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.

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

  1. The saga continues … didn’t know you had been such a Trail Blazer. I’m impressed! Good for you for being on the ground floor and motivating what is now a ‘big deal.’ I’ll wait for your commentary on home schooling as an alternative to all of this. But, perhaps, that’s comparing apples to oranges? D

    1. The two run very closely together. Where I live home schooling is not as widespread as it is in other places. There are probably many reasons for this and I can summarize:
      1–as you mentioned in the previous post one motivation (not yours) was based on religion. In my province up until the mid-nineties our system was divided on religious lines. Even in a tiny (pop 100-400) community it was not unusual to see as many as 4 different schools! Beneath the surface most people tired of this–seeing kids who played together having to trot off to different schools and in the mid nineties it was more-or-less quietly ended. Only a small VOCAL few objected when schools were all consolidated.
      2–now we come to your reason: quality. The DE program I’m currently discussing was intended for exactly that. Dr. Riggs’ primary concern at the time was with the students with the potential for high achievement. It was therefore no coincidence that we started off with the advanced math stream. As we layered in the remaining courses over the years we were all particularly sensitive to the fact that we were the DOE and therefore demanded nothing but the best from our students…and we generally got it!
      Now, as will be noted 2-3 posts from now we deal with students at all academic levels but (a)–we have maintained those courses that challenge the high achievers and (b)–make no mistake, we demand the best from all of our students, regardless of ability etc. but we support them to the best of our ability too.
      3–the culture of our province is such that we tend to be very communitarian. We have had to be that way. Our physical environment is harsh and resources are extremely difficult to obtain and work with. Through very much a natural selection process we have become a province of people who rely heavily upon one another and who, therefore, naturally feel inclined to support one another as well. For this reason schools have always been very strong centerpieces in communities so very few people have really wanted to home school.
      That is changing though. There is a trend now toward urbanization (if you can use that term in a place 2x the size of Great Britain with a population of only 500,000!) and with it more of the isolation (ironic, isn’t it?) that may lead to a need for home schooling. It’s very much now a developing story.

  2. Sheldon Williams

    Did you mean in 1986 (instead of 1996 as in the opening line of your article) the DOE commissioned a study into program availability in the province’s small schools with the results being published in early 1987? And I remember those days of 2-wire and 4 -wire classes, black boxes and tele-writers!! I completed my math, physics and chemistry courses through distance and when I went to university and had a math professor from China, whose english was very poor, I didn’t care because it was the first math teacher I had in class for years! LOL!!

  3. I am impressed!! I did not know stuff like that had been used in such a professional way in education in 1988! I have finished high school at that time and I can remember the sort of “technology” that was available to students. There was a so called “media room” hosting a VHS video recorder – this was science fiction!

    1. That’s part of the reason I am posting this now. All over the Internet I see stories–hype mostly–of somewhat sketchy businesses that are pushing distance education as the next best thing. These days some synchronous classes are being taught as if that’s something new. Distance education is getting a bad name as a result–one it does not necessarily deserve. Mostly what I see is Hype Hype and more Hype without regard to the real truths: namely that distance education is not new; it’s out there, effective and doing well because of the dedicated efforts of many, many people who are passionate about it. I do hope to establish three things through this series:
      – various distance education methodologies are not new. The equipment and methodologies are actually time tested and mature but you have to work with the right people.
      – done right, distance education is very effective.
      – (most importantly) distance education needs to be viewed as a means of effectively doing what cannot be done using traditional means and NOT NOT NOT as a means for saving money.

    1. We did, in fact. The teleconference part was very similar to that used in Australia. Now the telewriter–that was new; revolutionary for its time…and, as it turned out, very effective and reliable too. We are very similar to Australia in so many ways:
      – former British colony
      – similar government structure
      – sparse population, mostly located in often widely-separated pockets along the coastline
      – vast interior
      – heavy economic dependence on natural resources
      – whole-hearted embrace of k12 eLearning

      Turns out just a few years ago Dr. Ken Stevens and i keynoted SPERA (Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia) in Brisbane–by Video conference, of course–and pointed some of this out when we related how we do eLearning here. Oh, and Brisbane is almost precisely opposite to me in the world; if I dug straight down I would come out in the ocean just a bit south of there.

      …”Skippy, a friend ever true.” such a great message for a kid, don’t you think? I loved the show too :>)

  4. Sam Boswell

    Love hearing about those times in a frame of reference that eliminates the politicking and sense of investment in representation. The last school I taught at here in Perth, Western Australia until very recently used a telematics centre to work with gifted and talented students all round our spacious state. The department in their wisdom shut it down to then relocate in a flagship context.
    Thanks for keeping the narrative flame alight.

  5. Pingback: History Of K-12 Distance Education In Newfoundland And Labrador | Virtual School Meanderings

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