Where did you go to school?
I missed so much school in Grade 8, I had to make a choice. Would I continue with the traditional system or would I find a school that was willing to accommodate me? I went to a school called Mary Ward [Catholic Secondary School]in Scarborough, Ont., and it has an alternative learning system and I pushed the system to the max. The curriculum was designed where you could progress at your own pace as quickly or slowly as you wanted, write tests whenever you wanted. Classes were on Mondays, lecture-style. It was the best of both worlds: You still had proms, had the socialization aspect. Everything of the traditional high-school spirit, but I could still travel, see the world. I could go online and listen to lectures no matter where I was, halfway around the world.
Did you walk to school?
For high school. I had to take two buses for about an hour and a half. I got my driver’s licence pretty quickly!
Are you computer literate?
I live and breathe on a BlackBerry and computer.
How involved digitally is your Free The Children charity?
We are the No. 1 charity in Canada when it comes to Facebook. We have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers who are addicted to tweeting us.
What do you think of online schooling? It’s being tried in rural areas where the area is vast and transport costly and difficult. It is unclear whether the prime motive is innovative education or cost reduction.
I have mixed emotions on it. We need innovation and technology in schools. A lot of it has to do with intent. If the intent is to make students more technologically literate and to complement traditional education, fantastic. If the intent is cost-cutting, it makes me nervous.
Critics of online schooling have called it “high-tech home schooling.” Is that a fair assessment?
Online resources have high tractability to see how students are doing in their studies, additional resources to complement what a teacher offers. I think we need to layer on the education to improve the technological ability of the student, and to use technology to improve the offering to students, but solely online home schooling, no. The socialization aspect of high school is so critical.
Could charitable fundraising be done exclusively online, or are the old axioms – “meet and greet,” “press the flesh,” “face time” – still vital?
As a charity, we have almost two extremes in how we operate. We have speaking tours that go into schools – you can’t get more old-fashioned than that – and we are also one of the leading online communities on Facebook. We embrace both because you need both. Students need both. They live on Facebook and Twitter. Technology needs to be a tool to engage them. But yet you still need to bring people together in person to see they are part of a community and shared experience.
Given dwindling budgets and vast distances, beginning in rural districts, won’t money speak and education inevitably go increasingly online?
I think of all society’s priorities, for the greatest possible return on our investment, education is No. 1. If online can deliver a higher quality of medicine to rural areas, fantastic. If online can bring communities together for greater cultural understanding, fantastic. If online resources can ensure that students connect with peers around the world, deliver better technological skills, have additional support and resources available, fantastic. But the idea of having a screen replace a classroom, friendships, teachers, socialization, that is a scary thought. It should complement the offering, never replace it.
I believe the purpose of education is to prepare a young person to assume his or her role as a citizen in a country. That requires the education experience of working with peer groups, of forging bonds. For Canada to be successful economically, we have to prepare students for a world where a job can be subcontracted to India. We have to prepare people with the innovation and people skills that come with the classroom environment.
There seems to be no coherent national strategy for developing online education. It is being experimented with mostly in rural school districts, as much for cost-cutting as innovation. Is that a poor way to go about it?
My concern is that it is experimental. We need innovation beyond a one-size-fits-all education for students. If it is driven purely by cost savings, then the students will be lost. The intent has to be, first and foremost, what is best for the student.