Internet grants boost Superior schoolsThe Superior school district has a clear path to its technology future, with two recently awarded grants to pave the way.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
The Superior school district has a clear path to its technology future, with two recently awarded grants to pave the way.
Last week the U.S. Department of Commerce announced a pair of grants totaling $32.3 million that will develop high speed Internet infrastructure for five Wisconsin communities, including Superior. The grants, coordinated through the University of Wisconsin-Extension, fund a three-year project to build a fiber optic network and an accompanying program to increase broadband usage.
“It puts us on the map big time,” said Sam Jones, director of information technology for the Superior school district. He said the improved broadband network could increase schools’ Internet capacity to 20 times what it is now.
The majority of the grant money will fund infrastructure development, but $2.4 million is designated to the broadband usage project. In the Superior school district, that money will be used to fund two positions for two years as the district transitions to a new Web site meant to foster a blended virtual learning environment.
Jones says the district is looking for staff to fill the two positions and evaluating options at this time. In three or four months, he hopes to have all planning for the project finished so teachers can begin training in online instruction.
A core group of 20 to 25 teachers will receive focused training to start things off. They will develop class Web pages and test online learning components in a in a “contained environment” to give them time to grow comfortable with the new system. At some point in the year, the group will transition to a “live” environment, and the district will roll out its new Web site shortly after.
“We haven’t yet chosen a moment in time when we’ll replace our current Web site with the new one,” Jones said. “I’m hoping within a year.”
By the end of the two-year grant period, Jones said the goal is for all teachers to have at least a rudimentary grasp of online instruction.
At least three training dates are planned for coming school year to train teachers, but more sessions could be added, depending on teacher interest.
“We’re struggling because we don’t want to limit the number of teachers who are in the program, but the reality is we may have to,” Jones said.
From feedback he’s received so far, Jones expects a high percentage of teachers to show interest in the training. Overall, he feels the Superior district has embraced the role of technology in today’s educational environment.
In a survey conducted by the IT department two years ago, teachers were asked how they would like to use technology and what training they’d like to receive.
“By far, going online was the most common response or request,” Jones said.
Teachers’ enthusiasm for online instruction allowed the district to launch a successful pilot program last year in which a group of teachers tested the SchoolFusion online learning platform.
“I’m really looking forward to a high number of interested people,” Jones said.
In the classroom
Terri Harings is among the district teachers who had a chance to dabble in online instruction last year. She teaches fourth and fifth grade at Lake Superior Elementary School and piloted a SchoolFusion Web page last year with her students. Harings also received training to use a Promethean ActivBoard and looks forward to using the digital whiteboard with her students this year.
“I believe online instruction is part of ‘best practices’ for all teachers,” Harings said. “We have to be flexible and react to our learners, and they have their lives infused with technology from very early on.”
In her classroom, Harings views technology as just another tool to help students connect to the material. Her students have participated in online blogs, quizzes and scavenger hunts; they’ve created PowerPoint presentations and learned how to use the Internet effectively. Harings instructed them in appropriate blogging and taught them how to assess and evaluate Web sites for research, and students even had a chance to develop their own Web pages.
For Harings, the experience was eye-opening and very rewarding.
“I predicted their interest would wane, and it didn’t; it increased as they got more and more comfortable with the Web page format,” she said. “The students could learn and grow in a very personalized way.”
Parents also got involved, Harings said. Some interacted with their children in blogs and others learned side by side with their children about how to develop a Web page.
“They were motivated, as I was ‘tapping in’ to their life outside of school,” Harings said. “This was apparent in how many students and parents logged on from home.
“It is an exciting time to be a teacher.”
The future of instruction
During two years the district receives grant money to implement its new Web sit, the IT department will also evaluate the online instruction process with the eventual possibility of delivering virtual classes.
“It’s a gateway to virtual,” Jones said. “So while that’s not the intent, this is the next step.”
At this point, the district plans to use online instruction only to enhance the traditional classroom environment. Purely online classes could become a reality in the near future, but Jones says the district has larger issues to tackle first.
Ensuring Internet access to every district student is the next challenge in line, Jones said.
In Harings’ class, all but three of her 24 students had Internet access at home. She said those who didn’t have access in their own homes were able to get online at a friend’s or relative’s home, but that may not always be the case.
Jones said he doesn’t know how the district will go about addressing this issue, but he believes the effort can only be successful with the support of the whole community.
“This is a community project,” Jones said. “We’re trying to get every teacher, every student and every parent online.”