E-learning brings Calculus to high schools 

Drop in Fraser institute rankings not cause for concern

Derivatives, limits, integrals, it all sounds like Greek to the average person.

But for the first time Grade 12 Math students at Whistler Secondary and Pemberton Secondary are getting to know the terms intimately through a new e-learning class, which started April 3.

"I believe it will make a difference," said Grade 12 student Robbie Laird who plans on going to UBC in September.

He hopes that the course will help him get a grasp of the basics before he heads into university Calculus, a course that usually has hundreds of students and a significant failure rate.

The course is an example of the flexibility now possible at Whistler Secondary thanks to some new sources of government funding and a desire at the district level to offer more courses for university entrance and beyond.

But what also makes this course unique is that it is being taught for the first time using Smartboard and video technology, so that a class can be run in Whistler and Pemberton simultaneously with just one teacher.

The technology allows the Whistler-based teacher, Bob Morris, to write on the Smartboard and have the information appear instantaneously in Pemberton. Morris can also hear and see the Pemberton students and they can see and hear Morris, so it is possible to answer questions for both sets of kids in the class.

Morris is also captured on video giving the class so that portions of his lecture can be uploaded to a Ministry of Education web-based learning site (Cool School) for students elsewhere to learn from.

Morris, intrigued by the technology, came out of retirement to run the Calculus 12 course he developed several years ago.

"It is just like being here and being there at the same time," he said.

School trustee Chris Vernon-Jarvis has been working toward introducing e-learning to the district for several years.

"I think all schools should have this because, as I have said before, we are living in an age where our kids have a totally different environment than the one I grew up in," said Vernon-Jarvis.

"Yet we are still teaching them the same way and still demanding that teachers get their attention the same way.

"But I don’t know how you can stand in a classroom of 25 kids for five hours a day and hold their attention when at home they have all this technology which is very attention seeking."

The technology can also allow students to go anywhere in the world on the web. You could host an English class where the students get to talk with the author of a book they are studying, or interview a specialist in environmental concerns from the rainforest.

"This has enormous potential," said Vernon-Jarvis. "It will get kids attention."

Meanwhile Whistler Secondary students did very well on January’s provincial exams said Principal Bev Oakley.

"In English 10 and Science 10 we had zero failures so all the students who took the exams passed them and that is significant," she said.

The failure rate across the province was 22 per cent for Science 10.

However, the school did fall dramatically in this year’s Fraser Institute rankings of high schools in B.C.

Last year the school was 46th out of 282 schools. This year it was 144 out of 281.

While the change may be surprising the Fraser Institute’s Peter Cowley says it is not statistically significant.

"The way we look at it (this year) may be an anomaly," he said.

"There is nothing to suggest that there is a downward slide here."

Indeed Whistler Secondary has consistently done well in the rankings, which most consider a snapshot of how the school is doing academically.

Oakley said the drop is due in part to the number of students who do their graduating year over two years to satisfy outside interests such as elite sports, and to a significant event at the school that impacted the number of Grade 12 students who did provincial exams.

"It is a blip in an otherwise stellar performance," said Oakley.

"I certainly would be concerned if we had three years of low scores but I don’t expect we will have the same scores next year.

"There are so many things going on in school that can’t necessarily be boiled down into a numerical nutshell. It really is so complex. Public education is really doing very well here in Whistler.

"And the (Fraser Institute report) is just one very small part of the picture."

Recent research by UBC education associate professor Kadriye Ercikan shows that the rankings can be predicted with 85 per cent accuracy just looking at socioeconomic factors of the students.

She calls into question the weight given the rankings.

"The key assumption in this interpretation is that the school rankings are meaningful indictors of school quality," she said.

"Even though the Fraser Institute has been publishing their report card on schools for many years now, they have failed to provide any empiric evidence that their rankings are in fact indicators of quality education."

Ercikan believes you cannot measure good instruction with these types of test results because too many factors influence the results, including student socio economic background, language proficiency, school resources and specific challenges due to student populations.

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