First virtual elementary school in Canada opens 25 students enrolled

25 students enrolled

National Post
By Heather Sokoloff

(December 10, 2002)–Canada’s first fully online elementary school started classes yesterday, enabling children as young as four to play a computerized trombone for a music lesson and participate in chat rooms during recess., certified by Ontario’s Ministry of Education as a private school, opened with about 25 students paying $400 for a full year of courses, as an alternative for parents unhappy with the public system or looking for an affordable form of tutoring.

The program was also created for children who refuse to sit still in a traditional classroom, but are mesmerized by computers. Lessons are illustrated with flashy graphics that students can drag across their screens. An automated teacher’s voice cheers students’ correct answers and calmly reads directions as many times as the student cares to listen. A virtual library allows students to “sign out” or download dictionaries and short stories. The children can create an online orchestra with a series of virtual instruments or blend colours in a virtual art program.

The company, based in Newmarket, Ont., intends to seek certification in every province and is already attracting U.S. students, said Janice Frohlich, the president.

Many school boards offer a full selection of online high school courses, but only a few have designed education materials for elementary students.

During the late 1990s, surging numbers of education companies peddled courses to students of all ages through online ventures that quickly went out of business after the dot-com crash.

Ms. Frohlich said online learning has grown over the last few years. “This isn’t just clicking on a true and false box,” she said. “Students write paragraphs which are graded according to key words recognized by the computer. Everything is very interactive.”

But Kathryn Barker, a former teacher who wrote a consumer guide on the online education industry, said parents have little guarantee the school will offer their children a quality education.

“It’s an important innovation that provides great choice for consumers,” said Dr. Barker, a Vancouver-based education consultant. “But the whole e-learning business is a billion-dollar industry. My concern would be for quality.”

The school is sure to appeal to the increasing numbers of Canadian families that are choosing to educate their children at home, a style of education that traditionally was popular with religious families or parents who wanted to bring their children up according to a specific ideology such as self-directed learning or vegetarianism.

Home-school families have often complained they do not have access to provincial curriculum, especially at the elementary level. Only Alberta and Saskatchewan permits high school students to write standardized, provincial exams, although universities are opening up to the idea of individually evaluating applicants from a home-schooled background.

Rowan Kierstead, of Brantford, Ont., took his daughter Sarah, 9, out of her public school this year because she was being bullied. He was also not impressed by her teacher’s refusal to point out Sarah’s spelling mistakes, arguing it would damage her self esteem.

Mr. Kierstead, a truck driver, enrolled Sarah in the online elementary school this week. “It’s great. She can go at her own pace and repeat the lessons as often as she needs to get it right.”

He is particularly enthusiastic about the program’s reward system, which grants Sarah points every time she scores more than 80% in her daily lessons, which she can trade for access to the school’s recess games and chat rooms. Her parents can turn off that function if they are unhappy with her efforts.

At the end of each day, the program generates an automated report card that records Sarah’s progress, the grades she has scored that day and catalogues the new skills she has learned. Parents can view the report cards, as well as every assignment and test submitted by their children.