Classroom Technology

Is Requiring Online Courses a Good Thing? Teachers in Canada Aren’t So Sure

By Mark Lieberman — December 16, 2019 3 min read
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Many educators believe online courses are an inevitable component of a student’s school experiences. To that end, five U.S. states and a handful of other schools and districts require high school students to take at least one online course before they graduate, according to the Digital Learning Collaborative.

That requirement has been fairly uncontroversial in the U.S. so far. But in Ontario, a proposal for a more robust online course requirement—two virtual courses before graduation—has drawn stern objections from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, a labor union that is currently engaged in tense negotiations with the government over wages and policies that have led to multiple day-long strikes, including one this week.

Last March, Ontario’s provincial government announced that high school students would be required to take four online courses before graduation. The goverment has since lowered the proposed requirement to two, but maintains that the policy will “better prepare students for the demands of the future.”

The teachers’ union acknowledges the benefits of online learning, which include providing more course options for students at smaller schools and more opportunities for teachers to branch out from subjects they’ve been teaching. But members are calling for the government to rescind the requirement while maintaining optional online courses. Their objections to required online courses are a reminder of the tensions policymakers face in wanting to expose students to online courses, while struggling with whether to mandate those experiences.

Here’s a summary of the union’s concerns:

Some students aren’t prepared for the unique challenges of online courses. A majority of the respondents to a teachers’ union survey of more than 600 Ontario teachers and other school employees said they’re worried that some students who lack motivation and skills in independent learning and time management will be at a disadvantage if online courses are required.

“The students who succeed in e-learning courses are most often students in upper-level or university classes,” the survey says.

Some students will have easier access to online courses than others. The proposal from the government offers few implementation details. If new online courses are to be taught by instructors who currently teach face to face, educators worry that the number of in-person offerings will drop as a result. Members have also raised concerns about low-income or rural students who lack adequate Wi-Fi access to complete work for online courses at home.

Technical infrastructure might not be prepared to support a burst of new online courses. Surveyed Ontario educators said they’re already seeing strain on computer networks and internet speed as a result of existing e-learning courses. Requiring multiple online courses for all high schoolers could mean those problems magnify quickly. Districts in the U.S. sometimes turn to private providers for technical support, but such partnerships can be controversial among educators.

Online courses could lead to academic integrity violations. At minimum, survey respondents want more training and workshops around cracking down on plagiarism in online course environments. “Due to the volume of cheating and plagiarism reports from various respondent groups, it is clear that students are taking advantage of the online learning medium to pass around work, cheat on tests and more,” the survey says.

Offering online courses is a lot of work. Administrators and technology staff have to do a lot of legwork to get a course off the ground, and teachers spend more time tracking down absentee students than they would in a face-to-face class, according to the survey.

“Educators reported they are constantly chasing and tracking down students, communicating with parents and more,” the survey said.

The survey does offer one theoretical solution, though: establishing a “designated learning space” in each school where online learners can get situated. As with all such projects, though, it would require more funding.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.