A Case of Unified Educational Access: Nechako Lakes School District No. 91

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Article ImageOrganization: Nechako Lakes School District No. 91
Nechako Lakes School District No. 91 (SD91) serves more than 6,000 students in a roughly 27,000-square-mile area of north-central British Columbia. Its 21 elementary and secondary schools strive to operate as an integrated educational community and increase student achievement through innovative teaching practices. In 1993, the district launched the Nechako Electronic Busing Program ("E-Bus") to provide a full curriculum of courses to K-12 students throughout the province. Today more than 1,100 students supplement their studies using E-Bus' online communication, collaboration, and learning resources. www.e-busplus.com; www.sd91.bc.ca/sd91

Business Challenge:
The eight communities that comprise SD91 have populations ranging from several hundred to several thousand residents. In contrast, the distances between these communities are significant, making it difficult for students to access the breadth and depth of courses they need and for school officials to attract the human and financial resources they must provide. Funding cuts over the past several years have forced the closure of more than 100 schools throughout British Columbia, taxing the rest of the educational system not just to remain viable, but also to meet academic goals.

Vendors of Choice: IBM and Collaborative Learning Network
Founded in 1888 and incorporated in 1911, Armonk, New York-headquartered IBM manufactures and sells computer mainframes and servers, storage systems, peripherals, semiconductors, software, and services. The company's IT services arm is by far its most profitable business, accounting for nearly half of IBM's $96.3 billion 2004 revenues. IBM's product line includes IBM Workplace, a family of organizational productivity, collaboration, and information management solutions. One such product, IBM Workplace Collaboration Services (WCS), features communication and collaboration tools that support the different ways people interact in a typical day—online, in real time, or in person. The J2EE-based product suite includes team collaboration, document management, messaging, Web content management, and learning services.

An Advanced IBM Business Partner, Edmonton, Alberta-based Collaborative Learning Network (CLN) leverages technologies IBM has developed for the business and industry market space and modifies them to better serve the education space. Founded in 1998, CLN provides systems implementation, consulting, application development, integration, and technical support services to businesses and schools throughout Canada. The company's Education Portal solution connects communities of students, parents, teachers, and school administrators online, enabling them to communicate, locate resources, take courses, manage information, and work together to complete projects. www.co-learn.net; www.ibm.com/software/workplace

The Problem in Depth
The region of British Columbia in which SD91 operates is rural, consisting of villages and towns supported primarily by the lumber, agriculture, mining, and—to a lesser degree—tourism industries. Vanderhoof, BC's geographic center, is the district's largest community (population 5,000) and the service hub for thousands of residents living in more remote locations throughout the province. 

"Student populations in Canadian schools have been declining for quite some time," explains Ernie Mannering, SD91's director of information services and technology. "In British Columbia, we've gone from 660,000 to 580,000 students. The decline has been particularly acute in rural areas because people are moving off farms into towns. It's a trend that creates a particular problem for schools, which need a critical mass of students in order to offer enough subjects for students to graduate."

By the early 1990s, the province's public school system was in crisis. Dozens of schools closed due to funding cuts, compromising the integrity of the remaining schools. The uncertainty left students, parents, and educators justifiably anxious. "Parents were coming to us saying they needed an alternative way to educate their children," Mannering says. They needed to be able to supplement the education their kids could receive in a "regular school" and to provide a more complete curriculum. 

"Think of it this way," says Ken McDonald, CLN's president and CEO. "You're a high school senior who wants to pursue a medical career, but you live in a rural community. How can you possibly take all the preparatory courses if you're in a small school that doesn't offer them? How can you compete with other students who have taken those courses? You need to be able to gain access to learning resources, communicate with your teachers, and collaborate with other students who might be hundreds of miles away.

"One thing to understand about Canada," McDonald continues, "is that some school districts are as big as some U.S. states. The only way to provide a full curriculum to these students is through distance learning."          

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