Technology Takes on Rural Alaskan Schools

T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), November 2002 | Go to article overview

Technology Takes on Rural Alaskan Schools


Technology is improving virtually all aspects of rural education for teachers, administrators and students. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District (NWABSD), located in one of the most remote areas of northwest Alaska. Home to Inupiat Eskimos for more than 10,000 years, the region is about the size of Indiana and lacks roads, isolating the district from neighboring villages. But thanks to modern technology, these rural students now have access to many of the same tools as urban students.

Until 1998, schools in the district had little communication with each other and with district administrators. Students interacted only with other classmates, few of whom were the same age or grade level. Teachers from different schools only met occasionally at training events, and even sending mail was a challenge. Principals in village schools had to send mail via plane to the largest town in the school district.

Teachers and students also had minimal access to resources. The Anchorage Daily News is delivered days after publication, and libraries in the 12 district schools are small and shelve outdated books. "It was difficult to get up-to-date news and information. It's a different world for kids in rural schools who face problems many of us never think about," says Karl Kowalski, the school district's technology coordinator.

In 1998, the district hired General Communication Inc. (GCI), an Alaskan-based telecommunications company with expertise in delivering Internet services to rural schools, to drop the 56K Internet lines in all 12 schools. To keep the schools up to speed, GCI's full-time E-Rate specialist helped the schools apply for and win federal funding to upgrade their connections.

Impact on Students

The technology helps to combat the district's truancy problem by making school more interesting and fun for students. "Students are more engaged in learning, excited about school and have a greater awareness of the larger world," Kowalski says. Teachers also use the Internet in a variety of ways to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students. For example, a popular lesson with many teachers involves the students' use of e-mail provided by GCI's SchoolAccess. Each student has an "E-Pal," a peer in a different state or country to chat with via e-mail. E-Pals allow students to learn about geography, history and social science, while enhancing their writing and communication skills.

The Internet also enables students to expand their knowledge of the world outside their village and learn lessons unavailable in textbooks. Middle school student Landon Shuster uses the Internet to research stocks. "I started a stock market simulation game that I couldn't have done without the Internet," he says. "I think it's a lot easier to check your stocks on the Internet than by phone or radio. …

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