For some students, “back to school” won’t mean a return to the classroom this year
TORONTO — Parents with misgivings about the safety of sending their children back to the classroom as the COVID-19 pandemic continues are seeking alternative options for September. One such avenue is the “learning pod,” an intimate group of five students or less instructed by one teacher, whose classes can be held in-person, online, or both. A form of micro-schooling1, learning pods are a modern reincarnation of the one-room schoolhouse.
Established in Toronto in July, 2020, by Rachel Marmer, Learning Pods Canada is a Facebook group-turned-agency that pairs parents with teachers for private education programs customized for each pupil and their family’s needs. The in-person learning pods are designed to restore teacher-student and peer-to-peer camaraderies lost through remote learning, in units small enough to abate the transmission of germs and ensure the safety of both teachers and students.
“You design your learning pod,” the company site’s landing page reads, as personalization is the watchword of Learning Pod Canada’s business ethos.
Available options include in-person learning pods for students who will not return to the school system; virtual pods to replace or supplement classroom education; hybrid programs that integrate both in-person and virtual learning; “Round Robin” pods spearheaded by parents; and “Social Pods” for families to connect with each other.
According to the website, more than 6,000 families in Ontario are currently participating in learning-pod pedagogy.
“Learning Pods mean different things to different people,” the Facebook group reads. “For some, it’s the game plan, for others, it’s a backup plan.”
Interested parents and teachers can sign up for the program on the Learning Pods Canada site. Parents can also directly solicit teachers on the Facebook group, detailing their unique learning demands for their children and the niceties of their household’s COVID safety precautions.
The Facebook group doubles as a forum for teachers to share instructional techniques, tips and materials. Teachers, tutors and academic support counsellors alike can also advertise their credentials and services on the Facebook community, which now has nearly 11,000 members.
The in-house schoolhouse
A self-proclaimed “edupreneur,” David Jager is an OCT-accredited teacher setting up a pod facility in his home studio, a converted garage where he will host private lessons to cohorts of about five students. With more than 10 years’ experience teaching music, English, and French, as well as a doctorate in Music Education from the University of Toronto, Jager is one of many experienced educators diverging from conventional teaching to instead pursue the learning pod.
“I learned very quickly that the parents are very serious about this,” he told INN24. “They want to minimize contact—that’s really what they want.”
Dubbed “Pod Academy”—a whimsical nod to the comic-book series and Netflix show The Umbrella Academy—Jager’s “learner-centred and independently-driven” program is intended to complement public-school curriculum.
“I’m envisioning independent kids who can do well with a little bit of direction,” he said.
Jager is devising a hybrid structure in which students take Zoom lessons at home from Monday to Thursday. Each pupil will receive one hour of personalized, individual instruction as part of their three-hour daily tuition.
Every day at 2 p.m., each Pod Academy cohort will also convene for a virtual group session, a model whose warm reception Jager’s own seven-year-old can vouch for: “My daughter definitely looked forward to her Zoom meetings with other kids.”
On Fridays, students will attend in-person classes at his studio, where they will participate in hands-on exercises such as musical activities and constructing a model volcano. For Jager, the face-to-face element mimics the classroom social infrastructure vital to the student experience and, more importantly, the socialization of young children.
Citing Khan Academy and The Open University’s OpenLearn courses, Jager predicts that the future of education will take a steady trajectory toward free and accessible online distribution.
“What are the long-term consequences and effects of this? I don’t know,” he said. “This is the new reality, so we’re going to be teaching through screens.”
Teaching through pixels: a history
While remote learning has been popularized—or, rather, necessitated—by the pandemic, it is hardly a novel invention. Long before the COVID outbreak, universities have been disseminating knowledge through virtual means such as pre-recorded lectures and self-guided modules. Perhaps the earliest prototype of distance education came from Alberto Manzi, an Italian teacher best known for his educational TV series Non è mai troppo tardi, or “It’s Never Too Late.”
From 1959 to 1968, Manzi taught Italian to illiterate and immigrant populations on RAI, Italy’s public national broadcaster2. His didactic magic emerged from his approach to teaching, which was based in discussion rather than lecture: Manzi distilled the formidable task of learning a new language into episodic, interactive and visually engaging lessons that captivated novice learners, who were often mature students.
Much like today’s public and private educators on Zoom, Manzi brought the classroom to the living rooms of his viewers by proxy of the TV screen, which was at the time a new-fangled technology. He often delivered his lectures with nothing but a chalkboard, overhead projector and paper pad on an easel—instruments we would now consider rudimentary. But those were all the tools he needed to foster in his students a fervent curiosity for learning.
Manzi democratized education throughout the near-decade broadcast of It’s Never Too Late, effectively opening the port of entry to literacy for more than 1.5 million students under his virtual tutelage.
“Together to learn to communicate with each other,” he wrote in a project proposal for RAI, “to know the world where we live, the people we live with, abandoning the mental passivity of the television viewer.”3
Manzi’s gusto for the creative application of technology is evidently shared by learning-pod instructors as well. Jager in particular plans to capitalize on the modern resources at his disposal to make remote education as engaging as possible for students, especially those disaffected by months of virtual learning.
“I intend to lean heavily on cutting-edge educational technologies like SMART Suite,” he said. “You can send [students] interactive games, like to line up the planets in order.”
Questions of affordability and accountability
As idealistic as the learning-pod model sounds, its ad hoc nature does beget issues that require further consideration. Group members have voiced concerns over the legal liability of teachers—namely those hosting students in their own residence—as well as the financial feasibility of private education for families who cannot afford it.
But as Jager points out, micro schools do not have to be a class luxury. The Boat Schools for Rural Children project in Bangladesh, for instance, provides education for children in disaster-prone and remote rural areas.
“The boats are designed as mobile classrooms,” the website reads, “to provide access to education to children who would otherwise be unable to enrol in school.”4
According to the organization, the boat schools will enrol 13,000 “out of school children” to undergo five grades of education in four years. The initiative will also stimulate the local economy by enlisting local boat manufacturers, teachers and other community members.
Here in Ontario, MPP Randy Hillier has launched a petition urging the provincial government to redirect the per-pupil funding usually allocated to school boards to the students instead, arguing that parents have the prerogative to decide how their children should be educated.
“Parents deserve to choose where the funding for their children’s education is best utilized for their individual needs,” the petition page reads, “either in public school, private school, home schooling, or creating new smaller community-based charter schools, parents deserve a choice.”
Whether for public education or private alternatives such as the learning pod, Hillier claims the $12,500 tuition allowance will be used at the parent’s discretion.
Last Wednesday, the Trudeau government announced an auxiliary $2 billion budget—adding to the existing $19 billion used to manage the pandemic aftermath—to ensure safe reopening of schools across the country for the upcoming school year.
1 “Micro schools in Canada.” Our Kids. https://www.ourkids.net/school/micro-schools
2 Dattola, Aida. “Non è mai troppo tardi per imparare da Alberto Manzi.” Educare.it. https://www.educare.it/j/rubriche/vivere-di-scuola/3972-non-e-mai-troppo-tardi-per-imparare-da-alberto-manzi
3 “‘Impariamo insieme’ Alberto Manzi’s TV show to teach literacy to immigrants.” Migrant Literacies. https://www.migrantliteracies.eu/alberto-manzi/
4 “Boat Schools for Rural Children.” Educate a Child. https://educateachild.org/our-partners-projects/projects/boat-schools-rural-children