Over the holidays, the following article came across our electronic desk.

Reconsidering the Mandatory in Ontario Online Learning Policies

  • December 2021
  • DOI: 10.18357/otessaj.2021.1.2.12
  • License CC BY 4.0
  • Lorayne Robertson
  • Bill Muirhead
  • Heather Leatham

Abstract – In March 2019, the Ontario government announced that commencing in 2023-24, secondary school students (Grades 9-12) would be required to gain four of 30 graduation credits through online courses. At the time of the policy pronouncement, these four credits (or courses) would become the first mandatory online courses in Canadian K-12 education. The policy decision and process were challenged publicly, and the educational context changed quickly with the ensuing contingencies of the global pandemic. The policy was subsequently revised and, at present, Ontario requires two mandatory online secondary school credits for graduation, which is twice the requirement of any other North American jurisdiction. In this study, the researchers employ a critical policy analysis framework to examine the concept of mandatory online learning in Ontario through multiple temporal contexts. First, they examine Ontario’s mandatory online learning policy prior to the shutdown of Ontario schools during the 2020-2021 global pandemic. Next, they examine aspects of Ontario’s mandatory online learning policy in K-12 during the emergency remote learning phase of the pandemic. In the final section, the authors provide a retrospective analysis of the decisions around mandatory e-learning policy and explore policy options going forward for mandatory e-learning in the K-12 sector post-pandemic.

You’ll note that the authors cite both our Understanding Pandemic Pedagogy: Differences between Emergency Remote, Remote, and Online Teaching report and the article written by our lead researchers on the situation in Ontario entitled “Sense of Irony or Perfect Timing: Examining the Research Supporting Proposed e-Learning Changes in Ontario.”

The article itself uses a policy framework to analyze the decisions made by the Government of Ontario with respect to mandatory online learning.  Overall, that analysis is quite reasoned – for example, the authors described some of the Government’s pronouncements as trial balloons and the subsequent opposition from unions and advocacy groups as rhetoric.  The authors’ use of research produced by this project was informed and nuanced.

The only point of constructive criticism that can be levels is the apples to oranges comparison that the authors make when it comes to both student performance and public perception.  At present, Ontario has an education system that is designed for face-to-face instruction, where teachers are trained almost exclusively to teach in a face-to-face setting, and where the policies are in place to preference the pedagogical model of face-to-face instruction (e.g., class size limitations, institutional supports, etc.).  Even with this model, 20% to 25% of the students are still not adequately served by the system.  So is it any surprise that based on this model that more students struggle to have success.

As one example, the authors discuss the online learning requirement that exists in the State of Michigan (which was first announced back in 2006).  They write “For the 600,000 students enrolled in virtual courses in Michigan, the overall pass rate was 55%” (p. 7).  What they fail to tell the reader is that “Of the 1,158 schools with virtual enrollments, 289 or 25% had school-level virtual pass rates of 90% to 100%. A little more than half of schools had virtual pass rates of 70% or better” (Freidhoff, 2019, p. 4).  So a quarter of Michigan schools have figured out to how effectively support online learners quite well and half of the schools were able to do it at levels consistent to the face-to-face pass rate. They also failed to inform the reader that the 55% pass rate actually represented a 79% pass rate for students enrolled in supplemental courses offered by the Michigan Virtual School (i.e., an online program that began in the late 1990s, around the same time many of the school boards in Ontario began offering e-learning), while other supplemental online programs only had a 57% pass rate.  The overall pass rate is primarily skewed by the fact that the two types of full-time online learning (i.e., where students take ALL of their courses online and never step foot into a brick-and-mortar school) had pass rates of 47% and 53% – and these kinds of programs represented 43% of the online enrollments.

This is not to suggest that the mandatory online learning policy is good or bad.  However, it is to suggest that scholars and advocates need to stop their selective and unnuanced use of the research – particularly when the end result is to suggest that online learning is inferior to face-to-face learning.  What the research presented by Freidhoff should tell us is that supplemental online learning is far more effective than full-time online learning.  It should also tell us that established supplemental online programs have figured out ways for their students to succeed in the online environment at levels consistent to the face-to-face setting.  Finally, it should tell us that schools who invest in the appropriate supports can ensure that students can succeed in the online environment at levels consistent with or higher than the face-to-face setting.  The policy questions that should be generated from this line of inquiry are how do we help online programs get to that point where they established enough to ensure students succeed OR how do we help schools get to the point where they have the appropriate supports in place to ensure students succeed?

Online learning is a medium through which instruction is delivered.  It is neither good or bad.  In much the same way that we have all had positive and negative face-to-face learning experiences, it is all a matter of how the medium is used that will impact the quality of instruction that is provided.  From a policy perspective, the better question that should be asked – but most involved in the Ontario discussion have failed to ask – is whether the Government is willing to make the investment in infrastructure, human resources, training, and policy to ensure that students succeed?


Freidhoff, J. R. (2019). Michigan’s k-12 virtual learning effectiveness report 2017-18. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Available from https://mvlri.org/research/publications/michigans-k-12-virtual-learning-effectiveness-report2017-18/

Article Review – Reconsidering the Mandatory in Ontario Online Learning Policies

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