But really -- what is hybrid education?

A very scary prospect

Welcome to At The End Of the Day. I’m Hannah Sung and I write this newsletter for a people-first perspective on the news. 

If you like what you’re reading, why not support ATEOD on Patreon?

All day long, everyone in my house is on screens. The nine-year-old is toggling tabs. The seven-year-old wanders with her computer, her teacher’s voice on speaker as she splays open her laptop against the turtle tank to show her pet to friends (no, this is not on-topic, it’s just what my kid wants to do).

After a full day of online school, the nine-year-old, desperate to play with friends, immediately logs into Minecraft to yell, “Teleport me to your world! I need iron leggings!”

I hear you, kid. I also want to teleport to another world and sure, let’s have an outfit change.

But don’t be fooled into thinking any of the above is cute. It’s not. 

We are crowded together but alone. At various times, on various days, a kid or a parent will not be okay. In this cloistered situation, if one of us isn’t okay, none of us are okay.

If you know what this exhaustion feels like, then you know. And if you don’t, let me describe it for you.

Think of the biggest Zoom meeting you’ve ever been in. Now make everyone else seven years old. Have a frustrated parent yell at their child in one house, not realizing they aren’t muted. This intimate moment is broadcast for everyone. 

Work on math, French, listen to squealing audio feedback, download PDFs, print documents. Don’t have the right plugin? Out of ink? Too bad.

Start at 8:30 am and do this all day, every day. Welcome to virtual school!

So yeah, online school sucks. Parents, teachers and students all know this.

In our house, we have daily tears of pure, pent-up frustration that build over a long day of keeping it together while being distracted, disengaged and nervous to do the public speaking necessary to ask the teacher for help while the entire class listens on Zoom.

Having school go fully virtual was meant to be a stopgap during a deadly pandemic.

Now, as our population in Canada becomes vaccinated, there is a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel.

Yet in Ontario, with regards to public education, we may be turning the corner into something even worse. Yeah, I said it — even worse than online school: hybrid learning.

What is hybrid learning?

In Ontario, hybrid learning means the simultaneous teaching of students in-person and online. One teacher instructs students in the physical classroom and through a computer webcam at the same time.

How does hybrid actually work in the classroom? Sometimes it means that every in-person student must have a laptop so that online students and in-person students can be taught together.

Or, as Beyhan Farhadi, a post-doctoral researcher at York University told me:

What York region has done for this upcoming school year is they have purchased cameras for the top corner of the ceiling that only face the teacher. Teachers will probably be told they can only teach from one spot and students can only face in one direction.

That sounds fun. But wait — there’s more.

I spoke to a private school teacher where they have hybrid learning. At every desk they have this Owl camera, that’s the tech company’s name. It moves with the student. So if you’re speaking, the camera will turn to you.

When Beyhan told me about swiveling cameras, I literally shouted, “Oh my god!”

I believe many parents right now are so exhausted and overwhelmed that they may not have the time to dig for information on what changes to education are being proposed at Queen’s Park. 

A major barrier to understanding “hybrid learning,” is that this style of simultaneous, or synchronous, teaching is so new that there isn’t even agreed-upon terminology for it. “Hybrid learning” can mean different things in different places. What Ontario calls hybrid learning is sometimes called “concurrent,” or “hybrid-flexible.” Trying to Google “hybrid education” will turn up results that describe something totally different and specific to another region, for example, university-level education in the U.S. 

It’s not like someone designed this hybrid system and built it out with care and consideration.

Heard of a slippery slope? We’re being thrown down a waterslide with no safe landing. We have no idea what’s down there. 

Imagine you’re a teacher and you’re on-camera all day, with people off-camera seeing and hearing you. Are you being recorded? Are you being screencapped? Will things you say be taken out of context? Will complaints be made to your boss? Who knows.

Imagine you’re a student and you’re either online or in-person. Even if you chose to be in-person, you will be on-camera. Who is hearing you in the homes, or other spaces, of the remote students in class? And your teacher can’t focus because they must divide their attention by definition.

As one teacher doing hybrid described to me, it’s like walking into a store and needing assistance but the clerk is on the phone. That’s the hybrid experience for a student but all day, all year, and potentially for an entire educational experience.

How did we get here?

When the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March 2020, Ontario schools shut down and remained closed for the school year. In the fall of 2020, both virtual and in-person learning were offered to parents. School boards gave families the option to choose, and crucially, to switch back and forth — which caused upheaval for school boards in terms of student enrolment numbers, staffing and allocating funds.

Meanwhile, despite what the Ontario Minister of Education says, there was never enough funding provided to make in-person class sizes smaller, and therefore safer, in a pandemic. Nor was there adequate planning for virtual school. Everything was a last-minute scramble. Teachers were sometimes assigned their classes the night before, for different grades than usual, and reassigned to different schools. 

This is an interactive calculator created by Support Our Schools. Click here to try it.

In March 2021, the Ontario government announced they intend to make virtual school a permanent option for every student this fall. To be clear, this is not a pandemic measure. This would be a permanent change. 

Here’s Beyhan Farhadi again, who painstakingly explained the logistics:

This proposed legislation requires fully remote online learning that is going to be managed by school districts without funding. It actually says there’s no funding. If you’re not providing funding, what’s the option? You have to do hybrid. You have to collapse virtual schools. Reserves are tapped. 

In other words, simultaneous hybrid learning isn’t the goal, it’s a by-product — a nasty, anti-learning, anti-privacy by-product — that comes from the government being cheap.

Distance education is not new and using the internet has been its natural evolution for decades.

Previously, earning high school credits this way was a niche option for students who might need to catch up for one reason or another. They are often students who self-select as being capable of fulfilling credits this way. 

What’s new is making all schools, including for the youngest learners, offer virtual education without guidance or funding, forcing teachers into teaching online and in-person at the same time as a standard practice. 

How do we know hybrid doesn’t work?

Hybrid learning is already happening in Ontario.

School boards including York Catholic District School Board and Upper Canada District School Board opted to go this route in September 2020.

Fully funding virtual classes with teachers dedicated to online classes costs money.

I found a teacher who had to make do when he found himself teaching hybrid-style at Ursula Franklin Academy, a high school in Toronto.

Seth Bernstein teaches social studies and most of his students this year were in-person. However, there was a virtual element to his class, too. He did not want cameras in his classroom, so he put a laptop with a webcam in an adjacent room and rushed back and forth, using his breaks to go online and connect via Google meets. He was trying his best to handle the privacy issues of bringing a student virtually into an in-person classroom.

How would he assess the hybrid teaching experience?

This model is a joke. This should not even be on the table. As educators, it is an embarrassment to have this be seriously considered by decision-makers, as if it is a legitimately viable form of teaching and learning. And what’s upsetting for us is that it’s clearly being dictated by cheapness. 

Decision-makers include those at the top, such as Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Premier Doug Ford but there are many decision-makers in play.

My frustration with school boards is that there tends to be a default of making lemonade out of lemons, this attitude of, “We’re going to find a way to make this work.” To a certain degree, educators do that too but this is not a workable model. It’s not fair to the students that are in class, it’s not fair to the students at home. Our attention is nowhere. I see it as a neither-space because we’re in all spaces.

Seth ran a survey for the teachers at this school and out of 25 staff, he said 20 of them responded to say that hybrid is an unsustainable model.

I don’t know who among us is built to be surveilled all of their time. The great irony of all this is that Ursula Franklin gave a Massey lecture in 1989 called, ‘The Real World of Technology.’ She talks about technology as practice, not objects, and how it structures society.

In other words, Seth is invoking Ursula Franklin to remind us that technology isn’t about rotating cameras on every desk. It’s about how those cameras shape our interactions with each other.

Ursula Franklin talked about the educational importance of sharing time and space. This is a key takeaway echoed by Beyhan.

Learning takes place in community. Kindergarten is entirely play-based learning; there’s very little instruction. Even in university, where I teach online courses, I don’t lecture for more than twenty minutes. We’ll have a discussion and work on a document together and do activities, otherwise why are students there?

Remember starting high school?

I connected with Milena, a 15-year-old grade nine student in York region. New to high school this year, she did all of her in-person learning in hybrid classes.

It feels sort of lonely and it probably does for the teacher, too. They’re the ones who are actually talking. Nobody has their cameras on. People rarely have their mics on. No one wants to be the first kid to turn on their camera, so no one does. I only had one class this year where students turned on cameras and that was music because they had to be corrected on holding their instruments and stuff like that.

Milena and I talked a lot about cameras.

For some people you know, it could be a privacy thing. I have a big family trying to fit into little spots. Maybe there’s someone walking by and you don’t want people in your class to see. Your privacy can’t always be guaranteed.

Are students doing other things like games and social media?

Absolutely. And I don’t think you can blame them. That’s another reason hybrid can’t work. There’s so many times you’re going to be distracted — especially when you’re listening to one person spew information at you for two hours straight. So of course you’re going to open another tab and listen to music or something because that’s how you cope and keep yourself from being bored.

Would she ever want to do hybrid learning again?

Absolutely not. For next year, my greatest hope is to walk into a classroom and actually see my teacher’s face and my classmates’ faces. I’ve been looking forward to high school since I was a kid, you know, joking in the cafe and being in clubs. I hope to go back next year with what I’d hoped to experience in high school and that it doesn’t involve hybrid in any way.

What about students who need a boost?

Alison Misa is a special education teacher in York region. She teaches students who have an identified learning disability, autism or Down syndrome. She also teaches students identified by teachers as needing a boost to their academic skills. This year, she has been teaching hybrid.

It is a completely fractured system. To deliver quality education, you either have to devote yourself to teaching online or face to face. If you're trying to do both, it's not an equitable way to learn, because the person who is face to face with you can get part of your attention, can see you and you're noticing their needs. Whereas the people at home, it might work, but only if they have their own space where they can focus and concentrate, if there's a parent there to notice if they're struggling, if they have their own access to technology, if they're willing to ask for help. 

That’s a lot of if’s.

Equity matters. The public education system isn’t perfect but the entire point is to continually strive for greater equity. Otherwise, what are we doing?

What I’ve learned

I learned so much more from Beyhan, Seth, Milena, Alison and many others generous with their time. 

Here are my takeaways:

🙅🏽. Simultaneous hybrid learning is anti-education. It’s also anti-worker, anti-child and anti-family. There are no educational benefits. It is meant to remove the cost of labour (dedicated virtual school teachers). A government that proposes this as a viable educational option only cares about cost-cutting. The irony is that this style of education will come at an immeasurable cost to society. We literally won’t be able to measure the steep cost in mental health, equity for students, or the outcomes from dismantling safe classrooms in which children can learn and grow. 

🙅🏻‍♀️. This has not been thought out.  No one ever accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce for leading us thoughtfully through this pandemic. But even for them, this legislation is wildly inadequate. Public education isn’t perfect, but it’s been built by generations of planning. I refuse to be okay with being recklessly led into unchartered territory.

🙅🏿‍♂️ Cameras do not belong in a classroom. If you wouldn’t want everything you say and do to be streamed for others all day at work, then don’t let that be the reality for our children. Opening this door is a Pandora’s box. Personally, I’ve refrained from posting identifiable pics of my children online as much as possible (that’s another story for another day but I do it out of respect for who they are, now and in the future). Yet, by sending my children to school, which is an actual basic human right, they would be forced to log in to Big Tech platforms and be on-camera all day with no plan or end game. 

Is the classroom just a transaction of information with a price tag on it? Is that all this is supposed to be?

What we can do

Don’t let Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce use their power to create a dystopian classroom. 

Simultaneous hybrid teaching is unsustainable and cruel for teachers, students and families.

Write letters to your school trustee, your school board, your MPP, the Minister of Education, the Premier of Ontario. You can use this handy link called Support Our Schools, which is put together by the Ontario Parent Action Network, Ontario Families for Public Education and Ontario Education Workers United.

I want to be clear that no money or politics (besides reeeeeeally wanting better provincial leadership) are involved in the creation of this newsletter on hybrid learning. I’m a parent and journalist and I’m alarmed. Which is what motivated me to write this for you.

Thank you for reading. Take care and enjoy some down time this weekend 🍦


✨✨✨ Welcome to Laura Hensley, who edited this newsletter! ✨✨✨

With thanks to the York Communities for Public Education, who are at the forefront of this fight against the hybrid model. They are a coalition of educators, students, parents and unions. Find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

What to check out

Should Ontario move to more online learning permanently? The Toronto Star by Beyhan Farhadi. “This is not a debate about the idea of online education, which has been delivered for decades; it is about the standardization and commodification of teaching and learning.”

Online learning could be here to stay as Ontario considers plans to offer it to all students post-pandemic, The Toronto Star, March 2021

#StudentsSayNo to Normalizing Crisis Learning. Town Hall featuring students. Presented by York Communities for Public Education

In my day job as a podcast producer with Media Girlfriends, I’m working with the good folks of Historica Canada. They just published this and it’s worth your attention.

I’m also producing a podcast called Stress Test, a personal finance podcast for Millennials and Gen Z for the Globe and Mail. I love working with this team. Season 3 is now up and running!

🎉 It’s my big goal to turn this newsletter into a podcast, too!🎉

I’ve started a Patreon to get there. With a gigantic thank you to those who have been the earliest supporters of At The End Of the Day. I see you!

It’s very important to me that this be pay-what-you-wish (and free to read). You can read more here and support via Patreon here.