The practicalities of online learning would seem appealing to many Canadian school districts, which have to deal with remote and widely dispersed student populations. Online capabilities could help minimize commutes and provide greater access to a wider array of courses, writes Kate Hammer at the Globe and Mail.
However, recent enrollment data has shown that Canada has fallen behind in the amount of students studying online, far behind the much larger proportion of students in the United States participating in distance education.
Paul Bennett, an education consultant and author of the report, said:
"We lost the competitive edge because we didn't follow up the infrastructure and the deployment of computers to the schools with any meaningful initiatives to lower the walls and open the doors to online learning."
About 30 per cent of Canadian elementary schools and 40 per cent of their high schools offer online/distance learning. And while participation rates have steadily increased over the years, according to data collected by the International Association for K-12 On-line Learning (iNACOL), that number looks like it is reaching a plateau.
British Columbia had the most distance learning students in the 2010-11 school year with around 88,000 participants. A unique funding model for education in that province facilitates online programs, which now services around 13.5 per cent of the student population.
However, enrollment has failed to grow in other districts like Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Bennett blames teacher union contracts and cites the situation in Nova Scotia, which includes almost a dozen online learning-specific clauses. Bennett also points to what he believes to be exaggerated administrative concerns over internet access.
"It was a critical issue five years ago," Bennett said.
"Before cell phones became ubiquitous and smart phones became something that every child had to have."
But Michael Barbour, an assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and one of the authors of the iNACOL report, said:
"Canada along with New Zealand are probably the two jurisdictions where unions have been most supportive of K-12 distance education."
Barbour doesn't believe the Canada is slipping behind the U.S. at all, saying that the online enrollment data are collected differently in each country.
"I'd say we're either keeping pace or we're ahead," he said.