An Alberta-based online school claims its use of distance learning technology is bolstering the academic success of First Nations students.

After only five semesters, the Sunchild E-Learning Community says it has achieved

a graduation rate of more than 80 per cent among 13 aboriginal communities serving about 150 students in Grades 9 to 12. The school, which has offices in Calgary, operates completely over the Internet through the use of vClass software from Calgary-based Elluminate Inc.

According to the Census, First Nations peoples comprise approximately six per cent of the province’s population but the rate of high school graduates is 15 per cent lower than that of non-Native Alberta youth.

Jim Brennan, a teacher at Sunchild, attributed the school’s success to strong support from the instructors behind the software. Sunchild provides its students with a class schedule that tells them when they need to log on. Distance education, he said, can fill the gaps in the First Nations educational system that exist due to geographic and economic limitations.

“”You can’t bring in two teachers to teach in humanities and sciences and pay them $60,000 a piece if you’ve got five high school students,”” he said. “”What we do is provide all of the courses taught, plus more in terms of trades.””

Rajeev Arora, Elluminate’s vice-president of strategy, said some traditional schools have tried to add a virtual component, but they have primarily been text-based. In contrast, vClass offers audio functionality as well as a white board where instructors can share information.

“”Especially in the First Nations communities, there is a strong oral tradition,”” he said.

Brennan agreed that while most Sunchild students have preferred text so far, there has been a progression in their use of audio.

“”As students are in it longer, they use it more,”” he said. “”You can hear them giggle the first time they hear their own voice.””

Because some students may be accessing the Internet through shaky dialup connections, Arora said vClass buffers the content so that if a connection is lost, whatever students missed is played back to them at a sped-up rate. The company refers to the technique as “”chipmunking,”” because the instructor’s sped-up voice sounds like a chipmunk.

Brennan said it is less important for vendors to develop new features for distance learning products than it is to create the most stable platform possible.

“”Forget the bells and whistles — you want to not always have to worry about whether the audio works,”” he said. “”It’s just like your car: If you’re buying all those power options, sooner or later they’re going to go down.””

Arora said Elluminate believes in a “”transparent technology”” approach that simplifies the learning curve for clients.

“”You don’t need videoconferencing or a big broadband connection,”” he said.


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