Mandatory E-learning Is Yet Another Education Fad

September 10, 2019 Updated: September 10, 2019

Thomas Edison is considered one of the world’s greatest inventors. Some of his inventions include the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. No doubt Edison’s inventions have made the world a better place.

However, Edison had even higher hopes for some of his inventions. In particular, he was convinced that the motion picture camera would transform education. In 1922, he boldly predicted “I believe that the motion picture is designed to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

Obviously, things didn’t turn out the way he expected. While his motion picture camera found its way into classrooms, it did not transform learning. Textbooks are still used for serious teaching and learning. Clearly, Edison was better at inventing things than he was at predicting future trends in education.

Lest we become too critical of Edison, it’s important to remember he is far from the only person to think that a new piece of technology was going to transform learning. Similar claims have been made about everything from calculators to desktop computers to iPads. What’s far less forgivable is the way in which governments and school boards ignore the lessons of history and continue putting so many resources in the technology basket.

Earlier this year, Ontario’s then education minister Lisa Thompson announced that, beginning in 2020, all Ontario students would be required to complete four e-learning courses in order to graduate from high school. This announcement literally came out of nowhere. While a handful of U.S. states require students to complete one e-learning course, no province or state requires students to complete four courses. In addition, no stakeholder groups, neither the unions nor the educational experts, had recommended this initiative. The minister seemed to have generated it on her own.

Now, online learning obviously has some benefits. Online courses tend to have flexible schedules and students can complete courses at their own pace. In addition, students at smaller and isolated schools, for example in the North or rural areas, can often take required courses by distance. When used as a supplement to regular programming, e-learning is a great way to expand the options available to many students.

However, by mandating e-learning for every Ontario student, the government has fallen into the trap of making technology, rather than learning, the focus. Of course, technology is a valuable tool, but it is only a tool. Since there is no evidence that students learn better through e-learning than through traditional classroom instruction, it doesn’t make sense to make e-learning mandatory for all students. It would be like scrapping all textbooks and forcing all teachers to show educational videos to their students.

The July cabinet shuffle, which saw Stephen Lecce replace Thompson as education minister, raised hopes that the government planned to roll back some of her most misguided initiatives. Unfortunately, Lecce has given no indication that he will budge on the mandatory e-learning courses. A recent statement from his office emphasizing “the need to bring the education system into the 21st century by utilizing leading-edge technologies” makes it look like the new education minister is doubling down on this initiative.

But a recent survey of more than 6,000 students conducted by the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association should give the government cause for concern. Not only did almost 95 percent of respondents say they “disapprove of the new e-learning mandate,” but a significant number of those who took e-learning courses in the past faced major hurdles in completing the courses, from wi-fi problems to difficulty understanding the course content, to not having a teacher available.

Not only do the vast majority of high school students oppose this change, so do the vast majority of teachers and parents. It’s one thing to ignore public opinion when there is strong research behind an initiative, it’s another thing entirely to implement an untested initiative in the face of strong public opposition. Surely, this is a recipe for failure.

The reality is that most students already spend more than enough time looking at computer screens. Research is clear that when it comes to improving student achievement, the things that matter most include strong teacher-student relationships, direct instruction, coherent curriculum, focused practice, and timely feedback from teachers. These things take place in classrooms with teachers, not on computer screens in bedrooms.

It is ironic that the Ontario government has stated that it wants to move away from education fads, particularly in math instruction. Replacing a math curriculum focused on discovery learning with a content-rich curriculum that includes practice, memorization, and standard algorithms, is the type of reform that schools need. In contrast, mandating e-learning courses has all the marks of a fad—a very expensive fad. It came out of nowhere, has no evidence supporting it, and is unpopular with all the major stakeholder groups.

Ontario’s education minister still has time to do the right thing; The Minister must cancel the e-learning fad. Students need to spend less time in front of screens, not more.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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