Earlier this week, Dr. Geoff Roulet of Queen’s University contacted me to see if I had seen the report “The Sky Has Limits.”  During our discussion, Dr. Roulet indicated that he would like to write a response to this report and I offered up this space for a guest blog entry.  For those unfamiliar with Dr. Roulet, over the past five years he has been responsible for teaching a course entitled, “Teaching and Learning Online” (which was described in one of the brief issue papers in the fourth annual “State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada” report).

On January 24 the website for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s largest newspapers, presented an article under the heading Canadian schools falling behind in online learning, report says. This story featured a recent report, The Sky Has Limits: Online Learning in Canadian K-12 Public Education, authored by Paul Bennett and issued by the Society for Quality Education (SQE). I wish to comment of this report and the claims it makes.

It is interesting that much of the data for The Sky Has Limits paper comes from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) report State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada 2011, with a full one-third of the 59 footnotes in the former citing the iNACOL publication. But, the conclusions drawn are quite different. Bennett states that “Canada’s Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) public schools are lagging in fully embracing the potential of the Internet and in integrating online learning into the public school system” (p. 2). The iNACOL report does not draw such sweeping conclusions but does paint a significantly more positive picture; noting that across Canada the number of students involved in online distance education is growing and that research shows that virtually all schools are connected to the Internet with at least 40% of high schools using this access for online or blended learning. How can these starkly different conclusions arise? The answer seems to lie in the political message running through the SQE report.

The emphasis on the failings of the “public school system” in the quote above is not surprising given that a stated aim of the SQE is to “make it possible for all parents to access alternatives outside the system – for example, charter schools or tax-supported independent schools and home-schools” (see http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/about/category/C13/). Although the Bennett report provides no logical argument from the data to its conclusions it ends with the observation that there is a “glimmer of hope that school choice, innovation, and quality, now seeded in Alberta, may yet spread to other Canadian provinces” (p. 26). The Sky Has Limits report provides few details on any of the programs provided under Ministry of Education mandates, but dedicates considerable space to independent for-profit programs such as that of the Virtual High School [VHS] in Ontario. Bennett tells us that VHS “offers classes 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, an emphasis upon student initiative and self-reliance, continuously updated cutting-edge content, pioneering and enthusiastic teachers, and individual attention” (p. 12). All these positive reports are quotes lifted from VHS promotional material and not conclusions arrived at from an analysis of the schools’ programs. It would have been as easy and equally reliable “research” to quote the Ontario Ministry of Education, e-Learning Ontario website and report that through this program school boards and students “gain access to high-quality e-learning credit courses” (see http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/elearning/aboutus.html). A close reading of The Sky Has Limits suggests that its primary purpose is to further the SQE’s promotion of government financial support for independent and charter schools.

It is unfortunate that Bennett lets a political agenda overtake the opportunity to pose some significant questions concerning K-12 online learning in Canada. The first of these concerns just how much do we know about the state of online learning. If we restrict online learning to mean credit courses delivered completely via the Internet the data provided by the provincial Ministries or Departments of Education are probably quite accurate. Records of school credits are retained by these agencies along with information concerning the institution delivering the course. The problem comes when we expand our view to include “blended learning”, which both the SQE and iNACOL reports discuss. Bennett does not provide a definition for blended learning, while Michael Barbour, the editor of the iNACOL report, points to the Blended learning Virtual School Glossary project for definitions. Here we read that “Blended online learning is a balanced mix of traditional face-to-face instructional activities with appropriately designed online experiences”. To me this seems like a totally reasonable description, but it does raise significant problems when it comes to determining the extent of blended learning in Canada. In my research in Ontario I interact with a significant number of classroom-based teachers who provide “appropriately designed online experiences” for their classes. The Ministry of Education has no count of these programs. In fact, since many of these teachers employ tools mounted on servers not connected to the school system, school board administrations are likely to be unaware of the extent of blended online learning taking place within their jurisdictions. Thus I would argue that when blended learning is included the numbers reported by iNACOL are probably low and without a solid methodology to identify and count these programs one needs to question Bennett’s conclusion that “newer e-learning opportunities for students are few and far between in Canada’s public schools and more likely to be found in private schools outside the state system. Social learning with Facebook and Twitter is extremely rare, as is the use of social media software such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, and virtual worlds” (p. 24).

Bennett observes that, “Online learning has a world of potential for promoting freer, more open access to the Internet and opening the door to new innovations taking better advantage of ‘e-Learning 2.0’. Conventional e-learning systems based upon instructional packets, delivered to students as teacher-evaluated assignments remain the norm in every Canadian provincial and territorial K-12 system” (p. 24). On this point I would agree with the SQE paper if we restrict our view to fully online credit courses delivered by government or private agencies. Many of the exciting developments using Internet based tools to support student collaboration are to be found within blended learning programs that exist in publicly funded and some private schools.

This guest post is contributed by Dr. Geoff Roulet of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Dr. Roulet welcomes your comments below.

Guest Blogger: The Sky Has Limits – An Academic Response

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