Nerve Center

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The wet blanket of tropical air carries the threat of an off-shore hurricane as Michael Kint ushers a visitor into the converted church that serves as the headquarters of Vetrol Data Systems. Sitting behind a desk, lights blinking and wires curling and spiraling to the floor, IRENE sits patiently, waiting for rush hour on the information highway.

About 30 minutes after school lets out, the telephones start ringing, followed by the electronic squawk of modems, as students across Indian River County gear up to engage in electronic chat sessions. From the keyboards of their home computers, some tap out messages about schoolwork, some about boyfriends and girlfriends, and some just "lurk" and listen.

IRENE, or the Indian River Education Network, is an electronic bulletin board system that since 1992 has allowed students, teachers, and parents in this Atlantic coastal town to use their home computers to retrieve bus schedules, read the agendas of school board meetings, and collect class schedules posted on the system.

But officials say that what IRENE is today is just a shadow of what she'll be in the months and years ahead, thanks to a grant from the federal government. In fact, IRENE's capabilities literally grow by the day, as new high-speed modems are added to the system, a user-friendly graphical interface is grafted onto the network, electronic-mail capabilities are beefed up, and the local system gets tied into the Internet. The improvements are all aimed at making what local administrators call the "Indian River idea" a reality.

"We really view this as an information utility for the community," says Kint, the director of the federal grant that supports IRENE via a server maintained here at Vetrol. "It would be great if everyone used it every day."

By harnessing such technologies as e-mail, Internet search engines, and even cable television, educators predict that IRENE will one day become a bridge between the classroom and the greater community. As such, the electronic bulletin board will help link schools, homes, local government, and social-service agencies.

District administrators also hope IRENE will dramatically expand the temporal limits of the school day.

As part of a pilot project at Highlands Elementary School, for example, consultant Jackson K. McAfee and a team of teachers are developing a system to create individual learning plans for students that would tell parents exactly what it is their children should be concentrating on to succeed in school. And e-mail makes it easier for teachers to stay in touch with parents about everything from homework assignments to concerns about student performance.

McAfee, the district's former director of information services, says eventually teachers will be able to load the learning plans onto IRENE for ready access any time of the day or night. What's more, students will be able to log on, monitor their academic progress against their own personalized plan, and find the resources they need to complete their school assignments.

As part of the project, an inventory of educational resources on the Internet specifically appropriate to the district's curriculum is also under development. "Think of how much better that is than just having kids roam around and find out what's out there on their own," McAfee says.

Moreover, because IRENE allows every school in the district to communicate with each other and with the school system's central administration via e-mail, teachers could share exemplary lesson plans at will.

"We know that good teachers have good lesson plans," McAfee says. "With IRENE, we can make that knowledge available to everyone in the county."

Agricultural Roots

Vero Beach sits on Florida's "Space Coast," about an hour south of Cape Canaveral; close enough that residents can clearly hear the nearby roar of orbit-bound space shuttles.

The local newspaper operates a sophisticated home page on the Internet's World Wide Web that offers glimpses of everything from local entertainment listings to census figures. But Indian River County itself, as IRENE's developers note, is an agricultural mecca in the heart of the nation's citrus-producing region. Not far from the neatly laid-out streets of Vero Beach proper, sometimes just a block away from the city line, drivers emerge into a grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets that serve as the boundaries for hundreds of thousands of acres of orange and grapefruit groves.

The agricultural roots make IRENE and its connection to the Internet a lifeline to educational resources that locals didn't even dream of a generation ago. "This is a rural county," McAfee notes. "There's no major research university for miles around."

But IRENE and the Internet bring the world to residents' living rooms and open the borders of Indian River County to the globe. On a recent visit to a cafe in Oslo, Norway, a local businessman found out just how small the "global village" is becoming. "The owner had set up some computers, so I SAT down and logged onto IRENE," says Peter G. Robinson, who heads up the Indian River Education Foundation, a community group set up to provide computers to underprivileged students. "I thought that was really great."

The Indian River idea might have remained largely an unfulfilled dream had the district not received a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce as part of a program aimed at developing what the Clinton administration has dubbed the National Information Infrastructure.

Vice President Gore, in a January 1994 speech to representatives of the telecommunications industry, made explicit the administration's challenge to cable-television, telephone, cellular, and other communications companies to connect every classroom to advanced telecommunications. He spoke of the administration's belief that telecommunications can "give every American, young and old, the chance for the best education available to anyone, anywhere."

Both Gore and President Clinton have stressed that the responsibility for building and deploying the NII lies with the private sector. But the administration has mounted several pilot programs to make more explicit the promise of technology.

Funding for IRENE came from the department's National Information and Telecommunications Administration through its Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program. The first round of TIIAP grants, which were awarded in the fall of 1994, attracted more than 1,070 applications from 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. The grant requests totaled more than $560 million.

In the end, the TIIAP awarded a total of $24.4 million to 92 projects in 45 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and generated more than $43 million in matching funds.

In Indian River County, the $185,000 grant, one of the only grants made in the initial round to a Florida district, has allowed a more rapid expansion of IRENE than anyone here envisioned.

In addition to technological upgrades to IRENE, other recent developments include:

  • The district has placed public-access computer terminals in county libraries to allow users to log on to IRENE. The public library's card catalog will also be available on-line so patrons will be able to browse the stacks electronically at their leisure.
  • Two teachers, with the help of their students, have produced a 30-minute videotape presentation that introduces users to the basic concepts of how to use IRENE and the advantages of telecomputing. The program has aired on the local cable-television access channel and is expected to be the first in a series of educational programs about IRENE, the Internet, and related topics.
  • The district offered poor minority middle school students the chance to enroll in a pilot on-line math course. Students received a basic background in telecomputing and loaner computers, courtesy of local businesses, for the calendar year so they could access IRENE and communicate by e-mail. Alumni members of Alpha Kappa Alpha national sorority who live in the area have volunteered as mentors for students in the program.
  • In cooperation with community organizations, the local cable-television franchise, and the local hospital, the district has organized several town meetings to introduce the community to IRENE.

Reality Check

Strong doses of reality have, nonetheless, tempered IRENE's successes. One issue to rear its head is how to ensure equitable access to the network among the largest group of students possible--regardless of family income or socioeconomic status.

Although common library terminals do provide one means of public access, Robinson from the Indian River Education Foundation is encouraging local businesses to offer services and equipment to students to help close the equity gap. "We're considering asking them to take an elementary school and give every 5th grader a computer," he says. "Their contributions wouldn't necessarily be monetary; it could be to donate computers."

Far more seriously, the district learned in November that it would not receive a second Commerce Department grant to expand IRENE's capabilities to deliver multimedia curriculum materials into schools and homes.

Using such a system, students could access their individual learning plans from IRENE and then track down reference materials they needed to complete the assignment on-line from local media centers and the Internet. At Sebastian River High School, for example, a state-of-the-art center that opened less than two years ago allows students to go to the library and retrieve a variety of information from a bank of computer terminals loaded with CD-ROM-based software and Internet connections. But the hope was to deliver those resources into students' homes via cable-television lines through a partnership with neighboring St. Lucie County.

"Not everyone has a computer," Robinson says. "But almost everyone has cable television and a VCR."

But without more federal funding, such plans are on hold indefinitely. Kint, who directed the project under the first-round grant, has taken another job with a local community agency. "There are just no resources available right now to pursue this," says district spokeswoman Linda Kern.

But despite the funding setbacks and an uncertain future, IRENE still offers a valuable service to area students, both past and present.

Wendy Lee, a former Indian River County student who's now a sophomore at Dartmouth College, uses IRENE through a university Internet link to keep in touch with family and friends back home. The prospective special-education teacher noted in an e-mail correspondence that she's also a "keypal" with students at Citrus Elementary School. "It's interesting to hear from younger children," she wrote. "And I think it is good for them to hear a bit about college."

IRENE, she adds, "first introduced me to the world of telecommunications."

The resources mentioned in this story can be reached at the following Internet addresses:
IRENE: /irc/home.html

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