Virtual School Meanderings

February 1, 2012

More On K-12 Online Learning In Canada

Since we are talking research today, I figured it was time that I officially responded to the report The Sky Has Limits:  Online Learning in K-12 Public Education in Canada. The past two weeks have been interesting for me when it comes to this report. I received the press release for the report last Monday. As 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 of the iNACOL international project, I was able to skim through the current version to see if the issues that the iNACOL committee had identified (and that caused it to be excluded from that project) had been addressed.  I was optimistic that this would happen, as I spent about two hours on the phone with the author prior to the holidays (and I had hoped because I’m of the opinion that we need more reliable and valid research about the Canadian context).  I have to say that I was disappointed to see that the report still presented a view of K-12 online learning in Canada that took the position that online learning is good and there needs to be more of it, and that any form of centralized control by government or teachers unions were seen as impediments to putting every child in front of a screen.

I won’t re-hash some of my specific concerns about the report here (and there are simply too many to go page-by-page).  If you review the comments to my earlier entry, you’ll see some of the main issues that I raise about assumptions and/or conclusions the author made that simply aren’t supported based on the reliable and valid research that we have available, including:

  • today’s youth are digitally savvy learners that need to be engaged in creative, technology-based ways
  • how participation in K-12 online learning is counted in Canada and the United States (particularly when it who is doing the counting and with blended learning)
  • the premise that online learning is good and we should be doing more of it
  • provincial and territorial governments, and teachers’ unions, impede the development and growth of K-12 online learning
  • private companies and parental choice can drive quality online learning better than the public sector

What has been more troubling to me is the way in which this individual has used me as a way to promote this report.  Beyond reviewing this report as a potential case study as a member of iNACOL’s committee preparing the Online and Blended Learning: Case Studies from K-12 Schools Around the World book, my first interaction with the author of this report was when he decided to call into question the validity of my own research on his blog.  I began to interact with him via e-mail and made the connection between the individual and the iNACOL project, and when he indicated the organization was still intending to release the report, I was eager to help to try and improve upon the reliable and validity of the report.  As I noted above, in addition to the numerous e-mails that we exchanged (and the active participation I eventually took on his blog), we spoke for two hours going page-by-page about the issues that both the iNACOL committee and that I had with the credibility of the report.

When the author released the report, he even used our conversation as part of his promotion to attempt to enhance the credibility of his findings:

However, based on comparing the report with the earlier draft, little had been changed and many of the problems that both the iNACOL committee and I had raised were still present.  So when a reporter from The Globe and Mail called, I raised some of the same concerns with her that I raised directly with the author.  As the reporter in question wrote what I thought was a poor article – at least in terms of providing a very cursory understanding of what is a detailed topic – I participated in the comments on that article.  The author of the report, seeing this criticism – which shouldn’t have been knew to him as I had been raising these concerns since November – decided to use my criticism to also help promote his report and decided to make this issue very personal; calling into question my independence, my abilities as a researcher, and my knowledge of the field (even calling me names and stating that I’m jealous of the media coverage of his report) on his blog and in other sources.

More recently, in places that have re-posted or re-hashed the original Globe article, the author has now move to the tactic to say that since his report is more consistent with the findings of Canadian Council on Learning’s (CCL) 2009 report entitled State of E-Learning in Canada.  What the author doesn’t tell readers is that the CCL report is primarily based on adult populations, specifically post-secondary online learning.  The only references to primary or secondary education in the entire report includes:

  • Five levels of literacy…. Level 3: Adequate to handle the demands of everyday life and work in an advanced society. This roughly denotes the skill level required for successful secondary-school completion and college entry. (p. 17)
  • Historically, distance education included correspondence courses and courses delivered over the radio (see text box, p. 33) or television. It was also geared primarily to post-secondary education and adult learning. With advancements in computerized technologies, these older methods of course delivery are being replaced and distance learning is increasing its reach to other audiences and contexts—such as secondary students and informal learning. (p. 32)
  • Growth of E-Learning in Canada Over the past decade, e-learning has made a remarkable transition into Canadian schools and businesses. As Human Resources and Social (now Skills) Development Canada (2003) notes, the growth of e-learning can be attributed to several factors including: …. increased sophistication of e-learning users—citizens, lifelong learners, students in K–12 (kindergarten to grade 12, or elementary and secondary school) and post-secondary education, workplace managers and human resources specialists, etc. (p. 34)
  • The education sector has moved toward the adoption of learning technologies in formal educational institutions such as elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. Learning technologies have also penetrated early childhood and health-related environments, and can be found throughout communities—in libraries, cultural and community organizations, and in homes. (p. 53)
  • Ungerleider and Burns (2002) have noted the lack of methodologically rigorous evidence of e-learning’s effectiveness in promoting achievement, motivation, and meta-cognitive learning, and in facilitating instruction in content areas in elementary and secondary schools. They also emphasized that student academic achievement does not improve simply as a result of having access to computers in the classroom: concurrent changes to instruction are also needed. (p. 62)
  • The Inclusive Learning Exchange: barrier-free education The Inclusive Learning Exchange (TILE) enables the learners to choose the type of information display that best suits their needs. For example, a learner with a visual disability can display information in a large font; and a learner with a hearing disability can see written captions of audio material. This technology, which applies to learning environments ranging from primary, secondary and post-secondary schools to workplace training, provides continuous learning opportunities for Canadians. TILE’s approach is being implemented across Canada and internationally by a network of learning communities from several sectors. (p. 91)

And all of pages 42-45, which state:

ICT use in elementary and secondary schools.

Access to learning technologies in schools can open up a wide range of opportunities and enable more effective learning and teaching. The educational use of computers and the internet can provide enriched learning opportunities for students and are a useful pedagogical resource for teachers. At the elementary- and secondary-school (K–12) levels, considerable effort has been devoted to acquiring computer hardware and software for schools, connecting them to the internet, and helping educators improve their own ICT related skills and knowledge

Computers are now widely available for teacher and student use in Canadian schools. During the 2003–2004 academic year, more than one million computers were available for use by 5.3 million students in elementary and secondary schools across Canada—representing an estimated ratio of one computer for every five students. This ratio was better than the average among OECD countries, where one computer was available for every 13 students. The estimated median student-to-internet-connected-computer ratio in Canada was somewhat higher, with one computer for every 5.5 students.

The number of computers available per student in Canada depends on the size of the school and its grade level(s). More computers are available per student in smaller schools (smaller, in terms of student numbers) and secondary schools. The 1999 Second International Technology in Education Survey (SITES) confirmed that computers were generally more readily available to students in higher grades (such as in secondary school) and were more likely to be located in computer labs (45%) than in classrooms (41%).

Other studies, however, have suggested that regardless of where computers are located, teachers are using computer technology—most commonly, word processing software and the internet/intranet as a tool for disseminating information. Teachers also make frequent use of software applications for specialneeds students.

[Table from page 43]

Virtual schools and online courses

Virtual schooling* in Canada first began in 1994–1995, and advancements in K–12 e-learning continue to develop across the country.148 According to the 2008 report by the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), Canada has differing jurisdictional approaches to K–12 e-learning—often consisting of varied combinations of province-wide and district-based programs.

In 2003–2004, more than one-third (36%) of secondary schools across Canada had students participating in electronic or online courses. The curriculum of most online courses was developed by the school board, district, jurisdiction or province/territory. The proportion of students enrolled in online courses differed according to the instructional level, type and size of school, and geographic location. More rural schools than urban schools reported having students who participated in online courses. Close to 40% of rural secondary schools reported offering online courses to their students, compared with 35% of urban secondary schools. Only 3% of elementary schools had students participating in online courses in 2003–2004.

[Table from page 44]

Online courses often supplement the curriculum, particularly when a course is either unavailable within a school or cannot be offered due to limited resources or teachers. Such course offerings can prepare students for post-secondary education, particularly if the school cannot offer the necessary prerequisites for a university or college program.


Keewaytinook Internet High School:
increasing access to high-school completion Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) enables students to remain in their home communities while taking a variety of Ontario Ministry of Education-inspected courses toward their Ontario high-school diploma. Students attend school all day at their KiHS community classroom, as arranged by their Local Education Authority and Chief and Council. In 2008, 11 communities were involved—the First Nations of Bearskin Lake, Deer Lake, Fort Severn, Fort William, Keewaywin, Mishkeegogamag, North Spirit Lake, Poplar Hill, Sachigo Lake, Saugeen and Weagamow.

There is a case study of one K-12 focused program on page 86.

Sunchild E-Learning Community

Aboriginal learners are the most disadvantaged segment of the Canadian school population. Typical challenges of communities include the lack of on-site secondary schools—requiring learners to move from home to attend secondary school, or face lengthy commutes to the nearest school.

Established in 1999, the Sunchild E-Learning Community is a First Nations controlled school that provides Aboriginal learners of all ages with access to high-school diploma courses, basic adult upgrading, trades, industry training and university courses. As well, Sunchild’s use of an e-learning platform eliminates the geographic barrier that limits the ability of many First Nations schools to attract and retain high-quality teachers.

Sunchild offers two types of programs: a blended program, and a standalone e-learning program. The blended program combines e-learning with complementary classroom-based instruction. In contexts where no other high-school courses are offered on-reserve, the entire high-school program is offered through the e-learning model. Students are expected to attend real time instructor-supported e-learning—which involves audio, whiteboard and chat capabilities enabled by compressed software (WebCT and Elluminate Live) operating over a common phone line324—and to participate in tutorials. Students can also access archived classroom instruction in real time. An on-site student mentor, typically from the local community, provides support resources, assists with technical issues, helps students remain on track with assignments, and acts as a community liaison and coach.

The Conference Board of Canada has concluded that “in the context of current financial realities, the Sunchild E-learning Community presents a unique, First Nations-oriented, learner-centric and reasonable cost education service that delivers positive educational results.” High-school graduation rates are 80%, compared with estimated on-reserve graduation rates of 20%. Success is largely attributable to “the e-learning model that brings teachers and curricula into diverse classroom sites through the use of collaborative technologies.”

Finally, there is a fair amount of K-12 content in the “Provincial and Territorial Governments” section on pages 91-94.

Many provincial initiatives have been embarked upon through partnerships with federal departments. The integration of ICTs in education across provincial jurisdictions has resulted in varied ICT policies and initiatives. The reasons for this are two-fold: 1) the rapid rate of technological change that continues to create new forms of use; and 2) provincial governments’ requirement to identify the arrangement that will best accommodate regional differences.

Provincial initiatives date back to the late 1970s, when Newfoundland and Labrador established the first province-wide distance-learning network— Telehealth & Educational Technology Resource Agency (TETRA)—in 1977. In 1986, Ontario created Contact North/Contact Nord in Northern Ontario, a program that remains strong today. Both networks, built on a uniquely Canadian premise, progressed with technological advancements—beginning as audio and audio-graphic networks that used simple teleconferencing and computing applications, and evolving into online e-learning networks with the maturity of the web. Considerable efforts are still underway within most provinces and varying approaches have been adopted, depending on the province, level of education and desired learning style.

In collaboration with Industry Canada’s SchoolNet program, the Canadian Education Association (CEA) profiled the Canadian policy landscape for ICTs in education in its Focus on…ICT. Drawing on the CEA’s review of the provincial policy landscape, select policy perspectives of each province are highlighted below.*

The Atlantic provinces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia focused initiatives on supporting technology in education, and on funding for infrastructure within the provinces. Prince Edward Island’s strategy specified technical standards and outlined key performance measures. Nova Scotia’s vision set out key outcomes for ICTs in education. It stated that selection of technologies should be based on the province’s general beliefs about learning, current learning theory, affordability of the technologies, educational value in relation to cost, equity of learner access and acceptance of the technology in various learning contexts.

Alberta’s commitment to investments in ICT infrastructure was the basis for its SuperNet project (see text box, below)—which provided a high-speed, highcapacity broadband network linking government offices, schools, universities, health-care facilities and libraries. The project became the backbone for connecting communities throughout the province—to date, more than 4,200 connections have been developed across more than 420 communities in Alberta.

Alberta’s Distributed Learning Strategy

In 2004, Alberta Education developed a Distributed Learning Strategy, an initiative aimed at ensuring that strategies for technology development, distribution and use were linked to the future of formal education. Alberta Education is working with stakeholders to develop a strategic plan that clearly articulates the changing nature of the global world. The plan’s objective is to align the skills students will need in the future with educational strategies that use technology. The ministry hopes that its information collection will provide equity, access, and standards around distributed learning opportunities in the province. The province has introduced SuperNet to provide broadband access to all its communities, creating an infrastructure where technologies such as video-conferencing and other emerging technologies can be supported.

Quebec pursued a less traditional approach by identifying technology as one of five fields of study, not merely as a means of teaching or learning other subjects. The province, however, also recognizes the importance of technology within all aspects of life: “Technology is everywhere and students must be introduced to it at an early age in order to understand the world in which they live.”

Similarly, Manitoba identified technology—along with literacy and communication, problem-solving and human relations—as a foundational skill that prepares students for their roles in society.360 The province recognizes that technology has the potential to enable students to learn but also to enhance their understanding of the existing links between technology, society and the environment.

Provincial differences in the approach to ICTs in education are especially acute in provinces with unique geographic and cultural differences. The territories of Nunavut and Yukon have viewed technology as a tool to preserve and enrich learning of their local cultures, traditions and languages. The isolated and remote nature of all three territories (Nunavut, Yukon and the Northwest Territories) has presented unique challenges. Learning through technology has been considered instrumental to bridging the distance and providing learners with greater access to educational resources and opportunities.


Established in 2002, BCcampus is a consortium of 26 public post-secondary institutions, with a mandate to provide British Columbia learners with a web-based access point to postsecondary e-learning programs and services. As Education Minister Shirley Bond stated October 30, 2002, the mission of BCcampus is to “bring together the expertise and resources of all of BC’s public post-secondary institutions into a new collaborative model for distance education…[to] make education available to all students, particularly those living in rural and remote communities, and those whose lives demand a more flexible schedule for their education.”

Since its inception, use of BCcampus application and registration services has increased. Growth in registrations rose from 30% per year in 2004 to 50% growth in 2006. The BCcampus portal has facilitated over 15,000 enrolments in online courses offered within the province’s post-secondary institutions.

British Columbia established the Provincial Learning Network (PLNet) to improve “geographic inequity caused by the high cost of telecommunication services to schools and colleges located in small urban and rural and remote communities.” PLNet was founded and continues to operate on the core principles of universal access, equitable pricing and services driven by client needs, and commitment to a regional and community focus.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Education also acknowledged equity and access as important themes for education policy and used the strategy of partnership-building to achieve its technology goals for education within the province.

* The provincial policy perspectives highlighted in this section draw on a secondary source; they do not represent an in-depth analysis of all provincial and territorial policy-related material.

That’s all of the K-12 material.  Now, for those of you that are still with me, you be the judge.  Does this material support the following positions (all taken from the press release for this report)?

  • “students [are] more cyber savvy”
  • “online learning has fantastic potential to attract and retain learners”
  • “the spread of online learning and virtual schools has stalled”
  • “Most provincial teacher unions show tepid support for online learning, holding fast to labour contract agreements which effectively limit online learning”
  • “Canada has been overtaken by the United States in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years”
  • “Private provision of e-learning is becoming more innovative”

I know this has been a lengthy response (and it is only about a tenth of the things I could say about what is misleading or inaccurate about this report.  Basically, this report presents ideological conclusions based on a skewed or selective reading of others’ research.  While I’m suspect that the author will respond to this entry (and if it is in the form of comments to this entry I’ll respond with additional examples) and will continue to use these personal attacks to promote his report, this is the last that I will formally have to say on the topic.

As I conclude, let me direct you to a radio interview that I did with a British Columbia station.


  1. Sorry to hear of the unsavory responses of Mr. Bennett. Here’s hoping you find some unbiased research on K-12 virtual schools at SITE (shameless self plug since I’m presenting there).


    Comment by Dennis — February 1, 2012 @ 5:32 pm | Reply

    • Dennis, I’m used to bias, ideologically-motivated “research.” I’m not used to the personal and character attacks.

      Comment by mkbnl — February 1, 2012 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

  2. Ah, just comfort yourself in the knowledge that personal and character attacks tend to be the last resort of those who lack anything relevant to say. I think they also like to use personal and character attacks as a form of intimidation to get you to be quiet.

    Comment by Dennis — February 1, 2012 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

    • Well, I’ve said all I’m going to say on the report (unless the author responds directly here) – although I believe one of my Canadian academic colleagues wants to take a swing in the form of a guest entry later this week.

      Comment by mkbnl — February 1, 2012 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

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  4. […] on E-learning, and when Barbour read “The sky has limits” he was, to put it mildly, unimpressed. So too was Dr. Geoff Roulet of Queen’s University, both of whom considered Bennett’s view […]

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