Online Education

I have long been a fan of online education. Over the high school years each of my high school aged children took a few online courses to finish up their school. Now that Covid-19 is here, my now University aged children each came home and finished up their University courses online.

During those high school years, I felt that our local school board underutilized online education. I know that everyone does not do well with online education, but it works well for some students. Our Premier was criticized for encouraging online learning in high school, but I think he just jumped on a good idea – and oversimplified things. Online education is a wonderful tool, and it can be cost saving, but it’s not for every student.

We are always building, maintaining and then tearing down schools. Just imagine if we needed fewer buildings? And online courses already exist – they are just not readily available to all students. Why not? What if we had standardized objectively graded, clear to follow courses for anyone who wanted to try them?

What I learned about online education while my chidren were in high school

Here are few things that I can conclude after following my children’s 7 overlapping years of high school……….

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When online education is well laid out and organized, the deadlines and reading assignments are identified. It’s easy to see what needs to be done and when and not fall behind. Some types of learners benefit from just following a to do list moving through the course material. My oldest is like that. He’s happy to learn the material and follow instructions free from the distractions of his classmates.

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Some learners need more assistance – interaction with teachers and support – this was typically available with next day response in many of their courses. Online classes aren’t always “live”. Sometimes the student does some work, gets stuck and emails the teacher a question. The teachers often answered questions overnight – I wondered if they were in another time zone?

One of my children was never identified in class as having a math learning disability. Working one on one with him, we realized that he understood each math unit perfectly, but couldn’t connect the different topics. I don’t believe that ever would have been found in the standard classroom. The Vice Principal of his high school had suggested he not take math, and did not agree with him taking math online. He said that some kids aren’t meant to go to University. That may be true, but it shouldn’t be up to someone with limited imagination to decide when a person is being stopped from his goals because of one subject.

The other side of it is that not all children have the ability to get support in certain subject areas at home. It would be wonderful if online education could be offered together with one on one tutoring for students who are struggling, to help them get through the course material. When there is support at home, or available via private tutoring, or even by Zoom video chatting, online education can be a way for a student who struggles with some in-class subjects to focus and succeed at their own place.

One of my children was a little more rebellious with in online education, fighting deadlines and instructions. The benefit for this student was that the same teacher personality clashes over deadlines were minimized! It WAS NOT fun for me though!

A major advantage of online education is the avoidance of bullying and social anxieties. The negative of course is the lack of socialization and personal instruction. Children develop socially during their time in high school. It can be a wonderful time or an incredibly painful time.

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Online education can reduce the possibility that our students are treated and marked subjectively by their teachers. Our classroom teachers are not all perfect. Don’t get me wrong. I love teachers, just not all of them. My mother was a high school teacher, my oldest wants to be a teacher. But if I had left it up to every teacher who gave me advice, the three boys would all have been medicated for ADD, even though they have 3 completely different personalities and behaviours. ADD and it’s medical treatment may be a real thing, but it’s not the answer to every behaviour.

The fact is that some teachers may like certain students more than others, and judge students based upon their appearance. These can be subtle judgements, teachers not even realizing what they were doing. One of my children looked much older than other children and was expected to behave more maturely than the cute small children. He was not treated respectfully by his teachers particularly in English, although he is a student that appreciates all types of literature, and we could see that more fashionable students or female students were high achievers. He couldn’t help being 6′ 3″ and capable of growing a dark beard by grade 9. Does this make him incable of being a feminist or understanding literature?

Another teacher used terms in a parent-teacher interview that insinuated that my daughter was “fluffy” and “airheaded”. I’m sure it was nothing to do with her being model tall and thin and blonde. This particular teacher was the head of the “Gifted” program. My daughter had tested off the charts on a standardized test and been placed without our knowledge in a “gifted” class, in which she just plain didn’t fit in. Incidentally most of the students in the class were children of teachers and even school trustees. Was there influence in getting into this class? I have an idea, but she was out of that class the next day.

(Oh dear – I seem to have gone off on a rant about my children and their teachers. Don’t worry, they all turned out fine after high school – I was just hoping to let parents of younger students know that it’s Ok to push the envelope with their chidren’s teachers and try new things like online learning.now I’ll try to get back on track……)

I should mention a more positive note – sometimes there are teachers who just completely “get” your children. One of my boys just ran into a teacher all my children had had for first grade. Our student athlete reminisced that she was the only teacher who ever recognized that he needed to be physically active to pay attention during class. She actually let my 6 year old out for a run in the country schoolyard several times a day. She was awesome.

There are different types of labels that we apply to students – and online education can prevent students from being judged based upon their appearance, habits, socio-economic factors or behavior and all those other things. All students deserve to be educated with respect regardless of their teacher’s opinions.

Online courses are not consistently offered as a learning opportunity to all students in all locations. One of my children attended a smaller rural high school. They were not able to offer specialty subjects as they didn’t have enough students to support additional teachers. The school offered students the opportunity to enroll in online courses through another school board. These were extremely well structured with responsive teachers. Apparently every student in our province of Ontario at the time had the right to choose these courses, but my other 3 children in another school were not offered this opportunity. Attending a course in another school board would affect their home school’s funding.

Online education can provide extra mental stimulation for students that need it. One of my children wanted to take extra courses during high school and took an online course at the same time as a full in-class course load. He was a confident, competitive student looking for additional math classes. The school board would not allow him to do this a second year as it was against policy. We ended up paying for him to take a private school online class, which he enjoyed. This is another example of education that is not available to everyone, but should be. When a student is motivated to achieve, who are his teachers to hold him or her back?

Online education provides flexible study schedules. One of my children travelled alot during high school for sports. He was able to mix his in-class studies with a few on-line classes.

Towards the end of our students’ time in high school, our school board started to offer online courses that they had developed. I didn’t understand this investment in development as other Ontario school boards already had fully developed versions of the same key courses.

This creates the question – if there are already so many developed courses out there that meet the Provincial Curriculum requirements, shouldn’t they just be standardized and made available to everyone? Do we need to keep spending money to satisfy someone’s ego, or keep funds within a schoolboard or school?

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How do students take online exams without cheating? One of the challenges in online education is final examinations – for some courses my students needed to have an “proctor” for final exams. This is a teacher or school board employee who downloads the exam, observes the student writing the exam, times the examination period and submits the exam back to the online teacher. Other exams were just time based, with the student printing out the exam at home, and scanning it back to the teacher within the time frame. There is no guarantee that students aren’t getting extra help, but if online teachers have been regularly interacting with students during the course period, they can generally tell if there is a change in the student’s work. There is also the possibility of online teachers using Zoom or other video services to observe the student during the exam. None of my students have experienced this during high school or University, but a similar method was used for an Ontario SmartServe course that one of my children took. (a certificate for serving alcohol for serving staff).

Accessibility of technology and internet in all communities and households is a problem which needs to be overcome. In many northern communities students from remote communities must move from their families to billet houses in central communities to attend high school. This leads to horrific outcomes for many students and I can’t believe that it still occurs today. This last week one of my children was finishing an assignment writing about the Seven Fallen Feathers. ” from 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven were hundreds of miles away from their families, forced to leave home and live in a foreign and unwelcoming city.” What if these students didn’t have to leave their home communities to study? This important subject is well beyond my comprehension, and deserves so much attention, but it is fresh in my mind and I needed to offer this.

Some courses were designed to require students to watch and attend classes at a particular time of day and ask questions just during this time period with marks for class participation. I feel that this type of course is designed to act like traditional classrooms, as opposed to being designed to allow the student to work at their own pace. Designing courses for online education requires teachers to think outside of the box. Courses should allow students to attend according to their own schedule, and class participation can be achieved through online forums. The teacher enters a question or theory, and each student is required to respond or comment and perhaps comment on other student’s comments.

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The above comments were just a few of my ideas about online high school education. Now my thoughts about University online education…….

Each of our four (now) University Students’ schools announced closures throughout the day on March 13th, 2020. Physical classes were suspended, and courses were to move online. I thought it would be fun to interview these 4 students about how their schools administered online learning, and their experiences. I asked each of them how their courses changed when they went online, what they thought about online education and what do they miss about attending school.

To be fair, as they each have taken online classes previously in high school, and they have all been in University for a few years, the switch to online education was not much of a stretch for any of them. Their study skills have all evolved and improved over the years, and they are over that first year away from home socialization (misbehaving) stage.

Student 1 – Just Finished History Degree – Applying to Teacher’s College

I have taken quite a few online University courses over the years, these usually are already setup with documentary style video links to watch, online class participation assignments, weekly assignments and final scheduled exams – usually multiple choice. The courses were usually first year style courses – introductory and could support a lot of students. The courses are not “live” video, just weekly materials, assignments, forums and quizzes.

When the University closed and classes went online, it was late in the school year, so most of my classes just posted the lecture slides online and we had a few assignments (essays) to hand in. I wouldn’t say that the professors put a lot of effort in to finishing up the courses.

One of my classes used TopHat – a paid membership application to have online participation, some video lectures and assignments. This was fine, but I resent this professor using a paid application when the University already has an available online learning management system to achieve the same end. My final exams ended up being online multiple choice and 2 long essays. I miss my Varsity sports, but I don’t miss commuting to University. I hope there will be a graduation ceremony in the fall!

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Student 2 – Almost finished Political Science

My University has a well developed online education system and already offers Video on Demand for many classes (for a fee), so the transition when all classes went online wasn’t difficult. Two of my five classes filmed videos and posted them online,so we could watch when we wanted. Some professors did Zoom Videos classes – live classes where you watch as it’s broadcast and class-members sign-in, but you can’t watch later. One of my professors made participation mandatory. Class-members sign into Zoom to be present – you can ask questions, but it was mostly about getting a participation mark for signing in. This class was already being marked based on participation anyway prior to COVID-19. I still had assignments to hand in, did 3 take home exams, and 2 final papers – so pretty much the same thing! One exam was going to be a take home anyway. 2 exams changed from formal exams to long papers.

The transition to online education was not problematic. In Political Science we tend to have thesis essay style assignments and class participation to discuss issues anyway. It worked well enough for me. Some of my friends were more dramatic about the situation. The only thing that I thought was an issue was that some professors were not being that responsive to student’s questions. There is no excuse for that! This made some people stressed. For me it’s easier to take courses online because I can choose what to do with my time. I don’t think I missed the social interaction with friends in my class – after a few years of being at University, my friends are in the community I live in – not so much in the classes themselves.

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I was happy to go home and concentrate on finishing up my assignments without any social events to have to go to.

The University offered the ability to be marked based upon a pass/fail grade or a proper mark. Most of the people going for the pass/fail grade weren’t going to classes and doing well anyway (just my opinion).

The University has been complaining about the lack of funds and enrollment declines. I have heard the opposite. I have heard that more students than ever have enrolled in summer courses because they are not working or going out. I am going to enroll in several, there are more courses than ever available, but I’m finding them full already! I think this is going to be more profitable for the school – increased student enrollment with less support for students!

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It’s sad for people who are graduating this year or were maybe getting their “first year” away from home “frosh life” -but as a student finishing up, it was easier to finish up the courses at home – more space and quiet I miss my waitressing job, but then I’m not spending as much money going out at school either.

Student 3 – Social Sciences/Legal Studies

I take a 60% course load as I am training as an athlete and have to squeeze my courses in between training sessions. I also have a part time job in a sporting facility. The training and job also ended shortly after the classes were cancelled, so without the training, there is no point being away from home anyway. I returned home to Ontario after I shipped my training equipment home and stored some of my furniture at a friend’s house.

I had 3 courses to finish. Class cancellation happened so close to the end of the semester, they didn’t really change the courses for online education, they just wrapped it up. With no classes, we just read the textbooks and lecture slides. Only one of my courses offered Zoom lectures, but they didn’t record them, so you couldn’t watch them later, but they were basically just reading the slides and the textbook anyway. We already have an online learning system that most of the professors use from Desire2Learn. The professors put schedules, quizzes, assignments, marks and slides in there.

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In the Zoom class, I could ask questions, and this was a 200 student sized class, and if the cameras were on I could see most of the attendees. I could also listen with camera off. My three exams were open book, 1 essay style, and 2 multiple choice. You can’t really prevent people from looking at their books and conversing, so if we are all offered open book it’s fair to everyone!

Online education is harder because you have to learn the material yourself, so its probably a better way to learn. I have trouble paying attention in class anyway, but I’ve improved my studying over the past few years.

I miss being out of the house going to class, but honestly it’s less stressful not having to run between classes and catching up with school on my own schedule. I’m going to take some courses online this spring and summer because I’m going crazy at home anyway. I’m concerned about my sporting events next year, but I’m cycling, running outside and doing core exercises at home right now!

Student 4- Business Administration

To be honest I thought that the in-person lectures were a bit of a joke anyway. Not that the professors aren’t working hard, but they are covering material from the textbook. If you read the textbook you get 100% of the material, there were only one or two lectures that I really was happy I went to this year (year 3 of 4). I never really felt that I had one on one with the professors anyway. With online classes I know that some kids won’t necessarily do as well on assignments but I still did fine.

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I had 5 courses at the time school went online. One professor posted video lectures, but he was just reading off of his lecture slides anyway. They were good, but there was really no point. The other classes just posted the slides on line. Two of the professors just said “no more assignments for this year – we’ll just use the grades so far”. Two of my business courses cancelled the final exams and one made a last assignment count for more marks. I only wrote two final exams, my music elective, and a financial modelling multiple choice exam. Financial modelling is an Excel spreadsheet class, so the value was in the labs anyway. Having a multiple choice exam seemed a little awkward. I felt that the professors could have put a little more effort into final evaluations, but it’s not like I wanted to do more work. I already had good marks, so this didn’t affect my final grades, and I am starting a work term next week so I am glad to have finished school up.

Maybe one or 2 professors had made a difference for me in my academic career. The real value in having professors is in the extra-curriculars and networking – I’m not losing much in terms of education by not attending classes. I don’t like paying tuition to professors telling me about what’s in the textbooks – I love my school though. Professors are extra help in most cases.

Summing it up……

It seems like these four students from four different Canadian Universities, didn’t feel that they suffered too much from having to turn to on-line learning, and it seemed like even though there are lots of tools for professors to accommodate online learners, there wasn’t a consistent level of effort provided. If our children are only getting socialization, networking and extracurricular events from their expensive Universities, do we really need bricks and mortar schools at all?

There are now fully online Universities available, but these currently tend to look a little less impressive on a resume. Perhaps our Covid-19 quarantines will help schools and Universities evolve into providing more and better quality online education soon.

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Source: Online Education

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