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BCTF Advantage

Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 20, Number 6, April 2008 

Education & technology

Distributed learning: Solutions or new problems?

By Larry Kuehn

Is distributed learning an appropriate form of education for students with special needs? That was a central question posed in a workshop facilitated by David Comrie at the BCTF Equity and Inclusion conference. Comrie is the president of the BCTF Educators for Distributed Learning PSA.

Distributed learning (DL) is a catchall name for a range of education offerings where the student and teacher are at a distance. Although most think of it as online education, a lot of it is still text delivered by Canada Post and some is offered by video-conference.

Comrie told the workshop that from his experience, students who succeed in distributed learning have three things in common: they have self-discipline, good reading skills, and adult support. Not many students with identified special needs have all three.

He expressed a concern that, in some cases, schools are pushing students who are a problem into distributed learning programs rather than addressing the problems. While DL may be appropriate for some, it is not for a high percentage of students with special needs.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the DL programs are sometimes used inappropriately. The Ministry of Education in its "vision" for distributed learning says that it is "specifically providing choice for students who have restricted options, especially students in rural communities, students with special needs, and Aboriginal students." (www.tinyurl.com/43672a)

That "vision" was challenged by Marge Dumont, the chair of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee and a participant in the workshop. She pointed to the difficulty that her own daughter faced in an online math course. In addition, she told the group that many Aboriginal students don’t have access to a computer and the Internet at home. She also wondered what cultural and language offerings DL programs offer for the targeted extra funds a district gets for Aboriginal students.

The mix of teachers, parents, and school trustees in the workshop expressed views that went beyond the issues of equity and special needs, with many contending ideas.

Many expressed concerns: It can lead to the isolation of students. The contributions students could make to the school culture are missing. DL is used to avoid problems, rather than addressing them. Some students just don’t get work done if they don’t have the structure of the classroom. The course completion rates for online programs are better than the old distance education, but still less than for students in classrooms.

While DL promises more options for students in small schools, it can also take away choices. A small class might have enough students to offer it face-to-face in the school, but a couple of students opt for online. Now the class is too small and online is the only option for all the students.

Some secondary students are using it to shop around, taking courses online and in class so they can choose the best mark. They don’t have to tell the school or even their own parents that they have signed up for online courses.

The teaching demands can be intense. The online teacher is expected to be in contact with each student individually and frequently, and may be offering many different courses. The ministry auditors demand logs of online and phone contact, valuing record-keeping over educational outcomes.

Districts are put into competition with one another to get more DL students so they get more funding. The funding system rewards administrative entrepreneurship over educational leadership.

The promotion of DL led to 30,000 students signing up this year. Because provincial education funding was not based on that large a number, the ministry changed the funding formula in the middle of the year. They redistributed money, taking it from districts with no or few students in DL and shifting more to districts running big DL programs. The mid-year funding changes angered even school district secretary-treasurers.

A number of participants talked of advantages of DL.

Paula Schmidt, a district PAC chair, said we have to get on with making online education work because we have not just a generation of kids immersed in online experience, but also parents of young students who are computer savvy.

For some students, such as serious athletes or artists, the flexibility of DL lets them carry on both intensive work and school. That flexibility can be key for gifted students who are not being challenged in the regular program, as well as other highly motivated learners.

Many participants said that they had taken courses or whole masters programs online and found it a very positive educational experience. However, they also pointed out that adult learning and motivation is different from many students in the K–12 system.

A school trustee pointed out that the Metro Branch of the BC School Trustees Association had been discussing distributed learning. They felt that what was really at issue in looking at distributed learning is the underlying philosophy of education. The choice was framed as one of whether the public school is a community hub, or just a collection of course credits. Is it a collective social experience? Or is it an individualist activity?

Larry Kuehn is director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

What do you think? Join the discussion on the BCTF website at bctf.ca.

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