B.C. is running thin on students. In just nine years, by 2015, B.C.'s total public school enrolment will be down nearly 38,000 from last year, according to Education Ministry projections. Short of a huge, unexpected immigration of young families here, B.C. will need proportionately fewer teachers than today. For, while the province's population may be growing as a whole, those moving here are bringing their pets, home theatres and stainless steel appliances -- but not many school-age children. The inescapable result is fewer schools. Worse still, if everything else remains unchanged, it means fewer courses available, since a greater number of schools might no longer have sufficient students to justify teaching, say, French 12. However, the Liberals have big plans for education. 'Distributed learning' Driven at the bureaucratic end by Deputy Education Minister Emery Dosdall, the Liberal government is pouring resources into what it calls "distributed learning." It's an updated term for what used to be known as "distance learning," but with a strong technological twist. Using fancy software, students all over B.C. can now take courses online. Originally intended as a way to provide rural students with access to courses previously available only in the larger centres, distributed learning has gone well beyond that. Last year, the equivalent of around 8,000 full-time students -- equal to four large high schools -- took distributed learning courses. In all, 28,000 of B.C.'s 583,000 K-12 students were enrolled in at least one online course during the 2005-06 school year. Despite the original focus on rural students, they now form only a minority of those taking distributed learning courses, according to the executive director of BCEd Online, Barry Carbol. Formally a consortium of school districts, teacher groups, private industry and online learning organizations, BCEd Online is a non-profit society established in April 2004 to develop and provide online courses. "The majority of [the distributed learning] students are in the Lower Mainland and the Lower Island," Carbol says. More than 1,000 courses BCEd Online is very busy these days, making sure that all courses offered online meet provincial standards, developing new online material and preparing a new website -- now expected to launch in the third week of September. At present more than 1,000 courses are available online, counting duplicate offerings by competing school boards. Last year, the province turned over $1.5 million to BCEd Online. The motivation to add more online courses comes in large part from falling student numbers. Even in urban schools, for a growing number of subjects, there simply aren't enough warm bodies to offer a course in an ordinary bricks-and-mortar classroom. "Students are very, very interested and very keen on having an online option," Carbol says. "It provides them with a greater degree of choice and flexibility." For instance, students can begin a distributed learning course at any time of the year, rather than just at the beginning of a term. One reason that students need this flexibility is that many of them have busy lives. "A lot of kids work as well as go to school, particularly in secondary school," Carbol says. Taking courses online lets them do their schoolwork outside of regular school hours. It's not just students who like the added choices, he says. Without exception, the teachers involved in online teaching -- all of whom are B.C. certified -- want to keep working in that environment. BCTF has concerns Are we on the edge of a revolution in K-12 education? Carbol doesn't think so. He notes that computers aren't especially new in teaching. "Technology has been in classrooms for a long time, going back to the 1970s, with some of the initial PCs that were out at that time," he says. The impact of technology on learning is slow and incremental, Carbol adds: "It's not as dramatic as what one sees in the rest of society, in terms of the use of technology." Some are less enthusiastic about the prospect of computers' growing involvement in learning. B.C. Teachers' Federation President Jinny Sims suggests that the virtual school project is all about funding. "To me, it's the government looking for a way of cutting costs, instead of funding programs for students' needs in the rural areas," Sims says in an interview. "Technology is a great tool to assist learning, but it can't replace the classroom," she says. "School is about far more than the three Rs." As examples, Sims cites citizenship and getting along with others. She adds that some students have been told by their schools to take Physics 12 online. "That's very a difficult course to take, even in a high school, working with a teacher, and to take it online is very difficult," Sims says. "When you're online, it really limits the way you learn and what you learn." Concludes Sims: "Virtual learning is not a replacement for a classroom experience. When it's seen as that, then I think you should be taking a careful look at how it's going to benefit students." 'Bribed' to sign up A federation researcher, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, says that when the Liberals first expanded online learning, standards were sloppy. These days, online courses are required to be of the same standard as classroom-taught courses. As well, the ministry initially encouraged school districts to compete for students, paying the districts the same for an online student as for one attending a physical school. The result was some practices that bordered on the bizarre. "A lot of districts were offering incentives for parents to sign up," the researcher says. In one case, a school district bribed parents with $1,000 in cash if they signed up a child for online learning with the district. In other cases, districts offered to pay for goodies like swimming lessons. One school board even ran television ads promising parents a free digital camera in exchange for enrolling in online courses. Those practices are now banned. Thanks to the promise of added flexibility, online learning allows students, already carrying full course loads in ordinary schools, to simultaneously take additional courses online. The result is that the students will finish sooner, meaning that school enrolment will drop even further. Hastening school closures? Nor are all students suited to online learning. "It's really only a limited number of students that are going to do well in these kinds of programs," the researcher says. "They have to have self-discipline, they have to be a good reader, and they have to be able to work on their own." The researcher adds that he expects online teaching to displace more and more classroom learning: "With the financial pressures that boards are feeling, we're likely to see fewer choices of actually being in the classroom with a teacher." Could online teaching help quicken school closures? NDP education critic David Cubberley, the MLA for Saanich South, says that the Liberals' greater emphasis on online learning will likely lead to more school closures. He reasons that if a school has just enough students interested in a particular course -- such as Physics 12 -- to provide it, should a handful of the students opt to take the course online instead, it may be impossible to offer the classroom version. "The paradox is that if you have declining enrolment, you get into this downward spiral where the fixed cost of maintaining the school means that it isn't worth keeping it open," Cubberley says. He accepts that at one level, boosting online teaching reflects the power of technology to expand students' choices. "But given the government's record with education and its agenda and the way in which virtual schools are being set up, it looks as though it's another initiative to undermine classroom teaching," Cubberley says. 'Enhancement' for home schoolers However, another New Democrat, Greater Victoria school board chairman Michael McEvoy, has nothing but praise for the government's distributed learning initiative. One of the biggest benefits is that it provides parents who previously home schooled their children with a connection to the formal school system, relying on quality online courses. "It's an enhancement of the education system," McEvoy says. And from the viewpoint of the district's finances, the funding system, now based on enrolments each quarter for distributed learning students, is preferable. The old system gave school boards no funding for distributed learning students enrolling after September 30. "We think it's a lot more fair in the way it's being funded," he says. More cash coming This year, the government is spending $7.7 million on distributed learning. Compared with the total K-12 budget of $5.2 billion, it's a drop in the bucket. But far more resources for computerized teaching may be on the way. Last February 14, premier Gordon Campbell took the concept of distributed learning one step further. Noting that the Internet offers "incredible potential," in the Throne Speech, Campbell announced the creation of a "virtual school." No press release heralded the announcement, and it received little public attention. Even six months later, the details remain sketchy, though in the speech Campbell promised that the virtual school will offer a "full range of courses," as well as free, online tutoring for secondary school students. Eventually, the tutoring service will expand to include earlier grades, according to the speech. Commenting on the virtual school during debate in the house last May, Education Minister Shirley Bond rejected the suggestion made by NDP MLA Gary Coons that online teaching would replace classroom learning. "It's not a matter of replacing anything or anyone," Bond told the house. "It's matter of enhancing and expanding opportunity." According to Campbell, the coming virtual school forms part of his government's "vision for education and literacy." "It is an agenda of transformative change that looks at the new world through new eyes, with new intent to act," he said in last spring's throne speech. That vague sentence might not get by an old-fashioned English teacher, but you can't mark the premier down for lack of enthusiasm. The province's plans for the virtual classroom bear continual scrutiny. Russ Francis is a Victoria-based journalist. A version of this story appeared in Monday Magazine. Tomorrow on The Tyee, an online learning expert defends the new trend.