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Distributed Learning: The Final Episode

We are now nearing the end of what will be our last year of home-based learning. And the last part of the ride has been a bit bumpy.

We started the year with Fiona (12 at the time, and officially “in Grade 9”) enrolled with SelfDesign, a DL program we’d had some experience with but hadn’t been part of for several years. We had left SelfDesign in 2010 to throw our enrolment weight behind the upstart local DL program, not out of any sense of dissatisfaction. In the intervening years they had created SelfDesign High, a Grades 10-12 program sufficiently aligned with the provincial high school graduation program to allow for the awarding of a government graduation diploma. Because they were now actively helping their pre-high-school students prepare for a structured high school expereince, we enrolled Fiona in their Grade 9 program, hoping that what they provided would be creative, flexible and proactive. Fiona was more than ready for high school type structure and we had always been pleased with SelfDesign’s willingness to look beyond grade levels and support learners over a range of levels.

Alas, there turned out to be a new and unexpectedly firm grade-level boundary between Grades 9 & 10 within the SelfDesign program, the result of complicated aspects of governmental funding. This hadn’t been the case in previous years, but within a couple of weeks of enrolling we received notice that Grade 9 learners could no longer be enrolled in Grade 10 SelfDesign courses. Fiona had already completed Grade 9 math and science curricula more than a year before, so we were forced to cross-enrol her in those subjects in our local school to allow her to move ahead to the next grade level.

While we loved the teacher we were working directly with at SelfDesign, the transitional “Gateways” program turned out to be a real disappointment. Not only was Fiona excluded from their real-life offerings due to her young-for-grade age, but the online workshops and get-togethers were far below her academic and maturity level and thus entirely unappealing. I tried hard to nudge some more enticing possibilities along and my voice was definitely welcomed by those in charge of Gateways, but two things became apparent: change was going to be too slow in coming to benefit my kid, and anything new was going to come on a software platform that she couldn’t access because of her age. (I’ll spare you the complicated explanation about user agreements, school liability insurance, international software platforms and integrated IDs.) Suffice it to say that there was nothing in the Gateways pipeline for an academically precocious 12-year-old wanting meaningful online interactive learning through a DL community.

When she finished her cross-enrolled Math 10 course by early winter, the grade-level boundary turned out to be even more problematic. SelfDesign would not allow her to pick up any additional Grade 10 courses to fill out her second semester. Again, it seemed it was mostly due to fear over how the government would react to the funding intricacies. She could take more Grade 9 courses with SelfDesign, but could only take two Grade 10 courses by going elsewhere, and now that she had finished those up in half the allotted time with high A’s, she couldn’t take more.

So we switched back to our local DL program. They were not bound by the supposed impenetrability of the Grade 9/10 boundary. They were perfectly willing to allow her to sign up for additional Grade 10 courses to round out the latter half of her year. So in December we settled on a DL subject roster that looked like this:

  • Social Studies 9
  • English 9
  • Music 9
  • Foods 9
  • PE 9 (completed)
  • PE 10 (online)
  • Planning 10 (online)

In addition, in the classroom at the local school she was taking

  • Math 10 (completed)
  • Science 10 (nearly completed)

The Grade 9 level stuff was to be unschooled, and reported on anecdotally, for which we set up a blog where Fiona would write occasional entries. Grade 10 was organized through structured courses, whether online or in the classroom. This all fit with Fiona’s goal for the year, which was to document her current learning level on her school record so that next year, when she enrols in a high school in a district that doesn’t know her at all, there is no argument about placing her in appropriate classes. It all looked good.

Hoop-jumping entries on her blog
Hoop-jumping entries on her blog

The wrinkle was that Grade 9 DL students in our local program were expected to work with a liaison teacher in another community on a day of the week when we couldn’t get there. We had assumed Fiona would be able to stay with the same local teacher she’d worked with for years, who was already supervising her STEM classroom and administering her math course at the local school, but for various administrative reasons that was not possible. So the principal of the DL program (who is also the principal of the local school) offered to step in and be Fiona’s liaison teacher. It was an accommodation we really appreciated.

But there are cracks as wide as floorboards in this arrangement. We are getting nothing other than a paper trail from it. We’ve had almost no contact with the principal. Fiona is a tiny post-script to a job that is already kind of an afterthought for this person. The online courses have been abysmal and full of busy-work. They’re plagued by broken links, meaningless assignments, missing forums and inappropriate (corporate-sponsored) content. Fiona has met briefly once in the past five months with the principal (and that was at my request) to touch base about her course submissions which had not been acknowledged or graded. It’s now a month later: three out of 30+ assignments have been graded and there has been no other feedback. We’ve received no newsletters, no invitations to DL parent meetings, no notification of school-based events that we’re supposed to be welcome at and had specifically requested we be informed of, no communication whatsoever except occasional replies when Fiona emails about a course-related problem. There has been no learning resource funding, no provision of materials, no support at all, other than access keys to two ancient online courses. A report card turned up in the mail a couple of weeks ago saying things like “Fiona has begun working through the Planning 10 course.”  Grade: A.

Here in BC we have the option to enrol through a DL program or to register as legal homeschoolers. Registering is simple, hands-off and provides complete educational freedom. The DL option necessitates a certain amount of reporting, and comes with the expectation that the student’s learning will be measured against the prescribed provincial curriculum (even though it really doesn’t matter, at least prior to Grade 10, whether that measurement is favourable or accurate).

We’ve been with DL programs for a lot of our homeschooling years, and we have got two really worthwhile things from our enrolment: financial and resource support, and positive meaningful relationships between the kids and their liaison teachers. Last year with staffing changes necessitated by a teacher’s sabbatical year we didn’t get the second part. This year we’re getting not getting the first part either.

So why are we still there? Sometimes I wonder! Basically we’re being left alone, which isn’t necessarily a problem for us since as a family we have a lot of experience and confidence not only with home-based learning but with kids entering public high school. Yet Fiona is still having to play by the rules of DL reporting and to toe the busywork line for the online Grade 10 courses she’s taking. The only reason we continue is because this is the simplest way to ensure she gets what she wants for next year: course placement in appropriately challenging Grade 10 and 11 courses at a new school. And so we grin and bear the hoop-jumping and lack of meaningful contact with the program. One month to go.



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