A Summary of Findings: “The Sky’s the Limit”: On the Impossible Promise of E-Learning in the Toronto District School Board

Beyhan Farhadi, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto

Farhadi’s research is the culmination of a year-long study of e-learning at the Toronto District School Board. Farhadi relies on data obtained through interviews with students, administrators, guidance counsellors, teachers and parents as well as participant observation. Key findings include:
  • Students who already have the largest scope of learning opportunities are best served by online-learning. The disproportionate availability of online learning to advantaged students reproduces racial and economic inequalities. This dynamic is exacerbated by structures of anti-Black racism.
  • Students reported treating online learning as an afterthought, of secondary importance to face-to-face commitments.
  • Online learning is a response to austerity. It is primarily driven by cost concerns and is part of broader trends toward turning education into profitable market opportunities.

ABSTRACT: In this research, I analyse data from a year-long ethnography on e-Learning at the Toronto District School Board (2016-2017) the results of which show how online learning, as an emerging method of course delivery at the secondary level, is producing new geographies of inequality. While e-Learning promises students an experience that is engaging, learner-focused, and inclusive, I argue that disparities, which are physically mapped along lines of race and class in the city, are intensified online.  Rather than positioning this intensification as an inherent quality of online instruction, I analyse how practices of governance and ideas about technology are negotiated throughout e-Learning’s emergence and operation in the TDSB.  I offer insights into the impact of this new space of schooling on student identity, as it is reflected in multiple, semi-structured interviews with participants over the course of the year, as well as through participant-observation I conducted in their online classrooms. I also represent perspectives from a diverse range of stakeholders such as administrators, guidance counsellors, teachers, and parents, to better understand how their positions and visions, many of which are competing, influence the allocation, distribution, and consumption of resources, such as the funding and labour through which e-Learning is made possible. Summary of Findings: “The Sky’s the Limit”: On the Impossible Promise of E-Learning in the Toronto District School Board Ethics: All ethics protocols have been approved by the University of Toronto, and the Toronto District School Board. A formal report will be submitted to the TDSB upon the completion of an external examination. “The Sky’s the Limit” was the first branding initiative by the Ministry of Education for e-Learning. Although the brand is no longer in circulation, promises about what e-Learning might offer (i.e. engaging, learning-focused and inclusive classrooms) still abound. An economy of wealth in the EdTech industry, currently the fastest growing market in Canada, blurs the distinction between public and private sectors by marketing e-Learning as an innovative and simple solution to complex problems. The most striking intersection is for-profit software companies contracted to deliver e-Learning services, like D2L, but extend to surveillance technology and pay for play applications that integrate with learning management platforms. My study, conducted between the 2016-2017 school year, complicates the promise of e-Learning, in the context of its centralized provision in the Toronto District School Board. It takes place in the context of day schools under a capped-standard, rather than continuous enrollment. It does not focus on the market-based model of summer school, which offers a vastly different structure for e-Learning provision; blended learning, which is more widely accessed, but not tracked by the school board; or the e-Credit 18+ program which offers an alternative to adult learners who are not enrolled full-time. E-Learning in day school enjoys low levels of attrition because it offers limited enrollment that is integrated into students’ full-time funding. It is a program targeted to senior level university bound students. This contrasts from summer school enrollment, which reflects a greater range of course types, accompanied by very high rates of enrollment and attrition. While I have spent many years teaching e-Learning during the summer, it is not the focus of my work. Some questions that guided my research method and design were:
  1. How was e-Learning accessed by students in the school board? Was the provision of this program equitable in a diverse urban setting?
  2. How did students engage with e-Learning, within the context of their broader schooling experience?
  3. What are the possibilities and limitations of e-Learning, as it applies to traditional models of schooling?
Research was conducted using a critical ethnographic approach, which offers an argument for social change grounded in established academic scholarship. I recruited 20 students from the seven classrooms I observed, and almost all completed the three hour long interviews. Most students possessed middle-class competencies, reflecting often rigorous engagement with extra-curricular activities; aspirations for university and high-skilled work; and an egalitarian relationship to authority. Most possessed the language to discuss the complex relationship between schooling and identity, as it informed their consumption of e-Learning. Almost all were burdened by the stress of meritocracy, which was the philosophy informing their perception of worth and freedom, and against which they measured success. While I interviewed 30 additional stakeholders, to get a range of perspectives, I highlight the contributions of students in my work. Pertinent findings of my study are as follows:
  1. E-Learning serves students with the greatest learning opportunities: There is an acute concentration of e-Learning students in schools ranked highly on the Learning Opportunity Index (LOI).  During the year of my study, there were 1212 e-Learning spots available and 52% were concentrated in in 12.5% of schools. Since 2010, that average is consistent, with all four specialized arts schools in Toronto represented. E-Learning is offered on a first come, first served basis, and courses are almost exclusively targeted for university bound students. In my work, I explain why this configuration reproduces privilege, mapped along lines of class and race in Toronto. For high achieving students, the platform offered an efficient means to accreditation, and because of this, many enjoyed the freedom technology afforded – this meant freedom from the sacrifice of cooperative work, freedom from the vulnerability of dialogue and physical visibility, and freedom from perceived surveillance. Who is poised to enjoy freedom, on what terms freedom is leveraged, and to what ends freedom serve, are questions I explore throughout my work.
  • Students are ambivalent about e-Learning: With the exception of students who were not attending school regularly, e-Learning was referred to as an afterthought, or a task that students attended to after face to face commitments. Students did not have knowledge of who shared the online classroom space, and synchronous learning sessions, which were held weekly, were poorly attended. In the 3,091 discussion threads and responses I observed, passive or derivative engagement was routinely documented; higher levels of engagement were commensurate to the grade assigned. My analysis was substantiated by interviews with students and teachers, as well as my observation of 60 hours of online classroom instruction. While cognitive engagement might be cited as a measure of success, success is also measured by the intangible emotional life of the classroom, of which there was little to observe.
  • Anti-Black racism still impacts e-Learning students: While e-Learning may be conceived of as colour-blind and ahistorical, the program is a cultural product leveraged socially to reproduce privilege. In my research, I explore how discourses about technology reflect a fantasy of post-racial futures, which mask the construction of race. Colour-blind racism frames the experience of racialized students as a product of market dynamics – naturally occurring – and a cultural limitation that can be remedied through access to social mobility; however, the conditions of mobility are steeped in a history of European cultural dominance in education, within which diverse cultural expression is marginalized. The provision of e-Learning does not transcend race. Instead, it comprises a mechanism of traditional schooling within which Black students are disproportionately stigmatized, stereotyped, misdirected, pathologized, and disciplined.
  • E-Learning is used by the school board to respond to austerity: During the year of my study, e-Learning was used by the TDSB to deliver a full grade 12 course load to private school students in Canadian International School, Vietnam. These courses were delivered on LMS software, Brightspace, developed by D2L and licensed by the TDSB. As opposed to a typical online class, which already has content uploaded, TDSB teachers had to produce original content for CIS, Vietnam students, sometimes with insufficient notice. As a result of this partnership, CIS, Vietnam was able to circumvent a provincial moratorium on international schools and offer students an Ontario Secondary School Diploma without travelling abroad. I draw on news reports of this public-private partnership, in 2014, along with interviews with a handful of stakeholders, including those in Vietnam, to describe the movement of education toward marketization.
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