I've been elearning since the early 1990s in university. Back then it was called distance-ed or correspondence learning. I'd get a big parcel in the mail and work my way through paper based course work before sending it back. When I got my ESL teaching qualifications in Japan in 1999, it was through a distance-ed school in Scotland. Those courses were difficult and made more so by the one way nature of the communication. As email became prevalent I was able to establish faster two-way communication with instructors. This finally evolved into an online, cloud based elearning system in the early zeroes.
In the 90s I was working in IT, which included a lot of user training on new, cloud based software management solutions, so the elearning concept wasn't new to me. From the very earliest cloud based management systems, I've had an oar in the water when it comes to elearning.
I became an Ontario teacher in 2004 and was a summer school elearning teacher by 2005. Those early Learning Management Systems (LMSs) were very texty. If you wanted graphics or even links, you had to HTML code them in yourself. All of us (my students and I) were alone in cyber-space way back then, and some wonderful things happened that demonstrated the potential of this technology. After two years of teaching elearning through Peel's summer school program on the ANGEL LMS, I moved to Upper Grand DSB, who hadn't touched elearning yet.
By 2007 UGDSB was starting to get into it and I volunteered to be in the first group sent to another board to learn how D2L's new LMS worked. The next year I was once again teaching elearning in summer school and then also teaching elearning during the school year as part of my course load. By that point I was also taking Additional Qualification courses (AQs) in the summer on elearning. Rather ironically, out of all the AQs I took in English and visual art, the only one that wasn't elearning was computer technology.
In addition to teaching remote elearning in English, I also pushed for a blended learning course in my local school that uses elearning technology in a traditional classroom so that students can get familiar with this increasingly popular option for earning credits. That blended elearning course in career studies was very successful in terms of introducing students to elearning. Any student who took it knew what elearning was by the end of it and whether or not it would suit their learning habits.
Way back in 2011 I was trying to wrap my head around how to get students in a 1:1 technology situation to make effective use of technology that most people consider mainly entertainment focused. Seven years ago I was trying to help our union understand elearning and how they could support effective implementation of it. Many educators turned their nose up at elearning and the unions would rather it not exist at all, but this kind of disruption is exactly what digital information does, and ignoring it isn't a good idea - just ask Blockbuster.
By six years ago I was thinking about applying to become an elearning coordinator at my board. Strangely, after going in for the interview and not getting it, I was suddenly out of the pool of elearning teachers and haven't taught it since. I've found other ways to exercise my digital expertise, but elearning has always been a fascinating union between ICT, digital media and pedagogy that I've never really gone away from.
With the rise of GAFE in our board all of my classes have essentially become blended learning classes. I didn't make any photocopies for my courses last year because our documentation and information all flows digitally online. I expect my computer-tech students to be able to effectively use our learning management systems. Many of them take that digital expertise and use it to effectively engage in elearning. Many other students from across the school show up at my door unable to effectively engage in elearning courses due to a lack of digital fluency - I still help with that, though it isn't the gig I'm being paid for.
All that to say, I have a long history with elearning and think it can be a powerful addition to our education system.
Meanwhile, in 2019...
The current provincial government, without a lot of forethought or apparent research, have stated that all students have to take four elearning courses. The high number of expected elearning credits and lack of infrastructure around this would suggest that this is an excuse to create giant classes, ignore pedagogy and pump out students with little or no effective learning. If elearning is going to be used to Walmart education into cheaper, less effective process, then it's a disaster for students, educators and the tax payers who are funding a process that isn't effective.
If elearning is going to become an effective tool in our education system (and it really should), it can't be an excuse to cheapen learning. There are too many corporate interests involved that want to make it exactly that. Those interests may well be what is behind this latest lunge at Ontario's education system.
This approach plays to a common tactic: grossly simplifying a complex public service in order to diminish it. Many adults flippantly state that they have to do elearning through work so kids should get with it. Teaching children isn't like teaching adults. When a wage earning adult takes a course, it's an entirely different situation than a child doing it. Adults (most adults, the adult ones anyway) bring a degree of self-discipline and purpose to a course of study that children are still developing, because that part of their brain isn't done growing yet; it's neuro-science. Saying that children should learn like adults do is like saying children should drive cars because adults do (ie: a profoundly ignorant and stupid thing to say).
Elearning in our schools should start off as blended learning focusing on getting comfortable with the technology and expectations of remote instruction in a familiar, face to face environment. Most students are dumped into it without any clear idea of what it is and then given minimal support. Once the tech is in hand and a student has a clear understanding of how elearning might work for them, pedagogy and high standards are vital or the whole thing becomes a cheaper, less effective option, which helps no one and just wastes money. Having elearning as a required blended course using elearning technology in a face to face classroom is a great idea, but dumping 4 remote courses on every student in Ontario is a profoundly ignorant thing to do; differentiation based on student need should always be a driving force in effective elearning (or any kind of learning, right?).
Integrating elearning effectively is starting to feel like a no-win scenario. Between callous government announcements about forced elearning courses for all and the reticence of unions and teachers to embrace this inevitable technology evolution, there are few who are willing to champion it. If Luddite teachers (and their unions) would turn down the skepticism and negativity and get behind effective implementation of this inevitable technology, there is a chance to beat the politics.
Elearning is going to happen anyway, and if we don't engage and participate in making it as pedagogically effective as possible it'll end up being the corporate/neo-con money grab it's being primed to be. When that happens, students and educators alike will be hurt. So will tax payers, because they won't be getting their moneys worth - the corporations pushing it and the politicians that serve them will always cash in though.
The way forward is clear:
- prepare students for elearning by training them in the technology and the instructional expectations in a familiar f2f environment - no one should suddenly find themselves in a remote learning situation without knowing what to do
- provide full support for elearning students including guidance and library/research support just like f2f students enjoy
- set high standards and hold to them, including offering exit strategies for students the process isn't working for
- develop LMSes that curate a learning community in digital spaces - a sense of community is vital to any classroom situation, physical or otherwise
- provide elearning instructors with excellent technical skills and fluency in digital environments
- provide passionate elearning instructors and support people who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure a successful online learning experience
At the moment we have post-secondary programs that won't accept elearning grades on par with regular credits. What does that tell you about the current quality of elearning? It's about to get inflated into an even less effective learning outcome unless Ontario educators come to the aid of this emergent type of learning. We've fumbled it along so far, but without all learning partners engaging in this to ensure sound pedagogy, this forced approach is going to cause a lot of damage and cost a lot of money doing it.
To better understand the level of growth that this requirement would create, it is useful to examine what we know about the level of e-learning that currently exists in Ontario.
Traditionally, in Ontario, students have enrolled in e-learning courses for a number of reasons: to fast-track and get to graduation early, to catch up in credits, to accommodate their learning needs, or because particular courses are not offered in their communities. E-learning has benefits for many students, and for some it is challenging.
Expectations change as politics dictate new directions.
The digital divide is deep and wide: https://temkblog.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-digital-divide-is-deep-and-wide.html Elearning has an expensive barrier to entry in terms of in-hand technology as well as broad-band access. It isn't a cheap alternative, but it can be a powerful tool in our educational toolbox.