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Lost connections limit learning in Carroll schools

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County looks to network with new tech firms for Internet access

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Given the chance, a Carroll elementary student would likely find a virtual tour of the Smithsonian museums more engaging than filling out a worksheet in class.

But if the teacher isn't able to bring the network up, then that student might just end up bent over those papers.

It's not that the worksheet isn't a time-honored educational tool. It's just that the virtual field trip via the Internet would capture that child's attention and keep it.

Classroom interruptions like that are happening in the nine Carroll schools that depend on wireless service to run their network, said Pam Burnette, Carroll schools' coordinator of technology services. Loss of connectivity creates a host of problems for teachers, students, administrators and parents.

As educators — and the division as a whole — have increasingly adopted the network- and Internet-based services, school doesn't function nearly as smoothly when the connections go down, Burnette explained to The Gazette. Nine schools, the Carroll County Education Center and central office all get their Internet service through a wireless network.

"Our connection between our schools is wireless right now," she said. "A wireless system itself has potential problems — weather, moisture, wind. We have lots of moisture. We have lots of wind.

"Think about Fancy Gap. Think about how the wind blows in Fancy Gap," she added. "Our environment in the area causes a lot of challenges with a wireless network, any network."

Carroll educators have embraced technology to bring more learning opportunities for students, Burnette said. That includes putting interactive smartboards in nearly every classroom in the county.

These interactive screens open up classrooms to web-based streaming videos, content meant to enhance the educational experience through showing clips of Civil War battlefields, caterpillars changing into butterflies, National Geographic videos and thousands more, she said. Teachers include that kind of content in their lesson plans.

"Teachers are striving to keep students engaged in class," she said. "That's what the students like, what online resources can offer."

Without the network being available, teachers may suddenly have to come up with another way to reach the students — like the time an administrator walked into a classroom and the teacher was digging through the closet, trying to come up with some materials after a network crash, Burnette said. 

Different kinds of connectivity problems have cropped up, she said — long outages or weak connections where some data doesn't get through.

Faulty, unreliable connections may require a teacher to reboot in the middle of class. "When you've got a 45-minute block, that takes time and it's frustrating," Burnette said.

St. Paul has been ramping up its use of technology in instruction by adopting the smart boards, as well as iPods and iPads, said Principal Nancy Wilmoth. She doesn't want to see the learning process disrupted by a slow network.

"With access to so much technology, teachers and students are experiencing a drastic decline in the ability to access online web-based learning programs," Wilmoth told The Gazette. "These programs have allowed us to engage our students in 21st Century skills and help students make a connection to real life experiences. The slowdown results in lost instructional time in our classrooms and in the computer labs."

Network problems go beyond the classrooms, too.

Data systems run administrative programs — to do that, the network needs to be running. These include the student information system; the parent portal (where parents can check up on their children's grades and assignments and other information); a system where parents go online to add funds to the cafeteria meals account; school library functions; division e-mail where every employee gets all their memos and online educational programs like Everyday Math.

Three schools run their phone systems through the network, so when that goes down, it greatly limits their communications, Burnette added.

A dysfunctional network also has impacts in the evenings, she said. Parents can't check their child's progress online or make deposits for student meals. "A lot of that is going at night when the parents are home."

School principals get calls from parents when the network is down, she said.

Carroll schools need a reliable network that will run night and day, Burnette said. Evening is when the technology department does a lot of its maintenance and system updates.

And, crucially, schools must have a reliable network because Standards of Learning test are all going online, she said. Bad connections during testing could cause irregularities.

Carroll schools started getting their wireless network service through the regional Wired Road program in 2007, Burnette noted. The agreement stated that fiber optic connections instead of wireless would be coming at some point.

The fiber has not been installed yet because of lack of funds.

With the increases in technology use, the schools need fiber connections more than ever, she said.

"We felt our demands were going to increase," Burnette said. "We have doubled the amount of bandwidth we need since last year."

The Wired Road has made proposals for improving the situation, like updating equipment and running some fiber to the schools it can reach.

Debbie Bolen, marketing manager for the Wired Road, referred The Gazette to the group's chairman or the secretary/treasurer for comment, who were both unavailable last week. 

Carroll schools have also reached out for other solutions with a general request for proposals, posted just last Wednesday. It asks for potential vendors to submit bids to provide high speed data services and high speed Internet access to the schools at speeds between 100 megabytes per second and 1 gigabyte per second.

These proposals will be reviewed by the school board in December with the goal of launching the improved network by July 2011.

How much will it cost? 

"I'm anxious to get the bids back in so we'll know," Burnette said.

Administrators are following all requirements of the federal E-rate program, so the work can be eligible for reimbursement.

Citizens could benefit from fiber being installed to schools, because homes could likely tap into the fiber, too, Burnette said.

Administrators like Principal Chuck Thompson at Carroll County Intermediate School look forward to going to fiber.

Though the connection problems may be worse at schools in the county, an improved network would ease concerns at CCIS, too, he said. There are times now when the load on the school's connection seems strained.

"Because we rely so much on technology from our management system to instructing students, then it becomes a bigger deal," Thompson said in an e-mail to The Gazette. "We become especially worried during testing time because virtually all of our SOL testing is done online. During this time, our capabilities are intentionally lessened in order not to strain the system."

Wilmoth has also come to the conclusion that fiber is the answer.

"We need fiber optics that provide high speed connectivity in order to meet the ever growing demand for internet access," she said. "The more innovative our technology becomes, the greater our need for more efficient Internet service."

Building a reliable network is essential for Carroll schools, Burnette said. "We want to make sure our students and teachers have the best access possible so education can occur."