Technology is advancing at the speed of light in Kenai Peninsula schools, thanks to space Homer Electric Association donated on its new fiber-optic cable.
"They've changed the way we do business," said Jim White, director of computer services for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. "Now, we have so much capacity and so much room for growth, the sky is the limit."
Before HEA lit the cable from Kenai to Homer last year, peninsula schools had 56-kilobyte-per-second Internet connections.
"We were using all the capacity and standing in line to use it," White said.
"Access before was so slow that the Internet was unusable."
He said connections on the fiber-optic line are 800 times faster.
"This has made the Internet viable," he said.
Teachers increasingly use the In-ternet for research and demonstrations, said Phil Biggs, the district's instructional technology specialist.
High-speed lines have allowed the district to feed streaming video of school concerts and graduations. Now, the district is looking into videoconferencing classes, administrators' meetings and teacher training.
Teachers could train without leaving their schools, said Biggs.
A single teacher could present an advanced-placement physics class
in several schools at once. Classes in several schools could build a common database to study borough weather or stream-watch information.
"Once you get used to the idea that you're connected to everything, you operate differently," Biggs said.
HEA shares four of the cable's 24 strands with the school district and leases the rest to Alaska Communications Systems. Last March, ACS connected 16 schools to the fiber-optic line at minimal cost.
"We pay (ACS) a gradually increasing amount over a 10-year contract," White said. "We started with $130,000 per year and increase that by $10,000 per year for 10 years. ... When we were looking at T1 lines to every school, we were looking at $300,000 per year. This is 28 times the bandwidth for less than half the cost."
HEA and ACS also connected the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska to the fiber-optic line and borough schools.
"NASA has a lot of videoconferencing," Biggs said. "You can tour a space station mock-up."
NASA experts also are available to teach classes in local schools by videoconference, he said.
White said connecting 16 schools to the fiber-optic cable freed space to provide adequate connections to many schools still on copper phone lines. He said the high-speed network is what made it worthwhile to upgrade computers districtwide.
"There would be no use putting this technology in the schools if we had only 56-K lines," he said. "Nothing would have been any faster or better."
The borough agreed to contribute $1.6 million in the first three years of the upgrade program. The district plans to contribute $1.06 million in the first three years. It expects an additional $900,000 from the federal E-Rate program, which returns 62 cents for every dollar the district spends for telecommunications infrastructure.
The district also will recycle computers from its Connections program to the schools, White said. Next year, the schools will receive 400 Connections computers worth $450,000.
"At the end of three years, the borough contribution will be done. We'll fund the last three years with Connections computers and the E-Rate program," he said. "Total funding over six years is $11.9 million, including phone bills and Internet access. Then, the schools will be all-PC with one computer for each five students and one for each teacher."
The fiber-optic line also allowed the district to centralize storage of student and teacher information from eight schools, including some on copper lines, at the district office. White plans to centralize records from eight more schools next summer. Centralizing records adds efficiency and makes district expertise available to local schools, he said. Individual schools no longer enter student passwords and information by hand.
"Now, we're pulling student information down from our mainframe. We devise a password for each student," White said. "We installed a common desktop for every student. Teachers log on with their employee numbers. Their files are automatically saved on the central server in Soldotna, so backing up files is not an issue with the schools."
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