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Why some say a push toward e-learning could be a problem in rural Ontario

Some say the province's push toward e-learning in high schools could be a problem for students living in rural areas with poor Internet access.

Rural Internet connectivity is an ongoing issue, as is the cost of broadband

Student Kyla Hicks says she often uses the library to get her coursework done. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Sixteen-year-old Kyla Hicks lives in rural Essex County, but spends a lot of time at the public library in Kingsville. Part of that is because of her part-time job as a desk clerk, but she often winds up there even on days off.

"I have to do homework, because I don't have Wi-Fi at my house," said Hicks. "It's really, really slow and limited, so it doesn't make sense to use it there."

Right now, Hicks said she only needs to use the Internet for about a quarter of her coursework. But if she had to take entire classes online—a requirement the provincial government plans to implement in the coming years—Hicks said her schedule might get tight.

"I'd have to be here after school every day, so I'd have to quit my job," she said.

That may be the situation some students face during the 2020-2021 school year, when the province begins to implement new rules around e-learning.

Secondary students will soon need to take four e-learning credits out of the 30 they need to graduate, although the province said the change will be "phased in."

Kingsville mayor Nelson Santos says rural municipalities are working towards broadband infrastructure, but there are still gaps in service. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

For Kingsville mayor Nelson Santos, the 2020-2021 phase-in date is cause for concern, given that many people in Essex County still don't have Internet access.

"If the classes are being accessed outside the classroom ... That becomes a potential limitation for our residents and our students when they live in the rural area and don't have access to high speed Internet," said Santos.

Although the county is part of the province's SWIFT program to bring Internet to rural areas, Santos said progress takes time. He said getting a backbone of broadband Internet in place could happen within one or two years, but that full connectivity will likely take longer.

"Unfortunately, it's that last mile that connects you to the resident, to the home, that would be a bit more time sensitive," said Santos. "We can't estimate how much time that would take."

Cost another barrier

Greater Essex County School Board trustee Ron LeClair echoed Santos, saying many parts of Essex County lack reliable Internet access, and that cost can also be a barrier for families. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Adding to the problem of connectivity is the question of cost. Even if Internet does become widely available, Greater Essex County District School Board trustee Ron LeClair pointed out that many families may not be able to afford it, which would limit their kids' ability to keep up with potential homework.

"Right now Internet access is an add-on expense for households, and not all households can afford it," said LeClair, who represents LaSalle and Amherstburg as a trustee.

The province has said it plans to invest in broadband Internet expansion in schools, so that students taking e-learning classes can complete their work there. A spokesperson would not confirm whether students will need to do online homework as well.

Even if students can complete all e-learning coursework at school, LeClair said that situation could create its own issues. He pointed out that putting a group of students together in a room with Internet access could cause trouble—with an obvious solution.

"They'll need to have somebody supervising them, so why not just have a teacher in teaching them on a face-to-face environment?" he said, adding that he thinks this situation is also better for student learning.

In an email, the province said more details about the e-learning program will be available "at a later date."

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