Oklahoma District Plugs in to E-Rate

The Western Heights School District in suburban Oklahoma City has one of the most advanced computer networks in the state. Every teacher has access to equipment that can broadcast lessons to students throughout the district, and last year a class participated in a live videoconference with U.S. senators, British dignitaries and students in another state.

The question is, How did this far-from-affluent district, where nearly 70 percent of the students qualify for the federal government's school lunch program, leap to the forefront of computer-based distance learning when only four years earlier it had only a few outdated Apple IIe computers?

Three bond issues in the past four years-valued at more than $6.8 million-enabled Western Heights to buy a slew of desktop computers and network wiring. But even the ample bond dollars were not enough to purchase everything the school district needed to meet its goals. That is where the federal government's E-Rate program came in.

E-Rate, officially known as the Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries, provides discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent on telecommunications services, Internet access and internal connections to all K-12 public and private schools and public libraries.

E-Rate made it possible to extend the reach of the Western Heights network even further-into students' homes and public libraries, providing access to the Internet after the school day ends. Using nearly $800,000 in E-Rate funding, the district bought servers, videoconferencing equipment and distance-learning tools, and upgraded switches that allow for high-speed Internet access.

E-Rate also made it possible for the district to buy an otherwise unaffordable storage system that serves as the central repository of computer-based lessons.

"This network is probably one of the more advanced networks in the state, including businesses and colleges," said Joe Kitchens, superintendent of schools in Western Heights. "Other schools have this potential, and that's the real beauty of E-Rate."

Western Heights now boasts a technology infrastructure that includes a 100 megabits/sec Ethernet network, 17 miles of fiber-optic cabling, all of the servers, hubs, switches and routers needed to connect every school in the district, as well as a Dell Computer Corp. PowerVault storage system. The schools' network now consists of more than 1,100 PCs, giving the district a 3-to-1 student-to-PC ratio, nearly three times the national average.

School officials believe the combination of desktop computers and E-Rate-funded Internet access makes for a potent mix.

"Connectivity at the home opens the door for a new paradigm in education. We'll be able to link homes and schools like never before through interactive multimedia tools," Kitchens said. "There are a plethora of applications that make schools more flexible in the present performance of its duties."

For instance, Debbie Beeman, a high school math teacher in Western Heights for eight years, already has incorporated the technology into her classroom.

"I'll e-mail them an assignment that they don't have time to finish or open in class, so they have got to go to the library or somewhere else to access it and e-mail the completed assignment back to me," Beeman said. "It forces them to learn how to use the technology and will help in college or in business because they're still going to be using computers."

Beeman teaches an algebra class at the high school that is simultaneously broadcast to 15 advanced eighth-graders in the middle school. "All of them can see everything in the classroom, [such as] the electronic chalkboard or if I show a video," Beeman said. "It's great for the eighth-graders who are more advanced because they already have high school credits toward graduation."

Beeman avoids letting technology take the personal touch out of her lessons alternating her time between the high school and the middle school classroom. "The technology can take the personality out of it if you're not careful," she said. "Like television, if you don't see the person live, it becomes very distant."

A Plus for Homework

The PowerVault-based database serves as the linchpin of the Western Heights project.

The system hosts interactive "courseware" developed by the teachers and technical staff. These lessons, which involve text, graphics and video, can be broadcast to students as part of a videoconference session, or students can access individual lessons over the Internet. The server also houses e-mail accounts and acts as a print server for the entire network.

Before receiving E-Rate funding, the district thought it would be unable to afford the PowerVault system. That's because officials determined teachers would need 20G to 40G to store just one course that included text and graphics. Extrapolating those numbers to include all teachers, school officials realized they required an immense amount of storage space.

"We were looking to be able to have enough storage to hold more than 150 courses, and we didn't have the revenue [through the bond issues] to make that kind of purchase," Kitchens said.

Kitchens said it took 18 months from planning through implementation to get the storage databases online, including six months spent delving into the E-Rate application process alone. But, "it was well worth the time and effort," he said.

"This technology is taking [Western Heights schools] to the next level. They are really using the technology to the fullest," said Lois Rouder, national education technical manager for Dell.

Online lessons help students in many ways, Beeman said. "If they have fallen behind from illness or an extended absence, they can go through the lesson and actually see people teaching. Or it benefits a student who simply wants to advance, at a low or high level, to get ahead or review."

The school now uses videoconferencing extensively. Last fall, a social studies class at the high school participated in an international videoconference that originated in Washington, D.C., and connected students in Oklahoma, New Jersey and England and involved seven U.S. senators and two members of the British Parliament.

For the future, Kitchens said high-quality, high-bandwidth products will unlock the door to innovations in distance learning and high-tech education. "High bandwidth is the key because it provides the best product resolution and flexibility," he said.

Woody Talcove, director of state and local government business development at Cabletron Systems Inc., has been working with schools through E-Rate since the program's inception. He views the federal money as a springboard for schools that are truly committed to developing high-tech education curricula.

"E-Rate has come a long way from two years ago; it's more focused and has done a remarkable job in bridging the 'digital divide,' " Talcove said.

"E-Rate will get you started, but it can't take you all the way. The private sector wants to be a partner, there are other government programs with large funding money available, and the foundation community is always looking to do more with technology in schools."

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Paying for an Outside Perspective

Sometimes it takes a little extra money to spend money wisely.

Joe Kitchens, superintendent of schools in Western Heights, believes schools would get a better deal for their money if the E-Rate system would allow them to be reimbursed for money spent on hiring an outside engineer to design a district technology plan.

Western Heights used an independent telecommunications engineer, and Kitchens likens that process to an architect's role in constructing a building.

"Architects are independent advisers charged with the responsibility of designing buildings at 5 to 7 percent of the cost of constructing it," he said.

"People have a tough time understanding technology and the process that they are going through, and a lot of people are saying that they know what you need. E-Rate should allow for 'architects' [independent engineers] to act as intermediaries between contractors and the schools," Kitchens said. "The key is to locate a person with a fundamental understanding of telecommunications and network engineering and things like intranets...and how that's going to be linked to switches, the network and [Internet service providers]."

In pointing out the importance of independent engineers, Kitchens contends that phone companies talk not only about what's good for the school but also what's good for the phone company, and "even the best integrator talks about what is going to help them do well."

"By not making funds to pay engineers eligible for reimbursement, you're keeping good players out of the E-rate program and letting poor players come in," he said.

- Dan Caterinicchia

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