The Pallister government has announced it plans to steer the Manitoba education system toward more e-learning. Buckle up for controversy and a likely head-on crash between the province and Manitoba teachers.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen received a mandate letter from the premier’s office last week directing him to "transform" Manitoba’s education system with changes that include enhancing e-learning. A spokesman for a teachers’ union reacted immediately, stating that online courses "can’t replicate that teacher-to-student in-person scenario."
For a preview of how the issue may erupt in Manitoba, look to Ontario. The Ford government’s attempt to make that province the first to institute compulsory online courses for high school students is a central issue in an ugly labour dispute that has teachers walking out one day a week, every week, throughout Ontario.
A typical e-learning course works like this: students don’t attend a traditional classroom; instead they work online where and when they want. A teacher is available for live communication a couple of times a week, but it’s not mandatory for students to connect with the teacher. Students are graded based on written work, such as quizzes.
Ontario first announced high school students would have to complete four e-learning courses to graduate, but months later — after vehement opposition from teachers’ unions — the requirement was reduced two courses. The government has since retreated further, proposing e-learning courses be opt-out instead of mandatory.
Not surprisingly, some in Ontario — including parents forced to make alternative child-care arrangements when teachers hit the picket line — view opposition to e-learning as the teachers’ unions protecting the jobs of their dues-paying members, but such simplistic dismissal warrants a D-minus for missing the more important point.
The paramount concern should be whether mandatory e-learning works well for students. Five U.S. states are already trying it, and the results are decidedly mixed. What these states found is that succeeding at independent e-learning requires discipline and diligence, traits not yet fully developed in all teenagers.
Michigan is a pioneer, having become the first state to mandate e-learning in 2006. It found students in virtual courses have a disappointing online pass rate of 55 per cent, compared with an average of 79 per cent in traditional classes.
However, Michigan and other states found pass rates improve when e-learning is supplemented with human educators, such as mentors who support individual students online. The U.S. experience is that e-learning succeeds best when sufficient staff are assigned to work with students, often one-on-one. That means additional staff costs, so school boards save little — if any — money by moving from traditional classrooms to online courses.
This fiscal reality might disappoint the cost-conscious Pallister government if it envisions e-learning as a way to replace some "overpaid" teachers with less-expensive technology.
There are reasons to hope e-learning can improve education in Manitoba, particularly in the many rural and northern schools unable to attract qualified teachers. But it won’t be cheap; effective e-learning requires an initial investment to ensure high-speed internet and computer access for all students, and, as the U.S. models show, it also requires plentiful ongoing e-assistance from qualified teachers.
Consider it a worthwhile investment in the next generation of Manitobans.
Technology alone is not a solution to Manitoba’s perpetual problem of unequal access to education. But properly employed and supported, technology could be a tool to help qualified teachers work remotely to level the learning field.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
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Updated on Tuesday, March 10, 2020 at 10:03 PM CDT: Fixes typo.