The Alberta Distance Learning Centre’s headquarters in Barrhead, now closed. Credit: Google Maps image

With this pandemic disrupting education in Alberta, if only we’d had an institution that could have supported students forced to learn at home, help their parents, and provide digital curriculum resources province-wide!

We did, of course. 

Before it was closed by the United Conservative Party, it was known as the Alberta Distance Learning Centre.

The UCP shut down the ADLC in 2020, just as COVID-19 was being recognized as a global pandemic. 

Adriana LaGrange, the education minister then and now, pulled the plug. 

The Alberta Teachers Association protested the move. ATA President Jason Schilling and other education advocates said it was a big mistake. They were ignored. 

A few people remembered the ADLC on social media this week after LaGrange announced the creation of an “e-Tutoring Hub” during her school-reopening news conference Wednesday

That “new tool to address learning disruption” will provide “free online tutoring resources” for students in Grades 4 to 9 and their parents to help them “catch up on important skills and learning students may have fallen behind on due to the pandemic,” the government’s news release promised. 

“The e-Tutoring Hub will be launched with pre-recorded video tutoring sessions students and their parents can access any time to build literacy and numeracy skills,” the news release said. “Later this year, Alberta Education will expand the online tutoring services to cover more grades and subjects, including live tutoring. Feedback from school authorities, parents and students will inform topics and needs for new tutoring sessions.”

It could also provide a way for the government to pilot its unpopular and controversial new K-12 curriculum if school boards continue to refuse to co-operate, suspicious online commentators suggested darkly. 

Regardless of that possibility, it would be a case of reinventing the wheel — doubtless badly — to replace something the UCP killed off less than two years ago. No estimate was provided for what this might cost. 

The ADLC had a storied history, in the low-key manner of public institutions in the Canadian West.

It was founded in 1921 to keep a promise made by the United Farmers of Alberta to overcome obstacles to education in rural and remote areas. This was because, it must be said, the UFA and other Canadian governments of that era all understood public education was a huge international competitive advantage and a way to build a better, healthier world. 

Originally, it was called the Alberta Correspondence School Branch — that being the quaint era when governments believed their departments should have names that explained in plain language what they did, which in this case was to provide correspondence education to children in remote areas.

During World War II, with so many patriotic teachers serving in the armed forces that there was a teacher shortage, the Social Credit Government of premier William Aberhart let the branch adopt radio instruction. Soon courses were being broadcast on CKUA, the Alberta Government’s public broadcaster, which operated as part of the University of Alberta to get around the fact broadcasting came under federal jurisdiction. 

In the 1970s, lessons were televised on the province’s publicly owned educational cable TV channel. 

In 1980, less than a year after master pork-barreller Ken Kowalski was elected MLA for Barrhead, the government moved the branch from Edmonton to that rural community. But it continued to do important work, over time increasing its emphasis on services for vulnerable students and adults hoping to complete high school.

But in 1996, Premier Ralph Klein’s Progressive Conservative government offloaded the ADLC onto the Pembina Hills School Division. A year earlier it had sold off the educational TV channel.

Still, in 2014 the ADLC launched the ADLC Learning Network, which in addition to student instruction offered support for teachers with resources that could be customized to meet the needs of individual students. Unlike what came later, small school divisions didn’t have to pay for ADLC resources they used. 

But in early March 2020, less than a year after the election of Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP, LaGrange announced all funding for ADLC would be phased out by the end of the 2021-2022 school year. 

A spokesperson glibly promised at the time that over the two-year transition period “we are confident that these changes will not prevent current ADLC students from completing their high school diploma.” About 80 teaching jobs would be eliminated. 

“It is just another strategy in the undermining of access to quality public education that’s going to be a real hurdle for rural folks and for adults who are looking to upgrade to get to post-secondary,” Barbara Silva of the Support Our Students advocacy group said presciently at the time. 

Despite the government’s pledge to phase it out over two years, it was shut down a year early. “We honestly just couldn’t figure out how we could run the second year on $7 million,” said the superintendent of the Pembina Hills School Division.

Now, LaGrange is going to try to rebuild something a little like it, in a hurry, and on the cheap, possibly even with an ulterior motive. 

If pressed, the UCP may argue no one could have predicted COVID-19 when they decided to close the ADLC, or that it would have been handy to keep around through a pandemic.

Of course, by March 2020, COVID was already here. 

On Feb. 25, the U.S. Center for Disease Control said COVID-19 was headed for pandemic status. The World Health Organization declared COVID to be a pandemic on March 11. UCP hero Donald Trump declared it to be a U.S. national emergency on March 13. Premier Kenney declared a public state of health emergency on March 17.

Still, it just goes to show that Kenney, LaGrange, and the UCP not only have a penchant for destruction, they have an instinct for it! 

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...