Opinion: Ontario education replacing ‘3 Rs’ with ‘3 Ss’ – surf, stream, and share

The structure of Ontario’s Kindergarten to grade 12 schools and Ontario public education is in the process of a sea-change, and not just as a result of school site closings and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The photo on the left shows a Limestone School Board classroom in circa 2019 (via ctv.ca) and the photo on the right shows the classroom at the Prospect School in Thunder Bay circa the early 1900s (via Thunder Bay Museum).

The global influence of technology and the implementation of access to increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive local, provincial, national and even international online studies is now a reality. The current COVID-19 crises, the closing of schools, and the promotion of online learning for students while in quarantine at home will inevitably move Ontario education toward a more comprehensive eLearning landscape. The ‘3 Rs,’ have been semi-serious descriptors of the content focus used in the educational curriculum since the early 1800s, and the time has come to move toward a digital educational future with the ‘3 Ss.’

Proponents of eLearning for students from JK to college and university share the belief that online learning is a significant cost-saving measure for government, and by extension, for taxpayers. In addition to financial savings, asynchronous online courses offer the potential for other more learner-based benefits, as well. (An asynchronous course is one for which learners have flexibility concerning when and where they access the course.) eLearning, research indicates, may provide our students with the opportunity to develop improved time-management abilities, a skill deemed essential for success in the 21st century. As well, the sharing of resources between and among schools and school districts provides students with a broader spectrum of subject material choice and course selections. Additionally, these learning structures offer students eLearning opportunities at younger ages, thereby fostering preparation for post-secondary learning structures that, too, will be online. Some boards of education promote the idea that online learning provides more communication with classmates and more active participation in learning than traditional face-to-face learning in existing classrooms.

A transition to online learning also brings with it other variables that parents should be apprised of when supporting their kids at home or being consulted for input and policy suggestions by school boards or provincial ministries of education. Not only does a transition to eLearning impact all student learners, but it also impacts the content and curriculum, the pedagogy, the physical structure of schools, the role of teachers and parents, and even school attendance. Several significant factors require examination before we, as parents, provide advice to governments and ministries. These include areas of concern that modern computer technology has significantly impacted, including economic restrictions, social interactions, security and, most importantly, when examining digital learning, pedagogy. Pedagogy is the nature or structure of the interface between the teacher, whether human or technological, and the student.

Of all the factors affecting the efficacy of eLearning, the factor most important and most ignored to date is the method and practice of the teaching/learning exchange. In a 2020 article in the American Journal of Distance Education, there is fair and balanced criticism of the ‘pragmatic’ and the somewhat ‘a-theoretical’ way online learning has been introduced to students in the US. By extension, like the US (in close competition with China) is the world leader in the availability and use of digital learning for education, this criticism applies to most contemporary eLearning formats. Our Ministry of Education indicates that in ‘conversations with researchers, community leaders, and youth across the province about youth development, one message was clear: context matters.’ It matters whether a young person is growing up in an urban or rural setting, a high or low socioeconomic status neighbourhood, in a minority setting for a Francophone, or a cultural community, such as one of the many Indigenous communities in Ontario. This statement reflects one aspect of the recognition of learner-appropriate curriculum and pedagogy; this understanding directs us away from the ‘one size fits all’ model that first eLearning courses which the province supported in the past.

Early investigations by educational researchers focused almost exclusively on one variable: the characteristics of the learner. As more eLearning opportunities become available, additional focus has begun to include the presentation of the learning experience – that is, what is the applied pedagogical structure of the actual course or lesson? The two critical queries are, therefore: what are the learner’s characteristics and what is the pedagogy for the specific learner? In simpler terms, does the online resource take advantage of the potential richness of technology, or is it merely another medium for delivering traditional written language correspondence courses?

An important document readily available on the Ontario Department of Education website makes the following statement: “It takes the whole education community – teachers, administrators, students, and parents – as well as the broader community to support students in successful education and career/life planning. A comprehensive program – one that focuses on guiding students’ development and not simply on transmitting information – can be transformational.” While written more than half a decade ago, the validity of this position makes two relevant statements: ‘it takes a whole education community’ and ‘guiding students’ development (…) can be transforming.’

Supported by more current research regarding the effectiveness of the ‘3 Ss’, or eLearning, as parents, we now must understand the additionally critical role the development of sound pedagogy plays in the successful educational growth of our children during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future digital age.

Cliff Morton now lives in the Village of Bath. He grew up in the 1950s and ’60s along the Bay of Quinte on the Loyalist Parkway. A former secondary school teacher, his hobbies include reading, writing, birding, fishing, and photography. He enjoys connecting with his community by reading responses to his Kingstonist articles and roaming the fields and forests in the Kingston area with his two golden retrievers.

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