CBC’s Ontario Today with Rita Celli: Is mandatory online learning a big deal?

Yesterday, I had the privilege to speak with Rita Celli, host of CBC Radio’s Ontario Today, and with callers from around the province, about the issue of the proposed mandatory online learning courses for Ontario high school students. As work by Michael Barbour, Randy LaBonte and their colleagues has shown, Ontario already has the highest proportion of student enrolment in hybrid and fully online courses in the nation — so I am left to wonder what is gained by making online learning mandatory for every student, particularly in light of research by:

  • Dr. Beyhan Farhadi (2019) that has shown that in the Toronto District School Board, online learning has already created what she calls “geographies of inequality” that follow lines of racial and class-based inequalities in Ontario’s largest city. It seems that in Ontario, mandatory eLearning would deepen divides and create another context that does not serve youth who are already systemically marginalized;
  • Dr. June Ahn and Dr. Andrew McEachin (2017) with 1.7 million students in Ohio that has shown, “Across all subjects and grade spans, we see that students in e-schools score significantly lower than students in traditional charter and public schools, even conditional on a variety of control variables”.  In this study, scores for Grade 10 students enrolled in online charter schools were lower for math, reading, science and social studies in comparison to their peers attending publicly funded high schools and bricks-and-mortar charter schools;
  • Dr. Dick Carpenter and colleagues in Colorado (2015) that has shown that in math, specifically, grade 10 student performance is statistically significantly lower for students attending online schools when compared with their same-age peers attending bricks-and-mortar high schools. Given concerns about math learning and instruction in this province, does a mandatory eLearning policy undermine significant efforts and leadership on revised mathematics curriculum and teaching practices by thousands of colleagues?
  • The Canadian eLearning Network (2019) whose recent report raises issues reported by many of the insightful callers on yesterday’s show — rural and remote communities have insufficient Internet infrastructure to support the proposed plan and in fact as noted in this research brief, “The existing system would need to scale by more than 10 times requiring a significant investment in technology access and connectivity and a 10-fold increase in local supports”.

A recent report by colleagues at Michigan Virtual School suggests that online learning can be effective for students. However, as they outline in their recent publication, A whole school approach to virtual learning, stand alone online courses do not serve students most effectively. Instead, supports need to be put in place to ensure:

  • that coursework is designed in ways that are culturally sustaining and responsive;
  • that meet students’ social and emotional needs (think motivation, engagement, feelings of belonging, and connectedness that are so essential for our learners);
  • that teachers are very well trained and supported (technically, pedagogically) to support their students’ learning.

I haven’t seen any kind of plan from our province that leverages this kind of evidence-informed model. I did, however, read this statement to the media from November 21, 2019. Ontario brings learning into the digital age.

  • Ontario-teacher supported online learning does not mean that the learning will be supported by teachers working in publicly funded schools. A mandatory law like this one opens the door, as it has done in the US, to private entities who hire certified teachers to teach online high school courses. Maybe Ontarians want this kind of private school option for their kids. To ensure that the learning is not simply “transactional” though (i.e., parents pay, kids do the minimum to get the credit) it will be important to consider a review of current standards for the development and delivery of online courses. Evidence from the National Education Policy Centre  in the US does, however, suggest that courses developed by publicly funded school districts tend to be of higher quality, as measured by student performance outcomes.
  • Learning in engaging ways with diverse digital technologies is already happening in Ontario schools and in the eLearning options already available to students. Students don’t need mandatory eLearning to experience “hands-on, interactive features, simulations and collaboration with their peers across the province”.
  • Infrastructure. In the statement, the Minstry of Education suggests that “All Ontario students and educators in all publicly funded secondary schools will have access to reliable, fast, secure and affordable internet services at school, in all regions of the province by September 2020. Many courses will be designed to not require connectivity to complete the course material.” I question how this will happen and whether it can happen on this timeline. Also, if courses are designed to not require connectivity to complete the course materials…ummm…then are they or are they not online courses?

I was struck by the very astute insights offered by every caller into the show. I invite you to have a listen to the conversation here.

Among the worries: The design of the courses, the communications offered, the limited possibilities for differentiation of instruction and assessment, the cost of high speed connections, especially in rural communities across the province, the lack of access to meaningful collaboration with peers, the demands that eLearning places on parents who have to assume supporting roles for their children when they struggle.

Among the positives: The ability to reach ahead during high high school, and the ability to have flexible options as an adult learner finishing up a high school diploma while also working and parenting.