Fast Lane : Schools Across County Slip Into High Gear and Move Onto the Information Superhighway

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vowing not to let the future bypass public schools, Ventura County educators have begun hitching their wagons to the information superhighway.

From Ventura to Thousand Oaks, some pioneering teachers have strung phone lines to their classrooms and linked students via computer and modem with libraries, newspapers and other schools worldwide.

At Buena High School, the push to modernize is moving into high gear with installation of a fiber-optics cable system that will give every classroom in the school access to electronic information networks by fall.

Bringing computer services such as Internet and America On-Line into the classroom allows students to become computer literate in an increasingly high-tech world, said Don Goetzinger, a science teacher at Thousand Oaks High School.

"Students, when they get to college, are going to find themselves out to lunch if they're not doing this," said Goetzinger, one of the first teachers in Ventura County to go on-line last year.

But more than increasing computer skills, the interactive technology makes the world more accessible and meaningful to students, said Susan Thee, another science teacher and Internet convert at Thousand Oaks High.

For instance, the technology allows students to independently investigate medical advancements by dialing up the latest research or test weather patterns around the globe by hooking into the database of a supercomputer used by scientists.

"I couldn't contain the books in this classroom that I can access on the computer," Thee said. "I'd have to stack books to the ceiling with no room for kids."

Recognizing the need to start gearing schools for the 21st Century, the state has funded a training program for teachers, said Cliff Rodrigues, director of media, technology and bilingual education for the Ventura County superintendent of schools office.

"Slowly, very slowly, teachers are getting into the superhighway," Rodrigues said.

Marilyn Renger, a Balboa Middle School teacher in Ventura, is one of 18 teachers statewide chosen to be trained in the technology. A mobile computer lab will be driven around the state this summer so that teachers can be trained.

The volume and immediacy of information available through computer services is unmatched by any library, Renger said.

At Balboa, students began logging on to Internet in January to research term papers and chat with pen pals in San Francisco, Renger said.

Eighth-grader Amanda Schneider said it's only been a few weeks since she and other students at Balboa began having electronic conversations about journalism with their peers in two Northern California schools. Next, the students hope to link up with a school in Australia, Amanda said.

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"I've never seen anything like it before," she said. "It's cool that we can share ideas and communicate with people we don't even know."

All the while, students are learning by correcting each other's grammar and spelling to make the best impression for their school, Renger said.

"You cannot de-emphasize the enthusiasm factor of (students) working with technology," Renger said. "It's the Nintendo generation."

Not only do students benefit from the electronic messaging capabilities on-line, Renger added, but teachers can ask for help and share ideas with each other like never before.

"We all have something to teach each other," Renger said.

Besides tapping into library card catalogs and talking with people around the world, Internet and other information services allow students to retrieve the latest information from newspapers, magazines and research periodicals.

"Maybe in a few years this will all be ho-hum, but right now the kids get bug-eyed when they see this stuff come over," said Bill Allmen, a computer and calculus teacher at Buena High School who chairs the school's technology committee.

Some services provided through the system are more specialized. Offshoots, such as LabNet, are tailored to science educators.

At Thousand Oaks High School, students conduct experiments on global climate by shipping their data to a supercomputer at Lawrence Liverpool National Labs, a tool used by professional scientists in real-life experiments, Goetzinger said.

Students, for instance, can study the effects on Africa if they were to raze the tropical rain forests in Brazil. The supercomputer supplies information on changes in temperature and precipitation that would be caused by the cutting of the forest.

The students then must analyze the meaning of the raw data from the supercomputer by researching native plant and animal species in Africa and studying the climatological conditions that they need to survive.

"Teachers in the past have taught students how to memorize information, but they need to know how to access it, how to utilize and analyze it," Thee said.

Students in Thee's class said they learn better by seeking out information and applying it themselves.

"It makes it more interesting than reading it out of a book," freshman Peter George said.

Students at Redwood Intermediate School in Thousand Oaks use LabNet to conduct experiments and then swap data with counterparts in England or Russia, science teacher Craig Fox said.

Even the Conejo Valley's youngest students are getting exposure to the latest technology at a few schools in Thousand Oaks, including Walnut, Banyan and Madrona elementary schools.

While her students were studying weather, Walnut Elementary School teacher Marie Galanda was able to discuss gulf streams and cold fronts by calling up that day's national weather maps and displaying them on a television set connected to the computer.

Just five weeks into using the system, the youngsters conduct research on it and electronically ask questions of high school science teachers if they can't figure something out by themselves, Galanda said.

"Now, every morning, it's, 'Do we have any (electronic) mail? Can we get on-line and see?' " Galanda said.

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Although a lack of money has hampered efforts to bring technology into public schools the past 15 years, many districts have made it a priority to purchase computers, Goetzinger said. Beyond that, the modems and phone lines needed to connect computers with the outside world are not too expensive, he said.

One obstacle that prevents some schools from jumping on the superhighway bandwagon is that teachers often believe the technology will be difficult to learn or will add to their workloads, Goetzinger said.

"Money is part of it, but I think the main problem is lack of willingness," Goetzinger said.

In Simi Valley, officials are looking at ways to extend phone lines to classrooms inexpensively so teachers can subscribe to Internet, said Lowell Schultze, the district's technology director.

"We're taking it a step at a time," Schultze said.

In the Oxnard Union High School District, officials have brought four libraries on-line and a few computer labs have hookups, said Harold Venable, the district's coordinator of educational technology.

One reason more widespread hookups have not occurred is the limited number of access points, Venable said. More people jamming fewer entry points into the Internet system can cause slowdowns during peak hours of usage, Venable said.

"The big problem with the information superhighway is that it's more like a rocky road with very few on-ramps and off-ramps," Venable said.

But Buena High's Allmen sees a reverse scenario that could slow the ability of schools to use interactive technology. As the system evolves and grows, the now minimal cost of dialing into a system could become prohibitive, Allmen suggested.

"Ongoing costs could be the biggest thing to slow people down," Allmen said.

Most school districts log on to Internet for the cost of a local phone call by dialing through an intermediary system at the Ventura campus of Cal State Northridge, teachers said.

Although it can be hard to log on during busy times, once a connection is made there are no time or access limitations, Goetzinger said. Redwood Intermediate School teacher Craig Fox agreed that the Internet's advantages far outweigh any drawbacks.

"When people start seeing its possibilities, they're going to start demanding it in their classrooms," Fox said.

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