Friday, May 31, 2013

DL Credentialism and my mistake

I had a disheartening pre-class conversation with a bright grade 12 student recently.  It was a Monday morning and she told me she was tired.  She told me she had spent the weekend completing her Distance Learning (DL) Psychology 12 course.  Not simply finishing it mind you, but doing virtually the whole thing in two days.  She had been procrastinating after she had started the course and was receiving emails from her DL teacher urging her to get to work.  So she decided to get it done and worked straight through the weekend doing the workbook assignments and projects.  

She was proud of herself for working so hard and wanted me to share in her accomplishment, but of course I couldn't.  She is a smart girl who had read/scanned the text and found the answers.  At no point in her work did she have a meaningful discussion with a teacher or peer about the ideas she was reading about.  She jumped through the hoops the DL course presented her and got the credit.  What did she learn?  She learned to game the DL system in my district.  She learned how to get the credential.

My Mistake

After I talked to this girl I identified her to the DL admin and did receive a reply, but the story was not contradicted.  I have since learned that the student still has some work to do and the final exam.  I should have properly checked to see if this student had in fact done all the work.  It was negligent on my part.  I will leave the blog post as I originally wrote it with this correction in bold and accept my just deserts.

Had she taken that course with the teacher who teaches it at my school, she certainly would have gotten the credit.  She would also have been involved in class discussions about concepts and theories.  She would have joined other students in group work and presentations.  With her peers and teacher she would have built a deeper understanding for herself and others.

As it was a pre-class discussion I did not have chance to ask her what her motivations were for taking the DL course in the first place.  Frankly I was too depressed to go into it with her at that time, but will in the coming week.  I would like to see if her motivations are anything like those described by Doug Smith in his blog post about DL at his Vancouver school. He describes the motivation students have in his school for taking DL courses.  A quote from his blog:

"Currently at the school I work at we have seen the following:
  • students signing up for online courses because they know it is less work
  • students signing up for online courses because they know they will get a higher grade
  • students dropping a f2f course after a month or two because their grades aren’t as high as they want
  • students stop working in a f2f course because they will take it again online for a higher grade
  • students taking science courses online because there are less labs (eg chemistry labs are done via videos)
  • students dropping English with 70% averages and getting over 80% online"
That is behaviour we can expect from high school students.  So why do we continue to promote DL learning for those for whom it is not a necessity?  This is not what I have read 21st Century Learning should be.  The blended learning approach is certainly better than a straight DL course, as it does call for online conferencing, participating in discussion boards and some face to face seminars with a teacher and other students.  But online conferencing and discussion boards are poor replacements for face to face conferencing with teachers and students.  

When you are physically with someone you read and respond to body language.  You get humour because you can hear the tone of voice and see the raised eyebrow or feel the nudge.  The discussion boards and conferencing sacrifice that energetic piece of communication.  Some blended learning does call for a face to face component, but blended learning also calls for flexible time tables and students learning at their own pace.  This lack of co-ordination of student learning at a set pace means the students cannot discuss a common point in their understanding.  They can only do that with their instructor.  So the building a of a learning community is inhibited.

Here is a video of Shelley Wright's brick and mortar class. (Her blog is here ) 

She is using technology to leverage her students' access to up to date knowledge from experts in the field.  At the same time the brick and mortar setting, with its schedule, allows students to share their understanding with each other and build on it. The time students have to discuss, debate and clarify also builds interpersonal skills, helps strengthen patience, empathy and other things we don't test, but do value as teachers and as a society. DL cannot do this.  Blended learning that treats the student's setting of their own pace, and time when they will learn as primary elements in the students learning cannot do this.

Distance Learning in BC was originally meant for those who did not have access to certain courses because of geographic isolation or illness.  Blended learning is being used for students in my district  who are not ready for the classroom because of emotional disposition or for students whose families have chosen home schooling for philosophical reasons.  The teachers are having great success with these students.

However when DL or blended learning as it stands now, pulls students out of an engaging and challenging learning environment into one that is perceived by the student as easier and less challenging - we are promoting credentialism over learning and doing our students and society a disservice.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Wow, somewhat unsettling to read this, but we need a wake-up call on DL in BC. It was designed with some assumptions about distance students that don't fit the way it is used now. Even the newer forms of digitally-enable, "21stC" DL assume that disembodied minds absorbing material and spitting it back out is an acceptable way to learn. I suppose this could be true of many classrooms, too, but at least the physical presence of awkward, questioning, restless, needy students begs for some kind of constant adjustment and evolution on the part of the teacher and system. I mentioned this post at the end of mine at and would value your critique of my suggestions for improving DL.

  2. Thanks for your comment. The internet's promise for education needs caring adults - elders in the traditional society sense - to help children and adolescents mediate what they learn.