October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Connecting Canadians with their Natural and Cultural Heritage: Parks Canada's Connectivity Project and Proof of Concept Pilot

Michael White and Morag Hutcheson, Parks Canada, Canada


In early September 2006, Parks Canada conducted a proof of concept pilot to explore and evaluate the use of videoconferencing as a central component of an interactive, hosted multimedia event aimed at connecting urban Canadians with educational content about national parks. The pilot, conducted at Parks Canada's Discovery Centre in Hamilton and in rented facilities at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, was part of an ongoing “connectivity” project under the supervision of the Agency's Public Information and Education Branch. Aiming to evaluate and research connectivity programming models for distance public education, Parks Canada’s connectivity concept would connect urban Canadian audiences and school classrooms in real-time with expert specialists and conservation partners in remote heritage locations across Canada. Parks Canada’s New Media Strategies and Investment team will present an overview of the connectivity project in general with specific focus on the proof of concept pilot, the qualitative evaluation of the pilot via focus testing with representatives of target audiences, including students and teachers, and a summary of the results of market research commissioned to explore the potential opportunities for museums and public education organizations to work together towards developing Canadian content for public and in-school programming connecting Canadians with their natural and cultural heritage.

Keywords: videoconferencing, pilot study, evaluation, market research, public education, national parks, distance education


Overview Of Parks Canada And Outreach Education

Parks Canada is an agency of the Government of Canada responsible for Canada’s system of national parks, national marine conservation areas and many of Canada’s national historic sites. Parks Canada is well known for public education programs offered at these national heritage places; however its educational mandate extends beyond these places themselves and includes outreach education initiatives to bring messages of Canada’s national heritage to people in their own homes, schools and communities.

The national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas of Canada are diverse in nature and dispersed in geography, often located in smaller communities, rural regions, and wilderness areas spread across the world’s second largest nation. Conversely, Canada’s population is becoming more and more centralized and urbanized.

As of 2006, more than half of all Canadians lived in the country’s three largest metropolitan areas (greater-areas of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver), more than 80% of Canadians lived in urban centres in general and over 90% of Canada’s population growth in the past five years was in urban centres (Statistics Canada, 2007).

As society changes, and immigration and urbanization increase, fewer Canadians may be aware of or feel connected to their national heritage places, especially those places remote from major cities.

In an effort to reconnect Canadians with their national heritage, Parks Canada undertakes various outreach activities and pilots new approaches. One such pilot is the Connectivity Project, aimed at evaluating the appeal and feasibility of using educational technologies, particularly videoconferencing, to connect Canadians with their national cultural and natural heritage.

Project Description

Parks Canada was looking for innovative ways to reach Canadians in Canada’s largest metropolitan areas, either through a system of museum-like Discovery Centres showcasing Parks Canada’s heritage places and mandate, or in collaboration with existing museums and partners with complementary mandates. One proposed tool was the concept of connectivity programming, or the use of videoconferencing and other educational technologies as part of a live multimedia event hosted in a high definition theatre at possible future Discovery Centres or partnering museums. These programs would showcase Parks Canada themes and stories told in first person by the expert specialists, staff and partners who work to present and protect these places. Augmented by high definition video, audio, animations props, a coordinating host, games and activities and a thematic stage design, the program would become a truly engaging outreach event, connecting Canadians in real time, fully interactive ways with national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas all across the country.

After favourable preliminary technical and operational feasibility studies that evaluated the Agency’s overall capacity to potentially undertake a future videoconference-based outreach program, Parks Canada undertook a proof of concept pilot to specifically evaluate the technical feasibility, audience appeal and educational merits of the experience.

The pilots, conducted in the fall of 2006, showcased marine conservation work being conducted at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (NPR) on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Three expert specialists from the park, two marine biologists and one national park warden, connected with focus group audiences located at Parks Canada’s Discovery Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, and with audiences in a rented museum theatre setting at the Ontario Science Centre in central Toronto, Ontario.

The pilot consisted of standard videoconference (VC) feeds of the three specialists from an observation deck within the Wickaninnish Visitor Centre at Pacific Rim, where the scientists took turns discussing their research, why they did the work and how it benefited the park. They interacted in real time with the audience who were encouraged to ask questions and get involved in the dialogue by a comedic host who coordinated the event. Interspersed throughout the VC, the audience viewed pre-taped high definition (HD) video footage of the park, the marine ecosystems being discussed and some of the research studies and methods mentioned by the specialists. HD multimedia animations, and maps further illustrated the event’s concepts and audience participatory games and activities gave a hands-on experience involving the audience directly in experiential learning.

Figure 1Figure 1: High-resolution videos of the specialists conducting research in the park helped bring their work to life for the audience. The specialists annotated the visuals, explaining what was happening as the videos played.

Technical Setup

Most institutions undertaking VC program pilots experience some technical issues; however, conducting these activities from remote wilderness locations has challenges beyond those typically experienced in well connected urban settings where many large museums are located.

Pacific Rim NPR is just such a remote site. Although connected to Parks Canada’s national network (WAN) via a T1 link (1554 Kb), only a portion of this bandwidth was actually available for the VC feed due to shared traffic with all the other connectivity needs of the park. Portions of the overall bandwidth were required to run several mandatory applications for the park’s daily business; for example, an Internet-based public safety service used by the park wardens, and the park’s campground reservation system. In a typical national park situation these priority bandwidth allocations could not be reduced due to legal and safety reasons even for special events, so this pilot operated within those same restrictions in order to properly test the technological feasibility for the park. The remaining connectivity limited the VC to a bandwidth of 384 KB, which although adequate for VC use is on the lower end of what was generally recommended by most institutions we contacted who had already conducted VC programs (Tobin, 2007; Tobin and Roberts, 2007) and is certainly not adequate for the higher resolution or HD VC available with today’s newer H.264 compression standards. This situation however is either typical or better than the connectivity that currently exists for most national parks and national historic sites.

To complicate matters, connectivity to the park was solely to the administration building located near the town of Ucluelet. This was not an ideal location to showcase the park’s features; particularly the scenic mountainous coastal setting the park is so famous for. The Wickaninnish Visitor Centre is however located on a head of land jutting out into the ocean on scenic Long Beach, which was an ideal location as it was immersed in the natural setting, but also accessible and well serviced with electricity and suitable facilities for conducting the program. A wireless network was set up connecting the visitor centre to the administration building.

The VC program was recorded at Pacific Rim using a Tandberg Tactical Unit on loan from Parks Canada’s network provider, Telus. It was connected at 384 KB on a full IP network to the Hamilton Discovery Centre and at 384 KB to a mixed IP/ISDN network to the rented facilities in the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto.

The mixed IP/ISDN line for the Toronto portion of the pilot was implemented as a security precaution as IT support were hesitant to allow IP access from Parks Canada’s internal network directly to the museum facility we had rented in Toronto. The Hamilton Discovery Centre however was a Parks Canada facility, so that portion of the pilot was IP exclusively via the internal network.


Pilot Design

Conducting the pilots at two facilities not only tested technological feasibility in both an external and internal network environment but also evaluated the program with different types of urban audiences. The Hamilton audience represents a smaller urban demographic on the fringe of southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe urban district, spanning the west coast of Lake Ontario. The Toronto audience is representative of the largest and central city within that district, also Canada’s largest metropolitan area.

The Toronto pilots were divided into two scenarios, one active (45 participants) and one passive (35 participants) whereas the Hamilton event was solely based on the active scenario.

Active scenario audiences evaluated the full connectivity concept and participants experienced the program in a theatre with the following elements:

  • a Pacific coast nature themed stage setting (podium, banners surrounding the projection screen, etc.),
  • a comedic host who coordinated program flow and the interaction between the audience and specialists,
  • HD videos and animations,
  • live VC feeds of the specialists from Pacific Rim NPR
  • full interaction between participants, host and specialist
  • audience activities/games

Figure 2Figure 2: Interactive audience games, like this rockfish measuring game, reinforced the concepts discussed by the specialists and illustrated how scientific research is not necessarily “high tech” as one marine biologist noted.

The passive scenario evaluated the appeal of watching a livecast of the active event as would be the case if the event were conducted in a main studio and multicast to various national park visitor centres or museums across the country, or if the public could watch a live webcast of the activity from their homes over the Internet.

In this scenario the audience did not have access to the host, there were no games or activities, no audience interaction with the specialists and no stage design. Essentially the participants just watched an HD quality video and audio feed mixed to display the pre-taped video and VC feed being shown to the active scenario along with footage of the host and audience interacting in the active room.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Screen shot of the projection viewed by the passive scenario audience showing both the videoconference of the specialists and the video captured of the host and audience’s interactions happening in the active scenario.

Focus Testing And Audience Selection

A public opinion research firm recruited participants using telephone interview questionnaires designed to properly select each target audience. The questionnaires also ensured sub-demographics were well represented such as a mix of participants from various audience groups with both a low and high affinity for environmental issues.

Focus group audiences included families with at least one parent and their children between the ages of 6-13, independent youth between the ages of 14-17, and teachers with experience teaching geography, the environment, or natural sciences in grades 6-9 (Ontario school system). Participants in each event were a mixture of all of the audience groups.

Participants were given a brief orientation to the event and focus testing procedures prior to the event. After the event the audience was broken into smaller focus groups of approximately 10 people per group. Participants filled out a detailed questionnaire for feedback on their impression of the program before any discussion began. The questionnaires included both numerical ranking questions on various aspects of the event and written feedback questions. After completing the questionnaires people participated in detailed focus group discussions moderated by professional facilitators where all dialogue was recorded for later analysis. Young children were asked to draw pictures about their impression of the event while their parents were focus tested.

Flow Of The Pilot Events

The pilot began with an introduction by the host with the aid of HD video to orient the audience to the program and the park and review the theme for the event, the use of science in marine conservation. After the introduction, the audience virtually met the specialists on the VC feed and then each specialist took a turn discussing his or her own subject area, usually lasting 10-15 minutes each. Throughout the specialists’ discussions, HD videos and some animations were used to illustrate the research they did and the concepts being discussed. Two interactive audience games were also conducted based on topics discussed by the specialists.

Although the audience was encouraged to interact freely whenever they felt like it, they usually waited for the question periods spaced throughout, and at the end of, each specialist’s session. In the end all the specialists gathered together on the videoconference and the program was concluded with a summary, a final question and answer session and final closing remarks.

Overall, the pilot events went quite well, although there were some minor technical glitches, the most pronounced of which was occasional periods when the video and audio were slightly out of synchronization. Additionally, there were periods of video pixelization and blurriness in the VC signal, particularly for the pilot at the Ontario Science Centre where the signal had to be bridged from IP to ISDN to satisfy government network security concerns.

The HD video and animations did not pose any serious issues in terms of integrating them into the program seamlessly. However, the HD projector had an unexpected problem and did not reproduce the colors of the video accurately. It is not clear from the evaluation report if this effect had a strong influence on the audience’s comments about the quality of the footage they saw; however, it must be expected to have had some negative impact.

Finally, controlling the timing of the specialists proved difficult in the live and interactive environment, and most spoke longer than rehearsed. As such the program ran approximately 15 minutes beyond the intended hour.

General Impressions

Overall, all audiences appreciated the event, finding it an inspiring way of connecting people with educational content and issues important to the protection of heritage places. Parents appreciated the program’s ability to stimulate their children’s imagination while learning in unconventional and fun ways. Teachers saw vast potential for educational opportunities whether delivered in-class or as class field trips to museums. Youth and children also appreciated the interactive approach, which was entertaining and educational for them.

Audiences for the most part shared similar opinions and felt the concept should be continued although some refinements would be necessary to better target specific audiences.

Aspects of the event that resonated best with all audiences were:

  • Host – participants felt his humor was very engaging and a major asset to the program and his coordination role was critical.
  • Interactivity – this differentiated the program from other educational activities and was critical to its success. In addition, participants felt privileged to be speaking directly with specialists, an opportunity they realized most actual park visitors would not get. This added extra value to the program.
  • Environmental theme - this resonated well with the audience and they felt more connected to the park’s issues, which were relatively foreign to them as urban residents, even for those participants with a high affinity for environmental subjects.
  • Nature footage – participants enjoyed footage of the park, underwater ecosystems and wildlife and they would like to see much more of this.

Areas that require refinement included:

  • Program length – at over 60 minutes, most participants felt the event was too long and younger children particularly began to lose attention after 30-45 minutes.
  • Clarity in themes – despite providing initial context, most participants wanted more of an introduction to the park overall and fewer or simpler subject themes.
  • Perceived low production qualities – participants had very high expectations for this type of event and quoted a “Disney World” standard as what they felt organizations like Parks Canada should supply; also the difference between HD video and VC quality was jarring to some participants.

Educational Value

All participants felt the educational value was very high, particularly if their suggested refinements were made for future programs.

Parents and teachers both felt that although the theatre-based event was an interesting model they would prefer to see Parks Canada focus first on bringing these programs to children in their school classes and secondly on undertaking museum-based events.

Teachers felt the educational potential was good either as in-class programs (their preference) or as school field trips to museums offering the event, but the programs would have to be at least loosely linked to their curriculum if given in-class and in both cases, programs should be tailored more to specific age classes for best impact.

Although a formal educational evaluation was not undertaken, most participants remembered details of the program during their subsequent focus testing, including the overall themes, some of the facts and figures discussed, and the types of research each of the three specialists talked about.

Drawings made by children during their parents’ interviews represented concepts discussed during the program, often with a fair degree of detail and some degree of concept integration. As these drawings were made at least 30 minutes after the event was over, this does show some degree of short-term retention and learning.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Children’s drawings showed surprising detail and integration of concepts mentioned in the program but not explicitly shown to them.

Passive Versus Active Experience

Sharp differences existed between participants in the active versus the passive audience scenarios. In general, levels of appeal were less in the passive audience, and participants’ likelihood of coming back to experience another event was much lower. Participants felt the lack of interactivity with the specialists and the absence of the host negatively impacted their experience and their degree of engagement.

Children and youth noted that they lost attention earlier on in the passive program than in the active scenario ones, and some young children in the passive audience were angry that they could not talk with the specialists.

Teachers said they would still be interested in using the passive version of the event in their classrooms; however, they also felt the students would get more out of the active version.

Production Value

The evaluation of the production elements of the program was very interesting as it reinforced the dichotomy between audience expectations and both the technological limitations associated with using standard videoconferencing (HD VC is currently not feasible for most Parks Canada locations) and the reality of what most institutions like Parks Canada, or smaller, can afford with respect to overall production quality for such events.

The audience expected very high production quality from a national organization like Parks Canada, often quoting a “Disney World” standard. Although this standard is hard to quantify, they did mention that they would like to see much more breathtaking video of the scenery of the park and the wildlife in action, particularly large marine mammals, sharks, etc. They also wanted to see the specialists in action, roaming freely throughout the park and showing specific features and environments live to the audience.

Additionally, they felt the quality of the VC was poor, especially juxtaposed with the HD videos, and this was identified as an area that must be examined further in order to balance expectations with technological realities.

Most adults, particularly parents, felt that occasional small-time delays and glitches in VC audio or video, likely due to signal latency, were somewhat distracting and detracted from their experience. Most youth, however, did not find this an issue as they were accustomed to low quality video streaming and video chat.

Willingness To Pay And Participate

Although the future economic models for connectivity programming are not yet being addressed, Parks Canada was curious about participants’ willingness to pay, not only from a revenue generating or cost recovery perspective, but also because willingness to pay is generally a good indicator of overall appeal.

Most adults and teachers felt they would be willing to pay modest fees to have access to this type of programming, perhaps as high as $5.00, although all suggested special family or group rates would be best. Some parents stated that if perfected then this type of event would compete favorably for their family’s time and budgets allocated for educational activities with their children, potentially drawing them away from other large museums, zoos and amusement parks in the greater Toronto area.

Most participants, however, did not know if they would be willing to pay an additional fee on top of current museum fees for well-known attractions in the Toronto area.

Youth in general said this type of programming, although appreciated, would not draw them independently into museums unless brought with their families or on school trips.

Few people would likely access this type of event on their home computers if webcast or archived for streaming video, and virtually nobody was willing to pay for this webcasting service.

Interesting Observations

A concerning, although not entirely surprising observation of this evaluation study was the strong difference in opinion and feedback between evaluation forms filled out by all participants immediately after the program, and their feedback during subsequent detailed interviews in smaller focus testing groups.

Initial forms were almost always positive, with high numerical rankings for the program and very few suggestions for improvement. Detailed interviews, however, revealed the broad areas for improvement mentioned previously, which are summaries of much more detailed discussions and comments. Without the focus testing we would have assumed that the program was a strong success with little need for improvement.

This is particularly interesting as many of the studies reviewed in this project’s subsequent literature survey (Roberts, 2007) rely entirely on this method of evaluation, and often this forms the basis for decisions to alter content or set access fees. This practice could be very detrimental to some institution’s offerings, particularly as the amount of VC content begins to increase and improve in quality and production value.

The authors do realize that the cost of professional focus testing is often prohibitive; however evaluators must be very careful with how they design such questionnaires and interpret the results responsibly to ensure program direction and investment is not based too strongly on this type of evaluation.

Market Research

Parks Canada hired consultants to conduct a literature review and secondary markets analysis as part of the overall market research for the project. The purpose for this research was to better understand the trends in how VC was being used both in schools and for public education in Canada, to document the lessons learned by institutions currently active in this area, and to evaluate the market for producing Parks Canada themed connectivity programming for either museum-visiting audiences or students in school classrooms in Canada. The research also was intended to document potential opportunities where Parks Canada could work collaboratively with other organizations with complementary mandates.

Literature Review

The literature review (Roberts, 2007) was quite challenging, as much of the work to date on VC programs for public education is pilots, often poorly or only internally documented and even more often not formally evaluated. Nonetheless the literature reviewed has provided a benchmark on the VC activity done to date for public education in Canada, with some focus on international projects.

For the most part, institutions currently undertaking VC programming had comparable plans and very similar experiences, often encountering identical issues and reporting very similar best practices, despite reaching these insights independent of each other. It would be beneficial for these organizations to work collaboratively to some degree and build a community of practice around this area.

Common themes uncovered in the review include:

  • Almost all programs used IP based VC, some augmented with other technologies.
  • Teachers found the value to be high but felt the equipment was not yet simple enough to use on their own.
  • Most literature stresses the need for sound learning design and pedagogical purpose, formative evaluation and adaptation; some encouraged including teachers in the development of programs.
  • Two case studies displayed very well how lower-end technologies like on-line video streaming added great value and engaged learners more than with VCs alone.
  • Most case studies were not formally evaluated and in general, evaluations are not robust enough to truly evaluate education success or learning outcomes.

Secondary Markets Analysis

The secondary markets analysis (Tobin and Roberts, 2007) involved detailed interviews with over 65 people including 35 representatives from scientific, historical, and cultural organizations (content suppliers) and 36 representatives from educational authorities including departments of education, school boards, and special technology projects (content consumers) from all provinces and territories in Canada. Most content suppliers interviewed were Canadian although several international institutions were also contacted.

Overall, the issues and approaches that emerged were similar between content providers. As with the literature review, most organizations were using IP-based VCs mostly on a pilot-basis and most focused on K-12 school students, offering curriculum-based enrichment learning.

Most programs were conducted out of a VC studio or a controlled setting with very few offering mobile or in-situ programs in natural settings, or even on museum floors among the exhibits.

Many institutions are struggling between offering their programs free or for cost recovery. Most have settled on an intermediate solution with some form of moderate access fee.

Very few organizations have attempted a large scaled hosted multimedia event as in Parks Canada’s pilot although some American organizations have experimented with this approach. Some organizations did mention that they would like to eventually experiment with this model over the next 2-5 years.

The picture that emerged from educational authorities was quite mixed as various school boards and provinces in Canada are approaching videoconferencing in very different ways. For example, one major educational jurisdiction stated that they were focusing on desktop applications, whereas most other jurisdictions were moving towards true videoconferencing with a VC unit and projector or large television. Access to VC equipment varied widely across and within Canada’s provinces, and the approach to using educational technologies in the classrooms was also quite variable from province to province. These differences in approach may pose challenges for national organizations to provide content equally to all students across Canada.

Interviews suggested that there is currently not enough quality curriculum-linked Canadian content for VC programming to be in high demand, although demand may change as content increases and improves.

Most educational representatives highly welcomed the potential entry of Parks Canada into this area due to its reputation for high quality educational programming, its ability to provide programs nationally and bilingually and most significantly, its breadth of subject material with heritage places in every province and territory and covering almost every aspect of Canada’s history and natural heritage.

One interesting dichotomy between educational authorities and content suppliers was with their views on the acceptable cost for programming. Although some jurisdictions stated they would be prepared to pay modest usage fees for quality Canadian content, overwhelmingly the majority was opposed to this and extremely opposed if from a federal government institution like Parks Canada. Conversely, the majority of content providers planned on charging small to large fees, with a few planning their business models on full cost recovery. It will be interesting to monitor their success and also to monitor if attitudes towards paying for content by Canadian school boards change over time as VC programming becomes more available, of higher quality and more broadly accepted as an educational tool.

Another interesting insight was the preference from educators to have a more holistic approach to using educational technology. Various interviews requested that Parks Canada consider a wider offering than just VC programs alone. The recommendation put forward was that an on-line repository be built that houses a wider variety of learning objects, including streaming or downloadable videos, images of various sizes and resolutions, educational flash objects, and documents in various on-line and downloadable formats. These resources could be organized around content themes for which a VC program, or series of programs, would be a central but not exclusive component.

Future Work

In light of the market research and pilot evaluation, Parks Canada has decided to proceed with a second phase of the connectivity project, this time evaluating the model for in-school use. Two pilots will be conducted, one with a national park theme and another focused on national historic site content. These programs will be curriculum-linked for the participating school jurisdictions and will focus on specialists from each location, such as a scientist from a national park or an historian or archaeologist from a national historic site.

The pilots will be conducted multiple times throughout the year and informally evaluated and altered iteratively as necessary to make suggested improvements. As the year proceeds, a Web-based feature may be developed to showcase learning objects and pre- and post-program activities. If not feasible at this phase, then such an approach is planned for subsequent phases.

In the longer term, Parks Canada wishes to continue evaluating the concept for both in-school formal education and museum or discovery centre-based informal education. Additionally, Parks Canada is interested in testing various other models and approaches, including accompanying educational Web sites, a series of VC programs related to central themes, and collaboration with partners for both creating and disseminating VC programs.


The authors would like to acknowledge the help and contributions of staff and consultants who all contributed greatly to this project, including Hugues-Frédéric Brouillette who managed the production aspects of the pilots, Éric Bastien who was the technical lead for the pilot, staff who participated in the Connectivity Working Group, staff at both Pacific Rim NPR and the Parks Canada’s Discovery Centre in Hamilton. We also thank Donna Nixon and Sebastien Dallaire of The Strategic Counsel who conducted the evaluation, Judith Tobin and Judy Roberts who conducted the market research and literature review, and staff at the Ontario Science Centre who provided abundant technical and logistical support during the portion of the pilot conducted there.


Roberts, J. (2007). Literature Review: Parks Canada Connectivity Project.

Statistics Canada. (2007). Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006, 2006 Census: Population and dwelling counts. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 97-550-XIE. Ottawa: Analysis Series, 2006 Census.

Tobin, J. and J. Roberts, (2007). Secondary Market Research Report: Parks Canada Connectivity Project.

Cite as:

White., M., and M. Hutcheson, Connecting Canadians with their Natural and Cultural Heritage , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/white/white.html