Although the recent pandemic driven transition to online education may have appeared relatively seamless and rapid, various issues have surfaced at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Despite the benefit of an existing online format, struggles have been reported here at AU as well. Various students on the AU app have expressed concern with increased wait times for online invigilation, as well as additional challenges for students uncomfortable with or unable to write their exams online due to housing conditions or lack of childcare.
For those unaccustomed to online education, the transition has revealed significant barriers. This is in addition to trying to navigate an unfamiliar system and online learning portals in a time of collective fear and grief. With brick and mortar campuses closed Canada-wide, many post-secondary students and educators are experiencing online lessons for the first time. Students have reported difficulties with attending lengthy lectures in real-time, inexperienced and unprepared professors, and poor Wi-Fi connections.
Similarly, at the elementary and secondary school level, there have been reports of struggling teachers, children, and parents. In addition, parents often face additional challenges, such as lack of time, insufficient computer and language literacy skills, and accessibility issues.
In both Canada and the United States, rural students, as well as those living under the poverty line, often have minimal to no access to computers and internet services. In both countries, worry exists that this pandemic will cause students living in poverty-stricken or rural areas to fall behind.
This is quickly becoming apparent in Alberta. When contacted for statement, Trisha Estabrooks, Board Chair and Trustee Ward D of the Edmonton Public School Board stated, “Edmonton Public Schools serves almost 105,000 students. The transition to online learning has been and will continue to be our greatest challenge moving forward. I cannot overstate the amazing work our administration and staff have accomplished in moving learning online for all students.”
Many teachers have implemented innovative strategies to educate their rural students by turning to various apps, social media, and video conferencing tools. Since many students have no or slow internet or computers, laptops, or phones, teachers have been sending students home card-based learning games, as well as texting or calling students without reliable internet.
Estabrooks stated, “This massive change has required an entire reimagination of what learning means for all of our students during this challenging time. Staff are having to learn new technologies, new processes, and new techniques to engage with their students and with one another. Every day I am reminded of the incredible resilience of our staff and students, and the innovative ways we continue to support each other. I know teachers and staff miss students greatly, but truly there’s nothing more important than the health, safety, and well-being of our students, staff, and families during this pandemic.”
In many Albertan communities, bandwidth has become a problem with increasing usage, making high-speed internet access impossible. In addition, large phone bills and data overages are becoming more common. In response, some students are receiving Chromebooks and those without internet access are receiving lessons via USB or print materials.
In Saskatchewan, problems with Wi-Fi coverage has also led to creative teaching methods, including sending learning packages to families with activity bags and school worksheets.
In Ontario, teachers and school boards are experiencing problems as well. Many worry that students will fall further behind as a result of online learning challenges. Teachers have not been given a specific guide; much is being left up to their discretion. So this experience is serving as a learning curve, with best attempts being made while faced with difficult conditions. An Ontario public school teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity revealed, “I am teaching and it’s very challenging. My kids need a lot of support and it’s very hard through a computer. They are only in grade one. I know there are families without tech, or for whom language is a barrier to be able to help their child.”
The Toronto District School Board revealed plans to give out 28,000 laptops and iPad’s to students, some with built in Wi-Fi for those in need. In addition, print-based material is expected to be available for students who struggle in online learning environments. The Ontario public school teacher stated, “… my board has been working hard to get computers and internet access to as many kids as possible. I’m not sure what percentage of the ones that need it are getting, but I know they’re trying.”
Over the years, the value of online education has been hotly debated, particularly during the recent Ontario teachers’ unions’ negotiations. However, proponents believe that this transition to online education may very well produce a paradigm shift, transforming public education long after the end of COVID-19. In addition, this sudden shift has also highlighted the online system’s deficiencies; steps can be taken to correct them for future learning. According to Marina Milner-Bolotin, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education, “I expect a steep increase in online learning that will continue beyond the [pandemic]. People now will pay much more attention to it as they will experience its power.” Many proponents believe that a hybrid system will be a result of these changes.