Another View On the Information HighwayAccess: Careful planning can result in productive use of the Internet.
Skip Sharp, San Diego County Office of Education
Warren Williams, Grossmont Union High School District
Keith Vogt's article, "Information Highway or Digital Ditch?" in the January-February 1995 DataBus raises some very valid concerns. The need for good planning to effectively identify and address issues associated with the "Information Highway" and specifically the Internet is a vital success ingredient. Clearly, we should take the time to plan and execute effectively. On the flip side however, there is mounting pressure to provide Internet access and it is coming from several directions. School administrators, teachers, students and parents have either seen or experienced some of the things available on the Internet, and they want access to it now rather than later. The main problem is that on one end of the spectrum there is the 'shake and bake' planning approach which results in the very problems that Keith pointed out. On the other end, though, is the planning forever loop, in which many projects get stuck and nothing ever seems to happen.
There is a fairly fine line between the two extremes. In San Diego county we think we have successfully bridged the gap between "ready. . . fire. . . aim" and "ready. . . aim. . . aim. . . aim. . . ". What follows then are some lessons learned and suggestions from both a county office perspective, and from a very proactive district within our county.
The County Office Perspective
Planning for and gaining connectivityThe first questions the county office addressed were whether to provide connectivity, to whom, how and at what cost. At the time we got started, there were a few commercial means to connect, but most were, and still are, too pricy for the school crowd. The California On Line Resources for Education (CORE), operated by the California State University system was available and was free. A good combination we thought and so did many others, but CORE soon began to sag from the weight of its own success. After considerable discussion, the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) decided to commit to become an Internet service provider. The rationale was that the SDCOE could serve as a hub for those wanting connect to the Internet and/or Internet services. This was also consistent with the role county offices play under AB1200, where it is expected that the Internet will be used as a main electronic traffic artery. Our ground rules were simple. Our server would provide e-mail capability, selected (filtered) news groups, bulletin board access, a home page, and connectivity (on ramp) to the outside world for those districts in our county that wanted those services. This approach was particularly appealing to the many districts within our county with either very small, or no technical staffs to accomplish this sort of thing for themselves. Along with the servers must come a means to communicate. We support connectivity in two ways, via frame relay and via dial-in. Thanks to a CALREN grant, about half of the districts in San Diego county have frame relay telephone lines to some of their schools. Other districts have begun to make the move to frame relay on their own, and eventually we anticipate most or all of the schools that we support to connect via that method. The SDCOE also supports a limited dial-in modem bank. Those districts requiring significant access to the server via dial-in (as in the case of teachers/students working from home), can have it as long as they provide the additional modems and lines.
There are those districts whose planning and expertise have allowed them to find their own solutions, and one of them will be explained later in this article. The intent of the SDCOE has been to assist those districts desiring help without getting in the way of others. If there has been a common battle cry, though, in getting things done here, it has been "Two, four, six, eight, everyone collaborate". Using this mindset, the districts and the county office have been able share ideas and experiences, to communicate effectively and plan accordingly regarding each others plans, and to mutually identify and solve problems together where practical.
What are the costs?This can vary significantly from place to place, but the cost to provide Internet access at SDCOE has not been enormous. SDCOE acquired the necessary servers, routers, CSU/DSUs, dial-in modems and software to make it all work for about $70,000. The model that SDCOE has used has been to provide server features at low/no cost to the districts, but for the districts to pay the connectivity costs. Additionally, the districts are faced with the cost of internally wiring their own schools and facilities. SDCOE can help in some areas such as the grants mentioned, and with some expertise in facilitating campus/building wiring, but for the most part, the districts prefer to arrive at their own solutions.
Training and SupportAt the SDCOE, we feel that training and support are the most critical elements in making access to the Information Highway a viable tool for education. To that end, we have structured an Internet curriculum consisting of several courses that focus on using the Internet as an instructional resource. Functional since February of 1994, the course has seen over 700 teachers from San Diego county attend, and we have also had attendees from all over the state. We also firmly believe that 'bossware' is a cornerstone in the training process, and to date over half of the superintendents in the county have attended our Internet training. The end result is that all involved can witness first hand what the Internet phenomenon is and make informed decisions for themselves as to how the Internet fits into the big picture in their respective districts. Most see the adventure as just beginning. The SDCOE commitment is to keep providing the training as long as it is requested. Since most courses are filled within two days after they are announced we believe that we have identified and are meeting a bona fide training need.
Even after training is received, we believe that there is a certain amount of "hand holding" that is required. Surfing the Internet is becoming easier all the time, but finding your way to where you want to be, rediscovering what you have previously found, and avoiding those areas where you don't want to be is difficult. That's where the help desk comes in. We have retrained several county office personnel to provide assistance to school personnel in using the Internet. That assistance ranges from 'scouting the Internet'-- finding those things of worth for education and steering educators toward them, to providing real time, over the phone support to those who request it. We want the educators and administrators in the county to know that they have a place to turn for advice and/or help in finding and navigating to where they want to be on the Internet. We are finding more and more use of the help desk all the time. In the early stages of Internet use there is simply no substitute for this service. Our plan is to further evolve the help desk to include teachers and members of the corporate sector to provide help desk support.
The District Office Perspective
Responding to the hypeThe mad dash by schools to jump on the Information Highway is partially the result of technologists like Keith and myself doing a good sales job. I remember the first time I saw CORE and its offer of unlimited access for all California educators and students. I marveled at the tremendous resources available on the character based service and immediately began devising plans to provide the service to the Grossmont district in all classrooms and as a dial-up from home. Teachers could not help but respond to the offer of help to bring classrooms into the twentieth century. They intuitively grasped the potential to offer a wide range of services and data to students who were, for the most part, working out of outdated textbooks. Very rarely if ever did we evangelicals caution teachers about costs, support, policy statement needs or growth problems. The implication at workshops around the State was that if your students and teachers were not connected, they were somehow behind the electronic learning curve and they may never catch up. It is as true today as it was a few years ago. The Internet, in one iteration or another, will be part of almost all learning environments in the near future. Teachers and administrators need to be aware of that and plan for it. Its eventuality must be part of curricular and mission critical application discussions.
Training and SupportWhen connectivity becomes part of an education culture awareness, then issues like support and training become part of the natural dialog. The Grossmont District has a robust technology plan. The plan anticipated training and support as an ongoing need for the implementation of its technology plan. It was therefore well situated when the Internet became available as an instructional and administrative tool. Classes are offered to all district employees who want to learn about Internet access. This course is required for anyone who requests an ip address. Teachers are taught curriculum design using the Internet and support is offered by the IS and Educational Technology staff.
CostsOur Superintendent likes to ask "can we afford not to invest" when it comes to the latest in technology. When spread across the 20,000 students and 2000 employees, the cost per person to install connection to the Internet is minimal, roughly $2.00. The Internet integrates well into our existing network and adds tremendous capability. For small districts and individual classrooms, the access to information sources can be mitigated by excellent programs as that run by SDCOE or other county offices. I also have found not one person engaged in technology reluctant to share her or his expertise with other schools or districts. Private enterprise has also contributed. PacBell's Education First initiative offers a good model.
Some concluding thoughtsWe have seen a lot of long term planning by educational institutions who can offer to those who are at the experimental stage some sage advice. The Information Age is not hype and its presence will profoundly alter the delivery of instruction in California and elsewhere. To those who wait until all of the pieces fit perfectly, there is the danger of losing for your students an equitable jumpstart on their future.
There are pitfalls in this entire process and we have made our share of mistakes and will make more. We have also learned from those mistakes. The process is working and will get better. We see the time to get involved as being now, because if we in public education don't figure out how to make it all work and soon, somebody else outside of education will do it for us. We should all capitalize on the opportunity, rather than complain later that it passed us by as we slept through it. As Dorothy would have said to Toto, "Don't worry about that digital ditch Toto, just follow the Yellow digital road".