...

Observations from the Boulder Valley Internet Project

LIBBY BLACK, Director Boulder Valley Internet Project Boulder Valley School District DR. KEN KLINGENSTEIN, Director Computing and Network Services and DR. NANCY BUTLER-SONGER, Assistant Professor University of Colorado at Boulder Boulder, Colo. In the Boulder Valley, a number of significant initiatives have brought together teachers, students, administrators, technical experts and researchers to explore the issues related to the deployment and use of networks in K-12 education. The Boulder Valley Internet Project (BVIP), sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, the US West Foundation and other corporate, district and university funds, is deploying connectivity to the entire district and training both teachers and students. Use of networking to enhance and rethink curriculum is being developed by an associated project, Kids as Global Scientists, sponsored by the NSF, and other efforts. The Boulder Community Network is providing linkages between the district and the community as well as fostering new ideas in curriculum and outreach. Boulder Valley School District is located 30 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado. It serves nine different communities (including four small mountain towns) dispersed over 583 square miles. The district has 47 schools, 26,000 students and approximately 1,600 teaching staff. The university, several federal labs and high-tech companies populate the area. The BVIP began in the summer of 1991. Since then, three middle schools, one elementary school and three high schools (one traditional, one "break-the-mold" and a vocational-technical school) have been connected to a district Internet host via ISDN or T1 lines. The remaining 40 schools use serial dial-up links over existing phone lines. District bond funding is currently financing T1 connectivity to the last schools (expected completion is August 1996). During the past two years, 21 teachers (K-12) have been given time, support and training to develop their Internet knowledge and skills. They have been trained as "Internet teacher trainers" and currently work with about 80 staff from around the district. An additional 200 teachers have received informal training from their colleagues or attended district-sponsored after-school Internet seminars. Over 2,500 students, primarily middle school students, have learned to use the Internet. Of these people, at least 150 teachers and several hundred students are regular, ongoing users. A large percentage of this use is after school and on weekends via dial-up connections. Though relatively early in these efforts, a number of issues have emerged that appear to significantly affect the impact that electronic networks can have in reforming education and educational processes. We cover planning, training and support issues in this article; how teachers and students use the network -- and future goals -- will be covered in Part 2. Planning and Policy The district-level approach is proving very effective. A district-level approach has many strengths. It facilitates release time and use of dedicated staff like instructional technology specialists and MIS personnel. It has economic advantages too. For example, many districts' existing communications infrastructure can reduce overall costs considerably. The pricing structures of existing network providers often favor larger scale connections both in cost of lines and in other membership fees. Router configurations also scale well to districts. There are also some weaknesses to the district-level approach. For example, it may not be possible to leverage beneficial state policies (including PUC tariffs and educational requirements). Also, there are clear funding inequities among districts. There is a fundamental relationship between connectivity options, the tools they enable, and the type of curriculum that can be built on those tools. There are several types of connectivity options, both in terms of physical connections and human interfaces. Physical links can be dial-up or leased, with a variety of protocols running on the lines. Interfaces can be character-based, menu driven, graphical access to a host computer, or the graphical interfaces of a full network host. In turn, interfaces determine the tools available. Bulletin board (BBS) protocols will not readily handle gophers or some other interactive applications. BBSs are valuable, however, if local communication is the predominate use. Character-based interfaces cannot transfer images or data easily. Menus are helpful but constraining. In general, the GUIs of a full network host provide the greatest power and flexibility, but even these are inconsistent and do not always perform well on dial-up links. Levels of connectivity and tools also determine what training and support is required and suggest associated curricular approaches. True costs of networking are considerable and must be locally raised. While many focus on the cost of the external link, the dominant capital costs lie in upgrading school computers to handle networking and the LAN components. The dominant ongoing cost is in teacher training and support. People in the Boulder community tend to understand the value of the Internet for middle and high schools but are skeptical about the elementary level. At best, they think it is useful for K-5 teachers but too advanced for students. Actually, higher levels of connectivity that support visual and aural modes of learning are vital for this level. Furthermore, elementary teachers seem to be the first to embrace the network as a curriculum tool (see Part 2). An advocacy package should be assembled that documents examples of K-5 student use. The social consequences of networking have generally been positive. Users of BVSDNet must sign a contract that makes explicit the expectations put upon them. A teacher must sign students' contracts affirming that she or he has helped them come to an understanding of proper use and user obligations. Students under 18 must have a parent signature as well. The contract (available in English and Spanish) d'es convey to parents the presence of material on the network that would not be offered to students in the K-12 context under other circumstances. Out of over 2,500 student contracts, less than four parents have refused to sign. We have seen very little abuse of the system by students, apparently because they view their network access as a valuable asset that they wish to maintain. The contract as a means of liability protection for the school district is as yet untested. Teachers have high expectations for what this technology can bring to education. Due to media hype, teachers now coming online expect quite a bit from this new technology. Many anticipate it will be both easy to use and ready-made as an educational tool. Neither is the case. The Kids As Global Scientist Project has found it nearly impossible to meet these expectations and so, teachers are sometimes disappointed. To avoid this, the Internet must be presented as a tool -- not a panacea. It must be represented appropriately as a distributed, decentralized and somewhat unorganized body of information. Training and support must be available to help teachers wade through the technology as well as the information. Ideally, teacher- and student-centered resources need to be accessible via a single or small number of entry points. Volunteers must be managed. Community members volunteer their time as technical and user support for BVSDNet to teachers in several locations. It is vital that volunteers be extensively briefed on the local network environment so their training is consistent with local commands or limitations. Technology and Its Management For all models of physical access, having a central server is valuable. Conservation of interfaces is desirable but difficult. A central platform is invaluable and a UNIX platform is advantageous for several reasons. The central platform serves as a file stager, a multi-user, dial-in access server, a chron job mechanism, a mail server and a computer. If the central server is LAN based, it should be distinct from the LAN server for issues of capacity, management and the fragile nature of gateways. A UNIX box for the server insures adequate support for multi-users, compatibility with network tools, and a lingua franca for much of higher education and corporate support and exchange. In addition, UNIX platforms have a very scalable range of costs and performances, ranging from a PC with Linux for $3,000 to high-end servers at $30,000. One should limit the number of interfaces students and teachers see; there isn't the time to train for multiple ones. While a LAN-based GUI interface is generally far superior, teachers dial-in frequently at night and often face a terminal interface. Needed are turnkey packages (based on IP protocols such as SLIP and PPP) that permit dial-in users to utilize the full network host interfaces. Protocols that enable the GUI interfaces (SLIP and PPP) must be readily available to teachers and students. Dial-in access is essential. Dial-in access is essential. In Boulder Valley, over 70% of teachers' use is via home dial-up during night and morning hours and on weekends. Students are also online regularly during non-school hours. Regardless of how schools deploy access, modem access from home must be available, and at a scale appropriate to demand. Since the dominant cost of dial-in service is the circuit costs, the approach pioneered by BVSD may have wide appeal. Since the school has voice traffic that essentially ends at 5:00 p.m., those voice circuits transmit data at night. The district dedicated an existing phone number from the central office, but no additional circuits. During the day, the district disables modem access across the voice circuits it rents. Between 5:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends and holidays these voice lines are well utilized with data traffic. Central computing support is invaluable. Support and installation of technology must be separated from teachers' roles. They have neither the time nor, generally, the technical knowledge to assume these duties, nor should they have to. We have found district MIS staff to be a valuable asset in installation, training and maintenance of the infrastructure. Plus, technical coordination at a central level greatly aids smooth implementation and ongoing operation. In Boulder Valley, out of seven installations, only one has had ongoing technical problems. It had equipment from several different sources and an MIS department that had not been involved in all levels during implementation. Our experience is that the technology is very difficult to support at a district level if implementation and equipment are not consistent across all schools. Although the BVSD MIS shop has supported the infrastructure build-up, their knowledge in UNIX system administration is extremely limited. Courses or training modules should be developed specifically for such staff. These should be based on school administrative computing expertise, and provide the basics for key pieces of Internet technology, including domain names, e-mail administration issues, etc. While it may be possible to manage with existing personnel, it appears quite valuable to hire one additional person for user support and simple account maintenance. The many requests for new passwords, new accounts, alias subscription and creation, and modem hassles are not trivial. It is also beneficial to have a central person who can track user infringement on the network. Ideally, he or she should have not only the technical knowledge, but also classroom experience to provide limited technical support as well as curricular support and staff development. Contact points in each school link the central support to end users. A third level of required technical support is at the school level. There are clear benefits to designating an Internet point-of-contact at each school who's duties include some technical help and troubleshooting. This person serves as a first line of support for teachers and students. For example, someone needs to know what to do if a "host not responding" message appears. To train in-school contact people, BVSD is designing a course that covers simple installation and maintenance of network software and network operation at a school level. Their non-technical duties include disseminating information to staff and students and, ideally, staff development and some curriculum support. Teachers are extremely vociferous about the need to designate time (for a teacher or paraprofessional) for these duties. And they are right as the stakes are high. In the absence of enough support for the network and Internet access at the building level, marginally effective use, under utilization of resources, and teacher burn-out will result. There are distinctive aspects to K-12 network management. Management of K-12 servers differs somewhat from higher education and commercial sites. For example, the predominate usage on such servers is by whole classes and labs of kids at one time, and this bursty activity is difficult to support on both the server and networks. Steps must be taken to make systems reasonable and friendly for K-12 students and staff. Front-end menus are important. Bulletin boards for "in-house" use are easier than UseNet, for example. Access to tools such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC) must be limited due to adult content. News group filtering helps to limit the "unacceptable" newsgroups readily available. Students can offer viable and valuable contributions to network management and support. Students enjoy and value the opportunity to contribute to network management. In Boulder Valley, students assist in management of the district's gopher server and public file directories. They also provide online user and technical support. Because these students normally have a vested interest in maintaining Internet access for students, they keep their eyes open for others who may abuse access privileges. Students should be trained and must have a coordinator to whom they can address suggestions, questions, concerns and abuses. Training and Support Note: most BVSD members currently use regular dial-up to access the Internet, so the vast majority of training has been done on command-line, character-based interfaces. This section is based upon that experience. Ongoing training and support is essential. For the majority of teachers to venture into the wild world of Internet they must be able to rely on three things: access, training opportunities and support. Plug-and-play training sessions with no follow-up are not adequate. Teachers must have ongoing opportunities to improve their skills, ask questions, jump over hurdles, and learn about the network's latest resources and tools. Levels of connectivity and the associated tools dictate the amount of training and support required. It is true, in part, that higher performance equipment and access lines pay off in ease of use; they are able to handle the newer navigation tools like Mosaic. However, most users have dial-in command-line interfaces. These character-based interfaces are less intuitive and more difficult to master than point-and-click ones and thus require substantially more training and support. As connectivity speed improves (from serial dial-up to SLIP or PPP access to high-speed dedicated lines) training time, practice time and support demands all decrease dramatically. A teacher using straight dial-in access must conquer terminal emulation issues, telnet, gopher, WAIS, World Wide Web, ftp, downloading and compression and archiving methods. This scenario will take a computer-competent, full-time practicing teacher more than a year to gain feelings of competency. We estimate a bare minimum of 20 hours of instruction and hours and hours of online practice. In contrast, competency in using Mosaic can be attained in an hour or two and the online time required to gain some mastery is at most one fifth the time. Because interfaces like Mosaic combine tools and make many technical aspects of the network invisible, user support demands diminish significantly. Districtwide training courses are very effective. Boulder Valley teachers testify that the best way to learn about the network is by district-sponsored courses. These are favored over school courses, independent training, colleagues or other means. During the 1993/94 school year over 95 teachers voluntarily participated in an ongoing seminar series given after school. These 1.5-hour sessions were advertised well in advance (a schedule is published each semester), offered re-certification credit and were taught by a full-time Internet person who knew K-12 resources. Each session dealt with a separate Internet tool or topic so teachers could pick and choose. Teachers have also taken summer offerings, which range from classes meeting twice a week for a month to one-day workshops. We have found that classes given within a few weeks of the end of the school year are better attended than those at other times during the summer. The use of frequent "Demonstration" or "Introduction" presentations (no hands-on) of 20 minutes to an hour have served as a motivational tool for teachers and an explanatory mechanism for parents. These are often given during teacher inservice days, faculty meetings and PTO meetings. The ideal training model is an intensive workshop followed by ongoing short sessions. The BVIP has experimented with two types of Internet training workshops for teachers. One is the "power workshop," which is intensive training ranging from a half-day to three days. Participants are exposed to several network tools, get plenty of hands-on time and get a good "feel" for what the Internet is about. The disadvantage of this type of workshop is that people can be easily overwhelmed. The second training model, "progressive workshop," is spread out over time. This lets participants practice the skills in between meetings as well as focus their exploration in certain areas if they desire. The drawback of the progressive model is that teachers do not always start out with a good overview -- the nature of the network, its tools and what resources are available. Time and money often dictate the exclusive use of only one of these models. However, the optimum arrangement is to combine them. Instruction begins with an introduction to the network and hands-on orientation to several tools focusing on K-12 resources. This provides teachers with an overview of the network and enables them to decide on which tools or resources they would like to focus. Then ongoing sessions support their focus. Teachers also have the security of knowing that after the "power workshop," they still have a person and place to go to improve their skills. Hands-on use and thorough documentation must be part of every training model. Our baseline goal in every Internet workshop is to demonstrate the resources of the network and enable people to begin exploring it on their own time. To attain this, participants must have time during the workshop to gain some confidence using the particular resource or tool. To be able to go back to school or home and use skills a participant has practiced during training, she or he must be able to replicate the workshop's activities. The only way to ensure this is to provide every participant with step-by-step documentation that provides general information about the tool (or resources) as well as very specific directions for getting started and using the tool in the environment most teachers utilize. In creating beginners' documentation, assume the user has no previous experience with the tool and has not been to a workshop. This also enables people who cannot attend workshops to venture out on their own with just the documentation. Troubleshooting tips and advanced uses should also be included. Our workshop protocol includes work in pairs, accounts for every participant, and time for questions and reflection. Although resistance is high, we encourage teachers to work in pairs, at least initially, because the technology is less intimidating when two people work together. It is also easier to follow step-by-step instructions when one person reads and the other person "d'es." Lastly, participants always leave a workshop with the name, phone number and e-mail address of human beings. This support is absolutely necessary. Teachers can effectively train each other. It appears using teachers to teach other teachers will be at least as effective as having a dedicated trainer. They have the experience of using the resources in the classroom and can share curriculum integration ideas as well as strategies for student use. However, these teacher trainers must have ongoing time and opportunity to update their knowledge and skills; several release days a year from their classes is one idea. Use students as mentors and trainers. We recommend to teachers that they find a student who is computer savvy, bring him or her into the network and develop a learning partnership. Students usually have more time to experiment and more patience to troubleshoot and hunt for things. The teacher gains a reliable, available, and often immediate, support mechanism while the student develops a relationship that is empowering and gratifying. Since we try to keep the learner-to-teacher ratio very low (12:1 or below) in workshops, student assistants are very valuable. Students need to be supported with instruction in their role as trainers as well. They have a tendency to tell answers instead of ask questions that lead to answers. Some students, with good intentions, will take control of the keyboard to solve a problem for someone. Although this always expedites the process, it is discouraging to the workshop participant who might have to solve the problem at a later date when no one is around to help. To learn more about the Boulder Valley Internet Project, gopher to bvsd.k12.co.us. Specific inquiries about the project may be made to bvip@bvsd.k12.co.us. Acknowledgments: The BVSD Internet Project wishes to recognize the support of the National Science Foundation, the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project, and the U.S. West Foundation. The Project also acknowledges the considerable support, in energy and in funding, of the citizens of the Boulder community. We wish to extend special thanks to the members of the BVIP National Advisory Board, who are helping to shape the project and this report. Finally, we wish to recognize all of the teachers and students in the Boulder Valley schools who have willingly and enthusiastically ventured onto (and withstood) the "bleeding edge" of this exciting technology. This work is funded by a grant from the Teacher Enhancement Division of the National Science Foundation, Grant No. ESI-9253356. Libby Black, Ken Klingenstein and Nancy Butler Songer compose the primary management team for the Boulder Valley Internet Project. Ms. Black, the Director of the Project is a former high school mathematics teacher and has primary responsibility for the administration of the project. Her duties include organizing and conducting staff development for Boulder Valley School District teachers, dissemination, integration of the technology, fostering community and university relationships supporting the Internet project, and coordinating the initial implementation of technology in 46 schools. Dr. Klingenstein is the Director of Computing and Network Services at the University of Colorado. The department supports the project with cost sharing in hardware and system administration. Klingenstein has provided much of the vision leading to the success of the project including spearheading the Boulder Community Network (telnet bcn.boulder.co.us), which continues to evolve as a major component in networking students and citizens of the Boulder County communities. Nancy Butler Songer is an assistant professor in the School of Education and Department of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Songer is the Principal Investigator of a companion project called Kids As Global Science (KGS), funded by the Applications of Advanced Technologies group of the NSF. KGS is a middle school weather curriculum project that utilizes real-time data, communication with scientists and collaborative student work over the Internet to transform the educational experience for students. The Kids As Global Scientists project is supported by the teacher training and infrastructure efforts of the Boulder Valley Internet Project. In turn, the KGS project informs the BVIP about aspects of curriculum implementation and coordination, student learning and changes in the classroom. Libby Black Director, Boulder Valley Internet Project blackl@bvsd.k12.co.us phone: (303) 447-5090 fax: (303) 447-5024 "We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet." -Margaret Mead

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

comments powered by Disqus

Whitepapers