Technology & Education in the time of a pandemic – and beyond

Sigh,

For those of us here in Ontario, this week marks a bleak moment in the pandemic. Our COVID numbers are staggering and once again, we have been forced indoors, while our health care heroes cope with the increasing number of critically ill patients in ICUs. One way I cope through these times is by exercising my creativity. Thank goodness, then, that my school granted us access to the CAIS National Leaders conference this past week. While I was emotionally depleted, I was intellectually filled up after learning from a variety of educational experts who helped us to unpack these extremely intense times in education. Two of these sessions really stayed with me – both took up the future role of tech in student’s lives, but in very different ways. This is especially timely as we move back into our online worlds and continue to live in this mass, ongoing tech experiment in education.

A Durable Trend Towards Online Learning: Luyen Chou, Chief Learning Officer at U2 and Sarah Prevette, Founder and CEO at Future Design School masterfully took us through future academic trends in higher education. A striking point they highlighted was the widespread questioning of the value proposition of higher education for consumers; this pandemic has shaken post-secondary institutions in their complacency as students question why they are there and if it is worth it. The shocking case of Laurentian University is a jolt for these powerful institutions as they come to grips with the fact that they are not immune to the ever-changing landscape of education. Both speakers asserted that this questioning is causing universities to leverage online learning as a tool for student success and, more provocatively, as a more durable trend towards online learning in the future. I would say, though, that the future is already here – the University of Guelph just launched the first, fully online, Ontario undergraduate degree this past week.

Sarah and Luyen were asking hopeful questions about the future of online learning in higher education such as ‘how can we foster a sense of collaboration and community online?’ and ‘how can we leverage tech to make it immersive and experiential?’ Sadly, many of my former students and professors I speak to tell me that online learning in university currently involves traditional lecture style lessons taught to a whole lot of black screens in place of students. I hope these questions get addressed for our post-secondary learners if this trend is to endure.

Tech, Science & our Young People: Dr. Shimi Kang, a Harvard trained doctor and media expert, took us through healthy tech use for our young people (and ourselves) – she did this through an explanation of the science behind those dopamine hits we know so well from social media likes and activity. She compared these dopamine hits to our battle against excessive sugar consumption – healthy tech use involves limiting these dopamine hits (like sugar) and replacing them with tech free time or time spent online that is more healthy, such as creating content, learning and connecting with friends through play and games – and of course – making space for tech free times in the house, such as at dinner time or before bed.

Dr. Kang’s science-based approach to healthy tech use was so welcomed, but I was left wondering – if academic institutions are making the movement to online learning, how can we strike harmony between guiding our young people to find that balance between healthy tech use, limited screen time and more in-person interactions in a post-COVID that will involve more time online?

The Future of Online Education: The reality is that online learning is here to stay and whether we like it or not, it is the future of education. There are many benefits to online learning such as self-paced discovery and an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking, but as educators, we must focus on the potential downfalls of this new way of learning if this is the landscape of our young people’s academic futures. For the past year, our young people have been disconnected from their peers in extraordinary ways as they immersed themselves in their online worlds out of necessity. We have turned our eyes away from the darker side of this drastically increased tech use, such as lack of connection, decreased mental health and increased cyberbullying, because we believed it to be a temporary state. We are learning that this is not the case, and students will be spending more time in their future learning and interacting online, so, what now?

Creating Critical Digital Citizens: Our students need a mandatory credit course in healthy tech use and critical media literacy; our educational system is so far behind in creating critical tech consumers, it is mind-baffling to me. Presenting this important work to leaders at a conference is just not enough. Just like our young people learn about civics, they need to understand the civics of their online tech communities. We must teach them about the power and usefulness of tech in their education and the trends towards online learning and collaboration coming in their post-secondary experiences. This future is not about us, it is about them; so they must know.

Most importantly, we need to address the mental health issues associated with increased online learning and interaction, the effects of tech on the human brain and the ability to critical consume media and recognize mis- and dis-information. When we give these tools to our young people, I believe only then can we entertain the trend towards enduring online learning. To avoid this, is irresponsible of the educational systems that guide youth.

I will begin petitioning the government for this mandatory learning and taking it up in my classroom and counselling sessions, and I hope you will do the same!

Hang in there,

L.

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