Study finds 3 in 10 Canadian families don’t have access to online classes at home

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By Mariyah Salhia

A new study published with Ryerson’s Diversity Institute and the Environics Institute for Survey Research found that three in 10 Canadian families didn’t have access to online classes at home because of difficulty paying for internet. 

The report, titled “Lessons learned: The pandemic and learning from home in Canada,” found that while most families have internet access at home, many of them have trouble paying the bill. 

In addition, three in 10 children had to use public Wi-Fi to complete assignments, and some students were unable to do their homework because they didn’t have access to a computer at home. 

Some families also said their children had to do school assignments on a cellphone. 

Andrew Parkin, executive director of the Environics Institute and a researcher on the study, said he was not surprised by any of the study’s findings.

“Everyone’s online, everyone has a phone. So there’s this idea of moving school from the classroom to the internet seems that it should affect everyone equally if we’re all connected,” he said. “But that connection isn’t free.”

Still, Parkin said that having the data on internet accessibility is important to understand barriers to access in online learning due to financial inequities. 

Racialized families were more than twice as likely to experience difficulty accessing a computer 

Parkin said while the pandemic was experienced by all Canadians, the inequities revealed in the study partially illustrate how the pandemic is being experienced differently for a diverse population.  

The study found that the chances of experiencing challenges with accessing their online school materials were more likely in homes with a lower income, and racialized families were more than twice as likely to experience difficulty accessing a computer or affording internet while learning online. 

Indigenous families were also more likely than non-Indigenous families to report difficulty affording their internet connection or gaining access to a computer. 

According to the study, about one-third of Canadian families also have trouble paying their internet bill.

While the study was focused on elementary school students, Parkin said online learning can cost university students as well, and not just financially. 

According to Parkin, insufficient access to the internet can make learning gaps larger.

Concerns about this year’s incoming class are more heightened than before given the amount of time they have spent online.   

Deena Shaffer, a learning specialist and coordinator of student transitions and retention at Ryerson Student Wellbeing agreed that the study’s findings have implications for university students. 

Shaffer said the transition for students from high school to post-secondary can be particularly difficult for classes that are completely online.

“Courses taught [in real life] allow for students to lean over and check their understanding [and say] ‘Wait, what did the teacher say?’ or ‘When is that essay due again?’” she explained. “But without that option, or that final year of high school to practice, students might feel like they either have to stay in that uncertainty or email their professors more than they would perhaps normally.” 

Shaffer said she’s been trying to combat some of the fears surrounding online course delivery for students by having as many channels of communication as possible for them. 

“I’m trying to set up all kinds of pathways for students to be able to access the larger class community wisdom,” she said. “WhatsApp class group chats, communal office hours for students to practice asking questions in groups and be able to listen in, student-led Google Doc FAQs.”

Shaffer added that while online learning can be a challenge, there are some students who are benefiting from it. 

She said although students might feel like online learning can feel “lackluster or incomplete in some ways,” some may feel more confident in online classroom settings. 

“Everyone’s been affected, to some degree, but understanding how Canadians in different situations and different backgrounds were affected differently,” he said. “That’s one of the priorities of partners in the project.”

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