B.C. schools use e-learning to fill enrolment gaps

As falling student numbers make it more difficult to justify teaching less popular subjects, B.C. schools have turned towards online learning to deliver a growing number of courses.

BCEd Online, a consortium of school districts, teacher groups, private industry and online learning organizations, is now involved in 34 interactive technology projects in 29 school districts.

The projects are aimed at boosting students’ access to courses that schools cannot offer in traditional classrooms, according to BCEd Online’s executive director, Barry Carbol.

“In part this is a strategy that’s being used to consolidate lower enrolment and being able to offer more choice of programs,” Carbol said in an interview.

For instance, in Powell River, North Vancouver and Kelowna, there are no French specialists available to teach French Science 8 and Science 9. But by using Voice Over Internet Protocol technology, an integrated portal and laptop computers, the Francophone Authority is now able to provide these courses to the 30 students in the three municipalities.

Most of BCED Online’s projects use the Elluminate Live Web conferencing tool, provided by Vancouver’s Odyssey Learning Systems Inc.

The technology means that low-enrolment courses such as Senior Physics and Information Technology will be provided to students in Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Fraser Lake.

But it’s not just rural areas that are using online learning.

The Greater Vancouver suburb of Surrey is relying on it to connect students in distant parts of the school district, Carbol said.

The suburbs of Burnaby and Delta are also involved with BCEd Online. Elluminate Live can archive sessions, and some teachers make use of that feature, he said: “They may record a sequence of lessons and make that available to students so they can go back and review it in their own time.”

About 30,000 B.C. students are now involved in some form of distance learning, and those numbers are expected to increase, unless a change in immigration policies prompts a return to growing total student numbers.

But it’s not just students that are in short supply.

“There are a number of things that are coming together demographically,” Carbol said. “We have an aging teacher population. As well, fewer teachers are being trained to teach subjects such as science and mathematics.

“That means we’re going to have to use these kinds of approaches in order to deliver quality education services widely across the province,” he said.

“In some of the schools, it hasn’t been possible for them to offer a course like Physics 12,” Carbol said. “In other cases it’s only been possible to offer it one semester and not the next, because there aren’t enough teachers.”

Elluminate Live is also widely used in universities and colleges, as well as in the corporate sector, according to Odyssey Learning’s sales director, Randy Labonte.

“In business it’s used to support a return on investment and reduce the overall travel expenses,” Carbol said.

Since it’s configured for the lower end of bandwidth, it even works over dialup connections, he added.

Some students, particularly in northern B.C., live so far from the nearest school that they must be boarded out at  high cost, courtesy of the B.C. taxpayers. Online learning can reduce those costs by allowing students to remain at home.

Of B.C.’s 60 school districts, 41 belong to the consortium, including the Francophone Education Authority. Over the last year, the B.C. government has spent $1 million to buy nearly 12,000 more school computers, and another $2.1 million to support pilot school laptop projects. In total, more than $6 million has gone towards better technology in B.C. schools in the last year.

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