Teaching Reflections

The problem(s) with mandatory e-learning…

Premier Ford’s recent announcement that by 2020 all secondary students in Ontario will be mandated to take four e-learning courses to earn a high school diploma has me concerned as both a teacher and parent. Although e-learning has its benefits and is a platform of learning students will face in the ‘real’ world, I don’t think it should be a four credit, mandatory graduation requirement. 

I’d like to start by admitting my bias: I like e-learning. My first job as a teacher was at a ‘virtual’ high school teaching e-learning courses, and I’ve taught virtual courses sporadically since that time. I’ve also used various e-learning platforms as a student for teacher additional qualification courses, NCCP coaching courses, and Respect in Sport learning modules.

The e-learning environment works for me, but I’m an adult with a university education. I also happen to be tech savvy, and have good literacy and independent learning skills. Despite my personal admiration for the virtual teaching world, I can’t ignore the reasons why it’s not a great fit for many teachers and students.

Problem #1: Plagiarism and Cheating

I’m just going to go ahead and jump right in with two feet here: plagiarism and cheating are the most significant problems in the e-learning teaching world.

I have taught many e-learning courses, at a variety of grade levels, academic streams and subject areas and have consistently caught more students cheating and plagiarizing than in the regular classroom environment. When I say ‘more’ students than the regular classroom environment, I mean many more; once, in a single class of 30 students I had 9 issues with plagiarism and cheating!

The problem is that with e-learning courses, it really does seem ‘so’ easy to have your mom write that essay, or to submit the assignment your friend from her class last semester. And hey – since your on the computer anyways, why not just copy something off the Internet and submit that as your own work.

For e-learning to be a viable method of legitimate learning, something needs to be done to curb the desire and opportunities to cheat – especially regarding courses that don’t have proctored tests, assignments and exams.

Problem #2: Teacher Selection and Training

If e-learning does become mandatory, I will absolutely be asking for it to be on my timetable, but I have both the desire and training to teach these types of courses. Many teachers, despite the fact that it’s 2019, have quite limited technology skills, and I also genuinely fear that others will be looking at e-learning timetables as a chance to sit back and, well…relax.

Even more concerning is my fear that e-learning courses will be given to teachers who administrators don’t necessarily ‘trust’ in the classroom due to overwhelming parent and/or student complaints. I’m worried that like special education timetables in the past, e-learning timetables will become the place where administrators tend to ‘hide’ their weakest teachers.

If teachers do not receive the appropriate training to manipulate and effectively deliver online courses with a vested desire to make them viable and engaging, their students will suffer. Case in point: recently, an e-learning student approached me asking for help with an online course. When I had him sign in and took a look at his course homepage, I was extremely frustrated. The teacher had simply opened the entire course, but done little else in terms of actually ‘teaching’ the material. There was no daily plan for students with links to lessons,  no calendar of due dates,  no communication via email,  no editing of the course to make sure links worked; THERE WAS NO TEACHING.

If e-learning is to become mandatory, then these courses need to be led by properly trained and engaged teachers who want to teach them.

Problem #3:  Literacy, Technology and Independent Learning Skills

Students need a variety of peripheral skills to be successful in any classroom environment, but the e-learning world requires three very specific skills that unfortunately many of our secondary students these days are generally lacking: literacy competency, technology skills and an ability to organize and follow through with independent learning.

In the traditional classroom, teachers use a variety of methods to teach and engage students, including: physical, visual, auditory, social and literacy lessons. e-Learning, on the other hand, relies very heavily on literacy skills. Yes, there are video and audio clips, but to successfully navigate and understand content, students need to have an ability to read and understand a reasonably high level of vocabulary. Moreover, since assignments are submitted digitally, most are typed. Again, some assignments are media focused but due to the nature of the beast most aren’t. Gone is the teacher’s ability to balance C.O.P. (conversation, observation, product), and if students struggle with written output, they’re in trouble.

Logically, technology skills are another impediment to e-learning courses for students. As adults, we seem to think all teens are tech savvy because they can text and use social media, but the sad reality is that most can’t send a simple email with an attachment. Yes, our kids can use technology, but most are not tech savvy in terms of being able to effectively navigate an online course and create web-based assignments using Google applications. In my experience as an e-learning teacher, this becomes very frustrating for students who don’t have these skills. They have the desire and ability to complete course work, but not the technology skills, which usually results in them dropping the course all together.

Finally, independent learning skills are essential for success in the e-learning environment. Since the teacher is not physically in the classroom with students, they aren’t there to ensure they’re paying attention, prompting them to complete work, conferencing with them about learning or guiding them in the right direction. Students are left alone to select an appropriate time and place for learning on a daily basis, as well as to set aside time to complete and submit work. For some students, these skills are second nature, but for most they simply aren’t – especially for teenagers who can think of many other things they’d rather be doing than sitting at home in front of an e-learning course module.

If students haven’t refined their literacy, technology and independent learning skills, they will most likely not be successful in an e-learning course. Therefore, if e-learning becomes mandatory, we are setting up many of our students for failure.

Problem #4: Lack of Classroom Relationships

“No significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.” (James Comer)

As teachers, we know that relationship building with students becomes a cornerstone to learning. But how do you do this when your physical proximity to students is so limited? The e-learning environment creates a much different teacher-student dynamic than the physical classroom. There is no incidental conversation about the weekend or what happened at last night’s football game.  There is no observation of habits, facial expressions or tone of voice, which makes ‘knowing’ and therefore ‘trusting’ someone very difficult for both parties. There is no conferencing about classroom work  in a formative manner, or encouragement when a student is facing something challenging.  All of these habits are hallmarks of good teaching practice, but are completely removed from the e-learning virtual world.

Student-teacher relationships aren’t the only casualty in the e-learning classroom, the interconnected student relationships are also victim to the lack of physical proximity between students. Although e-learning platforms do have opportunities to post in discussion forums, this is very limited in terms of actual collaborative learning between students. Through e-learning, group work and learning through an evolving discussion just don’t exist in the same context as the classroom. Moreover, student emotional support, social networking and friendships are also lost.

Removing significant relationships from the learning environment will have many negative consequences. Often, it’s these relationships that are keeping kids in school and motivating them to be successful.

Problem #5: Stagnant, Impersonal Course Material

A final problem I’ll touch on that needs to be examined is the construction and delivery of e-learning course material. The Ministry of Education has paid course writers to develop e-learning courses, as have independent school boards, and they are all available on the e-learning Ontario website for school boards to use. In theory, this is great, but in practice it creates complacency among teachers who use them. Why reinvent the wheel when it’s already there?

In a regular classroom, certain units are planned as core material, but often a teacher follows class interests, current events or new innovations in teaching as the course progresses. Pre-populated e-learning courses don’t allow for this flexibility or student personalization. Moreover, once they get old, information taught can become irrelevant and/or links to websites and videos become broken.

e-Learning teachers with proper training know how to edit course material and make courses their own, but will all teachers receive this training and actually put the work into making their courses individualized? My guess is no.

Compromise? What about blended learning…

When I think about e-learning as a part of high school curriculum, I do think it has a place, but not as a mandatory four credit requirement. The best experiences I’ve had as a teacher regarding e-learning have actually been in a blended learning classroom.

Blended learning occurs when a teacher familiar with e-learning uses parts of an e-learning course to teach, as well as daily classroom lessons. In this model, students become proficient in the e-leaning environment with the guidance and support of a classroom teacher, while learning the technology skills required to do so.

The blended learning model allows for the best of both worlds: relationships with teachers and other students, guided technology learning, a mix of independent learning via e-leaning and classroom instruction from the teacher, practice with literacy in tech and paper/pen environments and the opportunity for teachers to engage in meaningful, balanced evaluation that includes C.O.P. (conversations, observations, products).

One of the first blended learning courses I taught was about four years ago with an ENG4U group that was quite strong, so I knew they could handle it. It ended up being a great course, and the feedback I received the next school year from students that returned to visit was quite positive. They thanked me for introducing them to the e-learning platform as many of their university courses were being taught with a blended learning model.

I do think e-learning has a place in the high school curriculum, but for at least our junior (grade 9 and 10) students, the blended learning model would be significantly more successful in terms of student course completion.

Solution? Take one e-learning course as a graduation requirement…

Realistically, today’s students will come into contact with e-learning at some time in their lives, either in a post-secondary education environment or at work. Teaching students how to successfully navigate and complete e-learning courses isn’t a bad idea, but forcing them to take four credits as a graduation requirement is.

Weaning students into the e-learning environment through blended learning at the junior level, then perhaps requiring one e-learning graduation credit at the senior level is quite reasonable and beneficial for students. This way, teachers can support students in literally ‘learning’ the platform of ‘e-learning’ before they encounter it as a graduation requirement.

Unfortunately, as we all know, despite the logic in this suggestion, the decision to make four e-learning credits mandatory isn’t about students, it’s about cost savings. The government is looking at the bottom line, and the cost saving measures it will earn by loading 35 students into e-learning courses is looking pretty good in a ledger somewhere.

Therefore, despite the fact that four courses of mandatory e-learning is a terrible idea for students, I’m sure it will proceed as planned in September 2020. As teachers, all we can do is hold our breath, and do our best for the students in our classrooms, whether they be physical or virtual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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