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