BROADBAND IN TEACHING AND LEARNING IN NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR
Rob Power and Elizabeth Murphy
In recent years, there have been initiatives to provide schools throughout Newfoundland and Labrador with access to broadband connectivity and related communications technologies. These efforts have occurred in parallel with nationwide initiatives to put in place broadband networks, particularly in rural and remote communities. The significance of these initiatives requires an understanding of the nature and characteristics of broadband and its potential benefits in a context of teaching and learning. An examination of two schools from Newfoundland and Labrador indicates that schools are, to some degree, experiencing these benefits. However, despite these initiatives, access to broadband remains a critical issue for teaching and learning in this province given its unique geographic and demographic characteristics.
There has been discussion in recent years regarding putting in place a broadband infrastructure in Canada. Much of this discussion has focused on the benefits of broadband in teaching and learning (see Savage, 2001; SchoolNet, 2001, 2002b, 2002c). This discussion has occurred in parallel with nationwide efforts in K-12 education systems to increase the level of technology integration into the curriculum, and to provide access to equivalent educational opportunities for all learners (see APEF, n.d., 2000; Industry Canada, 2002a, 2002b; SchoolNet, 2001). Providing broadband has been discussed as one means achieving these goals. However, the question arises as to what benefits can be realized from access to broadband-supported teaching and learning. While the literature provides insight into the benefits related to online learning in general (see for example Dibbon, 2002; Laferrière, 1999; Laferrière, et. al. 2001), it has not provided a similar insight into the benefits of broadband in particular.
The purpose of this paper is to describe some of these benefits as they have been experienced by two Newfoundland schools. Some barriers to the realization of benefits will also be discussed in an effort to consider how schools could be further supported in order to achieve more benefits in the future. The paper begins with a definition of what constitutes broadband as well as an overview of broadband connectivity in Newfoundland and Labrador schools.
The term broadband typically refers to 24/7, high-speed, bi-directional connectivity. The Industry Canada Broadband Technical Resource Team (2003) defines broadband as "two-way access to a variety of services via a high speed connection to the public data network and/or the Internet," (p. 2) while acknowledging that there is no universally accepted data transfer rate for broadband. The National Broadband Task Force (see Industry Canada Broadband Technical Resource Team, 2003) specifies a data transfer rate of 1.544 Megabits per second as suitable for applications such as full-motion videoconferencing. Although lower transfer rates can allow for videoconferencing, a transfer rate suitable for full-motion videoconferencing would be required to be practical in an educational context.
Provincial Broadband Connectivity Context
In Newfoundland and Labrador, technical and administrative support for students, educators, and educational stakeholders, including connectivity support, is primarily provided by the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI), the Student/Teacher Educational Multimedia Network (STEM~Net) and the Virtual Teacher Centre (VTC). These organizations have mandates ranging from the development and distribution of distance education opportunities, to the provision and support of access to connectivity and computer equipment and the facilitation of innovative educational experiences such as seen in the SchoolNet GrassRoots program (see Dibbon, 2002; SchoolNet, 2003a). They also play critical roles in the development, facilitation, and support of professional development for educators, and distributing high quality educational resources (see CDLI, n.d.; Govt. of NL, 2003a; STEM~Net, n.d.,1999; Virtual Teacher Centre, 2002).
Level of Technology Integration in Schools in Newfoundland and Labrador
The Department of Education's Profile '96: Educational Indicators (Govt. of NL, 1996) provides information on the number of schools with local area computer networks, the ratio of students to computers, and the ratio of students to computers with multimedia or Internet access capabilities. According to the profile, in 1996, the majority of the province's schools were unable to provide students or educators with adequate access to technical resources or connectivity to realize significant benefits in teaching and learning. More recent documentary evidence indicating that these ratios have decreased can be found in information on school connectivity provided by CDLI. At present, 512K Frame Relay is used by 90 of the province's 317 schools in order to facilitate the delivery of the Centre's distance learning program (CDLI, n.d.; Govt. of NL, 2003a). CDLI also provides connectivity by means of two-way wireless satellite in areas where adequate local access is not already in place to ensure that students can avail of distance education opportunities.
Data on provincial and national trends in connectivity and Internet usage provided in Statistics Canada's General Social Survey 2000 (Dickinson & Ellison 1999; Dryburgh, 2001; Statistics Canada, 2001) demonstrate that access to Internet connectivity, as well as levels of Internet usage are on the rise in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, there are significant differences between provincial rates and national averages. The differences between the provincial and national rates for Internet penetration into schools, the home and the workplace, and the trends in household connectivity, indicate that schools in Newfoundland and Labrador may play a more significant role than those in other provinces in terms of providing students and educators with access to technology, and distance education and e-learning opportunities (Dickinson & Ellison 1999; Dryburgh, 2001; Statistics Canada, 2001).
Federal Industry Minister Allan Rock announced in June of 2003 that Industry Canada would work in partnership with the provincial government to provide broadband throughout the province (Govt. of Canada & Govt. of NL, 2003; Govt. of NL, 2003b). The Connecting Learners and Communities project will entail an investment of $15-million to provide broadband to schools and communities in rural and remote areas. The two levels of government will also seek private sector partnerships to contribute to the cost of the initiative. The initiative is expected to have implications for the delivery of education, e-business and tele-medicine services (Govt. of Canada & Govt. of NL, 2003; Govt. of NL, 2003b). The project's intent is to expand and improve the delivery and accessibility of services currently provided by CDLI. Provincial Education Minister Gerry Reid noted that two-thirds of the province's 317 schools are located in rural and remote areas, and that providing access to broadband will have major benefits in terms of their access to CDLI services and resources.
Realizing the Benefits of Broadband Access in Newfoundland and Labrador Schools
It is of value to inquire into the activities of schools where broadband connections have been put in place so as to assess some of the ways that benefits of access are being realized. This paper considers the cases of two Newfoundland schools that have been profiled in the literature and that have access to broadband connections. The cases of Roncalli Central High School (RCHS) in Port Saunders, NL and of Fatima Academy in St. Brides, NL are presented in order to provide insight into ways that schools are making use of their broadband connection to take advantage of opportunities to develop new skills, innovate, collaborate and access mentors and experts.
Roncalli Central High School, Port Saunders, NL
Roncalli is a member of the SchoolNet Network of Innovative Schools and has actively participated in the SchoolNet GrassRoots program (Dibbon, 2002; RCHS, 2003; SchoolNet, 2003a; STEM~Net, 1999). Gaining designation as an NIS school has been a major achievement for RCHS, which has been recognized as a leader for technology innovation in such areas as broadcasting, journalism and robotics. In his study of the impact of GrassRoots participation on NIS schools, Dibbon (2003) notes that RCHS participated in over thirty GrassRoots projects in the first few years of the program. Meanwhile, approximately one-third of the school's seventeen teachers were involved with between ten to twelve GrassRoots project applications in the 2001-02 school year alone.More recently, RCHS was one of thirteen schools to participate in the Telesat Satellite Multimedia Trails (see Roncalli Central High School, 2003; Telesat, n.d., a; Walker, 2003a, 2003d). Over the eighteen-month duration of the project the school gained satellite forward connectivity rates of up to 3 Mbps for Internet access and video distribution, and return link burst cap rates ranging from 64 Kbps to 512Kbps (Telesat, n.d., b). It was also linked to a network that included Telesat in Ottawa and the twelve other participating schools in three provinces. Teachers and students at the school were quick to familiarize themselves with the benefits of the new connectivity and the equipment and resources that had been provided to them.
In an interview with Doug Walker of SchoolNet News (Walker, 2003a), the school's principal and technology teacher noted increased enthusiasm for the potential of the resources and for innovative approaches to teaching and learning. They described the integration of technology into the curriculum as an ongoing collaborative effort spanning many subject areas simultaneously. Increased enthusiasm and innovation were also attributed to a growing realization that teaching with technology was not the same as teaching technology (Dibbon, 2002, pp.69-70; RCHS, 2003; Telesat, n.d., a; Walker, 2003a, 2003d), and that collaborative efforts could cover multiple objectives simultaneously, while also easing the time-constraints on already over-burdened teachers.
Walker (2003e) lists the use of the videoconferencing capacity of broadband as one of the more popular features used by schools participating in the Telesat Satellite Multimedia Trails. That feature was used by Walker to interview the principal and technology teacher, who described it as potentially one of the most powerful tools associated with broadband. Students at RCHS used videoconferencing to participate in collaborative activities with remote classes, to receive mentoring and assistance from remote experts, and to participate in events that would have otherwise been impossible given the school's location (RCHS, 2003; Telesat, n.d., a; Walker, 2003a, 2003d). Videoconferencing also allowed teachers to collaborate with their peers from other schools and to receive technical advice from remotely located experts. The principal and technology teacher noted that videoconferencing could also be used to facilitate virtual class visits by subject area experts from anywhere in the world.
The relatively isolated school has been able to exhibit leadership in innovation and technology integration on provincial and national scales (see Dibbon, 2002, pp.69-70; RCHS, 2003; Telesat, n.d., a; Walker, 2003a, 2003d). Students have been able to participate, and win awards on a national scale in areas such as broadcasting, journalism, multimedia production, robotics, and the sciences. Student and teacher motivation has increased, and collaborative and innovative teaching practices have been more widely accepted. As Dibbon (2002) notes, RCHS appears comfortably situated in stage two innovation--the adoption of innovative ways of teaching and learning, and the invention of new ways of teaching and learning with technology--and is well on its way towards stage three innovation--the transformation of teaching and learning into more open-concept schooling with both intra and inter-school collaboration.
Fatima Academy, St. Bride's, NL
Fatima Academy is another example of a school where the integration of information and communications technologies and broadband has brought with them many benefits. The school is located in the rural community of St. Bride's, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. In 1996, the school was in a district where the average ratio of students to computers was 13.2:1, and the average ratio of students to multimedia and Internet-capable computers was 65.3:1 (Govt. of NL, 1996, p.55). Despite this, Fatima Academy has a history of participation in the SchoolNet GrassRoots program that stretches back to 1996 (Fatima Academy, 2003; SchoolNet, 2001; Walker, 2003c). The school is now a member of the SchoolNet Network of Innovative Schools and, more recently, has participated in the Telesat Satellite Multimedia Trails (see Fatima Academy, 2003; Telesat, n.d., a; Walker, 2003c, 2003d). Participation in those initiatives has allowed the school to facilitate increased technical capacity, foster the development of technology and knowledge-economy skills, and experience the advantages of innovation and change in teaching and learning environments.
Access to advanced information and communications technology and broadband have allowed teachers and students at Fatima Academy to explore real-world and alternative learning resources, avail of expert advice, build and strengthen ties with their peers in other schools, and build and showcase their enthusiasm and success in learning (see Fatima Academy, 2003; Walker, 2003c). Among the projects developed as part of the SchoolNet GrassRoots program, teachers and students have developed online resources showcasing their local community and natural ecology. Other projects have highlighted the impact of natural disasters such as oil spills and Hurricane Gert. The school has also collaborated with remotely located experts, such as scientists at the Freshwater Fluvarium in St. John's, NL, to provide older students with opportunities to learn about and participate in the science of salmon hatchery and the conservation of salmon stocks in St. John's rivers. In an examination of the school's web site, Walker (2003c) notes that there is a high degree of incorporation of new technologies such as digital photography and audio and video clips. But Walker points out that these technologies are only used when appropriate to advance the learning of students and to convey expressions of the significance of topics.Participation in the Telesat Satellite Multimedia Trials brought new resources and benefits to Fatima Academy. For the first time, the school experienced the benefits of access to satellite forward connectivity rates of up to 3 Mbps and return link burst cap rates ranging from 64 Kbps to 512 Kbps, as well as joining a network of schools participating in the Trials (Fatima Academy, 2003; Telesat, n.d., a, n.d., b; Walker, 2003c, 2003d). The faster and more reliable Internet access and the potential of videoconferencing capabilities were among the resources exploited by students and teachers over the eighteen-month span of the program (Fatima Academy, 2003; Walker, 2003c). Students from Fatima Academy participated in videoconference exchanges with their peers from other schools in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as in Quebec. Such videoconferences allowed for cultural exchanges and opportunities for students to teach one another about local ecological resources and wonders. Teachers and administrators from Fatima Academy took advantage of high-speed Internet access and videoconferencing to network with their peers from other schools and with experts in remote locations to exchange ideas and best-practices and to overcome technical challenges.
Examining the impact of Fatima Academy's participation in the SchoolNet Network of Innovative Schools and GrassRoots programs and the Telesat Satellite Multimedia Trials shows that the school is, to some extent, realizing the benefits of access to broadband (Fatima Academy, 2003; Walker, 2003c,2003d). Students and teachers alike have had the opportunity to expand their repertoires of technology-related skills and have shown an ability to use those skills to share their enthusiasm and successes effectively as well as to explore and develop a wealth of alternative educational resources. They have also had the opportunity to develop and work in highly collaborative environments. Both of these achievements in recent years have increased the school's ability to meet the demands of an increasingly technology and knowledge-based economy (Fatima Academy, 2003; Walker, 2003c, 2003d). In addition to this, teachers and students have demonstrated increased ability and willingness to develop networks with other schools and to exchange ideas and best practices. Students and teachers at Fatima Academy have demonstrated success in what Dibbon (2002) describes as stage two innovation. They are collaborating, integrating new ways of using technology in education, and exchanging ideas and expertise. Fatima Academy also appears to be well on its way to demonstrating stage three innovation (Dibbon, 2002). The school has a reputation for being an exciting place to learn,and has begun to integrate innovative ways of opening up the classroom beyond traditional walls and ways of teaching and learning as well as ways of connecting the teaching and learning experiences of students and teachers with those of their peers from other parts of the province, and the country.
Achieving Further Benefits
The two examples provided in this paper suggest that some schools in Newfoundland and Labrador are experiencing some benefits from broadband. The announcement of a partnership to put in place province-wide access to broadband will provide support for further realization of benefits. Teachers and administrators from schools that have gained broadband have identified several benefits that must be encouraged. These include the continued, if not increased, promotion of technology integration and the adoption of collaborative and innovative practices. One possibility that has been identified is offering increased incentives for participation in GrassRoots projects (Dibbon, 2002). Increased financial incentives have been identified as one way to attract new teachers to participate in the technology integration, and to enable participants to integrate more resources within their schools. A concern that has been identified is a lack of time to dedicate to planning and implementing technology-related initiatives (Dibbon, 2002; Walker, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2003d, 2003e). Educators note that being overburdened with course loads and curriculum objectives prevents them from being more innovative and transforming teaching and learning environments in their schools. Addressing this concern, combined with further support and incentives for innovation, could lead to further benefits. As more teachers gain the time to collaborate, plan, and implement innovative initiatives, they will begin to find ways to use such initiatives to reduce their initial burdens and to meet curriculum requirements more effectively (Dibbon, 2002).
Another issue that has been identified is a lack of opportunities for professional development, thereby reducing capacity to integrate and use technology effectively (Dibbon, 2002; Walker, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2003d, 2003e). Opportunities for professional development could be provided in many forms, including providing funding and support for increased collaboration between schools. As schools gain the capacity to collaborate using broadband connections, and as they network with larger groups of remotely located schools, they will gain access to pools of ideas, expertise, and best practices that could help to resolve their professional development needs (Walker, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2003d, 2003e). In addition, as schools gain further capacity through broadband, educators will gain increased access to such resources as CDLI, SchoolNet, STEM~Net, and VTC. This access will provide them with more opportunities for online professional development and will allow them to contribute their own ideas, expertise, and best practices to a growing pool of educational resources (CDLI, n.d.; Dibbon, 2002; STEM~Net, n.d., 1999; Virtual Teacher Centre, 2002).
This paper presented the examples of two schools to illustrate some ways in which benefits of broadband are being realized in Newfoundland and Labrador. These benefits include increased technical literacy, increased access to a broad range of previously unavailable educational resources, increased student participation and achievement in a wider range of educational experiences, and increased motivation amongst both students and teachers. These benefits also include a transformation of the learning environment itself, through a shift towards greater collaboration among students, teachers, and schools, and a shift towards more open-concept schooling. Continued commitment to providing access to state-of-the-art technology and connectivity and to providing opportunities for professional development and collaboration within and between schools will help promote realization of benefits through a greater sharing of ideas, expertise, and best practices. The benefits of such changes include increased technological capacity within schools, increased ability to meet the rapidly changing demands of society, and increased capacity to transform pedagogical practices and the environment in which teaching and learning occurs. Further studies could provide insight into the effects of broadband access on student achievement, faster and more practical and reliable methods of providing broadband, particularly for rural and remote schools, and ways to support and encourage further collaboration and innovation amongst educators and students using broadband.
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