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.
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.