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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

Making Learning Connections Through Telelearning

The virtual classroom opens up a world of learning to students.

Fifteen high school students fidget while scanning their last-minute notes and anxiously exchanging glances. Their teacher offers some final tips, smiles, and asks, "So, are we ready?"
Suddenly, four smaller screens appear on a large overhead screen. Each box shows a group of high school students smiling and waving nervously. The first box shows a diverse group of 30 in a former automotive-shop classroom in a central Toronto, Ontario high school. Another box shows a few students and several special guests sitting in a technohaven—a network operations center called the Broadband Applications Lab—at the Communications Research Centre (CRC) in Ottawa, Ontario. The third box televises three high school students in an office at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. The last box shows our students in the Collaborative TeleLearning Centre at J. Percy Page High School in Edmonton, Alberta.
Thanks to modern technology, our students are learning in a new environment. Students, not teachers, are on stage. The teacher-facilitator and coordinator stand on the sidelines next to a computer technician. Instead of desks, chalkboards, textbooks, and binders as learning tools, the teachers and students use movable seating, a large screen, a computer projection device, a computer, a camera, and a microphone.

The Page Virtual Classroom Program

Students and teachers in the Virtual Classroom Program at J. Percy Page High School connect in real time with peers and experts from around the world. Students collaboratively select multidisciplinary topics, conduct research using online databases and experts, and create oral and multimedia presentations. During scheduled online telelearning events, students share their knowledge and debate their peers and experts.
Our students and teachers have participated in international broadband teleconferences with their counterparts in Switzerland, Ireland, and Germany. Most of our events, however, are national in focus and involve online interaction among schools in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland. The Communications Research Centre—under its mandate to research and develop communications technologies and application development—created the virtual classroom concept and facilitates these interactions.
J. Percy Page High School offers the Virtual Classroom Program to students in grades 10 and 11/12 as a career and technologies studies course. As part of the Alberta curriculum, all students must achieve curricular outcome expectations for information and communications technology. No prerequisites are required. The Virtual Classroom Program supports and enhances the curriculum within the core subject areas while meeting technology-related outcomes. For example, the Virtual Classroom students have conducted research, delivered presentations, and debated the global water crisis with students across Canada. This activity fits the curriculums for science (properties of water), biology (ecology), and social studies (globalization, environmental studies, and current events). To meet the career and technology studies requirements, students complete self- and teacher-selected modules, covering such topics as conference coordination, advanced communications, desktop publishing, presentation applications, and Web-site design.
Students can earn different numbers of credits toward graduation—usually three credits a semester—according to whether they register for a full- or a half-year session and the number of modules they complete. They participate in three telelearning sessions each semester. After one semester, we invite students to remain in the program, and several students elect to stay in the program throughout high school. A few former students participate in events even though they now attend universities.
The three educators who facilitate the Virtual Classroom Program classes, often in consultation with others, come from a variety of backgrounds: science and computers, social studies and English, and curriculum coordination and partnerships. An in-school technical support person provides assistance as needed

Telelearning in Action

To get an idea of what a Virtual Classroom project looks like, let's return to our earlier example. Students in four locations had just gathered electronically. A student at the CRC welcomes the students from each location. Then Amy, one of our students, turns on her microphone and says, "We are pleased to present the topic of technology versus personal privacy and safety. Our group has created a video that demonstrates how your personal privacy and safety can be at risk owing to advances in technology." She waits, for what seems like an eternity, for the video to begin. When it does, it's going too fast: The screen is streaked and the sound is garbled.
The group panics and turns to their teacher-facilitator. With a gentle reminder that they have done hours of research, she asks the students whether they can teach both sides of the issue without the video. After some quick brainstorming while the technician tries to get the video to stream in the correct speed, Amy and Gloria summarize both sides of the issue, with input from their classmates, and pose some questions: How have advances in technology affected our personal and national privacy and safety? What are the dangers created by this new age of technology and how can we protect ourselves?
For the next hour, the student groups from across Canada debate a variety of issues concerning technology and privacy. Toronto students attempt to convince the other groups that the practice of capturing Internet Protocol addresses when people visit Internet sites and then sending those people advertising equates to spying. Our students point out several additional ways that personal information can be obtained and discuss how we can protect our privacy. In the meantime, our technician fixes the video problem and our presentation closes with the student-created multimedia presentation.
Next, an educational researcher from the University of Quebec appears on-screen and asks the students to comment on what they have learned and what they think of this way of learning. The students offer insightful comments: "Other student groups offered many different points of view that my group never came up with," "We didn't know about IP tracing and some of the other safety issues regarding the Internet," and "This is a great way to learn—from one another"
After a break, our panCanadian classroom resumes with a presentation by our telementor, explorer and renowned photographer Mike Beedel. His presentation on the plight of the spirit bear in British Columbia contains breathtaking images and thought-provoking narrations by author Pamela Coulston. Students from each region eagerly ask questions about the elusive bear and its threatened habitat. The students decide to send letters and e-mails to government officials to express concern about the bear's survival. Mike provides the necessary addresses on a whiteboard that appears on everyone's screen. Once again, the session concludes with an evaluation led by the University of Quebec researcher.
By now, it's noon and the students say good-bye. After lunch they will attend traditional classes. With the students gone, the educators and technicians review the morning's activities, including the proper use of the microphone by students, the control of sound and light levels, the high caliber of student presentations, and ways to expand the program.
On the second day, the four boxes pop up again on the screen. We are joined by the CRC group and Newfoundland students from yesterday, and a new group of grade 8 students from Quebec. The grade 8 students describe in French and English the geological formation of the region where they live and present a slide show of scientific diagrams and photographic images. One young presenter uses the computer application's drawing tool to draw a circle (with a cartoon crayon that appears on everyone's screen) around each geographic area as it is described. Questions and answers close this session and the evaluation process takes place.
Next, all attention focuses on the students from Newfoundland as they present their topic: world conflict resulting from cultural differences. The speaker's soft voice combined with technical sound trouble causes our students to strain to hear. Using hand signals off-camera, Amy indicates that she would like something to write with. Her teacher appears with a flip chart and some markers. Instinctively, the student operating the camera focuses on the flip chart. Amy takes a marker and starts writing the main ideas of the presentation. This simple addition helps everyone follow the presentation.
When Amy wants to participate in the discussion, Ricky takes over at the flip chart and posts the idea sheets on the wall. This session's tone is quite dark as students discuss the ugly side of humanity, and images of war fill the screen. The discussion turns to finding solutions, and students debate many suggestions, from tolerance education to United Nations intervention. In the evaluation segment, the students conclude that facilitating ongoing national and international dialogue through communications technologies could open a larger dialogue on solving world conflict.
Once again, it's our students' turn to present, this time on genetic technologies. Our students created another presentation that is so professional that some students suggest that it could be a television commercial. The video presents a series of images and thought-provoking statements: "Soon parents will be able to select their children's genes," and "Are we ready for a genetic revolution?" An active debate ensues. Some students argue that genetic technologies are a Pandora's box that should remain closed. A student from the other end of the country says, "Tell that to the parents of a child with a devastating disease that may have been prevented through genetic technologies." Other students believe that we should celebrate our genetic variety. The students passionately debate the issue until we run out of time. Students in each location make their final statements, and we move on to the session evaluation.
Students indicate that they wish to continue, but the time is up. Each group of students offers its final suggestions for future telelearning conferences and says good-bye. Once again, educators and technicians stay online to discuss possible improvements and future projects. They decide that the next telelearning conference will be a panCanadian professional-development event for high school teachers.
As more schools and school boards across Canada gain the technical equipment and knowledge to participate in telelearning programs, our network of learners will expand. High-quality, high-speed videoconferencing requires a high level of network connectivity. In the Virtual Classroom, we tap into Canada's high-speed communications network (CA*Net3) (Internet2 would be the U.S. equivalent to the CA*Net3 network). A local communications and cable provider sponsors connectivity and wide-area network support. In the past, access to Canada's high-speed communications network has been available only to researchers at the postsecondary level. Through partnerships with industry and research and communications service providers, J. Percy Page High School was the first K–12 entity to be directly connected to CA*Net3. Participants also need equipment. Because the school absorbs costs, a low-cost solution is imperative. Our equipment consists of a PC (Pentium III 600 MHz), a borrowed first-generation camcorder, and the school's microphone, screen, and projector.

Education in the Digital Age

Information communications technology offers new techniques for organizing, creating, communicating, and disseminating information. This technology can bring resources into the classroom to facilitate active, problem-based, collaborative learning and can provide information otherwise unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Teachers and administrators no longer need to rely exclusively on the resources available within their districts: Through the use of broadband fiber-optic (or high-speed) networks, teachers and students can exchange ideas and expertise with their peers anywhere on the globe.
Many educators recognize that we are still delivering education in the 21st century using a 19th century model. Collaborative telelearning allows educators to meet the learning needs of the digital generation by using advanced technology to create a deeper level of learner awareness through real-world experiences. Most educators know firsthand that student learning correlates to student engagement. Collaborative learning sessions that cross continents and time zones engage students. Communications technologies remove the classroom walls, leaving educators to seek new instructional processes and strategies.
We educators must pursue, adjust, and adapt to innovative learning tools. Because these tools allow us to remove the barriers of space and time, we can provide learners, whether they are teachers or students, with the best learning opportunities that the world can offer.

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