Impact North Carolina: 21st Century Education Update on Progress and Activity

In 1991 Appalachian State University, AT&T Network Services (now Lucent Technologies) and Southern Bell (now BellSouth) formed a partnership in which advanced communications technologies were to be used to explore enhance learning environments. This partnership was designed to take advantage of Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) services provided by Southern Bell and AT&T and a good working relationship with public schools via the Appalachian State University Public School Partnership. The ASU Public School Partnership consists of seven rural county public school districts in northwestern North Carolina.

Educators and communications industry representatives involved in forming the Impact North Carolina partnership were seeking to understand how ISDN technology and the existing copper-wire telephone network could be used to enhance K-12 learning activities, provide better inservice for teachers and improve preservice teacher education programs. The communications system installed in 1992, and some initial activities and the goals of Impact North Carolina were described in the October, 1993 issue of T.H.E. Journal.[1] To follow up, this paper describes the activities and changes that have taken place in Impact North Carolina since 1993.

The Original Communications System

In March 1992 ISDN service was provided to Appalachian State and three schools in the Watauga County School District: Blowing Rock Elementary School, Parkway Elementary School and Watauga High School. Each site had three ISDN lines: one for a videoconferencing system, another connected to a multimedia workstation for use in conjunction with the videoconferencing system, and the third connected to a local area network (LAN) newly installed at each site.

Each site's videoconferencing system consisted of a large console housing two television screens, a camera operated by a wireless remote control, and the various pieces of equipment needed to send and receive audio and video through ISDN lines. Attached were two tabletop microphones and an overview camera for showing documents and objects.

The multimedia workstation consisted of a computer with a 21-inch monitor, a monochrome scanner, a digitizing tablet and software that shared graphics images between two sites. It provided a common workplace during videoconferences that allowed learners at one site to interact directly with the work of learners at the other site.

The original LAN at each site included 20 computers and a fileserver in a star configuration connected to one B-channel of an ISDN line. The ISDN lines were all connected to each other at a hub site on the Appalachian State campus that, in turn, was connected via the campus backbone to the university's DEC VAX cluster and Internet connection. This provided 64 KBPS access between all the computers at each site, to all the fileservers at the other sites, and to email and Internet resources.

The result was a highly flexible communications environment that included an easy-to-use and graphically enhanced videoconferencing system and a wide area computer network (WAN) that allowed software and file sharing between schools, access to email and text-based conferencing systems, and a connection to the Internet.

Today's Communications System

The original configuration was changed over time to bring more capabilities to the system or to provide equal capabilities at lower cost.

Early upgrades of the computer network configuration included bringing the three original schools up to 128 KBPS by installing bridges to use both B-channels of an ISDN line. Re-using the equipment that was replaced at the original sites in other schools, two new sites were added (Green Valley Elementary School and Hardin Park Elementary School), at 64 KBPS, to the network. These new sites did not have videoconferencing or multimedia systems, though this is changing in the 1997-1998 school year.

In addition, Impact North Carolina was able to purchase, in cooperation with other funded projects at Appalachian State University, a DEC VAX workstation that serves as the mail host for teachers in the Impact NC schools and for all teachers in the ASU Public School Partnership. Originally, when no other means was available, teachers located outside of local calling service were provided with an 800 number to reach their e-mail. Now all schools in the partnership have been set up with connections to local Internet service providers through which they either dial in for e-mail access or connect through their own school's network that, in many cases, has been modeled after the Impact NC network.

Keeping pace with technology, the videoconferencing configuration was also changed when videoconferencing systems based on microcomputers were introduced. These new units run over the same ISDN line used by the original unit but also incorporate the graphics-sharing powers from the previously separate multimedia workstation. The new PC-based videoconferencing units allowed each school to drop one ISDN line while maintaining the same capabilities derived from the previous configuration using two lines. Additional capabilities, such as software sharing were also enabled with the new units, allowing users on each end of the videoconference to use the same word processor, database or other Windows-based program to collaborate on an activity.

The new videoconferencing units do have some disadvantages when compared to the original systems. While they do not take up as much space or cost as much, they also don't have two full-sized screens for viewing the videoconference activities. The computer monitor must serve as the viewing point for the received image as well as for the sent image and any graphics- or software-sharing activities. The resulting images are quite small -- not viewable by an entire class. In addition, the audio is carried out through the attached speakerphone and the system's camera is a lower quality than the one used earlier.

To overcome these disadvantages, participants:

  • l Use scan converters to put the computer monitor image on a large-screen TV;

    l Add an extra, higher-quality camera to the system;

    l Use the video-out capabilities of the overview camera system (part of the original videoconference system) as a switching device to provide multiple camera options;

    l Use the video-in capabilities of the overview camera system to provide output for an extra monitor to view the outgoing signal;

    l Use the audio capabilities of the extra camera to add tabletop microphones; and

    l Add extra speakers for audio output.

  • The resulting configuration is much more mobile, uses much less space and provides more videoconference capabilities. It is, however, still not as accommodating to large groups.

    As a part of its commitment to the partnership, AT&T installed a multi-point control unit (MCU) in the BellSouth central exchange in Boone, N.C. This unit enabled Impact North Carolina sites to conduct and to host multi-site videoconferences. Installed for a one-year trial but used for almost three, it is currently disconnected with discussions underway between Lucent Technologies, BellSouth and ASU. While connected, Impact NC schools used the multi-point capability to conduct meetings and learning activities between all the involved schools, and also hosted sessions from sites around the U.S. Examples of some of these sessions are:

  • l High school and elementary school students having discussions with members of the congressional and administrative branches of the U.S. Government.

    l Students living in Watauga County interacting with students in Florida regarding the Summit of the Americas, which took place in Miami.

    l Students from three different schools sharing their solutions to the challenge to build a machine capable of sorting items by size.

  • As a part of local and state funding for technology and school renovations (from local bond issues), Watauga County schools have been able to expand their computer resources. When the planned renovations are completed during the 1997-98 school year every school will have a LAN with computers in a lab (or labs) and in the classrooms. Parkway Elementary School has increased its number of computers from the original 20 to over 90. Blowing Rock now has 75 computers and Watauga High School is adding over 150 computers to their network. The major advantage to these increases is better access to computing resources throughout the buildings.

    In 1997 the Watauga County School District received a grant award from the Department of Agriculture that will allow the district to spread the communications model established by Impact NC to all nine schools in the district. Sites located in areas in which ISDN is not available will use a single 56 KPBS data line to provide connections to the larger computer network and to the Internet plus two 56 KPBS lines to connect their PC-based videoconference systems. Watauga High School will bind two ISDN lines together to provide 256 KBPS access to the WAN and the Internet. Green Valley and Hardin Park Elementary Schools will move from 64 KBPS to 128 KBPS connections, using both B channels of the lines currently serving them. These two schools will also have an ISDN line added for videoconferencing. The connecting point for the computer networks will move from Appalachian State University to the school district's central office and the district will acquire a T1 line (1.54 MBPS) for its connections to the Internet.

    The result is the full adoption of the network and videoconference design of Impact North Carolina by the Watauga County School System, bringing powerful and flexible telecommunications capabilities to all of its students and teachers.

    For Improved Learning

    But no amount of hardware, software or data lines can, by themselves, improve learning. Impact North Carolina chose to focus on person-to-person and group-to-group interactions among the four original sites and, when possible, with other outside sites having similar capabilities. An emphasis was placed on cross-age and cross-curricular activities that brought students together, despite location, with a common learning goal. Examples of early activities were presented in the October 1993 T.H.E. Journal article and more examples are on the Impact North Carolina Web site (www.ced.appstate.edu/impact).

    Developing and supporting such activities is still an important objective of Impact North Carolina. However, many intervening factors have played a part in the type of activities that have been carried out by teachers and students.

    The first element that clearly and positively influences the development of learning activities in the Impact schools is the Lead Teacher. With initial funding from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and, later, continued funding from the Watauga County School system, Impact North Carolina was able to release a teacher from regular teaching responsibilities in each of the original schools. These Lead Teachers work directly with fellow teachers to help them develop learning activities that exploit the capabilities of the communications environment offered by Impact North Carolina. To develop and sustain learning activities between schools, the Lead teachers must meet regularly for planning and to further explore the capabilities of the systems available to them. There was a rapid increase in learning activities that effectively utilized videoconference and network resources after Lead Teachers were released from normal responsibilities. This is clear evidence of the impact they had and continue to have.

    Over time, however, the number of learning activities between Impact North Carolina sites declined (including a much-reduced use of videoconferencing) while the number of learning activities with students working on computers within each school increased. There seem to be several reasons for this:

    1. Meetings between Lead Teachers changed from being held weekly to being held once a month or less. Success, in this case, breeds work. As more teachers and students became involved in Impact North Carolina learning activities it became harder for the Lead Teachers to find time to meet.
    2. The rise of the World Wide Web (an unknown element when Impact North Carolina first began) as an exciting and ever-changing environment with great potential for communication and information acquisition shifted the focus of many teachers. Teachers in Impact schools found themselves in an ideal environment to explore the Web because of the large number of computers in their buildings capable of connecting with the Internet.
    3. North Carolina developed a computer curriculum and a test to assess whether students were meeting the requirements. A great deal of energy in the schools was directed toward providing teachers and students with skills necessary to be successful on this test. Students in the Impact North Carolina schools did extremely well on it.
    4. The schools of Watauga County rapidly expanded their computer base and network resources. When teachers and administrators saw the type of learning activities taking place in Impact NC schools they began planning for more computers and networks in their buildings. They also committed to placing a Lead Teacher in each building. While this meant more teachers would soon be using the system's communications capabilities it also reduced the amount of time the Lead Teachers had to work with other teachers. Setup and maintenance of the larger networks became very time consuming.
    5. Videoconference activities between school sites that are based on collaboration require great expenditures of time and energy from teachers. While all the teachers who were involved in such activities considered them successful and excellent learning activities, it is also very difficult to sustain such activities when thrown into balance with all the other demands on teachers. This problem was exacerbated since Lead Teachers had increased demands on their time to work with all teachers, deal with the computer competencies, and to maintain the systems in their schools.

    The result is that Impact North Carolina has clearly and positively influenced the development of technological resources available to teachers and students in the Watauga County School District, but the nature of the learning activities have changed over time. They include less of the videoconference-supported person-to-person and group-to-group activities initially encouraged by Impact North Carolina, but do include increased usage of computers as communications tools, and using the Internet to connect to resources and contact people around the world.

    A Model for Inservice and Preservice

    A very important part of Impact North Carolina from the beginning was to integrate inservice and preservice activities that are closely tied to actual activity in the K-12 school setting. Providing experience for preservice teachers in settings in which the inservice teacher is using technology was one of the important goals for Impact North Carolina. That implies that there must be a great deal of support and training for inservice teachers.

    The mere existence of new technologies in a school building is not enough impetus to develop widespread use of it. The funding of Impact NC's Lead Teachers by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and Watauga County Schools proved to be the key catalyst for engaging teachers in appropriate uses of technology in learning settings. The resulting model of an in-building support person whose key role is to help teachers integrate technology into their learning activities through on-going staff development and just-in-time training -- and the clear evidence of how well that model works -- is one of the major contributions of Impact North Carolina.

    Important components of this model that have proved to affect success are:

  • l The Lead Teacher is most effective if the teachers in the building recognize her/him as a good teacher first and a user of technology second. A good Lead Teacher d'es not have to start as a computer wizard but must start as someone who truly understands the dynamics and realities of a good learning environment.

    l Opportunities for Lead Teachers to meet, to learn different ways of using technology, to learn new software or hardware, to share experiences, to develop plans together, and to develop a support system among themselves are a vital component.

    l Support for the Lead Teacher must include adequate technical expertise such that he or she d'es not have to spend an excessive amount of time serving as a technician and can concentrate of working with teachers and students in learning settings.

  • The presence of Lead Teachers in Impact North Carolina schools proved successful in helping teachers integrate the technology into their learning activities but also proved to be a vital contact point for preservice teachers entering the building for their internships. The combination of students from Appalachian State who had classes in which technology was emphasized, teachers in K-12 schools who were using it, and Lead Teachers who could help both groups proved to be very powerful. Often the interns from Appalachian State served as a catalyst for helping inservice teachers to explore uses of technology they had not thought of before.

    From these efforts has arisen a portion of the teacher education program at Appalachian State that includes a year-long internship at Impact North Carolina school sites. Also, Appalachian State and the Impact North Carolina Schools have become key sites for the Fifth Dimension, a world-wide project in which children work on computer activities outside of regular school hours in a unique discovery-based environment with the support of adult partners. At Appalachian State, students in the Introduction to Education class work in the Fifth Dimension as a part of their intern activities. They learn about technology but, more importantly, have a rare opportunity to work with children as they learn and discover. The early evidence from research on the Fifth Dimension indicates that the children improve their reading, math and problem-solving skills and the Appalachian State students learn a great deal about how children work and learn.

    Future Possibilities

    Representatives from Lucent Technologies, BellSouth, Appalachian State University and the Appalachian State University Public School Partnership are currently deciding on future directions for Impact North Carolina. Much has been learned and accomplished in the five years of its actual operation and it is time to consider different directions. The following reveals some of the effect Impact North Carolina has had:

  • l The Watauga County School District has taken the Impact North Carolina model and expanded it into the entire school district.

    l The Fifth Dimension has become a viable part of the Appalachian State teacher education program and will expand into other schools as their level of technology increases.

    l The year-long block has become an important component of the Appalachian State teacher education program.

    l School districts in Caldwell, Lincoln and Rutherford counties have used the WAN model developed in Impact North Carolina as the basis for their technology plans.

    l The Team Project, designed to support schools in the ASU Public School Partnership in integrating technology into their instruction, has used the experiences from Impact North Carolina to design their activities.

    l The Northwest Math and Science Collaborative, based at Appalachian State, has used Impact NC's models to establish training sites in six county school districts to foster technology infusion into math and science instruction. Its computer network connectivity is modeled after Impact North Carolina and there are Lead Teachers at its training centers.

    l The Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation and covering 66 counties in the Appalachian regions of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, uses key concepts from Impact North Carolina as a basis for its efforts.

  • Important lessons have been learned about technology and about schools and the people in those schools. Better understanding of the level of access to technology; the time needed (by teachers and students) to work with it, and the amount and type of support that must be provided to teachers especially, have been learned along the way. The value of videoconferencing to support collaborative learning environments across age levels and content areas was established -- but the cost, in terms of teacher energy and time, was revealed as a problem. The importance of building technical support into expansion plans so that the level of support for teachers and students is not reduced in the effort of keeping the expanded system running was clearly demonstrated, as was the need for strong administrative support.

    These lessons and others will guide those involved in Impact North Carolina in making decisions about the directions the project will take and the types of technologies that will be used. Hopefully, they will also help educators around the world understand the value of supporting learning with a well-conceived plan to use technology.

    Impact North Carolina Web site: www.ced.appstate.edu/impact/



    Richard Riedl is Coordinator of Impact North Carolina. A professor of Education at Appalachian State University, he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the use of technology in educational settings.

    E-mail: riedlre@appstate.edu

    Shannon Carroll, a technology specialist at Watauga High School, has been working with technology in education since 1982. Carroll was involved in the planning and implementation of Impact North Carolina from the time Watauga County School District was identified as a location for the project. E-mail: carrolsb@appstate.edu

    References:

    1. Riedl, R. & Carroll, S. (October 1993), "Impact North Carolina: 21st Century Education," T.H.E. Journal, 21(3), pp.85-88.

    Companies mentioned in this article:

    Lucent Technologies, Inc. (formerly AT&T Network Services), Basking Ridge, NJ, (800) 843-3646, www.lucent.com.

    BellSouth (formerly Southern Bell), www.bellsouth.com.

    This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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