SEAL network cutting edge

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 26, 2003

Troy State University is on the cutting edge of a revolution in education that has the potential to transform classroom education as it is currently understood.

The Southeast Alabama Technology Network is a three-year old program being run from Wallace Hall on TSU's campus in Troy. It is a distance-learning program that was commended by the Southeastern Association of Colleges in early April for providing "learning opportunities through partnerships with rural high schools, junior community technical colleges, business and industry."

According to the prestigious commendation, delivered on the heels of a SACS visit on April 11, "The network extends the reach of educational program resources to distant partners."

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Certainly that honor - one of only two given to TSU by SACS - reflects the goal of the SEAL Network: "Bringing People Together To Discover and Learn."

A main focus of the network has been a series of high schools in 12 counties. Educators say that the network has allowed rural schools to field classes that otherwise would be impossible to offer.

"It's a great way for rural school systems that don't have adequate state and local funding to add additional units for children with advanced capabilities," said Barbour County Superintendent Vic Adkison.

Barbour County High School is home to six students who take calculus classes through the SEAL Network. Instead of paying for a teacher to teach six students, Adkinson said the school system can invest in the SEAL Network and have those students take classes via video camera, saving the system money and allowing those students to take advanced math.

"It's been a great opportunity for our children to achieve to their potential," Adkinson said. "And we are not expending local funds for additional units."

According to Adkinson, budgetary shortfalls would have made the hiring of a calculus teacher "impossible."

"We really appreciate the opportunity to participate," he said. "It's good that some people are cognizant of the fact that rural areas are under-funded."

Pike County Schools have been affiliated with SEAL since the beginning of the program and Superintendent Mark Bazzell said he was pleased with the results so far.

"It has created some wonderful opportunities for our students and, from my perspective as superintendent, there are considerations as far as dollars saved. It's a good situation for us and for our students," he said. "We've been fortunate in Pike County that a lot of our faculty members have been able to grow professionally because they have been able to be the teachers for one of these courses."

Bazzell echoed Adkinson's sentiments about the benefits of consolidating teachers in central locations and the benefits of being able to provide otherwise impossible educational opportunities.

"For example, it's very difficult to find foreign language instructors," Bazzell said. "Last year we did not have one at Goshen, so we video-conferenced from Pike County High School to Goshen. The obvious savings for us was that we were not required to have a separate foreign language teacher."

The story is a familiar one across the 19 rural schools served by SEAL. However, the network also reaches a private school, three junior colleges, a veterinary diagnostic lab in Elba and Lockheed Martin.

The benefit of these non-high school partners stems from the fact that these network partners can offer college-level classes to their employees as parts of benefit packages or employee training sessions, said SEAL Associate Dean Debbie Fortune.

"High schools are part of it, but there is more," she said. "In addition to teaching high school students, the network can train employees of our corporate partners

or train teachers in order to meet requirements of the new federal 'No Child Left Behind' legislation."

In addition to the wide variety of services offered, there is the question of access.

According to the SEAL Website, "Many Alabamians dream of getting a college degree, but traditional, on-campus classes may not work for everyone. Demanding work and family schedules or long commutes to campus stand in the way for many. Now, thanks to the TSU SEAL Technology Network, busy residents, high school students, professionals and even senior citizens an make their dreams of earning college credit or a college degree become real."

Schools need only the basics to participate in the network, said James Clower, who heads up the technological end of the SEAL process.

"We usually take the best room, check the acoustics and things like ceiling height and size, and we make sure that the side knows how to turn on the equipment and call us if they need to troubleshoot," he said. "Some of the schools purchase their own equipment and some use us. If they buy their own, they'd call the contractor for some technical support issues."

What are the consequences for the American educational system if distance learning becomes the norm?

It would seem that the centralization of teachers, broadcasting to multiple schools at once, could result in downsizing. Why would each school need to hire an art teacher if one could be hired centrally and distributed electronically to several locations?

When asked whether the network will result in reductions in the numbers of teachers, Fortune said "We don't like to think of it as reductions in the numbers of teachers, but there may be some consolidation."

But Bazzell said he didn't see distance learning leading to major lay-offs. Rather, the educational opportunities provided by SEAL justify such an experiment.

"I don't see the day when video conferencing takes the place of traditional classrooms," he said. "It really gives us the opportunity in rural settings to take classes that would not be otherwise available."

"Our numbers in advanced mathematics are low," Bazzell said.

"The logical thing to do is to video conference those courses. But a lot is to be said for the traditional classroom."

Bazzell said a balance between video classes and traditional classes is needed.

"Technology is a wonderful tool but not without its problems. With one teacher teaching 100 kids, you lose that personal touch with that teacher in your school every day who you build a relationship with."

Still, RebaDavis, Instructional Course Designer for SEAL, sums up the mission of the project in positive terms.

"We are serving the needs of the surrounding areas," she said.

Those needs are continuing to grow, especially as state financial support for education and learning continues to decline. Both Adkinson and Bazzell said they would like to expand their school systems' relationships with SEAL and TSU and Fortune said plans are in the works to expand the network to middle schools.

"This is an ideal model," she said. "This will be all over the state when word about this gets out."