The Mankato Schools Internet Project
Internet Research, Winter 1995
The Mankato (MN) Public School Distict has created a district-wide computer network which allows all its staff and students full Internet access. This paper is a snapshot of the work-in-progress. It includes the goals, scope, and history of the project; provides a technical overview and cost analysis; and projects its future direction. Some considerations for other educators who are considering similar projects conclude the paper.
Like most good teachers, Mrs. Eastman gets to class in the mornings here at Kennedy Elementary School some time before her students arrive. She flips her computer on and hangs up her coat while the machine warms up.
Settling at her desk with a cup of tea, Eastman sees that she has several messages. She didn’t get a chance to check her e-mail from home last night, so there are more messages this morning than usual. The building’s “paperless” daily bulletin is there, as is a note from the 6th grade team leader which includes the date of the next meeting. Mrs. Eastman pulls up both her personal and public calendars and adds the date to them. There are notes from two parents - one with an account on CompuServe and one on America On-line. One parent writes to inform Mrs. Eastman that her son Joshua will be gone from class that day and asks for his assignments. She forwards the message to the attendance secretary, and then pulls up her lesson plans for the day, and selectively cuts and pastes the assignments and practices into an e-mail message back to the parent. There is a reminder from the school’s Parent Teacher Organization chair about the upcoming carnival.
Glancing at the clock, Mrs. Eastman sees she has time to check her mail folder which collects her El-Ed listserv messages. The discussions among the 3000 or so other elementary teachers have lately been about “Judicious Discipline” and the effectiveness of the Reading Recovery program. Most messages Mrs. Eastman skims and deletes, but a couple she saves. She is intrigued by the comments made by one of the teachers who is using Judicious Discipline in his classroom with success, and will contact him to find out where he received his training. She also notes one of her favorite electronic journals has arrived, and moves it to her bulging “read later” folder. She makes a mental note to send an electronic booking for a needed video to the district media office after school, and to e-mail a county social service agency regarding one of her students.
One last task before school begins. Mrs. Eastman pulls up an electronic purchase order, and fills it out for some special paper she’ll be needing in a couple weeks for a geography project. She transmits it to the business office by once again clicking the send button. If the order overdraws her supply account, the purchase order will be rejected.
“Hi, Mrs. Eastman,” a breathless student calls out, “guess what my keypal sent to me last night…” and so the day begins.
Tim is one of Ms. Eastman’s students. In earlier grades, Tim was not very enthusiastic about school, and his academic record showed it. But since moving into Ms. Eastman’s “child-centered” class where much of the learning is self-paced and self directed, both his performance and attitude have improved dramatically. The technology, especially the Internet, has been a valuable resource for this kind of learning.
At 9:30 it is Tim’s team’s rotation through the classroom computer center. When he first came to class this morning, he checked the current weather information using Blue Skies, a graphic interface to the University of Michigan’s weather service, and has plotted that information on a wall graph. The data will be discussed and used later this morning during both science (how do scientists predict the weather) and math (how many ways can information be graphed).
Tim has three tasks to complete in his group’s half hour at the networked computer station. First he’ll need to check to see if he has a response from any of his “keypals.” He has four - one is a boy his age in a sister school across town with whom he jointly solves math problems, one is a girl in a college class in Texas with whom he is discussing Gary Paulsen’s novels, and one is a boy two years younger than he is in Spain with whom he converses in Spanish. His last “key-pal” is a senior citizen from a local nursing home. Tim and “Grandpa Al” have been comparing their views of the latest mayoral race. He sees two letters and stores them to a floppy disk to be read and responded to off-line.
Tim’s next task is to locate a book one of his keypals recommended, and he thinks he can use as a part of his project on immigration. He first does a search of Kennedy’s media center - no luck. Next he searches the district’s union catalog and finds that both Dakota Meadows and Franklin schools have the book. He sends a quick e-mail message to the Franklin media specialist, asking for an inter-library loan. Had the district not had the book, Tim would have continued his search using the regional public or university on-line catalogs.
Finally, Tim decides it’s time to find some pictures to illustrate a hypermedia report he has been constructing on the Great Depression. Mrs. Eastman suggested he use Mosaic to look at the Library of Congress’s World Wide Web site. Sure enough, in the American Memories collection of historical photographs, he finds just the compelling images he had been looking for. He downloads the images onto his disk, and looks up at the clock. Ah, just made it!
For the students and staff of Mankato Public Schools, Mankato, Minnesota, these scenarios are not in the least far-fetched. As of September 1994, our district has had direct Internet access in every school site for its 800 staff members and 7500 students. This includes direct simultaneous SLIP connections to the Internet for all networked computers in classrooms, libraries, and offices. These connections allow students and staff to use Fetch, Eudora, Telnet, TurboGopher, Mosaic, and Blue Skies. All personnel currently have e-mail accounts, and students are being assigned e-mail accounts as the curricular needs for them arise.
This paper is a snapshot of a work-in-progress. It includes the goals, scope, and history of the project; provides a technical overview and cost analysis; and projects its future direction. Some considerations for other educators who are considering similar projects conclude the paper.
The individuals involved in this project have used these sources in designing and implementing the project:
- the expertise of individuals, organizations, and businesses including Mankato State University faculty members, Internet Connections (a local Internet service provider), Southern Minnesota Office Machines (a computer and networking supply store), and Nova and Apollo network consulting and installation companies.
- the information gained at professional conferences including the International Society for Technology in Education’s Tel-Ed conferences, Minnesota Educational Media Organization’s state conferences, and the state TIES conferences.
- the discussions and experiences shared on Internet listserves and newsgroups including LM_Net <firstname.lastname@example.org>, CoSN <email@example.com>, EDNET <firstname.lastname@example.org> and EDTECH <email@example.com>.
- on-line repositories of documents and information including:
- K-12 Internetworking Guidelines (draft) and A Technical Model for School Networks <ftp://ftp.cc.berkeley.edu/k12>
- The National Center for Technology Planning <ftp://ra.msstate.edu/pub/archives/nctp
The rapid changes in network use, hardware and software, and policy development, as well as the lack of model school networking projects of this scope, make most traditional print sources of information mostly unusable, except for theory, after a surprisingly short period of time.
District Description and Project Goals
Mankato Public Schools, Independent School District #77, is a semi-rural school of about 7,500 students located approximately 90 miles southwest of Minneapolis. We have used no special grant funding, and our per pupil operating cost of $4174 is 10% less than the Minnesota state average.
Our district has undertaken this effort with support and at the direction of the District Media/Technology Advisory Committee, which consists of the District Media Supervisor, administrators, teachers, a school board member, parents, local business persons, post-secondary faculty members, and multi-type library personnel.
The district has defined the following as its primary reasons for undertaking this networking project:
- We view computer skills, especially those involving on-line communications, as being essential to citizens who can fully access, process, and communicate information in increasingly digital formats, in an increasingly global economy. Our students need the skills to compete successfully in post-secondary training and business, and to participate fully in a government which sends, stores, and receives data electronically. Our staff needs these skills to stay professionally current, and to be able to integrate them into the curriculum. The growing awareness of the use of technology to help students meet high standards is documented. (Department of Education, 1993)
- We see a wide-area school district network which allows e-mail, file transfer, and information access as essential to effective staff communication and site-based decision-making. We predict long-term cost savings as a result of the network.
- We see the connection of the district’s wide area network to community and world-wide networks as essential to using resources and cooperating with individuals and organizations outside the school system, including parents, community agencies, businesses, other educational institutions, and networks of fellow professionals. As a rural community, this need is especially important to us. (Beckner & Barker, 1994)
Below is a brief outline of the steps Mankato Public Schools are taking to provide this access.
Phase I - School Year 1993-4 - The Kennedy Pilot Project
“We must educate our elementary school students in methods they can use to communicate with others in the world.” from Kennedy network proposal
Mankato schools had little involvement in telecommunications projects of any kind prior to this project. A handful of teachers had commercial on-line accounts, there was a single account to AppleLink used only by the part-time computer coordinator, and the district had a state-mandated account with QuickLink for communication with the state department of education. On a couple of occasions, local university faculty members informally visited schools to demonstrate some Internet resources.
In the spring of 1993, several things happened:
- through a special project, all the district’s media specialists received Internet dial-up access and training through the local university. This was jointly funded by the district and the university.
- a commercial Internet provider started business in our local calling area,
- one school staff, principal, and parent organization got excited about the possibilities of the Internet, and
- the district media supervisor created a vision of a wide-area network for the district which he communicated to the assistant superintendent. The assistant superintendent advised that the vision be shared with administrative councils, school faculties, local service groups, and parent organizations. Those organizations found the plan exciting and encouraged its development.
By February of 1994, Mankato’s Kennedy elementary became one of the first rural schools in Minnesota and the nation to have full SLIP Internet access in the media center, offices, and all classrooms. (Johnson, 1994) Being an Internet node means all teachers, and potentially all 520 of its students can have their own e-mail addresses and have multiple users throughout the building can access the Internet at one time. And by using SLIP, rather than terminal emulation, Kennedy user can take advantage of Internet client-server programs like Eudora, Fetch, TurboGopher, and Mosaic This model offers significantly higher levels and ease of classroom access than those based on computer bulletin boards or terminal server access. (Hughes, 1993)
Some of the critical elements of the Kennedy project included:
We were lucky enough to have a parent serve as our network designer. He is a network administrator for the local university, and we quite literally could not have completed the project without his expertise. We also had the enthusiastic support and hard work of his wife and partner who also serves as Kennedy’s PTO chair. Another parent volunteer is a professor at a local college who is an authentic assessment expert.
Changing Computer Paradigm
There was a new “paradigm” of computer use at Kennedy school as a result of information and philosophies gained by teachers and the principal through reading professional materials and attending conferences, including the International Society for Telecommunications in Education’s Tel-Ed Conference in Dallas in November of 1993. Led by their building-level instructional goal setting team and encouraged by the school board’s drive for site-based management, the staff came to see that computers needed to be in the classroom and be used as productivity tools rather than for just drill and practice. The staff also recognized the need for upgrading their own computer skills. The principal insisted that the media center become the “information hub” of the building - selecting, holding, and distributing digitized information as well as print information. The new media specialist, while learning along with the rest of the staff, became a resource in accessing and using on-line information.
Competitive Computer Fund Allocation
The district administrators decided to award computer monies allocated to the elementary schools on the basis of “competitive” proposals submitted by building teams. The elementary principals’ group viewed each proposal’s effect on student learning, staff training and support, project assessment, budget, faculty and community support, and uniqueness when awarding the computer monies. (Johnson, 1995 B)
A team of committed teachers with some computer experience from Kennedy school wrote a solid proposal and was awarded $65,000 of the district’s capital outlay budget to fund their project. The project had a strong staff development component which used a “teachers teaching teachers” approach. The proposal had clearly stated objects for both students (centered around communication and global-cultural awareness), and teachers (centered around professional communication and accessing teaching resources).
Kennedy’s first year goals were modest: to put the physical network in place and train the staff in network use. Teachers are just now developing lessons which use on-line resources and Internet use guidelines. Teachers are aware there are some inappropriate resources on the Internet, part of the building-wide inservice dealt with “netiquette,” and our Internet provider intends to keep its news groups, gopher, and WWW servers family oriented.
During the 1994-95 school year, Kennedy will continue to serve as the district’s pilot networking site by adding the formal integration of technology skills into subject areas, developing student competencies in technology use, and authenticly assessing those competencies. Future physical additions at the school will include faster connections to the Internet, additional workstations in classrooms, and networkable CD-Rom resources on the building network. Staff development needs include further training in computer use, Internet navigation and resources, resource-based instructional methods, and the assessment.
As the building principal puts it, “Kennedy has been fortunate to have the right blend of people in the right place at the right time.”
The Kennedy building has approximately 30 networked computers, enough for all 22 classrooms, offices, and support personnel work areas including connections for the aides, custodians, and cooks. (For the building to use the network as its primary means of communication, all staff need access to it.) All machines, 90% Mac LCIIIs and 10% IBMs and clones, are on a 10BaseT Ethernet star network. A Novell 500 mg file server is used for file storage and the library catalog database. All wiring is Level 5 data grade with Level 5 connectors. The Macintoshes all have MacTCP installed which allows teachers and students use client-server programs with graphic user interfaces like those mentioned above.
To get connected to the Internet, a 486SX computer running the Linux operating system was set up to act as a TCP/IP router for all computers on the Ethernet network. This router is connected via the SLIP protocol to our local Internet supplier’s office over a dedicated 2-wire circuit and a pair of 28.8k bps modems. The TCP/IP (and SLIP) protocols allow multiple users on the Ethernet to simultaneously access the Internet over a single connection. We anticipate that 28.8k connection will be fast enough while teachers are primarily using e-mail, Gopher and doing few large file transfers. We are paying $80 per month at Kennedy for our 28.8k Internet connection, plus the cost of the 2-wire circuit (about $15 per month). As the demands on the network grow, we will upgrade the connection and router for increased speed. Total cost of the Kennedy project, including the library automation system and Novell 50 user license, was about $66,000. (see table 1) There have been no significant price changes for equipment or licenses over this past year for our other sites.
Staff Development and Curriculum Integration
Besides network design, Kennedy is serving as the prototype for the district in two other ways: staff development, and curricular integration.
Our staff development efforts at Kennedy have included both day-long, school wide training sessions for the introduction of all staff members to e-mail and accessing the networked resources of the building, as well as half-day sessions on basic computer operation taught by building teachers. This training was paid for through the district’s staff development budget. The size of this budget has been dramatically increased over the past two years in Minnesota since the state has mandated that a certain percentage of a district’s general fund be used for staff development activities.
The district also offers a number of other opportunities for the staff to receive Internet training. CODE 77 is a long-term, district-wide program which each year gives about 10% of our classroom teachers computer bundles which will stay with them as long as they are with the district in exchange for 30 hours of their time for training and the promise to be mentors for new computer users. (Johnson, 1993 A) The bundles are awarded on the basis of an application which describes the uses the teacher will make of the computer to improve student learning. We also hold a week-long computer “academy” each summer, teach classes specifically designed and scheduled for building staffs who request them, and offer a scheduled program of afternoon and evening classes. Internet use is a part of all these training activities.
The district has just scratched the surface of all the student projects and activities for which we will be using the network. As suggested by Fishman and Pea (1994), a district Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) will be written this year. So far there has been a common understanding in the district that all Internet activities by our students will support curricular objectives.We feel this is important because:
- our limited band-width should be used for purposeful activities;
- if students get into Internet resources which are inappropriate, the problem is that they are “off-task,” not that the school is providing unsuitable resources, and
- this creates a way for us to prioritize giving e-mail accounts to students; those with the most pressing curricular needs get accounts first.
Some of the student projects we conduct, like those described by Burleigh and Weeg (1993), include student/nursing home resident keypal exchanges, and student keypal exchanges with university classes, classes in other U.S. communities, and residents in Japan. These activities support units on aging, history, writing, and multi-cultural studies. Teachers have developed “scavenger-hunt” type activities to familiarize students with local information on the community gopher, weather data, geographical resources, and photographs which serve as creative writing starters. Students are monitoring and contributing to news and discussion groups especially designed for students like KIDCAFE <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Our students are also excited about the opportunity to share their work with others in the community and world. Already on the community gopher and Web site are stunning computer drawings by a class of ESL students and creative writings by a number of classes. [see figure 1] Like other educators have observed, we are finding that students take more care in the writing and revision process when they know their work will be published.
Teachers have found Judi Harris’s (1994) book to be an invaluable resource for planning activities using the Internet as a resource. After a short description on Internet resources and tools, the book categorized and gives examples of many types of classroom projects which have been conducted using telecomputing resources.
The staff has been using the Internet to publish building technology bulletins, send e-mail, join listservs, locate software and documents, and access the public and university library catalogs. The building media specialist receives district-wide media specialist meeting announcements, agendas, minutes, and other information only through e-mail.
Phase II - 1994-5 School Year - Building Connectivity and Connection to the Community
Internet connections similar to those at Kennedy school were installed in each of the other twelve school buildings during the summer of 1994. The connection points are at the file servers running the library automation systems in each building. Like at Kennedy, we are using 28.8k bps modems with compression to equal a 56k bps throughput on two-wire telephone lines at each site, and paying our Internet provider $960 per year, per site.
The district’s media specialists have primary responsibility for network management. Building on Barron’s (1994) belief that the Internet is an important resource for media specialists, Mankato’s media specialists apply the skills and training they use with print materials in the media centers to select, manage, and organize electronic resources throughout the building network, plan access to Internet resources, and help teachers integrate these new skills and resources into their curricula. (Johnson, 1993 B) Media specialists are experimenting with creating subject specific Mosaic pages to help students locate information on the World Wide Web. These pages will be used during units on the Holocaust and weather. The media specialists will also serve as our students’ allies in the electronic censorship attempts which might arise. (Johnson, 1995 A)
We are hiring a district network manager whose main responsibilities will be to design, install and maintain the building LANs and the district WAN. We currently have three district technicians to help with computer set-up, installation, and repair.
For our buildings which are now completely networked, there is Internet access to each classroom, work area and office. In other buildings, network presence during this transition phase will be only in the media center and in selected offices. All staff members will still be able to have full Internet access from the computers in the media centers as well as e-mail accounts on the building POP mail server. For users who must share a computer, we are providing the e-mail program Eudora on a high density floppy disk along with the settings folder. When users without an individual networked computer want to check their mail, they need only insert their e-mail disk in a computer which is networked, open the settings file, send their queued mail, and down-load their new messages. Messages are saved directly to their disk. E-mail can be read and written off-line.
Our buildings, of vastly varying ages and sizes, have had their internal networks installed in different ways. Three schools were networked as a result of new construction or remodeling. (Johnson, 1993 C) Six others had data wire and jacks installed at the same time new phone lines were run by commercial contractors. At Kennedy, the principal, parents, and the custodian and her husband installed the network over several weekends. By the end of the 1994-95 year, all but two of our twelve school buildings, the district offices, and community center/alternative high school will have at least one drop in each classroom and office. Funding from the capital outlay budget for the remaining buildings is planned for the 1995-96 school year. This is not to say we have computers in each classroom, or sufficient concentrators or network cards for the machines we do have, but the infrastructure is there to build on.
Phase II also includes creating a district news, gopher and World Wide Web server. [see figure 2] The schools can us this server:
- to share student work with the community and Internet
- to relay school information such as lunch menus, policies, schedules, and curriculum to the community
- to create subject specific gophers and WWW pages for schools, classes, and units; and to control the news groups to which our students have direct access.
A listserv for district employees is also planned.
Expanding into the Community
The ability to communicate and share information with the community at large is a major thrust of our networking efforts. As are many school districts, Mankato is finding that cooperative efforts with a wide variety of community agencies are helping us serve our children, their parents, and our staff by rebuilding those “social partnerships.” Some of these agencies which serve our students and their families include county human services, correction, and law enforcement; a regional development commission; the local private schools; the technical college and university; the YMCA/YWCA; and the public library system.
Nearly all these agencies already have some degree of Internet connectivity which makes communication though e-mail and file transfer already possible. Information shared on file servers will become possible once security issues are resolved.
Homes also are increasingly becoming wired to the Internet - either through a local commercial Internet dial-up connection and account, or through on-line services like Prodigy, CompuServe, or America On-line. As this service becomes more wide-spread (and the number of home computers is growing at an amazing rate), parent-teacher, student-teacher, student-student, and student-parent exchanges will be more frequent. Already, a number of parents who have some network access at work correspond with their children and the school staff via e-mail.
We are anticipating both an “electronic village” in our geographic region, as well as the Internet or its successor being a major communication artery to state and national agencies. There is a growing realization that an extensive data network and a populace trained to use it will play a major role in the economic health of our region if it attracts and keeps new businesses and professionals. Our regional economic development council is holding a day-long Internet conference this fall to discuss these issues.
Phase III - Extending the Internal Networks and Increasing the Speed and Capacity
As we look further into the future, our district push will be to extend the building networks into all classrooms and office, and have several networked computers available for students and teachers in all instructional areas - for not only information accessing, but information processing and communication as well. We will closely monitor advances in technology which will allow us to increase network speeds and bandwidth.
The business office is also considering adopting a district-wide financial package for electronic submission of purchase orders and state required data. Knowing that all our networks use TCP/IP will help us choose a system which can be accessed by every district computer. A union catalog of all school instructional resources is planned, so that both our students and staff and the community at large can locate the material we own for interlibrary loan.
For other schools planning on undertaking a project, I would offer some observations:
1) A project like this is possible without the aid (and limitations) of a funding source from outside the school district. There does need to be a commitment by the school board, the district office staff, principals, teachers, and the community to prioritize spending. As a result of this project, a gymnasium was not built, less money was spent on library books and textbooks, and other capital expenditures were postponed or less well funded.
Two factors helped get this agreement. The first was an active, well-rounded district technology committee with representatives from many stakeholders groups, including business and higher education. The advice and long range plans of the committee were respected. The second factor was that the project had an articulate champion. I presented to civic groups, parent organizations, various school committees, to the school board, and on staff development days, stressing the benefits of the project to the students, staff, and community. I believe my enthusiasm and leadership helped the district form what Senge (1990) calls a “shared vision.”
2) Student benefit and use of the system was always at the core of the project. The simple fact that by having Internet access and a school wide area network would increase student learning opportunities made decision-making much easier. We also acknowledge that access in and of itself will not create more learning opportunities. We also need:
- ongoing staff development opportunities, (A word of caution in regard to staff development efforts: don’t underestimate the time it will take to get adult users “up and running.” We have found in many cases that e-mail is the first use many staff members have found for a computer. We wind up teaching our staffs not just how to use the e-mail package, but going back and teaching some very basic computer operations like using a mouse, opening programs, and managing files.)
- use policies which both encourage student freedom to communicate and explore electronic resources while teaching responsible use and behavior, and
- continuous revision of curricula and instructional methods to incorporate not just Internet resources, but resource based learning in general.
3) While our project had set goals and the network we planned had some specific base-line functions, the specifics of network design remained (and continue to remain) readily modifiable. Networking standards, equipment prices and capabilities, and software change on almost a daily basis. Traditional sources of educational information - journals, case-studies, and pilot projects - need to be supplemented (or supplanted) by those which are immediate - consultants, conferences, Internet news groups, journals, and mailing lists. The project for me has been an object lesson about the new world in which our students will be working and learning skills they need to master.
The Mankato Schools Internet project can best be described as a vital work in progress. We do not have a “state of the art” system. But we have a network, it works, we can afford it, staff and students are using it, and we have a vision of its future potential. It is here, not because of a large grant, but because of a shared vision, intelligent budgeting, and, especially, dedicated individuals.
Like personal computers, the cheaper, faster, better network will always be available in just a few months. But for students who need information skills to be productive in society today, even next month is not good enough. As educators we must remember John Goodlad’s compelling words:
Futurists have a tantalizing way of describing the year 2001 as though being there has little to do with getting there. The future simply arrives full-blown. But it is the succession of days and years between now and then that will determine what life will be like. Decisions made and not made will shape the schools of tomorrow. (Goodlad, 1984)
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