The Future of Online Learning in Ontario

I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion presented by the Institute for Research on Digital Literacies at York and co-sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “The Future of Online Education in Ontario,” where, along with our host Beyhan Farhadi, and the other panellists, Deborah Buchanan-Walford, Dr. Sarah Barrett, and Dr. Lana Parker, we discussed the use, misuse and potential of online education in Ontario.

In preparing for this panel, I polled my students about their feelings on remote learning during the pandemic and online learning in general. A great many difficulties with remote learning and online education were mentioned and there was a strong consensus regarding these issues:

  • lack of motivation
  • online feedback was not as helpful
  • there was less communication
  • not as engaging
  • isolating
  • overwhelming
  • lack of resources
  • less retention
  • no collaboration
  • picked up bad habits like procrastination and distractions
  • lacked support
  • formats were widely different from teacher-to-teacher so a lot of time was wasted in learning a new format/way of doing things online

They all agreed that these issues have had a lingering effect, for example, they still lack motivation, are plagued with procrastination and are less engaged overall.

The students were very open about their experiences and agreed that the root cause of a number of their complaints was the lack of conversation and the immediacy and spontaneity that it brings to learning. They explained that the feedback was not helpful – not because it was indecipherable but because that chat with the teacher wasn’t possible and sometimes understanding the feedback needs that conversation. You can ask if a student has a question but sometimes they don’t know they even have one until the conversation sparks one.

The shift to pandemic remote learning/online teaching had a huge impact on students. Their concerns were loud and clear and, in fact, some of them echo the impacts felt by education workers as well.

I think both teachers and students felt the destabilizing factor that pandemic teaching and learning produced. For educators, the lack of student motivation, disengagement and talking to blank screens caused a deep sense of isolation. That isolation negatively affected their well-being because it shattered teacher agency leading to demoralization and burnout. We couldn’t have those impromptu conversations in the staff room with colleagues about a student we were concerned about, bounce ideas off each other, or collaborate to plan lessons and learning experiences. The immediacy and synergy of having a conversation is terribly underrated.

Isolation also played a huge role in reducing educators’ sense of efficacy. It’s hard to feel you are having any impact when you are teaching to a blank screen and have no feedback of any kind. And when you are separated from your colleagues it is difficult to have any sense of a shared belief that you are making a difference. Considering that collective efficacy has a 1.57 effectiveness rating according to John Hattie – which is 3 times as influential as both socioeconomic status and home environment – that is a significant hit on student learning.

Compounding these negative impacts was the blurring or even non-existence of work and home life boundaries as teachers tried to plan and transform what they do face to face every day to an online platform, in some cases, a platform that was rarely used prior to the pandemic, and do that while int he middle of a pandemic with little or no training. Effective online learning needs greater clarity in instruction, has specific pedagogies that aren’t applicable in face-to-face teaching and requires more and faster feedback. BUT there was no extra time given to try and adapt or implement any of these strategies that would have supported students. All this had a cost – teacher wellness. Not living up to our own standards and self-expectations coupled with concern for our students’ learning and well-being created the perfect environment for compassion fatigue, exhaustion, and a negative self-concept to run rampant thus further destabilizing and demoralizing educators.

Furthermore, both students and teachers felt the burden of overtaxed cognitive loads as they tried to maneuver through these unknown waters making learning difficult. Students, especially at-risk students, struggled with the self-regulation skills necessary to be successful. I feel this exacerbated student apathy. Just staring at a screen caused boredom thereby increasing disengagement. It is important to note how much this widened the learning gap. My colleagues and I are noticing a marked divide in student achievement – the “middle” seems to have disappeared. Right now, our students in grades 9 and 10 are either doing really well (over 80%) or they are barely hanging on (mid 50 range and lower).

Prior to the pandemic, a two-credit mandatory e-learning policy was enacted. I was opposed to the idea of mandatory e-learning then and am still opposed. Don’t get me wrong, I teach e-learning and enjoy it and I think it has great potential, but it should not be forced on every student in the province. It’s just unrealistic. A large proportion of students just don’t have the self-regulation skills necessary for success in an e-learning course. They also lack effective learning strategies that they can implement on their own – even senior students. I teach grade 12 e-learning and see this playing out daily.

For e-learning to be successful, we need to cohesively implement a social-emotional learning (SEL) program that is integrated across the curriculum at every grade level. This would help ensure students are more prepared. A great example of this in action can be seen in this Learning Continuum from the Australian Curriculum.

Social-emotional learning is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, Fundamentals of SEL). More specifically, SEL focuses on five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and making responsible decisions.

Hundreds of studies offer consistent evidence that SEL bolsters academic performance. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) cites results from a meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 as well as a systematic review from 2021 which found that SEL programs improved student behaviour, helped them achieve greater academic success, lowered their levels of distress, and even reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Read the 2011 meta-analysis. (Durlak et al., 2011), a summary of the four major meta-analyses on SEL, and the 2021 report from the Early Intervention Foundation.

The fact that educators are not being consulted or included in the conversation to develop policy surrounding e-learning greatly hampers the success that it could have. We miss the knowledge and expertise that educators can bring to the table. We undermine collective teacher efficacy by leaving their voices unheard. Educators know the pedagogy and the students. Real experience working day-to-day with students gives them a unique perspective that others do not share. We are able to see the hurdles that need addressing. We know the regional concerns like connectivity, socioeconomic background, device concerns, language and other barriers, digital competency of students and their families, and we can offer specific, targeted solutions.

Theoretical knowledge is important but it needs to be proven or disproven before it is enacted on a wide scope. That’s where we get research and data. E-learning has been around for decades and there are ample research studies showing what works and what doesn’t so that it can be implemented thoughtfully with the success of the student at the core. Basing policy solely on theory does a disservice to students. It is akin to putting every student in Ontario in a laboratory to see what happens. The chance of implementing programs that are viable and better equipped to be successful can happen if teachers and other education workers are included in its development.

Online learning and educational technology have enormous potential for good. They have the “tremendous ability to close the global learning gaps that have been widened by the COVID-19 pandemic and contribute significantly to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ ” (The Teacher Tech Summit Communiqué, T4 Education).

We can level the playing field if we recognize the need to implement appropriate systemic support and have a progressive vision with students at the core.

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