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We Need to Know What We Don't Know About the Remote Learners

The term “data driven” is commonly used in education to convey the need for educators to use information in an effective and meaningful way that guides and assists progress with students. There are many challenges that can be attributed to the development of “data-driven” education systems; particularly as they relate to support for educators. However, one aspect remains constant. The capacity for informed action in education systems is only as effective as the availability and accuracy of data to support the informed action being engaged. How we apply system thinking to the availability and application of data is less about being “data driven” as it is about creating fundamental conditions for system access to timely and accurate data. What data do we need, when do we need it, for what purposes and by whom?

In the last post (March 27, 2021) entitled Who Are the Remote Learners? I used the Province of Ontario context to share some preliminary findings from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made to the Ontario Ministry of Education. The purpose of the request was to confirm the number of K-8 remote learning students enrolled in Ontario school boards on October 31, 2020. Ontario uses a per-pupil funding model that is guided by enrolment data captured from school boards on the key dates of October 31 and March 31 annually.

The data received through the FOI request established that only 41% of Ontario school boards had verified (effective March 5, 2020) which students were enrolled in synchronous remote learning on the key date of October 31, 2020. The FOI request also revealed that there was no Ontario Ministry of Education requirement for school boards to verify which students were enrolled in remote asynchronous learning on October 31, 2020.

The following charts provide a more detailed view, on a school board-by-school board basis, of the state of K-8 remote learning across the Province of Ontario. Chart 1 on the left shows total K-8 synchronous remote learning enrolments for each school board. Chart 2 on the right shows total K-8 synchronous learning enrolments as a percentage of overall total K-8 enrolments at each school board. Formatted from basic enrolment data, each chart raises queries about the current and post pandemic state of emergency remote learning that has resulted from the pandemic.

Chart 1 Chart 2

Note: 41 of Ontario’s 75 school boards are not included in the charts above because, as of March 19, 2021, they had not yet verified the number of students enrolled as synchronous remote learners on October 31, 2020.

Source: As reported by schools, effective March 19, 2021, in the Ontario School Information System (OnSIS),2020-2021. Includes public and Roman Catholic elementary schools. Excludes private schools, care and/or treatment, education and community partnership program (ECPP) facilities, summer, night and adult continuing education day schools.

Chart 1 illustrates the range of K-8 synchronous remote learning enrolments at Ontario school boards that have with these data verified for October 31, 2020, with a low of 130 students at the CSD du Nord-Est de l'Ontario and a high of 13,747 students at Dufferin-Peel CDSB. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest synchronous remote learning enrolments were generally at school boards from highly populated urban areas compared to boards from less populated northern and rural areas. However, one highly populated school board (Peel DSB) had a notably lower number remote learning enrolments (1,480 students) compared to other urban school boards. A particular query arising from this view, therefore, relates to the comparative criteria and methods used by school boards to collect and verify their remote learning enrolments.

Chart 2 offers a proportional view of the impact that synchronous remote learning has had on Ontario school boards. It can be seen that the synchronous remote learning enrolments of all school boards verified for October 31, 2020 combined was 16.0% of the total K-8 enrolments of those same school boards. It is also apparent that the small synchronous remote learning enrolments at some school boards are comparatively high from a proportional perspective. For example, Rainy River DSB, with only 202 synchronous remote learning students reported, demonstrates a comparatively high proportion of 12.7% of total K-8 enrolments – close to the Provincial average and similar or greater than larger boards such as London District Catholic (12.9%) or Limestone DSB (9.3%). The 1,480 remote learning students at Peel DSB represent only 1.5% of its total K-8 enrolments. It can be seen, therefore, that this proportional view raises numerous queries about the impact that remote learning has had at Ontario school boards.

The information presented above represents enrolments that were largely planned for, in advance of the 2020-21 school year, through a variety of school board operational responses to the Ministry of Education’s Policy/Program Memorandum No. 164 . Many Ontario school boards have provided synchronous remote learning through the organization of separately staffed virtual schools. Others have provided synchronous remote learning through the same classrooms that would normally have been staffed for the 2020-21 school year.

Since the reporting date of October 31, 2020, more wide scale remote learning has been required by school boards due to waves 2 and 3 of the pandemic that negated, for set periods of time, any form of in-person classroom instruction. As a result, the enrolment data for October 31 represents a benchmark that, to be more meaningful, will require comparisons with up-to-date remote learning data. The key date of March 31, 2021, also subject to school board and Ministry verification protocols, will be of vital importance in this respect.

Educators and education system leaders access data to ask questions and develop models that can inform and guide improvement processes. The fact that many Ontario school boards are unable to confirm remote learning enrolments from last fall suggests that the value of these data are not being equated with the necessary system supports to ensure their availability and application for post-pandemic planning.

Technically speaking, capturing these data requires that newly specific program fields be integrated with existing electronic student record formats. This allows school boards to confirm whether or not students are enrolled in remote learning based upon the criteria established by the Ministry of Education through PPM 164. School districts lacking the technical or human resource capacity to create and apply these new data fields to existing student records are unable to draw any meaningful correlations between current and future student and staff needs in relation to their participation in 2020-21 remote learning. It can only be concluded that the Ontario education system is, by default, preparing for a post-pandemic future based upon limited information about 2020-21 student and staff involvement with remote learning.

Assuming a similar proportional participation of 16 percent, the absence of data from 41 school districts represents more than 127,000 K-8 students enrolled in synchronous remote learning last October who cannot yet be identified through school board student information management systems to assist post pandemic transition planning. There is no readily available data to identify an unspecified number K-8 students enrolled in asynchronous remote learning last fall. This is a data gap that impacts the capacity of provincial and school board systems for informed policy direction related to, among other things, school staffing, program development and staff professional development. It also limits the ability of these same systems to learn and grow from the experiences of students and staff that have participated with remote learning this past year.

Education systems may be enticed to presume, due to limited data availability suggesting otherwise, that all students and staff will have similar post pandemic needs and expectations. In our hearts and minds, we know this cannot be true. We have witnessed the largest interruption to education system operations in modern history.

The necessary application of emergency remote learning is a proxy to be examined, learned from, and leveraged for the future state of education. Many students and staff have struggled. However, there are also stories of success that need to be heard and shared to build a new vision for education. This need and opportunity for growth cannot be the responsibility of students and teachers alone. Our change efforts require system structures that can support their growth. Ontario is one example of the need for accessible data that applies to education systems everywhere. An updated commitment to timely and accurate data is a cornerstone that needs to be addressed. We need to know what we don’t know.

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