Earlier this year, Nova Scotia quietly rolled out a new option for high school students to take some courses online, and the Department of Education is now working on expanding the offering.
The department calls the program Nova Scotia Independent Online Learning, or NSIOL, and Chris Boulter said it was created to fulfill the province's policy on inclusive education.
"We know there's a need to support students who, for a variety of reasons, may want to or need to learn differently," Boulter, the department's executive director of education innovation, programs and services, said in an interview.
So far, only three courses are offered: math 11, math 12 and English language arts 10. But English language arts 12 and math 11 in French will soon be added, and other additional courses are on the horizon.
The courses run asynchronously, meaning students can log on and work at any time and at their own pace, and they have access to teacher mentors outside of regular school hours, with no pause during the summer when brick-and-mortar schools are closed.
Boulter said any student can talk to a guidance counsellor about signing up to take courses in this way.
Reasons for signing up are varied
The department does not track students' reasons for using the program, but Boulter said he knows the reasons are varied.
"From someone playing a high level of hockey that currently takes them out of the province, to someone who currently has a mobility issue because of a medical condition and can't enter a physical space, to perhaps someone who's perhaps experiencing anxiety and maybe struggling to attend school full time," he said.
Since courses opened in February, 115 students from across the province have enrolled. Boulter said there's room for more, although the exact capacity isn't yet clear.
"We're poised for growth, we haven't maxed it out yet simply because we're still in somewhat of a rollout stage," said Boulter.
"By the end of the '23-'24 school year, we will have a significantly larger number of courses and then … we'll have a better idea of what the capacity is," he added.
Flexibility and access
Jess Whitley, a professor of inclusive education at the University of Ottawa, said generally, it's important for school systems to have programs such as this one.
"To me, one of the key elements of inclusive education is flexibility, a second would be access. So I see any efforts to provide a broader range of ways for students to access the curriculum, to gain credit, to engage in schooling in general, is a positive," Whitley said in an interview.
Education professor Jess Whitley says online courses are well suited to strong independent learners who are looking for flexibility in their schedule. (iStock)
Whitley was contracted by the Nova Scotia government in 2019 to evaluate the implementation of its inclusive education policy. That work is nearly complete, and reviewing the NSIOL program was not part of it, but Whitley said she saw the need for such a program when she was traveling the province and visiting schools over the past few years.
"Some of the time I spent, particularly in rural high schools, where students shared with me examples of some of their challenges in trying to access all of the credits that they needed.… I can certainly bring those students to mind when I think about this possible offering," said Whitley.
While mostly enthusiastic about the creation of online learning options, Whitley said there are some caveats.
Most students, she said, require a lot of support to be successful with asynchronous online learning.
"It's really important to keep in mind that it's the same or more levels of human resources that are required, generally, to offer courses online, particularly if students are not just utterly self motivated," she said.
Whitley said she would never want to see online learning become a requirement for all students, as it doesn't work for everyone.
Similarly, she said the setting doesn't suit all teachers.
"We do need to make sure that the whole range of online pedagogy is really deeply understood and practiced and that there's mentorships that are possible for new educators that would be coming into that context," she said.
"I don't think that we can assume that because a teacher is very successful in teaching in-person a group of students, that all of those skills would necessarily translate over into a virtual context."
The department of education said teachers who mentor students for NSIOL go through an orientation before they begin.
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