After a productive pilot year, CDLI moved to implementation in the 2002-03 school year. I was still in charge of program implementation but now it was province wide, not a pilot. During that year, as in the previous one, we had both distance education models working in tandem. The pilot schools now went into year two of the web-based offering and the remainder started their first year with that model. Students who were already using the legacy model continued with it. Overall that year we had 17 courses using the new model and 4 using the legacy one. The list was growing:
- Math, grades 10-12, academic and advanced streams
- Grade 10 Science, Grades 11&12 Physics and Chemistry
- Grades 11&12 French (3 courses)
- Art, Writing, Canadian Hist. Enterprise Ed., World Geog.
- Tech. Ed.
The CDLI was created as a division of the DOE. The school administrators among you may find this a bit unusual. Departments of Education do not normally deliver education; they focus, rather, on governance, and leave the tasks associated with program implementation to school districts. In this case, though, it made sense to create CDLI in the way that was done. As a DOE division: (a) funding became fairly straightforward (b) CDLI was able to combine schools across district lines as needed and (c) online teachers—we call them eTeachers—had a provincial reach. In effect CDLI became a provincial virtual school.
Only school districts could hire teachers so CDLI adopted a cooperative practice with the school districts in which teachers were seconded to work for CDLI from their existing permanent jobs. The recruitment process was a competitive one as follows:
- We created a general profile of what traits we needed in an eTeacher. These will be discussed more in the next post.
- The initial application process was constructed as an online database. Using a secure online connection prospective teachers would complete a professional profile and would respond to a variety of questions. Together with Leon and, later with Bob (see the next post) we would score the responses and, based on those scores, would devise a short-list of candidates.
- We would contact the school districts and seek permission to interview those on the short-list. The interviews were all conducted via telephone, regardless of location, in order to place all candidates on the same level field. The interview consisted of a fixed set of questions, accompanied by scoring guidelines. One of the Assistant Directors from the school districts sat in on the interviews.
- For each short-listed candidate, three referees (which the candidate provided on the application) were contacted and asked to rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 5 on several criteria.
- Each of the three components carried a weight. In the first year, for example, the application carried a total of 70 points, the interview 55 and the reference check 15. The scores were totaled for each candidate and short-listed candidates would be rank-ordered according to the score.
- The director would then approach the school districts and ask permission to second the highest ranked candidates for each job. Typically the district would respond with a ‘yes’ which would be conditional on its ability to appropriately back-fill the chosen candidate. If not the next highest candidate would be sought, and so on.
- There is a provincial collective agreement governing teacher jobs in my province which also includes pay scales with bands that depend on both years of service and education. The eTeachers are paid according to that scale, the same as F2F teachers. Seconded teachers, though they work for CDLI are still in the employ of their school districts and retain seniority and other benefits with that district.
Through this process the CDLI was able to assemble a team of dedicated, skillful teachers who quickly acquired the necessary technical skills. As you might expect, the pedagogical skills and strategies took longer. It’s a process that requires ongoing dedication throughout the whole career. Fortunately we had the benefit of (a) the great amount of knowledge and skill we had amassed through 13 years of the legacy model and 8 years of STEM~Net and (b) the wealth of information we had obtained through the previous pilot year. Many of the pilot teachers and some of the ‘legacy model’ teachers were successful applicants to CDLI so they brought their skills with them.
We adopted a policy of endeavouring to place the teachers, physically, where they were at the point of secondment; that is we would rather our eTeachers remained in their home communities. While we fully understood the advantages—collegiality mainly—of centralizing our teaching force, at the time it was much more important to maintain a strong footprint all across the province. There was much work to be done and our best bet was to keep people close to our sites so as to ensure that we were truly a part of the rurality we served.
We intended to build a culture of eLearning so we started by emphasizing teamwork. People worked in groups. We supported one another. We found ways to ensure that we could have F2F meetings several times per year. We also DID eLearning. Our teachers did NOT teach F2F. Their online students were our students, period. They got our best efforts, not the scraps from the educational table. We met, regularly, online, using the same tools that we used to teach our students. In short we walked the walk, if you’ll pardon the cliché.
The hiring process for the initial eTeachers had actually been carried out in the spring of 2002, as the pilot year wound down. The faculty gathered for the first time in June 2002 at Memorial University. There they underwent training in the LMS (WebCT) and the synchronous tool (vClass). They also met as subject matter groups to discuss and develop new approaches to teaching and learning.
They were also given their class schedules for the following year. The process of developing these had not been an easy one. Recall that CDLI worked with all districts. Scheduling is a district matter and school opening and closing times sometimes vary by community. Fortunately, because most of the CDLI schools had also been part of the Legacy model there was some degree of uniformity regarding start and end times as well as the class schedule model. Wade, our director, had engaged in extensive rounds of meetings with the school boards around this matter and, by then, had achieved a decent level of agreement; enough that we could proceed.
Still, the job of scheduling 19 instructors, teaching a total of 21 courses into 73 small schools located in 10 different districts was extremely challenging. Here’s what I did:
- For a time stopped answering the phone and replying to email. I had to focus solely on this. During that time Leon and Wade took the brunt of the emerging issues rather than me taking my share.
- Began with a blank 14-day calendar. Each day had five class periods. Overall the time slots were labeled A through H (Later we dropped H and just used A-G). This meant, for example, Day 1 had periods A through E, Day 2 had F G A B C and so on.
- Combined the districts so that there were only 5 different schedules needed, not ten.
- Started with the most populous group. This happened to be the districts occupying what is now the Nova Central district.
- Applied basic logic: students taking grade 10 math, for example could be assumed not to be taking grade 11 math (for the most part) so these mutually exclusive courses were scheduled in the same class slot. Likewise for Physics 11 & 12, Chem 11 & 12 and so on.
- Repeated until all the courses were scheduled in for that pair of districts.
- To create the schedule for the next set of districts all that was needed was to walk the first schedule ahead by one slot. That is, courses offered in slot A for the first pair of districts would be offered in slot B for the next pair, and so on.
- With the district schedules created all I had to do was turn them inside out and prepare individual schedules for each eTeacher.
Finally, the district schedules were sent to each school and I waited for the calls and emails. There were quite a few. The majority were from schools who could not make the distance education schedule work for their particular school owing to some circumstance particular to that site—maybe students did, for example, have to take grade 10 and 11 math together for some reason. Perhaps a staffing situation created a clash. There were various circumstances that could warrant a call. For the most part these were dealt with by allowing that school to enroll some students in classes that would normally be offered to some other district. If, for example, the school could not work with the fact that, for them, Gr. 11 Physics was supposed to be in slot C then they would be given the go-ahead to register for different time slot—perhaps it was offered in slot B for a different district so the students went to that class instead.
It’s worth mentioning that around then I got out of using voicemail on the telephone. I would typically start the day with the message manager full at ten messages and the email inbox clogged with maybe as many as 100 inbound emails regarding registration and general enquiries. I’d start in by returning the voicemail, first in first called back. After several calls it would become apparent that this was not about to end anytime soon as, after clearing 3-5 calls, the box would still be full! People would be trying to reach me while I was returning other calls. Same with the email. It was not always fun–sometimes, often actually, I’d get the snide comment that “There’s no point in calling/emailing Maurice, he doesn’t return them.” Ha–not exactly the case… They would be returned but sometimes it took a while. This got fixed later on as we moved to automate the registration procedures and as people got more used to our workflows. As for the voicemail I switched it off and had caller ID turned on. In addition I had the phone set so that after four rings the call would be redirected to our administrative assistant who would take a message. I figured that it was always better to get a voice, not voicemail. Still do!
There was also the fact that my province spans two time zones. Northern Labrador uses the Atlantic time zone (UTC-4 hours) but the rest (southern Labrador and Newfoundland) uses Newfoundland time (UTC-3.5 hours). The number of students from Labrador is small for some courses—not large enough to make up a single class—so some classes had to have students from both time zones. This was problematic because we couldn’t just dictate that the Labrador schools change their opening and closing times! Here’s what I did: In the classes that combined students from both time zones I was careful not to schedule the instructor in the period just before or after that class. This allowed the class to run 1.5 hours instead of the 1 hour norm. So, what happened was that the Labrador students joined first and were there with the instructor for 30 minutes. After that 30 minutes they were joined by the rest of the students. Half an hour later the Labrador students finished. The class therefore was: (a) 30 minutes tutorial for the Labrador group (b) whole class instruction (c) 30 minutes tutorial for the remaining group. Complicated—yes, but workable—yes, too.
The eLearning team was built for the first year and the schedules were set. In the fall of 2002 the real work began: full implementation!
Next: We knew the task ahead would not be easy so we took care to provide a full range of supports for our learners. These will be described in detail.