Freedom to learn on their own

After 10 years at Maple Ridge's Yennadon
elementary, online program
expanding to Fairview next year

Dave Dixon with three of his Cyberschool students

Dave Dixon with three of his Cyberschool students

It’s a typical Tuesday at Yennadon elementary, and Dale MacQuarrie’s students are nowhere to be seen.

They are at home, working intently on their schoolwork. He knows this because he is monitoring their work remotely via computer.

MacQuarrie’s students are part of the district’s innovative cyber school program, now in its 10th year at Yennadon.

Like all Grade 6 and 7 students in School District No. 42, MacQuarrie’s students have each been given a laptop computer to do their school work on. What’s different at Yennadon is that once or twice a week, the students can work from home and submit their assignments remotely.

“We give them a great deal of freedom,” says MacQuarrie. “But with that comes high expectations and accountability.”

Each “cyber day,” the students are given a list of assignments to complete. Students can download lesson tutorials, and when they have a question, send an instant message to MacQuarrie, who can respond via video chat.

MacQuarrie can even separate the students into small groups to discuss a subject in an online forum, and can even take over a student’s computer if they are off task.

Back in the classroom, MacQuarrie uses a large digital smart board to conduct a lesson. Using a special pen, he writes on the chalkboard-sized screen and his notes are instantly transmitted to his students in their homes.

The program has proven so popular with students and parents alike, the program expanded to Alouette elementary school four years ago, while Fairview elementary is planning on running the program next September.

“It’s another choice for students and parents,” says superintendent Jan Unwin. “One size doesn’t fit all, and this provides another option.”

The key to the cyber school is the flexibility it allows students. Students can do their school work in their pajamas and take a lunch break whenever they choose.

While students can opt to work from home on Tuesday, they also have the option of working ahead and using their cyber day however they like.

“They use that time to go skiing with dad, or go visit their grandma,” MacQuarrie says.

The program isn’t for everyone, however. With students working from home, they need to be properly supervised, so an adult is required to be present.

“It allows parents to get more involved in their child’s education,” says Unwin. “It doesn’t work for all students, but it works very well for some.”

Students in the program say that while the work load is heavier, they love the freedom the program provides.

“It’s definitely not easy, but you get rewarded,” says Grade 7 student Mackenzie Payton.

Earlier this year, Grade 7 student Alexis Toren travelled to Arizona on a family vacation, and didn’t miss a day of school because she was able to do her work online, and interacted with the class via video chat.

“I was gone for a week, and I didn’t get behind in school,” she says.

MacQuarrie says one of the biggest skills students learn through the program is how to effectively manage their time.

“It was difficult at first to adjust,” said Grade 7 student Isaac Dornbusch. “You’re at home and you don’t have to come to school, so you can sleep in if you want to.

But there’s a lot to do, so you really need to work hard, or you will be left behind.”

In all, more than 50 students in two classes at Yennadon are part of the cyber school. MacQuarrie says he and fellow teacher Jessica Wilson try to integrate the two classes as much as possible.

“We team teach and team plan our lessons,” he says.

The program was first developed for the school district by Yennadon teachers Dave Dixon and Keith Rajala. When Dixon transferred to Alouette elementary four years ago, he decided to bring the program with him.

“The program has really become a part of the culture of [Yennadon],” says Dixon. “It’s really taken off at Alouette, as well.”

The program at Alouette differs from the one offered at Yennadon in that it is available to students not only in the school’s catchment, but across the district as well.

Dixon said he and Rajala, who has since retired, first learned about online distance education at a conference in Alberta 11 years ago.

“These programs were originally set up to reach kids living in remote rural areas, but they found half the students taking part were from Edmonton and Calgary,” Dixon says.

After a brainstorming session in their hotel room, the pair decided on a hybrid model that could work at Yennadon, offering students flexibility, but still retaining the classroom experience.

“As a teacher, you want to see your students face to face,” he says. “But maybe you don’t need to be there every day.”

Initially, there were challenges. Funding was nonexistent, and prior to the introduction of the district’s one-to-one laptop computer program, students who wanted to take part in the program had to use their own computers.

“It was difficult,” Dixon admits. “The kids were using all sorts of different computers and there was different kinds of software.”

The school didn’t have a server to host the program’s website on, so Dixon resorted to hosting on an under-powered Apple desktop computer.

Thankfully, technology has caught up to the program. Students are issued identical computers and programs such as Moodle and Elluminate provide a totally interactive experience for students.

“We don’t want to just put lessons online, we want to put school online,” says Dixon.

Not surprisingly, the program has attracted the attention of educators all over the world.

“We have people coming in all the time to see what we’re doing,” says MacQuarrie. “We’ve had people from around B.C., Canada, the States, even Australia.”

At its core, the program teaches students how to learn on their own. The freedom the program provides is essential for that, Dixon notes.

“At Alouette, we started with 19 kids, and now we have more than 30, and next September the program is going to be starting up at Fairview,” he says.

“It’s an option that really appeals to some parents.”