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.

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.”

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.

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 K-12 applications.

Links:

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

Merit Network
http://www.merit.edu