Mandatory online courses in Ontario high schools raise concerns for educators

Is Ontario’s move to mandatory e-learning off the mark?

In a massive shift to digital coursework, Ontario will soon require high school students to earn four online credits before they graduate — a first in North America.

But with few details about the move, which begins in 2020-21, critics are questioning the rapid push to so much virtual learning so soon.

“Although e-learning classes provide a modernized learning experience for students, these courses are not a good fit for everyone,” said Amal Qayum, president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, which found in a 2017 survey of teens that three-quarters felt online lacked when compared to a regular classroom setting.

The group called on the Ford government to “reverse the rule mandating that all secondary school students take four e-learning courses” out of the 30 required for graduation “as different learning styles cannot be accommodated by an all-encompassing change in graduation requirements.”

The government’s plan would see teens earn one e-learning credit a year in online classes with an average of 35 students.

“Further information will be available at a later date,” said Kayla Iafelice, a spokesperson for Education Minister Lisa Thompson.

Speaking in the legislature, Premier Doug Ford said “we’re focusing on technology as well” as a package of education reforms that will also see the average secondary school class jump from 22 students to 28 over the next four years.

But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said with larger classes — and an estimated loss of 10,000 teaching positions — the “Ford government’s plan for our kids (is) fewer teachers, larger class sizes, more Googling.

“The premier says he consulted with parents,” Horwath said. “Can he tell us how many of those parents asked for larger class sizes and learning from YouTube?”

A handful of American states already require one mandatory online course in high school, while others simply recommend it.

In Ontario, about 50,000 high school students took at least one online course in 2018.

Clare Brett of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, who has been researching online learning for 30 years, said “on the face of it, it’s a good idea. It’s a good experience for students to get — if it’s a good experience.”

She’s said quality, however, can be an issue, and she’s also not keen on the credits being mandatory. “What does it mean? You do not graduate if you don’t have four credits?”

The government has said students with special needs can be exempt.

Some U.S. studies have shown online achievement equal to or marginally better than in school, though concerns about higher dropout rates are common. However, Brett said that could be because it’s the easiest thing for students to drop and pick up later.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said “there is a value in online education in certain cases,” especially in remote and rural areas where there is not a broad range of course offerings.

For students who are highly motivated, they can work well, but “our experience shows that credit delivery through online learning is not very efficient, whatsoever,” Bischof said.

Article by Kristin Rushowy for the Toronto Star