|2013 – BC Teachers’ Federation Research on the Work of Distributed Learning Teacher
Larry Kuehn, Director of Research and Technology, BC Teachers’ Federation
The policy context for Distributed Learning (DL) in British Columbia shifts and weaves nearly as frequently as the technology that is central to its form of educational practice. Those who teach in the programmes are buffeted by this constantly changing policy terrain.
The research carried out by the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) Research Department on DL has focused on understanding the shifting environment in which a group of its members work. The intention is to find ways to improve the conditions of their work and their ability to provide quality education for DL students.
A look at any educational service in BC also has to take into account the reality of funding. For more than a decade, school districts have for lived with funding that has grown much more slowly than rising costs. This results in funding taking priority over many other educational considerations.
DL in BC Operates on a Competitive Model in a Race for Funding
Until the beginning of the 2000s, enrolment in DL programmes had been capped at 2,200 students province-wide and was limited to 18 school district programmes. A new government lifted the limits and told every school district they could develop a programme—and nearly every one did just that. Enrolment in DL ballooned and by 2012-13 about 80,000 students were taking at least one course, although numbers seem to have reached a plateau.
Only a handful of the smallest districts did not get into the race. In the climate of more and more restricted funding, everyone was afraid of losing students and funds to a programme operated by another district.
This growth in programmes and students took place with inadequate standards or guidelines about what makes a good DL programme. What are good online pedagogical practices? How do you determine whether this is the right programme for a student? How can resources be developed collegially and shared among teachers?
In the mid-2000s, the BC Ministry of Education did adopt a statement of quality standards and a process for non-punitive assessment using the standards. However, the real driver of Distributed Learning is the funding it brings to school districts and the “compliance audits” by Ministry auditors.
The random growth of programmes has led to many different forms of organization. Most are primarily asynchronous and some primarily serve students in the district where the student lives and include face-to-face (F-2-F) and group elements. Others encourage enrolment from anywhere in the province. Some have a fixed time for completing a course within a year, others allow extended times. Some have a teacher teaching only a single subject, others have a teacher teaching many different courses at different levels.
Auditors have trouble with this kind of diversity. They need some concrete standards to be able to go through on a checklist—yes/no; completed/not completed. So in the absence of standards built on a pedagogical basis, the financial auditors’ checklist becomes the reality around which programmes are built.
DL schools actually spend time going through practice audits to make sure all the pieces are together if they happen to get audited that year (audits only cover some programmes in any particular year). The costs are real if the school does not meet the audit. Funds are taken away —funds that are already committed and spent by the school district— if the auditors find a student who has not met the checklist of criteria for funding him/her. An audit funding grab means that some other programmes have to be reduced if the school district budget is to be balanced at year end.
The provincial funding policies change frequently as well. In 2011-12 the Government funded each DL student at the same rate as a student in a face-to-face course. Then in 2012-13, the Government froze per student DL funding while F-2-F per student funding increased.
Funding and audits drive DL school administrators’ decision-making process and are the focus of too much of what should be professional discussion about pedagogy and student success.
DL Teachers are Particularly Vulnerable
DL teachers lack a number of supports and definitions of working conditions that exist for teachers in traditional face-to-face programmes.
The BC School Act legislation that defined class size limits of 30 students explicitly excluded Distributed Learning.
Continual funding shortages create pressure to increase the number of students assigned to teachers—the flexibility regarding student enrolment makes DL a “cash cow” with funding identified for DL students being allocated elsewhere in the system.
School districts offering a DL programme are required in their contracts to provide training and professional development for those teachers teaching their online courses. This requirement is too seldom observed.
Not nearly enough professional development specific to online pedagogical practice is available. The BCTF specialist association, Educators for Distributed Learning, does offer one-day workshops to local DL schools and at PD conferences. They also have a mentoring programme for new online teachers.
The teachers’ collective agreement applies to DL teachers, but does not address some of the conditions of work that are different for DL teachers. DL teachers at times feel marginalized within the profession because of lack of collegial understanding of the work they do and perceptions of its being an easier job than facing kids in a classroom.
School administrators may be assigned to DL programmes with no background experience in DL and, in some cases, are seen by teachers as not understanding the work of DL teachers. With little framework for determining working conditions on an equitable basis, favoritism and inequities develop.
Research as Part of a Process of Change and Improvement
The policy of the BCTF adopted at an Annual General Meeting in 2001 affirmed “that Distributed Learning remains a positive offering within the BC public school system when fully supported by adequate staffing, funding and resources within provincial guidelines.”
The BCTF DL research projects have been carried out in the spirit of this policy—exploring and making visible issues in the education of students in a primarily online environment and describing the working conditions of those who teach in this environment.
The hope is that clarity about the issues can be an impetus to developing policies that better serve teachers and their students.
BCTF Research Reports on DL are available at: