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Can You Get There From Here?: Reevaluating Your School's Network

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Driving to the airport at about 3:45 A.M., I was struck by the emptiness of Maine's southbound U.S. Route 295. In fact, there were several times when I could see no other vehicles on the road -- no headlights approaching, no taillights receding. It reminded me of how it had been when I was practicing for my first driver's license test, back in 1971. Nowadays, such openness is a rarity, be it at 3:45 A.M. or 3:45 P.M., be it a Sunday morning or a Wednesday afternoon. There are just so many people, so many cars.

There is a traditional Maine story that has an out-of-stater in a red sports car stopping to ask directions of a farmer in his field. "Say, old-timer," the young fellow asks, "can you tell me how to get to Mattawamkeag?" After several false starts and pauses for thought, the farmer ultimately replies, "Well, young fella, come to think of it, ya can't get thair from heah." Sometimes, the Maine Turnpike and Route 1 seem that way -- trying to go from Brunswick to Camden along the coast in midsummer can be an exercise in frustration, with progress ranging from slow to zero. There's just so much traffic.

So, this got me to thinking. Maine's network of roads is similar in many ways to the network that delivers Internet content to classrooms across the country. Both have the stated purpose of facilitating the movement of content, of stuff, and both have times of congestion and times of free-flowing openness. Both provide, when they function as advertised, access to wonderful things, be it Fort Edgecomb, located just off Route 1, north across the bridge from Wiscasset, or the marvelous QuickTime virtual reality (QTVR) panoramas available at

But either network can be rendered ineffective in times of severe congestion. In either case, such a situation means one might as well stay at home. In either case, the richness of your experience and the variety of content available to you becomes limited by an inability to get there from here.

In terms of a Maine vacation, such congestion might simply mean that you enjoy the Bath-Brunswick area a little longer, and head north later in the afternoon, but in the classroom the stakes become higher. The reliability of high-speed network access can mean the difference between students being able to effectively use a digital resource to help them understand a mathematical concept, communicate with peers across the classroom, school, school district, or continent, or share their writing with the rest of the world, or being unable to do so.

So, here's my question -- and it is a simple one: How's the network at your school? But the follow-up questions become a little more convoluted. Is it zippy and consistent? Is it reliable, always there when you need it? Or are there times when it is less than speedy, times when you and the kids give up in frustration, having failed to get to the Web-based resources you had intended to use?

What impact does your network access have on your use of Web-based resources as tools of teaching and learning? Do you ever have to abandon ship when you fully intended to use a Web-based resource just because you can't get to it? Or does your network always fly, and thereby support you in doing whatever you want, when you want to do it?

I look forward to hearing your stories of moving and stalling, and, more importantly, to hearing about the impact something as conceptually simple and effectively foundational as high-speed network access has had on teaching and learning in your classroom, school, or district.

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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Theresa Pierce's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with teachers in the computer labs at6 of our 7 elementary schools. We have a wireless network link to our elementary schools and can experience "hiccups" and down-time. I have learned that you always need a Plan B and sometimes a Plan C if your are going to use web-based resources. It doesn't happen a lot - but when it does happen and you have 15 or more K-6 students - you had better have an alternative ready to use!!

Jim Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Theresa - You make me think about one of my favorite sayings, "It's not about the technology." And I really mean it...

You see, I think that the oft discussed "Plans A, B, and C" are really what good teachers do all the time. If we have a clear enough image of the goal of the lesson, we naturally look for other ways to go at it. And in a lab setting Plan A may be web-based, but B and C may take advantage of local digital resources... And in reality a big piece of a lesson like that for the kids is the flexibility of being able to "keep your eyes on the prize," while being able to take multiple routes towards it.

Thanks for sharing. Jim

Amy Barto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am at a SMALL school for students with learning disabilities and ADD in Western Michigan. As we are non-profit (and tuition based), we do not have large budgets for technology, though it is vital to our students' success (and survival). Many of our students struggle with reading and/or writing and the more they can use technology efficiently and productively, the more they will be able to compete on a more even playing field when they are out of school.

We do have a network in our school, but we experience hiccups frequently - in fact, our system oftens needs CPR - and your questions come at quite a time for our school! We have grades 1 - 12, but not all of our students stay with us for their whole school career. They receive a lot of support when they are with us, but we do not have a good system for continuing to support and encourage them when they have left our school. Our students attend from all over Western Michigan and often make friends with other kids way outside of their neighborhoods and using the internet and other techonologies are a natural way to keep them connected with each other as well as with our learning community. I have been recently discussing with our administrator the idea of creating a stronger internet/technology based network to support not only our present students but also past students, parents and community members. This seems like a logical and exciting exploration, but we are quite limited by funding and access to the expertise (and ways to pay those with that expertise), so I would suppose that right now we have been moving with an internal network, but stalling on a way to truly connect with all the members of the learning community we work so hard to create!

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