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Who Are the Remote Learners?

With education systems now well into the second half of the 2020-21 pandemic impacted school year, it is increasingly urgent that the learning and growth from this year be used in a beneficial way for 2021-22 student transitions. What education systems can learn and apply for next year will also assist their longer term transformation to more personalized support structures.

While challenging in many ways, emergency remote education this past year has had the advantage of identifying the need for, and opportunities to build capacity in:

  • personalized learning opportunities for students,

  • equity in education,

  • openness through collaboration and sharing,

  • digital literacy,

  • appropriate uses of technology, and

  • meaningful support for parents.

In our desire to “return to normal”, we cannot jeopardize this opportunity to build upon the many gains that have been made this past year. Because our perspectives and language define us, we must frame and apply what has been learned in a helpful and positive way. One step forward would involve an acknowledgement that our current state is Learning Interrupted.......Not Learning Loss.

Among other things, the work to be done to build upon this moment also relies upon access to timely and accurate data. Good data helps everyone associated with education systems, at the classroom, school, school board and higher jurisdictional levels, to ask meaningful questions about what is happening and why. It’s a process of discovery that can guide and inform a cycle of positive action.

In the Province of Ontario, Canada, school boards have been providing remote learning in accordance with the terms and conditions of Policy/Program Memorandum No.164 which was released by the Ontario Ministry of Education in August, 2020. Remote learning is defined in the Memorandum as “[L]earning that occurs when classes are taught at a distance and when students and educators are not in a conventional classroom setting. Remote learning takes place in times of extended interruption to in-person learning – for example, as a result of a pandemic or natural disaster. Classes can be synchronous or asynchronous and can be taught online through a Learning Management System (LMS) or by using videoconferencing tools. In some cases, they may be delivered through emails, print materials, broadcast media, or telephone calls.”

There are 75 school boards across the Province of Ontario, each with unique perspectives and approaches in the way that synchronous and asynchronous remote learning has been provided this past year. For example, some Ontario boards have organized separately staffed virtual schools. Other boards have employed a “hybrid” model with face-to-face, remote synchronous, and asynchronous learning happening together with the same classroom teachers. Each school district is therefore in need of localized transition plans that can build upon the learning interruption that has happened this past year.

A key date for data in the Province of Ontario is October 31. This is one of several dates each year that school districts are required to submit, through their Student Information Management Systems, enrolment and related data to the Ministry of Education that is used for funding and provincial policy. In an effort to gain some perspective about school board remote learning this past year, I placed a Freedom of Information Request to receive a breakdown of Kindergarten to Grade 8 enrolments, specific to October 31, 2020, as they relate to in-person, remote synchronous and remote asynchronous learning. The following table offers a summary of the data I received as a result of this request.

Province of Ontario Kindergarten to Grade 8 Enrolments (Headcount) on October 31, 2020

Source: As reported by schools 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.

It can be seen that, effective March 5, 2021, roughly 79% of Ontario school districts had completed the necessary verification process to confirm their overall enrolments for October 31, 2020. About 41% of school boards had verified their October 31, 2020 remote synchronous enrolments. There was no information available in relation to asynchronous remote learning enrolments. This is due to the fact that asynchronous enrolments were not identified by the Ministry as a necessary data capture for school boards to provide for October 31, 2020.

When looking at data, we are trying to find commonalities and differences that cause us to ask questions. We aren’t seeking to place blame or jump too quickly to cause and effect. It’s an exercise that allows us to ask why something might or might not be happening. Sometimes, it is what is missing that causes us to reflect. Among other things, the results from this enrolment summary cause us to ask what could be done to improve the necessary data support processes for school boards to engage effective students and staff transition planning for next year.

Knowing how many students have participated in remote learning this past year is a rudimentary, yet critical, starting point to guide transition planning for next year and beyond. For example, aggregated enrolments can be correlated with a variety of other data to inform and address equity issues and gaps that have become evident due to the pandemic. Do education systems know the extent to which different communities have aligned with remote learning this past year? What could be learned from this data to help advance resource allocation strategies for next year and beyond?

Going deeper, education systems also need to know which students have been participating with remote learning to understand whether and why it has been successful. Last year’s emergency remote learning is a proxy for the systematic advancement of effective personalized learning that is currently happening in isolated pockets. To what extent have students succeeded with remote learning? Who are these students and what can we learn from their experiences to inform more flexible and personalized post-pandemic learning opportunities for all students? Who are the teachers and support staff that have been immersed in remote learning this past year? What are their stories? All of this inquiry relies upon effective data capture.

Access to good data is necessary for the advancement of post-pandemic education system structures that support equity, innovation and growth. Ontario is one example of our need to assess, with some urgency, the extent to which data availability is symptomatic of a larger issue; that we are in danger of a “return to normal” even though normal, as we once knew it, no longer exists.

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