Forget rigid chairs and ringing bells, gone are the days of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of education. Awareness of different styles of learning has emerged over the years and with it has come a variety of options for elementary and high school students, including private schools, home schooling and distance learning.
The South Island Distance Education School (SIDES), established in 1988, offers a flexible curriculum to students from kindergarten through Grade 12 and it’s more than just a relationship with a computer, said Principal Karen Flello.
“People express concern whether the computer replaces the teacher, but it’s really important that people understand that there are real live teachers here,” she said. “In the same way in a neighbourhood school, relationships and connections are so important to learning, it’s the same in a distance learning school. It’s just a different medium.”
Students will choose distance learning for a number of reasons.
“Some families may travel for an extended period of time, and they might just be interrupting their kids’ schooling for a year. We have students who may be medically fragile, or have anxiety that keeps them out of the regular school setting,” said Flello.
“And we have the kids who need extra help, who can’t keep up to a regular semester, and then we’ve got the ones who can do it in a week and a half. They’re just that much more able to set their own timelines and work schedules.”
Kaia Bryce, 20, went through SIDES for her elementary, middle and high school years as she grew up on Piers Island, north of the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, and said the experience was extremely valuable.
Part of the family’s decision to do distance learning was for convenience’s sake — not having to take the ferry every day — but also a way for Bryce’s Japanese mother to make sure that Bryce and her two younger brothers had the chance to be immersed in a different language as well.
“She did a lot of teaching in Japanese, she’d translate the material for us, so we could absorb the language,” said Bryce. “We travelled to Japan with some regularity too, and so that made it easier for us to spend more time away from school.”
Her curriculum often shifted slightly to reflect everyday applications, and she was able to talk to neighbours — doctors, psychologists, veterinarians — who were able to offer further explanations and put lessons into real world context. Or while they were travelling, she and her brothers would write travel blogs, exploring how they experienced different cultures.
“I feel like it really gave me an opportunity to take ownership of my learning, and I’m so glad I had the flexibility to travel.”
Bryce was able to finish her high school course work half a year early and went to Japan for three months after graduating. But she stressed that a large part of her early accomplishment was due to her strong sense of self motivation, and said she can see how the less-structured format could pose a challenge to students who may need more guidance.
“I wouldn’t recommend it across the board,” she said. “I think there’s pros and cons to both (distance learning and regular public school), it just depends on what kind of learner you are.”
Having a strong sense of priorities can be integral to success, added Bryce.
“I think it would be good for people who have a pretty clear idea of what they want to do with their time. If you know you want to dedicate your time to sports, or if you want to travel, having that flexibility is great.”
The program is also excellent for students who may learn at a different pace than the rest of their classmates.
Barry Reimche agrees. His family moved to Taiwan from the Peninsula and his two children are completing Grades 5 and 7 through SIDES.
Along with learning computer skills, time management and organizational skills, he has noticed they have also benefited from not comparing themselves to their classmates.
“Having less opportunity to compare their work with their peers has made them work harder and complete their assignments more thoughtfully,” said Reimche. “They don’t lose confidence by feeling behind other kids in areas that are weak for them, and they can go much further beyond other kids in areas of strength, without feeling like they’re not fitting in. They progress at the pace that they are able to without too much pressure.”
He’s also appreciated the chance to become more involved in the kids’ courses.
“We’ve found that because we know what they’re studying, we’re more able to show them the practical uses of their knowledge in their day to day lives,” he said.
Though the family’s time in Taiwan is undetermined at this point, Reimche said they would consider putting their daughter back in ‘regular’ school should they return to the Island.
“The social aspect of it is very important to her. Our son would likely continue with SIDES, as he is more independent and prefers the distance.”
For Bryce, now in her third year at the University of Victoria studying physical geography and environmental studies, the flexible environment of SIDES helped prepare her for the academic challenges of university, but the social aspect took a bit of time getting used to.
“Something maybe that I miss slightly in retrospect is being surrounded by a group of peers of a similar age,” she said. “It was an adjustment coming to university, being surrounded by so many young people, but I love it! And getting into the habit of self motivating was a pretty useful thing coming into university and into the working world.”
“I definitely feel like I’m thriving off that background. I don’t think I’d trade it in any way.”
For more information, visit sides.ca.