Online Courses Are a Great Option for Students – But They Shouldn’t Be Mandatory

Erin Pepler January 20, 2020
Online Learning

Last spring, the Ontario government announced its intent to make online credits a requirement for all secondary students in the province. In order to receive their high school diploma, students would need to pass a minimum of four online courses (or “e-learning credits”) as part of the 30 total credits required to graduate (this number has since been reduced to two online credits). The proposed requisite is an anomaly not only in Canada but across North America, where e-learning is commonly offered but rarely required.

The plan was to take effect by 2021 or sooner, leaving very little space for feedback, planning and transition.

Since this plan was made public, much of the response has been critical or of deep concern. Many parents and educators have expressed concern that mandatory e-learning will do more harm than good to our children’s quality of education – and they have good reason to feel this way. This isn’t about tech in the classroom – arguably, an excellent tool when used well. It’s about replacing valuable teachers with online instruction. Research has shown that online education simply doesn’t work for everyone, and yet, “everyone” is exactly who the provincial government should be thinking about when introducing reforms such as this.

Speaking publicly in March 2019, then-Education Minister Lisa Thompson stated that, “The reality of today is we need to be embracing technology for good. And when it comes to online opportunities for our students, I think we should all agree in this House: we want to make sure that they have every opportunity to put their best foot forward.” (Lisa Thompson is no longer Education Minister, as that role was handed over to Stephen Lecce in June 2019.)

On a surface level, Thompson was correct – students should have every opportunity to put their best foot forward – but there’s a significant difference between opportunity and forcing students to take classes in a way that may not reflect their preference, privilege or learning style.

Online high school courses have dramatically higher fail and drop-out rates than traditional classroom-taught courses. This type of academic environment is detrimental to a large segment of students and when it becomes a requirement rather than a choice, the provincial government is laying the groundwork for student failure.

Let’s make one thing clear: online learning in and of itself is not terrible.

In fact, it’s a very good option for many students. I myself have taken a number of online courses, both as a university student and as a professional, and I know how effective they can be for certain individuals. Online classes work well for me because I’m a disciplined, academically successful person with no significant learning disabilities. I learn well by reviewing material independently, am able to thrive in a self-guided environment and am comfortable reaching out to an instructor with questions as needed. Furthermore, I own a high-quality laptop and have unfettered access to the Internet. In terms of barriers, I have few, if any – but for the record, I’m a 35-year-old middle-class adult with post-secondary education.

Not a high school student.

The average 14 to 17-year-old high schooler doesn’t have the same tools, maturity and economic advantages that an adult has. Some will, for sure – particularly those living in privilege – but countless others will not. How many students will lack the discipline or emotional maturity required to successfully complete self-guided learning modules? How many will struggle because of a learning disability or language barrier? How many lack the confidence or initiative to ask for help, or will struggle because they require the direct interpersonal connection of traditional classroom learning in order to flourish?

While parents will be able to fill in some of these gaps with encouragement, supervision or added support such as private tutoring, not every child has a parent who can and will advocate for them.

Others simply cannot afford the extra support necessary for success.

Furthermore, many students could struggle with a lack of resources – another invisible barrier that is all too common. While most of us think of having wifi everywhere we go as the norm, a significant number of Ontario families have more limited access to the Internet. It’s not just an economic issue, though students living in poverty will almost certainly be affected more than others. In rural Ontario, Internet access is slower and less reliable, making online learning a particular challenge. Public libraries commonly offer free computer access, but is not a complete solution for students with time-demanding jobs, a lack of transportation or other limitations.

Beyhan Farhadi, a former TDSB teacher and current University of Toronto professor, recently shared research findings related to online learning and student success. Among Farhadi’s concerns about mandatory online courses are issues of privilege and a clear accountability gap – essentially, that students are less compelled to participate or complete assignments when instruction takes place online. She also noted that many online courses seemed geared toward university-bound students – problematic when ALL students are obligated to complete them. Perhaps most damningly, Farhadi found that the main benefit of e-learning was reduced costs – not improved education. In a recent interview with CBC Radio, Stephen Lecce himself struggled to articulate the benefits of mandatory online education and was unable to offer any statistics to support his claims, instead referring to the economic benefits of the plan.

Basically, it’s cheaper but not better – not exactly the experience I want for my kids.

Public education should never draw a line between the haves and the have nots.

Admittedly, our school system already fails in this respect – I’m sure many parents and educators would agree that discrepancies in academic ability, school resources, home life, economic status and other factors make for a less-than-even playing field as-is. Look at special needs education, for example, and the struggle to adequately support and integrate atypical students – the issues there alone are staggering. But as parents, teachers and a society at large, we can strive to reduce these gaps instead of building upon them. A student who is doomed to struggle in high school won’t be given the same opportunities as a student who can sail through with relative ease. Knowing this, why would we ever place more hurdles in their way?

How could we possibly support methods that negatively impact the most vulnerable students among us?

With teachers currently engaged in strike action over key issues that include classroom size and mandatory e-learning, let’s remember what that truly means. This is the first time in over 20 years that Ontario’s main education unions are all involved in job action at the same time.

By and large, our kids’ teachers are angry because they care.

Say what you will about potential wage increases or other talking points but remember – mandatory e-learning is worth fighting against, if not for your own child’s best interests, for someone else’s.

Let students take online courses if they choose to, but please don’t force them upon those who cannot fit inside that box. It’s not ethical, it’s not equitable and it’s not what public education is about.

When we look at the unique needs of students and teach to a variety of learning styles, we allow students to soar and do great things. No matter what your political leanings, I hope we can all come together and advocate for education that isn’t designed for some, but for all.


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