E-learning by design, not by default
High school student and elementary student using laptop computers to attend school remotely from home while public gatherings are cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Shaon McCutcheon)
Identities & Stories

E-learning by design, not by default

In the midst of a public health crisis, we have an opportunity to forge a collective vision of what online education could and should be

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It’s been an overwhelming time for both educators and students. As we scramble to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in all aspects of daily life, educators have also been asked to imagine virtual classrooms at a scale never seen before.

In Ontario alone, there are over two million public elementary and secondary school students currently out of school due to the pandemic. After delaying students’ return to classes indefinitely, the Ontario government is hastily rolling out e-learning courses called “Learn at Home” designed to “help mitigate learning loss,” according to education minister Stephen Lecce.


It’s a dramatic experiment in online education, especially when you consider that typically just five per cent of secondary students enroll in e-learning courses in Ontario.

Naturally, amidst crisis, it’s easy to forget that mandatory e-learning courses are also one of the most contentious issues for Ontario’s teachers’ unions — some of whom are still in collective bargaining with the province.

The criticisms put forward by Ontario teachers about e-learning courses are significant, including:

  • Students’ lack of motivation and poor time management skills;
  • Many technical issues, including students’ lack of technological fluency;
  • Barriers to access for those with limited or no access to internet;
  • Lack of access or inequitable access to technology;
  • Bias towards high-achievers who need less direct teacher support;
  • Higher drop out rates compared typical classroom-based courses.

These kinds of issues are not anecdotal, and are supported by a number of academic studies.

The rush to implement e-learning solutions further marginalizes the 6.5 per cent of Canadians who don’t have access to the internet at home, and numerous rural communities where Wi-Fi access remains poor. Also, there are limited public discussions about how the majority of e-learners are white and affluent, and how they amplify existing educational inequalities, including but not limited to class, race and gender.

Ontario’s “Learn at Home” website offers the entire curriculum of secondary courses online. (Screen capture, March 27, 2020)

In many ways, the complexities surrounding e-learning have been marketed away like a commercial product. If it were packaged like a detergent, you could envision that the label would promote itself as being “flexible, independent” and “suitable for various lifestyles.” But once we break the product’s seal, will our rush to adopt wide-spread e-learning be something “new and improved” or will we soon be screaming “buyer beware”?

There’s not a lot of time for buyer’s remorse, however. As a stop-gap solution during a worldwide crisis, governments are relying on e-learning courses, and it may be difficult to push back the new precedents being set in online education. So, as we fumble towards an increasingly networked, online learning future, we need to urgently forge a collective vision of what online education could and should be.


Before we can think critically about the future of e-learning, we need to consider how our attitudes towards education have evolved over the years.

Today, many of us take for granted the idea of education as a social good. “Education for all” is a concept that informs Ontario’s curriculum, stemming from a global UNESCO mandate in 2000 “aiming to meet the learning needs of all children, youth and adults.” Far earlier, however, influential sociologist Edward Shils proclaimed higher education as a source of “secular salvation” in 1958. Education was seen as a panacea, with individual growth as its foundation:

…the transformation of the human being from a recipient of tradition and an object of authority into an independent, differentiated, initiating individual.

 Edward Shils, 1958

However, as the idealization of the individual within education propagated, so did computers. When the capacity to conduct large scale data collection and analysis became easier, education systems began to be studied and compared internationally. Eventually, exams that were once meant to select students for further education became national, scientific assessments to “judge the adequacy of educational systems to deliver desired outcomes.”

In other words, standardized tests became the standard in which to evaluate individual and collective academic success, and an increasing reflection of a country’s international economic and political reputation.

Education has long been characterized as a central requirement for national economic development and political democratization in the contemporary world. Moreover, international benchmarking has been identified as the basis for improvement… It is only through such benchmarking that countries can understand relative strengths and weaknesses of their education systems and identify best practices and ways forward.

OECD, 2006

As a result of standardized testing, a “good” education is no longer just a reflection of an individual’s personal and emotional well-being, but assumed also that it can be scientifically measured within the results of national exams and/or international tests.

Considering this framework, it’s not difficult to see why Conservative Ontario education Minister Stephen Lecce would consider e-learning a societal good. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Minister Lecce boasted about how e-learning would improve technological fluency, which is a skill that he said employers and “not-for-profit leaders are telling us that’s a competency they want strengthened.”

Perhaps we’re in a time that’s not so much “education for all” but education for a job.


While technology may have opened the doors to a new educational era that reflects the values of global business and politics, technology itself is not to blame. As renown MIT engineer Donald Norman notes, technology represents “the spirit and humanistic qualities and values of its designers, makers, and users.”

As I write this, many of us have spent days and even weeks in our respective apartments and homes in self-isolation — and some of us sick in hospitals. Some of us can work from home, some cannot, and others have been laid off or must live uncertainly without work and income.

Vulnerability and uncertainty can be the foundation of political power, and we need to stay especially vigilant to our values during this difficult time. It’s heartening to see teachers’ unions and their members demanding equitable access for all before participating in Ontario’s e-learning initiatives:14,15,16,17,18

The narratives in these small samples of tweets should concern all in regards to the e-learning initiative put forward by the Ontario government.

One of the major teacher unions still without a contract, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), say they were not consulted about the province’s “Learn at Home” initiative, and there remains resistance within the union in regards to the rollout of e-learning initiatives, too.

The OSSTF’s ambivalence over Ontario’s e-learning initiatives is facing backlash in conservative media, with the suggestion that the union should eagerly follow suit with “what everyone else in the Western world is doing” and not be threatened by “online tools” because it may appear to compromise “their negotiation position in future years.”

Ironically, in terms of labour, it might be assumed that e-learning would result in more students being served with less resources. That is not the case. Unlike distance education courses of yore, the most successful distance learning programs are “community-based programs with active local technology and learning support for students.” A 2020 review of Ontario’s new e-learning initiative was critical, stating that it relied on “earlier models of distance education” and that the province needed to modernize its approach and that it would require the reallocation of resources and funding, not a reduction.

A sample Grade 12 course offering from Ontario’s Learn at Home website. SCREEN CAPTURE, MARCH 27, 2020

Fulfilling the ideals of e-learning should be the primary goals of educators in Ontario. Some of those ideals include featuring dynamic content personalized to each learner and the creation of virtual communities that contribute to critical education.

Most importantly: how do we create e-learning spaces accessible for all learners? And how do we ensure all Canadians have access to stable broadband internet service and computer technology?

Some more philosophical questions for educators to ask ourselves about e-learning:

In regards to making e-learning spaces civic-oriented, we must also acknowledge that schools can be undemocratic spaces for students, and that they rarely have a say in “how the school is run or how teachers and other adults conduct themselves.” If e-learning is part of the future of education, how can we give children and youth the opportunity to genuinely participate in the curriculum to which they are exposed? If we want youth to enthusiastically participate in our democracy as adults, we must ensure that e-learning spaces invite meaningful participation within the course — and especially within the school and educational system — as well. To do otherwise is hypocritical and undermines our promotion of active citizenship, and instead encourages cynicism and distrust.

How educators use digital media matters, too. A recent study allays fears that online petitions or other “low-effort political activities” don’t create increased political engagement for youth. In fact, there is an “abundance of positive correlations between digital media use and engagement in civic and political life.” What matters most is that educators encourage students to comment on current events, connect with groups related to causes that interest them, sign petitions, and contact officials and candidates about those same causes. Associating tasks with leisure-related activities like playing games online and creating token tasks that don’t connect with the community-at-large should be avoided, as they’ve been shown to not be effective in building authentic civic engagement skills in students.

Finally, the current ideology surrounding education as a tool or “social sponge” to train and retrain workers needs to be evaluated, too. Looking out from our windows in this time of necessary self-isolation, many of us see empty streets — and maybe also a reflection of an economy, environment, and society in crisis. Governments around the world are spending trillions to fight the pandemic and simultaneously bolstering industries, businesses and people with aid packages and basic incomes for those put out of work by the pandemic. In a globally networked world, we clearly need to prepare for a world without work. What that world looks like is still unknown, but clearly requires large-scale consultation and innovation. In an age of high-stake standards and testing, have we lost track of the true purpose of education? Can we find a balance between building a technologically fluent workforce while also developing “independent, differentiated, initiating” individuals and citizens?

In today’s knowledge-based, information-age society, our current culture of learning in schools remains mired in an industrial age based approach, which compartmentalizes knowledge and treats students as if they are all the same.

Sunnie Lee Watson

Educators and students are at the forefront of ensuring that the technology we use in both our classrooms and e-learning spaces authentically serves our collective interests. We are not slaves to technology, rather technology is what we make of it.


1. Ontario Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Education Facts, 2018-2019 (Preliminary). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/educationFacts.html

2. Rushowy, K. & Teotonio, I. (2020, March 20). Ontario launches ‘learn at home’ online program for students during school shutdown. Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/03/20/ontario-launches-learn-at-home-online-program-for-students-during-school-shutdown.html

3. Barbour, M., & Labonte, R. (2019). Sense of Irony or Perfect Timing: Examining the Research Supporting Proposed e-Learning Changes in Ontario. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 34(2), 1–30. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2350114007/

4. Stone, L. & Alphonso, C. (2020, March 20). Ontario unveils ‘learn at home’ online tool as preparation if schools remain closed this term. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-says-schools-might-not-reopen-this-term-ford-says-complete/

5. Mauracher, J. (2020, January 21). What is e-learning and why does it have some Ontario teachers concerned? Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/6444006/e-learning-in-ontario-schools/

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8. Tutton, M. (2020, March 16). Shift to online learning due to COVID-19 requires rethink of teaching: experts. The Canadian Press. https://globalnews.ca/news/6685848/shift-to-online-learning-due-to-covid-19-requires-rethink-of-teaching-experts/

9. McLaren, P. & Jandrić, P. (2015). The critical challenge of networked learning: Using information technologies in the service of humanity. Critical Learning in Digital Networks. In P. Jandrić & D. Boras (Eds.), Critical learning in digital networks (2015th ed., pp. 199–226). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-13752-0

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14. lollybags45. (2020, March 26). Wrdsb has begun what they call, ‘phase 1’. We are reaching out to all families and students and taking an inventory of who has devices, what device capacity is and internet access. The focus on making sure things are equitable when online learning officially rolls out.[Tweet]. https://twitter.com/lollybags45/status/1243237364937494529

15. MercilessMord. (2020, March 26). Many boards are making sure kids and families who need it have tech & wifi before starting. This seems equitable. Not all staff have access to great resources either. What is the rush? Really? Can someone REALLY explain the urgent need here? [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/MercilessMord/status/1243234593878179840

16. robochodo. (2020, March 26). Told by board (once) and local union (2 or 3 times) to please not. (YRDSB). Citing inequity concerns being explored but it’s gotta be about potential HR concerns too. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/robochodo/status/1243198231087120385

17. campbibi. (2020, March 26). I teach high-needs students with developmental disabilities. Online instruction is not an appropriate model for my students. I’ve been reaching out to families to see how I can help (including checking to see if they have food and supplies) and gathering resources for home use. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/campbibi/status/1243214984508854273

18. mclocat. (2020, March 26). We have been instructed by board & union to wait until an equitable & consistent plan is developed. Makes sense. You want consistency, not a 1000 educators doing their own thing. We’ve been checking in to see how students are doing mental health wise in the meantime. [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/mclolcat/status/1243215256287096837

19. Alphonso, C. (2020, March 20). What does school look like without the classroom?. The Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-what-does-school-look-like-without-the-classroom/

20. Furey, A. (2020, March 25). Teachers’ union discouraging online learning during COVID-19, doc reveals. Toronto Sun. https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/furey-teachers-union-discouraging-online-learning-during-covid-19-doc-reveals

21. Etelson, E. (2014, September 19). Is modern technology killing us? Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/is-modern-technology-killing-us/

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23. Bessant, J. (2004). Mixed messages: youth participation and democratic practice. Australian Journal of Political Science, 39(2), 387–404. https://doi.org/10.1080/1036114042000238573

24. Hillman, T., Rensfeldt, A., & Ivarsson, J. (2020). Brave new platforms: a possible platform future for highly decentralised schooling. Learning, Media and Technology: Education and Technology into the 2020s: Speculative Futures, 45(1), 7–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2020.1683748

25. Boulianne, S., & Theocharis, Y. (2020). Young People, Digital Media, and Engagement: A Meta-Analysis of Research. Social Science Computer Review, 38(2), 111–127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439318814190

26. Connolly, A. (2020, March 25). Trudeau’s $82B coronavirus support package gets royal assent, officially passes. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/6728936/coronavirus-canada-emergency-legislation/

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