By John Francis
For decades, educators have been looking for a cost-effective way to deliver live curriculum in multiple locations. The future of small schools depends on it. With shrinking numbers of children in many Ontario communities, present need seems particularly urgent.
With a series of “Accommodation Review” processes, Bruce Peninsula District School has been under threat for more than twenty years. (Admittedly, current threat level is relatively low.) The search for an efficient way to deliver a full curriculum to a tiny body of students is a passion at BPDS, and Bluewater District School Board has encouraged this.
Over the years many attempts have been made. They tried online courses where students would read material on-screen, then go through exercises and assignments on-screen. This technique was not very successful because it suited the learning style of a very small percentage of students.
About twenty years ago, a video link system was tried, whereby classes could take place in real time, with students at multiple locations connected by video link. It might have been successful if the technology had worked reliably but there were constant technical problems. It was also appallingly expensive. It was abandoned after a brief trial.
Canned video lectures work reliably and they are better than text-based programming. But they’re just not as good as live classes with two-way communication.
With assistance from a Ministry of Education Rural and Northern Education Fund, Bluewater authorized Rodgers to try to reach the holy grail — live two-way connections for live-streamed curriculum delivery. Fast-forward to John Rodgers’ classroom at the BPDS Streaming Centre, February, 2019.
Rodgers stands at a white-board. An unobtrusive camera on the far wall is focused on him and the white-board, transmitting a high-resolution image via Skype to students at multiple locations. They can read every word (or symbol) he writes on the board and their faces appear in a row (limit of 25) across the bottom of everybody’s screen. They are all connected by audio link to each other and to Rodgers’ classroom.
So Rodgers just teaches his class as he normally would — there are usually a few BPDS students in the classroom with him — teaching Calculus or Physics or whatever. Students at Peninsula Shores in Wiarton and other schools are enrolled in these courses and attend the classes by live stream.
If they don’t get to school, they don’t have to miss class. They can participate fully from home. If they miss a class, they can watch it on YouTube — you can even take the whole course on YouTube — all you need is an internet connection. I am not making this up.
Students at other schools can write their exams by live stream too — complete with real-time link to Rodgers. A student in Kincardine was writing an exam while I visited the classroom at BPDS. She would ask a question; Rodgers would activate his microphone and answer.
Rodgers has evolved his teaching technique to suit live-streaming:
“In calculus, students complete short interactive exercises online before the online lecture to introduce the concepts, sort of like doing your homework to prepare for a seminar.
With students better prepared, I can keep the lectures shorter than a regular lecture (10-15 minutes) and hence less boring. Of course, they can review the lectures if they need to since they are archived on Youtube.”
But what about the bottom line? Are the students absorbing the material as well as they would from live classes? Yes, they are, says Rodgers. Marks on standard exams and tests indicate better than average success for the students taking the course, especially those who are involved in the daily video-conferencing.
Rodgers feels interactive live-streaming technology could be a very important tool in rural and remote areas, allowing small schools to offer a full curriculum.