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Take It From An Online Teacher: E-Learning Sets Ontario Kids Up To Fail

It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to education, and it’s particularly ill suited for high-school kids.

In early June 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers reportedly sent unsolicited emails to Ontario guidance counsellors offering gift cards in exchange for information on student behaviour, ostensibly conducting market research into the “online education market in Ontario.”

That market represents the high-school students who we now know will be required to take four e-learning courses to obtain their diploma under Doug Ford’s new plan. The reasoning behind the push for e-learning at high school — which is set to roll out in 2020, details yet to be announced — is a little fuzzy.

Former Education Minister Lisa Thompson on Nov. 19, 2018.
Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Former Education Minister Lisa Thompson on Nov. 19, 2018.

While opposition members accuse the Ford government of simply trying to cut teachers’ jobs, former Education Minister Lisa Thompson claimed under pressure from the Opposition in March that the province’s e-learning plan was a progressive move for the digital era: “When it comes to online opportunities for our students, I think we should all agree ... we want to make sure that they have every opportunity to put their best foot forward.”

I’ve been teaching courses at the college level online since about 2002. I’ll argue the merits of online learning, especially for my field – writing, which is conducted entirely via the internet these days – with anyone. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to education, and it’s particularly ill suited for high-school kids. A “best foot forward” isn’t what is likely to happen.

Put simply, most students are not prepared for their own role in e-learning.

In a classroom setting, students only need to show up at the right place and time. They will be told what to do and what is expected from them. Online, they enter a learning platform that is — as I like to tell them — something like a room full of filing cabinets. You have to look into all of them, and read all the material in those drawers, to get a full understanding of how things work.

“Some studies put the drop-out rate between 40 and 80 per cent overall for online courses.”

In all my courses, and I suspect most e-learning experiences overall, there is a pattern to the proceedings. Students read the lecture and post responses in a discussion forum, where I give feedback. You have to show up not just once, but several times a week, to keep up on online discussions and absorb feedback, which can be updated at any time of day or night. Based on all of that, they then move on to completing and submitting the assignment.

That’s how it’s supposed to happen. In reality, very few people actually read my feedback to the discussion forums. (I know, because I check the statistics.) In fact, the majority enter their discussion post and then immediately submit their work, as if completing all the tasks, and checking all the boxes, was the only point to the exercise.

What is actually being learned? In my eternal optimism, I keep offering feedback I know will be ignored, marking assignments I know will contain all the weaknesses I’ve already warned students about, and correcting all the grammatical errors that they wouldn’t make if they had just read the material. The reward is that the students who do persevere are highly motivated and generally do very well.

‘It’s the ideal environment for students to give up, tune out’

I have very rarely failed anyone who’s completed all the assignments; routinely, however, up to a third of the class will simply not complete the course. Disengagement, and low levels of completion, are the biggest fly in the ointment when it comes to online learning.

A review of the research on e-learning published in 2016 found that online courses have higher rates of attrition than traditional classes by 10 to 20 per cent. Some studies put the drop-out rate between 40 and 80 per cent overall for online courses. That heightened drop-out rate persists at all levels of education.

It’s easy to put off even starting a course. I know from experience that about 20 per cent of the class won’t even sign into the course until the third week or so — others, never. One research study that tracked 113 students in a post-secondary graduate program found that about 15 per cent of those who dropped out halfway through the semester had never even started any of the work.

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Some of that has to do with expectations, I suspect. Potential students may think that online courses are easier or require less effort. When this hunch is proven wrong, grades drop and motivation follows. One study by researchers at the University of Maribor in Slovenia quantified this correlation between retention and student performance. If students were satisfied with their marks, they continued with their course, and vice versa.

It’s not terribly surprising that many students only do what they feel is the minimum to get by, ignoring at least part of the wealth of information available as part of a course. In fact, the way people read on the web itself tends to work against full comprehension.

The way we read online is different than how we read from printed sources, and the research bears out my own impressions. As described by research firm Nielsen Norman Group, people tend to read or consume a web page in a kind of “F” pattern — they read the first blocks of text more closely, then skim down the rest of it in decreasing intensity.

“They still need the guidance and input of teachers to make sure it is an enriching learning experience.”

Readers young and old retain information better, and are able to concentrate on longer texts, when engaging in print. We tend to read web pages faster, rather than study them in depth. Some studies found that we tend to believe we’ve retained more than we have from reading a text from a screen, which may result in a built-in self-defeating cycle of skimming through the material, even as we’re convinced we’ve gotten it all. It’s too easy to miss crucial information.

I’ve added video links to the written lectures, and other supplementary information — in one case, a class blog to practice on — which many students seem to love. Others complain that there is too much information in too many places, and some tell me they’d prefer written information only. In other words, it has the same mixed result as text.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the differences are inherent to e-learning or due to a different attitude towards online text — the result is that, from a teaching perspective, you are always left with head-banging-against-the-wall syndrome. The material students need is there, if they’d only read it.

Without a firm sense of motivation for self-directed work, e-learning creates an ideal environment for students to give up, tune out and make a minimal effort, far from an ideal solution for education at the high-school level.

It’s true that students need to be prepared for the digital environment they are likely to work in but, as teenagers, they still need the guidance and input of teachers to make sure it is an enriching learning experience for all of them.

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