Vancouver Digital Learning Conference: Part 1: Different Perspectives

From Sunday April 19th through Tuesday April 21st, I attended the 2015 Digital Learning Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was a worthwhile time but rather odd to be attending as an American working in post-secondary education. I would say I came away with some new ideas on how to approach the problem of learning, and a few rather situational lessons from the  specific context of this conference. I’ll start with the latter three, because they really shaped  my whole experience at this conference.

A K-12 Focus

Online education in the K12 sphere is very well established in BC and this conference was 90% focused on digital learning in that K12 context. The majority of the attendees were faculty or staff of online or “virtual schools’ based in the province. I met only a few other university affiliated educators and designers here. The state of practice for the most part seems to be quite advanced, with a huge emphasis and transition toward Moodle as an LMS.

The Agony of Continuous Entry

Many or most of these online schools are operating on a “asynchronous continuous entry’ model, in which the school accepts students into courses on a continuous basis and allows them to complete the course as quickly or as slowly as they wish. I discussed this with a few teachers, and it came up prominently in a few sessions and the final panel discussion. It seems awful to me, and no one I met seemed to like it. Additionally, there are no regulations on class size limits or on students per teacher. This was a gripe expressed by many. One attendee worked at an online school that had 4,500 students. A large question addressed at the conference was how to create community in classes like this. Some teachers had found interesting ways to mitigate the fractured sense of community in these classes, such as designating “module masters’ who guide newer students through previous modules that the more experienced student has already completed, but it seems almost impossible.

Bizarre Educational Repercussions of 9/11

Public schools in British Columbia are severely limited  have different legal considerations in the online tools that they can use in their classrooms due to the 1996 Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA). The law regulates the privacy of public information and after a 2004 amendment passed in response to the USA Patriot Act, requires that any such data reside solely on Canadian servers. My initial understanding of this law’s application was somewhat misinformed. Schools are able to use a wide array of online tools, including Google Apps for Education, but they have some special considerations regarding student and parent consent. The struck-through text following this was what I had initially understood. That was wrong.

This forces public schools to either find Canadian-based services or manage their own servers. This may be one reason there is a wide adoption of Moodle in BC. Google services, on the other hand, are not used at all in online schools in British Columbia. Private schools do not face this limitation and I heard several teachers discuss the effective use of hangouts and Google+ communities in their classes. This creates a rift between what kinds of affordances are available to teachers practicing online within the same province, and to me seems like a setback for those public schools.

Thanks to Julia Hengstler @jhengstler (mentioned in the following paragraph) for reading this post and pointing out my misperception. Thanks to Breanne Quist @quistb for her clear description of PIPA and FIPPA on her Privacy Compass site.

Digital Citizenship

This is an issue that spans generations. It was addressed in fairly good detail in a series of presentations by Julia Hengstler, and her former graduate students Kristin Sward and Breann Quist. They represented Vancouver Island University’s Online Learning and Teaching Graduate Diploma, in their Centre for Education and Cyberhumanity. While I did not entirely agree with their extremely safe approach of always getting students and parental consent for every online tool that is used, they espoused what I thought was a pretty progressive attitude toward the whole concept of online risk. Julia Hengstler made a great point about how we tend to overplay risks online. In assessing risk, it is not necessary to outline everything that could possibly go wrong. For example, a teacher asking for parental permission for a physical field trip to a museum would never think of adding “you understand that a flasher might expose themselves to your child in the bathroom.’ Yes, it is a risk, but it doesn’t fall into the realm of reasonable risk. The other excellent takeaway from these sessions was that we should encourage learners to actively create and manage their digital footprints, because while it may seem safer to have no footprint at all, this is actually riskier because you are not staking a claim to your own digital territory and online identity. The more positive and well-curated content you have to actively represent yourself online, the less likely you are to suffer from what others are able to add to that footprint secondhand. One concern that particularly interested me was about second language learners creating digital footprints before they are proficient in the target language. The language products and artifacts that they produce as beginners could be detrimental to them years later when being evaluated for higher education or applying for jobs.

Kristin Sward and Breanne Quist presented projects from their own graduate work focusing on these topics. Kristin created a web course in Digital Citizenship and in her current role as an Educational Technology Facilitator she makes use of a service called Everfi which uses badging to educate students in the area of digital literacy (they have Canadian servers for her and others). Breanne’s project is called the Privacy Compass and it is a very in-depth database of preapproved tools for use in her school, with consent forms in multiple formats for each tool, and a description of each. Rather than whitelisting or blacklisting certain tools, this allows teachers in the school to use any tool that they wish after it has undergone the full risk assessment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *