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.

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3 thoughts on “How I Became a DE Instructor

  1. Pingback: Distance Education in NL—Part 3: Teaching and learning by DE (1988-2003) | Duck? Starfish? but…23

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