BOSTON — WESTFIELD, Ind., used to be a mostly rural area with little economic growth. But in the past several years, people have been flocking to the town located 20 miles north of Indianapolis.
One magnet of attraction is the region's kindergarten-to-12th grade school district, which has become a national showcase as a learning environment of the future.
It's one of a growing number of K-12 school districts in the United States that are reshaping education by installing voice, data, and video technology, says Ray Steele, who helped Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., create a state-of-the-art telecommunications network.
From the outside, the schools in the Westfield Washington School District may look like any other US elementary, middle, and high school. Inside, they're wired for the 21st century.
Miles of copper and fiber-optic cables connect each classroom of the 100-acre, 1,900-student campus with a main technology center at the high school. The center contains the audiovisual equipment that teachers in most schools transport by carts between classrooms.
Classrooms are equipped with digital telephones that enable parents and teachers to communicate through voice mail. Data jacks for computers give access to a central file server, which contains educational software. Television sets are mounted on the walls, and teachers can call up videotapes, laser discs, CD-ROM discs, CD-Interactive discs, motion pictures, a personal computer, or satellite programming on the monitor. Large-screen video projectors in cafeterias, gymnasiums, and auditoriums provide video
to groups of up to 500 people.
When this video "distance learning" technology becomes fully operational next fall, students will be able to simulate complex chemistry experiments on a computer or talk in French to peers 1,000 miles away.
The project "is part of a restructuring of how we deliver education to youngsters," says superintendent Jeffrey Heier, who initiated the plan two years ago. "About 80 percent of our teachers were using the stand-up lecture mode, and our students were passively sitting there listening - hopefully. Our goal is to change that." Dr. Steele of Ball State estimates that between 100 and 150 school systems are installing the kind of voice, data, and video capabilities Westfield Washington has. And interest in th ese technological facelifts is surging. "I know just in terms of phone calls," says Steele, a nationally recognized consultant for such projects.
Since the mid-1980s, a number of colleges have retrofitted their campuses with voice, data, and video technology. But activity on that level has been slower than in the K-12 arena, which has grown steadily in the last three years.
"It's kind of frightening," Steele says. "If we really do believe that we have to improve education now in order for us to be financially stable as a nation in the year 2000, then you can't do it in the information age without dealing with information-age tools. The more we do K-12 environments, the more [students] are going to demand modern higher-education environments."
But Stanley Pogrow, an associate professor of education at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says computers and distance learning are not serving the needs of many students.
"An increasing percentage of kids in the public school system are at risk, and increasing numbers are having trouble dealing with English and reading," he says. "For kids who don't already know how to learn on higher levels, the technology provides absolutely no help unless it's already combined with very sophisticated forms of [teacher] interaction." Few people, he adds, have designed new curricula that will help disadvantaged students to learn through technology.
When a school district does wire its classrooms for voice, data, and video, such projects don't come cheap. Ray Reitz, director of technology for Westfield Washington Schools, says the endeavor has cost well over $1 million. Most funds came from the capital projects budget, but the district linked up with corporate vendors who provided services and products at reduced prices.
In Shoreline, Wash., a bedroom community of Seattle, the 10,000-student school district has installed a voice, data, and video infrastructure in about eight of its 14 buildings.
"You still read the same books," says Ted Therriault, a junior at Shoreline's Shorewood High School. "It's basically been in my experience a process of addition to what we've already been learning rather than a detraction."
Pat Hegarty, an English teacher and librarian at Shorewood, says the technology enables his students to use video, sound, and desktop publishing to enhance their writing. Kids are able to "create multimedia presentations that are steeped in words but textured with other things....
"They're truly getting a chance to interact with powerful tools," he says.