Mandatory high school e-learning has become a point of contention in Ontario. The provincial government currently says it will implement two mandatory high school e-learning courses — down from an initial proposal to make it compulsory that students take four out of 30 high school courses online.
The Toronto District School Board recently released results of a January 2020 survey that found 81 per cent of parents, 87 per cent of students and 97 per cent of teachers don’t support two mandatory e-learning requirements. The board emailed the survey to a grade 7-12 student sample, a sample of parents with children who are kindergarten-aged to Grade 12 and all secondary teachers. A total of 428 students, 1,938 parents and 2,730 secondary school teachers responded.
On March 3, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Ontario will introduce a “policy to give parents the ability to opt their children out of the mandatory online courses required for graduation.”
However, burdening parents with opting out means they’ll need to take time and make an active decision to opt out. This will likely have the most harmful impact on those families who aren’t aware of their ability to choose, or who face social or linguistic barriers accessing school information, including some newcomers. If awareness of opting out fades over time, then the courses become normalized and commonplace in practice.
Proposals to introduce mandatory e-learning into Ontario high schools might be a slippery slope. Will two mandatory courses today evolve into 25 per cent of all courses, or the possibility of high school diplomas offered 100 per cent online? The Toronto Star reported that a confidential document marked “not for distribution” “envisioned allowing students to get high school diplomas ‘entirely online’ starting in September 2024.”
Will the duty to opt out of online learning today become the duty to opt into classroom learning tomorrow?
The value of face-to-face
In-class and face-to-face experiences are uniquely valuable for high school student learning and should be protected at all costs. When students are in the classroom, they learn more than content. Meaningful learning happens through face-to-face interactions with teachers and peers. As the education scholar Nel Noddings notes: “We do not tell our students to care; we show them how to care by creating caring relations with them.”
The students are able to listen to different perspectives, ask questions in the moment, make deeper connections to the material and engage emotionally. In addition, teachers are constantly trying to differentiate learning for students to meet diverse learning needs, interests and styles.
Research notes that learning is most productive when the teacher and student know one another and have a positive relationship. The knowledge of students that teachers need in order to differentiate teaching and assessment is limited in a wholly online context.
Research is still examining how screen time affects brain development, attention and communication skills. High school students are not adult learners or university students. They are young and their brains are still developing.
A 2019 Angus Reid poll found that almost half (46 per cent) of Canadian parents are concerned that their child spends too much time in front of a screen. A report from the United States found that teens already spend an average of nine hours a day in front of a screen.
Foundations for future-readiness
The move to e-learning is being marketed to parents as “modernizing,” but high school students don’t need more screen time to prepare for their futures. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes:
“Students who are best prepared for the future … can have a positive impact on their surroundings, influence the future, understand others’ intentions, actions and feelings, and anticipate the short and long-term consequences of what they do.”
That kind of deep understanding is best developed when students and teachers can be together, sharing common spaces across the school. Perhaps this is why some technology executives want more in-person learning and less screen time for their own children.
In addition to collaboration and communication, many frameworks for 21st century learning cite critical thinking as a necessary competency. Students develop these critical thinking abilities through discussion and debate as well as through opportunities for applying ideas in new contexts.
Students learn through the complexities of being together in school. They learn to listen, negotiate and become responsible. They learn to share and to be patient. They develop skills and abilities that are assets in all areas of their lives. This complexity is at the very heart of a good education.
It’s about cutting costs
E-learning isn’t about modernization. E-learning may instead be a trojan horse for cost-cutting and privatization. Teacher and staff wages make up the bulk of the education budget and the government likely recognises that costs can be cut if fewer teachers are employed to teach students. Ontario has been seeking to do this in two ways.
The first is to increase class sizes. The second is related to the first: it’s to introduce mandatory e-learning as a way of potentially grouping larger cohorts of students in a virtual classroom, centralizing course preparations and reducing the scope of personalized learning. This contradicts the OECD’s recommendation for 21st century learning that curriculum should be shifting from “predetermined and static” to “adaptable and dynamic.”
In addition to cost-cutting, the move to centralized e-learning also reveals that the government may be planning to develop private revenue streams. Canadian courses and curriculum are already being sold internationally. It’s quite possible that the government hopes that there will be a future market for an online curriculum.
Mandatory e-learning will not mean more choice for students and parents. In Ontario, fewer teachers and increased class sizes have already resulted in less course choice. The loss of face-to-face togetherness in a student’s formative years should not be the benchmark for what modernization looks like in schools today.