Alaskan Professional Development: Lone Eagles Learn to "Teach from any Beach!"

Galena, Alaska is a Native Alaskan village of 300 persons on the banks of the Yukon River, hundreds of miles from the nearest road system. Last year, the Galena City School district announced a K-12 correspondence program, Interior Distance Education for Alaska (IDEA), offering loaner computers and an annual subscription to the Internet. Three thousand students signed up from all over Alaska, representing 1,700 families, suddenly making the Galena school district ( the seventh largest school district in the state. One hundred and sixteen teachers were hired to assist these home schooling students in a program of online mentorship and brokerage of the best Internet learning resources available.


Last December, the Alaska Staff Development Network ( hosted a leadership retreat titled "Online Learning: Implications for School Leaders," where many of the administrators who lost students to Galena attended. Discussions were held on the viability of creating a district's own online courses, or brokering the best of what's already available. With limited access to the Internet at school, where students spend 19% of their time, the enthusiasm for a modern multimedia computer and home-based Internet access 100% of the time was understandable. There was no debate as to whether the benefit to students should come first.This year, many more Alaskan school districts are offering families a computer and local Internet access. At issue is which districts can make the claim of offering better mentorship, better resource brokerage, and a higher vision of what is most significant for students to learn. No less than the best of the best can be made available.In order to keep their students and their jobs, teachers now are challenged to learn how to locate and integrate the best Internet resources, project-based learning activities, existing courses, lesson plans and tutorials into their curriculum, which must also meet new Alaskan standards. Ongoing online professional development may be the best way to meet this challenge. Optimal strategies are being explored.

Encouraging Hi-Tech Learning

Galena Superintendent Carl Knudsen, a visionary from Montana, helped instigate a number of successful grant efforts that resulted in Internet access via satellite for the 11 Native Alaskan villages of the Yukon-Koyukuk Regional Consortium. Within 14 months, three Internet workshops per village were conducted. Each village now has a school Web page, digital cameras, and Internet access to unlimited learning resources.Three village schools are already involved with streaming video technologies. The workshops featured hands-on access to digital cameras, photo manipulation software (Adobe Photoshop,) multiple Web authoring programs, art tablets and high-end art software (Painter 5.0), creation of 3D object images for marketing native crafts, and the use of MIDI musical keyboards with tremendous capabilities costing only $225 (Yamaha PSR 225 from Bettles, Alaska (population 30) students mentor students with the very latest technologies. Ramona, a Native Alaskan, has natural artistic ability and books of wonderful drawings using the available technology of the past, a pencil and paper. Today, Ramona has access to a digital arts tablet, Web authoring software, photo manipulation software and many state-of-the-art graphics software programs. Ramona can now self-publish her artwork globally.

The Alaska Staff Development Network and the University of Alaska, Anchorage are offering nationally a series of online graduate level courses for teachers which include the following:

1) Making the Best Use of Internet for K12 Instruction. A hands-on course on how to broker the best resources for your classroom.

2) Designing Online Curriculum for K-12 Instruction. A hands-on course on how to easily create Internet hotlists, Web-tours, lesson plans, project-based learning activities (Webquest,Cyberfair, Thinkquest, etc.) and complete online courses using Web tools.

3) Creating Culturally Responsive Schools. Based on the new Alaskan standards for Culturally Responsive Schools

These courses are in a self-directed learning (SDL) format, which gives teachers great flexibility, and keep costs to a minimum. Constructivist research has demonstrated that teachers, as well as students, generally prefer to be in charge of their own learning and prefer to build their own knowledge. However, SDL online classes may not be equally effective for all learners or learning styles.

The teacher has up to one year to complete the above SDL lessons, from the start of the semester in which they register. They can do the lessons in any order, at any time convenient to their schedule. The instructor is available online to interact, encourage teachers, receive lesson submissions, and answer questions as necessary. Typically, once teachers become comfortable with the step-by-step instructions and "feel" of an SDL course, they require less and less direct interaction, and appreciate not being specifically led, but being left to learn on their own, in their own way. Anxiety is reduced knowing help is readily available, anytime they need it.

Learning to become a self-directed learner using the Internet is a very important lifelong learning skill that we hope to develop in our students as part of our imparting the love of learning. Teachers, as is the case also for students, differ in preferred learning styles. While some teachers take quickly to self-directed online learning, others of us find it less than intuitive and need ready access to a friendly, supportive mentor up until we are comfortable going it alone. This encouraging mentorship role is fundamentally important.

Self Directed Learning Fundamentals

Most teachers have experienced students who have the Internet at home and seem completely comfortable with finding information on anything at anytime, and teaching themselves whatever they decide they wish to learn. Such students often tend to flaunt this in front of their classmates and their teachers. They are aware that in many ways (but certainly not all) they no longer need a teacher to guide their learning, but can take control of what they learn, where and when, themselves.

What is exciting, speaking as an online instructor, is when a tentative teacher, or student, begins an online SDL course full of anxiety and questions, and begins to bubble with excitement when he/she gains confidence and skills as a self-directed learner, and then becomes a source of answers and encouragement for others in the class.

In a SDL course, teachers are specifically encouraged to ask questions of peers before asking the instructor for help, which sets the stage for ongoing peer-based support well beyond the end of the online class. This is a vital point, as learning to use e-mail, listservs and other collaborative tools to share with peers may be the most convenient and economical way to stay current on an ongoing basis in our rapidly changing world.

The content of the course incorporates existing tutorials, curriculum templates and Internet resources from diverse sources, presented within the context of the sequential lessons and specific goals of the course. While some resources are part of required activities, other resources allow for optional in-depth exploration based on teachers' individual interests.

Since Internet experience varies widely among teachers, this format allows those new to the Internet to be led directly to the best introductory resources, while those with more experience will find the immediate option to utilize the more advanced tutorials and resources. Teachers can continually refer back to these lessons for their own ongoing learning, or can draw from them for their own classroom activities. Throughout the course, teachers directly experience a rich variety of very different ways that Web pages and Internet resources can be incorporated into their own curriculums.

Integrating Online Tools and Content

How the ten dominant collaborative Internet tools can best be applied for SDL courses, instructor-centric interaction intensive courses, and for student-to-student interaction, will continue to be a major pedagogical challenge for years to come. Expectations increase with experience, and since students today are both societal technology leaders and key change agents, in the increasingly competitive educational marketplace, expectations are on the rise.

Quality assessment of online collaborative individual capacity has yet to evolve. The issue of how best to develop social skills, both online and face-to-face, requires continual reexamination as technologies and Internet skill levels are changing rapidly. Tutorials and educational examples of each of the ten collaborative tools can be found at

A Native Alaskan Cross-Cultural K-12 Internet Guide was created for the above workshops and online courses ( complete with a Web tour of many of the best Alaskan examples of Web self-expression and collaborative projects. You can see a Web tutorial on building dog sleds with 3D images and many other amazing examples of students and teachers exercising their new-found instructional and collaborative capabilities, including one teacher's "How to find a teaching job in Alaska" class project. (

Due to continuing advances in technology, the majority of the world's population, representing 15,000 cultures, will have the opportunity to learn, and teach via the Internet within the next 10-20 years. With the current teacher shortage, SDL courses may be the only way to meet the vast need for instruction worldwide. Teachers and students will find it increasingly feasible to be able to teach worldwide from any location - and no doubt will do so, most certainly from the remote villages of the Yukon-Koyukuk Regional Consortium.


Frank Odasz served as a teacher at Western Montana College of the University of Montana in Dillon, Mont. for 13 years and as director of the well-known Big Sky Telegraph network, which offered online courses to rural teachers from 1988 to 1998. Now president of Lone Eagle Consulting, Frank is teaching online courses. From Feb. 1, 1998 to March 20, 1999 Frank spent over 100 days in Alaska delivering Internet workshops to 11 Native Alaskan villages and to IDEA home schoolers in six major Alaskan cities.

E-mail: [email protected]



The Ten Dominant Collaborative Internet Tools

  1. E-mail - The most ubiquitous collaborative tool
  2. Listservs/Mailing Lists - Extremely convenient and powerful for peer sharing, but limited to a single thread of messages
  3. Newsgroups - Best when limited to a smaller group
  4. BBS - Simple format for public interaction
  5. Web-Conferencing - Dozens of free and commercial programs available to make any Web page interactive, often allowing threaded discussions to be started by anyone
  6. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) - Real-time communications
  7. MUDS/MOOS - Object-oriented, text-based interaction
  8. IPHONE and Internet Radio - Voice-based telephone and radio via Internet
  9. Desktop Video Conferencing - Two-way video with audio; steadily improving
  10. VRML Chat Systems - 3D avatars that you can move through rooms and hallways with text-chat; some systems beginning to use voice chat. Emulates a physical setting.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.