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.

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

  1. You really were a pretty innovative lot. This saga is so reminding me of doing my MBA in the early 90s when one of the courses involved internet use and it was SO exciting. Not that we did much on there, but still, it was incredibly novel.

    1. You encapsulated it nicely–in those days the developers’ focus was not always on the learning but, rather, on the shiny new technology. I suppose that is only natural–after all, who does not like playing with new toys! It is still putting the cart before the horse–the question always needs to be, “How can we best teach our course?” and not “how can we use this new technology in our course?”

      1. I don’t think I said it as neatly as you! And to be fair, although the learning gained from using the internet was minimal at least we learned how to use it back in the early days. I think that was valuable in itself. Two different aspects of the same side of the coin (mixed metaphor there I suspect).

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

  3. Graham Rose

    My high school was one of the participating stem net schools in 1993/1994, and definitely had an impact on my future career aspirations in I.T.

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