E-learning by design, not by default

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

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

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.

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

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.

“Education for all”

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.

…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

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.

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

Technology is what we make of it

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.

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?

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.


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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/

27. Watson, L. (2011). Somebody’s Gotta Fight for Them: A Disadvantaged and Marginalized Alternative School’s Learner-centered Culture of Learning, Urban Education, 46 (6): 1496 – 1525.


Alberta Ministry of Education. (2020, March 20). Continuing student learning. Retrieved from https://www.alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=69874B5C32DE7-C7B9-FAFF-518A0FF91DCFD41D

Rocca, R. (2020, January 21). Ontario teachers’ strikes: A timeline of key events and actions taken so far. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/6433115/ontario-teachers-strike-timeline/

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