Virtual School Meanderings

December 2, 2008

Teachers And K-12 Online Learning In Alberta

My interest in the Canadian K-12 online learning landscape ave turned to Alberta lately.  Not for any particular reason, although a doctoral student of mine and I are working on a short manuscript about online charter schools in that province.  I was looking through some of the Alberta education websites the other day and came across some interesting things.

Alberta, as you may remember from the A Snapshot State of the Nation Study: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report that I recently co-authors for the North American Council of Online Learning, was the province who’s official regulations for online learning included a statement that read:

The Ministry of Education governs distance learning in Alberta and provides a province-wide option, although there are a substantial number of school districts that operate their own programmes. However, the Ministry does not provide specific regulations for online learning. In fact, in their Guide to Education document they specifically advise schools to consider “how student attendance is to be defined, the role of parents in instruction, assessment and supervision of student work, staffing levels, time frames for student access to the instructional expertise of teachers, student evaluation practices, requirements for programme access by students living outside Alberta, programme decisions; e.g., self-paced or teacher controlled, how to deliver all outcomes of Alberta programmes of study, provision for writing achievement tests and diploma examinations, programme and teacher evaluation, [and] how to provide alternative forms of programme delivery for non-resident students who are experiencing difficulty in the online environment” (Government of Alberta, 2008, p. 67).

Anyway, I was searching the Alberta Teachers’ Association website a few days ago and came upon some interesting sections.  In a section entitled Policy, under the heading of Policy and Position Papers, I found this quote:

16.A.20 BE IT RESOLVED, that distributed learning can augment and enrich traditional delivery methods for K–12 students and has the potential to extend learning opportunities for some Alberta students within the school setting. [MKB - Note that distributed learning is the term they use for all forms of K-12 distance education.]

This was a long-range policy item passed or accepted in 2007.  I find this interesting for several reasons.  It only speaks to students within the school setting, so what about students who are homeschooled or take all of their curriculum through distributed learning programs?  My understanding is that Alberta has some of the most progressive homeschooling legislation in the country.

Also note the phrase “augment and enrich”, as opposed to replace.  So, distributed learning can be used to augment and enrich the experience of students that are in a school setting.  What about students who want to replace one or more of the courses in their school setting with a distributed learning course?

It has always surprised me that teachers’ unions, particularly in Canada where K-12 distance education has such a long and rich history, have not really embraced online learning (or in this case distributed learning).  Looking my own experience as a classroom teacher in Newfoundland and Labrador, my school was on a five by fourteen timetable.  This meant that we had a fourteen day schedule, with five on hour classes scheduled each day.  This allowed for seven slots or seven different courses to be offered.  Teachers in my district taught six of those seven slots.  While I was in a rural school, so my classes tend to not be to large.  I had some as small as 12-15 students and others as large as 30-33 students.  If I had to guess, in my four years as a classroom teacher I probably had an average class size of about 28 students per class.  Over the six courses I taught, that meant I was responsible for 168 students in my own schedule.

Early in my career as a classroom teacher, the province developed a virtual school called the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI).  In the first year or two, I remember that the CDLI capped their teachers at 80 students.  I believe that number increased to 100 at some point, and may have even increased to 120 students.  I have no idea what they use now or even if there is a cap anymore.  But for the first few years of operation you need one and a half or two online teachers to handle the same number of students that I maintained as a classroom teacher.

The logic behind the lower number was the fact that the CDLI believed that the interactions between teacher and student simply took more time in an online environment becuase they were mediated by technology.  I remember one of the online teacher’s in my own district would ofte use this example:

If I have a student in the face-to-face environmet who has a question about the causes of World War I, I can ask them, “Well, you remember the Boer War, right?” and just from the look on their face I know exactly where I have to start my explanation.  In an online environment, particularly one that is only synchronous for only half of the alloted time, the interactions necessary to get to that point may take numerous e-mails spread out over several hours, days even, before we figure out where we need to start and to be able to address all of that student’s questions.  That times a hell of a lot more time than simply asking, “Well, you remember the Boer War, right?”

And I always agreed with the logic of that online teacher!  Technology-mediated communication always seems to take more time, because of the lack of visual cues I suppose.  I know technology is changing so that it allows us to do more with less bandwidth, but in many instances we aren’t there yet.

So if we aren’t there yet, and if teaching online takes more time so we give them fewer students per teacher, that should mean more teachers.  I think this, along with the partnership building and the history of K-12 distance education in Newfoundland and Labrador, was one of the reasons the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association never seemed to take issue with the province-wide virtual school.  Probably also why I am always a little surprised when I see things like this from other teachers’ associations and unions.

Anyway, more on Alberta and the Alberta Teachers’ Association – although about a different topic – later in the week.

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