Nestled away in the east wing of John Oliver Secondary are a dozen small offices surrounding a large open-concept office space flanked by a flat screen TV and several small break-out rooms. Don't let its non-descript nature and lack of classrooms fool you. Within this small area, educators are hard at work guiding an average of 7,000 Grade 8 - 12 students from across the province of BC through course work every year.
Founded in 2002 as a correspondence school, the Vancouver Learning Network (VLN) has quickly become ground-zero for one of the most successful and innovative online and blended learning environments in the province.
When one first visits VLN it can be a bit disconcerting. Rows of desks, scores of boisterous students and the ubiquitous blackboard are nowhere to be found. Instead the various offices are jammed with a dozen teachers and counselors glued to their computers. Each day VLN's teachers mark assignments, send curriculum projects and respond in real-time chat rooms to students' questions. The rooms are silent but for the soft chatter of keyboards. Online teaching at its best.
Next door, one of VLN's resource teachers works with youth who've come to the learning centre for help with their assignments. There's only a couple of students and they are focused on several online lessons. These program's bright colors, funky graphics and interesting puzzles make them tricky to distinguish from computer games. Except instead of slaying dragons, students are learning fractions. Who would have thought math could be so much fun? Meanwhile another student works through his tailor-made personalized learning plan. Assignments and exam schedules are clearly laid out. Deadlines loom. It takes discipline, but there are always counselors and teachers an email away to help keep students on track.
VLN Vice Principal Jim Stassinopoulos says the VLN model allows for numerous checks to ensure students aren't left behind. He says while many students enter the program thinking it'll be easy street to a good mark, reality soon bursts this unrealistic bubble. He says online learning is not necessarily harder - just different.
While he says the school has a number of learners who have trouble fitting into ordinary secondary school for behavioral reasons, other students are attracted to VLN for its flexibility.
With roughly 300-400 full-time students, it's often the preference for high level athletes (including several Gold-medal Olympians) and budding actors and actresses. The flexibility of course work, independence from a traditional school environment and diversity of courses offered makes it particularly attractive for these learners. After all, where else can you take classes in Greek, Mandarin, Italian, Social Justice, Korean and First Nations studies in the same school at the same time?
Stassinopoulos says the blended learning model is not only a great option for students having trouble unable to adjust to the standard school environment but also for high-level learners interested in taking their academics to the next level. Stassinopoulos remembers one particularly powerful example of blended learning.
"The ultimate blended learner graduated two to three years ago from Kits," he says. "She personalized her own learning plan, choosing the optimal courses she needed to maximize her education. She ended up accomplishing her goal by getting into an Ivy League school with a scholarship."