BEEBE -- Elementary school students here have visited with a South African penguin hospital, learned from NASA officials, spoken with New Zealanders to understand time zones and conducted a virtual career day with former students from Louisiana to California.
The school district's Internet connection made all that possible, and Beebe Public Schools -- along with about 55 other districts across the state -- received an upgrade over the summer to vastly improve broadband speeds provided by the state.
"It helps Beebe to see that there's a world out there," said Dawn Clevenger, who teaches fourth-grade math, social studies and science at Beebe Elementary School, in a recent interview in her classroom.
Arkansas is in the midst of a project to provide high-speed Internet to each of the state's 276 districts. Progress on the new network -- maintained by the Department of Information Systems and built by about 20 telecommunications companies -- will pause for about a month to allow district information technology departments to deal with the return of students today.
Already, about 170 of the state's districts are on the new network since bids were awarded in mid-2015. The remaining districts should be hooked up by June, Mark Myers, director of the state Information Systems Department, said Friday.
When the job is done, every school in the state -- no matter how rural -- will have the same broadband speed per student -- 200 kilobits per second. Arkansas will also be one of three states where every student has access to broadband, Myers said.
Only two states -- Hawaii and Wyoming -- currently boast 100 percent connectivity.
"If you want to engage your students using technology and the Internet, here's the lesson plan," Myers said. "I think we as a state are truly moving -- and you can see it -- up the ladder nationally."
In Beebe, the district's Internet connection has already changed the way students learn and teachers teach.
Jessica Shirley, a third-grade teacher for the district, said every student in her class is assigned a Chromebook, a laptop that's more powerful than a smartphone, but less sophisticated than a computer running a Microsoft or Apple operating system.
Safeguarding those computers teaches students about responsibility and gives them a sense of pride, she said. Third-graders use the laptops to type assignments and email them to her, make slideshows and look up information using Google for Education, a software suite designed to make classrooms paperless.
Shirley also uses her school's broadband to upload videos of her classes to a Facebook page. When students are absent, their parents can go online and download a video of the class. Parents can also see what their children are working on.
"They love it," she said. "They feel involved in their kid's life and it creates such a good atmosphere between me and the parents."
Disciplinary points and demerits are also tracked using computers. The system automatically emails parents in either case, Shirley noted.
Broadband is more than an alternative to books, pens and paper, Clevenger said. The Internet allows students to interact with the world rather than just learning about it.
Clevenger -- who organized the virtual field trips -- said other teachers are adopting similar practices.
"Our Spanish teacher is planning to Skype with classrooms in Mexico because they're on the same time zone as us," she said. "That way we can help them with English and they can help us with Spanish."
And Clevenger said she's teaching the basics of computer science to fourth-graders using code.org. The website acts as a tutorial for students, who drag and drop blocks of code to help characters on the screen accomplish tasks.
Her fourth-graders also use Chromebooks. Like other programs and websites she uses, code.org is structured like a game.
The focus on computers is helping students become more interested in technology-related fields as they grow up, Clevenger said.
The district also has the state's only drone class, she noted. It also offers classes for building computers, radios and more advanced coding.
"Our technology, for being from a small town, is pretty top-notch," Shirley said.
Last school year, the state provided broadband at a speed of 50 megabits per second to Beebe schools. Data traveled largely on antiquated copper cable.
Like their counterparts in many other districts, school officials did not think that was adequate. Preston Perry, technology coordinator for the district, said Beebe Public Schools spent $2,500 per month buying additional bandwidth. About 80 percent of that cost was reimbursed by the federal government.
Even so, Shirley said one of her classes had to retake an ACT Aspire section because of a poor Internet connection, and Clevenger said her video chats with foreign students and domestic experts have frozen.
Today, students will return to a new fiber-optic network that transmits information as pulses of light instead of electricity to connect students to the Internet -- and the wider world.
The state is now providing 1,000 megabits per second to Beebe schools, a 20-fold increase. Perry said the new network seems faster, though it's hard to tell without hundreds of students taxing the system.
State action to upgrade the Arkansas Public School Computer Network came in part because of districts such as Beebe relying on two separate Internet providers.
The federal government objected to districts receiving Internet services from multiple sources subsidized by the Federal Communications Commission simultaneously. Arkansas has been under a waiver for the practice and because state broadband contracts match the start and end dates of the federal fiscal year.
State action was also spurred by problems with standardized testing, which has increasingly moved online, as well as rural districts without a commercial telecommunications company that could offer a high-speed broadband connection.
Connecting the state's 276 districts to the new network will cost about $50 million, though the federal government will pay for most of it. Myers said running the network will cost about $13 million per year at current speeds, but the federal government will fund most of that as well.
The state can quadruple the speed of the network without upgrading any hardware.
Myers said broadband would have changed his life were it available when he was in high school at the now-defunct Oak Grove High School in North Little Rock.
"My senior year of high in school, I got to go to Washington, D.C.," he said. "Myself and a guy from my school -- I still remember him -- shared a room with two guys from Texas. That was my first real interaction with people outside of Arkansas."
But with the new network, a student in Rison will have the same access to the Internet -- and the opportunity to speak with a South African penguin hospital -- as a student in Little Rock, Beebe, or elsewhere in the state, he said.
Drawing from experts worldwide, communicating in new ways and speaking to students from very different backgrounds will change education, Myers said.
"So much of how we drive cars, how we buy gas, how we pay our bills has fundamentally transformed in the last 50 years," he said. "And yet, it's only been in the last few years that we've began to see education transform through technology."
A Section on 08/15/2016
Print Headline: Net ties state's schools to world; All districts to be wired up by June