K-12 Distance Ed. In NL-14: CDLI; Layering in Videoconferencing

Sometime during 2002 Mike Mooney and Perry Ward at Memorial’s PDCS showed me a Polycom videoconferencing unit they were evaluating. Up until that time they had mostly been using Intel Team Stations for videoconferencing but had discovered some of the products from that company and had decided to evaluate them. Their initial findings were positive and they shared what they had found with me. I was quite intrigued as well and they arranged it so that I could also have a look at the equipment they had obtained.

A Familiar sight from 2005 or so: Frank Shapleigh and Bob Hipditch out in Gander. Jim Tuff (Director, CDLI), Dale Fraser and I at this end.
A Familiar sight from 2005 or so: Frank Shapleigh and Bob Hipditch out in Gander. Jim Tuff (Director, CDLI), Dale Fraser and I at this end.

Frank and I had a chance to take a good look and our initial impression was very favourable. We had several issues that might be solved through the use of the equipment. First, CDLI’s management team was divided approximately half and half between St. John’s and Gander. While we were able to conduct most of our live meetings using vClass, the software we were using for our synchronous classes we had a need for video and, at the time, good video was not supported. In addition, the Labrador School district had much the same issue with two separate board offices separated by hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads. In both cases we had to spend considerable time and money in travel between the two centres.

We discussed this among ourselves and decided to tender for four units. We placed one in each of the four locations: St. John’s, Gander, Goose Bay and Labrador City. It took a bit of configuration to get them up and running but once we did the effect was immediate. The frequent trips stopped; not because people were ordered to stop traveling, mind you, but because people decided for themselves that most of the trips were no longer necessary. As Frank Shapleigh says, “I considered giving up my Costco membership because I wasn’t driving to St. John’s every other week for work anymore.”

In 2003 we participated, along with U Toronto and U Brirtish Columbia in a 'virtual conference' on literacy. Thanks to the videoconference unit the keynote session from OISE in Toronto was two-way and the audience in St. John's could ask questions as well as see and listen.
In 2003 we participated, along with U Toronto and U British Columbia in a ‘virtual conference’ on literacy. Thanks to the videoconference unit the keynote session from OISE in Toronto was two-way and the audience in St. John’s could ask questions as well as see and listen.

Once we got comfortable using the systems for meetings between members of the leadership team we began thinking in terms of what new pedagogical tools we now could bring to bear. We immediately thought of the art courses we had and of the then fledgling experiencing music course we were developing. Good quality two-way video and audio meant students and teachers could now see what one another were doing. The experiencing music course had a small performance component and it was obvious to everyone what were the benefits to both students and instructors in this area. Likewise in art the instructors now could provide instant feedback on technique rather than doing it indirectly by looking at finished or partially finished pieces. So much better to see how things were done rather than looking at the end results!

The videoconference unit in Buchans. It wasn't there long before principal (now retired) Bernard Woodfine came up with a unique application: Schoolstock!
The videoconference unit in Buchans, around 2005. It wasn’t there long before principal (now retired) Bernard Woodfine (standing in the doorway) came up with a unique application: Schoolstock!

We therefore began outfitting the student endpoints with videoconference units, starting with Art and Music sites. Soon after, Tech. Ed. was layered in and from there we continued to the remaining sites until, eventually, every distance education school was equipped.

In 2005 we partnered with the Newfoundland Science Centre to offer a program called Science to Go to rural schools via videoconference.
In 2005 we partnered with the Newfoundland Science Centre to offer a program called Science to Go to rural schools via videoconference.
Science to go. Th Newfoundland Science Centre would ship the kit of materials out to the school and the instructor would run the ession by linking uo from the site in St. John's.
Science to go. The Newfoundland Science Centre would ship the kit of materials out to the school and the instructor Jillian Davidge would run the session by linking up from the site in St. John’s.

Stubborn technical issues came early on. Videoconference units are not the kind of things you plug in, turn on, and expect to function, just like that. It took a lot of work getting the systems to work reliably.

“But what about Skype,” you ask. “All I have to do is install the software and get a user account. From then on all I have to do is call people on my contacts list and it works.”

True enough, but there are several things about Skype:

  • The video is generally crappy and unreliable.
  • The audio is generally crappy and often garbled.
  • It is generally not permitted on enterprise networks owing to the many security risks it brings.

To get videoconferencing working on networks you have to get the IT managers onside.

  • The system has to be given a fixed IP address on the network. This may be done by statically assigning it internally or by dynamically assigning a fixed IP based on the unique Media Address Control (MAC) that every networked device has. What’s more, each IP address on the virtual private network (VPN) has to be mapped to a bona fide, Internet-facing IP address so that equipment outside that VPN can communicate with it.
  • The firewall on the network has to be made aware of the system and has to correctly pass the network traffic intended for the videoconference unit. This generally involves  ‘port mapping’ or IP mapping. If that’s not complicated enough, many VPNs actually use more than one firewall. Getting videoconference traffic successfully through a pair of firewalls can be very tricky.
  • When in use the devices use a large amount of bandwidth and the network has to be designed to give priority to the audio and video streams when necessary.

In theory, doing those things is straightforward enough from a technical perspective. Firewall and router settings are just table entries and systems administrators can do them easily enough. In reality, though, it’s just not that simple. School districts are all separate entities, each with their own policies and procedures. Furthermore there are other organizations that need to be in on It as well such as post-secondary schools that also may need to use the system. Some of the technical services are managed by third parties and, unfortunately, many of the interconnections between those district based VPNs can be through the public Internet (also known as the wild, wild west). In reality, getting the settings done took a lot of time and effort. There were quite a few growing pains encountered along the way. The various computer networks are segmented so throughput across the networks was often difficult. Worse, getting videoconference traffic from one network to another often resulted in one-way or low quality transmissions.

Generally the distance education classes went reasonably well enough because both students and teachers needed it to work and stuck with it until it did. The issues were solved and things stayed that way. Unfortunately, many of the early events we undertook that primarily involved adults did not fare so well. The adults had much less tolerance for fault in the early stages and, when they encountered the early growing pains, they were left with the impression that the system did not work. Many, unfortunately, gave up on it and never came back, even though the technical issues have been solved for years now.

In time, most of these issues have been solved. Some still remain. The two schools served by satellite-based Internet find the quality is not great. Since the signal must be bounced on a two-way trip of to a satellite located about 22,000 km above the equator there will always be a delay of approximately 0.8 seconds for the video to make the round trip. This makes the conversation a bit stilted. Our sites on frame relay do not have a whole lot of bandwidth to spare and find that videoconference sessions tend to result in general network congestion at the school so we only use it sparingly at those sites.

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Just for fun, let’s take a quick break from the discussion on videoconference and pay a quick visit to the community of Change Islands, courtesy of these pictures taken by Frank on one of his many visits.
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Yes, the students at the school there also participate in courses via distance education. People often wonder why people living in communities such as Change Islands don’t move away and go to live in larger communities where there are “more opportunities.”
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Let’s see: house by the water, ready access to walking trails with lots of berries to pick (in season of course). Great fishing. Peace and quiet. Oh…and Gander is not THAT far away. To me the only real wonder is why anyone would want to leave :>)

Videoconference units are, by default, point to point. That is, you can only call one other site. This poses a problem as many of the useful applications for teaching are multipoint in nature; that is, the instructor generally likes to combine several sites.  For a considerable extra cost many, but not all, videoconference workstations can be upgraded so that they can connect to more than one endpoint. Three plus one (3 + 1) is a common multipoint configuration. A videoconference unit that is 3 + 1 enabled is capable of connecting to three other units. In such an arrangement the users see all four locations arranged ‘Hollywood squares’ style. Usually the 3 + 1 unit is configured so that if one site speaks for an extended period then its video grows to occupy all of the screen and remains this way until that location goes silent and someone speaks at another location. When this happens the system reverts back to ‘Hollywood squares’ unless that speaker goes on for an extended period.

At first we equipped the instructor sites with units that were 3 + 1 capable so that they could bridge in as many as three different locations at a time. Generally this was good enough but not always. Some classes were comprised of more than 3 school sites. When this happened the instructors would have to break the class up and bring them on in parts.

In time we were able to purchase a videoconference bridge. This was a device whose purpose was to combine multiple sites so that the users’ own equipment did not have to do it. The first unit we purchased was able to work with any number of combinations up to a total of 32 sites. At maximum capacity, for example, we could run a large class with 32 sites or, more reasonably, 4 classes, each with 8 sites online and so on.

We rarely ran the ridge with large groups as our teaching model did not leave us with classes comprised of large numbers of sites. Typical classes have around 20 students and the number of sites is typically between 3 and 7. Very large sessions were something we used for special occasions. Some examples included:

  • Schoolstock: a yearly ‘battle of the bands’ event held for several years in  the mining town of Buchans. This was a day-long event and schools went to Buchans from all over the province to compete. On that day we would move the school’s videoconference unit to the gym and have it set to show the bands who were performing. We would leave the bridge open so that schools that sent bands could call in and listen to their bands or even talk to people at the site.
  • Lights, the Canadian performer (and others on different occasions) have generously given their time and visited a videoconference studio where we connected her to our bridge. She gave a class to all of our music students.
  • Education Week openings have been done live using the videoconference bridge. The opening ceremonies have been dispersed among a large number of participating sites and the rest, who did not play a speaking (or singing) role have been connected via one-way webcast.

In time, the original bridge began to show its age. The original one could not handle any content besides video (we could not show computer content such as slides, for example) and was not High Definition compatible. Last year we replaced it with one that added both those missing features and which also had a higher connection capacity. It was also considerably smaller. The original bridge was about the size of a ‘bar fridge.’ The new one is about the size of a typical PC.  We have observed the overall performance on the new bridge to be much better—video is clearer and smoother.

Yes, you can teach music online. Gord King does some individual work in one of his applied music classes.
Yes, you can teach music online. Gord King does some individual work in one of his applied music classes.

And time marches on. Desktop video clients, such as Microsoft® Lync™ are now sophisticated and reliable enough to be used for many of the kinds of purposes we have. Presently the CDLI is in the process of implementing its own Lync server and hopes to integrate it, using the current bridge, with its installed base of dedicated room-based videoconference units.  Desktop clients are are a good choice when it’s just people talking to people but the larger room-based systems still are best when we want to work with groups or see finer details—watching a student playing guitar, for example. The future is ‘looking’ bright.

Next: Yes, of course, CDLI students do science labs.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-13: CDLI; From mTeacher to mTeam (2001-2007)

The CDLI’s implementation procedures depend, to a fair extent, on support from people at the school where the students are located. In the original pilot we worked with the concept of an mTeacher (mediating teacher) being one of the school’s teachers located onsite and who would also help out with the implementation. We imagined the role as consisting of providing basic support such as the supervision of tests and ensuring that students were adequately monitored while online.

Black Tickle is a small community located off the south coast of Labrador. Years ago, during the summer its population would swell with the influs of summer fisherment who came up to 'Fish the Labrador." Mostly treeless and wind-swept outsiders are often left wondering why people would choose to life in such a place when there are so many more urban choices.
Black Tickle is a small community located off the south coast of Labrador. Years ago, during the summer its population would swell with the influx of summer fishermen who came up to ‘Fish the Labrador.” Mostly treeless, rocky and wind-swept,  outsiders are often left wondering why people would choose to life in such a place when there are so many more urban choices.
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But that all changes when you speak to the people who live here. Hardy, hard working and most of all, in love with the land. Look–can you see the clothes on the line (almost dead centre in the shot)? The people are at home here. And they want to stay.
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So what do the young people do here after school? Not too much different from young people anywhere else. Sure, there’s no downtown; no mall! But there’s a gym, there’s Xboxes everywhere and there’s satellite TV and Internet. Instead of cars the young people have quads and the snowmobiles shown in the picture. And what do they do with them???
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Couple a 150 hp engine with a 200 kg frame and you get a powerful beast that will make any Disney ride look like a merry go round.
The people of Black Tickle like their way of life. They have found ways to harmonize their interests with their surroundings. Distance education allows the young people to access the same offerings they would have if they lived in an urban centre.
The people of Black Tickle like their way of life. They have found ways to harmonize their interests with their surroundings. Distance education allows the young people to access the same offerings they would have if they lived in an urban centre.

During the spring, near the end of the pilot year I held a series of focus groups attended by the principals and mTeachers for the pilot. Doug Furey, who was serving as a program specialist assisting with the pilot in one of the districts and who was also completing his Masters of Education was visiting Memorial at the time and also asked if he could sit in on the meetings.

After the meetings got underway it became clear that not only had much been learned along the way but, much remained to be learned. To say the least, those meetings were enlightening, bringing forward problems, and as it turned out, solutions to many of them. One thing that became apparent was the range of tasks that the school found itself having to deal with. These included:

  1. Selecting students for the courses and getting them registered.
  2. Ensuring that appropriate space in the school was provided for the students when they were online. Regardless of whether this was part of the F2F class or a whole different room, the students needed a place.
  3. Liaising with CDLI; learning what was up and what was new.
  4. Supervising tests and labs.
  5. Ensuring that students were on task
  6. Communicating with eTeachers whenever there was an issue with Teaching and Learning that was affecting the students.
  7. Providing basic training on how to get online for the first time and on how to use the tools.
  8. Providing onsite tech. support. This included things like preparing trouble tickets regarding connectivity downtime, boxing up damaged equipment and unpacking and then setting up replacement equipment.
CDLI relies on onsite support. Students require adequate supervision, for example, especially for labs and tests
CDLI relies on onsite support. Students require adequate supervision, for example, especially for labs and tests

I recall that time like it was today!  I took notes of what was required on a flipchart or a whiteboard and after the list was complete it was similar to the one above but in a different order. One of the principals remarked that it was an onerous one and that eLearning at the school did come at a cost. The principal went on to say, though, that this was not to be negative—the tasks got done but we really needed to find a more organized way to do them. Another principal then followed up by noting that, based on the skills of his available staff members he has actually farmed it out. Others then weighed in to say that they had done essentially the same. Together then we looked at the required tasks and looked to classify them. The list above is fairly close to the one we wound up with in the end and based on it, Doug Furey suggested that we actually stop thinking in terms of mTeachers and, instead, focus on mTeams. That was it! With that said it all became so obvious and we quickly came up with a working description of what comprised an mTeam. It had four components.

  1. Administration: Typically done by the principal or designate, this consisted roughly of tasks 1-3 above, namely registering and selecting students and ensuring that they had an adequate, supervised space.
  2. Coaching: Typically done by an onsite teacher this consists of tasks 4-6, namely student supervision and liaising with the eTeachers as needed.
  3. Peer Support: Typically done by a more senior fellow student, this included some aspects of coaching as well as the basic training.
  4. Technical: Typically done by the district technicians with help from onsite student tutors.

In subsequent years CDLI embarked on a series of mTeam training sessions. These were done for new schools and, periodically, to refresh existing schools as personnel sometimes moved on and besides, the procedures and tools were evolving anyway. These were generally held on regional basis in district offices and were attended by Frank, Bob, Me, the nearby eTachers and some of the district’s technical staff and program specialists.

Frank--the only person who was at EVERY single mTeam session.
Frank–the only person who was at EVERY mTeam training event. In this session he is showing where to find training and other resources on our server.
Bob leads an mTeam training session. Look at him--yaffle of handouts! In all the session you will always see a mini-lab we created using laptops, just like was done in the STEM~Net days
Bob Hipditch leads an mTeam training session at Pasadena. Look at him–yaffle of handouts! In all the session you will always see a mini-lab we created using laptops, just like was done in the STEM~Net days
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Chemistry eTeacher Johnny Burke leads an mTeam training session at Stephenville. Pretty sure he is walking the teachers through how to use the exam dropbox to upload student tests.
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Math eTeacher Sadie May leads an mTeam training session in Pasadena. Note Bob Hipditch and Andrea Neville just behind her. Sadie is showing how to get an account with CDLI and how to access the learning resources we have online.
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Math eTeacher Brad Sheppard leads an mTeam trainins session in West Ste. Modeste, Labrador. Science eTeacher Morris Cooze is at the far left. Not sure but think he is starting hands-on training on how to use Elluminate Live (the synchronous tool we were using at the time).

Not only did these serve as valid conduits of information from CDLI to onsite staff but, just as importantly, the flow of information was two-way and mTeam training sessions often resulted in the unearthing and subsequent solving of issues.

Next: Other technologies and abilities have been added along the way. We’ll look at how video and videoconferencing has been layered in.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-12: CDLI; The MLOs (2002-2007)

Sometime during 2002 Leon discovered Camtasia. He showed it to me, along with a short software demo he had done. At the time he was working as some Tech. Ed. content and needed to prepare a tutorial on how to use some software. Camtasia, at the time (many features have been added since) recorded your screen while you did…whatever. In this case he spoke into his microphone while demonstrating the software. When he was done and stopped the recording, Camtasia chugged away for several minutes and produced a video clip of what he had done, along with his audio voice-over. It was brilliant!  What’s more the software was able to produce several different types of video files. After some experimentation we found that a Flash™ movie was the best bet as it gave a relatively small file size without making too many compromises on audio and video quality. For the next little while we used it from time to time in that manner.

I recall one of my first projects using Camtasia was to do up a series of tutorials in how to use Flash™. I think, overall, I had about 10-15 tutorials, each running about 5-10 minutes, and each showing a different topic. Now, this was a while ago—2002 was 3 years before YouTube was even out! Today you would not need to do that—just go to YouTube and enter any software tool you want in its search. You will find an abundance of these tutorials, a large fraction of which have been developed with Camtasia.

There's nothing like the view of a long, lonely stretch of the Labrador Highway to give you a feel for the distances that exist within our province.
There’s nothing like the view of a long, lonely stretch of the Labrador Highway to give you a feel for the distances that exist within our province. Sometimes it feels just like that when you start new projects or use new tools. There was quite a long road ahead after we discovered tools like Camtasia…

Recall also that we were using vClass as our synchronous tool. I haven’t mentioned it but the synchronous classes can be recorded. The recording includes all the audio and whiteboards; all the interactions, in fact. If you a play a recorded class it’s just like being there. Except, of course, you can’t expect to get your questions answered and you certainly can’t interact with your classmates. It’s quite a great thing, though, if you have to miss class–medical appointments, sick days, weather days; these all happen. In F2F you rely on notes from your classmates. With CDLI you can just access the whole class; quite a step up from borrowed notes!

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Hermitage…a long way from the Trans Canada Highway, but well worth the trip. In the end, learning to use tools like Camtasia proved equally worth it.

At around that time I had been getting a lot of requests to share the class recordings with teachers and students not enrolled in our program. Frankly I was reluctant to do so. I had valid reasons:

  • At the time we could not anonymize the recordings, (we can now) so they included the students’ names on the participants’ list and, besides, the instructors frequently referred to students on the audio stream by name. That was a serious breach of our students’ privacy.
  • Synchronous classes are not intended to be played back. To work as intended the students really need to be there at the time. The recordings are really only there if students need to refer back or review or to serve as a replacement for missed classes. They were never designed to be stand-alone teaching resources.
  • Even if the synchronous classes were structured as lectures (which they are not) we know as a profession that one-hour non-interactive lectures are not useful as teaching tools for high school students. Students tune out after only a few minutes if there is no interaction and, besides, lectures are just one (admittedly useful) tool among many that we are supposed to use if we are to meet the needs of all of our learners.
  • I had major reservations on how these recordings would be used.

Thinking back on my legacy model days I therefore began experimenting with using Camtasia to record short lessons on a whiteboard. At first I used a Wacom tablet and just recorded on the MS Paint screen, capturing only the parts I wrote in, not the tools. This gave the impression of writing on an actual, physical, whiteboard. When I showed the results to Wade Sheppard, the director he was not exactly impressed, wondering why I had not chosen to record PowerPoint instead. My handwriting is not the best. 😥  My reply was that in my distance education instructor days I’d found that the students preferred that the teachers build up the slides bit by bit rather than having a completed object; it’s less overwhelming that way.  In the end we decided to go with a hybrid model. We used PowerPoint as the basis but used transitions to bring in extra material, images and extra slides and wrote over it all with the pen.

The first development project of this type we undertook was a series of reviews prepared for some of the provincial examinations given in June of 2003. Because this was the first time and because time was rather tight for the project we did not give the developers a formal template. They were instead instructed to use black text on a white background. The results, overall, were not too bad. In only several weeks we had a workable set of review recordings, each running about 5 to 10 minutes, and about 80 for each of the 8 courses, for a grand total of around 650 tutorials. These we dubbed ‘Multimedia Learning Objects’ and the long name was soon shortened to MLOs. The name has stuck. Those recordings were quite popular among students, who said they served as useful year-end review.

My Canadian province, Newfoundland and Labrador, collaborates with the three nearby provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) on various educational projects. The umbrella organization is called CAMET (Consortium of Atlantic Ministers of Education and Training). When Wade showed the MLOs to that group there was considerable interest in developing more of them for the recently-implemented high school math curriculum. I was originally given the go ahead to develop 13 as a demo but, in the end, was able to get 372 of these produced. These covered the entire high school academic mathematics program.

This time around, with the experience of the previous project and with somewhat better timelines I was able to put in place a better workflow. It ran like this:

  • A PowerPoint template was produced, along with recording and production guidelines.
  • A competitive process was enacted to recruit prospective content developers.
  • The work was divided among the successful applicants. They were each assigned a unit or several units.
  • The developers were first expected to provide a list of MLOs that they would produce. This list would include for each MLO listed, titles, list of outcomes addressed and a brief description of the instructional plan for that MLO.
  • Each list was reviewed and modified.
  • Developers created first draft MLOs and submitted them for review.
  • Each MLO was reviewed by two sets of reviewers. One set of reviewers examined the content for mathematical accuracy and pedagogical appropriateness and the second set of reviewers looked for grammar and such.
  • Developers made the required changes and re submitted the content. This was checked.
  • A database driven website was created to host the finalized content. This content is still available online.

These MLOs received considerable use, especially in NL and NS.

Oh, and I take some pride in the fact that we had well over a thousand of these learning objects online and in use 2 years before Kahn Academy was formed.  …but I still love the idea of Kahn Academy!

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A quiet cove near Beaumont. Is it any wonder the people would much rather stay? Peace of mind is worth the price. During that CAMET project I didn’t get much peace of mind. Thinking back, maybe I was a bit over-zealous. 372 of these things was a lot in the time allocated. It was worth it in the end, though.

Here are a couple of sample MLOs:

  • Chemistry:: Done using Captivate instead of Camtasia
  • Math: From that 2003 CAMET project
  • Physics: One of the originals done in 2002
  • Physics: We have provincial Exams and have done a whole series of these that review entire previous exams. This is just one item.

One problem we found in the production workflow was that, because Camtasia actually records the screen and produces video output, correcting errors and making other required changes is quite time consuming and difficult. For the most part, the developers have to go back to the original PowerPoints, make the required fixes and then re-record the whole MLO. This, it turns out, is very difficult as, in the end you need to get things perfectly right. You cannot flub the writing and you certainly cannot make any mistakes when speaking. Besides, the phone can ring, an ambulance can drive by or a little not-to-be-ignored voice can come along, tug on your hand and ask, “Daddy, will you play with me?” right when you are in the middle of a recording.

In most cases, when they made an error in production, developers simply stopped and started over. Many ‘takes’ were usually required before an acceptable recording would be made. Only developers really know how time-consuming and frustrating this can be!

Rick Snow, one of our eTeachers who also happened to be one of the MLO developers came across an excellent solution to this whole problem while the project was underway. Rick is a curious, innovative person who is constantly searching for new methods and tools. One of the things he discovered was the recently-released software known as Captivate. It had been previously known as RoboDemo but with the new release it had added numerous enhancements. Two in particular were of great interest.

First, while Captivate allowed for the direct import of PowerPoints which, on the surface was a good thing, we found out that it only imported the slide as an image. As such it could not be edited from within Captivate if needed. Upon further investigation, though, Rick found that Captivate itself had text and basic drawing tools; enough so that the slides could be constructed from within the software. This meant that if errors were found they could be fixed directly; no tedious re-recording required!.

The second discovery was that, instead of one big ‘all or nothing’ audio track, Captivate has separate tracks. These could be done per slide or even per object on the slide. This made quite a difference! Just fix the bits that are wrong, not the whole thing.

Rick asked for permission to use Captivate instead of Camtasia and he was given it. What a difference it made!  If, after recording a project we found an error on the slides, all he had to do was open the Captivate file, fix the error and hit the ‘publish’ button to re-do the whole MLO without any further actions. If we found an error in his audio, the worst that would happen was that he would just re-record the voiceover for just that slide and then publish the MLO again.

In Rick’s case, making changes was relatively straightforward so he endured much less pain than did his fellow developers. While it was more difficult to create the slides within Captivate as its content creation tools are nowhere as sophisticated as those in PowerPoint, in the end the ability to go with more ease through the edit cycles made the real difference. From that point we shifted away from Camtasia and toward Captivate as the MLO creation tool of choice.

Note–this is not to recommend Captivate over Camtasia in general. The fact is that both are excellent, useful products each with slightly different uses. If you are considering producing learning content similar to the ones in the examples above you should evaluate both products to see which best suits your situation. While you are at it you might also take Articulate Storyline, another awesome product, for a spin.

Subsequent MLO development projects followed a similar workflow and, as Captivate has evolved, so too have the MLOs. Captivate now allows the following enhancements to be made over the originals:

  • Interactive self-tests can be added to each MLO.
  • Various interactions can be added to the slide including radio buttons, check boxes, text input boxes and such.
  • Slide navigation need no longer be linear; the software supports branching.
A bank of low-lying fog hides the beautiful community of Conne river. Sometimes you have to just boldly move into the unknown armed with only the confidence in your team mates. Together a way will be found!
A bank of low-lying fog hides the beautiful community of Conne River. Sometimes you have to just boldly move into the unknown armed with only the confidence in your team mates. Together a way will be found!

Next: Successful eLearning requires support from people at the student site. We started the pilot with the concept of an mTeacher (mediating teacher). As it turned out this was flawed and had to evolve. We dropped the idea of an mTeacher in favour of an mTeam.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-11: CDLI; Initial Content Development (2000-2005)

One of the first tasked tackled in CDLI’s history was the issue of content development. We did not enter into that area cold. Leon, who was initially in charge of content development had, at that point, over a decade of experience in developing content for the web and had considerable experience in developing for print as well. Besides constructing foundation documents and curriculum guides had had been one of the initial leads in developing the handbooks for the legacy model of distance education. By then I had already developed one web-based physics course and one web-based Education course. I had also authored or co-authored approximately 40 physics and math textbooks and teacher resources as well. The other content developers had considerable experience as well. Camilla, Ed and Andre, for example, had been developers of the Legacy model content for French, Math and Chemistry, respectively.

Northern Lights Academy, located in Rigolet Labrador is one of our sites. Note the satellite dish located off to the side. We've since replaced it with a land-based connection. The school is designed for northern climates. Note the raised boardwalk, for example. Far easier for clearing snow.
Northern Lights Academy, located in Rigolet Labrador is one of our sites. Note the satellite dish located off to the side. We’ve since replaced it with a land-based connection. The school is designed for northern climates. Note the raised boardwalk: Far easier for clearing snow.
Setting up the distance education room at Northern Lights Academy. Frank and Dwayne (ICT Manager with Labrador School District) are setting up the machines. Note the extensive use of glass...
Setting up the distance education room at Northern Lights Academy. Frank and Dwayne (ICT Manager with Labrador School District) are setting up the machines some time around 2004 or 2005. Note the extensive use of glass…essential in a place so far north.
See--that snow does come so it's good to have a boardwalk. Note the snowmobiles--one of the pleasures of living close to snow :>)
See–that snow does come so it’s good to have a boardwalk. Note the snowmobiles–one of the pleasures of living close to snow :>)
Looking out at toward the water from Rigolet. Can't you just feel the cold!
Looking out at toward the water from Rigolet. Can’t you just feel the cold!

Perhaps, most importantly we were aware of the limitations that existed and worked to try and ensure that these posed no major barriers. To properly set the stage recall that in 2000 there was no YouTube, FaceBook or Twitter. Content Management Systems (CMSs) such as the WordPress (which wasn’t even introduced until 3 years later in 2003) were either nonexistent or very crude. We started with these assumptions:

  • The majority of our content would be written in HTML.
  • There might be some use of video, but it would have to be low-quality and compressed owing to the lack of broadband connections.
  • The content experts would do the majority of their technical production as well so we would use templates.
  • Developers would be loaned a PC configured with development tools, which at the time consisted of Microsoft® FrontPage™ (now Expression Web), Corel® Draw™ and Adobe® Acrobat™.

We first acquired a server to host the content that was under development, a ‘dev server.’ This was a fully-functional IIS-based server but was not intended to host the content for broad consumption. It was, rather, a safe holding ground for content as it was developed. Once ready, developed courses would be copied over either to our main web server or to the content area of our Learning Management system (LMS) which was, at the time, WebCT. Each content developer would be given access to a course folder on the dev server and all prepared content was expected to be uploaded there.

Next, we met as a team of developers and discussed our needs and ideas for class learning activities. Based on this, Leon prepared a generic course development template.

The basic building block was the course. The curriculum used in any given course would be exactly as described in the curriculum guide document issued by our sister unit—the program development division. This meant that we were not in the business of Curriculum design/development but, rather, in the business of Instructional design/development.

In any given course, the topmost organizer was the Unit. Typically these would be described in the curriculum guides. Sub-units were referred to as ‘sections.’

The basic and most important organizer was the Lesson. This was intended to be a complete learning experience that encapsulated one or more specific learning outcomes. We divided each lesson into five components, and the content templates had five tabbed pages:

  • You Will Learn: A list of the curriculum outcomes for the lesson but re-worded so that they would be understandable to students. Curriculum outcomes from guides are written for teachers and often contain jargon; we fixed that to the extent we could.
  • You Should Already Know: A list of items that students were expected to know before starting the lesson. We did not necessarily try to reteach this. Mostly we just listen the items and, perhaps, linked back to the lessons where they would have been addressed, if appropriate.
  • Lesson: The actual learning content. Typically this consisted of text and graphics. In my course, grade 11 physics I included objects created using Macromedia® Flash™ as well.
  • Activities: As the name suggests, these would include additional items the student would do. In my physics course, for example, these tended to include practice questions and problems.
  • Test Yourself: A short self-assessment. In many of the courses, including Physics, this would be an interactive multiple choice powered by an open-source Javascript engine we’d come across.

The navigation structure used in the templates was based on HTML. We were careful not to use any server-side assists such as the MS FrontPage Extensions that could have been added. While these would have made the job of creating the templates much easier in the short run, in the end they would have made server maintenance impossible and would also killed interoperability with other systems.

A view into a blank template. Notice the lesson folder contains all of the pages for that lesson. Once completed that folder would also contain any images or video used in the lesson too. The 'You Will Learn' page is shown. The developer would replace the dummy text with the actual outcomes. Note the tabs for the other pages are slso shown. This blank course shell was actually located on my computer's hard drive at the time. Once ready it would be transferred up to the dev server where it could be accessed by a content developer. We generally encouraged developers to make local copies and not edit the live site.
A view into a blank template. Notice the lesson folder contains all of the pages for that lesson. Once completed that folder would also contain any images or video used in the lesson too. The ‘You Will Learn’ page is shown. The developer would replace the dummy text with the actual outcomes. Note the tabs for the other pages are also shown. This blank course shell was actually located on my computer’s hard drive at the time. Once ready it would be transferred up to the dev server where it could be accessed by a content developer. We generally encouraged developers to make local copies and not edit the live site.

We enforced good practice. Each course had its own folder. Within that were nested the remaining levels of organization. This means that, in the end, every lesson had its own folder and we required all developers to ensure that all assets used in a lesson (audio and video files, images and such) were to be placed in the lesson folder. This meant that each lesson stood alone and that moving it would not result in broken links and images. Best of all, this also meant that moving the content in and out of the LMS was straightforward.

It also might be of interest to the geeks among you that we started using CSS right away. All content formatting for the entire enterprise was based on a single CSS file. This meant that we could later update the look and feel of the content by just editing that one CSS file.

Here’s a few things we warned content developers about:

DO DO NOT
  • edit the placeholders in the titles to make them correct
  • follow consistent naming conventions when naming your images, sound files, animations and such.
  • Ensure that the filename can be understood by someone later. For example, the second animation in lesson 3 of section 4 should be named something like les01-sec04-anim02.swf
  • publish or make backups regularly. Lost work is a disaster–don’t let it happen.
  • ensure that the reviewer is in close contact with you.
  • make edits as soon as the problem becomes known to you
  • Respect copyright. Please respect the work of others. Ensure that your artwork is original or that you have at least obtained written permission and absolute release for all outside pieces.
  • fancy formatting. Stick with the predefined styles Heading 1 to Heading 4 for internal structure. These are found in the list of styles on the toolbar. Likewise, leave the color scheme alone.
  • embellishments such as bold and italic. Let the content speak for itself.
  • capitals and non-standard characters in file names. CDLI’s Learning Management System servers do not work with file names containing capitals and such. Hyphens and underscore characters are okay though.
  • BAD FILENAME: My Second Picture.jpg
  • BETTER FILENAME: les01-image02.jpg

It’s also worth noting that not all content developers played by the rules. As someone charged with administering, and of course, correcting, this, here are two things I found particularly troublesome. First, not everyone placed the objects where we asked them to. It would not be unusual, for example, to find images used by any particular lesson in the root ‘images’ folder for the course and not in the folder for that lesson. This meant that if we updated and copied that lesson folder back to the LMS later on the image would be broken as the link would no longer be valid. How many hours did Ken Penney and I spend checking for this!  The second annoyance was the insistence by some in getting fancy with the formatting and straying away from the template. For Ken and I this meant three things:

  • We would have to look at what was, sometimes, some pretty ugly stuff. Just because Black and Yellow contrast well doesn’t mean you should drop our colour schemes and use that instead!
  • We would lose time dealing with hard-to find inconsistencies. Just because the lesson looked great back on your PC doesn’t mean that it will look as good later on. My biggest beef: people writing in MS Word and then pasting it right into FrontPage. The geeks among you will know that this results in a boatload of inline styles which cannot be overridden by the main CSS and which stubbornly resist your efforts to fix it until you…
  • …lost a fair bit of time stripping away ALL of the formatting added by the developer and then just going back and doing it all over again yourself. This takes a lot of time and while it’s the most efficient way of getting rid of all the formatting crap it also gets rid of the stuff you needed to keep—you lose headings, superscripts and subscripts, for example and have to go back in and restore them.

So, for our stock HTML-based content, this was the process the developers were supposed to go through:

  • Spend the appropriate amount of time developing the course structure. As manager I expected this to take several weeks. In the end I expected a written document which listed all the units and sub units and then lessons. For each lesson I expected the list of specific curriculum outcomes addressed, along with a brief, one paragraph description of the instructional plan for that lesson.
  • That course structure would be examined carefully and developers would be warned that they needed to get this straight. Appropriate changes would be  made before proceeding.
  • Leon, and later Myself or Ken would use the course structure plan to create a development template on the dev server. This template would contain folders for the units and folders containing ready-to-use pages for all of the lessons. These would be appropriately titled and linked. At this point, major structural changes would only come with great difficulty.
  • The developer would be given access to the course folder on the dev server and would proceed to create the course. From time to time Leon or I would check on the progress.
  • When the developer indicated they were done we would schedule a review of the content, lesson by lesson. A report detailing suggested changes would be given to the developer who then had three choices: (a) make the changes as suggested, (b) make a different change; one they we agreed was better or (c) do nothing—if this was chosen, the developer was expected to defend this choice.
  • With the course finalized, the course folder would be locked from further access and the content would be copied over to the main website and copied into the appropriate course in WebCT.
  • If further edits were needed later on, these would be done on the dev server and the copying process repeated. That is, the ‘master copy’ was assumed to be the one on dev.

By 2004 we had 30 full courses developed. While the material was prepared primarily for the distance educations students we also copied the full content over to our main website and made it available to all students and teachers in the province.

Acad. Math 1204/2204/3204/3103
Adv. Math 2205/3205/3207
Art & Design 3200
Art Technologies 1201
Biology 2201/*(3201 came in 2005)
Canadian Economy 2203
Canadian History 1201
Career Exploration 1101
Chemistry 2202/3202
Comm. Tech. 2104/3104
English 1201, 2201, 3201
Enterprise 3205
Experiencing Music 2200
French 2200, 3200, 3201
Integrated Systems 1205
Physics 2204/3204
Science 1206
World Geography 3202
Writing 2203

List of courses offered in 2004-05. Note course numbers ABCD: A(1-3) means g10, 11 or 12, B=#course credits, C=0 means no mods from curriculum guide, D=way to distinguish 2 similar courses. Note also that Comm. Tech. was taught as one linked 2-credit course instead of as two single credit courses.

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Conrad Fitzgerald Adademy in English Harbour West

Overall our user experience with the content was spotty. In some cases the online materials  were used often and in other cases not. In the interest of brevity, here’s what we concluded:

  • CDLI Students only used the content if the eTeacher used it and referred to it in class.
  • eTeachers who had a hand in developing content tended to user it; this, in turn meant that their students used it too.
  • Non CDLI teachers and students tended to make great use of it. Sometimes it was used as the basis for lessons, sometimes it was a supplementary, especially in classes where more than one course was being taught at a time and sometimes it was used as homework or review.
  • The original 5-tab template was later compressed down to two. We found that the students rarely used the ‘You Will Learn’ and ‘You should Already Know’ tabs so in later versions of the template we compressed the five down to two: “Get Ready” (which listed outcomes and prerequisites) and “Go to Work” (which had the lesson activities and assessments). Here’s a sample Chemistry lesson.
  • Many students, when asked, told us they wished it was less wordy and that there was more use of multimedia.
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The old bridge over the Piper’s Hole River near Swift Current. Always time for a bit of good luck…and we have had our share.

Next: In late 2002 we discovered how to use Techsmith’s® Camtasia™ and about a year or so later Adobe® Captivate™ and started developing a new kind of learning content. We enjoyed great success using the Multimedia Learning Objects, or MLOs as we came to call them.

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.
de-rencentre-east-02
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.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-9: CDLI Building an eLearning Team (2001-2005)

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.

Harbour Breton on Newfoundland's South Coast is one of the communities served by CDLI. The people speak with an accent is similar to the one likely spoken by Will Shakespeare--namely British English as was spoken before the 'great vowel shift.'
Harbour Breton on Newfoundland’s South Coast is one of the communities served by CDLI. The people speak with an accent similar to the one likely spoken by Will Shakespeare–namely British English as was spoken before the ‘great vowel shift.’

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.

Session from an eTeacher meeting held at Gander in 2003-04 school year. Notice the body language. You can't fake engagement.
Session from an eTeacher meeting held at Gander in 2003-04 school year. Notice the body language. You can’t fake engagement. L-R Rick Snow (Math), Eric Nippard (Tech Ed), Brad Sheppard (Math), Morris Cooze (Science and Enterprise), Dave Warren (Physics), Jim Hayter (Physics), Glen Cake (French), Ron Harnum (Math), Brian Wells (Chem), Me.

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.

Another session from the same eteacher meeting. Clockwise from top lewft: Brian Wells (Chem) Me, Craig Goudie (Art), Lyndon Williams (standing; English and SS), Sadie May (math), Susan Sullivan (French), George Wright (Math), Lorne Warren (Math), Nick Soper (English), Edwina Cashin (Math), John Deeley (Art). Lyndon is showing the team how to use Respondus, a tool that lets you create and upload online tests to our LMS.
Another session from the same eTeacher meeting. Clockwise from top left: Brian Wells (Chem) Me, Craig Goudie (Art), Lyndon Williams (standing; English and SS), Sadie May (Math), Susan Sullivan (French), George Wright (Math), Lorne Warren (Math), Nick Soper (English), Edwina Cashin (Math), John Deeley (Art). Lyndon is showing the team how to use Respondus, a tool that lets you create and upload online tests to our LMS.

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.
Portion (first 7 of 14 days) of one of the district schedules created for the first year. In general, that year, the classes alternated between synchronous (in vClass) and asynchronous (using the tools in WebCT).
Portion (first 7 of 14 days) of one of the district schedules created for the first year. In general, that year, the classes alternated between synchronous (in vClass) and asynchronous (using the tools in WebCT). Notice that on day 1 physics 2204 is in period C. Every period C would therefore be physics 2204. Notice, though, that the label is only on every other class C. This is because the labels denote the synchronous classes. Slot C without a label is therefore asynchronous. In this case both physics courses were in slot C because it was assumed (correctly) that students would not be taking both courses in the same year.

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!

Nain, Labrador, our province's most northern community. Dead centre in the picture you can see the runway--you need to get the landing just right. Fortunately the twin Otters and Dash 8 aircraft that use it can land on a coin.
Nain, Labrador, our province’s most northern community. Dead centre in the picture you can see the runway–you need to get the landing just right. Fortunately the twin Otters and Dash 8 aircraft that use it can land on a coin.

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.

Most of CDLI staff, June 2004. Front, L-R: Craig Goudie (Art), Andrew Mercer (Music), Susan Sullivan (French), Anne Manning-Moffitt (English and SS) Sadie May (Math), Glen Cake (French), Morris cooze (Science and Ent), Brad Sheppard (Math). Second row: Dave Warren (Physics), Jim Paul (Guidance), Joan House (Tech Support), Me (Program Development), Lorne Warren (Math), Ron Harnum (Math). Back Row, Standing (L-R) Ken Penney (Multimedia), Jim Murphy (French), Larry Eddy (Physics), Jim Hayter (Physics), Mike Sceviour (Biology), John Deeley (Art), Andre Hudson (Chem), Dale Fraser (Systems), Greg Taaffe (Math), Edwina Cashin (Math), Nick Soper (English), Isadore Snook (Math), John Burke (Chem), Brian Wells (Chem), Eric Nippard (Tech Ed), Bob Hipditch (Program Implementation), Rick Snow (Math), Frank Shapleigh (Connectivity and Equipment)
Most of CDLI staff, June 2004. Front, L-R: Craig Goudie (Art), Andrew Mercer (Music), Susan Sullivan (French), Anne Manning-Moffitt (English and SS) Sadie May (Math), Glen Cake (French), Morris Cooze (Science and Ent), Brad Sheppard (Math). Second row: Dave Warren (Physics), Jim Paul (Guidance), Joan House (Tech Support), Me (Program Development), Lorne Warren (Math), Ron Harnum (Math). Back Row, Standing (L-R) Ken Penney (Multimedia), Jim Murphy (French), Larry Eddy (Physics), Jim Hayter (Physics), Mike Sceviour (Biology), John Deeley (Art), Andre Hudson (Chem), Dale Fraser (Systems), Greg Taaffe (Math), Edwina Cashin (Math), Nick Soper (English), Isadore Snook (Math), John Burke (Chem), Brian Wells (Chem), Eric Nippard (Tech Ed), Bob Hipditch (Program Implementation), Rick Snow (Math), Frank Shapleigh (Connectivity and Equipment)

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.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-8: CDLI Startup and Pilot Year (2000-2002)

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.

Chapter six of 'Supporting Learning' recommended the creation of a Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.
Chapter six of ‘Supporting Learning’ recommended the creation of a Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.

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.

Leon Cooper leads a content development team meeting. Clockwise from top left Leon Cooper (program development specialist) Me (physics) Bruce King (comm. tech.) Andre Hudson (chemistry) Don Squibb (math) Ed Somerton (math) Blaine Priddle (math)
Leon Cooper leads a content development team meeting. Clockwise from top left Leon Cooper (program development specialist) Me (physics) Bruce King (comm. tech.) Andre Hudson (chemistry) Don Squibb (math) Ed Somerton (math) Blaine Priddle (math). Nick Soper (English) and Camilla Stoodley (French) were also present at that meeting but are not shown in the photo. Note the old Commodore 64 monitor just over my shoulder–we used those as monitors for video editing; just couldn’t kill those old Sony tubes! Note also the old PET top right in the picture–it’s still around…somewhere.

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.

Screen shot from a tutor's edge session. Note the whiteboard at the left, the window listing the participants, the audio tool just above it and the text tool at the far right.
Screen shot from a tutor’s edge session. Note the whiteboard at the left, the window listing the participants, the audio tool just above it and the text tool at the far right. Notice that the slide is a combination of pre-drawn stuff (the images + the typed text) and items drawn during the class. It’s likely the instructor wrote in blue and a student in black.

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™.

Instructor's view of a synchronous class. You can just see the graphics tablet bottom right. Note the headset microphone--standard issue for everyone doing distance education!
Instructor’s view of a synchronous class. In this configuration the participants are listed on the left, the chat window is on the right with the audio window above it and the whiteboard is in the middle. You can just see the edge of the graphics tablet at the bottom right. Note the headset microphone–standard issue for everyone doing distance education! Fellow Canadians will notice that it must have been ‘roll up the rim time!’

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.

Site visits during the pilot year were essential. Frequently the visits would be done by Frank and i working together. I would work with the students, showing them anything they need to know and, more importantly, picking their brains...finding out what was working and what was not.
Site visits during the pilot year were essential. Frequently the visits would be done by Frank and I working together. I would work with the students, showing them anything they need to know and, more importantly, picking their brains…finding out what was working and what was not.

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.

Frank would either work on the onsite equipment or engage in onsite training, as is the case here.
Frank would either work on the onsite equipment or engage in onsite training, as is the case here.

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).
Teacher/Program Specialist meeting held during the pilot year (L-R) Pat Whelan (Program Specialist, District 6), Wade Sheppard (Director, CDLI), Andrea Neville (eLearning Specialist, District 6)
Teacher/Program Specialist meeting held during the pilot year (L-R) Pat Whelan (Program Specialist, District 3), Wade Sheppard (Director, CDLI), Andrea Neville (eLearning Specialist, District 3), Lyndon Williams (eTeacher, CDLI)

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

Airport
All of the planes in the Northwest Atlantic were diverted to Newfoundland that day. Many of them landed at Gander. The passengers waited fearfully in the aircraft, not really knowing what had happened. Slowly the news started to get out. After a long time, the passengers were allowed to leave the aircraft, but were not allowed to leave.
Bus
The people of Gander and the surrounding area took care of those passengers in the days that followed. The story that resulted is one of generosity and compassion; a tale of how our ‘better parts’ can always triumph when we put love first…
It's been twelve years since that tragic day and perhaps time has helped heal some of the wounds but each year the people of central newfoundland recall the day the world came to town...
It’s been twelve years since that tragic day and perhaps time has helped heal some of the wounds but each year the people of central newfoundland recall the day the world came to town.

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.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-7: The Vista project: Lessons Learned (1998-2001)

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.

The view from Marble Mountain. There's no substitute for taking the long view...
The view from Marble Mountain. There’s no substitute for taking the long view…

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.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-6: The Vista project: Breaking New Ground (1998-2000)

In early 1998 Harvey Weir (Director of STEM~Net), Wilbert Boone (my direct supervisor at the time; the guy who seconded me to the DOE in 1992. Wilbert looked after both distance education and english-language curriculum development) and Wade Sheppard (Director, Vista School District) attended an international ‘blue sky’ eLearning conference. One of the events was a tour of a new facility designed to ‘deliver’ distance education to students all around the world. It was, of course, a sell-job. This was before the dot com bubble burst and the place was filled with entrepreneurs eager to make a pile of money selling all sorts of services. Education was a huge market. The three people, though, saw something different. While touring the facility it became obvious to them that the so-called state of the art equipment and methodologies were not as good as the ones already available at home. On the flight back they made plans to pilot an Internet-based version of distance education.

Taken at Wilbert Boone's retirement. Back Row (L-R) Lloyd Gill (first DE Physics teacher), Wayne Oakley (ADM when DE was instituted) Harvey Weir (founding director STEM~Net, director Continuing Studies, now DELTS) Dave Dibbom (Assiciate dean of Educ, later Dean, RIP sadly missed) Rachel Handrigan (AD, district 2), Wade Sheppard (Director Vista and CDLI) Rene Wicks (NLTA & founder of VTC) Front Wilbert Boone (Manager, curriculum section DOE, founding manager of DE program) Maureen Boone (Wilbert's wife, interpreter for deaf and hard of hearing) Jean Brown (Professor of Educ.) Me
Taken at Wilbert Boone’s retirement. Back Row (L-R) Lloyd Gill (first DE Physics teacher), Wayne Oakley (ADM when DE was instituted) Harvey Weir (founding director STEM~Net, director Continuing Studies, now DELTS) Dave Dibbom (Assiciate Dean of Educ, later Dean, RIP sadly missed) Rachel Handrigan (AD, district 2), Wade Sheppard (Director Vista and CDLI) Rene Wicks (NLTA & founder of VTC) Front Wilbert Boone (Manager, curriculum section DOE, founding manager of DE program) Maureen Boone (Wilbert’s wife, interpreter for deaf and hard of hearing) Jean Brown (Professor of Educ.) Me

With additional funding from Industry Canada, this saw the light of day as the Vista Project. It was named for the Vista school district, the one that Wade was director of and the one it would be piloted in. I, along with three other teachers, was assigned initially as a Subject Matter expert (physics) and later as one of the four pilot teachers. We, along with four student assistants, prepared and delivered four Advanced Placement courses (Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics) to students within the Vista school district in 1998-99. In the following year STEM~Net added to this by getting a grade ten Art Technology course also developed and implemented on a pilot basis and we expanded the AP to two other districts.

As you might expect it was not smooth sailing all the way. Hard lessons had to be learned.

The asynchronous tool, an early version of WebCT (since acquired by Blackboard) was quite capable, despite its relative ‘newness.’ The course content resided inside it. The “Learning Management System” (LMS) also had student email, reasonably powerful online testing tools, a dropbox for submitted work and a discussion forum, as well as a grade book. We were all new to this and time needed to be spent in learning how to use this new system and, more importantly, how to adapt our teaching and learning methodologies to its abilities. Compromises had to be made.

Recall also that I came from a distance education tradition that stressed regular and frequent synchronous (real-time) interaction. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I believe that ‘lecturing’ online is the be-all and the-end-all; far from it. It’s much more subtle. The synchronous tool is a very powerful way of ensuring that you are connecting with the students; that you are always there when needed. More importantly it’s an effective way of ensuring that you are building an online community of learners. High-school students do not all have the discipline of their post-secondary brethren. I know what you are thinking—be good! I was adamant: if I was to be a part of this project there had to be a strong synchronous component.

Today, there exist a wide variety of powerful synchronous communication tools. These range from free ones such as Skype™ or Messenger™ to more powerful (and not free) ones such as Blackboard Collaborate™, Microsoft Lync™ and Adobe Connect™, for instance and there are many more. In 1998, however, the offerings were not as good. Essentially we had Netmeeting™. For its time, Netmeeting was quite powerful. It gave you two-way voice, video via webcam, a decent whiteboard, and you could even share an application—that is, I could run a piece of software on my computer (say a lab interface—I used that a lot) and it would be displayed on the remote screen. The remote user didn’t need to even have the software. There were two problems: (1) NetMeeting was a bandwidth hog for its time. It would choke a dialup connection and (2) NetMeeting was what we call point-to-point; it was just one computer to another. You could not hook groups together the way we did with the standard model of distance education in use at the time. I needed multipoint—the ability to connect with more than one PC. I wanted to host some of my classes online in the live NetMeeting room.

We found the solution in a product called MeetingPoint. It was a software solution that allowed us to bridge together more than two NetMeeting sessions. To enable it we had to purchase the software—it was quite expensive, a dedicated server—it was quite hardware intensive, and a dedicated Internet line—it was a bandwidth hog. Recall, now, that this was 1998 and processor power and Internet bandwidth were just not ‘up there.’ Cable modems and DSL were considered high-end items and even Memorial University’s Internet connection would have been hit hard by adding a large MeetingPoint session to its backbone.

We gave it a go. Technically it did what it said it could. I was able to bring my classes together online in group format on a regular basis. At any given school site, rather than have every student sit at their own PC as we do today, the students would all huddle around one machine and share it. This was mainly because of the load the NetMeeting session would place on the school’s Internet connection.

The video above is a short clip of a NetMeeting/MeetingPoint session. It was taken at a student site by Frank Shapleigh during one of his visits. He was probably installing yet another satellite dish on the roof! Notice–you only have a second or so to see it–that there are two students huddled at the computer.

I settled into a regular schedule of alternating one 55-minute synchronous (done live via NetMeeting + MeetingPoint) class with one asynchronous class (the students would access course content through WebCT, work as assigned sample problems and such). That would give a total of 5-synchronous and 5-asynchronous classes every 14 school days. We were able to do some cool things. I particularly enjoyed the synchronous classes.  After all I come from a tradition that values real-time interaction. Using the whiteboard and audio I was able to teach in much the same manner as had been done with the previous distance-education model (see parts 2 and 3 in this series), but with important  enhancements:

  • The whiteboard was fully-featured with more than just freehand pen and text tools as had been the case with the DOS based telewriter. It contained much the same drawing tools as MS Paint.
  • The video was especially useful at creating a friendly class culture. I must admit, though, that we only used the cameras sparingly, and at the start of class, just to exchange greetings. The video tended to choke the connections. Besides, during class the cameras rarely added anything. It was useful in spurts, though. I recall: (1) showing motion demos from my office (2) demonstrating Newton’s Laws using various apparatus (3) showing refraction in both a wave tank and of light in glass, for example.
  • The application sharing was brilliant! Remember I taught physics. First, the ability to share the lab interface was a quantum leap! On a regular basis I would start the class with the webcam pointed to a simple lab apparatus—say an object that was about to undergo acceleration. One instance involved a hanging object located just below a motion sensor. The students could see the object, the stand, the sensor and could see me ready to burn through the string (cutting the line disturbs the object) so that the object would fall under the influence of gravity. I would have the lab interface shared and they could see the graphs of distance vs. time and velocity vs. time shared in real time as the object fell. Together we could then—over distance—examine the graphs which were drawn from REAL data. A geek’s paradise!
Me ca 1998 in class. Netmeeting is running on the PC. Note the graphics tablet on the desk, far right. We have always used these for writing on the screen during synchronous classes. The blue box just to the left of the monitor is a Vernier MPLI, a digital interface used for physics labs. Muse have been just after Christmas--my little tree is still on the file cabinet :>)
Me ca. 2000 in class. Netmeeting is running on the PC. Note the graphics tablet on the desk, far right. We have always used these for writing on the screen during synchronous classes. The blue box just to the left of the monitor is a Vernier MPLI, a digital interface used for physics labs. Must have been just after Christmas–my little tree is still on the file cabinet :>) surely I didn’t have it out in October, as the printed date on the photo suggests!

That said, there were quite a few hiccups. In particular, we found the Internet connections to be our biggest source of frustration. MeetingPoint was a hog and tended to use most of the school’s available bandwidth. This meant all sorts of trouble! We had frequent dropped connections—the students (and I) would get disconnected from class and have to re-connect. This resulted in far-too-frequent class interruptions; frequent to the point of being a major problem, in fact. In addition, the choked connections played havoc with other aspects of communication. The whiteboards would be delayed sometimes—the students would not see what I wrote until seconds later. Worse, though, the audio would often be delayed or even garbled. Very frustrating for everyone!

Next: The Vista project left us with some valuable lessons learned. These will be outlined in Part 7.

K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-5: STEM~Net and School Connectivity

All through the 1990s STEM~Net tackled the problem of providing school and teacher Internet connectivity head-on, with the aid of Industry Canada. It forged partnerships with existing communications companies and even took unprecedented measures of its own to make things happen that the industry could not.

While the connectivity work was being done the other activities, of course, forged ahead. (L-R) Ken Penney (stemnet), Dale Fraser (stemnet), King (Coley's point Elem.) and Bill Jamieson (St. Andrews Elem.)
While the connectivity work was being done the other activities, of course, forged ahead. (L-R) Ken Penney (stemnet), Dale Fraser (stemnet), Wendy King (Coley’s point Elem.) and Bill Jamieson (St. Andrews Elem.)

It worked. Thanks to the efforts of many, including the support of Industry Canada’s Doug Hull and especially Frank Shapleigh, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was able to claim bragging rights of being the first to have all its schools online. When you think about it that’s quite an achievement given the extreme rurality of the place.

In many places only a sign post separates communities. That is not the case here.
In many places only a sign post separates communities. That is not the case here.

None of it came easy. The overall solutions were a collection of best efforts by all involved. The schools in the larger centres were relatively easy to work with. I use that term with caution, knowing full well that the Internet Service Providers were in full build mode striving to deliver new services over infrastructure that was not originally intended for digital signals. Those coax lines were intended to carry analog cable TV; those copper phone lines were intended to carry voice by analog. Soon, though, cable and DSL modems would be sending digital signals through those conduits. Electronics everywhere had to be replaced; and THAT cost a lot of time and money. Schools were not wired for computer networking when they were built; no existing LAN infrastructure. Many of the schools were therefore actually wired up for networking by dedicated teams of volunteers who came in on evenings and weekends—all for free, of course. The work got done, and soon, through STEM~Net sponsored projects (with generous support on behalf of the providers) such as Stellar Schools, the larger, more urban schools were soon all online.

It was much harder in the ‘outports’ but they were not forgotten. STEM~Net’s directors, first Harvey Weir and then, (when Harvey moved to Post Secondary DE) Nancy Parsons, were both determined to connect the rural schools too. It got done, but it was much harder. Some schools had dial-up, some had various faster copper-line based solutions (e.g. DSL and Cable). Most had the hybrid satellites shown in the pictures. Fibre was to come much later—to this day not all sites are served that way, but progress continues to be made.

Would you like to be the one walking on this roof?
Would you like to be the one walking on this roof?

The satellite connections were very much a grassroots activity. Harvey Weir had succeeded in obtaining a large number of DirectPC systems from Ottawa. Frank Shapleigh led the process of installing them. Most were mounted on the roofs of schools. The parts were often assembled in the school by the students or other personnel at the school and then installed on the roofs by the school’s custodial staff, teachers, or community volunteers, all under Frank’s guidance. The fact is, there is hardly a school roof in this province that Frank has not walked on. :>)

Frank and Berkley installing a satellite dish on the roof of the school in in Lumsden.
Frank and Mike Connolley installing a satellite dish on the roof of the school in in Lumsden.
Here's the view from that same roof!
Here’s the view from that same roof!

The DirectPC systems were a hybrid. Here’s how it worked: a student would click a hyperlink in the computer lab and the request would go out to the school proxy server which would then upload it via dial-up to the Internet where the request would go to the server in question. The content requested would then NOT go back via dialup. It would, instead, be routed to the satellite uplink ground station just outside of Toronto where it would be beamed up to the satellite. The signal would then be beamed back to earth (at very high speed) where it would be received by the satellite dish on the school roof and then routed to the student’s computer via the school proxy server. It was much faster than dialup because on the Internet, at the time (and mostly still today) the majority of traffic is download. So the upload at dialup speed was tolerable. The downlink through the satellite was faster so, overall, the system was reasonably good.

There were a couple of hitches. First, the satellite bandwidth was shared with all users—and there were MANY—so after 11AM, when the rest of North America woke up, the system started to slow. On some days the system became little better than dial-up. Second, these satellite systems rely on geosynchronous satellites—ones that remain fixed in place above the same exact spot on earth. That’s so you can aim the dish right at the satellite and get the best signal strength. They revolve around the earth once every 24 hours. This means they have to be located (a) directly above the equator and (b) at an altitude of approximately 37,000 km. Here’s the problem: the communities in our province are mostly located between about 50o and 57o N latitude. This means that the ‘look angle’ to the satellites is pretty small. Simply put, the satellites appear to be barely above the horizon. Trees, nearby buildings and worst of all, hills, can block the view of the satellite. The further North you go the worse this gets—and the bigger the dish you may need to allow for a strong-enough signal. In many, many places, from the school, the satellite was actually out of sight and significant measures had to be taken so that the system would work. But it was made to work.

The video above shows the installation of the system in one of our sites, H. L. Strong Academy in Little Bay Islands. Viewed from the school, the satellite was behind a hill–and thus unreachable–so Frank, school board personnel and community volunteers cut a path up the hill, built a structure to support the dish and installed it there. The camera is a bit tricky; the hill is MUCH steeper than it appears. You pretty much have to crawl up and slide down! The end of the video shows the ferry coming, and it’s not hard to get an appreciation for the rurality of the place. Incidentally, it was not always that way. In earlier times Little Bay Islands was a well-populated hub of economic activity, serving as a service and processing centre for the Labrador fishery. Times change. A little later on in the series (part 7 or 8) you will see what had to be done when we upgraded the system four years later.

By around 1997, people were realizing that the Internet was starting to mature to the point where it could, perhaps, meet the high-speed/reliability specs imposed by distance education. Let’s be clear—whatever technology used to ‘deliver’ distance education is a serious piece of the school’s infrastructure. In short, it cannot withstand failure. What happens when the heating system fails? When the buses don’t run? When front-line personnel strike?  The same thing happens in distance education when the communications systems go down. In essence school closes and students do not get their due.

Switch to the moment for a sec. What would happen if the cellphone system failed? Can you hear the screams?  OK, switch back. That’s NOT how it was VIEWED in the nineties but that’s how it WAS. We had a solid, reliable and effective system for distance education in the province. Though electronic it was not Internet based. We did, collectively, see the value and the promise in the Internet but we also had enough sense to know that we had some ways to go before we had a solid, reliable working system that was just as effective.

A 'roundtable' discussion on the future of Tele-Education and Tele-Health hosted in the late nineties by STEM~Net. Bet you can't find me in the picture :>)
A ’roundtable’ discussion on the future of Tele-Education and Tele-Health hosted in the late nineties by STEM~Net. Bet you can’t find me in the picture :>) Harvey Weir was one of the lead organizers of this event…we will pick up that strand in the next post.

The whole educational community wanted this to happen. At both the formal and the informal levels various levels of both the education and health care systems were cooperating and partnering to try and effect positive change.

Next: Enter the Vista project; a major source of new information that led to improvement.