Telecommunications in Florida: Training Materials for Teachers

MIKE EASON, Administrator Bureau of Educational Technology Florida Dept. of Education DR. ANN E. BARRON, Associate Director and STEPHANIE VanDEVENTER, Director Florida Center for Instructional Technology University of South Florida Tampa, Fla. Children in the third-grade class at Shadowlawn Elementary School in Naples, Florida, engage in many of the same activities as children throughout the country -- they write letters, read stories, conduct science experiments and play games. This class is unusual, however, in that these youngsters do some of their experiments with children in England, read and write stories via a modem with other children in New Zealand, and learn about Alaska from a tour guide in Fairbanks.1 Through telecommunications, classrooms in Florida are no longer bound by four walls, but are open to include students, experts and learning experiences from around the world. Thanks to the Florida Department of Education, the only ongoing expense for these international "interchanges" is the standard cost of a local telephone connection. Florida Information Resource Network (FIRN) The Florida Information Resource Network (FIRN) was established by the state legislature and the Florida Department of Education a dozen years ago, in 1982. It was based on the existing state university systems' network and other resources. Initial FIRN goals included providing equal access to computing resources for all public educational entities in the state and reducing the data burden on teachers and administrators.2 In 1991, FIRNMAIL, an electronic mail component, was added to the system. Access to FIRNMAIL is provided completely free of charge to all public educators in Florida. There is no charge for connect time, and local dial-up numbers are available statewide. In its under-three-year lifespan, FIRNMAIL has grown to over 8,000 registered users. Almost 900 new users register for accounts each month.3 FIRN is having a major impact on teachers and instruction. Over 50% of FIRNMAIL users are in K-12 schools, with the single largest component in the elementary schools3 (see Figure 1). Further, when K-12 FIRNMAIL accounts are analyzed by subject area, it becomes clear that classroom teachers are the primary users of the system. As illustrated in Figure 2, school administrators only account for 4% of the total K-12 FIRNMAIL use.3 Using FIRN in Classrooms There are numerous ways in which the educators and students of Florida use the FIRN system. Major categories of use include electronic mail exchanges, participation in online conferences, remote research and access to classroom resource lists. Electronic Mail Exchanges Via FIRNMAIL, educators in Florida have easy access to each other, without playing telephone tag or incurring long-distance telephone charges. Available e-mail activities include scheduling a meeting with other educators, participating in professional development exchanges and conducting student-centered projects. For example, students in several classrooms in various parts of the state conducted research and wrote papers about Indians from their regions. The papers were then uploaded into FIRNMAIL and shared with students at other participating schools.4 The FIRNMAIL system also offers e-mail access to the Internet; students and teachers can send and receive international messages directly from their FIRNMAIL accounts. Through the Internet connections, numerous projects are now underway that provide interactive exchanges with students in Russia, Antarctica, Australia, the United Kingdom and other places around the world. Online Conferences The FIRN system offers over 50 different online conferences for Florida's educators. These conferences provide a forum for messages, announcements, questions and answers. Conferences differ from electronic mail in that the messages are not addressed to specific individuals; instead, they are posted for anyone who is a member of the conference to read. Conferences in FIRN include a General Announcements bulletin board, a Media Exchange forum, and special topics in subject areas such as Elementary Education, Science or Archeology. Educators select conferences to join; they read the announcements, share ideas or ask questions. For example, many have posted questions pertaining to the Internet on FIRN's Media Forum. Usually, within a day or two, someone will respond to the question, providing either an answer or sources of additional information. Remote Research Educators in Florida have free, online access to numerous research tools. All of the state university libraries and community college libraries are available electronically through FIRN. In addition, access is provided to ERIC (Educational Resource Information Center), the Library of Congress, and numerous national and international libraries. Such resources are useful to both teachers and students. For example, if a teacher needs a particular book, he or she can easily do a search of the universities and community colleges to find out if the book is in the library's holdings, whether or not it is checked out, and if so, the "due" date for its return. If the book is located, the teacher can drive to the college to check it out or request that it be sent on inter-library loan. Likewise, students can conduct searches for books, journals or government documents and determine both the location and availability of the resources. >Classroom Resources FIRN also offers several resources for classroom teachers. The following services are online and updated on a continuous basis. Assignment Discovery- A monthly listing of the TV programs on The Discovery Channel. Study questions, vocabulary words and suggested readings are included in the listings. Cable in the Classroom- A monthly listing of educational TV programming on cable TV. Listings are organized by subject category; they outline the copyright privileges, the cable services on which the programming is carried, and the playing times and dates. CNN Classroom Guide- A daily guide for "CNN Newsroom" that includes suggested reading lists, vocabulary words, discussion concepts and more. Newsweek ThisWeek- A weekly classroom activity companion for use with Newsweek, a guide and a quiz for each issue of the magazine. Training Initiatives To meet demands for technical assistance and training on Florida's network resources, the state's Department of Education funds personnel support positions throughout the state. These technical personnel, called FIRNTECs, are available through toll-free telephone numbers or via FIRNMAIL to answer questions related to hardware, software and procedures. FIRNTECs also conduct training sessions for teachers and administrators. Although a FIRNMAIL manual is available for all new users, the need for additional instructional materials was recognized in the spring of 1992. The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, one of four centers funded by the Florida Department of Education to assist educators with new technologies, was contacted to design and develop the materials. The following is a description of the training materials that were developed: A booklet entitled "Getting Started with Telecommunications"; Quick reference cards entitled, "Making the Connections"; Brochures for FIRN networks that focus on education; and Computer tutorial/simulations on telecommunications and FIRNMAIL. These materials are distributed free-of-charge to educators upon request and also disseminated at inservice workshops conducted by FIRNTECs. The 36-page booklet, "Getting Started with Telecommunications," was designed to provide an overview of telecommunications in educational settings. For example, the Educational Applications and Services section includes descriptions of electronic mail, bulletin boards, curriculum-based learning circles, research databases, file transfers, chatting and online simulations. Another section, Advantages of Telecommunications, highlights the potential for increased collaboration, multicultural education, motivation, self-esteem and access to experts. Detailed illustrations in the booklet outline the hardware and software components of telecommunications.5 A brief discussion of software settings is also included, along with a sample communication software screen. Implementation techniques for telecommunications in schools are also presented. Suggestions include analyzing all costs, seeking projects with specific goals, joining conferences and encouraging tangible exchanges. The booklet also has information on commercial networks such as Prodigy, Dialog and the AT&T Learning Network. Case studies of successful projects in Florida's schools are highlighted. Appendices supply a glossary of telecommunications terminology and references for additional information. Making the Connections Besides e-mail, FIRN offers access to many other instructional network services that reside on various host computers located throughout the state. Many of these services have different interfaces, along with different log-on and log-off procedures. To provide a guide for educators, reference cards were created containing easy-to-follow directions for each system (see Figure 3). The cards, entitled "Making the Connections," are printed on 4 x 5-inch card stock and attached with plastic binding. In addition to the access and exit procedures for seven of the FIRN networks, the cards include telephone numbers for FIRN access and FIRNTEC support. Since the cards were expressly designed to assist educators in system access, brochures were also produced for each system to provide additional information, such as system overviews, sample searches and keyboard emulations. The tri-fold brochures are color-coded to match the quick reference cards and are available for the following: LUIS (Library User Information System). LUIS is the online card catalog system of library materials within Florida's State University System. It also accesses state community colleges, international universities and educational databases. ERIC (Educational Resource Information Center). ERIC is a large, national database of education journals and reference sources. Users can conduct keyword, author or title searches. FCIDS (Florida Career Information Delivery System). FCIDS provides career information for teachers and guidance counselors, including a job bank, sources of financial aid and admission requirements of Florida's educational institutions. TNT Lesson Plans. Technology 'Nformation for Teachers (TNT) Lesson Plans provide instructions and ideas on using software and multimedia in the classroom. Plans can be accessed by searching for specific subject areas, grade levels, topics and other criteria. FIRNMAIL. This is the e-mail component, providing message transfer, file upload and download, group conferencing, online "chatting" and limited access to Internet. Group Conferencing. Through FIRNMAIL educators may access an electronic conferencing system, currently sporting over 70 special interest groups. "Hands-On" Training To assist educators and students in getting the most out of FIRN, computer tutorials and simulations were created as well. These programs were specifically produced to enable FIRNTECs and others to provide "hands-on" inservice training sessions in school labs with limited modem access. The programs were designed for either individual or group instruction for educators or students in grades six and above.6 Tutorial programs are divided into four main sections: Telecommunications Basics, Overview of FIRNMAIL, FIRNMAIL Simulations and Applications. Each topic is accessible via Menu Options on a pull-down menu or through an interactive Course Map. The Telecommunications Basics section contains background information on electronic mail. Through animations, text, graphics and practice exercises, users are introduced to the function of modems, communication software settings and dialing procedures. The Overview provides information about the Florida Information Resource Network in general and FIRNMAIL in particular. Topics include storing messages on e-mail servers, FIRNMAIL's menu structure and using electronic folders. Figure 4, for instance, shows an animation sequence designed to depict the movement of messages in FIRNMAIL. The Simulation section consists of real FIRNMAIL screens that have been captured and incorporated into a lesson. This offers safe practice in creating, sending, reading, indexing and deleting FIRNMAIL messages. Finally, the Applications section includes an overview of several commercial services, such as America Online, Prodigy and GTE World Classroom. Telephone numbers and addresses are included. In addition, this section provides background information on network services specific to FIRN. New Activities Several thousand copies of the materials produced under this grant were distributed at the 1993 Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC). An additional 10,000 copies were printed for free distribution throughout Florida. Response from new FIRNMAIL users is very positive; FIRNTECs and other trainers have also found the materials to be extremely helpful. In a new activity, USF's Florida Center for Instructional Technology is currently implementing a new database for educators that can be accessed through FIRNMAIL. (It will also be available through Internet.) This database, called Multimedia And Software for Teachers (MAST), is designed to serve as a source of information on new releases of software, videodisc and CD-ROM products. Through MAST, teachers will be able to search for new products by specifications such as title, subject, grade level or publisher. For more information about FIRN training materials or the MAST database, please contact: The Florida Center for Instructional Technology College of Education, EDU 208B University of South Florida Tampa, FL 33620 (813) 974-6099 Internet: BarronA@mail.firn.edu Mike Eason is the administrator of Instructional Technology in the Bureau of Educational Technology for the Florida Department of Education, Tallahassee, Fla. In this position, he oversees all of the projects that implement technology in Florida schools. E-mail: EasonM@mail.firn.edu Ann Barron is an assistant professor in the Instructional Technology program at the University of South Florida and teaches graduate-level courses in multimedia and instructional design. She also is the associate director for the Florida Center for Instructional Technology. E-mail: BarronA@mail.firn.edu Stephanie VanDeventer is the director of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology and an instructor of Instructional Technology. E-mail: VanderS@mail.firn.edu References: 1. Morrel, A., "Florida Case Studies: Shadowlawn Elementary School." In A. Barron, Getting Started With Telecommunications, Tampa, FL: Florida Center for Instructional Technology (1993), pp. 25-26. 2. Schmid, B., "FIRN: Florida's Statewide Educational Network," Florida Educational Computing Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1990), pp. 83-89. 3. McGinnis, P., Statistics on FIRN usage were obtained from unpublished technical reports from the Florida Information Resource Network, Tallahassee, Florida. 4. Stevenson, S., "Early Indians of Florida," Florida Technology in Education Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3 (1993), pp. 71-72. 5. Barron, A. E., and Orwig, G. W., New Technologies for Education: A Beginner's Guide, Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited (1993). 6. Eason, M., Barron, A., and Ivers, K., "Electronic Mail Simulations: Powerful Training Tools." In T. Brubaker (Ed.), NECC'93: The Magic of Technology, Eugene, OR: International Society of Technology in Education (1993), pp. 280-283.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.

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