Wisconsin Schools & Colleges Share Curricula Via Fiber Optic Network

When administrators at two Wisconsin school districts first considered a distance learning network for their region, they recognized the importance of continuous interaction between teachers and students. Thus, when the South Central Instructional Network Group (SCING) went online in early 1993, it featured full-motion video and audio transmission, with all participants able to see and hear each other. The vision for SCING came from Bob Beaver, district administrator of Adams-Friendship schools, and Marshall Boyd, district administrator of Portage schools. Together, they saw the need to supplement their secondary gifted and talented programs as well as share post- secondary courses. Forging Ahead In January 1992, several members of the distance learning committee visited the ERVING Project in Clintonville, Wisc., which convinced them to rapidly move forward with their plans. A fiscal agent was chosen and several principals identified courses they felt lent themselves to distance learning or could enhance another school's offerings. Meanwhile, district personnel attended a meeting to learn how distance learning could improve curriculum and benefit students. Among the presenters there were GTE and Access Wisconsin, both of which outlined the advantages of fiber optic technology. Officials later paid another visit to the ERVING Project as well as to sites in and around Minneapolis, Minn. The original SCING consortium, formed in October 1992, comprised the Adams-Friendship, Pardeeville and Portage Community School Districts. Mid-State Technical College agreed to provide leadership for the project. One year later, with an initial cash boost in the form of a $5,000 grant from GTE, SCING purchased equipment from Todd Communi-cations of Minneapolis, Minn., and signed a 10-year lease with Wisconsin Independent Telecommunications System (WITS). Membership Grows Pilot programming began in four classrooms, equipped with Panasonic cameras, Mitsubishi monitors, Shreve microphones, speakers and plain-paper fax machines. As the network grew, Joan Spillner, district media director of the Portage Community Schools, was hired as a part-time project director. Today, seven high schools can originate and receive programming. In addition, three technical schools, two universities, two private colleges and the Department of Natural Resources provide coursework and activities. Educational programming takes place during school hours, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., with the next three hours reserved for teacher training. In the evening, various businesses and organizations can utilize the network for a nominal fee. Among the classes scheduled for this fall are AP Calculus, Native American History, Accounting, French and Anatomy & Physiology. Some courses carry dual credit for high school and technical college. Enrollment has grown from 16 students in 1993 to 266 registered students in 1995-96. "Schools are just opening up the curriculum to each other," says Spillner. An Enabling Infrastructure Spillner notes that the power of SCING, which now spans over 220 miles, lies in its use of switched digital, fiber optic DS-3 lines, allowing seamless interactivity. "For high school kids, it's so important that they see you face-to-face. They are used to being entertained." With a switched network, classes or meetings can be held simultaneously and scheduling can be pre-programmed on demand. "You can be fully interactive," says Spillner. "You can touch them without being there." Schools have started holding telecourses over the weekend as well. In fact, according to Spillner, a scheduling crunch has ensued, with teachers scrambling for peak times (4-6 p.m.) during the week. Future plans call for expanding Community Education Programming. Officials also hope to open T1 lines for access to the Internet, and connect to other networks in Wisconsin. Already, a large number of districts have inquired about SCING. Spillner gives credit for the project's success to the telecommunications firms, district administrators and others who worked hard to turn the vision into reality. GTE, in particular, "was on the ground floor of the planning, and has been real instrumental in getting us new partners," notes Spillner.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.