For distance teaching, schools are usually equipped with audio facilities to allow teacher and students to hear each other, a facsimile machine for exchange of lesson material or homework, and a Macintosh computer equipped with Electronic Classroom software. A graphics tablet and pen and a screen projection device are often connected to the computer although these are not mandatory. Two telephone lines are currently used to carry voice and computer data respectively.
Links between schools are formed by dialling using low speed (at least 1200 bps) modems and ordinary telephone lines. Due to widely varying telephone line conditions, establishing links is not always as straightforward as it should be. Once all links have been established, one party signs on as the teacher of the lesson and thereafter controls who has the ability to interact with the system.
To link two or three schools there are sufficient communications ports available on any Macintosh computer to connect one or two modems. To link more than three schools requires the use of a Macintosh model which has the ability to plug in a communications expansion card connections for up to three additional modems. This expanded model, the 'multipoint machine' has special software support to enable it to recover from any problems without human intervention being necessary. A 'welcome' screen feature can display status information (eg weekly schedules) to participants when they dial in.
Often teachers are assigned to schools at very short notice, sometimes with no previous computer experience. Since they have to be up and teaching with the system rapidly, the design centred on simplicity and ease of learning. Paint style tools were chosen as experience had shown that these fit the above criteria best. Tools in the Electronic Classroom palette provide the ability to draw straight lines, rectangles, ovals and write freehand as well as cut, copy, and move and erase previously painted graphics.
Interviews with teachers already experienced in this form of computer based teaching highlighted the need for very fast interaction to make the system workable. So the communications protocols were designed to provide rapid information interchange and responses at 1200 or 2400 bits per second. Whatever is drawn on one computer is rapidly transferred to the other computers in the lesson. Handwriting, for example, typically appears on remote screens only one to two letters later than it is being written.
Text may be entered from the keyboard in a mixture of fonts and styles. It appears in movable and resizeable boxes on a layer above the painted graphics and can be highlighted or changed at any time during the lesson. To fill the screen with text (for a writing lesson for example) it is simply a matter of double clicking the text tool. Cutting, copying and pasting of textual material is possible. A word processor is provided which supports subscripts, superscripts, tabs, scrolling, indents, a ruler and transparency.
Text-only material may be read in from most external word processors. By using Apple's WorldScript® system software phonetic Asian text can be entered from the keyboard in several different formats.
Used in conjunction with Electronic Classroom this software gives the ability to mix Japanese and English text on the same line if necessary, greatly enhancing the remote delivery of foreign language lessons. Over 60% of the copies of Electronic Classroom are used for teaching languages.
Pictures can be pasted from the scrapbook and appear in all other locations' clipboards after a short delay proportional with their complexity. Once a picture is in the remote clipboard, it can be saved in the remote scrapbook(s) or repasted instantaneously. Using this feature, images from, say, the Draw module in ClarisWorks can be 'pasted through' Electronic Classroom to a remote students' copy of ClarisWorks - provided sufficient RAM is available on each computer to run both simultaneously. Video grabs or scanned images are usually transmitted in this way also.
Lines and shapes can be drawn using a number of patterns to differentiate, for example, different lines on a graph. Shapes can be drawn either empty or filled with a pattern. Eight basic drawing and text colours provide more variation on colour computers, up to 19 more can be defined.
When the screen is full, a click on the 'New' button in the tool palette creates an additional blank screen so that the lesson may proceed without losing any information. The amount of RAM and the number of colours selected controls how many screens can be created. At any stage during the lesson, previous screens can be recalled for review or saved to disk by either students or teachers. After the lesson has concluded a more permanent record of the lesson can be created by printing any or all screens.
Electronic Classroom was designed to accommodate three different teaching styles:
Firstly, the computer can be used as a series of empty blackboards and all lesson material created whilst the students are online. This is the most common teaching style and mirrors common classroom behaviour.
Secondly, a number of screens may be prepared before the lesson and stored in one or more 'Lesson Notes' files for downloading at any stage during the lesson. Experience has shown that restricting the number of screens per file to four or less reduces the time taken to reload the screens in the event of a communications line failure. Some teachers in the field have already prepared hundreds of screens of Electronic Classroom lesson material in subjects ranging from mathematics to foreign languages.
Thirdly, a number of screens can be written up just prior to the lesson starting. When all locations are successfully linked up, the teacher is given the option of downloading those screens to all lesson participants.
Apart from the special Electronic Classroom format 'Lesson Notes' files, it is also possible to incorporate material from MacPaint or PICT format files (eg from ClarisWorks®). In the latter case, the text can be extracted to the editableElectronic Classroom text layer as the file is read in.
The communications facilities of Electronic Classroom were designed with Australian communication conditions in mind. Noisy or crossed lines are common in some rural areas. The in built protocols will not give up in such conditions but will detect the situation and continue to attempt to send information until it gets through. All the time, participants are kept informed of the progress of information transfers via status lamps on the screen. There is one such lamp for each linked computer and by glancing at the status lamp panel a teacher can tell instantly whether there is a problem on any connection or if it is safe to proceed as all information has now been correctly disseminated to participants. If a line drops out (or is so noisy that it must be re-dialled) information already existing within the lesson will be reloaded automatically. However, experience has shown that some lines can be so bad at certain times that reliable communications are just not possible, even despite the above precautions.
For multipointing to more than two remote locations, a four port serial communications card must be inserted into a suitable model Macintosh. The cards we have used exclusively in Australia come from Creative Solutions, Inc in the US. Any other brands may work but have not been tested with Electronic Classroom and so cannot be guaranteed. There are NuBus versions of this card (model HQS) and an external SCSI box that performs the same function. Creative Solutions are working on a PCI bus version of their four port card.
Electronic Classroom was designed to work efficiently with 1200 or 2400 baud At compatible modems. It still does, provided that large data transfers (eg multi screen lessons, colour images, sounds etc) are not attempted. For typical 'blackboarding' operations (freehand or shape drawing, erasing, typing plus cutting and pasting small B&W clip art) response is quite fast.
Faster modems, up to 28.8KB are currently supported via modem scripts. Overseas modems may need a special script written before they can be used. At least 80 scripts for various modem/speed combinations are shipped along with the product. Some older Macintosh models may not support some of the faster speeds.
A version of Electronic Classroom that connects to multiple sites via the Internet will be released shortly. It will require Apple's Open Transport networking software (yet to be generally released for 68000 and NuBus PowerPC models) and possibly an extra 2MB of RAM as well as at least a 68030 processor. As is usual with the Internet, repsonse can vary from extremely fast to very lumpy depending on load.
Electronic Classroom on the ABC's 'Hot Chips' program
Although designed primarily for use in schools, a number of TAFEs and University Education Faculties are using the technology. The Universities are providing curriculum support for state education systems that are using the system and in particular researching more effective ways of lesson delivery. Projects underway or mooted in the tertiary area include teaching remote hospitality trainees, tutoring aboriginal teachers in remote communities, teaching workers job application skills and industrial training links between university and the business community.
Subjects taught in schools with Electronic Classroom are many and varied. Here is a partial list:
Accounting, Adult Literacy, Advanced Typing, Agriculture, Australian History, Australian Studies, Change and Approximation, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, English, English Literature, French, Geography, German, Graphic Communications, History, Human Development & Society, Indonesian, Information Technology, Italian, Japanese, Legal Studies, Mathematics, Music, Physical Education, Physics, Politics, Psychology, Reasoning & Data, Secretarial Studies, Shorthand, Small Business Management, Space & Number Technology Studies. . .
* Rural schools (for teaching to adjacent schools) * Correspondence (DEC) Schools (teaching over wider areas) * University and TAFEs (tertiary, research, teacher training, adult literacy etc) * Language delivery (English, European, Indigenous & Asian)Since its first release in February 1990, Electronic Classroom has been purchased by almost 1,000 schools and colleges. It has been installed in every state of Australia.. Where state departments are not yet actively involved, individual schools have taken the initiative and have set up their own programs. Most state correspondence schools (now called Distance Education Centres) are using the software.
Australian Universities are providing curriculum support for state education systems that are using the system and in particular researching more effective ways of lesson delivery. Trainee teachers are becoming skilled in the use of technology and extending their practical experience at reduced cost.
Economies of scale in Australia are now driving the production of CD based curriculum material for use exclusively with Electronic Classroom. The Japanese Telematics Resource CD is one such example. When published, it will include high quality pictures, cartoons and native recordings to support teachers delivering the Australian national Japanese curriculum for upper primary and lower secondary from a distance.
Subjects taught in schools with Electronic Classroom are have been many and varied, including:
Aboriginal Studies, Accounting, Adult Literacy, Advanced Typing, Agriculture, Australian History, Australian Studies, Change and Approximation, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, English, English Literature, French, Geography, German, Graphic Communications, History, Human Development & Society, Indonesian, Information Technology, Italian, Japanese, Legal Studies, Mathematics, Music, Physical Education, Physics, Politics, Psychology, Reasoning & Data, Secretarial Studies, Shorthand, Small Business Management, Space & Number Technology Studies.
Success stories include teaching English to indigenous (Aboriginal) students where lack of eye contact is a positive advantage and where the state Education minister was so impressed with the lesson he asked when he could come back the next day to view another.
Blind and disabled students, confined to hospitals or homes, are already receiving lessons using Electronic Classroom. Using commercially available hardware, Electronic Classroom can be operated by students with a variety of physical handicaps.
Interstate and inter-systemic teaching of curriculum material has taken place across a number of state boundaries in subjects like English, photography and Japanese.
In Western Australia one school has taken a group of aboriginal students to year 12 for the very first time in the history of the school thanks to the dedication of the teacher and the use of Electronic Classroom.
Comments from parents, teachers and others using Electronic Classroom :
"Electronic Classroom has the potential to be a very important tool in Distance Education. A picture's worth a thousand words and can make the concept of a particular lesson more meaningful when a classroom situation can be brought right into the home schoolroom." - parent
"The computer work is allowing Jobe more spontaneity and interaction with the teacher and David in Electronic Classroom." - parent
"Oh, love version 2.5.9c! Excellent!" - teacher
"...I have been having so much fun demonstrating the new version, and have a heap of inspired teachers out here ready to go! The video you passed on to me was a most effective professional development tool, and we gained an aweful (sic) lot from it. Many thanks." - teacher
"You provided us with exactly what we needed. Many participants specifically noted how much they appreciated the chance to talk over their problems and ideas with you...We all appreciated your generous contribution to the success of a Conference which participants have requested be repeated annually." - conference organiser
"Yesterday was terrific. Thank you. I want you to know just how useful and inspiring your information was. I can't wait to update the program and get started on some of the top ideas you gave us." - teacher
The use of Electronic Classroom in the remote delivery of lessons has been evaluated and reported a number of times. In Australia the use of such technology generally goes by the name of 'Telematics'. Here is a sample of the conclusions:
"Telematics teaching is a powerful and flexible delivery tool that has the capacity to significantly lessen the disadvantages suffered by rural students in access to specialist education programs" Telematics in Rural Education - Dr Ron Oliver & Professor Tom Reeves - Edith Cowan University, Western Australia, 1994
"Since Telematics involves the sharing of resources between schools, it becomes more economically viable to keep the local school open, and so it continues to enrich the local community." - Technology in Education ;A study of Policy and Practice in Rural Schools- J.V. D’Cruz - La Trobe University, Victoria, 1990
"The development of skills in the Telematic area was an unintended outcome but one which the participants felt was important of comment. Based on their own judgments, most teachers considered Telematics a very effective medium for learning and all found the lessons enjoyable. The majority went on to gain the highest awards in their syllabuses and the drop-out rate was negligible." - TeleLearning; Telematic Delivery of Curriculum and Professional Development - Cecile Murray - Tasmanian School of Distance Education, 1994
However with the passage of time there came a need to expand the capabilities of the system (particularly in terms of servicing more than two schools at once) and InterMac was by then no longer in development.
Revelation Computing (then operating out of Sydney) became involved in late 1988 initially as the supplier of the imported Timbuktu™ product. Timbuktu was (and still is) a screen sharing product for any Macintosh application that works best over local area networks. Trials with Timbuktu (and its companion product Timbuktu Remote) pointed to the need for a faster, simpler approach more suited to lower speed communications lines. Indeed, the vast majority of teachers (at that stage still using InterMac) simply ran paint style programs to provide a ‘blackboard’ despite the availability of the full range of Macintosh applications.
The Victorian Ministry became involved in the design specifications for the product that eventually became known as Electronic Classroom. Mr Neil Elliott, who has been working at the leading edge of the use of technology for distance education in Victoria, assisted greatly in refining the product to meet the exact needs of teachers. The developers are greatly indebted to Mr Elliott for his assistance since the inception of the project.
Electronic Classroom, version 1.0 was released in February 1990.
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