Virtual School Meanderings

September 3, 2013

Canadian Union Supports Distributed (Online) Learning–With Conditions

This entry was posted by Larry Kuehn on edu-digicritic.  Note that I have recently prepared a report for the BCTF on the responses of unions around the world to K-12 distance education (and also how the role of the teacher is affected by K-12 distance education).

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Union Supports Distributed (online) Learning–with Conditions

Teacher unions in Canada have had concerns about developments in online learning, but have generally been supportive if they have felt conditions were appropriate. Most provinces have relatively small numbers of students in online programs and they are integrated into the schools with face-to-face programs.  The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union has provisions in the collective agreement that make working conditions for teachers in online programs equivalent to those in face-to-face classrooms.

In the U.S., most of the online programs are run as Charter Schools and the staffs are not unionized.  In fact, online learning has been seen by opponents of unions as a way of breaking unionization in education.

The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation adopted policy at the Annual Meeting of 2001 that supported DL—if conditions are appropriate.  This was at the beginning of the expansion of the number of students in DL programs from 2200 to about 80,000 last year.  (That is the number of students taking at least one course—many are taking only one.)

Unfortunately, many of the conditions for success identified in the BCTF policy do not exist in practice.  Limited funding in the school system as a whole has led to districts finding resources by squeezing staffing in the DL programs, leading to deteriorating working conditions for DL teachers.  When the BC government legislated class size limits for face-to-face programs, they explicitly excluded DL from limits.

This is the BCTF policy adopted in 2001 and still in place.

51.11 – Distributed Learning

That BCTF policy on distributed learning be:

To continue reading, visit

July 24, 2013

Reclaiming the Promise

From yesterday’s inbox…

Dear Michael,

We believe in public education because it is the means by which we help all children dream their dreams and achieve them. And I mean all children—those who have abundant advantages, and those for whom every day is a struggle; those who worry about getting into a good college, and those who worry about their parents getting deported.

Watch the videoEducators like you help students build lives of great purpose and potential by instilling essential knowledge and skills, including critical reasoning, problem-solving and working with others, and by promoting civic participation. We believe in high-quality public education because it is an economic necessity, an anchor of democracy, a moral imperative and a fundamental civil right, without which none of our other rights can be fully realized. And I believe that promise, that hope, that accomplishment, is a direct result of the work you do every day, the most important work in America.

I truly believe we are in a crucial moment when we must reclaim the promise of public education—not as it is today or as it was in the past, but as what public education can be to fulfill our collective obligation to help all children succeed.

People are waking up to the fact that decades of top-down edicts, mass school closures, privatization and test fixation with sanctions instead of support haven’t moved the needle—not in the right direction at least.

And today, in front of nearly 3,000 educators at our union’s TEACH conference in Washington, D.C., I laid out a vision to reclaim the promise of public education and unite parents and community with us as one unstoppable force.

Stand with us to Reclaim the Promise.

Reclaiming the promise of public education is about fighting for neighborhood public schools that are safe, welcoming places for teaching and learning. Reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that teachers are well-prepared, are supported and have time to collaborate. Reclaiming the promise is about enabling them to teach an engaging curriculum that includes art and music and the sciences. And reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that kids have access to wraparound services to meet their emotional, social and health needs.

Taken together, all these things reflect our prescription for ensuring that all kids have the opportunities they need and deserve. This vision may look different community by community, but it has a few common elements. Reclaiming the promise will bring back the joy of teaching and learning. It’s the way to make every public school a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach and children are engaged. It makes our public schools the center of the community and fulfills their purpose as an anchor of our democracy and a propeller of our economy.

We know it is not only educators who are for this; parents and community members have our backs. A recent poll, we released today, found that parents want strong neighborhood public schools as opposed to more charter schools or voucher programs, and overwhelmingly believe public schools should provide a well-rounded education, offer social services for students and reduce the emphasis on testing, among other findings.

This is not a campaign. This is our core. And it must be the focus of our work going forward. Ours is a vision that works. It’s a vision of what parents want for their kids. And it’s a movement that can stop the privatizers, profiteers and austerity hawks in their tracks.

But they’re not going to roll over and go away. We need your help. None of us can be bystanders. We need to reach out to parents, the community and civic leaders. We need to open their eyes to the good things happening in our schools—as well as the challenges we face. We need to open their minds to our vision for great neighborhood public schools. We need to open their hearts to joining with us in the effort to ensure all our children get the great education they need and deserve.

Join us in Reclaiming the Promise.

In unity,
Randi Weingarten
AFT President

P.S. Read the full speech I gave at the AFT TEACH Conference this morning, launching the AFT’s core program, Reclaiming the Promise.

July 23, 2013

EDTECH597 – Audio Entry: Meandering Out Loud: K-12 Online Learning And Teachers Unions

In my EDTECH597 – Week 7 entry yesterday, I indicated that I would post an entry with audio in it to model for my Boise State students. So today I decided to start up my “Meandering Out Loud” feature again (since it has been exactly a year since I recorded the last one). So…

Welcome to the tenth edition of “Meandering Out Loud.” A few weeks ago, the National Education Association released a statement about online learning.  This was followed by a response from one of the researchers behind the annual Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning report.

Today, I wanted to take a few moments to discuss this statement and the slanted response from the Keeping Pace folks.

Click on the image to begin the “Meandering Out Loud” audio clip.

In listening to the entry the technical issues that I have noticed in previous recordings I have made using the Audioboo system aren’t present. So I don’t know if my Internet connection was better today or if Audioboo has just improved their system.

Anyway, until next time…

October 18, 2010

Issues In K-12 Online Teaching in British Columbia

A good friend of mine sent me this news article and report.

The joys and challenges of teaching K-12 online
By Janet Steffenhagen 11 Oct 2010 Vancouver Sun

Little is known about the success of students who choose to take K-12 courses online instead of in the classroom. But a recent survey by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation sheds light on the rewards and challenges facing their teachers.

The actual report is from the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF):

Distributed Learning 2010 survey: DL Working Conditions

For those who may not know, the BCTF is the teachers’ union in British Columbia.  Unlike what is often found in the United States, teachers’ unions in Canada have been generally supportive of K-12 distance education and K-12 online learning – although with a skeptical eye (maybe it is just a Canadian thing).

In the case of British Columbia, the BCTF has actually been the greatest source of research into K-12 distance education in the province.  For example:

Hawkey, C. & Kuehn, L. (2007). BCTF research report – The working conditions of BC teachers working in distributed learning: Investigating current issues, concerns, and practices . Vancouver: BC: British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Retrieved January 6, 2008 from

A research report prepared for the British Columbia Teachers Federation. This report investigated distributive learning, focused on the impact of provincial government policy, the current practices and working conditions of teachers and the development of technology and its applications at the local level.

Kuehn, L. (2006). BCTF research report – Distributed learning in British Columbia schools. Vancouver: BC: British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Retrieved from

A research report that discusses the historical changes to the distributive learning program in the British Columbia. The report highlights the major policies of Bill 33, creating a framework for the LearnNowBC system; and British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) policies for standarization of distributive learning programs.

Kuehn, L. (2004). BCTF research report – Online education is not the same as home schooling. Vancouver: BC: British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Retrieved from

A conference paper reporting how past educational policies and practices confused the distinction between online education and home schooling in British Columbia. This paper discusses the 2003/2004 audit of distance education to establish clear policies and criteria for ministry funded online programs.

Kuehn, L. (2003). BCTF research report: Distributed Learning in B.C., 2002-03. Vancouver: BC: British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Retrieved from

A research report presented to the 2003 BCTF Representative Assembly. This report identifies issues concerning distributive learning with regard to teaching practices, the learning environment, curriculum development, and government policies and accountability practices. The report includes two appendices. Appendix 1 focuses on challenges of distance education to support the student’s learning experience. Appendix 2 is an observational account of distance education from the combined experience of three educational counselors.

Kuehn, L. (2002). BCTF research report – Developments with distributed learning. Vancouver: BC: British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. Retrieved from

A supplemental report to the 2002 BCTF Executive Committee meeting. This report includes educational policy statements concerning distributive learning, information on Vancouver’s virtual school, and practical and philosophical issues to consider for future research.

The largest teachers’ union in Ontario has produced similar reports that take a critical look at K-12 online learning through the lens of teacher workload and teacher preparation.  It seems that the main concern that these teachers’ unions have is to ensure that distance or online teachers have similar workload and working conditions as their face-to-face counterparts.  And while they have concerns, they are still very supportive of this educational delivery model.  For example, in the up-coming State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada (the annual iNACOL publication on the state of K-12 distance education activity, policy and regulations in Canada), I wrote:

at their 2010 annual meeting the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (one of the four main unions representing teachers in the province) adopted a policy regarding distance education that states, among other things, they belief that “the Ministry of Education should ensure that all students in publicly-funded schools should have equal access to online credit courses, including but not limited to covering the cost of online credit courses for low-income students and making available computers, modems and Internet access” (p. 29).

Nova Scotia is actually leading the country (and I would argue North America) in terms of critical support of K-12 distance education.  Again, from the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report, I wrote:

There is currently no legislation specifically related to K-12 distance education in Nova Scotia, however, there are 11 provisions included in the agreement between the Government of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. As a contract between the Government and teachers’ union, most of the provisions deal with teacher certification and workload issues. For example, all distance education teachers must have provincial certification and be employed by one of the eight school districts (49.01), must not infringe upon the teachers “marking and preparation time, lunch periods, days pursuant to Article 25.05 [i.e., professional development, assessment, preparation, and personal days], School Year, or other such times provided to classroom teachers in the school” (49.02), and must be scheduled during the school day (49.08).

The agreement states that the school board is responsible for ensuring that there is a plan in place for student supervision, and that schools must appoint a distance education coordinator and that these responsibilities shall be included as a part of that teacher’s overall teaching assignment (although without outlining the specific responsibilities of this coordinator), or the principal must assume these duties (49.03). The coordinator is responsible for ensuring that students have a physical space to complete their distance education courses, supervision and submission of assessments and assignments, maintenance of student records, communication with the distance education teachers, and tutoring (49.04).

There are provisions that limit the size of synchronous classes to a maximum size of 22 or 25 students from up to five different school sites. If new technologies are to be used, those involved in the distance education programme are required to meet to discuss updated maximum number of students and schools, along with other delivery issues (49.06). School boards are required to provide on-going professional development in distance education for all of those involved in the distance education programme (49.07).

Lastly, the two final provisions relate to the creation of a “standing Distance Education Committee consisting of two representatives from the Department of Education, two representatives from the Nova Scotia School Boards’ Association and four representatives from the Union… to address issues surrounding distance education” that meets at least twice a year and provides annual written reports” (p. 100).

It is interesting to see the difference between the Canadian experience and the American experience.  In one teachers’ unions are seen as the problem or an impediment to educational reform, in the other they are seen as a partner.  In one K-12 distance education teachers are unionized, in the other almost all are  non-unionized employees (and, again, unions are generally seen as an impediment to what these K-12 distance education organizations want to do).  Finally, in one teachers’ unions see K-12 distance education as a way to increase they membership and are working to protect the interest of their members while still being supportive of the increasing use of K-12 distance education.

While I understand the MAJOR socio-cultural and political differences between the two countries, but I think this example illustrates once again how the educational reform movement in the United States isn’t about improving education.  It is about two ideological positions and each side trying to impose their view of public education upon everyone.  Teachers’ unions aren’t the enemy, unless your goal is to crush the union and destroy public education.  Teachers’ unions have a specific role within the educational process (i.e., to protect the interest of their members).  If unions are engaged in the process, with the understanding of what they real role is, than they can be a useful partner in the process.

September 5, 2010

Reason Magazine: Teachers Unions vs. Online Education

This came through my Facebook news stream a few days ago.

To follow the link, click on the image or visit

I’m always curious about this us and them attitude that has developed in the education community, and particularly the online education community, when it comes to unions.  Terry Moe and John Chubbs in their book, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics and the Future of American Education, practically blame teachers unions for all that woes the American education system.  In fact, most cyber charter school advocates point to unions as one of the stumbling blocks that need to be overcome when it come to being innovative in education.  I have to say this confuses me a bit.

If you look at the article Cathy provided the link for it is much the same attitude.  Once we get past the obvious inaccuracies in the article (which begin with the first sentence, “I know a 3-year-old who’s a master of online multitasking.” – see Naveh-Benjamin, Kilb & Fisher (2006), and many others who have studied this myth of the master multitasker), the article is really just a summary of the book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, by Paul Petersen.  And the article has the same political bias that I’ve come to expect from these non-educators who have written on the topic.

For example, on the bottom of the first page – as it discussed the court case brought against K12, Inc. in Wisconsin – the article states:

The conflict exploded in January 2004 with a lawsuit brought by the teachers union and the elected state superintendent. State Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), who heads his chamber’s education committee, accused private education companies of “profiteering off of kids.”

Now this isn’t quite right.  The court case was based on the fact that the instructional model used by K12, Inc. required that parents/guardians perform an instructional role (and in the case of elementary students, the majority of the instructional role), and the State’s own legislation required that those who were expected to be teachers needed to have a teaching license.  This wasn’t a case of preventing innovation or preventing parents from helping their children with their school work (ad the latter was a often used charge by the cyber charter school proponents).  This was a case about parents expected to be teachers without having a teacher’s license in clear violation of the State’s own law.  This likely came about due to the fact that when the law was originally passed no one envisions full-time K-12 online learning.  You’ll note that once the legislative issues were cleared up, you haven’t heard a lot from Wisconsin in the past five years – yet cyber charter schools are still profiting from public education dollars in Wisconsin, so if that was really the issue don’t you think that the teachers’ unions would have kept up some sort of fight?

The article continues with a section entitled “Unions Fighting Back” and they quote a document from the National Education Association – who they say are taking a hard line against virtual charters, which reads:

There also should be an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek to provide home-schooling over the Internet…

Now if I’m not mistaken, most states refuse to provide public education dollars for students who are homeschooled.  To me, this appears that the NEA is against using public money to provide parents the opportunity to purchase online curriculum for the purpose of homeschooling…  And you know what, the legislation in most states have legislation against it too!  The NEA are simply stating that if all the cyber charter school is doing is providing an opportunity for parents to home school their children, than they shouldn’t receive public funding.  It is no different than a parent going out and purchasing an instructional CD-Rom or even a book.  Homeschooled parents shouldn’t receive public dollars to do that and they shouldn’t receive public dollars to purchase online curriculum from a cyber charter school.  The bar should be set higher – and in many cyber charter schools it is, as most cyber charter schools have an online teacher that is responsible for directing the student’s studies and actually interacting with the student in both a synchronous and asynchronous manner online and through telephone calls (and in some instances in person).  The level of interaction between student and teacher can often be gauged by the student-teacher ratio – those that have a student-teacher ratio more comparable to the traditional brick-and-mortar environment likely have much more interaction than those that use a student-teacher ratio two and three times what you’d see in a traditional school.

Having said all of that, if you look at the last bit of that specific clause in their Statement Adopted by the 2001 Representative Assembly, it reads:

…and lend themselves too easily to the misuse of public funds and the abuse of public trust.

And surprise, surprise, back in 2001 this was exactly what has happening in jurisdictions like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  The kind of misuse of public funds and outright corruption lead to a complete ban on cyber charter schools in Michigan that was only lifted this past year under the threat of the Race to the Top funding.  States like Ohio and Pennsylvania still suffer, in terms of their reputation for cyber charter schools, because of those “wild west” days that were occurring at the same time this NEA statement.

The article continues

When 2009 began, the state legislature had already obliged the union by capping enrollment for virtual schools and mandating that kids do work under the eyes of physically present teachers. Yet union support for funding and expanding the state’s Oregon Virtual School District (which has been slow to attract enrollment) remained strong, with union members citing the existence of the government-run academy as sufficient to meet online education needs in the state.

It is interesting that things like a cap on enrollment, which has been used in most states in the past three years that have introduced cyber charter schooling, are blamed on the teachers’ union.  What about a state like Georgia, where there are next to no unions at all, who gets the blame for the enrollment cap for cyber charter schooling in that state?  The same thing with funding, and I’ll used Georgia as an example again…  A good red state, where there is basically no teachers’ union at all and the conservative voice is the dominant public opinion.  The proposed $3200/student for cyber charter school funding in Georgia is among the most restrictive in the United States.  But let’s blame it on the unions because their an easy scapegoat!

In the very next paragraph, the article reads:

Says Dreyer [i.e., Barbara Dreyer, CEO of Connections Academy]: “Many states say, ‘We hate the whole thing with these for-profit providers. We should just do it ourselves.’ But with the exception of FLVS, nobody has been able to do it. It’s complicated; it takes capital. It’s tough to do it from scratch. They don’t have expertise. It’s particularly tough in these times when there is no money.”

The authors of the article, being blinded by their convenient whipping boy, don’t bother to unpack this statement.  Why is it that cyber charter schools and FLVS are the only organizations that are able to provide full-time online learning?  Could it be that both cyber charters and FLVS are the only ones that receive block full-time enrollment (FTE) funding?  FTE funding means that if there are 500 students, the school gets the full FTE for 500 students.  This is generally a figured in the $5,000 to $20,000 range – depending on the state and even the county; and I believe the national average is around $10,000.  You see most state-wide programs, like the one in Oregon, get a block grant from the government and then have to charge school districts a per course fee (usually in the range of $250-$350 per semester-long course).  These state-wide programs can’t handle large scale full-time enrollment because they aren’t funded at a level to do so.  FLVS, which acts as a school district within the Florida system and receives full FTE funding for the students it enrolls, is the only state-wide able to provide that economy of scale because they are being funded at essentially the same levels of traditional brick-and-mortar schools (and the same levels as the cyber charter schools).

There are more and more examples of this bias against teachers’ unions throughout this article, and I won’t beat a dead horse with describing anymore.  A close examination of this article leads me to disagree with Cathy’s assessment that this article is a “comprehensive summary of the state of K-12 online learning in the United States today.”  I’d actually argue that it is a one-sided view of K-12 online learning in the United States today!

And it is a shame because it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of teachers’ unions.  For some reason, the general public have bought into this belief that the teachers’ unions should be responsible for enacting educational reform.  This should not be the job of a teachers union.  The fundamental goal of a teachers union is to represent the interest of their members.  So the job of teachers unions is to do whatever they can to protect the working conditions of their members and to fight for a better working environment (e.g., pay, class size, workload, etc.).  People often confuse the job that a teachers union does with what its individual members believe about teaching in the classroom – physical or online.  No one faults the auto workers union for fighting for their workers when the company wants to cut wages or benefits or increase hours – that’s their job!  Also, no one blames the individual auto worker for the actions of their union.  No one questions whether that auto worker is heading to the factory tomorrow to make a faulty car because their union is opposing something that company is doing.  Yet in education, we totally misunderstand the role of the union and we fault individual teachers for their union doing what it is supposed to do.

Anyway, that’s enough content for a Sunday morning…  I’ll have more to say about unions and online education later (i.e., in the next couple of weeks), as I draft a message about Teachers Unions and Online Education in Canada.


Naveh-Benjamin, M., Kilb, A., & Fisher, T. (2006). Concurrent task effects on memory encoding and retrieval: Further support for an asymmetry. Memory & Cognition, 34(1), 90–101.

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