Distance Learning Center at Kenaston School
by Darren Gasper
Principal Kenaston School / Sun West Distance Learning Centre

What is the history behind the distance learning: The Sun West Distance Learning Centre was created in May of 2008 after the government announced the closure of the Correspondence School in Regina. Each school division was left to decide if they wanted to create their own distance learning or purchase those services from another school division. With the rural demographics of Sun West, which included declining enrollments at many of our schools, and some difficulty in finding subject specialists in areas such as senior math and science, the division saw their distance needs growing in the future and chose to form the Distance Learning Centre (DLC).

The division looked at several models of distance delivery from various school divisions and decided to go with a one site delivery model. This one site model allows for easier management of the program, ease of timetabling broadcasts, sharing of workloads, ideas and professional development of the teaching staff, and a concentrated site of the equipment and technical support needed to keep the deliveries running smoothly. Kenaston School was chosen to be this site based on the average size of its grades and the comfort level of the staff with the various technologies needed. With an average grade size of 10 students, it allows for students from other schools to be added to the class and still keep the overall size reasonable. Larger schools with class sizes of 20-25 students would need additional staffing to add class sections in order to keep class sizes reasonable.

How are the distance classes delivered to students? The DLC currently offers two main kinds of classes. The first are live broadcasts that are scheduled to run during a particular period each school day. This includes a wide range of classes from Math to Sciences to many different options classes like Psychology. Schools from across Sun West sign up to receive these broadcasts and organize their timetable to match ours. Smartboards (interactive touch whiteboards) are used in all sites for the broadcasting teacher to show notes, questions, instructional videos and many other things to all of the students receiving the broadcast at the same time. These images appear almost instantly on each of the sites smartboards. Students in a receiving site can also write on their smartboard and it will appear on all of the smartboards involved in the broadcast. For example, our Math teacher can post a math problem on the board and ask a student in a distance site to go to their board and solve the problem, as everyone can see the students work as they write out their solution. In addition to the Smartboards, the broadcasts have full audio feeds running, so students at any site can ask questions at any time. In 2009, we also added Sony Ipela video conference sets to the broadcasts, which are high quality cameras and TV's, and this allows the students and teacher to see each other at all times. This video feed helps the distance students to feel more like a part of the class, just like the students who are sitting in the classroom with the teacher. To support the students who are in the receiving sites, the classroom teacher travels out to each of the schools three times per semester. These in person visits allows the teacher to get to know each of the students, and helps to promote more discussion from the receiving students once they feel more of a connection with the teacher. During these visits, the teacher will broadcast from that school, so our students become receiving students on those days and get to experience what it’s like for the other students.

The second types of classes are called asynchronous courses. These are classes which have the instructional segments recorded, and all of the class notes and assignments are hosted on our Moodle server. This server acts like an electronic file cabinet and houses everything from the class recordings, to the notes, assignments, grades and tools for posting class discussions. Moodle was designed by teachers, so it is a user friendly site that students can navigate easily and its password protected, so the teacher's and student's work are kept within that particular class. Our asynchronous courses have been growing at a fast pace, as they allow students to start them at any time in the school year, unlike the broadcasts, which are tied to the school year start up. Students in asynch courses can also work on them at any time of the day, which makes timetabling in schools easier. It also gives students flexibility with their courses for Adult students who are working during the day, students who are away during the school year, or for students who need to earn credits in a condensed time period.

What kinds of classes are offered? The DLC offers a very diverse list of classes. These include typical core classes such as Math, ELA, Sciences and History, but there is also a wide range of elective classes. Our school division has a goal of providing equitable educational opportunities to students across Sun West. This means that they want the same list of courses available to any student in the division regardless of where they go to school. Typically students at a large school have a wider choice of options to choose from, and the DLC strives to provide that same wide range to every student including those at small schools. In addition to the choices, the DLC also focuses on how students are achieving at each site compared to the delivery school, so that we can be providing an equitable quality of education as well.

The list of option courses available to students includes Psychology, Law, Media Studies, Computer Drafting, Digital Photographics, Forensic Science, Exercise Science, Information Processing, Creative Writing, Accounting, Entrepreneurship, Life Transitions, Native Studies and several other print based courses. In addition to these, we also offer courses through partnerships that we have formed. Students can complete courses focused around Agriculture known as Green Certificate courses. These courses involve 50 hours of classroom instruction and 50 hours of work on the farm. They include courses in Cow/Calf Production, Field Crop Production, Beef Feedlot, Dairy, Sheep and Irrigated Field Crop. The Ministry of Agriculture is a partner with these courses, as they have provided the course materials and provide an examiner at the end of the course who travels out to the student's farm site to conduct a practical exam where the student demonstrates their course knowledge.

We also have a partnership formed with the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan. Through this partnership, we will be working with seven of their professors to offer a first year Commerce class - Introduction to Business (COM 101). This course covers a wide variety of the programs offered at the College and gives students the opportunity to earn both a high school credit and a university credit. It also allows students to see what a class at the College is like while they are still in high school and saves them the cost of that class during their first year at the University. The seven professors involved in the course will be lending their expertise and acting as guest lecturers throughout the course.

How well do students achieve in distance classes?
Distance education has been around for quite some time, so a large number of studies have been done on student achievement levels. The research shows that students in distance classes achieve at a very similar level to students in a traditional face to face setting. The most significant factor in student success revolves around students having a significant adult mentor who provides the support they need to be successful. We track the results of students in the receiving sites and compare them to those from the sending site. During the 2010-2011 school year, students in the receiving schools scored higher in 11 of the 21 broadcasts, which shows an equitable education is being delivered. Student surveys are also helping to provide feedback to us as we constantly look at ways to improve the quality of our courses.

Is distance education for every student? The simple answer is no. While technology is constantly improving the student experience, not every student is an ideal candidate for distance classes. Students who work well independently and are dedicated to their studies make ideal candidates. At the same time, if the right amount of supports is available for students, the vast majority of students can be very successful in these courses. Some students who struggle in the traditional class may also find more success in distance classes if they are hesitant to ask questions in front of their peers. The ability for students to work on the asynch courses at any time provides a flexibility that no face to face course can offer, so that feature is very appealing to some students.

Many of our parents have questions about distance education and where its going in education. The reality is, kids today have been raised in a different environment than many of us, and their comfort level with technology has changed the classrooms in many schools. Many students are comfortable with reading online versus traditional textbooks, and their communication skills online far exceed most adults. Flipped classrooms - where students watch the classroom lectures at night rather than doing assigned homework - are becoming more common. Rather than losing classroom time to the traditional class lecture, students work on assignments while the teacher is able to circulate throughout the room and provide more direct support to students during the entire class period. Students who struggle with concepts in the class lectures are able to watch the recorded lectures as often as they like and still have the opportunity for help during the class period.

Are there other advantages? Since all of our broadcasts are recorded each day, students who happen to be absent can watch that day's lesson at night rather than be behind when they return to school. Students who are sick can actually join in from home as well if they choose. As exams approach, students can also use the class recordings for review.
Even during days when substitute teachers come in, we use the recordings so that our students still have the same classroom teacher they would normally have. It’s a pretty tough challenge for a substitute to come in and teach everything from Chemistry to Calculus, and without knowing where each of the students are at in the course. This allows us to keep the course moving along, and we are finding we are covering all of the course content at a nice steady pace and it leaves us some extra time for preparing for the final exams at the end of the course.
With the use of our Moodle server, all of the course notes and assignments are also available over the Internet at any time. This may even include an electronic version of the course textbook, so no more lost notes, my dog ate my homework or I couldn't find my book. With the class notes being available for math, this frees students up to concentrate on the instruction rather than be scrambling to get all of the notes down. Since every student writes at a different speed, we used to see students fall behind in the notes and would miss parts of the class lecture. This eliminates that issue and so far we have seen student achievement levels rising.

For students who are heading off to post-secondary schools, participating in a distance education class helps make the transition to university easier for many of them. Many typical university classes also post course notes and assignments online, grades are posted online, and many courses at university are now offered by distance education as well.
Another advantage goes to other Sun West teachers. As the courses are developed, they are made available for use by teachers across Sun West in traditional face to face classrooms. Beginning teachers will benefit by using these materials developed by experienced teachers, and it will help foster consistency across the division. In many of our small schools, teachers are asked to teach a wide variety of subjects, some of which they may not have been trained in.

What will happen down the road? Continued changes in technology will mean a constant focus on improving how we develop and deliver these courses. Currently we are working to improve student engagement in the courses through more video interaction. Students will soon be able to download all of their class lectures to their Ipods and Ipads. The list goes on and on - it’s challenging, but also rewarding to keep up to date with these changes. Additional class offerings will continue to be made available. 
Currently we are investigating developing options for students interested in traditional trades. While it’s pretty difficult to teach Carpentry over the internet, it’s also possible to teach concepts, terminology and basic knowledge about the trade and utilize a local journeyman to provide hands on experience through a work study program. Time will tell where it goes.

Who do we deliver to? This year we have had over 800 students take courses from us. The vast majority of them are found within Sun West, but we also have a number of Adult students who need to upgrade particular courses to enroll in post-secondary programs, and also students from other school divisions. Next year we will be marketing more to locations across the province, so we see the number of registrations rising.

Can home-based students take these courses? Yes. All of our courses are available to students who are home-based. For families registered with Sun West, we provide these courses at no cost, just the same as we do for students in any of our Sun West schools. We are also currently developing courses in grades 4 to 9 for our home based families to support them.
These courses are based on the Saskatchewan curriculums, as currently there are none available for families across the province that matches the curriculums.

How do I find these courses? You can find more information by visiting our website at http://www.sunwestsd.ca/distancelearning or by calling us at 252-2182.  Darren Gasper Principal Kenaston School / Sun West Distance Learning Centre.

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