Monday, 14 November 2011

My BC Education Plan Wish List: #2 Equal Opportunities For All Students

As I read through BC's Education Plan, I had some questions, concerns, and ideas which I will be working through on this blog.  Through "The Plan," I see room for incredible growth and change in our education system as this plan has the potential to allow me to guide students as they become self-directed, lifelong learners.  I also have concerns about good theory being poorly executed and an education system which cannot afford the tools and support necessary to make the plan successful.  I find some elements too vague, some alarming, and some exciting.

Wish List Item #2: Equal Opportunities For All Students

All students must have the opportunity to be successful learners in and out of the classroom.  In BC, schools are no longer permitted to charge class fees for supplies.  While it appears that this provides all students with the opportunity to have equal access to educational opportunities, that is not necessarily the case.  Some students have, and will continue to have, advantages that others do not.  While that is a fact that cannot be completely changed, I am concerned that BC's Education Plan has the potential to widen the gap between the students whose families have money, time, and ability to support their learning and those whose families do not.

In order for the plan to be successful, students will need equal access to technology.

Many critics of "The Plan" have indicated that an emphasis on mobile devices and technology put children at a disadvantage if their families cannot afford the technology.  There is a misconception that students must have their own mobile devices in order to participate in personalized learning.  Vague descriptions of personalized learning are responsible for this, as many members of the public are under the impression that "personalized learning" is synonymous with "learning from a computer program."  (That is a blog post for another day.)  If "Personalized Learning" takes the form of self-directed inquiry learning guided by a teacher and impacted by classmates, regular desktop computers could suffice if schools are equipped with enough.  Of course, if learning is going to occur beyond the walls of the classroom, the education system must help families obtain internet access and purchase home computers.

As with any item of monetary value, there is also the potential for the "haves" and the "have nots" to be visible in every classroom, as the type of device students hold will demonstrate what each family can afford.  This is an issue impacting every school which encourages students to bring devices to school and is one I watch with interest.  I do not believe that we should ban devices because some students don't have them, just as I don't believe that we should ban expensive shoes when some students can't afford to keep up with trends, but the education system must ensure that all students have access to the tools they will need to learn.  As educators move toward skills-based learning, rather than memorization of content, students will need functioning devices to access information.  When we allow students to demonstrate their learning through alternate formats, they must have access to technology if they wish to present their learning through online forums.  Parents need to access the internet if we plan to communicate with them online.  If the Ministry of Education is introducing an education plan with an emphasis on technology, is there is a plan in place for those who cannot afford the necessary tools?

As technology is integrated into schools, with or without "The Plan," I have begun to wonder if students who are bound to a lab are segregated from those who can afford personal mobile devices simply because of mobility.  Groups of students with laptops may choose to congregate in a cafeteria or open common space during their free time while those who need computer access from school may be bound to libraries and classrooms in order to access computers.  Is this something that we will begin to observe in the future?  Have you observed this in your schools already?  I'm curious about how availability of technology impacts students' ability to interact with their peers.

In order for the plan to be successful, students will need equal access to elective and alternate learning opportunities.

Currently, students in BC can receive external credits for a variety of activities, including dancing at a high level, competing on a national team, and driver's training.  When I see that BC Education will "better recognize learning that takes place outside of the classroom – like arts, sports, science and leadership programs – so that students are fairly acknowledged for this work," I assume that these types of opportunities for credit will be expanded as BC's Education Plan is implemented.  This raises a few concerns regarding equality for all students.

In many cases, this is a form of privatization of education.  Parents pay an outside agency for drivers' training, for example, and students are given credits toward graduation.  Those who cannot afford these activities, or who do not have time to complete them, do not receive the credit.  At present, a student can graduate and have a full secondary school experience without earning external credits.  I am concerned, however, that BC's Education Plan will increase the number of students whose parents pay to supplement their education and have the time to support outside activities.  Giving students credit for these programs is not necessarily a bad idea, but it could have a negative impact on those whose families do not have the resources to support high quality extracurricular achievements.  If an increasing number of students receive credit for external activities, elective course options may decrease.  In our current system, many elective courses do not run due to insufficient enrollment.  I am concerned that if large groups of students receive a significant number of credits outside of school, the process would be streaming those who cannot afford "out of class" activities into in-school electives.

Questions which remain:
  • If half of the students take Elective X at Company X, will the school be unable to offer the elective to other students, due to insufficient enrollment?
  • How would continuing to reduce elective course offerings impact school culture?
  • Would some students resent being unable to afford or find time for external credits?
  • Will students continue to take elective courses in school once they have obtained enough credits to graduate?
  • Is increasing opportunities to receive external credit a plan to reduce teaching blocks, and therefore jobs, in our schools?  (Yes, there is personal bias here.)

In order for the plan to be successful, students who have limited family support will need alternate opportunities to share their learning.

I love this line from BC's Education Plan: "Parents must also be involved in planning their child’s education and then helping them to achieve success. In partnership with their children’s teacher and their child, parents will play an important role in supporting their child’s learning."  The image of parent and teacher working as partners as a student learns is fantastic and we have the technology to allow parents to view digital portfolios, communicate with teachers, and view students' projects as they learn.

While this will be beneficial for many, we do need to ensure that there is support in place for students whose parents and/or guardians are not involved in their education.  I would hate to see a student dread school because his/her parent did not fulfill an obligation, attend a meeting, or assist with a project.  There are a number of barriers which could keep parents and guardians from being active participants in education; all educators have seen examples of these.  Partnering with parents is a fantastic idea but I hope that this aspect of The Plan will be a flexible one so that teachers can discretely omit this part for students whose families are unable or unwilling to be active participants in their education.

Blog Series: My BC Education Plan Wishlist
#1: Meaningful Reporting and Holistic Assessment

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