Lessons Learned from the Network Montana Project
David A. THOMAS <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lynn D. CHURCHILL <email@example.com>
This paper is an end-of-project report focusing on lessons learned in the Network Montana Project (NMP), a three-year, National Science Foundation-funded, statewide collaborative effort to construct a scalable, sustainable network for Montana's K-12 educational system.
The Network Montana Project (NMP) was funded in October 1995 by a three-year, 2.5 million dollar National Science Foundation Network Infrastructure for Education grant. This project involves a statewide collaborative effort with industry support to construct a scalable, sustainable network for Montana's educational needs. The project has facilitated the construction of SummitNet, Montana's statewide data network, and the opportunity to address issues in four major areas. This paper will address some of the principal challenges confronted by NMP and the lessons we have learned in each domain.
The four primary domains include:
As with all initiatives, we entered into each domain with certain assumptions about the issues and challenges we would be confronting. The conceptualization of building a large data network is not too challenging. Actually building it and making it work with multiple partners and a diverse constituency is something else. Many of our challenges were political or control-related in terms of access and support. Almost all of our challenges were overcome through a combination of communication, negotiation, innovation and persistence.
Assumption: The State of Montana, industry and education will work collaboratively to build a robust, distributed, redundant network backbone that can meet the needs of education and research.
NMP worked for over a year with Montana's Information Services Division (ISD) on its design for SummitNet, the state data network. With approval from the 1995 Montana legislature to upgrade and expand the state data network, ISD released a Request for Proposals (RFP) during the summer of 1995. Without the opportunity to review the RFP and because of its lack of specificity of requirements, the RFP was seen as potentially not meeting the needs of education. This resulted in a statewide concern that SummitNet could not provide for higher education research and instructional needs or for NMP's goals and objectives. The RFP suggested a star configuration in which all circuits pointed toward Helena and did not consider redundancy or policy issues of concern to education. NMP suggested instead that the following design (Figure 1) be considered, which would allow for regionalization of traffic and a more robust solution.
Education had to emphasize that it has a requirement for certain Internet peering points to be managed by themselves. This is so they can most easily maintain an infrastructure which peers with multiple entities. A case in point is the University of Montana (UM), which peers with both NorthWestNet and NASA. General Internet traffic is allowed to freely traverse the former, but there are restrictions on access to the latter. Along the same lines, since the two major universities both support an Internet connection to NorthWestNet, it is desirable to use the links as a backup to one another and to load level so as not to have one link virtually idle while the other is overloaded. In the end, a solution evolved that mixed the needs of education and the state. Figure 2 illustrates the basic design of the network at this time.
Lessons Learned: It is important for education to take a firm stand on its needs. Both the State of Montana and education have valid concerns. A commitment to find a solution and open, candid communication helped to make this a reality. Higher education usually has had more experience with Internetworking, and most states realize that. This needs to be communicated along with policy requirements on traffic flow that affect many institutions.
Another important issue related to access was the need to help rural communities, K-12 schools and tribal colleges become educated about Internet connectivity and network wiring. To this end NMP had to develop an information delivery structure and additional funding opportunities for these constituents. This is delineated further in the following section under the issue of Support. In addition, NMP found itself working with US West, provider of SummitNet circuits, to develop a clearly delineated process for what had to be done to get an Internet connection into a school. This dealt with what hardware and wiring in the school was needed, what the circuit costs would be and how to subscribe for Internet services from SummitNet.
Assumption: A distributed support structure can be developed that will meet the needs of rural communities, libraries, schools and tribal colleges.
One of NMP's greatest challenges for education and rural environments is in the area of technical support for systems administration, local area networking and Internetworking. There just aren't enough qualified people in rural Montana to construct and maintain this broad spectrum of technical support. To this end, NMP found itself addressing the need to find a way to support three primary populations interested in being networked and connected to the Internet. This included:
To this end, common questions and issues related to technical
information are posted to the NMP World Wide Web (WWW) site for
future easy access. An NMP Technical Outreach Coordinator was
initially established to field questions from these constituents
on various issues. This was followed by the creation of a small
staff of students for answering phones and routing technical questions
to appropriate NMP staff. NMP tried to create a distributed support
center idea spread across the two major universities. In the end,
this didn't work very well from both a political and operations
point of view.
Lessons Learned: Create a single point of contact for initial questions and a single repository of information, even though you may have distributed expertise. Filter the questions to your most experienced personnel so they do not have to deal with trivial matters and can best use their time and effort.
In most rural environments there are a lot of small Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with little actual experience in wide area networking to the Internet. Most come from a local area network background. NMP has found itself supporting most of them at some time to help them connect to a rural community, school or library. This was an unforeseen element of NMP's mission but has cost a considerable amount of time to provide.
In general, NMP has had to work aggressively at growing expertise
in Montana. For rural communities wanting to construct a community
network, NMP established a mentoring model with existing community
networks to help them address issues of network design, support
and sustainability. NMP's community network initiative has
been very successful. NMP has helped 20 communities to establish
their own rural community networks in less than 3 years. For tribal
colleges, NMP worked to establish a tribal college support network
and provide training in both local area and wide area networking
to tribal college staff. For K-12, NMP has assisted through training
and on-site visits to resolve connectivity and design situations.
Lessons Learned: Identify willing mentors of technical experience and knowledge, clearly define support roles of all parties and establish a program for technical training.
Assumption: Training programs can be developed to meet the needs of technical support staff, community members and educators across rural Montana and nationally as part of our dissemination effort.
NMP found the need to meet training needs through a number of different mediums. This includes use of the WWW, video conferencing and on-site training. In addition, conference presentations have been actively pursued by NMP staff at local, state, regional and national levels. These trainings have been offered frequently at the state level through the Montana Education Association (MEA), Montana Mathematics and Science Society (MMASS), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (DDE) grants. NMP staff have presented to and/or trained over 5000 educators during three years of NMP funding.
Lessons Learned: Capitalize on existing initiatives that bring constituents together for information sharing and training. Partner with organizations whose mission is related to your training objectives.
Portable Training Lab:
with portable lab in Santa Fe, NM
The Toyota USA Foundation provided a donation to develop a portable multimedia training lab to support NMP's efforts in mathematics and science. The project, called "Taking Technology to Teachers" or T3 , is providing a portable wireless networkable training lab for teacher training in the use of technology and telecommunications to enhance K-12 mathematics and science instruction and network administrator training. The project was also provided a Toyota Previa to carry the lab across Montana and neighboring states to help with our systemic training and network administrator training needs. Substantial industry support from Microsoft, Cisco, Computerland and others has also come forward for this lab.
The lab is also a tool for exploring new means of connectivity. Cisco Corporation continues to work with NMP to look at remote access for very rural situations. In this regard, the T3 lab has been configured with a dialup router configuration that provides good Internet access and functionality for the entire lab using a single analog phone line. Issues of multiplexing, compression, portability, etc., continue to be addressed as the solution is optimized for greater use. The lab played a significant role in training over 100 educators of "at risk" students in a partnership with a University of Washington TRIO Training project from 1996 to the present. The lab has extended NMP's reach out to other states such as California, Hawaii, Florida, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington State, Washington D.C., Wisconsin and elsewhere. More information on the lab is available at the Information Technology Resource Center (ITRC) of the University of Montana.
Lessons Learned: Make an effort to find a way to provide training on-site through a portable training lab model to alleviate problems with connectivity and configuration of the training environment. Be sure to plan on providing a reasonable level of technical support both on and off site to guarantee the integrity of the training lab over time. Plan on obsolescence and needs for upgrades.
With the intent to deliver training online, it has been necessary for NMP to explore a number of different asynchronous and synchronous solutions. To this end, NMP partnered with the ITRC to develop the Online Academic Toolkit System (OATS). The system provides an easy to use presentation system for course development that is attached to a digital resource library, assessment center, conferencing center and activity center. Authentication and student recording keeping are also key components of the system. The system allows for various media types including documents, data, audio, pictures, video, VRML, and hyperlinks. It is believed that OATS will facilitate faster development and better support of online courses and information. A good demonstration of this system can be seen by looking at the Montana Kids site which uses this engine and which was supported by Network Montana during development.
For collaborative learning efforts, NMP has frequently used First Class made by Softarc. This multi-platform solution has been found to be easy to use and provides for not only e-mail but easy management of discussion groups. A WWW-based version of the software has recently been released and looks very promising in providing a total migration to WWW-based instruction.
Video conferencing has been one of the major areas that NMP has
explored for synchronous communication related to both instruction
and technical training/support. In the initial phases of the project,
we emphasized the use of Intel ProShare systems for multi-site
participation using either ISDN or TCP/IP. This provided our first
experiences with the ability to do T.120 application sharing and
full-duplex video conferencing. In the last year, NMP has been
migrating more to the use of Microsoft NetMeeting which is a free
download from Microsoft and supports a broad range of audio and
video elements. Instruction on the use of NetMeeting has been
one of the most popular workshops at conferences and demonstrations.
Lessons Learned: Online training requires an analysis of the content and modalities that will best meet the needs of the intended audience. The needs of the audience need to be filtered through practical considerations such as cost (e.g., ISDN line charges), quality of interaction based on type of connection (e.g., IP-based connectivity) and the type of technologies the end user has access to (e.g., Low-end Macintosh or High-end Windows NT). Support costs of all of these technologies also need to be considered.
In 1995, online scientific databases and education-oriented computational resources were beginning to appear on the WWW. Recognizing the potential value of such resources in K-12 education, NMP researchers at Montana State University-Bozeman set out to create prototype Internet-based curricular materials that integrated mathematics, science, and technology in the context of contemporary scientific investigations.
In 1995, there was little in the literature that offered a research basis for the development of Internet-based curricular materials. Borrowing from related literature and leaning heavily on experience, we proceeded on the basis of certain assumptions. Those assumptions were
Because of NASA's commitment to dissemination of earth sciences data via the WWW, we focused our efforts on the development of Earth System Science (ESS) curricular materials. The first year, we began work on three units of instruction: Atmosphere, Geosphere, and Hydrosphere.
We recruited writers by contacting K-12 mathematics and science teachers who were former distance education students of Prof. Thomas in courses taught through the National Teachers Enhancement Network Project, mentors in the Reach For The Sky Project (RFTS), participants in the Supercomputer Teacher Enhancement Program (STEP), leaders in the Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics and Montana Science Teachers Association, and experienced presenters at national conferences with strong technology-in-education strands (e.g., TedEd, FETC, Supercomputing).
Over a period of months, it became painfully clear that Assumption 1 was naive at best. We all struggled to synthesize a common vision encompassing both the content and the format of the Earth System Science classroom activities. When it became clear that we were not making satisfactory progress toward that goal, a week-long, face-to-face meeting was scheduled for all participants. That meeting produced the breakthroughs we were seeking and taught us an important lesson that is now a fundamental principle in the NetTeachTalent Network Materials and Professional Development Laboratory at Montana State University-Bozeman.
Lesson Learned: Begin every project with face-to-face meetings. These meetings must achieve several results before the participants are prepared to relate to one another as a team. Most importantly, participants must develop a shared vision of collaboration in which the team creates a valuable educational product in a context of trust and mutual respect. This can only happen in an authentic manner as the participants develop an appreciation for one another's strengths and weaknesses. This takes time and opportunity.
Meetings were organized as whole-group discussions and small-group work sessions. At the whole-group discussions, cooperating scientists presented exciting contemporary research and related WWW information, data sets, and computational tools. In response, participating teachers proposed potential connections and extensions of these materials to their existing curricula. Meeting for three to four hours a day for a week, the researchers, teachers, and project leaders reached consensus on the scientific content of the ESS materials.
When not engaged in whole-group meetings, the teachers met in working groups, each representing the interests and concerns of one of four grade level groupings (K-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12). The names given to the ESS curricular materials associated with each of these groups were Novice Level (Grades K-3), Intermediate Level (Grades 4-6), Advanced Level (Grades 7-9), and Expert Level (Grades 10-12). Each working group implemented the recommendations of the whole-group at their grade level by formulating instructional scenarios that were consistent with the national standards in mathematics and science education and that recognized the practical concerns and needs of teachers. These scenarios were passed to project leaders, university researchers, and graduate research assistants for formal development. In the process, all participants revealed their interests, concerns, and insights. At the close of the meetings, we all parted as friends and colleagues, eager to continue.
Lesson Learned: As we continued working on the ESS materials and corresponding via e-mail, it quickly became clear that the flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and trust developed during our face-to-face meetings were essential elements of our partnership.
Although we began this partnership on a base of goodwill, a mutual respect and appreciative dialogue developed between the K-12 writers and the university personnel as the expertise of the various participants was expressed in different ways. The project leaders facilitated this process and acted as manuscript authors and editors as documents were submitted for further development, fact checking, formatting, and informal WWW publication. As draft classroom activities were published on the NMP WWW site, everyone made suggestions on how to improve and extend the activities. These suggestions were reviewed by the project leaders and graduate research assistants and implemented where feasible. To those of us who participated in this process, the development of a genuine partnership between K-12 teachers and university researchers was itself a meaningful result.
Assumption 2 turned out to be true. What we did not anticipate was the publication of new online scientific databases almost on a monthly basis. Keeping up was a problem. While we all had experience using WWW browsers, none of us had ever attempted a systematic survey of WWW scientific or educational resources. We had only engaged in rambling, recreational meanders through cyberspace. Explorations of this sort typically take little effort, involve hardly any skill, and create the impression that finding information on the WWW is easy. This impression often leads to the false expectation that, perhaps with some clever insider knowledge, one may quickly and conveniently locate and retrieve specific sorts of online resources for educational and/or professional purposes.
Lesson Learned: Systematic information mining is a difficult, time-consuming task involving high level skills and critical judgments. Considering the hundreds of hours we spent identifying, retrieving, reviewing, sorting, and selecting online resources, it is clear that this sort of activity ought to be thought of as a group responsibility rather than a task for an individual.
Over a period of several months, we developed an informal, productive approach to information mining. We all routinely searched the WWW for additional online resources. Interesting URLs were e-mailed to all the writers. The URLs that the writers liked became links on WWW research & development pages. In addition to promoting a general awareness on the part of all writers, the links often focused team discussions on specific scientific or mathematical content and how best to present the material in classroom activities.
Assumption 3 was true by necessity, and we were all eager learners.
Assumption 4 was naive at best. In spite of our best efforts, staying abreast of new resources and technologies became progressively more complex and demanding. During development of the ESS materials, the discovery of unanticipated resources frequently reshaped our goals and expectations. Furthermore, as new scientific databases appeared during the year, changes and additions were made in activates previously considered complete and ready for field testing. This practice became an issue among the project personnel. Some individuals voiced concerns that the materials would never be completed and therefore never ready for dissemination. Others embraced the notion of a continuously evolving "product" that could be shared immediately. Eventually, the issue was forced by the appearance of new online scientific and educational resources that could not be ignored. We all came to accept the fact that efforts such as ours were inherently "works in progress" and should be published as such.
Lesson Learned: Just as online data resources may undergo periodic changes in content and format, online curricular materials may evolve (as time and resources permit) to take advantage of new and better information resources and changing pedagogical expectations.
Assumptions 5 and 6 shaped the content and format of the ESS materials. The classroom activities produced in year one were
In the second year of the project, a fourth scientific theme was added, Mountain Environments. The same teachers were involved in the development of these materials, with a start-up meeting held during the summer. These materials posed new challenges requiring the assistance of additional researchers and technicians. Perhaps because our expectations were higher than ever, meeting our goals during the second year was every bit as challenging and frustrating as in year one.
Publication of the Atmosphere, Geosphere, and Hydrosphere activities
on the WWW turned out to be a massive undertaking involving approximately
70 megabytes of file space. As activities were posted, participating
teachers reviewed the materials and provided feedback, some of
which introduced new problems.
Lesson Learned: Internet access speeds for some teachers were so slow that large graphics required unreasonable lengths of time to download. To accommodate users with slow connections, a "low graphics version" of the ESS materials was created using scaled-down versions of troublesome graphics ad/or descriptive text.
While the Atmosphere, Geosphere, and Hydrosphere activities were being published on the WWW, a distance learning course was developed to facilitate use of these materials in participating teachers' K-14 classes. The two semester credit course "Internet-based Earth System Science Instruction" was offered by the National Teachers Enhancement Network Project at MSU-Bozeman for the first time Spring term of 1997 for mathematics (Math 580), Earth Science (ESCI 580), or Curriculum & Instruction (EDCI 580) credit. Instructors for the course were Expert Level team leader Prof. Jerry Nelson of Casper College, Casper, WY, and Intermediate Level team leader Stephanie Stevenson, fifth grade teacher, Pensacola, FL. The course was repeated Fall semester of 1997 and Spring semester of 1998, with Prof. Nelson and Bill Oates, a high school mathematics teacher from Wyoming, serving as instructors.
During the third year of the project, an effort was made to introduce an international perspective on the scientific and pedagogical issues addressed in the ESS materials. This initiative arose as a result of inquiries from mathematics and science educators in several countries, asking if the ESS materials could be made available in other languages and/or adapted to address scientific issues of local significance. Intrigued by the possibilities but uncertain of the pitfalls, we invited Prof. Alexei Semenov, CEO of the Institute of New Technologies in Education (INT) in Moscow, Russia, to collaborate on a pilot project. The goal of the pilot project was the development of a limited number of additional classroom activities (in Russian and English) constructed by Russian teachers, using Russian data resources, and reflecting Russian pedagogical concerns. These materials were commissioned to open a window on Russian science education for American teachers and to encourage the development of cross-cultural dialogues about the use of Internet-based resources in K-12 mathematics and science education in the context of the Network Montana's ESS materials.
At Montana State University, a Russian mathematics graduate student (Yurii Shvetsov) was hired to translate several ESS classroom activities into Russian, publish those materials on the Network Montana Project WWW site, create a WWW-based discussion forum for Russian and American teachers, and facilitate e-mail communications with our Russian partners. In Moscow, Prof. Semenov recruited teachers at School 57, a school with a distinguished record of achievement in science, mathematics, and English language instruction, to serve as writers and colleagues at INT to serve as scientific advisors and technical assistants. Reflecting lessons learned in the Network Montana Project, a series of meetings was held in Moscow in October 1997 to launch the partnership and develop a shared vision.
While our Russian partners discovered the challenges, frustrations, and rewards of Internet-based curricular materials development, the Network Montana Project teachers wrote over 500 assessment items to go along with the ESS materials. These items were integrated into the ESS materials in the form of periodic, online quizzes with formative feedback and summative unit examinations available only to teachers. Although every teacher approached this task with a measure of confidence based on years of classroom experience, the task turned out to be difficult. Items had to be constructed in closed-form, such as true-false, multiple choice, matching, and so on. Most teachers do not write closed-form items regularly, especially in lots of 50 or more. In spite of these difficulties, the teachers produced the sought after assessment items, which were turned over to the graduate research assistants for editing and publication on the WWW.
Finally, to make the Network Montana curricular materials available to as wide an audience as possible, a book and CD-ROM are being produced for distribution by a leading publisher of college level science education materials. Details concerning the publisher, content, and format of this product will be announced at INET'98.
After a year of planning and three years of implementation, the Network Montana Project has become a reference point for those considering the issues of access, support, training and WWW-based curriculum resources. Creativity, flexibility to meet the challenge, willingness to cooperate, and innovation are the hallmarks of this project. Through dedication and willingness to explore partnerships for solutions, lessons can be learned and shared with others. The Network Montana Project hasn't ended, it's just begun.