|A Literacy Milestone for Mississippi Libraries|
|by Terian Tyre|
|MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2001|
wasn't built in a day, and neither will our nation's 21st century digital
infrastructure. Gradually, however, it is taking shape. High-speed networks
increasingly link schools, libraries, homes, and businesses all across
this vast country. And statewide initiatives have often led the way.
Mississippi, for example,
was among the first to provide universal access to the Internet through
all of its public libraries. Now, it steps out front as the first state
to offer universal access to academic curriculum through its public
libraries. Patrons choose their courses from the PLATO learning system,
a collection of computer-based instructional curricula for young adults
and adults from PLATO Learning, Inc. It's all Web-based and totally free
First to Offer Statewide Access to
Finally, an independent assessment by the state's First Regional Library in a demonstration project proved compelling. Patrons were interested. Quite a few took the self-paced instructional courses to earn their GED, for example. Library staff also generally approved, noting that it took little administration time (staff register patrons with the system just once) while offering considerable benefit to their communities. Based on this success, the MLC has now rolled out the PLATO Web Learning Network to public libraries throughout Mississippi. The MLC approved a 3-year subscription, which should result in a rich baseline data for further analysis.
Generally, PLATO's educational content leans towards middle, high school, and adult-age learners, providing both academic and applied skills. All instruction is built around real-life and job-related examples, which especially suits the needs and sensibilities of older teens and adults. This matched up well with the regions' needs for basic literacy and job-skills training.
In total, the firm's curricula
comprise more than 2,000 hours and 10,000 learning objectives, from grade
2 through the second year of college. And the collection is still growing.
Just added in summer of 2000, for example, were Vocabulary and Reading
Comprehension (70 hours of practice for students who read at grade levels
3 through 9) and Essential Reading Skills (21 hours of activities for adolescents
and adults reading at third- to fourth-grade levels). Literacy skills are
definitely a PLATO strength, which also appealed to the Mississippi public
Pilots Reveal Priority Needs
In their application to participate in the PLATO program, each of the five pilot libraries specifically mentioned the courseware's potentially key role in helping their patrons earn their GED, prepare for college admission, or enhance employability skills:
Of course, the pilot libraries provided early guidance, enrolling students of all ages and monitoring results. During the rollout process, for example, Monday morning telephone conferences were held among the pilots, PLATO representatives, and Vishwanatham to discuss issues as they arose and to present new ideas. The more they talked, the more excited the participants became. The team proved very enthusiastic about what this could mean for all the libraries across the state. "It's not often that we've had the opportunity to offer so much to so many for so little extra effort," Vishwanatham said.
In daily practice, patrons can sign on and off the PLATO system unsupervised once they've been registered by library staff. Use of PLATO is free, and patrons can take any number of courses. Now fully Web-based, PLATO's courses sport lots of graphics, audio enhancements, and interactivity to keep students engaged. Moreover, each course comprises dozens of short modules, helping to break learning down into digestible bits.
One big reason PLATO so appealed to Mississippi's public libraries is that it provides a complete solution for a broad range of learning needs while requiring only minimal attention from library staff. The system first assesses each user's skills (within a given grade level) in reading, language arts, and math to determine placement. Then it administers the appropriate instruction via tutorials, drill-and-practice exams, problem-solving activities, application exercises, and mastery tests. Further, it also aligns its curriculum with various state and national standardized tests, such as the ACT or GED. Finally, each student's progress is tracked and reported upon by PLATO's Pathways Management System. Learning is self-paced and self-directed.
Initially, patrons can only
access PLATO while physically at a Mississippi library, though they may
roam throughout the state while still maintaining their academic records
on the PLATO system. The MLC is leaving open the future option, however,
of providing access to the courseware system directly from homes.
Natural Extension of Mandate
"We are monitoring it all pretty closely for the first 6 months, mainly for usage patterns, to see if we need to add more seats to the license," Vishwanatham said. Initially, the MLC purchased a license for 125 simultaneous users, but that may not be enough. Overall, she praises the reception of PLATO by the libraries, their staffs, and the communities they serve. Universally, their support and interest was immediate and strong.
"PLATO has the components a public library is interested in," said Vishwanatham, citing GED, adult learner, literacy, and job skills. Its impact on how the staff members spend their time is relatively low, owing to its management system and Web delivery. Yet it delivers individualized instruction on a broad range of subjects spanning grade levels 2-14. According to Vishwanatham, "Providing free access to PLATO is a natural extension of our mandate to serve our communities' learning needs."
[For more information on
the PLATO system in use in Mississippi's public libraries, visit PLATO
Learning, Inc.'s Web site at http://www.plato.com.]
Terian Tyre is a freelance writer and editor who has been covering education and technology for more than 18 years. Communications to the author should be addressed to Terian Tyre, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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