In 1999 a provincial Ministerial Review Panel which looked into the Delivery of k12 education in this province published its findings in a document called ‘Supporting Learning.’ Chapter six of it addressed the issue of distance education and made a series of recommendations. Chief among these was the establishment of a ‘Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation’ (CDLI) which would enact many of the suggested courses of action. The CDLI was created within months of the document’s release.
The founding director of CDLI, Wade Sheppard, as it turned out, had been the director of the Vista school district when the eLearning project mentioned in the previous post had been carried out so he was no stranger to both the new and emerging models.
It was decided to start by piloting ten new Internet-based courses, one each in ten school districts (the eleven districts that existed at the time have since been consolidated to five). The task of developing the first courses fell to Leon Cooper, a program specialist with the Department of Education who was no stranger to eLearning. He had initially been seconded, twelve years earlier, to work on the development of the content for the legacy model of distance education. Since then he had been the province’s tech. ed. program development specialist. In the mid-nineties he, along with colleague Alex Hickey had authored the TILE report which had set out a recommended course of action for the province on the whole area of technology Integration. He had also played a key role in the initial development of the Vista Project. Leon began by creating a framework for content creation, along with a development template and by training all content developers in the use of framework and templates.
My initial role with the newly created CDLI was as developer of the pilot grade eleven physics course. Macromedia Flash (Later Adobe® Flash™) was fairly new then and I saw incredible promise in it so I took the time to learn it, along with action script 2 and used it to create dozens of small learning objects which I embedded in traditional web-based materials. A sample; one of the eighty or so lessons I created back in 2000 can still be found here, if you are interested. Introductory information is on the ‘get started’ page and the actual lesson is on the ‘go to work‘ page. Be kind; that lesson was created 13 years ago :>)
Once the content developers had completed our tasks the attention turned to implementation–piloting, rather–of the new model. That job fell to me. In September 2001 I was charged with the task of getting ten web based pilots underway in ten different districts—a daunting task as:
- In the field there was skepticism of the new model. In many minds the old system (I renamed it the legacy model as I thought ‘old’ at the time had the wrong tone) worked well so people wondered why we should change it.
- The ‘supporting learning’ model was advocating a primarily asynchronous model; a model that ran against what had been done previously.
- Internet connectivity was nowhere near where we wanted it to be. The majority of the rural schools used a hybrid model that used a satellite for downloads and a dial up connection for uploads and it was quite congested as we here in NL shared the system with most of North America. Once the US woke up for the day the system often became hopelessly slow.
- In many quarters there was a strong skepticism against distance education in any form.
Fortunately the task was made easier. Most importantly I was not alone. There were ten well-chosen pilot teachers. Wade, Leon and Frank Shapleigh as well as other STEM~Net personnel were solidly behind the implementation process too. District office program specialists were also allocated some time to help with the pilot. By going with pilot, against the recommendation of the document, the CDLI had the opportunity to make the necessary changes in the first year without the pressures of going completely over to the new model. That, as it turned out was a good thing! By going with a pilot, the school system had the chance to see how the new model held up against the legacy one. As it turned out it not only held up well but, as the pilot year progressed and the needed changes were made, it became clear that the new model was significantly better.
“Supporting Learning” recommended an asynchronous model. Despite this a model that blended synchronous with asynchronous was enacted. This was for several reasons:
- The people involved directly in the delivery, including the pilot teachers, did not need to be convinced that switching away from synchronous classes would be a bad idea. In fact all were adamant that a synchronous component was necessary for success.
- We knew, internally, that we did not possess the ability to create truly engaging, immersive multimedia content. In short, we knew our limits—we’d learned lessons from both the Legacy and Vista models on what the students needed and on what could be done.
After a search of what was currently available the CDLI decided to buy into a new product then called “Tutor’s Edge.” This java-based application included not only the 2-way audio and whiteboarding similar to that used in both the legacy model and the Vista model, but it also added new features (messaging, polling, permissions and—within a year—application sharing). Best of all it was not the ‘bandwidth-hog’ that NetMeeting had proved to be. The teachers and students loved it.
By the way, while the company has changed much (and changed hands) since that time, as companies do, the product line still exists, but has evolved profoundly. One year later it was renamed vClass and a few years later re-branded again as Elluminate live! Today it is the product you may know as Blackboard Collaborate™.
The success experienced with WebCT in the Vista model was enough to convince all to continue using it with the new CDLI model. We did not regret that decision. The content area, discussions, drop-box, email and grades tools were all used.
We also made great efforts to upgrade the Internet connectivity, to the extent that we could. The local providers, to their credit, went out of their way to upgrade sites in a way that was affordable. In places where this was not possible several new satellite services were located and purchased. In still other cases we purchased an additional dial-up line for the CDLI computers, This dial up connection could be networked and we found that it could actually sustain 3-4- students simultaneously in a synchronous class in Tutor’s Edge—a feat that would not have been possible using NetMeeting.
The combination of the three measures worked surprisingly well. Let’s face it—we had our doubters; many of them. By years end, though, we had managed to begin the process of upgrading our remote sites to an acceptable level and had started putting the mechanism in place to upgrade the rest for the implementation that would follow in 2001.
We got through it but it was by no means easy. Those of us on the supporting end of the project burned the candle at both ends to make it work. But we did succeed.
Much of the information that informed the decisions that led to what we eventually became was obtained during that pilot year—something I recall every time I hear people say that new programs do not need to be piloted; that we ‘know enough’ to proceed. Every effort was made that year to gather data that might be used to inform future decisions. These included:
- Constant feedback from the pilot teachers.
- The start of a multi-year investigation by two researchers at Memorial University: Dr.’s Ken Stevens and George Coffin.
- Meetings with district-based CDLI implementation teams.
- Onsite visits in which students and teachers were observed and consulted.
- Focus groups with consisting of principals at the pilot schools and with mTeachers (onsite mediating teachers who supported the eLearning efforts).
During that year we learned some valuable lessons and, more importantly, made some systemic changes in preparation for the first full year of implementation, 2001-02. Among those lessons:
- Get the Internet connectivity up to scratch. A slow or unreliable line will not work. The connection needs to have enough bandwidth and not suffer from down-time.
- Provide a scheduling system that offers enough choice so that schools can integrate the distance education classes with the F2F classes the students are also taking.
- Provide an easy-to-use registration system.
- Pay close attention to ensuring that new students are adequately oriented.
- Provide the necessary equipment and standardize it. We wound up, in the end, supplying the PCs, the all-in-one printer/scanners used for returning student work, headset/microphones for the synchronous classes and, where necessary, graphics tablets so student could write on the whiteboards too.
- Provide a help desk that is available all school-day long.
- Instead of relying on one person at a site (we called that person the mTeacher, or mediating teacher in the pilot year) establish a site based team, or mTeam (mediating team) that helps support the learning. It would contain separate people to help with administration (the principal or designate), tech support (our help desk, district techs, students paid through the TFT program) and coaching (onsite teachers and peer tutors).
- Do a better job of communicating (evaluation, class routines, technical routines, registration and reporting, for example) with our various publics.
A sad coincidence worth mentioning. Very early in the pilot year we arranged a face-to-face launch in Gander. It was out ‘official’ start of the pilot. Besides myself, Wade, Leon, Frank and the pilot teachers we also had in attendance 2 people from each of the forty schools–typically the Principal and mTeacher, all ten of the program specialists who would be assisting. There were several others there as well.
During my session, early in the morning I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more planes coming in. Frank noticed it too. When my session was over I ran over to the district office which was next door. The place was deserted. I found them all downstairs huddled around the TV set in the lunch room. The whole staff. Something horrible had happened. I ran back to the plenary and interrupted to tell the crowd what had happened. The reaction was shock and disbelief. Frankly, not much got done the next hour and, during the lunch period most of the participants drove up to the airport to see for themselves.
The date of our launch: September 11, 2001
Next: The CDLI goes from pilot to full implementation of an Internet-based eLearning Model. The first step was to recruit and develop an effective faculty of eTeachers.