This article from the Canadian Press was brought to our attention in the past day or two – particular as a couple of different news outlets picked it up.

Ontario school boards set virtual learning plans for 2022-23 year as interest drops
By Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

June 17, 2022

TORONTO — School boards across Ontario are nailing down virtual learning plans for the upcoming school year and some are finding that programming is challenging to offer, with significantly lower student interest.

The province requires boards to offer remote learning as an option for the new school year, as is has for previous pandemic school years. But enrolment has declined each year, and not all boards are able to offer a full virtual school option.

At the Hastings and Prince Edward School Board in eastern Ontario, of its approximately 15,000 students, 113 elementary students plan to do remote learning. But there just wasn’t enough interest from students in Grades 9 through 12 to offer a full virtual school for them, officials said.

“We have seen a significant decline in the numbers of families and students that are interested in virtual school,” said Tina Elliott, the board’s superintendent of education.

“Our nine to 12 response though, was significantly lower than what we’ve experienced … we were not able to offer virtual school in the way we’ve delivered it.”

Interest in remote elementary learning is also well down, Elliott said, but the board can make it work by doing combined grades.

High school students are being told they can register for eLearning courses, which are more independent online courses rather than direct virtual instruction, as well as courses through TVO, or register for one or two classes in person and the rest online.

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What is interest with this news item is the sloppiness of terminology that is used throughout the report.  Just in the 239 words quoted above, the type of learning at a distance is referred to as virtual learning, remote learning, virtual school, remote learning (again), virtual school (again) x3, remote elementary learning, eLearning courses, independent online courses, virtual instruction, and classes online.  And with the exception of the final paragraph, where they provide some form of description, all of the terms are used largely as synonyms.

For the record, eLearning programs have been around in Ontario for around 25 years.  These eLearning programs allow students to enroll in eLearning courses, which is also often called virtual learning or virtual schooling – most of which have student-teacher ratios that are consistent with in person classes and almost all of which do have a teacher that provides a significant amount of synchronous and asynchronous instruction to the student through the provincial learning management system and a variety of other real-time and on their own time tools.

The Independent Learning Centre, which is currently operated by TVO, has provided independent distance learning for decades.  Beginning with correspondence education where students would be sent paper packets, have to complete and return work through the mail, which was then marked by a grader.  Tutors were often available, although interaction with the tutor was student-driven.  In recent years the mediums migrated from paper packets to PDF and postal mail to e-mail, but the instructional model remained the same.  Even today, instead of PDFs there may be well designed, fancy asynchronous course content, but the instructional model is still focused on students completing their work independently and that work being marked by a grader, with the only interaction that a student might have with a subject matter teacher is if they scheduled a meeting with a tutor online.

Finally, remote learning has been defined as:

is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered primarily face-to-face and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated. The primary objective in these circumstances is not to recreate a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis. (Barbour et al. 2020, p. 6)

As the authors conclude, when remote learning is understood in this manner, we can start to divorce it from virtual learning.

This criticism is not a group of researchers being picky about academic terminology.  If remote learning, by definition, is designed to be temporary in nature the fact that interest in this option is dropped as the pandemic wanes is expected.  Understanding that the eLearning programming that school boards throughout the province have been providing to students since the mid-1990s, where a teacher instructs approximately the same number of students in a virtual school as they would in a brick-and-mortar school because the teacher is actively interacting with students synchronously and asynchronous, is quite different than a distance learning program that provides independent online learning and the student has little to no interaction with a teacher or their fellow students is important.  The former has shown to have success in the province at levels consistent with in person learning, while the latter is basically designed for a select group of students that are self-directed and self-motivated learners.

A parent/guardian in the province, who wished to understand what options might be available for their child, could really use this informed, nuanced understanding to make an appropriate choice about how they want their child educated.  But that only happens if the reporter provides the reader with an informed and nuanced article – which this particular news item does not.

 

References

Barbour, M. K., LaBonte, R., Kelly, K., Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., Bond, A., & Hill, P. (2020). Understanding pandemic pedagogy: Differences between emergency remote, remote, and online teaching. Canadian eLearning Network. https://k12sotn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/understanding-pandemic-pedagogy.pdf

News Article: Ontario school boards set virtual learning plans for 2022-23 year as interest drops

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