TORONTO -- A move away from textbooks in response to government cost-cutting is increasingly pushing teachers and students in Ontario toward free online materials that may not have been properly vetted for suitability, a report issued Monday concludes.

As a result, the report on digital learning by the activist group People for Education recommends development of a policy framework around the use of such resources.

"Typically, free online materials are chosen by teachers based on their professional judgment," the report states.

"There is not a well-established system for vetting the quality of the free online resources that is widely used."

In the past, students have relied on ministry-approved textbooks that support the curriculum, reflect a Canadian perspective and are responsive to the Ontario context.

However, government figures indicate the Ministry of Education has cut funding for learning resources and textbooks by 15 per cent over the last five years.

Administrators say the tight funding has forced schools to rely more on free online materials, according to the report.

"This marks a significant change from the days of assuming that every course requires a textbook," the report states.

In all, the report finds, teachers in more than one third of elementary schools and one quarter of secondary schools are likely to opt for free cyber materials when they need new learning resources.

At the same time, the report notes a lack of policy and processes to ensure free online resources meet quality requirements.

"To assemble good-quality materials using free online sources makes considerable demands of teachers' time and expertise," the report states.

"Most are not trained to develop curriculum."

The report also flags concern around the "digital divide:" students who have ready access to the Internet and those who don't.

Statistics Canada figures indicate almost all households in the top 25 per cent income range have Internet at home. The number drops sharply for those in the bottom 25 per cent -- where annual family income falls below $30,000.

Also, principals in smaller schools or in more remote areas were more likely to report having students without digital technology at home.

While the report concludes that the large majority of Ontario students do have Internet access outside of school, it does urge more research to ensure the digitally disadvantaged aren't forgotten.

There was no immediate response to the report from Education Minister Liz Sandals.

The People for Education report was based on a survey of 1,349 elementary and secondary schools -- about 28 per cent of the province's schools -- across all 72 school boards.