Broadband Education Making Strides

Carl Weinschenk

Though it clearly would be a good enough justification, I am not writing this post because the name of the town mentioned in this Seattle Times story-Ten Sleep, Wyom.-is so cool. The real reason to write about the town is that something cooler is going on there.

 

People in Ten Sleep, population 350, are using Skype to teach English to people in South Korea.

 

The folks in Ten Sleep and other northern Wyoming towns work for Eleutian Technology, a company started by a man named Ken Holiday. Holiday had spent time as an executive in Korea in the 1990s and came upon the idea of teaching language online. The company now has almost 300 teachers and 15,000 students.

 

The story provides a great many details about company. The bottom line is that broadband infrastructure-which may or may not get a gussying up by the Obama administration-can be something of an equalizer between town and country and provide exciting new opportunities to rural and homebound people.

 

Education, of course, stands to gain monumentally. Last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty-a runner-up to Sarah You-Know-Who in the Republican vice presidential sweepstakes-set a goal of having 25 percent of credits from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities member organizations be awarded online by 2015. Last year, the story says, 9.2 percent of credits were awarded in this manner.


 

Not everyone thinks this is a no-brainer. This blogger acknowledges that online learning is a good idea, but thinks that mandating a certain amount of credits may not be a wise approach. He asks a number of reasonable questions. Among them: What happens to students without broadband access? How about those without good computers? Do all the teachers have the requisite skills? The point is that assigning a percentage requirement may be counter-productive.

 

While distance learning is universally lauded, it is likely there's an assumption that it doesn't quite measure up to the classroom version -- broadband is better than nothing, but not as good as being there. This may not be the case: eSchoolNews reports on the recently released National Survey of Student Engagement, which was conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. The bottom line of the exhaustive story is that distance learners feel they engage in deeper learning than their classroom-bound schoolmates. The story presents many statistics that explore respondents' conclusions. Some possible reasons-such as an older and more engaged base of participants-are offered.

 

This is an interesting, if a bit tangential, look at how online learning evolved in Australia. In the 1920s, a program called The Royal Flying Doctor Service was established to offer emergency care to the Outback. Children were instructed on how to use the radios. In the 1930s, a lady named Adelaide Miethke suggested using the system to teach kids. This, the story points out, was easy because the children already knew how to use the radios. The school has evolved: The last radio broadcast was in 2005. Now, the piece says, a two-way satellite broadband network is used. Each student is visited by his or her teacher at least once per year, and a carnival weekend is held for the students and their families to meet.

 

This is an extraordinarily long but worthwhile look at online learning. The author originally wrote the paper 10 years ago when he was a design specialist working on a project at Assiniboine Community College in western Manitoba, Canada. This is an updated version. The piece looks at technical issues such as storage and processing and more general educational topics.

 

WiMax is seen as particularly promising in rural areas, and figures to be a key conduit of broadband education. In Thailand, three organizations-Mae Fah Luang University, the National Telecommunications Commission and TT&T -- this month launched a WiMax network that will link to 21 secondary schools during the next three years. The president of Mae Fah Luang said that the network is part of a bigger distance learning undertaking.

 

At times, conceptual talk of broadband infrastructure can obscure the good things, such as remote and online education, that these platforms can provide.



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