British Columbia’s International Online Learning Initiative

Dean Coder, Vice President

SD73 (Kamloops) Business Company 

Randy LaBonte, Acting Executive Director

International Online Learning Association of BC

British Columbia, with one of the highest rates of K-12 participation in online and distance education domestically, has begun to explore how its success in local distance education can be leveraged to support international students who are either studying in British Columbia International Offshore Schools (i.e., schools managed by British Columbia public education institutions that are located outside of Canada) or planning to study in British Columbia local schools. A pilot program has been launched, and school district business companies and independent schools interested in offering distance education services internationally have formed an association to coordinate and support their efforts.

The philosophy of the International Online Learning Association of British Columbia (IOLA) can be summarized by Ford Motor Company’s slogan of “Quality is job one.” In the context of online learning abroad, this sentiment is a key purpose behind the formation of IOLA. In many areas of the world online education is equated more with a digital correspondence course than a high quality learning experience mediated through education technologies and the Internet by education technologies. IOLA is interested in providing high quality international online education, and has faced many challenges along with opportunities—but quality in educational services has been a critical focus of its initial endeavours.

British Columbia legislation provides the opportunity for provincial boards of education (i.e., school districts) to form business companies in order to pursue independent operations beyond funded education services for students residing in the province. These school district business companies exist at an arm’s-length from the public education and funding. Several of these business companies have begun to explore offering educational services internationally. One such company, SD73 Business Company, has begun a pilot program for international students through agreement with the British Columbia Ministry of Education. Others interested in participating in the pilot are doing so through the SD73 Business Company.

British Columbia’s Pilot Program – SD73 (Kamloops) Business Company

School districts in British Columbia initially began to establish International Offshore Schools, but one district, Kamloops, chose to offer online courses to international students attending a British Columbia Offshore School rather than establishing its own international school. Initially, as a proof of concept, Kamloops worked with a school in Chukyo, Japan to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction through video conferencing. In setting up the technology several challenges were overcome and it was demonstrated that an educational program could be delivered at a distance.

After the agreement with Chukyo was completed, Kamloops secured a three year pilot agreement with the British Columbia Ministry of Education that included the ability to offer all British Columbia courses online (at a distance) with the exception of Social Studies 11 and English 12—both required to be completed in a registered British Columbia campus-based school in British Columbia or at a British Columbia Offshore School. In the first year of the three-year pilot two Business Education courses were offered to students in British Columbia Offshore Schools. Of the 52 students that were enrolled in the two courses, 49 successfully completed the course. In the second year the pilot the program was expanded to more schools, and an online ESL component was also added.

The course delivery used a blended cohort-learner model consisting of synchronous and asynchronous instructional delivery. The synchronous sessions where held via web conferencing using Blackboard Collaborate twice a week and students used a learning management system, Moodle, for the asynchronous sessions. All lessons took place in a computer lab with a teaching assistant present. The intent of the course design was such that the teacher could pick and choose which units they wanted students to do asynchronously, with feedback provided through forums and threaded conversation, and which units students were to do in a synchronous session. Kamloops has also been working on an authentic assessment practice where students post a video reflection or meet one-on-one with their teacher for assessment.

Some initial challenges for the program internationally included its uniqueness – many of the international families were not familiar with online learning. Many schools needed to see a demonstration of how online learning could work on a small scale prior to committing to a larger program. In particular, online learning in Asia is often seen as low quality correspondence and people are reluctant to pay the higher price that it takes for a high degree of teacher engagement.

Working Together – International Online Learning Association of British Columbia (IOLA)

The Kamloops business company pilot met with modest success. With the small number of students involved, scalability of British Columbia online international opportunities led to the formation of an independent association to represent the collective interests of British Columbia independent schools and school district business companies looking to provide international educational opportunities. This coordinated approach led to the formation of the not-for-profit society, whose purpose is to:

  1. Enable a coordinated approach and single point for discussions with education stakeholders;
  2. Lead a British Columbia-branded international marketing strategy for online learning;
  3. Support the development and delivery of British Columbia curriculum and educational services through online learning;
  4. Uphold the quality of international online learning program content and services;
  5. Be independent and inclusive, with a governing board drawn from school district business companies, independent schools, business, government, and international representatives; and
  6. Have a mandate to assist in improving online content and services to meet quality standards and support distributed learning operational activities in British Columbia.

The vision of the organization is to provide high quality learning opportunities while improving access and quality of educational opportunities throughout the world through the use of online learning. The organization was founded to improve the quality of British Columbia online learning content and delivery, while attracting new students to post-secondary and K- 12 schools in the province and to international British Columbia Offshore Schools. Membership in the association includes representatives from British Columbia registered school district business companies, and registered independent distributed learning schools. International online learning, both at the secondary level and the post secondary level, is undergoing tremendous growth but there remains a significant amount of work to ensure a quality experience for students. Just as the Internet represents a new frontier for our global society with both great rewards and dangers, online learning has its share of poor quality schools. IOLA’s mandate is the same as Ford’s – quality is job number one.