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PRIORITIES FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION

A Brief to the Ministry of Education from the BC Teachers’ Federation, August 2017 

Distributed Learning: Future Directions

The issue

Distributed Learning (DL) is defined in the School Act as “a method of instruction that relies primarily on indirect communication between students and teachers, including internet or other electronic-based delivery, teleconferencing or correspondence.”

The DL system in BC has been described by Michael Barbour as the “most regulated” system of online learning in any of the provinces. Each school district or independent school that wants to offer an online program must enter in to a contract with the Ministry of Education that outlines requirements.

The regulation is primarily related to eligibility for funding. DL programs are audited according to extensive criteria that define which students can be funded in a district as well as whether the DL program is consistent with the Ministry DL agreement. Significant attention by the educators in the DL programs is devoted to meeting these audit criteria, in preparation for an audit, even though only some schools are audited each year. The audit is the focus, rather than discussion about appropriate pedagogy for online teaching or other significant issues such as completion rates on courses.

In contrast to the funding requirements, the teaching conditions in DL are little regulated. DL teachers are explicitly excluded in the School Act from the class-size provisions, and the conditions of work are not covered by the BCTF collective agreement. A few districts have reached a de facto set of principles on staffing, but those are limited in applicability.

Background

The provincial system of DL was created by the BC Liberal government to be a competitive market. The deputy minister of the day rejected having provincial policies on quality issues on the basis that “the market will decide” on the quality of programs. In the context of limited provincial funding for education, nearly every district created a DL program, afraid that they would lose the funding that a student would take with them to a DL program in another district. One impact has been to limit the kind of collaboration across public school districts that would allow for the production of high-quality resources developed and shared co-operatively.

Ontario, as an example, operates on a co-operative model. The provincial Ministry contracts for the development of online course resources that are then available for teachers to use in online or blended learning programs. Districts primarily offer online courses to students within their district, accepting students from other districts if there is a need, but primarily keeping the link between their students in face-to-face programs and their online courses.

BC Ministry policies promoted competition with independent school DL programs, not just those in other public school districts. Since 2004–05, enrollment in public school DL programs has been on a plateau at a little less than 8,000 full-time equivalent students. During that same time, the full-time equivalent numbers in independent DL programs have gone from a few hundred in 2004–05 to over 8,000 in 2016–17.

The full-time equivalent (FTE) descriptor reflects that students in Grades 10–12 are not primarily full-time students, but students who are taking one or more courses in DL while they are enrolled in a face-to-face school. The FTE is determined by identifying eight separate courses being taken as one FTE. Elementary students are only allowed to be in a DL programs based on them taking all their courses in DL, so each elementary student counts as one FTE. The number of students taking at least one DL course adds up to about 70,000 head count, versus 8,000 FTE.

Students are allowed to cross-enroll with any DL program, so a Grade 10–12 student in a public school can take a DL course from an independent school. The DL enrolments in independent schools make up about 10% of the total enrolment in independent schools, while only 1.2% in public schools.

The growth in independent DL enrolment is a partial explanation for the percentage growth in government funding for independent schools being much higher than for public schools provincially.  The government encouraged the independent schools by giving them 63% of the amount for DL students, rather than the 50% provided for independent school students in non-DL programs.

FTE enrolment in distributed learning programs  Percent of students enrolled in distributed learning programs

The government also provides supplementary funding at the full public school amount for students with special needs in independent schools. This funding follows the student and independent schools have attracted parents by giving them significant control on how that is spent. When public schools have not had the resources for adequate support, parents have pulled out their child and moved to a private school to take advantage of what is essentially a voucher.

Two schools enrol about half of the total enrollment in independent DL programs—Self-Design Learning Community and Christian Heritage Online School. Christian Heritage has purchased the URL bconlineschool.ca so a student or parent doing a Google search for a “BC online school” will find Christian Heritage school at the top of the search.

Key recommendation

Recommendation 1

Review policies and funding for Distributed Learning programs to create a system that is built on a co-operative, provincial basis, provides funding for provincial course development consistent with the curriculum changes, and has the resources to provide teaching conditions that are comparable to teachers in face-to-face programs.

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