Glitches a virtual certainty as classes resume, experts say

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The technical glitches and occasional outages that will almost certainly be part of this year's virtual school experience in Ontario may also prove to be teachable moments for educators and students alike, according to various experts in the field.

School boards, teachers and researchers say recent failures of key online learning platforms demonstrate the volatility of the technology many students will be relying on for their education as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out in the province.

Instructors and students alike will need to show resilience and creativity to power through crashes, they said, while expected bugs -- though frustrating -- will be an inevitable part of the post-pandemic learning environment for those who don't return to class in-person.

Accepting that reality, they said, could lay a foundation for useful 21st-century skills.

"We're teaching our students to become digital citizens and to grow up in a world where they have to be comfortable working with technology," said Lesley Wilton, a part-time elementary school teacher working in the Greater Toronto Area. "While we may encounter glitches with the technology, it's okay for us to model that these are things we need to deal with."

Teachers across Ontario were abruptly exposed to the potential pitfalls of virtual learning in April when they were forced to begin delivering lessons at the height of lockdown measures imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19. But those issues were illustrated still more dramatically in recent weeks amid mass outages in other countries.

In both the United States and Europe, the return to school was marred for thousands due to widespread outages of Zoom, the popular web-conferencing platform that's gained new prominence amid the global pandemic.

Ontario school boards appear poised to rely on other software, assisted in part by the provincial government.

The Ministry of Education said it's signed a contract with the makers of Brightspace, a virtual learning tool available to all 72 boards across Ontario. The ministry said it will also provide $2.4 million to cover the cost of extra software licensing.

Government directives give boards latitude to deploy other tools as they see fit, and platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom are already in common use.

Teachers at Ontario's second-largest school board will have the choice to use whichever of those platforms they prefer, according to the board's co-ordinating principal for modern learning.

Luke Mahoney of the Peel District School Board said the organization's information technology resources were stretched in April when the pandemic forced all staff to move classes online. But he said everyone learned lessons through the last months of the 2019-20 school year -- many of which will serve staff well come September.

The board is ensuring training is available for all teachers, noting many of them will also be the ones fielding questions from students or parents encountering technical hiccups. But he said everyone navigating the reality of education in the COVID-19 era must be prepared to overcome occasional hurdles.

"When your video doesn't play or is glitchy, how are you going to role-model this? We're going to address this, we'll get back to it and we'll cover what we're supposed to cover another way," he said.

Clare Brett, chair of curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said flexibility is the hallmark of the successful transition to teaching online.

She said most available platforms are comparable in terms of features, making them less important than a teacher's attitudes and approach.

In recent workshops Brett's led to help educators adjust to the new norm, she stresses the fact that teachers are simply adapting their well-honed skills to a slightly different environment.

"'You already are a teacher, you know this work, you know this material,’" she said she tells attendees. "'Now what we're doing is trying to find ways to do that same work in a slightly different space.’"

Brett said online course delivery often takes longer than traditional instruction methods and she advises teachers to organize their lesson plans accordingly. She also emphasizes the importance of including lighthearted moments in online lectures as well as the need to continue connecting with students in private or informal settings in order to both give and receive feedback on how school is going. She said assigning students roles in the virtual classroom, such as helping to manage questions submitted through interactive chats, can also help keep kids engaged.

Brett conceded she's concerned about the toll a wider embrace of e-learning will place on internet infrastructure and local tech resources, but noted the increased dependence on virtual platforms during a pandemic may make inevitable flaws feel more damaging than they are.

Wilton said another area of potential concern for teachers involves privacy and information security, noting such considerations are all but absent in traditional classrooms.

But she said boards are, by and large, doing all they can to help staff manage those complex issues and provide necessary training in the lead-up to the new academic year.

The union representing Ontario's English Catholic teachers raised similar concerns, citing a Ministry of Education memo laying out minimum remote learning requirements for the year ahead.

The memo states teachers must provide between 180 and 225 minutes of "synchronous" or real-time, interactive learning depending on grade level.

"The requirements ... vastly exceed the recommended daily screen time for young people, and they create a host of privacy, security, and equity issues," said Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association.

Both Brett and Wilton acknowledged e-learning tools present potential challenges for all concerned, but said they can also prove powerful and effective when used properly.

"Students should be familiar with learning digitally or through technology," Wilton said. "I think that's really important for our students to know right from the early years, and that really wouldn't have been a focus without this (pandemic) context."

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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