Taking school online

Megan Walchuk

Although it hasn’t enjoyed the fanfare and photo-ops of a traditional school year, remote learning has quietly begun at kitchen tables across the region this week.

As with all new systems, there will be bumps and growing pains. An entirely new schooling system created in a matter of months is bound to be full of hiccups. But, it’s one of the silver linings of this pandemic.

Although Ontario has a world class education system, its one weakness is lack of choice. Other provinces have surged ahead of us, with big-tent education systems, which bring a variety of models under the public education banner. Specialty schools focussed on art, business, science or religion are commonplace in other provinces. Montessori and charter schools are also covered by the public purse in many areas. Home schooling in other provinces is fully integrated, giving home schooled kids access to group classes and assigned teachers.

Ontario is a long way from embracing that level of openness in education. But an online stream is a practical start – especially for remote areas, like the north, where an online school system gives choice where none currently exists. If the province makes good on its promise to expand high speed internet across the north, an online education stream could eliminate the choice between dropping out, booklet learning, or moving hundreds of kilometres away to complete high school for many of our most remote and First Nations communities. If developed thoughtfully, remote learning could have the ability to level the playing field and narrow socioeconomic gaps.

The reasons for needing an online school in our province are as unique as each student who could benefit. Families who homeschool for cultural reasons, but want access to academic supports; families who move or travel frequently; those who need a break from the social challenges of school; those who just don’t flourish in institutional learning; those with complex medical needs.
An online school could also be used to bridge cultural divides. Many in northern Ontario suffer culture shock when they first attend University in the south, and many in the south assume there’s little civilization up here. Being in classes, and sharing ideas and experiences with those in other parts of the province could help break down that divide. It may become a dream of Toronto kids to one day attend Lakehead in Thunder Bay, or become a doctor up north, because they fall in love with our culture through the kids they meet in a Google Classroom.

Even teachers can benefit from having a new employment avenue, which gives them flexibility to balance work with home life or travel.

As of this week, remote learning is an experiment, created under duress and in reaction to a crisis. But it’s one policy that should stay long after the danger has passed.

By Megan Walchuk