|2015 – Defining E-Learning in Canada
Michael K. Barbour – Director of Doctoral Studies, Sacred Heart University
The annual study of K-12 distance education in Canada – or the annual State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report – began in 2008 with the aim of providing needed exposure to the proliferation and developments in K-12 distance learning in Canada. In that first report, the authors noted that “to date, most of what [was] known about K-12 online learning from the media and literature [was] focused upon experiences in the United States. However, virtual schooling first began in Canada…” (Barbour & Stewart, 2008, p. 4). Even from this initial background, an astute reader will note the use – and potential confounding – of the terms K-12 distance education, K-12 online learning, and virtual schooling.
Over the past seven editions of the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report, the authors have used the term “K-12 online learning” in the title. However, the report itself has reported on all forms of K-12 distance education – including correspondence, audiographics/telematics, videoconferencing, and online learning (which has also been referred to as virtual schooling and cyber schooling at times). In recent years, the authors have also referenced blended learning activity in various jurisdictions.
The purpose of this brief issue paper is to begin to clarify the focus and intent of this annual study. This paper begins with a historical discussion of how K-12 online learning has been defined in early national and international surveys. Next, this paper will describe the introduction of blended learning to these national surveys of K-12 online and blended learning. Finally, this paper will define the term K-12 e-learning, and outline the rationale and description for its use for the annual State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada study.
Defining K-12 Online Learning
In his landmark study, Tom Clark (2000) – as a part of his Virtual High Schools: State of the States report – wrote that:
A “virtual high school” is here defined as “a state approved and/or regionally accredited school offering secondary courses through distance learning methods that include Internet-based delivery.” Distance education might be formally defined as “formal education in which a majority of instruction occurs while teacher and learner are separate” (Verduin & Clark, 1991). Distance education or distance learning use delivery methods that include independent study, also known as correspondence study or study by mail, as well as videoconferencing, Internet, and computer-assisted instruction, and other instructional technologies. These days, most writers are thinking only of the electronic delivery methods when they use the word “distance.” “Virtual” began as a term for computer-based simulated real-time environments, such as “virtual reality.” A few years ago, “virtual learning” was used synonymously with “distance learning” to describe instruction delivered remotely via technology, but now it is increasingly used to refer to Internet-based learning. (pp. 1-2)
A year later, in his Virtual schools: Trends and Issues report, Clark (2001) used the same definition to describe the phenomenon that would become K-12 online learning in the United States: “a state approved and/or regionally accredited school offering secondary courses through distance learning methods that include Internet-based delivery” (p. 1).
With support provided by Learning Point Associates, along with the Colorado Department of Education, Illinois Virtual High School, and Wisconsin Virtual School, Watson, Winograd, and Kalmon (2004) published the first Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice report. The study was designed to answer two research questions:
- What online learning activity is occurring at the K–12 level within the state?
- What state-level policies and other guidance are being developed in order to monitor or regulate the development of online learning programs?
For the purposes of this study, online learning programs were defined as:
An educational organization that develops and offers online instruction and content. An online learning program may be a cyberschool, or it may provide supplementary learning opportunities for students enrolled in physical schools or cyberschools. (pp. 10-11)
This initial study was an abbreviated national study, which focused only on 22 different states. The following year, Learning Point Associates published a complete national Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice report, where Watson and Kalmon (2005) used the same definition for online learning program.
Watson and Ryan (2006), which was the first year the North American Council of Online Learning (NACOL) – later the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) – was involved with the Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice report, defined online learning as “education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily via the Internet. Online learning is a form of distance learning” (p. 134). Further, they defined virtual schools and cyber schools as “an online learning program in which students enroll and earn credit towards academic advancement (or graduation) based on successful completion of the courses (or other designated learning opportunities) provided by the school” (p. 134).
That same year, NACOL conducted their first international study, International Perspective of K-12 Online Learning, where they described K-12 online learning as including:
a range of web-based resources, media, tools, interactivity, and curricular or instructional approaches. Internationally, a variety of terms are used to describe online learning – including distance education, virtual schools, virtual learning, e-learning, electronic learning. In general, the common theme is that this type of learning takes place over the Internet. (Powell & Patrick, 2006, p. 3)
This definition broadened the scope of K-12 online learning to include many different forms of K-12 distance education – including more traditional delivery mediums (e.g., correspondence, audiographics/telematics, videoconferencing, etc.).
It was in this environment that the first State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report was published by NACOL. Barbour and Stewart (2008) described the report as the Canadian version of the annual Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice reports. Further, the authors indicated that they were utilizing the definitions outlined in the Virtual Schooling Glossary and Definitions project (see http://virtualschool.wikispaces.com/glossary), which used the Clark (2001) definition for virtual schooling and the Watson and Kalmon (2005) online learning. However, in the actual report the authors provided information on the state of K-12 distance education in a more broadly defined manner, consistent with the description of K-12 online learning provided by Powell and Patrick (2006).
Defining K-12 Online and Blended Learning
In 2012, Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, and Rapp (2012) updated the name of their annual study to be the Keeping Pace with K–12 Online and Blended Learning: A Snapshot of State-Level Policy and Practice report (emphasis added). At this stage in their annual study, the authors were using the following definitions:
Online learning is teacher-led education that takes place over the Internet, with the teacher and student separated geographically, using a web-based educational delivery system that includes software to provide a structured learning environment. It may be synchronous (communication in which participants interact in real time, such as online video) or asynchronous (communication separated by time, such as email or online discussion forums). It may be accessed from multiple settings (in school and/or out of school buildings).
Supplemental online programs provide a small number of courses to students who are enrolled in a school separate from the online program.
Fully online schools, also called cyberschools, work with students who are enrolled primarily (often only) in the online school. Cyberschools typically are responsible for their students’ scores on state assessments. In some states, most full-time online schools are charter schools.
For blended learning, we are using the Innosight Institute definition: “A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace, and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.” (emphasis in original, p. 7)
Part of the rationale for this expansion to include both online and blended learning was that “as online learning evolves into new models that include blended learning, personalized instruction, portable and mobile learning, and computer-based instruction (CBI), other defining dimensions come into play as well” (p. 9).
At the same time, Barbour (2012) reported in the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada that:
Even though it isn’t necessarily seen as a part of or an extension to K-12 online learning, blended learning is often advanced through K-12 online learning initiatives. For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Ontario the asynchronous course content developed for their online learning programs has been made available to classroom teachers to use with their own students. In Ontario, 2011-12 was the first year classroom teachers have been able to use the asynchronous course content in the provincial learning management system. As such, the level of activity these classroom users represented is still unknown. However, in New Brunswick more than a third of the enrollments in the provincial learning management system are from classroom teachers and students using the content in a blended fashion. Similarly, while the Learn program in Quebec serves approximately 5300 students engaged in its distance education programs, it has more than 150,000 enrollments from classroom teachers and students using asynchronous course content. Due to the fact that blended learning is generally not seen as part of K-12 distance education, the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada study has continued to exclude these numbers from the participation statistics. (p. 15)
This represented a departure between the two national reports, with the American report combining K-12 online and blended learning and the Canadian report continuing to focus more on various forms of K-12 distance education. While blended learning was occurring across Canada, practitioners did not necessarily consider it part of the distance education or online learning movement. “Within the Canadian context blended learning is largely considered an extension of effective ICT, or effective technology integration” (p. 15). While the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report since 2012 has not reported on K-12 blended learning participation, it has attempted to describe some of the activity that is occurring in various provinces and territories.
Defining K-12 E-Learning
In 2014, Watson, Pape, Murin, Gemin, and Vashaw (2014) updated the title of their annual report to Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice. The authors outlined the rationale for this change as:
Digital learning is replacing the previous reference to online and blended learning. This seemingly small word change signifies a significant evolution in the landscape, and a major change in the way we are analyzing and reporting on it…. the broader digital learning landscape continues to shift in many ways, including the exploding growth of new digital learning technologies and products, the changing and merging ways these resources are used, and shifting levels of usage within the various sectors of the K–12 education industry. (p. 4)
This new name represented the third change in title over the past four annual reports, which was also indicative of the changing nature of the field of K-12 online and blended learning.
2014 was also the same year that the Canadian eLearning Network (CANeLearn) began publishing the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada report. The mission of CANeLearn is to provide leadership that champions student success by supporting organizations and educators involved in online and blended learning through networking, collaboration, and research opportunities. With a focus on K-12 online and blended learning, CANeLearn’s vision of e-learning is consistent with the New Zealand Ministry of Education, which deﬁned e-learning as “learning and teaching that is facilitated by or supported through the smart use of information and communication technologies” (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 2).
Beginning in 2015 the annual study of K-12 distance, online and blended learning policy and practice in Canada will be known as the State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada report. The use of the term “e-learning” to describe distance, online and blended learning is consistent with the name and focus of its sponsor – CANeLearn. The term “e-learning” also consistent with other Canadian organizations. For example, the Canadian Council for Learning (2009) defined e-learning as:
The application of computer technologies to education. E-learning can take many forms, whether it is used face-to-face in classrooms, as a required part of classroom activities or course work (e.g., online discussions), or to deliver a course fully online. E-learning can include distance education as well as traditional in-class instruction. (Canadian Council for Learning, 2009, p. 4)
This definition came from their State of E-Learning in Canada report, which focused on e-learning in the K-12, higher education, and corporate sectors in Canada.
For the purposes of the State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada annual study, e-learning will be defined to include all forms of K-12 distance education (e.g., correspondence, audiographics/telematics, videoconferencing, and online learning), as well as identified instances of blended learning. This change will mean that even though most educators in Canada still consider blended learning a form of technology integration, the researchers for the State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada report will attempt to identify and describe the level of activity and nature of regulation for blended learning in each province and territory.
Barbour, M. K., & Stewart, R. (2008). A snapshot state of the nation study: K-12 online learning in Canada. Vienna, VA: North American Council for Online Learning. Retrieved from http://canelearn.net/state-of-the-nation-k-12-online-learning-in-canada/state-of-the-nation-research-reports/
Barbour, M. K. (2012). A snapshot state of the nation study: K-12 online learning in Canada. Victoria, BC: Open School BC/Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from http://canelearn.net/state-of-the-nation-k-12-online-learning-in-canada/state-of-the-nation-research-reports/
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