Oklahoma City Rallies Behind K-12 Videoconferencing Program

Computers have been creeping steadily into classrooms for the last 20 years. Some teachers have known what to do with them, and some haven't. But even among the technologically literate, the impact of the box's presence on the daily learning process has been small. Lessons have continued much as they always have, with teachers lecturing, students sometimes listening and computers sitting undisturbed for much of the day.

But that's beginning to change. And nowhere does it seem to be changing as quickly as in the Western Heights School District in Oklahoma City. Two years ago the district-whose six schools have a racially diverse, largely blue-collar population-did "not have any technology, basically," superintendent Joe Kitchens said.

Today classes are traveling the world through videoconferencing. Students with special health needs are getting assistance through electronic hookups to area hospitals. Educators are team-teaching, even when their classrooms are in different buildings. And every classroom-not just the computer lab, which would be remarkable enough-is equipped with a desktop computer with a pipeline to the Internet and videoconferencing capability.

Superintendent as Champion

What transformed Western Heights from an also-ran in educational technology to the top of the class?

There was no generous benefactor with a few extra million dollars burning a hole in his pocket. Instead, taxpayers agreed to tax themselves, impressed as they were with a technol-

ogy plan developed by a broad spectrum of community interests and a superintendent who energetically promoted it and shepherded it through to reality.

"Our superintendent has put a lot into this," said Lynda Howeth, president of the district's Board of Education. "He's our hero."

"Joe is just an unbelievable guy," said John Pompay, business development manager of Intel Corp. "He's exceptionally dedicated to the kids and single-mindedly is convinced [that] the use of technology is the answer for how to educate the kids for the future."

In March 1995, an overwhelming 85 percent of voters in the 3,000-student school district approved a $4 million bond issue to support the technology initiative. Howeth attributes the resounding vote of confidence to the inclusive process that produced the technology proposal.

"The community support was there because we started with our advisory council," she said. "Parents from throughout the district got together and looked at what it would take to have this type of technology in our school system. We had community meetings where we invited everyone in to talk about technology before the Board of Education ever decided to go with a bond issue.

"The superintendent was in attendance at every community meeting and explained what the technology would do and what steps needed to be taken. We had the support of the teachers because they knew that they would be trained on how [the technology] would be used," Howeth said.

The district, which has an $11 million annual budget, also was in a good financial position. "It was not a huge tax," Howeth said. "We had not had a bond issue in a few years, so all of our obligations were paid up."

All five members of the Board of Education supported the initiative-a political victory that helped prevent divisions in the community. The district also rallied because the plan was on the cutting edge, said Rita Morgan, principal of Western Heights High School. "Nobody has ever addressed this kind of technology for instructional purposes," she said. "And we were going to use it for the students."

Here is what the bond issue bought: A Gateway 2000 Inc. desktop computer with an Intel Pentium processor and Intel ProShare Conferencing Video Systems 200 videoconferencing capability in each of 230 classrooms in the district's six schools. The computers are linked on the district's wide-area network, known as JetNet, which runs over 17 miles of fiber-optic cable and brings 100 megabit/sec switched Ethernet to the desktop. The schools also have access to the state of Oklahoma's telecommunications network and Southwestern Bell's Integrated Service Digital Network. Currently about 550 computers are linked, with a potential for 1,450.

The ProShare system delivers multipoint video, audio and data conferencing, allowing up to 24 people to simultaneously participate in a video-

conference from their desktop PCs. The system can interoperate with other video, data and audioconferencing systems that comply with international standards. Engineers and design experts from Piadiea Systems Inc. and Monte R. Lee&Co. worked with officials from Western Heights, Southwestern Bell, Intel and Gateway 2000 to build the network.

Patrick Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel Desktop Products Group, said the Western Heights technology setup is "one of the best I have seen in educational settings all over the world."

Kitchens and Morgan say teachers have been putting the videoconferencing and Internet capabilities to good use since the system came on-line last November. Students have electronically visited New Jersey, New York and the United Kingdom, among other places. Science and math classes have met jointly over JetNet when their topics have shared common themes. And business leaders have appeared, offering real-world wisdom about the importance of education.

But while students have been targeted by the system, teacher education has become a vital side benefit. "We had a lot of teachers, maybe even 70 percent, who were not computer-literate, but in the 1995-96 school year we began to train them," Kitchens said. The course included 32 hours on Windows 95. "I can remember an elementary school teacher who was just shaking at first when she would try to make the mouse move. Now she is as prolific with PowerPoint and Microsoft Scheduler as anyone I've ever seen." Last summer the district followed up Windows 95 training with lessons on videoconferencing.

The results are proving that teachers are the most important link in the system. "We knew teachers would be integral to whether this was successful," Kitchens said.

"In the past there had been no teacher training provided," Morgan said. "We've had some computers in the classroom, but [they had] been kind of useless." But now, with the new equipment and the teachers' level of expertise, "it is just monumental as far as the ideas, the creativity the teachers have come up with."

Vicki White is a free-lance writer based in Inverness, Fla. She can be reached at sffvjw@citrus.infi.net.

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