As on-line learning continues to grow and evolve, the South East Cornerstone Public School Division's Cyber Stone Virtual School is experiencing greater demand for its courses.
Cornerstone coordinator of instructional technology Peggy Lawson said that they currently have 352 individual students registered in at least one of Cyber Stone's 32 courses.
And they have had a first in the 2013-14: a Lampman teen, who is playing hockey in the U.S., is taking all of his high school courses through Cyber Stone.
"This is the first year that we now offer enough courses, and all of the required courses, that are necessary for high school graduation," said Lawson. "So now a student could start in Grade 10, take an entire high school program, and graduate with a full Saskatchewan diploma, strictly on-line through our Cyber Stone program."
It has taken a number of years to build up the program, but Lawson said the reaction from students and from the schools in the division has been positive. She believes people realize the importance of on-line learning in modern education.
The virtual school dates back to the early 2000s – several years before the forced amalgamation between six school divisions that created the South East Cornerstone Public School Division.
Lawson said the provincial government had a couple of programs running at the turn of this century, and one of the school divisions that was merged into Cornerstone accepted the on-line learning concept.
"By the time amalgamation hit, we had several on-line classes that were being taught throughout the division, and we've just grown since then," said Lawson.
One of the motivating factors for Cyber Stone's virtual learning ancestor was the development of a full, on-line math program. When the province introduced three different math pathways years ago, there were concerns about the smaller rural schools.
Cyber Stone now offers math, English, English as another language, science, social studies and even wellness courses for on-line learners.
Lawson said they're happy with the courses that they currently have through Cyber Stone, but they would like to add a few more, particularly in skilled trades and apprenticeship programs.
"It would be wonderful to be able to offer some computer science courses on-line," said Lawson. "We don't offer enough of those in our division, but we have students scattered across the division who would thrive in courses like those."
Most of the Cyber Stone students are registered at a school in the South East Cornerstone division. They'll register through their school, and then be assigned a link for their course.
"The students can log in at any time of the day, 24/7," Lawson said. "Materials are posted there, and the students can access the materials at any time."
It is preferred that the students start a course when the semester begins, but students will join courses at all times.
Rural students still account for a significant chunk of their users, she said, but they also have an increasing number of students from Estevan and Weyburn who drop out of school for a variety of reasons: they don't fit in, they have family commitments or they have to work full-time.
"It's about the only way they can continue their education, and still move forward towards graduation," said Lawson.
On-line learning isn't for everybody, though, Lawson said. Cyber Stone students typically are very independent, and highly motivated. They aren't in a physical classroom, and they don't have a teacher present to motivate them or push them forward.
E-Mail and text messaging are the most common forms of communication used between students and teachers. When a live meeting is necessary, they'll used Adobe Connect.
Cyber Stone has eight teachers – one of whom also serves as a principal – who reside in communities across the division.
The virtual school has made the switch to having teachers whose focus is on Cyber Stone. Previously, the instructors also taught in a Cornerstone school.
"The primary reason we did that is we understand that on-line teaching does take a huge time commitment," said Lawson. "The communication with individual students, and monitoring individual student progress, is essential for us. We need to do that. By having the on-line teachers strictly focused on on-line learning, we think we can do a better job."
Lawson predicts that Cyber Stone will continue to grow in the future, as more students will switch to on-line learning for some or even more of their education, and as the virtual school expands its course offerings.