This past week the Financial Accountability Office of Ontario (FAOO) released its Expenditure Estimates 2019-20: Ministry of Education (the PDF of the full document is available here). E-learning figured prominently in the report, not because of the specific estimates related to e-learning, but because of the number of times it included the following statement:
Projections for [insert topic here] do not include the impact of mandatory e-learning for secondary students. E-learning courses will have an average class size of 35 students per teacher.
In June, the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada project team released a special topic report focused on E-Learning Class Size, and before we begin to relate the findings of this report to the FAOO report it is important to remember some of the conclusions.
- The available literature related to e-learning class size demonstrates there has been a historical expectation in Ontario that the class size limit for e-learning courses was the same as the class size limit for face-to-face courses.
- The literature further demonstrates that across several provinces the class size limit for e-learning courses has ranged from a low of 22 students to a high of 30 students per course.
- In both Canadian and American jurisdictions where there has been a significant increase in the e-learning class size, student outcomes have also decreased significantly – particularly in full-time e-learning environments.
Simply put, the existing literature supports maintaining a consistent class size limit between classroom-based courses and e-learning courses, and when e-learning class sizes increase in significant ways it has a direct, negative impact on student outcomes. With that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the FAOO report…
One of things that the FAOO report fails to consider is the different roles that educators play – and the different types of educators involved – in the e-learning environment. As the E-Learning Class Size report indicates:
While in the traditional classroom environment a single teacher may select or design the materials used, deliver the actual instruction in a variety of ways, and support the student as they engage the lesson; in the e-learning environment the research clearly indicates that these roles are performed by multiple educators in different settings. Based on the model of e-learning utilized in Ontario, the two most defined roles are those of the e-learning teacher and the local school based facilitator or mentor. The e-learning teacher being responsible for determining the best pedagogical strategies, methods of assessment, and way to meaningful communicate with their students; while the local facilitator or mentor is responsible for supervisory and administrative duties, technical troubleshooting, and – in some cases – content-based assistance.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Education (2013):
E-learning refers to the use of the tools of the Provincial vLE/LMS when there is a scheduled distance between the e-learning teacher and students and/or students and each other. Distance may be related to location (i.e. students from different locations enrol in one e-learning course) or time (i.e. students from one location enrol in one course but access it during different periods of the day). (p. 2)
Further, the Ministry of Education also provided guidance on how schools should implement e-learning that includes:
- assigning personnel for the delivery of the Provincial e-Learning Strategy, including a contact person who will be the liaison with the Ministry on matters pertaining to the strategy;
- establishing class sizes and Pupil Teacher Ratios as outlined in provincial and school board policies and as specified in the applicable collective agreement;
- ensuring e-learning and blended learning courses are part of the teacher’s “workload” as specified in the applicable collective agreement;
- ensuring that day school students enrolled in day school e-learning courses are taught by day school grid teachers and placed on the day school funding register;
- ensuring that all students, including those with special needs, have equitable access to appropriate e-learning opportunities and support within e-learning courses;
- ensuring that students who enrol in a secondary school e-learning course are registered in the home school, as defined in enrolment register instructions;
- ensuring adequate program support for all students, including those with special needs, and making the delivering school aware of these needs prior to enrolment in the course (e.g., orientation sessions);
- providing a location and proctor for summative evaluations (e.g., final examination, culminating activity), if required, and ensuring the return of the completed examination to the e-learning teacher by a date pre-determined by the delivering teacher, in compliance with teacher workload;
- providing an orientation program to students taking their e-learning courses to validate the student’s suitability for e-learning and to prepare them for this style of learning; and
- ensuring that e-learning teachers make themselves available to students at scheduled times to support e-learning students. (pp. 7-10)
Based on these Ministry mandates, it is important to remember that the model of e-learning in Ontario looks something like this:
Figure 1. Click on the image to enlarge. In this kind of environment, the students (S) are enrolled in one of three brick-and-mortar schools. The online teacher (T) is also enrolled in one of these three schools. At each school, the students have access to the school-based administrator (A), local IT support (IT), and a facilitator (F) (Davis & Niederhauser, 2007).
As the E-Learning Class Size report indicates, “if teachers at the school level provide substantial levels of support in a wide range of areas, an elearning class size could be higher than a traditional brick-and-mortar class in that context because there would be two educators that have instructional responsibility for those students” (p. i).
Assuming the current Ministry of Education regulations around e-learning are maintained – the proposed increase in e-learning class size to 35 students would mean that those 35 students would be under the guidance of 2 teachers – a distant, e-learning teacher and a local facilitator or mentor teacher. What this means is that the actual student-teacher ratio for e-learning classes, if the Ministry of Education e-learning regulations are maintained, would be 17.5 students per teacher.
The key words in the above statements are assuming and if. The Government of Ontario’s Education that Works for You – Modernizing Classrooms announcement, from an e-learning perspective, only states:
The government is committed to modernizing education and supporting students and families in innovative ways that enhance their success. A link to e-learning courses can be found here: www.edu.gov.on.ca/elearning/courses.html.
Starting in 2020-21, the government will centralize the delivery of all e-learning courses to allow students greater access to programming and educational opportunities, no matter where they live in Ontario.
Secondary students will take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to fulfill the requirements for achieving an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. That is equivalent to one credit per year, with exemptions for some students on an individualized basis. These changes will be phased in, starting in 2020-21.
With these additional modernizations, the secondary program enhancement grant will no longer be required. (Government of Ontario, 2019, ¶ 9-12)
Similarly, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s (2019) consultation guide reads:
The government remains committed to modernizing education while continuing to support students and families. In addition to the planned changes in the table above, starting in 2020-21, the government plans to centralize the delivery of all e-learning courses to secondary students in Ontario to allow students greater access to programming and educational opportunities. Secondary students will take a minimum of four elearning credits out of the 30 credits to fulfill the requirements for achieving an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. That is equivalent to one credit per year, with exemptions for some students on an individualized basis. This will include increased class size for online courses to 35 students. (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2019a, p. 5)
There is no real indication of how any of these proposals will be implemented with respect to the existing Ministry e-learning regulations and the current model of e-learning in the province.
But in closing, it is important to remember this conclusion from the E-Learning Class Size report:
Finally, the literature demonstrates the local facilitator/mentor role must be included in any conversation around class size because that teacher has a significant impact on class size and, more importantly, student success.
Barbour, M. K. (2019). E-learning class size. Half Moon Bay, BC: Canadian E-Learning Network. Retrieved from https://k12sotn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/e-learning-class-size.pdf
Davis, N., & Niederhauser, D. S. (2007). Virtual schooling. Learning & Leading with Technology, 34(7), 10-15. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ779830.pdf
Financial Accountability Office of Ontario. (2019). released its Expenditure estimates 2019-20: Ministry of Education. Toronto, ON: Author. Retrieved from https://www.fao-on.org/en/Blog/Publications/expenditure-estimates-education-2019
Government of Ontario. (2019). Backgrounder – Education that works for you – Modernizing Classrooms: Province modernizing classrooms. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Retrieved from https://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2019/03/education-that-worksfor-you-2.html
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Provincial e-learning strategy: Master user agreement. Toronto, ON: Author. Retrieved from https://efis.fma.csc.gov.on.ca/faab/Memos/B2019/B09_attach1_EN.pdf
Ontario Ministry of Education. (2019). Class size consultation guide. Toronto, ON: Author. Retrieved from https://efis.fma.csc.gov.on.ca/faab/Memos/B2019/B09_attach1_EN.pdf