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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Minding the Gap Between Traditional and On-line Learning: Considering Escalators in Haiti

For the last number of years, we have been talking about developing on-line learning modules with our Haitian colleagues. There is tremendous potential to scale up the professional development that can be done in face-to-face settings through on-line learning. However, one of the challenges we have identified has been the issue of accessibility: Many Haitian students, teachers, and university faculty members do not have laptops or tablet computers with reliable Internet access. This obstacle is being quickly overcome as inexpensive tablets with wi-fi and integrated data plans (click here to read about Surtabs) are being built in Haiti.

I've been thinking about another obstacle recently that has to do with cognitive accessibility. I'm not talking about intelligence here but rather the development gap that occurs when a new tool is made available in a context that skips some of the steps that leads to the development of the tool.

Here's an example from one of my trips to Haiti after the new airport was built in Port au Prince following the 2010 earthquake... An escalator was now in the airport and clearly many people had never been on an escalator before. In fact, the airport had to have a person on the bottom of the escalator and one at the top to assist people getting on and off. It was an "aha" moment for me: Some of the people had never used an escalator before so they required an intermediary to help them access the tool. It had everything to do with familiarity and support.

A theoretical connection would be Lev Vygotsky's concept of the Zone of Proximal Development: We need a coach, teacher, parent, mentor, etc. to help us accomplish what we cannot do without one.

Once that person has helped us attain new knowledge or skills (familiarity), we can then perform the task and prepare ourselves for accessing new knowledge/skills.

Which brings me back to on-line learning in Haiti. I'm wondering if we need to continue to move toward on-line learning opportunities but within a learning framework that includes guidance and mentoring so that people become familiar with the tool? In other words, we need people at the "top and bottom of the escalator" who can help us through the initial stages of the new learning paradigm. Once the technology has become embedded and part of the natural environment, the support is no longer needed (or becomes minimized or is focused on a new area of learning). This could mean that we introduce, support, and model on-line learning through workshops and camps where traditional (i.e. face-to-face) methods are also used.

FYI: There are no longer people helping others on and off the escalator in Port au Prince. People know how to "mind the gap".
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