Online learning expert worries sudden demand is leaving teachers, families unprepared

Alec Couros / Zoom

While the somewhat sudden growth of online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic is exciting a Regina-based educational technology expert, he worries that there hasn’t been enough time to prepare teachers, students and their families for success. 

“I think what we’re seeing here is a number of parents and students who for the first time are considering online education and of course this is by force. They in many cases feel they don’t have a choice. They don’t feel safe or they don’t feel their kids  are going to be safe in a regular environment,” said University of Regina professor Alec Couros, with years of hands-on experience and a PhD in the discipline. 

“I’m worried that people will try this experiment, see that perhaps teachers weren’t prepared to provide instruction in this particular way and that they see this as a failing of online learning as a model.”

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Read more: Coronavirus: Families worry kids will fall behind in school due to online challenges

Virtual school Flex Ed — with ministry approval to deliver the Saskatchewan curriculum since 2005 — has a wait list for primary and middle school students, according to its website. 

While at the time of publication Flex Ed had not responded to a request for comment, its website attributed the situation to “unprecedented growth.” 

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And with classes weeks away, Regina Catholic Schools says hundreds of elementary students have signed up for distance education. The school division has long provided the option for high school students, spokesperson Twylla West said in an email, but it is brand new for the younger ones. 

“We have a conversation about whether it’s the right fit for each family as they reach out,” she wrote, adding families enrolling in online learning must provide a device, data and supervision.

Read more: Here’s what heading back to school in a pandemic will look like for Saskatchewan students

Couros said he’s been fielding questions from parents about the optimal set up to support students’  studying remotely. 

While having a powerful device and Internet connection are important components, they’re perhaps not the most important components, Couros said. For young children studying online to be successful, parental support will be key — and not just to understanding reading, writing and arithmetic. 

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Early education is built around play-based learning and dependent on establishing norms, Couros said. 

“Schools have been able to do that in a way that play is quite meaningful to the development of the child,” Couros said. 

“Parents have to think differently about how they can establish those social relationships.”

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Coronavirus: Overwhelmed working parents dropping online learning – Apr 28, 2020

For many teachers, the new demand for online learning means they will also have to think differently, Couros said. 

“What teachers have ahead of them is going to be quite difficult, to take what they know about their everyday instruction face to face and try to apply that in the online world,” he said, noting the emphasis in the online world needs to be on different tasks. 

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There are teachers with the relevant training and experience out there, Couros said, but if the demand keeps climbing, the vast majority could simply end up displaced into the role. 

Like so much in the pandemic-era, Couros said the trajectory of online learning en masse is wait-and-see. 

“It’s unfortunate right now that parents are going to have to choose if they feel their kids are not going to be safe in school,” he said. “They probably are quite scared and anxious to send their kids to school, but at the same time, they have to pay their bills. I think that’s a really important area to start looking at is the thinking about the inequities that this all draws out.”