Meet Steph Pearson. A teacher of 18 years with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, Pearson is a part of the board’s “learning technology team”, which means she helps teachers and students across the city integrate digital tools into their curriculum. She’s the kind of person who adapts easily to digital — and has learnt a few things about helping people adapt.
Pearson advocates tech as a new way to think outside the box, and notes that the board took advantage of government funding for online learning a few years ago, allowing them to add to their toolbox.
She says digital tools help the curriculum better, and can support students who need specialized instructions. Plus, it is increasingly important in the workplace: “Our employment opportunities are going to continue to change, even more so now that Covid has forced us to adapt.” While Pearson and her team spent the first few weeks of school closures on focusing on the wellness of teachers and students, they’re now ramping up. We caught up with her just before the launch of phase two, which sets goals for learning and sees more regular involvement of teachers and students.
So, you just happened to be working on digital tools that could be used at home when Covid-19 forced schools to close?
Yes, it’s been a real focus of mine over the past few years now. So what’s neat about how this has all unfolded is that our students have actually already had a lot of practice with a lot of these digital tools in a way that some other boards haven’t. We’ve had the infrastructure in place, so we’ve been able to be responsive in promoting the growth of that, rather than teaching these skills to both teachers and students from scratch.
What attracted you to this kind of work?
When people want to learn about digital tools, they need to learn it from someone who isn’t going to use a lot of jargon, who could be silly and non-judgemental. That suits me. I’m the kind of person who gets excited about new features in Google Docs.
What tools are you really excited about?
There’s Zorbits, a math game out of Newfoundland. It has really engaging characters, and kids learn math. But what’s cool about it is that it challenges them. As the student gets correct answers quickly, the program asks them harder questions. And the teacher has the backend, and gets this really cool data. They might learn one kid, who doesn’t answer anything in class, on an online platform can show they have quite a lot of math knowledge. It’s that instant feedback in their education that they can’t get in a worksheet. It’s why kids — people — love video games. You get instant feedback on whether you did something right or wrong. That’s where screen time can be really transformative; there’s nothing like it.
With Google Meet, we saw a class of little people waving at their friends; we had a teacher come to tears of joy at just seeing them. Teachers love their kids so much and to feel so helpless is really, really hard. A class did a virtual choir, where they had the kids jump online and sang a song together.
What about access to computers and internet?
We’re still working to see how we best support those families and students who don’t have access to internet and technology. It’s been top of mind since we knew we were going to be out of school for two weeks after March break, and it’s an ongoing discussion in the board. How do we close that gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have less’? We want everyone to have an equitable opportunity for success. We have tons of Chromebooks in the schools, so we’re working with public health authorities on getting those out of the schools and into the hands of families who need them.
And access is going to be very different for different communities. The beauty is our wi-fi is such that kids could go and stand in the parking lot of our school board — it’s still working at all of our schools. People are doing that now. Arguably, a parent could take a kid to a school — get out for a two minute walk, use the wif-fi, pull some stuff from online, and go home and work on it.
What advice would you give to a parent who is trying to work at home while also supervising and educating their children?
We are asking ourselves how we can support families with little people around who are still trying to work at home, and also families who want to move their children’s learning forward. We’re also asking ourselves how we can provide parents some sanity time, so they don’t feel guilty about taking a break. One thing I would say is that not all screen time is the same. Sometimes you need to pop them in front of the TV because you need to take a break. But how can you get them screen time that allows them to be actively learning as well? It’s all about active learning. I know, for me, I spent a lot of time watching TV as a kid — Saturday morning cartoons are really passive. But I also turned out okay. I think if a child is playing an activity it can actually be really great.