What is the purpose of online learning?

Online learning has been hitting the headlines recently:

I have found myself being asked by the media to comment on all these, but underlying each of my responses has been my considerable unease about the gap between some of the claims and the reality on the ground, and above all not knowing the possible motives behind some of the developments we have been seeing. Each of these developments raises questions about the perceived purpose of online or digital learning.

I examine this through three blog posts:

  • mandatory online courses in Ontario high schools: good or bad strategy?
  • can online learning dramatically reduce the costs of higher education and reduce inequalities in the system?
  • beyond access: rethinking the purpose of online learning 

Let’s start in Canada.

Mandatory online courses in Ontario

First, there has been almost no information provided about this other than a press announcement from the Ontario Ministry. There are few details at the moment and of course the devil is in the details. What we do know from the press release is as follows:

  • every high school student will take four out of their 30 credits through online courses
  • a recommended class size of 35 students for online courses
  • the design and delivery of online courses, which is currently left to individual school boards, will be centralised.

Making online mandatory in high school

The unique issue here is that no other jurisdiction in Canada (and very few elsewhere) mandates online learning for high school students. It is usually an option for students. In some cases, it may be the only option, because a specialist course may not be available locally, but usually an online course will not replace an existing face-to-face course in the rest of the system.

The reason most jurisdictions make online courses optional is because some students do better in class while others prefer and can manage online learning quite well. Making online learning mandatory will succeed only if all students are properly prepared and supported in the move to online learning. That will require a significant investment in the time of teachers with the knowledge and skills to provide such support.


There are some pros and cons for the centralisation of k-12 online courses. Ontario has a common curriculum so it makes sense to have one, high quality online course per subject rather than several duplicated courses offered by different school boards.

However, it doesn’t need a centralised ministry bureaucracy to create and administer such courses. In British Columbia, Open School BC brings together a wide range of k-12 online courses offered by different school boards, providing one-stop shopping in online courses from anywhere in the province. The school boards themselves work together to avoid duplication, while at the same time providing some element of choice for students.

Online class size

Can quality online courses be delivered with a class size of 35? Again, it will depend on the course objectives, the design of the course, and the level of student support provided. Some subject areas allow for more automation than others, depending on the desired learning outcomes. Some teaching can be easily automated, such as content presentation, tests that require right or wrong answers, and general, non-specific feedback.

If though you want to develop higher level intellectual skills, students need more feedback and support from a human instructor. In other words, there may be some instances where a class size of 35 or even larger makes sense, but in other instances, one qualified teacher will struggle to manage adequately more than 25 students. It will depend on the desired learning outcomes. This is the same for online courses as for in-class courses.

But most important of all, students at least initially will require substantial human support when going online for the first time. Learning online requires students with self-discipline and able to work to a self-managed schedule. This takes training and practice. Overall, then, it is unduly rigid to set specific class sizes. Classes should be smaller for students taking their first online course and could be larger for those taking their fourth.

Even if there is flexibility in class size, does an average class size of 35 make sense for online learning? Probably not. This is a 40% increase on the average on-campus class size of 25. With average online classes of 35, there is almost certainly going to be a reduction in the quality of learning outcomes, because students will get less time overall with a teacher. However, there may be room for some slight increases in average class size by going online, say up to 28 from 25 students per class, with good design, without losing quality in outcomes, through automation of some part of the learning. To do this successfully though will require careful planning and a certain degree of flexibility.

Is it a reasonable strategy?

Making online learning mandatory is a high risk endeavour. It will succeed – in terms of learning outcomes – only if students get adequate teaching and support online. 

But like any good detective story, you need to look for motive. So far, without more details, the evidence is purely circumstantial. It is a populist Conservative government. The province has a high debt to GDP ratio which the government has vowed to reduce. It wants to reduce taxes. The government is looking to reduce the number of teachers. I leave you to draw the lines between the dots.

To me, it does seem likely that the Ontario government is expecting online learning to reduce costs. Reducing costs is always possible if you are willing to sacrifice quality.  But we need more evidence before we can convict. It could be an honest mistake or even a brave new strategy. But the devil will be in the details.

Next up

The next post will address:

  • Can online learning radically reduce the cost of higher education? (A response to the Kevin Carey rant).
  • And do under-privileged students do worse with online learning?

The final post will look at four different justifications for online learning that result from these discussions:

  • increasing access and flexibility
  • developing 21st century skills
  • reducing inequalities in the education system
  • increasing the cost-effectiveness of education

and whether we need to change our current priorities regarding these justifications.


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