Digital learning is on the rise in Canadian K-12 schools and is now emerging as a critical education policy issue in most of the nation’s ten provinces and three territories. Annual reports on K-12 Online Learning from 2008 to 2015, mostly researched and written by Canadian information technology expert Michael K. Barbour, demonstrate steady and incremental growth in the implementation and practice of distance, online and blended learning.
Without a national education authority and public education governed by the provinces and territories, accurately assessing that growth in a country with 5.3 million K-12 students and 15,000 schools remains challenging for researchers. Based upon increasingly reliable annual surveys, the numbers of tracked “distance education students” have risen from some 140,000 (0.5%) in 2008-09 to 332,077 (6.2%) in 2013-14 (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).
The use of blended learning is also spreading, even if the reported data is rather patchy. With the 2012 formation of the CAN eLearning Network, a national pan-Canadian consortium focused on K-12 online and blended learning, better data may be generated, making tracking much more accurate and reliable for policy analysis and decision-making (Barbour 2013, CAN eLearning Network 2015 ).
Compared with the recent explosion of digital learning schools in the United States, online and blended learning in Canada’s K-12 public schools has followed a decidedly different pattern of evolution (Finn and Fairchild 2012; Barbour 2012). Much of the online learning in parts of Canada remains an outgrowth of correspondence school education, involving e-format programmed units, audio distance learning and video conferencing. The radical variations, free market experimentation, and ‘disruptive’ innovation found in the United States (Chubb 2012; Christensen et al. 2013) have not been replicated in Canadian public education.
The primary drivers in Canadian provincial and territorial systems are government authorities, while learning corporations serve as contractors providing content, learning technologies, and support services to the government-run operations. In spite of the tremendous potential for expansion in online learning programs, the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent. Provincial or school district authorities promote a ‘growth-management ‘strategy where online and blended learning are considered the next evolution of effective technology integration (Barbour PTDEA 2015).
Significant gaps still exist in service levels and barriers stand in the way of expansion into un-serviced frontiers, particularly in the Far North and First Nations communities. Only British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have, so far, proven to be fertile ground for private school ventures in the form of virtual or online schools.(Barbour 2010, 41; Kuehn, 2013).
Virtually all Canadian educational systems remain designed around seat time, defined as providing in-school classes of regulated size with a minimum number of instructional hours (Jenson et al. 2010; Powell et al. 2015). Some private sector virtual schools have recently arrived and thrive outside the mainstream system.
No full-time online public charter schools exist, even in Alberta, the only province in Canada with Charter School legislation (Bennett 2012). The rise of virtual schooling delivered by ‘cyber charter schools’ has surfaced as a public policy issue in Alberta, where a University of Alberta research unit, Parkland Institute, released an October 2013 report warning of the dangers of “pedagogical innovation” in the form of privatization presented as a way of easing “budgetary constraints” (Cummins and Gibson 2013).
The growth of online learning in Canada may be more significant than reported by provincial and territorial authorities. While Quebec and New Brunswick both reported modest distance education enrolments in 2013-14, estimates for teachers using the curriculum in blended format are much higher. From 2011 to 2014, to cite another example, the Ontario Ministry of Education coordinated an initiative to expand access to blended learning for all K-13 students, which generated almost 240,000 blended learning enrolments in the provincial learning management system during the 2013-14 school year (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).
The national advocacy group 21C Canada holds some sway over provincial ministers of education (C21 Canada 2015), but, so far, the implementation of 21st century learning and the explicit teaching of ‘digital literacies’ is very uneven, particularly outside of the recognized lead provinces, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta (People for Education 2014).
The natural evolution of online and face-to-face education from 2008 until 2015 is exemplified by the spread of blended learning. Newer blended learning models, promoted by the Christensen Institute (Powell et al. 2015), are beginning to emerge in the so-called “hybrid zone” in what might be termed ‘lighthouse’ schools.
While provinces such as BC, Alberta and Ontario actively promote eLearning, innovation is limited by the current structural boundaries and education authorities are only beginning to track blended learning enrolment. In 2012-13, British Columbia enacted legislation enabling “flexible learning choices” and, with the support of the BC Distributed Learning Administrators’ Association (BCDLAA), blended learning and “flipped classroom” practices are becoming more mainstream (Barbour 2013, 61-62).
National online education survey reports, produced by the CAN eLearning Network (Barbour and LaBonte BIT 2015), testify to the steady growth of distance education and online programs, but identify the need for “better data” and more evidence of the transition to blended ‘competency-based learning’ in Canada. Evolution rather than revolution appears to be the Canadian way.
What’s really driving the growth in Canadian K-12 online and blended learning? Where is the initiative coming from – from the top-down or the schools-up? What advantages does the “managed-growth” approach over the “destructive innovation” doctrine prevalent in some American states? Would Canadian students and families benefit from more “flexible learning” choices in K-12 public education?