Like the U.S., Canada has been thrust into a national educational experiment in distance learning. However, long before the arrival of Covid-19, the Ontario Ministry of Education was pushing to increase online learning in the name of “digital literacy.”
In January 2019, then Ontario Minister of Education Lisa Thompson announced a requirement of four online classes for high school students to graduate. By November, the four-class minimum was reduced to two in response to student and parent opposition.
Now, the coronavirus has forced schools across Canada (and the U.S.) to scramble to institute on-line learning, but not just for the duration of the pandemic. Educators are predicting that, as Paul Bennett, an education consultant in Halifax, said in the Globe and Mail, “with the education world turned upside down,” what emerges on the other side will be quite different.
Bennett continued that pre-pandemic:
The assumption was that [online learning] was all supplemental to regular in-class learning, and there was no real focus in Canada on the possibility that e-learning would be the spine of the system and not a supplement to the regular classroom.
The first bone of that spine is in Ontario with its two mandatory on-line classes.
Mazen Husseini, an Ottawa 10th grader, wrote to the Premier, the Minister of Education, and the Province newspaper:
It is becoming increasingly clear that online education is NOT quality education and is not working for most of us… It is unreasonable to expect that teachers can teach “virtually” and students can “virtually” learn…
Why does the Ontario Ministry of Education value mandatory online classes? Are they trying to save money? Are they forgetting that learning is fundamentally a human to human endeavor?
Saving money is part of the goal. The Progressive Conservative Party is gradually increasing the average class size from 22 to 28 students, which opponents estimate will eliminate 10,000 teaching jobs. The current minister of education, Stephen Lecce, claims that mandatory online courses will prepare students for the 21st century by making them “digitally literate.” Digital literacy means general computer skills like writing e-mails and navigating the web. Once a student gains access to a computer, digital literacy takes very little time. A Google computer scientist explained to The New York Times why his children don’t need computer training in school:
[digital literacy] is like learning to use toothpaste. At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.
In addition to saving money, perhaps the Ontario Ministry is also seeking to make money. As speculated by Toronto Star columnist, Heather Mallick, the ministry could “sell its online credit courses for big money, presumably in the U.S.”
Only five states in the U.S. require an online school credit to graduate. However, the pandemic education may spur more states to continue online teaching into the post-pandemic era.
Back in Ontario, the minister of education had no comment on the future of online courses (called Learn at Home) post-pandemic, as reported by Toronto.com on May 17. However, elsewhere in the ministry, a spokesperson said, “the ministry hopes to be in a better position in a month or two to discuss how the Learn at Home experience might shape future policy.”
Education is not to generate profit, but to generate “literate students who can count, write, think logically, link ideas across subjects, make friends, and launch into lifelong learning,” as Mallick wrote in the Toronto Star.
Choosing online education may reduce short-term costs and raising average class size will reduce costs. But the value of education is not measured within a fiscal year budget. Education is a long-term investment; the benefits—tangible and intangible—are realized in the years ahead in a stronger citizenry, society, and economy.