Finding an academic home in the online world
From chemistry lab to student council, Blyth Academy Orbit brings the high school experience online.
By Glen Herbert
By Glen Herbert
“He’s a great teacher,” says Lauren Enright of her chemistry instructor, Mr. Kearney. “He makes jokes to keep the class interested and engaged. A lot of the concepts in chemistry can be a little bit tricky to wrap your mind around. He does a really good job of explaining, and clearing up any questions we have.” She likes her calculus teacher as well. “She’s awesome,” she says. “[She talks] about how when she learned it she thought it was so fun. Like new puzzles that you get to solve and then feel so fulfilled after.”
Lauren is in Grade 12. She’s on the student council and looks forward to her calculus study group. She reaches out to classmates when she’s stumped with a problem or a question, and meets regularly with her academic counsellor, who’s been helping her navigate the OUAC website. In almost every way, speaking with her is like speaking to any student at any private school in Canada. The only difference is there isn’t a physical school, and she’s never sat in the same room as her teachers and her classmates. Lauren is enrolled at Blyth Academy Orbit, a middle and secondary school program that exists only online. Meeting on Zoom, she joins students from across Canada and beyond. One is in England. Mr. Kearney, who is vice-principal in addition to being a teacher, is in British Columbia. That might have seemed strange at one point in time, though she admits it doesn’t anymore. “It just seems normal now I guess.”
It does, though it’s also true that not every school delivers remote learning equally well. When Blyth Academy Orbit was launched in 2020, many schools were turning to online delivery for the first time, many caught off guard and scrambling to get workable platforms and practices in place. That wasn’t the case with Blyth. They had a long experience of distance learning to draw from, including academic support and academic counselling. They had a long experience with in-person learning as well. Begun in 1978, Blyth had grown to an enrollment of more than 7000 students across 11 physical campuses and remote learning platforms, making it one of the largest learning institutions in the country.
Given those resources and that bank of experience, when faced with the realities of the pandemic, Blyth was able to comport itself in ways that other schools simply couldn’t. The courses were there, as were the platforms with which to mount them. (That included supplying students with textbooks. “They hand-delivered them to our door in like five days,” says Lauren. “It was insane.”)
As such, administration had the luxury of being able to think a step ahead, particularly around developing the context for learning, the academic culture. The result was a more fully realized academic and social experience. “It’s like a campus,” says Kathy Young, the chief academic officer for Blyth, “but it’s a campus over Zoom.” The same students every day, and the same teacher, too. “It gives them a cohort, it gives them a community. It gives them contact, regular predictable contact with classmates and the teacher, engaging with each other around ideas, that sharing of ideas, that sharing of experiences. It’s important.”
Students and families took note. “We really liked the stability that Orbit could give us,” says Lauren, particularly in the summer of 2019, when many schools were scrambling to find the path forward. “They had a clear plan about what was going to happen. They had everything completely figured out from that moment on, and that stability was really attractive to me.” She says that, “Blyth Orbit handed me this option of knowing what my last year is going to look like—and it’s going to be worry-free—and that sounded like a win to me.” Having already taken an online English class through Blyth helped too. “I really had enjoyed that and said, yup, let’s go for it.”
Admittedly, it’s not the same as in-person learning, and no one believes anything could truly replace that, though administration has looked to innovative ways of keeping the experience as active as possible. Chemistry labs, for example, are handled through online simulators. They lack some of the gravity of being in a physical lab with all its sights and smells. Nevertheless, students prepare and conduct experiments, and gather and process the raw data.
The students who attend are all academically-oriented, perhaps reflected in the fact they were early adopters of a new and, in its way, challenging learning model. “The people who I’ve connected with, they’re really nice,” says Lauren. “They’re people who I’d be attracted to in regular school, they’re people I’d be friends with if we were in person.” She describes them as “focused and driven,” and feels they have the same academic goals.
Lucy Nkunzimana agrees. “We all have the same aspirations, and we all want to succeed.” Lucy is intending to study psychology at a university in Canada, and attends Orbit from her home in Haiti. “I’ve met a few really great people, and I hope we stay in touch after high school.” She first started looking for a better option when she became aware that her previous school’s transition to virtual learning wasn’t as strong as she might have hoped (“it wasn’t that organized”) or able to give her the quality of education she knew she’d need. She had taken virtual summer courses through Blyth Online, which she enjoyed—the teachers were good, the material challenging, the approach supportive—so when Orbit was launched, she was keen to give it a try.
Her thoughts echo those of Lauren. The process was clear, intuitive. The Ontario curriculum was attractive, as well as the synchronous learning and the mentorship opportunities. And while some things were missing from the student experience—there obviously aren’t any volleyball games—there were things she couldn’t access elsewhere. “I’ve never had a guidance counsellor before Orbit,” something that she now finds indispensable. Yes, distance learning was a new experience, yet she feels, “it gives you a certain sense of responsibility and you learn a lot of time management [skills]. It’s almost like a college prep. You do have a lot of support from your teachers, but there’s also the personal aspect.”
As Lauren, speaking with Lucy is like speaking with any student at any private school in Canada. “We’re ordering hoodies that say class of 2021,” she says, noting that she’ll be graduating later this year. “It’s just to make graduation a little more special, given the pandemic.” It’s been a trying time, Lucy admits, but she’s making the most of it. She’s happy that Blyth Academy Orbit has as well.