Blogs in class! York’s ABEL program wins national recognition

Educators and researchers at York University have a lot to celebrate these days. York’s Advanced Broadband Enabled Learning (ABEL) program has just won The Learning Partnership‘s 2005 National Technology Innovation Award – the latest accolade to be received by the innovative program currently connecting educators all across the country.

“We are very excited to see ABEL achieve national recognition through The Learning Partnership’s Technology Innovation Award,” says Janet Murphy (right), ABEL’s program manager. “It’s a tremendous validation for a program that’s making an impact in classrooms everyday.”

Led by York, ABEL is an online community of postsecondary and K-12 educators collaborating across jurisdictions and institutions through the use of broadband and other high-speed networks. Founded in 2002, ABEL uses the latest information communication technology (ICT) and social science research to not only change but to enhance and enrich educational practice.

“For the most part, ICT classroom investment has not achieved the impact on student learning that everyone expected,” said Murphy. “Recent studies suggest that there’s no significant difference between being taught by a person standing in front of you and by a person on a computer screen. In other words, without a change in instructional delivery, technology alone yields no significant impact. That’s where ABEL’s innovation comes in, using technology to enhance, enrich and extend the learning experience, and to add value to the instructor-led classroom.”

Rather than replace face-to-face learning, ABEL augments the physical space of the classroom with broadband technology in the form of multiple projected video screens located around the teacher. While one video screen may display the teacher’s lesson, diagram or video clip, another screen can be used to connect and communicate with other educators, classrooms and experts located thousands of kilometers away, thus greatly enhancing the teacher’s lesson.

For example, using ABEL, David Boucher, a Canadian novelist in British Columbia, was recently able to connect with a grade 12 English class in Toronto and answer students’ questions about his work. In another example, John McCallum, minister of national revenue, on a recent visit to a high school in York Region, virtually “visited” two other schools at the same time. Through ABEL, drama students in Calgary have received theatrical direction from experts at York, and a Supreme Court judge in Ottawa “attended” a mock trial held at York.

“ABEL is a wonderful platform for connecting educators to the outside world,” says Murphy. “It doesn’t replace the teacher; it increases that teacher’s abilities exponentially by linking her or him with a larger virtual community of experts and professionals.”

From ABEL’s office at York, biology Professor Dawn Bazely (right), recently delivered a presentation on invasive species to a grade six classroom in Toronto. She had some aids: a globe of the world borrowed from her grade five daughter, her children’s pet sea monkeys (brine shrimp) – a stand-in for spiny water fleas that are invading Ontario lakes – and, finally, a live garlic mustard plant, a forest weed she found on campus. “Once we all got used to the format, the students were lining up to ask questions, and we had a truly interactive experience,” says Bazely. “It was great fun.”

An ecologist on sabbatical, Bazely also notes that the ABEL format saved her a car trip, thus reducing her carbon dioxide footprint and output of greenhouse gases. “York is a leader in environmental sustainability research, and ABEL can help us to reduce our environmental impact,” said Bazely.

Using ABEL, Ian Greene (left), professor of political science and master of York’s McLaughlin College, was able to speak with grade 12 students in Richmond Hill on the Canadian Charter of Rights from his office at York. Greene is planning to make some of his classroom lectures available to teachers in video-streamed format. In addition, he plans to invite faculty from other universities in Canada and abroad to give talks to students and faculty in McLaughlin College through ABEL’s facilities. “This is a wonderful tool that has great potential for bringing students and faculty closer to each other,” says Greene. “It is interactive and easy to use, and the costs are quite reasonable.”

ABEL’s use of multiple video screens powered by broadband technology also enhances learning by radically changing how knowledge flows in the classroom. Traditionally, education is delivered in broadcast mode in one direction: from the teacher to the student. This approach, however, is increasingly leaving more and more students – reared on technologies that allow them to interact with information, such as cell phones, e-mail and instant messaging – bored and restless. But through ABEL, an additional projected screen at the front of the class can display a running “chat room” or “blog” on which students, using laptops, can post their thoughts concerning the lesson without disrupting the teacher. The blog format has already received rave reviews from students who have been conditioned by our fast-paced digital culture to multitask and absorb multiple streams of information simultaneously.

“The blogs enable a kind of high-tech ‘passing of notes,’ projected for all to see, that captures the students’ attention and helps them to reach deeper insights,” said Murphy. “It turns the classroom into an interactive, collaborative environment, and allows students to instantly help those who may not understand a particular point that’s being made by the teacher.”

ABEL’s benefits, however, are not just for students. The innovative educational platform is currently transforming professional development as well. Educators observe a master teacher, hundreds of kilometers away, instruct his or her grade nine classroom. Then, as the students in that class proceed with their work, the master teacher turns to a camera and explains some aspects of his or her teaching to the educators. This ‘virtual shadowing’ allows educators to apply theory by observing actual practice. Web streaming the professional development activities also creates an archive of best-practice for future use.

The National Technology Innovation Award is further proof that ABEL’s impact in the classroom is growing. What began as a research and innovation project at York University has now spread to schools across York Region, Toronto, Peel and Edmonton – districts that are now finding their own sources of funding to continue ABEL’s innovations.

“This award is further testament to the leadership and innovation of Janet Murphy and her colleagues in project ABEL,” says Stan Shapson, vice-president research & innovation at York and the principal investigator on ABEL. “By applying the latest social science research to enhance classroom teaching, ABEL mobilizes knowledge so that it directly impacts policies and teaching practices in the K-12 sector in much the same way that natural science researchers transfer discoveries into new scientific technologies and solutions.

“The applied research of ABEL builds naturally on a strong base of research at York University, such as that arising from the Institute for Research on Learning Technologies (IRLT). ABEL has won a number of prestigious awards, contributing to its national prominence as an innovator in broadband learning. York also extends congratulations to The Learning Partnership for its continued support of the very best in public education,” said Shapson.

The Learning Partnership (TLP) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing together business, education, government, labour, policy makers and the community to develop partnerships that strengthen public education in Canada. More than 3 million students and teachers have participated in one or more TLP programs since its inception in 1993.

For more information on ABEL contact Janet Murphy at ext. 20022 or e-mail You can also visit the Sept. 18, 2003, Jan. 8, 2004 and April 16, 2004  editions of YFile.

This article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, research assistant in the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation.