Features

Degree of Support for Remote Teaching & Implementation Patterns Among Elementary Educators

Introduction

The Ontario Ministry of Education (OME) has attempted to regulate and standardize the quality of elementary Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) and Virtual Elementary School instruction (VES) through its seven-page, August 13, 2020 Policy/Program Memorandum 164 (PPM 164). Teachers must provide a daily timetable to families that includes 300 minutes of learning opportunities for Grade 1 to 8 students, consisting of 225 minutes of synchronous (live, online) learning and 75 minutes of asynchronous (offline, posted) activities. Teachers must deliver the full provincial curriculum (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2020).

Despite the OME’s effort, a significant majority of elementary teachers (77.77%) who participated in a small study report that Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) and Virtual Elementary Schools (VES) are ineffective methods of education. After one year of experience with ERT and VES, only 13.0% of Ontario educators think that it is currently possible to create a successful online experience for elementary students, partly due to inconsistent implementation of ERT and to PPM 164’s inflexibility. Educators in the study note wide variations of ERT and VES across classrooms, schools, and districts. One educator described their implementation as “completely hit-and-miss” and another as a lawless “Wild West” of teaching. Past research suggests that this is a likely to be the case because inconsistent implementation tends to occur when new methods are introduced into the education system. Michael Fullan (2001) refers to this phenomenon as “the implementation dip.” ERT and VES approaches are untested, unstudied, undeveloped pedagogical newcomers that originated in 2020, whereas online and digital learning have been studied and developed for two decades. Quality online learning is the result of careful instructional design and planning using a systematic model. ERT and VES currently lack this well-developed design process (Hodges et al., 2020). 

One of the first steps toward improving ERT and VES is determining how educators implement them. Once typical structures, tendencies, common patterns and characteristics of these teaching methods have been identified, a standardized pedagogy can be elaborated, studied, developed, and tested. Reforms can emerge from future research into these areas. 

This article reports on a small study that describes how 54 Ontario elementary educators typically implement ERT and VES and reports their views on these approaches in an attempt to identify common patterns of implementation for further study.

Method 

The detailed survey consisting of Likert Scale items, checkbox selections, and open-ended questions was posted on a dozen private Ontario elementary educator Facebook groups in September 2021. All but one of the sites were grade specific. One was operated by a local teacher union affiliate. Only educators who taught in VESs or online during periods of ERT and who had one previous year of in-person teaching experience during 2020-21 were allowed to participate in the project.

Demographic Information

The majority of the respondents were full-time contract teachers (83.33%), self-identified as female (85.19%), and were aged 30 to 49 (81.49%). Two thirds of the participants (64.81%) categorized their online experience as emergency remote teaching. The other third described themselves are primarily virtual school educators (35.19%). Seventy-five per cent (75.8%) of the study participants had between five to 19 years of teaching experience. Their teaching assignments were relatively evenly distributed with a slight underrepresentation of Grade 7-8 teachers and an overrepresentation of kindergarten educators.

Findings

Degree of support for ERT and VES\ 

Elementary teachers and kindergarten registered early childhood educators (RECEs) in Ontario find that ERT and VESs are flawed teaching methods. The study determined that 77.77% of the educators in the sample believe that these new pedagogies are unsuccessful and 22.22% that they only work for certain specific students. Among those who believe that they are poor substitutes for in-class learning, 14.81% qualified their answer saying that even though they are poor-quality substitutes for in-person learning, they are better than nothing at all.  

The Ontario elementary educators were also asked to suggest alternatives to VES and/or ERT that would provide a better education to students during COVID-19 outbreaks. Ten of the 46 teachers (21.74%) in the study were stymied by the question. They wrote that they could not think of any other options, they weren’t sure what to suggest, or that there are no useful alternatives. 

Almost one half (43.48%) of the study participants stated that in-school teaching is the only option during pandemic outbreaks, but almost one third (32.61%) of them stipulated that in-person teaching requires smaller (half-sized) class sizes (possibly attending alternate days to save money and allowing those at home to watch remotely but not participate) as well as high-quality infectious disease prevention techniques such as air filtration, sanitation, masking, and daily testing at the school door. 

On the other hand, one third (36.96%) of them think ERT and VES are the best options during a pandemic. However, 30.43% of them also think they should be modified to focus on teaching fundamental skills or specific subjects such as math and language, providing mostly packages of asynchronous homework to reduce screen time including project-based learning assignments, giving teachers the autonomy to use their professional judgement to determine what and how to teach their students based on their particular needs.

Purpose and Content of Remote Teaching

Research on learning suggests that its success ultimately depends upon relationships between students and teachers and that student mental health is related to some degree to school structure and routines (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). Given this information, it is no surprise that the educators in this study agree that the main aims of remote and virtual teaching should be to maintain student-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships as well as support student mental health. Educators were asked to consider nine potential objectives of remote and virtual teaching, decide which ones are most important, and add their own suggestions. There is a strong consensus (50% to 70% agreement) on four goals:

  • maintain student-teacher relationships, 74.1%, 
  • nourish student relationships with teachers and peers, 72.2%,
  • provide temporary access to instruction that allows for rapid set up and the greatest accessibility possible, 66.7%, and,
  • teach students strategies that support their mental health, 57.4%.

The above results are corroborated by data from another section of the survey. Educators were asked to state the strength of their agreement with four statements about the focus of remote teaching. Their answers reveal that there is strong consensus that a key function of ERT and VES is fostering relationships over
teaching content and that ERT and VES should focus more on the following: 

  • nurturing peer-to-peer and teacher-student relationships rather than teaching content (70.3%), 
  • in mathematics and language instruction to the exclusion of all other content (31.5%),
  • reviewing previously taught concepts (50.0%), and/or,
  • reviewing previously taught material as well as teaching new concepts (59.3%).
Components of the Online Elementary School Day

More than three quarters of the educators (75.0%) in the study spend three to five hours (180 to 300) teaching “live” online, either in ERT or VES. During this time, they are either presenting a lesson, leading a discussion, providing feedback to students about their work, or responding live to student questions. Almost two thirds of the participants held two (22.2%), three (24.1%), or four (22.2%) class meetings per day. Another two thirds held one (22.2%), two (20.4%) three (9.3%) or four (9.3%) small group meetings daily. Approximately two thirds assigned a range of zero to two hours of offline work per day, one third assigned no offline work (31.5%) per day and one third assigned between 1 and 2 hours per day (31.5%). 

Discussion & Conclusion

Despite an attempt to standardize ERT and VES in Ontario, the results of this study suggest that there is considerable variation in how they are currently implemented across the province. This should be a red flag for principals. Only a few tenuous patterns in the school day structure, the amount of large and small group instruction, and how much offline work students should do at home have emerged from this study. Another issue for ERT and VES, however, is the fact that more than three quarters of the study participants (77.8%) report that these methods are unsuccessful for elementary students. There is strong agreement among the educators (74.1%) that ERT and VES should be reserved as approaches of the last resort. They (72.2%) see them as temporary, stopgap methods for supporting student-teacher and peer-to-peer relationships in an effort to shore up student mental health. 

Until elementary online teaching can be implemented uniformly and with guaranteed efficacy, it seems prudent for provincial governments to make in-person teaching their first priority during COVID-19 outbreaks instead of ERT and VES. However, since almost half (43.48%) of the sample participants are concerned about health risks from the virus, governments and school districts will need to provide significantly enhanced safety measures such as small class sizes during outbreaks of the disease. This approach would satisfy teacher union and educator health concerns about in-person teaching and help increase support for it (ETFO, 2022; OECTA, 2022).  

By: Edward Schroeter


References
Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. (2022, January 3). ETFO Renews Calls for Safety Measures that Ensure Safe, Sustainable Return to In-Person Learning [Press release]. https://www.etfo.ca/news-publications/media-releases/draft-letter
Fullan, M. (2001). The New Meaning of Educational Change (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., Bond, A. (2020, March 27). “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.” EDUCAUSE Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning#fn7
Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. (2022, January 11). Ford Government Must Implement Measures to Ensure Schools Reopen, and Stay Open [Press release]. https://www.catholicteachers.ca/News-Events/News/Releases/Ford-government-must-implement-measures-to-ensure
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2020). Policy/Program Memorandum 164. https://www.ontario.ca/document/education-ontario-policy-and-program-direction/policyprogram-memorandum-164

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