The Future of Distributed Learning: Some teacher views
By Larry Kuehn and David Comrie
Distributed Learning (DL) has been a fast-growing element of BC's education system over the last decade. A workshop at the Computer Using Educators specialist association (CUEBC) conference was conducted as a focus group with two dozen DL teachers.
Not only have enrolments grown, but DL policies have changed at a rapid pace, with many policies and practices revised from year to year. To get a look at the future directions, we needed to hear about the significant issues facing DL teachers now.
Here are some of the themes and issues raised by DL teachers:
1. Numbers of DL students are up and down in different districts
Some reported an increased number of DL students this year, while others declined, significantly. The Surrey Connect program reported five teachers being reassigned elsewhere because of reduced student numbers.
2. Growth of private online schools
Surrey has two independent DL programs and the Christian Heritage online school working from the Okanagan has significant enrolment. These private school programs are offered for free, paid for through public funding. The independent school funding has been increased to 63 percent of funding for public DL students, while the funding for face-to-face independent schools is 50 percent of that for public schools.
Some private DL schools were reported to offer lower requirements--quick and easy courses and grades. When signing up for a course, public school students may not be aware that these schools use resources and assignments with religious content. Students can now a get a Dogwood diploma (high school graduation) from a public school, but with courses from an independent school
3. Compliance audits drive many decisions and are negative
School districts are desperate to not lose funding. A reduction in funding forces cuts in other areas of educational service--and cuts are retroactive with funding already spent having to be returned.
The required audit trail means significant record-keeping takes up teaching time. The audit criteria, which change frequently, force DL schools to develop practices based on the criteria. Some essentially do the paperwork twice, with practice audits, to make sure they are meeting these criteria.
4. Quality audit experiences have been positive
Several participants worked in DL schools that had gone through a "quality audit" and they universally described it as a positive experience. The process allows for self-reflection, as well as outside facilitators who help to guide the look at whether the DL school is meeting the quality standards, and what would be improvements. Unlike the compliance audit, it is supportive rather than punitive.
5. Distributed Learning is a "cash cow"
Although they can't find out actual expenditures in many cases, DL seems like it is used by school districts as a "cash cow." By this they mean that the DL program brings more funding to the district than is actually spent on DL. When DL was offered to all school districts, the policy was that boards should spend 90% of the funding on DL students. That provision has not been enforced.
The funding limitation for the system as a whole drives districts to find resources where ever they can.
6. "Blended learning" is the next big thing
Some move toward blended learning was reported by several participants. No consensus exists on what the term means in practice. However, all the versions have some mix of student work online and in a face-to-face situation.
This is a challenge to the organization of DL. It implies that the student is physically located in a place where they can engage in some face-to-face activities, in contrast to the practice of students signing up for courses whatever district offers them.
7. DL programs have increasing numbers of students with special needs
The challenge of providing appropriate support for students with special needs is ongoing. It seems like the number of students with mental health issues is increasing, particularly students with serious anxiety about being in the school environment.
8. Course development has many complications
Many DL teachers develop their own courses, or, at least modify existing courses. How much can be done is framed by how many courses a person is teaching--which may be anywhere from one course with many students or many different courses with not so many in each course.
The changes in the provincial curriculum will bring to the fore more questions of who develops courses, DL teachers course development built into their teaching load, who owns resources and how they are shared. Without contract provisions or policy guidelines, this may produce unfair and unequal situations.
9. Work/life balance is essential
The balance mentioned included not spending so much time on the work that there is no time for the rest of life. Also mentioned was the need for balance in the work so that it is not just marking assignments, but also includes time for course development and modification and for professional development.
10. Big need--training in pedagogical practices for online learning
One participant works in a university education faculty that offers a program for online teaching, but it is a graduate program. Teaching online has not been an element of teacher education programs for those preparing for a teaching certificate
School districts offering DL have signed a contract with the ministry that says they will offer training for DL teachers, but few districts live up to this commitment.
Frustration with lack of TTOCs (Teachers Teaching on Call--substitutes) with online training or experience was noted--without that, the DL teacher gets little relief when they are away from work, with the email and student work just cluttering the screen when they return.
These themes and issues do not necessarily reflect a consensus of those present, but rather an attempt to find some patterns in the comments made.
Facilitators for the focus group were David Comrie, president of the BCTF Educators for Distributed Learning Provincial Specialist Association and Larry Kuehn, BCTF Director of Research and Technology.