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EdTech & Design, Promising Practices

Distance Education that Works

Enhancing educational opportunities in Newfoundland and Labrador’s rural and remote high schools through eLearning

One of the perennial challenges confronting small, rural and remote high schools is the provision of a curriculum program comparable in breadth and quality to that available to students in larger schools.1 Traditionally, the programs and courses that a school can provide are dependent on the number of teachers employed in the school and their professional qualifications, experience, and expertise. The low enrolment of smaller schools means there are fewer teachers on staff, and this limits the number of courses that can be offered to students.

In the smallest schools, the curriculum may be the bare minimum required for students to graduate, with few if any specialized courses in the arts, foreign languages, or skilled trades. In such schools, teachers will often have an increased workload and be teaching outside their areas of expertise – a math teacher, for example, may take on an English course or vice versa. In the smallest schools, teachers may have to teach two or more courses in a single instructional period. And although rural teachers are dedicated and work exceedingly hard to provide the best they can for their students, it is hardly an ideal educational situation.

The curriculum challenge is exacerbated for small, rural high schools situated in remote and isolated places. Living and working in a remote community is not for everyone. These schools have always had difficulty recruiting and especially retaining teachers in the areas of math, science and foreign languages. New math and science teachers are generally in high demand, and most prefer not to go to small, isolated places. When they do, they often stay only for a year; they see the remote school merely as a “stepping stone” to a more urban appointment. The high teacher turnover in such schools and the resulting lack of continuity is not good for the school, the community or (and especially) the students.

The Newfoundland and Labrador context

Newfoundland and Labrador is a province of small rural schools. In the 2016/17 school year there are only 262 schools, with an average enrolment of 255. The 165 schools classified as rural have an average enrolment of 144. Forty of these rural schools have less than 50 students, and half of them are all-grade schools providing instruction for students from K-12. The senior high school cohort of these all-grade schools is commonly less than 12 students per grade.

Student enrolment has declined dramatically in the last 25 years, from 130,109 in 1990 to 66,800 in 2016. During that same time period, the government has pursued a persistent program of school closure and consolidation. Despite strong community opposition and heartfelt resistance, 281 schools have been closed – the vast majority of which were small rural community schools. The rationale used for these closures was the purported enhanced educational opportunities available at larger schools – opportunities which, the government claimed, were worth the long and often dangerous bus rides students might have to endure.

These recent school closures simply continue a trend that dates back to the publication of the Warren Royal Commission Report in 1967.2 Clinging to the questionable belief that “bigger is better” when it comes to schooling, various governments have closed almost a thousand schools, mostly rural, since 1965.

However, one group of schools has frustrated education officials’ quest to totally eliminate small schools. These are schools situated in such remote and isolated rural places that busing students to a larger school in another community has not been possible. Some of these schools exist on islands with limited ferry service. Others are simply too far from the next nearest school.

Warren despaired that high school students in these remote communities would ever have access to a quality education. He suggested that the government consider creating residential boarding schools for them – an idea, thankfully, that was never acted on. Subsequent government reports3 recommended that a program of distance learning be developed as a way of delivering an enhanced curriculum to rural and remote schools.

Distance education, eLearning and virtual schools

By the late 1990s, the government had come to the realization that there were few small rural schools remaining that could be reasonably targeted for closure. A significant number (93) of “small necessarily existent” (SNE) schools would continue to remain open because it was not feasible to close them, given their remote locations. These schools had to be provided for as long as people continued to live in these communities. It was also clear that enrolment would continue to decline for the foreseeable future and that rural schools would continue to lose teachers.

In August 1999, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced the formation of a Ministerial Panel mandated to examine the current education delivery model and to investigate and recommend “alternative delivery strategies.” The premier of the day, Brian Tobin, stated his government’s commitment to “doing everything possible to ensure that all children in this province, regardless of where they live, have access to a balanced and high quality education.”

“Most alternatives,” the Panel would determine, “involve a form of distance learning… delivered by various forms of electronic media via what has come to be known as the “virtual classroom.”4

The Ministerial Panel report, Supporting Learning, was published in March 2000. It recommended that the government create the Centre of Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI). CDLI would function as a virtual school and would be responsible for the development and delivery of high school courses via the Internet to rural, remote and isolated schools. These web-based or eLearning courses would offer programs and courses that small rural schools were not able to offer on site because of insufficient teachers or teacher expertise.

Previous to this, the province had offered a very limited distance education program using an audiographics delivery system. The vision for CDLI was to be much more inclusive and eventually make available the complete high school program via the Internet. Any student who did not have access to a course in their brick and mortar school on site would be able to take it online in the province’s virtual school.

The Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) piloted its first ten web-based courses in the 2001/02 school year. By 2004/05, CDLI was offering 35 courses with 1,500 student enrolments from 95 different schools.5

CDLI Today6

Since its beginnings, CDLI has developed its technology, eLearning pedagogy and course offerings. Today, it has a staff of 46, including program and IT specialists, a guidance counselor, and 29 e-teachers.

Currently there are 1,105 students registered in one or more of 42 senior high school courses that cover advanced and academic mathematics, sciences, English and French languages, technology education, social studies, skilled trades, French first language, and fine arts (both music and visual art). CDLI courses are delivered to 110 schools in the province.

CDLI has been judged to be successful by students, parents and educators. Students in rural and remote schools now have access to all courses offered by the Department of Education. The online courses are identical in terms of content, outcomes, and assessment to those offered in the province’s face-to-face schools, and the academic achievement of online students is generally on a par with those in the province’s traditional brick and mortar schools. Thousands of students have successfully completed online high school courses and qualified for post-secondary education.

Why CDLI is successful

There are a number of reasons for this success.

CDLI, as a small virtual school, enjoys the advantages that all small schools and organizations have. Most virtual schools, especially those in the U.S., are fairly large organizations. CDLI is focused exclusively on rural students in Newfoundland and Labrador; only students who are enrolled in a provincial high school can access the eLearning courses.

CDLI’s eTeachers are first and foremost subject matter specialists, many with Master’s degrees. They also have extensive training in eLearning pedagogy. Equally important, they are experienced teachers who are familiar with rural students and rural schools. They are in constant contact with their students and are able to develop an intimate knowledge of their needs and abilities. This kind of personal relationship is not possible in larger virtual schools, whose students may be anywhere in the world.

One of the most important and distinguishing features of CDLI is its substantial use of synchronous interaction between eTeachers and online students. CDLI’s virtual classrooms are delivered in two formats: synchronous (sometimes referred to as “online”) and asynchronous (sometimes referred to as “offline”). During the synchronous classes, students and teachers interact in real time.

One way this is done is through web conferencing. Blackboard Collaborate™ (sometimes abbreviated as eLive) is the web conferencing tool used by CDLI. It is the students’ online classroom, where direct instruction/interaction takes place between the e-Teacher and students. CDLI teachers deliver the curriculum mainly through this method and monitor student interaction, participation and progress in real time.

Depending on the course, students can expect to spend anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of their class time using this tool. Synchronous interaction makes an enormous difference to online pedagogy and closely emulates face-to-face instruction.

The asynchronous features of CDLI also contribute to student success. A class can, for example, break from the large-group session for independent or small-group work. Work on written assignments can be scheduled independently by individuals or teams. Thus the students enjoy a degree of flexibility in their activities. Students use CDLI’s learning management system, Desire2Learn, to coordinate group work, as well as to:

• email their classmates and instructors

• post comments and opinions to the discussion forum for the course

• access and submit written assignments

• interact with learning content, both in the form of web pages and multimedia

• view grades.

Finally, rural schools that are part of the CDLI family are required to have a team or teacher to provide support and assistance to students taking online courses. They work closely with the eTeachers to help students in any way they can. CDLI also provides its students with both synchronous and asynchronous academic tutoring.

For more than 30 years, researchers have claimed that technology-based distance education has the potential to make the size and location of a school irrelevant in terms of access to a broad, high-quality curriculum. The Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) has made that promise a reality by providing rural students in remote schools online access to any course they need or desire.

Quality education, however, is not just a matter of access or delivery. The success of CDLI is tied to the pedagogical support provided to students, the quality and commitment of its eTeachers, and the appropriate mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication and interactions. With these features, it serves as a model of how a virtual school should function.

En Bref : Grâce au développement de la formation à distance en ligne de qualité, la taille et le lieu d’une école n’importent plus pour déterminer sa capacité d’offrir aux élèves ruraux des programmes et des cours essentiels. Cet article décrit comment, par le cyberapprentissage (E-learning), l’école secondaire virtuelle de Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador (CDLI) donne accès au curriculum du secondaire de la province aux écoles rurales et éloignées.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, June 2017


1 This is a universal issue for small rural and remote schools.

2 P. J. Warren, The Report of the Royal Commission on Education and Youth (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1967).

3 F. Riggs, Report of the Small Schools Study Project (Government
of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1987); L. Williams,
Our Children Our Future (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1992); R. Sparkes and L. Williams,Supporting Learning (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2000).

4 R. Sparkes and L. Williams, Supporting Learning, 9.

5 M. K. Barbour, “Portrait of Virtual Schooling,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 59 (February 11, 2007).

6 Two main sources for information about CDLI used for this article are: www.cdli.ca (the CDLI website); and Michael Barbour, State of the Nation: K-12 E Learning in Canada (2004-2016). http://canelearn.net/research/state

Meet the Expert

Dennis Mulcahy

Professor, Faculty of Education, MUN

Dennis Mulcahy is Professor of Education at Memorial University whose primary research interests are rural education, small schools, multi-grading and online distance education. He has worked with many rural communities helping in their fight to keep their small schools open.

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