Why does the Ford government mandate e-learning?

Dudley Paul  – 2020-01-16

There are good reasons not to take Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s claims too seriously. For example, when he says that students and families are suffering from teacher job actions despite all the government has done to sweeten a deal for teachers, you have to remember that he’s offering to put back just some of what the Ford government cut or changed: increasing high school class sizes to only 25 rather than 28; mandating 2 online credits for secondary students when the original plan was 4. He may think he sounds reasonable, but I doubt it and nobody else should buy his line either.

Take, for instance, mandatory online learning. E-learning per se, is not a bad thing if used judiciously. A secondary student might need to pick up a credit to complete her diploma, so goes online to get it; it can fill in some gaps for kids from remote areas, those too ill to attend school, working, attending other courses – students, who for a variety of reasons, can’t get the credits they need or want.

But mandatory online courses? Why? The Ministry of Education offers no rationale for making students take 2 or any courses online. The previous Minister, Lisa Thompson said during question period last March: “The reality of today is we need to embrace technology for good…”  Just today, Premier Ford reiterated; e-learning is “the way of the future.” That’s it for the pro-side of e-learning.

On the other hand, Beyhan Farhadi who recently received her PHD from University of Toronto, actually studied the relationship between e-learning and education inequality at the Toronto District School Board. She told Metro Morning last August that requiring kids to take online courses is a “terrible idea” because it will be tough on those who already have trouble in school. She told School that  students who succeed at e-learning are those who would do well anyway in a real classroom inhabited by young people. The kids who don’t do well online, she found, don’t tend to prioritize e-learning, but just log in to show they have attended. Basically, these are kids who need a teacher to keep them focused.

So, without any pedagogical reason for e-learning, why is Stephen Lecce spending so much effort and political capital to promote it? Part of the answer to that question comes from a document acquired this week by Kristin Rushowy and Robert Ferguson of the Toronto Star and marked “not for distribution”. This “implementation plan for Ontario’s transformed online learning system” was written sometime last spring or summer. It outlines a 4-year plan to push e-learning and increase the number and accessibility of online courses. It even recommends fact sheets and tips for students and parents to improve their chances: How to Succeed in Online Learning.

The Ministry didn’t answer School’s questions about the details of the implementation plan saying only:

  “We remain committed to building a world-leading online learning system to strengthen Ontario students’ competencies in the modern economy. 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.”

Let’s take a closer look at some of those details:

 

The “Entity”

The Ministry would “undertake a commissioning process to create a new delivery entity” to develop, deliver and catalogue online courses, enroll and support students, manage the instructional technology and be accountable – in other words run online learning in the province. By 2024 it would take over e-learning from local boards, which now run online programs.

Will this “entity” be a private company hired for the purpose; a group within the Ministry? There was no word from the Ministry about this.

Whatever it is, this “new entity” would come up with “gold standard” courses. Gold standard is not explained anywhere in the document; the nuts and bolts of good teaching appear to be irrelevant. But by the time implementation is done, there would be 130 such courses available in “both languages” – no mention here of First Nations’ languages.

 

How learning would be delivered

This “delivery entity” would ship courses in 3- ways: “Synchronous learning” in which students and an “educator interact” online in “real time”; “asynchronous learning” in which students “complete self-paced online courses (time independent)”- so  are pretty much on their own but can ask for help; “self-directed learning” which means that students are truly on their own, “organizing and managing their own learning activities.”

What’s striking about this babble is how aseptic is it, how lifeless. Courses are not taught, they are delivered in much the same way as a box from Amazon. Teachers may or may not be present at the lesson or, I suppose “delivery.” Nothing is mentioned about interest or engagement of kids within these “gold standard” deliveries. How does anyone even know they haven’t just logged in and gone for a coffee?  Maybe it’s just assumed that “gold standard” speaks for itself. But this proposal is so completely devoid of even the most basic understanding of teenagers or what it takes to teach them, I wonder if this section was written by a person, much less an educator?

What about the people delivering these online courses? Would they have to be trained teachers? Would they require a post-secondary degree of any kind? Would they be required to join a union representing teachers, support staff and education workers? Would they even live in the country? Again, the Ministry had nothing to say about that.

 

The long-range plan

By September 2024, 80 percent of secondary students would have taken at least 2 online courses – unless Mr. Lecce changes his mind. The document outlines how, over 4 years, “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.” While it doesn’t suggest that the Ministry force students to take more courses, it’s pretty clear that increasing online learning is not optional for school boards. It concedes that some learning might be done with “reading materials”, but that students will have to go online to take delivery of e-learning. So, the Ministry will work with school boards to speed up internet access.

This raises an important question about the purpose of schools. As e-learning increases and there is consequently less need for teachers – the real reason for introducing this disaster – will schools, with their ever-increasing internet capacity, become just places to go to log in to an online course that may or may not be “synchronous?” Maybe they can just stay at home.

 

Option to complete high school entirely online

The most revealing part of this plan is that by 2024 there would be an “option to complete OSSD entirely online.” I read this many times and am pretty certain that it means a student could get a secondary school diploma, never having been in a classroom – one with walls, uncomfortable furniture, other students – and a teacher. This is really worth close attention and I think it goes a long way to answer the question: why mandate e-learning?

Why? Because over the years Ontario schools have become increasingly corporatized, following thinking developed in businesses. Those with influence in the Ministry believed and promoted corporate culture including ideas like “outcomes-based education,” centrally controlled curriculum or a testing regimen that has nothing to do with local learning conditions. The province has even studied a proposal to “measure what matters”, a program that would assess kids’ attitudes and inclination to work with others in a corporate culture.

Increasingly education is about delivery of something akin to knowledge and skills. It is a commodity – not learning, with its attendant need for human interaction, argument and confrontation that goes on as teachers try to reach kids with widely different situations, moods and readiness to learn. All of that is too messy. There is no business case for it, so the thinking goes. Teachers are too expensive; it’s best to get rid of as many as possible, reduce their negotiating power and hire cheaper instructors from places where union- or other-  rules don’t apply. It’s the same reasoning corporations used to gut jobs in major industries and ship them to places like China, Vietnam and African countries where they can get away with paying people a pittance.

Whoever came up with this dangerous idea must have thought someone in the Ford government would like it. She or he was probably right given the government’s efforts to cut every service in sight. I fear that the Ford government sees online delivery of learning as a philosophy of education – something to be shipped out, with extraneous costs removed, in the most efficient way.  Of course, it couldn’t be further from anything to do with education, but that needn’t concern people with a view of learning as business-like or corporate, rather than individual or human.

Once again, the Ministry shed no light on School’s question about the possibility that all required secondary school courses might be taken online.

 

Cost saving and even making money

This just supports the idea above. The document notes the government already plans to cut School Board Operating Grants over the next four years. That amounts to cuts of $34.8 million for 2020-21; $55.8 million for 2021-22; $56.7 million in 2022-23 and $57.4 million in 2023-24.

And while Stephen Lecce offers to keep secondary classes at 25 students as far as provincial grants are concerned, he hasn’t stated that local school boards need to abide by that offer. What better reason for school boards to get rid of more teachers and offer more courses online? They’re already cut to the bone. Teachers have already been laid off. What else are school boards likely to do?

But wait, there’s a bright side according to whoever came up with this plan. By having the “entity” develop all online courses, the Ministry can reduce “costs associated with current duplication in the creation of online learning tools…” What’s more, the Ministry can make money by developing a “business model to make available and market Ontario’s online learning system…” providing courses for a fee to out-of-province and international students- even licensing the courses for others to use.

Again, why does the Ministry want to push online learning? It saves millions and could even make money.

 

Accountability?

 There’s nothing specific. That’s in sharp contrast to rest of the document which outlines responsibilities, timelines and percentages of kids who will take online courses. This part, not surprisingly, is really vague: “Fulsome accountability framework in place by entity.” I think this means it’s better not to mention anything for which someone actually might be held accountable.

 

That makes some sense given the destructive potential of this “implementation plan.” Who would ever want to own it? Better to keep it locked in a drawer “not for distribution.” Yet, it does reflect the Ford government’s approach to education and the rest of the services the province should provide for people. The overriding questions are typically: Is there a business case that can be made? Can we cut funds and save money?

Our schools cry out for educators. Continued cuts and poorly planned responses to the most at-risk kids have left thousands of them without the support they need. For all students, as Beyhan Farhadi says “schools have always been central to local communities.” They’re places where “students learn how to ask hard questions in a safe space,” where teachers have to shoulder responsibility to teach those kids who come into their classrooms.

If the Ford government goes ahead with the proposals in this plan – even if it embraces its view of learning, it will have completed a journey begun in the 19th century under Egerton Ryerson, the founder of Ontario’s education system. This saw education become increasingly centralized for the purpose of providing a suitable workforce for business requirements of the time. The fly in the ointment has always been educators who go off script, who take extra time helping students understand their work, who engage in lengthy discussions or exploration of topics that aren’t detailed in the curriculum, but which truly interest their students.

The Ford government seems to be arguing that business today requires disconnection of people from one another, skills without context and nothing for those who can’t keep up. It may be right about that. Certainly, the sort of e-learning the government promotes is an empty box delivered from far away– not education.