K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-10: CDLI: Supporting our Learners (2001-2005)

In August of 2002 Leon Cooper retired. And I still have not really forgiven him! Leon was more than a friend; he was also a mentor who worked patiently (most of the time) showing me quite a few things but, most of all, the value in applying an analytic problem-solving approach to the professional challenges we all meet. Oh, and he’s still a very dear friend.

Located along the south coast of Newfoundland, the small community of Rencontre East is accessible only by boat. The sign says it all.
Located along the south coast of Newfoundland, the small community of Rencontre East is accessible only by boat. The sign says it all.
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A slower, more peaceful way of life is what the ‘livyers’ love most about Rencontre East.
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Fishing from smaller boats is both environmentally and economically sustainable and the people who live here will continue to do so as long as it remains that way.
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Providing a full range of course offerings in a small school like the one in Rencontre East (sometimes voiced as round counter) would be impossible without the aid of the distance education services offered through CDLI.

When asked to work with Leon on the succession plan and the new hiring procedure I informed my director of my intention to apply for that one—as I felt it was a better match to my abilities and interests. The director then modified things and instructed us both to get to work on replacing me instead as I would be assuming the role of the program development specialist soon so we needed a new program implementation specialist.

We underwent a similar, analytic, procedure as we had employed successfully in the hiring of eTeachers. Bob Hipditch, a former HS program specialist for Math and Science with an extensive background in the administration of distance education was the successful candidate.

Bob, always intent and always slopping a cup of tea! L-R Bob Hipditch (Program Implementation, Ret.), Morris Cooze (Science), Mike Sceviour (Biology). Interesting to note that as of Sept. 2012 Mike is the Program Implementation Specialist. Just occurred to me that is is just as intent and is always slopping tea too. Wonder if that's an unstated requirement.
Bob, always intent and with his trademark cup of tea! L-R Bob Hipditch (Program Implementation, Ret.), Morris Cooze (Science), Mike Sceviour (Biology). Interesting to note that after Bob’s retirement in 2010 Mike  successfully won the job competition for our new Program Implementation Specialist. Just occurred to me that is is just as intent and is always slopping tea too. Wonder if that’s an unstated requirement.

And I do not mind admitting that he was better at that job than I had been. Best of all, those of us on the direct administration team at the time, Me (Program Development), Bob (Program Implementation), Frank (School connectivity and equipment) and Dale (Back-end systems), all reporting to Wade, the director, complemented one another. While, individually, none of us possessed all of the skill, together we had what was needed. And we trusted one another. But it did not stop there. We know/knew who we really worked for: our students. So, as a team we set out to support them as best we could.

At the front line, of course were our eTeachers, our distance education instructors. We started by choosing ones we felt were best suited to the job; those having these traits: empathy, dedication, subject matter knowledge and skill with teaching. Notice I didn’t say ‘technical wizards’ or something like that? While it’s true we did not want people who were just plain stunned (colloquialism; means ‘stupid’ but in a lighthearted way) when it comes to technology we knew those skills would come with training. The other important factors, though, were not so quick and easy to develop if they don’t already exist, so they were the ones we sought. That tradition of dedication to our students continues to this day.

Wade had the foresight to include a guidance counsellor as part of our staff complement. Jim Paul serves as a constant reminder that we are all about the people we work for (our students) and with (our colleagues). Shown here with Marie Wall (Employee Assistance Officer) Jim works tirelessly to ensure that as an organization we do not lose sight of our humanity.
Wade had the foresight to plan for a guidance counselor as part of our staff complement. Jim Paul serves as a constant reminder that we are all about the people we work for (our students) and with (our colleagues). Shown here with Marie Wall (Employee Assistance Officer) Jim works tirelessly to ensure that as an organization we do not lose sight of our humanity.

While drafting this, as you might expect, I want back through my files from the school years 2001-02 and 2002-03. Note the ‘snagit‘ from the PowerPoint slide below, which was taken directly from the opening session I gave to the initial eTeacher meeting held back in June 2002, in preparation for the first full school year. It was, and is, my ‘bottom line.’

My 8 rules for effective learning. Oh and while purple continues to be my favourite colour (wear it around me and I will make a point of telling you that fact) I have long since abandned using it in slides. Black text, white background. Nothing else!
My 8 rules for effective learning. Notice I didn’t say eLearning–that was deliberate, while eLearning is the context here I should also add that I find the term increasingly silly :>) Oh and while purple continues to be my favourite colour (wear it around me and I will make a point of telling you that fact) I have long since abandoned using it in slides. Black text, white background. Nothing else!

Our teachers continue to embrace those rules too. No doubt each one has a few extra as well.

Just in back of our teachers lie other various layers of support systems. Let’s start with the actual equipment. Rather than assuming that the schools would provide it we decided to create a standardized student workstation and provide these as needed to the schools. The actual number provided to a school was the same as the maximum number of students would be online in any given class period. In any class, then, each student had their own computer, with their own login. Of course, in a different class period, a different student might be using the same machine, but they would never be shared within any given class period. We purchased ‘business class’ computers as we required the added durability and reliability. We did not regret that decision; once working the systems tended to remain that way.

To set them up we used a disk cloning process. That is, we installed all of the necessary software on one computer and configured it appropriately. With that done we cloned that disk drive to all of the other systems—a process that was much faster than setting each system up manually…a little trick we learned in early 2000 from Sheldon Pittman, tech. with the Eastern School district. Not only could new PC’s be brought online quickly, but totally messed up computers—and that happens—could then be easily restored by re-cloning the drive.  As for saved student work—it was supposed to be stored online in the LMS anyway. Frank prepared the disk image and oversaw the shipping of all systems to the schools. The districts’ technicians imaged the machines and created the student logins.

Original Compaq EVOs we supplied back in 2002. By standardizing with enterprise class equipment we (a) knew exactly what was being used by students so diagnosing and rectifying tech issues became easier and (b) headed off most of the service calls by using quality equipment in the first place.
Original Compaq EVOs and 17″ monitors we supplied back in 2002. By standardizing with enterprise class equipment we (a) knew exactly what was being used by students so diagnosing and rectifying tech issues became easier and (b) headed off most of the service calls by using quality equipment in the first place. We expected systems to be used on the front lines for 3 years and all carried 3-year warranties. After the warranty expired we took them off the front lines, re-imaged the machines and cleaned them out (summer students did it actually) and then returned them to our schools where they were used for other ICLT projects.

An ‘all-in-one’ printer/scanner with a document feeder was also supplied, one per site. These were networked and could be used by students to print off work, as required. More importantly the auto-feed scanner was used to scan in handwritten student work which was then uploaded to the WebCT dropbox. That’s how our students ‘turn in’ handwritten submissions. We also supplied all the necessary networking equipment and cabling. Toners were also supplied, but on a limited basis; we provide what is required for distance education and not what may be used for other purposes.

All-in-one. Note the document feeder at the top. A handwritten assignment--say a math work sample would be laid in its entirety on the document feeder. The student would go over to their own workstation and startup the scan software and hit 'scan'. The whole doc would be scanned as a multi-page PDF which would be then uploaded to the WebCT drop-box. Note the white box on the wall. These days most printers and such come network-ready. In those days we had to use external 'jet-direct' boxes to enable the device for use over the network.
All-in-one supplied in 2002. Note the document feeder at the top. A handwritten assignment–say a math work sample–would be laid in its entirety on the document feeder. The student would go over to their own workstation, start up the scan software and hit ‘scan’. The whole doc would be scanned as a multi-page PDF which would be then uploaded to the WebCT drop-box. Note the white box on the wall. These days most printers and such come network-ready. In those days we had to use external ‘jet-direct’ boxes to enable the device for use over the network.

The synchronous classes are for interaction so in the early years we also supplied each computer with a graphics tablet. As time went on and we realized that not all courses required them we moved back to supplying them ‘as needed’ instead. We supplied each student with a headset-microphone so they do not need to be shared–with basic health and hygiene in mind.

Headset microphone supplied to students. As you might expect students tend to break them...a neverending source of frustration to all. Students: don't drop them into your backpacks!
Headset microphone supplied to students. As you might expect students tend to break them…a never-ending source of frustration to all. Students: don’t drop them into your backpacks!
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That’s the way we like it. In this picture taken at Gambo 2003 you can see that the school put hooks on the wall so the students could hang their headsets up out of the way when not in use.

We supplied other special purpose equipment. For example we used digital interfacing equipment in many of the science labs (at the time it was a Vernier LabPro with Logger Pro software and various sensors including ones for motion, temperature, sound, pH, air pressure, heart rate, etc.). These were put into a kit which was shipped to schools. We continue to do this today and as our course range has broadened so, too, as has the equipment. Today, for example, we even have a piano course (we’ll get to that later on in the series) and, guess what–we loan the schools the instrument required. Same for tech.ed. See here for a related story about setting up the CNC router at the remote community of Francois.

We also took responsibility for the Internet connectivity at our schools. During the pilot year we contacted all of the providers and invited them to propose connectivity options for our schools. Only one provider responded and, so, on a pilot basis we set up one district’s pilot schools with the proposed solution. Though copper (not fibre), it worked out very well, supplying the site with adequate speeds and excellent reliability. For the implementation year we expanded this to the extent possible and in that year we actually upgraded 62 sites to ‘frame relay.’ Four of the sites could not be upgraded that way so we supplied them with a new, better, 2-way satellite. Yes, Frank’s boots stomped on more school roofs! In the following year we increased the number of ‘frame relay’ sites to 79, the number of satellite sites to 11. Three more got DSL and the two remaining schools came online courtesy of a wireless shot from the nearest location that had high speed. It was a quantum level of improvement! In those two years the CDLI schools finally had high speed, reliable connections.

And, yes, yet more roofs to be climbed on...
Mike Greene (District Tech., Western) and Frank put up another one. And, yes, yet more roofs to be climbed on…
CDLI computers had to be networked. The equipment does not install itself. Yes, Frank has seen all the roofs from both sides, inside and outside. This time he's running Cat5 through a ceiling conduit.
CDLI computers had to be networked. The equipment does not install itself. Yes, Frank has seen all the roofs from both sides, inside and outside. This time he’s running Cat5 through a ceiling conduit.

The back-end systems were located at Memorial University. At the time CDLI was 100% funded by the provincial government and STEM~Net was receiving the majority of its base funding from the provincial government as well. STEM~Net offices were located at Memorial so it made sense to keep the majority of the servers there. WebCT, on Dr. Bruce Mann’s request, had been set up in late 1996 and had since enjoyed steadily growing use and popularity within the university community. Thanks to projects such as Vista it was doing the same in k12. The server stayed and was expanded and updated as necessary. The Tutor’s edge application, mentioned in the previous post, had started off on a trial basis as a hosted service from Calgary. The trial was hugely successful and in October of 2002 the self-hosted version (by then known as vClass–it’s now evolved to be Blackboard Collaborate) was installed in a new server at STEM~Net. Dale managed these and other systems. Although the applications themselves have changed, and the size and complexity has grown, he continues to manage all our back-end systems today.

We continued to use the STEM~Net help desk system for our tech support. Students experiencing difficulty would contact our toll-free line. Many issues could be corrected there and then as a lot of calls really boiled down to (a) equipment/software settings that had been messed up by the user, and which could be fixed by a ‘talk-through’ or (b) a damaged headset which needed to be replaced. Other calls (connectivity issues or damaged equipment, for example) would be redirected to Frank, the ISP provider or the district technicians, all of whom treated these calls as ‘urgent.’

Next: CDLI also developed a huge inventory of learning content in its early years. We will take a look at some of that content and the processes by which it was created.

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12 thoughts on “K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-10: CDLI: Supporting our Learners (2001-2005)

  1. From your narrative I would conclude you were constantly working on replacing and upgrading hardware, software, vendors … in parallel to teaching ! It’s amazing that you were able to deliver such high quality services – in particular taking into account the constraints on time, budget and personnel!

    1. Yes that did get complicated. In time though we were able to tame things down a bit. Buying the PCs, for example was something we did in increments. Rather than trying to replace the whole fleet every three year we took steps so that, in time, it was more like replacing approximately 1/3 each year. These days it’s even better as the systems now come with 4-year warranties and the pace of change has slowed to the point that a 4-year old PC is more than adequate for the tasks we run on it. We still re-image them all each year, though. This wipes all previous user data, thus ensuring privacy protection while, at the same time allowing us to upgrade all of the software. Other equipment is also on a replacement schedule. Servers and routers are generally rep;laced when off warranty. Other items, such as the all-in-ones are replaced only as needed. But yes–those constraints are always complex–then again we are part of the DOE so that complexity is just part of it all :>)

  2. Do you have any sort of handle on how influential your DE efforts were and have been? How ‘ground breaking’ were the application of these technologies to your particular purposes and situation? Most of this reads as if you were ‘flying blind’ and making-it-up-as-you-went and you were not simply copying the already debugged systems developed by others elsewhere. If that’s the case then yours should have been that which was copied by others. Do you have evidence of that? D

    1. I believe that owing to our particular situation we, as a province, have always found ourselves out front out of necessity. Unlike other jurisdictions who maybe view this as an extra or a luxury, we just plain NEED it. Necessity being the bother of… you know. For example, we implemented a huge set of objects like Kahn academy a decade before Kahn even came online. I’ll get to exactly that two posts from now.
      While we are used to being in uncharted waters we are by no means rudderless. One of the big things, in terms of time spent, that I have engaged in during these years is in conferring with our students, teachers, districts and other publics on how were were doing and, more importantly, changing practice as needed. This, for example, led the evolution of our tech support, teaching, content development and connectivity. Yes, quite a few other juristictions did look in on us. That said, I have never been able to get ‘out there,’ not even once, on the convention circuit, though to spread the word. Travel off Island is far too expensive for me. I also have been pretty much run ragged these past 2 decades so writing has been pretty much off as well. It’s really now, with retirement looming I feel compelled enough to just put other things aside and start writing some of this down before moving on…

  3. mary

    Sounds like a great team ! It will be great for the Dept to have this record. Interesting idea to compare the Nfld experience to other places that might have had to develop Distance Ed early on – I remember being fascinated as a kid by the system in Australia’s “Skippy the Bush Kangeroo”:)

  4. Hey! Didn’t I mention skippy and Aus learning in a previous comment? I claim that prize.

    I won’t mention Health and Safety. I can see the safety harnesses and guard rails oozing around that roof?

    Those compaqs look extremely like my now deceased IBM (very trustworthy despite my love of apple).

    Black on white does do it for me.

    Although the classic when I was first working on screens was white on green (maybe it was an apple thing!) as being easiest to read.

    But as a total aside, all these cluttered and coloured blogs would give me a migraine if I suffered from them. Instead they give me tinnitus.

      1. Yes, I have. With pleasure too, I might add as your comments add value and depth to what often becomes dry.

        I’m still thinking about what I should say about your current electricity (pun intended) situation. I could be honest and say that where I live anything but SOLID wiring would result in a house losing its insurance and liveability as, since we are so bloody cold here all the time we depend greatly on electricity for heat and overworked wires would be unacceptably dangerous. I’m shocked (pun again) that anyone but a certified electrician would be let near any house wiring, and that anything but recently-inspected wiring would be allowed. Holy crap–Gibraltar could burn down! On the other hand, I could comment on the fact that I like the way that people get things done out your way. The personal touch is life-giving. Here, getting an electrician is roughly equivalent to getting an audience with the Dalai Lama. Oh, and one of your commenters noted about how your valentines look might have been a bit scary and I felt like chiming in but thought discretion was in order. I’m going out for a stroll soon and will mull it over…..

      2. Got couple more to read, but I wanted to allocate some time to reading through, even if it was backwards (hey I got the less snowy cold piccies that way) rather than write ‘Great post!’

        Write what you want. Or don’t. I can manage without the odd comment from time to time. It’s my Spanish place by the way, and the guy who did our wiring was British registered. The one who is meant to be doing the external cables for free is Spanish approved.

        So not quite the Auto de Fé you fear.

        I’ll write an easy post tomorrow if that helps 😉

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

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