By Larry Kuehn
Distributed Learning (DL) is the official name in BC of a range of types of education where the teacher and student are not in direct, face-to-face learning situation. It is defined in legislation:" Distributed Learning is 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 reference to "correspondence" links to the history of the development of distance learning within the public schools of BC. For nearly a century students have been able to take courses through the mail, reading materials, doing assignments, mailing them in and having them marked and returned.
The model was decentralized in the 1980s, with the development of nine regional distance education schools located in different regions of the province. This provided more opportunities for some personal contact between teacher and students. A story of a teacher who once a year visited a family on a lighthouse in a remote area of the coast reflected the concept.
In 1993 the Nechako school district in northern BC got permission to run an online program they called "e-bus." It offered courses and gave computers and Internet connections to families who signed their children up for courses. This was really a home schooling program initially in which the teachers were considered as consultants to the parents as teachers.
Students from around the province signed up for these programs--creating a concern to the regional distance education schools that they were going to lose their base of students. The regional schools got permission to create programs and offered them along with the mail programs.
Other districts wanted to get into the game as well, seeing that districts with programs were able to attract students and funding, and were able to move to what was seen as a cutting edge of the future of education. In 1998, the ministry approved eighteen districts to offer programs that included electronic tools that allowed for more interaction between students and teachers than correspondence programs. A cap of 2200 students was put in place for what was considered a pilot program, with districts being given a quota of the number they could register.
The BC Liberal government elected in 2001 opened up the system for any school district that wanted to offer a program. This was initiated with little planning or setting of a framework to determine the quality or operation of these programs. The Deputy Minister of the day felt that the market would determine the value of programs rather than having a plan and framework--the issues would be worked out on the fly.
Nearly every school district felt it had to have a program so they did not lose students and funding to districts across the province.
This led to a number issues that had to be addressed as the problems became obvious:
*School districts competed with "incentives" to families who would sign up. Computers, internet costs, learning resources, recreational programs, digital cameras--some parents would shop around to find the best incentives to decide which program to join. The ministry had to bring in regulations saying that incentives could not be offered. This reduced the amount of open competition, but some programs still found ways of bending the rules.
*The ministry had to ensure that what they were paying for was not home schooling, with the parent taking all the responsibility for teaching and assessing. Parents have the right to home school, but with only limited access to resources from school districts. If the province is paying for the school experience, the student program and assessment must be the responsibility of a teacher.
*Some parents were using funding to purchase religious resources and were giving their children assignment based on religious work. The BC public schools are secular and religious material and assignments are not allowed.
The lack of planning the development of DL has led to a decade of practices arising that bring a responsive policy, the policy has unexpected consequences or administrators find a new way of taking advantage of the system, and that is followed by another policy to fix the problem.
The "official history" of DL suggests that these problems were all dealt with in 2006 when Bill 33 was passed (see reference to Learnnow B.C.):
"Bill 33 and the revised School Act levelled the playing field, eliminated unnecessary rules, set common definitions and terminology, substantiated accountability processes, and put standards in place for quality."
The approach to gaining some control of the situation was to create a standard contract between the ministry and the school district. This outlined a new set of rules and provided the discipline that a district would lose the right to have a DL school if they did not follow the contract. (See References for access to a copy of the standard contract).
Further articles in this series will look at other key issues:
Funding policies--at the core of many of the issues in DL
Audits of programs--another element of the funding and accountability issues
Quality standards--what do they mean, how are they assessed
Course development--what, who, standards, ownership
Role of the DL teacher
Working conditions of DL teachers
Professional development for DL teachers
Governance and services--LearnnowBC, the Virtual School Society and the District 73 Business Company
BC Dogwood graduation certificates for international students
Learnnow B.C., "History of Distributed Learning." Downloaded from www.learnnowbc.ca/information/what_is_dl/History_of_DL.aspx on September 24, 2012
Ministry of Education, Distributed Learning Contract 2011 version. Downloaded from www.bced.gov.bc.ca/dist_learning/docs/dist_learn_agmt.pdf on September 24, 2012