In The News… The Ottawa Citizen: Ontario is poised to require every high school student take four online courses. What does it mean?

Last month, CANeLearn CEO Randy LaBonte and State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada partner-researcher Michael Barbour were interviewed for a piece that appeared in The Ottawa Citizen.  You can view the original article at:

Ontario is poised to require every high school student take four online courses. What does it mean?

Last week, the provincial government announced that secondary school students will be required to take four out of the 30 high school credits required for an Ontario high school diploma as online courses.

The announcement had few details, except that the changes will be phased in starting in 2020-21 and the delivery of all e-learning courses will be centralized. However, if the province goes ahead with plans to make four courses mandatory, Ontario high school students will have more compulsory e-learning than any other jurisdiction in the world.

So what is e-learning? A necessary skill for the 21st century or a way for the province to save money on education? We asked experts what they expect from the reforms.

How does e-learning currently work in Ontario?

According to the Canadian eLearning Network, an estimated 65,000 Ontario elementary and secondary students from public, Catholic, francophone and independent schools took at least one online course in 2017-18.

The public education advocacy group People for Education estimated that five per cent of students for every high school are enrolled in at least one online course.

Most courses are developed by school boards and offered though a consortium of school boards.

Both the English boards in Ottawa, for example, belong to a consortium of about 20 school boards. If a student’s board does not offer a course, the student can take the course through another board in the consortium. Students in Ottawa currently have access to almost 100 high school credits through the consortium, said Jane Alexander, system principal with curriculum services at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

The number of online classes offered through the board has been steadily increasing in the past five years from 40 classes to 58. Online teachers are certified and work in area high schools. Classes are capped at about 30 students, while some courses have fewer than 20 students. Completion rates are similar to face-to-face courses.

Registration with the Ottawa Catholic School Board’s online courses has increased in significantly in the past five years. In 2013-14, there were 151 students registered. That increased to 737 this year.

The Catholic board has embarked on a couple of pilot projects, including an accelerated math program for gifted Grade 8 students that allows them to work online toward a Grade 9 math credit. Another pilot is a “continuous intake” program for students who need an additional credit outside the traditional semester scheduling.

About 20,000 Ontario students, many of them adults, are also enrolled in the Independent Learning Centre (ILC), which operates within TVO, delivering secondary school courses that count toward an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. ILC is funded by the province and taught by certified teachers.

What happens in an online course?

Teachers create assignments and moderate interactions between students using electronic technologies such as message boards. While students often have flexibility in terms of when they log into the course, many schools recognize that it’s a good idea for students to spend time in the library, said Alexander. The majority of students who take online courses are in Grades 11 and 12 and are looking for more course offerings than are available at their school, she said.

Why take online courses?

Students take online courses to reach ahead, to “recover” a course they’ve failed, to get a credit that isn’t available locally — this is especially true in rural or remote communities —  or to get a credit that is difficult to fit into a timetable. Online courses have also become a popular way to take summer school courses.

What are the benefits for students?

Online courses give students more time flexibility, make a greater range of courses available and allow teens to develop self-discipline and time-management skills. When students move on to college or university, they will take at least some of their courses online, so high school is a good place to develop the technical and time management skills they need to learn to be successful as online learners.

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board tells students they will likely experience more communication with classmates than they usually experience in a face-to-face classroom. “Your teacher will be more of a facilitator than a lecturer and you can expect to be more actively engaged in your own learning.”

Is online learning for everyone?

No. A well-designed course that allows for shared activities and connecting with others can be a good thing, says Tony Bates, an expert in online learning and author of Teaching in a Digital Age. For some students, online learning improves skills in time management. But others drop out because they have difficulty with the time management demands.

Students who are disciplined and motivated tend to be successful at online learning. Overall, completion rates for online courses are about the same as for face-to face courses.

There is, however, some evidence that taking online courses in high school does not necessarily lead to success in post-secondary online courses. One explanation might be that students who take online courses in high school are interested in the course material but have not necessarily acquired online learning skills, said Michael Barbour, a Canadian who is an international consultant in online learning and an associate professor of instructional design for the College of Education and Health Services at Touro University California.

“Just because a student learns online doesn’t mean that student learns how to learn online,” he said.

Randy LaBonte, chief executive of the Canadian eLearning Network, says there needs to be alternative programs and options for all students so they have positive experiences. Taking courses entirely online tends to result in less success than “blended” or “hybrid” courses that have both a classroom and an online component.

“If I struggle in math, I probably will struggle even more in an e-learning environment,” said LaBonte. “If I can’t work independently, I won’t be successful.”

How will things change under the education reforms announced last week?

That’s unclear. The province has not explained its motivation for mandating online courses, or how it plans to centralize course offerings. Barbour already considers Ontario to be one of the best models for online learning in the world.

“Without more specifics on the centralization part, I don’t know what to make of it,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education says more details will be available at a later date.

Clare Brett, the chair of the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said more online learning is not a bad idea in principle. “But the devil is in the details.”

There are a lot of questions that were not answered in the province’s announcement, including whether online teachers under the province’s new program will be certified teachers, why the system is being centralized, and whether it will be privatized, said Brett.

“Online courses can be wonderful learning experiences. Or they can be terrible,” said Brett, who has taught numerous online courses. “Teachers still have to learn how to teach in an online setting.”

She also questions why the province is making online courses compulsory. For some students, particularly well-organized, mature and motivated students, online courses are a good option. “But I wouldn’t say that every teenager has these skills.”

Bates says as far as he can tell from the announcement, Ontario has not made its decision based on research evidence.

“I suspect it’s a cost-saving measure,” he said. “I would be really concerned if they weren’t using certified teachers. You need those teaching skills online as much as you do face-to-face. In some cases, even more so. You need good design and instruction. You can’t take the curriculum and just throw it online.”

Will the education system be able to meet demand?

This will be the biggest challenge, said LaBonte. Roughly 10.5 per cent of Ontario high school students were enrolled in an online course last year. If the province goes ahead with its plans, it means as many as 630,000 students in any year will be taking an e-learning course, a 10-fold increase. That means there will be increased demand on school facilities and on bandwidth and internet access. It will affect classrooms that already use computer facilities and bandwidth, said LaBonte.

It will also take time for teachers to build the skills and expertise needed to teach students online, and they will spend more time supervising students who are spending 10 per cent of their time in an online course — especially those with special needs.

Schools and educators already report that they are challenged to meet the demands to support existing online learners. The challenge will be how to scale the support for this sudden growth, said LaBonte.

Will the province save money by making online courses compulsory?

Not necessarily. Whether a course is offered online or in a classroom, the teacher cost remains the biggest expense. Online courses can even be more expensive than face-to-face courses, depending on how they are designed, said Bates. However, there are economies of scale if courses are offered to large numbers of students.

“My big worry is not that a small company will get involved, but that Google or Amazon will get involved in the education system and undermine it.”

Meanwhile, People for Education points out that as part of this announcement, the province has said it will cut the Secondary Programming Amount, which supports local strategies to expand secondary programming options. According to calculations by People for Education, this funds about 490 secondary teachers, representing a funding cut of $40.7 million.

Have any other jurisdictions mandated online courses for high school students?

Five U.S. states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia — require an online course as a graduation requirement. Some other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and West Virginia, have passed rules or legislation encouraging, but not requiring, online learning.

If Ontario goes ahead with the plan to make four online courses mandatory, the requirement will be four times greater than any other jurisdiction, said Barbour.

In U.S. states where students are required to take an online course, all students end up taking the same course. Barbour suspects what will happen is that school boards will choose four courses that all students have to take — Ontario’s mandatory Grade 10 civics course, for example.

“A lot of graduation requirements get added and added until they are meaningless,” said Barbour.

Do students like online courses?

The Ontario Student Trustees’ Association asked students about online learning in its 2017 survey. Limited course offerings were identified as an issue. Many students also said learning complex concepts is extremely difficult and online courses may not replicate the personalized support found in traditional classes.

Students were asked to rate the extent to which online classes provided comparable quality learning opportunities as in-person classes. A rank of one meant “not at all” while a rank of five meant “exactly the same” as face-to-face learning. Less than a quarter of the students surveyed ranked online courses at a level of four or five.

Again, the original article is available at