Opinion: Online education can be a great way for kids to learn if we do it right


Nora and Willa Stief during online school while their parents work from home caring for a toddler amid an increase in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, in Hamilton, in Ontario on January 7, 2022.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Suzanne Chisholm is the vice principal of SIDES, an online public school in Victoria. She has taught elementary students in class and online. She holds a doctorate in education.

Online learning has been much criticized since the start of the pandemic. In some recent headlines, he has been called cruel, ridiculous, and harmful. In Ontario, where many of the youngest learners don’t know what it’s like to be in a physical classroom and have only seen their teacher on a video call, some frustrated and angry parents are boycotting completely online learning. It feels like we might as well throw our kids overboard because online learning is so horrible.

As an administrator at an online K-12 public school in British Columbia, I have a different perspective. Online learning can be a great option for many students, and for some students it’s the best option. However, it has to be done correctly, and it usually works best when it’s a choice.

It is true that children benefit from learning in the classroom among their peers. It’s also true that physical classrooms are wonderful places for most kids, including my own 10-year-old son. It is tragically true that there are mental health issues for many children who cannot be in class now due to COVID-19, and that is a crisis.

But imagine these scenarios. What if your child has anxiety about entering a classroom? What if your child or another family member was severely immunocompromised? What if your child was an elite athlete whose training schedule prevented him from attending a neighborhood school? What if you lived in a remote community where you couldn’t access certain high school classes? You would want – and deserve – the same access to excellent K-12 public education that children elsewhere in Canada enjoy.

Purposefully designed online education delivered by trained and competent teachers plays a crucial role in our modern education system and provides a vital alternative for many students and families, pandemic or not. The programs we offer at our school cater to a diversity of learners, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in society. Families tell us how happy they are that we exist. Some parents say our school has been a lifeline for their child. Online learning is anything but cruel and harmful for these students.

So it’s not that online learning itself is so terrible. Why, then, are so many families struggling with this?

The biggest problem is that most teachers who have been forced to deliver their programs online have been trained to teach in classrooms, not on platforms such as Zoom. Across Canada, teachers have worked hard and adapted, but things haven’t always been easy. When I hear about elementary school students who are supposed to be online synchronously for hours every day, I understand why families are frustrated. It’s a recipe for boredom, restlessness and failure. This is often not even possible. For example, what should a parent do with a computer and two children at home who are supposed to go to school at the same time?

Teachers at our K-12 school do not require students to be online at a particular time every day. Instead, teachers provide high-quality materials based on the curriculum that home facilitators (usually parents) work with their students at their own pace. In some cases, there are weekly virtual classes where students log in as a class on Zoom. For example, kindergarten students can do a virtual “show and share” once a week. Our Grade 5 students could discuss their art or go on a home scavenger hunt. Others might tune in to our popular weekly library reading session. Recently, a uniformed police officer read a story during a video call to a group of engaged children. Our 12th grade chemistry students could attend a virtual tutorial. But for the most part, there’s no requirement to be online at a particular time each day. This flexibility is one of the main reasons for the success of our school.

When evaluating e-learning, it is critical to separate the challenges and constraints of the pandemic from the mode of delivery. The real problem with most online learning today is that the pandemic has created the conditions for it to sometimes be the only option. It’s hard to juggle parenthood, work, and homeschooling, especially during a pandemic.

I have great empathy for families struggling to balance the complexities of life that include online learning. But we also need to understand that e-learning itself can be useful – and vital – in some contexts. It can be great. We should all ask ourselves how we can improve educational experiences for everyone, whether in the classroom or online. Struggling with online learning is not an inevitable outcome.

These are extraordinary times when we all need lifelines. The pandemic continues to deliver powerful and painful blows. As many people prepare for online learning in the age of Omicron, we need to reflect on what it can be, instead of allowing ourselves to sink into collective despair.

Online learning can effectively fill the gaps when in-person schooling isn’t possible, both now and post-pandemic. I see online school working successfully every day, so I’m sure all of us – parents, policy makers, principals and education professionals such as teachers and educational assistants – can work together to support students regardless of the mode of education delivery.

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