Special Report

Virtual Ed. in Canada Favors Centralized Programs

By Michelle R. Davis — January 30, 2012 8 min read
Fourth grader Rachel Quansah works on a reader-response assignment at Discovery Public School in Vaughan, Ontario, just outside Toronto.
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Canada’s approach to online learning comes rooted in a history of distance education for students living in remote areas and is often unique to the province where the brick-and-mortar schools are located.

But unlike the way online learning has evolved in some parts of the United States, there’s very little private company involvement in creating or providing virtual courses in Canada. Few schools buy online courses from private vendors, and organizations that provide those courses within the country are either mostly nonprofits or operated directly by school districts.

In the past few years, the paths of the two countries have diverged when it comes to online learning, said Michael K. Barbour, an assistant professor of instructional technology at Detroit-based Wayne State University. He has written several reports about the status of online learning in Canada for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL.

Americans “have seen online learning as an avenue to privatize education, and that hasn’t happened in Canada,” Mr. Barbour said. “Canadians have been much more reluctant to see corporations as the saviors of public institutions.”

While online learning may be used in different ways in each of the United States’ more than 14,000 school districts, and policies on virtual schooling may extend either district or statewide, in Canada each of the 10 provinces and three territories stakes out its own guidelines for cyber education. In the country as a whole the number of students participating in what’s called distance education grew from 3.4 percent in 2009-10 to 4.2 percent in 2010-11, according to Mr. Barbour’s iNACOL report “State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada.”

For example, in British Columbia, a majority of the 60 school districts formed their own cyber schools for e-learning that are designed around a similar framework. In Quebec, meanwhile, e-learning is provided by a private, nonprofit organization paid by schools and the provincial education ministry.

Other policies and procedures in the various provinces differ as well. Some school districts or e-learning providers offer mostly on-demand online courses; others customarily provide courses with specific virtual-classroom times. In addition, some provinces make online courses available to primary-school-age students, while others limit those opportunities to high school students.

Standardizing Programs

All that makes e-learning, and education in general, more decentralized in the United States, where education is mostly a local endeavor, said Maurice A. Barry, a program-development specialist for the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation at the department of education in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“By being provincially governed, we cut down on an awful lot of unnecessary duplication,” Mr. Barry said. “But we also run the risk of squashing things that are innovative and different.”

In Canada, he said, it’s a priority that online learning “gets done and gets done very well, but it gets done in one particular way.”

In Ontario, online learning has evolved over recent years to limit that duplication, said Alison Slack, the coordinator of the Ontario eLearning Consortium, a coalition of 20 province school districts that share resources and students. In the late 1990s, several districts began experimenting with online learning, and by the 2000s a few boards were heavily invested in providing online learning to students. But each of the province’s 72 school boards had its own version of the Ontario-curriculum-based online courses, and each provided it in its own way with its own learning-management system, Ms. Slack said.

In 2006, Ontario’s education ministry moved to standardize online education. It instituted a single learning-management system for all school districts and developed one version of each course being offered. The courses, and the learning-management system, are provided free to districts.

Districts assign their own teachers as online instructors and are free to adapt the ministry-written courses, Ms. Slack said, but they start with the same standard course. Districts cannot charge a fee for their own students to take those courses, but must charge other districts whose students want to take their courses.

The Ontario eLearning Consortium, whose members offer most online Ontario courses, allows students to take advantage of other districts’ courses.

“We share our kids. For example, boards will say, ‘You take 10 of our students into your courses, and we’ll take 10 of your students into our courses, and we’ll call it even,’ ” Ms. Slack said. “There is no transfer of money.”

See Also

For more on virtual education in Canada, read “Canadian Virtual Ed. Dips Into For-Profit Realm.”

Although some students take online courses full time, most students taking virtual classes in Ontario are supplementing their face-to-face classes because they have a conflict or want to take a course not offered at their schools, Ms. Slack said.

In other provinces, online learning is viewed differently. In Newfoundland, “online learning is not designed as an alternative,” Mr. Barry said. “We have schools that would be nonsustainable any other way.”

For instance, he cited the small Newfoundland community of Francois, located in a fjord on the south coast. No roads go into Francois, Mr. Barry said, and the area is accessible only by an eight-hour ride on a ferry, which operates several times a week, or by helicopter in an emergency. The K-12 school there serves about 30 students.

The school has used some form of distance learning for decades. There’s no other way for students to access appropriate education, Mr. Barry said.

“We offer this because it’s necessary,” he said of online learning. “The alternative is to take those students away from their families and move them somewhere else. We’re just not prepared to do this.”

The Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation serves 1,000 students in 103 schools including the students in Francois, Mr. Barry said, and employs 34 full-time, online teachers teaching 34 different courses. The center provides the Internet connectivity and equipment needed for students to access the courses.

Picking Motivated Students

Elsewhere, however, online learning is not provided directly by the provincial government. In Quebec, a nonprofit organization called Leading English Education and Resource Network, or LEARN, serves more than 150,000 students through blended online courses, and about 500 through synchronous classes for high school students, which require the teacher and students to be online at the same time.

The organization has been offering online courses since 1999.

While LEARN has plenty of online material for teachers and students to access whenever they want, Michael Canuel, its chief executive officer, said his organization has found that a synchronous approach generally produces the best achievement results for online students.

“Our dropout rate is almost negligible [in the synchronous courses],” he said.

Most of the students who take online courses through learn are highly motivated, and the brick-and-mortar schools decide whether a student is eligible to take an online course. In fact, some online schools in Canada will take only students who fit that motivated profile, unlike cyber charter schools in the United States, which tend to offer courses to all comers.

Darren Cannell, the administrator of the Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School in the province of Saskatchewan, a publicly funded online high school that offers 44 different classes, said his school is selective about what type of student it allows to take online courses and deliberately does not offer online courses to younger students. All the courses have been developed by master teachers.

“We don’t believe that a student younger [than high school] should be sitting at home working on this,” he said.

To that end, Mr. Cannell said, his school discourages students from taking a full-time online courseload, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

“I don’t agree with the idea of full-time cyber students,” he said. “We think a mixture of face-to-face as well as online classes during the year is best.”

Funding Differences

One of the biggest differences in the way e-learning has evolved in Canada versus the United States is funding. Online learning is free to all local Canadian students and districts, and course providers are typically reimbursed by the province for their costs to develop and run online courses. School districts do not typically purchase courses from private providers and because of that, the e-learning marketplace in Canada has remained relatively noncommercial.

“There’s not a lot of profit in it here because the ministry oversees and pays for everything,” said Ms. Slack, of the Ontario eLearning Consortium. “If a [company like] Pearson came to the board and the district to try and sell content, the board would say: ‘You’ve got to be crazy. We get this for free. Why would we pay you?’ ”

In addition, there is no equivalent of an online charter school in Canada, said Mr. Barbour.

“There’s never this notion of inviting a for-profit company to run an online school,” he said. The result is that private companies are not looking to attract students and their government funding from province school districts as they do in the U.S., although not all e-learning providers in the U.S. are for-profit either.

In British Columbia, schools are prohibited from charging any type of fees for online learning (or any public education, for that matter.) Education funds in the province are distributed on the basis of a per-student funding model. Brick-and-mortar schools receive about $1,000 more per pupil than cyber schools do, said Tim Winkelmans, the manager for e-learning for the provincial ministry of education.

British Columbia has about 600,000 students in 60 school districts. Forty-eight of those districts have their own cyber schools or “distributed learning schools,” and last school year about 90,000 students took courses at those schools, Mr. Winkelmans said.

Some school districts in British Columbia can, though, charge other districts fees to use their courses, either inside or outside the province. But the culture in Canada has been for schools to develop their own courses, using their own teachers, or to form consortia of school districts that pool resources to develop online courses, Mr. Winkelmans said.

“We have very little private-sector participation or involvement,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Canada: A Different Approach to Virtual Education


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