Success Story: GCI Supports Interactive Books for Alaska Students

Chevak, Alaska is in southwestern Alaska and a long way from anywhere. It’s as geographically isolated as most Alaskan villages, maybe even more so—a full day’s travel by air to Anchorage, more than $900 for a round-trip ticket. For the past five years GCI SchoolAccess has helped overcome that gap with communications services ranging from Internet access to videoconferencing while continuing to support the steadily growing bandwidth needs of the village’s 900-plus residents. Recently all those services and connections have come into full play with the launch of a school district project that promises to make new demands on network bandwidth for two of the best reasons imaginable: preserving the local language, a unique Central Yup’ik dialect called Cup’ik, and empowering local students to learn about cultural diversity and their native heritage.

It all began a little over a year ago, when Joseph Gorski, Director of Technology and Federal Programs for the Kashunamiut School District, attended a conference about interactive digital books, or “eBooks,” in Anchorage sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Boards’(AASB) Consortium for Digital Learning (CDL). Taking advantage of a federal grant designed to help preserve Alaska native languages, he and CDL Director Bob Whicker hatched a plan to translate “Milly and Molly,” a popular interactive children’s book series about cultural diversity, into Cup’ik. In April 2013, two employees of the Kashunamiut School District, a Kashunamiut School Board member and an AASB member flew to Auckland, New Zealand to work with KIWA, a software company that specializes in interactive books. Two of the Alaskans spoke the parts for 12 “Milly and Molly” stories while the third provided the narration. KIWA then assembled them all into eBooks that are available for download from Apple’s iTunes, in addition to two eBooks produced by Gorski and his colleagues that feature traditional Cup’ik stories spoken in English. Readers are able to touch the illustrations to hear both English and Cup’ik names for things. “With that much exposure on the Web, a rare language like Cup’ik - now spoken by only a few people in a remote Alaska village - has a chance to go mainstream,” says Whicker. In addition to school children from all over the world, linguists and the general public will have a chance to hear what Cup’ik sounds like, perhaps even learn a few words, thereby helping to preserve it.

Students will be able to read the stories on iPads or Kindles or other tablets or e-readers, swiping to read at their own pace, touching single Cup’ik words to hear them spoken, double-touching words to hear them pronounced syllable by syllable, even recording their own pronunciation of words and playing them back to see if they’re pronouncing them right. “Kids are their own best teachers,” says Gorski.  “Give them something to play with, and they’ll learn by accident.”

Working with other school districts throughout Alaska, the AASB then plans to translate the “Milly and Molly” stories into as many as 10 other Alaska Native languages. After that, they hope to be able to develop similar interactive books in Alaska Native languages that tell local stories and histories, bringing all the learning about language and culture even closer to home.

More languages stored in the same eBook means bigger files and more demand for bandwidth (bigger network pipes to carry more data) for downloading them from the Web or exchanging them with other users. And more Alaska school districts working on eBooks about their local cultures, spoken and written in their local languages, means more demands on local area networks, more emails flying back and forth, more demand for mobile phone service--all the technology that now enables and drives every collaborative digital project. School Access promises to be there every step of the way, as it has been in Chevak and many other school districts for so many years, providing the necessary bandwidth as demand continues to grow, setting up and servicing local networks, Internet service, and other connections that will allow the stories to be gathered, told, and shared interactively with Alaska and the world. “GCI has helped with this project and many others at our school district in an array of different ways,” says Gorski, “mainly with infrastructure, technical support, and helping us set up and maintain our networks.” Says Whicker: “GCI is our primary partner in moving digital learning forward in the state. Schools all over Alaska are quickly learning  the huge value of broadband for teaching and learning, and GCI is right there with us, helping to make it all a reality.”

  • "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