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For the past decade, the Michigan education system has been an e-learning laboratory, with students required to do some of their coursework online in order to graduate from high school.

The experience of Michigan, along with four other U.S. states with mandatory virtual learning, has produced a mixed body of evidence showing that e-learning in schools can be effective in small doses, but that quality programs are costly.

The Ontario government is set to become the first province to make online courses compulsory for high-school students, a policy that has prompted intense debate about whether e-learning is the way of the future or an ineffective teaching model. The province initially announced four virtual credits, but cut the requirement to two late last year under pressure from parents and teacher unions, which are now conducting rotating strikes as part of stalled labour negotiations.

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Over the past two decades, schools in Canada and the United States have provided a smattering of optional e-learning courses for a range of reasons, including educating students in remote communities, broadening course offerings, helping youngsters develop digital skills and saving money. But just as with teaching in bricks-and-mortar classrooms, experts say the execution of virtual programs is what matters most.

Results in Michigan, which became the first state to pass legislation mandating virtual learning in 2006, show that the system is underperforming. Students taking at least one virtual course had an average online pass rate of 55 per cent in 2017-18, compared with an overall pass rate of 79 per cent in their traditional classes.

“On average, it’s not working as well as it needs to be,” said Joe Freidhoff, vice-president of Michigan Virtual, a non-profit organization that promotes and monitors online learning in the state.

However, data also show that one-quarter of Michigan’s schools have successful online programs, with pass rates of 90 per cent to 100 per cent, partly because of so-called wraparound supports, Mr. Freidhoff said. For example, while all students taking virtual courses are assigned mentors who work in their schools, programs with strong results usually have staff whose only job is to regularly check in on student progress and help them develop good study habits.

“It’s not an inert thing that you can just plug in a program and it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s going to take care of it’. You have to have the high tech and you have to have the high touch,” he said.

Educators in Michigan have found that students get higher grades when they enroll in one or two online classes at a time, instead of several, Mr. Freidhoff said. Students also have better experiences when they take virtual classes in their stronger subjects, rather than turning to online courses after failing in weaker subjects the traditional way. As well, he said students in higher grades usually have more success than those in lower grades.

The state’s experience supports the contention of experts that the most important factor for student achievement is how well e-learning programs are designed, delivered and supported.

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“Online learning can be as effective as classroom learning if it’s designed well,” said Mark Bullen, an e-learning expert who teaches at the University of British Columbia. "But just by putting a course online, it’s not necessarily going to give you the results you want unless you take the time to design it properly and provide the appropriate amount of student support.”

Contrary to popular opinion, quality e-learning programs cost as much as or more than the traditional classroom model, because some students require extra resources to do well, said Michael Barbour, a professor of instructional design at Touro University California. He noted that in Michigan, students taking virtual courses have both a teacher and a mentor.

“If the government thought that this was a way of saving money, they’re sorely mistaken. If they want to do this, it’s going to require a huge investment,” said Prof. Barbour, who has developed and taught virtual social-studies courses in Newfoundland and Illinois.

The Ontario government, which says online courses will increase choice and flexibility while helping students learn critical technology skills, has not detailed how much its massive e-learning expansion will cost, saying details are part of continuing contract talks with teacher unions. The province has signalled that it wants to raise class-size caps for online courses.

"The full financial and policy implications of the online learning strategy are subject to the development of the ministry’s final implementation plan, and these discussions are actively taking place during bargaining,” Ingrid Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education, said in an e-mail.

Union leaders, along with some students, parents and school boards, object to mandatory e-learning, over concerns that it provides an inferior experience and hurts students who don’t have computers or high-speed internet.

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While the province plans to consult with Ontarians on e-learning, students set to graduate in the 2023-24 academic year can start earning credits this September by enrolling in existing virtual classes. The province plans to “exponentially expand and update” its course catalogue over the next four years, Ms. Anderson said.

Most online courses are not delivered in real time, meaning that students can work any time and from anywhere while being “guided” by a certified teacher, Ms. Anderson said.

Almost 58,000 students took an online course in 2017-18 in Ontario and enrolment has climbed by an average of 17 per cent a year since 2011. Students received average grades within 5 percentage points of those in face-to-face classes over the past three years, Ms. Anderson said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to make clear that Professor Michael Barbour said some students require extra resources.

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