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.
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!
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.