EMERGENCY REMOTE LEARNING IN ONTARIO
On March 31st, Phase 2 of Ontario’s “Learn at Home” program was announced in response to COVID-19 school closures. The announcement has resulted in inconsistency in communication to parents and to teachers, who are tasked with supporting two million students with a diverse range of learning needs and inconsistent access to resources and support at home.
The direction set out a plan for teacher-led learning that adhered to prescribed hours of work. ‘Work’ includes time spent on assigned tasks, which varies student to student, and engagement with direct instruction delivered by the teacher. How students will be evaluated is unclear; some school boards announced that they will honour pre-closure grades, while offering future evaluation as a way to improve upon those grades, and others have yet to clarify how marks will be determined. In the same breath, school boards may penalize students for failure to “attend” and submit work after closures by withholding their credits.
Even more concerning is that while Stephen Lecce has announced that class is back in session, it is unclear who it’s back in session for. Access to technology, a reliable connection, and caregiver support is not the same for each child, a resource gap the Ontario government is failing to address.
Given what we already know about online learning, in which pass rates significantly decline compared to face to face instruction, the average student is likely to experience challenges remaining engaged. While we envision technology as a means of democratizing learning, in practice and particularly while done at home, it is accessed by the highest-achieving students. This is why it is important not to continue assigning grades and hard deadlines to students during a time when many require the stability and predictability of face-to-face instruction to demonstrate their learning.
To roll out what has been a specialized program serving a minority of students to the majority of students in an emergency — sets up expectations against which we are poised to fail.
By Ontario’s measure, 15% of children live in poverty. While school boards are “moving mountains,” to get technology to vulnerable students, many will need more than an iPad and a connection. The provincial “Learn at Home” approach draws not only on a fantasy of eagerly connected students with ample resources, but also on a fantasy of home free from conflict and space constraints, supported by caregivers who can and will provide structure, motivation, and mediate learning between the teacher and their child. The reality is, students are sometimes in precarious conditions. Some are working in essential services like grocery stores, experiencing food and housing insecurity, psycho-emotional barriers, and/or tension with family. Many students are under-resourced and parents overburdened; public schools have been the equalizing force for ensuring all families have access to support for student success.
It bears repeating that we are in a state of emergency. Many students will be inevitably unready to learn and unable to attend classes online. When Stephen Lecce tells parents that their children will require “academic discipline” and “commitment” to experience growth and achievement, with an assumption that students are “up to the task,” he is failing to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of students who require face-to-face structures and supports, which are not always available at home. In secondary schools for example, a quarter of students receive special education support. Such pronouncements do not centre equity in planning, nor does it acknowledge the advantage that well-resourced households will have in producing positive learning outcomes for students.
MAKING THE ‘LEARN AT HOME PROGRAM’ WORK FOR STUDENTS
The Learn at Home program, referred to widely as remote learning, is our best effort at making a failing situation work. This failure reflects the reality that the online classroom, which is the primary point of contact in this program, will not reach many students in Ontario. Making the program work as best it can within the constraints of school shutdown will not only require the delivery of physical material to encourage learning during school closures but also the development of a transition plan for students in need of support upon return to school. Given the challenge of engaging students online under traditional circumstances combined with the pressures of remote learning under COVID-19, here’s are two ways we can make the Learn at Home program work:
Leveraging face-to- face relationships to make online learning work: In contrast to narratives that position teachers in opposition to e-learning, we are discovering that many were already blending it into their face-to-face classrooms to differentiate instruction. They are now drawing upon this technology to re-establish rapport and a classroom community online. This is an opportunity to highlight the unacknowledged work of teachers supporting digital literacy as well as the importance of learning communities established face-to-face, which will play a central role in retaining students online.
Face-to-face relationships are a resource for a trauma informed approach to teaching. This approach prioritizes well-being over behavioural compliance, supports a sense of safety, and fosters connections. Providing opportunities to share feelings without judgement can reduce the stress students are experiencing and provide hope and grounding during a chaotic time. Messaging that encourages routine and connection is more important than enforcing arbitrary measures of academic engagement.
Focusing more on routine and connection and less on curriculum: E-learning that isolates students online is notorious for its attrition rate both in secondary and post-secondary because face-to-face space and time provide unparalleled opportunities to build relationships and provide important boundaries for learning. Given the additional stressor of a pandemic, we may see students disengage from structured learning activities ahead. In such instances, it is imperative that we focus on maintaining social proximity virtually, even if we are physically distant. It is enough for students to return to the online classroom to feel connected, even if they are not formally engaging in learning tasks.
We can not apply the logic of traditional face-to-face classes online. It might contradict our intuition, but accessible and equitable mass delivered remote instruction must be asynchronous, reproducible physically, and supplemented by optional recorded audio conferences (for low bandwidth) or phone calls. We can not compel students online, if online learning doesn’t work for everyone. We can not continue assigning grades if students are unable to demonstrate their learning.
Online learning is already politicized in Ontario. Given the threat mandatory e-learning poses to student success, we must be careful not to normalize a state of emergency or rationalize a policy that inevitably leaves students behind. This is not the new normal. To learn the lessons from emergency remote teaching will require reflection, study, and deliberation. Most importantly, it will require attention to the inequities that are exacerbated during times of crisis so we can better respond to students most vulnerable to harm.
Beyhan Farhadi is a researcher of educational inequality and a secondary teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Her PhD evaluated the e-learning program in the TDSB, the results of which show how online learning, as an emerging method of course delivery at the secondary level, is producing new geographies of inequality.