Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Transforming Rural Alaska through Wireless Technology in the Schools and Community
by Martin Cary

Village of Bethel

In remote Alaskan villages, the public school is usually the center of the community.  Often the largest building, the school frequently functions as a town meeting hall, a recreation center, the town library, and—in the past few years—the technology hub.  Through the Universal Services Fund or "E-Rate,"a federal program that helps make telecommunications equipment and services affordable for rural and disadvantaged schools, Alaskan students and teachers have high-speed Internet access in the most remote villages.

Broadband Internet in the schools has not only given teachers more resources to better educate students and engage them in learning, it has helped to transform many remote Alaskan towns by providing better access to news and information, improving communications with family and friends, and making fundamental tasks such as shopping quicker and easier.  Even though federal regulations have in the past prohibited the use of the E-Rate funded telecommunications equipment and services by any entity other than the school, the positive impact of the improved technology has snowballed and now affects the entire village. 

Advancing Internet Access
Innoko River School
Innoko River School

Before 1998, Joy Hamilton, one of three teachers in the Innoko River School, a multi-grade K-12 school in Shageluk, Alaska accessible only by air or water, had little access to teaching resources for the 30+ students.  The 130-resident community received the daily newspaper days after publication and possessed only a small school library that shelved about 500 outdated books, selected at the discretion of the previous teacher.  Eight years ago, when she wanted to have her high school students complete a research paper on world inventors, she could not find a single book to use.  A few years later, a $6/hour dial-up connection and spotty, unreliable access enabled Hamilton to receive text-based information, and to communicate with a New Hampshire-based teacher named Bill Hollis, who hosted the website. 

In 1998, General Communication, Inc. (GCI), an Alaskan-based telecommunications company with expertise in delivering Internet services to rural schools, helped the school to apply for—and win—federal funding to upgrade their primitive connections.  Through E-Rate funding, the Innoko River School received a satellite dish and server from GCI as well as 24x7 support from a team of education technology specialists, e-mail, content filtering, web hosting, caching and network authentication—all services bundled within a GCI product called "SchoolAccess."

Improving Student Learning

Teachers throughout the Iditarod Area School District use the Internet in a variety of ways to provide more hands-on learning for their students by creating their own programs and joining others.  When the famous Iditarod dog sled race passes through the town, as it does every other year, Innoko River School students are out on the trail interviewing mushers, making iMovies, and posting their projects and reports on the school web site.

Village of Selawik
The remote village of Selawik lies even with the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska.

Hamilton also has her students track the progress of other key animals in Alaska life—migratory species.  With broadband Internet, Hamilton can better engage her students in education programs such as Journey North, a national Annenberg Foundation project that teaches students about migration, enables them to track the paths of migratory species, share their field observations via email with students across the Hemisphere, and learn directly from scientific experts who work with the students.  Mostly Deg Hitan (Native Alaskans from this area) who rely on subsistence activities, the students learn about a topic relevant to their way of life in a way that incorporates myriad academic disciplines—language arts, social studies, science and math—to create a well-rounded lesson.

Hamilton also enhances her curriculum through current events, which especially since September 11th and its aftermath, provide a critical basis for classroom lessons.  Before the advent of Internet access, students, teachers and the rest of the Shageluk community received national and worldwide news late as the daily newspaper is delivered several days after its publication and the one television station frequently fails to work.  The ability to instantly access news sources and live web casts from around the globe has reduced isolation and help to engage students in world events.  "They now know—and care—about what's going on," notes Hamilton.  

Students at June Nelson Elementary School
Technology isn't everything! June Nelson Elementary student, Sarah Lee, takes some time to read with friends.

Karl Kowalski, a technology coordinator in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, located in one of the most remote areas of Alaska, most of which is above the Arctic Circle, agrees. "Students are more engaged in learning, excited about school, and have a greater awareness of the larger world." Teachers in his school also use the Internet in a variety of ways to provide more hands-on learning for students, especially with a program called "E-Pals."  With E-Pals students interact via email and discuss current events, sports, climate and cultural differences, while they practice their writing.  "Students learn lessons unavailable in any textbook," continues Kowalski.  Landon Shuster, a middle school student in Kotzebue, provides a case in point. "I started a stock market simulation game that I couldn't have done without the Internet.  I think it's a lot easier to check your stocks on the Internet than by phone or radio.  The Internet at school gives me the ability to do that."

Connecting the Community, Reducing Isolation
Map of U.S. with Alaska inset
The Remote Village of Deering - The remote village of Deering, (pop. approx 150) lies 30 miles below the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska. The Deering School is part of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District.

For most Americans, the Internet provides quicker and easier access to information they have always enjoyed through television, daily newspapers, and the telephone.  For remote Alaskans, however, the Internet functions as their window to the outside world and provides a wealth of information previously unavailable to them.

It is difficult for people in the "Lower 48"—what Alaskans like to call the continental U.S.—to understand exactly the remoteness of Alaskan towns and the vastness of the state.  One-fifth the size of the continental U.S., Alaska dwarfs the state of Texas or a good percentage of Western Europe.  A limited highway system makes travel by air and sea the requisite means of transportation.  Remote Alaskan residents often lack phone lines, television access and running water—basics many Americans take for granted.  In Shageluk, for example, just over half of the residents have phone lines, the single TV station works sporadically, and a central washeteria provides the entire town facilities for bathing and laundry—yet despite this, it has broadband Internet access through the school.

And the technology benefits have not stopped at the schoolhouse door.  Teachers and students have worked hard to include the community in their technology efforts.  Students, with Hamilton's guidance, design, operate, and manage the school and community web site.  They also tutor adults on the computer after hours to help them learn to surf the Internet, send email, order clothes and books online, and check the weather, a critical capability when one relies on small airplanes for travel. A recent examination of the most visited web sites in Shageluk, in fact, showed Aviation Weather, Anchorage Daily News and CNN at the top of the list.

Noorvik High School student John Morris
Noorvik High School student, John Morris, works with the Technology Department to help set up new network equipment in the school. Students in remote Alaskan schools learn valuable technology skills while assisting technology coordinators like Karl Kowalski.

But residents in the Iditarod Area School District enjoy more than just the capability to research and read the news.  Three years ago, the district started Project PROMISE, an initiative funded through the U.S. Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Center (CLC) Program that provides academic, recreational and cultural enrichment for children and life-long learning opportunities for community members.  With nearly $900,000 for the program, the district hired a technology specialist who taught onsite computer courses such as Excel and Word and helped students and community members take online courses through the University of Alaska Southeast, available through the broadband Internet access.

In McGrath, a town of 400 and the district center for the Iditarod Area School District, the excitement for technology exploded from the kids to the parents and the rest of the community.  When high-speed Internet access first became available, the lines outside the school community library snaked around the hallway at night.  Sparked by their experience with Internet access and computers in the schools, more residents of McGrath decided they wanted computers and Internet in the home.  Slowly but surely the cow-motif boxes, a signature of Gateway, increasingly decorated local delivery shipments and the local power company began to offer dial-up and wireless Internet access to residents.  

Visions of life in Alaska intrigue and amaze most residents of the continental U.S.—it's the Alaskan mystique.  The remote vastness, the unadulterated landscape and the resilient people occupy an important place in the nation's collective consciousness.  Through the technological advancements that have taken place in Alaska, not only have the remote residents of this unique state earned more about world events, the world has learned more about them and their inimitable lives.


Martin Cary is Vice President of Broadband Services for Alaska-based General Communication, Inc. (GCI) and handles all GCI educational initiatives, including SchoolAccess, which he developed.  He was previously the Director of Information and Technology for the North Slope Borough School District.

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