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A draft Ministry of Education document, leaked to the Toronto Globe and Mail on March 24, 2021, has, once again, stirred the pot in the volatile Ontario education debate over expanding online learning courses. After a year of school shutdowns and off-and-on online learning, the document revealed that Education Minister Stephen Lecce was considering legislation to make “remote learning” a “permanent part” of the K-12 public system.

News that online learning was here to stay was hardly earth-shaking, but it aroused the usual fears of a ‘hidden agenda’ at Ontario’s Queen’s Park. Was it a way of promoting and advancing “parent choice” or the thin edge of the wedge leading to “privatization’ of public education?  Whatever the motivation, the online learning “boogeyman” was back, a year after the first round of controversy, cut-short by COVID-19 and the abrupt transition to emergency home learning.

Minister Lecce seized the high ground in confirming that online learning would continue in post pandemic times. Keeping schools open for in-person schooling would remain the priority, but plans were afoot to ensure that, in September 2021, parents would be given the opportunity to enroll their children in “full-time synchronous remote learning.” In post-pandemic education, online learning would continue to be utilized to ensure “continuity of learning,” to “mitigate learning loss,” and to provide students with access to a wider range of courses.

Ontario’s teacher union leaders reacted as expected, slamming the move, and especially the absence of any prior consultation with frontline educators. “The move to virtual learning was never intended to be permanent: it was a temporary measure intended to deliver emergency instruction during a global health crisis,” claimed Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The proposed plan would, he charged, “ negatively affect students, increase inequalities, lower standards…and put us one step closer to the privatization of public education.” Ontario Secondary School Federation president Harvey Bischof was more measured in his criticism, but asked to see evidence that online learning worked to the benefit of students.

The online genie is out of the bottle and will not likely ever be contained or rationed as a supplement to regular programs again. In the case of Ontario, some 400,000 of the province’s 2 million students or 20 per cent have experienced online learning during the 2020-21 school year. While regular in-person learning is far superior for most students, there’s a good argument to be made for expanding course offerings online.

Integrating online courses into the regular program makes good sense, knowing what we now do about the potential for mass disruptions affecting in-class learning time. The final revenge of COVID-19 may strike again, and having an implementable e-learning plan will be part of all future strategic planning in public health and K-12 education. With the capacity to offer comparable virtual learning, for short periods, it’s hard to justify repeated snow day school closures or shutting down operations for a whole range of calamities, including hurricanes, floods, windstorms, boiler meltdowns, or seasonal flu epidemics.

What the Ontario government was proposing back in 2018-19 looks quite different in the light of the COVID-19 educational disruption. The initial Doug Ford government plan to require high school students to complete four online courses from Grades 9 to 12 provoked a firestorm of opposition. It was eventually scaled-back to 2 courses required for graduation. Three courses suggested as online offering possibilities were good ones, Grade 10 career choices, Grade 11 biology, and Grade 12 data management.

What a difference a year makes in K-12 education. Integrating online learning courses into the regular high school program looked radical, scary and disruptive in February of 2020, on the eve of the pandemic. Ontario’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board, not only publicly condemned Minister Lecce in February 2020 for proposing required online courses, but commissioned a teacher- parent – student survey clearly aimed at torpedoing such a plan. Without any real experience in online learning, 81 per cent of parents and 97 per cent of secondary school teachers opposed what were labelled “mandatory e-learning courses.”

What have we learned since the pandemic turned education upside down? Keeping children in school should be the highest priority because its far superior to online substitutes and even compared to the most engaging live stream lessons and videos. The core mission of schools is to provide academic learning, but today’s education includes a far wider range of learning supports and mission-critical psycho-social services. Missing in-person schooling for weeks on end deprives students and families of important lifelines and aggravates socio-economic inequities.

Integrating virtual learning into K-12 education has become the new post-pandemic education imperative. “Continuity of learning” is now more than an aspirational educational catch-phrase when we have the capacity to shift, much more comfortably, from in-person to mixed hybrid or full-time virtual learning. Completing full courses online, much like regularly logging onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex platform-supported programs, will become more commonplace and, in time, become a normal expectation for students, teachers and parents everywhere. We have seen the educational future and it includes online learning.

Why does expanding online learning still spark fierce resistance in Canadian school systems? How well did school systems do in transitioning to alternative modes of delivery, specifically hybrid learning and full-time online learning? To what extent was Pandemic Education emergency home learning a fair test of the potential for effective e-teaching?  Is it possible to turn back the clock after absorbing the lessons of the pandemic?

 

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