Sustainable PLCs, Part 2: the Role of Blackboard Collaborate

A Case: Virtual Professional Development for Teachers

Two or three times per year I contribute to a project we have been informally supporting. This project involves the delivery of a Level I online Adult Basic Education program. My present role is to assist the instructors, from time to time, by working with the eContent and by demonstrating appropriate usage of features in the Learning Management System (LMS), Desire2Learn in this case. Instead of convening face-to-face meetings to work through the questions and deliver the training we have been meeting in Elluminate Live (eLive) and Blackboard Collaborate (henceforth referred to as bbC with apologies to both Blackboard Corp and the British Broadcasting Corp.).

The sessions usually last from 1 to 1.5 hours. We generally start with the instructors providing a short summary of their current status. The items are generally presented orally; however, from time to time some usage is made of the whiteboard if the instructors have something they need their colleagues to actually see. While the professional talk is taking place, the participants often exchange personal greetings and information using the text chat tool.

Once this is done I use the application sharing tool to display the contents of my web browser to everyone. I navigate to the LMS and then, together with the participants, we work through the issues and questions. By using application sharing, we can all see the LMS in the same role. It is no different from having us all gathered around the same computer screen—but without the crowding and the need for travel. Not only can I demonstrate usage of the software tools in real time, but also I can give control of the shared application to any of the participants and then allow them to perform the required procedures, in order to ensure that we all have it right.

We hold these sessions on an as-needed basis and the feedback tends to be positive. Not only do the sessions accomplish our professional goals, but, perhaps, just as importantly, the sessions allow the instructors to get together and discuss, informally, items that may have never made it to the official agenda.

Best of all these meetings do not rack up big expenses. There are no travel costs and obviously there is no down time associated with the travel. The only actual cost is the participants’ time and nobody can really view that expenditure as anything other than an investment.

The Virtual Professional Learning Room

This simple case study illustrates the fact that productive meetings can be held in real time without the need for people to gather physically. People often equate web conferencing tools such as bbC with teleconferencing, however my long experience with audio-graphic communication technologies (23 years and counting) have shown that this is not the case. Sessions facilitated with tools such as bbC not only can take the place of many face-to-face (F2F) meetings, but, more importantly, they are often superior. Let’s start with a brief description of the bbC environment.

snapshot of bbC screen
snapshot of bbC screen

(1)    The Audio and Video tool enables participants to talk with and see one another. The system is normally ‘push to talk’ but up to 6 simultaneous speakers may be active at any one time, if necessary. Up to 6 web-cameras may also be active at any time. The system can synchronize voice to video and display the active speaker in a larger video window. This is not one-way ‘delivery.’ All participants, regardless of role, can use these tools.

(2)    The Chat tool enables participants to text one on one or with any subset of the group. Conversation threads appear as distinct threads so that participants can easily follow individual conversations without the need for excessive scrolling through other threads. The conversations can be ‘official’ and handle such tasks as questions to the moderator or responses to questions posed by the moderator. They can also be ‘semi-official’ or ‘unofficial’ and be comprised of unsolicited comments, sidebars or conversations that are private between participants. They may be supervised (moderators see everything) or not.

(3)    The content window enables participants to interact with content and has three modes:

  1. Whiteboard: static content such as slides are presented and audio video files can be played. These can be loaded directly, composed from the whiteboard tool itself, loaded from a PowerPoint presentation or ‘screen captured’ using the built in utility. This mode not only replaces the familiar leader-directed presentation but actually adds some significant enhancements. The role of moderator is not static. Other participants can actually serve in this role. In this way, the presentation can have several co-presenters. The mode can also be such that you have a team of equals, all equally capable of working the whiteboard.  All this is done without the need for people to get up and exchange places physically. Second, because the whiteboard role can be shared around there is no need for either loading all of the files onto one computer or for switching in and out different laptops to the projector—an annoying waste of time at best!
  2. Application sharing: The moderator can share any software application (including the whole screen). The participants do not need the software loaded on their equipment. What’s more, if needed, the moderator can turn over control of the software to any participant and the moderator can allow other participants to share applications as well. To share an application, just start it up, go back to bbC and click the application sharing button. Select the required application from the list of running apps that bbC gives you. That’s it. The application will come to the foreground on your screen for you to interact with. This will be displayed dynamically on your participants’ screens. At the participants’ end, the software will scale your window to fit in the room they have provided for their whiteboards so you do not need to worry about making the size on your screen match theirs.
  3. Web tour: the moderator can go to any website and display the site, in real time to all participants. While participants are still free to explore any links they want, if ‘follow the moderator’ is turned on, once the moderator follows a link so too do the participants. If, for example, you, as moderator, take the participants to a site that holds Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) lessons, the participants are free to make ‘side trips’ into areas of interest while you talk, without disturbing their colleagues. When, however, you follow a link then all the participants will follow you.

(4)    The permissions window displays the status of all participants. It allows everyone to see who is currently online and what tools they are currently using. For example, if a participant is currently speaking, a microphone appears next to their name.  This window also enables everyone to send feedback in the form of emoticons and to ‘vote’ using a tool that can tally yes/no or abc, etc. type responses. You can also create breakout rooms and assign sub-groups to them. This allows you to sub-divide the whole group into smaller working groups for portions of your session and then bring everyone back to the main room for debriefing, as needed.

There are other tools and features, of course, but these can be discussed at a later time.

Some Usage Scenarios

Meetings, both planned and Informal, as well as staff meetings can occur at any time. All that needs to happen is for the moderator to circulate the link to their virtual room, along with the participant password. Participants can join from their office or classroom, even from home.

Presentations no longer require a physical gathering. The moderator(s) (there can be co-presenters) loads the necessary content, whether it be in the form of a slide show or multimedia and the whiteboard tool handles the rest. Currently personnel need to travel over great distances in order to deliver presentations to gatherings. Using bbC this is no longer necessary. Using bbC the presenter can remotely deliver the presentation to a gathering elsewhere or to a group of participants, each at their own place of work. The presentation then only takes as long as needed and there is no downtime due to travel.

Working groups do not need to gather together physically in order to get the job done. If, for example, the group is collaborating on the construction of an official document such as a curriculum guide then bbC can be used in several modes:

  • The program development specialist can deliver the instructions, terms of reference and such to the group as a presentation on the whiteboard;
  • The room itself can facilitate a general discussion, with a blank whiteboard serving the role normally served by a paper flip-chart;
  • Roles and tasks can be assigned to sub-groups and the members then distributed to breakout rooms. They can be brought back to the main room periodically for debriefing.
  • Using application sharing the document editor—Microsoft Word™ for instance—can be shared. In this way several participants can co-author or co-edit the document, or parts of it, in real time. This can also be done in the breakout rooms.

Training: Normally the implementation of a new software system requires an extensive round of face-to-face meetings. The application sharing feature of bbC can now be used to bring the training or demonstration right to any user’s desktop.  Suppose, for example, that a school district wished to show its administrative personnel how to use a particular feature of function within PowerSchool™ or, for that matter, any Student Information System. The facilitator would just circulate the link and participant password and would share the web browser or appropriate software with the whole group. Because they are working with the moderator’s copy, the participants do not even need the software installed on their machine. This mode can be user to roll out new systems or just to provide orientation after upgrades. This training can be delivered to as many or few as desired.

Instruction: Of course the system can be used in its normal role—as an instructional tool in the most general sense. In reality the possibilities are limitless.

Some Considerations

Effective usage of bbC depends on the moderators and participants having the required tools. The computing requirements are quite modest. In essence any working computer has the power required as the technical demands are slight. Java™ needs to be installed on the computer and the user will require a connection to the Internet. Any version of high-speed, including satellite, is more than sufficient. In fact users can even join using dial-up and the only compromises will be that video and application sharing will be a bit choppy. Audio, whiteboard and chat all perform well even over dial-up.

For best audio a headset-microphone is recommended. The earphones allow users to set a comfortable listening volume without annoying co-workers. Also, without sophisticated software support, mikes tend to follow the inverse square law; that is mike levels are very sensitive to distance. If you use an ordinary desk mike and move around a lot while talking the other participants will observe your volume level to fluctuate in a way that is very annoying. The headset maintains a constant distance between you and your mike, thus avoiding this. I generally position the mike slightly below mouth level in order to decrease breathing noises and pops. A decent unit can be had at a very modest cost. Logitech and Cyber Acoustics both make decent low-cost (street price under $20) units. That’s what I use—I have one of each; one at home and one at work. I do not really recommend Bluetooth unless mobility is absolutely essential owing to the increased cost and the necessity to keep the unit charged.  That said, if you intend to use an IWB such as a Smartboard™ or a Teamboard™ as your base station from which to host a session then you might consider springing for  the added cost. Plantronics makes decent Bluetooth units for a street price of about $120.

Though often used to display prepared slides, the whiteboard is fully equipped with drawing tools. As such is can be used effectively in freehand mode. You can, for example, work through a mathematics sample problem in freehand mode just as you would on an Interactive Whiteboard. IF you feel you may be doing this a lot then you should consider purchasing a graphics tablet. This device allows you to write on the whiteboard more naturally using a pen and tablet. Wacom, for example, makes a wide variety of tablets. For the semi casual user the Bamboo Connect™ offers a tablet space a bit smaller than 4” x 6” at about $70. If you expect to be using the unit more frequently the Bamboo Create offers a larger, 5.5” by 8.5” workspace for about $200. You may or may not need this device. In my experience Math, Science, Art and Tech. Ed. Teachers tend to make the most use of graphics tablets while other users report that a mouse suits them just fine.

A webcam will certainly enhance your online presentations by adding a lot more of the personal touch. This may not be much of a problem for most users as the majority of laptops sold today have integrated webcams. Desktop users may consider adding one as a peripheral. There’s no need to opt for a high end, expensive unit as even the most inexpensive units available today can offer decent performance. You can’t go wrong with a name brand such as Logitech or Microsoft, although I have yet to see a late model webcam that was not good enough. Just make sure you follow the installation instructions carefully or the camera may not work as expected. Logitech cameras, for example, tend to ask for the software to be installed before connecting the device. Microsoft units, by contrast, tend to be plug-and-play on Windows systems. My experience has been that the webcam is used infrequently. It is rate for a webcam to be used for an entire session. Moderators and participants generally use the webcam at the start of a session in order to get acquainted and then turn the device off in order to focus on the content and discussion.

Sessions can be recorded. Individuals who are unable to attend any session do not have to miss out. All or any portion of a session can be recorded by the moderator with the simple press of a button. The recording captures all interactions in real time. Audio, video, chat, all whiteboard interactions, including application sharing and web tour sessions are captured. Everything except the breakout room activity is recorded for later playback. Recorded sessions are stored on the bbC Manager server as playable java JAR files and links can be distributed to anyone. Users need only click the link and supply login credentials (which scheduled users already have or which can be provided by the moderator to invited guests) in order to play the recordings.  In this way, invitees who were unable to attend can get most of the benefits. This feature is particularly useful for sessions in which the flow of information is intended to be primarily one-way. Examples include information sessions and software demonstrations. A program specialist from a district demonstrating the use of a feature of a student information system, for example, can deliver the session live to those who can attend at the scheduled time and record the session for those who cannot.

If, at some point, you decide to go for a large scale adoption of bbC you might consider the purchase of two companion products. Plan™, as the name suggests, assists with the planning of online sessions. It loads whiteboards, provides speaker notes and handles any actions automatically. For users who require polished sessions or for organizations that need a large-scale rollout of programs this can help ensure the perfection required. Publish™ can take any live session and render it down into versions that can be viewed later or even offline. Using Publish you can make past sessions available any time, even within an LMS and even on a mobile device.

Overall

While bbC will not totally replace the need for F2F sessions it has the potential for dramatically reducing the number of them and, thus, reducing the associated costs. As a professional community, we have long been aware of the fact that sporadic ‘one-of’ sessions have minimal impact on our practice. The kinds of change and upkeep that we need, in turn, require a sustained effort. Naturally this has to be balanced against available resources. By introducing online sessions through bbC the periodic F2F events no longer serve as the only data points on the journey. A new, improved model sees continuous community interaction using bbC coupled with the asynchronous tools provided through an LMS (see the previous post on using Desire2Learn with PLCs) punctuated by periodic F2F sessions. Adoption of this model will no doubt show great strides toward the creation of sustained PLCs.

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Sustainable PLCs, Part 1: the Role of Desire2Learn

A Lesson

For approximately 15 years now distance education instructors through the province of NL have been using one or another learning management system (LMS) as a means by which courses can be facilitated. Since 2007 this province’s public learning institutions (Memorial University, the College of the North Atlantic, the Marine Institute and CDLI) have been using the same system: Desire2Learn, often abbreviated D2L (see here: http://www.desire2learn.com/) This usage has primarily been roughly the equivalent of the face to face alternative. That is, a D2L course consisted of an instructor, students and a specified curriculum, the learning activities, however are conducted online. I have recently had reason to view this whole enterprise in a different light though and am fairly certain that another exciting possibility for use exists, namely the sustaining of online Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

Last March I spent 2 hours training a group of teachers on how to use some of the features and tools of D2L. This was part of an Information Communication and Learning Technologies (ICLT) project and the intent was to use D2L as a communications home base. D2L would provide the means by which the teachers would communicate and share resources. I therefore focused on the News, Discussion and Content tools. The News tool would be used for any announcements. The discussion tool, as you might expect, would focus on issues related to curriculum outcomes and the associated teaching and learning strategies. The content tool was intended to serve as a small scale Learning Object Repository (LOR)—a place to store and share materials developed by the teachers in the small group.

One thing you learn after many years of teaching is how to recognize when things are and are not going in a fruitful direction. In particular, you look for the negative version; signs that things are not quite going as intended. In this way you are generally able to alter the lesson plan to take advantage of the current dynamic and, so doing, steer the course of the lesson back in a desired direction.

While covering both the News and Discussion tools I had a sense that things were going quite as planned and that the group was progressing as I expected. Once I got into the content area, however, it was apparent that the dynamic had changed. Previously the session was going quite smoothly—but was a little dull—with the participants simply following along and only occasionally asking minor, detail-oriented questions. Once we hit the content section, though, the conversation had become much livelier. The teachers were not just moving through the tasks but were instead sitting upright, leaning slightly forward the way people tend to do when they are actively engaged. The questions were of a completely different nature. Rather than being on the software itself (“So how again do I create a topic within a forum,” and “How do I get confirmation that my changes have been saved?”) they were now on the real topics, namely teaching and learning. Now, when I showed a new feature, such as creating sub-modules or linking items in the file system to the content area the questions were not of a technical nature, but were instead about how this would apply to the overall learning environment and on how this would impact the overall classroom dynamic.

So, obviously, I did what any experienced teacher would do. Not only did I recalculate the destination in much the same way as does a GPS when you miss your turn-off, but also, I recalculated the destination. Initially my goal had been to show the teachers how to use the content area to share individual files. It quickly became apparent to me, though, that this outcome fell far short of the mark that the teachers had in mind. We did achieve the technical outcome—the teachers did walk away with the knowledge of how to upload and share files. More importantly, though, we renegotiated a new teaching and learning outcome. The teachers found D2L to be an appropriate platform for use in a much broader area than I had initially imagined.

The altered session goal thus involved the teachers dividing the scope of the course into manageable chunks. Using the structure of the curriculum guide and the various resources they had, including the authorized resources, the ones they knew existed on the web and ones they had prepared themselves, they were able to create an appropriate instructional structure in the content section to suit their needs.

That, in turn, gave me a valuable lesson. Previously I had framed D2L in the manner one is most accustomed to seeing it, namely as a virtual classroom in which an instructor manages the learning of a group of students. This new model that the teachers had steered towards was, however, something different. There was not one instructional leader. Rather, the room contained equal partners. The instructional outcomes were also dynamic. Rather than being based on a set of pre-decided outcomes as is the norm for traditional classes they were instead dynamically assigned based on the needs of the participants.

Now, at this  point I am not sure of the destination for this project. It has taken on something of a life of its own. I am, however, sure that this unintended consequence mark an exciting new direction for PLCs in teaching.

Application: Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

So, perhaps it is worth speculating a bit around the possibilities. One thing is sure: it does appear that D2L can be used a tool by which PLCs can be built and sustained. The question include: “How far can we go with this?” and “What should be done?” To speculate on some possible answers let’s take a look at how some of the built-in tools may be used.

Content

Recall, this really started with the content area. At the moment, for the project in question, it is being used as a place where the participants can share links to items found on the web along with actual teacher-generated items. By itself this is quite powerful as the content system does support all of the common media files types (such as HTML, avi, mpeg, mp3, swf, etc.). Using the ‘export course components’ feature in D2l teachers can transfer whatever they want from the shared area into their own course offerings in order to share them with the students. In many ways this is superior to using an external Learning Object Repository (LOR) because the teachers, in this case, have already collaboratively decided on an appropriate instructional structure. In other words, the teachers have already taken the time to decide, in advance, how they would teach the course. In so doing it becomes fairly easy to see how each new resource fits into the puzzle, without the need for any sophisticated taxonomic schema.

Discussions

The discussion forum serves an obvious need. Owing to the wide range of differences that exist in classrooms as well as the now widespread acceptance of the fact that we need to work with the needs of all students and not just those who demonstrate that tenuous capacity commonly referred to as ‘academic aptitude’ there is a real need for places in which teachers can tease out alternative approaches to instruction; where they can report on what works and what does not in various instances and where they can simply get advice from others who have faced similar situations. The trick, of course, in making this work in an online discussion environment is to get an appropriate forum structure so that the general discussion is appropriate to the needs of the group. It may well be that this may emerge through use, providing that the participants are empowered to modify the structure. That said, it is likely that some forethought around an appropriate structure will, at least, get the group off to a good start.

Drop Box

The drop box might have a place in the PLC as well. Normally this tool is where students submit completed assignments. Written projects completed using MS Word™, audio files created using Audacity and video projects created using Flash™ or Windows Movie Maker™ and such can be left there directly. Normally, instructors will open them using whatever tool was used to create them in the first place, or whatever viewer is normally used to view them. Handwritten work, such as a mathematics assignment needs to be handled differently. One practical solution would be to scan the handwritten pages as a PDF and then place that file in the drop box. In its normal use, the student will place the file in a dropbox folder and the teacher will correct and grade it then leave feedback both in the form of a grade and comments, right in that same folder. Drop box submissions are particular to a folder—say “Unit 1, Factoring Polynomials” and individual submissions are private between the student and instructor. At first glance this does not appear to fit well with any need that may exist in the professional learning community environment that is proposed here. There is one, however—the vetting of teacher-created materials prior to sharing with the whole group.

If there has been one lesson learned down through the years since the education community discovered the web it is this: it is quite difficult to get people to share. In general, for learning communities, the majority of the content is generated by a minority of the members. You know the story—it has been often stated (and just as often without the necessary data to back it up) that 5% of the people do 95% of the work. While the reasons for this are many (not everyone has the skills or the desire to compose content, for example) one important item that can be addressed is the fact the people are reluctant to share anything except what they perceive as their best work. So, while a teacher would be quite comfortable using a resource item, such as a video, that they had produced themselves, they would be quite uncomfortable sharing it. Simply put, they know it is good enough but not perfect and, for their purpose it is not really worth the huge added bother in finding the flaws and correcting them. The general feeling might be that the teacher feels themselves judged on the imperfections and, on balance, decides that it is not worth it.

The drop box, however, gives the teachers access to a private area in which they can get the feedback that is so vital to the writing process. Suppose that the participants in the D2L room were assigned an area for which they were responsible for the posting of new content and another area in which they were responsible for review. They would either submit first draft materials to the drop box for review or serve the opposite role—that of providing feedback to a colleague. In this way a trust-based, systematized workflow would support the creation of share-worthy content. Of course there is another way that involves the use of ePortfolio—a subject worthy of a future post.

Competencies

The competencies tool can also be used in shared mode. Normally this tool is assumed to be used by the instructor along with the assistance, perhaps, of an instructional designer. Through its use an outcomes-based structure can be built for the course. Now, granted, competencies are not the same as curriculum outcomes but they are close enough for our purposes here. In my province, with the exception of local courses, this is the task of the provincial DOE. A working group led by a program development specialist constructs the outcome structure and fleshes it out to also include suggestions for teaching and learning, assessment standards and strategies and a list of resources. This is a mostly paper-based approach resulting in a curriculum guide that is intended primarily for print.

Using D2L, however, the competencies tool could be tweaked to serve not only as a tool for drafting and structuring learning outcomes but by linking to activities and content placed within that D2l ‘shell’, could be used to create a complete system comprising both curriculum guide and learning object repository.

Rubrics

While Rubrics have been in general usage for a considerable time, the time and effort required to compose ones of high quality have lessened their impact overall. D2L’s Rubrics tool is well positioned to help alleviate this issue. First, the tool is powerful and is relatively easy to use. Second the composition workflow for rubrics is that they can be held within the system until the author is ready to publish them for use. In that way, a team approach can be used. The under-construction rubric can be left in draft while a subset of the PL community works on it, fleshing it out and refining it, as necessary. Finally, once completed, Rubrics can be easily shared. A rubric created inside the PLC course can be easily shared—at the author’s discretion—with all users on that system, regardless of whether they are part of the PLC.

Quizzes

The quizzes tool can be used to share the construction of assessment items or of complete evaluation instruments. The quizzes tool, as it exists, is quite powerful, offering instructors the ability to construct and administer quizzes than can contain a huge variety of assessment item types including: True or False, Multiple Choice, Multi-Select, Constructed Response, Fill in the Blanks, Matching, Ordering, and auto-generated items based on a formula or which will check for correct usage of significant digits. Individual assessment items, banks of items and entire instruments can be uploaded and shared. The system can then administer the quizzes online or export them in a common format for usage in wither a word processor or other online testing software.  By coupling this capability with another software product, Respondus™, teachers can compose the items and quizzes offline using simple, familiar tools such as MS Word™.

Other Tools

The surveys tool can also add value to the PLC. Member-generated online surveys can, first of all, add interest to the PLC by determining what prevalent opinions exist. This can be used to help build consensus and to help set shared priorities within the group.

The calendar tool, which enables the user to merge calendars from all course offerings along with the calendars for whatever PLC’s they are members of, can allow the members to coordinate and events, and to remind the users of them, as needed.

The News tool, which, to a large extent defines the front page of the PLC helps to bond the members of the group by celebrating and popularizing what is currently of the highest priority. Used correctly the News item would help to keep the group’s focus on what it has decided are its highest priorities. The recent release of D2L has added a new feature than can help surmount the logistics of coordinating the construction of new items over a fairly large group. News items have two stages—draft and published. Members choosing to submit news items can now compose them as draft and have a partner edit them before publishing them for all to see. In this way a quality assurance system can be added to the news item workflow.

Putting it Together

This fall I plan to collaborate with a program specialist from one of our school districts in the creation of an online PLC that utilizes D2L. This is a small, informal project. We will start small, both in numbers and in scope. We will work with approximately 16 teachers and will limit the scope to one course that has already been implemented. In this way the participants will not have to deal with the stress of learning both a new curriculum and a new type of PLC.

In order to ensure buy-in on behalf of the participants as well as our own bias, we will not select the participants ourselves. Rather we will devise and implement an application process and will select 16 from the list of applicants. Hopefully, we will add the remainder later, when we feel the community can sustain growth.

We will start with a fairly simple D2L ‘shell’ and will likely only enable these tools: email, discussions, content, drop box, calendar, rubrics, surveys and news. More tools may be added later, as the need arises.

My initial role will be to provide basic training. I plan to do this online through Blackboard Collaborate™. Using its whiteboard and audio tools we can “meet” virtually in real time and share the broad vision. Then, using application sharing I can demonstrate the usage of the D2L tools we will be using. Using the same tool, or perhaps the Bomgar server (used for IT support—it can remotely access and share participants’ desktops) I can work one-on-one or in groups with the participants, as required. Like the PLC itself, the training and initial meetings will be held online.

This project will unfold over the next school year and I have every confidence it will not only prove to be of great benefit to the participants but also it will shed new light on desirable new directions.

In Summary

While Desire2Learn is most often used to manage teacher-led classes it holds immense potential as a tool through which PLCs can be mediated. Teachers can obtain instant access to resources and advice without the need for travel to any central location. As such it will likely serve as one cost-effective means by which PLCs can be sustained in the long term

How I Became a DE Instructor

From 1988 to 2001 the Department of Education in NL operated an online distance education program that served high school students in over 80 rural schools throughout the province. It was my pleasure to join that team officially as a Physics/Math “DE Instructor” as we were called in 1992.

In a way I could say it happened through two telephone calls.

The first was a call from the school district office in 1988 telling me that I was to go to St. John’s for two days of training. My school, Our Saviour King Academy in Southern Harbour, had been selected to be one of several which would be added to the list of those receiving service from the then fledgling Distance Education (DE) system and, in order for this to function properly, personnel from the school needed to learn how to serve a support role at the receiving end. I had been chosen, not necessarily because I was one of the two onsite tech geeks (Hey Joe—you were the other geek!) but, as the science/math teacher at the school my area was closest to the one affected.

So off I went, excited and curious, as always, but also quite unaware of how profound an effect this session would have on my life.

In the session I was first introduced to the hybrid pair consisting of an Optel Telewriter and an audioconference device and was completely blown away. The Telewriter was a large graphics tablet connected to an 8088 series PC running MS-DOS and outputting in CGA graphics to a 20” TV. The software interface was a full-screen writing slate surface. Using a pen you would write on the screen and this would simultaneously appear on all telewriter screens connected, via telephone lines, to the system. At the same time the audioconference network enabled participants at every endpoint to talk and to listen. It was a complete system. The “classroom” consisted of remotes sites and an instructor connected using the telewriter and the audioconference network.

Now, realize this was 1988. In those days, while computer networks existed it was primarily in larger corporations. The first school networking project, the “Lighthouse Project” was not yet underway. The Internet, while it existed, was still in the shadows; a thing primarily used for research—certainly not something in the public eye. This system was running on a generation 1 PC and not using anything as advanced as windows—just MS-DOS. There was no fibre, just plain telephone lines.

But it worked. It was effective and what’s more it was exciting. I was hooked and from that day forward I used every opportunity to both promote its use.

I was then introduced to how we were to send and receive work. Fax machines were just starting to become affordable and were starting to trickle into the school systems. Besides the telewriter our school was also to receive a fax machine. This one used thermal imaging and in most respects resembled a dot matrix printer. Incoming faxes were reproduced on a roll of paper which was cut to the appropriate length by the machine. Outgoing faxes were loaded onto the document feeder and sent over the dedicated telephone line. Tests and assignments were sent and received this way.

Finally I was introduced to the network and the corporate infrastructure. Under the leadership of Dr. Max House a Telemedicine audioconference network had been built linking hospitals and nursing stations. Partnering with the Department of Education, MUN and the Marine Institute, a second entity had emerged. The TETRA network was expanded to include post-secondary institutions, first 13 schools and, eventually, over 80 schools. NewTel, now Bell Aliant, built the physical infrastructure which consisted of dedicated 4-wire connections to all endpoints as well as a regular dial-in 2-wire network. Both terminated in bridges located in the headquarters at the medical school portion of the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s. All telwriter and audioconference operations were controlled from the Telemedicine/TETRA headquarters. This was, in effect, our “Internet.” Although it should be noted that other in the function it performed being a bit “Internet-ish” this was not a packet switched, dispersed, digital network at all. Rather, it was a dedicated hybrid of a non-packet-switched digital/analog, hard-wired network.

I also met the people. To many to name them all but people like Wilbert Boone, Doug Young and Ed Somerton from the DOE as well as Dr. Max House, Erin Kehoe and Mike Mooney from Telemedicine TETRA. All in all, significant and memorable personalities resulting in a well-rounded team having skills in all areas: administrative, technical and, most importantly, pedagogic.

It turned out to be a life-changing experience. My new role as onsite “DE-advisor” became as important as my pre-existing teaching duties. At my school I was, from that time on, responsible for:

  • Ensuring that the telewriter/audioconference unit was operational.
  • Providing the students with a secure, comfortable DE room.
  • Supervising tests. I did this primarily by trying to coincide theirs with my face-to-face ones. When that was not possible the DE students wrote in my class anyway and, to their credit, the remaining members of my class obliged by changing their in-class activities to very quiet ones. It was no big deal.
  • Faxing off student work and distributing incoming faxes.

While this was happening—from the school years beginning in 1989 to 1991 I remained professionally active in other respects. I had just completed a pilot in provincial mathematics in 1987 and through this had become acquainted with quite a few members of the provincial mathematics community. I also served ex-officio on the provincial Physics curriculum development committee, having contributed the sections on the Nature of science—an easier task that you might think since I had just completed my master of education thesis on that very topic.

In 1991 I was introduced to the concept of using digital interfacing in the physics lab. Frank Shapleigh conducted a series of 1-week institutes during that summer and I was lucky enough to be able to attend. It was life changing. Frank showed us all how to use various sensors—photogates, microphones, light sensors, force sensors, and so on—to collect valid and accurate data in the lab. He also provided excellent student resources. As he puts it, he was ‘lighting a few fires.’ Well, safe to say he lit me up just fine.  Upon returning home I immediately cancelled the order I had in play for a set of 5 spark timers and used those funds to order 5 Vernier photogate kits, which I assembled on the kitchen counter. Frank had taught us how to do that too. As soon as school started that fall I enlisted the aid of my physics class to raise funds for a Vernier MPLI kit and sensors. Once they arrived I had access to 6 digital lab stations: 5 based on photogates and optional picket fences and one MPLI with a microphone and light sensor. Using this I was able to completely revolutionize my physics class. What an awesome change for the better!

In 1991 I was again selected to serve as a pilot teacher. The province was beginning to implement a new mathematics curriculum, starting with a somewhat controversial three-credit course at grade 10. The text I was given was produced by Addison Wesley (Now Pearson Education). White in most respects a well-designed resource I found that it did not cover all areas. I therefore drew on my experience with DE and produced student materials similar to those which were being used in the Distance Education program. The materials I produced were in the form of a handbook consisting of rudimentary instruction along with further exercises for the students.

I was also given a pair of graphing calculators for classroom use. Both could be used with an overhead projector and I began to use them right away in all the math courses I was teaching, not just the pilot course. I preferred the TI-81 over the CasioFX-7000 and was soon using it exclusively. I contacted Len Catleugh the TI rep at the time and found him open to loaning me a class set of 30 units on a regular basis. I was able to use these not only in the pilot course but also in the grade 11 and 12 courses I was teaching.

Near the end of the pilot year the Addison Wesley rep, who knew I had been using the graphing calculators frequently in my classroom, asked if I would be interested in writing a resource book for teachers. This proved to be the start of my professional writing career. The resulting publication, a small paper-bound book, was distributed to classrooms all across the province in 1992. When the rep saw the student materials I had produced to supplement the student text they also invited me to write equivalent materials for the book. This I also did and the revised book was published in 1992 for distribution the following year.

Then there was the second telephone call.

Sometime in the spring of 1992 I telephoned Doug Young, then the coordinator for Distance Education at the Department of Education. I cannot recall the purpose of the call, but during the conversation I learned that the Department of Education was planning to offer grade eleven physics in the 1992-93 school year. Boldly, suggested that if they were looking for an instructor I would be more than interested. I pointed out also that, by then I had been a DE advisor for three years and was quite familiar with the technology. I also noted my experience with the curriculum development committee for that course and pointed out that I had significant experience with the new digital interfacing technology—in fact it was likely that I was one of only two teachers in the province who had actually used it for the whole course—the other individual being the person who had replaced Frank Shapleigh who had recently been seconded to work on the province’s new networking project.

Sadly, though, my ploy did not work. Doug informed me that Lloyd Gill, one of the leads from the curriculum development committee, had already been chosen and was, in fact already working on preparing the new distance education handbooks for the course. I was, of course, somewhat disappointed but not unduly so—after all I had only just found out so I certainly had not built myself up with any great expectations or anything. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and I just went on about my business.

But then that second call came. Hah—the one I just mentioned was not the call at all. We ended that call and I went back to class—I had made the first call during recess. A short while after—maybe it was during the next period—I was summoned to the office. I had a telephone call from the Department of Education. It was Doug again. “You also teach math?” Doug asked. “I was talking to Ed (Sometron) and he noted that we will be needing a teacher who can teach math and physics. Would you be willing to do that?”

Doug sounded a bit unsure. The DE project, up to then, had hired teachers who worked on one field exclusively. The people who had taught math up to that time were math teachers. Lloyd was a physics teacher. Doug was not at all sure that a math/physics job would sound attractive to anyone. It turned out that, on that matter, Doug was absolutely wrong. I had always liked mixing it up. Teaching a variety of courses was not a burden to me. My mother had always reminded me that she never boiled her cabbage twice and I agreed, especially as far as teaching was concerned. Having taught a lesson I had no great desire to do the same any more that 2 or three times in any given year, certainly not 6 or 7 times as one might do in a larger school. The offer put me over the moon! Quietly I said, “No Doug, that would be fine by me. I’d love to do it.” Now my inner voice was saying something a little different. In fact it was absolutely screaming something like, “Holy s**t this is a dream job!” But even then, at the age of 31 I knew enough to contain my excitement.

So that was it. Over the following few days the official contact was made with my board and I found myself seconded to a position with the program development division in the Department of Education. It proved to be everything I hoped it would be. I found myself working as part of an excellent team and was privileged to work with an amazing array of young people from all parts of the province. I’ll expand on that at a later time.

So what’s the take-away from this? I believe my own experience illustrates the interplay between hard work and serendipity. I believe that the personal success I achieved was not a result of any one thing. Rather it was the end-result of a number of factors including (1) my willingness to serve on committees and as a pilot teacher (2) my desire to refine my own practice through the adoption of new technologies and through the development of my own materials (3) a track record of cooperation and, most of all (4) serendipity—the fact is that in the end I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Twenty years have come and gone and I am still seconded to the Department of Education. That makes me not only the longest ever serving secondee but also the most senior member of the Department’s professional staff. No program specialist or higher has been there as long as me. It’s been a good period of time. I still serve as a member of a great team and still look forward to serving our teachers and, in particular, the students in our rural schools.

Impressions of Blackboard Collaborate 11(tm)

I recently had the opportunity to examine Blackboard Collaborate™ a bit more deeply while providing some of our staff with a general introduction to the tool, which we will be cutting over to during the summer, in time for a fall general deployment. As a very long time user of the tool—and of the versions that preceded it—I was curious to view the changes, especially in light of the fact that its predecessor, Elluminate Live v10™ was a very mature and stable product. Overall I am pleased to note that the newest evolution of the platform does represent a step forward. In particular the user interface has been updated so that many of the routine tasks now happen in a way that is more natural. As you might expect, though, given the sophistication of its predecessor, the actual number of new features and enhancements is limited.

The product has been around for almost a year now. New releases usually become available first in the hosted service version. The self-hosted ELM (Elluminate Live manager) version, which we use, usually follows a few months after. Because the ELM version was not available in time for the 2011-12 school year we made the decision to continue with the existing version and not to deploy Collaborate until the school year was out.

Shot of blackboard collaborate
Blackboard Collaborate 11

In preparation for deployment in the 2012-13 school year we have installed a test instance of the software on a development server and have been using that installation for testing and training purposes. Over the past few weeks I have been doing just that.

The first thing experienced eLive users will notice when they start Collaborate is that the interface has been modified significantly. Some tools—in particular the audio tool—have been moved and the overall look is more sedate. Users will remember eLive and its predecessors as having a bold and vibrant look, with big colourful buttons and windows. By contrast the new look is much more sedate; even drab. That said, experienced users will quickly acclimate themselves to the new look and feel because, for the most part, the changes are such that items have been moved from where they were to where they, perhaps, should have been in the first place! By moving the audio window to the bottom left to the top left, for instance the software designers were now able to merge it with the video window and provide the user with an integrated audio/video interface that exists in a place where it is easier to find and work with.

Buttons for Adding Content
Buttons for Adding Content

Session moderators will appreciate the simplicity with which Collaborate handles content. Previous versions handled the loading of whiteboard files, other media types and web tours each in different ways. The new version has three buttons at the top left of the whiteboard, one for each presentation mode: whiteboard, application sharing and web tour. Moderators only need to click the appropriate button to switch. Furthermore all media types are now loaded using the same ‘load content button. Users only need browse to the content file and the application takes it from there: whiteboard and powerpoint files go directly to the whiteboard, other media types such as mp3, swf and mp4 go to the media centre and other files are cued for file transfer to the participants.

While most moderators will appreciate this simpler workflow some users—math teachers for instance—may not like it as much. The previous version brought the application sharing session as a separate window that could be shown at the same time as the whiteboard. In this way a graphing calculator emulator could be layered to display at the same time as the underlying ‘handwritten’ calculations. This is no longer possible and moderators will have to alternate between the app sharing view of the calculator emulator and the whiteboard.

Floating Whiteboard Toolbar
Floating Whiteboard Toolbar

The whiteboard toolbar is more compact, with some tools being layered. For example you now need to click and hold the pointer button to get the pointer options.

Unified Audio/Video Window
Unified Audio/Video Window

The audio window has now been merged with the video tool resulting in a single audio/video window. As before, up to 6 talkers and 6 cameras can be active at a time. The new version synchs the audio to the video so that if multiple talkers are in place the dominant video screen becomes that of the current talker. My own testing has shown that the synchronization between audio and video is excellent. That said, I have not yet tested it in a bandwidth-compromised environment and, so, cannot say what happens when the transmission experiences the ‘chipmunking’ associated with audio delays.

Sub-menus for each Window
Sub-menus for each Window

Every window now has a submenu that includes common tasks associated with that window. Note, in the image above, the audio and camera actions and options are all in the window menu. They are also located in much the same place as before in the main menu.

Updated Permissions Window
Updated Permissions Window

The participants window has undergone a major makeover. Previous versions of the software utilized a table view which showed permissions. Yellow highlights in any cell indicated usage of that tool. The new view is more like a list. The image below shows that the moderator’s menu can be used to set global permissions for all users. Similar menus for the participants can override this with individual permissions. Rather than a highlighter, the tool’s icon now appears next to any participants name when that tool is being used by them.

Most new users will likely find this quite intuitive however experienced eLive users may have some un-learning to do first as the previous method—the table interface—was quite entrenched, have existing in essentially the same format since 2001 when the product was referred to as “Tutor’s Edge.”…then vClass, then Elluminate Live, or, more affectionately eLive.

The Chat tool has been given new functionality. In all previous versions of the tool the chat was completely supervised; that is the moderators in any given session could see all chat items regardless of whether they were the intended recipient. In the new version this is still the default, however moderators can switch this off thus allowing the participants privacy if needed. Emoticon support has been enhanced. Perhaps the most significant change is the new tabbed-chat functionality. To chat to individuals or groups just select them and right click. Chat is one option. When you do this a new tab appears in the chat window. You can then use this tab to follow any particular conversation thread.

This has the potential for creating many tabs, especially in long sessions with many attendees. Some other functionality can be of help, though. All windows can be detached and scaled separately. What’s more, Collaborate allows windows to be spread over several monitors. During a Collaborate session you can now detach the chat window, move it to a second monitor and size it to match the tabs.

Collaborate allows users to create local user profiles. During any session all any user has to do is to click the menu item next to their name in the participant window and select ‘edit profile.’ This profile is stored on the local machine and works for all Collaborate sessions done from that user account.

In summary, Blackboard Collaborate represents a solid evolution from Elluminate Live! V10. While it does not offer significantly enhanced features, the redesign makes the product significantly easier to use.

It will be interesting to see what is in store with the soon-to-be released hosted version of Collaborate 12™. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what the promised mobile support will mean. No doubt that alone will make the product worth the next scheduled switch, probably this time next year.