The Log Jam – Thoughts about online learning in Ontario education

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Lumberjacks in Canada had an extraordinarily gruelling and hazardous job historically, and exhibited toughness and courage in their role in building our country. Their task was to fell and transport trees for processing into forest products. Legendary ones like Joe Mufferaw executed impressive achievements of strength and skill and earned an enduring place in Canadian folklore and history.

According to information contained in Mark Kuhl Berg’s 2014 article ‘Lumberjacks’, Aboriginal people were the first tree cutters, followed by early European settlers in the 1600’s, and the British immigrants in the late 1700’s. In the 1800’s it became a profession. By the 1900’s trees were cut using human and horse power in fall and winter to cut down the trees and then transport the logs on horse drawn skids to the frozen or nearly frozen waterways. In spring the river ice would break up and the toughest and most skilled lumberjacks would drive the logs from the bush to the mills. They had to be quick, agile and dance across the piles of logs with caulked boots and peaveys to keep those logs from piling up or to break up a jumble of logs that had jammed together, severely blocking the flow of the floating timber.These were called log jams. Many men were injured or even died in the notoriously dangerous process.

Log jams became metaphorically used to mean a deadlock or impasse in a process due to differing opinions or viewpoints, on legal or technical issues. Log jammers seem to present themselves everywhere when new ideas or change is suggested. It is happening now in Ontario education with the Ford government’s proposed online learning credit requirements for high school graduation which were announced in March, 2019.

The proposal requires all high school students to obtain 4/30 credits through online courses. And as is usual in attempts to bring change and new ideas into education, there are supporters of this proposal and there are critics. Unfortunately, differing opinions, experience, backgrounds, positions in the field, interest, knowledge, personal impact and politics are but some of the factors creating yet another log jam to innovation and experimentation. With new ideas from research, other countries and creative thinkers, that suggest different and possibly better alternatives to what is currently done, controversy erupts.

It was evident when efforts were made to introduce the credit system into high schools and replace the lock step system of promotion and retention. We saw it when female educators pushed for the right to work past the fifth month of their pregnancies rather than being required to cease teaching at that point, until after delivery of their babies. It was present when a Sex Education curriculum was developed for Ontario students, put into play, revoked, then reinstituted in revised form. Now online learning is the big issue, causing a log jam of protesters and controversy across the province.

Critics of mandatory online learning requirements for high school graduation say that some students cannot work independently and may not learn how to work correctly without the guidance of a face to face teacher. Some say that not every teenager is well organized, personally motivated or mature enough to handle such independent study. Others feel a face to face learning situation with a real teacher is more motivating and affords better assurance of accurate digestion of course content. For certain, the challenges in implementation are numerous, including the immediate massive increase in numbers of students in the province studying this way, the demand on the technology currently available within school systems and homes, and differing teacher skill sets which may or may not support some course delivery in this way.

A Washington Post article entitled ‘Why the public is protesting on online learning’, by Valerie Strauss raises concerns around privacy and the collection of personal data on students, with whom it might be shared and the use and misuse of it.  The Ontario Student Trustees’ Association 2019 survey raised concerns around the difficulty of learning complex concepts online and the possibility that some students will not have enough personal support currently available in classrooms. A CBC News report on April 6, 2019 by Lucas Powers, interviewed many teachers in Ontario including a Kitchener teacher, Marissa White, who wondered how anyone could think required online learning courses was a good idea. Another thought it would be particularly challenging for students still learning English. Yet another thought it might impact students’ access to mental health services. And the teachers’ unions and federations are concerned among other variables, about heavy marking loads and losing teaching positions for the profession.

These are some of the arguments causing the blockage of smooth transition to the addition of online learning course requirements for high school graduation. Proponents of adding online learning courses to the current Ontario mix have a different take, with which I concur. While recognizing limitations, as well as the complexities of execution  of the Ford government plan, online study opportunities may be the greatest revolution in educational learning methodology ever.

Today’s young people are practically emerging from their mothers wombs with a cell phone or computer device attached to their umbilical cord. They are handed a cell phone as toddlers to keep them quiet in restaurants. They are watching devices in automobiles, waiting rooms and on buses everywhere. High school cafeterias are quite quiet because most teenagers are on their phones watching, learning, playing, and communicating. Classroom teachers compete with phones and devices for their students attention in classrooms across the province. Youth are often more literate about the uses of their phones than their parents. I confess, my eight year old granddaughter was able to show me how to create a YouTube video of my own but could not at the time read ‘Charlotte’s Web’.

Our children and youth are extremely motivated by the technology right in their hands, provided by their parents very early in most Ontario homes. One of the commonly used and impactful consequences for poor behaviour used by modern parents is removing or restricting access to devices and cell phones. Proponents of online learning suggest we use the intrinsic motivation, interest and skills of our children to access the knowledge available online which exceeds that available in some of the biggest libraries in the world.

Stephane Norman published a thought provoking article on March 6, 2016 entitled ‘ 5 Advantages on Online Learning:Education Without Leaving Home’. He feels that online learning has opened up staggering opportunities for anyone to learn almost anything, and do it faster, cheaper, and in a self directed style.

Norman says that anyone can learn whatever one wants from almost anywhere, at home. Moreover, one can do it in complete personalized comfort with flexible hours, at one’s own pace, in one’s own chosen setting, with no transportation costs, no bus schedules to follow, no expenditure of time on preparation or travel, with all lectures and study material easily accessible on online platforms.

He goes on to say that it looks very good on a resume, demonstrating that the student is a self starter, self disciplined, committed to learning, and loves learning new things. Completion targets are self set and suit the learner who is anywhere on the continuum of ability to learn a particular subject. Program requirements on the same topic can be designed for all kinds of learners, at all kinds of levels, for all kinds of determined outcomes and eventual uses.

In addition Norman says learning in this way is cheaper for the society and may prepare the student to take college or university subjects at less expense, and better support a student choosing to combine work and study, especially those unable to afford full time studies. It offers greater convenience, lower costs, and puts the individual at the helm in directing his/her own education.

For critics worried about strictly following an online learning subject independently, virtual classrooms may be an agreeable option. A real teacher teaches face to face real children in a physical classroom while students online can watch, interact, and interject their thoughts, questions and opinions, being connected to this real experience through cameras and microphones.

Approximately 65,000 students in Ontario took at least one course online in 2017-2018 according to the Canadian E-Learning Network, most at the grade 11 or 12 level and completion rates are similar to those taken in a regular classroom situation. Not all courses lend themselves to this methodology.  Not all students’ learning abilities or styles  work with it either. However, innovative creative curriculum designers could easily come up with some compelling, high interest units which would set our teenagers on fire about learning in new and different ways. Maybe they would consider studying subjects previously unknown or unchosen by them. There is with online learning possibilities, more than one way to skin a cat!

We need however some powerful, skillful, experienced and dynamic lumberjacks with pikes and dynamite to break up the log jam and disentangle the logs and all the issues creating the controversy around addition of a different way to reach our goal of educated, informed citizens who are capable of being excited lifelong learners. We need some of them to create online courses with high interest, open ended learning possibilities and methods that might work well for all kinds of learners.

I imagined a few integrated unit ideas for online courses that are capable of teaching all kinds of concepts, content and skills and which could be more completely developed by some of our brightest and best curriculum designers already playing the game in our school boards and Ministry of Education.

How about an integrated online unit about another country, for any high school grade, in any size of group? Study of life in other countries, and the people in them,  is so valuable for helping children develop an understanding of who they are and where they fit in the world. A study of ‘India’ for example could start with watching the film entitled ‘I am Kalam’, a 2011 Hindi drama produced by Smile Foundation. This film won the National Film Award for Best Artist, the Filmfare Award for Best Story, and the Stardust Award for Best Actor, among many other international prizes. It tells the story of a poverty stricken preadolescent Indian boy who is placed into child labour by his loving mother because of famine, poverty and woman’s need to provide for an infant daughter. He derives inspiration from the former President of India and seeks to accomplish his dream of an education for himself and all children in his country.

An English teacher could prepare questions around the characters, the setting, the plot, the climax  as well as the lessons learned. A geography teacher could prepare questions, around the physical geographical conditions in India, evident in the film. A civics, political science or sociology teacher might write research questions on the political and social structures in India, or focus some study on child labour. A history specialist might construct queries on the history of India relevant to this story.

Another idea with high interest might be an integrated unit on ‘Drugs‘ This topic is timely, relevant and could be studied by any level high school student with a myriad of focus areas. It could start with watching the  2018 documentary film ‘Whitney’. This is the compelling biographical story of the famous but troubled American black singer and actress Whitney Houston who reached the top of the world in vocal music but died a tragic death at the age of 48 from drug abuse.

English teachers could write questions about the setting, the characters, the conflicts, the climax and the factors affecting Whitney’s life. A film studies teacher could develop assignments to teach concepts in creating movies evident in this movie. A guidance teacher could prepare assignments around the precursors to drug abuse, the signs, the impact, rehabilitation programs available or the opioid crisis in North America. Teachers of sociology or Black Race Studies might develop assignments relevant to racial issues and minority problems.

A third topic of high interest to adolescents might be an integrated unit on ‘Dating’, ‘Relationships’ and ‘Communication’.With an almost fifty percent divorce rate I cannot think of a topic of broader or more important social value to our children. Education in this area is needed by all of us and teachable to every kind of student. There is a myriad of online resources available on these topics prepared by psychologists, counsellors and life coaches. There are short talks on YouTube, documentaries, stories, films, dramatizations and written material of all kinds, which teachers could identify and students could watch, listen to or read in order to learn.

For all three of these kinds of  units a teacher dealing with technology, media studies, or computer applications could write the instructions for the preparation of a YouTube video presentation. Curriculum developers could provide a list of online websites, videos, stories, films, debates, documentaries, articles, research studies, or newspaper articles, suitable for review. The learner could be required to address a specific number of the teacher assignments, suited to his/her grade level, ability and interests and prepare a talk about his findings, aimed at instructing others. Help of any kind would be welcome in gathering material for a student’s talk. Parameters for length, speakers and content would be determined by curriculum designers and final YouTube videos could be shared with fellow students, with the online teacher/coach posting the videos to appropriate students studying the same topic. Students could be connected by the teacher with the online platform for discussions . A simple complete or incomplete grade could be assigned by fellow students and one or more of the online coach/teachers. Some of the best ones might even be shown at a parents’ night with discussions.

Motivation for these kinds of courses should be quite high because of the relevance of the topics to teenagers and the approach to the learning. I think few students would fail to bring their best game to the creation of a YouTube video, if it was to be shown to fellow students and possibly to an interested parent group as well as their teacher/coach. Every student could accept whatever help he/she wants or which is available to him/her, without a teacher worrying about the student getting grades because someone else did it for the child. It would  be his/her face and voice in the video and he/she who would answer any queries teachers, fellow students or parents might make.. Everyone’s work would be individualized, and competition minimal because each student’s approach and focus would be unique. Marking demands for teachers/coaches should be minimal.

These kind of courses might remove many of the objections critics of online learning have. They have the potential to offer youngsters self directed open ended study units, with opportunities for a lot of creativity and a great deal of individualized programming. Students would be able to choose what they wish to learn on the topic from teacher written choices, and then prove how they advanced their knowledge and skill in their YouTube video presentations.The evidence of their learning will be the completion and sharing of an informative talk on video, with minimal notes and ability to answer questions from the teacher/coach and fellow students on a connected online platform.

More traditional courses and approaches to online learning are working for many children I know. An Ontario family working in China with 5 children, told me their 2 oldest sons finished their high school diplomas online and are now attending university in Canada. Their daughter will complete her Ontario grade 10 requirements this year online. Their two youngest adopted youngsters with learning challenges have been educated similarly and the charming  ten year old visiting me this summer told me that his teacher was ‘my computer.’  The father in this family spent last year earning a degree online by completing 13 courses from an accredited university in his field, at his own breakneck speed pace. His wife is beginning a degree program this September online with one course. A great niece of mine in California is doubling down and fast tracking her completion of high school credits this summer, so she can take advantage of a study opportunity in Europe in September, 2019.  A granddaughter of mine who got behind a few years ago, took a 9 th grade English course online one summer and surprised herself with an A on every assignment. My son and nephew successfully studied for a GED online as young adults and wrote the examinations successfully at local colleges.

Online learning has the ability to transform the way many courses are delivered in Ontario education and open up the prodigious world of knowledge that is available to our progeny through computers. The one size fits all mentality must go. Not all courses will lend themselves to this option. Not all children are excellent candidates for it. The implementation of the current government’s effort to improve Ontario education with some mandatory online learning courses will be challenging, of course. However, it is exceedingly laudable, forward thinking and has boundless potential!

We are not going back, folks! Computers are here and part of the future. Our children are on the early frontiers of the applications for computers in education and learning.

All of us need to support the Joe Mufferaw log drivers in Ontario education who must break up the chaotic jumble of a log jam about online learning, expeditiously and with masterful aplomb. May the rivers of innovative educational ideas like online learning run free, allowing our youngsters to paddle their rafts and canoes on the burbling whitewaters, diverting to unexplored tributaries, capable of transporting them to the summit of the highlands of their minds.