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Online learning could still be an option post-pandemic

Learning environments post-pandemic could be a mix of both online and in-person learning at all levels of education
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The Ford government announced Wednesday students won't be returning to in-person learning until at least September.

Premier Doug Ford said that he was concerned about a possible increase in cases if schools re-opened for the last few weeks of the school year.

That means school students will stick to online learning. But, does this mean online learning will stick post-pandemic? 

Dr. James Skidmore is the Director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and a former fellow at eCampus Ontario. Dr. Skidmore has been teaching online for over 15 years. He said when institutions were making the switch from in-person learning to online learning, he was called upon to help make that transition by hosting a number of webinars for instructors to help ease the transition. 

"A lot of people were interested in how you assess students and perform assessments in the online environment," he said. "the pandemic has taught us a lot of things with regard to education, and we are still trying to figure things out. A couple of things that seem fairly clear at the moment is the ability to teach students online effectively is there without needing a lot of support especially at the post-secondary level. There's certainly some support needed and it wasn't easy for everyone (...) but it was doable and relatively well," he said. 

Skidmore said that when he saw statistics from the university of student evaluations before the pandemic and during the pandemic, a lot of students noted that it was easier to get a hold of their professors when learning online versus learning in-person.

"There was an increase of instructor availability," he said, "it was easier to get in touch with your prof. It's been harder at the high school and elementary level. That's been difficult because that learning requires a lot more parental or guardian involvement. It's just trickier to set up and not everyone is well-situated or is well-equipped to be set up in that way. Plus, parents having to work from home and teaching their kids from home (...) and you bring all that together, and that made us realize that it's not an ideal way to teach children especially younger ones at the moment." 

With the province not opening up the schools for the rest of June and sticking to online learning, Skidmore said that he was worried that students and teachers would have to pivot one more time for the last three weeks of school.

"My gut feeling was 'oh my gosh, is it really worth the effort of just changing gears once again after this back-and-forth, or would it just make more sense to stay home and finish it out for a couple of weeks and plan for the fall.'

Skidmore said that when virtual learning became more commonplace throughout the province, there was some skepticism amongst professors in post-secondary as well as teachers in primary schools.

"I've been teaching online for many years and I wouldn't do it if I wasn't convinced that it was a good way to teach students," he said, "other instructors realized that it is doable. They now see that it can work but not all of them. I heard a lot that they were surprised by how well it worked."

Skidmore said that the future for online learning is brighter than it ever has been and an opportunity to do more especially at the post-secondary level. 

"The issue is going to be, 'can we think about it in a flexible enough manner?' he stated, "it shouldn't be an all or nothing, either we are in the classroom or online. So much of what happens in the classroom is online already, it always has been. One of the things is that we always thought in-class learning was the best place for learning and everything else was going to be second best. Talk to me once we are back in classrooms again and it's next March and 50 per cent of the students are absent. If they aren't in the classroom, then how good is that learning?" 

Skidmore said the online environment eliminates that issue.

"Well, not entirely. The student doesn't have to go onto the online system and do that learning if they don't want to, but it's not like it's not available to them. I really think as we shift back once the pandemic is over, and we start thinking about these things and working on these things we really have to think in those terms that there are some advantages to online learning and how we can incorporate those things." 

Some parents and students have shared how difficult it is for primary school students to learn in an online environment because of how different the needs of younger students are compared to high school and post-secondary. 

"There is a general sense that the really young kids need the socialization and need to be in a room with people so they can learn to get along with other kids, and it really is the first time that a child is experiencing something so you want to guide that carefully. I think at the very younger age of the scale, I do think it's difficult," said Skidmore, "but, I think once you get into grades 3, 4, or 5, I think the kids are more able to handle but that's more anecdotal. Anytime I've spoken to parents or anything I've read about elementary or secondary school kids learning from home is how hard it's been for them socially and even developmentally to learn from home. We're dealing with less of the ability to educate in terms of transmitting information or helping students gain knowledge and more about the other stuff that goes with classroom education with the way we've organized it in our society." 

The issues at the post-secondary level according to Skidmore, the issues become more about how we equip our students to handle online learning and the independence of learning. 

"Many complained about there was more work than in a classroom situation," he said, "part of the more work is that those students had to manage it more on their own. If you go to a university classroom setting and the prof is saying that there is a test next week, the students are getting less of that online, or it's easier to miss that online and as a result, they have to be better able to juggle all of those balls and keep track of things."

Skidmore's experience found that his students found it very overwhelming.

"They'd never had to deal with that before and that tells me how we should be thinking differently if we return back to the classroom," said Skidmore, "how do we better equip our students to better deal with that on their own, so we aren't holding their hand the entire way so they can become independent learners so they can learn on their own at any time," he said. 

Skidmore believes that the dynamics of learning are going to change post-pandemic. 

"If you've found in the online teaching environment that worked well, then keep it," he said, "create space for it in your class. Try to maintain them in the post-pandemic instruction. Don't get caught up in the idea that it has to all be online or in the classroom. Think of it as a spectrum, and you take a tool that works well in the classroom, use it and take what worked well online and use that, and create a patchwork to create the learning environment that you want."

Skidmore recognizes that learning post-pandemic is going to be a mix of both online and in-person learning at all levels of education because of the pivot we've had to do to keep everyone safe during the pandemic.

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