Julia’s Comments on Snapshot Study of Canadian K-12 Online Learning

July 14, 2009

You may be aware of the North American Council for Online Learning released a report in October 2008 called “A Snapshot State of the Nation Study: K-12 Online Learning in Canada”. The report was written by Michael K. Barbour of Wayne State University (Michigan) & Robin Steward of Chatham Kent Public Library (Ontario) based on existing literature and contributions of practitioners in the Canadian field of K-12 online learning. As I now teach & work in educational technology in a pre-service teacher program at Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo, BC) and as a teacher with a history of distributed learning experience in British Columbia, Canada, I am very happy to see some research materials on Canada’s K-12 online learning experiences. Overall, I enjoyed reading the report and appreciated the Canadian focus of the research/data and I will be using it for  courses I teach on educational technology.

Some interesting points of the study:

History of K-12 Online Learning in Canada

  • “virtual schooling, as we know it in North American, began in Canada in 1994”
    • Avon Maitland Distance Education Centre, Avon Maitland District School Board, Ontario (1994-1995 with first courses offered in 1997-1998)
    • first virtual school offerings by Electronic Distance Education Network (1995-1996, Ontario)
    • first virtual school offerings by  Garden Valley Collegiate (1995-96, Manitoba)
    • several offerings by Alberta school district consortia

(Author cites Barker & Wendel, 2001; Barker, Wendel & Richmond, 1999;  Haughey & Fenwich, 1996; Muirhead, 1999 for data)

Little Existing  Research Data re. Canadian K-12 Online Learning

  • “With limited government, foundation and private support for education research, K-12 online learning programmes have not received financial support for research and evaluation.”
  • “…there has been little activity in Canadian higher education towards research of K-12 online learning “
  • a key governance difference in K-12 online learning responsibilities between Canada and the US is that  responsibility for education in Canada rests in the hands of each individual province or territory– in US it is in the hands of the federal Department of Education

Canadian Regional Differences

  • eastern Canada tends to have stronger provincial programs
  • Quebec has “limited district-based programmes”
  • central Canada (i.e. Ontario) has provincial system and extensive district-based programmes as well as private school initiatives
  • western Canada tends “to have smaller or dated” provincial programs and “a varying level of district-based programmes”
  • Canadian territories leverage district-based programs in BC & Alberta

Governance & BC’s Extraordinary Situation

  • “the vast majority of provinces do not have policies that are specifically realted to K-12 online learning. Instead, online learning programmes must struggle with meeting regulations designed for brick-and-mortar schools. The main exception…is British Columbia where the Government has created a specific regime to govern the operation of distance education in that province.”

Julia’s Comments on the Research

Firstly, it is important to note that this report helps further significant research dialogue on Canadian K-12 online learning. That said there were a few areas I think warrant further work.

Leap from Correspondence to Online Models: Where is Potential Impact of Offline Computer Mediated Education?

I am interested in the way that the description of the historical context seemed to leave out any mention of the use of offline, computer-based or computer-mediated education. The research seems to jump from the use of correspondence-type materials and to online content delivery. As one of the practitioners in the 1990’s, there was a distinct phase of using computer mediated content delivery either at a distance or in face-to-face brick-and-mortar situations. This was especially true for educators wanting more multimedia & interactivity in course design than could be supported on BC’s PLNet connections of the day (low-bandwidth). I think that educators who had been participating in the computer-mediated education were well positioned to move into and leverage online education as content became available–and to call for increased media & interactivity to push online learning beyond text on screen. I can remember several computer-mediated programs like Plato, CMI Crossroads, Nelson’s The Learning Equation,  that were in use when I was teaching in the mid-late 1990-early 2000’s in British Columbia and were a way-point between correspondence and multimedia rich online learning.

Some Key Items in BC Context Merit Inclusion

When I reflect on the development of online learning in British Columbia, I found it quite interesting that the report did not mention the rise of the COOL Schools consortium–prior to the formation of BCEdOnline. COOL schools started out as a collaboration among several school districts–then other BC districts wanted to buy access to content. When my district joined, our membership initially required a Blackboard license brokered by the Open Learning Agency or Open School. Two other groups that had historical impact on the formation of online learning in BC were  the BC Computer Curriculum Consortium and the BC Teachers’ Federation Provincial Specialist Association, Educators for Distributed Learning.

One of the interesting issues I remember occurred when the regional distance education programs were still working in defined catchment areas.  Teachers employed in some regional educational programs were concerned re. the classification of their positions as  “markers” rather than “teachers”. If I recall properly, the issue of classification allowed for treatment of markers distinct from “teachers” re. student & course loads (e.g. in brick-and-mortar schools). Also of note was that during the rise of online learning, there were various tensions between the officially published positions & supported policies of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) and the positions & policy recommendations of the EDLPSA (Educators for Distributed Learning Provincial Specialist Associaion, BCTF) members with regard to teachers’ working  issues around distributed learning in the province.

The authors also missed another interesting period of online development fueled by K-12 funding  when the BC government was funding both local school districts AND distance education providers for FTE at the secondary level. Under that arrangement, students might attend a distributed learning support block at brick-and-mortar school within its schedule while working on a distributed learning course from another provider. At that time, the government was paying for enrollment in the distance education course and funding the teacher supervision FTE in the brick-and-mortar school. I believe that period lasted for 1-2 years before it was radically restructured. Likely enrollment data would show a increase in enrollments in the former and a steep decrease in enrollments under the later funding structures. I know that within my Distributed Learning Program, we began to look at leveraging existing content from COOL Schools through an opensource learning management system, ATutor ( complying with licensing constraints), as well as developing our own local content to further reduce costs.

So on what do I base my critique ?

My historical experience with distributed learning in BC schools stems back to the mid-1990’s when I developed a private program that leveraged several distance education providers like South Island Distance Education School (SIDES), Nechacko Valley’s eBus, & North Island Distance Education School (NIDES). Local parents enrolled students  in full-time distance education/distributed learning programs approved by the provincial government, and then paid me–a BC Certified teacher– to work with their children as a group in a pseudo-school.  Some content was “pizza-box” courses and some content was online. I supported  students “distance” education face-to-face with a range of subject matter expertise while the distance education programs supplied content, marking of submitted work & official course credit. Over time, I established partnerships with the providers mentioned above that allowed me to help guide instruction in a more collaborative fashion with these organizations. In one instance, a partner organization provided a computer and internet access in my rented location–that would have otherwise been made available to one of the students in their home–and with the student’s & parent’s permission– so that the students enrolled in their program might access their online content and communicate with their online teachers, advisors, etc. during our “class” days and hours–generally a 3 day week.

My local district, SD 64 Gulf Islands,  took an interest in the model I developed and asked if they might send someone to chat with me and observe what I was doing.  An administrator from one of the Gulf Island schools on Pender Island, Jean Way, met with me to observe what I was doing. My model was a partial basis for the development of SD 64’s Secondary Learning Centres, later renamed Student Learning Centres.

After running my private program for a number of years, I entered discussions with the local school district regarding potential employment working in their program at the local high school.  I applied & won the position, then closed my private program to take over the distance education program supervision at Gulf Islands Secondary School. A proponent of computers, I worked to bring in more computer mediated and online resources. In many cases, I continued partnering with my earlier contacts at the various regional distance education programs. During my employment with SD 64 Gulf Islands, I served as a member of the   Secondary Learning Centre Committee (later called Student Learning Centre Commitee, 1999-2006) to help form the directions our district was taking in regard to the provision and delivery of distributed learning programs, the district Technology Committee (2000-2001)–a natural extension as I was using computers extensively in the Gulf Islands Secondary Distributed Learning Program. I was also active at the provincial level as an Executive Member-at-Large for the Educators for Distributed Learning, Provincial Specialist Association, British Columbia Teachers Federation (2000-2003) and an Executive Member-at-Large in BC4 (BC Computer Curriculum Consortium, 2001-2003).