The lone rangers

14th July 1995 at 01:00
Isolated schools in the second largest state in America have found an excellent method of keeping in touch with what's going on. Mark Sealey reports. Texas is, unquestionably, a big place. At around three times the size of the UK, with some of the largest school districts in America and some of the most isolated rural schools too, good communications become a necessity.

Accompany a Texas teacher into their classroom or home and the chances are that you will see them flicking through their e-mail (electronic mail) before any other form of conventional communication.

The Texas Education Network (Tenet) is fast becoming the preferred method, too, for exchanging news and accessing state and government information as well as receiving a wealth of curriculum and teaching material. Tenet was established in 1991 and is supported jointly by the Texas State Department of Information Resources, the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas. It is a Wide Area Network (WAN) to link every educational establishment in the state.

But Tenet does more than just keep these sites in touch; it significantly enhances the education of those working there. Its users know they can get instant feedback to their ideas, share their worries (some inner-city Texas schools have among the toughest conditions in the United States) and present and refine solutions without ever having to meet colleagues physically. This has been known to make for more frankness.

Recently, for example, adults used Tenet as an effective means to co-ordinate opposition to education spending cuts. And students forced the closure of a school after discovering (by consulting "real" scientists on-line) that poor air was causing the headaches from which they were suffering.

Tenet was originally designed to be a transparent communications infrastructure which would foster both innovation and educational excellence. It has grown recently to become an almost indispensable part of the daily lives of almost a quarter of the state's 200,000 teachers, who use it for an average of 30 minutes every day. The fact that Tenet achieved a critical mass of users, making it viable and justifying initial expense early on, suggests that such a network could have a place in the UK too.

It also emerged early on that teachers did not want lesson plans but modules that they could adapt, many of them cross-curricular. Indeed, Tenet policy has always been flexible enough to give users what they want, rather than to try imposing a model which may be technically or pedagogically slick, but which is not actually used much.

There is an immediacy when using Tenet that could well infuriate cyberzealots for its simplicity. The fact is, though, that it works. For little more than a nominal $5 (Pounds 3) a year, teachers and other educators, administrators and students have access usually on a free number to a huge variety of relevant news and teaching resources, an efficient and easy-to-use electronic mail system, to job advertisements and newsgroups, a gopher server and to file transfer as well as the standard Internet tools such as telnet. E-mail can be passed simply to the internet.

Tenet not only links schools, the state's 20 regional educational service centers, individuals and other parts of the Education Agency with one another; it also supplies curriculum documents, relays Reuters and AP news feeds, NASA's space link and weather services, as well as training and teaching materials. Of course, interest in remote comunications is increasing dramatically in the US as it is in this country over 40 per cent of all schools surveyed recently declared that telecommunications played the bigggest part in their future plans.

News of Tenet's usefulness is spreading both by word of mouth among teachers and by formal reports. It is not surprising, then, that it is still growing by over 1,000 users every month. Indeed, Tenet has become a way of life for many, with some employees regularly extending their working week at home by using Tenet there too. So much so, that it can be almost impossible to get on to the system on Sunday nights.

Students working under supervision may have access to the Tenet resources and use them as research tools in many areas of their work. And pupils of all ages experience increased motivation when they can collaborate over their work.

Students who become familiar with the expanding Tenet environment learn valuable skills of "netiquette" and become comfortable with communication procedures that will dominate their adult lives in a way that has hardly begun in the UK, due to the Government's refusal both to accept a wider remit for BT and to fund this area of school life fully.

The Tenet helpdesk provides training in every aspect of the system, and both technical and curricular backup are excellent.

Nor is Tenet resting on its laurels. Future plans include further technical improvements. Substantial grants are being offered to schools in the state both to upgrade and go for dedicated, direct connection to Tenet and to the Internet. Tenet is also looking to the World Wide Web and exploring the possibilities of voice and video facilities on-line.

Its success is in no small part down to director Connie Stout and her colleagues, who have been able to persuade the legislature that there are more resources outside schools than inside. She and her team have the support of the community. If Tenet "belongs" to anyone, it belongs to them, Stout is quick to point out.

Further information on email from: Or write to Tenet, Computation Center, G-2700, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX 78712. Tel (from the UK): 001 512 471-3241

Mark Sealey edits Educational Computing and Technology magazine

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