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Getting it Right: Online Learning in Public Schools

Good pedagogy is good pedagogy. This is a frequently cited phrase that suggests if we focus on building meaningful relationships, cultivating anti-oppressive practice, and delivering effective instruction that engages a diversity of learners, we can succeed teaching in any setting including online.

But success is not dependent upon good pedagogy alone. Technology is not a panacea to the chaos COVID-19 has thrown public schooling into, come this fall. 

Prior to school closures, most students who took e-learning were enrolled in postsecondary institutions, which often replaced large lectures or were combined with in-person learning. Postsecondary students are young adults and exercise greater learner autonomy; the younger the student, the more support they will need to learn online. Especially for elementary-aged children, for whom online learning is not always developmentally appropriate, having an adult to engage in play-based, physically interactive activities will be an important component for success. 

Public schooling is distinct from postsecondary because K-12 education is a right. This means the provincial government has a responsibility to ensure every student has access to quality education, including online. It is a privilege to opt-out of in-person learning, but opting-out still places a burden on families who will need to provide the support that will motivate their children to log-in, stay focused, and complete tasks. Even in the best online classroom, some students will need additional support at home. 

Given our growing reliance on e-learning to supplement and at times replace in-person learning, getting it right must consider variables beyond good pedagogy to make it successful. This includes access to a stable and reliable connection, flexibility in structure to meet varying learner autonomy, and community support for a safe well-resourced space to work.

Closing the digital divide: 

As a researcher of online learning and equity in secondary schools, one of the most urgent challenges facing students is the digital divide. In rural and remote communities across Canada, only 40% have enough broadband coverage to meet basic service speed; this impacts First Nation communities acutely. According to ACORN Canada over 80% of low-income households they surveyed found the cost of internet access extremely high and reference the CRTC, which reports only 59% of Canada’s lowest-income households have access to home internet. Further, the growth of income inequality reveals racial divisions, particularly in Black neighbourhoods disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Getting it right is socially just, especially for students who depend on institutions such as public schools and libraries to access internet hotspots. Not only do students have a right to public education, but also internet access.

Flexibility in structure:

Motivation is harder to sustain online, where students experience isolation, distractions, and technical difficulties. While it is easy to narrowly define motivation as an intrinsic or a personal attribute, dynamic social and contextual influences, including teacher care and attention, impact students to varying degrees. Younger students and students who need psychological proximity to learning activities will require higher levels of structure and interaction with the teacher; they may depend on synchronous instruction. Students who succeed with greater autonomy and control may prefer asynchronous instruction and find highly structured classrooms demotivating. No matter the age, many students will require an adult to coach them through their work, which presents an inequity we must address if we are going to get it right. 

How are we considering primary caregivers and parents in our planning? They are a key variable for success but must receive support to manage otherwise impossible circumstances, especially if they are working from home or are unable to navigate the schooling system. Support for families includes clear communication about student progress in a language they are fluent in; access to tutoring and supplemental supports to navigate technology and curriculum; and connections to programs and services to ensure well-being. Even online, schools must be treated as central to community life. 

Community Programming:

Getting online learning right means connecting students to local supports, especially if there are barriers to accessing a stable and reliable connection, a quiet environment that is well resourced, and an adult who can oversee a student’s coursework. If public education is a right and broadband internet an essential service, we have a responsibility to ensure students have a safe and well-resourced space to learn outside the home. Primary caregivers and parents can not be expected to assume this responsibility. From community centres to public libraries, repurposed civic centres and underutilized schools, we must provide access to physical spaces with infrastructure where students can safely learn online. Creative programming can integrate online access to a wider range of supports, such as educational assistants, child and youth workers, guidance and mental health counsellors, to ensure we are responding to the needs of the whole child. Students are more than their academic achievement.  

Getting online learning right requires a rights-based approach that centres students most marginalized in the public education system; they are at the greatest risk of falling further behind. We are not only in need of political will and long-overdue investments in infrastructure to learn online, but also a transformation in how we envision traditional courses. Success will strike the right balance between instructor proximity and learner autonomy, and integrate community resources to ensure every student is safe, supported, and engaged.

Beyhan Farhadi is a Postdoctoral Visitor in the Faculty of Education at York University, a secondary teacher with the Toronto District School Board, and a proud parent of children in the public education system. Her dissertation research examined the relationship between e-learning and educational inequality.

Those with young and school-aged children are caught in an anxiety-inducing parent trap. Parents are having sleepless nights fearing for their jobs while also being worried about the health and well-being of their kids. But we argue that it shouldn’t be this way. Solving the Parent Trap is a policy series on transforming childcare and education featuring ideas from Janet Davis, Nigel Barriffe, Marit Stiles, Beyhan Fahardi, Maria Dobrinskaya and is edited by Katrina Miller and Brittany Andrew-Amofah.