AIMS E-learning criticisms should fall on skeptical ears

Well, another May long weekend has come and gone, and for me the date marks an emergence of sorts. Over the past month I have run in an election, taken a group of students to the annual Nova Scotia Dramafest, and have wrapped up yet another high school musical. And in all the hustle and bustle, I almost missed that oh-so-predictable and oh-so-Nova Scotian sign of spring.

And, no, I don’t mean the crocuses.

I am talking, of course, about the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ (AIMS) annual attempt to undermine public confidence in our education system and promote the idea of a privatized system.

And even for AIMS, the 2016 installment is a doozy.

Around the middle of May, the organization released a report penned by their local favourite, Paul W. Bennett, on the state of electronic learning in the Atlantic Provinces. The report, entitled E-Learning in K-12 Schools: The Prospects for Disruptive Education relied heavily on the work of E-learning expert Dr. Michael K. Barbour, and was, not surprisingly for AIMS, full of criticisms of how our system is falling behind in offering true E-learning opportunities for our children.

The report was also, not surprisingly for AIMS, a huge load of hooey.

Now, I know what you are thinking. This is not the first time I have been critical of AIMS or of Mr. Bennett, and I admit that, even to myself, I am starting to sound a bit like a broken record. And I truly was too busy at the time to pay much attention to an institution seemingly obsessed with the privatization of public education. Even when Bennett was granted yet another round of interviews on the document, (goodness gracious, will the media ever learn?) and criticized the public education system with such gems as “Gone are the days you could babble on in brick and mortar classrooms”, I was almost content to let the issue go.

Almost. But not quite.

You see, many of the teachers that I know are indeed working very hard to incorporate technology in the classroom, contrary to the report’s claims that us East Coasters “have been slow off the mark to seize e-learning’s potential to promote higher levels of student engagement“. I have actually  written  elsewhere about how cautiously excited teachers are to be accessing these new trends. (In fact, in his report, Mr. Bennett used me as a reference, which, considering our history in that matter, has a certain ring of novelty to it.) So the suggestion that somehow our system was encouraging “babbling on at the front of the room” as sound pedagogy rather stuck in my craw.

I was not the only one upset by this suggestion. A news release issued by the NSTU a few days after the AIMS report also took exception to the suggestion that we have been slow to embrace technology as an educational tool. (The AIMS report had also suggested that an article in the Teacher’s Provincial Agreement, created in partnership with the then DOE to help teachers support E-learning, was a hinderance to implementation.)

So, stuck craw and all, I started to do a bit of digging, and, as always, more information was not that hard to find.

Turns out, this is not the first time that Mr. Bennett has written a report on the state of E-learning, nor is it the first time that his conclusions on the subject have been questioned. Back in 2012, writing for a group called “The Society for Quality Education” (which in very AIMS like fashion supports the idea of charter schools), Bennett penned a report entitled  The sky has limits: Online learning in Canadian K-12 education. In an article in the Globe and Mail at the time, Bennett claimed that, as a nation, we were losing ground on the E-learning front. (He pointed the finger at union contracts as a major hurdle standing in the way of progress then, as well.)

In that report, Bennett relied again quite heavily on Dr. Michael K. Barbour. Dr. Barbour is, in fact, one of North America’s leading experts on E-learning, and when Barbour read “The sky has limits” he was, to put it mildly, unimpressed. So too was Dr. Geoff Roulet of Queen’s University, both of whom considered Bennett’s view unnecessarily slanted, and in some instances, guilty of drawing conclusions not supported by evidence.

The similarities between the 2012 report and this latest offering are hard to ignore, and, in my humble opinion, E-Learning in K-12 Schools is not much more than a re-packaging of The Sky has Limits.  The new report offers no new evidence to suggest students in the Atlantic Provinces are actually falling behind in E-learning, and again, much like in 2012, this report opens itself up to several fairly obvious criticisms.

As one example, the AIMS report states that “…in the 2013-14 school year, some 332,000 Canadian students were enrolled in one or more distance education courses — 6.2 percent of the total 5.3 million K-12 student population…That number is dwarfed by the figure in the United States, where… the number of students accessing online learning doubled from 2 million to 4 million from 2010 to 2011, to some 5.3 million in 2014″

Well, the numbers have increased, that’s for sure, but the researchers cited in this instance are actually talking about enrollment in US higher education courses, not specifically about K-12. More accepted numbers have E-learning participation rates in K-12 in the US at around 3% – 4%, so Canada is actually doing better than our southern neighbours.

When it comes to the number of Nova Scotia students involved in online courses, the AIMs information is again rather skewed. The report is critical that Nova Scotia only has 2.2% of its students enrolled in distance education courses, well below the National average of 6.2%. However, if you allow for Blended Learning, where students are accessing technology with the guidance of a teacher, that number grows almost exponentially. In fact, according to a report by Dr. Micheal Barbour himself, written for The Canadian eLearning network, there are approximately 54,000 active Google education accounts currently in the province, and somewhere in the vicinity of 27,500 teachers and students are actively using the new Google Apps for Education System (GAFE) in the classroom. Taken together with the distance education numbers, that means close to 30,000 of our approximately 119,000 public school students are engaged, at some level at least, in online learning.

It is hard to see how the numbers like that indicate to anyone that Nova Scotia is stuck in “brick and mortar” teaching.

The real kicker for me came when, within the report, AIMS itself actually recognized the value of using Blended Learning as the preferred model of technological integration. The report states quite clearly that “Blended learning …is proving far superior to online learning programs that are self-paced with little or no teacher-mediated interactions…”  and it trumpets these models for their ability to engage students and enhance learning.

So let’s review. The Nova Scotia Education System is being criticized by AIMS for falling behind in E-learning. This even though perhaps as many as a quarter of our students are somehow engaged in blended learning in their regular classrooms, which AIMS itself recognizes as the superior E-learning model. This criticism is presented in a report written by someone whose conclusions on the subject have been questioned by an internationally recognized expert in the field who is, not insignificantly, the same expert who actually did the research the report is based upon.

Told you this one was a doozy.

Producing policy papers of questionable repute is certainly nothing new for AIMS. Neither is refusing to acknowledge criticisms of those papers, even when they are offered by legitimate experts in the field. However, it is an irrefutable fact that Nova Scotia schools are using all sorts of blended approaches to E-learning in ways that serve students. It is also an irrefutable fact that many of these approaches are being driven by classroom teachers who are utilizing technology in ever new and exciting ways to promote higher levels of student engagement.

Everyone, is aware of this, it seems. Except for AIMS.

And, apparently, their local favourite, who, when it comes to E-learning, comes across very much like a man trying to walk on stilts amongst giants.

Author’s note: Originally published May 27th on




Filed under AIMS, charter schools, Education Policy, Public education, Technology

2 responses to “AIMS E-learning criticisms should fall on skeptical ears

  1. Dawson

    Bennett is a specialist in edubabble, yet, “brick and mortar learning” is by far my new favourite buzzword phrase.

  2. Pingback: Cross-Posting: Guest Blogger – AIMS E-learning Criticisms Should Fall On Skeptical Ears | Virtual School Meanderings

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