Broadband: A look inside one classroom

To get a firsthand feel for an Idaho Education Network course, we sat in on Friday at a classroom at Meridian High School.

And we interviewed a teacher across town at Mountain View High School — over the network’s videoconferencing equipment.

For the past few weeks, Idaho Education News and KIVI/KNIN TV have collaborated on a joint project examining the embattled Idaho Education Network. The goals are well-known: to provide broadband in Idaho high schools, and allow schools and districts to share classes and curriculum. Also well-documented are the contract and funding problems that leave the 6-year-old network at a critical crossroads.

What did we see, and hear, when we made our final stop at Meridian High School?

The class — Spanish IV — was lively and interactive, punctuated by singing and cheering. The Meridian students may have been attending class in a converted boiler room, but the sound and picture were clear and seamless. The physical technology worked without a glitch.

Between classes, Mountain View teacher Anna Bradshaw described her own learning process. Five or six years ago, she said, it was difficult to make the transition to teaching over the network. Gradually, she moved away from using workbooks, using a more “verbally active” approach. Teaching a foreign language actually translates well to a network course.

“I’ve gotten used to it, and I really enjoy it.”

Spanish IV is one of about 30 classes shared among high schools in the West Ada School District. Three or four Meridian students take the class at a time, having access to an advanced course that might have been unavailable before the network went online. “We can’t afford to staff a class with a teacher and four kids,” district spokesman Eric Exline said.

The shared classes have been a hit in West Ada, Idaho’s largest school district. Between fall 2012 and spring 2014, 937 West Ada students have taken classes over the network, the highest number in the state. But West Ada doesn’t share its courses with other districts, and it doesn’t tap into classes from other districts. The obstacle is familiar: It’s difficult to sync class schedules between districts.

But this isn’t to say West Ada has ruled out the idea of shared classes. “I do think the vision of that is a good vision,” Exline said.

Across the state, schools appear to have different visions for the network.

Some schools see it as a source of broadband access that they could not otherwise afford — but some school districts are still going out on their own to beef up their connectivity.

Some school districts see the network as a portal to new class offerings — but most districts aren’t deploying that technology.

And now, legislators have to figure out whether to pay to keep the existing network online — while state officials try to figure out how to structure a new network contract. As Idaho faces this crossroads, we at Idaho Education News and KIVI/KNIN have joined forces to take a closer look at the system and situation at hand. (If you’re in the Treasure Valley, tune in to KIVI/KNIN for their coverage of the story.)

Here’s a link to my main story on the controversies surrounding the network.

Coming Thursday: The state Department of Administration will make its Idaho Education Network budget pitch to the Legislature. Check here for full coverage.