RACOL Project Delivers Distance Education to Rural Alberta Schools Through Videoconferencing

The Fort Vermilion School Division (FVSD) covers an area twice the size of Vermont, yetthe school system only has 3,600 students. This region of northwestern Alberta, Canada, is a mixture of agriculture and oil exploration, with most towns having fewer than 5,000 people. The mandate ofthe school district is to provide the best possible education to all students, but the distance between communities can oftenmake that difficult.

The most serious educational challenge for the school district has been the delivery of a quality and equitablehigh school program. The six small high schools in FVSD are so far apart that there is no opportunity to combine theminto one or two larger facilities. For the last six years, the district has been using audio graphics to synchronously delivereight academic courses to all of its high schools. Although this technology has been somewhat successful, teachers andstudents expressed dissatisfaction with their learning environments.

In response to this challenge, researchers, technologists and teachers developed one of the most sophisticatedvideoconferencing systems ever created for K-12 education to help provide students with the same quality of educationas their big-city peers. The Rural Advanced Community of Learners (RACOL) project was launched in September 2003, after two years of planning and development, with the involvement of the district, two local universities,the provincial government and a host of supporting businesses and partners.

RACOL Teacher at workA small think tank was comprised of Mike Davenport, the school division’s former superintendent; Graham Fletcher,the president of a local Internet service provider; and Dr. Craig Montgomerie, a professor of instructional technology atthe University of Alberta. They considered a number of solutions using the existing telephone network and evenconsidered creating their own wireless network on a radio frequency. Most of the ideas proved too expensive or could notprovide the transmission quality the team required. Finally, in 2000, the members of the think tank saw a demonstration ofan MPEG2 videoconferencing system in Washington state and it became clear that the FVSD required a fiber-optic network.

Around the same time, the government of Alberta announced plans to develop the Alberta SuperNet, a high-speed,high-capacity broadband network linking 422 communities across the province. Knowing an infrastructure wasbeing put into place, the detailed planning for RACOL began its next phase.

The $2.6 million budget for the RACOL project came from the e-learning program of CANARIE Inc., a nonprofitcorporation, with matching funds from the government of Alberta. A number of partners also lent their respective expertiseto the project, including The Banff Centre, Sonic Design Interactive Inc., the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology,Netera Alliance, SMART Technologies Inc. and Apple Canada. The University of Alberta and the University of Calgaryalso lent their expertise to the project, and an architect was hired to consult with teachers on the design of the classrooms.

Now, each classroom has a Rear Projection SMART Board 3000i interactive whiteboard, Panasonic spilt-screenTVs, an Elmo 4400AF visual presenter document camera, audio cancellation units, and an innovative feedback systemthat allows students to indicate their status to other locations. This feedback system includes two buttons on everystudent’s desk. The first allows students to signal that they want to ask a question and adds them to a queue. The second sendsan “I’m Lost” message so the instructor knows which students need help. All of the stations have integrated microphones,while video cameras around the room use the input from the audio system to focus on wh'ever in the class is speaking.Students can participate in the lessons by using the whiteboards to write in digital ink over multimedia elements andstreaming video, all of which are broadcast to remote locations. In addition, any portion of a lesson can be recorded, savedor posted to the Internet for review.

Training the teachers to become effective educators in this new environment became the responsibility of DavidGeelan, the RACOL professional development coordinator. “One of the interesting challenges in delivering content over theRACOL system is that a teacher will have a small classroom of students in addition to the ones connected by videoconference,”says Geelan. “From the student perspective...[it] should feel like [they’re] in the same class.”

Developing a relationship between teachers and students was one way to ensure the project got off to a good start. Before the school year, all teachers and students using the system gathered in a central location to meet face-to-face.During this time, teachers were trained to develop theatrical skills by talking to the camera in order to practice projectingtheir image across distance. Also, throughout the school year, students were encouraged to form work groups withtheir peers in other locations, rather than with the ones sitting next to them.

One of the priorities for the design team was to secure broadcast-quality video transmissions so that studentsand teachers could see facial expressions. Geelan notes that they “wanted the interface to be humans teaching humans,and being able to see facial expressions from the people you interact with is what makes the project work.”

The RACOL project has graduated from a pilot project to the main method of education delivery for high schoolstudents in FVSD. Teachers using the system have also noted some interesting changes in their teaching styles since theprogram went online.

Plans are now in place to grant access to the classrooms outside of normal school hours so that communitymembers can take postsecondary courses and professional training via distance education. The researchers who followedthe project have also learned a great deal about distance education and the benefits of implementing technology solutions.

Most importantly, students in the district are now enjoying the same range of advanced science and math courses thatare offered throughout the province.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.