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Washington's Connection to the Future

Washington's legislators took a unique stand on educational technology by mandating the creation of what became the largest educational network in the United States to date.

by / March 31, 1998
Washington state faces unique challenges. On the state's western side, the Seattle/ Tacoma area is heavily populated, economically strong and politically powerful. But on the eastern side -- separated from the west by the Cascade Mountains -- the state is dramatically less populated and wealthy, and it has far fewer resources.

Education is one area where the difference between the regions is dramatically different. In the past, when students relocated from one region to the other, or graduated from high school and moved on to one of the state's six universities, educators discovered the quality of education given to students was dramatically different. In some cases, the materials being taught weren't relevant or sufficient to ensure success beyond high school.

Though K-12 schools were reluctant to coordinate their efforts to address this problem, the higher education institutions were concerned enough to do something about it. "The six higher education institutions got together in 1996 and decided to pool their resources," said Clare Donahue, chief deputy director of the Washington Department of Information Services (DIS). "They wanted to use technology to connect to each other and share resources. The Legislature took a look at what they were doing and had some concerns about the fact that K-12 was falling so far behind. They wanted to get some technology going there, too," she said.

What started off as a legislative investigation into the use of technology in schools eventually led to the passage of Senate Bill 6705, which mandated the creation of what became the largest educational network in the United States to date. The enormous endeavor -- known as the K-20 Educational Telecommunications Network -- will eventually link all four-year colleges and universities, community and technical colleges, 296 K-12 public school districts, nine regional K-12 service districts, independent baccalaureate institutions, libraries and other community locations throughout the state. The network will enable all entities to utilize the Internet, satellite-delivered distance learning programs and videoconferencing.

"This opens schools up to a world of possibilities," said Steve Kolodney, director of DIS. "This creates an unprecedented equality of opportunity between the east and the west, and it opens up the resources of our high-caliber universities to students throughout the state. It's a remarkable step toward truly seamless education."

The Legislature, which appropriated $54.5 million for the project, placed DIS in charge of the network's development, with oversight from the Information Services Board and a 16-member Telecommunications Oversight and Policy Committee comprised of legislators, agency executives, the superintendent of public instruction, educators and the state librarian. But the Legislature also mandated something many people didn't like.

"The Legislature was very firm about its intention to make the network a means of collaboration across the educational sectors," said Kolodney. "The most persuasive element of that was the money. Money was put into a pot, and all of the sectors -- be they community colleges, K-12 institutions, etc. -- were told that the only way they could begin to develop a telecommunications infrastructure was to work together. The rules were that you come to the table; you hang your guns at the door; you give up your parochial views; and you talk about how a network can create integration among the various institutions."

DIS director
DIS chief
deputy director


Soon after the passage of SB 6705 in 1996, DIS began the process of bringing together representatives from every educational institution, the state government and the private sector to coordinate construction of the massive network.

"The first couple of meetings were very tense," Kolodney said. "But after a while, people began to understand that they all won as a result of their cooperation. That's not to suggest that there aren't traditions that die hard and there weren't fights for legislative authority or for money. But putting the money in one place under the authority of DIS -- a neutral party in this case -- with a mission that was clear, really forced everybody to think more cooperatively."

DIS Director Steve Kolodney demonstrates the K-20 Network's videoconferencing capability to some Washington state students. The state plans to create over 200 video classrooms statewide.

"The network had many of the same virtues and vices as a large IT project," added Donahue, who also served as chair of the Technical Working Group and the Finance Group. "The biggest challenge was bringing the sectors together to form a common vision of how this network was going to connect education in Washington. We spent quite a bit of time solving perceptions each of the sectors had about the other sectors."

One of the first and perhaps most important decisions the group had to reach was how the network would be built. After hearing from many private-sector companies about their options for wiring the state, the decision was made to piggyback on to the existing state government telecommunications infrastructure and portions of existing private telecommunications networks. "We were able to build the network as a virtual layer on existing physical facilities," said Donahue. "Bridges still had to be built to connect some areas, but because we were able to leverage a large existing investment, we were able to lower the cost of the entire network significantly."

Instead of one vendor taking the entire project, a number of companies -- including US West, AT&T, Sprint and GTE -- competed to build bridges for various portions of the project, which would further lower costs.


Last September, the state completed the first phase of the K-20 Network by connecting all nine K-12 educational service districts, the main campuses of all 32 community and technical colleges, and the main campuses of the state's six universities. Phase one was completed at a cost of $23.2 million -- $700,000 under budget, mainly due to the schools' ability to take advantage of the state's leverage as a volume buyer of telecommunications goods and services.

Phase two of the network -- which will involve connecting 296 school districts, 25 community colleges, and 46 additional branch campuses and extension centers for the four-year institutions -- is now under way. The plan is to get 80 percent of phase two done by June 1999, with the entire system operational by 2000.

In addition to linking campuses, the state is looking at setting up over 200 video classrooms -- 62 alone in K-12 schools. "It will be perhaps the largest integrated video-based network serving education in the country," said Kolodney. "Also, we'll utilize it for teacher training and to discuss educational reform issues, saving the time and money normally required for teachers to travel to meetings."


But getting schools connected in Washington is only part of the goal. The real result legislators want is to improve a student's ability to tackle an increasingly high-tech job market. While the connections are being made, educational institutions will still be responsible for providing the hardware, software, monitors and other equipment necessary to make technology a true classroom learning tool. Some help in that area can be found through the Universal Service Fund -- where individual schools can apply for discounted equipment and services -- but beyond that, it will depend on the schools.

Sen. Albert Bauer, who cosponsored SB 6750, believes most schools will successfully implement curricula that utilizes the new network. "Teachers see that their students will be able to access a huge amount of materials for their research, and they certainly want to take advantage of that. Also, teachers will be able to access material through the network to supplement their strategies for teaching certain subject matters. Materials can now be presented on the network that would not be available to the average school, and they can draw on these resources to give students a broader educational opportunity or expose students to the larger world."

While results in the classrooms remain to be seen, one of the benefits the network has already generated, according to Donahue, is a change of outlook among the higher education institutions. "Higher education has always been autonomous. But lately, they've been making a commitment to K-12 and understanding that education is inextricably linked from kindergarten on," she said. "That's created the concept of an entire educational system within the state, which none of the institutions wanted to acknowledge previously."

Kolodney said he's already seen benefits among adults looking to continue their education. As the Pacific Northwest slowly shifts away from the timber, fishing and agricultural industries that once supported it, people are looking for new ways to make a living. "People have to now think of different career paths -- different ways of supporting their families -- and education is absolutely essential to that, as are retraining and work programs. This network is opening up those possibilities," he said.

The K-20 Network may have gotten off to a rough start, but a year and a half later, it's well on its way to being the kind of network legislators envisioned for the state's students. "I think it took great foresight for the Legislature to do it this way," said Kolodney. "Traditionally, you give everybody a little bit of money and hope they work together, but it doesn't always happen that way. As it turns out, this network has generated a sense of pride in the state for the achievement, and there is momentum toward its continuing development."

ECS Did Its Homework
The Education Commission of the States releases a technology/education guide for legislators.

By Justine Kavanaugh-Brown
Features Editor
"Technology appropriately applied," wrote Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, "can improve learning outcomes, support differing learning styles, accelerate the transition to higher standards, make possible new types of learning assessments and quicken dissemination of what works." Branstad, who also serves as chair of the Education Commission of the States (ECS), penned those comments in a new ECS report titled Harnessing Technology for Teaching and Learning in Schools.

The report is a resource guide for policymakers. Its purpose is to strengthen understanding of several pressing educational technology issues. "[The report was designed as a] broad brush introduction [that includes] infrastructure, professional development, classroom methods and materials [and] funding," said Spud Van de Water, project manager of Chairman's Initiative at ECS.

In addition to examining pertinent education and technology issues, the report also lists many examples, contact names, suggested resources and Web site addresses, so readers can follow up on issues. Also, a section called "What the Research Shows" gives readers statistics from research studies that are positive toward students using technology in school. A section called "Have You Asked these Questions?" will help legislators focus on things they might have overlooked in the rush to get technology into the classroom.

Harnessing Technology also emphasizes the need for preservice or inservice technology training for teachers. It lists several examples from states using innovative strategies to do just that. For example, Pennsylvania produced a CD-ROM designed to help teachers integrate technology into the classroom. The CD-ROM includes tutorials for all levels of experience. Teachers can go through training exercises at their leisure, and aren't subjected to classes on technology they already know how to use. Meanwhile, Utah created the Flexibility with Technology Money Act, which allows school districts greater flexibility in designing inservice technology training programs. State legislators in California and North Carolina, meanwhile, are developing technology competency standards for graduating teachers.

The report recognizes that state leaders play a significant and ongoing role in ensuring a statewide infrastructure that makes technology available to students, classrooms, school districts and communities. It also encourages the formation of partnerships with federal and local governments -- as well as the private sector -- to aid in the design and maintenance of a technology infrastructure. While several state governments recently mandated education technology projects and initiatives, the report warns against that approach. "In general, state policy that builds in incentives and guidance is more effective than one that sets strict rules and mandates," it reads.

Technology funding issues are also addressed by recommending that technology is best approached as a stand-alone item. "Decision makers need to develop long-term ongoing funding strategies that rely less on one-shot investments," it says. "They should also include estimates for maintenance, replacement, security, ongoing training, technical personnel and instructional content."

The report also warns that school districts should avoid issuing bonds to finance technology purchases -- other than major infrastructure investments -- as the debt is likely to outlast the equipment and ultimately may create a taxpayer backlash.


Van de Water said ECS' main goal in developing the guide was to make it as informative yet easy to understand as possible. "I adapted the format from a wildly successful publication I did several years ago," he said. "My major concerns were keeping it short, readable and useful."

Van de Water also said ECS used a series of working groups to help shape the guide. "This helped us get up to speed in a hurry, focused our work, and gives a group of experts to call on in the future as we think about assisting states over the coming years."

For more information or to order a copy of "Harnessing Technology for Teaching and Learning in Schools," contact the Education Commission of the States, 707 17th St., Suite 2700, Denver, CO. 80202-3427. Call 303/299-3600.
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