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Online learning is poised to transform public education across the country as provinces and school boards scramble to complete the academic year – a paradigm shift that could reshape education long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Already, with little direction from provincial governments, parents with children temporarily at home are filling the learning gap, which can include navigating the sea of online learning portals and private tutors. And education experts say significant parts of the movement toward remote learning will likely soon be integrated into curriculums, reframing discussion around the issue in the months and years ahead.

“The education world has been turned upside down,” said Paul Bennett, an education consultant based in Halifax. “The assumption was that [online learning] was all supplemental to regular in-class learning, and there was no real focus in Canada on the possibility that e-learning would be the spine of the system and not a supplement to the regular classroom.”

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Marina Milner-Bolotin, an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia, said education is embarking on a shift – and one that will not end any time soon.

“I expect a steep increase in online learning that will continue beyond the [pandemic]. People now will pay much more attention to it as they will experience its power."

E-learning has been the source of tension in public education, most recently in contract negotiations with teachers’ unions in Ontario, where the government has mandated online learning courses in secondary schools. But the impact of the new coronavirus has dramatically altered the e-learning conversation.

Andy Hargreaves, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, said remote learning is not about shuffling students onto online courses where everything is on-screen. It may involve Skyping a parent whose child has special needs, or delivering an online lesson to a small group, or sending them instructions virtually on how to do a kitchen science experiment.

Prof. Hargreaves began his university career in the late 1970s preparing distance-learning materials at the Open University in Britain, the world’s first distance-learning institution in higher education.

“Some educators will now realize that not all online learning is bad,” he said.

“Now, more than ever, kids, especially younger vulnerable kids with emotional or learning difficulties who are in stressed-out families, need to see and hear their teachers as part of their distance experience. That will be even more true when this is all over,” he said.

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The move toward online learning for public education will not be seamless as educators and governments grapple with issues around inequitable access to technology. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said late last week that his government is working with school boards “to ensure the necessary technology is provided to everyone who needs it” should school closings be extended beyond two weeks in the province.

Alberta is the only province that has shared some details on how students will learn during the pandemic, laying out expectations on how many hours a week would be spent on schoolwork, either online or through course packages and telephone check-ins.

Ian McCombe, a parent in Oakville, Ont., said many families are waiting for more direction from school boards and teachers on resources to use with their children. He’s tapped into an online program for his son, because he doesn’t want the seven-year-old to lose any of his work habits or skills from school. Several companies, including Scholastic Canada, Khan Academy and Prodigy Math, have offered their products at no charge for now.

Mr. McCombe said he has found that the online modules are in no way substitutes for in-class instruction. Still, he said, he believes that, if anything, this pandemic will provide lessons on how technology can become an effective tool to in-class learning.

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“The tools we have been provided allow some continued education during this time, but lack constructive feedback provided in class. By utilizing these types of applications in a classroom setting, we would be afforded the best of both worlds.”

Prof. Milner-Bolotin, of UBC, said that his time away from school can also be an opportunity for children to research their interests and share them with parents. In her Skype chats with her nephew, she said he shares with her all that he’s learned about basketball.

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“I always felt we cannot outsource everything,” she said. “In some ways, here’s an opportunity to learn with your child."

Asked about how the education system may change its approach to online learning as a result of the pandemic, Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, said “teachers have requested to be consulted prior to decisions being made regarding the impact of these extraordinary times on Ontario’s education system.”

Mr. Bennett, the Nova Scotia education consultant, said so much focus in education has been on positioning online learning as a threat to the classroom, that the system has failed to address how to embrace it.

“Whatever your position, however you view education, a hybrid is coming out of this crisis. And it’s a hybrid that recognizes the need for a balance between online learning and face-to-face learning,” he said.

Some classroom teachers have started sending their students online resources, but many parents who are juggling work and home life, and who don’t feel equipped to teach their children, are turning to private companies to fill that void.

Kimberley Langen, founder and chief executive officer of Spirit of Math, said that although its centres are closed, all classes have moved online, and more parents are reaching out.

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“The kids were having fun for a week staying at home [during March break]. However, I think parents are realizing the reality of the situation: Their children are missing out in a big way,” Ms. Langen said. “In addition, parents are looking for something that isn’t just fun activities; they want something that offers a substantial learning experience.”

Toronto’s Jenny Chung Mejia carves out time in her day to find new ways to keep her two children interested in learning. She has become much more focused on a facet of life in a global pandemic: a spreadsheet of learning apps.

Ms. Chung Mejia finds the task overwhelming at times, but sees it as a way to keep her children involved in their studies.

“I think it is important from a technology standpoint. We live in a world with technology,” she said. “It is teaching them some of those basic tech skills that they would need to navigate.”

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