TORONTO — When Amal Qayum works on her online social science class, she usually can’t connect to the spotty internet at her Niagara Falls high school.
Instead, the Grade 12, straight-A student at Westlane Secondary School links her personal laptop to her phone data, despite the school touting a specialized technology learning stream. The plan costs $100 a month, which Qayum said she pays for using money she saved up from her summer job.
When Qayum heard about the provincial government’s plan to require all high school students earn credits for four courses online starting in the 2020 school year, she questioned how schools would make it work.
“E-learning has done great stuff for students across the province,” said Qayum, who is also president of the Ontario Student Trustee Association. “But it’s designed for strong, independent learners. The majority of the student body will need extra support. If we’re looking to mandate it, we need to figure out all these logistics — how will wifi work? How will teachers play a part?”
The reason for mandated e-learning, the Ministry of Education said, is because it is “critically important” students are comfortable, skilled and aware of technology heading into post-secondary education and the workforce. Schools already offer more than 200 courses online, and students have had the option to take them since 2004.
The province also plans to increase average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 students and online courses will have 35 students, cutting at least 3,500 teaching positions. Educators HuffPost Canada spoke to questioned if the ministry is actually pushing online learning to fill in the learning gap that will result from fewer teachers in schools. Either way, they agreed schools aren’t ready for the change.
“I’m glad the government sees the value in online learning, but requiring kids to do four courses is too much too soon,” said Hamilton teacher Rich Gelder, who has taught French online for 15 years, along with in the classroom. “It’s a different style of learning kids will need to get accustomed to.”
People for Education, an independent advocacy group, estimates about five per cent of high school students are currently earning credits online. Teachers, who often also teach in classrooms, deliver lectures and assignments over the e-learning platform on recorded videos, and moderate student discussions on messaging boards. School boards work together in consortiums to provide a range of online courses, giving students the opportunity to take subjects not offered at their schools, or even in their municipality.
The ministry said it will centralize all the school board consortiums, so students have access to a greater variety of courses. It has pledged to connect all Ontario boards, schools and students to broadband internet by 2021-2022 (a year after mandatory e-learning begins), while also banning cell phones from classrooms.
Under the province’s changes, as many as 630,000 high school students will be enrolled in e-learning at any one time, a tenfold increase.
“It’s a disaster for students. It’s a form of negligence.”
Heading into the next school year, the ministry will not increase, but rather sustain grants for school technology, including classroom computers, network and internet expenses, software, and distance education, which critics say doesn’t come close to meeting even the current need.
Up in central Ontario, Parry Sound High School guidance counsellor Dave Weichel said it is inconceivable how teachers will accommodate even a quarter of students needing to earn online credits at the same time.
There are a few sets of portable classroom computers shared between teachers, totalling about 120 devices for 640 students, who aren’t allowed to take them home.
Many of his students live in remote areas, more than an hour bus ride away, without access to high speed internet, or money to buy their own devices. “It’s as much to do with economic status as being rural,” Weichel said. “When you can’t afford to pay your other bills, internet is way down on your list of what you need.”
And there’s drawbacks to students doing courses at home, he said. “It’s a lost opportunity for a mentor, caring adult, coach, or extra curricular activity.”
Last year, the province’s auditor general reported students have unequal access to technology. At some schools, eight students share one computer, at others there’s a computer for every student. In Toronto alone, students used equipment ranging from one year to 15 years old.
These inequalities stem from schools having to rely on fundraising to keep up to date, reported People for Education. It found that 85 per cent of elementary schools in high-income neighbourhoods fundraised for technology, compared to 54 per cent in low-income neighbourhoods.
Toronto teacher Sarah Vance is concerned about her low-income students. She estimates about 15 per cent of students at George Harvey Collegiate don’t have computers at home, never mind a quiet place to focus on independent, online course work. And many parents don’t speak fluent English, or have enough education to help their kids with online course work.
“It’s a disaster for students. It’s a form of negligence,” said Vance, who teaches English as a second language (ESL), geography and history. “Most teenagers need face-to-face prompting and assistance. You can’t simply sit them in front of a computer and say to them, ‘Be an independent learner.’ Students with any sort of special education need, ESL need, or social need fall through the cracks.”
Face-to-face interaction with students is an essential part of her job that should not be reduced, Vance said.
“We are already being told we have to do more to support students around their mental health issues, so to decrease the amount of rapport with teachers also seems to be not in the best interest of our students,” she said.
Half of kids failed online courses
There’s limited research on the impacts of e-learning in Ontario, but Michigan has tracked it for almost a decade, after 2006 legislation that required students to earn one credit online, or be exposed to virtual education tools in the classroom. The results are telling.
Last school year, 51 per cent of Michigan’s 112,688 students enrolled in online courses failed some or all those courses, including 12,000 kids who did not pass five or more, and 3,000 kids who did not pass 11 or more. This data was compiled by Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, a nonprofit, sate-supported extension of a private online course provider.
Watch: Zuckerberg-funded online education platform raising health concerns. Story continues below.
Michigan students pass traditional classes 79 per cent of the time, whereas online classes, which are growing in popularity, have a lower pass rate of 55 per cent, according to the report. The virtual pass rate has consistently worsened since the 2010-2011 school year when it was 66 per cent.
The research also suggests poverty hinders online success. Students living in poverty passed virtual classes 49 per cent of the time. Their wealthier counterparts had a pass rate of 69 per cent, perhaps because they had more support at home, said Joe Freidhoff, Michigan Virtual vice president, and the report’s author.
“Online learning is touted for socioeconomic status not mattering, for bringing you the best courses and best teachers. That doesn’t happen, at least in Michigan,” Freidhoff said.
University of Toronto PhD candidate Beyhan Farhadi has researched how e-learning has played out in Toronto schools in recent years. She found that online courses left out the emotional part of learning that often motivates students to succeed.
“What people forget is that students come to class because of relationships with peers and teachers, who they’re emotionally connected to. Online, everything is surveilled. Teachers take less risks with lessons, and students don’t feel comfortable with putting out risky ideas.”
Farhadi said students were ambivalent towards online courses, viewing them as an “afterthought.”
“While cognitive engagement might be cited as a measure of success,” Farhadi wrote in her research findings, “success is also measured by the intangible emotional life of the classroom, of which there was little to observe.”
Ontario Student Trustee Association released a report this month that surveyed high school students who’d taken online courses, and asked them to rate how their quality compares to in-person classes. Three-quarters said online courses did not replicate the classroom experience.
Qayum said the results showed students struggle to learn online. Now she’s part of a team conducting a survey to delve deeper into these issues. In less than a week, more than 600 students had completed it.
“They’re very curious about how this will play out,” she said.