Last week, during Ontario’s March Break, Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced several key changes to Ontario’s education system, under the banner “Education that Works for You.”
Curriculum and Class Size
Revisions to the Health and Physical Education curriculum, to take effect September 2019, will delay the age at which certain topics, such as gender identity, are introduced and allow parents to opt out of lessons to which they object. Online modules will be made available for at-home learning, at ages parents deem appropriate for their children.
Changes described as “modern learning” and “modern classroom” initiatives will include a return to teaching math fundamentals, an increased focus on financial literacy in Grade 10 Career Studies, a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (“STEM”) curriculum, increased exposure to the skilled trades and a revised Indigenous Education curriculum.
The Ministry has also announced it will increase class sizes in grades 4 to 12 and change teacher hiring practices, the Grants for Student Needs (“GSN”) funding model and the Education Quality and Accountability Office (“EQAO”).
The Ministry has yet to provide details with respect to the above announcements.
Technology in Classrooms
In previous articles appearing in this forum (links) and in our book “An Educator’s Guide to Internet and Social Media Use in the Classroom,” Miller Thomson’s Education Law Group commented on issues arising from the use of digital tools in the delivery of educational services. We, therefore, note with particular interest three Ministry announcements regarding the use of technology in classrooms.
Ban on Cell Phones
Boards of education across Ontario have developed a variety of different approaches to the use of technological devices in the classroom. Some boards have elected to provide all students with a laptop or iPad. Others have opted for making electronic devices available within the school and/or have instituted a “BYOD” (bring your own device) policy.
Students’ ubiquitous use of mobile devices has vastly increased access to online learning resources in the classroom, without a commensurate increase in costs to boards. However, educators have had to develop classroom management strategies that incorporate the use of such devices in a manner that optimizes educational opportunities and address the distractions personal devices can present.
The Minister’s March 15th announcement included a statement that the Provincial Code of Conduct will be amended to prohibit cell phone use in schools during instructional time, starting September 2019. An exception to the global ban will allow cell phone use if directed by the teacher for educational purposes, for health or medical reasons or to support students with special needs.
We hope the language used to amend the Provincial Code of Conduct provides sufficient flexibility to allow for the continued use of professional judgement, such that educators can take into account factors such as class composition, subject matter and the individual learning needs of their students in complying with this ban.
Increase in Broadband
The Minister has stated that, by the 2021-22 school year, “all Ontario students and educators will have access to reliable, fast, secure and affordable internet services at school at a speed of one megabit per-second for every student in all regions of the province.”
This increase in capacity will be particularly welcome in some rural areas, where access to internet within schools has not kept pace with urban communities.
We expect that school boards will continue to struggle with ensuring that there are sufficient devices for all students, especially if the use of cell phones is banned or severely restricted. We, therefore, hope to see further Ministry initiatives that support equitable access to online learning resources.
The Ministry has announced that, starting in the 2020-21 school year, delivery of e-learning courses will be expanded and centralized through the Ministry of Education’s Learning Management System, so that a greater variety of online course options will be available to students. This will likely prove particularly advantageous to students attending smaller high schools where course selections and timetabling options may be limited. Blended learning opportunities, where online materials are used in classroom settings with in-person teaching support, will also be enhanced.
Of particular significance is the Ministry’s announcement that all students will be required to take a minimum of 4 online credit courses to graduate. We hope to see clarification regarding exemptions and/or supports for students, as the e-learning format will not be compatible with all students’ learning strengths and needs. There may also be implications for class size and potential school closures.
We have commented in the past on the importance of developing resources, including policies, procedures, guidelines and training to provide the scaffolding necessary for successfully incorporating technological changes into classroom practices. We have emphasized the importance of taking into account student privacy and safety. This continues to be our advice, whether changes arise as a result of enhancements in technological capacities, or a shift in government policy, or both.
The government’s March 15th announcement suggests a need for the development of accompanying Ministry guidelines and financial supports, as well as a review of board policies and procedures, to ensure that stated “modernization” goals can be achieved.