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Computer Network Will Link West Virginia Schools by 1986

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Some 45 vocational-education schools in West Virginia have started a computer-education program that officials say will result within two years in the first statewide instructional network in the nation.

State education officials this spring are seeking $2.7 million from the legislature to add 38 more vocational schools and high schools to the network. The officials say they will try to include all of the state's 301 high schools in the network by next year.

In part because of its promise for linking resources in the low-wealth, mountainous state, the network will assist in meeting the requirements of the master plan to equalize educational quality that the state was ordered to develop following a state judge's 1982 ruling that West Virginia's school-finance system was unconstitutional.

Under a blueprint drawn up by the state education department, all of West Virginia's 1,196 public schools could become part of the network by the 1985-86 school year. All of the computers in each school would be linked to each other as well as to those in other schools around the state and in the homes of teachers and students.

John Cook, the director of the West Virginia project, said it eventually would cost $75 million--or about $66,000 for each of the state's elementary and secondary schools. Each school will operate centers with 20 personal computers manufactured by the International Business Machines Corporation.

First Broad Network

Experts in the use of educational technology have begun to urge schools to tie their microcomputers into networks. Teachers and students in networks, the experts say, are able to use the computers as a sophisticated medium for working with each other and correcting each others' mistakes.

A number of computer specialists said they did not know of any other large-scale computer network now in use or under development in public-school systems. The only analogous innovation is the "local area network," which links computers within a single school, said Daniel Levin, editor of a school-computer newsletter published by the National School Boards Association.

The Florida legislature in 1982 approved a plan to establish a "Florida Information Resources Network" that would link all 67 school districts in the state via computer, but that system is not expected to be in place for about three years. "The legislature was frustrated with getting data" about schools and "they wanted something where you could sit down at a terminal and retrieve data from all 67 districts," said Francis Watson, a computer consultant for the state education department. "While the initial focus is to address administrative needs," he said, the network could be used for instructional programs after it is completed.

A firm based in Fairfax, Va., this month reported that it was negotiating with the government of Bermuda to install a computer network that would include all students on the island. That system could be in place by the 1985-86 school year, an officer of the firm said.

Terry Herndon, the former executive director of the National Education Association and now the director of a market study for the National Information Utilities Corporation, said education officials from several states also had indicated an interest in developing classroom computer networks. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1983.)

The Network's Features

Once the West Virginia network is completed, the computers will provide access to instructional programs in all subjects and to a statewide "bulletin board" that will disseminate news and guidelines about curriculum and other school issues. Eventually, teachers and students will be able to work directly with their counterparts in other schools, officials said.

In addition to a library of instructional software that the state will develop, students will have access to three major "applications" programs. They will be able use a word-processing program to write, a database-management program to arrange and store information, and a "spreadsheet" program to analyze the way all variables in a set of data are affected by changes in some of the variables.

"What happens is that you start with a computer network and end up with a student network," said Morton Lord, a consultant to the state education department. "There is a camaraderie that develops [in the classroom], and somehow the students realize that it's O.K. to see what others are doing and it's O.K. to be working together."

Experts in the school-computer industry said they reacted favorably to the West Virginia plan but warned that the schools must be flexible in setting up the network.

Teachers must abandon a tendency to control all of the students' activities in the classroom, said Henry Jay Becker, the director of a national survey on computer use in schools conducted at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at The Johns Hopkins University. But he agreed that the use of word-processing programs in a network could give students incentive to write and to seek help from other students.

"If you have a program in the machine that allows kids to see what other kids have written and add their own comments, that gives them a reason for writing," Mr. Becker said. But if the teacher insists on controlling the students' activities, he said, students will not get a chance to work together and "it won't be a network."

Because the state plans to put the network into place but to leave decisions about curriculum and school organization to the schools, the network's success will be determined on a "school-by-school basis," predicted Marc C. Tucker, director of the Project on Information Technology.

"The question that leaps to my mind is, what are they going to do with the curriculum?" said Mr. Tucker. "Planning takes a good deal of effort, school by school. The answers aren't going to fit neatly into the curriculum."

Planning and Funding

The state has already installed computers at 45 vocational-education schools, and 25 of the schools are using the networks. The state legislature last summer approved a $750,000 budget appropriation and the use of $1 million in funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a quasi-governmental federal agency. The state also allocated to the effort $1.2 million in federal funds awarded to the state under the Job Training Partnership Act.

The West Virginia Board of Education has requested an additional $1.5 million in state funding and authority to use an additional $1.2 million in funds from the Appalachian agency. Those funds would enable the state to provide computers for an additional 26 vocational schools and 12 high schools by July 1.

State officials have not decided how much money they will seek next year, but they say they will ask for enough money to establish computer networks at the state's remaining 289 secondary schools. Education officials say they may seek funds next year for centers at the state's 824 elementary schools.

Project's Origins

The network's plan is the result of a study by a 12-member committee appointed by State Superintendent Roy Truby. After the committee made its major recommendations in June 1982, 10 companies bid for the rights to develop the system. The department selected ibm last year.

The state chose ibm, according to officials, because of the company's offers of 12- to 20-percent discounts and free servicing and because the company is expected to dominate the microcomputer industry. (Consultants to the project say ibm will account for about half of the world computer market by next year.) The computer firm also agreed to provide free training for teachers in the use of the system.

Owners of any make of computer will be able to gain access to the bulletin boards developed by the state and by local school districts, state officials said. Most "ibm-compatible" computers will be able to gain access to and copy the interactive programs that will be stored at a central location in the state.

The committee recommended starting the network in the vocational schools in order to qualify for federal training funds allocated to depressed areas by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the jtpa, Mr. Cook said.

The committee also called for extensive use of applications programs "to provide vocational students with familiarity with things computers are used for in business," said Samuel Tully, the computer coordinator for the Fayette County Schools.

Expansion Seen

Most schools are expected to expand their local network beyond the 20 machines funded by the state. The schools' special hard-disk drives--recently developed devices that link the computers in the school and greatly expand their power--will accommodate 64 machines.

Even with only 20 machines, most students would be able to spend enough time using the computer to learn about its major uses, said people involved with the project.

"There is an excitement that is generated, and when the youngsters show an interest in computers, there are usually enough adults willing'' to supervise the computer laboratory after school hours, said Mr. Lord, the head of the computer science and technology division at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. Mr. Lord said the division owns only eight microcomputers but students used them at least 45 minutes 6,000 times during a school year.

Although the experimental network is being launched in the states' vocational schools, officials stressed that its instructional applications will reach throughout the curriculum. Students will be able to use the word-processing program for any course that requires writing, they pointed out. The students will be able to use the spreadsheet and database programs for organizing information used in history, English literature, and science classes, and for analyzing statistical information in mathematics and science classes.

As important as those applications, officials said, will be students' cooperative efforts. Both students and teachers will be able to see the work of others in a class--a capability that Mr. Tully said already has resulted in students forming "subcultures" in the classroom. "The level of interaction among these kids is amazing," he said.

Added Mr. Lord: "As far as I'm concerned, networking is vital. Schools simply cannot continue to function without sharing their resources. Within the next year or two or three, all schools will be networked.''

Cost Savings

Other advantages of the networking approach, those involved with the project said, include a decrease in the need for "peripheral" equipment such as printers; more cost-effective repair and replacement of parts; the ability to focus on software development, equipment discounts with mass purchasing, a simpler teacher-training program, and use of the bulletin board.

"The bulletin board sounds innocuous enough, but ultimately that is some fantastic way for bringing teachers together," said Mr. Tully. ''They can trade tests and curriculum ideas. Anything can happen--it's one of those wild-card things."

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