E-Learning: Studying Canada’s Virtual Secondary Schools

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Executive Summary

Since 1995, virtual schooling experiments from K-12 have sprung up across Canada, enrolling increasing numbers of students. E-Learning: Studying Canada’s Virtual Secondary Schools takes a detailed look at this new educational frontier and its success to date. The study was commissioned by the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education (SAEE) with assistance from the Max Bell Foundation. The research was conducted by FuturEd under the direction of principal investigator, Dr. Kathryn Barker.

Its purpose was to examine the effectiveness of virtual schooling and draw some comparisons with conventional approaches. The primary outcomes of the study are case studies of six virtual schools, initial benchmarks and indicators for the continued study of virtual schools, and issues for policy makers to consider in the further development of virtual education.

SCOPE

The study spans the academic years 1998-2000 and three provinces. Nine senior secondary schools were examined: one conventional and two virtual schools each in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. The data-collection methods included on-site visits, document review and analysis, and close to 800 completed questionnaires and interviews with students, parents, teachers, principals and district administration. The primary focus of the questionnaires and interviews conducted in Year One was to compare the experiences and satisfaction levels of stakeholders in conventional and virtual settings on a broad range of effectiveness indicators suggested by the literature. In Year Two, the research team gathered further data on student characteristics, comparative achievement and course completion rates, budgets, and the key issues and challenges facing virtual schools. The study concludes with an analysis of significant policy decisions that will be required to address the effective delivery of on-line learning in the future.

FINDINGS

Barker’s evaluation model captures early trends in virtual schooling and provides a framework for on-going assessment of its impact on teaching and learning. As no previous research has attempted to compare conventional and cyberschooling, her findings offer some surprising insights on the system at large as well. A number of highlights emerged from the data presented in the technical reports for each year of the study. The reader is cautioned that due to the small sample size and limited time frame, conclusions presented in the Final Report are tentative and may not be generalizable. These findings are, however, placed in context and generally supported by other recent independent evaluations conducted on behalf of Alberta Learning and the BC Ministry of Education.

Barker’s primary findings include the following:

Growth Trends

Enrolment and demand for virtual schooling is growing. For example, the two-year cumulative growth rate for Alberta schools in the study was 125%. In contrast, BC schools cannot accommodate increased demand because the number of students is limited by a funding cap. Where permitted, enrolments will continue to rise because distributed learning enhances student choices and learning opportunities.

The shape of on-line learning is mutating rapidly. There are currently two competing delivery models: totally virtual schools from which students access their entire academic program, and hybrid models, whereby students obtain a portion of their total program on-line. Financial considerations such as the per-pupil funding provided and fees for contracting on-line course offerings to conventional schools drive the relative growth of each model.

Satisfaction Levels

Parents and students, teachers and administrators are very satisfied with and enthusiastic about virtual schools, as documented in tables contained in the report on a wide range of indicators. The appeal for students and parents includes the self-directed nature that enhances independent learning; individualization; a perception of better preparation for post-secondary education and lifelong learning; increased personal responsibility; flexible timetabling; the opportunity to succeed, having experienced failures in other learning systems; fewer distractions; equal opportunity to participate; development of technological competencies; quick feedback and instant work records; no geographic barriers; and greater opportunity for parental involvement. The most common reason for selecting a virtual program was dissatisfaction with conventional schooling.

Principals identified increased flexibility, individualized teacher attention, and personal safety and comfort (no exposure to the social problems that can be found in typical secondary schools) as primary factors in customer satisfaction.

Teachers in virtual schools stressed similar student-oriented benefits. The professional benefits reported by VS teachers include flexibility in work scheduling, the absence of conventional school behavior problems, and the collaborative nature of the Internet instructional experience.

Student Characteristics

Virtual schooling attracts two general types of students: those who are self-directed learners with clear expectations and goals who choose VS as a first resort and who often want, for example, to complete two grades in a year; and those who are underachievers in conventional schools and for whom VS is a last resort. The success rates are strongly weighted towards the former.

Achievement

It is premature to draw conclusions about comparative achievement levels based on this sample. There is considerable inconsistency between schools and provinces. In addition, it appears that few students have yet completed grade 12 in the virtual environment, making comparisons with conventional school achievement at that level difficult or impossible. From the limited data available, VS students do no worse than CS students in overall achievement as reflected in provincial exam scores. In terms of skills acquisition, VS students in comparison to CS students, are inclined to experience:

  • less improvement in the academic and communication skills of listening and speaking;
  • greater improvement in the academic and communication skills of critical thinking, researching, and using computers / ICT;
  • greater improvement in the skills, knowledge and attitudes associated with learning independently, problem solving, creative thinking, decision-making, and time management;
  • about the same positive improvement in reading; and
  • the same low improvement in practical science skills and self-confidence.Cost Effectiveness

    Virtual schools spend less per student than do conventional schools. Instructional staffing costs in VS were significantly lower, ranging from 20-40% less. Part of this difference is accounted for by the use of differentiated staffing such as markers. Investments in technology, development of courseware, and professional training ­major budgetary items- also varied widely by school over this period.

    Monitoring and Reporting

    Data collection and monitoring systems for virtual schools are under-developed. There are disturbing gaps in the availability of statistics on course completions, achievement scores, and student records, and wide variances in financial accounting and overall planning and reporting structures.

    POLICY QUESTIONS RAISED

    Although virtual schools in the sample appear to be at least as effective as conventional schools according to the effectiveness indicators examined, important issues are surfaced in this report. Key planning and management questions for policy makers include:

    How will the rapid growth and demand for virtual learning be managed?
    What are the best features and practices of on-line learning?
    How might these be standardized?
    Which models of virtual schooling are most effective?
    How can the monitoring of virtual schools be improved?
    Is virtual schooling more cost-effective than conventional delivery?
    How is the virtual teacher evaluated?
    Is differentiated staffing in virtual schools an effective practice?
    Who should invest in and develop virtual courseware?
    How should proprietorship and marketing of virtual courses/courseware be handled?
    Who should fund costs of increasing bandwidth to enhance conventional school offerings with virtual courses?
    Flexible learning is now a reality in the digital age. This report underlines the urgent policy decisions to be taken and the need for continued research to support and shape best practice in the expanding e-learning frontier.