Exploring Beneath the Surface: Web-Based, High-Speed Educational Networking Activities from Project Rivers

Nancy Parsons Heath
Assistant Director, STEM~Net
St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada

Gilbert Bennett, P.Eng.
Director-Network Development, Cable Atlantic
St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada

The same technological revolution that has been responsible for the acute need for better learning also offers the means to take effective action. (Papert, 1993)

Project Rivers started in 1995 in St. John's as a focus project for STELLAR Schools which would utilize the high-speed connections that were being provided to participating schools. STELLAR Schools is a joint initiative of STEM~Net and Cable Atlantic which is providing high-speed network access to schools in Cable Atlantic serving areas free of charge, for a period of four years. This project began early in 1995 and will connect over 100 schools in the province as Cable Atlantic's advanced network is rolled out over a three-year period. Participating schools are expected to use the resources provided to improve teaching and learning, with a particular focus on the integration of the technology into all areas of the existing curriculum.

STEM~Net is the educational computer network for K-12 education in Newfoundland and Labrador, providing network connectivity and curriculum support to teachers and students. It currently supports approximately 10,000 educator accounts, supports approximately 6,000 student accounts as part of its class project network, and provides connectivity to all K-12 schools in the province.

Cable Atlantic is the largest cable television service provider in Newfoundland, serving approximately 75,000 customers. The company is currently upgrading its cable TV distribution system to a state-of-the-art Hybrid Fiber Coaxial (HFC) network. With 750 MHz of bandwidth and bidirectional transport capability, the new network allows Cable Atlantic to offer interactive video and advanced telecommunications services. The company is currently providing advanced network services to customers in the St. John's area using high-speed fiber optic technology as well as cable-modem-based services.

The deployment of the HFC network permits the delivery of services operating at much higher speeds than other technologies at an affordable cost, and Cable Atlantic's HFC services will offer megabit per second speeds at a price similar to those for kilobit per second services today. This technology has enabled the introduction of high-speed connectivity on a widespread basis for a variety of applications. Recognizing the significance of this technology in education, Cable Atlantic has committed to provide access to the network for educational applications. Through the STELLAR initiative, Cable Atlantic provides high-speed connectivity to the Internet at no charge to the schools in its serving area. This connectivity is enabling projects such as Project Rivers, where multimedia applications are an essential aspect of the project.

Project Rivers initially focused on two rivers in the St. John's area, the Rennie's River and the Waterford River. Additional partners in the initial stage included the Quidi Vidi/Rennie's River Development Foundation and the Friends and Lobbyists of the Waterford River (FLOW). Project Rivers is also part of the Schoolnet RINGS model and, through this initiative, it potentially will involve a much larger number of rivers across Canada. Schoolnet RINGS is a national initiative hosted by STEM~Net which coordinates online student projects to facilitate the sharing of information and the online publication of student materials in the World Wide Web. Other schools are welcome to join and this will hopefully bring even more rivers online within the next year. A participating school in Project Rivers "adopts" a section of the river that is relatively close to the school. The students then monitor the river in several ways, depending on the particular focus of that school or class. Project Rivers allows for flexibility depending on grade level and on the curriculum areas into which the project is being integrated. The Manuals River Project, for example, involves an advanced-placement biology class, while one of the schools working on a section of the Rennie's River is covering several curriculum areas, including chemistry, creative writing, and social studies. This is particularly relevant for them as part of the tributary they are adopting has been forced underground by a major shopping center close to their school. Another section of the Rennie's River is being studied by students in an environmental science cooperative education program. Study of the Waterford River has initially been undertaken by two elementary schools and by one high school. The high school has expanded its focus to include a salmon incubation project within the school. Permission is being sought for release of the salmon into the Waterford River as part of the ongoing restoration program for this watershed.

Project Rivers is now working towards a major expansion that will involve, in particular, a collaboration with the Wetlands Project now being developed at the Ontario Science Center. This project is intended to incorporate part of the Don River Valley as an outdoor exhibit of the Science Center. A second area of focus for collaboration will be the ocean environment. The Ontario Science Center currently has an oceans display as part of its Living Earth exhibit, and this project will allow this display to be linked directly to Memorial University's Ocean Sciences Center in Logy Bay, Newfoundland. A fiber connection to the Ocean Sciences Center will allow video transmission from that site. Each part of the project will benefit from the collaboration. The Newfoundland schools will be able to utilize the resources at the Ontario Science Center and better utilize local resources such as the Ocean Sciences Center. The Ontario Science Center and Ontario schools will be able to incorporate information from the Newfoundland partners, particularly the Ocean Sciences Center and the Fluvarium, into its existing and developing projects and exhibits. These three facilities each provide programs that tie in directly with the K-12 curriculum.

Although the coordination of this initiative is being done through STEM~Net and the Ontario Science Center, many other partners and potential partners are involved. In Newfoundland, the project is being coordinated through the STELLAR Schools initiative which means that Cable Atlantic and STEM~Net are each playing a major role. Other partners include Memorial University's Ocean Sciences Center and the Quidi Vidi/Rennie's River Development Foundation's Freshwater Resource Center. Schools participating in Newfoundland initially were those involved with the STELLAR Schools project in the St. John's area, but the project has already expanded to other schools through lower speed Internet connections. These schools will participate fully except for video capability. High-speed access for more schools in other centers across the island will be accomplished as the Cable Atlantic network expands. In Ontario, the Discovery Channel has already expressed interest and initial content support for the project, and further participation is being discussed.

Potentially, the project will also involve remote control live video between sites. For example, a camera can be positioned overlooking Logy Bay, but with the focus and zoom controlled from a classroom. Eventually the camera control can be carried out from the Living Earth exhibit at the Ontario Science Center. Similarly, cameras at the Ontario Science Center could allow students in Newfoundland schools to experience exhibits at the science center. High-speed connections will allow schools to book online real-time tours of facilities such as the Fluvarium, the Ontario Science Center and the Discovery Channel studio using online video-conferencing. These can be general tours or can be specifically designed to suit the curriculum goals of a particular class at a particular time. These will be interactive, with the students able to ask questions directly to an interpreter at the site. In addition to this, a large part of Project Rivers will continue to be the locally developed content at the school level, with the assistance and collaboration of the partners in each province. The project will also use existing interactive computer exhibits at the Fluvarium and the Ontario Science Center and transfer them to Web-based technology so that they can be used by a large number of schools.

Communication between students participating in Project Rivers is done through e-mail and through Digital Equipment's Workgroup Web Forum conferencing software. This software operates with Netscape as the client software, is easy to use and allows Web links and other Netscape compliant features to be incorporated into the messages. Both the real time and production video aspects of the project can be done using Streamworks, which can be called as a helper application in Netscape, allowing the video to be incorporated directly into a Web site. Some STELLAR schools and other partners who wish to produce video content will do so in MPEG format, and preliminary work in this area is underway with assistance from the Department of Computer Science at Memorial University. In addition, through this partnership, other schools are developing capabilities in the areas of video capture and live video connections via the Internet. Other sections of the schools' Web sites are being constructed using still photography from digital cameras and also with the use of color scanners. Overall, this will result in the production of a large, coordinated, multimedia-based Web site, which can then be used, not only by schools involved in the project, but also by any other school with Web access. The content will be rich in the text and simple graphics areas and therefore provide curriculum resources even to schools unable to access the video portions. The content of the overall site will be widely varied as it will reflect not only different geographic locations, but also different student perspectives and interests. "As content increases in complexity and ill-structuredness, increasingly greater amounts of important information are lost with linear approaches and the unidimensionality of organization that typically accompanies them" (Spiro and Jehng, 1990). Project Rivers will allow nonlinear approaches to the growing amount of content related to the project, not only by the participating students who are developing it, but also by the other students to whom it is made available via the Internet.

The organization of telecollaborative projects, as outlined by Harris (1995), provides a basis for determining part of the structure of Project Rivers. Harris outlines step one as choosing the student learning goals of the project and ensuring that they are tied directly to the curriculum. The technology allows goals to be set that cannot be accomplished at all, or as well, using traditional learning/teaching tools. Harris continues with step two as the structuring of the activities. Activities may be interpersonal exchanges, information collections, or problem-solving projects, and all of these can be accommodated within Project Rivers. Project Rivers allows sharing of data and ideas as well as virtual field trips, collaboration on publications that result from the investigations and experiences, and the construction of a database of wetlands information. For example, field trips can provide students in Toronto with the ability to collect their own data and "specimens" (in the form of graphics) from a field trip to the Rennies River in St. John's. Project evaluation is also important both for the overall goals of Project Rivers and for each component that is developed by a particular school. Network-based interactions must be successfully advertised to attract participants, successfully clarified and adapted to meet the needs of the students in each location, organized through group consensus, actually completed and result in the publication and distribution of a project report (Waugh and Levin, 1994). Each of these attributes will be analyzed for each component of Project Rivers, as with all projects carried out within the framework of Schoolnet RINGS.

Project Rivers is designed to accommodate a variety of project structures and curriculum topics in order to accommodate an audience that spans all grade levels from primary classes to senior high. In addition to this, much of the actual content for Project Rivers is student-produced. Although some structure and coordination will be imposed on participants, autonomy on the part of the individual participating schools will be encouraged and is, in fact, an essential component of the project design. This is considered to be an important feature of Project Rivers for the same reasons as outlined by Newman. "If students are going to collaborate, there must be a task for which the teacher or workbook or computer is not providing step-by-step instructions. The group must have some autonomy, otherwise there will be no occasion for discussion, group problem-solving, question-asking, or other processes that account for the benefits of collaborative learning in schools." (Newman, 1995). Newman went on to say that students should be using computer networking in the same way that real scientists do. This is, perhaps, an even more compelling argument when it is placed in the perspective of a multimedia environment. "As a medium, putting multimedia tools in the hands of kids can help them become fluent in the same way that putting paint in their hands differs from just delivering paintings to them. ... It is not superior to giving them a crayon, they should have a crayon too" (Papert, 1995). The multimedia networking activities of Project Rivers will be interactive, not only in the sense of student-control of nonlinearity of content, but also interactive in the way that exhibits in science centers and museums are becoming interactive. The students will be able to place themselves in the learning environment. Students may find themselves as directors of a short film about sewage run-off or authors of a published report about the environmental impact of the construction of a new highway.

The concept of bringing insights from the exploratory environments of museums to bear upon the design of multimedia environments that can be integrated into classrooms is discussed by Dickson et al. (1992). This has already happened, to a large extent, in the other direction, as museums and science centers have become interactive and hands-on with the aid of multimedia computers. Museums and science centers have been deliberately designed to invite exploration, evoke curiosity and stimulate further exploration. There has also been a shift to increase the educational aspects of museums rather than simply focusing on the archival role. Much of the materials in the Ontario Science Center, for example, are designed precisely with this in mind and are therefore already proven in their appeal to students. Many exhibits are interactive in the sense that children can put themselves into the exhibits in some way. This provides a sense of involvement that is often missing in both traditional classroom science activities and in many multimedia educational products. This sense of involvement is an important aspect of the science center that must be maintained in the online versions of the materials wherever possible and is the part of interactive multimedia that lends itself particularly well to high-speed educational networking. However, this does not mean the activities must be lean in content for learning to occur by these methods. "Video games are not popular because they are easy. They aren't. Some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding." (Papert, 1993).

The advantages of environmental telecommunication projects have been outlined by McMahon and Dawson (1995). These include independence of time and place, the global nature of the audience, and effects on the curriculum. McMahon and Dawson outline four possible purposes for these projects as taking direct action for the development of environmental responsibility, the sharing of data online, collaborative scientific research and problem-solving and the distribution of information to a wide audience. Several examples of effective projects have been seen, such as an Australian school project which resulted in the development of a five million dollar sewage treatment facility (Robottom and Hart, 1990) and the Rouge River Project for water quality monitoring which has served as a model for many other similar initiatives (Wals, Monroe and Stapp, 1990).

Silva and Breuleux (1995) cited several concerns about educational networking in Canada. They stated that students' and teachers' Internet access is regionally uneven and often nonexistent. It is further complicated by an abundance of first-generation technology using command line interfaces and business rates for phone lines which make them unaffordable for many smaller schools. They continue that this deprives students of the opportunity to participate in activities that may offer substantial benefits and cite several research studies to support this. Some of the benefits mentioned include collaborative learning, contextualization of learning, less isolation of teachers, and greater access to resources and information by remote schools. Silva and Breuleux recommend STEM~Net as a model for connecting remote schools and demonstrating the potential in K-12, government, and academic cooperation. The CANARIE business report (1992) also includes schools as one of the main beneficiaries of the "upcoming" Canadian gigabit network. Project Rivers is both a model for project participation by remote schools and a model of the exciting application of high-speed networking to educational environments.

The development of Canadian content for the Information Highway has also been a much discussed topic in recent times, particularly in relation to educational computer networking in Canada. The need for increased Canadian content in general, for science and technology, was illustrated by the report on the 1995 National Science Literacy Survey prepared for the Discovery Channel. Over 10 percent of Canadians surveyed identified the necessity of raising levels of science literacy. Forty-eight percent of Canadians surveyed listed television as the source of science information they relied on most heavily. This increased to 60 percent in Atlantic Canada. Only one percent listed the Internet and only three percent listed books as their main source. Still, 54 percent of students in the survey were dissatisfied with the current level of media coverage on science and technology. There were also quite low numbers who indicated they felt they had a clear understanding of what the information highway is (21 percent), while 45 percent had little or no comprehension of the term. In addition, a survey of Newfoundland high school students' views about technology found that the majority of the students were unable to differentiate between science and technology or to clearly identify the relationship between the two (Griffiths and Parsons Heath, 1995). This is consistent with the findings of other similar Canadian studies, such as the Views on Science and Technology Study (Fleming, 1987).

Each of these concerns was addressed by the Report of the Canadian Information Highway Advisory Council. In particular, the following recommendations from that report are directly related to the goals of this project:

Projects Rivers and its associated individual school projects and partnerships link students in different geographic locations to allow them to discuss and analyze the similarities and differences around a particular topic as it relates to each of their regions. In doing so, it will create a distinctly Canadian learning tool that will then be available to any learner on the World Wide Web, not only those in the K-12 system. It illustrates the potential of partnerships between the public and private sectors and the benefits these can bring to the field of education. In addition, it provides a direct link between resources in different provinces that will allow collaboration, not only on this particular project, but on any other research or developments that are of common interest. Finally, it illustrates the effective use of leading edge telecommunications technology as a learning tool.


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