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Reducing Assignment Costs: Online Education for Assignees' Children as an Alternative to Pricey Overseas Private Schools

CompassGUIDES - Nov 2005

By Diana Matwichuk, Assignment Planning Specialist, in conjunction with Marco Pacione of St. Paul's Academy in Okotoks Alberta.

International assignment costs have been estimated to be in the range of 3-5 times North American base salaries. Traditional means of containing assignment costs are regularly employed by multi-national corporations, but there are other, somewhat surprising ways of furthering these savings.

Long-term assignees who are traveling with families often have employment contracts which include provisions for children’s education in a private school, especially in countries where the first language is not English. Since educational costs overseas can run up to $26,000 per year per child at American international schools, alternative means of providing education to assignees’ children can result in significant reductions to overall assignment costs.

An Alberta-based educational option for international assignees is increasingly turning heads as an attractive option for families, students and assignment managers alike. What was once an afterthought is now a viable opportunity for reducing assignment costs

Traditional Options for Dealing with the Overseas Education Issue

Traditionally, there have been few educational options for employees taking their families with them on international assignments. All of these routes have associated pitfalls, and the assignee has had to weigh these against the monetary advantages of working overseas.

In many countries where the first language is not English, international private schools fill the educational gap for assignees’ children, however with tuition ranging up to $26,000 per year per child, depending on the host country, these schools are very expensive, and have recently been concerned about security.

Some families choose to leave the spouse and children in Canada for educational reasons, however this decision physically splits the family up and places undue stress on both the assignee and family members. Leaving children in Canada may cause income tax problems.

Local schooling in the host country is often possible, however language can be a roadblock, the standards are often not similar and the student risks losing credit for what has been studied overseas since foreign curriculum does not often meet Canadian standards. Students find upon return to Canada, that they must repeat courses or entire grades.

Finally, home schooling and correspondence have also been options, though not attractive ones for the trailing spouse who may be subject to stress due to isolation and cultural issues. With home-schooling, the onus is usually on the assignee spouse to ensure that the schooling in fact does take place. Further, with these options, there are no opportunities for student interaction and socialization

The Web-Based Option

Alberta-based St. Paul’s Academy is a non-denominational school which provides web-based grade 4-12 education to students anywhere in the world, provided that they have internet access. Operated by the Alberta Distance Learning Centre, St. Paul’s Academy has been offering this form of education since 1996, with Canadian students living in Jamaica, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mexico, the United States, Japan and Korea, as well as throughout Alberta.

On-line students are offered an independent and flexible means of learning, and enjoy daily contact with teachers and other students, regardless of the time zones.

How Web-Based Learning Works

St. Paul ’s Academy students are assigned to an Alberta-based teacher who teaches his/her class the Alberta curriculum online. Teachers communicate with the students in the class by way of regular email and secure chat-rooms which use Instant Messenger. In this way, student progress is monitored closely by a teacher, and students benefit from chat-room communication between the teacher and other students in the class. Chat-room dialogues are available in the form of posts, for review by students who have missed the real-time class due to time zone differences or travel commitments.

Teachers are also able to utilize creative online teaching methods such as accessing hands-on websites and providing personally-prepared teaching videos which can be replayed by the student any number of times. For example, teachers can convert demonstrations of math calculations from SmartBoard format to video, and email these to students for repeat review.

The school’s lesson material allows for downloading and printing, in order that students also be able to study from textbooks and binders. Frequent homework assignments submitted by email and on-line testing allow teachers to monitor student progress and report directly to the parents. Counselors are also available to both the parents and students, to assist with academic and career planning, to ensure that students achieve their educational goals

Benefits to Assignees and their Children

Families considering an international assignment often deliberate long and hard over the educational impact on their children’s education. In Alberta we enjoy a highly respected level of education, and removing a child temporarily from this curriculum poses repatriation challenges, particularly at the high school level. In these cases, Alberta Education reviews the course content studied overseas to determine if equivalent credit can be granted in the Alberta system, and as a result, students are often forced to repeat courses and/or grades.

With the St. Paul’s Academy web-based alternative, students continue with the Alberta curriculum, regardless of where in the world they travel. Repatriation is a non-issue, as credit is granted for all courses successfully completed.

Flexibility is also a key benefit for this group of students, who wish to take advantage of the opportunity of living in another country, through travel and experiential learning abroad. Accommodations can be made to allow for flexible learning, different time zones and unique work schedules. One family in England logs on and does their school work in the evenings after dinner to be able to participate real-time in classroom discussions and student lounge chat-rooms. This allows them to pursue sports training and other activities during the day. With web-based education, it is possible to make school fit the assignee family’s schedule, rather than the other way around.

The amount of parental involvement in web-based education is balanced. Since education is teacher-directed, the responsibility for delivering the curriculum is not placed on the parent, however a certain amount of parental involvement is expected.

Finally, students traveling overseas are a unique group, experiencing cultures vastly different from their own, yet isolated from friends at home by way of distance and language. Secure on-line “student lounges” (chat-rooms) in the St. Paul’s Academy technical environment mimic the hallways of a brick-and-mortar school, and allow students to socialize with children their own age. This communication allows for the formation of a support network with other students experiencing similar social issues.

Web-enabled students enhance their ability to work independently, hone their time management and technology skills, and advance their capacity for self-discipline – all necessary skills for a future in the workforce.

Benefits to the Multi-National Employer

The remarkable news about this educational option is that it is free to Alberta residents, and significantly less expensive than other options for those families choosing to relinquish their Canadian residency. Either way, this translates into sizable decreases in assignment costs once the assignee is reimbursed for education expenses. For many former residents of Alberta, the St. Paul’s Academy web-based learning option is free, and a reimbursement of up to $1400 per child is available from Alberta Education for computer equipment, software, and other education-related expenses.

Less definable but equally important, is the benefit of happier families overseas on assignment. The stress of international living can take its toll on families, and any measures that can be taken to ease this strain ultimately contribute to the success of international assignments, by preserving the investment that is being made in these employees.

Offering educational options such as the St. Paul’s Academy web-based approach to potential assignees can aid in recruitment by offering an attractive way of making an international assignment work for the entire family. In the face of a Global Talent War, every effort that employers make to enable a smooth transition for the entire family increases the chances of successfully staffing international assignments.

In Summary

Multi-national employers wishing to reduce assignment costs can inform assignees about this educational option for their children. The expense of tuition reimbursement for assignees’ children can be significantly decreased when compared to International private schools abroad, or eliminated. Coupled with the fact that students can socialize online and easily repatriate to the Alberta curriculum upon return, it is a win-win solution.

For more information about web-based education for international assignees, contact Marco Pacione at (403) 938-4119, or mpacione@redeemer.ab.ca. For advice on international assignment planning, contact CompassGUIDES via our online International Assignment Planning HelpDesk or at (403) 531-2200.

The author wishes to thank Marco Pacione for his contributions to this article. Marco is Vice-Principal at St. Paul’s Academy, an Alberta-based online school, which is fully-funded by Alberta Education for Alberta residents (regardless of their physical location around the world) and provides education to non-Albertans on a tuition basis .