Distance makes the heart grow smarter

How distributed learning for high school students can support rural physician retention

Photo: wyoguard, creative commons

It’s a common story: a physician and his/her spouse settles into a rural community and integrates well into the fabric of rural life. They have a young family and are happy to remain in the community – until that moment when their children are old enough to think seriously about applying for post-secondary training. If the kids are interested in entering fields involving advanced science, math, and technology, the family may opt to move to a larger regional centre to improve the children’s secondary education, stripping the community of the doctor’s expertise and skills. After the physician leaves, the workload of the remaining physicians increases, upsetting their work-life balance, and forcing the community to spend significant time and money recruiting a new doctor.

BC’s rural communities face significant challenges when it comes to providing a competitive secondary education, especially in the realm of science and technology. Many of the small “brick-and-mortar” high schools in rural BC don’t always have the numbers, interest, or funding to run higher level sciences classes, such as Physics 12. Even when such classes are available, there is no guarantee that it will be taught by an instructor with experience delivering the course material – it is not unheard of to have the Physical Education teacher leading the Chemistry 12 class in some BC villages.

In the complex dynamic of rural secondary education and physician retention, distributed learning (“distance education”) is emerging as a key resource that can address some of the gaps in secondary education. Distributed learning allows students to take advanced university or technical school pre-requisite courses while still participating at their community brick-and-mortar school.

Distributed learning has evolved greatly from the 1990s “correspondence course” model that involved reading thick reams of paper units and completing assignments with little or no teacher support. Modern distance education – for secondary students, especially – involves a lot of teacher interaction. Vanderhoof’s successful eBus Academy – one of 47 such schools in BC –  hosts daily online “office hours” where students can interact with teachers via email, phone, or instant messaging to ask questions or receive help with homework. Course work for most of BC’s distributed learning schools is mediated through Moodle, a free web-based software learning application, which allows teachers – and parents – to see at a glance how the student is progressing through the course. Students have the option to take courses entirely online, entirely as a print material package, or as a combination of the two. There is a rich mix of online resources available to support student learning, including videos, online tools (such as virtual frog dissection software), and extensive, province-wide online libraries.

Distributed learning has proven to be very popular and is being utilized by several thousand students across the province. Brian Naka, principal of eBus Academy, observes that the academy enrols a lot of top notch students from across the province. “We get students who are looking to improve their mark in a course, and who enjoy being able to work at their own pace. We also get students who are looking for an alternative to the bricks-and-mortar school environment. There are a third group of students at the Academy who are going into Grade 10 and want to free up a block in their restrictive schedules to take a course that is best delivered in person, like Band or French.”

eBus Academy is a public school that offers free public education for all BC residents from kindergarten to Grade 12. Students enrolled in K – 9 attend the academy full-time, while secondary students – who make up the bulk of the academy’s student population – take one or two courses, as needed. eBus courses are delivered asynchronously – they can be started at any time during the academic year and students are given a full year to complete the course. Students work one-on-one with instructors to complete assignments and units – there is no peer interaction in BC’s distributed learning classes. Moodle shows the students how far they’ve progressed in the course, and reminds students that they have a limited amount of time to finish the course as the course completion date approaches. Like brick-and-mortar schools, eBus Academy coordinates provincial exam writing sessions, and coordinates with the students’ academic counsellors to ensure that graduation requirements are being met.

Naka admits that while many students say that they prefer being right in front of a teacher in a classroom, “most of the students from our [Northern BC] district have come to eBus Academy really appreciative of the fact that they can take the courses they need. Some of them like it so much that they come back and take more courses. eBus Academy enables them to do something that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”

eBus Academy follows the provincial curriculum. The Moodle system is flexible enough that instructors can modify it to suit the needs of individual students as the unit is being delivered. At the end of the course, instructors receive feedback from the students and use it to improve the content and delivery of the course for the next cohort. The academy issues report cards online – students and parents can both sign into Moodle to view the report before signing it off.

While distributed learning is not suitable for all students, it is providing rural secondary students with access to an education that may not otherwise be accessible in small rural communities. Naka proudly says of his learners: “We have a high calibre of students that are going onto post-secondary and who have high aspirations.” Distributed learning schools are providing a viable solution for rural physicians and their families to remain in their beloved communities while working towards their goals.

Photo courtesy of wyoguard, Creative Commons.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *