Top Ten Myths About Online Learning

Over the past two months, in relation to the Ontario government’s Education that Works for You – Modernizing Classrooms announcement, there has been a lot of misinformation published about K-12 online learning or e-learning in Canada.  More than a decade ago, the North American Council for Online Learning (now called the International Association for K-12 Online Learning or iNACOL) released their Top Ten Myths about Virtual Schools.  In an effort to address some of this misinformation, CANeLearn wanted to update these myths and provide examples from the Canadian context.

1. Myth: Online learning is a separate delivery system from traditional education.

Truth: There have been between 250,000 and 320,000 students enrolled in one or more online courses across Canada for most of the past decade.  Online learning courses meet the same rigorous academic standards as traditional brick-and-mortar schools provide to students. Online courses are in all 13 provinces and territories and make it possible to offer advanced courses or instruction that would otherwise not be offered at the local level.

Example: As we described in the blog entry entitled “What Does Online Learning Really Look Like?,” a properly delivered online learning program is fully embedded into the traditional brick-and-mortar school with personnel and supports at the local level to ensure that students have the opportunity to succeed (see Figure 1 in particular). Additionally, several provinces have included online learning provisions into their collective agreements to ensure that online learning teachers are treated in similar manners to what would be expected for traditional brick-and-mortar education (e.g., certification, workload, class size, professional development, etc.).  Finally, research by Elizabeth Murphy examined how rural schools were able to incorporate a synchronous classroom into their elementary-aged, French as a second language course to compliment their school-based teachers with French language, trained subject specialists – essentially blurring the lines between online learning and face-to-face learning.

2. Myth: Online courses are for gifted and talented students only.

Truth: Online courses have worked well with students of all kinds, including at-risk students, students in urban and rural areas, those with limited English proficiency, and those with high anxiety or special needs. Online learning has also been used successfully as part of systemic reforms to help indigenous students remain in their communities and personal support networks.

Example: In a brief issue paper published by the “State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada” report, the former principal of the Alberta Distance Learning Centre describes an online credit recovery program that allowed students to continue to stay on track for graduation.  Additionally, a recent vignette that appear in the same annual reports described how the Centre francophone d’éducation à distance was able to provide students the opportunity to earn dual credit in the child care services discipline.  Further, Michael Barbour and Jason Siko conducted a case study of an at-risk student enrolled in an online course and reported that “the student was good at prioritizing and understood what students needed to do to succeed in an online environment, yet he often did only the minimum needed to pass the course.”

3. Myth: Online courses lack interaction.

Truth: Students typically have one-on-one interactions with their teachers and fellow students in online courses, especially when team projects are assigned. Teachers report getting to know their students better, and students who are shy or do not think well “on their feet” tend to contribute more in online environments. Students are often actively interacting with both resources and others in online environments.

Example: In a vignette published as a part of the “State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada” report, the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation in Newfoundland and Labrador describe the variety of ways that the technology education teacher interacted with students. Using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools, students from a wide range of ability levels interacted with the teacher and each other to complete course tasks.  Elizabeth Murphy and Maria Rodriguez-Manzanares found in two separate studies that the way in which online teachers from across Canada interacted with their students mapped directly to the four dimensions of the validated learner-centered framework for teaching.  Further, research by Elizabeth Murphy, María Rodríguez-Manzanares, and Michael Barbour explored the variety of asynchronous and synchronous tools that online teachers from across Canada used to engage their students in the online learning environment.

4. Myth: Online students are isolated and therefore will be socially disadvantaged.

Truth: In fact, students often engage actively both online and off as they complete assignments and socialize with other students and adults in their schools, at home, and in the community.  Full-time online programs include face-to-face meetings, field trips, community events, and social events for parents and students. Online secondary students typically take only one or two courses online, combining these learning opportunities with their traditional instruction and social interactions in brick-and-mortar schools.

Example: In a brief issue paper published by the “State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada” report, the former principal of the Keewaytinok Internet High School (KiHS) describes that “students in most of Canada’s remote First Nation communities had no choice other than leave their home communities if they wished to pursue a high school education.” However, KiHS provides students in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) territory of Northern Ontario the opportunity to continue their education within the confines of their own communities and formal and informal supports that their local community provides.  A post by SCcyber E-learning Community describes how the accredited private school program in Alberta works with local Aboriginal communities to foster social engagement and support through accountability and interaction between students and teachers. Further, research conducted by Eric Nippard and Elizabeth Murphy examined how one online learning program utilized the different asynchronous and synchronous tools to ensure that both the teachers and the students had a social presence within their online course, while research conducted by Elizabeth Murphy and María Rodríguez-Manzanares created a instrument based on the literature and interviews with online teachers across Canada to measure the level of rapport online teachers were able to build with their students based on six broad categories.

5. Myth: Online teachers have easy jobs.

Truth: Online teachers report that they work much harder and spend more hours online than in the classroom, but that they love it. They do not simply “move a class online” and “put up what they teach.” Online instructional design, writing, management of instruction, and communicating with students can take considerable time and be quite different from what goes on inside a traditional classroom.

Example: In a vignette published as a part of the “State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada” report, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) local of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) described how the responsibilities and requirements of online teachers were collectively bargained with the TDSB to ensure that they were consistent with brick-and-mortar teachers. According to a State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada special report on “Working Conditions for K-12 Distance and Online Learning Teachers in Canada,” at least five locals in Ontario had similar provisions in their collective agreements (as did the Nova Scotia Teachers Union collective agreement).  In fact, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has published several reports on the working conditions of teachers in online learning schools (known provincially as distributed learning or DL schools) through its Task Force on DL (and a commentary on this work can be found here).

6. Myth: Online courses have to be developed from scratch.

Truth: Many online courses already exist that meet provincial or territorial standards. These online resources have been developed by Ministries/Departments of Education, school districts/boards, and independent organizations. There are also emerging initiatives in K-12 for the publication of Open Education Resources (or OER – see ISTE’s open educational resources to try for a list of  sites).  At least initially, collaborating and sharing these options may be more cost-effective and practical for school systems than developing online instruction in-house.

Example: It is true that the development of online courses CAN be a costly and extensive project when done from scratch (see here and here as examples). However, all across Canada there are examples of organizations within different provinces that come together to share courses and other resources to ensure that online learning programs can be implemented in a cost effective manner (e.g., Saskatchewan Distance Learning Course Repository, Western Canadian Learning Network, or the Ontario eLearning Consortium). There has even been some exploration in Canada on using open education resources, as described in Chapter 38 of the “Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning” by Verena Roberts, Constance Blomgren, Kristina Ishmael, and Lee Graham (see pages 527-544).  However, Ontario is an example of probably the best resourced province from a governmental perspective, as the Ministry of Education “provides school boards with access to a learning management system and other tools for the delivery of e-learning, asynchronous course content and a variety of multimedia learning objects, and a variety of other technical and human resource supports (including a “Technology Enabled Learning and Teaching Contact” in each school board).” But it is important to remember that cost effective does not mean cheaper, as a State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada special report on “Funding and Resourcing of Distributed Learning” reported that in most jurisdictions online learning was funded at levels consistent with brick-and-mortar education.

7. Myth: Online courses are easier for students than regular courses.

Truth: Most online courses are not condensed or easier versions of regular courses. They are aligned to provincial or territorial standards. They require active participation and operate in settings under the supervision of certified teachers, require students take similar assessments, have attendance policies, and have competency-based academic progress requirements in effect.

Example: As described in this vignette by two Nunavut-based students enrolled in courses offered through the Alberta Distance Learning Centre, while their distance learning courses offered a greater level of flexibility in comparison to their face-to-face courses, the “material [was] not much different than what I’d expect from a normal schooling setup.”  Similarly, in a vignette from two students enrolled in the province-wide online learning program in Newfoundland the students reported having to “put in extra time into [their] studies to do well in these online courses.”  This was consistent with research by Michael Barbour, who reported that students in that Newfoundland online learning program spent between 3 and 6 hours per week (or 30-60 minutes  per day) working at home on each of their online courses.

8. Myth: A student is more likely to cheat online.

Truth: Cheating is no more prevalent online than in the classroom. In addition, there are many technological ways to deter it and track it. In many cases, the online venue and communication enables teachers to get to know their students’ idiosyncrasies and skills much better. Teachers say that student writing has a voice and that it is often easier to spot work that is inconsistent or unlike earlier communication in online environments, and online teachers are more likely to track authentiy of ‘voice’ in online students work than classroom teachers.

Example: CANeLearn CEO, Randy LaBonte, produced a research brief for Leading English Education and Resource Network (LEARN) entitled “State of Evaluation and Digital Technology.” He reported that “countless studies have looked at cheating in online courses and none suggest that cheating is inordinately high, concluding that cheating occurs among students in classroom-based courses at a similar rate to students enrolled in online courses (Stuber-McEwen, Wiseley, & Hoggatt, 2009; Watson & Sottile, 2010).”  In fact, the Watson and Sottile (2010) study found lower levels of cheating in online courses.  As well, many online programs use tools in the learning management system to randomize questions, restrict the time allowed, test availability, or user ability to open another program, and all use some form of proctoring for the supervision of any test-writing.

9. Myth: Online learning is about technology.

Truth: Online learning is about curriculum and instruction for students. The “medium” is not the message because the student, instructor, content, and learning goals are key.  Online networks simply make it possible to provide communication, access to extended resources, and use of sound, graphics, video, text, interactivity, and other digital capabilities to strengthen instruction. Most schools have the basic technology, Web browsers, plug-in software, and access that are needed.

Example: In a vignette and a brief issue paper published as a part of the “State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada” report, the Keewaytinook Internet High School in Northwestern Ontario explores how online learning was a delivery model that allowed secondary school students to remain in their communities, instead of having to leave the supports their indigenous community provided to continue their educational journey.  eCampusOntario, in the development of Ontario Extend – a “capacity building initiative… for effective online and technology-enabled teaching and learning, offer a model for 21st Century Educators based on the work of  Simon Bates that describes six domains for teachers, only one of which is “technologist.”  This is consistent with recent guides released by Alberta Education for students and families and school and school authority leaders, where technology is only a small focus in comparison to supporting students, teacher professional learning, the role of various school-based personnel, and other administrative issues.

10. Myth: Online courses represent an “add-on” to already burdened school systems and teachers.

Truth: Online learning does not represent an “add-on.” It does represent an opportunity take advantage of online resources, enable teachers to help students learn in ways that match students’ needs, and transform schools. Online courses may or may not decrease costs, depending on how budgets are allocated and how online courses are integrated into instruction. Training and support of teachers is important regardless of whether courses are online or classroom-based as both require increasing use of digital learning resources.

Example: According to the annual “State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada” reports, online learning has been used in schools across Canada since the 1990s. The models that have developed to integrate and support this form of learning are well established in many schools and school districts/boards.  For example, this vignette published as a part of those annual reports describes how online learning is simply a regular part of the educational programming provided by the Upper Canada District School Board.  Similarly, these vignettes of rural schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec explore how the presence of online learning was just incorporated into the school, and allowed these small rural schools to continue to offer programming at the secondary level.  Finally, as was stated earlier, it is important to underscore that online learning should not be undertaken to simply cut costs.  As the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada special report on “Funding and Resourcing of Distributed Learning” indicated, in most jurisdictions online learning was funded at levels consistent with brick-and-mortar education.  Given the reality that online learning programs have similar student-teacher ratios (sometimes guaranteed by collective agreement), and that a well designed online learning program will include traditional brick-and-mortar school personnel and supports, the implementation of good online learning is often more expensive than traditional face-to-face instruction.