By Liz Stuart, President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association
In a slew of education announcements made last month, Ontario Minister of Education Lisa Thompson announced the government’s plan to implement a minimum of four mandatory e-learning credits in high school beginning in the 2020-21 school year. In her announcement, Minister Thompson said, “the reality of today is we need to be embracing technology for good.” While Catholic teachers are proponents of 21st century learning, this rash decision to transition from zero to four mandatory e-credits for all students in Ontario’s publicly funded education system is void of due consideration of the real impact this will have on the future of public education in Ontario.
Yes, four mandatory credits of e-learning would be a North American first, but problems arise when education policies are used as blanket tools to cut costs rather than improve the overall system and well-being of students. For instance, the relationship between teachers and students is one of the most important elements of quality education. Courses delivered in a classroom allow teachers to better identify student needs and adapt their teaching strategies as necessary. However, the shift to mandatory e-learning would result in an estimated 440 fewer hours of teacher-driven classroom instruction; this means students will now be physically in school for three and a half of the four years required to complete high school in Ontario. This 13 per cent reduction in the number of class-delivered credits will hinder teachers’ ability to connect with, and provide individualized attention to students.
Beyhan Farhadi, a University of Toronto PhD candidate whose thesis looks at e-learning at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), has said the government’s plan to impose mandatory e-learning is a “terrible idea” that will affect students who are already struggling the most. Farhadi’s research shows how “online learning, as an emerging method of course delivery at the secondary level, is producing new geographies of inequality” in which only a minority of students succeed using this platform. For high-achieving students, Farhadi explains that e-learning offers an efficient means to accreditation, but this efficiency comes at the cost of collaboration and the vulnerability of classroom dialogue.
We must also remember that high-achieving students are just that: high achieving. They will often find ways to achieve no matter the circumstances. But research shows that students who are already struggling to learn independently or in face-to-face environments consistently perform worse in online environments. Mandatory e-learning will only amplify the divide between high- and low-achieving students in our school system. Teachers and other experts know that not all students are suited to e-learning, and attrition and failure rates are generally high for online courses. So, what exactly does this move to e-learning do to “give teens a chance to ‘put their best foot forward,’” as the Minister claims?
It is also unclear whether the government has considered several structural issues that could arise from an abrupt turn toward e-learning, and how these might impact access and equity. Many students living in rural communities across the province do not have access to reliable internet service, and students who live in poverty may not have access to the technology necessary to access e-learning courses at all. This discrepancy highlights a geo-socio-economic divide in our province, where some students with access to Wi-Fi and electronic devices at home can complete course work outside of regular school hours, where others are restricted.
Under the current structure for the delivery of e-learning, a great deal of care is paid to the needs of students, their aptitude, and likelihood for success. Courses are delivered through school boards, and a school-based guidance councillor is available to each student as a resource while they engage in learning outside of the classroom. Despite these added supports, student success in e-learning remains low. Furthermore, much time and attention is paid to the delivery of the courses to ensure that a credit earned online is equal to a credit earned in a classroom.
With every student required to take four online courses and class ratios of 35 to 1, it will not be possible to ensure credit integrity within the current delivery system. And when the government says that it will “centralize the delivery of all e-learning courses,” it raises the question, will it even be Ontario-certified teachers teaching e-learning courses? Without answers to these questions, we could be well on the road to an American-style attempt to privatize teaching and credit delivery in Ontario’s public education system.
As teachers, we know that one-size-fits-all models do not work for all students, and that they inadvertently end up harming vulnerable students the most. Blended learning environments that incorporate differentiated learning methods are best for all students. As teachers, we know that it’s the unplanned opportunities, the “teachable moments,” where we seize the opportunity to offer insight to our students that real organic learning happens. These are the moments that teachers and students thrive on, and the moments that make learning come to life. These moments are about connection and community, collaboration and accountability, in the safety of a supervised classroom led by an Ontario-certified teacher.
If public education is to remain Ontario’s great equalizer, the inequity of e-learning could be its biggest challenge.
Liz Stuart is a Catholic teacher from York Region.
She was elected President of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association in 2017.
This sponsored content was supplied to QP Briefing by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association