K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-8: CDLI Startup and Pilot Year (2000-2002)

In 1999 a provincial Ministerial Review Panel which looked into the Delivery of k12 education in this province published its findings in a document called ‘Supporting Learning.’ Chapter six of it addressed the issue of distance education and made a series of recommendations. Chief among these was the establishment of a ‘Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation’ (CDLI) which would enact many of the suggested courses of action. The CDLI was created within months of the document’s release.

Chapter six of 'Supporting Learning' recommended the creation of a Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.
Chapter six of ‘Supporting Learning’ recommended the creation of a Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.

The founding director of CDLI, Wade Sheppard, as it turned out, had been the director of the Vista school district when the eLearning project mentioned in the previous post had been carried out so he was no stranger to both the new and emerging models.

It was decided to start by piloting ten new Internet-based courses, one each in ten school districts (the eleven districts that existed at the time have since been consolidated to five). The task of developing the first courses fell to Leon Cooper, a program specialist with the Department of Education who was no stranger to eLearning. He had initially been seconded, twelve years earlier, to work on the development of the content for the legacy model of distance education. Since then he had been the province’s tech. ed. program development specialist. In the mid-nineties he, along with colleague Alex Hickey had authored the TILE report which had set out a recommended course of action for the province on the whole area of technology Integration. He had also played a key role in the initial development of the Vista Project. Leon began by creating a framework for content creation, along with a development template and by training all content developers in the use of framework and templates.

Leon Cooper leads a content development team meeting. Clockwise from top left Leon Cooper (program development specialist) Me (physics) Bruce King (comm. tech.) Andre Hudson (chemistry) Don Squibb (math) Ed Somerton (math) Blaine Priddle (math)
Leon Cooper leads a content development team meeting. Clockwise from top left Leon Cooper (program development specialist) Me (physics) Bruce King (comm. tech.) Andre Hudson (chemistry) Don Squibb (math) Ed Somerton (math) Blaine Priddle (math). Nick Soper (English) and Camilla Stoodley (French) were also present at that meeting but are not shown in the photo. Note the old Commodore 64 monitor just over my shoulder–we used those as monitors for video editing; just couldn’t kill those old Sony tubes! Note also the old PET top right in the picture–it’s still around…somewhere.

My initial role with the newly created CDLI was as developer of the pilot grade eleven physics course. Macromedia Flash (Later Adobe® Flash™) was fairly new then and I saw incredible promise in it so I took the time to learn it, along with action script 2 and used it to create dozens of small learning objects which I embedded in traditional web-based materials. A sample; one of the eighty or so lessons I created back in 2000 can still be found here, if you are interested. Introductory information is on the ‘get started’ page and the actual lesson is on the ‘go to work‘ page. Be kind; that lesson was created 13 years ago :>)

Once the content developers had completed our tasks the attention turned to implementation–piloting, rather–of the new model. That job fell to me. In September 2001 I was charged with the task of getting ten web based pilots underway in ten different districts—a daunting task as:

  • In the field there was skepticism of the new model. In many minds the old system (I renamed it the legacy model as I thought ‘old’ at the time had the wrong tone) worked well so people wondered why we should change it.
  • The ‘supporting learning’ model was advocating a primarily asynchronous model; a model that ran against what had been done previously.
  • Internet connectivity was nowhere near where we wanted it to be. The majority of the rural schools used a hybrid model that used a satellite for downloads and a dial up connection for uploads and it was quite congested as we here in NL shared the system with most of North America. Once the US woke up for the day the system often became hopelessly slow.
  • In many quarters there was a strong skepticism against distance education in any form.

Fortunately the task was made easier.  Most importantly I was not alone. There were ten well-chosen pilot teachers. Wade, Leon and Frank Shapleigh as well as other STEM~Net personnel were solidly behind the implementation process too. District office program specialists were also allocated some time to help with the pilot. By going with pilot, against the recommendation of the document, the CDLI had the opportunity to make the necessary changes in the first year without the pressures of going completely over to the new model. That, as it turned out was a good thing! By going with a pilot, the school system had the chance to see how the new model held up against the legacy one. As it turned out it not only held up well but, as the pilot year progressed and the needed changes were made, it became clear that the new model was significantly better.

“Supporting Learning” recommended an asynchronous model. Despite this a model that blended synchronous with asynchronous was enacted. This was for several reasons:

  • The people involved directly in the delivery, including the pilot teachers, did not need to be convinced that switching away from synchronous classes would be a bad idea. In fact all were adamant that a synchronous component was necessary for success.
  • We knew, internally, that we did not possess the ability to create truly engaging, immersive multimedia content. In short, we knew our limits—we’d learned lessons from both the Legacy and Vista models on what the students needed and on what could be done.

After a search of what was currently available the CDLI decided to buy into a new product then called “Tutor’s Edge.” This java-based application included not only the 2-way audio and whiteboarding similar to that used in both the legacy model and the Vista model, but it also added new features (messaging, polling, permissions and—within a year—application sharing). Best of all it was not the ‘bandwidth-hog’ that NetMeeting had proved to be. The teachers and students loved it.

Screen shot from a tutor's edge session. Note the whiteboard at the left, the window listing the participants, the audio tool just above it and the text tool at the far right.
Screen shot from a tutor’s edge session. Note the whiteboard at the left, the window listing the participants, the audio tool just above it and the text tool at the far right. Notice that the slide is a combination of pre-drawn stuff (the images + the typed text) and items drawn during the class. It’s likely the instructor wrote in blue and a student in black.

By the way, while the company has changed much (and changed hands) since that time, as companies do, the product line still exists, but has evolved profoundly. One year later it was renamed vClass and a few years later re-branded again as Elluminate live! Today it is the product you may know as Blackboard Collaborate™.

Instructor's view of a synchronous class. You can just see the graphics tablet bottom right. Note the headset microphone--standard issue for everyone doing distance education!
Instructor’s view of a synchronous class. In this configuration the participants are listed on the left, the chat window is on the right with the audio window above it and the whiteboard is in the middle. You can just see the edge of the graphics tablet at the bottom right. Note the headset microphone–standard issue for everyone doing distance education! Fellow Canadians will notice that it must have been ‘roll up the rim time!’

The success experienced with WebCT in the Vista model was enough to convince all to continue using it with the new CDLI model. We did not regret that decision. The content area, discussions, drop-box, email and grades tools were all used.

We also made great efforts to upgrade the Internet connectivity, to the extent that we could. The local providers, to their credit, went out of their way to upgrade sites in a way that was affordable. In places where this was not possible several new satellite services were located and purchased. In still other cases we purchased an additional dial-up line for the CDLI computers, This dial up connection could be networked and we found that it could actually sustain 3-4- students simultaneously in a synchronous class in Tutor’s Edge—a feat that would not have been possible using NetMeeting.

The combination of the three measures worked surprisingly well. Let’s face it—we had our doubters; many of them. By years end, though, we had managed to begin the process of upgrading our remote sites to an acceptable level and had started putting the mechanism in place to upgrade the rest for the implementation that would follow in 2001.

Site visits during the pilot year were essential. Frequently the visits would be done by Frank and i working together. I would work with the students, showing them anything they need to know and, more importantly, picking their brains...finding out what was working and what was not.
Site visits during the pilot year were essential. Frequently the visits would be done by Frank and I working together. I would work with the students, showing them anything they need to know and, more importantly, picking their brains…finding out what was working and what was not.

We got through it but it was by no means easy. Those of us on the supporting end of the project burned the candle at both ends to make it  work. But we did succeed.

Frank would either work on the onsite equipment or engage in onsite training, as is the case here.
Frank would either work on the onsite equipment or engage in onsite training, as is the case here.

Much of the information that informed the decisions that led to what we eventually became was obtained during that pilot year—something I recall every time I hear people say that new programs do not need to be piloted; that we ‘know enough’ to proceed. Every effort was made that year to gather data that might be used to inform future decisions. These included:

  • Constant feedback from the pilot teachers.
  • The start of a multi-year investigation by two researchers at Memorial University: Dr.’s Ken Stevens and George Coffin.
  • Meetings with district-based CDLI implementation teams.
  • Onsite visits in which students and teachers were observed and consulted.
  • Focus groups with consisting of principals at the pilot schools and with mTeachers (onsite mediating teachers who supported the eLearning efforts).
Teacher/Program Specialist meeting held during the pilot year (L-R) Pat Whelan (Program Specialist, District 6), Wade Sheppard (Director, CDLI), Andrea Neville (eLearning Specialist, District 6)
Teacher/Program Specialist meeting held during the pilot year (L-R) Pat Whelan (Program Specialist, District 3), Wade Sheppard (Director, CDLI), Andrea Neville (eLearning Specialist, District 3), Lyndon Williams (eTeacher, CDLI)

During that year we learned some valuable lessons and, more importantly, made some systemic changes in preparation for the first full year of implementation, 2001-02. Among those lessons:

  • Get the Internet connectivity up to scratch. A slow or unreliable line will not work. The connection needs to have enough bandwidth and not suffer from down-time.
  • Provide a scheduling system that offers enough choice so that schools can integrate the distance education classes with the F2F classes the students are also taking.
  • Provide an easy-to-use registration system.
  • Pay close attention to ensuring that new students are adequately oriented.
  • Provide the necessary equipment and standardize it. We wound up, in the end, supplying the PCs, the all-in-one printer/scanners used for returning student work, headset/microphones for the synchronous classes and, where necessary, graphics tablets so student could write on the whiteboards too.
  • Provide a help desk that is available all school-day long.
  • Instead of relying on one person at a site (we called that person the mTeacher, or mediating teacher in the pilot year) establish a site based team, or mTeam (mediating team) that helps support the learning. It would contain separate people to help with administration (the principal or designate), tech support (our help desk, district techs, students paid through the TFT program) and coaching (onsite teachers and peer tutors).
  • Do a better job of communicating (evaluation, class routines, technical routines, registration and reporting, for example) with our various publics.

A sad coincidence worth mentioning. Very early in the pilot year we arranged a face-to-face launch in Gander. It was out ‘official’ start of the pilot. Besides myself, Wade, Leon, Frank and the pilot teachers we also had in attendance 2 people from each of the forty schools–typically the Principal and mTeacher, all ten of the program specialists who would be assisting. There were several others there as well.

During my session, early in the morning I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more planes coming in. Frank noticed it too. When my session was over I ran over to the district office which was next door. The place was deserted. I found them all downstairs huddled around the TV set in the lunch room. The whole staff. Something horrible had happened. I ran back to the plenary and interrupted to tell the crowd what had happened. The reaction was shock and disbelief. Frankly, not much got done the next hour and, during the lunch period most of the participants drove up to the airport to see for themselves.

The date of our launch: September 11, 2001

All of the planes in the Northwest Atlantic were diverted to Newfoundland that day. Many of them landed at Gander. The passengers waited fearfully in the aircraft, not really knowing what had happened. Slowly the news started to get out. After a long time, the passengers were allowed to leave the aircraft, but were not allowed to leave.
The people of Gander and the surrounding area took care of those passengers in the days that followed. The story that resulted is one of generosity and compassion; a tale of how our ‘better parts’ can always triumph when we put love first…
It's been twelve years since that tragic day and perhaps time has helped heal some of the wounds but each year the people of central newfoundland recall the day the world came to town...
It’s been twelve years since that tragic day and perhaps time has helped heal some of the wounds but each year the people of central newfoundland recall the day the world came to town.

Next: The CDLI goes from pilot to full implementation of an Internet-based eLearning Model. The first step was to recruit and develop  an effective faculty of eTeachers.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-7: The Vista project: Lessons Learned (1998-2001)

In 1998 a partnership effort between the Vista School District, STEM~Net, Memorial’s Education Faculty and Industry Canada, led by Wilbert Boone, resulted in a new, Internet based distance education program we dubbed ‘The Vista Project.’ This pilot, for the first time, merged the synchronous expertise that had been gained from the province’s Distance Education program with the Internet tools and expertise that STEM~Net had amassed. The result was four Internet based AP courses that were piloted in the Vista School district in the 1998-99 school year.

It was a pilot and, in education, we have very good reasons for piloting:  specifically we—well most of us—have learned that, despite our best planning and resourcing, new course curricula and implementations need adjustments in order to get them right. This project—at least in my case—was no exception. Despite being an experienced distance educator I learned quite a few new lessons. Here are a few:

  • In physics and Art, at least, synchronous classes are a must. I found that when students were absent from synchronous classes they simply stopped working. Let’s be clear on what really happens during the synchronous classes. It is NOT a process of direct transfer of knowledge via lecture. NO NO NO (is that enough “no” to get your attention?). The synchronous class is, rather, a real-time forum to get the learning done, just as is the F2F classroom.
  • In keeping with the above, you MUST do more than lecture in a synchronous class. It is not supposed to be drone, drone, drone, SLIDE, drone, drone, SLIDE and so on. Come on—you could just tape a stupid lecture if that was what it was about! With the features that are bundled with modern tools, in all seriousness, the possibilities are endless. You can, in fact, replicate—and I will go as far as to say ‘improve upon’—just about every F2F instructional tool using the online synchronous tool. But you must learn how.  Read on…
  • Teaching online is not an extension of F2F. Sure, you must be good at F2F to be good online BUT you must take it very seriously and learn to adapt or even recreate your methods. Droning on using the synchronous tool or lazily sharing your notes or slides just don’t cut it. Knock it off or get a different job if that is what you expect to do.
  • Teaching and Learning are what it’s about, not the technology. Think of T&L first if you expect to be successful. T&L dances with technology, but T&L leads. Rather than asking “Hey, look at this shiny new tablet/phone/pc/whatever, I wonder how we can use it in the classroom?” You must instead ask, “Given what’s available, what is the best combination of tools and techniques we can assemble to deliver this course?”
  • Communication between the stakeholders is critical. There needs to be a partnership between the eLearning provider, the school and the districts. Parents and students need to be in on this too.
  • Notwithstanding the above, the technology will make or break the delivery process. If you are not an expert find one and enlist their aid or give it up. In particular:
    • The equipment needs to be suited to the learning. It can’t be whimsical adoption of the ‘next best things.’
    • The system needs to be reliable. Recall the frustrations described around the Internet connection? They almost buried the project.
    • The teacher needs to embrace the various technologies as conduits between the teachers and learners. In short when the tools ‘disappear’ into the background the learning is enhanced.
    • There’s no such thing as enough bandwidth. How many times have I heard ignorant leaders ask, “What do they need all that bandwidth for?” and then not listen to the answer. There are many answers—if they would listen, which some generally don’t (the ignorant ones, I mean, not all of them).

At the end of the year it was decided to continue the project. Two nearby districts even got in on it the following year and STEM~Net sponsored a project that added Art (delivered to rural students from grade 9 to grade 12) to the mix. The Art course actually won a WebCT award; an unusual win because up until then WebCT had been considered as a post-secondary tool. It had been a difficult year, but one that added a lot of new knowledge to mix.

One of the best lessons that came out of the project is best illustrated by a story told by Craig Goudie, the developer and, later, instructor for the Art course. The course was taught in a manner similar to that of the Physics course. Craig had prepared web-based lessons which were placed in the content portion of WebCT. The students would access them asynchronously and would submit the various work samples using the dropbox. Craig also used synchronous classes using NetMeeting/Meeting Point.

In one remote site one student was particularly outspoken, whether it was asynchronous using email or discussions, or live using Netmeeting. She was always there, opening with, “Howdy Goudie!” and had lots to contribute; in all respects an active, outgoing individual. During the year, Craig had the opportunity to visit the sites and meet with the students. When arriving at this students’ school he did what he always did—visit the office first to speak with the principal. He was given a tour of the school and when he asked to see that particular student he found that she was, in fact the shy, withdrawn student who always sat at the back of the room, head down, too shy to contribute to class discussions.

How different we all are … in different environments!

On a personal note I should state that in my 30 years as an educator this was, perhaps one of the two most trying years I have experienced (the next post relates the other most trying year).

First, that year I was spread far too thin. Besides being the physics pilot teacher for the Vista Project I was also a DOE consultant. In that capacity I reported to three other different managers, besides the lead for the Vista project. In the Program Development division I was responsible for completing the curriculum guide for the new Earth Systems course and preparing for the provincial implementation the following year. I was also liaising with three other provinces as we shared the duties of writing the new physics curriculum which would be based on the new Pan Canadian science protocol. In Distance Education I was serving as an administrator in the legacy model. Finally, in the Evaluation and Research division I was responsible for the Physics and Earth Science provincial examinations. This involved item writing, field testing, preparing grading standards and solution keys for three forms of the physics exam and two forms of the Earth Systems exam. You have heard the phrase, ‘you can never serve two masters.’ Well I served four different direct supervisors that year. It was just plain nuts.

Second, it cannot me sugar coated how difficult it was getting through that physics pilot in the Vista Project. There were an overwhelming number of hurdles and none of them were easy to cross. Looking back on that year I still shudder. In the end, though, the lessons proved useful. The fact is if we had not done the Vista project we would not have been prepared for the changes that needed to follow. But we did and we were :>)

And I’m almost over the near-burnout.

It should also be noted that these two sections on the Vista project are pretty ‘Maurice-Centric.’ This is not to imply, in any way that I was a focal point of that project. I was, rather, one member of a very dedicated team who wanted the project to work. There were others. Here’s a short list:

  • Wilbert Boone wrote the original proposal and managed the project throughout.
  • Ken Stevens was lead researcher.
  • STEM~Net staff—pretty much all of them, but most especially Dale Fraser and Frank Shapleigh worked to maintain the back-end systems (Web servers, WebCT, MeetingPoint) and school connectivity on which the project depended.
  • Wade Sheppard and two program specialists provided leadership and support at the district level. The principals at the schools involved were also very supportive.
  • Theresa Pittman and four student assistants helped facilitate the preparation of the course content.
  • Brian Wells, Dean Holloway Dave Power and Craig Goudie had exactly the same role as did I, namely course developer and instructor for, respectively, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and Art. Their experiences were roughly the same as mine.

More change was coming. In 2000 the province Hosted an International Forum at Marble Mountain. Once again, as was the case with the round tables described in the previous post, many of the decision makers at all levels had the chance to get together, take stock of where we were and where we would like to be in the near future.

The view from Marble Mountain. There's no substitute for taking the long view...
The view from Marble Mountain. There’s no substitute for taking the long view…

It is wondrous what can happen when talented, passionate people are brought together to work at a common cause. Two names previously mentioned were particularly good at that. Harvey Weir, with his long experience in the science faculty and his leadership of both STEM~Net and Continuing Education (now DELTS) was able to bring post-secondary leaders, particularly those affiliated with Memorial University, to the table. Wilbert Boone, with his equally long experience at all levels in the k12 system could bring the DOE and the school districts. Events such as the Forum referenced above, thanks to their efforts (and , of course others) set in motion further events that shaped the first decade of the present century.

Next: More change was coming. In 1999 the provincial government underwent a massive ministerial review of the education system. One of the items examined was distance education and the recommendations the report produced created a ‘Centre for Distance learning and Innovation’ (CDLI) which set a whole new direction for distance education.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-6: The Vista project: Breaking New Ground (1998-2000)

In early 1998 Harvey Weir (Director of STEM~Net), Wilbert Boone (my direct supervisor at the time; the guy who seconded me to the DOE in 1992. Wilbert looked after both distance education and english-language curriculum development) and Wade Sheppard (Director, Vista School District) attended an international ‘blue sky’ eLearning conference. One of the events was a tour of a new facility designed to ‘deliver’ distance education to students all around the world. It was, of course, a sell-job. This was before the dot com bubble burst and the place was filled with entrepreneurs eager to make a pile of money selling all sorts of services. Education was a huge market. The three people, though, saw something different. While touring the facility it became obvious to them that the so-called state of the art equipment and methodologies were not as good as the ones already available at home. On the flight back they made plans to pilot an Internet-based version of distance education.

Taken at Wilbert Boone's retirement. Back Row (L-R) Lloyd Gill (first DE Physics teacher), Wayne Oakley (ADM when DE was instituted) Harvey Weir (founding director STEM~Net, director Continuing Studies, now DELTS) Dave Dibbom (Assiciate dean of Educ, later Dean, RIP sadly missed) Rachel Handrigan (AD, district 2), Wade Sheppard (Director Vista and CDLI) Rene Wicks (NLTA & founder of VTC) Front Wilbert Boone (Manager, curriculum section DOE, founding manager of DE program) Maureen Boone (Wilbert's wife, interpreter for deaf and hard of hearing) Jean Brown (Professor of Educ.) Me
Taken at Wilbert Boone’s retirement. Back Row (L-R) Lloyd Gill (first DE Physics teacher), Wayne Oakley (ADM when DE was instituted) Harvey Weir (founding director STEM~Net, director Continuing Studies, now DELTS) Dave Dibbom (Assiciate Dean of Educ, later Dean, RIP sadly missed) Rachel Handrigan (AD, district 2), Wade Sheppard (Director Vista and CDLI) Rene Wicks (NLTA & founder of VTC) Front Wilbert Boone (Manager, curriculum section DOE, founding manager of DE program) Maureen Boone (Wilbert’s wife, interpreter for deaf and hard of hearing) Jean Brown (Professor of Educ.) Me

With additional funding from Industry Canada, this saw the light of day as the Vista Project. It was named for the Vista school district, the one that Wade was director of and the one it would be piloted in. I, along with three other teachers, was assigned initially as a Subject Matter expert (physics) and later as one of the four pilot teachers. We, along with four student assistants, prepared and delivered four Advanced Placement courses (Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics) to students within the Vista school district in 1998-99. In the following year STEM~Net added to this by getting a grade ten Art Technology course also developed and implemented on a pilot basis and we expanded the AP to two other districts.

As you might expect it was not smooth sailing all the way. Hard lessons had to be learned.

The asynchronous tool, an early version of WebCT (since acquired by Blackboard) was quite capable, despite its relative ‘newness.’ The course content resided inside it. The “Learning Management System” (LMS) also had student email, reasonably powerful online testing tools, a dropbox for submitted work and a discussion forum, as well as a grade book. We were all new to this and time needed to be spent in learning how to use this new system and, more importantly, how to adapt our teaching and learning methodologies to its abilities. Compromises had to be made.

Recall also that I came from a distance education tradition that stressed regular and frequent synchronous (real-time) interaction. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I believe that ‘lecturing’ online is the be-all and the-end-all; far from it. It’s much more subtle. The synchronous tool is a very powerful way of ensuring that you are connecting with the students; that you are always there when needed. More importantly it’s an effective way of ensuring that you are building an online community of learners. High-school students do not all have the discipline of their post-secondary brethren. I know what you are thinking—be good! I was adamant: if I was to be a part of this project there had to be a strong synchronous component.

Today, there exist a wide variety of powerful synchronous communication tools. These range from free ones such as Skype™ or Messenger™ to more powerful (and not free) ones such as Blackboard Collaborate™, Microsoft Lync™ and Adobe Connect™, for instance and there are many more. In 1998, however, the offerings were not as good. Essentially we had Netmeeting™. For its time, Netmeeting was quite powerful. It gave you two-way voice, video via webcam, a decent whiteboard, and you could even share an application—that is, I could run a piece of software on my computer (say a lab interface—I used that a lot) and it would be displayed on the remote screen. The remote user didn’t need to even have the software. There were two problems: (1) NetMeeting was a bandwidth hog for its time. It would choke a dialup connection and (2) NetMeeting was what we call point-to-point; it was just one computer to another. You could not hook groups together the way we did with the standard model of distance education in use at the time. I needed multipoint—the ability to connect with more than one PC. I wanted to host some of my classes online in the live NetMeeting room.

We found the solution in a product called MeetingPoint. It was a software solution that allowed us to bridge together more than two NetMeeting sessions. To enable it we had to purchase the software—it was quite expensive, a dedicated server—it was quite hardware intensive, and a dedicated Internet line—it was a bandwidth hog. Recall, now, that this was 1998 and processor power and Internet bandwidth were just not ‘up there.’ Cable modems and DSL were considered high-end items and even Memorial University’s Internet connection would have been hit hard by adding a large MeetingPoint session to its backbone.

We gave it a go. Technically it did what it said it could. I was able to bring my classes together online in group format on a regular basis. At any given school site, rather than have every student sit at their own PC as we do today, the students would all huddle around one machine and share it. This was mainly because of the load the NetMeeting session would place on the school’s Internet connection.

The video above is a short clip of a NetMeeting/MeetingPoint session. It was taken at a student site by Frank Shapleigh during one of his visits. He was probably installing yet another satellite dish on the roof! Notice–you only have a second or so to see it–that there are two students huddled at the computer.

I settled into a regular schedule of alternating one 55-minute synchronous (done live via NetMeeting + MeetingPoint) class with one asynchronous class (the students would access course content through WebCT, work as assigned sample problems and such). That would give a total of 5-synchronous and 5-asynchronous classes every 14 school days. We were able to do some cool things. I particularly enjoyed the synchronous classes.  After all I come from a tradition that values real-time interaction. Using the whiteboard and audio I was able to teach in much the same manner as had been done with the previous distance-education model (see parts 2 and 3 in this series), but with important  enhancements:

  • The whiteboard was fully-featured with more than just freehand pen and text tools as had been the case with the DOS based telewriter. It contained much the same drawing tools as MS Paint.
  • The video was especially useful at creating a friendly class culture. I must admit, though, that we only used the cameras sparingly, and at the start of class, just to exchange greetings. The video tended to choke the connections. Besides, during class the cameras rarely added anything. It was useful in spurts, though. I recall: (1) showing motion demos from my office (2) demonstrating Newton’s Laws using various apparatus (3) showing refraction in both a wave tank and of light in glass, for example.
  • The application sharing was brilliant! Remember I taught physics. First, the ability to share the lab interface was a quantum leap! On a regular basis I would start the class with the webcam pointed to a simple lab apparatus—say an object that was about to undergo acceleration. One instance involved a hanging object located just below a motion sensor. The students could see the object, the stand, the sensor and could see me ready to burn through the string (cutting the line disturbs the object) so that the object would fall under the influence of gravity. I would have the lab interface shared and they could see the graphs of distance vs. time and velocity vs. time shared in real time as the object fell. Together we could then—over distance—examine the graphs which were drawn from REAL data. A geek’s paradise!
Me ca 1998 in class. Netmeeting is running on the PC. Note the graphics tablet on the desk, far right. We have always used these for writing on the screen during synchronous classes. The blue box just to the left of the monitor is a Vernier MPLI, a digital interface used for physics labs. Muse have been just after Christmas--my little tree is still on the file cabinet :>)
Me ca. 2000 in class. Netmeeting is running on the PC. Note the graphics tablet on the desk, far right. We have always used these for writing on the screen during synchronous classes. The blue box just to the left of the monitor is a Vernier MPLI, a digital interface used for physics labs. Must have been just after Christmas–my little tree is still on the file cabinet :>) surely I didn’t have it out in October, as the printed date on the photo suggests!

That said, there were quite a few hiccups. In particular, we found the Internet connections to be our biggest source of frustration. MeetingPoint was a hog and tended to use most of the school’s available bandwidth. This meant all sorts of trouble! We had frequent dropped connections—the students (and I) would get disconnected from class and have to re-connect. This resulted in far-too-frequent class interruptions; frequent to the point of being a major problem, in fact. In addition, the choked connections played havoc with other aspects of communication. The whiteboards would be delayed sometimes—the students would not see what I wrote until seconds later. Worse, though, the audio would often be delayed or even garbled. Very frustrating for everyone!

Next: The Vista project left us with some valuable lessons learned. These will be outlined in Part 7.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-5: STEM~Net and School Connectivity

All through the 1990s STEM~Net tackled the problem of providing school and teacher Internet connectivity head-on, with the aid of Industry Canada. It forged partnerships with existing communications companies and even took unprecedented measures of its own to make things happen that the industry could not.

While the connectivity work was being done the other activities, of course, forged ahead. (L-R) Ken Penney (stemnet), Dale Fraser (stemnet), King (Coley's point Elem.) and Bill Jamieson (St. Andrews Elem.)
While the connectivity work was being done the other activities, of course, forged ahead. (L-R) Ken Penney (stemnet), Dale Fraser (stemnet), Wendy King (Coley’s point Elem.) and Bill Jamieson (St. Andrews Elem.)

It worked. Thanks to the efforts of many, including the support of Industry Canada’s Doug Hull and especially Frank Shapleigh, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was able to claim bragging rights of being the first to have all its schools online. When you think about it that’s quite an achievement given the extreme rurality of the place.

In many places only a sign post separates communities. That is not the case here.
In many places only a sign post separates communities. That is not the case here.

None of it came easy. The overall solutions were a collection of best efforts by all involved. The schools in the larger centres were relatively easy to work with. I use that term with caution, knowing full well that the Internet Service Providers were in full build mode striving to deliver new services over infrastructure that was not originally intended for digital signals. Those coax lines were intended to carry analog cable TV; those copper phone lines were intended to carry voice by analog. Soon, though, cable and DSL modems would be sending digital signals through those conduits. Electronics everywhere had to be replaced; and THAT cost a lot of time and money. Schools were not wired for computer networking when they were built; no existing LAN infrastructure. Many of the schools were therefore actually wired up for networking by dedicated teams of volunteers who came in on evenings and weekends—all for free, of course. The work got done, and soon, through STEM~Net sponsored projects (with generous support on behalf of the providers) such as Stellar Schools, the larger, more urban schools were soon all online.

It was much harder in the ‘outports’ but they were not forgotten. STEM~Net’s directors, first Harvey Weir and then, (when Harvey moved to Post Secondary DE) Nancy Parsons, were both determined to connect the rural schools too. It got done, but it was much harder. Some schools had dial-up, some had various faster copper-line based solutions (e.g. DSL and Cable). Most had the hybrid satellites shown in the pictures. Fibre was to come much later—to this day not all sites are served that way, but progress continues to be made.

Would you like to be the one walking on this roof?
Would you like to be the one walking on this roof?

The satellite connections were very much a grassroots activity. Harvey Weir had succeeded in obtaining a large number of DirectPC systems from Ottawa. Frank Shapleigh led the process of installing them. Most were mounted on the roofs of schools. The parts were often assembled in the school by the students or other personnel at the school and then installed on the roofs by the school’s custodial staff, teachers, or community volunteers, all under Frank’s guidance. The fact is, there is hardly a school roof in this province that Frank has not walked on. :>)

Frank and Berkley installing a satellite dish on the roof of the school in in Lumsden.
Frank and Mike Connolley installing a satellite dish on the roof of the school in in Lumsden.
Here's the view from that same roof!
Here’s the view from that same roof!

The DirectPC systems were a hybrid. Here’s how it worked: a student would click a hyperlink in the computer lab and the request would go out to the school proxy server which would then upload it via dial-up to the Internet where the request would go to the server in question. The content requested would then NOT go back via dialup. It would, instead, be routed to the satellite uplink ground station just outside of Toronto where it would be beamed up to the satellite. The signal would then be beamed back to earth (at very high speed) where it would be received by the satellite dish on the school roof and then routed to the student’s computer via the school proxy server. It was much faster than dialup because on the Internet, at the time (and mostly still today) the majority of traffic is download. So the upload at dialup speed was tolerable. The downlink through the satellite was faster so, overall, the system was reasonably good.

There were a couple of hitches. First, the satellite bandwidth was shared with all users—and there were MANY—so after 11AM, when the rest of North America woke up, the system started to slow. On some days the system became little better than dial-up. Second, these satellite systems rely on geosynchronous satellites—ones that remain fixed in place above the same exact spot on earth. That’s so you can aim the dish right at the satellite and get the best signal strength. They revolve around the earth once every 24 hours. This means they have to be located (a) directly above the equator and (b) at an altitude of approximately 37,000 km. Here’s the problem: the communities in our province are mostly located between about 50o and 57o N latitude. This means that the ‘look angle’ to the satellites is pretty small. Simply put, the satellites appear to be barely above the horizon. Trees, nearby buildings and worst of all, hills, can block the view of the satellite. The further North you go the worse this gets—and the bigger the dish you may need to allow for a strong-enough signal. In many, many places, from the school, the satellite was actually out of sight and significant measures had to be taken so that the system would work. But it was made to work.

The video above shows the installation of the system in one of our sites, H. L. Strong Academy in Little Bay Islands. Viewed from the school, the satellite was behind a hill–and thus unreachable–so Frank, school board personnel and community volunteers cut a path up the hill, built a structure to support the dish and installed it there. The camera is a bit tricky; the hill is MUCH steeper than it appears. You pretty much have to crawl up and slide down! The end of the video shows the ferry coming, and it’s not hard to get an appreciation for the rurality of the place. Incidentally, it was not always that way. In earlier times Little Bay Islands was a well-populated hub of economic activity, serving as a service and processing centre for the Labrador fishery. Times change. A little later on in the series (part 7 or 8) you will see what had to be done when we upgraded the system four years later.

By around 1997, people were realizing that the Internet was starting to mature to the point where it could, perhaps, meet the high-speed/reliability specs imposed by distance education. Let’s be clear—whatever technology used to ‘deliver’ distance education is a serious piece of the school’s infrastructure. In short, it cannot withstand failure. What happens when the heating system fails? When the buses don’t run? When front-line personnel strike?  The same thing happens in distance education when the communications systems go down. In essence school closes and students do not get their due.

Switch to the moment for a sec. What would happen if the cellphone system failed? Can you hear the screams?  OK, switch back. That’s NOT how it was VIEWED in the nineties but that’s how it WAS. We had a solid, reliable and effective system for distance education in the province. Though electronic it was not Internet based. We did, collectively, see the value and the promise in the Internet but we also had enough sense to know that we had some ways to go before we had a solid, reliable working system that was just as effective.

A 'roundtable' discussion on the future of Tele-Education and Tele-Health hosted in the late nineties by STEM~Net. Bet you can't find me in the picture :>)
A ’roundtable’ discussion on the future of Tele-Education and Tele-Health hosted in the late nineties by STEM~Net. Bet you can’t find me in the picture :>) Harvey Weir was one of the lead organizers of this event…we will pick up that strand in the next post.

The whole educational community wanted this to happen. At both the formal and the informal levels various levels of both the education and health care systems were cooperating and partnering to try and effect positive change.

Next: Enter the Vista project; a major source of new information that led to improvement.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-4: STEM~Net; Province-Wide Networking

In 1990 the province of NL undertook its first computer networking project. The Lighthouse Project equipped 31 schools with a networked computer lab. Frank Shapleigh, a physics teacher located in Gander, oversaw the implementation. He visited each school, ensured that the local area network (LAN) was functional and, most importantly, ensured that teachers onsite were trained to manage it and work with it.

Group photo taken during initial training for the Lighthouse Schools Project
Group photo taken during initial training for the Lighthouse Schools Project

Think about that for just a minute. In those days, school districts did not have ICT specialists. The network was designed, developed and implemented by teachers. This had several benefits: (1) it ensured buy-in by the faculty (2) it de-mystified the technology and (3) it made it that much more accessible to the students—who, in many cases help run the system. Most importantly it created an appetite for connectivity. This, in turn, created the environment that valued newer styles and tools of learning.

A capture of the logo from STEM~Net's website. The site was active from 1993 to 2004
A capture of the logo from STEM~Net’s website. The site was active from 1993 to 2004

In 1993, thanks to a partnership between the Canadian federal government and Memorial University (and later on the Provincial Government), STEM~Net was launched in the province. Its initial mission was to bring Internet-based educational opportunities to Science, TEchnology and Mathematics teachers and students in the province. As the Internet grew, it soon became apparent that its usefulness extended well beyond those subject areas. STEM~Net was expanded/rebranded to be the Student and Teacher Educational Multimedia network. As the Internet grew, so did STEM~Net. As time went on, through a concerted effort (1) a massive amount of content was added to its site, (2) an extensive training program resulted in an Internet savvy teacher workforce in the province and (3) all schools in the province were connected to the Internet—thus giving NL bragging rights as the first Canadian province to put all its schools online.

Harvey Weir, STEM~Net's visionary founding director. Harvey also taught me 'circuits devices and systems' a second year physics course at MUN; an excellent prof, leader and mentor.
Harvey Weir, STEM~Net’s visionary founding director. Harvey also taught me ‘circuits devices and systems’ a second year physics course at MUN in ’79; an excellent prof, leader and mentor.

Three main STEM~Net servers were obtained: Calvin, Hobbs and Susie (yes—the naming convention was no accident; we are/were all fans). Two of them were used as the main system servers and were placed at Memorial University in St. John’s. A third was a portable server and was used for training. A pool of dial-up modems was located with those main servers and several other modem pools were placed in outlying areas. Teachers could apply for Internet accounts with STEM~Net and were granted ten hours of access per month on the system. A toll-free line was established so that teachers in the many outlying areas (recall that NL is a very rural, sparsely populated place) would not incur long distance charges. In effect, besides hosting content, STEM~Net became the Internet Service Provider (ISP) for teachers.

Perhaps I should not say this but it’s now become known that teachers who did not use their full ten hours per month ‘donated’ the unused hours to spouses, colleagues and children. I guess it’s OK to say that now…  :>)

Today, hardly anyone worries about being ‘trained’ to use the Internet. The various technologies are so widespread and the user-interfaces are so well designed that little training is necessary. Besides, today we have achieved a critical mass of users. With so many out there who know how to use the Internet, essentially everyone has many ‘go-to’ people who can answer questions and offer assistance.

Back in 1993, though, none of that was true. Hardly anyone know about the Internet, let alone how to use it. Worse—the procedures for getting online were complex as the applications you needed to use were nowhere as user-friendly as they are today.  The response was…training. Frank Shapleigh, fresh from his work at the lighthouse project, transferred over to STEM~Net where he, along with his (at the time) assistant Dale Fraser, (A somewhat older Dale is now the manager of systems with the CDLI. We’ll get to the CDLI later on.) undertook a massive province-wide training program.

The 'MUN Van,' loaded and ready to go...
The ‘MUN Van,’ loaded and ready to go…

It went like this: Frank and Dale would load up the ‘MUN van’ with all of the equipment needed (server, laptops, networking equipment, projection stuff and cabling) and drive to wherever the training was to be—typically a school or district office. Once there they would set up a complete, networked, training lab and proceed to deliver hands-on training to groups of teachers, 20-30 at a time. A typical training session would include:

  • Introduction to networking and the Unix environment.
  • Training on Pine, an email client.
  • Training on tin, a threaded news reader.
  • Training on Lynx, a hypertext browser.
  • Introduction to FTP (moving files to and from the server).
A STEM~Net training session. Note all the networking gear in the middle; it took a lot of work setting this stuff up. That's Frank Shapleigh standing by the door.
A STEM~Net training session, ca. 1994. Note all the networking gear in the middle; it took a lot of work setting this stuff up. That’s Frank Shapleigh standing at the front. There’s a ‘PC Viewer’ on the overhead projector. The by-now familiar computer projectors came a bit later on.

To emphasize: this was hands-on, not ‘death by PowerPoint.’ Besides, in 1993, PowerPoint was still pretty crude. :>)  You need to stop and think a bit to appreciate the efforts undertaken by Frank and Dale. They made countless stops, dragged out all that equipment, set up a training lab, gave hands-on training, broke down the equipment and stashed it all back in the van then went to the next school to do it all again.

It worked. In short order the team had succeeded in doing what it had set out to do—lighting some fires, as Frank puts it. Through 1993 and 1994 the name STEM~Net became synonymous with innovation. As usage grew so did the community. Besides the onsite training STEM~Net began hosting an annual conference, called Hook, Line and Net (HLN), during the summers. Thanks to the efforts of the staff and particularly that of Nancy Parsons (Assistant Director, and later Director) this and many other projects including Grassroots, became phenomenally successful.

Session from Hook Line and Net conference held in Corner Brook during the mid-1990s.
Session from Hook Line and Net conference held in Corner Brook during the mid-1990s. The speaker is Doug Hull. At the time he was Director General of the Information Highways branch of Industry Canada.

Then along came Mosaic (widespread use started here around1994-95) and nothing was ever the same again!

But there was still the issue of how to connect more than three-hundred schools, most of them rural and widely separated. It turned out STEM~Net was up to the challenge.

Next: STEM~Net and school connectivity: bridging the vast distances.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-3B: Teaching and Learning by DE (1988-2003)

In case you were wondering what it was really like to be a part of the 1988-2003 distance education project, here’s short video collage courtesy of my colleague Frank Shapleigh.

Incidentally, the last class in the video was the very last one taught using that Legacy System. Quite fitting–George Wright taught the first class in 1998 and the last one in 2003. Edwina–the second last teacher, came on board the same year that I did (1992) and still teaches by distance education using our new method. …two very dear friends and colleagues :>)

As you will see (later on in part 7), in 2000 we began piloting a new Internet-based model which we fully implemented in 2002. The students who started on the legacy model in 2000 stayed with it, so for a short while the two systems ran in tandem.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-3: Teaching and learning by DE (1988-2003)

I joined the Distance Education (DE) project in 1992, the year that high school Physics and core French was implemented via distance. Some background information on that is in a previous post if you are interested. I was one of two teachers seconded that year to teach physics. I also taught math.

Me, back in 1992, the year I began teaching physics and math through DE. The picture was shot in B&W and printed on large paper so it could be faxed. This was in the days before digital cameras!

You couldn’t see the students. You could hear them all and see what they were writing, though, in real time. Most importantly you could build up class rapport. You quickly, not only learned all their names, but also got used to the sound of their voices. In the first few weeks you would always get the students to begin talking with, “This is ___ from ___.” You did not have to do it for too long, though. The voices soon became as recognizable as the faces.

Me and Lloyd Gill, the other physics teacher who started in 1992. You didn’t need photoshop to mess with photos. Lloyd and I shared an office from 1992-1997, the year Lloyd retired. Incidentally Lloyd and I shared an office again — a different one — the following year, when Lloyd worked as a researcher at Memorial University.

Something else: we all soon learned that in many ways you could forge better relationships with the students over this system. Perhaps it was because as an ‘outsider’ you were on no position to judge the students based on some of the things that are used but maybe should not be; things like physical appearance, family background and previous experience with the subject. Perhaps it was simply due to the fact that the lack of ‘visual presence’ just caused people to drop their guard. Me—I think it was simply due to the fact that we had to listen more carefully. There’s a lot to be gained from the simple act of being present to listen, isn’t there?

Typical classes were made up from students at several schools. Both students and teachers could talk as well as write on the telewriter.
Typical classes were made up from students at several schools. Both students and teachers could talk as well as write on the telewriter.

It was important to us that the students learned independence. But let’s be clear what’s meant by that word. To me,  ‘Independent Learning’:

  • DOES NOT mean laying out a bunch of tasks and then expecting the student to perform them, with the instructor left to judge the extent to which the student was successful. Frankly, that is a cop out by someone who does not belong in any type of classroom whether face-to-face (F2F) or virtual!
  • DOES mean laying out a bunch of tasks for the student and then doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the student is supported in a meaningful way as they carry them out. This support varies from student to student and may include: group based direct instruction, individual diagnosis and remediation, encouragement and, when necessary, ‘laying down the law.’ The ‘independence’ comes in with an expectation that the student will do his/her own part in the process and not expect to be spoon-fed. Tip: spoon feeding is ineffective as learning is an active process. Duh!

We built up a system that combined independent work with scheduled live classes. We called those latter ones ‘synchronous’ because students and teachers were together, online and interacting in real time. In most regards it was similar to Face-to-Face (F2F)—we did have full two-way audio for everyone and a shared electronic whiteboard. If demos were required—recall I taught physics where frequent demos are required—then we videotaped them and made the copies available to each school. The students were expected to view them as part of regular class work.

The labs were done same as F2F. In fact we were one-up in that we utilized the latest digital interfacing equipment available. So while most of the F2F students were still mucking through doing motion labs using ticker timers our students were using photo-gates or ultrasound and getting much better data.

DE students did labs. This one verifies the ‘work energy theorem.’ Note the motion sensor at the end of the table which allows the computer to track the velocity of the cart, which is propelled by a falling weight, through a measured distance.

We paid particular attention to preparing distance education handbooks. These were for use by the student and were written addressing the student as ‘you.’ One handbook was prepared per unit of study. The physics courses at the time had 4 units of approximately equal length and were divided into lessons. Each lesson could be completed in, typically, one or two 40-minute class periods. Our expectation was that the student would read the lesson and then complete the assigned exercises. As you might expect we found that students had—how do I put this—a certain aversion to reading the materials.  :>)

Some of the handbooks. These were given to each student. All DE materials were free of charge.
Some of the handbooks. These were given to each student. All DE materials were free of charge.

As an instructor you really had three responses: (1) insist that the content be read and conduct the synchronous classes in light of this (2) give up and ‘spoon feed’ the students the content from the handbooks in the synchronous classes and (3) a combination of the two. I generally opted for #3.

Students were expected to complete and submit work samples—essentially written assignments. These, along with the tests, were prepared a year in advance, printed, bound into school packages, containing copies for each student, and mailed off to schools at the start of the school year. Registrations had to be precise else schools would come up short.

Written work was faxed to the instructor, marked and faxed back to the student. That had the potential for being rather expensive as every call, including a fax, was a long distance call. To save money at the instructor sites we would program the faxes to store all outbound faxes and send them after midnight when we got a major discount on the long distance. Tests were done in a similar manner. It was assumed that the students were supervised locally. They generally were; but not always. That was, of course, an ongoing problem.

Faxing work took time. To save money we loaded outbound materials onto the hard drive during the day and the machine batch sent the materials to each site after midnight when long distance rates were lower.

The telecommunications costs could get pretty high. This was in the days before long distance got cheap. In the end, though, we had a solution that did a good job of (a) teaching students—the achievement on the provincial exams showed that and (b) retaining students—our retention rates were the same as F2F. It worked. The students did well and they felt they were a part of something. They were.

It was, by no means perfect. There was always a propensity for the students to ‘goof off’ as the instructor could not see the students. The mikes were ‘push to talk.’ All the student had to do was keep the mike closed and at least make an effort to listen for their name so they could answer questions when asked. As long as they played that game they could, if they wished, waste away the whole class period.

As instructors, our response to this was to:

  • Try and maintain open communication with the school, particularly the principal and other members of the school administration. Through frequent telephone calls we could find out who seemed to be working and report suspicions of goofing off. Onsite people could, to a reasonable extent, be our ‘eyes.’
  • Adopt a ‘question and answer’ style of teaching so that students knew they would be asked frequent questions. We didn’t just throw questions out there and expect anyone to answer. Sometimes we did, of course, but usually we systematically worked our way through the class list to ensure that everyone got a chance to weigh in and that everyone was included. For those students who were trying to play games and give the ‘I’m not sure’ response, our response, in turn, was to be doggedly persistent. Students we suspected of playing this game did not get off that easy. They found themselves getting (a) follow up questions when they said, “I don’t know.” And (b) just plain more questions. :>)  …oh, and in case you were wondering, we did get to know the ones who were shy and reluctant to answer questions and we tried to respond appropriately if it was not in THEIR best interests to be questioned frequently.
  • Learn the fine art of listening and being as present as possible. If we did not have eyes then we still had ears! One skill I learned during that period was the ability to wait for an answer. People, teachers included, tend not to wait long after asking a question before they  either answer it themselves or follow up with another—typically only a second or so. Seriously. In distance education we trained ourselves to wait FIFTEEN seconds after asking a question before following up. One (pause) two (pause) 3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…11…12…13…14…15. You should try it. The pause seems rather long but, if you expected a reasoned, thoughtful response to a good question, that’s what you needed to do.
  • Finally, as appropriate, we would engage one-on-one, via telephone, with students we figured were at-risk. Through experience most of us found that the best engagement would be to try and determine the root cause of the issue rather than to undertake the somewhat stupidly blind efforts some make—namely trying to reteach.
Mary's Harbour, Labrador. One of our distance education sites; a place I taught physics via distance for many years in the 1990s.
Mary’s Harbour, Labrador. One of our distance education sites; a place I taught physics via distance for many years in the 1990s.

This was the nineties. The system just described, though electronic—the whiteboard did use interconnected (we say ‘bridged’) modems—did not use the Internet.

But the Internet was ‘out there’ and its use was growing. We just weren’t using it at that point.

DE instructors participating in discussions around moving to a new Internet-based model. (L-R) Don Squibb (Math) Ed Somerton (Math) Camilla Stoodley (French) Sadie May (Math) Me (Physics) Andre Hudson (Chemistry)
DE instructors participating in discussions around moving to a new Internet-based model. (L-R) Don Squibb (Math) Ed Somerton (Math) Camilla Stoodley (French) Sadie May (Math) Me (Physics) Andre Hudson (Chemistry)

But we would.

Next: STEM~Net, educational networking in the province; a strong, positive change agent throughout the nineties.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-2: Small Schools DE (1988-2003)

In 1986 the provincial Department of Education (DOE) commissioned Memorial University professor of Education Dr. Frank Riggs to undertake a study into program availability in the province’s small schools. The results were published in early 1987.

The Small Schools Study Project: The document that launched the distance education program in NL
The Small Schools Study Project: The document that launched the distance education program in NL

Small schools, it turned out, were doing reasonably well. Not too surprising when you look at it. Our province had a long tradition of small one- and two-room schools and we had to have figured some of it out. That is, except for Advanced Math, Physics, Chemistry and Core French. Many students in small schools were not getting reasonable access to those courses. Dr. Riggs believed that distance education held the most promise.

Have I mentioned that I majored in physics and made sure I had a minor-equivalent in math (in a B.Sc at MUN there was no ‘minor’ but it seemed to fit). I was careful to do Chemistry into second year and complete the Chemistry ‘methods’ course. In grad school I studied curriculum and instruction with a focus on science education but was careful to complete all of the math education courses as well. Hey—this was serious business and I wanted to make sure if a job popped up that I would be qualified. Oh—geek too. There’s only one thing more interesting than geek stuff and that’s people. So, let’s just  ay that some people following this work…ahem…were intrigued.

Dr. Riggs had done quality work and the DOE acted in good faith. It decided to partner with the provincial Telemedicine Centre and create a provincial health/educational network called TETRA. The following year (1988-89) it began using audiographic (explained a bit further down) technology to deliver grade ten advanced mathematics via distance education in 13 pilot schools. George Wright, a mathematics teacher working in Gander, was seconded to be the first distance education teacher.

A telephone-based conferencing system was used to join the classrooms. Mikes (one per student) and speaker boxes (one per site) were placed in the classrooms and in the teacher’s office. Everyone in class could talk and be heard; just ‘push to talk.’ Instead of a chaulk/white board, a ‘telewriter’ was used. Look at the picture below.

George Wright, the province’s first k-12 distance education teacher. George began teaching math online in 1988 and continued doing so until he retired in 2007.

The telewriter system used a large graphics tablet for input. George would just write on the tablet using the attached pen and it would be digitized and be sent, over the teleconference network, to screens in every classroom. Notice the tablet and screen in the picture. The students had the same capability. They, too, could write on the screens. Any given school would only have a few students (between 1 and 6) taking any given course—not enough to make up a class in the traditional sense. Those students would be joined with students in other small schools in order to make up a normal class-sized (20-25 on average) class.

This was revolutionary!  For the students and teachers in the project, school walls no longer meant anything. The students, as you might expect, thought nothing of it!  After all, THIS was their classroom!

Portion of a newspaper story that ran in a 1994 edition of "The Evening Telegram," the province's largest newspaper. The picture was, of course, staged. Teachers never shared a Telewriter at any given time!
Portion of a story that ran in a 1994 edition of “The Evening Telegram,” the province’s largest newspaper. The picture was, of course, staged. Teachers never shared a Telewriter at any given time! L-R Greg Taaffe (Math), Camilla Stoodley (French), Me (Physics & Math)

The project experienced considerable success and grew year by year:

  • In 1988 thirteen schools piloted a new process to take grade ten advanced math. It was implemented province-wide the following year.
  • In 1989 and 1990 grade eleven and grade twelve, respectively, advanced math was added and new schools came on board.
  • In 1991 and 1992 grade eleven and grade twelve, respectively, Physics and Core French were added. By then most of the schools that needed distance were on board. In subsequent years only a few additional schools were added.
  • In 1994 an additional, more advanced, advanced grade twelve Core French was added.
  • In 1995 and 1996 grade eleven and grade twelve, respectively chemistry was added.

By 1996 there were over eighty schools involved in the distance education program. The students came from all of the rural parts of the province and the instructors were located throughout the province as well. The provincial examinations were showing that achievement and completion rates were on par with the Face-to-Face (F2F) classes.

In the years 1989 to 1991 I was somewhat involved in the distance education program in that I was located at one of the small schools getting services from it. To say the least I was both intrigued by, and supportive of it. I wanted in. :>)

Next: teaching and learning using those distance education technologies.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-1: The Setting

This is Part 1 in a series of 7 or 8 which will be published over the next week or so.

When people learn that my ‘thing’ is eLearning they often turn rather skeptical. It’s as if they suddenly learned that the person they thought was so respectable, so legit was, in the end nothing more than a glib snake oil salesman. The tone changes, becomes less affable, more controversial.

It often goes like this:

Other person: I don’t know, distance education is never as good as being taught in person.

Me: What do you mean?

Other person: The students have to be completely self-motivated, you know, left alone to learn from a computer like that.

That’s pretty much the way it starts every time. Many people, you see, equate eLearning and, in particular, distance education with old-fashioned correspondence courses. You know the kind—you are sent, via mail, stuff to read and instructions on things to write. You return it via mail and some poor soul grades it and returns it to you. The only change the people make is that they substitute ‘mail’ with ‘email.’

Nope—not even close. Sure, that was tried by some in the early nineties. Fortunately the technology soon evolved well away from that.

We were never silly enough to try anything like that.

Woody Point, a small rural ciommunity located in Bonne bay, NL-right in the heart of Gros Morne national Park

Woody Point, a small rural community located in Bonne bay, NL – right in the heart of Gros Morne National Park

Here, distance education is an integral part of the high school program in our rural schools. I live in the Canadian province of Newfoundland (an island) and Labrador (the north-eastern part of mainland North America). It has an area of approximately 400,000 km2 which is approximately twice that of Great Britain but less that 0.8% of the population! One half of  the approximately 500,000 people that live in the province live on the Avalon, the 9,000 km2 peninsula that makes up the Eastern edge of Newfoundland (which is, by the way, also the eastern edge of North America). This means, in reality that a place twice the size of great Britain has less than one half of one percent of its population!  Talk about sparsely populated! Taking out the larger centers this leaves around150,000 people living in several hundred small communities. We call them outports. Some, like Francois (see the two previous posts) are only accessible by boat or by aircraft. And it’s a long ride. Most, however, are accessible by roads. The outposts are widely separated, though. When you leave one community you may have an hour or so to drive before you see another house.

The school population is declining too. In the mid-1970s there were around 160,000 school-aged students. Now there are less than 70,000. In 1961 Newfoundland and Labrador led the first world in terms of its birth rate. Families with 8, even 10 children were common. Now, with so many of our young people moving away, the situation is reversed. With a total fertility rate of 1.58, we are significantly behind the Canadian average of 1.63. The majority of our school-aged children live on the Avalon, or in the larger centres. The rural schools in the rural communities (we call them outports) often have very small numbers of students. Busing is generally not a viable option owing to the great distances between the communities.

The table shown below shows the sizes of schools by district. Notice just how many of the schools are really small!

Table showing schools by enrollment in each of the province's districts.

Table showing schools by enrollment in each of the province’s districts.

Consider a k-12 school with a total population of 150 students. You can expect some doubling up in the primary and elementary grades. There might even be some in grades 7 to 9. Though not easy it’s doable. Regardless of the teacher allocation model used you cannot expect to have more than two or three teachers in that school devoted to the high school program. Now consider the fact that students are expected to complete 7 two-credit courses per year. Generally this would mean

  • one of three streams of math;
  • one of two streams of English language arts;
  • a choice between four sciences plus a general science; many students actually take two sciences in each of the last two years of school;
  • a choice of two social studies—typically history or geography;
  • career education, fine arts, second language, tech-ed. (depending on electives);
  • phys-ed.

Now, repeat this pattern for grades 10, 11 and 12 and bear in mind that you only have two or three people in total to pull it off. There’s no way that a school that size could offer a high school program by itself! Here are your choices:

  • Do nothing. Let the students and teachers work it out as best they can. Assume that most of the material will be self-taught.
  • Send the students to a school in another community. Provide money for room and board in someone else’s home.
  • Design and implement a distance education program that will supplement the onsite offerings.

For many years, a combination of all three sustained the students in the small schools. In 1986, however, the provincial government examined the results of the ‘small schools study’ it had commissioned.

At the time I was working on my M.Ed. I chose the thesis route and requirements were  a bit more stringent than I have seen lately; ten grad. courses plus a thesis. Teaching and learning has always been my interest so, obviously, the curriculum and instruction stream was the right one. There were only so many science education courses so, having the equivalent of a math minor too, it made sense to also do the math ed. courses. Besides—I had just spent the previous year doing one hour per day in grade five so elementary math methods made good sense—to me at least—during that summer as one of the two courses I took.

As it happened the instructor was Dr. Frank Riggs, the same person who had been commissioned by the Department of Education to do the small schools study into programming in our rural schools. The poor guy—we (the class that is) had him pestered the whole summer to spill the beans, to tell us what he’d found. Professional that he was, he refused until he’d briefed the DOE. Near the end of the term he did agree to give is a bit of it. He was going to recommend a distance education solution for some access problems that he had identified.

Next: The small-schools Distance Education program that was developed in the late 1980’s as a result.