Taking the E-Mail Train

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From a computer terminal in his office on the edge of the Everglades, Samuel A. Blank can notify principals about potential school closings or discuss the status of a purchase order with administrators at any school in the sprawling Dade County, Fla., district.

With the use of an electronic-mail system built into the district's mainframe computer, communication with the county's 300 schools and 100 other district facilities spread out over hundreds of square miles is as simple as entering a password and tapping on a keyboard.

While many administrators in Dade County still rely on the printed word to conduct business, says Mr. Blank, the manager of information services for the district, such "E-mail'' is heavily used for everything from posting job vacancies to sending memos.

In fact, he says, administrators log millions of E-mail transactions annually, making the electronic-communication function one of the computer network's most frequent uses.

But for the district's 15,000 teachers, the ability to reach out beyond their classrooms electronically to share lesson plans or instructional strategies is far more limited.

Out of the Loop

The district operates a separate E-mail and electronic-bulletin-board system that is open to teachers, students, and the public.

But that system is accessible at only 80 percent of the district's schools, usually through a single media center computer.

And, unlike the users of the administrative E-mail system, teachers are not required to monitor the system for messages, making use of the network a matter of personal choice and commitment.

The result, some observers say, is a two-tiered system of information access that reinforces classroom isolation.

Similar situations exist in many other districts, where the design of computer systems and the emphasis on providing administrators access to those systems have left classroom teachers out of the electronic loop.

Yet, teachers in Dade County and elsewhere are starting to enjoy access to the instantaneous national and international communications afforded by electronic mail that may not be readily available in their local districts. Some states, including Florida, have begun implementing statewide computer educational networks that include teachers, and commercial networks have begun offering services specifically for educators.

The trend could open classrooms to a broader world of electronic field trips and communication.

But overcoming teacher hesitancy and inexperience about telecommunications will require changing the culture that surrounds computers in education.

The Dade County district, the fourth largest in the nation, is a pioneer in facilitating electronic communications for instructional and administrative uses.

Computers have been extensively used in the district since at least the late 1970's in both administration and instruction.

And despite some shortcomings, the separate, countywide computer networks allow administrators, students, and teachers to have access to special-interest electronic bulletin boards as well as to communicate electronically across the district and the state.

Evolution in Computing

Nationally, according to a new international comparison of computer use in education, while U.S. schools are more likely to be equipped with computer networks than their international counterparts, only a few use the networks to foster electronic communication. Fewer than half of American schools are networked, and only 20 percent of those schools use their networks for electronic mail. (See Education Week, Dec. 15, 1993.)

In many ways, some Dade County officials note, access to electronic communications also reflects the evolution in educational computing that has gone on since the beginning of the Information Age.

Administrative E-mail systems are ubiquitous, they point out, because they are tied into the central mainframe computers that once represented the cutting edge of technology.

Only relatively recently have freestanding microcomputers become widespread in schools, and the technology to link them in the kinds of local networks needed to ease electronic communications is slowly following.

Meanwhile, for reasons mostly related to systems management and security, teachers seldom have access to administrative E-mail networks.

Less charitably, critics assert that restricting access to the administrative system is a vestige of the time before microcomputers, when computing power was largely in the hands of information-management professionals.

But Mr. Blank is quick to note that while there has never been a policy decision to exclude teachers from the Dade County network, neither has there been a large demand from teachers to use the system.

A 'Summer Project'

In contrast to the administrative network, which is supported by the district's information-management division, the teacher network is the brainchild of one man, Bruce Raskin, who started as a teacher in the district.

Seven years ago, Raskin began the countywide E-mail and electronic-bulletin-board system for teachers, students, and the public as "a summer project.''

At that time, he says, classroom computer use was in its infancy and only a few fledgling commercial on-line systems existed to provide information services to computer users.

"Could it be done? That was the idea of the summer project,'' he says.

Today, he says, the answer is a qualified "yes.''

The system has become more sophisticated and handles roughly 400 transactions a day, mostly during the peak afternoon hours. The pool of users fluctuates widely, though there is a core group of dedicated computer buffs.

"The E-mail is used a lot,'' Raskin says. "We find that the kids enjoy it the most. And the young kids really see a lot of ways to put it to use.''

Although he can monitor conversations on the system, he tries to protect privacy and is reluctant to offer a profile of the typical user.

But he says that teachers often exchange ideas about teaching style and curriculum, while students enjoy the interactive "chat feature'' that allows them to exchange messages almost as quickly as they can write them.

"It gives them a place where they can get messages about the things that they are interested in,'' Raskin says. "And, from an educational point of view, here, at least, they are willing to do some writing.''

He notes that use of the system has grown steadily and that the teachers' network is more user-friendly, and in some ways more advanced, than the administrative system.

Nonetheless, widespread access to computerized communications is still distant.

Planning is under way to develop an E-mail system that could reach all Dade County teachers through school-based local-area computer networks.

But such a system will take years to complete, officials say.

National Reach

Yet, even as districts such as Dade County wrestle with the idea of bringing teachers on line, several state education departments, including those in Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, have established computer networks that allow teachers to communicate electronically, often over the Internet, a vast international system of computer networks.

And some private concerns, mindful of research indicating that teachers are hungry for telecommunications services designed to break down classroom isolation, have begun to market specialized education products, many of which include an E-mail component.

One of the most successful state ventures is the Texas Education Network, or TENET, a joint project of the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas system.

The system is attractive to users, backers say, because it is user-friendly and because efforts are made to encourage teachers to sign on.

For a $5 annual fee, teachers statewide can log onto the network either from school or at home and gain access to an elaborate, virtually worldwide E-mail system as well as data bases and computer networks maintained by the U.S Education Department and other federal agencies.

A recent assessment of the network's first year found that users ranked private electronic mail as the feature of the TENET that they found most useful.

Perry Willis, who teaches advanced biology at Anderson High School in Austin, said he is a self-taught user and an aficionado of E-mail as a way to bring the world to his classroom.

Using E-mail, he has been able to keep up with research in science by posting requests for information on an electronic bulletin board.

"I can send one letter out and basically touch thousands of people,'' he says. "And a lot of those people are university researchers.''

Using the network's E-mail capability allows Willis to discuss teaching techniques and professional issues with teachers across the United States.

The firsthand communication has helped him realize that the problems he faces in the classroom are not unique to his school or to his state.

He also has found that his students enjoy communicating and solving problems with their counterparts across the United States and in other countries.

New Education Services

But even with the assistance and technical suppport of the state's Education Service Centers, which provide coaching and tutoring for users, the number of regular users of the system is small, Willis says, partly because of the time involved in learning and because some teachers are "technophobic.''

In Florida, Mr. Raskin notes, the mission of the teachers' network has shifted dramatically as telecommunciations has spread through society, moving the network to an instructional medium.

"Originally, we looked at it as a major information [source], because there were not other [bulletin] boards out there,'' he says.

In recent years, however, commercial on-line services have proliferated and the cost of using them has dropped dramatically.

"We've decided not to compete from an information point of view,'' Raskin says.

Many of these new services are aimed specifically at educators.

For example, Genentech Inc., an internationally known, San Francisco-based biotechnology firm, recently launched a computer network designed to help improve the teaching of high school biology.

Laura Leber, a Genentech spokeswoman who helped devise the Access Excellence network with advice from biology teachers, said the new network will include an on-line chat system to allow teachers to question working scientists--an unusual feature that was designed to satisfy teachers' needs for up-to-date information in their fields.

And Access Excellence will allow teachers to communicate electronically through a simple though sophisticated graphic interface.

"That's probably the core of it, conversing over the system,'' Leber says.

The bulletin boards and E-mail services that Raskin oversees in Dade County, while not as widely used as those in the administrative system, can be just as valuable a source of information as many national networks, says Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a district school board member.

A Daunting Task

"When I came to the board,'' she says, "and I realized we had a community bulletin board where teachers and students and people at large participated, I said, 'Wow!'''

The E-mail and bulletin boards, she notes, are among a variety of tools for keeping tabs on constituent concerns, including the needs and problems of students.

She is quick to observe, however, that it was a struggle to persuade the district to install a terminal at the school board's downtown office.

And, she adds, she is usually the only person who uses the terminal. That is partly because board members are busy and partly because the initial task of learning to navigate the system is daunting.

Castro-Feinberg had hoped that the relatively closed world of the E-mail system would provide a very private avenue for teachers to air their gripes and suggestions for improvement.

"That's one reason I sign on ... because I figure most teachers think that it's kind of impossible, or maybe not even permissible, to talk to their board members,'' she says. "But they would like to.''

She says, however, that teachers have not overwhelmingly adopted the E-mail approach and are not generally encouraged to do so.

Reaching Teachers

Teachers say that while there are those who use the bulletin-board services extensively, many teachers don't have the time or the expertise to use the system effectively and are left to learn on their own.

Carol Ballent, a teacher of gifted elementary school students at Dade County's Howard Drive Elementary School, says she initially was excited about the potential of electronic networking.

Not long after the system came on line in the mid-1980's, she began using E-mail to try to reach teachers and students at other district schools.

"Unfortunately, I didn't get a whole lot of response,'' she says. Gradually, her interest in telecommunications waned.

Yet, despite the discouragements, Ms. Ballent's school this year is serving as a test site for Classroom Prodigy, a new educational service of the Prodigy Services Company. And she is waiting eagerly to receive the name of the school somewhere in the United States that will be Howard Drive's electronic pen pal.

Ballent also has decided to learn how to access the Florida Information Network, a statewide system that she says may soon provide on-line information for elementary teachers.

She adds that, though her personal interest in learning to use the systems is minimal, she feels an obligation to insure that her students are equipped to work in an electronic world.

"It'll pay off for them in the long run,'' she says.

Vol. 13, Issue 16

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