February 26, 1996 in Nation/World

Rural Connection Ahead Of Big Cities, Oakesdale Schools Embrace Technology In The Classroom

Eric Sorensen Staff writer
 

Down at Larry’s Service, Larry Gardner still pumps gas for all his customers.

Espresso machines have yet to arrive at the Mill Tavern or Crossett’s Food Town.

But few rural towns, let alone large cities, have embraced computers as completely as this Palouse farm community of 346 people.

Every class has at least one computer. All of the school’s 85 machines - one for every two students - are connected. All 79 junior and high school students can take home laptop word processors, and most have.

Earlier this month, after their parents signed a seven-page consent form, the high school students were given free, unrestricted access to the Internet.

In a year or so, every home and business in town that wants can be connected to the school computers and the World Wide Web.

“The last thing a person thinks of is high technology in a small town,” said Brian Crow, school board chairman, “and that’s what we have.”

“We are on the cutting edge,” said Lisa Holmes, the district’s principal. “It isn’t like there is a book we can open and read ahead of time about technology in the school setting. It’s not written yet. We’re doing it. That’s frustrating, in some ways. It’s also very exciting.”

School officials hope the computers will offer resources that have long eluded rural towns with small budgets and few students. But first they had to contend with questions of whether it was worth the money and fears about Internet pornography, off-color web sites and predatory computer chat groups. A remaining concern is the effect this type of communication will have on the face-to-face culture so prized by small, rural communities.

While Internet-based education is ballyhooed in Microsoft television commercials and education conferences, only 3 percent of the K-12 classrooms in America are on-line, according to a recent U.S. Department of Commerce report.

The technology is even more scarce in rural areas, where schools are hampered by long-distance telephone fees, outdated equipment, inadequate wiring systems and a lack of money.

Oakesdale officials have had to deal with all that as well as local misgivings.

Rodney Hubner, a school board member, said he figured much of the computerized technology he saw on his farm and in cars only made things obsolete or hard to repair.

“A lot of it is getting stuffed down our throat,” he said. “Stuff we don’t need or want.”

But as he spoke, Hubner was getting a computer installed in his own home. Other critics softened after the district spent two years studying the subject.

With nine of 10 Oakesdale graduates leaving town after school, parents see a need for their children to be globally competitive, said Holmes.

Now the district is committed to spending $50,000 to $75,000 a year - 5 percent of its budget - on computer technology. It already spent $230,000 during a two-year computer installation phase that began three years ago.

This year, the district grappled with a string of bugs. Parents attended an information session where they were told about the pitfalls of the Internet. They then signed an agreement trusting students in a system without the software “fire walls” that can bar entry into questionable areas like erotica pages.

Some students, said Holmes, might go “100 miles per hour on the interstate and drive down Sprague Avenue to all the happening nightspots.”

But her own computer can show where each student goes in cyber land. Those who visit the wrong place lose their license.

“They don’t want to lose their privileges any more than they want to lose their driver’s license,” Holmes said. “To them, it’s the same because this is their freedom.”

Once teachers adapt their methods to the Internet, Holmes imagines a wealth of projects springing from a single web site. A zoo page, for instance, could yield lessons on animals, global warming, historic climate patterns, technical writing, literature, extinction and hieroglyphic art.

So far, students are hitting more mundane material. Students recently were using the Internet to create spreadsheets, with one student downloading ski report statistics while another made a chart of Academy Award nominees.

Hannie Fisher, a sophomore, searched for new bands. She found Evan & Jaron, an “acoustic, folk, rock, pop” duo she saw on a page called RockWeb.

“I’ve never heard of you and your music,” she wrote in a piece of electronic fan mail, “but it sounds like you guyz are totally kickin’.”

Clearly, the computers have yet to pay their promised dividends. Teachers report that papers are neater. Using an information-packed CD-ROM encyclopedia, students can do research without fighting over the school’s handful of encyclopedias in book form.

“If they all look up something that begins with “A,” they can all find it,” said Marilyn Wigen, who oversees a library so small the card catalog has only 25 drawers.

Some students question the impersonal format electronic learning can take. “If people are going to get so caught up in this computer stuff,” said Carrie Mason, a junior, “they’re not going to have skills for the outside - social skills.”

Other residents note the social nature of small towns has been hit by the telephone and automobile, but it still survives.

If a basketball game is canceled, would-be spectators still stick around and talk about last week’s game rather than bolt for the parking lot.

“I don’t think they’ll sit at home and talk to each other on the computer,” said Julie Zimmerman, a school board member. “They might talk to somebody in Russia. They’ll still go to coffee. They’ll still go to ballgames. I don’t think that’ll change a whole lot.”

“It’s still a small town,” said Hannie Fisher, looking up from RockWeb. “You’re still the same people every day. Everyone’s your friend - unless everyone’s your enemy.”

Don Dillman, a Washington State University sociologist who has studied both small towns and information technology, recalled how the widespread use of the telephone created a fear that people would travel less. As it turned out, people traveled more.

By the same token, he said, e-mail and computers stand to bring people closer together through a craft that schools are often struggling to teach - writing.

“This is one of the best writing lessons to happen in America,” Dillman said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: OAKESDALE ON-LINE Internet users can reach the Oakesdale School Home Page at: http://164.116.20.240.

This sidebar appeared with the story: OAKESDALE ON-LINE Internet users can reach the Oakesdale School Home Page at: http://164.116.20.240.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email