Over the past two years, a rise in COVID-19 infections forced Ontario’s two million public-school students into an online learning environment few had experienced before – and will continue to experience even when the province emerges from the pandemic.
Some children thrived, free from the anxiety and bullying in their classrooms. Many other families complained of technological glitches, little ones dissolving into tears in front of the screen, and, more significantly, learning challenges.
Ontario students spent more time learning remotely than their peers in other parts of the country. Now, observers worry that the outcome of next month’s provincial election could further entrench online learning in the province’s public education system.
“It does no favours to an already underfunded system,” said Beyhan Farhadi, a postdoctoral researcher in equity and e-learning at York University.
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The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party introduced a requirement in early 2020 that high-school students, beginning with the cohort that entered Grade 9 in the past academic year, must earn two e-learning credits toward their diploma, unless they formally opt out through their school boards.
It was part of the contract agreement with the high-school teachers’ union, but at that time, educators were already worried about how the quality of learning would suffer, given the larger number of pupils in online classrooms. Critics also expressed concerns about how online learning would exacerbate inequities among students, especially when some don’t have access to the internet.
The NDP and Liberal parties have promised that if elected, they would remove that requirement.
Ms. Farhadi is concerned that as online learning further embeds itself into the public system, it will be accompanied by cuts that affect those already struggling in school. As part of her prepandemic dissertation, Ms. Farhadi mapped out almost a decade of high-school enrolment data in online classes. She found that those who were more socioeconomically and academically advantaged were more likely to enroll in online courses.
School boards are required to provide the option for remote learning again in the next academic year “while the pandemic continues to evolve,” said Grace Lee, a spokeswoman for Stephen Lecce, Education Minister in Doug Ford’s government. Mr. Lecce is running again in the riding of King-Vaughan.
Ms. Lee did not directly respond to a question about whether a PC government would introduce legislation to make online learning a permanent option in public education. Last year, the Ministry of Education shared a document with various education groups that outlined plans to introduce legislation that would give families the ability to enroll their children in full-time synchronous remote learning. In synchronous learning, a teacher is present, just like in a physical classroom.
The document, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, also stated that high-school students would have the option to enroll in a teacher-supported online course or an independent-learning course offered through a centre operated by TVO for English-language students and TFO for French-language students. The document also said that those organizations could market the courses elsewhere. It is unclear what happened with the paper.
Online credits have been offered to high-school students for about two decades, but those courses are generally asynchronous, which means lectures are recorded and assignments are posted online.
In its platform, the NDP said it would scrap the two mandatory e-learning credits that high-school students have to earn to graduate, and stop the privatization of online learning. Mr. Ford’s government reached an agreement with the high-school teachers’ union in early 2020, which included the two mandatory online courses that would be taught asynchronously.
The government had initially planned to have students take four online courses to graduate. Even with two courses, Ontario is unique among jurisdictions around the world. Other areas, including several U.S. states, require students to take no more than one course online.
Sue Winton, an associate professor at York University, who studies the privatization of public education, believes that online learning is “here to stay,” but she worries about what it could look like and the quality of education that students would receive. Prof. Winton is the undergraduate director for York’s teacher education program and there are discussions about educating teacher candidates around online pedagogy.
“I worry about school choice more broadly speaking,” Prof. Winton said. “We know [that] … creating choice in public education is not good for the traditionally marginalized, underserved populations.”
The past two years have shown families and educators that the in-person learning environment helps children academically, mentally and socially, said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
She said that school boards would “figure it out” if the next government mandates that they continue to provide an online option for all students going forward. But she added: “We’re not interested in having it get bigger. We’re not interested in having more and more of our learning take place online.”
The online-learning issue will likely be raised in coming negotiations in the fall, when the contracts of teachers and other education workers expire.
“It cannot be that we’re looking for a cheaper way to provide education … that is not right for kids,” Ms. Abraham said.
Lynn Thomas is a high-school English teacher at the Grand Erie District School Board in Brantford, who leads both a face-to-face and an e-learning class this term. Her in-person class has 20 students, while her e-learning class has close to 30. Students sign up for e-learning courses because the subject may not be available to them at their smaller high school, for example. Others prefer the style of learning.
“It has a lot of potential if done well,” Ms. Thomas said.
However, she worries about mandating students to take classes online: “I have concerns that it could erode the public education system, primarily because for e-learning to be effective for students and for them to meet greater success, it needs to be implemented with the student at the centre in mind, as opposed to a money-saving strategy.”
Families have had mixed experiences with online learning. Victoria Garardo’s eldest son has not set foot in a physical classroom. He started kindergarten last year and the family, who live in Windsor, opted for online school because of concerns around COVID-19 infections. They chose virtual learning again this school year.
Ms. Garardo’s son is self-sufficient online. He occasionally will wander off, and she leads him back to his desk. But, she said, his teachers have been engaging.
Her younger son will start school in the fall, and although she wants both in the school building, she will wait to decide.
“I do like having the option. It’s something we’re going to reassess closer to the school year,” she said.
Toronto parent Angie Law has taken a different approach to online learning. Her daughter will not do the two e-learning courses. Her youngest child starts high school in the fall.
Ms. Law’s daughter is shy and did well when schools were closed to in-person learning and students were shifted online. But she also wants her daughter to engage with her classmates.
“Digital learning assumes everybody learns the same way. And nobody does,” she said.
She added: “It’s a political agenda hidden behind offering different things for people … It’s a slippery slope.”
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