Ontario students overwhelmingly disagree with the Ford government’s plan that will force them to earn four online courses in high school to graduate, says a new survey obtained by the Star.
The survey, by the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, found almost 95 per cent of the 6,087 respondents said they “disapprove of the new e-learning mandate” set to begin in 2020.
“The (plan) did come out of nowhere, and students are the biggest group impacted,” said president Sally Meseret, a student trustee on the Durham District School Board. “I was disappointed that students were not consulted.”
The association is calling on the government to reverse course because the e-learning plan “has huge implications … if students don’t get these four credits, they can’t graduate,” said Meseret, a Grade 12 student at Whitby’s Donald A. Wilson Secondary School.
Previous education minister Lisa Thompson announced the requirement for online courses last March as part of a larger overhaul that she said would modernize education and “embrace technology.”
The changes will also usher in larger class sizes for students starting in Grade 4. In high school, average class sizes will jump from 22 to 28 over the next four years. In total, the province will lose about 3,500 teaching positions.
According to polls, the moves are highly unpopular with the public, and critics point out there is no Canadian or U.S. jurisdiction that requires four online courses. A handful of U.S. states mandate one; others simply recommend it.
Alexandra Adamo, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the government is going ahead with the plan.
“We will be continuing to listen to stakeholders — most especially our student leaders — to develop a world leading e-learning system for implementation in September 2020 that provides flexibility to ensure students can learn using this modern and digital learning platform.”
She also said “this will allow us to bring our education system into the 21st century by utilizing leading-edge technologies to teach and learn in new and exciting ways that lead to good-paying jobs.”
Meseret said students have expressed a number of concerns, including access to — and reliable access to — the internet, especially for students up north, or even access to a computer. As well, students who have taken e-learning courses report having difficulty reaching their teacher and getting help.
Meseret also said there is particular concern students, particularly those in Grade 9, having to work online, “because it requires an enhanced amount of discipline.”
“This situation is obviously very frustrating for a number of people,” including students, parents, educators and boards, she added.
The student trustee association, which represents the province’s two million public school students, does not oppose e-learning but prefers it to be an option for students instead of a requirement.
The group also warns that an estimated 90,000 students would “not be able to obtain their (high school diploma) if e-learning is mandated for all students” because of “inadequate access to the technology required.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles, a former school board trustee, said “experts oppose mandatory e-learning, educators oppose mandatory e-learning and parents oppose mandatory e-learning.”
And now, she added, “we have confirmation that students don’t want this either. The Ford government must listen to the people of this province, and especially the young people who will be directly impacted, and reverse this terrible policy.”
Meseret said the association has met Lecce, who “seems keen on making e-learning better, but not really reversing it.”
Information about the student trustee survey was only distributed to school student councils across the province, and while the group cannot verify that all respondents were students, the results are consistent with what it has heard from student trustees at all public boards since the government announced the e-learning move last March. It also reflects what the association found in 2017, when three-quarters of students said they prefer in-class learning.
Few details on the plan have been released, but critics said the larger average class size, 35, is too big.
The survey found that students worry online courses won’t work with their learning style, and says teens who enrol in them typically do so because courses are full or not offered by their school, or they have a scheduling conflict.
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In 2018, about 50,000 Ontario high school students took at least one online course.
Clare Brett of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, who has been researching online learning for 30 years, has said it can be a “a good experience for students to get — if it’s a good experience,” and that she did not support the mandatory aspect.
Some U.S. studies have found that students perform about the same or marginally better online than in school, but higher dropout rates are common.