How Ontario educators are using technology to support distance learning.
By Stefan Dubowski
photos: matthew plexman and courtesy of gabriel flores and anthony tannous
Teachers have been using technology in class more and more over the last decade. However, this past year has accelerated the move online significantly as educators have had to pivot to the web to keep their classes going. It's been a difficult and stressful adjustment for most. Read on to see how these five Ontario Certified Teachers are putting tech tools and techniques to good use.
Last September, Wai Chi Tsui, OCT, went from being an in-class phys-ed teacher at École Élémentaire LaFontaine in Kleinburg, Ont., to being a virtual kindergarten teacher communicating with students attending class through a computer.
The school board (Conseil scolaire Viamonde) needed to make sure families who didn't want their children to attend school in person had an alternative, so Tsui traded in her running shoes for a laptop. As a virtual teacher of about 30 Junior and Senior Kindergarteners, she had to learn quickly about technology and effective online-teaching techniques.
"It felt like you had to make something out of nothing," she says, recalling that in the beginning there were few guidelines to follow. She eventually developed a system that worked: three 30-minute Microsoft Teams video-conferencing sessions each day for each grade (JK and SK), with short lessons and activities, and curriculum-co-ordinated video clips from Mini-TFO (tfo.org/en/mini-tfo and tfo.org/fr/mini-tfo). That kept the students engaged without overwhelming their attention spans.
Parents participated alongside students to manage microphones and cameras. "You can't expect a four- or five-year-old to log onto Teams," she notes.
There were a few tech glitches, as one would expect, like the day the internet connection just quit (she switched to her mobile phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot), and when her laptop camera wouldn't turn on (she grabbed a different laptop and kept going).
Tsui says she's become adept at quick tech problem-solving and online communication. "I'm much more confident in this medium now because I can automatically adapt to visual cues. I can adjust my tone and style just to make sure my students hear me clearly. And the clearer I am, the less I have to repeat myself."
Last March, Andrew Tomec, OCT, was prepared for new teaching realities in a way most teachers were not. The occasional teacher with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board specializes in technology; he knew what he could do to engage with students online, especially for Grades 4 to 6.
He premiered "COVID Computer Club" on YouTube just as schools were shutting their doors. The club involved daily live-streamed sessions during which Tomec would show viewers how to develop computer games and activities with student-friendly coding software like Scratch.
"The advantage of live streaming over pre-recorded tutorials is the ability to interact with your audience," he says. "It's two-way TV. While I teach, kids are able to type messages to me and I'm able to answer questions, expand on or clarify what I'm teaching, based on feedback from my audience."
That audience wasn't huge — about as many students as are in a regular classroom. But Tomec says many more watched the recordings of the sessions. And they didn't only come from Ottawa, or even Canada. "I had kids watching me from as far away as Egypt, England, Morocco, Montenegro and Italy."
Recently he came up with a new model. He put together a series including a 75-minute instructional video. He's no longer present during the initial phase when the material is being taught — the live-stream component comes during the follow-up, where students "re-mix" his project, expanding on what they have learned.
In January, he started holding weekly live streams, some aimed at teachers and others at students, where he answers questions about Scratch, solves coding problems and offers other ideas about his sessions. Access them through his website chromeworks.ca/livestream and chromeworks.ca/videos.
When Sarah Fields, OCT, suddenly had to shift her Grade 1 classroom online, she was able to take an important resource with her — "Best Reading! Phonics Short Vowels," a program that started on paper but is now available online too (bestreading.ca).
Currently teaching at Georges Vanier Catholic School in Ottawa, Fields started using the paper-based version in class two years ago. "I saw the clear impact it had on the learners," she says. "The program engages beginning readers, which is where the majority of my class is in September."
Best Reading proved to be just as powerful online. During last spring's shutdown, students would log on from their home computers to read the books and play games such as match the picture to the letter, find the missing letter, and complete the sentence, all toward strengthening their understanding and use of short vowels.
"They really enjoyed the program, and I could see their confidence soar," Fields says.
Best Reading is notable because another Ontario Certified Teacher created it. Cathy Jackson, OCT, an occasional teacher with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, started the program 13 years ago because she wanted to help students progressively learn vowel sounds. But she couldn't find resources that did that, so she decided to create one herself.
Jackson also decided it deserved a wider audience; she took it to publishers and one (DC Canada Education Publishing) picked it up, leading eventually to the web version.
Jackson points out that the online version has audio for all the letter sounds and words, while the Teacher Resources section includes printable material that teachers and students can use in class or at home.
DC Canada has made the site free to use for the time being (dc-canada.ca), and the publisher is in the process of preparing the accompanying long-vowel program for the web as well.
"[My students] are more confident because they went through that online [learning] experience."
— Gabriel Flores, OCT
July 1, 2020, marked the start of whole new teaching regime for Gabriel Flores, OCT, a Grade 2 teacher at Amnuay Silpa Bilingual School in Bangkok, Thailand: a "hybrid" classroom in which half the students were in school and half were at home attending his class online.
This situation called for an unusual technology setup. Flores had two computers on the go: a laptop connecting to the students online, and a desktop connecting to an electronic whiteboard. The laptop let him and in-class students see and interact with at-home students, and it enabled at-home students to view the whiteboard. Flores also had extra speakers attached to the laptop so everyone could hear the at-home students, and he wore a high-end gamer headset to communicate with them clearly.
All this extra technology meant extra challenges. For one thing, visually focusing on a screen while interacting with at-home students day-to-day wasn't easy. "My eyes would be hurting quite a lot," Flores says. "I'd come to my room and I'd have to turn everything off."
What's more, it was difficult to spend any significant time with students who were struggling; one-on-one attention was a challenge.
So he honed his ability break activities down into steps such that struggling students could achieve some success while at the same time advanced students could continue on and challenge themselves. And as he grew accustomed to this juggling act, so too did colleagues — even those who were nervous about learning to use new technologies. "After six or seven weeks they were experts at it."
The students also excelled at using technology. "Their IT skills are so strong now," Flores maintains. "I have them doing searches online, taking screenshots and using different apps. They are more confident because they went through that online [learning] experience."
"I really hope that … [my students] realize that success doesn't come on the first attempt … in the classroom and in life."
— Anthony Tannous, OCT
Anthony Tannous, OCT, wanted to get his French Immersion Grade 9 students going with peer reviews so they could learn to work together to improve their essays. This teacher at St. Anne Catholic High School in Belle River, Ont., firmly believes peer reviewing helps students strengthen their writing and critical thinking.
The difficulty? COVID-19. In the past, students would just get together in pairs in class to review each other's work. But with COVID-19 restrictions in place, physically meeting was impossible. And only half the students were in class on any given day, with the other half working from home.
Tannous turned to technology for a solution: specifically, Google Meet, an online meeting program. He had the students meet each other online rather than in person for a 25-minute peer-review session. One student would share their essay with the other, and together they'd spend about 12 minutes reviewing the document. Then they'd switch: the other student would share their work and the pair would go over that one. At the 25-minute mark, Tannous, who would be able to check in on each session, would press the "shuffle" button to form new pairs, giving the students fresh perspectives. "I'm glad I did this while we had the opportunity to try it in class and iron out the kinks," Tannous says. "If we go back to full-time online, it's a good option."
Tannous thinks that by learning to hear, process and provide constructive criticism, students are learning valuable lessons they'll take with them throughout their high school careers and beyond. "I often remind them that it's OK to make mistakes, that it's part of the learning process. I really hope that by the end of it, they realize that success doesn't come on the first attempt … in the classroom and in life."