Success Story: GCI SchoolAccess Video a Big Hit for Alaska Sealife Center
Most of the Alaska SeaLife Center’s (ASLC) approximately 140,000 annual visitors are tourists who come in the summer to see the many creatures in its aquarium and take part in its many education programs. In the winter, when the crowds are gone and the Center quiets down, a different creature emerges to roam the hallways, pausing occasionally to let staff members talk and listen to it. From its body, a four-foot-tall metal structure packed with electronic equipment, comes a thick cable that changes shape and size as it extends and branches out across Alaska--and the world. At the tips of its long arms are a host of other visitors, the virtual kind, most of them school children who watch and listen from distant classrooms and ask questions and learn as if they were right there at the Seward facility. Last year that electronic creature, the ASLC’s videoconferencing unit, reached more than 10,000 students.
During each live, interactive, multi-media experience, the students expand their knowledge of Alaska’s marine environment. The 55-minute sessions include meeting animals, exploring the ASLC exhibits, talking with researchers and animal caretakers, and doing hands-on activities with materials mailed to participating students in advance. The materials include a teacher's guide with specific background information and activity ideas, as well as supplies for each session's hands-on activities. All programs are carefully designed to meet national and Alaska state science content standards.
GCI SchoolAccess provides the Internet service, much of the network and technical support, and the bandwidth to make all that high-definition videoconferencing possible. Its three dedicated T1 lines provide 4.5 Mbps of bandwidth, enough for the ASLC’s Internet, VoIP (phone) and videoconferencing services, with the latter given priority to ensure that all programs run smoothly and on time. “Bandwidth makes it all possible,” says the ASLC Senior Education Manager Laurie Morrow. “We’ve also become more mobile over the past seven years since we started taking advantage of SchoolAccess services. Now we can set up right in front of a tank or anywhere we need to so the kids can see seals and sea-lions and other animals swimming right there behind us as we’re interacting with them.” Most recently the ASLC has added wireless capability, which allows them to park the videoconferencing unit near a power outlet, roam freely with the camera, show things to students and interact with them against a variety of interesting backdrops.
More than anything, says Morrow, it is the vigilant, adept behind-the-scenes support from SchoolAccess that makes their videoconferencing program possible: “I can’t say enough good things about GCI technical services! They’re fantastic. If you have a technical issue, they’re always available. We often do videoconferencing calls with the East Coast that are in the morning their time, which means here in Alaska we’re starting at five or six in the morning and GCI tech support folks are always right there with us, extremely personable, always right on it, and they usually figure out what’s wrong within five minutes or so. And they don’t just go off somewhere and fix things; they talk you through it so maybe you can fix it yourself if it happens again.” “They’re absolutely the best in Alaska,” adds Chip Arnold, the ASLC’s Information Services Manager. “If I have any kind of bandwidth, router or other technical issue, all I have to do is call GCI’s support center, and they take care of it. They’re very, very quick. And they’re a big help interfacing with third-party vendors.”
Later this year a new camera and videoconferencing set-up in the ASLC’s Rescue and Rehabilitation area will give students an even better chance to learn close-up how the ASLC rehabilitates stranded marine mammals rescued from Alaska’s far-flung coasts. The program has drawn interest from around the world. Last year, soon after three stranded walrus pups arrived at the ASLC, a school in Australia asked if they could see them. Walruses were as strange to her students as unicorns, one teacher said, and they were all eager to see them live, not just in films and photographs. One 14-year-old Australian girl having trouble staying in school got so excited by the ensuing videoconference she went to her school principal and asked how she could learn to take care of animals. Now she’s back in school and trying to figure out how she can get up to Alaska to volunteer at the ASLC.
Another major pay-off from the new videoconferencing system in the Rescue and Rehabilitation area came last summer when faster broadband service reached Barrow, a town of about 5,000 people on Alaska’s North Slope. Morrow calls that communication breakthrough to a large town (by Alaska standards) “profoundly important” in opening up new learning opportunities for local students. In recent months they have used SchoolAccess services to get to know and ask questions about the three stranded walrus pups, who continue to be a big hit with students.
The ASLC’s videoconferencing program growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. A year after its 2005 launch, says Morrow, they had to hire a dedicated staff person to run it. They now facilitate somewhere between 250 and 300 videoconferences per year and fully expect that number to continue to grow.
The benefits of the program are many, starting of course with kids in Alaska and as far away as Mexico and Australia getting to know and appreciate Alaska and its unique marine wildlife and ecosystems. It has spawned a related program taught jointly by the ASLC and SchoolAccess that gives teachers in Alaska’s rural schools a chance to learn about videoconferencing and how to maximize its potential as an education tool. “Some teachers get in the habit of using videoconferencing as a one-way ‘talking head’ technology to deliver lectures,” says Morrow, “so any time we can encourage them to make their calls more interactive, involve students more with talking with us and asking questions, it’s a huge win for everyone.”
The ultimate goal, says Morrow, is to get Alaska students interacting more with students in the Lower 48 and elsewhere, in the process assuming some responsibility for care and feeding of the electronic creature that already has done so much to help introduce and explain Alaska’s marvelous marine environment to the outside world.
"Our goals are never about the technology, but about instruction using technology in a variety of ways. GCI has been flexible and responsive enough to support our instructional integration as we have grown and changed as an organization."
- John Concilus, Director of Educational Technology, Bering Strait School District
"The expertise that GCI provided in setting up the (distance learning) system and in working with us as we learned to operate it was very beneficial to our educators, who wanted to focus on the content and not the technology. With GCI's support we have reached over 5,000 students across the U.S. since our program launched in 2005."
- Darin Trobaugh, Education Program Coordinator, Alaska SeaLife Center
"GCI and their team of Engineers in Anchorage are a force to be reckoned with. They have continually proven over the years to be a team player with ASTE."
- Todd Schechter, Chief Networking Engineer, Alaska Society of Technology in Education
"Petersburg City School District is very pleased with its relationship with GCI. The district considers GCI to be a strong and important partner in the overall mission of providing an outstanding education to the students of Petersburg. As a "cutting edge", "one-to-one laptop" remote island district that relies very heavily upon stable, fast, and trouble free broadband service, the district has come to expect exceptional service from GCI as the norm."
- Robert Thomason, Ed.D., Superintendent, Petersburg City Schools
"GCI's SchoolAccess program has not only pioneered the delivery of video technology in bush Alaska, they have wrapped content and outreach around their service adding immense value. One Vision is proud to support the efforts of this innovative partner."
- George Woltors, NW Territory Manager, One Vision
"GCI’s contribution of live streaming the events during our National Competition was a great success. Our schools and families that were unable to attend the event had the opportunity to see their student(s) in person. Without GCI this would not have happened!"
- Les Martisko, Ph.D., CEO, United States Academic Decathlon
"GCI SchoolAccess has serviced the Jemez Mountain School District for the past seven years impeccably. GCI has developed a product that eliminates many of the pitfalls of traditional piece-meal approaches to implement Internet services by bundling the most critical services into a concise package. Additionally, GCI is well established in the navigation of E-Rate protocols, has an outstanding technical support team, and has a highly competent education program manager."
- Adan Delgado, Former Superintendent, Jemez Mountain School District
"We have a tradition of providing our faculty, staff, and students with the most up-to-date technology that can be made available, and GCI makes carrying on that tradition a possibility. GCI is instrumental in the planning, designing, and implementation of our distance learning services. This support, along with the broadband services provided by GCI, has allowed our distance learning program to be second to none in Alaska."
- George Gladish, TAI Coordinator, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"GCI School Access has been a great partner for Ilisagvik College. In 2012 and 2013, they donated funds to support our annual STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp, which provides a fun and educational opportunity for rural Alaskan youth. We are very grateful to GCI School Access for their sponsorship!"
- Pearl Brower, President, Ilisagvik College
"GCI has been providing technical support for videoconferencing events at the ISTE Conferences in San Antonio and San Diego to the IVC Operations Teams for the past two years. Their knowledge and experience has been a key to our success."
- Paul Hieronymus, IVC Operations Chairman, 2013 ISTE Conference
"GCI SchoolAccess makes it possible for our coaches and volunteers to communicate in the villages and most importantly make sure the students are safe by providing our coaches with mobile technology in the villages."
- Lars Flora, Director, NANANordic
"CILC has partnered with GCI SchoolAccess over the last few years on many projects that have benefited and enriched the life of people both in Alaska and the lower 48. Much of this would not have been possible without the leadership of Dr. Pam Lloyd."
- Janet L. Zanetis, CEO, The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
"Our administration realized our aggressive approach to educational achievement could only be met with a network that can support the growing number of mobile devices in our district and the increasing use of video conferencing for our classes. GCI SchoolAccess helped us transition off satellite and onto a terrestrial service that supports these goals."
- Dan Walker, Assistant Superintendent, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"The most powerful thing in a traditional classroom is the connection between the teacher and the student. And that connection happens over two-way video."
- Gary Baldwin, former superintendent, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"GCI is a strong educational partner with the Alaska Distance Education Consortium, helping to expand broadband, bring technical solutions, and instructional programming to high need areas."
- John Monahan, Alaska Distance Education Consortium
"Educating 4 Leadership has benefited enormously from our partnership with SchoolAccess to provide student leadership and 1:1 resources for Alaska, other states, and the UK at present. We consider the contributions from SchoolAccess to be completely vital to our work and success during the past three years. We appreciate their support!"
- Dr. Mark Standley, CEO, Educating 4 Leadership
"In the 15 years I have been an administrator in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District we have been utilizing Broadband services from GCI. The distances and the cold and lack of infrastructure are tough challenges, but GCI is among the best of all vendors that we use for services to our students, faculties, and schools."
- Norman Eck, Ph.D., Superintendent, Northwest Arctic Borough School District
"GCI has been an instrumental partner in helping the Alaska Zoo develop a Long Distance Education Program. This program provides a venue for the Alaska Zoo to expand the reach of its Education classes through video conferencing and the ability to share Education Programs with students throughout our state."
- Patrick Lampi, Executive Director, Alaska Zoo
"GCI is a company with an exceptionally strong reputation for its expertise in building out networks in rough terrains and for their deep knowledge in all aspects of videoconferencing. Throughout my several years of partnering with GCI, I have come to learn that those who work within the education division are dedicated to the mission of bringing world-class opportunities to all learners across Alaska, including some of the most remote corners of the state."
- Ruth Blankenbaker, Former CEO, The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
"GCI has a long track record of being a friend to schools and libraries in the State of Alaska. Despite the unpredictable timing of E-rate funding, GCI's willingness to work with anchor institutions by appling discounts and handling E-rate invoicing is a welcome relief when staff is small. Steve Walker and his team at GCI deserve a big THANK YOU for finding ways to make the billing process understandable and manageable for the smallest of our schools and libraries."
- Valerie Oliver, Alaska USF/E-Rate Coordinator for Alaska Schools and Libraries