In Canada, a country of vast landscapes, northern climates and relatively few people, the formal provision of education has always involved alternatives. Records going back to the late 1800s discuss pilot projects that provided education to school-aged children in remote rural areas. Correspondence education, beginning in 1919 and offered by almost all provincial authorities, depended on the post and long-distance haulage to link students and teachers (Haughey, 1990). Each new technology became a part of an educational provision that was of particular importance to secondary school students, who were unable to obtain sufficient courses at their local school to qualify for a high school diploma. More recently, the advent of computers and the Internet have transformed this alternative form of education. It has changed from one for those unable to attend classroom-based instruction to one that is being chosen by students for its adaptability and flexibility, as well as for the ongoing reasons associated with long distances to schools, unavailable courses, and family and personal circumstances. In this chapter, I review the development and present configurations of online schooling in Canada and discuss trends and issues this new form of provision has raised.
Online Schooling Provision
Online or virtual schools are organizations that provide formal school courses through Web-based instruction to registered K-12 students as part or all of their educational requirements. Online school courses were first offered in Alberta in 1995 (St. Gabriel Cyber School, www.albertaonline.ab.ca), and since that time, most provinces now offer online courses to school-aged students. The overall number of students is still very small relative to the enrollments in the 119 United States (U.S.) school programs identified by Clarke (2001). There has not been a similar documentation of offerings in Canada. Compared to the specialized development in the U.S., Canadian online school programs are usually part of the offerings of the local school jurisdiction. The student may be a senior taking one course to complete a school diploma, or an elementary student whose illness means that the student is best served by an online program that the student accesses from home. In many provinces, the focus is on secondary provision; however, elementary students can take online courses, also.
The two major providers of online education are school jurisdictions and provincial governments. Many provinces have continued to support distance education for students in grades 1 through 12 and are finding fewer elementary students who register for courses or complete programs compared to the increase in numbers of secondary students. School jurisdictions began by offering online courses, and they gradually formed virtual schools that offered complete programs. In some cases, jurisdictions have collaborated to offer course work, so there are a variety of models of virtual schooling across Canada (Haughey, 2000).