The rise of online education in Alberta (and how administrators are keeping up)

Education administrators in Alberta today face a host of challenges and responsibilities that were unheard of 20 years ago: from managing multiple learning platforms and technologies, to protecting staff and students from cyber threats and privacy intrusions.

But what about the administrators at schools that have no physical buildings, but are completely online? Do they face more or fewer challenges than their bricks and mortar counterparts?

Interestingly, while these “virtual school” administrators still face a number of challenges, the form they take can be quite unique.

I recently spoke with the principals and vice-principal of Vista Virtual School and the Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC) to get a better sense of their everyday operations.

I also discovered how they are leading the way in many education innovations.

Background — Alberta’s Growing Online Learning Population

Pembina Hills Public Schools is just one of 51 K-12 school district members in Alberta that Cybera serves. But Pembina is a little special: it oversees two of the large distance learning providers in the province: Vista Virtual School and the ADLC. Vista Virtual School launched in 1996 with 110 students, and today teaches over 10,000 students across the province in grades 1-12.

The ADLC (which technically began in 1923) currently serves over 30,000 students across the province (including Vista Virtual School).

So, why are so many kids in Alberta today doing their education online?

“The most frequently stated reason is the flexibility we offer,” says Mike Loitz, the principal at Vista Virtual School. “But the reality is, for every 10 students who come in, there’s 10 different stories for why they’re here. Some are athletes or actors, some are on extended trips with their families, some have health issues, or some were being bullied at a bricks and mortar school.

“We offer year-round entry and learning that they can do from anywhere, even abroad. The only stipulation is that the student’s parent has to be a resident of Alberta.”

A student trials one of the electronic kits supplied through Vista Virtual

Unlike Vista Virtual, the ADLC is not a school, per se, but a distance learning service provider that works with school authorities across Alberta. Physical and virtual schools in Alberta, including Vista Virtual, partner with the ADLC to access its distance learning opportunities for their students.

“We have many students who finished high school but are needing to complete one or two secondary classes before moving on to a post-secondary education,” explains Steven Kaplan, ADLC’s Principal. “In other cases, schools access our courses and deliver them whole (or in part) to their students, to fill a teaching gap.”

Video: the distance learning game changer

A Vista Virtual teacher communicating with one of her students.
At first glance, there is little difference between the learning experience of an online student and one who is physically attending a school. Vista Virtual caps its class sizes at 25 full-time students, who are expected to write tests, complete assignments, and carry out group work within a specified time frame — same as any other student.

Online students are also able to have one-on-one conversations with their teachers via email, phone, or Skype.

Aside from the minimal physical interactions, the biggest difference with online education is the integral use of video. Teachers record many of their lessons to help students complete their work, and students often submit videos as part of their assignments.

This process can be pretty straightforward for a math or English class. But it starts to get tricky for a chemistry lab or Phys Ed class.

“We have to be creative and proactive,” says Frank McCallum, associate principal at Vista Virtual’s Calgary campus. “For Phys Ed, we’ll often get students to record themselves doing an activity, such as dancing, which is then evaluated by the teacher.”

Indeed, current capabilities in general video production are allowing online students to be more visually detailed and impactful than an in-person presentation.

“High school students today are very savvy when it comes to video production,” says Kaplan. “They can create videos quite quickly and know how to easily share files, even massive files. Today I was just watching a presentation for a social studies assignment, and it looked like a professional video. The technology students now have access to is amazing.”

Collaboration opportunities (and dealing with the lack thereof)

Another major difference between online and physical education is the more collaborative atmosphere for teachers, says Loitz. Because Vista Virtual School’s teachers are not sealed off in individual classrooms, they can watch and listen to one another, see the assignments sent in by students, and get new ideas for teaching content.

“The advantage of being in a campus setting is that the teachers can definitely collaborate more, which the students ultimately benefit from,” says Loitz.

“But”, adds McCallum, “the real nut to crack is improving collaboration between students. Right now we use discussion boards, which isn’t ideal for interactive conversations and group work.”

All agree that relationship-building in general is a challenge for online education.

A Vista Virtual student attends a parent-teacher meeting in Edmonton.

“It’s really important for teachers to make that initial breakthrough with a student, and let them know there’s a compassionate person on the other end of the learning,” says Loitz. “This is why our elementary level teachers are on the road quite a bit to meet face-to-face with students, and we also offer field trip opportunities. Once that relationship is established, teachers have reported having deeper connections with their students than they did in a traditional classroom.

“This humanizes the experience more for students, which leads to more curricular success.”

Technology barriers going down

In Loitz’s time at Vista Virtual, he says he has seen some issues with students being unable to access the technology needed to participate in a virtual school. “We have students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and where the need exists, we’ll do our best to help students get computers using services like Computers for Schools.

“Some students say they have internet, but it’s only on their phone, which can also be a problem for us, as we’re not set up for mobile.”

That said, the number of students and parents complaining about technology barriers over the last 10 years has noticeably gone down.

“However, our registrations are done online, so it could also be a chicken and egg situation: If you don’t have internet, you can’t sign up for our classes to start with.”

Supporting specialized education

One of the biggest benefits of online or distance education to students is the flexible learning environment it creates.

Two students run through one of the interactive courses offered through Vista Virtual.

“Education is not one size fits all,” says McCallum. “Research shows that starting a class at 7:45am is not ideal, and many students — particularly teenagers — benefit from being able to start learning at an ideal time for them.”

Adds Loitz, “We’re really learning the benefits of more specialized education. We can easily allow certain students to move quickly through subjects, and others to go more slowly. And when they interact with their teacher, it’s one-on-one.”

Kaplan agrees, noting that this individualized education has been a game-changer for students who traditionally struggle in classrooms. “I’ve seen some at-risk kids finish a course faster than expected because they were given more freedom and flexibility, and were able to do away with the distractions. Distance learning really allows them to get down and get done.”

Teachers are also able to be more thoughtful and targeted towards specific students’ needs. “I would expect my boss to help me remove roadblocks that are keeping me from being successful, and we’re similarly able to help teachers remove roadblocks for students,” says Loitz.

“The growth of our school, and the number of students utilizing ADLC’s services, attests to the real need in Alberta, and how distance learning does work, at least for a segment of the population,” adds Kaplan.

And given the growing importance of independent learning by people of all ages — particularly those working in the modern digital economy — these experiences could give young Albertans a leg-up as they progress through life.