On her youngest son’s first day of online school, Tamzida Parveen managed to snag one of a limited number of video spots but then lost it when she briefly turned the camera off so her six-year-old could finish his cereal.
As a result, her son spent part of his first day of Grade 1 not engaging in his class because his teacher couldn’t see him.
“It was like a closed door,” said Ms. Parveen, a stay-at-home mother of three boys in Toronto. “He was not interacting at all. … That was heart-wrenching.”
As school boards have dramatically expanded virtual learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, some teachers and families are grappling with limitations in online educational platforms. Experts worry that technical challenges, such as a limit on video cameras, could adversely affect student achievement.
“Not having access to cameras or not being able to accommodate cameras in a platform is unacceptable,” said Beyhan Farhadi, a postdoctoral researcher at York University who studies equity and e-learning. “If students feel disengaged from the primary means of communication in their classroom, then it’s really hard to feel motivated to complete the work.”
Many Ontario school boards, including the Toronto District School Board, are using Brightspace, an online learning platform that comes with a video-conferencing tool that only allows 10 cameras to be on at once, meaning teachers can’t see all their students at any given time.
As a result, some parents are racing to log on early each morning so their children can be on video during live teaching sessions, rather than just hearing the audio feed. Some teachers are requiring students to take turns on camera or have begun using other tools, such as Google Meet.
The TDSB is considering switching to a different video-conferencing service, such as Zoom, as a result of teachers' complaints about the 10-camera limit as well as concerns about the cost of the premium version of Brightspace, said Kevin Bradbeer, a senior manager in the board’s IT department.
“We could hear very clearly from a lot of teachers that the limit of the 10 cameras is a problem, that they find that to be a barrier,” he said.
Howie Bender, vice-president of K-12 at D2L Corp., the Kitchener, Ont., company that owns Brightspace, said the video service the platform comes with, which is known as Bongo, was designed to have a limited number of camera slots at a time to keep students' focus on the teacher without the distraction that a large number of live webcams can create.
However, he said Bongo is planning to increase the number of webcams that can be on simultaneously as a result of changes in the ways schools are using video conferencing for online learning.
“It’s catching up,” he said. “The usage and experience today is … starkly different than what we had before the pandemic.”
Mr. Bender said Brightspace also allows for integration with video-conferencing tools such as Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams and D2L will continue to work with the TDSB.
Ontario’s previous Liberal government signed a contract with D2L to provide a virtual learning environment in 2018, which was an extension of a previous deal. The tender listed the contract as a four-year agreement with three options to extend for two years each and a value of up to $84-million. Under the contract, school boards have a licence to use the basic version of Brightspace for e-learning. However, some boards have chosen to use Brightspace in addition to other platforms, such as Edsby.
For Ms. Parveen, her son Mukhtaar’s experience with online learning improved when his teacher switched to Google Meet by the second day of class. Now, he and all his classmates are on video at the same time and their teacher can easily see when they raise their hands.
“I feel like a sudden, lively spirit comes into him whenever the teacher calls on him and he’s seeing himself and he’s interacting with his class,” she said.
Ms. Parveen said the webcam on her son’s computer provides a way for him to socialize with other children in his class.
“That is the interaction that they were missing all throughout the first six months of this pandemic. I find that that’s what the camera was representing.”
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