Beyhan Farhadi was a teacher in Ontario's e-learning program when it was launched in the Toronto District School Board in 2010. She quickly realized it didn't include the information she needed to “teach well.”
Most of her work was grading assignments and responding to emails. She had little effective interaction with students, as she would in a face to face classroom. There was no way to compel a student to attend the online class or complete her assignments.
There was, Farhadi said, “an accountability gap” between student and teacher.
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Almost a decade later, Farhadi, now a PhD candidate and geography course instructor at the University of Toronto, tapped her experience to conduct the first comprehensive report on the state of e-learning in the Toronto District School Board.
I'm publishing the 1st study on (TDSB) eLearning this year - a field grievously in need of research. I have MANY opinions about the #OntEdAnnouncement. Namely, eLearning is no substitute for the classroom + will devastate the many students who struggle F2F. #OSSTF #onted #onpoli— Beyhan Farhadi (@BBFarhadi) March 17, 2019
Farhadi’s research is especially relevant now that the Doug Ford government has announced a series of controversial education reforms. On March 15, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced a plan to “modernize classrooms.” It includes a strategy to centralize electronically delivered education and mandate four e-learning credits for secondary students — out of the 30 credits needed for a high school diploma — starting in 2020-21. It includes larger high school class sizes and the axing of 3,475 teaching positions in the next four years.
Education Minister Lisa Thompson has trumpeted the move to e-learning, saying teachers and parents are excited about her plan and that it will help students become "resilient."
“Do you know there are school boards across this province that lead by example, and their students are embracing online learning?” she said in the legislature Monday. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s rural Ontario, northern Ontario or urban Ontario; teachers and boards are leading the way.”
But the reforms — part of the Ford government's cost-cutting measures — have elicited outrage from opposition leaders, civic activists, educators and reformers. They have expressed concerns that it will reduce graduation rates and mark a decline in the state of public education.
On March 6, thousands of teachers, supporters and students descended on the legislature to protest these education changes.
#RallyforEducation estimate is 30,000 people participated, 170 buses filled from across Ontario. Photo credits @BayanYammout #CutsHurtKids #NoCutsToEducation (I’m in there somewhere & it got busier) #OntEd #OnPoli #ETFO #OSSTF #OECTA #AEFO #CUPE #OISEatAERA #AERA19 pic.twitter.com/zs7dJNxsJo— Dr Carol Campbell (@CarolCampbell4) April 6, 2019
Farhadi’s dissertation is titled The Sky’s the Limit: on the impossible promise of e-learning in the Toronto District School Board and is set to be published in the fall. National Observer got an exclusive preview of some of the findings, which suggest the shift to mandatory online education credits for secondary students will increase inequalities among Ontario students, leading to increased alienation and anxieties.
"Technology, applied purposefully, is transformative; it is not an end in itself," Farhadi's report says. "...the assumption that e-learning can serve students on a first-come, first-served basis contradicts the politics of access, from which inequality emerges."
Farhadi noted that in the days after the Ford government made the announcement, Ontario's official e-learning website was scrubbed to remove the line that said "e-learning may not be for everyone."
The importance of screenshots. From Ontario ELearning Consortium. Before and After. Removed the line about "ELearning may not be for everyone..." and the title of the web page "Is ELearning for me?". #OntEd #OntEdAnnouncement #ETFO #osstf #oecta pic.twitter.com/OPiUFXiZQp— Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) March 17, 2019
"Twenty-first century education is supposed to be about problem solving and creative solutions and those things don't get developed when you're online," Farhadi told National Observer in an interview. "If the government heads in this direction, students will suffer."
The problems with e-learning in Ontario
Currently, Ontario students can choose to take e-learning courses through provincially licensed digital software and websites available to all public schools.
Farhadi interviewed 20 students over the course of their semester in the 2016-2017 school year across seven online classrooms. She conducted 90 interviews with students, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, support staff and administrators. She observed thousands of online classroom discussion threads.
She noted that e-learning has been offered in the province on a first-come, first-serve basis and the courses are almost exclusively targeted for university-bound students.
One of her key findings is that e-learning has been used to cut costs, rather than to improve the quality of instruction. The shift to modernize high school education will mean cuts to grants for arts, music, physicial education and outdoor education, which are all "intended to contribute to a well-rounded education."
"Centralizing e-learning will accompany the elimination of funding that goes toward enhancing students’ engagement with the natural and cultural environment," says Farhadi's report.
In a 2013 education ministry-led consultation, teachers advised the then Liberal government that the goal of online courses and digital tools should be "to improve student learning outcomes, rather than to save costs." Teachers advised the government to focus on combining classroom with online educational tools.
Our Government is committed to ensuring Ontario’s students become world leaders in education once again, and leave school with the tools they need to get jobs, pay bills and start families right here in Ontario. https://t.co/cmRw7LyHZe— Lisa Thompson (@LisaThompsonMPP) April 6, 2019
A second key finding is that Ontario's education ministry did not invest enough in building capacity and research for teachers when they licensed the online education platform. As a result, those who taught e-learning courses also suffered from alienation.
Teachers were left on their own to figure out how best to teach students the materials in the e-learning curriculum, Farhadi said, and were not given the tools or resources to ensure an effective online education.
In the 2013 consultation, many raised the point that teachers weren't prepared properly on how to use technology for students with various learning needs and online supports for those with special education needs weren't provided.
Participants in the consultation also advised that schools needed to have "a tech-savvy person" to facilitate the best use of e-learning opportunities and provide training and IT support.
They also advised that online education should be facilitated throughout the schooling system: student should submit assignmnts online so that both they and teachers get accustomed to using internet for school work.
E-learning has not leveled the playing field for students across Ontario, she found. The report found that the program favoured a specific class and race of Toronto society over others (middle-class and white). Farhadi said that even teachers most committed to e-learning did not support making the online courses mandatory for high school students across the province.
Her research suggests that while e-learning benefits students who can easily succeed and manage school well, it hurts those who struggle to go to school due to various socio-economic factors or personal learning deficits. Those who don't have access to technology, to internet and the capacity to learn independently have generally stayed away from the elective e-learning curriculum, or dropped out from it.
Additionally, e-learning "does not transcend race," Farhadi said. In her research she found that Black students were "disproportionately stigmatized, stereotyped, misdirected, pathologized, and disciplined" in the online curriculum.
She also fount that students who were gifted were overrepresented in e-learning courses.
A fourth finding is that students are ambivalent about e-learning. They did not have knowledge of who shared the online classroom space, and synchronous weekly learning sessions were poorly attended. Many told Farhadi that while e-learning provides them a freedom and control over their education, they also said their well-being was compromised by the onus on them to be independent learners and good time managers.
"E-learning was referred to an afterthought, or a task students attended to after their face to face education commitments," Farhadi said.
The result was poor attendance across the board, as well as several dropouts among students who, Farhardi said, tried the online courses and found that it wasn't constructive.
"We are using technology quite a bit in our teaching environments in a variety of ways that also include the incorporation of e-learning as a blended learning opportunity in the classroom," Farhadi added. "The question is why this dramatic shift from the Ford government? The fact that these courses will be required to graduate is what is so concerning."
'Do we actually believe that all the kids are going to sit down and independently do e-learning?'
Johnson Kong is a longtime guidance counsellor in the Toronto school system. Before the e-learning system was centralized, he helped administer online courses from a regional centre that coordinated all schools.
Kong worries that students will "fall through the cracks" if e-learning is made compulsory. In the current model, online courses are an elective and students get a spare class to work on that course. If every student takes an e-learning course, there will be more students with spare classes, which will make it more difficult for teachers to track their attendance.
"Who will be responsible in making sure they log in, that they have accessibility? What will happen when they don't hand in their assignments or do their evaluations?" Kong asks, concerned that this will mean students will be disengaged with their education because there will be less adult interaction and supervision.
As a guidance counselor, Kong said he does not know who the e-learning teacher is for his students. He has no way of contacting them.
Kong has also seen a fair number of students who sign up for e-learning and then drop out of class half way through.
"This entire policy needs to be fleshed out so we have a better idea of how to support the students when they are unsuccessful," he said, certain that students will, indeed, be unsuccessful because the e-learning system delivers an inaccessible and disconnected education.
#EducationThatWorksForYou is the first step our Government is taking to improve education in Ontario! There's more to do and we look forward to working with parents, educators and students to get this right! https://t.co/PflZk0hJ5p #OntEd pic.twitter.com/64zDT53dA0— Lisa Thompson (@LisaThompsonMPP) March 17, 2019
Former Liberal education minister Liz Sandals said the key issue with the Ford government's proposal isn't whether e-learning is a good educational method, but "why students are being forced into a situation where they're not supported to learn or where they just don't have the bandwidth."
The proposal contains no details on how schools will be supported in making this shift, Sandals told National Observer in an interview, or how students will be prepared to be independent learners when they may not be ready.
Sandals recalls trying to invest in increased bandwidth capacity in rural and northern Ontario schools. Because there weren't enough students in any one of some schools to support a course credit, technology was provided to ensure that several different schools could collectively access science courses, for example, through a video link and a teacher in the class supporting them.
"That's different than telling students 'oh, just go and do this credit all by yourself'," Sandals said, advocating a supervised e-learning curriculum.
"Do we actually believe that all the kids are going to sit down and independently do e-learning," she asked. "Or do we in fact say it's important for children to have social contact in their education? Can we bring technology into the classroom but maintain an ability for teachers to instruct and support?"
These are questions that Farhadi also asked in her research. She found that e-learning courses were best for students who had access to technology and independent support.
On April 2, Ontario NDP's education critic Marit Stiles submitted a number of questions to the education ministry about how the mandatory online courses will be administered but has yet to receive a response. Among them are questions about how attendance will be tracked, what happens if a student fails the course, the privacy processes of the data students share, and whether the courses would be delivered through privately-funded companies.
I’ve submitted a number of Order Paper Questions on the subject of the #FordGovt’s plans to introduce 4 mandatory online courses to highschool curriculum. @LisaThompsonMPP never answers our oral questions so let’s see if she answers these. #OntEd #onpoli #CutsHurtKids pic.twitter.com/DOta59y23d— Marit Stiles (@maritstiles) April 2, 2019
The Student Advisory Council has also written to Ford and Thompson with concerns that the mandatory e-learning courses "will alienate abled students and disenfranchise students from low-income households."
"This is unacceptable," the council wrote.
Breaking: 39 members of Minister’s Student Advisory Council release open letter slamming #FordGovt for cutting teachers, increasing class sizes & mandatory e-learning. #onpoli #OntEd @LisaThompsonMPP #ONDP pic.twitter.com/n6vFBz44ur— Marit Stiles (@maritstiles) March 18, 2019
In an interview, Stiles said Farhadi's research was "really timely" and proved that the Ford government's decision was "wrong-headed." The government hasn't been able to provide "anything that proves" that mandatory online education will benefit Ontario students, she said.
"I fear that we will see lower graduation rates," Stiles said. If a student is unable to pass a mandatory online course, they may feel anxious, which may affect the rest of their education, she explained. "Technology as a supplement to learning in the classroom is great. But it needs to be done in concert with teachers in the classroom," she said.
"We need students to feel supported and be ready when they graduate for the rest of their lives," Stiles said. The government's policies are "not taking students in the 21st century, but the 19th century."