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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Re-Post From The AECT BlogTrack - My Research In Virtual Schooling: Context

Okay, so this is the eighth entry from this series and the last entry that I posted to my AECT BlogTrack blog during the month of May.

Given that one of the aspects of this Blogtrack is that it should be research based, that is a look at the research in online learning from each of our individual perspectives, I thought I should begin a series of entries over the next few weeks about some of the research that I have done with virtual schooling. I’ll be honest and say that I got the idea for this from a roundtable presentation that I am doing tomorrow at the CSSE conference (see any of the late May entries in my Breaking into the Academy blog to read more about that conference). Basically, my roundtable was an overview of the development of the virtual school in Newfoundland, Canada and then a description of six different studies that I have conducted with that virtual school (I did exclude a seventh, which was a vey small study that I will include in this series of entries). Over the next four weeks I will try and post two entries per week to get these ideas out, hopefully they will generate some discussion about the different topics that I have been interested in. However, before I begin the short descriptions of the studies I thought that some context about this virtual school was in order.

In 1999, the Government appointed a ministerial panel to, among other things, “examine the current educational delivery model and consider alternative approaches” (Sparkes & Williams, 2000, p. 2). In their report a year later, the ministerial panel recommended the creation of the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) to be based upon the web-based model that had been evolving throughout the province. This model was not to be “totally dependent on high bandwidth technologies [and have a] minimal reliance on synchronous communications, fixed schedules or other constraining elements” (Sparkes & Williams, 2000, p. 65). The vision of the CDLI was to provide access to educational opportunities for students, teachers and other adult learners in both rural and urban communities in a manner that renders distance transparent; eliminate geographical and demographic barriers as obstacles to broad, quality educational programs and services; and develop a culture of e-learning in our schools which is considered to be an integral part of school life for all teachers and students.

The CDLI began in 2001-02 with ten courses field tested in ten districts (i.e., one course per district), having a total of 200 student enrolments from 76 different rural schools. After the initial field test, the CDLI expanded its course offerings so that students from all over the province could access any course. Over the past four years, the CDLI increased its offerings to the point where there had 1,500 student enrolments from 95 different schools in thirty-five courses in 2004-05 (Government of Newfoundland, 2004).

The CDLI also provides a variety of instructional support for students enrolled in any of their thirty-five courses. The two main sources of this support come from synchronous and asynchronous instruction. The CDLI has experienced and highly qualified teachers that provide, depending on the subject area, anywhere from 30% to 80% of the students scheduled time (which is 10 one hour periods over a fourteen day cycle) in synchronous instruction using the voice over Internet protocol software, Elluminate Live®. This software allows for two-way voice over the Internet, a shared, interactive whiteboard, instant messaging, application sharing, breakout rooms, and interactive quiz and survey management. Through this software, teachers are able to provide synchronous instruction in much the same way that they would in a traditional classroom.

The asynchronous instruction is conducted using a course management system called WebCT®. This software provides the teacher and students with a variety of tools, including: a discussion forum, a shared calendar, an internal e-mail system, and a place to house the course web pages. The course web pages are designed by a team of two individuals: a teacher acting as a subject matter expert and a multimedia specialist to add images and interactive items into the content. The course web pages are divided up into the units called for in the provincially mandated curriculum guide, further divided into sections which are akin to themes that may flow in each of the units, and finally into lessons which are designed as the items of actual asynchronous instruction that can be completed in usually one to three hours of student time. Each Lesson is broken down into five component parts (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Overview of the Lesson template
  1. You Will Learn – briefly lists, in student friendly language, the instructional outcomes for the lesson;
  2. You Should Know – lists, and when necessary elaborates on, knowledge and skills students are expected to have mastered prior to the lesson;
  3. Lesson – is self-explanatory and may be broken into multiple pages;
  4. Activities – contains further instructional events the student that students need to carry out in order to master the lesson outcomes; and
  5. Test Yourself – offers an opportunity for the student to gauge the degree to which the outcomes were achieved. (Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation, 2003, p. 12)

In addition to the course web pages, teachers regularly utilize the course calendar to post upcoming work and assignments, deadlines, and a notification for quizzes and tests. Teachers also regularly use the internal e-mail system and discussion forums to communicate with their students outside of their synchronous class time (known as online time, as opposed to the non-synchronous sessions which are known as offline time). Finally, it is not uncommon for teachers to post additional lecture notes, MS Powerpoint presentations, and useful websites in WebCT.

The CDLI also participates in the Tutoring for Tuition program. Through their participation in this program, the CDLI are able to provide senior secondary and post-secondary students in twenty-one different subject areas who are available for synchronous tutoring using the Elluminate Live software for two hours each day outside of the traditional school day (i.e., after 3:00pm on weekdays). The CDLI has also developed a series of 50-100 multimedia learning clips per course, for eleven courses that are evaluated with year-end standardized public examinations. These learning clips were developed by practicing classroom teachers and have been designed to provide a thorough review to complement in-class preparations for the public exams. Finally, the CDLI has created additional learning clips for four public exam courses based upon the June 2004 public exam and has provided resource course webs for two additional grade ten courses.

At the school level, each school would have one teacher that is assigned the responsibility of looking after the computers in the school, including the up to six computers that have been purchased by the CDLI and placed in the school with all of the necessary software and hardware for the students to be able to access all aspects of their web-based courses. The CDLI has also arranged for all schools that have students in courses offered by the CDLI to have ADSL, cable modem, frame relay, or high speed satellite (two-way) connections to ensure adequate bandwidth. In addition to the school-based teacher responsible for technology in each school, schools are also responsible for having a mediating teacher (i.e., m-teacher) or mediating team (i.e., m-team), which may or may not include the teacher responsible for the technology. The goal of this m-teacher or m-team is to provide supervision and support (although not academic support) to the students enrolled in CDLI courses. These are the teacher(s) who proctors tests and exams, monitors student attendance and behaviour, and provide general support in gaining the independent learning and self-motivation skills that may be needed to succeed in the CDLI environment.

Selected Bibliography

Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation. (2003). CDLI educator’s reference manual. St. John’s, NL: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Retrieved on February 24, 2005 from http://www.cdli.ca/pdf/2003_educators_reference_manual.pdf

Government of Newfoundland. (2004, September 9). CDLI’s reputation continues to grow. St. John’s, NL: Queen’s Printing for Newfoundland and Labrador. Retrieved on December 9, 2004 from http://www.gov.nl.ca/releases/2004/edu/0909n04.htm

Sparkes, R. & Williams, L. (2000). Supporting learning: Ministerial panel on educational delivery in the classroom. St. John’s, NL: Queen’s Printing for Newfoundland and Labrador.

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