Online learning isn’t the massive problem that Ontario’s embattled teachers unions are making it out to be, according to a leading expert in the field — but he says to properly implement it across the province would likely prove very costly.
Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design at the College of Education and Health Sciences at Touro University California, told CBC News that political rhetoric is masking the possible benefits that e-learning could bring to Ontario. But with few concrete details about how the program would roll out, he says it’s difficult for people take an informed stance.
One thing is for sure, Barbour says: to do this right wouldn’t be cheap. The province would need to hire more teachers to support students, properly outfit classrooms and computer labs, and work with telecom companies to ensure broadband access in rural areas.
“It’s going to be a lot of money, a lot of purchasing, [and] a lot of set-up in a very short period of time,” said Barbour, who has been involved with K-12 online learning in countries including Canada and the U.S. for decades as a researcher, teacher, course designer and administrator.
“If the government embarked upon this because they believe it is going to save money, then that was a fool’s journey.”
E-learning has become a major talking point in the fight between the provincial government and education workers, alongside class sizes and compensation for teachers.
The province announced last year that it would require high school students to take four online courses in order to graduate. After considerable blowback, Education Minister Stephen Lecce scaled that number back to two.
Students graduating in 2023-2024 would be the first cohort required to complete the two courses, selecting from options like Grade 11 biology, Grade 12 data management, and Grade 10 career studies.
E-learning largely positive, Alabama official says
Union leaders have repeatedly said that bringing in mandatory e-learning courses would hurt the province’s education system. Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Harvey Bischof appeared on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning Monday, and said the province wants to “impose mandatory Alabama style e-learning that every piece of evidence says is not constructive for many of our students.”
Larry Raines, coordinator of the educational technology section at the Alabama Department of Education, dismisses that idea outright. He told CBC News that since online classes were first offered in 2006, enrolment has ballooned from 300 students to over 27,000, and the results have been largely positive.
“We worked to make sure we were not out there to take the place of teachers,” Raines said in a phone interview. “We’re actually employing almost 1,000 teachers across the state.”
Comparing Ontario to Alabama also doesn’t work, because completion of Alabama’s online courses isn’t mandatory for graduation. Instead, the state has a guideline that dictates every student must have an “online experience” to graduate, but an online course is just one way to achieve that.
Barbour says he understands why a union that’s embroiled in a labour dispute would want to hold up Alabama as an example.
“I did my PhD down in Georgia, and the common saying in Georgia was, ‘Thank God for Alabama, because otherwise Georgia would be the worst education system in the U.S.,'” he said, adding that Alabama historically has had very poor performances on both national and international assessments.
“But that’s not because of online learning,” he said. An examination of Alabama’s graduation numbers shows there’s not really a difference before or after online learning was implemented, he said.
“Alabama has a bad education system for a variety of reasons.”
Part of the problem here, Barbour says, is the province has released very few details about its plans for the program, so people can’t really make an informed decision.
“The ministry hasn’t done a good job of actually telling us what they mean,” he said.
Ministry of Education spokesperson Alexandra Adamo told CBC News in a statement that that province is “committed to building a world-leading online learning system to strengthen Ontario students’ competencies in the modern economy.
“We are proceeding with developing and implementing a made-in-Ontario program that will ensure student flexibility, technological literacy and a vast selection of courses, through two mandatory courses over the lifetime of a student’s high school career.”
Adamo could not, however, say how much that program will cost.
“The full financial and policy implications of the online learning strategy are subject to the development of the ministry’s final implementation plan. Once these elements are finalized, the ministry will provide more information,” she said.
‘It’s just a medium’
Some research from the U.S. has lauded e-learning as a viable education option, while other reports are less bullish.
A 2014 study based out of Harvard University that examined Florida’s online course offerings did not find any evidence of negative effects of virtual education on student learning.
But in 2018, The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute examined how effective online learning has been in that state, and found that online learning was failing poorer students.
Despite the fact that 62 per cent of enrolments in Michigan were students living in poverty, researchers saw a gap of nearly 20 percentage points between the pass rates for those students (48 per cent) and students not in poverty (66 per cent).
The institute says that in the last decade, the number of virtual learners in Michigan nearly tripled, but the statewide virtual pass rate did not improve — instead, it has steadily decreased from 66 per cent in 2010-11 to 55 per cent in the 2018 academic year.
Still, Barbour maintains that e-learning could work in Ontario if students are properly supported.
“Technology, be it a classroom that’s using a traditional chalk board or white board, to a high-tech classroom … to an online class, it’s just a medium,” he said. “And what impacts learning is how we design, deliver and support that learning within that medium.”
But he says he also understands why unions are pushing back during this round of bargaining, given what he sees as comparisons between the current Ford government and when Mike Harris was in power back in the 1990s.
“The idea that the motivation behind a lot of the measures that they’re making is based upon cost saving, that’s a real concern for folks that are trying to collective bargain right now,” Barbour said.
“It’s a reasonable position to take.”