Distance Learning Evaluation: Final Report 1994 - 1995; New York City, New York

November 1, 1996

The New York City Public Schools implemented a distance learning program beginning in the fall of 1992. The project, called NYClassnet, was organized in an extensive collaboration between the high school division of the New York City Board of Education, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the Lincoln Center Institute, and four public high schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The purpose was to create two way video/audio links among high schools, and with other educational institutions. Such joint classes were designed to expand the educational offerings available to students and their cultural horizons. The NYClassnet project explored some novel distance learning designs, linking high schools with a community college and with Lincoln Center. Each participating institution was linked by a NYNEX fiber optics cable. NYNEX provided the technological backbone, classroom technologies, and technical support for the project. Each participating school has one distance learning classroom, which connects them to a network providing two-way video and audio interaction with the other schools and the Lincoln Center Institute.

During the study year thirteen NYClassnet classes were offered, 489 students enrolled, and 19 teachers participated. The Center for Children and Technology of the Education Development Center has conducted a research and evaluation study of NYClassnet. During the 1993-94 school year, we created and tested measurement instruments and collected background data about the project. Full data collection took place throughout the 1994-95 school year. Our findings from these data are summarized in the report. Detailed information about each of the instruments and measurement tools is available in the report's appendix.

We summarize here the highlights of the studies:

  1. Distance learning was seen as an important innovation by administrators, teachers and students alike. Its purpose was seen by administrators and teachers to be primarily meeting the diverse learning needs of students and to bring people together across distances, exposing students to other cultures. Many teachers saw emotional rewards for students whose feelings of being "special" and "worthy" were enhanced because they were given access to advanced equipment. Most administrators and teachers also consider distance learning to be an important part of the future of education, as do a number of students, and were optimistic about the future of the New York City network. This interest in the future supports perseverance in solving some difficult problems of implementation and coordination across institutions.
  2. The distance learning project has been successful overall in relation to the central goals of administrators and teachers: a range of classes have been conducted, and new course content has been added. Basic logistics have been worked out, although chronic problems of scheduling across schools and planning remain a challenge. The need for continuing resolution, attention, and coordination at a system-wide level somewhat contradicts a current trend in education to devolve decision-making to individual schools. A continuing commitment to partnership across institutions is needed for success within the public education system, and even more so if outside institutions are involved (e.g. colleges, museums, cultural institutions). The partnership must have a structure to support patient and flexible resolution of institutional and cultural issues that may cause conflicts, including scheduling, performance expectations, supervision of teachers, grading and credit.
  3. Though there was improvement after the first year of implementation, the technology was perceived as a continuing problem by most teachers. Our classroom observational data provided objective support that technical problems occurred with some frequency in the observed classes. While the technical glitches did not last long, they were observed to occur in approximately one-third of all class sessions. When asked about desired improvements, in addition to an improved audio system, teachers and students also frequently wanted improvements in visual acuity (e.g. larger, sharper monitors). This may be related to the desire for improved relationships across sites (see below). The document camera was overwhelmingly the most frequently used technology in the room; teachers want more training to better incorporate the other media and communications technologies. Many students want more responsibility for operating the various technologies.
  4. The pedagogy in the distance learning classes was not notably different from that of traditional high school classes, though teachers frequently reported that more planning time was required for distance instruction. The similarity of pedagogical styles in most of the distance learning classes to traditional high school classes was reported by teachers and students and confirmed by observational analyses. Classes were dominated by teachers' lectures or exposition, and exercises and assignments were similar. The NYClassnet implementation was therefore not being used overall to explore or change the nature of teaching or pedagogy. Relatively few teachers thought that the classes were too lecture-oriented, and few wanted pedagogical changes such as longer class periods, or more or offcamera discussions. Because the NYClassnet featured classes designed and delivered by outside organizations such as Lincoln Center Institute and the Borough of Manhattan Community College, we also observed non-traditional pedagogical styles presented to high school students. We were not able to compare these classes with similar classes taught in the college or by LCI, since there are no similar classes. We can report that there were indicators of success in both types of classes.
  5. Students' achievements in distance learning classes were not consistently or substantially better or worse when students' numerical grades in each distance learning class were compared with students' cumulative averages, or compared to a traditional comparison class. In some classes students did notably better, in some worse, and in some their performance was comparable to their average performance. There was no overall trend toward better or worse performance across distance learning classes when examined for the effect of the technology alone. Likewise, students' performances in Advanced Placement distance learning classes could be compared to state and national norms for three classes. Students' AP scores were substantially better for one course, comparable for a second, and substantially worse for a third. In one special education math class, the students performed significantly better than their grade point averages, and in a special education biology class, they performed significantly worse. In one class that had a novel format - The Lincoln Center Institute Theme and Variation Class - students performed as well as or significantly better than their grade point averages. In eight of the twenty-one classrooms student attendance was substantially worse than their attendance rates recorded in home room. In six of the distance learning classes, there was no difference in attendance. In the non-distance learning comparison class, attendance was substantially worse.
  6. We were interested in how distance learning classes compare with traditional classes in terms of amount and type of interaction. Systematic observational analyses from four focal classes indicate that participation by both teachers and students (talking, lecturing, asking and answering questions) is very similar for distance learning and traditional classes, with the exception that there is a trend toward shorter turns for students in distance learning compared with non-distance learning classes. Many teachers point to the paradox of distance learning bringing people together and, at the same time, not bringing them together. In a distance learning classroom, individuals in physically separate locations can see and speak with one another; they can interact, but only to a point. The distance and the technological medium erect a barrier to substantive personal contact. However, the patterns of interactions in classes appeared to be determined more by subject matter and teachers' habits than to be primarily determined by the distance technology. Very little off-task activity was observed in any of the classes, and some students indicated that they felt "left-out" when they were not on camera. However, a particular striking finding from the interaction analysis is how little students actively participate in either the distance learning or traditional high school classes.
  7. We discovered that in distance learning classes, in-class interaction is only a part of the overall category of relationship, which is very important to both teachers and students. Expansion of the social world of students was a prominent goal for the project. Adults and students were not notably concerned about the character of in-class interaction; in distance learning classes, it reflected what they were used to in school. However, they were concerned about the difficulties of establishing real personal relationships, and feeling like "one class". It appears that relationship gets established in part by the things that go on outside of class as much as by those in class - encountering each other in the halls and lunch room, informal exchanges in the borders around class periods, being in each others' physical company. Many of the suggested improvements in distance learning by both teachers and students concern the establishment of relationships cross distances.
  8. For the most part, administrators reported that teachers volunteer for distance learning classes, though the administrators admitted that they often had particular individuals in mind to teach certain courses, within the constraints of the course needs defined by the project. Teachers are given basic training on the system, but both teachers and administrators want and need more advanced professional development - technical training and pedagogical strategies - and on-going support.
  9. Though many students reported that they were not fully aware that they had enrolled in an interactive, on-line class at first, they also reported that they quickly grew accustomed to the technology in the classroom and felt comfortable with it. They reported that they recommend the classes to their friends and would take distance learning classes again. Over half of the students reported that they took distance learning in order to take a course that was not otherwise offered. Students commonly reported being pleased with personal benefits derived from participation in the distance learning classes, overcoming shyness, and meeting new students.

It takes a long time to develop, implement, refine and stabilize an innovation in education. Research over the last decade suggests that 3 to 5 years is generally required for substantial technology-enhanced innovation. It is essential to continue to monitor and refine the implementation of this project as the technology, the education goals and social context change. Distance learning in New York City is still young.

Based on research, we recommend that the following issues be considered as the project is refined. These recommendations are discussed at greater length at the end of this report.

  1. Special attention needs to be paid to the problems that appear to be chronic, such as scheduling and planning distance learning classes - a problem across the participating schools. Review of project structure is likely to be needed as this project moves from an implementation phase to a stabilization phase.
  2. Establishing relationships across distances is of primary concern to teachers and students. This interest needs to be addressed through a combination of strategies for getting classes together face-to-face and new experiments with the technology.
  3. Experiments in innovative format and pedagogy need to be encouraged, especially those linked to other desired changes in teaching and learning (e.g. portfolio assessment), or expand what this means.
  4. Consider the relatively high level of student interaction in the innovative distance learning classes, especially when compared with the non-distance learning class, and continue to focus on emphasizing the type and quality of interaction that is best supported in these media.
  5. Experimentation with innovative mixed media course design drew student and teacher praise and should be encouraged.
  6. Teachers would like more opportunities for professional development in technical skills and in pedagogical strategies for distance learning classes.
  7. Experiment with technical refinements such as flexible cameras, larger monitors, better sound. Also, students would like larger roles in the operation of the classes and network, a change that may be used to advantage to improve the overall flexibility of the system.


Pat Dyer
Julie Thompson Keane
Clareann Grimaldi
Terry Baker
Lynne A. Weikart
Jan Hawkins