Posted by: elightkeeper | June 4, 2013

The “us versus them” mentality of B.C. education

While reading about online education in BC yesterday, I found myself arguing loudly with my iPhone in public. Fortunately, Starbucks tolerates all manner of eccentric customers. Nonetheless, I grabbed my Americano Misto and scurried home to blow the dust off of my laptop.

I was going to begin this post by addressing points raised by Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun. But then I pulled at a loose thread in her blog post and an entire alpaca sweater unraveled before my eyes. Now I’ve wound the wool through so many related blogs and comments, I could knit a chapter on the topic and still not be done.

Suffice it to say, I am not going to debate all the points raised by educators in this most recent debate. I confess I find the whole conversation rather irritating, probably because I’ve spent the last decade in online learning and I’m dead tired of taking the high road in the face of criticism from colleagues. So no defence of all the information (and misinformation) will be found here. Instead, I would rather share with you one singular perspective.

We are not on opposing sides in a game of win or lose. We are on the same team.

Online learning is not an “us versus them” problem, whether it is between online courses and face-to-face classes, or online schools and independent online schools. I truly believe this. This is why I cannot enter into the debate about which is good or bad, which is easy or hard, which is better or worse, which is instructionally sound or flawed, which is engaging or passive, or any other similarly distracting and futile comparisons. It’s complicated.  In fact, it is all over the map – sadly, it’s an old map that still depicts the world of education as round and not flat. The point is, debates that pit educator against educator, school against school – or delivery model against delivery model, if you will – get us absolutely nowhere.

In B.C., I’ve come to realize that one of the things we do best in education is blame somebody else – the government, the union, the online teacher, the classroom teacher, the district manager, the independent school, the principal, the trustee, the parent, the university. We are hard done by, we’ve decided, and somebody has to be to blame. Go ahead – take your pick. It will not get us anywhere.

The truth is, we are all responsible. Years ago, a colleague at a DL meeting commented on schools’ nervous responses to students choosing online learning: “When the waterhole starts to shrink, the animals look at each other differently”, he said. While this bit of wisdom still holds true in a climate of declining enrolment, a 21st century reality seems to have twisted the notion further: “When the waterhole is no longer where the animals want to drink, somebody is to blame.”

photo by thomcochrane via Flickr

photo by thomcochrane via Flickr

We are wasting time and energy pointing fingers at each other about what isn’t working in education.  Online learning is highly disruptive, but it is not responsible for the demise of schools or the exodus of students from classrooms. We will bring the demise on ourselves by refusing to work together. We will bring the demise on ourselves by being too slow to change, too entrenched in our ways, and too short-sighted to see that we must do things differently – all of us – in a very expansive, rapidly changing period of civilization.

As we debate all of this, students are using mobile technology in massive, unprecedented ways for unstructured learning. Maybe we should blame the phone companies and call it a day.



  1. I blame the phone company! 🙂 As clerical staff I am often asked by parents the million dollar question..which is better, online or paper courses. Me with my degree in sarcasm! Not the, counsellor or teacher, the “lowly” clerk. I outline the options, try to have the student consider what they think is their learning style and if they are still unsure, have them chat with the teacher. Surprise! The make their own choice. The fact is many students are choosing online to add to their “learning portfolia”. I dearly wish schools could see the advantages of a good working relationship with DL. We are all here to help prepare them for a very different future then our parents. Ok I give up can’t edit on my ereader#@%

    It gives them extra options that have not been available before.

  2. I thought the BC government provided additional funding to a district’s kitty for every 6 classes (= 1 FTE student) of DL students enrolled in their district. We are not talking, for the most part, students who only enrol in DL because most use it to augment their education.

    This is not new; I did my Latin 10 inside a bricks and mortar school but through a correspondence course in 1971 because it wasn’t offered at my school. A teacher supervised me, I sat in a classroom or study hall to do my work. No one was diminished and my education was enriched.

    My uncle, a generation older, followed a common pattern in a province where 2/3 of the population then lived on farms; he finished his elementary education in a one-room school house then continued on to high school, in the same building, using correspondence courses. He was able to work at his own pace, graduating so early that he had to wait until he was old enough to attend university, where he designed one of the world’s first co-axial brain scanners in 1955, eventually graduating with a PhD.

    DL diminishes no one, no school, no teacher. It enriches student’s lives by making possible what their bricks and mortar school cannot because of scheduling, class availability, or learning style.

    We have successfully blended our neighbourhood high school’s offerings with that of a DL school. WIthout the DL school our son would not be facing graduation at all, let alone on time. He is able to take classes at the school around the corner that he couldn’t take anywhere else but he is also able to do classes that he couldn’t handle on the timelines he needs, in the learning style he needs, or accommodating his special needs through DL.

    Again, most kids in DL are doing a combo. Those who are full time DL students really need it for a variety of reasons for the rest, it makes possible the education they need and the education they can achieve. Both types of schools deserve respect and full support because isn’t students succeeding what education is all about?

    • You make several good points about the power of blending educational options: providing greater access for rural students, providing greater flexibility for learners, providing increased level of choice, offering additional means of meeting learning needs. These are only a few strengths that arise from merging differing pedagogy and expertise.

      DL is an important element of schooling. After years of being treated as a second-rate option, a more insidious type of marginalization seems to be taking hold in the public sector – abandonment of DL in favour of everything blended. Blended experiences serve many students well, and are arguably better for the majority (or at least produce better results, if we naively think of completion and success as one and the same, but that is another blog post). Many learners simply do not fit any kind of physical or rigid school model. These learners are disappearing as DL increasingly adopts fixed schedules, paced learning, face-to-face requirements, and other regulating structures that resemble traditional schooling. I wonder where these learners are going? It would be interesting to know if the number of students choosing homeschooling is on the rise.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights and experiences.

  3. The change to per pupil funding has made the fight more severe, I think. When resources are scarce, ugliness ensues. It would be ideal if we could all just work together toward the common goal of a fully educated student, but competition for every educational dollar has thrown that idea right out the window.

    I recall a student I had who was on the national ski team. He was going to join my Chemistry 12 class 2 months after it had started as he was training in Europe. At that time, our on-line school allowed him to do 3 of the 6 units before he came into my class. He was then able to join my class seamlessly as he had covered the material he was not there for. I used the marks he had received from the on-line school with mine for his overall grade. Easy Breezy. After per pupil funding was brought in, that option was no longer offered. Students can only sign up to do the ENTIRE course on line, or the on-line school will not get the funding.

    • “When resources are scarce, ugliness ensues.” Sad but true. I believe there is room to rise above tying everything we do to the cost of providing the service. I worked in a starved environment for years. If we had waited for the dollars to be given to properly fund what we were doing, we wouldn’t have made any strides at all. Having said that, functioning in a state of endless deprivation, without any relief year after year, takes a heavy and predictable toll. It is not a sustainable model. Where competition exists for diminishing resources, those who are not supported will either flounder or disappear altogether. It is dangerously Darwinian, in my view. And I wonder: Will those who survive, those who “win”, necessarily represent the best that education has to offer? Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  4. Well said, elightkeeper. There are so many things we look to when trying to avoid responsibility for what is going wrong. But we cannot do that and still look our students in the eyes and commit to helping them. I am reminded of a time when there were so many adults in our home, the 13-month-old waltzed right out the front door and down the street… Everyone thought someone else was watching him. Who is looking after the students while the grown-ups point fingers and blame one another for the demise of education (public or independent)?

    Yesterday we hosted a school planning day – and I refused to let anyone say anything about what was not working. We do that every day – we trouble shoot and problem solve until we are exhausted. But yesterday, we talked about what is working, what successes our students have had, and what we should do going forward. Maybe it is time to do that with our system as a whole. What is working? How can we keep it going? And how can we make it even better? I would love to share that with my colleagues rather than spend time trying to figure out who to blame.

  5. I too think you are spot on. There are many entrenched views in education that are backed into a corner at the moment. When an animal is backed into a corner, that is when it usually fights the hardest. Right before it gets subdued.

    I personally welcome the great disruption of our education system. The time has come! We know for a fact that it was built to mould obedient factory workers. Why then don’t we just give it all up and begin afresh tomorrow? Alas, innovation remains a stranger in most education.

    But not for long! There are pockets of fighters who are leading the way. Next year, I will be “teaching” here:

    It is an inevitability that gigantic change will (is?) happen (ning?) in education. Might as well just give it up now and do things differently, just as every other single industry and organization on Earth has to do.

    • I’m not sure I agree with the notion of complete surrender. That implies giving up when beaten against your will. But I also don’t see the disruption as hostile. I do think that each of us needs to reflect on what we hang on to out of habit, familiarity, security, tradition, (etc) and let go of those things that clearly have lost relevance or usefulness for our students. We have some very good practice embedded in all corners of our education system. As educators, we are the ones who know what those things are and we should work together, not in opposition, to identify and rework them in the disruption. Thanks for adding your views to this discussion.

  6. Criticism is needed and and as you say elightkeeper act as checks and balances. If you drive with undue care or to fast (excuse the tortured analogy) you and your passengers will be in the ditch.

    • To torture your analogy even further, this is why it is unwise to text and drive! Recklessness rarely leads to a good outcome when navigating a path forward. This also applies to reckless criticism of those willing to undertake a new journey who are using care and attention. Thanks for your comments.

  7. e-lighthouse: You nailed it. Rome is burning as the natives blame each other for starting the fire. As you say, these turf wars miss the point entirely. While subgroups within the educational establishment point fingers at each other – the classic death rattle of an declining organism – the world around them is being transformed. As you infer, the shift from the analog to the digital world is seismic. Not to work together to harness the power of new technology is short-sighted in the extreme. The very nature of how knowledge is acquired, mobilized, accessed and extended is undergoing a massive overhaul, yet more energy is going into bickering than into capitalizing on the changes.
    You did indeed nail it, e-lighthouse.

    • Thanks for your comment! Debate goes with the territory of change and is even a necessary and healthy element. Most things that require a massive paradigm shift will stimulate resistance and push-back along the way. To a point, it keeps the checks and balances in place so that we can move forward in the most informed way. But when we forget we are working on a shared and common issue, the path becomes fractured and we get nowhere fast. In the digital world, while we stand around bickering about the cracks in the road, somebody else will be prepared to drive through the potholes and pass us by.

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