The Northern Distance Learning (NDL) program came about as a response to the challenge faced by K-12 education in the Northwest Territories (NWT) due to the vastness of its territory and the relative small number of high school students attending its remote community high schools. Having access to a limited number of resources, small community schools often struggle to offer a wide array of courses to meet the needs of all students.
NWT’s Education Renewal and Innovation (ERI)
The NWT’s ERI initiative (see https://www.ece.gov.nt.ca/en/services/education-renewal) aims to mitigate some of these challenges and to provide equity for all NWT students. The aim of the NDL program is to provide increased access to equitable academic programming for students in small community schools. 95% of students the program serves are indigenous. Such programming enables them to meet the graduation requirements of high school and prepare them to enter directly into post-secondary education while staying in their home communities. Remaining at home while completing secondary studies is key, as prior to this program, students wishing to complete courses could make the difficult choice to leave their communities and complete programs in larger centres, or attempt to complete courses through traditional distance learning that resulted in a very low success rate.
History of Program Development
The Northern Distance Learning program emerged from work undertaken first in 2010 by the Beaufort Delta Education Council (BDEC) called eLearning, evolving to a partnership in 2014 with the NWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) named the NDL pilot initiative (see https://www.ece.gov.nt.ca/en/services/education-renewal/northern-distance-learning for more background, including video overview). The success of the pilot led to NDL becoming an established program in 2018, aiming to provide students the opportunity to pursue academic courses which otherwise would not be possible to offer in small communities, while fostering agency in the students.
The NDL program is anchored through a departmental working group to reflect the ERI principles of the importance of relationships, ecological understanding, identity, learning together, diversity, and strengths and growth. As courses are planned and developed, as staff is trained and in-serviced, and as students are oriented to this new type of blended learning, those principles are used to guide and shape the practices and materials used to support these actions.
Current Participation and Projected Expansion
By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, the NDL program will be operating in 11 schools in five of the eight boards of education in the NWT. Over the next two years, the program is projected to expand by 4-5 schools per year, and by 2020-2021 should be available to all 20 small high schools in the NWT, given the current rate of expansion.
As our program and number of participants expands, so too must our number of course offerings. Last year, we had four courses offered per semester, for a total of eight per year. With this year’s expansion comes a doubling in the number of currently offered courses, and even with this increased availability, we see our classes filling quickly. Available courses during 2018-2019 school year include:
The NDL program attributes much of its success to its supported, synchronous (mainly), and interactive delivery model. Using a dedicated network service and the Moodle learning management system, NDL sees Inuvik teachers instruct students at a distance via videoconference. Classes are face-to-face, on screen, every day for the entire semester. Qualified volunteers monitor work alongside the students in the communities, offering support to students and liaising with the online teachers. The participating boards share a portion of the costs associated with the program. Student success in the program is promising (about 70% credit acquisition rate), and made possible by strong relationships between and among students, teachers, monitors, NDL coordinators, local school principals and parents.
Committed teachers, strong partnerships, increasing bandwidth, and driven students are bringing a more equitable high school experience to all NWT students. The NDL program has filled an important void and continues to grow, a testament to its importance in providing equitable learning opportunities to all students in our territory.