Virtual School Meanderings

January 24, 2012

Media Release From The SQE – The Sky Has Limits: A Report On Virtual Learning In Canada’s Public Schools

Note that I received this press release on Monday (and I’m sure the timing of this release in relation to the iNACOL webinar on the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report was not coincidental).  Either way, I’ll take some time over the weekend and draft a response to this ideologically driven review of others’ research and post it next week.

Media Release from the Society for Quality Education

Attention Education Reporters, Editors

The Sky Has Limits
A report on virtual learning in Canada’s public schools released today.

Study shows that significant barriers exist to e-learning expansion.

Toronto, Ont. – January 23, 2012

The Society for Quality Education is pleased to announce the publication of The Sky Has Limits:  Online Learning in K-12 Public Education in Canada a review of virtual education. The report is authored by respected educator, Dr. Paul Bennett, principal of Schoolhouse Consulting.

As students become more cyber-savvy and Apple proposes i-books to replace textbooks, online learning has fantastic potential to attract and retain learners, but there are challenges.  Dr. Bennett found: “In spite of the tremendous advantages afforded by introducing online learning programs, significant barriers stand in the way of its natural growth and expansion. With the exception of British Columbia, the spread of online learning and virtual schools has stalled and, for the vast majority of Canada’s 5 million K to 12 public school students, the sky has limits”

The report’s findings dispute those of other Canadian studies  in how the teaching profession views virtual education, “ Most provincial teacher unions show tepid support for online learning, holding fast to labour contract agreements which effectively limit online learning to a supplemental role in the K-12 public system.”

Other Key findings:

  • After enjoying an initial advantage, Canada has been overtaken by the United States in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years.
  • There is potential for governments to save money outside of traditional “bricks and mortar” schooling.
  • Private provision of e-learning is becoming more innovative and is growing rapidly.

The full report can be found at:

The Society for Quality Education is dedicated to the significant improvement of student learning in Canada. We invite journalists to visit our website

– 30 –

Contacts for this Media Release
DORETTA WILSON, Executive Director
Toronto Office
Phone:  416-231-7247 (bus)
416-526-1653 (cell)


  1. Never judge a book or a report by its cover. You seem to have taken an unusually keen interest in the SQE report, The Sky Has Limits. Perhaps that’s because it challenges some of your recent interpretation of the state of K-12 Online Learning in Canada. It is, as you well know, a literature review in a burgeoning field where you produce much of the research.

    Contrary to your assumption, it is not “ideologically driven” but rather a much needed independent perspective. The public policy issue is too important to be left to the techies. Read the report – and judge for yourself!

    We will know when Online Learning has matured as an academic field when different perspectives are welcomed, recognized, and open to fair comment.

    Comment by Educhatter — January 26, 2012 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

    • Paul, it is misleading. As I’ve indicated to you before, whether or not Canada has fallen behind is a matter of how you do the counting. If you look at the US numbers, typically speaking the numbers given by iNACOL and others (like Ambient Insights) tend to by much higher than the numbers provided by the US Department of Education. Now could that be because iNACOL is essentially the lobby group representing K-12 online learning programs, and in recent years with a greater emphasis on protecting the ability of the corporate sector to maximize profits through K-12 online learning? Could it be that Ambient Insights is a marketing company that is positioning itself as an expert in the area to assist corporations on how to profit from this growing industry? If you believe these numbers, than Canada is falling behind in participation. If you use the US DOE numbers, Canada is on par (actually slightly ahead). But wait, let’s also account for the fact that the iNACOL and Ambient (and others) include this notion of blended learning in their numbers. Since most folks involved in education in Canada refer to blended learning as simply examples of good technology integration using the Internet, those numbers aren’t counted (and for most not even considered) as part of a distance education experience (you’d increase the Quebec numbers alone four or five times if you included those figures).

      And it is ideologically driven. When the unions are the root of all evil – as you have conveniently set up in this piece (which must please the organization that contracted you to produce this report to no end, given their stated views on the position), you present an ideological analysis. Are unions preventing K-12 online learning in Canada? No. Are they opposed to K-12 online learning in Canada? No. If you want examples of union opposition and in some cases impediment of K-12 online learning, just look south of the border. Do unions in Canada fully understand or know what to make of K-12 online learning? Not yet. But instead of simply opposing its implementation they are getting involved in the process by doing research, by partnering with Departments of Education and even K-12 online learning program providers to try and figure this all out.

      The bottom line is that your report is a cursory glance at a field that you have a limited understanding of – at least based on the numerous instances where it is clear that you have little understanding of the nuances of the topic (such as you’re discussion of generational differences). It is also an ideologically driven report that bashes unions and promotes private and charter schooling which is exactly what he SEQ wanted you to do). As a researcher in this area, it is only responsible of me to point this out to those who might not know any differently.

      The education system and the educational reforms that have been happening in the United States have not produced any of the results that they have been designed to accomplish. What they have done is open the door for for profit interests to pillage the education system. A decade from now the US education system will resemble the US health care system. In Canada, we’ve already decided that we deserve better than the US health care system. I don’t understand for the life of me, why you’d even consider wanting their education system.

      But you should feel free to continue to use my research-based opposition to your ideological diatribes as a way to promote your work on your blog and in other spaces. It really does become you.

      Comment by mkbnl — January 26, 2012 @ 4:22 pm | Reply

  2. Ascribing motives and going personal is not conducive to serious public discourse. The Online Learning domain is, as you well know, evolving and — as it does –the field will involve more than just compiling data and, in all likelihood, new viewpoints will be more welcomed by the technology experts. Spiking new research and limiting the inputs will also fade in the years ahead.

    Online learning “research” is funded by trade associations, large corporations, private foundations, teacher unions, and the odd public sector agency. My report, The Sky Has Limits, is a literature review commissioned by an Ontario parent advocacy group with a miniscule grant from the Atlas Economic Foundation. In 2006, the Canadian Council on Learning ( an independent agency) covered the same ground and reached very similar conclusions. It is, in fact, the iNACOL annual reports that run in the opposite direction, highlighting the e-learning successes across Canada.

    Just to set the record straight: I’m an independent educational consultant not aligned with Microsoft, the Gates Foundation, SMART, iNACOL, or the BC Teachers Federation. That makes me something of an exception in the field. I’m open to every viewpoint and, based upon my report, only too willing to recognize and properly credit all my research sources. Nor am I inclined to belittle the work of others.

    Dr. Paul W. Bennett
    (Ed.D, Toronto)

    Comment by Paul W. Bennett — January 28, 2012 @ 11:18 am | Reply

    • Paul, you provide a misleading, uncritical report that is prepared for an organization that has been consistent in their opposition to unions and really anything from the educational establishment, but quite strong in their support of the privatization of public education. You take pot shots at me on your blog and your Facebook page, and you tell me that I’m going personal? Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.

      Let’s just take an example from the very first page of how the report is misleading. At the bottom of the first page of text (listed as page 2) you have a discussion about Tapscott’s view of this generation of students. You present Tapscott’s findings with little critique of the methodology that he used to come up with this generational label. You then provide a few statements about the work of Tom Reeves about the fact that the belief that today’s students are technologically savvy is somehow a misnomer (again without really examining why he comes to that position). But in the very next paragraph, you return to the position about the technical abilities of this generation of students and their adoption of mobile technology. You basically ignore the caveat you just provided from Reeves that this is all based upon no or faulty research. You also ignore the realities that much of Canada lacks equitable or even reasonable mobile coverage, and the fact that data plan rates in Canada are among the highest in any country.

      To use another example from the press release. You state that “After enjoying an initial advantage, Canada has been overtaken by the United States in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years.” If you compare the 2009-10 school year, Canada was on par with the United States when it comes to the level of activity. If you compare the 2010-11 school year, it depends on the figures that you use. If you use the US DOE number of 1.8 million than the US sits at just over 3%. However, if you use the private sector market analysis done by Ambient Insights of 4 million, than the US sits at just over 7%. The Canadian figure for 2010-11 was a conservative 4.2%. I say conservative because the Canadian figures do not include blended learning. For example, the Learn program in Quebec only offers distance education to several hundred students, but they have more than 150,000 students registered in their system using their materials. The Remote Networked Schools initiative in Quebec does not offer any “distance education” but their entire network is based upon online professional development for teachers and blended learning through the linking of classrooms by video-conferencing. None of the RNS numbers are included. Some would go so far to argue that the inclusion of blended learning figures in the United States is done for political reasons, to continue to make the case for the increase corporate involvement in K-12 online learning as these companies continue to spend millions of dollars lobbying for favourable legislative change. Most educators in Canada would see the definition of blended learning as simply good technology integration using the Internet, and something they have been doing for fifteen plus years.

      I could go on and on, as there are numerous factual inaccuracies, misleading statements, and conclusions drawn without any data to support them on each and every page. the bottom line is that you began this report with the belief that online learning – and technology in education in general – is a good thing, that we need more of it, and that anything that might hinder that in any way is an obstacle. The way someone who was independent, writing from an independent standpoint would approach this is to first examine whether online learning was actually an effective way of delivering education. If you had started there, you’d see that the research isn’t that supportive when it comes to the use of online learning with most students. The types of students that have shown to have success in online learning are – for the most part – the ones that are accessing it right now.

      As another example, if you take a look at the union bashing in Nova Scotia that you do in the report from a researcher’s standpoint. The clauses include one that states that courses should be taught be certified teachers. I think we can all agree that we want all of our courses – online or face-to-face – taught by someone who has obtain teacher certification in the jurisdiction they wish to work in. There is a clause that states that distance education – both for the teacher who teaches it and for any supporting teacher – should be counted as a part of their teaching load. We don’t want this to be a volunteer enterprise that teachers do out of the goodness of their hearts because we’ll end up with uneven opportunities (and overworked teachers who don’t have time or the willingness to provide everything needed to their online courses). There are two clauses related to the specific kind of supervisory and support structure that schools need to put into place at the local level. Research out of Newfoundland, Alabama, and North Carolina all point to the importance of school-based support in the potential success of online students (and the Newfoundland research indicates that when that support is an add on to the teachers existing responsibilities it often gets overlooked or done in a cursory manner). There is a clause that provides for a mandatory meeting with parents each year to ensure that they understand how their child is going to be educated in the online environment (as opposed to some district in Florida for example, where students were simply placed in online classes without their knowledge – and in some instances against their will – in order to meet some arbitrary class size limit). There is a clause that limits the number of students per section of online course, which is a recognition that teaching online takes more time per student than teaching in the classroom. Many K-12 online learning programs in both Canada and the United States have such limitations (including VHS and FLVS – two of the largest public virtual schools in the United States; as well as many BC programs), Nova Scotia’s just happens to be the only one that is codified into a collective agreement. There is a clause that states that online teachers must receive mandatory professional development, something that the research out of Boise State has shown to be of critical importance in the development of online teachers (and research into teaching in general has found to have significant impact – when done well – for all teachers). The nature of change in the tools and what we know about how to deliver education online should make mandatory PD a no brainer. There is a clause that states that distance education should be a part of the students’ schedule. This means that the student should be given time in school, as a part of their regular schedule to take their distance education class. This is how pretty much all supplemental online learning is done in North America, it just happens to be codified in Nova Scotia. There is a clause that says that teachers can forced to teach online. I think everyone can agree that in the same way we want classroom teachers who want to be in the classroom teaching our youth, we also want online teacher who want to be in the online environment. A clause that states that a committee of teachers, administrators and departmental officials have to get together twice a year to look at how distance education is being delivered. This provides a constant and regular round of feedback, as opposed to some provinces that have distance education strategies that were developed in the 1980s and 1990s or others where they have been three plus years trying to revise their distance education plans and policies. This clause creates an annual process for that to occur. There is a clause that states that courses should meet the provincial curriculum, but also puts into place a process to allow for locally developed courses to be created and approved to address local needs. When you look at these items, clause-by-clause, the only person who reaches the conclusion that “the delivery of [online] education is limited by teacher union contracts” (p. 3) is the one who is predisposed to go there in the first place. That’s not an independent evaluation or an assessment based on the available research, that’s an ideologically motivated conclusion.

      And for the record, I’m an Assistant Professor at a university where I enjoy academic freedom (at least until the neo-liberals take it away from us). I’m not aligned with anyone, although I have been heavily involved with both public supplemental programs and even for-profit full-time programs; and I have been researching this field since 1999. I assess everything I read based on the lens of available research that has found to be reliable and valid.

      Comment by mkbnl — January 28, 2012 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  3. […] is the pattern for me, I was able to post that document to my blog within a day or so (in this case the entry appeared on Tuesday).  As this was a slightly revised copy of a report that I had read as a part […]

    Pingback by More On K-12 Online Learning In Canada « Virtual School Meanderings — February 1, 2012 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

  4. Media Release From The SQE – The Sky Has Limits: A Report On Virtual Learning In Canada’s Public Schools « Virtual School Meanderings…

    “Note that I received this press release on Monday (and I’m sure the timing of this release in relation to the iNACOL webinar on the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report was not coincidental). Either way, I’ll take some time over…

    Trackback by Teaching and Developing Online — February 4, 2012 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

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