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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said his government would change requirements for e-learning courses.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

High-school students in Ontario will now be required to take two online courses to graduate instead of the province’s initial plan of four after the government walked back its education policy in an effort to portray itself as “reasonable” in discussions with teachers unions.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Thursday that although his government is stepping back from its original plan, online credits will still be a requirement to earn a diploma because it provides students with the “skills and technological fluency” they need in the labour market.

“The research tells us that nearly all students can be successful in online learning if they have the right supports,” Mr. Lecce said at a news conference.

Even moving to two online courses out of the 30 needed to graduate would make Ontario an anomaly among jurisdictions around the world. Several U.S. states, including Michigan and Florida, require students to get one online credit.

The issue of mandating online courses has been a sticking point between the high-school teachers’ union and the province in the current round of negotiations. Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), dismissed Mr. Lecce’s watering down of the government’s plan to force high-school students to take online courses.

“It seems like the Education Minister has accidentally stumbled halfway towards the right solution,” Mr. Bischof told reporters Thursday as he announced his members would withdraw some services as part of its job action because the government has failed to address key issues in negotiations.

However, Mr. Lecce said the government was showing itself to be “reasonable” at the bargaining table by making the changes to its proposals on online courses, as well as to class-size averages. Recently, Mr. Lecce softened the government’s stand on increasing class sizes in high schools to an average of 25 instead of the previous goal of 28 over four years. The current average is 22.5.

The details around the online credits remain unclear, including who will be tasked with developing the courses. Mr. Lecce said that the courses will be delivered by certified teachers and that students who graduate in the 2023-24 school year will be the first cohort required to complete online courses. He also said that exemptions will be made for some students on an individual basis.

A government official said the online courses would have an average of 35 students.

Students generally take online courses to get a credit that isn’t available in their school, to work through their credits faster or to retake a course they have failed. Online courses allow students to develop self-discipline and time-management skills, but some research has also found that younger pupils struggle more with online learning.

In Ontario, about 5 per cent of students per school earn credits online.

Beyhan Farhadi, who recently earned a PhD at the University of Toronto examining education inequity and e-learning at the Toronto District School Board, found that students who have taken online credits were concentrated in high-achieving schools.

She said she worries that students who do poorly in face-to-face classes will fall even further behind in online courses.

“We don’t have any data to show success, when all public secondary students are forced to take an online course, especially at a time when young people require the in-school supports,” said Dr. Farhadi, who is also a teacher in Toronto.

Sally Meseret, president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, said that while the government’s reduced graduation requirement was welcome, the group still wants it to reverse the e-learning mandate and evaluate how technology and online courses can be implemented more gradually in the classroom.

“This mandate still has the potential to negatively impact Ontario’s students who possess a variety of lived experiences and backgrounds,” Ms. Meseret said. ”Students who have difficulty accessing technology, with varied learning styles, and those who have trouble learning without one-on-one interaction, are among those who will continue to be impacted by this mandate.”

NDP education critic Marit Stiles characterized Mr. Lecce’s move as a “stunt” that wouldn’t help in negotiations with education unions. The union representing education support workers, including caretakers and educational assistants, is the only group to have ratified a three-year deal that would see salary increases of 1 per cent a year over three years.

Ms. Stiles said the government’s plan to mandate online courses is about cutting costs in the classroom.

“There is nothing that shows that [online courses] will be effective and a good way of learning for our students. At the end of the day, all it has ever been about is cutting costs on the backs of our students," she said.

With a report from Jeff Gray

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