Upper Canada District School Board area

Guzman, Y. (2020) Students miss out and teachers feel overwhelmed as school boards blend in-person and virtual classes The Globe and Mail, November 1

As you know, I generally avoid discussing k-12 issues because there are other online learning experts such as Randy LaBonte and Michael Barbour at the Canadian eLearning Network who are more qualified than me to talk about online learning in the k-12/schools sector. Also in general I have been impressed by the resilience and hard work of everyone in trying to ensure that school, college and university systems continue to operate as best as possible during the pandemic. But when I read this article, I blew a gasket.

Teaching in-person and online students simultaneously

Read the article yourself, but in summary, the Upper Canada District School Board, together with several other school boards in Ontario, have abandoned plans for separate in-person and virtual (online) systems, instead requiring teachers to teach both groups of students simultaneously. In addition to teaching in-person and online students simultaneously, UCDSB teachers are also responsible for preparing and marking materials for children doing asynchronous independent learning, both online and paper-based.

Why this strategy is so wrong

First of all, this is a ridiculously heavy work-load for any single teacher. Second, it requires a level of skill and professional development that these school boards have failed abysmally to deliver. It’s like asking a bus driver to fly a plane, without any further training, and do both at the same time. Sure, they are both forms of passenger transportation, but the skills required are quite different. Teaching online requires a range of different skills from teaching face-to-face. These are not hard skills to develop but those wanting to teach online need a minimum of 10-15 hours training. 

Furthermore, educators have known for over 40 years that this model of a teacher or instructor with students in-person also teaching students at remote sites without an instructor or tutor just doesn’t work. Back in the 1970s, when cable television was taking off, many universities or colleges with multiple campuses put in video delivery of classes: the same class and lecturer to every site.

Several independent research studies found that the students in remote sites performed significantly worse on average than those at the ‘mother’ site. Indeed, some studies showed that when all students were separated from the instructor, performance improved across the board. The reasons are obvious: students without an instructor present feel second-best to those with the instructor; the instructor inevitably pays more attention to the in-person students; and lastly, and most importantly, the ‘regular’ class needed to be re-designed in order to engage the students at remote sites.

Just read the Globe and Mail article to get an idea of the impact on a single child separated from the main class. It is cruel.

Why have school boards opted for this model?

UCDSB adopted this model before classes began in September after interest in remote learning surged to 20 per cent from an anticipated 6 per cent. The reason given was that the board didn’t have enough additional teachers to staff a large virtual track while also avoiding crowding in-person classes.

What this indicates though is an appalling lack of preparation for the fall semester. It appears there was no attempt by the school board, or the province, from the time Covid-19 hit in March, right through the summer, to prepare a cadre of teachers who could quickly move to online delivery if necessary. The assumption seems to have been that Covid-19 would be gone by September, despite health professionals’ repeated warnings of a probable second spike.

The argument about not having enough teachers to run parallel in-class and online classes also doesn’t make sense. The number of students and the number of teachers is the same whether they are all in school, all online, or some online and some in school. There was though a lack of trained teachers who could switch to fully online to meet the demand. That was a failure of the administration to provide such training over the summer. The  ‘throw them all into the same boat’ was a solution that that suited administrators – keep it administratively simple; and to hell with the needs of students, parents and teachers.

Above all, we are seeing here a failure by administrators to listen to online learning professionals, any one of which would have told them that the administrators’ preferred solution would be a disaster. It appears it is not only politicians south of the border who think they know better than the professionals – and it is parents and children who suffer as a result.



  1. Can you point me to some of that 1970s research that showed “students in remote sites performed significantly worse on average than those at the ‘mother’ site”, or a summary? I coudn’t find that info in your book. Thanks

    • Hi, Doug. Thanks for calling me out on this. It’s a good reminder never to quote research results without the paper in front of you!
      If my memory is correct, the research was presented at a National University Teleconferencing Network conference. It was a report on findings from one of the member universities – either the University of Maine but more likely the University of Nebraska, around 1985. I believe they were using an intra-university multi-campus cable network, although it may have been satellite. Unfortunately this was all pre-Google and I can’t find any proceedings online.
      If anyone into video-conferencing around that time can refer me to the paper/presentation, I will be really grateful.
      Just one further point on this. I’m not saying students at remote sites can’t learn as well this way as students with the instructor in front of them, but the teaching needs to be re-designed to accommodate this situation, and this does not appear to be happening currently when schools are using this format.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here