TORONTO (08/14/2000) - Three years ago he became the first CIO of an Ontario school board. He's helped bring technological innovation to the classroom and he's passionate about the ways in which IT -- especially high-speed communication -- is revolutionizing education. But he's worried that our schools are underfunded in the area of technology and that we're moving too slowly in developing our children's skills in this area.
This IT advocate is David Meldrum, CIO of Kawartha Pine Ridge (KPR) District School Board, which encompasses a 7,000-square-kilometre region east of Toronto, extending from cottage country in the north, to the city of Peterborough at its midpoint, and to the towns of Bowmanville, Port Hope and Cobourg in the south. The Board provides services to about 45,000 students in more than 100 elementary and secondary schools, and six Centres for Individual Studies, geared towards adult learners. Of its 4,000 employees, 37 are in IT, with another 65 supporting IT, most of them outsourced.
Though the KPR Board is one of the province's brightest when it comes to using IT to enhance learning, Meldrum admits that Ontario is not leading the way in Canada, particularly with respect to the new E-learning and E-commerce world.
He does, however, believe the province is starting to gear up in this regard.
And perhaps the biggest factor accelerating the drive forward is the coming of high-speed communications.
"We used to focus a lot on IT, but now it's ICT -- Information and Communications Technologies," said Meldrum. "The communications function is probably the major factor affecting education in Canada. More reliable high-speed technologies are providing a more transparent world for teachers and students to function in. They're enabling us to move away from fancy desktops, fancy servers and all those sorts of things."
COMING OF THE WHITE KNIGHT
Added Meldrum, "We're looking at laying fibre to all our schools, from Apsley, way up in cottage country, right down to the borders of Oshawa. Every school will have optical fibre containing 12 to 24 strands, two of which are capable of carrying anything that's in North America now. This is going to have a major impact; it's going to change the way we do business."
Accessing fibre communications can be a costly undertaking -- one that cash-strapped school boards might find prohibitive -- but an unlikely white knight has appeared on the scene, dramatically altering the cost equation for such service. Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs) and Ontario Hydro are providing school boards across Ontario access to fibre at a fraction of the cost of lower bandwidth alternatives offered by the telcos.
The capability to do this has its origins in the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, a major power-grid failure that plunged much of Ontario and northeastern U.S., including New York City, into darkness. That catastrophe was due in part to a failure of the grid's microwave monitoring system. To prevent a recurrence of such a disaster, a fibre backbone was put in place to take over the grid's monitoring function. This backbone, containing a huge amount of unused bandwidth, now extends into small communities throughout Ontario. And with deregulation of the communications business by the CRTC, the PUCs are now in a position to offer this bandwidth to their communities.
After years of fruitless discussions with the telcos around the provision of high-speed communications, suddenly the situation has changed dramatically. "I brought in the four PUCs servicing the Board's communities, and within two meetings we had an agreement in place that they would work together and lay fibre to all our schools," said Meldrum. Compared to telco pricing, fibre is an excellent bargain, costing on average about CAN$500 per school.
Meldrum says that 70 per cent of the Board's schools could be on fibre by September, but he wants to take time with the roll-out and will likely push that date back to December. It's possible for the entire Board to be on fibre in little more than a year.
From a technical viewpoint, the coming of fibre will have a considerable impact. The Board has about 300 to 350 servers scattered around the school system, which it will be able to wean back into server farms in two or three locations. Eventually, only two or three centralized servers may be needed to do the Board's work.
But it is in the area of education itself that the high-speed network will really shine.
It will enable the Board to bring anybody that has anything to do with education into its own virtual private network, creating an excellent, cost-effective learning environment. It will also provide options for staff -- teachers will be able to develop teaching units themselves, with the aid of electronic conferencing, when they want, where they want, and in whatever way they want. They can do it in the classroom, at lunch, after school, or from home.
"Teachers often work with other groups of teachers, building the units," said Meldrum. "They'll say, 'Here's the link to a Web site. Click on it and go look at the content. We could purchase some of this. What do you think about it?
Would it be good for our science program?'" High-speed networking will greatly facilitate this process.
High-speed connectivity is also expected to benefit the Board's "Learning Village" initiative, a portal project that is now being piloted at six schools.
Based on IBM Corp. technology, Learning Village enables schools to manage their own Web site, which would include a Web page for each classroom. The site will be accessible initially by parents, grandparents (with parental permission), and eventually by students. Teachers are responsible for creating their classroom Web page, containing a rolling calendar of events, such as tests, for the next two-week period.
Having only used computers for e-mail and report cards, it's not surprising that many teachers were initially cool to the idea of creating and writing their own Web pages. But in the end, they warmed to the idea.
"It worked out quite well," said project head and Learning Technologies Teacher, John Woolsey. "A lot of teachers left their full-day workshop saying, 'Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined ever doing some of these things.' It was very positive that way."
Learning Village uses templates, so teachers can pick the type of layout, background, lettering, and graphics they want. Then they merely type in a box the text that they want, and click on "submit" to make the Web page. More advanced users can visit other Web sites, easily capture HTML formatting that they like, and import it into their Web page for editing.
POWER TO THE PARENTS
Though kids might protest, parents will love the fact that they can visit the class Web page and find out details of their child's current homework assignment, putting an end to that cherished excuse, "The teacher didn't assign me anything".
Teachers can set up a discussion with the parents of a child that is having problems in the classroom. Some parents of such children want to keep close tabs on homework assignments and ask that a note to be sent home every Friday, indicating their child's progress -- an onerous task for the teacher without the aid of technology. With Learning Village, teachers can, at their discretion, carry on a dialogue with parents through brief e-mail messages, working towards solving any problem the student might be having in the classroom.
Naturally, a school Web site must have adequate security features built into it, so that, for example, no access to information about a child can be gained by an unauthorized person. To facilitate security, parents must register with the school, whereupon they are given a user ID and password, which allows them access to anything within the school site.
An assistance program for parents without the means to access the Internet is now being investigated. "We've been fortunate with the vendors," said Meldrum.
"They've supplied us with older technology that will enable special-needs families to have the same access as families that are more fortunate. That's all part of it."
Another option is to provide Web-page printouts in lieu of a monthly newsletter, the traditional way of disseminating information.
The Learning Village pilots are scheduled to be completed by December, at which point parents, teachers and principals will be surveyed on their effectiveness.
If, as expected, the pilots are deemed a success, expansion of the program will be considered, though a roll-out to all the Board's schools would probably be too costly in the near term.
I.T. IN THE CLASSROOM
As far as classroom education is concerned, there's no longer any doubt that technology has a role to play. Helping confirm this fact was a project called TLC (Teaching and Learning with Computers) undertaken by the Northumberland/Clarington Board, which has since been incorporated into the recently amalgamated KPR Board.
TLC is a math initiative that started in Grade One and has since expanded to Grades Two, Three and Four. After amalgamation, the KPR Board replicated the project in all the schools in the Peterborough County Board that weren't already doing it.
TLC uses software to teach primary mathematics concepts. Students engage in both on-line and off-line activities in the classroom. While one group works on a particular project on the computer, another might be working off-line, cutting out shapes and repositioning them into diagrams, while another group sits at their desks doing traditional activities with pencil and paper.
"It's been extremely successful," said John Woolsey. "We know this because we'd done pretesting of the Grade Threes before we started using the system. We found a marked improvement in those kids that had used the system, compared to those that hadn't."
Another example of technology in education is Personal Science Lab (PSL), which utilizes a series of probes for determining such things as heat, light, moisture, and distance. These probes can be taken into the field, where students use them to make various measurements in conjunction with science projects related to the Ontario Ministry of Education's curriculum. Once the information has been gathered, it can be transferred to computers in the classroom. Every elementary school throughout the KPR Board has two teachers trained on the use of these probes, every school library has a PSL kit, and all teachers' computers are set up to access the information.
According to Meldrum, it is the elementary school system that is most in need of high-tech equipment. "That's where the benefits far outweigh the cost," he said. "It's in the teaching of the basic skills -- reading, writing, arithmetic -- that multimedia really helps in the classroom. A little frog on the computer interactively teaches a child how to pronounce a word properly, getting her to learn for herself. It's amazing to watch kids and see how effective this approach is."
KPR secondary schools are also reaping the benefits of technology. Cobourg District Collegiate Institute West, for example, is heavily involved in Geographical Information Systems. And Peterborough Collegiate Vocational School has put in a lab with several digital video cameras and about 25 high-end IBM workstations with 17-inch monitors, running high-end Adobe products. "The kids there are able to do nonlinear digital video editing," said John Woolsey.
"They're doing stuff that is phenomenal."
THE FUNDING PROBLEM
A lot of the Board's schools are trying to get into advanced technology, but it's difficult to do on a shoestring budget. Although there is a promise of more money in next year's budget, the Ontario Ministry of Education recently lowered the amount of dollars available for IT in schools (including learning materials, infrastructure and support) from nearly CAN$300 per student, spent by KPR prior to the new funding model, to about CAN$100 per student under the new funding model, creating a significant funding shortfall.
"I believe we should be in the neighbourhood of CAN$500 per student. If you look at studies in England, they go up to CAN$1,000 per student," said Meldrum.
"We're in the new Information Age. If we're going to prepare students for that world, utilizing electronic content and alternative learning styles, that's the range we have to move to."
Beyond the Ministry of Education, some money for technology is provided by parent groups, which do an excellent job of fundraising, according to Meldrum.
"If parents want to buy computers, we tell them which kind," he said. "If they want to buy software we recommend what is appropriate. They can't just buy anything they want."
With dollars being tight, Meldrum has to be sedulous in finding ways to save the Board money and helping it get the most for what it invests. Perhaps the most effective means he's found to do this is by establishing a consortium of core suppliers, who work together to provide integrated solutions.
KPR'S VENDOR CONSORTIUM
The consortium consists of AT&T Corp. (Wide Area Network and communications lines), Bell Canada (local communication lines, telephones and related equipment), Compaq Computer Corp. (corporate computers for legacy systems -- e.g. payroll/accounting), Computer Associates International Inc. (LAN/WAN management software), Conpute (desktop hardware repair), IBM (classroom computers, servers, curriculum software), Integra Data Systems (LAN/WAN electronic management), MFP (leasing and funding), and Xerox Corp. (imaging solutions, printing/duplicators).
Meldrum first started putting the consortium together about five years ago when he was with the Northumberland/Clarington Board, prior to amalgamation. It grew out of necessity. "We used to ppurchase the latest and greatest," he reflected.
"But we couldn't deliver a sound technology program to the classroom because we'd have a video card here and a video driver there, and some things didn't get updated, despite what vendors said. So we ended up with a lot of stuff that simply didn't work."
Meldrum now looks to his consortium vendors to provide integrated solutions at an attractive price. Not only do the vendors hammer out integration problems among themselves, making life much easier for the CIO, they also provide benefits such as extra discounts and contributed equipment. Vendors will also tap into their engineering departments to bridge areas of difficulty with new solutions, making life much easier for technical support staff.
"There's no way you can survive in the education sector without full integration with your main technology providers," said Meldrum. "Sometimes you may pay for some things up front that you think are more expensive, but if you look at the overall picture, they aren't. When the vendors know you're there and you're going to stay with them, they bring all kinds of things to the table."
Even so, Meldrum hasn't closed the door on others joining the group. He's open to approaches by other vendors and will put them in touch with the chair of the vendor group. If the querying vendor can provide more benefit to the group than an existing one, they can become part of it. But they have to prove their claim. And in the end, no one has challenged for such a role.
"I'm not saying I couldn't buy and install another vendor's computers, and have them do an excellent job. But the course content and other things we really need likely won't all run in that environment. So am I going to lose access to these other things for cheaper hardware? That's not what we're here for -- we're here to make sure teachers have sound learning tools that are transparent to them."
C-FACTOR BRINGS WORLD TO THE CLASSROOM
The next opening on the vendor consortium will likely go to one or two content providers. And it is the C-factor -- high-speed communications -- that is making the content revolution possible.
"Content has been building at a rate that is unbelievable. It's being developed by specialists, by experts in their fields, and the collaboration that goes into developing it is now done on-line," said Meldrum. "Courseware publishers are tripping over themselves to make new content available through advanced communications."
As well, content providers can make changes to courseware almost instantly.
This is a major improvement on the old client-server method, which involved cutting new CD ROMs and sending out new versions, a process that could take weeks.
"When I call a provider now for an update, they'll ask, 'When do you want it?'
If you're thinking the old way you may say, 'A week or two weeks.' And they're likely to reply, 'How about tomorrow morning?' They can do it that quickly," said Meldrum.
This rapid and universal access to knowledge is giving rise to the idea of international credits. If the student wants to take a credit in English history, why not take it from England? If he wants to study the rain forest, why not get the credit from Brazil or Costa Rica?
"Who owns education? -- where can you get your credit? -- is one of the real bugbears in education in the world right now," said Meldrum. "That's another result of the C-factor."
The world notwithstanding, Meldrum's chief concern is making sure the students, teachers, and principals of the Kawartha Pine Ridge Board are well served by IT. That seems to be a mission accomplished. The KPR board is acknowledged to be one of the best in Ontario at utilizing the technology available to it.
But Meldrum is quick to share the credit. "That's due a lot to the leadership of the school board. The trustees have given their support, and we have excellent senior administration and curriculum leaders that saw the value of the alternative ways of learning, and the benefits that can be obtained through technology. I've been fortunate enough to be able to work in this environment."
David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is managing editor of CIO Canada.