Tennessee Tech bridging the 'digital divide' Bridging the 'Digital Divide'

When she first started teaching at Tennessee Technological University more than two decades ago, technology in the classroom of elementary, middle and high schools consisted of 16-mm film projectors, overhead projectors and film strips. Then came VHS and Beta tapes.

Today, Margaret Phelps, professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, deals with the Internet, e-mail, interactive lessons on CD-ROMS. Then there's building pages on the World Wide Web and giving multimedia presentations.

It's a whole new ballgame and TTU wants to make sure its teacher education graduates and teachers in the outlying rural areas remain strong competitors in today's rapidly evolving technological world where those living in the "big city" typically have the advantage of access over those living in "the country."

"This is what's known as the 'digital divide,'" said Phelps, who is also TTU's Director of Rural Education/Research and Service.

"National data show that the Internet and computers are in access by different populations. For example, the poor tend to use less than the affluent and those living in rural areas use less than those living in urban areas. And information today shows that the divide between these two different groups is getting greater."

Enter the 21st Century Classroom, which has been around for many years, and Technology Empowerment for Tomorrow's Rural Teachers, a new developing program at Tennessee Tech, both of which are designed to bridge that divide.

Phelps, with education professors Carl Owens and Pat Jordan, want to help teachers in the rural Upper Cumberland region confront and conquer this digital divide with the Technology Empowerment for Tomorrow's Rural Teachers program.

"It's more important for rural children than anyone else to have this technology available because, for example, they don't have easy access to a museum Ð they can't jump on a city bus and visit their neighborhood museum like most children can who live in metropolitan areas," Phelps explained.

"In this region, almost every classroom has the Internet and almost every teacher has a computer," Phelps said. "With this new program, we're working on getting teachers 'projection capability' for their computers Ð having the ability to project to an entire classroom what is pictured on one small computer screen. Right now, this is one of our major obstacles."

Carl Owens, director of instructional technology in the College of Education's Learning Resources Center Ð and a vital part of the U.S. Department of Education's efforts to help teachers maneuver through the vast amounts of technology available to them Ð is TTU's 21st Century Classroom expert. It is his job to train TTU education student-teachers to evaluate computer software to best benefit their school-age students, teaching them everything from taking a computer out of the box to producing multimedia presentations.

"We give the teachers the information and confidence they need to make the most of the tremendous technology now available to K-12 students," he said. "These days, the quality of education depends on how effective our teachers are with technology."

In rural areas, the school and public libraries are oftentimes small and old. The majority of parents are not high school graduates and there is a high poverty level, Phelps said.

"Except for the most menial jobs, everything requires technological use," Phelps said. "We live in a global society and computers are in the workforce everywhere, even fast food.

"We would hope that these children will be able to choose how and where they want to spend their lives rather than have to stay in a menial job or on welfare because they don't have the resources to succeed in today's technological environment."

Closing in on Distance Education

Experts predict that within 20 years, on-line classes with as many as 1,000 students will replace traditional lecture courses on campus, largely due to businesses' increasing demand for an educated workforce. About 25 percent of Americans seek to continue their education after college, according to the Learning Resources Network, a distance-learning education group. But that number will increase to 50 percent in the next 20 years, the group said.

Taking on that challenge of better educating the workforce was associate professor of Industrial Technology Joyce Wilkerson who offered an on-line course with a CD-ROM she authored Ð the first of its kind on the Internet and which earned her the 1998 Innovation Award from the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Machinists and moldmakers were learning computer-aided design and computer-aided machining, or CAD/CAM, with her on-line class from their own homes or workplaces in a much more economical way.

While a copy of the most popular CAD/CAM software can cost a company around $13,000, Wilkerson's class and materials were only about $400. Work could be done at a student's convenience at home on his or her own computer and instructions were easier to comprehend because of interactive full-motion video and 3-D animation.

"So many people said this kind of material couldn't be taught over the Internet because it was too graphic-intensive in nature," Wilkerson said. "With the combination of a quality CD and constant student-teacher interaction, we've broken new ground on what kinds of classes can be possible over the Internet and how successful those classes will be for people seeking education outside a traditional classroom."

Also meeting the needs of those seeking an education outside the traditional classroom is Tennessee Tech's Extended Education Department. Non-traditional students living in outlying areas who cannot regularly come to Cookeville and TTU without serious hardship because they are married, have children and work a full-time job have found solace with Extended Education.

For the past seven years, Extended Education has been utilizing its Interactive Television (ITV) network in the Upper Cumberland.

Essentially, ITV allows students in Overton County go to a site at Vol State and listen and participate in a lecture being given at TTU via televisions that are linked together with fiber optic cable. So, a TV camera at TTU will broadcast the lecturer to a television set up at Vol State while a TV camera at Vol State broadcasts the students and their questions back to a television at Tennessee Tech. And this can be done for several other sites in Clay, Pickett, Fentress and Jackson counties, even to a TVA plant in Alabama.

"We have gone from offering three credit classes a year from the 1993-94 school year through 1997 to nine credit classes in 1997-98 and to 12 credit classes in 1998-99," said Julie Galloway, Extended Education area coordinator.

"Students and teachers can see and hear each other and interact almost as they would in a traditional classroom."

BusinessMedia Moguls

Bringing man and machine together is an old idea with a new twist at TTU's BusinessMedia Center. Launched just over four years ago as a national demonstration project, the center's goals are to promote communities and strengthening economic development.

Staffed with students and led by director Kevin Liska, the center helps businesses navigate the technological maze by giving owners and employees hands-on training and experience.

"We offer a one-stop shop where business owners and operators can 'test drive' software, hardware and training techniques," Liska said. "Our center promotes economic development because businesses often waste time and money in wrestling with technology decisions without the chance to explore what's out there."

The BusinessMedia Center packages CD-ROMs which typically include about 1,000 photos, computer graphics, text, demographic information and digital video testimonials. Chambers of commerce and other community groups use the CD-ROMs to entice everyone from developers to tourists to come to their corner of the world. More than 15 Tennessee counties are already using CD-ROMs produced by the Center.

"Our middle name is technology," said Gary Pickett, chairperson of Decision Sciences and Management and assistant dean of the College of Business Administration who is also chairperson of the university's Industrial Technology Services committee.

"We recognize the importance of technology and are doing a lot of creative things with technology."