Teachers, students, and administrators in several Texas school districts have discovered the educational benefits of advanced technology in a new state-of-the-art training lab. To ensure that all its constituents have access to the kind of computing equipment available in affluent districtsand in today's job marketa forward-thinking state agency has equipped the lab with high-performance PCs and network-switching technology. The training environment has proven powerful enough to satisfy today's Internet-savvy K-12 crowd and robust enough to withstand the sort of experimentation that's essential to genuine learning.
By current estimates, the state of Texas will begin the school year with a shortage of 3,000 teachers, a shortage forecasted to grow tenfold by 2010. In such a climate, educators are looking to technology and the Internet to help them offer compelling new ways of providing instructionthrough distance learning, self-paced courses, and online lessonsas well as a logical resource for all subject areas. For assistance in integrating technology in the schools, educators in north Texas rely on the Region 10 Education Service Center, one of 20 state agencies that provides services to school districts within defined geographical areas. Located in a suburb of Dallas, Region 10 ESC offers services that affect more than 500,000 students and 40,000 educators in 81 public school districts, several charter schools, and numerous private schools in nine counties. In all, the agency delivers services ranging from health and nutrition education to teacher training and certification courses to students, teachers, and staff at more than 900 campuses.
To facilitate training in computer technology, Region 10 ESC began providing three labs at its headquarters. These labs proved to be so popular that agency administrators knew they needed to expand the service. So they teamed up with Intel Corporation and M&A Technology, a local system integrator, to build a new training lab. The lab opened its doors in late 1999. Since then, it has provided training to some 100 students, teachers, technology educators, and district administrators.
At the lab, teacher training focuses on integrating technology into the existing curriculum and developing interactive Web pages. Technology coordinator training emphasizes the technical side of integrating technology into the classroom. Student training helps to familiarize district students with the latest generation of computers.
Also popular at the new lab are A+ technical training and Network+ training, programs designed to help prepare high school students for national exams that will earn them the certification they need as entry-level technical workers. Besides readying students for these important certification tests, the classes also benefit district schools. With a crop of budding technicians on hand, schools can do much of their troubleshooting internally, rather than paying for outside help, thus keeping networks running at less cost. Some schools even pay students through work-study agreements.
Region 10 ESC also uses the new lab to provide training underwritten by the state's Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF). By taxing pagers, cellular phones and similar devices, the fund is making $1.5 billion available to schools as technology grants of up to $100,000 per campus. To earn TIF grants, schools must have six teachers or administrators complete nine days of technical training in the lab on such topics as multimedia, curriculum integration, and the Internet. When space is tight elsewhere, the lab also serves as a venue for the agency's routine training in software applications. For example, the lab might be pressed into service to train teachers how to integrate Microsoft* Word or Excel* into the classroom.
Region 10 ESC's technology mission is twofold. One, the agency seeks to provide districts with internal support for their computers and networks by producing students and faculty who can help schools maintain their level of technology. Two, the agency seeks to provide opportunities for students to learn technological skills that can better prepare them for the future. Both goals require training in current technology.
The agency's new training lab includes a dual 600MHz Intel® Pentium® III Xeon" processor-based server, 20 600MHz Intel® Pentium® III processor-based desktop systems, and a 26-port Intel® switch that ties the server, the workstations and Internet access together with 100Mbps connectivity. A T-3 line helps to ensure robust Internet connections.
The server runs Novell NetWare* as the network operating system. Also, for Network+ classes and TIF training, the server runs administrative software so students can learn how to set up accounts and other aspects of administering a server. Further extending its role in training, the server runs diagnostic software so students can learn to determine which parts of a network are slow, whether a switch is running optimally, and so forth.
The Pentium III processor-based desktop systems used as training stations run primarily Windows* 98, but the operating system occasionally is changed to Windows 2000 or Windows NT* to meet training needs. Typical desktop applications include Web browsers, such as Netscape Navigator* and Internet Explorer*; productivity software, such as the Microsoft Office suite; and FileMaker* database software.
The switching solution offers two benefits: (1) a networking model for school districts to emulate as they look at ways to tie campuses together, and (2) a safe environment in which kids can "take risks" and thereby learn by experimentation.
"A lot of our schools still have a hub architecture," explains Michael Moline, Region 10 ESC senior technology consultant. "Here in the lab, they can see what a big difference switches make when multiple machines are going to the Internet at the same time. The switch also performs the function of isolating us from the rest of the M&A Technology company network, so we can play around and drop in Linux* servers or NT servers without jeopardizing our host's equipment."
Although its service area includes districts from all socioeconomic segments, Region 10 ESC is providing training region-wide on the kind of systems that are found most commonly in affluent districts, schools and homes, and in the larger job market. Students, faculty members, and other school district personnel who have used the new training lab give it high grades for performance.
"People are very pleased with the lab," says Denise Kanaman, Region 10 ESC instructional technology consultant. "They're impressed with the fast Internet access, the powerful equipment, and the speed at which they can load Web pages."
One performance advantage that trainees discovered quickly is the ability to work in several applications at once. While working on the Internet, for example, students can simultaneously download information into a PowerPoint* presentation and keep a Word document open. According to Moline, multitasking may be the norm in the business world, but the practice was a real problem for students and teachers without the power and stability of a high-end platform. A speedy computing environment also means trainees spend more time learning and less time being frustrated.
Moline notes also that kids today come into the school environment knowing more and thus can do more with technology. He cites a recent case in which students working in the new training lab set up a multi-machine network-gaming simulation that "floored" the center's technology consultants.
"The minimum requirements for this to work were 128 megabytes and high-end processors, so we know there are a lot of things that students are now doing that just could not be done on the older technology," Moline says.
To further explain how Region 10 ESC's state-of-the-art technology translates to better education, Moline notes that Texas encompasses some of the biggest and some of the smallest school districts in the country. The smallest don't have the personnel to offer kids the experiences that Region 10 ESC now provides, he says, nor do many of them have the personnel to train their teachers to fully use available technology.
"We've been able to help teachers learn how to integrate technology into the core curriculumscience, mathematics, and social studiesas well as provide students with the opportunity for high-end technical learning that they simply would not have had otherwise," Moline says. "In short, the lab enables us to demonstrate good solutions for students, for teachers, for technology coordinators, and for administrative needs. And then, as a state agency serving many districts, we can replicate those solutions to meet the needs of the different schools. When you see technology in action, you learn to trust that technology."
- Region 10 Education Service Center*