Distance Education—The New Norm for High School Students?

Distance Education—The New Norm for High School Students?

On March 15, 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Education released “Education that Works for You — Modernizing Classrooms,” which states that starting in 2020-2021, “the government will centralize the delivery of all e-learning courses to allow students greater access to programming and educational opportunities, no matter where they live in Ontario.”  Although few specific details are currently available, the report specifies that Ontario high school students will need to complete 4 out of 30 required credits online to obtain their Ontario Secondary School Diploma.  Exceptions will be made for students with individual needs on a case-by-case basis.  In addition, the document states that “Ontario students and educators will have access to reliable, fast, secure and affordable internet services at school…” and will have access on any type of device.  No information about how students will access online materials from their homes has been offered.

It is believed that up to 630,000 students will be enrolled in online courses each year, a dramatic increase from previous years.  The Canadian eLearning Network reveals that, during 2017-18, only 65,000 Ontario elementary and high school students were enrolled in at least one online course.  In 2018, 10.5% of Ontario high school students were enrolled in online high school courses.

Stephen Lecce, Minister of Education, announced on November 21 that, amidst controversy, students will now only be required to complete two courses online.  Students graduating in 2023-2024 will be among those affected by these changes.  Courses will include Grade 10 Career Studies, Grade 11 Biology, and Grade 12 Data Management.

In a response to the query about the benefits of online education, Sandra Zeni, Senior Media Relations Coordinator of the Communications Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education states that “Online learning offers a number of significant benefits for students.  It provides students with a wider variety of courses no matter where they live or go to school, allowing them to shape their education based on their individual needs and goals.”

Despite optimism from the Ministry, this move continues to create controversy and protest against Doug Ford’s Conservative government.  Some educators have stated they feel unprepared for this sudden change and lack the skills and expertise to teach students online.  They also fear job loss.  In addition, there are fears that online education, especially for those with diverse needs, will only increase difficulties with these mandatory changes.  Ontario educators wonder if, unlike university students, high school students have developed sufficient skills to succeed in self-directed learning.  E. Ladna, an Ontario educator with over 30 year’s experience, states, “Online courses are a great addition to traditional classroom education.  However, in my experience, some students are not comfortable with online delivery of courses, do not have the required time-management or organizational skills.”  He believes that courses should be offered on a voluntary, not mandated basis.  “The focus should be on expansion of available eLearning courses and not on mandating them.  Students will choose them if it fits their interests and they like this type of course delivery.”

Although he has avoided these changes by one year, Tegan Cutuli, a Grade 9 student from Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, believes that, “It’s over complicating the way we are being educated and is going to be inefficient compared to being in a classroom with a teacher.”  He does not see the benefit and offers a helpful analogy.  “It’s like going on the internet and watching a video on how to bake a cake as opposed to learning from someone who knows how to make a good cake.  Sure, you’d probably be able to kind of understand what to do, but not as well as if you had someone to help you with your difficulties and answer questions you have.  When you don’t have someone to help you with certain questions or guide you through what to do, it makes the learning process much harder.”

Additionally, educators fear that high school students may miss out on the formative years of socialization that high school provides.  Increased isolation may have detrimental effects on students.  However, Zeni counters that online education “can also provide …[students] with new and engaging ways to learn, such as through hands-on, interactive games and simulations and collaboration with their peers.”

Students at Athabasca University are well versed in the advantages of online education.  Yet despite its many benefits, distance education requires strong study habits, time management skills, and the ability to teach oneself.

The outcome of Ontario’s program remains uncertain.  If successful, perhaps it may impel students to consider online post-secondary options, such as Athabasca.  In addition, students will enter the workforce with more marketable skills.  Zeni remains optimistic.  “By expanding and modernizing online learning, students will have greater flexibility, more choice, and will graduate with the skills needed to enter the workforce.  Employers are looking for people who understand the importance of technology and can use it in ways that will help their businesses thrive in a competitive, globally connected economy.  Online learning is one important way that students can develop these skills and become lifelong learners.”

However, educators, such as Ladna, worry about the negative impact on graduation rates.  “I can easily predict that mandating online delivery of courses will result in lower number of high school graduating students.” If he is correct, this may affect the amount of students entering any type of post-secondary education.

Despite the controversy, statistics reveal that Canadians support online education, at least at a university level.  Since 1995, Canadian online education has increased by 8.75%.  In 2016, Canada’s first national survey regarding online learning in Canadian universities was carried out by EduConsillium, a Montreal-based consultant on behalf of Global Affairs Canada.  Although it mainly focused on attracting international students, it “provides the most extensive data-based analysis to date of online and distance learning in Canadian universities.”  The survey of 73 out of 93 responding Canadian universities revealed that 360,000 or 29% of all Canadian university students were taking online courses.

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