Link to ARC home page.

Teaching and Learning Online

by Fred D. Baldwin

Luke Lawrence, an eighth-grader at McConnelsville School in economically distressed Morgan County, Ohio, sits before a computer screen clicking on pictures of blast furnaces, science labs, and welders. He's downloading visual displays from the Internet for a report on metallurgy. When he gives the report to his science class, he'll project these images from a computer to a large screen.

"It's kind of like having a big encyclopedia," he says of the Internet. "You don't have to go to the library because it's all right here."

Actually, the Internet does more for Lawrence than save some steps. The reference shelf in his school's small library is pretty much limited to a few sets of general encyclopedias. If Lawrence had to rely on them for his report, he'd find only a fraction of what he's found online, and what he found might not be as current.

Across town at Morgan High School, electronics teacher Roger Calendine displays a picture of a state-of-the-art computer chip and a list of its technical specifications. One of his students printed it from the manufacturer's Web page. "Without the Internet," Calendine says, "you can imagine what he'd have had to go through to get that." If they didn't know how to use the Internet, he adds, his students would be at a disadvantage in finding jobs.

Current knowledge and skills are crucial for students in fast-changing fields like science and technology, and Appalachian teachers in technical fields have been quick to recognize the Internet's potential for helping students. But teachers in other disciplines are becoming equally enthusiastic about the many benefits the Internet has to offer, including access to resources that schools can't afford in any other way, a vehicle for making independent learning more attractive and class time more productive, and a way to help students develop skills in using technology that they will need in the world of work.

Statistics on Internet access across Appalachia are hard to come by and harder still to interpret. Nationally, in 1995, only 50 percent of public schools had "instructional" access to the Internet (that is, access in classrooms and labs, not just for staff email). That estimate comes from Schools Online, a national nonprofit foundation with which the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) partnered to provide Internet appliances and training for 1,250 schools across the Region. (Schools Online, founded in 1996 by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was originally known as Projectneat.) By October 1998, instructional access had risen to 85 percent nationally. But, as was the case in 1995, schools in rural areas and those with high minority populations were most likely to lack access.

In reality, statistics on Internet access are almost meaningless unless you know what "access" means for an individual school. There's a vast difference between access to a single agency or university database and access to the full resources of the World Wide Web. And access isn't the only issue.

Several elements must be in place before the Internet can begin to deliver its potential. The most important of these are an adequate supply of modem-equipped computers; affordable (ideally, high-bandwidth) connections to the Internet; and a substantial amount of initial staff training followed by continuing opportunities for professional development. Many Appalachian schools come up short on one or more of these elements; a few enjoy the benefits of all.

Opening Up The World

Todd Spence teaches science at McConnelsville School. His first exposure to the Internet came in 1992 at a workshop he attended in Columbus. Back in those pre-Web days, online communications were text-only, but Spence fell in love with the technology. He soon became one of the self-taught "experts" to whom new computer users turn for advice.

In 1996, Morgan County government, business, and education leaders began taking a comprehensive look at the county's communications infrastructure. Spence became an active member in a nonprofit technology advisory board called MorganNet.

He also became a "teacher partner" within the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative (ARSI), a regional consortium of educators and institutions in six central Appalachian states. Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, ARSI promotes excellence in math and science teaching in low-income rural schools. (See "On a Roll for Science and Math" in the May–August 1998 issue of Appalachia.)

As an ARSI educational teacher partner, Spence was expected to promote applications of online resources. Unfortunately, Morgan County had no Internet service provider (ISP): Morgan County residents who wanted to connect to the Internet had to pay long-distance telephone charges to reach out-of-town ISPs. The cost for a high-volume user like a school district would have been prohibitive.

Potential ISPs saw no market in Morgan County. Spence and the MorganNet team knocked on every door they could think of and came back empty-handed. In desperation, they decided that they'd have to create their own ISP. They formed a company called Morgan NetPlus, Inc. It has 11 shareholders, four of them teachers; its total capitalization is $50,000.

Morgan NetPlus went online in May 1997, and now has about 450 customers. Rick Ebersole, a systems manager at the First National Bank of McConnelsville and president of Morgan NetPlus, says the volunteer-run ISP has had to scramble to keep up with demand. (Ironically, Morgan NetPlus now has competition: an ISP serving other areas decided to enter the McConnelsville market after Morgan NetPlus investors had already taken the plunge, and a second one plans to come in this spring.)

Bob Cosgray, director of special programs for the Morgan Local School District, sums up what the presence of a local ISP means for the schools and the small communities of Morgan County: "This opens up the world for us."

What this means in practice is just beginning to take shape.

  • Loretta Davis, an eighth-grade science teacher, says she's gone online to find ideas for classroom demonstrations using common, inexpensive materials. "We had a math and science family night, and we pulled off an activity from the Net about bridge-building. The kids and their parents used spaghetti to build bridges, and we tested them to see how much weight they'd hold."
  • Nick Parsons, one of Spence's former students and now a high school freshman, has started his own small business as a Web-page designer. He's completed pages for about a dozen local firms and organizations, including a free one for the Boy Scouts.
  • Spence and his fellow science teachers now require computer-assisted class presentations, and students are downloading images and information from the Internet for the reports. Resources like computers and the Internet, Spence says, provide a special boost to "struggling" students. "Their finished products," he says, "look as good as those of the stronger students. This gives them pride in their work."

With access to the Internet in place, Morgan County's schools have turned their attention to the other two elements necessary for effective use of the Internet—equipment and training—and are making progress. Funds from ARC have enabled McConnelsville to buy eight classroom computers, four printers, and much of the equipment needed for a local area network (LAN). And the school has a new computer lab, created last August by partitioning off one end of a large classroom. It's equipped with nine machines connected to the Internet. But seven of these are older models donated by the Ohio Department of Transportation; keeping them and other old machines in classrooms in working order takes a lot of Spence's time. And teachers have to use elaborate rotation plans to give all students equal access to a terminal.

In addition, wiring the school buildings for LANs has proven to be extremely difficult. Spence points to a cable running through a hole near a ceiling in a McConnelsville classroom. "We went through 24 inches of wall—all brick—to get that CAT-5 wire in," he says. "I think we broke two or three drill bits on that hole. These are things you don't think about until you have to do it."

Staff development, for the most part, is a matter of individual initiative. Spence has conducted some training courses. Many teachers are learning on their own computers, although some are resisting change.

Although the Internet is not yet close to being fully integrated into an overall educational strategy in Morgan County, Spence and other educators there have a vision of what the Internet can do for their students: "I think it'll get our kids on an equal playing field with those from other schools," Spence says.

A Center for Innovative Practices

Fentress County, Tennessee, is also a distressed county, but about three-quarters of its high school students attend the Alvin C. York Institute, which receives its financial support directly from the Tennessee Department of Education. The York Institute, located in Jamestown, is a comprehensive high school founded in 1926 at the initiative of the World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York, who was a native of Fentress County. In 1986 it was designated Tennessee's Center for Rural Education. Since then it has been a test bed for innovative practices for rural schools. These include (but are by no means limited to) extensive use of information technology.

In 1986, York Institute administrators and faculty traveled nationwide in search of good ideas. They soon concluded that not only should all teachers have computers in their classrooms, but all classrooms should be part of a network. A decade or so ago, therefore, they began to add computers and think in terms of a school-wide system.

They also invested heavily in staff training. Teachers spend four or five days each year in professional development activities, and attend many informal after-school sessions. "Next week we'll have a training lab on trouble-shooting [computers and software]," technology coordinator Homer Delk says. "You don't have to make it mandatory. People will show up."

Today, ask students at the York Institute to describe specific classroom applications of the Internet, and it's as if you were asking them to recall the last time they'd seen a teacher use a blackboard. You tend to get answers like, "Well . . . pretty much for everything."

Jennifer Smith, a senior, mentions a business management class she's taking: "In 'Entrepreneurship' we're trying to get statistics on business plans. Most of our textbooks on marketing have statistics from the 1980s. [The Internet] is more important to us in a rural area." She adds that she's used the Internet recently to search for college scholarship opportunities.

In fact, the library and classrooms at the York Institute are better stocked than those at many rural high schools, but almost no print library can match the Internet's breadth, speed, and currency.

Gary Davis, who teaches automotive industries technology, says that his students regularly choose computer-accessible information over printed manuals for technical data on parts and troubleshooting procedures. "It's quicker," he explains. "They can print it out and take it over to the car they're working on."

Kevin Fisher, who teaches physics and principles of technology, says online contacts with live experts can be as important as access to banks of information. "Especially around here," he says, "no one thinks of physics as a job opportunity."

Demographically, the York Institute student body (about 630 students) is typical of those in other rural, economically distressed counties. For much of its history, the school's performance indicators were low. "Ten or 15 years ago," says Doug Young, York Institute superintendent, "we were battling to get up to the state averages."

Today the York Institute is near the desirable end of every performance curve. During the 1997–98 school year, ACT scores for the school's college-bound students exceeded both the statewide average and the still higher national averages. Moreover, Tennessee's state goals for the Year 2000 include an average daily attendance of 93 percent or higher; dropout rates of 10 percent or lower; and competency test passing rates of 90 percent or higher. The actual numbers at York Institute last year were attendance, 94.2 percent; dropout rate, 2.1 percent; and competency test passage, an almost perfect 99.3 percent.

No one attributes these achievements to technology alone. Young and Delk emphasize staff dedication and creativity, block scheduling, and commitment to standards-based instruction, especially in math and science. But the integration of technology across the curriculum plays a strong supporting role.

Moreover, it's part of an expanding system.

In 1992, a five-county coalition for economic development called the Visions Five Group decided that the area's growth required an educational network capable of handling interactive instructional video and other high-bandwidth applications. They established a nonprofit corporation dubbed ExCEED (for "Excellence in Community Education and Economic Development"). An ARC grant helped them create a fiber-optic network connecting all secondary and post-secondary schools in Clay, Fentress, Jackson, Overton, and Pickett Counties, including the York Institute. (Other partners included the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Tennessee Departments of Labor and Education; local schools raised $200,000 for the project.)

The network is now used extensively for adult education, conferencing, teacher training, and dual-credit (both high school and community college) courses. It continues to grow. In January 1999, ExCEED established interconnectivity with Tennessee Technological University's ISDN V-Tel system, which gives participating schools the ability to teleconference anywhere.

In the parable of "the talents," two stewards, working with differing levels of assets, earn equal praise for multiplying their resources. A third steward, who avoids risk and tries only to preserve the status quo, ends by losing everything. That story seems applicable to Appalachian schools and the Internet.

In Ohio's Morgan County, schools, teachers, and students are doing a remarkable job with the tools available to them. They've cobbled together Internet-capable computers from hand-me-down equipment. They've helped create an ISP, which is an asset to the entire community. They're in the process of teaching themselves how to squeeze every possible benefit from new technology. Spence's vision of that "equal playing field" may still be far from reality, but it's a vision that's driving a lot of constructive change.

At Tennessee's York Institute, payoffs from earlier vision and investments have begun to materialize in the form of high performance records and student test scores that exceed not merely state and regional averages, but national averages.

Asked about lessons learned, Kathy Lewis, president of ExCEED, replies without hesitation: "Make your infrastructure big enough for the future."

"That's Rule Number One," Young says. "Rule Number Two is, 'Train your people.' If you don't have trained people, the system won't be used."

Delk, the school's technology coordinator, immediately adds: "And that means continuous training. The system is constantly changing. Everything you do must be tied to student achievement. In rural areas our students have the same dreams as anyone else. The Internet is a means of preparing them to meet their goals."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.