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Technology Takes On Rural Alaskan Schools

Technology is improving virtually all aspects of rural education for teachers, administrators and students. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District (NWABSD), located in one of the most remote areas of northwest Alaska. Home to Inupiat Eskimos for more than 10,000 years, the region is about the size of Indiana and lacks roads, isolating the district from neighboring villages. But thanks to modern technology, these rural students now have access to many of the same tools as urban students.

Until 1998, schools in the district had little communication with each other and with district administrators. Students interacted only with other classmates, few of whom were the same age or grade level. Teachers from different schools only met occasionally at training events, and even sending mail was a challenge. Principals in village schools had to send mail via plane to the largest town in the school district.

Teachers and students also had minimal access to resources. The Anchorage Daily News is delivered days after publication, and libraries in the 12 district schools are small and shelve outdated books. "It was difficult to get up-to-date news and information. It’s a different world for kids in rural schools who face problems many of us never think about," says Karl Kowalski, the school district’s technology coordinator.

In 1998, the district hired General Communication Inc. (GCI), an Alaskan-based telecommunications company with expertise in delivering Internet services to rural schools, to drop the 56K Internet lines in all 12 schools. To keep the schools up to speed, GCI’s full-time E-Rate specialist helped the schools apply for and win federal funding to upgrade their connections.

Impact on Students

The technology helps to combat the district’s truancy problem by making school more interesting and fun for students. "Students are more engaged in learning, excited about school and have a greater awareness of the larger world," Kowalski says. Teachers also use the Internet in a variety of ways to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students. For example, a popular lesson with many teachers involves the students’ use of e-mail provided by GCI’s SchoolAccess. Each student has an "E-Pal," a peer in a different state or country to chat with via e-mail. E-Pals allow students to learn about geography, history and social science, while enhancing their writing and communication skills.

The Internet also enables students to expand their knowledge of the world outside their village and learn lessons unavailable in textbooks. Middle school student Landon Shuster uses the Internet to research stocks. "I started a stock market simulation game that I couldn’t have done without the Internet," he says. "I think it’s a lot easier to check your stocks on the Internet than by phone or radio."

Dean O’Dell, a social studies teacher in the district, says students primarily use the Internet for research and to learn about current events. O’Dell integrates the Internet in his "We Didn’t Start the Fire" social studies lesson. He begins the lesson by playing the popular Billy J'el song and then asks his students to write down the lyrics they recognize. They develop a list of lyrics on the board and discuss the details of the historical events documented in the song. Students are asked to choose one political or historical event from the song to research on the Internet and present to the class.

The amount of time students spend on the Internet doing research, writing papers and e-mailing friends has made them incredibly computer savvy. "Kids are advancing faster in their knowledge of computers than adults," says Kowalski. Last summer, more than 50 students volunteered to attend a three-week summer academy to improve their reading, math and technology skills. Six students completed an A+ Certification Class, a testing program that measures knowledge in computer hardware and software. The technology department, impressed by the students’ technological capabilities, hired them for the remainder of the summer.

Technology Benefits Teachers, Administrators

Students are not the only benefactors of technology at school. For the first time in the school district, teachers have access to resources they never had before. For example, teachers can collaborate with each other via e-mail about lesson plans and useful Web sites they find. They can also use the Internet to enhance their curriculum and actively involve students in class activities. In addition, teachers no longer have to spend their vacation taking classes at universities miles away; many now take online classes from schools throughout the country.

Administrators also benefit from the new technology by sending attachments via e-mail rather than regular mail. Student record updates, budget needs, supply requests and other administrative requirements are processed easily with the increased contact between the central office administration and principals in village schools. With the technological improvements, report cards are more timely and student achievement tests are administered online with faster results. The district’s distance learning technologies are also useful tools in recruiting and retaining teachers, a challenge for rural school districts nationwide. If the latest high-speed connection and distance learning technologies can be implemented successfully in the most rural areas of Alaska, they can be implemented anywhere.

For more information on NWABSD, visit www.nwarctic.org.

Contact Information
General Communication Inc.
Anchorage, AK
(888) 254-2858
www.schoolaccess.net

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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