Mandatory online courses for high school students ‘a terrible idea,’ expert says

A Ontario government plan to make high school students take four courses online to graduate is a “terrible idea” because it will be very hard on students already struggling, says an e-learning expert.

Beyhan Farhadi, a University of Toronto PhD candidate whose thesis looks at e-learning at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), said e-learning is not a substitute for classroom instruction.

The government announced new online requirements when it unveiled changes to the education system earlier this month. Those changes involve larger class sizes, new math and a cellphone ban in classrooms. Mandatory online courses, however, are not scheduled to take effect until 2020-21.

“Specifically to require students to take it, it’s a terrible idea,” Farhadi told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Tuesday.

“The ministry hasn’t paid much attention to e-learning aside from having licensed the platform. In the research I’ve done, only a minority of students succeed and those students are concentrated in really high achieving schools.”

Farhadi, also a former teacher, said e-learning has not been well researched and requires different skills for students and teachers. Mandatory online learning is all about efficiency, she said.

The government’s announcement was a surprise, she added.

“I’m shocked. There’s no transition. We don’t have a lot of guidance from the province. We don’t have consistency in how it’s applied. Even within school boards, there hasn’t been a lot of investment in capacity building. I don’t know how Ontario certified teachers are going to be delivering this in our public school boards.”

Farhadi, who taught at the TDSB from 2007-12, said the plan is being introduced without the proper supports in place at schools and it will mean more demands placed on teachers outside of classroom hours. It means 440 hours of “contact with a caring adult” will be taken away from students, she said.

Farhadi enjoys teaching online courses, but when she has done so, she said she found that privileged students can learn on their own, she didn’t get to know her students and data that arises from daily assessments is not there.

When a “synchronous” learning sessions were held that require attendance, some students didn’t show up. “Maybe a third of the class show up because they can watch it after. There is no incentive for them to be there,” she said.

She said she thinks the plan fails to take into account the purpose of learning in a classroom setting.

“The purpose of public education is to promote social cohesion and develop students who are going to transition into caring adults. I think it matters that I’m in the classroom.”

Need to embrace technology, minister says

In question period on Monday, Education Minister Lisa Thompson said: “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.”

According to the ministry, in a March 15 document entitled “Education that Works for You — Modernizing Classrooms,” secondary school students will take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to complete requirements of an Ontario secondary school diploma.

The number is equivalent to one credit per year, with exceptions for some students based on individual cases.

“The government is committed to modernizing education and supporting students and families in innovative ways that enhance their success,” the ministry said.

In an email on Tuesday, the ministry added that students will be able to access e-learning through technology at their local schools.

“E-learning courses can be accessed using any type of device. We understand school boards have their own set of unique challenges and needs and we will work with our school boards to discuss planning access to e-learning,” the ministry said.

“School boards will also provide accommodations for students with special education needs, as required, to access the curriculum.”

‘Credit accumulation will be compromised’

In an email after her interview, Farhadi added: “For students who are unprepared to take on the responsibility for learning entirely alone, credit accumulation will be compromised.”

She recommends that the ministry adequately fund school boards to train teachers with a focus on blended learning, invest in research to track the use of e-learning, and clarify who is legally responsible for the safety of students during e-learning itself.

If the government wants to mandate e-learning, it should begin with one credit in high school and “provide access to laptops in schools and face-to-face supports for students with greater needs.”

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