The hottest thing about distance learning today is that an engineering degree is no longer required. Technological “transparency” is the watchword today. The new focus is all about educational outcomes and effective instruction.

In the distance-learning classrooms of the past, the logistics of networking and the static location of peripherals have been serious obstacles. Pre-determined, pre-configured peripherals limited what could be used in electronic classrooms. Network connections limited the types of information that could be delivered to the target audience. Only the techno-savvy super-teacher, knowledgeable in networking, hardware, and video, was really in control of the electronic classroom.

Now all that is changing. Throughout the nation, business and education are working together to make the delivery of distance learning as intuitive as the delivery of material by the teacher standing in front of the classroom. This month, eSchool News takes a look at three networks–one districtwide, one countywide, and one statewide. Each demonstrates how the public and private sectors came together to create innovations in distance-learning.

District-wide distance learning

Through a Technology Literacy Challenge Grant provided by the state of Michigan, the Huron Intermediate School District in Bad Axe, Mich., procured funds to create eight distance learning sites.

Schools involved in the project have enrollments ranging from 160 to 1500 students. The project includes Bad Axe High School, North Huron High School, Caseville High School, Ubly High School, Port Hope High School, Harper Beach High School, Lakers High School, and the Huron Area Technical Center.

The district relies on a system designed by Innovative Communications Inc. (ICI). ICI, which has been in the networking business for 10 years, has helped schools create electronic classrooms in 23 states and two foreign countries.

ICI’s most recent innovation is the Classroom Resource Management System (CRMS). CRMS is a tool that assists districts in offering user-friendly distance-learning solutions to faculty members. Teachers use a touch-screen control through a monitor at the teacher’s station.

According to ICI’s Ron Reisterer, the CRMS makes “anytime, anywhere learning” more obtainable by offering stable technologies through a user-friendly interface. The system was designed to allow teachers to use simple tools that engage students in learning–without being intimidated by the underlying technology.

The ICI interface gives users single-point access to satellite feeds, VHS videotape, CD-ROM and DVD programs, the internet, desktop computers; cable television streaming video, and videoconferencing .

With the videoconferencing component of the CRMS, classroom teachers may have face-to-face meetings through a dial-up connection to any other electronic classroom. These connections mean students can receive instruction via full-motion video even in subject areas for which instructors might be scarce, such as advanced math and some foreign languages.

Students also engage in virtual field trips through videoconferencing. Reisterer described one such field trip in which students studied the motion of whales. The students interacted with both the whales and the scientists.

“This sort of activity engages all of the senses,” Reisterer said. “Students are actually involved in the activity, rather than simply being observers.”

ICI’s programmers spent several years creating the code to power this interface, which “camouflages” the often intimidating technology associated with videoconferencing. The software runs on the familiar Windows NT system. Transceivers and hubs are configured and tucked away so teachers don’t have to worry about them.

In Huron schools, each electronic classroom also includes two 61-inch Sony Distance Learning monitors. A pair of Panasonic cameras transmit images of students and instructors. A ceiling-mounted document camera is located at the teacher station. Four ceiling-mounted microphones, and one microphone mounted to the teacher station provide audio communication.

Project director Todd Ambler isn’t concerned about the ability of the teachers to grasp the technology of this classroom. “Many of our teachers are enthusiastic about this method of delivery,” Ambler said. “And the ICI software is very user-friendly.”

Although the classrooms won’t be in place until January, teachers have already been through some training in methodology. Huron Intermediate School District contracted with Distance Learning Dynamics, a consulting firm that provides training to universities and schools.

Training began this summer. Huron administrators plan to conduct a two-day training session in which participating teachers will create and conduct interactive video lessons at the end of this school year. The previously trained cadre of teachers will continue to meet throughout the year for support and practice.

Through the distance-learning consortium of schools, teachers are being offered incentives to conduct distance-learning classes. Under an agreement developed for the distance-learning system, teachers will be paid stipends to conduct classes through the interactive video network. It is likely that teacher loads will not be decreased; rather, teachers will conduct distance classes in addition to their current class load.

Huron is installing T-1 lines to connect the electronic classrooms point to point. While this network will initially be dedicated to video, expansion plans include using half of the bandwidth to create a wide area network (WAN) among the schools. Because of the seamless nature of the technologies provided by the CRMS, data sharing will enhance the distance experience, providing high-speed interactivity among the classrooms.

The district plans to work with Saint Claire County Community College in Port Huron to deliver college-level Spanish and political science courses to high school juniors and seniors with advanced standing in January. In addition, high school courses in advanced math, foreign language, and science (traditionally low-enrollment courses that ordinarily couldn’t be offered by every school in the district) will be delivered to schools throughout the district in the 1999-2000 school year.

A countywide learning center

The Joe Rindone Regional Technology Center in San Diego County, Calif., built with funds contributed from several sources, including the state of California and private business, has become a showcase for state-of-the art county-wide distance learning.

The facility is the hub of a distance communication network for the entire county. Five satellite distance-learning classrooms–located in Chula Vista, Encinitas, Escondido, San Diego, and East County–allow San Diego County teachers to experience the professional development opportunities offered by the Joe Rindone Center.

The center’s architects realized that technology transparency was key. From movable floor panels, which reveal electrical outlets, to smart podiums which allow touch-screen controls for lights, temperature, a projection system, and internet connectivity, the Rindone Center was built to demonstrate the power of technology in learning.

Sony Electronics provided a grant that supplied the facility with 10 Sony Mini 1000 units. Sony’s TriniCom series of videoconferencing systems allow a range of distance solutions for school districts. These units are divided between the Rindone Center and regional satellite centers.

The Mini 1000 features a 20″ monitor, with quad-screen capabilities, meaning that four different sites can be visible on a single monitor at once during a multipoint conference. Up to two monitors can be used in distance-learning classrooms. The unit connects to a computer to provide Windows-based controls of the videoconference.

The center has five of the Sony Mini 1000 systems. Each of the five regional videoconference centers is equipped with a Windows 95-capable computer, a Sony Mini 1000 videoconference system, a large-screen monitor, multiple TV cameras, and an advanced audio system. The Rindone Center’s digital bridge is in place for multipoint videoconferencing. Up to five remote sites, in addition to the host site, may be viewed during videoconferences.

The center’s network is a hybrid. Outgoing data are transferred via Instructional Television Fixed System (ITFS) microwave transmission signals. The delivery of outgoing data with ITFS allows the transmission to reach its audience with theater-style picture quality. Schools receive the ITFS transmission via satellite.

Bandwidth restraints meant ITFS can be transmitted in only one direction at a time, so an Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) is used to carry the return signal. While ISDN doesn’t provide the bandwidth of ITFS, it does provide enough bandwidth to allow participants to ask questions and be seen at the host site.

As a result of this network design, San Diego County teachers have several choices for receiving videoconferences. Teachers may travel to a regional center to interact in a two-way video conference, or they may view the broadcast live at any of the 350 schools connected to the county office’s ITFS network.

The county also uses an Instructional Television (ITV) center that allows the district to rebroadcast selected events over the county’s educational access channel, known as San Diego’s Learning Channel. In this way, professional development and educational events, as well as civic events, may be extended beyond the school to the community.

The Rindone Center was recently presented with the 1998 Sony Creator’s Award, which recognizes leading efforts in technological integration for the benefit of schools and their curriculums.

The center’s staff members have been passionate in their commitment to creating interactive experiences for the community and teachers. Over the past year, there have been 177 videoconferences. One such videoconference is the San Diego Zoo project. As a part of this project, students speak with zoo personnel and interact with animals. This interactivity and student engagement of this project demonstrates how far distance learning has progressed beyond the traditional “talking head” documentary.

Another project uses such interest-grabbing subjects as animation and entertainment to entice students who have been convicted of juvenile offenses to communicate with professionals about the importance of education in pursuing their careers. Students can listen to the professionals located at a remote site and then ask questions.

On Nov. 10, The Rindone Center celebrated its first anniversary with support from not only companies such as Compaq and Qualcomm, but celebrities such as George Lucas and Robin Williams. The event showcased the creation of high-quality interactive experiences transmitted via distance learning.

One demonstration included a Global Schoolhouse Project with students from several different San Diego schools discussing their perceptions of leadership and what that means for their communities. Another demonstration consisted of an electronic field trip and a live videoconference between elementary school students and NASA scientists and engineers at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

Beyond the anecdotal evidence of success are the raw numbers. Twenty thousand teachers, students, and community personnel have participated in the activities of the Rindone Center this year. Of the teachers who participated in distance-learning activities, more than 85 percent have indicated that the skills they acquired will have a direct impact on their classroom instruction and their students’ achievement.

Bruce Braciszewski, the center’s director of instructional television programming, said the program’s greatest success goes beyond distance learning and equipment. “This vision has allowed us to assist teachers to see technology as a useful tool,” he said. “The center has been successful in motivating the teachers to use the technology, and that has really been the milestone accomplishment.”

Statewide learning

Virginia Polytechnic Institute makes use of an Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network integrated with its existing computer network to deliver distance learning. NET.WORK.VIRGINIA is the state’s broadband network, which supports more than 400 sites in the state.

The network design is Next Generation Internet (NGI), a prototype that allows broadband delivery of information (see the story on page 41). Broadband networks allow even further simplification of the distribution of digital instruction. These networks enrich student instruction through delivery of streaming video, virtual reality environments, and other high bandwidth internet applications.

Tom Wilkinson, director of distributed learning systems at Virginia Tech, said the NGI network allows faculty members great flexibility in delivery of instruction. The network provides for connectivity among large-group learning environments, small-group learning environments, or individuals at the desktop.

Through a grant from Bell Atlantic, Virginia Tech is working to extend the benefits of the NGI network to the public schools. Bell Atlantic has provided Virginia Tech a grant to buy, set up, and test a digital bridge for use in the public schools. After a one-year test, the schools will routinely use the bridge for distance-learning applications.

The bridge will allow multipoint conferencing not only among multiple local sites on the NGI network, but it also will allow multipoint conferencing with sites that dial in using a wide variety of transmission speeds.

Wilkinson said the increased accessibility to voice, video, and data that school districts will experience through the bridge will provide videoconferencing and distance-learning opportunities beyond what has been possible in the past.

Virginia Tech is aggressive in providing professional development for use of the network. The Faculty Development Institute on-campus has won awards for its exemplary faculty development initiatives. Wilkinson said the institute will be working with public schools to meet their professional development needs as well.

Currently, Virginia Tech is offering a teacher-targeted master’s degree in instructional technology by distance. Three cohort groups in the state are accessing the broadband video network for delivery of the instruction.

The degree is largely web-based, although there are some interactive video components. Virginia Tech is exploring the possibilities of streaming live video to the desktop as well as providing video on demand to schools and individuals.

New directions

With the advances in technology, and the innovative application of these technologies in the classroom, the use of high-tech tools for enhancing education is a reality.

We have reached an era when a teacher, with the touch of a screen, can engage students with excerpts from a DVD movie on whales while, with another touch, simultaneously search the internet for data on international whaling laws.

Drawing on powerful resources at a distance was once a great challenge that required understanding of arcane hardware and a high tolerance for troubleshooting. Soon, if they think of it at all, a student casually working with an instructor a thousand miles away while effortlessly calling up educational resources around the block and around the world, might pause to wonder, “What was all this fuss about distance learning, anyway?”

Innovative Communications Inc.

http://www.innovativecomm.com

Byron Center Public Schools

http://remc8.k12.mi.us/byroncen

Sony Distance Learning

http://www.sony.com/distancelearning

Joe Rindone Regional Technology Center

http://www.sdcoe.k12.ca.us/jrrtc/welcome.html

Virginia Polytechnic Institute

http://www.vt.edu

NET.WORK.VIRGINIA

http://www.networkvirginia.net

Bell Atlantic

http://www.bell-atl.com