A “confidential” government document obtained by the Star shows Premier Doug Ford’s government considered keeping online learning optional until 2024 and planned to slash school board funding while creating courses to sell to other jurisdictions at a profit.
The “implementation plan for Ontario’s transformed online learning system” comes to light amid high-stakes contract talks between the province and teacher unions fighting Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s plan for compulsory e-learning starting in Grade 9 next fall.
Marked “not for distribution,” the six-page document also envisioned allowing students to get high school diplomas “entirely online” starting in September 2024, a prospect Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Harvey Bischof called “weird.”
The government did not dispute the authenticity of the internal document, which is not dated but was written between March 16, 2019, and summer’s end, according to time references in the text.
“We remain committed to building a world-leading online learning system to strengthen Ontario students’ competencies in the modern economy,” Lecce’s office said in a short statement to the Star that did not answer a list of questions about the document’s contents.
“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,” the statement added.
Lecce became education minister last June when his predecessor Lisa Thompson was shuffled out of the post into another cabinet portfolio after irritating school boards, teachers’ unions, parents and students during the Ford administration’s rocky first year in office.
It is not clear how the government made the leap from optional to mandatory online learning. Queen’s Park first proposed four such courses before scaling that back to two in November as Lecce acknowledged concerns from parents, students and educators about the quality of the learning experience and the challenge of access to computers and the internet, particularly in small communities and for low-income families.
The confidential document stated the plan was for the education ministry to “closely monitor uptake of online learning over the first four years of implementation, assess the feasibility of making online learning mandatory for credit accumulation” toward an Ontario secondary school diploma.
“School boards will be required to meet progressively increasing minimum targets for student enrollment in online learning courses; optional enrollment at the individual student level,” the plan continued, using the American spelling of “enrolment.”
The document also called for a commissioning process to create a new delivery entity to maintain and create a catalogue of “gold standard” online courses in English and French so that “maximum revenue generation may be realized.”
Under the heading “cost saving and revenue generation,” the document noted “the system does not generate any revenue for the province” and warned “costs for creation of online learning tools and resources may be duplicated across multiple delivery partners.”
The plan directed the education ministry “to develop (a) business model to make available and market Ontario’s online learning system to out-of-province and international students and examine feasible options for selling licensing rights to courses/content to other jurisdictions.”
Lecce’s office declined to comment on how much revenue could be expected from any sales outlined in the document, which also calls for steep cuts in funding to school boards. The plan calls for $34.8 million less in the school year starting September 2020, $55.8 million in 2021, $56.7 million in 2022 and $57.4 million in the 2023-2024 school year.
After that, there would be “continued cost saving of $57.4 million annually with full catalogue of online ‘gold standard’ courses,” the plan predicted.
Bischof of the OSSTF, the union representing public high school teachers, said it appears the government was intent on cutting costs by mandating online courses, which require fewer teachers, while at the same time looking for a profit.
“The idea of selling Ontario curriculum or even online courses to others on the face of it doesn’t seem problematic to me. It’s that you would reduce the access of students in Ontario to face-to-face learning,” he told the Star.
“It turns this into a fiscal exercise. Which part of this is aimed at improving the quality of education in Ontario? To me it looks like someone is looking at this to save money, not to do what real kids actually need.”
Allowing students to do their full course load online seems at odds with the purpose of school, which is also for students to learn to socialize and work together with peers and teachers as well as join clubs and sign up for sports, Bischof added.
“Maybe they can join the online football team,” he said.
Lecce’s requirement for two online courses to graduate from high school is unusual in North America; a handful of U.S. states require or encourage students to enrol in one online course.
Ontario school boards now offer about 130 online courses with roughly five per cent of students enrolled in them. The education ministry said recently that the courses will be taught by Ontario teachers and will be run publicly with no plans to privatize them.
The confidential document also mentions the need to improve internet data transfer rates in high schools to one megabyte per second by May, which would allow for testing in time for the fall return to school, and to explore opportunities to improve internet service in public libraries within five kilometres of high schools.
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Teacher unions have started job actions, including work-to-rule and one-day rotating strikes that have closed public high schools, to bring attention to stalled contract talks with the government but have steered clear of full-scale walkouts so far.
Aside from online learning, key issues in the negotiations include a government push for larger class sizes, which also require fewer teachers, and a new law passed by Ford’s Progressive Conservatives aimed at keeping public sector wage increases to one per cent for the next three years to help eliminate annual deficits.
The province’s four teacher unions are launching charter challenges of the law, saying it interferes with collective bargaining rights.