Five states have received the green light to start connecting their K-12 schools to Abliene, an ultrahigh-speed Internet2 backbone that until now has been restricted to higher education, government, and private-sector users.

One hundred times faster than a T1 connection to the current internet (referred to as the “commodity internet” by aficionados), Abilene is an advanced backbone network that connects regional aggregation points—known as gigaPoPs—to support the development and deployment of advanced internet applications created by Internet2 member universities.

Selected as “sponsored educational group participants,” state networks in Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington will now be able to offer their schools access to Internet2’s advanced research capabilities.

“Internet2 opens up school districts beyond their boundaries,” said Greg Marks, special assistant for K-12 outreach at Merit Network, a nonprofit, non-subsidized division of Merit University that provides internet service to Michigan schools.

On Interent2, students can view slides from an electron microscope at a remote university, explore the ocean in a remote-controlled underwater vehicle, or access Carnegie Mellon University’s extensive digital video library.

“We can now offer [schools] access to a new realm of digital experiences,” said Nancy Piringer, project manager at MOREnet, the Missouri Research and Education Network. “They will be able to do a lot more than they were able to do with the commodity internet.”

A fourth-grade class working on a project on World War II, for example, could videoconference with the curator at the Truman Library, receive a virtual tour, and be able to ask questions in real time, she said.

In addition, Internet2 can deliver tele-immersion—which is like videoconferencing, except users have the visual experience of being in the same room with a person who is actually in another city—and other virtual-reality programs that give a three-dimensional experience. Wearing 3-D goggles and body sensors, students can virtually explore a person’s bone structure or a functioning heart.

“Tele-immersion, for most people, is the most ‘wow,’ the most amazing,” Marks said. “You can go into various parts of anatomy and really look around.”

At this stage, Marks said, Merit Network is informing schools about the resources they could access through Internet2. Merit Network plans to offer Michigan schools access to Internet2 for no extra fee, provided that the school’s network connection is of high enough quality to handle the various applications.

“We won’t see any significant use until fall,” Marks said. “We are more in the gathering-momentum-and-informing-schools stage.”

Now that K-12 schools have permission to use Internet2, the major hurdle for schools is deciding what applications to use. “The interesting and challenging question to school districts is, how are they going to use this in their classrooms or by the school administrators,” Marks said.

Michigan has a fair number of schools that have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of Internet2, Marks said; the next step “really comes down to the applications.”

Merit Network will work with each district to identify its Internet2 needs and help fulfill them. The group has posted on its web site a small bullet-point list of applications that are possible with Internet2 to trigger districts’ enthusiasm and get them thinking, Marks said.

“Some of the schools are ready to go, and others will have to think about what they will do with Internet2,” he said.

Marks said he thinks a number of Michigan districts will use Internet2 for professional development initiatives.

“Even before Internet2 came along, there were a lot of professional development problems,” Marks said. Using Internet2 to conduct teacher training also introduces teachers to its capabilities, so they are more inclined to use it in the classroom.

“It’s not my expectation that schools will being doing any sort of software development, they’re really taking advantage of resources that exist out there [already] on Interent2,” he said.

Because universities developed the existing Internet2 applications for education and research, they’re generally available to K-12 schools for free.

“At this point, I don’t know of any … for which there is a charge,” Marks said. “There may be issues of scheduling, like in the case of the electron microscope.”

Piringer said Missouri schools also are in the formative stages when it comes to Internet2. MOREnet currently is educating schools about the capabilities of Internet2, so schools can start thinking about how they’ll use it.

“Theoretically, they could jump on Internet2 through MOREnet right now,” Piringer said. “Where the hang-ups are going to be is understanding the potential of Internet2.”

Missouri’s eMINTS classrooms—which stands for Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies—probably will be the first to adopt Internet2, said Dawn Charles, communications officer at MOREnet.

The eMINTS classrooms serve as demonstration classrooms, in which various technologies are piloted before being deployed across the state. “It’s a teacher’s ‘dream classroom’ as far as technology is concerned,” Charles said.

Almost 150 eMINTS classrooms are set up across the state, each one featuring the latest technologies—including interactive SmartBoards, digital cameras, and one computer for every two students. eMINTS teachers also complete a two-year training program in how to integrate the technology into the curriculum.

“Opening up the backbone is by no means the solution, it’s just an important step,” said Internet2 spokesman Greg Wood. Internet2 isn’t useful without the applications and resources developed by its members, he said.

“We are definitely still focusing on higher education,” Wood said. But opening the network to K-12 schools not only provides more resources to schools, it also allows higher-education institutions interested in K-12 schools to complete their missions of researching and developing applications for K-12 education, he said.

Links:

Abilene
http://www.internet2.edu/abilene

MOREnet: Missouri Research & Education Network
http://www.more.net

Merit Network
http://www.merit.edu

Oregon Public Education Network CyberSchool
http://www.cyberschool.k12.or.us

Washington K-20 Education Network
http://www.wa.gov/K20

Net.Work.Virginia
http://www.networkvirginia.net