Special Report
Classroom Technology

One State’s Digital Quest

By Rhea R. Borja — May 09, 2002 17 min read
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High school teacher Bobbi Maher slowly walks back and forth on the blue carpet of her classroom and peers at her first-year Spanish students. They wait patiently, their textbooks open before them. She stops and focuses on a brown-haired boy slouched over his desk. “Eduardo,” she asks in Spanish, “ cuál es tu deporte favorito?” (What’s your favorite sport?)

Junior Dante Miller, aka Eduardo, looks up at the image of Maher on the 36- inch television monitor in front of him and says, “Es el esquí.” (It’s skiing.) After a brief pause, his voice comes through clearly with the help of a small microphone.

“Bueno, excellente,” Maher responds, sending a smile at him over 60 miles of high-tech telecommunications wiring.

Of the 16 high school students in Maher’s Spanish class, 10 sit in her room at Timber Lake School in rural northwestern South Dakota. Five, including Miller, learn from a classroom more than an hour’s drive away in the hamlet of McIntosh, a stone’s throw from the North Dakota border. And the 16th youngster sits in Dupree, 51 miles south of Timber Lake on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

South Dakota, a rural state known to outsiders mostly as the site of Mount Rushmore, is one of the most wired in the country. New technology such as Maher’s interactive- videoconference class—an updated twist on old-school distance learning—is erasing boundaries and opening new avenues of learning for the state’s 729 public schools, 78 private schools, and 15 colleges and universities.

Now, students from tiny McIntosh, population 217, to 124,000-resident Sioux Falls can take classes over the Digital Dakota Network, the high-speed telecommunications backbone that supports Internet access, a growing online academic curriculum, and statewide online testing.

Meanwhile, teachers such as Maher—the only Spanish teacher for her district—can share experiences with other foreign-language teachers statewide via video-conferenced “staff meetings.” They can also get advanced degrees by taking classes over the DDN from Northern State University’s e-learning center or from other colleges. This North Central state also boasts of the high rate of computer access it gives students: At a ratio of one computer for every 2.4 students, South Dakota leads the nation.

Nearly all school districts throughout the country have Internet-accessible computers and other communications technology. But only a few states, such as South Dakota, can boast of a statewide network that links schools, colleges, libraries, and government agencies; offers interactive distance-learning with other schools and government agencies; and delivers online curricula and testing.

People outside South Dakota are starting to sit up and take notice. For the past two years, the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, a research and technology advisory institute, ranked the state first in a nationwide survey on how states use technology to benefit their citizens. And Gov. William J. Janklow received the Eagle Award from the United States Distance Learning Association for leading the technology charge in his state.

“They’re way ahead of the pack,” says Kathleen Clemens, the director of marketing and membership services for the distance-learning association, based in Needham, Mass. “We use South Dakota as the leading example of what can be done between the public and private [sectors] and getting people to work together.

“California has done some of this, and New Jersey,” she continues. “But I’m not aware of any [other] state that’s made as much noise and gotten the job done. That’s the key.”

Building a Digital Foundation

At first glance, South Dakota seems an unlikely nexus for new technology. No high-tech powerhouse like Microsoft has its headquarters here. You can drive for hours and see deer and bison, but not a single person. Many people in the small towns dotting the rolling prairie leave their doors unlocked, and some of their children still attend one- or two-room schoolhouses.

While its rural nature has positive aspects, it also makes citizens feel isolated, says Gov. Janklow, a Republican. Many school districts are spaced a good halfday’s drive from neighboring districts, and school football and other sports teams log hundreds of miles to get to their games. South Dakota’s rural nature has also proved to be a hard sell for schools trying to recruit and retain teachers.

The smallness of most schools is another factor. In a state where 171 of 176 districts have fewer than 100 high school students, educators traditionally haven’t been able to offer the variety of academic choices their counterparts in, say, Illinois or Florida take for granted. “We face a continuing decline in the number of teachers who will move to small-town America to teach,” Janklow says. “It’s not fair for a freshman in high school to take Spanish and then have that teacher quit.”

So, six years ago, the governor got busy. First, he brought together a “dream team” of tech-savvy folks such as South Dakota Secretary of Education Ray Christensen and Otto Doll, the state’s commissioner of information telecommunications, to help achieve his vision. He negotiated $12 million worth of highspeed wiring and technology services with the telephone company Qwest Communications Inc. and with SDN Communications, which represents 30 of the state’s rural cooperatives and independent phone companies.

Janklow got another $7 million in services such as broadband and videoconferencing access, and Webhosting and network support came from several universities and state agencies, says Jim Edman, the network-technology manager for the state office of information and telecommunications. The governor persuaded Qwest to throw in $17 million worth of audiovisual equipment as well.

“We have an advantage because we came in as their biggest consumer,” says Tammy Bauck, the program manager for the state education department’s office of technology.

Then Janklow laid the technology foundation by approving the installation of 11.5 million feet of Cat V wiring and 208,000 feet of fiber-optic cable throughout the state’s 76,000 square miles. The problem was the prohibitive cost. Estimates of the project on the open market ranged from $80 million to $100 million. So the governor had minimum-security inmates from the state prison upgrade the electrical infrastructure of South Dakota’s schools, colleges, and libraries. As a result, the wiring price tag came to $15 million.

The second phase started two years later, in 1998. Called “Connecting the Schools,” this second push brought truckloads of computers and other technology equipment to schools, colleges, and libraries. It produced the state’s network backbone, the DDN; and it saw the start of videoconferenced distance-learning classes from Aberdeen to Yankton. Here again, the governor proved to be a hard bargainer—at one point, buying 16,040 brand new Gateway and Apple computers for about $500 each.

“He’s a penny-pincher,” says Bob Mercer, the governor’s press secretary.

But all the fancy wiring and thousands of shiny new computers would all go to waste, Janklow and others realized, if teachers weren’t properly trained to use them. He nixed the traditional afterschool or one-day staff-development courses, saying such “10-hour quickie courses” provided only shallow training.

I’m not going to train them how to run software programs,” Janklow says of the state’s teachers. “You can train a monkey to do that.”

Instead, he started monthlong technology academies for teachers. Beginning in the summer of 1997, teachers from throughout the state have been gathering at colleges and other sites for a 200-hour program to improve their teaching using technology-rich lessons. As an incentive, teachers pocket a $1,000 stipend, plus another $1,000 to use for technology tools they use in their classes, including digital cameras, scanners, and software.

The program has proved popular: So far, about 40 percent of the state’s teachers have taken these “technology in teaching and learning” programs. Two other well-attended versions are geared toward school technology leaders and teachers interested in distance learning.

Higher education has not been left out. Over the past four years, the state has awarded about $4 million to more than 220 college instructors who want to use technology to improve student learning. The money pays the professors—at an average of $15,000—to work in the summer to make that happen.

One biology professor, for example, began an online dialogue between her students and college students in Germany and Mexico. She also assigned them to make digitized videos of laboratory techniques, which will be available over the Internet or on CD-ROM.

Northern State University also recently added a statewide e-learning center. At this college in Aberdeen, S.D., courses that aren’t usually offered in many public schools—such as physics, music, and Advanced Placement calculus—are taught over the Digital Dakota Network. Student-teachers, graduate education majors, and other college students can also obtain distance-technology internships, supplemented by on-site mentoring by teachers and university supervisors.

Over the years, Janklow has cut through bureaucratic red tape that delays and shrinks many wide-scale initiatives, and pushed the idea of technology-rich schools in speeches to the legislature, business leaders, and anyone else who would listen. And doing so has helped place South Dakota on the technology forefront, many people here and elsewhere say.

“We’re not a rich state, but we’ll do everything we can to get ourselves on top of the heap,” says Christensen, the education secretary.

Windows on the World

With a few clicks of his computer mouse, senior systems engineer Jon Christopherson unveils the world. As 150 students in videoconferencing rooms around the state watch attentively, a satellite 438 miles above Earth shows how flooding in Mozambique widened its Limpopo River from 100 yards to 10 miles wide.

Another image shows the black scar left by an 80,000-acre fire in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and a second shows reforestation efforts a year later. Yet another satellite image reveals the northern California coastline, zooms in on the Golden Gate Bridge, then shows ships afloat in the San Francisco Bay. When Christopherson finishes, students pepper him with questions.

The engineer works at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) Data Center in Garretson, S.D., north of Sioux Falls. This presentation is one of many he and other engineers and scientists are doing to make students’ earth science, geography, and even social studies lessons more real. The classes have become so popular that they’re now offered twice a month, instead of once a month.

“It gives them the chance to see people who are working out in the field, to hear from somebody besides a teacher,” Christopherson explains. “They get to take a field trip without the hassle of driving.”

Gov. Janklow calls the Digital Dakota Network the “outlet to the world,” and it’s easy to see why. More than 6,400 classes or presentations are being offered over the DDN this school year. Most of them focus on high school students, but elementary and middle pupils also share the network.

For instance, a puppetry troupe from Atlanta performed over the DDN earlier this year for elementary pupils, and even helped them make their own puppets. A string quartet from the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington recently traveled to Aberdeen to play for 4th through 8th graders; the performance was broadcast to more than 20 DDN studios across the state.

But the core attractions of videoconferencing are advanced or elective classes that wouldn’t otherwise be available to rural students, such as Jay Wammen and Rob Lyons of Harding County. On a cold and clear February morning, these two seniors sit quietly at a kidney-shaped desk, their eyes fixed on the moving hand of college math professor Christine Larson. In front of them is a computer-size control board, which monitors videocamera and audio functions.

Larson is teaching from the campus of South Dakota State University, 520 miles away in Brookings, but the students see exactly what she is doing. With a black felt-tip pen, she quickly jots a series of algebraic equations on a “doc-cam,” a high-tech version of the overhead projector. Back in Harding County, the students see numbers fill one television monitor. In the lower left-hand area, the monitor shows Larson, a blonde woman in a purple blouse, sitting at a desk and talking to the students as she writes.

A second monitor shows the two Harding County High School seniors making notations with their pencils. Out of the videocamera’s sight, six feet away from the boys, is another teacher tapping on computer keys. Such “e-facilitators” keep an eye on the students, and help the remote teacher distribute class material and exams.

Larson also has three students in her classroom at South Dakota State, and one student in Flandreau, 28 miles southeast of the university. The math professor speaks conversationally and seems to look Wammen and Lyons in the eye when addressing them. When she asks a question, Wammen and Lyons answer softly, but the small flat microphone sitting next to their calculators picks up their voices easily.

It is almost, the students say, like being in the same room with her. They admit that it was slightly unnerving at first to talk to a television monitor, but they soon got used to it.

“It’s pretty much like a normal class,” says Wammen.

But the boys also say that videoconferencing doesn’t allow them to interact with the teacher as much as they would like. That sentiment sounds familiar to Bobbi Maher, the Spanish teacher at Timber Lake.

“Sometimes my kids miss having me to themselves,” she says during a brief lull between her classes. “One kid said that someday we’ll just have a TV, not a teacher. But there’s no way you can take the human factor out of education. That’s what I’m trying to re-create [here].”

So Maher tries to get to know her “remote” students better by chatting with them at the beginning and end of class. And they’re welcome to contact her by phone or email. She’s also trying to organize a bowling party for her Spanish 1 students so they can all get better acquainted.

In fact, some have already become friends, she says, noting with a lift of an eyebrow that she’s had to squelch the high-tech version of note passing. Instead of scrawling a note on a piece of paper and handing it off, Maher says, students have been known to write a message on a small whiteboard with a felt-tip pen, then flash it to the video-camera for faraway classmates to see.

Teaching and Testing

Maher likes teaching over the digital network, but acknowledges it isn’t for everybody. First, such instruction takes more time to organize than a traditional class. While her image and voice beam instantly to her students in remote classes, Maher still has to either fax or e-mail class assignments and tests to the e-facilitators, who then photocopy the material and hand it to the students. Then it takes at least another several days for the students’ work to get back to Maher.

Another problem area is whether courses are transferable from district to district. Just because you completed a first-year Spanish course in one school, for instance, doesn’t mean you’re ready for intermediate Spanish in another. That’s exactly what happened in one of Maher’s classes.

Last semester, Maher had eight students from Harding County in her Spanish 2 video-conferenced class. But she noticed almost immediately their hesitancy and discomfort when she called on them.

“I could visibly see they were stressed out,” she says.

That’s because the Harding County students’ Spanish 1 class, taken at their home school, was based on vocabulary. Maher’s class was based on grammar and conversation. So while the Harding County teenagers could say the Spanish words for “library” or “family,” it was hard for them to converse in complete sentences. The students ended up dropping the DDN class with no penalty.

Then there are the annoying technical glitches that crop up from time to time. Maher, who tends to walk around the room while talking, learned to stand still or walk very slowly in her DDN classes. The classroom video-camera is supposed to track her movements automatically, but can’t keep up with her quick pace. When that happens, students see Maher in one area—but when she moves, the picture on the monitor pauses, and then the teacher is suddenly across the room. There’s no visual continuity.

The high-tech whiteboard, the 21st-century version of the blackboard, can also pose problems. The whiteboard has a built-in camera that carries whatever is written on it directly to the television monitors in remote classrooms. But sometimes words come out incomplete on the other side, or take several seconds to transmit. As a result, Maher doesn’t use the whiteboard.

“I don’t want to waste time fixing things when I have only 50 minutes of class,” she says.

Paige Fenton, the principal of the K-12 Harding County School, plans to revamp the video-conferenced classes she’ll offer to students next school year and go to block scheduling. That change may cause some waves in other northwestern-area schools, which got on the same time schedule so they could share classes over the DDN.

But at least several of the five classes offered could be taught by teachers in Harding County, not by those miles away, Fenton says. And one of them—anatomy—is difficult to learn over the digital network because of the laboratory work students need to do. Interactive distance- learning classes are a great benefit, the Harding County principal says, but educators are still learning how to best use them.

Fenton is more enthusiastic about online testing, which was required statewide this school year. South Dakota public schools must now test students in grades 3, 6, and 10. Unlike with paper-and-pencil tests, results from the Dakota Assessment of Curriculum Standards, or DACS, tests are available in seconds, not days or weeks.

“The minute you click ‘done,’ I can pull up your name on the computer and get the test results,” Fenton says.

The tests, which can be taken only online, also adapt to a student’s academic ability. If a student keeps answering test questions correctly, for example, the online test adjusts and asks harder questions. The data compiled not only show whether a child is below grade level, proficient, or advanced, but also give a specific picture of his or her strengths and weaknesses. Such statistics arm teachers with the information they need to individualize their instruction.

In her second-floor office with a view of Buffalo’s main street, Fenton rolls her chair over to her computer and starts typing. She pulls up a 3rd grader’s math and reading results. The black-and-green chart is clear: In the test unit on fractions, the pupil scored a grade level of 3.9, while in decimals, she did even better, hitting a 4.6 grade level. In reading, she scored a 4.0 grade level on vocabulary, but only 2.5 on fiction.

Another screen gives “suggested learning objectives” for the pupil. One section on reading shows that while the child could identify story detail and the main idea of a short fictional passage at the 2nd grade level, she needed to learn how to draw conclusions and analyze characters.

“This has been so wonderful for us,” Fenton says, noting that her teachers have embraced the new high-tech testing wholeheartedly.

Online Curriculum

South Dakota just recently began offering academic curricula online. In February, officials released an interactive state history text for 4th grade. A unit on the explorers Lewis and Clark, for example, discusses their expedition to the Pacific Northwest, complete with Internet hyperlinks to a page of their journals and a vocabulary list.

Pupils are also logging on to a site called “Discover South Dakota,” which gives children and teachers the framework to learn more about their state through Internet research and e-mail collaboration with other students.

But not all pupils have equal access to online curriculum tools.

While the student-to-computer ratio in Harding County School is 2-to-1, students in the county’s four tiny rural schools have a ratio of approximately 10-to-1. Those schools have enrollments ranging from seven to 35 K-12 students, and typically have one or two computers hooked up to the Internet through a 56k dial-up modem, says Wayne Blankenbiller, the Harding County superintendent of schools.

That’s a situation he hopes to improve in the near future, says Blankenbiller, who wants to install more phone lines, create a mini-network, or provide wireless access to help the small schools. Harding County, like many districts, is still fine-tuning its technology access and hardware.

But the county has come a long way in just a few years. So far, 90 percent of its teachers have gone through the state’s four-week technology academies; many take part in the online “staff meetings” sponsored by the state; and one or two are pursuing advanced degrees online.

Beyond such steps, Blankenbiller says, Internet access, videconferenced classes, and “telecollaboration” have helped give the same opportunities to his students that their counterparts in Sioux Falls and Rapid City enjoy.

Sitting in his office as the late-afternoon winter sun shines in, he leans back in his chair and says, “What we’re doing is opening the world to kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2002 edition of Education Week


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