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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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Our whole world has been turned upside down and none, more so, than the educational world inside Canada’s provincial school systems. Previous assumptions have been shattered by the frightening COVID-19 virus. Fierce ideological battles over the introduction of high school online courses, which dominated Ontario education warfare for the past two years, have subsided, for now.

What K-12 education is experiencing, going into a second month, may be a school shutdown, but it’s more like a power outage which has left students, teachers, and parents in the dark. Fumbling around to find the light switch is enough of a challenge without having to master unfamiliar education technology tools and completely re-invent the delivery of teaching.

E-learning has arrived, by default, and ministries of education and school districts are scrambling to fill the gap with patched together ‘continuity of learning’ programs.  Even the charter members of the C21 CEO Academy who’ve been espousing “21st Century Learning” dogma for years are suffering culture shock. Especially so, when compelled to make radical readjustments, following lock-step with public health directives. It’s what online learning expert Michael K. Barbour aptly described as  triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system.

With children and families essentially quarantined and homebound, educating children, for the first few weeks, has fallen largely upon parents and guardians. Resuming contact with students on the phone or by Zoom is a good, positive first step, but very soon most parents are going to be desperate for meaningful learning activities to keep their children and teens on track and out of trouble. Interactive games and videos won’t be sufficient if the school hiatus lasts until the end of the year.

Systems under such stress either rise to the dramatically new challenges with smart, innovative plans to bridge the torrent of change – or cling to comfortable structures, revert to familiar policy responses, and apply band-aids.

The COVID-19 has really wacked Canada’s provincial school systems and educational leaders initially lost their bearings, like everyone else. The first and most instinctive response was to reaffirm ingrained and practiced policy nostrums, such as providing equal opportunities for all children and addressing educational inequities first.

With such a mindset, the focus is almost exclusively on ‘worst-case social policy:’the belief that any policy initiative or program that may not reduce social inequities should not be undertaken at all.  In this case, e-learning was initially seen as problematic because of digital access inequities and so, in spite of the system outage, it should not be pursued until we were able to meet everyone’s needs all the time.

Schools and their teachers filled the vacuum and responded in sometimes radically different ways. Some super-keen educators seized the unexpected opportunity to try something new and to provide their students with short video chats, online learning and/or ‘lesson packets’ during the period of social isolation.  For others, the protracted shutdown provided a respite from in-person teaching and so there was no rush to resume parent or teacher-led education, essentially leaving kids and families to fend for themselves.

Some provinces such as Alberta and Ontario have moved quickly to establish Continuity of Learning portals, posted online course material, made e-learning resources readily available, and set explicit expectations for teachers in terms of the assignment of work and the delivery of content. Some provincial responses, most notably Nova Scotia’s Learning at Home program, announced March 30, 2020, took a “feel-better” approach, providing a set of broad guidelines and a smattering of hastily-assembled resources, emphasizing interactive games, fun activities, and healthy living exercises.

E-learning programs require far more planning and preparation than is possible right now in the throes of the coronavirus emergency. Teachers, willingly or not, are being expected to become online instructors on the fly, while everyone struggles to adjust to the brave new world of social distancing and almost everything going digital.

Existing educational inequities may be exacerbated by the current global crisis. Students of upwardly mobile, university educated parents may surge ahead, with more exposure to a knowledge-rich curriculum through Khan Academy, the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and the Discovery Channel.  Poor and marginalized kids and families without access to technology or safe, secure home study space will suffer more than others.

Relying solely upon standard provincial elementary curricula with a well-being focus emphasizing SEL (social and emotional learning) may not serve to advance achievement. In some cases, it might well deprive children of sound, evidence-based instruction in the fundamental skills of reading and mathematics.

“Learning loss” during the shutdown may be a concern of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, but it’s  the farthest thing from our minds when we’re in the path of a potentially devastating pandemic. Ringing arm bells about students falling off the COVID-19 educational cliff and losing ground to those of other nations pale in significance in such times. Right now, it’s all hands on deck.

Sooner or later, the real impact of the shutdown of K-12 education will hit us. When the black hood of COVID-19 lifts, the imapact will be more apparent.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario), April 8, 2020.

What impact did the COVID-19 Pandemic have on school system leaders from province-to-province across Canada?  Why does the term “triage” coined by Michael K. Barbour seem particularly appropriate in describing the e-learning responses of provincial school systems?  Will the COVID-19 health crisis spark lasting changes or not in the conventional mode of operations?  When might it be the time to examine the impact in terms of student learning loss? 

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