Wired in Arkansas - SEDL and several partners brought local computer networks and the Internet to seven rural Arkansas schools

by Michael Burton
Published in SEDL Letter Volume IX, Number 4, November 1996, Technology Comes to School

Drive about an hour south of Little Rock along Interstate 65 and the Arkansas landscape changes from rolling hills covered with pine trees to flat fields smothered by white cotton. This heavily rural area dominated by cotton farming and light manufacturing plants contains some of the highest poverty rates in the state.

Rural educators in the Delta Region of eastern Arkansas find their economic challenges amplified by geographic isolation. Lake Village residents must travel 20 miles, to Greenville, MS, for medical treatment. From Dumas the nearest hospital is in Pine Bluff, 40 miles away. "We've had kids here who have never been past Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in their lives," one Dumas High School teacher said.

Before the start of this decade, most of these schools had limited access to computer technology and electronic communications. Lake Village's Lakeside School District, where 72 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunches, relied upon mostly outmoded stand-alone computers of limited capabilities. The school district of Dumas, located about an hour north of Lake Village, was equipped with a handful of low-capacity computers used mainly by teachers for word processing and by staff for data entry. With computers today used more and more as communications and instructional tools in the classroom, these districts found themselves at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier counterparts with access to advanced technologies.

Because many rural schools have little money to spend on technology and telecommunications, their teachers have fewer opportunities to obtain electronic information and resources. Many rural educators have equally limited access to training in computer skills. Yet a recent survey by the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education showed that teachers are eager for training in the instructional uses of technology. Further, teachers want to update their knowledge and skills by collaborating with other teachers, university faculty, the scientific community, and community and cultural organizations.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) anticipated this need with its Arkansas AdVentures in Networking (AAN) project, launched in 1994 and now serving 45 educators in four school districts in eastern Arkansas.

AAN illustrates how computers and telecommunications networks can support human networks to build the skills of educators. As conceived by K. Victoria Dimock, the SEDL senior training/technical assistance associate who manages the project, and Deborah V. Jolly, the SEDL vice president who directs SEDL's Technology Assistance and School Restructuring programs, AAN created an on-line learning community of educators focused on a specific instructional method. A three-year, $450,000 grant from the US Department of Education funds the project through October 1997.

Several organizations already active in Arkansas came together in AAN, forming a strategic alliance that met local needs for technology training, engaged student learning, and teacher professional development:

  • The new Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN) was connecting every Arkansas school district though its telecommunications network [see "Schools Overcome Technical Difficulties," p. 4].
  • Ventures in Education, a national nonprofit group that helps disadvantaged students prepare for the rigors of higher education or technical careers by accelerating their math and science curricula, was working at the seven schools that later signed on to AAN.
  • Ventures in Education had introduced teachers in those seven schools to problem-based learning, or PBL, the instructional approach adopted by the AAN partners. Some teachers went on to receive intensive training in PBL from the Problem-Based Learning Institute at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield.
  • The new Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences had opened in Hot Springs as a center for teacher education promoting technology use in schools.
  • SEDL trainers and researchers, including Dimock, were crisscrossing the state tracking school improvement and educational technology initiatives.

Arkansas AdVentures in Networking was not really underway until seven schools in four eastern Arkansas school districts signed on: Dumas High School and Dumas Junior High School in Dumas, Lakeside High School and Lakeside Junior High School in Lake Village, Lee High School in Marianna, and Stuttgart High School and Stuttgart Junior High School in Stuttgart.

"The idea was that by using technology and getting these schools connected to the network, teachers in these schools could talk to each other," said Dimock. "All the elements were there. We just brought them together." SEDL's tasks include helping teachers find resources on the Internet once they could log on, coordinating technology training for teachers, and facilitating local connections with APSCN.

Since some teachers at these schools had never even touched a computer, during AAN's first year, Dimock concentrated on helping teachers with on-line training and methods for accessing the Internet and using electronic mail; all told, more than 100 teachers received training in e-mail through AAN. In 1996 training expanded to navigating the Internet with World Wide Web browser software and setting up listservs, or electronic discussion groups in which the teachers received, read, and posted e-mail messages about specific topics. As a matter of course, some teachers began exploring the Internet on their own and shared their knowledge and information with other teachers. Some teachers also learned from APSCN's inservice "train the trainer" workshops on e-mail use and other on-line skills.

Sheila Toon, coordinator of Lakeside Junior High's Gifted and Talented Program, is regarded by her peers as one of these Internet mentors. "I called Vicki [Dimock] a lot with technical questions," she said. "I did a lot of Net surfing after hours, and attended APSCN's Internet workshop in July."

Toon is a good example of a teacher who adapted telecommunications tools to improve her classroom teaching. After she attended an intensive ten-day workshop in problem-based learning at the PBL Institute's Illinois headquarters, she brought back instructional methods designed to encourage students' initiative and collaboration as they worked together to solve a problem. This school year, Toon is expanding her lesson plans to include other learning concepts beyond PBL.

"PBL is just a tool. The Internet has put us in touch with the world," said Toon, who is already incorporating research found on the Net into her lesson plans. For an astronomy project, she accessed the Star Facts Web site, which featured video clips of planets and star clusters. For a study of dinosaurs, Toon discovered an "excellent Web site" posted by the Field Museum of Chicago.

"A lot of times our school library is closed or doesn't have the information I need," she said. "This site gave me an updated base of knowledge, complete with discoveries of new dinosaurs. My kids could never have gotten that without going on a field trip to Little Rock. The Internet made it available instantly."

Gerri Appleberry, a Dumas High mathematics teacher, attended three inservice sessions on problem-based learning last year and became a certified PBL trainer. She believes PBL is an excellent tool for solving mathematics problems. "I think newer teachers buy into new methods like PBL more easily than other teachers," Appleberry said. "It requires a mindset where instructors look for something more real-world based and hands-on."

Although AAN's 45 teachers participated in Ventures in Education's program incorporating PBL, twice that number attended APSCN's e-mail training, and many more use the technology for peer support and communication. Generally, teachers prefer using e-mail for communicating with other teachers about instructional topics, student projects, and curriculum frameworks. Following e-mail, the second most popular use of information technology seems to be listservs, such as APSCN's Open Forum, where teachers can obtain quick answers to technical questions, administrative problems, or lesson plan concerns. With guidance from AAN staff, some teachers have shared with others information they've pulled from the Internet, as did this Lakeside High English teacher:

    You might be interested in the creative writing discussion list at Mizzou....Lots of poetry comes in on this list...some serious discussion of trends and literary topics. I also get LOTS of e-mail, but it gets easier after a while to flip through and delete the stuff that you don't care to actually read....Try it-you'll like it.

It's this part of her job that Dimock says she enjoys most-facilitating teachers' explorations of on-line communication, encouraging them to use the Web, and giving them ideas that will keep them motivated. "Teachers need support and encouragement," said Dimock, a former teacher herself. "That's why on-line coaching, peer support, and staff development are so important."

Another source of motivation for rural teachers is their school administrators. In the case of Dumas School District, administrative support for both technology and innovative teaching is evident. In addition to securing funding to purchase new computers, Superintendent Don McHan supports faculty who improve their teaching with on-line resources. He'd also like to see district staff use technology for more specific purposes, such as preparing students to pass the new high school exit exams required by the state or following a national literacy program.

Barbara Ratcliff, technology manager at Dumas High, uses computers for a variety of purposes, from ACT preparation to Ventures in Education testing for upper-level calculus students. "For a school our size, we're very lucky to have the technology we have. We've done e-pal projects where our kids communicate with other teenagers in Sweden and Australia. It's a cultural eye-opener."

The focus of the AAN project has developed beyond its original plan to support problem-based learning to create an on-line learning community of teachers who share common subject areas and engage in critical inquiry about their profession. It has also reduced the isolation many teachers in eastern Arkansas experience. These rural teachers use electronic networks for several functions: community service and education; connection to other teachers and content experts; information exchange; e-pal projects, started by the Stuttgart High teacher whose class communicates with Chinese students; distance learning, pursued by the Dumas High teacher who took an on-line course as part of her graduate degree; and curriculum development, practiced by the teacher whose students enjoyed an on-line, interactive field trip to the United Nations via satellite-broadcast interviews and e-mail exchanges.

In AAN's final year, Dimock will focus on electronic conferences that guide teachers in instructional uses of the Internet and on helping teachers find content-specific resources. "As teachers find uses for the network that fit their needs," she said, "the AAN project must adjust to those uses."

With the end of AAN within view, and with APSCN awaiting a funding renewal from the Arkansas Legislature, these schools will face new technology challenges, particularly in how to use, maintain, and improve their networks. But educational technology has already empowered educators to access information and resources previously inaccessible, and given them new incentives and methods to teach.

Next Article: Lessons in Professional Development - What Educators Should Know When Technology Comes to School