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Concordia Art Education professor says future of education is online – if we do it correctly

In his new book, Juan Carlos Castro says that learning on a mobile phone gives youth a sense of agency they lack in a traditional classroom
August 18, 2020
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By Richard Burnett

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Last spring, Juan Carlos Castro, associate professor and chair of the Department of Art Education at Concordia, penned an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette that questioned reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The future of education in the next few years will be a hybrid of what we used to know and what we’re experiencing right now,” Castro wrote.

Such a shift demands a whole new level of infrastructure in terms of hardware and internet access, he argued.

“It requires that teachers be trained in using these new tools for learning. There needs to be a more unified commitment to online learning. Trying to bring teachers up to speed in the four to five days in August won’t cut it.”

When it comes to teaching students remotely outside the classroom, Castro has keen insights, which the visual art researcher and educator explains in his new book, Mobile Media In and Outside of the Art Classroom: Attending to Identity, Spatiality, and Materiality.

As the debate continues to rage about the reopening of schools, Castro sat down for a brief and candid Q&A about his book and the future of schooling.

What was the goal of your book?

The goal was to bring together research investigating using mobile phones as a tool inside and outside of the classroom, specifically visual arts classrooms, though this is also applicable to other subject areas.

Our research team, made up of fellow faculty, current and former research assistants, and teachers, contributed chapters to the book, bringing their perspectives to the data and work we did with high schools throughout the Montreal area.

Reaction to the book has been very positive so far, and I am pleased it is inspiring teachers and educators to embrace mobile media. This book is an opportunity for them to rethink how we teach.

Our hypothesis was, “Give these kids mobile devices, deliver the curriculum through their mobile devices, and they don’t have to come to school.”

Your book is about the MonCoin project

It actually came out of my dissertation work in the late 2000s. At the end of that study about using social media with young people as a learning tool, it got me thinking that smartphones would become a pretty significant device on the cultural landscape.

There is a body of literature and educational research that claims if young people are connected to their civic environment, they become more interested in their educational environment and education at large. With the MonCoin project, we worked with 16 to 18 year-old students who dropped out or were at risk of dropping out.

Our hypothesis was, “Give these kids mobile devices, deliver the curriculum through their mobile devices, and they don’t have to come to school.”

But while they didn’t want to be in school and had a very antagonistic relationship with school, we were still able to reach them.

What we found was they began showing up at school. They became interested in connecting with each other around the project.

Mobile devices aren’t just about taking pictures and posting them. They are a tool for young people to understand their agency in the world and their relationships with people and places around them. That kind of learning gives them a sense of agency that they lacked in school. We found that when we empower young people to take control of their learning, they become more engaged.

Were parents concerned that the quality of their children’s education would decline with remote learning on mobile devices?

We did not receive much pushback. Parents were interested. There were some 300 participants but only two or three opted out. I think most parents saw this as an opportunity to develop a tool for something good.

How does mobile media in an art education classroom translate to a regular classroom?

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We didn’t test that specifically but we asked participants to think about it and they were quite articulate and reflective about the possibilities. Overall, they thought it is possible.

How do you feel about remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our research shows that connecting with young people is good pedagogy, and remote learning is an important part of that. But I also think peer learning in the classroom is very influential and critically important. Decades of research show kids look at each and copy each other. That is a really important part of social and emotional learning that is being missed right now.

Remote learning is here to stay. We are going to use these kinds of tools more and more. Teachers, schools and education are all moving in this direction, and now it is accelerating.

Your Gazette op-ed is about whether we should send our kids back to school during the pandemic.

Some people say we must get the kids back to normal, but I believe that this school environment will be more stressful for our children. I wonder if our kids can learn under this kind of stress. I have two sons aged seven and nine, and I have many trepidations.

How widespread do you think remote learning on mobile devices will become in the future?

Remote learning is here to stay. We are going to use these kinds of tools more and more. Teachers, schools and education are all moving in this direction, and now it is accelerating. This is an opportunity for teachers to think about how to connect with their students. For those concerned about losing that in-person social connection, the research shows that connecting online can be done, and in meaningful ways that really support learning.



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