Technology plan leads students into new era

Posted: Wednesday, September 06, 2000

Skyview Principal John Pothast pointed with pride to the computer stations rimming his school's library.

"This is all new," he said. "This is what we've developed to give more access to the kids and the teachers."

As students returned to school this fall, those at central and south Kenai Peninsula high schools discovered dozens of new computers and other technical upgrades.

Soldotna's Skyview, for example, has 120 new Dell computers for students, plus a 1-year-old machine for every teacher.

The overhaul is a sign of what is to come throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The six-year technology plan, approved last year, is in its first year of implementation. Teens at Kenai Central, Kenai Alternative, Soldotna, Nikiski, Homer and Homer Flex high schools are the first to reap the benefits.

"We've kind of taken a quantum leap this year," said Phil Biggs, the district's technology director.

The computers run at 600 or 667 megahertz capacity and meet the district's new standards, which call for Pentium II or more powerful processors, he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough paid about $675,000 for the students' new computers districtwide. The teachers got about 200 computers paid for and used last year by the district's Connections cyber school.

The machines that were in the computer labs in previous years have been handed down to younger students. Over the next five years, the district will hand down hardware from the upper to lower grades, until by the end of the plan the Dells, with their PC platform, will completely replace the old Apple computers.

In the process, the ratio of computers in classrooms will increase to one for every five students, and no machine will be more than 6 years old.

The plan's purpose is to assure that all students graduate from peninsula schools ready to use computer technology as a tool to work and live in a fully networked, digital world, according to a draft of the district's Technol-ogy Plan.

The plan has more to it than computers. The district partnered with the Homer Electric Association and Alaska Communications Systems (previously PTI) to upgrade the districtwide network to fiber optic cables. The result is that computers now download Internet pages at what Biggs calls "warp speed."

A federal grant, called the E-Rate, rebates part of the costs to the district.

"For every dollar the district spends, we get 60 cents back," Biggs said.

"That is why the fiber works so well. We are getting an incredibly cheap rate anyway from HEA and PTI. It would be crazy not to do it."

The part of the plan that comes directly out of the district's operating budget are technology support personnel, replacement computers for school secretaries and teacher training. The district has hired two roving tech support workers and plans to have four after the plan is fully implemented.

The district's data processing specialists, many recent graduates of peninsula high schools, handled the new computer installations over the summer more quickly and cheaply than contractors would have, Biggs said.

Teachers are being trained to use the upgraded network, including shifting their attendance and grade records onto the Internet, where parents and students will be able to access their own reports with passwords. The district is setting up a Kenai Technology Academy so staff can get additional training online.

Biggs noted some spin-off advantages of the new system. Last year, his office shifted from distributing copies of documents to posting information on the district's Web site. In the process, it cut photocopy costs from $2,000 to $200, he said.

This year, teachers and students are just

See PLAN, page B-3

starting to see the advantages of the new computer capabilities for them.

In the past, schools had three different computer platforms and a random assortment of software loaded into diverse machines. To work in different times and places, teachers and students had to save items on disk, find compatible machines and wait for access. Now they can log into any machine in the district and call up their own folder from the district's centralized server.

The server also handles software installations, which can be monitored, standardized and inserted without a technician having to visit a school. Another advantage is that it helps the district enforce bans on bootlegged software.

Biggs admitted that some people are unhappy about losing the option of customizing software on their own.

"We have had resistance," he said. "But for the most part, people in the district have started seeing the advantages."

The computer teachers at Skyview are enthusiastic about those advantages.

"Just having everything the same makes it more stable," said teacher Indy Walton. "These are great machines."

Next door, teacher Darren Jones was just as jazzed about the changes. Students tell him the new equipment helps them get their schoolwork done more efficiently.

"We don't waste near the time we used to," he said.

Students are putting together sophisticated multimedia presentations using Power Point and earning industry certification for mastering software such as MS Office. These are skills employers seek.

"The training we are giving these students is cutting edge," Jones said.

He sees a bright future for computers in education and believes the Kenai district is on the right track.

"Computers are not in the schools to replace teachers, but to improve student learning," he said.

"The bottom line is, the kids are the ones who benefit. It makes our jobs easier, but they are the ones gaining. It does improve the quality of education."

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