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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Visions: Technology Reaches Small Village Schools

The Internet opens a path to and from rural schools.
By Frank Odasz

Most villages in the Galena City School District are hundreds of miles from the nearest road system.

Credit: Frank Odasz

On Jan. 1, 1988, at Western Montana College of the University of Montana in Dillon, population 4,000, Big Sky Telegraph came online to provide online courses for rural teachers in one- and two-room Montana schools.

Back then, it was a world of Apple IIe's, 1200 baud modems, and eighteen dollars per hour long-distance toll charges. As isolated teachers worked through the online lessons, they grew visions of building online peer learning communities and began sharing lesson plans. By 1990, over 700 lesson plans had been collected, which became the first set of lesson plans the U.S. Department of Education put online. (Announced in March 1998, the newest national lesson plans database from the U.S. Department of Education is now online.)

The emphasis of Big Sky Telegraph was exploring interactive reading and writing as a new, unique communications medium with its own strengths and weaknesses. Anyone, anywhere, anytime could communicate without deference to age, sex, physical appearance, race, education level, location, or time of day. Often creating greater intimacy than face-to-face relationships, rural teachers shared in-depth issues, feelings, and resources with convenience and economy across the vast expanses of rural Montana.

Lessons learned from the ten years of Big Sky Telegraph's social experimentation (1988-1998) include that while roughly 20 percent of the teachers involved eagerly shared the vision of building a peer community, many could not initially quite grasp the potential. For some, it took several months; for others, several years of "noodling around online" before they were able to internalize the potential. The independent-minded teachers preferred to have a choice of which lessons they worked on and when. Despite learning differences, nearly all teachers arrived at the level of "rising expectations" regarding visions of reaching their full potential as teacher -- online. The Big Sky Telegraph online community was self-selecting; those not interested in sharing resources, encouragement, and frontier visions just didn't participate.

Teachers and students in small village schools throughout Alaska are building a Web presence.

Credit: Leo Ussak Elementary School

Web Mania

In 1993, Big Sky Telegraph received a major grant to create online courses which would produce K-12 collaborative projects and other online offerings. Laptops were given to twenty rural teachers who would receive online courses with the intent that they would then teach these same courses online to teachers in a five-state area. A course was developed that explored the power and uniqueness of interactive reading and writing, but then the World Wide Web appeared. Suddenly, interactive reading and writing was viewed as inferior "text-only" technology, and the courses had to be rewritten with emphasis on graphical "point-and-click" Web pages. Many of the teachers who had been interacting regularly became solo basement browsers, dazzled by the new visual medium.

Today, WebMania is being replaced with renewed attention to interactive reading and writing because of the added availability of over ten collaborative Internet tools (such as email, listservs, chats, and MUDs/MOOs [Multi-User Dimensions, Dungeons or Domains/Object-Oriented MUDS] -- see lone-eagles.com/collab.htm) and the increasing interactivity built into Web pages. No longer passive billboards, Web pages are taking on the best interactive features of both educational software and communications networks developed over the past decade, as new and exciting interactive options appear with increasing frequency.

Small Village Schools

In the Native Alaskan village of Galena, population 300, the Galena City School District has received grants to put computers in the homes of eighty village families and has helped secure funding for Internet training programs for teachers, students, and community members from all eleven Native villages in the Yukon-Koyukuk Regional Consortium. In November 1998, village teachers and students learned to create school Web pages. The villages have two-way Internet via satellite dishes, which is essential since most villages are hundreds of miles from the nearest road system.

As a component of the Internet staff development program, a circuit rider regularly visits the villages, sharing ideas for using digital cameras, MIDI musical keyboards, electronic art tablets, and other new and exciting creativity-enhancing technologies. Models of Alaskan school/cultural Web pages and Native crafts entrepreneurial Web pages can be visited through an online self-directed Web tour, which features a hotlist of student entrepreneurial resources. Created for these Culturally Supportive Workshops is an online Native Alaskan Cross-Cultural K-12 Internet Guide, which is serving as a model for use with indigenous peoples internationally via the U.S. Agency for International Development's LearnLink project.

Empowered Teaching and Teachers

On this new frontier of learning, many questions are being raised: What is the role of online instruction, what is the role of the teacher, and what works best in service of our students? Motivated students and adults can often learn well using interactive, self-directed multimedia materials, which the Big Sky Telegraph teachers preferred, while unmotivated students still need an encouraging relationship face-to-face with teachers to learn to love learning.

Master teachers are no longer limited to teaching the number of students they can fit into a traditional classroom or model of education, but can now create interactive learning experiences for hundreds, even thousands, of students. How to best budget a good teacher's limited time as a key resource raises more questions and opportunities. Teachers can target their time for those students who need it most. With learning outcomes as the key measure, online models promise our best teachers the options of impacting more students and of increased earnings based on proven learning outcomes.

The University of Alaska at Anchorage will be offering a course for teachers based on this model through the Alaska Staff Development Network. "Making the Best Use of Internet for K-12 Instruction" will be a self-directed online class based on the Native Alaskan online guide mentioned above and will use a listserv so that participants can interact with each other. In this way, hundreds of teachers can take the class simultaneously. The instructor will be based in Montana or will be on the road, modeling how technology can allow master teachers to become Lone Eagles with greater creative independence, mobility, and income than teachers have ever enjoyed before.

We've come a long way from the early pioneering days of Big Sky Telegraph's innovative rural teachers, but the core challenge of how best to bring people together to make good things happen remains unchanged. Soon, micro-satellites will allow for high-speed, two-way Internet access from hand-held computers anywhere on the planet. The issue will then no longer be that of establishing the physical infrastructure, but will become that of creating a common-sense social infostructure, combining caring with connectivity.

There is no limit to the potential benefits of a good teacher/learner online mentoring relationship or of the global impact of one good teacher's self-published learning resources. Already, teachers are sharing materials in worldwide online tutorials for citizen activism, such as "The Virtual Activist." As more and more people begin to understand that the Internet's greatest potential is that of creating a true global, transnational electronic democracy, more and more individuals will see how they too can make a worldwide contribution (Electronic Democracy Web tour). In today's world, it's a fact: everyone can be both a learner and teacher, all the time.

Frank Odasz is an educational technology consultant and founder of Lone Eagle Consulting and Big Sky Telegraph.

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