Online courses a huge challenge

By  John B. Kostoff
  • August 22, 2019

A decision by the Ontario government to force high school students to earn four credits through online courses has put Catholic schools on notice. 

Historically, students in Catholic schools have studied from a curriculum that, although based on Ministry of Education guidelines, was shaped by Catholic teachers and based on Catholic resources to support the course of studies. It was delivered by Catholic school boards using Catholic resources. What the government now proposes are generic online courses to be shared by all students in the province. Much is yet to be clarified but there are reasons for concern.

Unless the government provides funding for Catholic school boards or their associations to develop their own online courses, no longer will Catholic students receive a specifically Catholic curriculum. For the four mandatory online credits, beginning a year from now all students across Ontario would access identical material. That would mean students would select from generic courses with only a small fraction having been developed by either Catholic boards or Catholic associations. 

This poses a real issue for Catholic school boards, which since their inception have maintained the right to develop and teach a Catholic curriculum. Teachers and others have worked diligently to ensure that what is taught in Catholic schools reflects Catholic teachings, values and tradition. A faith-based system obviously approaches subject material differently than a system that claims no religious perspectives. This difference goes back to the inception of public education in Ontario. It is one of the fundamental reasons Ontario’s Catholic schools came into existence. 

The previous government provided funding for the development of courses that reflected the unique Catholic perspective, but that funding was stopped some years back. Catholic agencies such as the Ontario Learning Consortium have developed two online courses, but that barely scratches the surface of what soon will be required. The challenge to develop a complete menu of courses in all subject areas without funding would be daunting.

Another challenge is determining who will evaluate the students’ work. Historically, Catholic boards have hired Catholic teachers to evaluate Catholic students’ work. If these new online courses are delivered outside the local school by a central agency, then we will have a first — Catholic students studying from a non-Catholic curriculum being evaluated by non-Catholic teachers.

We will also potentially see fewer teachers, given how many courses will be taken outside of the local school. Fewer teachers means fewer courses, fewer contacts with students and fewer extracurricular activities. 

"Catholic education has always been about more than teaching religion. ... It is about infusing the entire curriculum with Catholic values."

No decision has been made on whether online courses will be offered during the school day or outside of it, and what supports schools will have to provide. A significant body of research supports the concept that for students to succeed in eLearning they still need support from teachers and others at the local school. So it would be a mistake to believe eLearning, done properly, will save money on teacher salaries. 

For some parents, Internet, wi-fi and computers are a luxury they must balance with paying rent, medical bills and putting food on the table. An approach that requires all families to maintain Internet capacity and technology is just not equitable. 

Some people will argue that a course in English, mathematics or economics is the same for everyone. But that is not true. Catholic educators have worked hard to ensure that courses reflect a strong Catholic worldview. 

It is also mistaken to claim that Catholic schools need only be concerned with developing four online religion courses. Catholic education has always been about more than teaching religion or earning religion credits. It is about infusing the entire curriculum with Catholic values and providing a Catholic lens to all subject areas.   

While eLearning will no doubt be a part of learning in the future, it is questionable if a one-size-fits-all approach will work. Four mandatory online courses will be unique for any North American school system. Most parents will tell you that each of their children has a different learning style, so to force all of them to learn in a particular way flies in the face of decades of educational learning. 

To be fair, the government has said there will be exceptions, but we know that for some students eLearning will be difficult. Working alone works for some, but a cookie-cutter approach to learning without significant support is going to create challenges for many. 

The government intends to engage in dialogue about this approach to learning. I am optimistic it will be meaningful. 

There are good people on both sides of this debate. But 2020-21 is coming very quickly.

I am sure the government had no intention of overturning decades of program delivery and course development when it announced its eLearning strategy. But that is what is at risk. That is why this issue will require a concerted effort among Catholic educators, parents, trustees, students and bishops. Time is not an ally in this discussion.

Catholic education has faced similar challenges and rose to meet them. The ingenuity of people like Fr. John Reed Teefy, Archbishop Neil McNeil, Fr. Leo Austin, B.E. Nelligan and many others counteracted perceived threats or dilution to Catholic school rights. Let us hope like-minded leaders will step up now.

(Kostoff is the co-author of One Home and a Time, Realizing and Living Out Our Domestic Church, and serves as Executive Director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association.)

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