2000 Conference Proceedings

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New Developments in Prentke Romich Company On-line Training: Making the Most of the Learning Server



Russell Thomas Cross and Teri L. Madak
Prentke Romich Company
1022 Heyl Road, Wooster OH 44691
rtc@prentrom.com 
augtalk@aol.com

 

The PRC Learning Server Project

In November, 1998, the Prentke Romich Company (PRC) began work on expanding and improving its training program. The initial aim was to develop on-line courses that would be accessible to anyone with an Internet browser and a phone line. To achieve this, PRC invested in its own Learning Server, a computer specifically dedicated to the provision of distance learning courses.

By February 1999, members of the project were running beta-test courses, enabling them to test the hardware and software in some detail. Furthermore, the courses provided an opportunity to learn the new skills of presenting in a new medium.

In March, 1999, the CSUN conference provided the first opportunity to test the use of the Learning Server with a live computer-lab session that had conference delegates in Los Angeles, a presenter in Wooster, Ohio, and another location in Swinstead, England. Although there were some glitches with the computer-lab technology, the session went well. In fact, the problems that occurred with the local computers were identified after the session and lead to a solution being discovered that would eliminate such errors in the future.


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At the same conference, Phase I of the Learning Server was outlined. These can be summarized as follows:

Since that time, work has progressed on Phase II. Here are the targets for Phase II:


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Phase II Developments Through October 1999

Training Courses

Getting Started: For people who want to attend any of the PRC courses, it is important that they become familiar with the techniques and tools used to access the classes. Therefore all prospective students must first attend this Getting Started course to learn the mechanics of using the Learning Server. The course is a 2-hour course that gives people a grounding in what technology and software are needed.

Training the Trainers: This was a significant extension to the Learning Server project. Any expansion of courses depended on having more trainers available. Most of the trainees were PRC staff who needed to be taught how to develop and run new training courses. This includes details such as how to schedule courses and how to upload course materials. The course consists of four 2-hour classes with the final class given over to presentations by the students.

Funding Assistive Technology: A 2-hour course designed for funders and anyone involved in trying to get funding for a communication aid. This course was an adaptation of a face-to-face training given by one of the PRC Consultants. By making it Internet based, it became possible to provide the training to a much wider audience.

What is Minspeak?: An introduction to the Minspeak symbol encoding system (Baker, 1984). Another 2-hour course that takes people through the philosophy and application of symbols to encode language in a voice output communication aid.


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Software/Hardware

Video: Some preliminary tests have been carried out using a standard, off-the-shelf video cam along with the Learning Server software. Primarily, the tests were to establish the necessary software and hardware configurations needed to provide a video image to students. The early tests have had some success, but bandwidth issues make the system a little unstable. There is a need to do some testing with larger groups.

Software: Modifications are being made to elements of the server software to improve the record-tracking capabilities of the system. Although the server software allows for many elements of recording to me monitored and manipulated, the Learning Server team have identified types of data that they want to have in different formats.


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Server Hire

To make maximum use of the Learning Server, the team have developed a program that allows third parties to run their own courses. This is on a contractual basis where individuals or organizations can hire server time and ports to conduct their own specific classes. Costs are based on the concept of the Port Hour, the cost of a single port for a one-hour period. Clients can then determine their costs in advance by simply looking at how many ports they require and how long each class lasts.

At present, contracts are being offered to international distributors who will be likely to be using the Learning Server during the hours that are domestically quiet. For example, the UK is 5 hours ahead of US EST so they can run training from 9.00 - 2.00 GMT, which is 4.00 - 9.00 EST - a time when PRC are not running courses.


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Meeting Tool

Another use for the Server domestically has been as an adjunct to regular Phone Conferences. The interactive nature of the system means that slides can be prepared in advance and used during a meeting as a point of reference. This is particularly valuable when talking about products of a visual nature.


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Planned Expansion Up To March 2000

Training Courses

A significant addition to the Learning Server project will be asynchronous courses. These will be available at any time and will, in the main, require simply a browser. Some materials will be downloadable whereas others will be interactive, requiring data to be entered at the time of use.

We also intend to look in more detail at the access issues faced by individuals using a communication aid. These are extremely variable as the range of possible motor and cognitive issues is huge. Nevertheless, it should be possible to determine common elements and provide some solutions for a number of individuals.

Software/Hardware

It is envisaged that we will be adding new software that will help in the development of training materials. There is also likely to be some changes made to software to make data collection and presentation simpler.

Depending on the amount of use the Server is put to, we are monitoring the need for increasing the number of ports available. At this stage, we are able to handle access traffic by good scheduling and class-size management. However, port size is a limiting factor, so this area is one that will require special attention.

Server Hire

An expansion of hire is planned for. Initially, we will be offering a service to people within the field of AAC, but in the longer term, this can be broadened.


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Summary

This article outlines the progress made in Phase I of the Prentke Romich Learning Server Project. This initiative is already providing a valuable service to individuals who would find it difficult to attend a regular face-to-face course. It also outlines Phase II developments and outlines future plans. Overall, it is a description of an on-going initiative that


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References

Baker, B. (1982). Minspeak. Byte, 9, 186-202.

Cross, R.T. (1999). Developing Web-Based Distance-Learning Courses For The AAC Community: A First Step. In Proceedings of the 1998 CSUN Conference on Technology for People with Disabilities. Available on-line at http://www.dinf.org/csun_99/session0147.html


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