists. I heard from a social worker about how alienated she felt in the schools she worked due to the reaction towards her barely imperceptible accent (a common refrain from her teacher colleagues: “Do you really understand what I’m saying?”); about school administrators threatening parents that they would notify immigration offices if they couldn’t produce immigration documents of their non-status children, even though TDSB’s own policy forbids their staff from doing so; of students, especially those from the Caribbean, who were placed in ESL classes when their first language was English; of newcomer parents not knowing how to bring their children up to par because of barriers around language and cultural competencies with school officials.

In short, frustrations abounded. The workshop participants remarked about how these issues were not new, that they’d been discussed since the 1970s. It was evident from the stories that were shared that the progress made since then has not been enough, and how this has translated into school systems failing a large group of students to this day. Latino students, for instance, fail to finish their high school education at almost twice the average rate of dropouts in the TDSB.

The Chang School event, on the other hand, was less about the pressing issue of student dropouts, and more about the inevitable, insistent march of technology. The “diversity” discussed inside the theatre of the state-of-the-art George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre was not about the ethno-racial makeup of school board staff (or the lack thereof), but rather about the profusion of applications, devices, analyses and practices propounded by educators, academics, innovators and entrepreneurs. The speakers—a total of five, not including Marie Bountrogianni, Dean of the Chang School, who closed the speaking portion of the event—had a TED Talks-y vibe about them. I have not decided on whether I mean that positively or pejoratively.

In addition to Audrey Watters, there was Stephen Downes, who expounded on the importance of reframing education approaches beyond just incorporating new technology and innovations into traditional learning systems (the initial proliferation of MOOCs, for instance, has failed to meet the chorus of hype that surrounded it); George Veletsianos speaking about the need to collectivize and individualize learning experiences to understand what works and what doesn’t; Jeremy Friedberg touching on how gamifying educational tools opens doors to new learning opportunities; and Philipp Schmidt demonstrating how students and colleagues at his school, MIT, explored and delivered non-traditional ways of education and “creative learning.”

Schmidt’s talk, in particular, stayed with me. I don’t know if it’s because he was the penultimate speaker (total time of talks: two hours; without break, FYI) or because he started his session with an aside on Phil Jackson—whatever the case may be, his point about how we need to expand our notion of how responsive, intuitive education can operate and look like resonated with me. “Learning,” he said, “is something you do for yourself. Education is something you feel is being done to you.”

Well then.

The curious thing for me at the end of LAEN Toronto’s event on Saturday was not about noting the divergence of the issues being discussed between the two events. It was there, certainly. But eventually, it was about learning how they converged.

Both events featured dynamic speakers and committed advocates. They both engendered frank conversations about the state of education, and how we need to open ourselves to disrupting the norms, and radicalizing the principles and best practices of good pedagogy. Radical, in this sense, is not about entertaining impossible ideas, but of actually going back to the roots of learning—the “lighting of a fire” that W.B. Yeats attributed to education.

Both events touched on their share of present-day issues. But they weren’t fatalistic. Instead, they spoke about the power of promise and of potential. Guerrero, towards the end of her fiery talk, exhorted us to stop referring to students as “dropouts.” They are being “pushed out,” she reminded us, and we need to think about what schools are doing to push them out. “Students,” she said, “are not just ‘students.’ They are our colleagues. They are community members. They are leaders.”

The parallels between the two events in turn pushed me to reflect on my own notions of access and equity, through the lens of my own experience. Even though I am not a teacher, I have come to recognize these values as vital in our classrooms, whether online or in person.

I am reminded of the immigrant student who asked me to sign his agenda after one of my presentations during summer last year, and why he was unable to articulate his autograph request; of the young girl in an elementary school in Niagara Falls who attempted to speak with me in her first-language even though we both spoke English (and I didn’t speak her language)—that thirst to connect with someone she hoped was of her kind was palpable; of students in rural schools staring wide-eyed at me as I walked the hallways and presented inside their classrooms—their archetype of an Important Person in a classroom temporarily upended by the sight of this East Asian fellow talking excitedly about online math support.

I see how important it is to make these fleeting, unsettling interactions more regular. That having a representative school staff is not simply a matter of checking off diversity quotas, but how it actually affects academic performances of racialized, immigrant, visible and non-visible minority students, helps unpack the many intersecting consequences of youth mental health, and how it spurs innovation and progress in the sometimes staid world of academia and pedagogy.

We live in increasingly digitized environments, in an increasingly diverse city and province. It’s past time that the dynamic between teaching and learning reflected these realities in a meaningful way.

It might be a radical idea. There are no easy, simple solutions; but these upheavals will occur regardless—in big chunks or small. We can either be swept up in the tides of change or make waves ourselves.

Count me in as someone who wants to join this conversation. And curious to see what lies ahead.


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