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Local Providers Answer Demand for Newer, Better, Faster Tech in Education

by Jul 1, 2021Magazine, Telecom & Tech

Stephen Yi studies in UAA’s Consortium Library, which has remained open to students and researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Evans | UAA

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Alaska’s education system in a massive and indelible way. In the past year, schools at all levels partnered with telecommunication companies to implement technology on an unprecedented scale.

From rural to urban areas, K-12 and post-secondary schools have incorporated technology like never before to connect teachers and students remotely. Technology-savvy teachers have emerged as “superheroes” to facilitate the learning process through perhaps the most daunting year of their career. Ultimately, schools have been able to generate efficiencies in content delivery, enhance teaching and learning, and create other improvements that are expected to continue into the next school year and beyond.

Technology Levels the Field for K-12 Students

The public education system is rooted in tradition, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity for Alaska’s school districts to finally do something different. However, the use of technology in K-12 education is nothing new. School districts and teachers had already been relying on technology solutions to enhance instruction and provide personalized opportunities for students, according to Tamara Van Wyhe, director of innovation and education excellence at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development (DEED). “What’s new is the pervasiveness of the technology,” she says. “It’s been a really positive thing. Technology has leveled the playing field for students in a lot of school districts.”

During the past year, individual families have had the opportunity to take advantage of fully online courses through the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), an accredited, public, e-learning school serving students in grades K-12 in Florida and all over the world. “We knew the pressure on the system would be tremendous as schools were having to move things online,” says Van Wyhe. “Through the Florida virtual partnership, we were able to offer one layer of education to students… Through the summer, we were able to provide extensive training to teachers and educators to build our own virtual school.”

More than 300 educators participated in the training to establish Alaska’s statewide virtual school, and there were more than 3,500 seats for students who were taking courses, according to Van Wyhe.

Alaska DEED also purchased a one-year, statewide license for the Canvas learning management system. Canvas was an obvious choice; it was already being used in multiple school districts in the state—twelve districts by the summer of 2020. Plus, Canvas offers greater customization than the FLVS platform as it allows educators to create original content. The department has extended its contract with Canvas for the next two years—although Alaska districts are not required to use the online platform.

Page Brennan, right, head of instruction and research services, and Lorelei Sterling, left, interim head of access services, outside UAA’s Consortium Library, which has remained open to students and researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Evans | UAA

In addition, Alaska DEED has provided technical assistance to help school districts establish an online platform. Of the state’s fifty-four school districts, thirty-two districts are set up for online learning or are on the list to do so, according to Van Wyhe.

The implementation of technology at the K-12 level has varied across the state, depending on the needs, infrastructure, and personnel of each district. Implementation was also impacted by broadband or internet availability. Most students had access to devices, but some schools and students struggled with internet access, which was a key concern since most students were required to learn remotely during the pandemic. The districts got creative to address the connectivity issue, from letting students check out hot spots to use in their homes to offering Wi-Fi in the school parking lot.

When the use of education-technology tools increased, many educators discovered that they could do more with technology than without it, Van Wyhe says. At the same time, the value of teachers in the learning process has become even more obvious. “A big fear is that technology will replace the teacher, but that can never happen; the teacher will always be the most important variable in learning,” she says.

Remote learning has significantly changed the way content is being presented in education. For example, in middle and high school, instruction is traditionally delivered via lecture. With the infusion of technology and remote learning, students may be logging into the learning management system to watch a recorded lecture, do an activity and then have a classroom discussion about what they learned. “In a lot of ways, students are required to own their learning,” Van Wyhe says. “They can’t be passive; the students are really having to engage with content.”

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As another benefit, education technology platforms allow teachers to address the learning needs of individual students because they adapt to their level of knowledge and allow learning to continue even when students cannot physically attend class. And this can help close achievement gaps.

So what will the education landscape look like next school year? It will depend on what’s happening with COVID-19 in a particular community. “Alaska is a strong local control state when it comes to education, so districts and local communities get to decide,” Van Wyhe says. “In some cases, it might look like it used to in terms of schedules and attendance. In other places, they might take some of the best things about what we’ve learned about different models and put those into play. In some places, it might feel different with the hours and days of the week.”

Around the globe, K-12 schools are exploring whether students are learning as much remotely as they are with the face-to-face model where the teacher primarily presents the information. The initial indications are positive. Van Wyhe explains: “What we’re seeing right now with the data we have available is perhaps the learning loss isn’t as great as we thought it might be. It’s not as devastating as we might have predicted a year ago.”

UAA Increases Creative Use of Technology

UAA prides itself on having a well-established, robust faculty development program. So when the pandemic started, the Faculty Development and Instructional Support unit sprang into action to help faculty who had been teaching face-to-face move their courses online as quickly as possible. “We immediately started having workshops with faculty about using discussion boards, Zoom, and other technology,” says Shawnalee Whitney, UAA’s associate vice provost of faculty development and instructional support. “We started to put together a program where they could more systematically think about entire courses. In March, the goal was to get through the remaining assignments… Then we knew we had full courses coming up for the summer term and fall.”

The university used the PIVOT learning management system to help faculty convert their traditional courses to an online experience. Some courses went to synchronous, with faculty instructing a group of students on Zoom; others became asynchronous, with students accessing material independently.

The faculty response was amazing, says Whitney, who led the massive faculty training effort. “I like to say that what faculty have had is an immersion experience in the use of technology,” she says. “Many faculty who had taught largely face-to-face, they went to a much deeper level. I think, as a result of the immersion, faculty who go back to teaching face-to-face will be able to make better use of the technologies and deploy things they may not have been comfortable with before.”

Moving to a heavier reliance on technology also required UAA students to have access to technology solutions. Most students who were using smartphones or tablets had suitable internet access, but a small subset of UAA’s population didn’t have sufficient connectivity or devices, according to CIO Ben Shier. So the university did whatever was necessary to remedy the situation. It allowed students to check out PCs at the library, shipped out laptops, offered access to on-campus lab environments, and provided internet access through hot spots. “Credit goes to our telecom providers for working with us to provide options,” Shier says.

Signage around the UAA Campus with information about prevention measures in response to the spread of COVID-19.

James Evans | UAA

Another challenge for UAA involved ensuring students had access to special software required for specific programs such as AutoCAD, which is used in the engineering program. When the campus closed due to COVID-19, UAA leveraged government relief funds to quickly purchase and deploy a virtual computer lab environment that students could log into to access the software.

UAA also initiated various computer and smartphone apps to assist students during the pandemic. It launched CircleIn, a peer-to-peer remote studying app that allows students to connect, collaborate, and share helpful resources. The app is gamified; students earn points for sharing notes, answering questions, and completing other tasks. They can exchange their points for gift cards at places like Starbucks and Target and become eligible for scholarships ranging from $350 to $1,000.

The app is an extra incentive for students to do remote peer-to-peer studying, which helps to create important connections at UAA’s commuter campus, says Vice Provost of Student Success and Honors College Dean Claudia Lampman. “It’s also getting students in the class who are doing well to help those who are not doing well,” she says. “This is sort of that first-level help for students who feel more comfortable reaching out to a peer than to a professor.”

UAA also broadened its use of the Seawolf Mentor app as another way to help students succeed. Initially, the peer-to-peer mentoring program was restricted to first-time freshmen. As the pandemic unfolded, the university decided to offer the app to any student who wanted to have a mentor or serve as a mentor. Response to the voluntary, tech-based program has been incredibly positive. In the first couple of months, UAA had to expand the program twice. Currently, Seawolf Mentor has more than 600 matches of students, who reflect a diverse group—not just super-star students. “It was really nice to see more advanced students step up to be mentors,” Lampman says. “We decided to expand program even in the future [in the fall] and will have alumni mentoring sophomores, juniors, and seniors.”

To accommodate students during the pandemic, UAA allowed students to check out PCs at the library, shipped out laptops, offered access to on-campus lab environments, and provided internet access through hot spots.

James Evans | UAA

The application of technology during the pandemic has also had a more subtle effect for the university. For instance, it’s changed the approach for administering academic advising. Many advisers are using Zoom, which allows them to provide services at different times of the day and break advising up into smaller time units to address the individual needs of students, many of whom work thirty hours a week. Tutoring and academic coaching has also changed, with the university’s Learning Commons using technology to offer these services remotely. “Tutoring has increased during this time,” Whitney says. “It’s just a matter of needing to respond to where people are now.”

Lampman says the application of technology also has clearly transformed the way students have engaged in learning during the pandemic. Many UAA students went from having mostly face-to-face courses to taking classes primarily online, and only time will tell how digital delivery has affected the way students have learned. But Lampman is optimistic, saying: “Human beings are super adaptive and resilient, but I think everybody figured out how to make this work. On the whole, I am really impressed with how higher education was able to make it work for students. I think the faculty have done an exceptional job of providing really high-quality education to our students.”

Shier says it’s difficult to envision what the past year might have looked like if UAA had not had access to the kind of technology that it did. The digital transition was a “real crash course” in technology that the university in some ways had in place for a few years and was forced to test the limits of very quickly, he says. He adds, “We’ve learned that we can do things using technology in ways that we didn’t realize and weren’t comfortable with, and I expect us to rely on some of those efficiencies even as we get back to campus.”

“We’ve learned that we can do things using technology in ways that we didn’t realize and weren’t comfortable with, and I expect us to rely on some of those efficiencies even as we get back to campus.”

—Ben Shier, CIO, UAA

Expansion of Technology at APU

Like most post-secondary schools, Alaska Pacific University (APU) had already been employing technology to deliver many of its classes. But the pandemic made online classes an instant necessity for virtually all courses, so APU’s IT department quickly worked with technology vendors to make the digital transition happen. The university added network appliances and internet capacity to enhance connectivity for faculty, staff, and students. It also provided additional equipment like microphones and web cams so faculty and staff could continue providing quality courses.

Having more online classes during the pandemic has had a direct impact on the learning process for APU students, says Director of the Institute of Business and Public Policy Yaso Thiru. Students have become more self-directed, and there is greater flexibility for different learning styles, whether it’s listening to and watching lectures or reading and self-study. “Technology is pushing us to use all these different approaches,” says Thiru, a professor of accounting and management at APU. “In some ways it’s a blessing for meeting the needs of all types of learners.”

Thiru adds: “In many ways, the pandemic also provided an opportunity for not only students to learn differently and to continue to be in school but it provides ways for us who were teaching to share what we learned. There were many workshops where we shared best practices.”

Although the pandemic is a negative event, Thiru says it demonstrated everyone’s resilience—it made people collaborate more, figure out solutions, and make things work. Technology has also provided a convenient solution that has enabled students to continue to participate in school despite the disruption caused by COVID-19. She says: “All of our students were able to meet their graduation deadline in spite of this year of struggle, so that says a lot. Thanks to technology, it made it possible for us to do what we’ve always done.”

Thiru says she expects to see an even greater application of technology in education going forward. She says, “In general, I strongly believe this will be more of a trend in the future.”

Telecoms Partner with Schools

Telecommunications companies also devised creative solutions to meet the increased demand for technology-supported education. Last spring when it became obvious that schools would have to make major adjustments, GCI immediately reached out to help. “Our districts told us they needed to get the students at home connected to the school, so students could get resources to do homework, interact with teachers, and interact as much as possible the way they did in the classroom,” says Jason Tomberlin, senior director of the education team at GCI.

GCI leveraged the connectivity of its existing infrastructure—cable modems, DSL, and wireless—to provide internet access to homes in the school districts it serves around the state. “What inevitably happened is we provided a cable modem using our connectivity, but we are feeding a different internet connection at home the same as they would have at the schools,” Tomberlin explains.

The service, called Local Access, provides students with the same basic level of connectivity, filtering, and protection they would receive at school. Local Access, which was paid for by the schools, cost an average of $15 per household. GCI was determined to find a financially feasible solution for the schools, which had not budgeted for a pandemic but had to rapidly transition to online learning. “Initially, we gave free services upfront,” Tomberlin says. “That was the ‘leg’ while we were getting these products and solutions figured out, and we back filled with this very inexpensive solution.”

Many school districts would like to continue using GCI’s basic internet option, which should be feasible for the company to maintain in the future, Tomberlin says. GCI intends to continue working to optimize its services to meet the challenges of teachers and students throughout Alaska. “We’re not done,” he says. “We have lots of projects to change and improve the way we deliver services.”

An APU senior works on his Senior Project presentation due for delivery. Not just a grade, the senior is pushing to get the ice climbing manual published to help other climbers navigate Southcentral Alaska.

Alaska Pacific University

ASTAC Focuses on Connecting the Slope

When the pandemic hit, Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative (ASTAC) also quickly expanded its services to meet the increased demand of its customers. ASTAC enhanced its solutions in a few key areas—from mobile, residential, and business networks to Wi-Fi—and made other helpful adjustments. “We increased bandwidth and we forgave different costs because we knew the need was out there across the North Slope to make sure everybody stayed connected,” says COO Brian DeMarco.

DeMarco points out that ASTAC was among a number of telecoms that modified their services to respond to the unprecedented needs of Alaskans during the pandemic. “As operators and carriers, we came together and provided reliable bandwidth to make sure we got people through these challenging times,” he says.

ASTAC’s technology services allow students to access educational resources remotely in each of the eight North Slope communities it serves. It was especially critical for ASTAC to increase bandwidth for the North Slope Borough School District and Iļisaġvik College, located in Utqiaġvik. In addition, ASTAC supports a variety of school-related events that rely heavily on technology, including the Battle of the Books. The fun, online competition is a springboard that gets students excited about learning, and it serves as an important foundation whether they go on to attend a trade school or college, DeMarco says.

A UAA student uses UAA’s new WolfTracks App.

James Evans | UAA

ASTAC has been the sole sponsor of the Battle of the Books for the past seven years, donating $15,000 annually to help cover the cost of books, T-shirts, and trophies. “We’re very proud of our sponsorship and participation,” DeMarco says. “We’re even more proud that we’re able to bring internet to the community and provide that service so these types of events can be a reality.”

In general, DeMarco says he believes that technology has become the thread that connects people together, and it should be available to everybody. “Our goal is to put that technology in everybody’s hands so that everybody can be connected,” he says.

MTA Fills Technology Gaps in the Valley

The entire Mat-Su community needed internet to stay connected during the pandemic, with students as one of the groups in most urgent need of a reliable connection, according to Wanda Tankersley, COO of Matanuska Telephone Association (MTA). So MTA felt it was important to look at the more vulnerable members of the communities who couldn’t afford internet and struggle to get technology like laptops but still had young children needing to learn. “It’s almost impossible to learn in today’s world without the internet, so this was an urgent matter,” she says.

Ultimately, MTA initiated a program with the Mat-Su Borough School District and Mat-Su Health Foundation where it reached out to families—identified by the district as those that didn’t have any internet—and set them up with reduced-cost internet service, ensuring students’ connectivity for online education. This was another step in MTA’s continued closing of the digital divide that had been further exposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Tankersley. Prior to this, MTA installed temporary Wi-Fi locations that appeared throughout the Mat-Su area in 2020 and provided connections for any Mat-Su students who needed it earlier in the pandemic.

“MTA’s mindset is that it’s incumbent upon all of us to do everything in our power to make sure all Alaskans have access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection and to help instill the skills and knowledge to do great things with it,” Tankersley says. “Whether it’s related to the pandemic or not, our hope is that MTA can continue to fill gaps in the digital divide until there are no more gaps to fill. Through wildfires, earthquakes, and most recently the pandemic, we’re always ready to jump in and adjust our services to focus on what the community needs at that time, and that’s what we’ll continue to do regardless of what crises may lie ahead.”

“What we’re seeing right now with the data we have available is perhaps the learning loss isn’t as great as we thought it might be. It’s not as devastating as we might have predicted a year ago.”

—Tamara Van Wyhe, Director of Innovation and Education Excellence, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development

Enjoy this story? Check out other in-depth articles in our January 2021 Digital Edition.

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