Online learning is great.
I am nearly finished my Master of Education degree, and I have completed every course fully online. I attend a live class every week where I interact with my peers via webcam and headset. I collaborate in real time with colleagues who teach in Indonesia, and Japan. All from the comfort of my own home.
But I’m good at school. I always have been. Motivated, responsible, privileged students like me are the ones who gain the most from online courses. That is true no matter the age of the student.
Students who struggle academically do significantly worse online than in school. This has been proven in Michigan, where high school students are required to complete an online course.
In fully online courses the achievement gap widens between students in poverty and their peers who enjoy a higher socioeconomic status. Although students in poverty tend to do worse than others in all formats (including face to face) they do significantly worse online.
Some students may lack access to computers. A cynic would argue that every kid has a cell phone these days. But there is a big difference between the tasks you would carry out on your smartphone versus a laptop. If you don’t believe me, just try manipulating a formula in a spreadsheet using your phone.
Those same students may not have internet at home. They rely on WiFi in public places like school, and would be unable to make the most of online learning while at home.
Now, consider the accessibility of online learning from the perspective of students with disabilities. All Ministry approved courses are AODA compliant, but that does not mean that the unique needs of every disability are supported.
A course is AODA compliant when videos include subtitles, narration, and captions. A webpage is AODA compliant if it is compatible with a screen reader, and can be navigated with keyboard commands instead of a mouse.
And that’s great!
But what about students with autism? ADHD? Students who struggle with self-regulation? Students who need an educational assistant to keep them on track? Students who’s learning disability impacts their executive functioning skills like task initiation, organization, and time management?
It remains to be seen how those students will be supported in online courses.
Recently Ontario’s Ministry of Education announced that parents will have the option to opt-out of the mandatory e-learning requirement. This has caused some confusion among parents and teachers. With this proposed clause, it will be mandatory for high school students to take two courses online to graduate.
Opting out is not the same as opting in.
I work with many families who do not speak English. These parents can have difficulty navigating the education system to support and advocate for their children.
I also work with a number of teens who live in foster care. In the past I have worked in an open custody setting with youth going through the justice system. In every public school there are many other kids who are missing the parental support necessary to make the most of the online learning model.
Forcing parents to opt out of mandatory e-learning poses an inequitable systemic barrier. This process will disadvantage the very students who need public education the most. For all the promise that online learning holds, mandating it without a real plan to support the needs of these students risks leaving them behind.