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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.