Newsflash: eLearning Doesn’t Suck
It has taken me quite a long time to finally get this latest blog post together, and to muster enough courage to publish it live. For the sake of my own mental health I needed to get this one out. I also need to preface, before everyone gets upset about the title, that I do NOT support mandatory eLearning. I believe this is quite possibly the most ill-informed decision for education, by any Ontario government, ever. I despise the decisions, actions, and extreme cuts made by Doug Ford and Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce. The decision to mandate any number of eLearning credits in order to earn the Ontario Secondary School Diploma is simply a wolf wrapped in sheep's clothing. The PR man attempts to sell this to us as a progressive, innovative embrace of technology that will equip students with the skills needed in the twenty-first century workplace. The reality is that it is simply a double edged cost slashing sword (eLearning class size averages of 35 and fewer teachers, along with the privatization of education).
It’s quite challenging to stay positive and motivated, and happy, and feeling appreciated, when my livelihood is bashed on a daily basis. eLearning is currently stoking the fight in education. Parents, students, educators, the media, unions, and opposition parties are all sharing their thoughts that eLearning is a substandard form of learning. Just do a quick Twitter search with the hashtags #Onted, #eLearning, #OSSTF and you will quickly see the vitriol being thrown around towards eLearning in general. Any post, any article, any study that shines a negative light on eLearning in any way, is shared and re-shared.
I have walked the picket line for four days, but have had to bite my tongue and keep my head down. I hear the comments about eLearning and I see the signs. One picket sign on the line I walked on said “Meet your new Art teacher,” beside the image of a laptop computer - clearly a dig at the perceived effectiveness of eLearning. Even though there likely wasn’t any attempt to offend me, or any other eLearning teacher, it is hard to not feel disheartened - I’m human. I continually feel as though I am being indirectly told that how I teach, and the work that I do, just isn’t as good as the “real” classroom teachers.
The sign made me think about the two Art teachers at my eLearning school (The Virtual Learning Centre - TLDSB), and how amazing they are at what they do. I thought about how they both have full timetables of Media Arts and Music (vocal and instrumental) because they make kids excited to take those courses online, and keep them coming back for more. I think about all the ways they engage their learners in their live synchronous classes multiple times a week. I think about how hard they work to make the learning and experiences of their students as good, as effective, and as meaningful as any students sitting in a brick and mortar classroom. I think about how our Music teacher has been invited to share his best practices with other educators at various conferences and with other school boards in the province. I think about how our Media Arts teacher has been selected as a subject matter expert over and over, and how she has written oodles of curriculum for the province. I’m glad they were walking on a different picket line that day.
Even though it is disheartening and tough to take, I get it. Your personal impression regarding the effectiveness of eLearning is formed based on your own experiences with eLearning, or from what someone else tells you, or writes about. The problem is that most eLearning really isn’t that great. There I said it, and yes, I believe it to be true. This is the eLearning that produces awful learning experiences. This is the eLearning that has very poor retention rates and very high drop-out rates. This is the eLearning with limited opportunity for synchronous engagement and collaboration. This is the eLearning with limited student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction. This is the eLearning where a large number of adolescent learners fall through the cracks. This is the eLearning model that I tend to refer to as not much more than an online correspondence course. This is what many models of eLearning look like in the province, I believe:
This typical model of eLearning does indeed create a wealth of challenges. It creates a learning environment that is not motivating and there really should be no surprise that it produces high dropout rates, poor retention, and poor student success rates. This isn’t because there isn’t a highly qualified teacher in place, but rather because a number of conditions, and processes, and pedagogical fundamentals are simply missing.
This isn’t the model of eLearning that I know, the model of eLearning that I love, that I wake up everyday excited to be a part of. Well, most days, anyway. :) Teaching is very challenging, and messy, and tumultuous, and there will always be tough days. I have taught online since 2001, and have been a 100% full time eLearning teacher since 2003 - that’s 17 years of perfecting the most successful eLearning program in the province, and likely the country. Our model of eLearning, one that has been massively successful, looks like this:
This model of eLearning is successful because it emulates the learning experience in a typical brick and mortar classroom. The eLearning model that most people are currently hating on, clearly does not. I do not want to regurgitate a previous blog post, but you can learn more about our very successful eLearning model here:
Some insight into the success of my learners for the recently completed semester 1:
Every single teacher at my school will have similar numbers and experiences to share - every single one! The typical reasons why students are not successful in our program are exactly the same reasons why a student typically isn’t successful in a brick and mortar setting - poor attendance, not completing work, lack of motivation, etc. It isn’t because they are not actively engaged, are not collaborating, are not working on rich and authentic learning tasks, are not interacting with each other, or are not experiencing learning in the same way that brick and mortar students are.
The problem here and now is that the Ford Government will not replicate this model of eLearning. It is too expensive and it won't save them any money. It takes the same number of qualified and experienced teachers, and the same level of learner supports, as a regular brick and mortar, face-to-face classroom, in order to work, and work well. Mr. Ford and Mr. Lecce are not interested in this model. They would prefer to pump students through correspondence courses with as minimal teacher interaction and learner supports as possible. They want a cheap eLearning model that creates economies of scale - increases class size, reduces teachers, and saves them money. This is an attempt to simply grant credits as efficiently as possible, and has nothing to do with improving learning.
I hate this feeling that I need to write this blog post in an attempt to defend what I do for a living. I also hate the feeling that if I do not get on the eLearning bashfest that I am going to be viewed as pro Ford and anti-union. I hate walking this fine line between just keeping my mouth shut, ignoring the eLearning hate, and making the effort to really prop successful eLearning up. It’s definitely very challenging to do when so many eLearning models are mediocre at best, and this is all that the general public knows.
At the end of the day, I can keep my head high and be proud knowing that I have been a part of helping thousands of students earn their OSSD in TLDSB. I am proud to be a part of something truly amazing that has been built by the most talented and hardest working educators I know. I appreciate the dedication and the day-to-day grind of each and every one of them.
I am proud to be a part of delivering an eLearning model that doesn’t suck.
A Secondary School eLearning Business Studies Teacher in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.