Rural Wisconsin District Improves Teaching and Learning Through Worldwide Connectivity
Information technology is transforming the global economy and dramatically changing the way business and society operates. School districts nationwide are realizing that students must have the necessary skills to thrive in the Digital Age. Young people must be able to understand how to employ technology to locate and evaluate information that will enable them to learn, reason, make decisions, solve problems and collaborate in our rapidly changing world.
Recognizing these needs and finding the resources to meet them, however, are often incongruous goals. While most parents, educators, students and taxpayers agree that technology is an essential component in raising student achievement levels, its application in the classroom often carries with it a large price tag.
The Tomorrow River School District in Amherst, Wis., was facing challenges many districts encounter: dropping math and language arts test scores, outdated technology resources, a lack of leadership in technology training, and limited funding. A small, rural district in central Wisconsin, the Tomorrow River School District serves the educational needs of some 900 preK-12 students. In early 1999, Tomorrow River partnered with the neighboring Wautoma School District to apply for a federal Technology Literacy Challenge Fund (TLCF) grant through the state's Department of Public Instruction to support the integration of education technology into classrooms to improve teaching and learning. The resulting $209,470 grant was the seed money that allowed the district to begin wiring all classrooms, purchase hardware and software, as well as develop and implement teacher training programs.
One such program, "Best Practices in Educational Technology," was offered to teachers for free graduate credit or cash stipends. The course, which was taken by about 70% of the staff, covered such topics as Internet searching strategies; the use of Microsoft and Macintosh applications; and learning opportunities using scanners, digital cameras and multimedia projectors. Following the workshops, teachers began developing learning activities that use technology focused on math and writing. For example, one secondary school math teacher helped students use Internet research to create graphical price comparisons among used cars. In addition, a sixth-grade social studies teacher also used his newly found skills to conduct an activity in which students used Web-based resources to create mock postcards from other countries.
X-Ray View of the Internet
Although the first and subsequent TLCF grants paid for the training, wiring, hardware and software, Internet connectivity was not covered under the federal program. Enter WiscNet, a nonprofit ISP, which links classrooms and government organizations across Wisconsin to one another and the world. WiscNet delivers its services through a network that ties together more than 500 colleges, universities, K-12 schools, libraries, hospitals, as well as state and local government agencies.
What is unusual about WiscNet is that it provides a free toolkit to its members in an effort to help demystify how the Internet works and provide more efficient technical support. The flagship tool in the kit is "VisualRoute," developed by Visualware Inc., which automatically determines precisely when, where and how data is flowing between two points on the Internet. Many Internet users encounter problems connecting to a Web site or find that data is moving too slowly, and determining the source of the problem can be difficult for people with limited IT experience. Traditional diagnostic tools for troubleshooting connectivity problems are run in an outdated DOS environment, yielding lines of complicated text that can be difficult to interpret. VisualRoute has a graphical interface that integrates the basic connectivity tools of traceroute, ping and whois into one tool that automatically analyzes Internet connectivity. With a simple click, users can see a visual display of the actual path of an Internet connection in an easy-to-understand table and world map, identifying at which point on the path any data is being lost or a slowdown is occurring.
In essence, VisualRoute provides an X-ray view of an Internet connection, helping students to understand the mechanics of how Internet data travels. Using VisualRoute and other Web-based tools, adults and children alike are able to see and understand how the Internet works and why connectivity problems occur. For example, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, students in one class were asked to choose athletes for whom they would track their competitive results and overall standings. After daily visits to the Games' official Web site, the students found on one particular day that the site was inaccessible. Using VisualRoute, they were able to determine that the connectivity problem was due to a faulty server in Rome.
Teachers also benefit from VisualRoute and the other WiscNet tools because they are provided at no charge to member institutions. When attempting to access a particular Web site that may be nonresponsive, they can now use these tools to determine the source of the problem. This self-empowerment allows more time for the enhancement and expansion of curriculum support, rather than network troubleshooting by the district's IT personnel.
The Electronic Dirt Road
In only 20 years, technology has dramatically impacted every area of society and every aspect of our social and cultural lives. Unfortunately, the part of our society that has been slow to accept this change is education. In "Why Use Technology" (1994), Peck and Dorricott sum up this point well: "While businesses have been building electronic highways, education is traveling an electronic dirt road."
Students graduating from high school or college in the 21st century will have very different jobs than those existing today. About half of them will work with information systems: analyzing pre-existing information, generating new information, and storing and retrieving information. A major portion of this group will not even work in an office, but at home. Fortunately, most students are ready for this change to happen because they have grown up with this technological revolution. Because of this exposure, many students welcome the use of technology and feel comfortable applying it; their educational environment should be no different.
The days of an industrial classroom are coming to an end. Primarily, it will be students who drive this change and expect more from their teachers. Teachers need to be trained and provided with support in their efforts to accept this technological revolution. Many federal, state and commercial programs have been implemented to bring schools and teachers up to speed. Grant programs like TLCF are enabling school districts to purchase new computers for their classrooms. School districts are providing services that support and train teachers in everything from basic computer skills to how to use the Internet in the classroom. It's time for the institution of education to get off the dirt road and become the leaders of the information highway.
Peck, K. and D. Dorricott. 1994. "Why Use Technology?" Educational Leadership 51(7): 11-14. Online: www.ascd.org/readingroom/edlead/9404/peck.html.
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.