Building a Better Future

In 2004, Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell signed Act 183, establishing an "E-Fund" so that school districts throughout the Commonwealth without access to high-speed internet could purchase quality broadband access and service. Years later, how have these funds changed the educational landscape of Pennsylvania? In this case, educators and administrators from a variety of districts the discuss the implementation of Act 183, its effects, and how technology is changing the way learning happens, both inside and outside the classroom.

Educators discuss how Act 183 has brought broadband Internet access to rural parts of the state.

“‘Little old Greene County’ can do the same things Pittsburgh can do,” says Kristin Van Strien

One of the more compelling myths attending the increased connectivity that visited—and, in many ways, defined—the end of the twentieth century is that this connectivity would effectively shrink the globe, quickening communication and bridging the physical distance between communities both large and small. When broadband Internet access was integrated into Pennsylvania public schools, however, there was an unintended consequence. Larger districts, with their concentrated infrastructure and more extensive resources, were better positioned to take advantage of this opportunity than their smaller, rural counterparts. By passing Act 183, the Pennsylvania legislature sought to redress this imbalance.

Before Act 183, rural districts were stuck “paying an astronomical amount for a small amount of bandwidth,” according to Kristin Van Strien. Ms. Van Strien—an educator in Intermediate Unit 1—was referring to three counties in the predominantly rural southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, but her comment applies to rural districts throughout the state. This was largely a problem of technological infrastructure. Rural districts, with their low population density, paid more for less. Available bandwidth was so meager and Internet connections so slow that rural teachers were reluctant to use the Internet at all. Worse, it was this very lack of use that discouraged districts from paying for more bandwidth. Van Strien argued that the biggest reason teachers weren’t using the Internet’s educational capabilities was that “it was so slow they would lose the attention of their kids before they could even start a lesson.”

Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units Website

Total bandwidth by school district in PA before E-Fund

Act 183 broke this cycle by stipulating that each district pay the same monthly fee for broadband access. David Martin, of the Capital Area Intermediate Unit (serving Harrisburg and its surrounding counties) underscored the importance of this point. “Now districts are making the decision to increase bandwidth for curricular reasons, versus using cost as a reason not to expand.” Ms. Van Strien observed, “I have had teachers tell me that they feel more a part of the global environment because of what they can pull into the classroom. They feel like ‘little old Greene County’ can do the same things Pittsburgh can do.”

Total bandwidth by school district in PA after 3 years of E-Fund

Christy Savakinas, affiliated with the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit (serving three rural counties in far northeastern Pennsylvania) told us that the Act 183 grant “provided equal funding opportunities to all districts to ensure that a district, no matter how rural, would be granted equal access at equal costs.” Katie Wolfrom, from Intermediate Unit 5 (in the northwestern part of the state) shared this view. “Some of our wealthier districts could afford to take their students on some pretty far-away trips, and our rural students didn’t have that chance…. Now [the rural districts] are much more likely and able to take a virtual field trip. We’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of videoconferencing going on — in all districts, not just the rural areas.”

View Kristin Van Strien’s Critical Perspective. 

Increased broadband access has increased connectivity not only within—but also between—school districts.

Tim Devlin

The theoretical benefits of equal access are plain enough to see; it’s right that students throughout the state be granted equal opportunity. But Act 183 has also proven itself in realm of practical benefits. There has been a vast increase in connectivity both within and between school districts.

Kristin Van Strien and Tim Devlin discuss how Act 183 has increased connectivity within and between schools [dial-up OR broadband]

Available resources are increasingly shared across districts. In 2008, for example, administrators at Union Area School District—a small district in Western Pennsylvania—were unable to find a physics teacher before the start of the school year. But because of the videoconferencing equipment provided to each school as a result of the Act 183 grant, Union students were able to virtually attend a class taught by a physics teacher in the Clarion Area district.

School districts share a teacher via WAN

Additionally, over 20,000 instructional videotapes are being converted to streaming video for use by any teacher connected to the network. With multiple streams capable of coming into each classroom, more than 1,000 people can access the network at any time. Sal Russo (of the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit in Western Pennsylvania) said that “the ability to view an array of streaming videos on demand, as well as the ability of teachers to upload content, gives students and teachers alike resources that were not available before.” This streaming video library is segmented, which Gail Kennedy, Technology and Information Services Director for the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, told us, “allows [teachers] to teach to a specific piece of content and not have to show a video in its entirety,” thereby trimming wasted time from lesson plans. Kevin Andreyo, of the Berks County Intermediate Unit, spoke to the globe-levelling effects of Act 183: “the classroom has been ‘flattened’ in terms of Thomas Friedman’s Flat World. Students and teachers can now travel across the planet to visit museums, libraries, other classrooms.”

Kristin Van Strien and Tim Devlin discuss how Act 183 provides resources common to all districts [dial-up OR broadband]

Some new and far-reaching opportunities have been developed as a result of Act 183.

These technologies also have their applications beyond the classroom. Robert Lipton, who works in Educational Technology Services for the Berks County Intermediate Unit, described a teleconferencing initiative that reached beyond the classroom and into the community at large. On Mother’s Day 2009, “people volunteered their time,” he told us, “and they gathered the relatives and loved ones of service members over in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. We provided free videoconferencing for them to communicate with their soldiers. We could not have been able to do that without the Act 183 Grant.”

The opportunities of distance learning are ever more accessible due to the increased bandwidth provided by Act 183. Devlin explained that a Spanish teacher, Rachel Malinger, connected her classroom with the classroom of an English class in Spain—via video conference. They met for bimonthly video sessions, exchanging language tips, cooking lessons, and various other cultural tidbits. These video conference units (VCU’s) are inspiring a great deal of excitement among teachers and students alike. In September, 2009, for instance, Fox Chapel Area High School hosted the 2009 G-20 Student Summit. In addition to the 350 student representatives physically present to discuss global policy, students from a broader geographical area were able to participate via video conference.

Fox Chapel Area G-20 Student Summit

And in April, 2010, when Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss met with students at Linton Middle School, in the Penn Hills District, to tell her story and answer questions, students from six other schools were able to share the experience through video conferencing units.

Students in 7 schools connect with Auschwitz survivor

One VCU is provided to each district, with the addition of 10 roving units across the network. The purpose of these units, Devlin told us, is to provide a resource for creating “small, successful conferences.” A teacher of Mandarin Chinese from the North Career Center, for example, spawned a new Mandarin program in county schools that students from 10 different districts have been able to participate in via VCU. Mr. Andreyo told us that 11 districts were able to participate in an “Ethics and Technology Day” using the VCU system. A middle-school class has conferred with their contemporaries in Croatia. Middle-class students have conferred with poor students and compared notes on their schools’ different cultures. Incoming 5th-graders have had the chance to quell their anxieties about middle school by conferring with current 5th-graders. “The quality of video conferencing,” continued Mr. Andreyo, “surpasses anything we’ve ever had in the past.”

A press release outlining use of VCUs for distance learning

Kristin Van Strien and Tim Devlin discuss the applications of broadband technology in Pennsylvania [dial-up OR broadband]

Although it is stunning to witness Pennsylvania students communicating with others on an international level, distance learning has its more local applications as well. Dave Henrich, of the Schuykill Intermediate Unit, responded that, “our teachers are no longer isolated and limited by their resources. More e-mail exchanges are occurring between districts. . . . Teachers are looking for partnerships with other teachers across the county via videoconference and online instruction.” The idea of a “virtual classroom” is taking hold across the state of Pennsylvania. “This has changed the way people think about education,” he continued. “It is no longer limited by the walls of the classroom or the availability of a bus or car.”

This observation is especially pertinent because, as Ms. Savakinas pointed out, travel [had] become a large expense for districts. The ability to share information and resources instantly, without the time and expenses extracted by travel, has especially benefited those students taking classes at a Career Center. Because of increased Internet access, students can now study the theory portion of their career courses at their home schools. Each student is transported less, which saves the student’s time while saving the district’s money. Moreover, many students are finally able to participate in intramural activities because of their newfound time.

Dr. Ed Vollbrecht, Director of Teaching and Learning with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, discusses how technology affects the role of the teacher, and how technology allows students to prepare themselves for an unknown future.

“We’re way beyond the 3 x 5 cards,” says Dr. Ed Vollbrecht

One of the most profound effects of the digital era is the capacity for change—particularly technological change—to happen so quickly. In a sense, the future has never been less knowable. For educators, the question is no longer “how do we best prepare children for their future?” but rather, “how do we best prepare children for a future that we ourselves can’t see the shape of?” Dr. Ed Vollbrecht, Director of Teaching and Learning with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, argues that we must prepare our children to change. “Preparing kids for the twenty-first century,” he said, “is not necessarily constructed out of something we know. I think it’s more constructed out of something we don’t know.” Vollbrecht stressed that we strive to instill in students critical thinking skills, rigor, and—perhaps most important in a rapidly changing world—adaptability. “One of the greatest services we can do for students in schools,” he continued, “is to work with them in terms of how they can adapt to change, and be part of the change, or lead the change, rather than being victimized by the change.”

And with broadband Internet access available in so many classrooms throughout the state of Pennsylvania, the role of the teacher will necessarily be altered. No longer simply givers of information—since information is only a click away—educators must put themselves in the position to become “facilitators of learning,” Vollbrecht said. “Technology provides opportunities for cooperative learning that did not exist before,” he continued. Many such opportunities, as we’ve seen, have been made possible by funding provided by Act 183.

Ed Vollbrecht, Preparing Students for the 21st Century [dial-up OR broadband]

It is clear from speaking with any of these Pennsylvania educators that the globe-spanning initiatives made possible by this new bandwidth are only the first steps taken towards what promises to be a brilliant future in the communities of which these schools are an integral part. “The best is yet to come,” said Robert Lipton. “We’ve barely scratched the surface with this network. We’re like the Field of Dreams: we’ve built the baseball field, and if you build it, they will come. Well, I believe they’re coming.” But Lipton, like his colleagues, is careful to weigh the successes of the present against the demands of the future. “Having the infrastructure in place,” he reminds us, “doesn’t guarantee that it’s utilized. The infrastructure is here. We have found uses for it. But I believe there are many, many more uses that can be found.”

Ed Vollbrecht, Changing the Role of the Teacher [dial-up OR broadband]

The qualitative part of the E-Fund evaluation was conducted by CaseNEX, LLC. Quantitative research was done by Dellicker Strategies of Kutztown, PA.. To evaluate Act 183, CaseNEX interviewed Pennsylvania IU personnel through a series of Webinars—the first conducted during the week of November 17, 2008; the second during the week of May 11, 2009; the third during the week of December 14, 2009. These were organized by Dr. Jim Beeghley of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and moderated by Dr. Diane Reed of CaseNEX. Reed collected releases from the participants to allow use of quotations from the sessions. Tim Devlin, program director of instructional media services for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (serving suburban Pittsburgh), provided additional information via a recorded interview, as did Kristin Van Strien, an educator in Intermediate Unit 1, and Dr. Ed Vollbrecht of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.