Technology in Schools - A Tool and a Strategy
The current pandemic presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It has exposed critical and longstanding inequities in the education system, but it has also provided an opportunity to examine much more deeply, how we are currently using technology in our schools and what the potential in online learning could be.
As governments, school boards, educators, families and students have made the sudden shift to a solely online learning environment, a reality has emerged: technology can be a very useful tool in education but is not a replacement for face-to-face learning in schools.
People for Education’s Technology in Schools report, based on survey responses from more than 1000 principals across Ontario, shows that now more than ever, schools need the infrastructure and technology to equip students with the skills and competencies to deal with current and future challenges. Effective use of technology is one of the many strategies that can be used to build those vital skills.
Funding for technology
The data shows that per pupil funding to support the hard costs of computers and software in schools has not increased for 10 years. In addition, provincial funding for the infrastructure required to support technology in schools is divided among at least three different grants and has not kept pace with the rate of technological change education is experiencing. Many schools rely on fundraising to offset the costs of technology, and principals report that it is difficult to ensure that all students have equitable access.
- Only 66% of Ontario schools have access to wall-to-wall WiFi
- 65% of elementary schools fundraise to offset the costs of technology.
- 74% of elementary schools with high average family incomes fundraise for technology, compared to 57% of schools with low average family incomes.
Effective e-learning requires sufficient supports and infrastructure
While the report points to many potential benefits of a range of online learning strategies, it also highlights significant issues in the province’s current e-learning strategy.
This year when schools were open, an average of 6% of students per high school were enrolled in e-learning. This is an increase from an average of 2% in 2009, but a far cry from the province’s target of 100% of students taking at least two e-learning courses before they graduate. Supports for these students are inconsistent and many high school principals raised concerns about a lack of adequate supervision and support for their students engaged in e-learning.
“As enrolment increases in e-Learning courses, we find it challenging to provide adequate supervision for e-Learning students. We cannot afford to assign a teacher to supervise them.”
Secondary school, Ottawa-Carleton DSB
- 56% of secondary schools have designated staff members to support students who are working on e-learning courses during the school day. In those schools, 55% report student success teachers, 48% report guidance teachers, and 16% report special education teachers perform this role.
- Only 43% of high schools have school laptops or computers available for e-learning students after school hours, and only 19% report students can access these devices on weekends.
- 43% of schools report that students working on e-learning during the school day work primarily in the school library. Of the principals who report informally asking staff to support students with their online learning, 26% say they have asked the teacher-librarian to take up this task.
- School libraries are playing an expanding role as places to support technology, online learning and digital literacy. Despite this, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of elementary and secondary schools with teacher-librarians.
The pandemic has also amplified existing inequities – some connected to students’ varied access to technology, but many more connected to the impact of poverty, discrimination, and the wide range in families’ capacity to support students.
Inequitable access to technology
Many principals report that their schools fundraise to offset the costs of technology, making it difficult to ensure that all students have equitable access. Insufficient access to resources and supports can be barriers to successful implementation and integration of technology in schools.
The school is technology poor and there is limited funding to equip it with student devices. Fundraisers do not generate lots of cash and the budget is limited.
Elementary school, Simcoe Muskoka CDSB
Students need future-ready skills
When integrated with the appropriate technology, training and time, online learning can be helpful in preparing students for the future. Researchers agree that technology can help to support and expand future-readiness by supporting student-centred, collaborative learning environments. Using online learning, students can collaborate across classrooms, schools, or even countries; they can access expertise beyond the classroom teacher, and teachers can use online resources to personalize learning.
“Online education can do a lot more than be a lesser version of face-to-face schooling. It can help make learning more authentic, more relevant to the real world, more learner-centered. It provides access to resources and expertise beyond the immediate classroom or school” (Yong Zhao, 2020).
Up to now, future-ready skills and competencies have gone by a variety of labels including soft skills, 21st century skills, transferable skills, and global competencies. People for Education refers to them as The New Basics. The province has announced plans to embed these skills across curriculum, but it will take cross-cutting, coherent policy, adequate resources and effective use of technology to support this change and have Ontario once again take its place as an educational leader in Canada.
Recommendations for change
The report makes a number of recommendations to the provincial government:
- Develop one comprehensive grant within the Grants for Student Needs to support technology and the implementation of e-learning in schools.
- Provide funding for secondary school e-learning teachers at a rate of funding for 1 teacher per 23 students – the same as regular classroom teachers.
- Delay the implementation of e-learning policy until the fall of 2021, and conduct extensive consultation and engagement with experts, educators, board staff, parents, and students to ensure e-learning is appropriately supported and delivered, and its benefits understood.
- Provide funding and policy for staff, and designated places in schools so that students enrolled in e-learning have supervised space with the appropriate infrastructure, equipment, and pedagogical support.
- Develop a coherent plan and consistent language that integrates The New Basics and transferable skills across the curriculum and report cards from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
Key lessons have been learned during the pandemic, chief among them that learning – whether online or in person – must be about much more than an outdated and narrow notion of “the basics.” The New Basics include developing students’ sense of self and society, building their creative and critical thinking skills along with their capacity to learn independently, and teaching them to collaborate and communicate effectively.
Ontario has the opportunity to be a national leader in ensuring that students are future-ready. It will be vitally important that policy-makers use the knowledge gained during the pandemic to help shape future policy around technology, online learning and access to enrichment.
Annie Kidder, People for Education’s Executive Director