The Nova Scotia Teachers Union is defending a distance education program that allows teachers to upgrade their licences and earn an attractive pay increase with what critics call relatively little work.

A total of 41 Nova Scotia teachers had their certification upgraded after completing courses at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa in the last three years. 

Information obtained by CBC through the Freedom of Information Act shows two-thirds of them took coaching courses.

More than 500 teachers have been pre-approved to take the courses.

Union president Shelley Morse said students and teachers are benefiting from the course.

“Speaking from someone who teaches in the classroom, the courses relate to everyday practices,” she said. “They look to this program to improve that skill set.”

Drake University says the courses were specifically developed for coaches and physical educators.

"We are confident that the courses meet the goals for which they were designed," read a statement. "Drake University does not offer an endorsement or master’s degree in coaching or physical education."

'Teachers' union were themselves concerned'

Morse defended teachers who take the course.

"The Drake University courses that most teachers are taking are phys-ed teachers so it is a component for them to use in their everyday work in the gymnasium," she said.

But Robert Berard, professor of education of Mount Saint Vincent University, said that's not what he and others sitting on the minister's advisory committee saw three years ago. 

"Part of the concern was that these Drake courses,  which were largely directed at phys-ed teachers, were starting to be used by people who wouldn't see the inside of a gym," he said.

"The representatives of the teachers' union were themselves concerned about the Drake courses."

The government said there is no requirement that says teachers can only enrol in upgrading courses that match their area of specialty, partly because it cannot predict the future career needs or wants of those teachers. 

Morse said people who take the course then might coach after school.

"People are trying to improve their skill set and if a coaching component works for their skill set, then I don't see any reason why they can't take those courses," she said.

Teachers' union was 'concerned' about courses

CBC News spoke to Alexis Allan, who was also on the committee with Berard, who said while it's true the union did have questions about the Drake courses, it had questions about all new courses that came along.She said the union was comfortable, after further research, that the Drake courses fit the province's regulations.

"From my recollection — as in any courses, any new courses or any question the department may have,  the department of education — it would come to this committee, we would review it extensively. We would send letters back asking for more information and it was approved based on the fact that we did have inquiries and we said yes it did fit the criteria whether it was for coaches or it was for phys-ed teachers trying to upgrade in terms of their skills. So it did fit and we looked at it as we do any courses or any new courses coming on board," said Allan.

Berard has a different recollection of the situation.

"The sense I had was that the department felt somewhat constrained by its regulations and presumably its collective agreement to accept these courses, but they were concerned about it," he said.

The teachers learn through reading materials and DVDs. There are writing assignments, but no significant research papers, and no regular interaction with a professor or other students.

The courses are sanctioned by the provincial Department of Education and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Salary increases are between $6,000 and more than $8,000, depending on a teacher's training and years of service. The increases are the same whether you take an approved integrated program made up of undergraduate and graduate level courses or receive a Masters.

Education consultant Paul Bennett said the percentage taking coaching courses is questionable.

“These courses are Mickey Mouse courses. Anyone looking at them would ask the question, how can this be serious academic work which would be considered equivalent to the graduate level?” said Bennett.

“I wouldn’t be so adamant about it if I didn’t feel that we were short changing those teachers that go and take the route of doing serious, original research and actually do what’s intended and that is to take legitimate education courses," he said.