The pros and cons of e-Learning
By Summer Cowley, Communications and Research Coordinator, People for Education
On Saturday, November 2, I was lucky enough to sit in on “The pros and cons of e-Learning”, an energetic session at PFE’s annual conference. I was struck by the wide range of views, the passion among the participants – many of them educators and school board members – and the research and experience that backed up people’s opinions about e-Learning.
The session showed me the nuanced perspectives held by opponents and proponents of e-Learning and the various concerns held about the appropriate design and implementation of mandatory e-Learning coursework.
The session started with presentations from three expert panelists:
Alison (Slack) Baron has been an educator for more than 30 years, with 18 years in e-Learning. Alison’s experience includes a secondment to the Ministry of Education to help develop Ontario e-Learning strategy. When she left the Ministry, it was to become Coordinator of the Ontario eLearning Consortium, a network of 23 Ontario School Boards working together to provide excellent e-Learning opportunities.
In her presentation, Alison, as a strong proponent of e-Learning, focused on three main reasons that e-Learning should be used:
- Online courses give students in smaller, remote schools access to a range of courses.
- Centralised course design ensures course consistency.
- Evidence shows high completion rates of e-Learning courses.
Overall, she described a number of “ifs” that will make e-Learning successful: if e-Learning is implemented properly, if the Ministry maintains strong central role, if resources and funding exist to train teachers and support staff, and if the technology is available for students to fully participate.
Beyhan Farhadi, is a Toronto District School Board secondary teacher with a PhD in Geography. Her doctoral research looked at the relationship between e-Learning and educational inequality in the TDSB. Beyhan’s presentation highlighted a lack of research surrounding e-Learning program implementation and assessment, and she listed a number of questions that still require answers:
- Who will be consulted to design e-Learning programs?
- How will e-Learning enrollments be counted in school funding models?
- How will the system support students with no tech access at home?
- How will student privacy be protected?
- How will the Ministry of Education assess the effectiveness of e-Learning?
Maxim Jean-Louis, has been President and CEO of Contact North | Contact Nord since 1996. Contact North runs 116 online learning centres across Ontario, providing 600 small rural, remote, Indigenous and Francophone communities with access to post-secondary education and training. Maxim shared Contact Nord’s response to Ontario’s e-learning plans.
Maxim focused on the ways that educators in Ontario can address the e-Learning plan set out by the Ministry of Education, and suggested that the province’s original goals were aspirational, rather than written in stone. (His stance has been borne out by recent changes announced by the government to slow down implementation and reduce the number of required courses from 4 to 2.)
Instead of simply opposing the new policy, he suggested we should be working together to “make Ontario a leader in quality, affordable and accessible online learning at the secondary school level.” He pointed to Ontario’s success delivering online learning to post-secondary students as proof that it is possible.
Agreement and differences
Although the three presenters held different opinions on the best ways in which e-Learning can and should be implemented, they agreed that e-Learning could serve remote communities and non-traditional students, if designed and run with care. However, they also agreed that the new policy should not be implemented hastily and that the planned ratio of 35 students per online teacher, was too high.
Discussion raises more questions than it answers
As the presentations moved into a discussion guided by Annie Kidder, People for Education’s Executive Director, participants on the panel and the audience expressed passionate views. Many focused on the inevitability of instituting at least some forms of online learning, while others wanted to discuss how the system could embed online learning more effectively throughout a range of courses – without moving to a perhaps simplistic policy of requiring all students to take 4 separate online courses.
The discussion raised many questions for participants: What is the role of teacher training for teaching online and will it change? How will students with special needs and/or Individual Education Plans (IEPs) be supported? How will schools and boards be able to manage the expansion in technological requirements?
What struck me most about this session was that, although all the participants held such strong and nuanced opinions about the pros and cons of e-Learning, most people in the room were concerned with evidence-based planning regarding the design, implementation, and evaluation of e-Learning before rolling it out to students.
The province has announced it will consult on e-learning, but is there really time to have an extensive and fruitful consultation if the plan remains to require even 2 course starting in the fall of 2020.
It leaves me wondering, what more can we do to engage in a broad range of discussions on e-Learning? What forms of discussion and what types of research are needed now and in the future? What questions should we be asking when we think about e-Learning and the future of public education?