I served as a CODEC evaluator and team member on an incredible project that connected 5 schools in a sparsely-populated portion of Northern Alberta.
The following is taken from RACOL: Rural Advanced Community of Learners
“One of the major challenges to rural communities in Alberta is to provide high quality education for their inhabitants. With the evolution of broadband networks, it is now possible to facilitate even more effective learning for distanced students.
The Rural Advanced Community of Learners Project (RACOL) is developing a model of teaching and learning that exploits the potential of broadband networks and advanced digital technologies. Rather that falling into either of the synchronous or asynchronous distance learning camps, RACOL exploits the best of each. Capabilities such as broadcast quality digital video, streaming media, electronic whiteboards and educational objects will aid in the facilitation of effective learning and address the needs of students in rural and remote school districts.
The Fort Vermilion School Division (FVSD) is the focal point of the RACOL project. FVSD is located in the North Western corner of Alberta, a very rural area. The most serious educational challenge for the Division is the delivery of a quality and equitable high school program. There are 6 small high schools in the Fort Vermillion jurisdiction, some as small as twelve students. The schools are so geographically separated that there is no opportunity to combine them into one or two larger facilities. For the past 6 years the jurisdiction has been using audio graphics to synchronously deliver 8 academic courses to all high schools. Although this technology has been fairly successful, teachers and students have indicated some dissatisfaction with this learning environment.
Students have said that they feel isolated and have indicated that they would like to see what their teachers and the other students look like. “Teachers feel disconnected from their students because they cannot see their faces and judge their reactions,” says Superintendent Ken Dropko. “Because the audio graphics only facilitates voice communication, teachers can’t gauge if students are lost or following along on a topic.” The Fort Vermillion teachers often find themselves falling into “presentation mode” because of lack of feedback. Also, due to very limited bandwidth (soon to be fixed by the implementation of the Alberta SuperNet) there has been limited ability to develop digital presentations (e.g., PowerPoint) and to share digital resources with students.
How does RACOL address these concerns? Each high school is being equipped with a Virtual Presence Learning Environment (VPLE) that each can originate and receive broadcast-quality video and audio. Students or teachers at each location see the teacher/presenter on one large monitor and the students on a second large monitor in “split screen” mode. Two smaller monitors also display these images at the back of each room. Each location also has a SMART Board™ 3000i electronic whiteboard, a visualizer and CD-ROM/DVD/videotape player. Anything displayed at one location is automatically displayed at all. Each student has a question button and an “I’m lost” button. Each VPLE also contains 4 Polycom Via Video™ units that enable students at different locations to work together in small groups. Everything that happens synchronously is stored and made available to members of the class asynchronously via streaming video. A special application has been developed to allow a student to switch between the image of the instructor, the students or the electronic whiteboard while the sound continues, and to bookmark locations in the stream for later review. One of the major tasks, of course, is to work with the teachers to help them use this technology effectively.
Dr. Craig Montgomerie, RACOL project leader and a professor in instructional technology at the University of Alberta says, “Through this project, we want to provide the best possible learning experience for students. We are starting with students in northern Alberta and hope to eventually expand to students in remote schools across Canada and abroad. We expect this project will set a new standard for distance education.”
The two major partners in RACOL are the Fort Vermilion School Division No. 52 and the University of Alberta. Other partners include the University of Calgary, the Banff Centre, Sonic Design Interactive Inc., the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and Netera Alliance. This project would not have been possible without the tremendous financial, technical and in-kind support from CANARIE Inc., Alberta Infrastructure, Alberta Learning, Alberta Innovation and Science, Smart Technologies and Apple Canada.”