When the plump seals, walruses and occasional beluga whale arrive in the frigid waters off this Bering Sea village, many plastic chairs in the Paul T. Albert Memorial School sit empty. But on a recent morning, with the big hunt still months away, five Yupik Eskimos were learning geometry.
“Who can name a pair of parallel planes?” asked teacher Kim Abolafia as she motioned toward a geometric shape labeled with an alphabet soup of letters.
Gerald Agimuk, a 17-year-old in Adidas sneakers and baggy black pants, shifted in his seat and answered. “Points D-E-A and C-F-B.”
“OK, good,” Abolafia said. “Good job.”
The scene here in Tununak seems as commonplace as the spitballs shot by restless students everywhere. But even for these teenage hunters, Abolafia was well out of projectile range -- in an office in Bethel, 120 miles away.
To get there, the village’s five algebra and six geometry students would have to hop on an all-terrain vehicle or a snowmobile, head to the local gravel airstrip, then board a small plane.
Now, there’s no need. Abolafia broadcasts math lessons via the Internet five days a week to 17 villages across the Kuskokwim-Yukon Delta, where 3,800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade are scattered across a school district the size of West Virginia.
Internet videoconferencing is helping to bridge the tremendous distances between students and the expert educators who are in short supply throughout Alaska.
Nearly all of Alaska’s 54 school districts have received broadband connections in the last few years, and nine of the most rural ones are using the technology to conduct online videoconferences. Students in secluded villages can take virtual field trips on dog sleds. Administrators can train teachers in far-flung locations.
“Even in the smallest, most remote schools, you can start to provide equivalent academic rigor,” said Chick Beckley, president of the Alaska Distance Learning Partnership, an organization of school districts and distance-learning providers. “It helps level the playing field by increasing education opportunities for rural students.”
The technology is still unreliable. Extreme weather and technical glitches can cancel virtual classes. Some educators are scratching their heads about how best to use the equipment. And many still doubt that Internet videoconferencing can ever take the place of a well-qualified teacher in the classroom.
But the variety of ways in which the nation’s emptiest state is using the technology offers a glimpse at the future of wired education.
“For years and years, distance learning was viewed as the second-best alternative,” said Melody M. Thompson, director of the American Center for the Study of Distance Education at Pennsylvania State University. “But the Internet has brought more exploration of the possibilities.”
With a road system the size of New Hampshire’s serving a state four times as big as California, Alaskan educators have a long track record of finding creative ways to reach students. Pilots once flew lessons to the Alaskan bush and carried the completed work back to teachers. Faxes, phone conferences, educational TV broadcasts and e-mail have been tried, with varying success.
Provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act have made Alaska’s search more urgent. By the end of the next school year, such core subjects as math and science must be taught by teachers designated as “highly qualified” -- those who hold a degree in the subject they teach or can pass a test to prove they know the material. Some rural teachers may get a reprieve but only for three years.
Meeting that requirement will be impossible in much of Alaska. Starting teachers willing to brave the isolation and bitter cold earn more than they can anywhere else in the country, but schools still lose, on average, about one-third of their faculty each year. Twenty percent of schools have three or fewer teachers. Most Alaskan teachers are generalists by necessity.
But some administrators are optimistic that they can overcome those problems with two-way videoconferencing and other high-tech strategies made possible by a federal program called E-Rate. Funded by a fee levied on U.S. phone carriers, E-Rate pays for as much as 90% of schools’ telecommunications equipment and services and has brought $75 million to Alaska in the last six years.
“E-Rate really has been a miracle for our state,” said Della Matthis, E-Rate coordinator for the state Department of Education and Early Development. “It has opened up so many things we never could have done otherwise.”
Three years ago, the Lower Kuskokwim School District went hunting for its first full-time videoconferencing teacher. They found Abolafia, who wanted an Alaskan adventure after teaching for three years in tough neighborhood schools in Jersey City, N.J., and Jacksonville, Fla.
Neither Abolafia nor her new bosses knew what to expect.
“A classroom teacher can be a mighty boring thing,” said Beverly Williams, the district’s director of academic programs. “When you remove the layer of a human being in front of you and just have a TV screen, then you can have a whole new level of boring.”
On a recent Monday morning in Bethel, Abolafia was trying to keep that from happening with some algebra “Jeopardy.” She rose from her desk and walked to a board filled with categories including “Square Roots of Perfect Squares” and “Inverse Operations.” Each school was given a chance to select a category and earn points by answering correctly in the form of a question.
A camera operated by remote control followed Abolafia as she moved, broadcasting her lessons via satellite to televisions in schools as close as Atmautluak, an 18-mile boat ride away, and as far as Mekoryuk, 155 miles away in the Bering Sea.
To demonstrate the solution to a problem, Abolafia wrote on a piece of paper beneath an overhead camera. The TVs in the schools showed a close-up of her writing. When a student pressed a button on the speaker-phone in front of him, his image appeared on a TV in Abolafia’s classroom and his voice came through the speakers.
Abolafia works alone in her classroom, but she’s not completely on her own. An aide or a teacher not certified as “highly qualified” mills about in each village classroom, collecting homework, emphasizing important points and making sure students aren’t sleeping or misbehaving while Abolafia goes through her lessons.
Abolafia can’t look students in the eye to tell whether they get what she’s saying. So she counts on the local instructors to tell her when the class is lost, because the students usually won’t.
“The hardest part is knowing whether or not they’re actually getting it,” she said. “I wind up talking to myself a lot, because they won’t answer me.”
The inevitable technology bugs don’t help. When Abolafia began teaching that morning, only four of 14 sites were connected. General Communication Inc., the local telecommunications provider, had made changes over the weekend that threw the system into chaos. For several days, some schools were unable to stay connected for more than a few minutes.
Educators in the Bering Strait School District, a few hundred miles north, know something about technical difficulties. Bringing their 15 schools online was a challenge -- especially on Little Diomede, an island with 146 inhabitants that is often inaccessible because of fog, precipitation and high winds.
On the first attempt to connect the island, the cable suspending GCI’s satellite dish from a helicopter snapped and the dish plunged into the strait. GCI landed a new dish on the second try, only to discover that the island’s rocky peaks were blocking the signals. The company finally erected a small antenna to siphon data from a satellite dish in Wales, across the strait.
“We’re not at the edge of the Earth,” said district Superintendent John Davis, “but we can certainly see it.”
Situated in northwest Alaska, the district overlooks the international dateline and Russia beyond. It’s the size of Minnesota but has only 1,800 K-12 students.
The district certifies teachers, holds meetings and lets high school students take college courses by videoconference. And there’s the twice-monthly Internet news program produced by students at Brevig Mission School.
Kids in Brevig Mission, population 276, rarely see students in other villages. They are six miles west of the westernmost paved road in the United States, the Nome-Teller Highway.
So they reach their peers through “The Voice of the Huskies,” a program beamed over the videoconferencing system to 15 schools. Brevig students use digital cameras and computers to shoot and edit segments on cheerleading, Eskimo ice cream (berries and sugar mixed into whipped seal fat) and the advantages of drinking water instead of soda.
Students this year launched a monthly talk show called “Talking Strait.”
“It’s such a digital world these days, it’s hard to get kids’ attention with just paper,” said Brevig Mission teacher Bill Bryson III.
Principal Jim Cammon is struggling to get Brevig off the state’s list of schools not making adequate yearly progress. As the district considers whether to hire teachers to offer advanced courses over the teleconferencing system, he’s hoping the high-tech approach will motivate students and improve test scores.
Some Alaskan educators, however, prefer a different form of high-tech distance learning.
The area around Kotzebue, an Inupiat Eskimo community of 3,082 above the Arctic Circle, is one of the most connected in rural Alaska. At the local outpost of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, officials hold meetings and train teachers by videoconference. Healthcare practitioners use the technology to get help from radiologists, dermatologists and other physicians in Anchorage and the Lower 48 states.
But college students in Kotzebue won’t find videoconferencing in their classes.
“It could be a videotape for all the interaction that’s going on,” said college director Lincoln Saito.
Instead, the school uses a system called Live Internet. There are no TV images, but students and teachers can hear one another. More important, their computer screens serve as virtual whiteboards. They can see the day’s classwork on the computer as they are doing it. It’s about “shared documents,” Saito said, not “talking heads.”
On a recent Friday, Dick Ellsworth, a professor at the college, sat before a Dell computer in a soundproof studio.
“Good evening, everybody,” he said into his microphone, sending his voice over the Internet to nine intermediate algebra students scattered across Alaska. “Looks like the tests just came in on the fax machine. Still warm.”
Ellsworth reviewed common denominators and the formula for computing the area of a circle. His calculations crawled across each student’s screen. Whenever questions arise, students can click the “raise hand” icon. They can type their questions or speak into their own microphones.
“It’s neat,” said Esther Smith, a technician at the local hospital who is taking Ellsworth’s class to prepare for her X-ray board exams. “You have everything right there and can follow along.”
Saito says he likes Live Internet because it provides nearly all the benefits of videoconferencing at a fraction of the cost. Anyone with a computer and the necessary software can join the lesson, and without streaming video it requires much less bandwidth. Plus, the classes are archived online, so students who are absent can catch up.
The Kotzebue campus offers math, chemistry, geography and Eskimo language classes through Live Internet. Saito said it helped to combat professor turnover -- chemistry is taught by a professor in Alabama who recently left Kotzebue to escape the frigid winters.
Algebra student Debra Troxell wishes she could have a flesh-and-blood teacher.
“It’s harder having to do it on the computer,” she said. “But we don’t have a choice.”
Despite some similar reservations and a freeze on federal E-Rate funds, state and local officials are plunging forward with plans for videoconferencing.
Students on St. Paul and St. George islands, at the tip of the Aleutian chain, are waiting to get connected so they can take their first live music lessons from teachers in Anchorage. The Southeast Island School District, south of Juneau, is eyeing videoconferencing as an alternative to flying speech pathologists to hard-to-reach areas.
Educators in the Lower Kuskokwim District have big dreams too. They hope to hire language arts and social studies teachers to broadcast lessons to villages, and to set up more videoconferencing systems in villages so parents and teachers can talk face to face instead of by phone.
It’s clear that none of them are looking back.
In her third year of “teaching math over the television,” as she puts it, Abolafia is calm and comfortable in front of the videoconferencing cameras. It’s when she visits bush schools for the occasional in-person class that her knees begin to shake.