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Should Online Learning Be a Requirement for High School Graduation?

By Henry Kronk
April 29, 2019

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party headed by Doug Ford recently put forward plans for an online learning initiative. The Canadian province proposed sweeping ed reform in a plan called Education that Works for You. The plan includes a measure that would require high schoolers to complete four credits online in order to graduate. The measure has been met with a mix of enthusiasm and criticism. Ontario is hardly the first North American region to require online learning—but it is the first to require this amount. Five U.S. states require high schoolers to take just one (instead of four) online courses. This article will go over some common expectations and concerns of this measure, examine some other examples, and explore what is at stake behind requiring online courses to obtain a degree.

Education that Works for You

To begin Ontario’s leading party cites a fairly common reason for why they’re requiring online learning at the high school level: innovation. As Education Minister Lisa Thompson told the Toronto Star, “the reality of today is we need to be embracing technology for good. When it comes to online opportunities for our students, I think we should all agree … we want to make sure that they have every opportunity to put their best foot forward.”

But while Ford and his party retain mixed support in Ontario, many education stakeholders have pushed back against the online learning mandate for a variety of reasons. The broader education reform also includes increasing class sizes, banning cell phones in school, and overhauling the provincial sex ed and math curricula—and a few of those measures have also drawn scrutiny.

In a letter to Minister Thompson, Renfrew County District School Board Chair Susan Humphries described three concerns specific to mandatory eLearning (amid other measures).

As Humphries writes:

    • In our District, we have communities that do not have cell service nor is there reliable, high speed internet. Our schools are the only locations where students can be assured to find this service. For these reasons, requiring students to take four e-learning credits will pose challenges.
    • In addition, there are areas that have an overrepresentation of poverty. This means that a significant number of students are financially unable to purchase devices which will impact their ability to participate.
    • As well, there are students for which e-learning is not suitable. This will potentially affect their achievement and future success.

Comparison: Online Learning Requirements in Michigan

These concerns are not unique to Ontario. Michigan, a state not very unlike Ontario in terms of population and urban-rural split, was the first U.S. state to require one online course to graduate from high school. Back in 2006, many Michiganians shared similar concerns, and they are still controversial today.

To begin, the digital divide described by Humphries in her first point is a very real issue that still affects communities throughout Michigan and Ontario. According to the Merit Network, a Michigan non-profit dedicated to providing telecom services in the state, 27% of K-12 students lack high speed internet in their homes.

But it appears that has not stopped them from complying with the online course requirement. Last year Michigan Virtual, a non-profit organization dedicated to monitoring online learning in the state, released a report describing where the eLearning mandate was at twelve years on.

The report found that, “Course enrollment patterns were fairly consistent across locales. For instance, Mathematics represented between 16% and 18% of the virtual enrollments for all four (rural, town, suburb, city, and not specified) locales. The range was also 2% (13% to 15%) for Life and Physical Sciences and 4% in English Language and Literature. Pass rates in virtual courses also varied across subject areas and locale. For instance, in English Language and Literature, pass rates fell between 48% for not specified schools to 56% for rural schools. In Mathematics, pass rates ranged from 44% (town) to 51% (rural).”

In other words, the lack of high speed internet at home has not stopped Michigan learners from studying online. In some cases, rural students actually fare better than their better-connected counterparts.

It’s a different story, however, when it comes to socioeconomic divides. Michigan Virtual found that students living in poverty were both more likely to take an online course and less likely to pass it.

According to the report, “Fifty-four percent of virtual learners were classified as living in poverty [in the 2016-17 school year]. Students living in poverty took 62% of the virtual enrollments for the year … The pass rate for students in poverty (48%) was 18 percentage points lower than students who were not in poverty (66%).”

This phenomenon might be explained, in part, by the proliferation of virtual charter schools in Michigan (an effort spurred on by the DeVos family). Many school districts have (intentionally or not) pushed students living in poverty into virtual classes or virtual charter schools. In June 2018, Vice on HBO aired a segment on the subject. Director of American Studies at Cornell University Professor Noliwe Rooks also explored the topic in her book Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and The End of Public Education.

Among Canadian provinces, only Alberta allows charter schools, but there are public online-only schools in Ontario. 

Then again, edcuational attainment is also tied to socioeconomic factors more generally (although that would not explain why more students living in poverty took virtual courses).

Regarding Humphries’ last point, it’s true that many students, such as those with IEPs or temporary injuries, cannot learn online, and the ability to opt out for certain reasons is definitely a necessary feature. Alabama stated this explicitly in their eLearning mandate.

The above demonstrates, at least in part, how other regions have fared with mandatory high school online learning. But Humphries’ concerns also do not tell the full story.

Does Online Learning Work in High School?

A lot of work has yet to be done with investigating online learning at the high school level, but two things are fairly established: 1) certain courses can work really well in specific contexts and 2) in certain contexts, students are more likely to fail or earn lower marks online versus in-person. In many cases, results are mixed.

To return to Michigan Virtual’s report mentioned above, 27% of schools reported a virtual pass-rate of 90%-100%. Considering the U.S. national high school graduation rate was 84.6% in the 2016-17 school year (and 80.2% in Michigan), that’s really incredible.

There are also numerous examples of academic studies that show face-to-face students perform better than their online peers. Requiring high school students to take four online courses throughout their secondary education, therefore, marks a roll of the dice with unprecedented stakes. Certain students will undoubtedly thrive in the online modality, while others will not. In terms of province-wide impact, however, the outcome is anyone’s guess.

This gamble, furthermore, is potentially taking place in a province where the four-year high school graduation rate has just recently climbed to 79.6% in 2016. Twelve years earlier, in 2004, it sat at 56%.

Featured Image: Doug Ford, Flickr.