Last week we posted an entry that mentioned one of the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada special reports was featured in a general newsletter from an Ontario-based education organization (see Report Featured In “The Latest Education News”).  In that entry, we indicated that we’d post a bit of a commentary on the “Ontario e-Learning Plan Unique In North America” item this week.

1. Generally speaking, this review of the literature isn’t bad.

Generally speaking, we believe that the literature reviewed in this article is not bad.  The main topics that were highlighted covered most of the relevant issues from a research perspective.  The majority of the literature (i.e., 11 out of the 15) was research-based (i.e., based on data collected during a study).  And in instances where this was not the case, the authors indicated as much in their description of the item.  However, there were some issues with the piece that could have improved the document significant.

2. Unfortunately, most of the references were US-based.

Only six of the 15 pieces of literature reviewed focused on literature in Canada (and only five of those were research-based), but three of the nine pieces of literature from the US focused on Michigan – which is a pretty good jurisdiction for comparison when it comes to e-learning in Ontario.   There was a lot of relevant Canadian research that could have been included.  For example, a recent study of research into the field of K-12 online learning found that Ken Stevens, Elizabeth Murphy, and Dennis Mulcahy were among the top 15 scholars in the field in terms of research productivity (with Stevens bring number three and Murphy being number four).  We highlight these three individuals because their research primarily focused on Canadian contexts, but none were included in this review.

3. The review included several items focused on the higher education environment.

There are many differences between adolescent learners and adult learners.  Many of these differences focus on issues of self-motivation, self-efficacy, self-regulation, self-directedness, etc. – things that we often refer to as soft learning skills or even adult learning skills.  These are also skills that have been identified as key to having success in the online learning environment – either by possessing those skills or by having support put in place to help learners mitigate the fact that they don’t have those skills.  The authors made no apparent effort to make the reader aware of the significant differences between adolescent and adults learners or the differences in the environments and their potential for in-person supports to help mitigate against a lack of these skills.

4. The review focused almost entirely on the graduation requirement, and mainly its scalability.

Within the Government’s announcements, there were three areas where e-learning would be significantly affected. The Government has proposed: 1) to centralize the e-learning system, 2) require four e-learning courses for graduation, and 3) both increase the e-learning class size and make it 25% more than the face-to-face environment. There was some coverage of the class size, but only in a cursory manner.  There is no reference at all to the centralization of the e-learning system, which would remove decisions about pedagogy, instructional support, course content, and resources from the local school board levels to the provincial level.  The document is entirely focused upon the e-learning requirement, and what it would mean for all students to learn in an e-learning environment.

5. The review focused almost entirely on the inappropriateness of e-learning for all students.

The document focused on the flawed idea that e-learning may not be appropriate for all learners. The best illustration of this was the section entitled “Learning management systems can make or break a course.” In a face-to-face context, it would be like stating that the “Whiteboards can make or break a course” or the “Physical layout of the classroom can make or break the course.” E-learning is a delivery medium. Like any delivery medium, it has affordances and limitations. How teachers utilize the affordances and attempt to minimize the limitations, while at the same time focusing on the individual needs of their students, it was impacts whether a student can succeed in any given environment. Most of the document does focus on conditions of learning (e.g., sense of community, teacher presence, immediacy, communication, class size, etc.), and what is needed for the success of specific populations of students (e.g., motivation, confidence/self-efficacy, learning difficulties, etc.). However, there is still an overall theme that e-learning is not appropriate for all learners.

Overall, the authors of this document have identified some key issues that will impact the success of students in the e-learning environment.  However, there are some caveats.  While the authors could have done a better job of focusing on Canadian literature and Canadian research, they did do a good job of focusing upon evidence-based research in general.  While the Government’s announcement will impact three areas of e-learning, the authors of the document have primarily focused on the impact of one of these areas – and the one that was completely ignored would have as much an impact on student’s ability to learn in an e-learning context than these other factors.  Finally, while the review identifies many of the conditions needed in the e-learning environment and what is required for specific populations of students, it presents these in a fashion to suggest that these challenges mean not all students should take e-learning – as opposed to focusing on how the system can be designed in such a way to ensure that these human and technical resources are in place so that these conditions are present.

Commentary: Ontario e-Learning Plan Unique In North America

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