A Literacy Milestone for Mississippi Libraries
by Terian Tyre
MultiMedia Schools March/April 2001 
Rome 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 to users.

First to Offer Statewide Access to PLATO
Playing a pivotal role in this literacy project is the Mississippi Library Commission (MLC) and its former executive director, John Pritchard. First, the MLC helped spearhead investment for a frame-relay network that made high-speed Internet access available to virtually all the libraries in the state. This improved infrastructure, in turn, enabled delivery of complex courseware like PLATO and other advanced applications to libraries statewide.

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 libraries.

Pilots Reveal Priority Needs
The First Regional Library's pilots confirmed a great need for basic skills instruction in many communities. Nearly one-third of the adults in Mississippi over the age of 16 are functioning at Level 1 literacy, according to Catherine Nathan, assistant director for public services for the First Regional Library. "That's a sobering reality," she said. "Our five-county area struggles with these illiteracy problems, so we wanted to establish a quality resource for helping our patrons improve their skills."

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:

  • "The addition of this program will provide the tools for better test scores, more preparedness in the learning arena, and better qualifications for future leaders," wrote Sue Poff, director of the Benton County Library System. "The end result should be a better community, county, and state."

  • "In preparation for college admission," wrote Marion Francis of Jackson/Hinds Library System, "the PLATO program would assist students in mastering curricula that would be needed to further education." Noting as well that the Jackson Public Schools share a partnership with the library system for PLATO, she added, "We feel that we can coordinate its use with local schools."

  • In Pearl River County, one focus was on how PLATO might help its library system establish a sustainable literacy program. Susan Cassagne, technology coordinator, wrote that the Web-based courseware seemed well suited to deliver just-in-time services for literacy groups, alternative education, GED programs, and local high schools.

  • Valinda Smith, literacy program coordinator at Elizabeth Jones Library, highlighted how adults who work full-time will especially benefit. "Access at the Elizabeth Jones Library will enable local citizens who work during weekdays or night shifts to come on Saturdays or in the afternoons to use PLATO to enhance their reading, writing, math, employability, or other needed skills."

  • At Tombigbee Regional Library System, staff had already talked with representatives from local schools about the logistics of bringing small classes to the library to use PLATO. They also intend to enhance services for the home-schooled. Director Mary Helen Waggoner cited Clay County's high unemployment rate too (6.4 percent, approximately 2,000 people), explaining that PLATO should help area students earn high school diplomas or offer the training needed to land that good job.
Mississippi's public libraries are clearly ready to assume some leadership in the fight to improve the state's literacy levels, employment prospects, and students' overall academic achievement. In this endeavor, the libraries will be a welcome partner to the region's K-12 schools and 2-year colleges.

Statewide Rollout
Statewide rollout for free access to PLATO Web Learning Network from Mississippi public libraries occurred last fall. This encompassed 47 different library systems, plus two independent libraries, totaling some 240-plus individual sites. Overall, the process went very smoothly, according to Rama Vishwanatham, the project's coordinator for the MLC.

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
Vishwanatham also planned and implemented the MLC's staff training program for PLATO, using a train-the-trainers approach. One or two representatives from each library system attend half-day workshops to learn how to administer access, log on users, run various reports, and other tasks. Again, it's all Web-based and can be easily covered in a couple of hours. The representatives then return and train their own staffs throughout each library system. With the help of a staff member, patrons can learn to use the system in 10 minutes.

"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: terian@home.com.  

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