New Sask. Distance Learning Centre still raising questions for some

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“We’re really unclear right now what that commitment will add for our staff and what kind of impacts it will have on the quality of instruction.”

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The new Saskatchewan Distance Learning Centre (SDLC) is looking at a bright year ahead, although at least one rural school division has some outstanding questions about the long-term future.

The new Crown corporation, added to the Ministry of Education’s portfolio, took over as the provincial facilitator of online courses for Saskatchewan students as of September.

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Executive director Darren Gaspar said the centre is “very excited” to be into its inaugural year, with “lots of interest” already from students in “all corners of the province.”

Nearly all school divisions are partaking, he said, with the exception of Regina Catholic, Saskatoon Greater Catholic and independent Flex Ed, who were granted leave by the ministry.

“The last couple of weeks we’ve been just diving deep into the courses themselves and seeing that year begin to flow along,” Gaspar said.

SDLC operations is built on a hub-and-spoke model, with a main office in Kenaston and nine satellite campuses from which teachers deliver courses and resources closer to students’ home divisions.

“The campuses really do cover all corners of the province, from Swift Current and Estevan in the south, to La Ronge in the far north,” he said. “It really gives us that local connection and regional reach.”

Unofficial enrolment as of the first week of October is about 1,350 full-time and over 3,000 part-time students, shy of the 3,000 full-time students predicted by the education minister in May.

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The uptake is promising, Gaspar said, and indicative there’s interest in the 120 courses in the Crown’s catalogue.

“It is fair to say there is probably higher usage in some of our rural school divisions, with smaller schools,” he said. “Over time, I do think we will see our larger schools begin to access more as well.”

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Janet Kotylak, board chair for Prairie Valley School Division which includes the area surrounding Regina, agreed uptake has been positive, although slightly less than they budgeted.

Enrolment is approximately 106 full-time students, plus 136 part-time courses. Kotylak said the switch from an upfront to a per-course tuition payment model this spring, prompted in part by PVSD and other boards pushing back, is an improvement.

Firm numbers, and subsequent tuition fees and decisions providing extra staff support, like on-site learning facilitators, won’t be finalized until later this month, however.

Kotylak says the timeline has left some uncertainty a month into the school year — about what to expect and how promised resources will be delivered to help guide students.

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“We’re really unclear right now what that commitment will add for our staff, and what kind of impacts it will have on the quality of instruction,” Kotylak said. “This is not really typical, when something new is rolled out in a division,” she added.

Gaspar explained the delay is linked to determining per-student funding, and the SDLC is working with divisions right now on what’s needed and where.

Kotylak’s concerns about staff availability are significant, she said, as they lead to more pressing, bigger-picture questions about ensuring success for those in classrooms, both virtual and physical.

“There’s ample evidence showing that most students do better in the classroom.,” Kotylak said, “and we don’t want to see a negative impact in student achievement.”

The SDLC was built on the foundations of Sun West School Division — the previous hub for online learning found by provincial auditor Tara Clemett in 2022 — to have an “on-time” graduation rate of less than 30 per cent in 2021, compared to 80 per cent for students in a traditional setting.

Monitoring student progress was one of the areas in which Sun West was falling behind, said Clemett.

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Gaspar, previously a superintendent with Sun West, said the SDLC is setting strategic targets, the details of which haven’t been worked out yet but are “front and foremost on our radar.”

Online goals will likely differ from traditional classroom targets, he added.

Past goals set by Sun West will be considered, as will “a number of other data pieces to have the whole picture” like extended timelines and credit attainment.

“A careful piece for us is not to try to put everybody in one box, and that gets back into one of our primary purposes, which is our flexibility.”

Kotylak agreed that having a variety of courses available through the Crown is a positive, but there’s also concern too much uptake could leave rural schools short in meeting quorums for in-classroom electives.

“We do need bodies in seats in front of those teachers in order to offer certain programming,” she said. “We have less than 100 students in some of our schools, so the numbers do matter.”

Kotylak said the division is “watching this very closely.”

“We don’t want to see negative impact on the quality of education and the programming at our schools,” she said.

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She reiterated that the Crown did see a “rushed” development this spring, one with minimal consultation with the sector “to iron this all out.”

Gaspar countered that the new centre is a path untrodden, and adjustments come with growing pains.

“We are working through the bumps as a new organization, and we always have room to improve,” he said. “That is on our minds, to be listening to feedback from our stakeholders and focusing on that.”

— with files from Alec Salloum

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