The Lead the Change Series is an effort by the Educational Change special education group of the American Education Research Association.  They describe it as:

The Lead the Change Series features renowned educational change experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and sparks collaboration within our SIG.

The September issue in this series focused on the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada project’s lead researcher, Michael Barbour.  The first question in that interview and his response are copied below.

The 2020 AERA theme is The Power and Possibilities for the Public Good: When Researchers and Organizational Stakeholders Collaborate and is a call to “to address educational challenges through policy and community engagement and to work with diverse institutional and organizational stakeholders.” How can such leveraging of educational research contribute to collaboration and engagement within and across diverse stakeholder groups and to educational change?

I have to be honest and say the premise of this question actually frustrates me a great deal. And the reason it frustrates me is because of the significant divide that exists between educational researchers and classroom teachers. I often hear teachers acknowledging that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to education, but in their very next breath they will often promote whatever “magic” solution some vendor is selling them or an ideologically-focused unproven, intervention that some organization is pushing. This is true even when educational researchers try to distill their ideas to make them more accessible and briefer, many teachers still claim to not have the time to read “that research.” While it is clear that many teachers are overburdened, I would argue that many simply don’t have the patience to explore the nuances of what is not a black and white context.

To provide a specific example from the jurisdiction where the 2019 AERA annual conference was held, about a month before that conference the government of Ontario made a series of education announcements – one of which was a graduation requirement that would see all high school students in the province complete four online or e-learning courses. Now, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert in K- 12 online learning to know that the online environment is similar to the classroom environment in that, if you have a model of design, delivery, and support designed in one fashion, you’ll be able to support one group of students and other students will struggle. Any educational researcher focused on quality teaching and learning will tell you that we need to adjust how learning opportunities are designed, delivered, and supported in order for a full range of students to have success. As you might expect, the current model of e-learning in Ontario was designed with a specific purpose in mind – that being, for the most part, to provide opportunities to students unable to access specific courses in their traditional face-to-face environment for a variety of reasons. Given that purpose, as well as the specific courses often offered, a particular model of learning has evolved in the province that works for many students, but not all.

Most people can probably guess where I am going, the discussion we’ve seen around this topic since it was first announced in mid- March has been didactic at best. On one side are those touting e-learning as a way to provide educational opportunity for all students, essentially making it a saviour of sorts for modernizing and democratizing public education. Alternatively, the other side has stated that e-learning, in its current form, hasn’t been successful in reaching or providing opportunity to this, or that group of students. In the process, this group has demonized the current system of e-learning, those who work in it, as well as anyone who doesn’t share their pessimistic view of the proposal. Unfortunately, these perspectives are those pushed in both traditional and on social media. As a result, any nuanced discussion of the potential for e-learning and what would actually need to be invested in order to make the proposal a success has been lost.

It is kind of unfortunate that as I think about my response to this question that such a negative example comes to mind, and maybe it is the first thing I think of because it is an issue that I’m currently focused on at the moment, as well as its geographic and temporal ties to the previous AERA annual conference. However, I do think that it highlights the tension between researchers and practitioners when it comes to having a meaningful impact in the field. I believe it also highlights a fundamental change in the attitudes of those outside of the academy who are more and more resistant to focus upon anything perceived as intellectual – an orientation those within the field of education have always mistakenly believed ourselves to be immune. So, while I don’t advocate that educational researchers disengage from the process of trying to engage with practitioners, I think we need to approach the situation with a more realistic understanding that the field of education, and those who practice it, may be much more reflective of society as a whole then what we would like to believe.

You can access the complete interview here.

You can access all of the previous contributions to this series at – please note that the May 2019 issue focuses on Osnat Fellus, another Canadian-based researcher who focuses on K-12 online learning.

Lead the Change Series – ISSUE No. 98 | September 2019: Q & A with Michael K. Barbour

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