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Everything old is new again:

Reviving technologies, maintaining relationships for a COVID-19 future

By Ted Fransen, Superintendent of Education/CEO, Pembina Trails School Division, Manitoba
 
During the early days of COVID-19 I had imagined that technology would take us to new heights and new places in education. The last few months, however, have reinforced – in ways I hadn’t expected – the incredible importance of face-to-face interactions. After months of video calls and virtual interactions, it is clearer than ever that people want to be in the same room with others – a real room not a zoom room!
 
In thinking about the innovations that I have seen throughout Pembina Trails School Division during the coronavirus pandemic, I am reminded of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, which happened by accident in 1928.
 
It wasn’t until 1943 or 1944 that penicillin saw mass application. The efforts to produce it had not been very successful until, by the middle to end of World War II, the military began to realize that more people were dying from infection than from bullets.
 
It took a war for one of the world’s most significant advances in medicine to be fully embraced.
 
At Pembina Trails School Division we had our own penicillin moment as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
 
In 1997, my predecessor at Pembina Trails and a couple of visionaries in two other Manitoba school divisions created InformNet, a virtual high school that has since provided online summer school courses to thousands of secondary students throughout the Pembina Trails and St. James-Assiniboia school divisions.
 
InformNet has become the largest summer school program in Manitoba. Yet, despite its reach, there was little uptake at the broader provincial level. In some respects, InformNet was ahead of its time.
 
It sat in its petrie dish, so to speak, without much development or wider application.
 
Then the world changed.
 
On March 13, Manitoba’s Minister of Education announced that in-school classes would be suspended indefinitely because of COVID-19.
 
The following day, Mike Wake and I, as heads of the two school divisions that were actively running InformNet, met with the deputy minister at Manitoba Education. We agreed to ramp up InformNet for the entire province.
 
Within a week, we had worked with the province to implement InformNet as the sole provider of online summer school. The Government of Manitoba is now fully funding any high school student who wants to take summer school on InformNet.
 
For 23 years, we had a system for online teaching and learning but we stuck to the status quo, thinking that what we had in the traditional classroom was working just fine. Then suddenly the classroom stopped working and now our online program has taken off. It took a war – with COVID!
 
Innovation stems from partnerships and relationships
Another innovation that has come to the forefront because of COVID-19 is Pembina Trails Early College (PTEC). PTEC is three-way partnership between business, education (Pembina Trails School Division and the University of Manitoba) and the provincial government. The four-year program starts in Grade 9 and is targeted to students with an interest in STEM subjects and in pursuing careers in information technology.
 
PTEC students complete the regular high school curriculum at the University of Manitoba’s SmartPark campus while also being immersed in technology courses such as software development, cyber security, and coding. By the time they graduate, they have earned both a high school diploma and a post-secondary certificate plus they get a head start in an exciting career in IT or advanced placement for further post-secondary study at the Manitoba Institute for Trades and Technology.
 
PTEC was running when COVID-19 closed the schools, but the students involved – all of whom are matched with business mentors – didn’t miss a beat. When the students moved to home-based learning, they still had the solid foundation of relationships with their mentors and with their instructors on campus. The existing partnership that combines academics with real-world career paths – a sometimes uneasy one between business and education – has been shown to be powerful and perfectly applied in a COVID-19 virtual learning world. The curriculum can be delivered as easily virtually as in person … once the relationships have been established.
 
That’s the important consideration, in my view. Technology is just a vehicle through which good teaching can take place. Certainly some programs – like InformNet and PTEC – have a leg up because the technological foundation is well integrated. And certainly some educators found it easier than others, based on previous experience or inclination, to make the switch to virtual or blended learning models. But the bottom line is: good teaching is going to happen no matter what the platform as long as there are strong connections, technological AND personal.
 
Editor’s Note: This article is based on a May 14, 2020 conversation with Ted Fransen and has been edited to suit a written format. Ted is a member of The Learning Partnership’s Board of Directors, currently serving as Chair of the Governance & Legal Committee. We deeply appreciate Ted’s insights for this article and his service to The Learning Partnership.