The highway heading east from Sioux City is ruler-straight, with little on either side but miles and miles of barren Iowa cornfields covered in snow. Only the 18-wheelers bowling down the four-lane road, which soon narrows to two lanes, interrupt the monotony.
It’s not the kind of landscape that brings in many visitors. Or, for that matter, teachers.
Though Iowa schools are the pride of their communities and compare well nationally in achievement, “math and science teachers are hard to come by” in the more rural areas, says Kenneth J. McKenna, the principal of Battle Creek/Ida Grove Senior High School, located about a half-hour’s drive off the main drag.
Specialty courses such as Advanced Placement classes or foreign languages are even more of a problem. Even when teachers are available to teach such subjects, there aren’t always enough interested students to justify paying their salaries, says McKenna, whose school enrolls about 300 students in grades 9-12.
That’s one reason he’s thankful for the Iowa Communications Network, the only completely state-owned and -operated telecommunications network in the nation. The fiber-optic network allows schools to communicate not only over the Internet, but also by television-quality video and audio.
This year, Battle Creek/Ida Grove and three other nearby high schools are using the ICN to share about 10 televised courses--including psychology, AP U.S. history, advanced speech, calculus, languages, and a college-credit medical-professions course--that would be impossible for each school to offer separately. In cases where a televised course duplicates one that another school offers, it helps students accommodate jam-packed schedules.
“It makes so much sense to be sharing. All of a sudden, I can offer one course and get seven back,” McKenna says.
While schools in many states receive televised courses, mostly via satellite broadcast, no other state has promoted interactive televised instruction, and underwritten it, like Iowa has.
“It’s a demonstration to the country of what can happen in a fairly small, rural state to provide equitable opportunities,” says Pamela A. Pfitzenmaier, who, as the director of educational telecommunications at Iowa Public Television, coordinates the educational activities of the ICN.
Since 1989, when construction of the ICN began, 340 schools have installed interactive classrooms that allow them to carry live, two-way video teleconferences for a bargain-basement line charge of $5.25 an hour, a cost that is heavily subsidized by the state. And schools can often arrange to use more than 200 interactive sites at area education agencies, libraries, colleges and universities, and National Guard armories.
As a result, Iowa is uniquely positioned to take advantage of what some educators predict will be the next big instructional trend in K-12 schools: distance learning.
For years, rural schools have received television-based classes broadcast by satellite or cable TV. Now the Internet, via World Wide Web sites and e-mail, and interactive television are allowing new forms of distance learning.
Internet-based courses tend to be “asynchronous,” meaning they don’t involve simultaneous interaction between teachers and students. Many experts believe this approach is more appropriate for adult learners than teenagers. The Internet can transmit real-time “compressed” video, but it is usually of poor quality.
Interactive television, meanwhile, offers an immediate means of communication that allows teachers and students to respond to each other almost as if they were in the same classroom.
Experts disagree over whether interactive television or the Internet will prove more successful in the long run. Fortunately for Iowa schools, the ICN gives them both options.
Iowa schools have taken to the icn with greater enthusiasm every year. Last fall semester, K-12 schools in the state used their interactive classrooms for a total of 30,907 classroom hours--up from 22,821 classroom hours in the fall of 1997. (A one-hour class transmitted to five schools is counted as five classroom hours.)
At the same time, most observers agree that the network’s potential has barely begun to be tapped, and many schools’ interactive rooms are only occasionally used.
The course-sharing arrangement in western Iowa is one of the ICN’s success stories. Four years ago, after Battle Creek/Ida Grove installed one of the first school ICN labs in the state, McKenna and Superintendent Joe Graves noticed the equipment was collecting dust.
“It was sitting there idle most of the time,” McKenna recalls. “It seemed like a $50,000 white elephant.”
The district had no budget for purchasing video courses from out-of-state colleges or commercial distance-learning providers. So in 1996, McKenna wrote letters to other high schools in northwest Iowa, inviting them to start a course-sharing league over the ICN.
The deal was simple: Any school that provided a course, free, to the others would be entitled to any and all other courses at no expense. Their only cost would be the ICN’s hourly line charge.
Since 1996, the league has been as large as five schools. Currently, it’s four.
“The more the merrier,” McKenna says. More schools means more options, and more ways to get a good match between school calendars, class schedules, and subject-area needs.
The shared courses take place in each school’s interactive classroom. In each room, three large-screen television sets are mounted high on the walls. There are also three video cameras, one at the back of the room trained on the teacher, one at the front aimed at the students’ rows of tables, and one mounted on the ceiling above the teacher’s table to take images of documents.
A computer on the desk allows the teacher in charge to choose camera shots that all the classrooms will receive. Students share desktop microphones; the teacher usually uses a clip-on mike. A telephone and a fax machine complete the setup.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Battle Creek/Ida Grove is the sending school for AP U.S. History. Nine 11th and 12th graders share the same room with Kate Kramer, the teacher, while the class’s nine other students--visible on 32-inch television screens--report from Woodbury Central, Maple Valley, and Rockwell City high schools, up to 65 miles away.
Today’s lesson is a classic--the causes of the Civil War--and the method is fairly traditional. Students in small groups mull over questions on a worksheet, writing down their answers before discussing them as a class.
To students at the receiving schools, Kramer is more than a remote video presence. She calls on them by name, and on this day tosses them questions at about the same rate as to those in the room with her. Just to be sure not to miss someone, she occasionally draws a tongue depressor bearing a student’s name from a well-riffled stack of them in her hand. To that student she directs her next question.
“Can anybody help them out?” she asks into a video camera, when the Maple Valley High School students falter at defining the “gag laws” passed by Southern states. The answer comes from the trio at Woodbury Central.
“I had some anxiety about teaching on television at first,” Kramer says later. “But I love it now.”
During second period, Nate Werneburg, a senior, is the only student using the ICN room at Battle Creek/Ida Grove. He is taking Speech II from Maple Valley. An adult’s presence is required by the league’s informal rules, so an uncertified aide takes a seat at the front of the room; she will help if needed.
It’s perhaps not the most efficient use of the aide’s time, but the course credit will allow Werneburg, 18, to graduate a semester early, a week before he reports to the U.S. Navy.
Werneburg says the class--the first he has taken online--has been a good experience, with a fine teacher that he otherwise never would have known. “This is one of my funner classes,” he says. “I learned to give an after-dinner speech.”
Later that day, and 45 miles away in the town of Moville, Woodbury Central High is getting its turn to send a course out to the other schools in the league--in this case a medical-professions course taught by Tom Chartier.
Chartier, a 50-year-old with a wry smile, leads 17 students--all girls--in a review before the semester final, in Woodbury’s sleek interactive-video classroom.
Ten of those students appear on 50-inch screens on the wall, from Ida Grove. They discuss the rules of medical documentation and the medical definitions of “abandonment” and “cryonics” and traits of a health-care provider.
The yearlong class is especially valuable to the students because it will earn them college credit. Chartier, who is college-certified, teaches the combined class only two days a week over the ICN. Then a teacher in Ida Grove leads the students at that school the rest of the week. But all the students are eligible for college credit from Western Iowa Tech Community College.
Chartier, who has taught for 28 years, says the video classes took some getting used to, starting with figuring out how to control the cameras so students in the remote classrooms saw what he wanted them to see on their screens. He has learned through experience, with the help of a training session at Western Iowa Tech two years ago.
Teachers need two things to make the arrangement work, Chartier says. First, the equipment has to function reliably, which requires solid technical support. Second, the teacher needs to release his grip on the airwaves.
Chartier says that when he first started using video, he felt as though he had to be presenting information all the time. But now he permits silences so students can make notes or think, and he leaves five minutes at the end of class for students to chat with one another.
Perhaps because of such efforts, Chartier says the remote students perform equally with those in his actual classroom. But he does say the students who aren’t in the room need special qualities. “People who succeed have to be strong in comprehension, reading, and have good listening skills,” he says. “Without that, there could be a little bit of trouble. They have to be able to focus on a screen.”
One complaint some observers have about Iowa’s distance education classes is that they don’t take advantage of the technology to teach in innovative ways. Teachers often provide information in standard lecture style, with the usual questions and discussions one would find in any traditional classroom.
Pfitzenmaier of Iowa Public Television says that’s partly a limitation of the network’s current architecture.
She says technical changes being planned will eventually--pending state funding--allow compressed video to go to individual desktop computers throughout a school, which should support a whole range of educational software and alternative approaches.
Yet ICN administrators say that lecture and discussion are still efficient and effective ways to present material, and that the schools also have computer labs that permit a range of other learning methods.
In the meantime, McKenna tries to place above-average or better-motivated students into the classes at Ida Grove.
Superintendent Graves, who has taught a graduate class over the ICN, says, “Even with graduate students it’s much easier to lose the student, much easier [for him or her] to escape mentally.”
Distance learning also requires a special type of teacher, McKenna says. It’s challenging to keep track of papers and grades for students at all the sites as well as to orchestrate everyone’s active participation in class, so flexibility and organizational skills are crucial, he says.
The biggest hassles of course sharing, in practical terms, are the schedule and calendar conflicts, Iowa educators say.
“This is a kind of a pain to set up and do,” Graves admits.
“A lot of people are letting pretty small things keep [them] from sharing, like their schedule’s three minutes apart,” says Jim Christensen, the distance-learning coordinator for the Western Hills Area Education Agency, which serves the state school system’s Area 12 in western Iowa.
The key to success, school officials agree, is flexibility. To accommodate schedule differences between schools, Battle Creek/Ida Grove students who are taking ICN classes are often allowed to leave their previous classes five minutes early or arrive late.
Early periods of the school day are easier to schedule with other schools. By lunch, often the trickiest time of day to schedule, “you can just about forget it,” Principal McKenna says.
Schools that haven’t been able to work things out as flexibly as Battle Creek/Ida Grove can use the ICN for limited projects and for special events.
For example, Christensen ar-ranged a series of live question-and-answer sessions last fall between students in Iowa classrooms and astronauts at NASA’s Johnston Space Center near Houston. For each hour-long session, he says, participating classes spent about 10 hours of preparation and study.
And a 5th grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Sioux City has used the ICN to visit with pen pals in an elementary school in Wales. Once a month, Lisa Frink’s students go to a nearby National Guard Armory building that has an interactive-video room and talk with the Welsh students. They have written a story together and shared cultural lore. Before the December holidays, the students did a statistical study of the most desired Christmas gifts; they found that electronic toys and Barbies topped the wish lists at both schools.
Yet Frink is the only teacher at Lincoln using the ICN. This is the first year the school has had access to the network.
The Iowa Department of Education, the ICN schedulers in the state’s 12 area education agencies, and the community colleges are trying to increase use of the network by helping schools match up with one another. Iowa Public Television maintains the Iowa Database, a Web site that posts the ICN’s master schedule as well as educational “want ads” from schools looking for offerings, say, of Russian language, or scores of online field trips and joint class activities, some of them sponsored by state or federal grants.
“Short of developing a common schedule, that’s about the best you can do,” Rich Gross, a technology consultant for the state education department, says.
McKenna notes that standardization and cooperation do not come easily to Iowa, which is so committed to local school autonomy that it has defied the nationwide trend toward state curriculum standards.
“The only way to make it really work is for everyone to have the same calendar and the same schedule--and that will never happen in Iowa--or at least that’s the only way to make it work better,” McKenna says.
Battle Creek/Ida Grove Senior High has been successful, he says, because “we work hard trying to find people that are compatible.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Going the Distance