Education’s next act

A researcher in e-learning and expert in digital literacy is on the front lines for a school system struggling to transition to a new way of teaching.
Sarah Boesveld
University of Ontario Institute of Technology
An illustration of a teacher speaking to several monitors set up on school desks to demonstrate the idea of e-learning

To learn more about how researchers are answering the call to help during the COVID-19 pandemic, follow our #GoResearch video campaign, or for more stories in this series visit Research at the ready during the COVID-19 pandemic, which looks at how the CFI and the researchers it funds responded to a global crisis.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools nationwide and around the world, many teachers were at a total loss. How would they finish teaching their mandated curriculum? How would they ensure their students even logged on at all?

Educators — and an entire school system — needed help adapting to online learning. They needed Janette Hughes. And she was ready to respond.

With her team of graduate students, the Ontario Tech University professor and Canada Research Chair in Technology and Pedagogy formed what is essentially a first responder unit for educators struggling to adapt to the new educational reality brought on by this virus.

She knew from years of researching educators’ professional learning that teachers need agency — they need to be able to give their students hands-on learning and they need true engagement from their class.

So, with that in mind, Hughes and her team held 24 free virtual professional development sessions for educators through the spring, ultimately showing six school boards, 160 teachers and 400 students how possible it is to do that important immersive learning in a virtual environment. In fact, it might even be the way of the future, education’s next act.

Educators worried limitations of e-learning could mean backsliding to out-of-date ways of teaching

Hughes found the pandemic shook the confidence of otherwise incredible teachers and raised fears that all pedagogical leaps forward would be rolled back as educators struggled to do more than be just a talking head on a video chat. In the early months of the pandemic, she remembers trying to counsel a Grade 3 teacher who she knows has a wonderful rapport with her students in the classroom.

“She said ‘I found myself scanning and sending worksheets from math books because I had to give them something.’ She was so frustrated with herself, she started crying.”

Hughes has been right there with teachers as they navigate concerns about privacy, social engagement, equity and accessibility working on computers from home instead of in a class of their peers.

“We were getting a lot of our former students who’d gone through our program writing us, saying “thank goodness, you prepared us well.”

Years of research in digital learning informed a ready response

Hughes knows what teachers need to do their jobs in part because she used to be one — first high school and then elementary. After flouting expectations to be a stand-at-the-front-of-the-class kind of teacher, she witnessed her students come alive in the computer lab, making multimedia projects that ticked all the curricular boxes and imprinted on them a love of learning.

She got a PhD in digital literacy, focusing on how teachers can help students learn online through creative problem solving. In 2016, she opened the CFI-funded STEAM-3D Maker Lab at her university’s campus on the outskirts of Toronto — a space that would become Hughes’ own little Petri dish for researching potential digital literacy tools.

She got particularly interested in equipping teachers with this kind of toolkit and the confidence to boot. She invited educators province-wide to her lab to use 3D printers to replicate bird skulls for science class, or to make inventions (she would also pay visits to school boards across the province). It all amped up their problem-solving and social learning skills.

When COVID-19 hit, Hughes had to shutter the lab, but knew right away that so much of what she taught and researched there could be applied from home, online. She knew she and her team held a lot of the knowledge not-so-tech-savvy teachers needed to tap.

STEAM Education, 21st Century Skills & Makerspaces

Janette Hughes describes how students acquire creativity, communication, problem-solving, and design skills in makerspace-type learning environments like her CFI-funded STEAM-3D Maker Lab on the Ontario Tech University campus just outside Toronto.
1 minute, 41seconds to watch
STEAM is Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math. The A for us is not just fine arts; it highlights the importance of critical thinking, creativity, design thinking, and the whole process of innovation.

A lot of people have been talking about 21st century skills, communication skills, critical, creative thinking. These are incredibly important skills with the rapid change that we're experiencing, especially in terms of technological advances in our society; teachers are preparing students for jobs that we don't even know exist yet.  We want our students to be comfortable with technology.

Now, the technologies that we're working with may be obsolete by the time they go into the workforce, but they will have acquired transferable skills, learning how to solve a problem or to troubleshoot when something doesn’t go exactly as planned, learning to start over. 

A lot of teachers are used to being the expert in the room, and this shift to inquiry-based, student-driven learning requires them to share with their students. Even if we're not completely ready, we start. Think big. You don't have to know everything about every kind of technology. Try one thing. Bring it out, and put it in the hands of your students. They will figure it out. As long as you position yourself as a learner alongside your students, then you'll be fine. You just say, “We’ll figure it out together.”

Teaching outside the box at an unprecedented time

“The initial sessions focused on “Let’s get you online, let’s figure out how to organize your content so your students aren’t confused, so they’re not frustrated,” she says. “Because the first thing that will happen if they get frustrated is they will check out.”

There was inconsistency across school boards in terms of the web platforms they were using, and there was a lot of worry over privacy so most schools were holding off on doing video chats with students in favour of assignments students would just turn in.

Hughes and her team did some online professional development sessions for higher education first, then put the word out on social media for kindergarten to Grade 8 teachers and then 9 to 12. There was massive demand — they had around 60 teachers in one session and then had to cap it at 30 and just offer more sessions, in order to maintain the interactivity.

“The first few weeks were kind of technical,” Hughes says. “Then they became more interested in “Okay. Now how do I engage my students more?”

Janette Hughes seated at a wooden table with a coffee cup

 Janette Hughes in the STEAM 3D Maker Lab at Ontario Tech University
Image courtesy of Laura Dobos


Hughes and her team taught teachers — and in some cases, classes of students — how to create video games online, how to make sure they’re hitting the right teaching deliverables while their students buzzed over Bloxels, a web-based platform that allows students to build their own games using teamwork and basic coding.

The sessions were fashioned out of teacher requests — many were navigating concerns around privacy in synchronous (ie. back-and-forth video) lessons, so they did one on that.

“If we've learned nothing else from COVID, what we know is that we need human connection and kids need to see their friends, even if it's on a screen,” she says, adding that for many students, a teacher is one of the most important adults in their lives.

Through all of this professional development work, Hughes has been trying to help educators not “put old wine in new bottles” — a tendency, she says, to try to use the same old pedagogies on a tech platform instead of innovating and working to enhance learning and engage students.

Helping to shape how online learning will be part of education’s new normal

Before the pandemic, Hughes and her team had already planned to study a few school boards’ tech-forward approach to teaching the new Ontario math curriculum, which, for the first time incorporates coding.

Earlier in the year, with help from Hughes’ team, Erica Lantin, a Grade 4 and 5 teacher at North Star School in Atikokan, Ont., got her class set up on Scratch, a coding story-building program.

“Once the students learned a little bit about what Scratch was all about they wanted to work on it whenever they had any free time,” Lantin says. “They started to make interactive stories where they would code different characters to do different things then orally tell me the story.” There were class “experts” who helped anyone in need, and Lantin saw a lot of students working together.

While they kept some of this up during the school shutdown, Lantin is looking forward to incorporating more online maker opportunities for her students in class this fall.

Equipping teachers with skills to teach students virtually has been vitally important, says Hughes, particularly because not every child will be returning to school: More than 13,000 students in Durham District School Board, one of Ontario’s largest public boards, have indicated they’ll only attend school online.

2020’s defining moments shape how young people express themselves online

Her expertise is in pedagogical approaches — how learning works, specifically how it works with technology — so the pandemic’s propulsion of school into the virtual world has been fascinating for Hughes. It’s also led her to research creative self-expression among students online in the time of COVID, particularly how teens are shaping their identities around the pandemic and Black Lives Matter — “the two defining events of 2020” — on social media.

Hughes’ years of research and the way she nimbly applied it to help leverage digital learning at a moment of crisis also earned her an esteemed place on the International Science Council’s COVID Education Alliance — a group of global experts tasked with mapping out what education will look like around the world in the next 30 years as the pandemic continues to revise how we do business, relate to one another and learn.

While she’ll accept no praise for her swift response to teachers’ professional development crisis when COVID hit, she acknowledges she could’ve just sat this one out.

“But when you’ve been a teacher in the classroom and you understand what the challenges are, you are part of that community and you want to support however you can.”

And like many Ontarians with children in school, she’ll be watching closely to see how the school year unfolds this fall.

“I’m seeing all these images of how the classrooms are set up and it’s horrifying to me,” she says, recounting one photo of a primary class in which the teacher had created a painted cardboard cut-out around each desk, designing them like fire trucks with a shield in front and on both sides. “She’s trying to make it fun. But students are going to be learning in cubicles. This is not the way we learn.”