Live From..Other Worlds was a quick-turnaround project linking classrooms with NASA Antarctic researchers working on telepresence (remotely controlled robots) and exobiology (life on other planets). The driving force behind the organization of Live From..Other Worlds was Geoff Haines-Stiles, a producer of science television. The concept originated as a series of live TV broadcasts from Antarctica and a printed teachers guide, but quickly expanded to include online materials, email updates, and the ability for students to ask questions of the remote researchers.
Geoff's project did not get a go-ahead from the relevant government authorities (NASA and NSF) until just a few months before researchers were due to be at McMurdo Sound. Without any scheduling flexibility, the implementation of this project was rushed and seemed always in danger of failure, and although the basic framework (live TV broadcasts, online mail, updates and questions) was supported, a number of related plans did not reach fruition. Nonetheless, the project seemed useful to the classrooms that participated, and everyone involved in the various aspects of the project (video, curriculum and online components) learned a lot about the practical issues involved in providing a mixed media education experience. The live broadcasts were televised on December 1st, 3rd and 7th of 1993. Online updates from Antarctica were delivered between October 13 and December 13, 1993, and experts were available to answers questions from schools from December 1 until early February of 1994.
A variety of online options were made available to participants, with email as the baseline. An automated maillist was created; once subscribed, people received updates from the Antarctic researchers and from the Live From..Other Worlds organizers about project logistics. Questions for experts were sent to a single address (email@example.com) regardless of the topic, while five topic-specific maillists (robots, Mars, Antarctic lifestyles, oceans/marine ecology and computer networks) were created to distribute the questionanswer pairs that were generated when scientists responded to the questions.
By the end of the project, their were 307 subscribers to the main update list. The total number of all questionanswer maillist subscriptions was 112. In addition, a variety of information was put online at Quest for FTP, Gopher, and WWW retrieval.
Two types of project updates were sent regularly. One was the formal project status written by Dr. Carol Stoker and delivered once per week. The other, written by Dale Anderson and called Dales Dive Diary was more chatty and informal. Dales underwater dives in the Antarctic seas were featured in the television segments, generating student interest in his ongoing activities. (See Appendix A1 for a complete schedule of reports.)
Students and teachers were encouraged to send questions to the research team via email. During the nine weeks (including the Christmas holiday), approximately one hundred questions were received. About sixty of these questions were unique. Almost all were responded to in a timely fashion, although due to glitches in workflow procedures and the lack of automated tracking software a few fell through the cracks and went unanswered. We expect to correct this in future projects.
Live From..Other Worlds was the first Interactive Project mounted by the NASA K-12 Internet team, and we experienced our share of startup problems. The maillist software (majordomo) was newly installed and not entirely understood. Several times we found ourselves scrambling to fix a previously undiscovered problem. Computer systems which are tasked to host such projects should be stable from both a software and hardware perspective well before the planned start. Our mistake here was to have the project deadline determine the schedule for software implementation, rather than the other way around.
Smart Filters for the project were recruited on a first come, first served basis. Little energy went into training these people or in making realistic assessments of their existing online skills. Thus, some Smart Filters were still learning email when we expected them to be working productively; others misjudged their availability and like many volunteers in other arenas, simply didnt live up to their commitments. As a result, the project managers wound up filtering almost all questions and answers themselves.
When the project was first announced online, not all of the details were finalized nor were the online components operational. Instructions for participation, rather than being presented in full at the outset, were instead intermittently diffused through a series of email messages. This confused the users and no doubt contributed to a smaller than expected participation. Another miscalculation involved our ability to produce Spanish translations of the updates and questionanswer pairs. This proved to be too difficult to quickly organize with volunteer labor and thus we stopped with only a small percentage of text converted to Spanish.
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