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WINNER: DIGITAL INNOVATION

Classrooms That Span the Vast Expanse

The Idaho Education Network figured out how to teach a wide range of subjects to students spread across that rural state.

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Making a connection: The Idaho Education Network.(Idaho Education Network/Kristin Magruder)

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and state Education Superintendent Tom Luna sat in a science classroom in rural St. Maries (population 2,400) on a winter day in 2011 as the instructor wheeled in a human cadaver and went to work. The three-dimensional anatomy lesson centered on how lifestyle choices—drinking, smoking, drugs—affect one’s organs. Students peppered the instructor with questions along the way. The kids were mesmerized, Luna said, although the exercise had him feeling a little queasy.

The teacher, in fact, was 2,000 miles away at the St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri, and the demonstration was made possible by reams of fiber-optic cable, a flat-screen television, and sophisticated camera equipment, installed in a classroom in St. Maries High School as part of the Idaho Education Network.

 

The state’s educators have long grappled with the problem of equal access for students living in its far-flung corners. Students in Boise or Twin Falls could choose from a plethora of course offerings and could earn college credits through Advanced Placement classes. Their rural counterparts were less lucky.

In 2008, officials dreamed up a way to use technology to ensure that all students had a chance to fulfill their academic ambitions: The Idaho Education Network would connect every public school through high-speed broadband, with at least one classroom in each school equipped with videoconferencing capabilities.

One promise of advanced information technology is its potential to break down physical barriers and increase opportunities—including a quality education. Fulfilling that promise is particularly important in communities long plagued by a lack of resources. National Journal chose the Idaho Education Network for top honors in digital innovation because it has succeeded in creating that long-dreamed-of level playing field. No longer are rural Idaho students restricted to the same narrow choices they faced in the Industrial Age, dictated by distance. “No matter where a child lives, they have access to not only the great teachers in their school but every great teacher in Idaho,” Luna said. Not to mention great teachers in Missouri and across the country.

 

To implement the IEN, the state Legislature approved a multiyear plan at a decidedly inopportune moment—in the midst of a recession and with the state budget impossibly crunched. Nonetheless, lawmakers forged ahead, rustling up a $3 million grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, federal stimulus dollars, and other competitive grants; they also took advantage of the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, which provides a discount on telecommunication services for schools.

In 2011, Otter and Luna were at St. Maries High School to mark a milestone: It was among the last of Idaho’s 194 high schools to be connected to the network. Two years later, the IEN is also in middle schools, and elementary schools are being outfitted. “Investing in this broadband technology helps meet our responsibility to Idaho’s young people while inspiring innovation in teaching methods and content—not just in larger cities but throughout our state,” Otter wrote in an e-mail.

History classes take virtual tours of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington before chatting with a Holocaust survivor. In rural Weiser, one enterprising high school student asked his principal if he could take a mobile-application development class; under the tutelage of a computer-science teacher in Twin Falls, the student developed an iPad app that’s being sold by Apple. “It is about as close as you can possibly get to live; it is very interactive, and the students have adapted to it very quickly,” said Dave Davies, principal of Weiser High School.

The College of Southern Idaho, which also has the videoconferencing capabilities, has aggressively stepped up course offerings that count toward both a high school diploma and college credit, saving students thousands of dollars in tuition money. In 2012, high schoolers earned 5,757 dual credits over the Idaho Education Network, paying $65 for each credit hour versus the average on-campus tuition of $153 per credit hour for in-state students.

 

Teachers, firefighters, and police officers have taken advantage of the IEN for training and professional development, cutting taxpayer-funded travel costs.

All of it came to fruition through the “miracle of technology,” Luna said. “The traditional delivery model of education wasn’t going to make this possible.”

 

See the finalists in each categoryDigital Innovation | Expanding Exports | Workforce Training | Health Care | Financing Infrastructure | Disrupting Government | Regional Economic Strategies | Education | Energy

 

See the finalists in each categoryDigital Innovation | Expanding Exports | Workforce Training | Health Care | Financing Infrastructure | Disrupting Government | Regional Economic Strategies | Education | Energy

 

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