On any given day at the Alaska Zoo, one of the staff members may be zipping around on a computer-laden golf cart preparing to show off some of the animals to a camera.
That camera carries a live stream all over the state, or sometimes, all over the world. Educators at the zoo can talk to students in New York about polar bears or show students in Kaktovik how animals are adapted to cold environments. The only requirement is an internet connection.
Some of the groups participating are school classes, but the audiences are diverse. The zoo began teaching distance education programs around 2013 and has embraced the technology to increase its reach, said Stephanie Hartman, the education coordinator for the zoo.
“We have all sorts, honestly,” she said. “When we first started it, we didn’t want to throw it directly into schools … really, we focused on after-school and before-school programs, and libraries. Shockingly enough, a lot of senior centers started booking with us.”
Anchorage is the biggest city in Alaska, but with about 300,000 people in the metropolitan area, it’s still a relatively small base to support the nonprofit zoo. Hartman said the distance education programs help accomplish the Alaska Zoo’s mission of connecting people to animals as well as broaden its potential support base.
They’re not under the illusion that elementary schools in New York will visit the Alaska Zoo, but they may book a distance learning education program again in the future, supporting the zoo, she said.
“We really try to make it so it’s an interactive experience,” she said. “Our packets (which are sent ahead) also round out the experience … and they can also be used throughout the school year because they do meet curriculum.”
The use of distance and digital learning is practical in a state that’s largely roadless, sparsely populated and that stretches more than 1,000 miles from end to end.
In the past decade, with expanding broadband availability and increasing attention on the cost of education in the state, educational organizations have rapidly embraced technology in the classrooms. That often includes distance and supplementary online education.
It’s also been touted as a way to save money in delivering education while keeping pace on quality. Gubernatorial candidates Mike Dunleavy and Mark Begich both focused on educational funding throughout their campaigns, looking for ways to improve performance without inflating the state budget while the state is still recovering from a wounded economy.
About 80 percent of K-12 education funding in 2014-15 was spent on personnel costs — salaries, health care and retirement benefits — while approximately 19 percent was spent on purchases of services and supplies, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
While educational technology may improve opportunities, it’s not cheap; school districts and universities nationwide have to budget for updated and refreshed technology every year.
Distance learning and educational technology is projected to be a $252 billion global market by 2020, according to a 2016 analysis by EdTechX Global and Ibis Capital.
The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development maintains a map with drop-pins marking schools with innovative uses of technology in their classrooms. That ranges from the the Anchorage School District’s use of teletherapy for speech therapists to the Petersburg School District introducing coding classes.
That exposure is part of the rapidly evolving education atmosphere — technology is just a part of everything now, said Norm Wooten, the executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards.
“I recall when computers were first being put into schools, we were teaching kids keyboarding, how to type,” he said. “Districts don’t do that anymore. They’re starting students right away on coding, complex topics.”
Alaska has embraced technology in classrooms, either on par with or faster than schools across the country, Wooten said. In 2006, the Alaska Association of School Boards embarked on a technology implementation initiative called the Consortium on Digital Learning, aimed at implementing a one-to-one ratio of computers to students in various districts. The goal was to make a laptop or mobile device available to every student.
“We accomplished what we (set out to do), which was make technology integrated into every school in the state of Alaska,” he said.
Steve Nelson, the communications manager for AASB who coordinated the Consortium on Digital Learning project, added that the cost of technology may not necessarily be a line-item increase for districts over other supplies.
“What used to be spent on textbooks, I think, is going to be spent more and more on technology,” he said.
Hartman identified the technology as one of the biggest frustrations in the implementation of distance learning — between bandwidth and compatibility issues, there’s rarely a day when a distance learning teacher at the zoo doesn’t encounter a problem.
While they can solve some of their problems, in part with help from internet provider GCI, they may not always be able to help the teachers in the classroom solve the issues on their end.
“The best part about it is connecting to people who’ve never seen a moose or a wolf or a red fox before. You can see something really igniting in a person,” she said. “Technology at this point is the bane of my existence. We always have a ton of trouble. You name it, it’s happened.”
Technology is also a lynchpin in personalized learning, one of the largest pushes in public education in recent years, which provides resources for students to direct their own education with digital resources with the guidance of a classroom teacher, allowing each student to learn by the method that best suits them.
Many of the school districts in Alaska have begun implementing tools targeted at personalized learning already, and that’s going to continue, Wooten said. It’s also an integral part of Alaska’s Educational Challenge, which was crafted out of submitted comments from Alaskans all over the state.
“You cannot personalize learning in this state without the use of technology,” he said. “It’s not about seat time anymore. It’s about the mastery of the material … No teacher can stand up in front of a class of 30 kids and personalize learning for each of them. You can’t do it without technology.”
Broadband is one limiting factor on the expansion of the use of technology in the state. Wooten said AASB regularly make sure the issue is before the Legislature, reminding them that improved broadband in communities brings benefits for business as well as education and residents.
Technology is reaching beyond the classroom into extracurricular projects, too. Nelson said AASB has been working on “book slam” projects with Alaska Native village schools for about the last decade all over the state to design digital books targeted at revitalizing Native languages, many of which are in danger of going extinct within a generation.
Some areas, like the Yukon-Kuskokwim School District, have completed a number of books replete with local collaboration on illustrations, narrations and storyboarding.
“We’ve been working for close to a decade on this,” Nelson said. “As soon as you get the technology, teachers ask, ‘How are we going to use this?’ … It’s pretty cool. It’s got a lot of uses all across the learning spectrum.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]