Over the last four months, students and their parents have participated in one of the biggest e-learning experiments in Canadian history. When schools across the country shut down in mid-March, e-learning went from optional to mandatory.
“This change has been massive,” explains Clare Brett, chair of the department of curriculum teaching and learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “We’ve never, ever tried to make such a wholesale shift in our teaching and learning strategies as we have in this moment.”
Not surprisingly, distance-learning has had mixed reviews. For many parents, juggling working at home while also helping their kids navigate the e-learning framework has been an exercise in frustration. And while some students excelled, others suffered without the tools and resources readily available in school.
As governments start to ease lockdown orders and begin opening up the economy, officials are grappling with what a September school year could possibly look like, especially if or when a second wave hits. No matter the form the “new normal” takes, one thing is clear: education has changed forever. Which means that before the next school year starts, it’s crucial that educators integrate education technology in ways that are inclusive, accessible and effective.
“It makes no sense,” explains Amanda Munday, mother of two children, ages four and six based in Toronto’s east end. The entrepreneur who owns a parent-friendly co-working space called The Workaround wasn’t happy how the curriculum relied on parents helping students complete tasks and navigate websites. “There’s an assumption that children can navigate multiple tabs, multiple applications at the same time and it’s not true. Kids need training on how to use applications and interact with these programs,” she says. “Right now we’re picking and choosing how and what to learn because I’m not able to sit by their side all day.”
For most educations, if in-class sessions can’t safely resume by fall, schools will likely start scheduling students for face-to-face learning on alternating days to enforce physical distancing. “We’ll see more changes and new innovation to come,” says Brett. “This is just the start.” The new normal will also mean teachers will have to try out new tech solutions to manage large numbers of students from a distance without sacrificing quality education.
Another necessity? Making sure that low-income families have the tools and hardware they need at home, which includes not just dependable computers, but also a version of the free breakfast programs found at some schools.
Online learning isn’t new. In fact, Canadian educators have long used e-learning or “blended learning” tools in conjunction with in-person lessons since at least 2000 — the big difference during these past few months has been the total reliance on remote learning to do everything all at one. “The timeline has just been accelerated because of the pandemic,” says William Zhou, CEO and co-founder of Chalk, an education analytics and planning platform.
Zhou has seen first-hand how this rapid adoption of technology has allowed students to engage with content in new creative ways. For example, e-learning tools can help students with learning difficulties learn at their own pace as well as strengthen cognitive skills, such as problem solving and critical thinking, using real-time events, games and interactive lessons. Plus, these programs don’t rely on pre-printed books or material that can quickly become outdated.
“Learning in the modern era is no longer about memorization and regurgitation of content — we have Google for that,” Zhou says. “If we move to a future where repetitive work can be replaced with machines then we need to teach them skills that will help learn skills, analytical thinking that can be used anywhere.”
Not too long ago, teaching consisted of a blackboard, a teacher (with chalk in hand) lecturing kids at their desks. That’s all changed: Now students can practise their homework with tutors across the country, visit foreign countries through real-time maps and get instant help from experts without leaving their home.
Online learning can increase the amount of attention students — especially those with learning disabilities or those in need of specialized help — receive, and allow for customized assignments without having to rely on time-strapped teachers.
Vinay Singh, founder and CEO of learning disability software Orange Neuroscience, says that the three-month pandemic experiment has shown how agile EdTech is. “Traditionally it has always been believed that special education has to be done one-on-one and face-to-face,” he says. “But that isn’t true.”
Orange Neuroscience creates programs that incorporate games and e-lessons to boost reading comprehension and speech by targeting eye movement, visual cues and hearing. Other creative solutions that give struggling students an extra helping hand include award-winning programs like MobyMax that rely on individualized curriculums to fix learning gaps and Curriculum Associates to improve reading and writing using personalized e-platforms suited to a student’s strengths and weaknesses.
An extra bonus for those that can afford online programs is that it allows students to get real-time help during the day and night (outside of regular school hours) and creates a level playing field without diminishing their peers’ learning outcomes.
“The pandemic has forced people to think outside the box, and it’s shown that students can learn in their own time without falling behind,” Singh says. “This is a time to embrace technology.”
Educators need to become acquainted with the latest technology to see how it can effectively implement it, Brett says. “A well-designed online learning environment can give you the opportunity to do individualized learning well,” she says. “People can work at different paces. And, also the other thing they can do is work together and collaborate.”
While online learning has gone well for some, there are still downsides that leave other families, especially those in underserved areas, left behind. Equity and access to technology has single-handedly widened the learning gap for plenty of low-income students throughout the pandemic. “We’ve seen school boards run Wi-Fi through buses and drive into areas where there is no or slow connectivity. We’ve seen parents go into Walmart to get Wi-Fi and that’s not sustainable,” says Zhou.
It’s too early to tell how many students are permanently logging out of online courses, preliminary work by the LA school board found student absenteeism, especially among low-income families with no reliable internet or hardware, is particularly high.
Technology can’t solve existing inequities and if a second wave of the virus forces children back home or what is more likely work-at-home days throughout the school year to limit physical contact, it will have a greater impact on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. “What happens to students at home who can’t access the internet?” Brett asks.
In April, John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, advocated telecom companies give unlimited home internet access for low-income Canadians citing it as an essential service for young and old. Under public pressure most telecoms, like Rogers and Telus, have waived roaming and long-distance fees, suspended disconnections and amended disconnection policies in the near-term.
Of course, as Zhous says, “Throwing a laptop and internet access at a student isn’t enough. There’s more to learning than computers and access.” Success with e-learning from home requires a conducive setup for success. School classrooms are set up for learning by providing the right desks and decreasing distractions. The same needs to be done for students at home.
The many issues that e-learning presents won’t be solved overnight, but as the world continues to grapple with breakout clusters and no vaccine in sight, the need to create a great learning environment is a must. Educators and parents that do it well will see their children succeed, but it will take the combined force of all stakeholders — families, schools and government — to make it a reality.
Takara Small is a technology journalist and founder of VentureKids Canada, a nonprofit that teaches youth from low-income and underserved backgrounds how to code and launch their startup with minimal resources. At Collision From Home, she is talking about the transformation underway in education.