By 2020 all secondary school students in Ontario will need four e-learning credits to graduate. E-learning can be delivered a number of ways, but the Ministry of Education is mandating supplementary courses that take the place of face-to-face offerings, delivered entirely online. To date, we do not know who will deliver them.
I have taught e-learning since 2010 and my experiences, alongside those of my colleagues, raised a number of questions that led me to research the program in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), a summary of which was released in April 2019. For those of you unfamiliar with e-learning and what is at stake, here are five things you need to know:
1. We know practically nothing about e-learning.
In Ontario, an estimated 5% of students take supplementary e-learning, and the province does not track the blended use of e-learning in face-to-face classrooms. The Ministry of Education, which solicited data on the state of e-learning in Canada, was presented with information representing 9 out of 81 school boards in Ontario. In legislature, the government cited free-market summer school models with high drop-out rates, an interview that never took place, and districts that cater offerings to high-achieving university-bound students. Reports out of Bluewater District School Board, where I had the privilege of presenting my research on the TDSB, point to programs where too many students are being poorly served. Outside Ontario, the literature indicates an absence of evidence of the effectiveness of e-learning.
Why are we rolling out a program that has been successful for so few students to every student in the province, especially when we know so little?
2. We have no plan, and no time.
Currently, the Ministry of Education is scaling up e-learning by 95% with no plan outlined. This leaves us no time to implement a strong program; no time to develop infrastructure in communities that do not have access to a reliable internet connection and devices for students; no time to collect information about best practices; and no time to develop the protocols and policies that will allow boards to ensure credits have integrity, special education supports, and procedures for students falling behind. How will we account for 110 hours in the classroom when I have observed students in my research and practice complete an e-learning course in 15 hours? How do we establish face-to-face supports for auditory and kinaesthetic learners? What about English Language Learners, students with Individual Education Plans, and disengaged learners who might further struggle online?
We can and already do incorporate e-learning in face-to-face classrooms, but this mandate does not present students with the option of integrating face-to-face instructional supports into e-learning.
It’s all or nothing.
3. Privatization is on the horizon.
E-learning programs across the United States are plagued by a dependency on for-profit and non-profit corporations, where charter schools are draining public resources, exploiting children in poverty, and outsourcing labour abroad. Examples of the virtual mess caused by private actors, concentrated in a handful of powerful corporations, can be found in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia.
In Canada, British Columbia leads in e-learning activity, yet almost all students who are enrolled online are from independent (i.e. private) schools that are publicly funded by the province. Partnerships between the province and non-profit organization have raised concerns, although the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation remain cautiously supportive of an online learning program delivered within the traditional system and taught by certified unionized teachers whose working conditions are comparable to those teaching face to face.
With corporate interests already taking hold and sniffing out future profits, we need to stand up for public education now more than ever.
4. We are embracing inequality, not technology.
Education Minister Lisa Thompson speaks about e-learning as an embrace of “technology for good,” and an opportunity for students to put their best foot forward. But in practice, e-learning has not been good for many students. Not only are rural communities affected by a lack of access to reliable internet service, but in Toronto—where my research was conducted—inequality was more pronounced online: 52% of e-learning spots were concentrated in 12.5% of schools, many in well-resourced communities. Further, most course offerings are targeted to university-bound students because college-bound students face greater barriers to success online than they do with face-to-face instruction. Given that we already know streaming disproportionately affects racialized, low-income students in Ontario, mandatory e-learning classes are likely to reinforce this existing inequality and will further marginalize our most vulnerable youth.
5. It’s a virtual bandage for bad policy.
Before this announcement, e-learning was considered a vital strategy to expand a greater variety of courses to rural and remote communities; indeed, for many school boards, it is the only option available to do so. In a 2014 consultation summary, the Ministry of Education considered suggestions to mandate one e-learning credit, but was cautious about the expansion of e-learning not only because many communities lacked the infrastructure needed to deliver the program equitably, but also because the program does not meet the needs of all learners.
Today, we are in an upside down world where consultations are solicited for an announcement that existing research already deemed bad policy. And given the accompanying cuts to programming that is part of a well-rounded education, and thousands of layoffs to school staff, the underlying intention of mandating e-learning appears to divest from—not invest in—public education.
Rather than allowing students to put their best foot forward, e-learning is being mandated as an inadequate solution to a manufactured crisis precipitated by increasing class sizes; removing teachers and support staff from school communities; compromising experiential and alternative programming, which meets the needs of our most vulnerable students; precluding culturally responsive education; and eliminating electives often required for post-secondary admission. And the effect will be to widen already growing inequalities in public education.
Beyhan Farhadi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation examines the impact of e-learning on social inequality in Toronto, and considers the relationship between place, identity, and the politics of belonging in schooling. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bbfarhadi.