A Virtual Teacher

By Thibodeaux, Anna

Ever since the digital classroom has come online, teachers and students, thrilled over the prospect of accessing new and dynamic multimedia, clamored to computers. Only sometimes, it didn’t deliver the promised “gee-whiz” technology.

Instead, time-consuming video downloads or overloaded school networks often led to a disappointing experience. “It is so important that it is now,” says Nancy Thompson, a former third- grade teacher. “You can’t tell kids, ‘Let’s wait and see if it’s back up.’ You’ve lost that teaching moment.”

Thompson, an educational technology specialist with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, says the “now” and the “wow” factors are coming to the digital classroom.

LPB is rolling out new digital television and interactive educational services as it begins to tap into the state’s high- powered fiber optic network, LONI. Thousands of teachers across the state are including the services available through LPB Cyberport into their lesson plans, and Louisiana classrooms lead the nation in the number of downloads.

Also known as the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, the system is a fiber optic network that connects Louisiana research universities as well as the Internet, National LambdaRail and Internet2. It provides interconnection between several university- based supercomputer systems and a new supercomputer called Queen Bee [among the top 50 of its kind in the world], based in the state Information Systems building in downtown Baton Rouge, providing more than 85 tera flops of computational capacity [one teraflop equals a trillion floating point operations per second]. Three of LONI’s goals are to use its infrastructure to form collaborative relationships with businesses, contribute to science and create jobs.

Although in the early stages of transitioning from satellite to fiber optics, LPB is fast embracing its considerable new capacity.

While satellite allows one-way information transfer to its television stations in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Alexandria, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe and Shreveport, fiber optics provide a highly valued two-way exchange.

“The LONI network can provide the backbone for a new statewide information exchange system,” says Randy Ward, LPB’s director of engineering. “We want to harness that potential and develop partnerships throughout the state to effectively utilize the system.”

LPB is Louisiana’s only statewide broadcast television network. Ward says it can use LONI to connect to newsrooms throughout the state so breaking news can be communicated from a particular region to the whole state. The system will be especially helpful with transmitting emergency information statewide as well as moving considerably more information than satellite’s limited bandwidth.

LPB will soon increase the number of digital broadcast channels in each of its markets, providing one high-definition service and three standard-definition services, which Ward says represents handling four times more information than its current analog technology. In April, those services were renamed LPB, LPB2, LPB3 and LPB-HD.

“We create content at LPB constantly,” says Beth Courtney, LPB’s president and CEO, “and we want the most effective way to deliver it to the citizens.”

LONI’s two-way interaction will add an equally dynamic edge to LPB programming. For example, Courtney says they’re airing town meetings on economic development, but soon fiber optics will let them connect all locations for a collective forum in real time.

Ward adds LONI will make LPB’s new video archive of more than 40 years of programming accessible to others on the network.

“This is a huge goal for us, converting the legacy material and developing a management system to access it,” he says. “LONI’s greater access made this project more pressing so these files could be utilized on a system basis, where anyone connected to the LONI network, like news organizations, can access or contribute to the archive.”

LPB’s goal this year is to connect all digital transmitters to improve the fiber optics pipeline and provide multichannel programming, which is under way, Ward says. By next year, they hope to focus on connecting with cable companies and news organizations.

In educational efforts, Thompson and others are marveling over LONI making it possible to expand online class materials, workforce training and continuing education.

“It breaks down the walls to the classroom by bringing the world into the classroom,” Thompson says. “I think the opportunities are limitless. It’s completely open and accessible.”

LONI also is making it possible to offer PBS TeacherLine, a multimedia-intensive program with more than 100 online courses to assist teachers with their professional development. Thompson says having 24/7 access to these courses gives teachers the flexibility to take them at their convenience and avoids the additional cost of hiring substitute teachers.

The Ready to Learn program, which is aimed at improving reading skills in children by using PBS programs as an educational tool, will be enhanced through LONI’s ability to provide two-way interaction, says Lenora Brown, program educational coordinator and consultant. It also will grow with more online material, which should aid this year’s campaign called “Raising Readers.”

“We have so few people in the field that we can’t travel in the state, so this helps us focus on providing more information,” Brown says.

On a pilot basis, LPB recently put its GED materials online, also making its GED Connection Virtual Classroom available 24/7, says Gary Mire, Lifelong Learning Coordinator. Students also will be able to study for their GED at home. Mire says this new technology could help them overcome three long-time barriers to adult education – lack of transportation, lack of childcare and finding time to go to an adult center.

The LPB Learning Port, an educational Web site for teachers, parents and students, includes LPB’s Cyber Channel, an on-demand library with more than 40,000 instructional video clips. Teachers can more easily search the videos to use them in the class-room or post them online for students as digital homework.

Mire agrees the digital classroom is finally being realized. “LONI gives people a bigger pipeline to access,” he says.

Joaquim Alvarado, director of the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State University in California, calls Louisiana’s investment in LONI “one of the more innovative moves taken by most states in the nation.” Its bandwidth will give students newfound access to impressive resources like NASA on space exploration or climate change.

“Public broadcasting has been promoting the public interest well,” Alvarado says. “LPB merging with LONI is a promising relationship in further investing in the public interest.”

Courtney, who has been with LPB since 1976, calls this an “exciting and challenging” time. In February 2009, the network will sign off its analog transmitters to meet a federal mandate to go digital.

“We are taking advantage of the latest technology for Louisiana and we’ve had that as our hallmark,” she says. “I see things like LONI and digital technology as new tools to help us to deliver content, but this whole transition is incredibly dramatic because it is the ultimate merging of computers and television and radio and Internet. We are all changing. For those of us making the transition to new technologies, it’s stretching our minds.”

Copyright Greater Baton Rouge Business Report Jul 15, 2008

(c) 2008 Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.