The Evolution of Distance Education and Issues of Digital Equity and Inclusion

Posted on Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Nathalie Bélanger, Megan Cotnam-Kappel, Phyllis Dalley

We are living in unusual times. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is present in nearly every aspect of our lives and disruptions are projected for months, possibly year(s), to come. With school closures and social distancing measures, upheavals in the education sector have posed a range of unique challenges.  More than 20 years ago, the Faculty of Education began to develop the capacity for distance learning to reach francophone school communities in Ontario and across Canada. The expertise cultivated over this period is now serving not only professors in the Faculty, but also the rest of the University. By virtue of its bilingual mission and distance education experience, the Faculty is exceptionally well-positioned to lead during this sudden virtual shift in higher education. Two decades and one pandemic later, the urgency for best practices in digital pedagogies and crucial questions about equity and inclusion are omnipresent. In this interview, three Faculty of Education professors, Nathalie Bélanger, Megan Cotnam-Kappel and Phyllis Dalley, offer their thoughts and observations on the evolution of distance education and the possibilities for the post-pandemic period.


 Q: The Faculty’s foray into distance learning 20+ years ago really prepared its professors to transform their in-person courses to distance learning quite rapidly. Tell us about this history of online education, its major hurdles and notable successes.

Nathalie Bélanger: When I arrived at the Faculty of Education in 2005, I immediately experienced courses offered at a distance via Adobe Connect or by phone, which began long before my arrival, in the 1990s. In addition to a group of master’s students attending in person on the Ottawa campus, there were students from across Ontario. In the early years, they had to go to video-equipped facilities in Windsor or Toronto, whereas today they can connect from home.  The Faculty was supported by very dedicated technicians who knew how to quickly solve any technical problem.  There were and still are occasional technical problems, even if the structure or platform is becoming more and more unobtrusive, to promote fluidity in the interchange of teaching and learning. The goal was—and still is—to reach students who wish to pursue their university studies in French and thus enable Ontario’s linguistic minority to acquire the resources necessary to enrich the learning experience.   

Subsequently, professors teaching undergraduate courses in teacher education followed suit and offered distance education courses through our Windsor and Toronto campuses, even going so far as to reserve a cohort in our Formation à l’enseignement program for an entire distance education offering.

It can be said that course delivery has changed significantly over time. From on-site or face-to-face courses to telephone or audio/video conferencing, online courses, and finally hybrid and multimedia courses, there is a significant learning curve for both faculty and students. But not everyone is up to the task and nor do they have access to the same resources. On the other hand, an equilibrium must be established so that all energy is not directed solely towards the search for technical efficiency or problem solving, which would have the unfortunate result of deprioritizing teaching content.

Personally, during the transition to online courses, I first had to learn how to use Blackboard Vista, then Blackboard Learn and more recently, Virtual Campus powered by Brightspace. These platform changes bring their share of difficulties or challenges, although they also sometimes improve specific aspects of the teaching and learning experience.  In 2016, during my tenure as director of graduate studies, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a working committee in order to publish guidelines in the cyberstrategy developed by our faculty, which were later adopted by our Program Council. Distance education was becoming even more common in our faculty and English-speaking colleagues were also discovering its advantages. As for courses in French, our students came from all parts of Ontario, elsewhere in Canada and around the world.


Q.  What advice would you give to colleagues or teachers just discovering online or distance education now because of the pandemic?

Phyllis Dalley: I came to the University of Alberta’s Faculté Saint-Jean in 2005 with experience in teaching graduate studies by videoconference. This was a valuable preparation for teaching francophone graduate students in the Faculty of Education, which was, by this time, using web audio. However, when I agreed to be part of a pilot study for the Blackboard platform I began to do blended teaching at the undergraduate level. I quickly learned that undergraduate students benefitted from more support and guidance to participate in online discussions. Here's my advice:

  • There are several models of distance or online learning. Take the time to decide which one best suits your way of working or your teaching approach.
  • Just as face-to-face teaching at the undergraduate level is distinct from face-to-face teaching at the graduate level, online or distance education at the undergraduate level is distinct from online or distance education at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, students thrive with more support and explicit guidance for online or distance learning than they need for graduate studies, where it is easier to operate in seminar mode.
  • The more precise your modus operandi, your expectations and the responsibilities of the students are, the easier it is to manage the course.
  • It is impossible to do all the learning required for the proper management of an online or distance learning course before having experienced it. Even when you have acquired the experience of teaching a first course, expect to still be learning when teaching a new course. Just as in face-to-face encounters, theory and practice are not always one and the same.
  • When you are taking courses about online or distance learning, choose something that appeals to you and that you can apply immediately. Don’t think you will master all platform features in one term, let alone by September.
  • It is better to have a virtual organization of your simple course with a limited number of tools than a complex course organization with too many tools. Like you, your students will be learning a whole new way of operating.
  • Don’t assume “young people” will find it easier to take ownership of how an online course works than “newcomers” in the digital world. Formal online learning is not the same as communicating with friends on social media or browsing the web for personal needs.
  • If you use active teaching, allow more time for tasks to be completed online or remotely than face-to-face.
  • If in the past your students were not independent readers of academic texts, they will not be more so online. You have to provide accompaniment.
  • Be there for your students. The relationship you build with them online or at a distance is just as important to their learning, perhaps even more important than face-to-face.
  • When designing your course, think about the coherence you want to give it. Do you want to organize teaching and learning into separate units? How will you present each unit? How are you going to transition from one unit to the other? Do  you want to organize teaching and learning sequentially instead? How are you going to make this sequence explicit?
  • Include synchronous meeting times in your planning. These times are important to explain how you work, how the virtual classroom space is organized (where to find the lesson plan, readings or teaching materials, what is under each of the tabs that you will have created, where to find your discussion/work team if necessary), to explain the assignments, readjust the focus if necessary and go back over the essential learning of the course. Synchronous time does not necessarily mean a meeting with the whole class group. You can divide this time into meetings with small groups (for discussion or work, for example) for example.
  • You will be better the second time you teach the course online or by distance learning. The third time, you will be an expert!
  • Be true to yourself: If you believe that social interaction is necessary for learning, find a way to ensure such interaction in your online or distance learning. Learn how to train, use and manage discussion groups, for example, before learning how to use the note centre or any other feature of the learning platform.
  • Recognize that the transition to online or distance learning is a significant change with its share of risks.  Be compassionate, respectful and empathetic to yourself. You don’t have to jump in with both feet to the change. You can choose to go one step at a time and add new features to your course during the term or in a new course next term. If you’re excited about this change, go ahead. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake — it will remind you of the first time you took a face-to-face class.


Q: In thinking about inclusion and equity in education, what does your research suggest about the current situation and possible future for distance learning?


Megan Cotnam-Kappel: Online or distance learning can be an important mechanism for inclusion for minority and minoritized communities, but the pandemic has highlighted various issues related to digital equity that we cannot ignore. I’m conducting new SSHRC-funded research on digital equity in Ontario right now, and our team is exploring three types of digital inequalities in Ontario. First, inequalities in access to the tools or reliable Internet connection needed to learn online. Second, inequalities in opportunities to develop digital literacy skills — the range of skills needed to navigate, create and participate online. Third, inequalities in power, as digital spaces can recreate social structures that limit participation or silence the voices of certain groups. Thus, not everyone has the same opportunities to develop their digital identity or the agility to participate fully as a digital citizen. The preliminary results of this research confirm what I have seen in other projects: there are particular challenges for the French-language minority community due in particular to a lack of resources in French that are adapted to the needs of this community, and the fact that young people have difficulty finding spaces and communities where they can and want to participate in French (Cotnam-Kappel & Woods, 2020). That said, teachers and professors across the province are rising to the challenge that the situation presents. I dare to believe that we can take advantage of everyone's learning during this historic moment to rethink online education and participation in order to reduce digital inequalities between majority and minority groups and to promote la francophonie in various online teaching and learning spaces.


Q. What is one thing you hope to see in post-pandemic distance learning?

Nathalie Bélanger: Through technologies that support teaching and learning, I hope that after the pandemic we will find these magical opportunities for face-to-face encounters on campus and with our students!

Megan Cotnam-Kappel: I would like to see human relationships prioritized over digital tools. The pandemic has shed light on issues of complex digital inequalities and I believe that an approach centred on the voice and needs of learners, rather than a technocentric approach is preferable in order to create more favourable conditions for all. I thus invite teachers to discover and experiment with possibilities for creating an inclusive pedagogical relationship and digital climate that takes into account the different needs of learners (e.g., linguistic and technological).

Phyllis Dalley: Like Nathalie, I wish with all my heart to see my students face to face again. I am not yet sure how I will address sensitive issues such as anti-Black racism, glottophobia, sexism, the marginalization of sexual minorities, teachers who are newcomers to Canada and people with disabilities. At the Faculty of Education, we are training people who are moving towards a profession of the heart, and it is important that we be able to accompany them in becoming aware of their unconscious biases and their positioning in terms of power relations within the francophonie. I have yet to learn how to ensure such a level of reflexivity online, where it is easier to ignore disturbing issues and avoid dialogue. Nor do I know how I am going to ensure that people who feel personally challenged by issues raised in class have access to support services from the University or the broader community. I won’t see a tear running down one cheek, a body trying to melt under the table, arms folded in front of a tense body.

Thus, like Megan, I believe it is important, in University training, to move quickly from a focus on tools and techniques to the enhancement of connectivity and the pedagogical relationship as the foundation of university teaching/learning. Indeed, it would be dangerous to accept the dominant narrative that constructs the internet giants as the great thinkers of online education. To accept such a narrative would be to accept that education is about transmitting knowledge that is at the click of a mouse.

Finally, it is important to seize the opportunity created by the sudden focus on teaching to discuss in greater depth what it means to teach at university, the complexity of this task in a minority and majority context, and in a situation of linguistic and cultural diversity.  Pedagogies are the bearers of values and ideologies. What values and ideologies should guide our university teaching, whether in the classroom, online or at a distance?

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