Joseph Gaetan sees an upside to online learning - it worked for him.

opinionred 100x100By Joseph A. Gaetan

December 9th, 2019



At the moment, the secondary school unions and the Ontario government are at loggerheads over whether 4, 2 or 0 online classes should be offered. Having experienced both traditional and e-learning firsthand I can attest to the fact that in both cases some courses are delivered better than others.

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Take your courses when you want – where you want and if you didn’t get it the first time yo can replay the class.

In my experience there is room for improvement on both fronts and not every subject is a candidate for e-learning. One of the criticisms I have heard about e-learning involves access to tutors, something I found to be both a problem and an opportunity. On one hand not having instant access to a tutor can be frustrating, on the other hand, from personal experience, it can make you dig deeper for the solution. In education, as in life, some of the things that stick with us the most are the things we had to work the hardest to achieve. Easy and instant access to resources is not always the answer and is not always the best form of education.

Say or think what you want about online learning, it has been here a while and it is here to stay, and, it’s growing in leaps and bounds. For many people it is a game changer as it may be the only way they can earn those last few credits or a credential that they otherwise would not be able to earn. For some it is a matter of cost or a way to balance raising a family while earning a living.

According to the “Ontario Learn” website, in 1995 seven colleges put their heads together and started to offer online courses, today 24 Ontario colleges offer high quality online education. The original seven realized that by pooling resources, they could extend their reach by offering online courses and programs to students who would not otherwise have access to them.

“Athabasca University” (AU) is a Canadian Open University specializing in online distance education and is one of four comprehensive academic and research universities in Alberta. Founded in 1970, it was the first Canadian university to specialize in distance education. Athabasca offers online undergraduate and graduate programs and courses. AU serves over 38,000 students (over 7,900 full-load equivalents) and offers over 900 courses in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs in a range of arts, science and professional disciplines.

If you haven’t heard of a MOOC, you aren’t alone. MOOCS or Massive Open Online Courses have unlimited participation and open access via the web. EDx is just one online MOOC platform that has about 14 million learners and is the second largest MOOC provider in the world. The global MOOC market size was estimated to be $4 billion in 2018.

When I wanted to brush up on my knowledge of social media marketing, I turned to EDx and promptly found 10 offerings. One course from Boston University not only met my needs but allowed me, should I so desire, to earn a credit towards a Micro Masters. The course starts in April of 2020 and currently has 69,871 registrants.

So why all the fuss and push back here in Ontario? Online learning is anything but new. Online learning may also be the only choice for some people who have different learning styles or disabilities. My granddaughter is in grade 10 so I sought her opinion on the topic. Her response; she prefers having a teacher in front of her. Good enough. Online learning is not for everyone. Some students like my granddaughter prefer a live teacher, some may learn better, as I did, with online learning.

The current generation of high school students are prodigious users of online technology. So why not offer them online learning as part of our high school curriculum? Failing to offer online learning in this day and age is a missed opportunity.

Athabasca University has been around since 1970 and Ontario Learn since 1995, and 2020 is just around the corner, so let’s get on with it, but do it right, and by that I mean involving the right stakeholders be it parents, students, teachers and the government in the process.

There is but one pool of taxpayer money, some of that pool is dedicated to education, some of that pool goes towards paying for infrastructure, some for books and supplies, some for school repairs and maintenance, and some to teachers and other staff.

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There are strengths and weaknesses to online education. It does cost the governments less.

We have one of the best and most expensive education systems in the world. In order to continue to be the best we must find a way to make online learning part of that system and we can either lead the way, or we can sit back and suffer the consequence of lagging as did Research in Motion (RIM) aka Blackberry.

At the moment online education is geared to post-secondary learning. I see two pathways for primary and secondary student e-learning. One has the government and other stakeholders working hand in hand to figure out how to make e-learning part of Ontario’s education future.

The other path is market based where the government with the help of e-learning experts such as EDx create a series K to 12 courses that are optional for those who would benefit the most. In the end this approach will only work if there is value to members of the target market, “the student”.

Joseph GaetanJoseph A. Gaetan has a BGS degree in applied studies, earned through studies at The University of Waterloo and Athabasca University. He also earned a Province of Ontario Engineering Technology Certificate through Fanshawe College, and for 8 years worked at earning a trade becoming a Journeyman Machinist. He also studied French at the Centre Linguistique du Collège de Jonquière and Italian at Mohawk College. In addition, he has taken online courses through the EDx platform taking courses from Harvard, The University of Queensland, Wellesley and Delft Wageningen, he is currently working at learning 6 languages through Duolingo. His work career includes being a Machinist, a CNC programmer, a business owner, a consultant and the Director of Organizational Development for a Fortune 100 company. All of this thanks to life-long learning.

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7 comments to Joseph Gaetan sees an upside to online learning – it worked for him.

  • Bev Jacobs

    What we are missing here is the age of the student. Many students are not mature enough to be successful with on-line studies. Two of the individuals are adults. Students all learn at different levels, have different levels of maturity and some need extra help and assistance with their learning. A computer cannot sense if a student understands but a teacher in the classroom can see frustration and give assistance. After Grade 12, I agree that on-line learning can be useful, but not athe secondary level. We Don’t need students getting discouraged and dropping out or worse develop bullying behaviour as an avenue for their frustration.

    • Joe Gaetan

      Distance education or learning changed in a dramatic fashion on November 10, 1969 when Sesame Street hit the air waves. Despite there not being any formal exams, we all know that Big Bird and Burt and Ernie taught millions of children their numbers, colors and the alphabet, it also bridged many cultural and educational gaps with a fun program. E-learning will be taught at all levels as soon as another Jim Henson or Steve Jobs comes along.

  • Kerri V

    Great perspective Joe and I like your suggestion of making this a K-12 experience. The push back for me right now is the Ontario government making e-learning mandatory for secondary students to graduate. I have student who is very academic and has only recently acquired the skills (in grade 12) to enhance his understanding of the course curriculum by way of independent self study. He had prior experience with e-learning in grade 10 and he did not have the skills or maturity required to complete that course beyond the minimum. So the issue now is throwing these kids in the water to either sink or swim when their grades really do matter. Not all kids have the required maturity to succeed in e-learning and they have most certainly not developed the necessary skills from K-8. You can’t really compare the engagement and maturity of a University student or an adult to that of a 14 or 15 year teenager. Frustration and lack of confidence for many in the classroom leads to dropouts.

    If they were to introduce this type of learning in the earlier grades, I could actually support an increase in amount of required e-learning. However it should never be mandatory for ALL students.

    • Joe Gaetan

      I truly believe that if the courses are designed properly, are optional,are interesting and help you to learn something of value, that our youth will flock to them.

  • I’m a big fan. I gave up teaching at university and now only teach online. At last count I had over 23,000 students from more than 160 countries. It’s an amazing way to learn on your terms.

  • Phillip Wooster

    Excellent article, Joe! Despite not being in a formal educational setting, I never stop learning. Here’s my experience and it is not much different than being in school. I research constantly in managing the investments in my pension plan–I note a wide variety of sources and opinions and carefully evaluate them; this is far more extensive and detailed than anything I did in a structured finance course in the MBA program. I’m also have a very extensive interest in the Second World War and I’ve listened to some excellent lectures online on various topics–these surpass anything I was exposed to as an undergraduate university student (sorry Dr. Campbell). And lastly, as a very serious photographer who is considering switching camera systems (to Sony), I’m researching all the techs and online opinions from some of the foremost photographers (a matter of necessity before spending $20K on new gear). Online sources can be excellent especially if a teacher resource is available to mentor the student. The only drawback that I see is in subjects like mathematics, science, and accounting where there is a cumulative component to the learning–sometimes the online resources are not sufficiently structured to provide the best learning experience.