|British Columbia’s Quality Framework for Distributed Learning
Tim Winkelmans, e-Learning Programs Unit – British Columbia Ministry of Education
British Columbia implemented its new distributed learning (DL) legislation and policies in 2006 to provide a quality, dynamic and engaging learning environment that all students in the province can access. Most of the Boards of Education, who are responsible for delivering educational programs, wanted to operate their own DL schools. The Ministry of Education’s interest lay in ensuring that, within such a decentralised model, DL schools were providing students with quality experiences. Also, every student in grades 10 through 12 could choose to enrol in supplemental online courses without local permission, putting even more pressure on the Ministry to emphasise quality.
The various elements within the DL quality framework for the 53 public DL schools are discussed in more detail below. Independent (private) DL schools fall under separate legislation and subject to a different framework within the office of the Inspector of Independent Schools (although there are significant synergies).
The first key decision to enhance quality was ensuring that DL schools fit into the same funding formula as neighbourhood schools. Prior to 2006, DL schools received between 50% to 65% of the normal funding allocation. In 2006, this rose to 100%, plus the Ministry granted eligibility for a variety of educational supplements. This meant that DL schools could afford to move away from reliance upon correspondence course markers towards engaged online teachers, and they could develop and implement support services for special needs, aboriginal, and ESL students.
The other essential decision was a new legislative requirement for each Board of Education that wished to operate a DL school to have a special District Agreement with the Ministry. The Agreement, which the Ministry may be amended at any time, contains specific requirements for DL schools to follow, in addition to general requirements of schools in legislation. For example, there are specific provisions that:
- prevent Boards from using public funds as incentives to attract enrolments;
- require Boards to med or exceed DL Standards;
- obligate Boards to participate in measures such as standardised tests, satisfaction surveys, and quality reviews;
- require Boards to list their courses and programs on the provincial learning portal, LearnNow BC (http://www.learnnowbc.ca/);
- prevent neighbourhood schools from denying secondary students their ability to choose supplemental courses; and
- require Boards to hire teachers with online learning experience or to provide sufficient DL training.
A copy of the generic Agreement is available at http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/dist_learning/docs/dist_learn_agmt.pdf.
Two documents communicate expected quality levels in instructional services, leadership practices, and content:
- Standards for K-12 Distributed Learning in BC (http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/dist_learning/docs/dl_standards.pdf)
- Standards for Digital Learning Content in BC (http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/dist_learning/docs/digital_learning_standards.pdf).
The first DL standards were published in June 2006. Development of the standards began with an environmental scan: two working groups researched global standards and then chose a ‘made in BC’ approach that included involvement from DL school educators, education content providers, the post-secondary sector, and industry. The current versions are based on recent additional field consultation development and new online learning standards from iNACOL, ISTE, and others.
Each instructional practice or leadership practice standard is a statement about a high-level expectation accompanied by several observable supporting evidence statements that provide guidance without being specific. An example follows:
The development of a sense of community among course participants is encouraged.
- Networking software is available to initiate and engender community.
- Students have frequent opportunities to provide feedback on their learning experience as well as peers. (p. 8)
The Standards documents provide expectations that guide the implementation and oversight of the Agreement, but also provide a framework for DL school planning and Quality Review activities.
The Ministry of Education created a Quality Review process for DL schools that incorporates participation, engagement, student success, and satisfaction. The model draws upon a community of inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) and formative evaluation principles:
Ideally, formative evaluations are developed as partnerships that give all stakeholders a hand in planning and helping conduct the evaluation. Explicitly framing a formative evaluation as a collaboration among stakeholders can help in more ways than one. Practitioners are more likely to cooperate with and welcome evaluators rather than feel wary or threatened – a common reaction. In addition, practitioners who are invited to be partners in an evaluation are more likely to feel invested in its results and to implement the findings and recommendations. (WestEd & United States, 2008, p. 9)
The process begins with a DL school’s internal review. Documentation supporting the internal review is based on the BC Distributed Learning Standards, research and growing descriptions of emerging practice in DL. All schools are involved in a school planning process, and the internal review is intended to complement the planning process for DL schools. The Ministry has created a guide to support schools with their internal review.
Figure 1. Overview of the quality review model
Each year, several DL schools are selected for an external review. Using primarily qualitative methodologies, a small team visits the school to validate the internal review, observe instructional and leadership practices, and provide recommendations to enhance program quality. The review team leader prepares a report with specific input from the DL school principal. The report serves as a template for specific actions within the school, but also identifies promising or exemplary practices that can be shared with other DL schools. After several months, the Ministry of Education asks the school to provide a status report on the external team’s recommendations.
The Ministry of Education operates a data warehouse that contains longitudinal student enrolment and achievement information. Prior to 2006, however, the achievement information included only standardised test results and final grades associated with secondary school graduation credentials. Beginning with DL in 2006, the Ministry is now collecting course-level data. On a quarterly basis, for each student in each course, schools provide the Ministry with enrolment date, completion date, and final marks. For now, the data is shared only with the schools to assist them in planning and improvement processes, but the information is also helping the Ministry create a knowledge base that will shape future discussions with schools about their instructional programs and implications for their Agreements. Neighbourhood school data was added to the process in the 2008-09 school year, so we will soon be able to respond to questions about comparisons between classroom and online instruction. The various data warehouse tables include the Personal Education Number assigned to each student, creating additional analysis opportunities connected to demographic, prior achievement, and location data. Over the next few months, the Ministry of Education will be using this data to revise other quality processes, but more importantly, to engage schools in focused and deliberative discussions about their achievement results.
All BC schools are required to participate in an annual satisfaction survey that gathers opinions from students, parents and school staff on achievement, human and social development, and safety. The normal survey is intended to provide a source of information to identify current strengths, as well as to determine where schools may need to focus improvement. However, the standard school survey assumes classroom-based instruction in a school that is providing a student’s entire program. In 2009, the Ministry implemented an online satisfaction survey that combined a few key questions from the standard surveys with additional questions based on the Distributed Learning Standards. Individual DL school principals can add their own questions and see their own data.
Distributed Learning Audit
The Ministry of Education’s Finance and Compliance Unit operates audit programs for the various public schools in the province. Legislation, specific program policies, and important procedural instructions are organised into published criteria designed:
- to provide assurance to the ministry and school boards that ministry policy is being followed;
- to promote compliance with ministry funding directives; and
- to support the accurate allocation of education funds based on the funding formula
Audit results may lead to funding adjustments and to special temporary provisions in the DL Agreement.
During an audit, an external team spends several days at school and Board of Education facilities reviewing enrolment records and supporting evidence. The audit criteria are reviewed regularly, published on the Ministry of Education website (http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/administration/resource-management/compliance-program), and distributed directly to DL schools. For distributed learning, the audit teams ensure that:
- student enrolments meet eligibility guidelines;
- teachers are certified;
- teachers are supervising the educational program; and
- schools are following policies for approved learning resources.
All of the elements described above provide the BC school system with a quality improvement toolkit for its public distributed learning schools. With these tools, we believe that quality is improving but unevenly distributed between and among DL schools. However, the same tools are becoming increasingly precise in showing where the extremes in variation are occurring, providing insights into emerging and effective practice, and illuminating weak programs that require attention.