The confluence of geographic and financial burdens forced district officials to rethink their business model, leading to the 1993 launch of an electronic busing program for students to pursue or enhance their education from home. Powered by IBM Lotus Notes, the "E-Bus" initiative enabled parents, students, and teachers to communicate via email regarding assignments, grades, and other school-related activities. It also allowed small schools to widen the geographic reach of their course offerings so instructors could attract enough student interest to teach classes they might not otherwise have been able to offer.
As word of the program spread, enrollment soared, highlighting E-Bus' limitations. According to Mannering, users were craving a more robust system that would enhance the learning process, one that could support "live classroom interaction, collaboration among students with similar interests, and personalized online environments for teachers, students, and parents."
Over the next several years, SD91 officials experimented with a variety of products designed to enhance online learning, including SuccessMaker, PLATO, and Pathfinder (now Odyssey). They also tested demo versions of the FirstClass Communications Platform and considered products developed by Moodle, Lotus, and Athabasca University, Canada's main distance-education and online university.
Their quest eventually led them to consult BCEd Online, a Ministry of Education-supported partnership of BC school districts that supports online and distributed education through content and professional development, hosted services, and private sector partnerships. The group encouraged Mannering's team to preview the Education Portal offering CLN had developed using IBM Workplace solutions. BCEd Online arranged the meeting, which took place in early 2004. As Mannering recalls it, they told CLN and IBM representatives what they wanted, and "the next day they presented it and it was really quite stunning. We had to say yes."
"We'd taken Workplace Collaborative Services and its five modules and repurposed them to serve the needs of the education marketplace," McDonald says. Adds Mannering, "These guys put a kinder, gentler face on what was essentially a business application, making the modifications needed to meet our specific requirements."
The WCS-powered education portal CLN and IBM proposed consisted of the following:
- IBM Workplace Messaging, a Web-based messaging tool that would give SD91 learning community members presence awareness, email, and instant messaging capabilities;
- IBM Workplace Team Collaboration, which would make it possible for geographically dispersed students to communicate as if they were going to the same school by delivering virtual classrooms, where students would find announcements, assignments, and other collaborative features;
- IBM Workplace Web Content Management, which would give teachers and administrators "author once, publish everywhere" control of the content they contribute to the portal;
- IBM Workplace Documents, a document management system that would allow district educators to assemble learning resources in a secure electronic library and give students access to the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools they would need to complete their coursework; and
- IBM Workplace Collaborative Learning, a managed-learning tool that would allow students to complete assignments at their own pace.
Soon thereafter, the SD91 board of trustees gave E-Bus officials the green light to work with CLN and IBM to develop and implement an education portal. Over the next 18 months, more than a dozen representatives from SD91, IBM, and CLN worked to refine IBM's existing tools to meet the E-Bus program's needs.
The end result, dubbed "E-Bus Plus" and launched in October 2005, delivers multiple points of entry that have been customized for each user and his or her unique needs. For example, three student interfaces give students in grades K-3, 4-7, and 8-12 access to the content and learning resources they need to complete their assignments and interact with fellow students and instructors. A separate interface enables parents to monitor students' progress and to communicate with teachers. E-Bus Plus also features interfaces for teachers and administrators to access lesson-planning, performance-assessment, and scheduling tools that external audiences (students and parents) never see.
Since its debut nearly 13 years ago, the E-Bus program has graduated several hundred BC students. The next-generation version, meanwhile, is still a work in progress: according to McDonald, CLN and IBM have implemented four of the five WCS modules outlined above and will pilot-test a customized Collaborative Learning module this spring. They hope to roll out a fully featured E-Bus Plus portal by the time the 2006-2007 school year commences.
Mannering says the months of development and hundreds of thousands of dollars the school district has invested is paying off in big ways. E-Bus Plus not only takes the best features WCS has to offer, but makes them relevant to remote learners of all ages and to the parents and teachers who facilitate their education. "E-Bus Plus is a much more iterative and collaborative environment," he says. "If I'm a student, I have a much greater ability to decide what and how I want to learn. If I want to learn physics by studying roller coasters or baseball, I can. If I want my science project to involve some creative writing, it can. Parents, meanwhile, can share ideas and participate in activities. Teachers can administer and grade tests and assignments online or collaborate with other teachers.
"As users think of more and more things they'd like to do, we'll find a way to incorporate them," Mannering continues. "Our partnership with IBM and CLN will be ongoing. E-Bus is not something that will be locked down and buckled up. We'll continue to develop it. That may never end."