Few schools in the United States are more remote than the 18-student K-12 Qugcuun Memorial School in Oscarville, Alaska. There are no roads into the western Alaska village, except in winter when visitors use the frozen Kuskokwim River as an ice path, and the only other way to access the community is via prop, or propeller, planes. But even those tiny airplanes must land on a runway located on the far side of the river, which means that when the Kuskokwim is flowing, the village, like much of Alaska, is cut off from the outside world.
Despite that isolation—and despite the fact that the school has just three teachers on site—the students at Qugcuun Memorial still have access to geometry and biology classes taught by highly qualified teachers, as well as up-to-date electives like digital photography.
Students owe that kind of educational access, in part, to the efforts of Dan Walker, 53, an assistant superintendent at the 4,000-student Lower Kuskokwim school district.
He has steadily increased the number of distance-learning courses taught by certified teachers through the use of videoconferencing technology, the type of technology available to students and teachers even in the most remote areas of the district, and has strengthened the reliability and durability of the infrastructure that makes it all work. And he’s done it with limited funds in a district where 90 percent of the population lives at or below the federal poverty level.
“Technology becomes an equalizer for kids in these small, remote communities,” Mr. Walker said. “I saw the Internet and technology as a way to bring down those barriers and to get kids a broader experience and access to the wider world.”
‘Be That Pioneer’
In the Lower Kuskokwim school system, even the district hub of Bethel, which has about 6,000 residents, is inaccessible by road. Airplanes supply the main connections to other areas. But the district now has high-tech teleconferencing studios in Bethel, where teachers like Andrea Pokrzywinski hold class in front of cameras. She can see her students and her students, who may be in several different schools, can see and interact with her and with each other. Ms. Pokrzywinski, who teaches high school science, can demonstrate science experiments and use her laptop to control the interactive whiteboards in the students’ classrooms. Over the past few years, she said, Mr. Walker has added classes for students and increased their technology capabilities with 1-to-1 laptop or tablet programs in many schools.
A hallmark of the way he operates, she said, is starting with a good idea and then finding a way to make it happen—and troubleshooting when issues arise.
“Dan is not afraid to just try something and to be that pioneer on the edge,” she said.
Students can now take a variety of classes, including instruction in the native Alaskan Yup’ik language, that they wouldn’t have had access to without the videoconferencing system. It has been upgraded in the past few years with additional cameras, allowing for more classes. With 27 schools in the district, 60 cameras may be running for courses at once, Mr. Walker said.
And students are getting access to electives as well: digital photography, e-journalism, and robotics are popular. Those courses connect students to the rest of the country and open up opportunities for them, Mr. Walker said. The robotics course, for example, is taught from Bethel, and the supplies needed are transported to schools via plane. Students participate in robotics competitions hundreds and thousands of miles away. Teams from Lower Kuskokwim have even advanced to state, regional, and world competitions in recent years.
But none of that can succeed without a dependable technology network, Mr. Walker said, which is a challenge in rural Alaska. He has worked to transform the district’s technology network from a satellite-based Internet system to a land-based delivery system to improve reliability.
“When you’re in a regular classroom and you need to pause, you can move on to something different,” he said. “When you’re in a live videoconferencing class, your technology has to work. If there’s a 10- or 15-second problem, things can snowball from there.”
Mr. Walker is proud of his district’s 100-megabit Internet connection, which has come at a “tremendous effort” and costs about $20 million a year. But with reimbursement from the federal E-rate program, which helps provide connectivity to low-income districts, Lower Kuskokwim pays only about $2.5 million annually for the Internet services, he said.
Access for All
Even while he was working through issues with satellite and terrestrial Internet, Mr. Walker was persistent in making sure students in remote areas got connected so they could have many of the high-quality educational offerings others get, said Pamela Lloyd. The senior director at GCI SchoolAccess, the Anchorage, Alaska-based telecommunications company that provides services to the district, Ms. Lloyd has worked closely with Mr. Walker. “He pushed an investment in broadband to offer high-quality videoconferencing to every student, no matter their zip code,” she said. “His vision was about bringing equity to the students.”
And Mr. Walker is not afraid to experiment, Ms. Lloyd said. He’s looking to introduce more blended learning opportunities and asynchronous student-teacher experiences. And he’s integrating tablets into district offerings, which he’s found to work well with students.
“For many of these students, their first language is Yup’ik, and partly because of those language issues, they’re very visual learners,” Mr. Walker said. “When you stick an iPad or a laptop in their hands, they’re very savvy with using the technology.
“Kids who may feel disengaged with some of the traditional classes, when you put the technology in their hands, it gets them excited, and they tend to do better.”
Mr. Walker isn’t just guessing at what will work with students. He’s spent 23 years in the district, first teaching in a village school, then eight years as a principal, and the past six as an assistant superintendent. When working in the village schools, Mr. Walker, whose wife also spent many years in the district as a teacher and now works in the main office, said he declared he would never move to Bethel or work out of the district office, because he valued his experiences in the smaller schools.
“I learned never to say never,” he said, adding that the opportunity to bring his vision to more students was too hard to pass up. “I am so passionate about finding ways to get kids access to technology.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week