As indicated above, the 2020-21 school year continued to be disrupted by COVID-19. While there are significant differences between traditional e-learning and the temporary remote learning that has occurred over the past two years (Barbour et al., 2020), no reporting of K-12 distance, online, and/or blended learning in Canada would be complete without some discussion of how jurisdictions have provided those remote learning opportunities. If the pandemic response is considered in phases (see Figure 1), it is important to begin by situating the 2020-21 school year.
Figure 1. Four phases of educational response to COVID-19 in terms of remote and online learning adoption. (Barbour et al., 2020, p. 3).
The four phases were described by the authors as:
Phase 1: Rapid Transition to Remote Teaching and Learning – Institutions making an all hands on deck movement to remote delivery, often relying on synchronous video, with massive changes in just four weeks.
Phase 2: (Re)adding the Basics – Institutions must (re) add basics into emergency course transitions: course navigation, equitable access including reliable computer and broadband, support for students with disabilities, and academic integrity.
Phase 3: Extended Transition During Continued Turmoil – Institutions must be prepared to support students for a full term, and be prepared for online delivery – even if starting as face-to-face.
Phase 4: Emerging New Normal – This phase would see unknown levels of online learning adoption, likely higher than pre-COVID-19 days, but Institutions would have new levels of technology and support to reliably support students.
In March and April 2020, schools in all jurisdictions were forced into Phase 1 in an effort to simply provide some measure of continuity of learning for K-12 students all across the country. At some point during the Spring of 2020, most, if not all, jurisdictions were able to transition to Phase 2, where we saw teachers and students using the tools ‘(re) added’ in an effort to replicate the classroom experience (see Nagle et al., 2020a for a complete description of the emergency remote learning response that occurred at the end of the 2019-20 school year).
The Summer of 2020 should have allowed jurisdictions time to prepare their schools to enter Phase 3, a period of transition. Phase 3, often referred to as a toggle term, is when schools are able to provide in person learning, remote learning, or some combination of the two – depending on the local epidemiology of the virus – at levels where they can provide an equivalent student experience regardless of modality. Essentially, a situation where students are able to learn just as effectively in the classroom as they can at home through remote instruction, or just as effectively with some students in the classroom and some students at home. Phase 3 is also where teachers are adequately trained in how to use the tools and teach with them so that the medium in which they are teaching is irrelevant to the quality of the learning experience they design, deliver, and support. One of the ways some jurisdictions could have made the transition to Phase 3 more seamlessly would have been to leverage the existing e-learning resources from traditional distance, online, and blended learning programs. For example, most jurisdictions had either province-wide online learning programs or a high proportion of school districts that operated online learning programs, yet only a few jurisdictions took advantage of these resources.
One of the challenges to providing remote learning opportunities has been the teacher’s inability or lack of adequate time to create high quality asynchronous online content in advance. Instead, teachers relied on strategies designed for synchronous classroom instruction with little experience or exposure to how to design quality online instruction. Many university-based teacher preparation programs offer no programming focused on the provision of learning at a distance (Archibald et al., 2020), and, those that do, often include it under the guise of a more generalized technology integration experience. The point is, provinces and/or school districts did have the delivery tools and content to free classroom-based teachers from the responsibility of creating their own asynchronous remote learning experiences. If it had been provided, teachers could have focused on facilitating asynchronous learning with their students, something that is beyond the instructional methods many teachers use in the classroom. Asynchronous teaching methods can support teachers in building relationships with students, particularly remotely.
Another example of a challenge that was faced by many jurisdictions was the lack of technology and bandwidth in the home. Many jurisdictions still have, or recently had, correspondence-based distance learning materials that could have been utilized – had teachers been appropriately trained over the summer or during a delayed fall opening – to help overcome this challenge. However, the reality was that few jurisdictions used the early end to the 2019-20 school year, the Summer 2020 break, or delayed Fall 2020 openings to start to really leverage their existing e-learning resources from traditional distance, online, and blended learning programs to better prepare for remote learning during the 2020-21 school year (see Nagle et al., 2020b for a complete description of the planning for and implementation of the Fall 2020 start to the school year).
As Nagle et al. (2021a) concluded, “the reality was that some jurisdictions did not put in place the necessary planning or preparation to allow the 2020-21 school year to proceed in the expected ‘toggle term’ fashion – as envisioned by Phase 3” (p. 3). In fact, for many jurisdictions the entire 2020-21 school year was spent in varying states of Phase 2 (with some jurisdictions even reverting back to Phase 1 at times). As Phase 3 is basically a model where the medium of the instruction (i.e., in person or at a distance) has no impact on the quality of the learning experience or environment, so it does not matter if the student is in the classroom or remote. In examining a future direction for public education in New Zealand, Wenmoth (2021) provides a useful model to envision what this toggling might look like – both during and in the absence of a crisis (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. On-site, remote, synchronous, and asynchronous options for teachers and students to engage in their learning. (p. 15).
Inherent in this model is a system of education where teachers and students are able to toggle between in person and remote settings, where learning is delivered in a synchronous or asynchronous fashion, with a level of fidelity that the student is not disadvantaged by the quality of instruction in any quadrant. However, what we saw across Canada during the 2020-21 school year – and thus far during the 2021-22 school year according to LaBonte et al. (2021) – was not a seamless transition between mediums or a consistent level of quality.
In fact, many jurisdictions scrambled to reinvent what had already existed in successful, existing e-learning infrastructure. For example, the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) in Newfoundland and Labrador had developed over 45 high school courses that were available to all provincial educators to use instead of having to develop their own asynchronous learning materials. However, according to public records, those materials and the learning management system that house them were never acknowledged or promoted as a resource for teachers and students to take advantage of. Similarly, despite having access to a full digital curriculum in a provincially-licensed learning management system, Ontario launched a synchronous hybrid learning model led by classroom teachers with limited training. Teachers live-streamed classroom instruction to remote students watching the classroom feed on a screen at home – that is, if they had the technology, bandwidth, and persistence to pay attention to their teacher.
Some jurisdictions did rely on their existing online learning programs to support students and parents wishing to remain home. This resulted in an increase in enrollment in the programs, but did not necessarily negate the need for remote learning during school closures. For example, in British Columbia students were offered either in-person learning or access to one of the 69 public and independent online learning schools, and the term ‘remote learning’ was not used by government (Montreuil, et al., 2021). Interestingly, throughout the 2020-21 school year there were no province-wide school closures issued, although there were local school closures based on local epidemiology. In fact, the Deputy Minister of Education reported that British Columbia school attendance actually increased in both classroom-based and online programs during the 2020-21 school year.
There were even jurisdictions that developed models of instructional delivery that had not previously existed (or had only existed in the most isolated cases) in the K-12 school system. In examining the Ontario response in greater detail, the government’s guide to reopening schools required boards to offer remote learning for all students, whether schools were closed or if a parent chose to keep their students home (Davidson, 2021; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021; Wilson, 2021). The need to effectively plan for and train teachers for this new and unique model of hybrid learning would seem to have been clear. The hybrid teaching model that was used required teachers to provide between 180 to 225 minutes of live, synchronous teaching for elementary and secondary students (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2020). Many boards in the province met this requirement by having classroom teachers be responsible in real time for engaging students in learning activities that were in the classroom (i.e., ‘roomies’), as well as remotely connected through the use of new technology from home (i.e., ‘zoomies’). This simultaneous teaching instruction for classroom and remote students, or hybrid learning as it was called in the province, was offered with limited planning, support, or training for teachers – technological or pedagogical. The challenges inherent in the hybrid model were immediately criticized (see Fox, 2021; Stewart, 2021; Wong, 2021).
While Phase 3 envisioned a period where schools ‘toggle’ or switch from in person learning to remote learning as “states of lockdown and openness, depending on their sense of epidemiological data and practical feasibility” persist (Alexander, 2020, para. 32), what occurred in most jurisdictions when school closures were required was still remote learning – and not online learning – because it was still viewed as temporary in nature. However, as teachers and students become more adept at teaching and learning in either modality, the goal is that the transition becomes much more seamless.
Teaching and learning landscapes are not dichotomous. It’s not in-person learning or online learning. Teaching and learning today requires the flexibility to navigate multiple learning landscapes simultaneously (Novak & Tucker, 2021). Standard classroom practices have been didactic, teacher-led, and assume uniformity, teaching to the middle of a broad range of abilities. This stops short of the flexible time, pacing, and pathways required for today’s learner and fails to take full advantage of existing technologies, tools, and practices that can be used to support that flexibility (Arnett, 2021).
What happened during the 2020-21 school year in most remote teaching contexts was an attempt to project a classroom instructional model to students at a distance, with the ‘bums in seats’ delivery model that existed in too many physical classrooms. It was a pedagogy of conformity that was group-based, teacher-centric, and never envisioned individual learning from a variety of different locations. It lacked the flexibility to adapt to changing social circumstances and environments. Irvine (2021) argued, “there’s no return to pre-pandemic teaching. We must accept the reality that the need for flexibility is endemic in the K–12 education system” (para 1). However, sadly in far too many jurisdictions, the pandemic did not lead to creation of flexible learning opportunities that took advantage of multiple modalities and technologies as one would have hoped.
At some point the crisis will have passed and the pandemic will be over. At that stage, schools should emerge into Phase 4 or a ‘new normal.’ What will the impact of years of remote learning have on how online learning will look within the K-12 system? Will online learning resemble what it looked like in the Fall of 2019 (i.e., with standalone distance learning programs and schools)? Or will the experience of remote learning lead to a greater flexibility in the system as Irvine argues? Given that traditional online learning in Canada was rarely the live, synchronous, teacher-led instruction that we have seen during the pandemic, what impact will that model of remote and hybrid learning have on the K-12 system? These questions highlight the need to pursue this line of inquiry through continuing research.
 Also referred to in the popular media and academic literature as co-seating, co-located teaching, and/or concurrent teaching (Barbour et al., 2020a; 2020b).