Arizona District Enhances Instruction Via Seamless Communications System
Education is quite important to the 8,000 residents of Page, Ariz., located along Lake Powell. Recently, the community structured an override election to hire specialty teachers and to purchase newer textbooks and research materials for all students. In addition to top-notch teachers and administrators, "we needed better communications technology to deliver high-quality education to our students in a cost-effective manner," says Dr. Dan Dodds, superintendent of the Page Unified School District. To accomplish this, residents approved a $2.5 million bond issue to build a new communications system that would link the entire school district and provide every classroom with a multimedia computer, television and telephone. Previously, the district had four separate phone systems that were installed on an "as-needed" basis. Because the systems weren't compatible, problems ensued, generating dissatisfaction both internally and from the community. Ensuring Future Compatibility "We needed a seamless communications system that would be compatible with existing technology and evolve as new technologies become available," says Dodds. Working with AT&T, the district connected all buildings through a Systemax premises distribution network of fiber optic cable, black cable (campus feeder cable of 100 to 200 twisted-pair copper wires), and Category 5 wiring (specialized twisted-pair copper wires for high-speed data transmission up to 100 mbps). Remote schools are linked to the campus through T1 lines provided by the local phone company. In addition, a local area network (LAN) has been set up within each building and connects to a Wide Area Network (WAN). Through this network every educational resource within the district will be catalogued among five libraries so teachers can electronically access information&emdash;whether it's from books, magazines, microfilm, videotape, CD-ROMs, etc. Requested information is retrieved then sent directly to the classroom through an in-district courier system. This technology will reduce cost and increase the level of service to students and to the community. To provide students, faculty and staff with home access to data files or to the Internet, the district has installed three AT&T Acculink bandwidth controllers and access controllers. "Learning should take place when the event is right&emdash;not necessarily between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.," notes Dodds. Those who lack a home computer can check out one of 20 laptop computers from the library to take with them. Internet access is provided by dialing directly into AT&T's Definity PBX system, which forwards the call to a server in the Page school district office. Then an authorization code is entered and the call is sent through a router for access to the Internet. Although computers are readily available, not all students have access to telephones. For instance, 51% of Page students come from the Navajo Nation, where phones are not prevalent. To address this, the district has provided desktop computers and modems directly to Navajo "Chapter Houses," which function like social centers for each small community. School personnel will train Chapter House coordinators on how to use computers so they can teach parents and students. Streamlining Daily Tasks Moreover, every teacher in the Page school system has been given a personal computer with a sound card, scanner and CD-ROM capability through CD-ROM stacks centralized in the library. "Since all schools are linked electronically, administrative tasks will be handled more efficiently," Dodds says. For instance, teachers in each building can now take class attendance and, rather than send a paper copy to the district office for data entry, records can be processed electronically and forwarded to the appropriate department. According to Dodds, the network also facilitates responding to the frequent state and federal requests for reports. "Instead of drafting each report separately, all information will be online and accessible on wide area network through the Definity system." Purchase orders, transportation request forms and other documents previously completed by hand now may be processed electronically. Dodds says the benefits of such a system are far-reaching. "This technology will significantly enhance instructional programs as we streamline the way we conduct our daily business." While the Definity PBX communications system resides in the main district office, extension nodes were placed in Desertview Elementary School and Page High School. Two smaller Definity systems were installed at Lakeview Elementary School and Page Middle School. AT&T's Distributed Communi-cations System software, which provides users with capabilities such as four-digit dialing, and seamless call routing, enables individuals throughout the district to communicate as though they were all in one building. The entire network is administered from the district office. Plus, the district can easily handle personnel additions, moves and changes from a desktop computer in the main office. "Nothing has to be rewired as everything is handled through software," says Dodds. A Phone in Every Classroom Every classroom has a phone. Incoming calls are forwarded to the Definity Audix voice messaging system so ringing d'esn't disrupt classes. Phones are also being installed in the concession stands, locker rooms and other locations. Unauthorized long distance calls are blocked because the system has been programmed to restrict classroom phones to local calls, 800 numbers and inter-campus calls. All calls can be tracked through AT&T's call accounting system, which uses Windows-based software on a PC. Occasionally, the school receives threatening phone calls, explains Dodds. With call accounting, authorities can respond faster because they'll know exactly where a call originated. Some phones have message-waiting lights, while others have a stutter dial tone. Voice mail is available to all administrative personnel, office staff, principals, teachers, etc. Direct Inward Dialing, a new feature available with the system, makes it easier for parents and others to call directly into a teacher's mailbox to leave a message. If a student cannot attend school on a certain day, parents may leave a message in advance for the transportation department so bus drivers avoid unnecessary trips. "We'll save money because many students travel 65 miles from the Navajo Nation on school buses," Dodds notes. Voice mail is also used to announce events such as study groups or school dances. "Many teachers point out that the challenge to educators today is competition from television," Dodds comments. "Our teachers are elated now that they can use televisions, projectors, computers and software to get students excited about education." For instance, if doing a report on Russian society, the class can connect via AT&T's Vistium videoconferencing system to a Russian classroom to see and talk to students. "[It] makes the learning come alive," says Dodds. Page Unified School District installed five Vistium systems&emdash;one each in the library, district office, elementary school, middle school and high school. Video from the Vistium is switched through the Definity system and transmitted over the campuswide fiber optics backbone to media centers that handle voice and video for all the classrooms. "Ease of use is a key factor when using the Vistium systems since they are simply extensions of the phone system," Dodds says. "For instance, the videocassette recorder output on the Vistium is a combined voice and video signal, which makes it easy to extend the video out to televisions in the classroom." Other enhancements are in the works. The district plans to automate the scheduling of substitute teachers by using AT&T's Intuity Conversant voice information system. Teachers will be able to dial into the system and enter the dates when a substitute is needed. The lesson plan can be recorded by the teacher and stored as a Conversant message. Information about the grade level and specific work to be covered by the substitute teacher is also entered in response to automated voice prompts. The Conversant system then queries a database, identifies substitute teachers for the target grade and subject (e.g., high school algebra), then starts to dial out to a pool of candidates. If no substitute is found, the system calls the school's main office where an expanded search begins. When a substitute agrees to come in on the specified dates, the Conversant system plays back recorded lesson plans and other information. Even Coaches Go Wireless The district's Athletic Depart-ment, meanwhile, will utilize AT&T's TransTalk digital wireless phone system. "We have developed a strategic program for communications technology to enhance instructional programs for students," Dodds says. "By using technology to reduce costs, every dollar saved in administrative and support costs is another dollar that can be spent on important educational programs."
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.