It’s been an overwhelming time for both educators and students. As we scramble to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in all aspects of daily life, educators have also been asked to imagine virtual classrooms at a scale never seen before.
Students’ lack of motivation and poor time management skills;
Many technical issues, including students’ lack of technological fluency;
Barriers to access for those with limited or no access to internet;
Lack of access or inequitable access to technology;
Bias towards high-achievers who need less direct teacher support;
Higher drop out rates compared typical classroom-based courses.
These kinds of issues are not anecdotal, and are supported by a number of academicstudies.
The rush to implement e-learning solutions further marginalizes the 6.5 per cent of Canadians who don’t have access to the internet at home, and numerous rural communities where Wi-Fi access remains poor. Also, there are limited public discussions about how the majority of e-learners are white and affluent, and how they amplify existing educational inequalities, including but not limited to class, race and gender.
In many ways, the complexities surrounding e-learning have been marketed away like a commercial product. If it were packaged like a detergent, you could envision that the label would promote itself as being “flexible, independent” and “suitable for various lifestyles.” But once we break the product’s seal, will our rush to adopt wide-spread e-learning be something “new and improved” or will we soon be screaming “buyer beware”?
There’s not a lot of time for buyer’s remorse, however. As a stop-gap solution during a worldwide crisis, governments are relying on e-learning courses, and it may be difficult to push back the new precedents being set in online education. So, as we fumble towards an increasingly networked, online learning future, we need to urgently forge a collective vision of what online education could and should be.
“Education for all”
Before we can think critically about the future of e-learning, we need to consider how our attitudes towards education have evolved over the years.
Today, many of us take for granted the idea of education as a social good. “Education for all” is a concept that informs Ontario’s curriculum, stemming from a global UNESCO mandate in 2000 “aiming to meet the learning needs of all children, youth and adults.” Far earlier, however, influential sociologist Edward Shils proclaimed higher education as a source of “secular salvation” in 1958. Education was seen as a panacea, with individual growth as its foundation:
…the transformation of the human being from a recipient of tradition and an object of authority into an independent, differentiated, initiating individual.
However, as the idealization of the individual within education propagated, so did computers. When the capacity to conduct large scale data collection and analysis became easier, education systems began to be studied and compared internationally. Eventually, exams that were once meant to select students for further education became national, scientific assessments to “judge the adequacy of educational systems to deliver desired outcomes.”
In other words, standardized tests became the standard in which to evaluate individual and collective academic success, and an increasing reflection of a country’s international economic and political reputation.
Education has long been characterized as a central requirement for national economic development and political democratization in the contemporary world. Moreover, international benchmarking has been identified as the basis for improvement… It is only through such benchmarking that countries can understand relative strengths and weaknesses of their education systems and identify best practices and ways forward.
As a result of standardized testing, a “good” education is no longer just a reflection of an individual’s personal and emotional well-being, but assumed also that it can be scientifically measured within the results of national exams and/or international tests.
Considering this framework, it’s not difficult to see why Conservative Ontario education Minister Stephen Lecce would consider e-learning a societal good. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Minister Lecce boasted about how e-learning would improve technological fluency, which is a skill that he said employers and “not-for-profit leaders are telling us that’s a competency they want strengthened.”
Perhaps we’re in a time that’s not so much “education for all” but education for a job.
As I write this, many of us have spent days and even weeks in our respective apartments and homes in self-isolation — and some of us sick in hospitals. Some of us can work from home, some cannot, and others have been laid off or must live uncertainly without work and income.
The narratives in these small samples of tweets should concern all in regards to the e-learning initiative put forward by the Ontario government.
One of the major teacher unions still without a contract, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), say they were not consulted about the province’s “Learn at Home” initiative, and there remains resistance within the union in regards to the rollout of e-learning initiatives, too.
The OSSTF’s ambivalence over Ontario’s e-learning initiatives is facing backlash in conservative media, with the suggestion that the union should eagerly follow suit with “what everyone else in the Western world is doing” and not be threatened by “online tools” because it may appear to compromise “their negotiation position in future years.”
Fulfilling the ideals of e-learning should be the primary goals of educators in Ontario. Some of those ideals include featuring dynamic content personalized to each learner and the creation of virtual communities that contribute to critical education.
Most importantly: how do we create e-learning spaces accessible for all learners? And how do we ensure all Canadians have access to stable broadband internet service and computer technology?
Some more philosophical questions for educators to ask ourselves about e-learning:
How do we ensure that technological mastery intersects with our consciousness, our ethics?
How can we develop a rubric to evaluate the merits of existing and emerging education platforms so that we work in spaces that reflect our human values and aspirations, not the interests of globalization and the marketization of education data?21,24
How do we personalize, decentralize, and create citizen “civic” spaces within centralized e-learning spaces and platforms?
In regards to making e-learning spaces civic-oriented, we must also acknowledge that schools can be undemocratic spaces for students, and that they rarely have a say in “how the school is run or how teachers and other adults conduct themselves.” If e-learning is part of the future of education, how can we give children and youth the opportunity to genuinely participate in the curriculum to which they are exposed? If we want youth to enthusiastically participate in our democracy as adults, we must ensure that e-learning spaces invite meaningful participation within the course — and especially within the school and educational system — as well. To do otherwise is hypocritical and undermines our promotion of active citizenship, and instead encourages cynicism and distrust.
Finally, the current ideology surrounding education as a tool or “social sponge” to train and retrain workers needs to be evaluated, too. Looking out from our windows in this time of necessary self-isolation, many of us see empty streets — and maybe also a reflection of an economy, environment, and society in crisis. Governments around the world are spending trillions to fight the pandemic and simultaneously bolstering industries, businesses and people with aid packages and basic incomes for those put out of work by the pandemic. In a globally networked world, we clearly need to prepare for a world without work. What that world looks like is still unknown, but clearly requires large-scale consultation and innovation. In an age of high-stake standards and testing, have we lost track of the true purpose of education? Can we find a balance between building a technologically fluent workforce while also developing “independent, differentiated, initiating” individuals and citizens?
In today’s knowledge-based, information-age society, our current culture of learning in schools remains mired in an industrial age based approach, which compartmentalizes knowledge and treats students as if they are all the same.
Educators and students are at the forefront of ensuring that the technology we use in both our classrooms and e-learning spaces authentically serves our collective interests. We are not slaves to technology, rather technology is what we make of it.
3. Barbour, M., & Labonte, R. (2019). Sense of Irony or Perfect Timing: Examining the Research Supporting Proposed e-Learning Changes in Ontario. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 34(2), 1–30. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2350114007/
9. McLaren, P. & Jandrić, P. (2015). The critical challenge of networked learning: Using information technologies in the service of humanity. Critical Learning in Digital Networks. In P. Jandrić & D. Boras (Eds.), Critical learning in digital networks (2015th ed., pp. 199–226). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-13752-0
11. Kamens, D., & Mcneely, C. (n.d.). Globalization and the Growth of International Educational Testing and National Assessment. Comparative Education Review, 54(1), 5–25. https://doi.org/10.1086/648471
12. Shils, E. (1958). The concentration and dispersion of charisma their bearing on economic policy in underdeveloped countries. 11(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/2009407
14. lollybags45. (2020, March 26). Wrdsb has begun what they call, ‘phase 1’. We are reaching out to all families and students and taking an inventory of who has devices, what device capacity is and internet access. The focus on making sure things are equitable when online learning officially rolls out.[Tweet]. https://twitter.com/lollybags45/status/1243237364937494529
15. MercilessMord. (2020, March 26). Many boards are making sure kids and families who need it have tech & wifi before starting. This seems equitable. Not all staff have access to great resources either. What is the rush? Really? Can someone REALLY explain the urgent need here? [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/MercilessMord/status/1243234593878179840
17. campbibi. (2020, March 26). I teach high-needs students with developmental disabilities. Online instruction is not an appropriate model for my students. I’ve been reaching out to families to see how I can help (including checking to see if they have food and supplies) and gathering resources for home use. [Tweet].https://twitter.com/campbibi/status/1243214984508854273
18. mclocat. (2020, March 26). We have been instructed by board & union to wait until an equitable & consistent plan is developed. Makes sense. You want consistency, not a 1000 educators doing their own thing. We’ve been checking in to see how students are doing mental health wise in the meantime. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/mclolcat/status/1243215256287096837
24. Hillman, T., Rensfeldt, A., & Ivarsson, J. (2020). Brave new platforms: a possible platform future for highly decentralised schooling. Learning, Media and Technology: Education and Technology into the 2020s: Speculative Futures, 45(1), 7–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2020.1683748
25. Boulianne, S., & Theocharis, Y. (2020). Young People, Digital Media, and Engagement: A Meta-Analysis of Research. Social Science Computer Review, 38(2), 111–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439318814190