Earlier this week, Le Devior reported that:

School attendance may be mandatory by law, but more than 3,500 primary and secondary school students are taking their lessons remotely even though they have no health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID- 19 .

According to what Le Devoir has learned, a three-year pilot project set up by Quebec is opening the door to online education for these thousands of handpicked students. To qualify, parents must demonstrate that virtual school is the best option for their children due to a range of circumstances: bullying at school, severe anxiety, behavioral or learning difficulties, autism, giftedness, distance from major centers or participation in sports-study or arts-study programs requiring regular absences from class.

As you examine the list of “circumstances” that are provided, what should be apparent to the reader is that distance education has been available to students at the secondary or high school level in all other provinces for the past two decades.  The fact that the Ministry of Education in Quebec is only now beginning to offer through a series of pilot project that are designed to operate from September 2021 to June 2024 indicates that the province is behind other jurisdictions.

One of the reasons Quebec is behind all other Canadian jurisdictions with respect to the provision of K-12 distance and online learning is because there is a perception within the province that distance and online learning is of lesser quality than face-to-face learning, and this isn’t the first time that Le Devoir have written about how bad they believe “distance education or virtual schooling is.  The criticisms of distance and online learning are often focused on the poor quality of learning, lack of socialization, and impacts on mental health.  These arguments have been mainly supported by:

Steve Bissonnette, [who] knows what he is talking about: he teaches himself at TELUQ, this branch of the University of Quebec which only offers distance learning courses. He even coordinated the implementation of the program I teach at a distance, intended to train Quebec teachers in virtual teaching in times of pandemic.

Yes, both Le Devoir pieces are authored by the same individual who works in a program that was established by this “expert.”  One of the difficulties is that the opinions offered by Fortier and Bissonnette are based on what has occurred over the past two years.  As described in an earlier entry focused on the perceptions of distance learning in Quebec, the type of distance learning that students have experienced during the pandemic was:

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 re-create 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. When we understand emergency remote teaching in this manner, we can start to divorce it from “online learning.” (Barbour et al., 2020, p. 6)

In much the same way that Dr. Bissonnette and Mr. Fortier are probably much better distance learning instructors, and able to teach teachers how to teach at a distance much better now than they were when they first started.  They’ve had years of practice, and likely some specialized training in how to teach at a distance.  The students that they teach come to their courses with an understanding that they will be learning at a distance, so they have the necessary technology and bandwidth – and often the independent learning skills required (or at least have an understanding that they will need to develop these skills).  None of these things were in place for teachers and students in the K-12 system over the past two years.

However, the introduction of these pilot projects is designed to change that.  As Mr. Fortier notes himself:

The Ministry of Education specifies that approximately 3,500 primary and secondary students are taking their courses remotely under 56 pilot projects. This initiative (from September 2021 to June 2024) is part of the Digital Plan, which aims to “promote the deployment of distance learning (FAD) in primary and secondary education. […] The conclusions of this project will contribute to defining the orientations of the Ministry for the future. »

These pilot projects are largely designed to better understand what is required to design, deliver and support distance learning to allow students to have success in the future.  Rather than suggest that “in an ideal world, the virtual school is a ‘solution of last resort’ in crisis situations such as during successive waves of the pandemic” – as both Mr. Fortier and Dr. Bissonnette state, the actions of the Quebec Ministry of Education is the approach that should have occurred a decade or two ago.

The Virtual School Takes the Lead in Quebec – and it is about time…

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