Innovation in Rural Alaska

Innovation in Rural Alaska

Collaborative technologies have bridged miles and led to across-the-board student improvement.
Johnson (top row, center) with students in a welding certification intensive at Kodiak High School.

People hear “rural” and think endless woods and farmland connected by interstates and picturesque windy roads. But in parts of Alaska, rural can mean having to hop on a ferry or a small plane to get from place to place. Eight of the Kodiak Island Borough School District’s 14 schools are on small islands. Only 156 students attend these eight schools; the rest of the district’s students attend schools on Kodiak Island proper. The 21 teachers in these rural schools are required by the district to teach all subjects, making them akin to the teachers in one-room schoolhouses years ago. By 2003, student achievement in the rural schools was on the decline. This was particularly true for math, where most teachers were being asked to teach above and beyond their actual knowledge.

Phillip R. Johnson understood the dilemma. As a 13-year generalist teacher in the district’s rural schools, he says he was one of those teachers. “Our schools were all islands unto themselves,” says Johnson. “Despite teachers’ best efforts, that so many were not highly qualified in math meant that, in many cases, they were not offering authentic, rigorous math programs.

In 2003, KIBSD applied for and was awarded its first Alaska Native Education Program (ANEP) grant for a program called the Vision Project, which introduced distance learning via video teleconference (VTC) to KIBSD’s eight rural schools. Johnson’s background and lifelong knowledge of Alaska’s rural communities led to his working on the virtual learning initiative, and in 2007 being formally named KISBD’s administrator of rural schools, and later, the director of rural schools. In the years since, Johnson has learned lessons about everything from modes of delivery to the effects of student shyness on VTC learning within the context of a VTC learning environment. By continuously tweaking his toolkit of collaborative technologies such as Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate), SchoolAccess and Moodle, Johnson has used his intricate virtual learning program to help raise the rural schools’ math scores. With the district’s recognition as a 21st Century Classroom by Apple for using and promoting digital learning (only 50 districts in the country receive the distinction), Johnson’s tech-connected classrooms have contributed to KIBSD becoming a cohesive learning community.

Trial and Error

Johnson first experimented with VTC in 2004-2005 with a Spanish teacher who taught class in one school while a rural school was connected via video. However, parents and students told Johnson that this format didn’t give kids on the receiving end enough interaction with the teacher or with the kids in the teacher’s physical classroom. All he had done, Johnson admits, was replicate the traditional “talking-head” teacher-directed approach to instruction. “Students were as disengaged virtually as they would be in the actual classroom,” says Johnson. “Clearly, there was a need to create a new model.”In the next two years, Johnson began using Elluminate—another technology for creating virtual classrooms and holding virtual meetings with staff—to teach an entry-level Alutiiq language class (the language of the native community). With success still falling short of expectations, Johnson realized something about what he had observed during classroom instruction: KIBSD’s delivering a VTC distance program effectively depended less on the actual technology and more on the students’ comfort level with the technology.

“At the time, secondary students were significantly less likely to virtually interact with their peers and teachers than their younger counterparts,” says Johnson. “The little ones loved the camera and were generally eager to virtually interact with their peers.” He realized that if virtual learning were going to work, he would need to raise students from a young age within this model of learning. Focusing purely on secondary students was not serving the program for the long term.

By the end of the district’s first ANEP grant, Johnson began with a hybrid approach to delivery which he tested out on his staff: he connected all eight rural schools for virtual staff meetings via VTC, and then used Elluminate and Moodle so teachers could interact rather than simply sit in different locations connected by a video monitor. Using the tools during the virtual meetings allowed Johnson to address one site with a specific issue, while other sites communicated both socially and professionally in realtime. Elluminate allows teachers to message and share pictures, desktops and applications while Moodle became the staff’s information warehouse. Teachers were communicating. Things were looking positive.

Technology Used Today

In 2007-2008, distance learning became a KISBD priority, specifically to address rural schools’ declining math scores. In August 2008, KISBD was awarded its second ANEP grant, and the extra dollars let Johnson and the district offer stipends to teachers and provide staff development to support distance education. In spring 2009, Johnson created a hybrid model for mathematics, science and music delivery involving VTC, Elluminate and Moodle, all of which were supported by interactive whiteboards, desktop cameras, Bamboo tablets and projectors. admin prof

Johnson also introduced the concept of lead and co-teachers: VTC classes would be taught by a highly qualified teacher in a Kodiak Island-based classroom with a certified co-teacher or aid in a rural-based classroom.

“Soon, students who were typically isolated and working alone now felt connected to a part of a larger learning community.” The connection is reflected in Accuplacer scores: Of the 2008-2009 math students (juniors and seniors), 11 percent were identified as performing “below college-level pre-algebra,” whereas in 2009-2010, no student was identified as such. In 2010-2011, 10th-grade students who had taken virtual math for two years outperformed their previous year’s 10th-grade counterparts who were in their first year of virtual math by 22 percent in terms of overall math proficiency.

Additionally, classes never before accessible to rural students have become the norm. In 2009-2010, pre-algebra, algebra 1 and 2, and geometry were all brought to students for the first time through the virtual learning program, as were journalism, band and orchestra. In the following years, pre-calculus, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry and natural resources, advanced composition and literature, and American literature have been added.

A Partnered Approach

“Everyone believes in what we’re doing,” says Johnson, who attributes the virtual learning success to willing partners like Bill Watkins—principal of Kodiak Island High School—and every teacher willing to teach into a camera or to use a screen. “Typically, in rural schools there’s a higher rate of turnover, but our turnover is incredibly small. People don’t want to leave."

“Watkins, on the other hand, attributes the virtual learning program’s success to Johnson. “Phil is just one of those people who is a risk taker and is not afraid to do what it takes to move forward in education,” says Watkins, who since 2003 has worked closely with Johnson on all aspects of KISBD’s virtual learning program. “We look at ourselves now as one big school.”

Phillip R. Johnson, Director of Rural Schools, Kodiak (Alaska) Island Borough S.D.

  • Age: 49
  • Tenure: 4 years
  • Salary: $96,000
  • Schools: 14
  • Students: 2,564
  • Staff: 200
  • Students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches: 46%
  • Web site: www.kibsd.org

Jennifer E. Chase is a contributing writer for District Administration.


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