Virtual School Meanderings

February 3, 2012

Guest Blogger: The Sky Has Limits – An Academic Response

Earlier this week, Dr. Geoff Roulet of Queen’s University contacted me to see if I had seen the report “The Sky Has Limits.”  During our discussion, Dr. Roulet indicated that he would like to write a response to this report and I offered up this space for a guest blog entry.  For those unfamiliar with Dr. Roulet, over the past five years he has been responsible for teaching a course entitled, “Teaching and Learning Online” (which was described in one of the brief issue papers in the fourth annual “State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada” report).  As is the tradition at Virtual School Meandering, this will be the only entry today.

On January 24 the website for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s largest newspapers, presented an article under the heading Canadian schools falling behind in online learning, report says. This story featured a recent report, The Sky Has Limits: Online Learning in Canadian K-12 Public Education, authored by Paul Bennett and issued by the Society for Quality Education (SQE). I wish to comment of this report and the claims it makes.

It is interesting that much of the data for The Sky Has Limits paper comes from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) report State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada 2011, with a full one-third of the 59 footnotes in the former citing the iNACOL publication. But, the conclusions drawn are quite different. Bennett states that “Canada’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) public schools are lagging in fully embracing the potential of the Internet and in integrating online learning into the public school system” (p. 2). The iNACOL report does not draw such sweeping conclusions but does paint a significantly more positive picture; noting that across Canada the number of students involved in online distance education is growing and that research shows that virtually all schools are connected to the Internet with at least 40% of high schools using this access for online or blended learning. How can these starkly different conclusions arise? The answer seems to lie in the political message running through the SQE report.

The emphasis on the failings of the “public school system” in the quote above is not surprising given that a stated aim of the SQE is to “make it possible for all parents to access alternatives outside the system – for example, charter schools or tax-supported independent schools and home-schools” (see http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/about/category/C13/). Although the Bennett report provides no logical argument from the data to its conclusions it ends with the observation that there is a “glimmer of hope that school choice, innovation, and quality, now seeded in Alberta, may yet spread to other Canadian provinces” (p. 26). The Sky Has Limits report provides few details on any of the programs provided under Ministry of Education mandates, but dedicates considerable space to independent for-profit programs such as that of the Virtual High School [VHS] in Ontario. Bennett tells us that VHS “offers classes 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, an emphasis upon student initiative and self-reliance, continuously updated cutting-edge content, pioneering and enthusiastic teachers, and individual attention” (p. 12). All these positive reports are quotes lifted from VHS promotional material and not conclusions arrived at from an analysis of the schools’ programs. It would have been as easy and equally reliable “research” to quote the Ontario Ministry of Education, e-Learning Ontario website and report that through this program school boards and students “gain access to high-quality e-learning credit courses” (see http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/elearning/aboutus.html). A close reading of The Sky Has Limits suggests that its primary purpose is to further the SQE’s promotion of government financial support for independent and charter schools.

It is unfortunate that Bennett lets a political agenda overtake the opportunity to pose some significant questions concerning K-12 online learning in Canada. The first of these concerns just how much do we know about the state of online learning. If we restrict online learning to mean credit courses delivered completely via the Internet the data provided by the provincial Ministries or Departments of Education are probably quite accurate. Records of school credits are retained by these agencies along with information concerning the institution delivering the course. The problem comes when we expand our view to include “blended learning”, which both the SQE and iNACOL reports discuss. Bennett does not provide a definition for blended learning, while Michael Barbour, the editor of the iNACOL report, points to the Blended learning Virtual School Glossary project for definitions. Here we read that “Blended online learning is a balanced mix of traditional face-to-face instructional activities with appropriately designed online experiences”. To me this seems like a totally reasonable description, but it does raise significant problems when it comes to determining the extent of blended learning in Canada. In my research in Ontario I interact with a significant number of classroom-based teachers who provide “appropriately designed online experiences” for their classes. The Ministry of Education has no count of these programs. In fact, since many of these teachers employ tools mounted on servers not connected to the school system, school board administrations are likely to be unaware of the extent of blended online learning taking place within their jurisdictions. Thus I would argue that when blended learning is included the numbers reported by iNACOL are probably low and without a solid methodology to identify and count these programs one needs to question Bennett’s conclusion that “newer e-learning opportunities for students are few and far between in Canada’s public schools and more likely to be found in private schools outside the state system. Social learning with Facebook and Twitter is extremely rare, as is the use of social media software such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, and virtual worlds” (p. 24).

Bennett observes that, “Online learning has a world of potential for promoting freer, more open access to the Internet and opening the door to new innovations taking better advantage of ‘e-Learning 2.0’. Conventional e-learning systems based upon instructional packets, delivered to students as teacher-evaluated assignments remain the norm in every Canadian provincial and territorial K-12 system” (p. 24). On this point I would agree with the SQE paper if we restrict our view to fully online credit courses delivered by government or private agencies. Many of the exciting developments using Internet based tools to support student collaboration are to be found within blended learning programs that exist in publicly funded and some private schools.

This guest post is contributed by Dr. Geoff Roulet of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Dr. Roulet welcomes your comments below.

17 Comments »

  1. Nova Scotia’s new Kids & Learning First plan proposes expanded Virtual Schooling and networked schools to “protect the quality of education in rural communities.”

    On February 3, Education Minister Ramona Jennex pledged to triple the number of students (from 500 to 1,500) taking on-line courses through the NS Virtual School. Over the next 3 years, the number of NS online courses will double from 22 to 44 in a move recognizing that the province was lagging in implementing online learning programs. (p. 16)

    For the full report, see
    http://novascotia.ca/kidsandlearning/pub/KL-en.pdf

    The key question: Is Nova Scotia a leader or a laggard? It is abundantly clear that the new Nova Scotia Education direction takes its cue from the SQE report’s findings rather than the rosy iNACOL assessment.

    Comment by Paul W. Bennett — February 4, 2012 @ 8:46 am | Reply

    • Wow! Another misleading conclusion… At no point in any of the iNACOL reports do I indicate that one province is leading or behind any of the others in terms of innovation. I present the statistics as they were provided to me by the various agencies to give people a sense of the level of participation. I also state that given each province has individual needs that there are a variety of provincial models that exist. Additionally, in my responses to you I have only indicated that Canada has not fallen behind the United States.

      I should note that it is kind of ironic that you are now applauding the Government of Nova Scotia for this centralized action, when your report is very clear that these centralized approaches controlled by the Ministries of Education are clearly limiting innovation. I wonder which f these two positions you truly believe in or is this just a case of once again twisting the facts to fit your position.

      Finally, do you honestly believe that in the ten business days since the release of your report that due to the content of that report the Nova Scotia Ministry of Education put into place this program? Or is this possible an extension of the changes that have been occurring for the past year as Nova Scotia moves from a de-centralized to more centralized model?

      Comment by mkbnl — February 4, 2012 @ 11:35 am | Reply

  2. My SQE report THE SKY HAS LIMITS has succeeded in creating a very much needed “educational disruption” among academics in the technology field.

    Professor Geoff Roulet offers a very thoughtful, reasoned response to the SQE report, in stark contrast to the incredibly defensive reaction of others.What I really appreciate about Geoff Roulet (and always have, over the years) is his willingness to accept the legitimacy of viewpoints that might differ from his own. I learned that in conversations with my good friend, John Eix, another fine Ontario educator.

    Having said that, Professor Roulet seems to assume that assessing online learning is strictly an “academic, value-free” exercise and that the INACOL reports have no political slant at all. That’s news to me. Surveying the recent reports, I found them to be consistently positive in tone, regularly championing government initiatives and various pilot projects without examining whether they are scalable. Until 2011, the iNACOL reports, funded by the trade association, were cobbled together from a combination of official and insider reports, raising legitimate questions about their consistency.

    I’m a policy analyst not an expert in IT or online learning, but I do have considerable experience conducting “literature reviews” and assessing national education trends. After reviewing the literature, I simply concluded that the independent Canadian Council on Learning report was far closer to the mark than the association-funded reports.

    The SQE report is a “literature review” rather than an original report and his response shows just how thorough and careful I was in critically evaluating Barbour’s INACOL reports. It is a little disappointing that he neglected to mention, for full disclosure, that he (Geoff Roulet) is the Ontario iNACOL contact and contributed a piece of his own to the report under evaluation.

    On one critical point Roulet and I are in full agreement: The iNACOL reports on Canada seriously undervalue the contributions of innovative schools outside the system, such as Virtual High School (Ontario) and the Christian Heritage School (Kelowna, BC). In fact, until I started researching the private school innovators, Barbour barely mentioned them in his public-school-centred analysis of Canadian K-12 education. It the SQE report helps to promote more openness and flexibility within the system, then it will have achieved its real objectives.

    Comment by Paul W. Bennett — February 4, 2012 @ 9:44 am | Reply

    • First, let me clarify an important point. Dr. Roulet is not my or iNACOL’s Ontario contact. He did contribute a brief issue paper to the 2011 edition of the State of the Nation report that he wrote and I or anyone else had any role in preparing other than I asked that he write about the course he has been teaching at Queen’s that was designed to prepare teachers to teach online. If you look over the years, the following individuals from Ontario have been formally thanked for their contributions to the report: Alison Slack of the Ontario e-Learning Consortium (2008, 2010), Darrin Potter of Keewaytinok Internet High School (2009, 2010), Hubert Lalande of the Centre franco-ontaren de ressourceces pedagogiques (2010), Nicole Cadieux of the Consortium d’appreentissage virtuel de langue francaise de l’Ontario (2010), Annette Levesque & Martha Blythe of the Ottawa-Carleton eSchool (2010), and Mark Zielinski & Julie Boudreault of e-Learning Ontario (2011). I should also note that Steve Baker of the Virtual High School-Ontario always updates their enrollment numbers each year (and is generally the first to respond, being the good Newfoundlander he is – and an old friend to boot).

      Again, let me correct a few things, as it is clear that Dr. Bennett doesn’t understand the field of K-12 online learning well enough beyond his ideologically-jaded review of a small percentage of the literature. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is not a trade association. It is a professional association for those involved in the field of K-12 online learning, comprised mostly of practitioners (i.e., K-12 online learning teachers and administrators) – and I should note often criticized (especially by me) for taking neo-liberal positions that are consistent with their corporate membership.

      The State of the Nation report has been funded by Connections Academy (2009, 2010, 2011) and K12, Inc. (2010) – who are both for profit, cyber charter providers; Desire2Learn (2010) – who is a for profit, learning management company; Digitel Inc. (2011) – who is a for profit, multimedia development company; and Heritage Christian Schools (2011) – who are a private school in British Columbia. The 2008 report was printed for free by iNACOL (i.e., their swallowed the cost of the editing, formatting and printing), but they have not providing any funding to the report. In fact, in subsequent years a portion of the sponsorship provided by the aforementioned companies was allocated to iNACOL to cover their costs.

      In terms of methodology, much of the data for these reports has come from Ministries of Education (with the exception of the 2008 report). In some years, due to the bureaucratic nature of obtaining official permission from ministers, deputy ministers and other senior ministry officials some provinces have chose to provide unofficial information. In other instances, those practitioners on the ground (many of whom had been seconded to their Ministry of Education for the purpose of K-12 distance education at one point or another) are often in a much better position to describe how regulation and policy gets enacted (e.g., in Ontario there is supposed to be a fee that districts charge each other to enroll students in another districts e-learning program, but through various consortium agreements these fees are often waived). Finally, in many instances the data on activity and regulation is available publicly (e.g., the NSTU collective agreement or the level distance education enrollment in Alberta or Newfoundland and Labrador).

      I should also mention that the report is not designed to be positive or negative. It is designed to tell the story of what is happening. For example, the 2011 reports indicates that there is growth nationally from the previous year. It also indicates which provinces are growing, which are about the same, and which have declined. It updates readers on the nature of regulation that exists from province to province and territory to territory. It doesn’t say one model is better or worse. It does state that different jurisdictions have different needs, which is one of the explanations for the variety of different models that exist. I leave it to others – like Dr. Bennett – to draw ideologically motivated conclusions.

      In terms of coverage, over the past three years (as this was not a feature in the first report) there have been a total of 23 different vignettes. Five have dealt with how online learning is implemented within individual schools or school districts (2009-2; 2010-2; 2011-1); four have dealt with district-based online programs (2009-3; 2010-0; 2011-1); three have dealt with province-wide online programs (2009-1; 2010-1; 2011-1); three have dealt with aboriginal-focused programs – one of which was a private one (2009-1; 2010-2; 2011-0); two have dealt with private online programs (2009-1; 2010-1; 2011-0); two have dealt with an organization focused on supporting online programs (2009-1; 2010-0; 2011-1); and three have dealt with online teachers or course designers (2009-0; 2010-0; 2011-3). Additionally, in the past two years (as this feature wasn’t included in the first two reports), there have been a total of eight different brief issue papers. Two have dealt with teacher education/professional development initiatives (2010-1; 2011-1); two dealt with policies in British Columbia (2010-1; 2011-1); one on a blended learning initiative (2010-1; 2011-0); one on a private, aboriginal-focused program (2010-1; 2011-0); one on a private program (2010-0; 2011-1); and one on a K-12 online learning research initiative (2010-0; 2011-1). I would argue that this is broad coverage with an attempt to bring in perspectives from all different aspects of the K-12 distance education landscape. In both instances, these features – which are all written by the individuals named in the report and not by me – are designed to bring a perspective to the report beyond laws, regulations and numbers. If you compare the percentage of students involved and programs delivering private online learning programs you’ll note that there are overrepresented in their coverage in order to provide that wider breath of coverage.

      Finally, concerning the Canadian Council for Learning report, as I noted in my lengthy response to Dr. Bennett in More On K-12 Online Learning In Canada his review of this literature was well off the mark. The report is primarily about e-learning in the post-secondary and corporate environment. In that entry, I literally copied and pasted all of the sections related to primary and secondary e-learning found in the report. You’ll see quite clearly that they do not support the six main conclusions of Dr. Bennett’s that I list at the bottom (all of his were taken from his own press release and have been repeated by Dr. Bennett to numerous media outlets).

      What is clear here is that Dr. Bennett has prepared a report that has misleading conclusions that are not supported by the available evidence. When I challenged him on these items, in defense of this poor work he has called 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). As you see in his response today, according to Dr. Bennett the report was bought and paid for by iNACOL (which oddly enough somehow doesn’t call into question the independence of the claim he makes, even though Dr. Roulet raises this very issue in his guest entry – and Dr. Bennett ignores it). According to Dr. Bennett, governments are taking action within ten days of his report being released (see his earlier comment above concerning the new program introduced in Nova Scotia). According to Dr. Bennett, my data is inconsistent because it was “cobbled together from a combination of official and insider reports.” If my report was so flawed, why was it even used as a source (and as Dr. Roulet notes, a source for one third of the specific content) by Dr. Bennett?

      These are all issues that Dr. Bennett can’t explain, so he resorts to the tactics I have outline above. Again, as I noted in my More On K-12 Online Learning In Canada entry, I believe that we need more reliable and valid research about the Canadian context. This is why I tried to work with Dr. Bennett to help him turn a document that had already been rejected because it was seen as too ideological, into something that make a positive contribution to the Canadian field. Unfortunately, what happened was a clear indication that the neo-liberal position is also alive and well in Canada. And like his US counterparts, he has resorted to many of the same kinds of tactics that I have outlined in the past.

      Note that I have edited this comment after it was originally posted, as Dr. Bennett pointed out to me this oversight

      Comment by mkbnl — February 4, 2012 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

      • The SQE report seems to have stirred up a “creative disruption” by calling into question the consistency and reliability of the iNACOL reports. It looks to be like online learning is becoming an academic discipline — one that recognizes the possibility of different conclusions being reached by different scholars

        For the record, the SQE report simply points out that “THE SKY HAS LIMITS” and urges policy-makers to be more open and flexible to looking at any and all online learning initiatives. It does not recommend full-day virtual schools but rather a new approach clearing away the bureaucratic and regulatory barriers. Sounds sensible to me, rather than “ideologically-driven” as you continue to maintain, for some reason.

        Your reports have been, until recently, studies “from the inside out.” The SQE report certainly found the blind spot in the iNACOL reports. Until the 2011 edition,the iNACOL reports barely acknowledged the success of VHS (Ontario) and made no mention of Christian Heritage Online Academy (Kelowna, BC). You do recognize them in the most recent report. They figure prominently in my overall analysis as “lighthouse projects” worthy of emulation inside the public school system.

        Your repeated claim that the SQE report has a “political agenda” is dfifficult to fathom. In Education Week and elsewhere, you are inclined to rail against the apparent dangers of “privatization” in Canada. That’s odd because resisting “privatization” sounds a lot like a political agenda to me. Unless, of course, the only people with agendas are those seeking system reform.

        One final comment: In the academic world, spiking research reports, not acknowledging sources, and describing academics with doctorates (from the University of Toronto) as “Mr.” are highly unusual. I’m told it happens on some personal blogs.

        Comment by Paul W. Bennett — February 4, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

      • A blind spot? Beginning with the 2008 report, the British Columbia profiles have always detailed the regulatory regime for both public and independent (i.e., private) program. The Virtual High School-Ontario has provided information from the 2009 report onwards. One of the nine vignettes in 2009 report was based on a private school. One of the seven vignettes and one of the four brief issue papers in 2010 report were based on a private school. One of the four brief issue papers in the 2011 report described independent (i.e., private) online learning in British Columbia. In both instances, this is a much greater coverage than their proportion of activity and their proportion of programs warrant. Just because I don’t personally believe that this is the way that all K-12 online learning should be delivered doesn’t mean that it was excluded from the State of the Nation reports. I should also note that your claim that the report “made no mention of Christian Heritage Online Academy (Kelowna, BC)” is another in a long litany of misleading comments. If you bothered to look, you’d note that Heritage Christian Online Schools in Kelowna, British Columbia was a sponsor of the 2011 report and the principal of the program authored the brief issue paper on “Independent Schooling in British Columbia” (although I suppose it helps when you get their name correct).

        It is ideological if any union involvement or any centralized role is automatically seen as being restrictive or as a potential barrier. It is ideological if you believe that private industry is the only or best way to implement online learning.

        If you compare the value judgements made in your report compared to the State of the Nation report, this becomes quite obvious. I make no claims that I am not a political person. Anyone who reads this blog or has heard me speak knows that I have a specific position that I have formed based upon the research that has been conducted in this field since 1997 (when the first research into K-12 online learning began to appear). I make no apologies about that fact, and in fact am quite proud of the fact that I have an ideological position.

        However, what I believe personally and what I have included in the State of the Nation reports are quite different. In the State of the Nation reports, I present a current state of what is happening. As about half or more of the sponsorship each year comes from companies in the United States, and also because the International Association of K-12 Online Learning – as the publishers – have a primarily American audience, I do compare and contrast the Canadian context with the US context. But if you actually read the report, you’ll note that it is a telling of what is happening. Not what is happening that I believe is good and what is happening that I believe is bad. Your report outlines a specific, ideologically-motivated, course of action that you want policy makers to follow. The State of the Nation reports simply tell policy makers this is what you are doing, this is what everyone else is doing; and they can use that information as they see fit.

        On the final point, I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t aware that you had a doctorate. The report does not identify you as Dr. Paul Bennett or Paul Bennett, Ph.D./Ed.D., so I was simply unaware that you had a doctoral degree. In terms of “spiking reports” and “not acknowledging sources,” I have no idea what you are talking about.

        Comment by mkbnl — February 4, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

    • A comment on the Canadian Council on Learning [CCL] report, State of E-Learning in Canada (May 2009) (http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/E-learning/E-Learning_Report_FINAL-E.PDF).

      As Dr Barbour notes the focus of this report is largely on post-secondary education, corporate training, and what the report calls lifelong learning. The CCL report does present data that shows that Canada is lagging behind other nations in terms of the use of the Internet for post-secondary education and training in the workplace. I cannot speak to conditions in the corporate sector, but I would have to concur with the CCL concerning the use of e-learning at the university level, although things are improving. In my experience the increased use of online tools at the university level is largely due to the efforts of individual faculty members rather than administrative leadership. But, still progress is slow.

      It has concerned me for many years how university faculty who pride themselves on their research skills and their abilities to mount logical rational arguments, take very limited personal experience as evidence that the Internet cannot support collective intellectual efforts. Their limited personal data for this conclusion is often their frustration with e-mail, the most primitive form of online collaboration.

      Comment by Geoff Roulet — February 5, 2012 @ 12:54 am | Reply

      • Geoff, I have to agree and slightly disagree a bit with you here. I fully agree that Canadian universities have not leveraged the Internet in the same way our American counterparts have (and as other jurisdictions have as well). While we have Athabasca University here in Canada, most other western nations have some form of national or inter-state public online or distance university. What we have not seen develop to the same extent here in Canada are traditionally brick-and-mortar universities branch out into their online world. We don’t have a brick-and-mortar institution in Canada that would be equivalent to Penn State University and their World Campus, as one example. But I’ll be honest and say that my direct knowledge in this area is also limited. So there may be things that are happening in the online post-secondary world in Canada that I am unaware of.

        On your point about intellectual online collaboration, I said I have to disagree a bit. The ability to collaborate in any situation assumes that the collaborators understand and know how to use the tools they plan to use to collaborate together. I have had some wonderful online collaborations (and as you can note from my CV, most of my collaborations – beyond those with my own doctoral students – are at a distance with colleagues at other institutions). But I have also had some collaborations where we would have been just as effective mailing or faxing a draft manuscript back and forth (and just as quick in some instances too). The collaborators have to be able to understand how to use the tools they plan to use in effective, efficient and regular ways. And many academics – and even students – have yet to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to do that. I say many because some have and the results can be great!

        Comment by mkbnl — February 5, 2012 @ 8:12 am

    • Dr Bennett suggests that I believe that “assessing online learning is strictly an ‘academic, value-free’ exercise”. This is far from the case. One of the major problems in debates about education is that differences at the epistemological level are often left unexplored. Thus we have debates about improving learning, when in fact the participants are talking about different conceptions of knowledge. I readily admit my social constructivist epistemological position and it is on this basis that I assess online learning activities. Thus I am not all that impressed by numbers of courses, students or credits involved, but am more interested in the level of student-student interaction and the opportunities for the collaborative construction of understanding. This often puts me in opposition to efforts, state supported or corporate, that aim for efficiency in teaching and learning. In particular my view of knowledge and learning has problems with programs such as those offered by the Virtual High School where “You [the student] may move through your online course as quickly or as slowly as you wish. The real measure of progress in the course is the completion of the assignments, the unit tests and of course, the final exam”, since this approach essentially rules out student-student interaction and collaboration.

      With respect to the biases of iNACOL, the Association definitely has an agenda – the support, promotion, and improvement of online learning. I also agree that there is the potential for the iNACOL reports to paint an overly positive picture when it comes to official online education programs as the source of the data is usually those agencies in charge of these programs. We do need research that actually studies the online activities and their effectiveness in supporting deep and enduring learning.

      Comment by Geoff Roulet — February 5, 2012 @ 12:56 am | Reply

      • Geoff, as I noted above in response to Dr. Bennett. In my academic writing I try to evaluate K-12 online learning based on the available data that we have. If you look at recent articles I have published in Computers & Education, Journal of Distance Learning, Distance Learning, and Rural Education in Australia as just some examples, you’ll see that I tend to be fairly critical of the conclusions being made based on the evidence that we have (often due to the fact that many of the studies have geographically isolated or methodologically limited). However, the purpose of the iNACOL reports are to simply indicate how many students are engaged in what kinds of K-12 distance education and how each province and territory regulate that distance education activity. The report itself does not indicate that Canada is doing particularly well or poorly, nor does it indicate any one province is doing particularly well or poorly, in relation to someone else. There are some comparisons to the United States, as most of the funding and, based on statistics I’ve been, a significant portion of the readership comes from the United States. But even in those comparison, I don’t say who is better, I just state the different approaches.

        Now beyond what I include in the iNACOL reports, I do have specific opinions about what provinces I think are doing well, why I believe them to be doing well, and also what they could do to further improve and support the increase in opportunity for these students. As one example, I believe that the practice of requiring some form of school based support system is critical to ensuring that students who may not have the independent learning skills to be successful in the online environment but are forced to take an online course because of geography (i.e., they attend a small rural school that doesn’t have much in the way of opportunity) is critical to have. The limited research that we have on this mediating teacher or school-based facilitator shows this. At present, Newfoundland and Labrador have built this into their delivery model, although the position is unfunded and therefore often not used to its fullest advantage (although the Shortall & Greene-Fraize recommended an allocation of teaching units for distance education support). In Nova Scotia this is built into the collective agreement between the Government and the NSTU. In New Brunswick it is included in the 90+ page regulation manual that school must follow in order to participate in the provincial distance education program. Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of regulation forcing schools to provide that local, school-based support model. This is just one example where I think other jurisdictions could look when determining how best to regulate online learning. But the iNACOL report is silent on these kinds of issues, because as I indicated to Dr. Bennett, the report is just designed to tell people this is the current state of affairs – you can determine for yourself who is good and who is bad.

        Comment by mkbnl — February 5, 2012 @ 8:27 am

      • Michael, I think that the iNACOl report does an excellent job of collecting together the statistics and policies supplied by Canadian provincial Ministries of Education and other agencies providing online education for K to 12 schooling. That it does not take on an evaluative role is definitely a positive. My comment was related to research that is needed beyond, or maybe it is below, this background information. These studies would actually look at the online activities and the learning that takes place. This is being done, but on a small scale.

        In addition, as you indicate with reference to the registering of online students in existing physical schools, studies looking at the effectiveness of support systems surrounding online programs are required. In Ontario, students taking courses via the e-Learning Ontario system must be registered at a physical school and a teacher there is responsible for monitoring progress. I am not sure just how well this program works, but I do agree that it does seem to be an important element for success. An online course can do an excellent job of conveying academic content, but students often require coaching in work habits and time management, which may be difficult to do via digital means over distance.

        Comment by Geoff Roulet — February 6, 2012 @ 11:36 am

      • Geoff, thanks again for the continued discussion. It is interesting how this whole discussion has gone. When Dr. Bennett first released the report, he touted his interview with me as allowing him to make sure the report was right up to date. Apparently, I was a trusted and knowledgeable source at that stage. When I began to question his conclusions, he began to attack both me (e.g., calling into question my independence, my abilities as a researcher, my knowledge of the field, and even calling me names and stating that I’m jealous of the media coverage of his report) and the iNACOL report (e.g., it presents a rosy picture of the current state of affairs, it excludes specific information and programs). But you’ll note he has yet to respond directly to any of the substantive criticism that both you and I have made about the report.

        If I could summarize the arguments that you and I have collectively made, they include:

        1) the report makes assumptions that the available evidence does not support (e.g., “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”, and “Canada has been overtaken by the United States in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years”)

        2) the report reflects the ideology of its sponsors (e.g., “most provincial teacher unions show tepid support for online learning, holding fast to labour contract agreements which effectively limit online learning” and “private provision of e-learning is becoming more innovative”)

        3) the report stands alone in the conclusions that it draws based on the existing literature (e.g., the lack of support from the primary and secondary material from the CCL report or from previous Statistics Canada reports)

        I suspect that Dr. Bennett will continue to be silent on these issues, and I do suspect that he will continue to attack me personally and, instead of addressing these issues with his report, will continue to try and call into question my own report.

        Thanks again for your continued dialogue on this. I notice that Dr. Bennett hasn’t responded to the last round of comments left by both you and I – but he has copied and pasted those comments and responded on a thread on his own blog (where he is surrounded by his own supporters).

        Comment by mkbnl — February 6, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

  3. Guest Blogger: The Sky Has Limits – An Academic Response « Virtual School Meanderings…

    “On January 24 the website for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s largest newspapers, presented an article under the heading Canadian schools falling behind in online learning, report says. This story featured a recent report, The Sky Has Limits: Onl…

    Trackback by Teaching and Developing Online — February 4, 2012 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

  4. I have just returned from a brief conference on Social Media and Teacher Learning, hosted by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology [UOIT]. The conference program and descriptions of the presentations can be found at: https://event-wizard.com/SMTL/0/welcome/. I mention this because, although the original call for paper had a focus on “teacher learning”, a significant portion of the reports were actually on “school pupil learning”, or probably more accurately, the learning of teachers and their pupils as they engaged in online learning projects. I was impressed by the efforts of teachers and academic co-researchers as they explored with classes the application of a range of online tools and learning structures. It is clear that across Ontario there are many interesting projects involving online learning. I did not observe any members of the press in attendance, which is a pity, as these teacher-researcher efforts deserved public notice.

    Dr. Bennett in an earlier comment mentions the problem of scalability, and I definitely see this as an issue. In this e-learning is no different from any other educational innovation. The initial steps are taken by highly innovative and committed teachers. On the strengths of the teachers’ efforts these projects often generate positive outcomes despite multiple complications, particularly when ICT is involved. A second wave of dedicated teachers may pick up on the ideas of the innovators, but we are still left with classrooms where the new approach does not take root. I am sure it will take major efforts to scale-up a number of the exciting activities I heard about today.

    Comment by Geoff Roulet — February 5, 2012 @ 12:52 am | Reply

    • Geoff, I wonder if the issue of scalability comes down to effectiveness. If you look at this conversation in light of the work that John Hattie has done on the different variables that actually impact on student learning, it becomes a fascinating conversation. For those who are unfamiliar, Hattie’s work is meta-synthesis of meta-analysis. Essentially a meta-analysis is a combination of a bunch of individual studies that examine the effect X on student learning to take all of the individual impacts into a combined impact or effect size. Hattie takes all of these different meta-analysis and combines them together to form an super effect size (of lack of a better descriptor). I’ve written about him in the past here, here, here and here.

      Based on his book (not the most recent one focused on teachers, but the first one), he states that his findings include over 800 meta-analysis that represent individual studies that include millions of students. Now if you actually look at the things that research have found to be effective in having an impact on student learning, you’ll note that these educational “innovations” that we talk about actually don’t fare all that well. What does fare quite well are the interactions that teachers have with students. You’ll also note that direct instruction comes out pretty good as well. That tells me that one of the reasons that people in my field (i.e., educational technology) have had little impact on the actual delivery of education is because we haven’t understand the dynamics of change well enough. If you look at Roger’s diffusions of innovation model, one of the easiest ways to proliferate an innovation through the system is to allow people to do what they know to be working in a more efficient and/or effective manner. This is probably one of the reasons why we saw the over adoption of using PowerPoint in the classroom or why teachers gravitate to using interactive whiteboards in their classrooms. Neither of these innovations change the nature of the interaction between teacher and student, they just allow them to mediate some of that interaction using technology. It allows them to do what they believe to be effective (and what Hattie’s work tells us does have an impact on student learning) in a more efficient manner.

      I would personally argue that this the same reason why we’ve seen K-12 distance education and online learning enter into and be used within the system as we have thus far. This is contrasted with the American example, where K-12 online learning (or at least the full-time option) has gotten tied up with the ideologically and politically motivated education reform movement. It is fascinating in the US to have conversations with the neo-liberal and neo-conservative supporters of the full-time online learning, and then contrast that with a conversation with the more progressive supporters of the more supplemental online learning offers. The things they say and the rhetoric they use are often very similar, but when you really press them the stark, fundamental differences in epistemologies become quite apparent.

      Comment by mkbnl — February 5, 2012 @ 8:46 am | Reply

  5. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by AIMS E-learning criticisms should fall on skeptical ears | frostededucation — May 30, 2016 @ 5:29 am | Reply

  6. […] 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 unnecessarily […]

    Pingback by Cross-Posting: Guest Blogger – AIMS E-learning Criticisms Should Fall On Skeptical Ears | Virtual School Meanderings — May 30, 2016 @ 8:02 am | Reply


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