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The Ontario government’s multi-headed education announcement, released on March 15, 2019, gave new meaning to William Shakespeare’s infamous dictum, “Beware the Ides of March,”  judging from the chilling effect it had on educators and close observers of the school system.  Rooting out ‘Discovery Math,’ restoring the basics, and realigning an ‘age-appropriate’ sex education curriculum were entirely expected, but not the declaration that all secondary school students would be required to take four online courses. Mandating online courses appeared to come out of nowhere.

Secondary students will be required to take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to earn a Grade 12 Ontario Secondary School Diploma, equivalent to one credit per year of high school. All we really know about implementation is that the changes will be phased-in starting in 2020-21 and that the delivery of the e-learning courses will be centralized.

Where the online learning initiative originated and what it actually meant for students and teachers generated plenty of speculation. That was largely because Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced it as a fait accompli with nothing approaching a detailed rationale.

Now that the furor over mandating online courses has subsided the question of where it came from can be pieced-together. It is looking, more and more, like a foray into ‘disruptive innovation’ rather than another sleight-of-hand scheme to reduce the $26.6 billion education budget.

Online learning and virtual schooling show great potential for transforming student learning, but Ontario like other provinces has pursued a ‘growth-management’ strategy quite different than most American states. Unlike the U.S., the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent.  South of the border, “virtual schooling” outside of bricks-and-mortar schools has grown by leaps and bounds in a largely unregulated education environment.

Online learning in Ontario evolved out of what were known as provincial correspondence courses. Since 1994-95, many of the province’s school boards have established their own district programs and then in 2006 twenty of the boards formed the Ontario e-Learning Consortium (OeLC).  That joint venture has helped increase course offerings and the sharing of resources with positive results.

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From 2008-09 to 2009-10, online student enrolments in OeLC boards jumped from 6,276 to 9,695. The consortia model has also been replicated by Ontario’s French language boards and by the province’s constitutionally guaranteed separate Catholic school boards. In 2010, a Northern e-Learning Consortium (NeLC) was established to allow remote northern Ontario school districts to address shared challenges (Ontario Education 2011).

Ontario’s regulatory regime, outlined in the 2006 E-Learning Strategy and codified in school regulations initially imposed limits on the delivery of online learning.   “In some instances,” North American online learning expert Michael K. Barbour reported, “the Ministry requirements were once quite restrictive.”

Originally, the Ontario provincial Learning Management System (LMS) could not be used for either blended learning or the professional development of teachers. That led school districts to run parallel systems, the provincial LMS as well as their own separate LMS for those other purposes.

Ontario has gradually loosened its regulations and, in September 2011, finally embraced blended learning as part of the system. By 2013-14, it was estimated that 52,095 students were taking e-learning courses, including summer school, from school boards through the Ontario Ministry’s virtual learning environment. In addition, 20,000 Ontario students were enrolled in correspondence courses and about 6,000 in private online schools.

The leading Ontario parent lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, emerged after 2013-14 as a champion of “digital literacies” (information, media and ICT) and the promotion of ICT to enhance student learning.

Expanding e-Learning became a contentious issue at the bargaining table. Back in 2010, the big issue, for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) was not quality programming but rather closing the so-called “digital divide” separating students fully equipped with the latest e-tools and those without such access.  Closing the “ICT competency divide” between urban and rural Ontario proved to be a stumbling block to progress.

Online learning has grown, but at a carefully managed rate. Today, the Canadian e-Learning Network estimates that only 65,000 Ontario students (2017-18) take at least one online course and that represents approximately 10 per cent of all high school students. If the PC plan goes forward, the numbers enrolled will balloon to as many as 630,000 students a year.

Such a dramatic change is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen and his Harvard University Institute team of researchers mean by ‘disruptive innovation.’  The goal of such a change is to open the door to a whole new population of consumers (students) at the bottom of a market access to a product or service (online learning) that was previously denied to them and accessible only to the few with the access, resources, or expertise.

Lifting technology use regulations and removing barriers may be messy and fraught with risk, but students, according to Christensen, thrive in such a dynamic, competitive learning environment. Free to embrace e-learning in all its forms, they gain access to the full range of teaching modalities, ranging from strictly online, self-paced learning to blended learning combining online and face-to-face classroom instruction.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative education ‘brains trust’ has definitely latched onto technology-driven educational change. Mandating online high school courses is a clear sign that the Department has embraced the kind of market experimentation and disruptive innovation common in the United States.

Education reforms implemented in Florida from the late 1990s to the 2000s, spearhead by Republican Governor Jeb Bush and known as the “Florida Formula,’ now hold sway among PC education policy-makers at Queen’s Park.  Ford’s “Back to Basics” education reform echoes most of the five key Bush policies – high expectations, school accountability, student performance targeted funding, teacher quality standards, and school choice.

Florida, under Jeb Bush, was among the first to mandate online learning as a secondary school graduation requirement.  Today, five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Virginiarequire one compulsory online course.  Some other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts and West Virginia, have passed legislation or approved regulations supporting the inclusion of online courses. No state goes as far as requiring the four courses stipulated in the Ontario plan.

Ontario’s shotgun online learning initiative deserves to be challenged. Classroom teachers and informed researchers have much to contribute as school systems wrestle with how effectively integrate technology into classroom practice. Front-line practitioners bring real life experience and a healthy skepticism to bear on ephemeral fads and what might be termed ‘hair-brained’ transformation schemes.

Top-down educational initiatives, especially in ICT and technology integration, die a quick death or simply languish without the active support and engagement of regular classroom educators.  That is why innovative and disruptive ideas like the ‘flipped classroom’ and a Virtual Enriched learning environment dreamed up by corporate change management  experts and delivered from on high have, so far, not succeeded in changing the trajectory or improving the quality and variety of student learning in K-12 education.

What sparked the Ontario Doug Ford government’s move to introduce compulsory high school online courses? Was the policy announcement driven by change-management theory, sound e-learning research, or a commitment to reducing education costs?  Is it feasible to expand online courses so significantly over such a relatively short timeline? Will it now be possible for Ontario educators to come to terms with the change? Is “disruptive innovation” destabilizing, by definition, or potentially beneficial when it sparks new ways of thinking and deepens learning for students?  

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