SCcyber E-learning Community

How Online Teaching Practises Help Increase Graduation Rates

For almost one year, Covid-19 has forced students in Canada to take classes online, and has also forced many teachers to learn how to best conduct successful online learning.

For more than 20 years, one of Canada’s oldest e-learning schools, SCcyber E-Learning Community, has held more than 20,000 e-learning classes in a total of more than 64 different locations. SCcyber is also
Canada’s first online school tailored to Indigenous learners. 

Online learning has several advantages over traditional classroom teaching, say SCcyber Head of School Mavis Sacher and Principal Karol Kamieniecki.

“E-learning can accommodate many learning styles,” says Sacher. “It can allow students to move at their 
own pace and tailor the learning to their timing, reducing pressure and allowing students to work
through their assignments.”

E-learning can also more easily accommodate different teaching styles. Online schools can more easily create a blend between a teacher-driven approach and a student-centred approach to learning.

Teacher-Driven, or Student-Centred Education?

Teacher-driven or ‘synchronous’ learning is the traditional educational style. Classes are scheduled and teachers instruct while students listen and absorb, then prove their memorization of facts by taking exams.

In this model, teachers expect all students to be “in synch”, completing classroom learning at the same time, or else students face penalties for late assignments. The synchronous approach was attacked in the early 1900s by education reformer Jean Piaget and others who said students were treated as ‘empty vessels’ with no individual differences.

Reformers advocated for a student-centred approach that recognized students learn individually, or “out of synch” with other individuals. In ‘asynchronous’ learning models, students can often learn at their own pace. Teaching materials are provided online and students choose, within a more flexible schedule, when and where they will download to learn.

Each of these teaching approaches can have benefits, and in modern Canadian education are often blended to form a school’s ‘pedagogy’, or teaching processes.

Blending and Adjusting the Educational Approach

The mix of synchronous and asynchronous pedagogies is easily seen at SCcyber. At the start of the year, the teacher and students meet together in a scheduled virtual class. Also present is a mentor, a key person involved in the education process who lives in the same community as the students.

This first class serves to introduce everyone and helps create a relationship with classmates. The teacher delivers rules and expectations—for example, an expected rule prohibiting plagiarism. A ‘three strikes’ rule applies which can result in student suspension or expulsion from the school.

A surprising expectation is also delivered: the only course deadline is at the end of the semester. This faraway deliverable might cause procrastination among students, so their course calendar is provided to teachers to guide students as to where they should be in the course if they want to complete it in the semester timeline.

Every week, a report card of activities is generated to ensure student accountability and avoid leaving all the work until the end of the semester.

“Our weekly report card allows for mentors to track their students readily and assist students in goal setting immediately,” says Mavis Sacher. “If needed, intervention is more swift instead of waiting three months for a report card update, only to find that the student is failing miserably.”

The school does expect students will view online course materials each week, including a pre-recorded lesson, notes and readings. However the student views at their own pace, starting or stopping the online recording at will, absorbing the lesson individually.

“When we used to have a scheduled lesson in the live classroom,” says SCcyber E-Learning Community principal Karol Kamieniecki, “sometimes students would feel shy or like they were interrupting if they needed to ask a question about a different lesson.”

Responding to those experiences, SCcyber adjusted its blended teaching practises.
Kamieniecki continues, “with our video lesson content now being posted ahead of time, along with notes and readings for each lesson, students are able to work through the material individually.”

Then, the student usually ‘drops in’ with their course teacher during a ‘live homework’ session available for 9-hours each week, spread across several days. If the schedule does not work that week, the student can drop into another session another week. Flexibility is evident, but it is not unlimited.

“Students come to the live homework help session where the teacher can provide support for the exact lesson or concept they need,” explains Kamieniecki. “The teacher is able to fully individualize and maximize the help offered during live class time, because they aren't trying to get through a lesson presentation.”

During the live online sessions, students have a lot of choice about their level of interaction. They can turn their microphone on or off, ask questions, or simply listen to the teacher interact with other students.

Or, the student can type a question or comment into a private chat box shared with only the teacher. There is less chance of being ostracized by other students—“What, you didn’t know that?”—and the teacher responds privately to individual questions.

“One of our key strengths as a school is that we have as many modes of communication as possible,” says Kamieniecki. “The variety of modes are used to meet students individually where they are in their progress, and in a mode that they find comfortable. Students never have to feel like they are ‘shut out’ if they fall behind or aren't working exactly on pace with the suggested course calendar.”

The Third Part of the SCcyber Model—The Mentor

This blend of flexibility and accountability is supported by the role of the onsite mentor, who lives in the community where the onsite classroom is located, and undergoes SCcyber training.

This person oversees the classroom, and can act as a sounding board for students. As well, they not only ensure onsite computers are working, but also greet the students and keep an attendance log. Once again the mix of traditional and flexible learning approaches is evident.

As a member of the community, the mentor often learns about any student obstacles. For example, a weekly report card may indicate little or no activity, and the mentor will have noted whether the
student has been onsite.

The teacher discusses the situation with the mentor, who may know why the student has been absent.  Indigenous students can have a large extended family in their communities, and a family obligation or tragedy such as an illness or even a death in the family may have kept the student away from working on their high school courses.

The three parts of the SCcyber blended model—the student, the teacher and the mentor—work together to help the student succeed. This model is a key reason why SCcyber graduation rates for Indigenous students are some of the highest in Canada.

“Triangles are the strongest structure,” observes Mavis Sacher. “The triangulation of the student, teacher and mentor increases their educational success.”

The Metacognitive Approach

Demonstrated mastery of course information is still required to pass, and tests are conducted at classroom sites. The mentor supervises the students as they complete tests online.

Tests produce anxiety in many students. SCcyber’s tests, materials and interactions throughout the courses make use of a pedagogy called metacognition, or thinking about one’s learning

The traditional model of rote learning— listen, memorize, and repeat—might produce a test question such as ‘What is your view? Explain,’ but a metacognitive approach might be ‘What makes you say that?’ 
This may be a subtle difference but it is less prescriptive, more self-directed, and contributes to self-empowerment. This is a key fundamental of success in online education.

“The metacognitive approach encourages students to say ‘this is what I learned and I examined how I acquired this learning,” says Mavis Sacher. “Or, ‘what did I think before, what do I think now, and how has my thinking changed?’. It helps students break down concepts into categories.”

The metacognitive approach is another recognition that individuals process information differently, and express themselves from a personal point of view.

Customized Curriculum

The school uses curriculum for grades 7-12 approved by the Alberta Ministry of Education. Academic or elective courses that have been customized or even created by SCcyber are also certified by the government as meeting Canadian education standards.

Sometimes a student, mentor, or even a Band educator may have an idea to fulfill course objectives through learning activities in their community.

For example, a science course in botany could focus on local plants and their uses from an elder in the community. SCcyber can work with the community to develop the lesson ideas into curriculum design, building a course to present to Alberta Education for approval.

This level of effort to accommodate ‘special project’ customization can be especially enriching for the student and the mentor. Something they
initiated can be a practical tool and important reflection of life in their community. This strengthens local bonds and honours traditional Indigenous knowledge.

Over the years, SCcyber has offered more than 100 courses, all taught by qualified and provincially certified teachers. Core academic courses such as English, Math and Science are essential for high school graduation.

Specialized language courses such as three years of Cree courses that have been developed are part of the elective course choices. Interest in protecting Indigenous languages continues to grow, and more students are keeping the languages alive.

Internet in Rural Settings

One of the biggest challenges for the school is slow internet speed in rural areas. Kamieniecki lives in rural Alberta, and knows internet speed is slow at the best of times.

“Rural internet in Alberta and the Northwest Territories rarely runs above 10Mbps, and often much less,” she explains. “Many of our students also work off of personal devices such as a tablet, and may at times have to use data in order to have an internet connection.”

Internet speed is something outside of SCcyber’s control, falling on the shoulders of the federal government’s telecommunications policies. To alleviate slow internet speed and potential student isolation, the school is careful to provide learning materials in multiple modes so students can use one or all of them.

“Videos, graphics, texts and interactive modes engage different parts of the brain and reinforce retention,” explains Kamieniecki, who notes that the variety of available modes helps to include all students in the learning.

“A student that has serious bandwidth limitations will be able to learn the information from the lesson readings, without worrying that they missed out because they can’t play a video.”

Student inclusion is another result of the blended approach to education. “When a student feels empowered and in control of their success and learning,” says Mavis Sacher, “they become more successful in their educational endeavours.”

A New Generation of High School Graduates

In 2000, when SCcyber E-Learning Community was founded, the fit between the new online medium promoting student empowerment and a blended pedagogical approach was evident to Mavis Sacher.  Her background focused on the pedagogy of online learning.

SCcyber’s innovations and willingness to adapt to student needs have resulted in graduation rates for Indigenous learners that are 70 to 80 percent, among the highest in the country.

“We have allowed for extensions within the framework of a 10 month academic year,” says Mavis Sacher. “Even a simple 3 week extension at the end of the semester really helps bring our completion rates up to 70 to 80 per cent, whereas most traditional schoolroom settings would have cut off the student and given them a failure.”

SCcyber principal Kamieniecki agrees. “Indigenous students have been largely marginalized in traditional schools,” she says. “Even their own band schools have often faced disadvantages for various reasons, including the difficulty of recruiting expert teachers to rural settings.”

“SCcyber meets students where they are, to meet their learning needs in a safe space without judgment regarding their background or academic history.”

Covid-19 has created a need for students, teachers and education administrators across the country to learn how to be successful with online learning.

The SCcyber experience, utilizing carefully constructed curriculum, a blended teaching approach and some flexibility in a school’s course deadlines, could increase rates of high school graduation in Indigenous communities across Canada.

For more information:
Mavis Sacher
Head of School, SCcyber E-Learning Community,
Calgary, Alberta
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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