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.
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.
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!
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.