B.C. Investigates Expansion of Cost-Saving Cyberschools

B.C.'s education ministry is reviewing a new type of education that could revolutionize the way students are taught in this province.

It's virtual-schooling, which enables students to attend cyberschools through their computers, working at their own pace, in their own homes.

The cost of their education is significantly lower than in regular schools, especially in B.C., where students generally have contact with only student counsellors and those who mark their work.

The education ministry gives each B.C. student $3,500 for computer equipment, but said it is impossible to compare over-all per-pupil costs to the approximately $6,000 per year spent on students in regular schools. In B.C., virtual schooling is still considered a pilot project, with its enrolment capped at 2,200.

Before that cap is lifted, says deputy education minister Charles Ungerleider, the ministry needs a better understanding of how virtual schools fulfil the many other duties of conventional schools, such as encouraging social and personal development. "So that we aren't just creating an electronic workbox for kids."

"Clearly, it has a place," he said of virtual schooling, "but what is the appropriate place and how does it enhance education?"

Ungerleider said he has asked ministry staff to prepare a big-picture look at virtual schooling, and hopes to present a discussion paper to the public before the end of this school year. The education critic for the provincial Liberals, expected to win an election that must be held this spring, says there should be many more opportunities for students, especially in rural areas, to learn via computer.

Gordon Hogg said there is also an exciting opportunity to market B.C.'s "valuable curriculum" overseas, raising dollars to pay for other opportunities provincially.

Although cyberschools are a recent phenomenon, they are in hot demand across Canada for students who want to work at their own pace, haven't been successful or don't like the environment at regular schools, live in remote regions or are intrigued by technology, says a report to be released today by the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education.

Some 5,000 students in Canada are now enrolled in virtual schools that offer a complete education via the Internet, says the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

If enrolments continue to grow, e-learning -- as it's called -- could fundamentally change the education system.

The report says students who attend virtual schools appear to do as well academically as their peers in conventional schools.

"Parents and students, teachers and administrators are very satisfied with and enthusiastic about virtual schools.

"Where permitted, enrolments will continue to rise because distributed learning enhances student choices and learning opportunities."

Kathryn Barker, the author of the latest study, found some interesting differences between students who learned on-line and those who attended traditional schools, but said it is premature to draw conclusions.

Students attending cyberschools generally showed:

  • Less improvement in listening, speaking.
  • Greater improvement in critical thinking, researching and using computers.
  • Increased abilities in problem solving, creative thinking, decision-making and time management.

Since few students have completed Grade 12 through virtual schooling, it is too early to reach conclusions about overall achievement. But based on the limited data available, it appears cyberstudents perform as well as regular students over-all, the study says.

Sarah Ward, 17, is one of 300 students in the Vancouver area who is on the cutting edge in this educational experiment.

After finishing Grade 7, she dropped out of the traditional public school system, not because of poor grades but because she didn't like the reputation of her designated secondary school.

Besides, she thought she might do just as well -- or better -- through correspondence.

Four years ago, she was offered a chance to go to a virtual school and now says she can't imagine ever returning to a regular school. As a student at the Greater Vancouver Distance Education School, she takes all of her courses on-line, attends virtual classes for group discussions and hangs out in the school's virtual cafe.

"At first, I liked the idea of sleeping in, but now I feel I've developed much more as an individual than I would have [in regular school]. I feel liberated," she said. She said she spends about the same amount of time learning as she would in a regular school, but it's all self-directed. "It's been difficult, you have to be self-motivated. You don't have teachers barking at you."

Ken Harvey, her principal, said there are 18 virtual schools in B.C., all learning from one another. "We don't see this as a pilot [project], but as another opportunity for our students..." He said he hasn't been overwhelmed by demand, but that may be because information about the program is mainly spread by word of mouth. His enrolment of 300 is actually 100 above the cap set by the ministry.

Barker said e-learning is a contentious issue because teacher unions tend not to be supportive.

Representatives of the B.C. Teachers' Federation were not available for comment, but Barker said the Canadian federation opposes virtual schooling.

Topics: Distance Education