Reading the Signs
Chris Rother is group vice president for CDW Government, a leading technology provider to government and education. She is a passionate advocate for enhancing the educational experience with technology.
In the technology business, we talk a lot about scalability. How do you take an application that works well for 20 end users and provide the same level of performance to 100 or 1,000 end users? Finding the right mix of processors, load-balancing and bandwidth to eliminate bottlenecks and latency is a tough job at times.
When I think about the promise of distance learning or virtual classrooms, I think about scalability in technical and metaphorical terms. Fulfilling the promise is also a tough job, but one that offers incredible rewards.
On the technical side, distance learning requires a robust hardware and bandwidth infrastructure on both ends of the virtual classroom. Some schools are beginning to put the right technology in place, but many others are still playing catch up. In the private sector, connecting individuals through the Internet for corporate learning is now the norm. As this option for teaching becomes more viable and sustainable, it will be important to ensure that we bridge the divide between well-funded institutions and those with constant budgetary challenges.
With that infrastructure in place, however, virtual teaching offers the unique possibility of closing the digital divide.
Here’s how: For numerous K–12 schools — especially those with tight budgets — finding enough qualified foreign-language, science and mathematics instructors is nearly impossible. When a district does manage to hire these instructors, often they must divide their time among several schools. Imagine if you could extend these instructors’ unique skills not only to their home school district, but also to the many surrounding school districts that want to offer, say, forensic science, Arabic or analytical calculus. Go one step further and imagine the possibilities for students if it were the norm for schools to augment their curriculum through virtual teaching.
Now consider West Des Moines Community Schools. This school district is located about midway between Omaha, Neb., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The school district boasts a good student-to-teacher ratio of 19 to 1, adheres to state teaching standards and also offers Mandarin Chinese at its secondary schools. The district works with a third-party vendor to provide the courses for which it doesn’t have teachers. According to Brian Abeling, director of technology at the Iowa school district, Chinese is extremely popular right now. While the distance learning courses allow the students to learn the language at their own pace, this forward-looking district wants to go a step further and allow these young people to practice the language with students overseas. “Finding people in Iowa to practice Chinese with is kind of tough,” admits Abeling. “Ideally, we’d like to videoconference with our sister city in Shijiazhuang, China.”
But for him, the problem isn’t finding the administrative willpower to sanction live practice sessions, nor is it the technology. His biggest hurdle is scheduling between time zones. “The time difference is close to 12 hours,” he says, “creating a unique challenge.”
No Jet Lag
Killeen Independent School District recently deployed videoconferencing systems in 23 of its 50 schools. The Texas school district hopes to put the mobile units in all of its middle and high schools by next year. The units allow classrooms to link not only to other schools in the district but also to schools throughout the world — for instance, connecting students in Killeen to their counterparts in Tokyo, 6,559 miles away.
“We have tech-savvy children,” says Jim Mattson, senior network engineer at Killeen. “Their ability to multitask is phenomenal, so a book-learning class with very little technology is boring to them. Children can acclimate easily to [videoconferencing] and there’s no long learning curve. There’s no part of the brain that says ‘no’ or is resistant.”