Is e-learning the right move for Ontario’s students with learning disabilities?

Click to play video: 'Concern continues over e-learning in Ontario'
Concern continues over e-learning in Ontario
WATCH: (Jan. 21, 2020) In the wake of rolling education across Ontario – one of the sticking points for high school teachers is mandatory e-learning. Many concerned it is not practical or suited for everyone. Jamie Mauracher explains what it is and what it means for high school students. – Jan 21, 2020

For Jeff and Michelle Barnard, whose two sons have dyslexia, it’s hard enough getting through high school, let alone if you take the teacher out of the equation.

“E-learning for kids with no issues is one thing, but forcing e-learning on kids with learning disabilities is another thing,” Jeff said.

“They need to have that [teacher] support there.”

The Barnard family spoke to Global News about their concerns when it comes to mandatory online learning for their sons Brody, who is in grade 10, and John in grade 12.

E-learning is one of the main sticking points for the OSSTF in bargaining talks with the provincial government. In 2019, the Ford government announced that all public schools would need four online credits in order to graduate stating in the 2023-24 school year.

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The government later reduced that credit requirement to two.

“They would not learn. They need to interact with a teacher to be able to ask questions when they get stuck to avoid more anxiety, frustration, and anger by not understanding,” Jeff said.

For students with dyslexia like Brody and John, it takes longer for them to process information and understand the concepts being taught in class, so having access to a teacher to easily ask questions is vital.

“To take away the teacher, then I can’t even ask for help, and it would get me so frustrated I would just not do the course, because there is no point,” Brody said.

In a previous article, experts explained that through e-learning, the course work is all online outside of a traditional classroom and that a teacher is available for live communication, but it’s up to the students to attend.

However, Jeff is doubtful his sons would get the attention and help the help they need during those two sessions.

Both Jeff and his wife say that there is no scenario where e-learning would work for their family.

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“All new online courses will be designed to be accessible for students (AODA-compliant),” the Ministry of Education said in a statement to Global News, “and the ministry will continue to work with school boards and teachers to ensure that students taking online courses have the individual supports that they need to succeed.

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These include continued supports that school boards provide to students through their Individual Education Plans, including accommodations such as extended time limits, adjusted assessment and instructional methods, and specialized equipment where required.

The ministry will be working with school boards and education partners in the coming months to provide some guidelines and criteria around exemptions for students. Exemptions will be made locally on a case-by-case basis and will be sensitive to individual student needs.”

What do the experts say?

“I am worried because it’s an experiment,” Beyhan Farhadi, a teacher and a PhD graduate from the University of Toronto who has studied the effects of e-learning on students, told Global News.

“We haven’t had e-learning mandated at the scale the province is proposing.”

Farhadi said students can struggle with e-learning simply by not understanding how to use the technology for the course, adding that for others who don’t understand what’s going on, advocacy becomes a big issue.

“There are often students I encounter in my classroom who will never ask a question and will sit there staring at a paper, and it’s not until I approach them that they feel confident to speak up.”

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In a previous article, Farhadi estimated around 1,200 students in Toronto sign up for e-learning each year. She said that number typically jumps to around 5,000 in the summer. But Farhadi said what isn’t being talked about is that almost 40 per cent of students during that time drop out.

Speaking as a teacher, Farhadi said students with learning disabilities who have trouble focusing, require individualized instruction, or require technological supports not embedded in e-learning are “the kinds of students that don’t receive support online.”

“I think there are very few details being released, but what has already been announced suggests that this technology is being used to cut costs, and the research shows that if it is to work, it requires as much if not more of an investment in technology,” Farhadi said.

The future of e-learning

E-learning consultant and board of directors member of the International Dyslexia Association Ontario, Stuart Lulling told Global News there are ways e-learning can be adapted to help students with learning disabilities like dyslexia but added it’s not there yet.

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“There is a huge variety of online courses out there. There are good ones, there are mediocre ones, and there are positively bad ones,” he said.

“There is not a set standard, and until there is, I don’t think it should be made mandatorily.”

“People with learning disabilities will always face challenges, with online learning at the moment; I don’t know that there is a solution to that based on the e-learning that’s available in today’s environment.”

But Lulling stresses that he has a lot of hope for the future of e-learning, explaining that analyzing how students with learning disabilities use the courses is going to have a “massive impact” on how e-learning courses adopt moving forward.

For Lulling, the key is finding what methods work well for kids with learning disabilities by engaging their different senses with tools like video, audio, and text.

The Ministry of Education told Global News the courses will be “designed to be AODA-compliant, including accessibility features such as alt-tags for images, video transcripts, and the ability to be used with a screen reader,” adding that the courses would use “text that is concise and easy to read.”

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Lulling, who also has dyslexia, said for online learning to work, the different user groups like the Dyslexia Association need to be included in the conversation to understand how it impacts its members on an individual basis.

“If that’s done across the board in a provincial wide setting, it’s going to be better for everyone.”

— With files from Jamie Mauracher Global News

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