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A Brief and Personal Perspective on North Island College’s Involvement with Televised Distance Education from the “Crash-Test Instructor’s” Perspective

A Brief and Personal Perspective on North Island College’s Involvement with Televised Distance Education from the “Crash-Test Instructor’s” Perspective

How to take care of students spread over 64,000 square kilometres of mountains, fjords and forests.

Michael J. Catchpole, PhD
Instructor, North Island College
Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Part A: Phases 1 to 3

On this 40th anniversary of North Island College and of the Instructional Technology Council, and as I start my own 38th year with NIC, I was asked if I would like to write something for these celebrations. After some brainstorming as to what might be of interest thought I would put fingers to keyboard and write a brief, personal perspective on my own, North Island College’s remarkable journey in the implementation of three educational television systems into its educational delivery model. I will also briefly mention how on-line delivery has added to our accessibility and how what came before the advent of on-line delivery has helped NIC maintain the “high touch” approach so essential to the special population that constitutes Community College students. “Live” television and other video has played (and still plays) a major role in taking distance learning past its correspondence course roots and I thought readers might be interested in some of its history at a small British Columbia College. 

As the instructor who was the first “face on the screen” for each of the television-based technologies NIC tried I can speak only from my perspective and there will be others with better insights into the politics and technological advances behind this history.  I refer the reader to Dr. Dennis Wing, Thorne Won, John Tayless, John Nicklin and Albert Balbon for that part of the story. Five more forward-thinking and dedicated educators could not be found. 

This history begins with my job interview in 1978 with the college’s first President (“Principal”, he titled himself), Dr. Dennis Wing.  I (and my wife, btw) was a recent PhD recipient in psychology from the University of BC. Upon graduation she and I were supposed to enter the world of university academe however, during an eight month European, post PhD “recovery” camping trip, decided that we might be happier finding alternative but related employment on Vancouver Island.  I initially got a sessional job at the University of Victoria on southern Vancouver Island and she began teaching for Guided Independent Study at the University of British Columbia (a job she could do from anywhere).  I was unhappy back in a university environment and when I saw a position in my field advertised by North Island College, which serves the northern half of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland, decided to apply. I was short listed and during my interview with Dr. Wing recall him showing me a map of the North Island College region and explaining to me that my job would be to make sure that every adult from “there” (Bella Bella) to “there” (Port Alberni) could get a post-secondary education. He explained, that given the region’s rugged geography, we would not have one main campus but rather several smaller campuses and “learning centres” and that we would use “Open Learning Packages”, prepared by organizations such as Athabasca University, the British Open University and Coastline Community College, in combination with local “Tutors” (as all faculty were then called), scattered throughout the region, to help our students reach their educational objectives. This was an intriguing concept and I was very happy to be offered a full time position in Port Alberni where I would be helping students work their way through a variety of post-secondary, psychology-related courses. I would also be available by telephone and mail to students throughout the region and would be marking all psychology-related assignments in the region. The bonus was that Vancouver Island, and specifically Sproat Lake where we bought a waterfront home, proved a miraculous environment in which to live and work.  

NIC’s initial model of students working their way through “self-contained” courses with tutorial support was an excellent theoretical concept but it began to become apparent that more structure and support (see Catchpole, 1986; Catchpole, 1988 and Catchpole, 1992; and Catchpole, 1993) was going to be necessary in order for other than the “super-keen” students to succeed.  

One such opportunity came in 1979 when NIC was asked if it would like to take part in a pilot project to add live, televised classes to its some of its distance education courses.  One such course I was tutoring at the time was a Developmental Psychology course.  It was produced in California by Coastline College and Intelecom.  I had adapted their course package to fit the Canadian academic calendar and generated  assignments and exams. Such package courses were a big help in letting NIC fulfill its mandate of truly covering its region.  In addition to the print component several of the psychology and other courses also included 26 videos further illustrating the course content. 

After about six months on the job I recall Dr. Wing calling me one morning and telling me that there was a pilot project going on at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver (four hours away from Port Alberni by car and ferry) in which a satellite-based, television system was going to be tried for simultaneous educational delivery into Whitehorse in the Yukon as well as several small BC towns including (ironically!) Port Alberni. With NIC being a widely recognized leader in distance education the college was invited to take part and Dr. Wing asked me if I would be willing to travel weekly to the Vancouver studio and try adding weekly, live televised classes to one of my psychology package courses.  I agreed to do so.  The studio was located on the BCIT campus and consisted of one camera and a two way audio system that allowed verbal communication between the students and instructor via the Anik-B satellite.  The University of Victoria also took part offering a Nursing course as did a third organization whose name I cannot recall.  Despite the rather rudimentary set up with one-way video and two way audio an independent evaluation of student feedback clearly indicated that they vastly preferred this type of delivery over traditional correspondence courses. Additionally, completion rates were on a par with those found in face to face classes rather than the rather dismal success rates typically found in most print-based, distance learning courses. 

Based on this successful BCIT/Anik-B pilot project the government minister in charge (Dr. Patrick McGeer) three years later decided to create the Knowledge Network television service. The idea of this network (which was on the main television dial) was to make a bold move to open the doors of educational opportunity to people all across Western Canada by combining print-based distance education with taped and live televised instruction. Special, pre-recorded educational programming for children and adults was also included.  

Based on our success in the BCIT project NIC was once again invited to take part in the new Knowledge Network.  Dr. Wing asked me to be the pilot instructor for this project.  Once again the studio was in Vancouver and I now found myself in a proper television studio with a green room, two camera operators, a sound person, floor director, switcher and someone to patch in phone calls. One certainly had to “up” one’s television skills compared the single camera set-up at BCIT. Students would be encouraged to watch and register in the first class (which was advertised on the network over the summer) and NIC would send them the course materials via courier upon receipt of their credit card number or a check. For my own classes I decided to include two 15 minute instructional segments, an expert guest interview and a live-phone in session as well. The network also played the pre-recorded Coastline videos weekly in the order I requested. This combination of live instruction plus what was essentially a video-enhanced, correspondence course proved remarkably successful and in September 1989, for example,  I had 254 students from 74 communities across Western Canada, the Yukon and the (then) North West Territories registered in a Developmental Psychology course. After the first two years other NIC instructors (Dr. Allan Markin, Roger Albert, Dr. Michelle-Birch Connery and Derek Hanebury) were also teaching NIC courses via the Knowledge Network across a range of academic disciplines. Because the classes were live students (and the public) could also call in to the phone-in segments if they wished. Nielsen and Bureau of Broadcast Management ratings indicated that upwards of 14,000 people watched the programs each week and every September I would receive numerous registrations from people who had watched the previous semester and now wanted to try the course for credit. 

During the early years of the Knowledge Network the government also created a province-wide distance education entity called the Open Learning Institute and within a short period time moved it and the Knowledge Network into the same building in a Vancouver suburb.  These two entities were then combined into what was now called the Open Learning Agency. While NIC had been an enthusiastic supporter of adding Knowledge Network classes to its offerings, strangely the former OLI seemed to have no interest in partnering with the Knowledge Network to enhance their offerings. I recall a Knowledge Network employee complaining to me that while she had offered to the OLI (renamed as the British Columbia Open University and Open College) to televise several Shakespeare plays in synchrony with one of their English courses, its English department had replied “No thanks, Shakespeare intended people to read those plays”!! Meanwhile, NIC soldered on with its televised distance education courses, making them available to all viewers, but friction began to develop when NIC was asked to pay for access time on the network. Dr. Wing argued that the whole point of the Knowledge Network was to increase student access and anyway that if NIC wasn’t using the time then the Knowledge Network would have to pay for other programs to fill the NIC time slots. This disagreement, combined with the OLA apparently wanting hegemony over provincial distance education, yet not interested in adding any television (live or pre-recorded) to their courses, finally led to the end of the NIC/Knowledge Network cooperative relationship.  Each organization went its own direction and as Dr. McGeer was quoted as saying about 15 years ago “There is no knowledge on the Knowledge Network anymore”.  I agree and also am saddened that the grand experiment to combine live, broadcast television and distance education failed, I believe, due to a lack of vision and no doubt political infighting. For credit students, and the legion of “viewers” who followed along with the live classes, a huge opening of post-secondary education to the public had the door firmly shut. What is also fascinating is that NIC’s Dr. Wing was interviewed for the post at the head of the OLA (which went to Glen Farrell). How different the history of Canadian educational television may well have been had he been selected for that job. Further to this I was honored many years ago to meet Fred Friendly, one of the founders of the United States Public Broadcasting System (PBS).  He remarked that at that founding he had argued that it be named the Educational Television Service and be focussed on helping less educated viewers acquire credentials such as a GED and other educational qualifications. He said that to his sadness the decision was made instead to call it PBS and make the programs more elaborate and of a softer educational variety.  PBS has much to be proud of but it is unfortunate that it is more for “high brow” viewers than those with less educational background. Two networks would have been an even better idea. 

As the saying goes, however, “when a door closes another one opens” and the very next year NIC was able to acquire some outstanding, multi-point video-conferencing equipment and again asked me if I would try piloting its educational use within the NIC region. Despite amusing technological problems at the beginning (I especially missed the make-up artist’s attention in the green room!) students again responded very well to the experience and once again said the enhanced relationship with the distant instructor, plus the structure and pacing that live classes provided, made it much easier for them to enjoy and succeed in NIC’s distance education offerings. Links (ironically using the “shoulder” of the (no!) Knowledge Network’s satellite signal) allowed NIC to connect Port Hardy, Port Alberni, Courtenay and Campbell River.  We also had a mobile downlink which we could trailer anywhere the college wished.  One interesting spin-off of this mobile dish was when we partnered with the late Dr. Peter McLean of the University of British Columbia’s Psychiatry Department, trailering the satellite dish over to UBC and helped them assess its value for conducting remote diagnoses.  UBC now has a large telemedicine department.  After the successful use of videoconferencing in NIC’s pilot trail other instructors jumped in the following year and began teaching from their home campuses to the other campuses in the region.  NIC now offers a full day’s slate of live, video-conferenced courses throughout the Monday to Friday week and now is expanding to a second network. 

That then summarizes my part in and perceptions of NIC’s journey through the first three phases of live televised instruction. I apologize for any errors in this narrative. As I noted at the beginning these are my memories and open to correction by others. 


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