Major changes coming to online learning in Ontario
Students in Ontario have learned remotely since at least the 1920’s – first through the mail and even the radio, and then, as technology progressed, through combinations of things like video conferencing and online learning. Throughout this time, remote learning has been publicly governed by school boards and the provincial government. Curriculum was developed by experts and went through a thorough process of evaluation and consultation.
This longstanding method of delivering online learning is about to undergo a radical change.
New Legislation to include changes to Ontario’s Education Act
The province has announced it plans to introduce Legislation this spring to make remote learning a permanent part of Ontario’s education system, and to change the way it is governed.
Among other things the planned legislation will:
- Require school boards to permanently offer synchronous[i] remote learning in elementary and secondary schools for any student whose parents who would prefer this option for their children.
- Require boards to offer synchronous online learning when schools are closed for emergencies or snow days.
- Create new regulatory authorities to:
- Prescribe (dictate rules governing) the roles and responsibilities of school boards, school authorities, and other entities to be prescribed in regulation[ii] (e.g., TVO, TFO, trustees’ associations, the Consortium d’apprentissage virtuel de langue française de l’Ontario, consortia) in the delivery and coordination of online and remote learning.
- Make decisions on things like the software, information systems and/or technology-based instructional tools and resources that will be used to support online learning and data sharing processes.
- Establish data-sharing processes that enable an effective online learning system
- Allow the province to do things like:
- direct TVO/TFO to develop online course content
- appoint TVO/TFO as the centralized coordinator of a standardized list of all secondary online courses;
- require school boards to pay TVO/TFO a per student fee for access to the online courses
- prevent school boards from offering online courses to out-of-province students)
- establish a centralized list of online learning courses for each school system
- set up TVO/TFO as an income generating entity, marketing online courses and resources to other provinces and other countries.
- Set the stage for the Ministry to make regulatory changes under the Ontario College of Teachers Act, to allow the College to make it mandatory that initial teacher education programs cover instructional pedagogy in an online environment.
It is the firm belief of school boards that e-Learning courses delivered through local schools or collaboratively across a school district(s), where teachers know their students’ learning needs, is a far superior model of delivery.
Shifting control from school boards – the new models
Under the new system, school boards will still have some input into the kinds of courses offered online, but TVO/TFO will be responsible for developing the content for online courses, and for maintaining the course catalogue that students will access centrally.
This will put an end to the current system of school board consortia, who have been collaborating to develop, administer, and share online courses for the last two decades. For example, the Ontario eLearning Consortium (OeLC) is a partnership of 33 boards – Public and Catholic – who have been working together since 2001 to ensure that their students had access to high quality online courses. Members of the OeLC work together to support quality assurance, share best practices and tools, and provide professional development to staff and administration. The Northern eLearning Consortium is a similar partnership of 15 boards in Northern Ontario, who share courses at no charge to the member boards. For French-language boards, the Consortium d’apprentissage virtuel de langue française de l’Ontario (CAVLFO), delivers online courses and resources for students in Ontario’s 12 French-language school boards. The Ontario Catholic ELearning Consortium supports cooperation across 21 boards to develop courses and share fees.
With the proposed changes, online secondary courses will be accessed centrally, and the learning will be delivered within three different models:
- Synchronous remote learning for elementary and secondary students
- Funded at same class size as in-person
- Teachers are employees of the school board
- Even if there are sufficient numbers to warrant setting up a virtual school, there will be no funding for administration[iii]
- Teacher-supported online learning for secondary students
- Funded at a ratio of 30 students per 1 teacher, with a class size cap of 35
- Teachers are employees of the school board
- No minimum requirement for synchronous learning
- Fully independent online learning for secondary students
- Fully independent with, according to the government document “little teacher support”
- Students learn asynchronously with flexible hours – no live teaching
- No limit on class sizes
- Teachers are employees of TVO
- Delivered through TVO’s Independent Learning Centre
- No cost to student, but boards must pay a fee established by TVO
Note: Secondary students would be able to take courses in any combination of the 3 choices above.
Many questions remain
- Up to now, online courses were developed and delivered by certified teachers, who could interact regularly with students. How will the new TVO/TFO Learning Centre ensure that students are getting the supports they need?
- Some students who are struggling in school may opt for the independent model, with courses delivered by TVO/TFO. These courses have no limit on class sizes and no expectation of “live learning.” There is overwhelming evidence that the student-teacher relationship is a key component of learning. How will this model of delivery support vital student-teacher relationships?
- Across the country and around the world, experts are pointing to the need for students to develop a wide range of skills and competencies alongside content knowledge. How will students develop vital social emotional, collaborative, critical thinking, and creativity skills, through content delivery models that have little interaction with other students or teachers?
- School board consortia that have, up to now, had control over online learning, and according to OPSBA’s December letter to the Minister of Education, the boards worked with principals to “ensure that the courses pedagogy, instruction, and assessment practices adhere to Ministry guidelines, the Ontario curriculum, collective agreements, Growing Success, and other required Education Act regulations.” How is the province intending to govern TVO/TFO to ensure that the same high-quality pedagogy and assessment practices will be present in their course delivery model?
- Under this new model, school boards will be required to pay TVO/TFO when their students take courses through the independent model. However boards will continue to be responsible for providing access to supports through local schools for such things as internet connectivity, as well as mental health and academic support. Students will also need to be supported in taking provincial assessments such as EQAO Math, and the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT). Will new funding models be created to ensure boards have the resources they need to provide things like support for EQAO and OSSLT testing, and essential mental health and guidance supports?
- With more and more students accessing remote learning options (250,000 students by 2023 according to the Ministry of Education), schools may be required to continue to provide physical space and some staff supervision for students taking these courses. A People for Education report on technology in schools showed that supporting students learning online is already a challenge. Will boards receive funding to provide space and supervision for students learning independently through TVO/TFO?
- One component of the new role for TVO/TFO is to generate revenue by marketing online courses and resources to other provinces and countries. Does TVO/TFO currently have the experience or capacity to do this?
- TVO’s Independent Learning Centre currently provides credits online to approximately 19,400 students, most of whom are adults. According to the province’s plan, by 2023 250,000 students per year will be taking courses online. How is the province planning to support TVO/TFO to be ready for this massive change in less than 2 years? How much will it cost?
- This represents a major change to education in Ontario. Why is it being done so quickly?
People for Education supports the recommendation for a working table
For many months, People for Education and others have been calling on the province to convene an Education Advisory Task Force. The changes suggested in the Ministry plans for online learning, make this call more urgent. These changes could have a long-term impact on students’ success, students’ equitable access to support and programs, and could have implications for privatization of components of Ontario’s publicly funded education system. People for Education agrees with OPSBA’s key recommendation:
It is recommended that a working table be created with consortia and school board representatives and e-Learning experts, along with TVO staff, to co-create a vision that is mutually beneficial, which does not undermine school board and consortium leadership or eliminate the positive e-Learning approaches that have been effective for student engagement and success.
Ontario Public School Board Association’s Letter to the Minister of Education, December 2020
[i] Synchronous learning takes place when the teacher and the student or students are online together – at the same time in the same virtual space.
[ii] Regulations are created through Orders in Council and do not require public consultation or legislation. Orders in council give the government freedom to make what are sometimes major changes without going back to the Legislature for debate.
[iii] In cases where there are only a few students in a school learning remotely, boards could provide these courses within currently existing schools, with, potentially one teacher teaching students from different grades. Some boards may choose a hybrid model, where the same teacher teaches students who attend in person, as well as those learning remotely from home. This has been the case for some boards during this school year. But, in cases where there are perhaps hundreds of students who opt for remote synchronous learning – as was the case during the ongoing pandemic – then boards will need to set up separate virtual schools. During the pandemic, virtual schools, some of which had thousands of students, had principals and vice-principals and other administrative staff. The government’s documents state specifically that there will be NO funding to administer these schools.
[iv] School boards will be required to pay a per pupil, per course fee to TVO/TFO for courses students take through the Independent Learning Centre