Online school will still be around post-pandemic, so what have we learned?

When COVID-19 hit a year ago, countless students from kindergarten through post-secondary were thrown into virtual schooling for the first time. As we look to post-pandemic life, online classes will be still be sticking around for some. But what's needed to make them better?

'You have to change the way everything is done,' says student

Grade 9 student Arryan Rao, seen at home in Mississauga, Ont., hasn't enjoyed juggling high school under a hybrid of online and in-person learning. 'It's a lot less in-person,' than people believe, he says. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Juggling virtual and in-person attendance this year due to his pandemic-modified high school schedule, Grade 9 student Arryan Rao is blunt when it comes to his feelings about online learning.

"It's less engaging than in-person classes. It's easier to get distracted and there's a lot more opportunity to not do your work," said Rao, 14, who is sorely missing face-to-face time with teachers, classmates and peers from the band and other extra-curricular groups.

Academically minded, the Mississauga, Ont., teen pays attention, takes notes and participates as much possible during online classes, but "it's a lot harder for your ideas to be heard," he said.

When physically in class, "I can ask questions of the teacher and I don't have to wait for him to see that my hand is raised virtually. I can just raise up my hand and he'll actually talk to me. If I have questions about the assignment, I don't have to email him. I can just ask him in person. If I want to work with my friends, I can just talk to them."

When COVID-19 hit a year ago, countless students from kindergarten through post-secondary were thrown into virtual schooling for the first time.

Though some have adapted well, many students, families and educators have spotlighted problems with online learning. As we look to post-pandemic life, online classes will be sticking around. But what's needed to make them better?

Grade 11 student Almira Kagzi has done well and enjoyed full-time virtual school, especially its flexibility and cutting out her hour-long commute. (Submitted by Almira Kagzi)

Though most of her friends prefer learning in person, Almira Kagzi says she believes taking Grade 11 in the Toronto District School Board's virtual school this year was the right decision. 

Being at home has cut the 16-year-old's hour-long commute, which occasionally meant waking up before dawn to fulfil volunteer and extra-curricular commitments. She often stayed for activities after school as well. Kagzi has also adapted to the quadmester system, and its focus on two subjects at a time, rather than her usual four courses per semester.

"[Before] I didn't get a lot of sleep and … I struggled with retaining information and I can't pay attention," Kagzi said. 

"Since September, I have been able to get a full seven hours of sleep every day. I start class at 9:30 a.m., so I have time to eat a full breakfast. I have time to get ready properly … And if I have some free time, I read a book or I catch up on homework."

Kagzi appreciates the flexibility of virtual school — for instance if she has to miss or be delayed for class.

"[Normally], you have to be physically in class every single day. If you miss a lesson, it's very hard to get back all the information that was taught," she said.  

Online "everything is posted … So even if you can't go to a class, you just log [on] and you can see 'This is what they taught today. This is what the homework is' and it's very easy to catch up."  

The past year has revealed many problems with online learning that weren't visible before, according to educational researcher Beyhan Farhadi. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Overwhelmed and unsupported

Students can definitely succeed online — typically those "at an age where they can learn independently. They can self-regulate and they are disciplined," said Beyhan Farhadi, a post-doctoral education researcher, e-learning expert and teacher in Toronto.

While relying on online learning has been "useful during an emergency," a host of issues Farhadi worried about prior to the pandemic have been underlined in the past year.

She's concerned about those virtual students who've "disappeared" (logged in but unresponsive, or missing from class completely). She's heard from educators in Ontario and Alberta who feel overwhelmed and unsupported teaching online.

"What [this year] has taught us is the importance of community, the importance of the teacher being in the classroom with the student and responding in ways that you can't online," she said. "What it's done is allowed us to see different parts of the problem that weren't visible prior to the pandemic."

Most students' social-emotional development and academic achievement have been hurt by online learning, says Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation. (CBC)

Another major concern is how online learning is delivered. According to Farhadi, the best virtual schools have teachers dedicated to online instruction full-time. She's alarmed by a trend toward what she calls the "split-attention model" — educators required to teach in-person and virtual students at the same time.

Online learning "costs money. It's resource-intensive, and I mean that not just in terms of parents and families supporting students and the requirement of connection, but [also] the cost to school boards," she said. 

"The most disappointing part of this year is seeing school boards who are doing simultaneous instruction — who have moved in [that] direction to cut costs."

Acknowledging what hasn't worked with virtual learning and how to improve it is key, since for some students, it will remain a reality post-pandemic.

Prior to COVID-19, mandatory e-learning had been a sticking point in contract negotiations between the Ontario government and secondary school teachers. Bargaining brought the education ministry's initial proposal requiring four online credits in order to graduate high school down to two, "with quite liberal opt-out provisions," said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.

For some, online learning can be ideal, Bischof says. Perhaps a student in a remote area needs a course not taught at her school or a student with an anxiety disorder prefers to attend virtually. However, he says, most find face-to-face the best environment.

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He noted a litany of challenges educators have met this year, including supporting students with trouble accessing broadband and appropriate devices, and a lack of specific resources and guidance for teaching online.

"This past year has done nothing but reinforce our position: What we've seen is for the vast majority [of students], their social-emotional development, their academic achievement is diminished in an online environment," he said.

Ontario is moving ahead with its plan requiring two online credits for high school graduation. Education Minister Stephen Lecce confirmed this week it will begin this September, with the onus on students and families to opt-out if they choose. 

"Some students — a minority — they seem to really excel in online," he said Thursday at news press conference. "For many students and even for myself, drawing on my own experience, I prefer to have been in class … At the end of day, that's based on the preference of a student in consultation with their parents, and that's going to be preserved."

Lecce added that he's taking into consideration how this year's virtual schooling "should probably be counted toward some of that [two-credit] requirement."

Kagzi, the Grade 11 student, recognizes a few key factors for her success with virtual school thus far: It fits how she learns and she's had engaging teachers who adapted their methods.

"[Some students] like being able to sit in a physical classroom because that helps them process the lesson better. And some people just enjoy everything online. They enjoy having the flexibility," the teen said.

"Switching onto an online platform, you have to change the way everything is done. You have different assignments, submitted in different ways. You have class in different ways." 

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says in September, high schoolers will be required to take two online credits before graduating, though they can opt-out. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt

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