Schools receive distance learning technology

Efforts to provide distance-learning technology for Shelby County Schools recently received a boost from lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Bill Armistead.

Distance-learning technology allows classes taught in one high school in the county to be taught in all the high schools or for participation in interactive programs where students can, for instance, actually talk with the crew of the space shuttle.

On Tuesday, Sept. 24, Armistead presented Shelby County School Superintendent Evan Major with a check for some $171,537 earmarked for the distance-learning pilot project. And according to Cindy Warner, public relations supervisor for the school system, the funds will cover half the estimated $278,000 cost.

Armistead said Major told him about the need for distance-learning funding to purchase the necessary

state-of-the-art equipment.

He said he began looking for available funds which he said he was able to put together from the state Education Trust Fund.

&uot;I think the possibilities with distance-learning are unlimited. It’s certainly the future of learning and education, and I’m glad we’re able to put Shelby County on the cutting edge,&uot; Armistead said.

&uot;What is exciting is to see the students in the classroom interacting with each other and students in other countries.&uot;

He said students studying a foreign language could actually talk to students who speak that language.

&uot;It’s just limitless what can be done,&uot; he said.

The check presentation at Oak Mountain High School followed closely on the heels of a distance-learning technology demonstration at the school board’s Sept. 19 regular meeting.

Guest speaker Marcia Powell of San Antonio, Texas, demonstrated two-way video and audio equipment already purchased by the school system for use in distance-learning education.

Powell is president of Vibrant C, a videoconferencing consulting service.

During the demonstration, those attending the school board meeting in one room were able to see and converse with Susan Poling, who serves as technology supervisor for the school system and who was located in a room across the hall.

In turn, Poling was able to show those in the school board meeting room projection materials and other three-dimensional objects such as those that would be used in a classroom setting.

&uot;Courses that might typically be offered at one campus but not another could be offered at all campuses,&uot; said Powell of distance-learning.

She said the technology could allow students to get dual credit for courses in both high school and college and teachers to take master’s courses.

Powell also said distance-learning enhances each school’s curriculum, and &uot;students get excited about sharing what they’re learning.&uot;

Among the possibilities she listed were joint projects, joint teaching, parent and community outreach across the school district and enhanced school curriculums.

Powell said computers could be hooked up for distance-learning, and she showed a video of children actually talking to astronauts in the space shuttle.

Powell compared the possibilities of distance learning technology to catfish who will grow as big as their environment will allow.

She recalled the tiny catfish that swam the bottom of her aquarium and the giant catfish said to be large enough to swallow a human at the bottom of a 500-foot deep lock.

Then, she asked the school board &uot;how big&uot; it was

going to let the catfish grow.

According to Warner, the remainder of the money for the distance-learning pilot project will come from local funds and grants.

And according to Poling, the distance learning pilot project should be implemented at all eight Shelby County high schools by October.

&uot;The equipment for the project is in,&uot; said Poling.

&uot;BellSouth is currently working to upgrade the telecommunications network at the schools and that should be ready by October. We really appreciate all the hard work that BellSouth and CISCO Systems has put forth to assist us with implementing this project.&uot;

Dr. Charlotte Draper, assistant superintendent of instruction for the school system said, &uot;Our goal is to provide high quality instruction for our students.

&uot;We hope to eventually be able to offer more courses of study to our students and to expand the walls of our classrooms. Once we have piloted the project in our high schools, we will also evaluate to see if there is a possibility of expanding it to our other schools.&uot;

According to Warner, projected uses for the distance learning project include: virtual field trips all over the world, collaboration with other students on shared instructional projects, immediate dialogue and exposure to well-known scientists, authors, etc., practicing language skills with speakers in native countries and professional development of staff.

She said Oak Mountain High School will be using distance-learning capabilities to participate in the UAB Eureka Project, taught by Dr. Flowers Braswell.

The Eureka Project will give students the opportunity to sit in on Dr. Braswell’s Medieval Literature Classes in order to experience what a college course is really like.

Draper said advanced placement teachers from all eight high schools participated in a two-day workshop on the distance-learning project at the Shelby County Central Office on Sept. 19-20.

She said teachers were invited to explore the possibilities that distance-learning will open and to gain hands-on experience using the equipment.

Draper stressed that AP students will play a major role in the piloting of the project but that all high school students will have the opportunity to utilize the equipment once it is fully implemented.

&uot;We are basically starting small, but will continue to grow as we train our faculty and as other opportunities become available for using the equipment,&uot; Draper said.

&uot;We also have to expand the project as our budget and staffing needs will permit.&uot;

Shelby County School Superintendent Evan Major said of the grant from Armistead,

&uot;We very much appreciate the generous allocation of funds from (state) Sen. Armistead for our distance-learning project. We certainly would not be as far along with the project it wasn’t for his support.&uot;