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Canadian schools falling behind in online learning, report says

A boy is shown reading a school assignment on an iPad.

Sheila Boardman/CP/Sheila Boardman/CP

Canadian schools have failed to embrace the internet and are falling behind in the number of online learning opportunities available to students, according a report released Monday.

Web-enabled distance education holds particular appeal for Canadian school districts that serve remote and widely dispersed student populations as a way of minimizing commutes and providing access to wider selection of courses.

And yet the latest enrolment data show that Canada has lost its early lead, and a larger proportion of students in the United States are participating in distance education, said Paul Bennett, an education consultant and author of the Society for Quality Education report.

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"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," he said.

About 30 per cent of elementary schools and 40 per cent of high schools offer Internet-based learning. Participation rates have been climbing steadily but may be reaching a plateau, according to data collected by the International Association for K-12 On-line Learning (iNACOL).

In 2010-11, B.C. had the most students, about 88,000, participating in distance education, which accounts for 13.5 per cent of the student population. A unique funding model for education in that province facilitates online programs, and the B.C. Teachers Federation is funding research in the field.

But enrolment hasn't grown much recently in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick as well as Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mr. Bennett blames teacher union contracts, including the Nova Scotia's which includes close to a dozen online learning-specific clauses. He also points to administrative concerns over equitable internet access, which he believes are overblown.

"It was a critical issue five years ago," he 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, says online education in Canada is thriving.

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"Canada along with New Zealand are probably the two jurisdictions where unions have been most supportive of K-12 distance education," he said.

And it's a stretch to say that Canada is slipping behind the US, as the online enrolment data are collected differently in each country.

"I'd say we're either keeping pace or we're ahead," he said

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