Setting the pace for education

Wartburg Central Elementary School students make use of fast Internet access.

Wartburg Central Elementary School students make use of fast Internet access.

Morgan County Schools’ fiber optic network empowers students

By Noble Sprayberry

Cables in neat rows connect a small bank of slim computer servers in the lower level of the central office for Morgan County Schools. And fiber optic lines link the room to each of the system’s eight schools.
It’s a high-tech, super-fast system moving the digital bits essential to modern education: online testing, distance learning, research tools and much, much more.

“It’s put the world at our teachers’ and students’ fingertips,” says Judy Cross, an instructional technology coach. “Research is a biggie with our students, particularly for projects or papers they’re writing. They have the capability of having a multitude of resources at their fingertips.”

A time of change

The past seven years have brought big shifts for the schools serving more than 3,000 students. When Technology Coordinator Chris Rogers came on board in 2008, he found a very different setup.

The network linking the schools required computer servers at each location. Each server could cost between $7,000 and $8,000, and keeping them all running required frequent visits by technicians. “It was a nightmare, but it was the way of life, and it’s the way we knew it,” Rogers says. “It seems like forever ago, but it really wasn’t.”

Upgrades began with the core technology connecting the schools. In 2008, T1 lines did the job. This type of connection can rely on either copper or fiber optic cables, but transmission speeds are limited to less than 2 megabits per second with copper lines.

Comparatively, a modern fiber optic system, such as the one Highland installed for the schools, can move information at gigabit speed — 1,000 megabits — far faster than the T1 lines.

Coalfield School, however, was outside the area initially served by Highland. Reliant on a national broadband provider, the school’s plight offered a contrast to the rest of the system. “Teachers couldn’t play YouTube videos,” Rogers says. “They could hardly do instruction, even typing classes. So, it was a big deal when they went to gig-fiber.”

The school system worked with Highland to extend fast broadband to the school in Coalfield, which serves students from prekindergarten through high school.

With all of the schools on the fiber optic network, the system was consolidated into the central office data center in Wartburg. “There’s less worry about maintaining the system and sync issues,” Rogers says. “We worry less about downtime. It made a big difference in supporting the network.”

Rogers works with a team of three technicians: Brian Peddicord, Cliff Ledford and Roger Liles. All four of them grew up in the county and attended Wartburg Central High School.

Each member of the group appreciates what the team is doing for the community. “I’m making a difference for the students here so they can have the best education possible,” Rogers says. “I just feel privileged to be able to make a difference.”

Education essentials

Rogers says the school system’s technology budget requires frugal choices. The fiber optic network, however, paid dividends beyond the bottom line. For example, mandatory tests must be taken online, and each Tennessee school system must meet minimum technology standards. The design of the modern Morgan County system hit the mark. “If we didn’t have all this in place, we’d still be scrambling to catch up,” Rogers says.

A high-performing computer network does more than meet mandated goals. Practical, classroom-oriented realities make it worthwhile. “It’s a whole lot smoother for the students because all of the tests are online,” he says. “We don’t want to have a student struggle on a test and say it was because the computer didn’t work or the Internet wasn’t fast enough.”

Also, educators increasingly rely on Web-based resources such as online math and reading programs. “Because it’s online, one of our tech guys no longer has to go around to each machine to update it when there’s a new version,” Cross says.

Upgrading the system and consolidating into one efficient data center allowed more money to go toward classrooms. Additions include tools such as interactive projectors, touch screens and interactive TVs, Rogers says.

And the system continues to keep pace with new innovations, such as adding wireless connections to every classroom. As many as 900 wireless devices, such as phones, tablets and laptops, might access the network at once. Fiber optics provided the capacity to support so many users, Rogers says.

Distance learning

A fast network also allows the expanded use of video, with one teacher able to communicate with multiple classes at once. A science teacher with a small in-room class can view a screen showing students at other schools. Those distant students can see and hear the educator through a setup that features a big-screen monitor.

“Right now, there is one physics teacher in the county at the vocational school, but he teaches to all four high schools,” Rogers says. “He’s doing the work of four teachers, and that saves three salaries.”
The program includes classes such as chemistry, physics and Spanish, as well as a composition class provided by Roane State Community College.

The future

While the school system has worked hard to develop a modern technology foundation, their efforts are ongoing.
Soon, select schools will join a local pilot program to evaluate if Chromebooks, small laptops that run an operating system and other software created by Google, can offer an affordable way to improve students’ access to technology, Rogers says.

Even the concept of a textbook may change. “In the future, and maybe in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to be looking very seriously at online textbooks,” Cross says.

Books represent a significant investment. Also, digital textbooks can allow schools to craft their own resources, even sharing them with other educators. “If we could start writing some of our own textbooks, that would be a huge savings,” she says.

Even while innovation continues, educators and students benefit from the current system. “Now, you’re just very, very connected,” Cross says. “It just empowers you.”