This is Part 1 in a series of 7 or 8 which will be published over the next week or so.
When people learn that my ‘thing’ is eLearning they often turn rather skeptical. It’s as if they suddenly learned that the person they thought was so respectable, so legit was, in the end nothing more than a glib snake oil salesman. The tone changes, becomes less affable, more controversial.
It often goes like this:
Other person: I don’t know, distance education is never as good as being taught in person.
Me: What do you mean?
Other person: The students have to be completely self-motivated, you know, left alone to learn from a computer like that.
That’s pretty much the way it starts every time. Many people, you see, equate eLearning and, in particular, distance education with old-fashioned correspondence courses. You know the kind—you are sent, via mail, stuff to read and instructions on things to write. You return it via mail and some poor soul grades it and returns it to you. The only change the people make is that they substitute ‘mail’ with ‘email.’
Nope—not even close. Sure, that was tried by some in the early nineties. Fortunately the technology soon evolved well away from that.
We were never silly enough to try anything like that.
Here, distance education is an integral part of the high school program in our rural schools. I live in the Canadian province of Newfoundland (an island) and Labrador (the north-eastern part of mainland North America). It has an area of approximately 400,000 km2 which is approximately twice that of Great Britain but less that 0.8% of the population! One half of the approximately 500,000 people that live in the province live on the Avalon, the 9,000 km2 peninsula that makes up the Eastern edge of Newfoundland (which is, by the way, also the eastern edge of North America). This means, in reality that a place twice the size of great Britain has less than one half of one percent of its population! Talk about sparsely populated! Taking out the larger centers this leaves around150,000 people living in several hundred small communities. We call them outports. Some, like Francois (see the two previous posts) are only accessible by boat or by aircraft. And it’s a long ride. Most, however, are accessible by roads. The outposts are widely separated, though. When you leave one community you may have an hour or so to drive before you see another house.
The school population is declining too. In the mid-1970s there were around 160,000 school-aged students. Now there are less than 70,000. In 1961 Newfoundland and Labrador led the first world in terms of its birth rate. Families with 8, even 10 children were common. Now, with so many of our young people moving away, the situation is reversed. With a total fertility rate of 1.58, we are significantly behind the Canadian average of 1.63. The majority of our school-aged children live on the Avalon, or in the larger centres. The rural schools in the rural communities (we call them outports) often have very small numbers of students. Busing is generally not a viable option owing to the great distances between the communities.
The table shown below shows the sizes of schools by district. Notice just how many of the schools are really small!
Consider a k-12 school with a total population of 150 students. You can expect some doubling up in the primary and elementary grades. There might even be some in grades 7 to 9. Though not easy it’s doable. Regardless of the teacher allocation model used you cannot expect to have more than two or three teachers in that school devoted to the high school program. Now consider the fact that students are expected to complete 7 two-credit courses per year. Generally this would mean
- one of three streams of math;
- one of two streams of English language arts;
- a choice between four sciences plus a general science; many students actually take two sciences in each of the last two years of school;
- a choice of two social studies—typically history or geography;
- career education, fine arts, second language, tech-ed. (depending on electives);
Now, repeat this pattern for grades 10, 11 and 12 and bear in mind that you only have two or three people in total to pull it off. There’s no way that a school that size could offer a high school program by itself! Here are your choices:
- Do nothing. Let the students and teachers work it out as best they can. Assume that most of the material will be self-taught.
- Send the students to a school in another community. Provide money for room and board in someone else’s home.
- Design and implement a distance education program that will supplement the onsite offerings.
For many years, a combination of all three sustained the students in the small schools. In 1986, however, the provincial government examined the results of the ‘small schools study’ it had commissioned.
At the time I was working on my M.Ed. I chose the thesis route and requirements were a bit more stringent than I have seen lately; ten grad. courses plus a thesis. Teaching and learning has always been my interest so, obviously, the curriculum and instruction stream was the right one. There were only so many science education courses so, having the equivalent of a math minor too, it made sense to also do the math ed. courses. Besides—I had just spent the previous year doing one hour per day in grade five so elementary math methods made good sense—to me at least—during that summer as one of the two courses I took.
As it happened the instructor was Dr. Frank Riggs, the same person who had been commissioned by the Department of Education to do the small schools study into programming in our rural schools. The poor guy—we (the class that is) had him pestered the whole summer to spill the beans, to tell us what he’d found. Professional that he was, he refused until he’d briefed the DOE. Near the end of the term he did agree to give is a bit of it. He was going to recommend a distance education solution for some access problems that he had identified.
Next: The small-schools Distance Education program that was developed in the late 1980’s as a result.