Dan Walker remembers the dialup modem that he used to have on his desk during his early years as a teacher in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, or LKSD, in Alaska about 25 years ago. It was right around the time when schools in the state were starting to get internet access. Now in his second year as superintendent of the district and as a nationally-recognized education technology leader for his work in LKSD, he can proudly share how far they’ve come with technology and internet speed.
LKSD serves 22 remote villages spread over a remote area the size of West Virginia. Over 4,200 students are in the district, and the largest village school has a population of approximately 260 students in the K-12 grades. The smaller to medium-sized schools might have only 15 kids. A good 90-95 percent of the students are Alaska Natives, many of whom as adults will become leaders in their tribal governments, but who face language, economic and distance barriers. Considering these obstacles, one of the biggest challenges for the district has always been staffing for highly-qualified teachers in various subject areas.
Walker recalls the district’s early attempts to do the first two-way interactive virtual learning video conference as a way to solve this problem. But in those days, he would go out after every snowstorm, broom in hand, to shovel snow off the satellite dishes that delivered internet. “It was a struggle,” said Walker, and latency was poor. Since then, Walker has witnessed the district go from satellite to terrestrial internet, a transition that has broken down tremendous learning barriers for his students, helping them to catch up with their urban counterparts. The district now boasts the largest two-way interactive virtual learning video conferencing system in the entire state, with a latency of mere milliseconds. This is thanks to technology from Alaska’s largest ISP, GCI.
GCI was the first to invest in rural Alaska, said Pam Lloyd, the vice president of GCI Education and Healthcare. She and Walker work closely, advocating for internet access for underserved communities like those in LKSD. GCI invested in the TERRA project starting in 2009, a terrestrial, low-latency broadband service for rural regions in Alaska, but that middle mile is very expensive to maintain and continue building, explained Lloyd. The build out was an immense challenge, as most communities in Alaska in need of high-speed internet are far apart from one another and impassable by roads. Some can only be reached by prop or propeller planes. And the work is ongoing to reach other regions within the Arctic Circle.
“The first steps [with the video conferencing] was to give the kids access to a highly-qualified teacher in those upper level classes that they don’t have access to,” said Walker. “It’s pretty phenomenal how far we’ve come in even the past 10 years.” Teachers whose full-time job is to teach distance learning are stationed in the city of Bethel, home of the district’s central office, where there are three teaching studios equipped with the video conferencing technology. From there, a teacher might have 10 remote sites going at the same time, and anywhere from 1-10 kids in those village schools listening from their sites and engaging with the academic content they seen on screen. Courses range from math to robotics to photography to world languages—content expertise that would not be available to them in their remote areas without this high level of internet access.
And while most of the kids in the district have a cell phone, the school is still the primary source for them to get connected to high-speed internet. Homes are beginning to get broadband, but the cost of that is a true struggle for some. “I have families who must decide which light bulbs they should have on in the house and which should be off most of the time,” said Walker. The cost of electricity is just too high, and not just for families who live below the poverty line. In Alaska, everything runs on fuel, which gets shipped in over the summer.
One of the things Lloyd is hoping to do is to come up with a platform that routes to the school–not necessarily an internet platform, but one that gets to the school like a VPN at a much reduced cost. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to see that coming about in our company, to look at ways to help bridge the homework gap,” said Lloyd.
“It was not uncommon for me in my years as principal eight years back to have 15-20 kids sitting at the school at night, just so they could access the internet,” said Walker. And it wasn’t necessarily just homework they were trying to do. Sometimes they were just hungry for the experience of getting on the internet like their peers across the country.
Some of Walker’s former students now work for the district in Bethel. He spoke of one who went on to receive an associate’s degree, the first in his family to obtain a post-secondary degree. Walker strongly believes this was a result of the internet and technology opening doors for students like him.
Walker said another of the district’s biggest challenges is finding certified teachers who speak the native Alaskan language. The indigenous language is still alive and well, but there are only 18 percent of their teachers who speak it. In order for the first language program to succeed, the challenge is to create a sustainable pipeline of fluent, certified teachers. Now, thanks to the technology available in LKSD, the district has a program for teachers who are fluent in the native language to complete the necessary coursework online (paid for by the district) to become fully certified. The connectivity allows them to stay in their villages and continue teaching, which, for the Alaska Natives, is a game-changer given their strong, family-oriented culture.
But perhaps the biggest impact that high-speed internet has made on this region of Alaska is the ability for students to share their own stories and culture with the outside world, beyond Alaska. It just gives the students’ work all the more meaning, said Lloyd. “We’ve gone from an audience of one, to an audience of the world.”
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