A week after a delayed school reopening, an education reporter asked me a question about online education during COVID-19 that left me feeling conflicted: Should families have had the choice to select virtual school for their children? Since the Ford government mandated two credits of e-learning as a graduation requirement, I have confidently commented on the inequities of mass-delivered online education, concentrated in the United States, which is driven by a handful of tech companies such as K12 Inc. and Pearson whose services are often subsidized by the state. Online education has continued to proliferate south of us, despite a documented lack of oversight, misuse of public funds, and low-retention rates compared to traditional schooling.
In Canada, full-credit online learning has been typically accessed by self-selected secondary students who have limited in-person course options. Most often these courses are delivered asynchronously with the majority targeting senior-level university-bound students because attrition rates are higher for junior-level students and students who require in-person support. British Columbia has long been leading in
e-learning activity but, according to a report produced by its teacher federation, online learners are typically concentrated in partially-funded independent schools, which are often religious. In contrast to the expansion of mass online education in the United States, Canada has been exclusively accessed by a limited demographic of students, whose success online is consistent with in-person schooling.
While COVID-19 has forced all of us to teach and learn online, we quickly learned that there was no precedent for success while teaching during a pandemic; perhaps the goal was a fantasy. In the absence of clear and equitable guidelines, the delivery of emergency remote learning was inconsistent, failing too many vulnerable families, and nearly all experts agreed that the sudden shift to online learning left teachers without the tools and training they needed to succeed. As a secondary teacher well prepared to transition online, even I struggled to balance my full-time responsibilities delivering remote instruction while caring for my children at home. It was an impossible position that we may have to confront again if we are unable to control community transmission of the virus.
Online education in ontario during COVID-19
When the school year drew to a close, unions representing education workers, parent advocacy groups, and education experts called on the Ministry of Education to work collaboratively on school reopening. The Ontario Human Rights Commission formally requested a Return-to-School Partnership Table, noting the negative impact school closures had on code-protected groups. They reminded the Minister of Education of his responsibility and the responsibility of school boards to meet the needs of vulnerable students, the plan for which should proceed collaboratively using a human rights-based approach. Despite their call, it was left to school boards and unions to manage the near weekly changes in educational policy as September approached.
What we have expected in the absence of provincial leadership has come to fruition and educational inequality has grown starker. Many families in non-designated school boards, who attend in-person, are confronting a digital divide that requires broadband infrastructure a decade too late, and First Nations students are often excluded entirely from planning. Many families choosing to learn online in designated boards are concentrated in lower-income racialized communities vulnerable to COVID-19. Some school boards withdrew the option for virtual learning in special education programs, forcing our most vulnerable students to physically attend school, while other boards required teachers to simultaneously instruct virtually and in-person, putting students in both modalities at a disadvantage.
It is a privilege and a burden to learn online depending on your circumstance. We know virtual schooling requires parental support that those with resources can supplement through private tutoring or pandemic pods, but is also a necessity for families who are living in under-resourced communities where COVID-19 pre-sents a real threat to in-person learning. In the absence of sound planning, sufficient resources, and meaningful collaboration, students within and between school boards will have a significantly different experience learning online. Coupled with a chronic lack of investment in public education, which took another blow this year with attacks by the provincial government, the choice to learn online may feel like a choice between bad and worse.
What are other jurisdictions doing?
Jurisdictions across Canada do not consistently offer online education as an option for students. Quebec has acknowledged that it is not possible to teach simultaneously online and in-school, despite parents petitioning school boards for access to remote learning. British Columbia responded to the high demand for an online option by offering a transitional program, which provides limited online support with the intent of encouraging a return to in-person learning. Parents who choose this option are required to support learning and supervise their children. In Alberta, online learning differs district to district and includes a combination of asynchronous and synchronous instruction that requires varying commitment from parents. The Jason Kenney government has taken the lid off of marketization by passing the Choice in Education Act, lifting the cap on charter schools and allowing them to bypass local public school boards who had first right of refusal for specialized programming requests. These measures prevented what has been the disaster of market competition in the United States. Given Ontario has followed Alberta’s lead closely, these developments are concerning.
Virtual schools in Ontario, which is a full-time K–12 synchronous model, are separated from formal e-learning programs, which are asynchronous and typically targeted to Grades 11 and 12. Online education is intended to provide a temporary measure to respond to an unprecedented crisis in public education, but it is likely that the infrastructure of virtual schools in densely populated school boards will continue beyond the pandemic.
Opportunities in online education during COVID-19
The biggest threat to public education is corporate-influenced schooling and the greatest defence we have is labour unions and the collective agreements negotiated with employers to protect working and learning conditions. Before remote learning, teacher federations in British Columbia and Ontario were responsible for keeping the exploitation that typically accompanies the growth of online education at bay. This not only includes ballooning caps in classrooms and disintegrating boundaries on the workday, but also centralization that removes teachers from their local communities and often replaces them with standardized course content and underpaid adjunct instructors to evaluate and assess students. Contrary to the assertions the Ontario provincial government has made, teachers did not reject online education but rather the marketization of learning and the austerity that siphons funding out of the public system and displaces students from their local communities and in-person supports.
Years of provincial underinvestment in public education extends to technology-enabled learning that could have otherwise built capacity in teachers and learners and provided developmentally appropriate resources that meet the diverse needs of learners. Instead, we have an unutilized one-size-fits-all learning management system that we have paid an extraordinary amount to license. Public education advocates continue to call for sufficient investments to ensure online learning is accessed equitably by all students in the province, not only by those who are well resourced. This includes access to dedicated unionized teachers, whose collective agreements protect the quality of online education, and access to resources that ensure all students have access to learning opportunities online; this is not limited to a computer and a high-speed connection, but also to supports to navigate platforms and applications, and develop critical digital literacy that will protect them online.
The inequities of online education
In the absence of a public unionized system to preserve the integrity of online education, we will inevitably see marketization encroach on classrooms. The once clearer divide between the public and private sectors is blurred in a neoliberal era where governments envision themselves as a business, whose objective is to extract efficiencies from the public system, and corporate non-profits offer “innovative” and “modern” solutions to social problems that further compound inequalities. The threat is not just outright privatization, but also willful neglect and the extraction of profit from crises such as COVID-19. When we apply the logic of a capitalist market economy to public governance, our most vulnerable families lose.
For teachers, online education has already raised questions about labour, especially in asynchronous environments where teaching “looks” different. The physical location of teaching has also changed as are public perceptions of work. With vastly differing policies, a teacher in City A may teach “dual-track” students virtually and face-to-face, simultaneously, compared to a teacher in City B, working as a dedicated virtual teacher. A teacher in City C may deliver a hybrid model that integrates online learning for part-time students who can comfortably distance in-person, while a teacher in City D is teaching in-person to packed classrooms unable to distance. Further adult day school teachers who deliver the same curriculum are not only underfunded, and often unable to deliver online education, but also grossly exploited compared to their colleagues. The divisions are both inter and intra-regional and we must continue to vocally advocate for fair
Students are also navigating inconsistencies in program delivery. In designated school boards, there is a mixture of in-person, synchronous, and asynchronous learning; this hybrid model is distinct from full-time virtual schooling that is synchronous. Fully synchronous classrooms can present challenges to students who are unable to work from a quiet environment, who struggle to maintain a high-speed internet connection and up-to-date equipment to support their learning. On the other hand, it can also motivate students who require the structure real-time learning provides; ideally, in-person learning would support students safely, with smaller class sizes. Learning (and teaching) online is also resource intensive. It requires access to a computer and a connection as well as a quiet space to work and equipment to meaningfully participate, such as a microphone, headset, and video camera. Students may also share resources with family members who are also working from home and what was once the private space of a students’ life is often visible without a video-optional policy. Once video is compelled, student autonomy is compromised as others can stare at, analyze, and digitally capture their image without consent.
Inequities also extend to parents who, depending on the learner, may have to provide motivating variables to learn online. This includes cues to stay focused, support with technical difficulties, and fielding questions a student may withhold from asking publicly. Adolescence is a period of significant cognitive growth, which includes using complex thinking in personal decision-making, school work, and social life. It is also a period of identity development which takes place in the context of current events such as a pandemic, which has shown to significantly impact the mental health and well-being of young people. Managing these pressures requires partnership with parents, who are poised to observe signs of struggle that might otherwise be missed through the barrier of a screen.
The future of online education
There is no doubt that the Ford government will capitalize on this crisis. Keeping online education in the hands of unionized teachers, while continuing to fight for fair working conditions and funding that makes access equitable for all students, is the task ahead of us. Teachers are in a leading position to show that online education can be done well in a public system, as well as to show the gaps that need to be addressed for vulnerable students in the system. The question has never been a matter of technology, but rather the economic logic and value system that drives neglect of publicly-funded education. It is this logic that positions in-person schooling at risk, especially in non-designated school boards that are unable to guarantee the space required for safe distancing. It is this logic that positions virtual schools as the answer to insufficient funding, which is a journey toward disaster. Schools are community hubs, not accreditation mills, and we need to approach online education with the principles of a public system central to which is the assertion that education is a right, not a privilege.