Saturday, May 21, 2011

Personalized learning - what is government's real motivation? $$$

I've tried to keep an open mind on this whole 21C learning thing. I really have. Despite the fact that from the start, it sounded like rhetoric, flavour of the day, and techno-babble.

But now that senior government representatives are meeting with BCPSEA (the BC public school employer's association - responsible for bargaining on behalf of school boards) to talk about 21C learning, and the "implications" for collective bargaining, I'm worried.

The Supreme Court decision on Bills 27 and 28 revealed the "plotting" that was going on in 2001 behind teachers' backs. While teachers were, in good faith, trying to bargain improved class size provisions with BCPSEA, there were meetings between BCPSEA and government about imposing legislative changes. There were, in essence, secret dealings whose purpose was to eliminate class size provisions from teachers' collective agreements. To eliminate $275 million per year in public education funding.

Things feel eerily similar. For about a year, the government has been trumpeting "21 century learning" and "personalized learning". It's not at all clear what these things mean. As one educator tweeted the other day, we've been doing 21st century learning for over a decade now. Or is it something different?

Now the government is in secret meetings to define these terms. They want to know, from senior school board administrators, what "barriers" there are in collective agreements. Officials were ordered not to "tweet" from the secret meetings, after one tweet revealed that the Minister of Education was discussing new legislation.

So while I try to keep my paranoid self in check, the thoughts that keep coming to the surface are these:

* 21st century learning is about increasing the use of technology in schools, in reaction to the massive push from technology companies to do so (see the recent report from the technology council), regardless of the pedagogical soundness of doing so

* personalized learning is about teachers working longer hours, planning more curriculum, doing more assessment, working 24/7 via email, having larger case loads...and along with this students having less instructional time

Why do I think these things? Well, tidbits just keep coming to the surface. Apparently the Ministry doesn't want to direct 21C learning - they want school boards to do that. But they do want to help BCPSEA eliminate any collective agreement provisions that might get in the way.

What could this look like? I saw a proposal earlier this year from a Principal at a Victoria secondary school. The idea was this: teach Planning 10 to all grade 10 students in one big class (over 100 students). Once a week, they come to the gymnasium, have a lecture style class, maybe with a guest speaker. Only one teacher and one counsellor are needed to deliver this section. The remainder of the course is taught "on line" with some individual teacher visits - sort of like the implementation of graduation portfolios. Each teacher can take a large case load, as they only see students perhaps once a week or once every two weeks. The bonus? Fewer teachers are needed to deliver the course to the same number of students.

I don't think the government's objectives are any different now than they were in 2001. They are interested in cutting more funding from the public education system. By far the biggest cost is the direct instructional time by teachers. The only way to reduce costs significantly is to increase the number of students per teacher, or to decrease the instructional minutes students are entitled to. The type of "semi-distributed" learning model described above does both at the same time.

And how to sell it to parents and the public? Call it "personalized learning".


  1. Hi Tara,

    I was just finishing my own blog entry about personalized learning when I cam across your wonderful blog and this particular discussion.

    I'm currently working as a public DL teacher. We are wondering if the traditional DL schools will be sacrificed for a new "semi-distributed" or "blended" model. I'm not as worried as you might be, largely because I don't believe the Ministry and the districts really know what's going on, but we shall see.

    In any case, thanks for your comments!


  2. Colin,

    Loved your post. "Bait and switch" is a great descriptor! Maybe I am more worried because I am sitting at the provincial bargaining table...I have the feeling that the "switch" will be more legislation gutting more of our collective agreement and resulting in even fewer resources.