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Distance learning may be the new reality for Ontario students

Distance learning may be the new reality for Ontario students

in Education/Opinion by

Premier Doug Ford, in a surprisingly frank interview with CFRA Ottawa on March 26, told the host that he expects social distancing and closures to continue well into the early summer.

Ford, following the best scientific modelling available said June or July might be the earliest that Ontario reopens for business. The ramifications of that statement are rolling across Ontario at this moment like a tidal wave as people begin to rethink work, travel and school plans for their children.

Parents, hoping that their children would be returning to class sometime soon to salvage the 2019-2020 school years in a traditional manner, are trying to digest this news, and contemplating next steps. Ford’s education minister, Stephen Lecce, said just today that schools will most assuredly not return until at least May 4 — and of course that will be subject to change.

Right across North America, jurisdictions like Alberta and Kansas have already pulled the plug on the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year telling students they will hopefully see them in fall of 2020. A hodgepodge of decisions across the continent have almost all schools closed, but with staff still attending in many American jurisdictions apparently awaiting direction from school board officials. Ontario schools have been closed since March 12, 2020 and now don’t look like they will be re-opening any time soon.

Parents are naturally concerned about this once-in-a-generation pandemic. Most education watchers, including myself, expect the province to roll out sooner than later a beefed-up distance learning program as a stop gap until summer to try to salvage the 2019-2020 school year, and then after a COVID-19 review in August decisions will be made about the 2020-2021 school year.

Some may wonder why the 2020-2021 school year is even being mentioned at this point. There are multiple models regarding the lethality and staying power of COVID-19 vying for government attention. One of the most commonly accepted computer generated models has COVID-19 not “burning itself out” for approximately 32 weeks. That would take us into October of 2020, and put two educational years under threat of disruption.

If distance education is to be the answer for our school-aged children we need to know what that term means and what its history is here in Canada.

Distance education is defined as, “formal educational offerings where the instructor and the learner are physically separated and where learners study appropriately designed material at a place, time and pace of their own.”

In 2020 distance learning, “typically involves some form of communications technology to link the learner to the instructor and other learners.”

Distance learning has a long and colourful history in Canada beginning in 1889 when McGill University began to provide degree opportunities for rural teachers to upgrade their qualifications while not being physically present on campus. In 1912, University of Saskatchewan and University of Alberta were offering off-campus self-study programs for rural learners.

In 1921, the British Columbia Ministry of Education received their first request ever for study materials for children living too far from established schools and correspondence education began in Canada. Most provinces followed suit and developed K-12 distance education programming for children growing up in isolated lumber, mining and fishing outposts.

In 1941, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in association with the Canadian Association for Adult Education and the Federation of Agriculture put together a series of radio programs for living room study groups across Canada that dealt with topics as diverse as animal husbandry, home canning and better child rearing techniques. Content was provided by St. Francis Xavier University and its faculty.

Soon the National Film Board joined in producing hundreds of “educational shorts” for community viewing in settings as varied as theatres, parish halls, and church basements or in hastily improvised out-buildings when the topic appealed to a group of interested farmers.

The 1960s saw distance learning truly enter the mainstream of post-secondary instruction when Memorial University established “slow scan video” to provide a consulting service for doctors in remote locations in Newfoundland and Labrador. University of Waterloo was the first school to audiotape lectures with accompanying texts and assignments for co-op students on remote semester-long placements.

In 1972, Alberta established Athabaska University as the first dedicated distance learning facility in Canada, and soon the school will celebrate its 50th anniversary.

For those of us with a little bit of grey hair we might remember TVO in its infancy. TVO was established exclusively to broadcast educational programming, and a good chunk of their prime time programming was University of the Air where you could listen to lectures and achieve university credits from the comfort of your own living room.

With the advent of the internet in the 1990s distance learning has never been the same. In 1995, Ontario Learns was established as a consortium of 24 community colleges that pooled their distance learning material and put it on-line. Ontario Learns soon became the largest provider of community college courses in North America.

Each year one million Canadians, mostly working adults, study via distance learning. Distance learning has become so lucrative that commercial suppliers as well as industrial, trade and professional organizations are providing learning courses and resources. Course availability and course content is typically driven by student demand. The advent of blogs, wikis, Twitter and Facebook have improved the access to learning and the level of student interaction considerably over the last decade.

Few would argue the reality of distance learning at the post-secondary levels in Canada today. With COVID-19 potentially forcing most students from K-12 into some kind of distance learning environment for the considerable future, a parent might wonder what we have learned about the efficacy and effectiveness of distance learning.

Are there conclusions that have been drawn about distance learning’s successes and drawbacks that we need to be aware of before we move forward on any massive social experiment here in Ontario?

Canadian data available on the pros and cons of post secondary distance learning is sketchy and haphazard at best, but a recent Brookings Institute study released in 2017 certainly raises some red flags based on the American experience. The Brookings Institute study is the largest ever done on distance learning in the

United States. The study focused on DeVry University, a large undergraduate institution with multiple campuses across America with an enrollment of over 100,000 students.

One-third of their students take their programming on campus, while two-thirds of the students take their degrees on-line. Data was collected over a number of semesters, and by the time the report was collated information on 230,000 students enrolled in 168,000 sections of more than 750 individual classes was analyzed.

The conclusions are stark, and ones that we need to be prepared for if for reasons of public health and safety Ontario elementary and secondary schools remain closed for at least this school year. The Brookings team drew the following conclusions based on the DeVry data:

  1. Taking online courses drops a student’s grades .44 points on the traditional four point grading system. That is a minimum grade drop of better than 12 per cent.
  2. Students learn less in online settings.
  3. Students who take online courses are more likely to drop out.
  4. Online courses do a worse job of meeting the needs of low performing students.
  5. Taking online courses impacts student performance in future classes.

The report concluded that while on-line programming did expand accessibility for students of all backgrounds, “courses need to be improved for students most at risk of course failure and college dropout.”

Those with knowledge of TLDSB structure and operations believe that local plans for online learning are being spearheaded by a team led by superintendant of learning technological services, Paul Goldring, and principal of the virtual learning centres (VLCs), Steven Roffe. Roffe is currently responsible for the board’s admired distance learning program that is available to students right across Ontario.

The VLC, open since 1997, offers almost 90 high school credits at most, but not all, levels of difficulty online. Teachers with extensive background in distance learning were contacted last week by board officials for input on what direction the local plan might take.

On Facebook and Twitter numerous local teachers are preparing for this possibility by asking their more computer savvy colleagues for assistance in moving their content and evaluation online. Educators, aware of the Brookings results and others, are very concerned about how successful their difficult to service students might be in this new online-only atmosphere.

Most expect something to be introduced by April 3 as schools remain closed likely till next September. Conversations with various classroom teachers and labour leaders have indicated how fraught this brave new world of student learning might be.

TLDSB was asked to participate in the creation of this article. Unfortunately Advocate e-mails to the appropriate officials went unanswered.

Teachers unions like OSSTF and OECTA have posed many of the following questions about distance learning. Many are pertinent to our geographic area specifically:

  1. What do we do about students with no computer at home?
  2. What do we do about students who do not have reasonably fast internet?
  3. What do we do with students who have no rural internet because of the area where they live?
  4. What are we going to do about multi-child families who all need to access technology and broadband during the same 8 am to 3 pm school window?
  5. Who is going to ensure that the children actually log on?
  6. Who is going to provide technical support for tens of thousands of children working from home?
  7. Who is going to provide students extra help that some will need in order to be successful?
  8. Will programming be made available for students of all levels of ability?
  9. Does the infrastructure exist in Ontario for over a million children to go on-line at approximately the same time every day?

Parents are equally as worried, and have posted to blogs and Reddit some of their most pressing concerns:

  1. Parents who currently aren’t working because of COVID-19 have said they can’t afford more expenses like upgraded Wi-Fi. Will the province be picking up their internet costs? (Skinny rural internet packages like the one we have for our Haliburton cottage can cost upward of $150 a month.)
  2. How do parents cope when they will likely be recalled to work before schools re-open? Will the province re-open schools for those children who have no affordable daycare options in place?
  3. How can parents assist their child’s learning when many don’t feel competent with curriculum much beyond Grade 6?
  4. Will all grades be expected to distance learn or just Grade 4 and up?
  5. Will teacher help be available outside the traditional school day?
  6. Will courses be distilled to a few key learning goals to ease the load on parents?
  7. How many hours a day will students need to be in front of their screens?
  8. What will be done about students who are currently enrolled in hands-on classes like Tech, Phys-Ed, Music, Art and Drama?
  9. How can you complete a science course without doing experiments?

When Canada faced its last health pandemic between 1918 and 1920, governments in all jurisdictions closed schools with some remaining closed for more than a year to combat the Spanish Flu.

For the first time since their introduction, Ontario suspended their dreaded Provincials, the school leaving exams that were legendary for their depth, breadth and difficulty. A decision was made that public health and safety were far more important than a lost school year.

The archives of Ontario report that most boards surprisingly paid their staffs in full despite the fact school years were severely truncated by the pandemic that came, left, and came again. Most boards understood that this was a highly unusual circumstance and behaved accordingly.

Ontario in 2020 is faced with a similar quandary about what to do with students and schools. With technology, hopefully they have at least a partial answer that educators did not have a century ago. The rollout and results will be interesting to watch.

The Advocate will keep you up to date on this ever-changing situation as information becomes available.

Kirk is a retired high school history teacher and coach who has had a lifelong interest in politics at all levels. Since retiring, Kirk has spent the last three years doing freelance writing of all kinds for various platforms. Kirk can often be found sitting in the press gallery at City Hall observing and reporting on the vagaries of local government.

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