K12 Network: Global Education through Telecommunications

by Janet Murray, K12Net Council of Coordinators

(c) Association for Computing Machinery

Communications of the ACM

August 1993/Vol.36, No.8

The K12 Network offers worldwide telecommunications for teachers, students, and others interested in promoting global awareness and overcoming the limitations of distance serving students between the ages of five and eighteen in public and private schools. K12Net is an "appropriate technology network on training wheels" for the vast majority of schools that do not have access to Internet, are constrained by limited budgets, and/or do not have the technical expertise to implement higher-level access to existing telecommunications networks. Established and maintained by volunteers using entry level technology and free or inexpensive software, the network is available to anyone with a microcomputer, a modem, and telecommunications software.

What does K12Net offer the classroom teacher?

The K12 Network grew out of a successful experiment in teleconnectivity in the Spring of 1990. A few North American educators collaborated on several "pen pal" projects to connect a one-room Eskimo school near the Arctic Circle with students in Alberta, New York, Oregon, and Texas. Using FidoNet bulletin board systems (see article by Randy Bush, this issue), they found a variety of ways to facilitate correspondence between interested students who were challenged to guess what item located in the remote classroom probably would not be found in any of the other participating schools. The answer (a wood stove) delighted the puzzled urban students and their supervising teachers.

In the course of implementing this experiment, the FidoNet System Operators recognized that what they had each been struggling to achieve on a local basis (publicizing the existence of telecommunications to educators, training new users, and developing a critical mass of regular participants) could more easily and rapidly become a reality by combining their energy and their users. FidoNet was a significant partner in this context because it already extended to 50 countries worldwide.

Building on its FidoNet connections, K12Net rapidly expanded to more than fifty sites within two months. In each of those fifty communities, there was at least one educator or interested party who had been eagerly awaiting the development of a telecommunications network devoted to K-12 education. The experimenters had identified that need and implemented at least a partial solution: an "appropriate technology network on training wheels."

Larry Press and Juan Miguel Stefanich defined an "appropriate technology network" as one which uses existing resources to establish teleconnectivity at a level which is achievable in context. [11, 264-265; 14, 287] Jack Crawford coined the phrase "network on training wheels" (alluding to the North American practice of attaching small wheels to the back of a bicycle in order to stabilize it while young children are learning to ride) to reflect K12Net's mission to train students and teachers who do not have Internet access.

FidoNet-compatible systems exchange more than 30 K12Net newsgroups at their own expense. K12Net has a "hub" system which guarantees daily connections among the four U.S. hub systems and Canada, Australia, South Africa and Taiwan. Since the end of 1991, a number of FidoNet regional gateways or "zonegates" tunnel FidoNet-FidoNet traffic over the Internet's intercontinental TCP/IP links, thus reducing significantly the cost of distributing newsgroups within FidoNet. K12Net was the first to use this tunneling technique, which allows European and African schools, teachers and educators to participate in its infrastructure. The method by which K12Net tunnels the Internet is described in [1].

Three years after its founding, more than 300 sites participate in K12Net via private distribution among FidoNet systems, and K12Net conferences are transferred via a gateway in Portland, Oreg., to Usenet newsgroups in the k12.* hierarchy where they are estimated to be available on more than 20% of Usenet sites. The apparently flat growth in the Fall of 1992 actually reflects the failure of some systems to renew their K12Net connections at the beginning of a new school year in the northern hemisphere. The withdrawal of those systems was more than adequately replaced by new systems. Each K12Net node may serve from a few to as many as several hundred users, so it is not unreasonable to estimate that K12Net newsgroups are read by more than 25,000 participants.


K12Net is curriculum-based, with conferences devoted to broad areas of instruction which correspond to the usual courses of study in pre-university schools. These K12Net newsgroups are listed and defined in Table 1. A few examples from recent exchanges demonstrate the variety of issues being raised and discussed.

In k12.ed.science, an enthusiastic student from New Zealand described his attempt to study the effect of the earth's rotation on the way toilets flush. His conclusion, that water drains clockwise in the southern hemisphere, and counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, received a scornful response "what earth-shattering research!" from a student in Australia and a very detailed response from a correspondent at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who described the coriolis "force" in detail, and told him how to set up a scientifically verifiable experiment. Other topics of continuing interest include astronomy (the lunar eclipse of December, 1992) and space exploration (the SAREX experiment to be launched on three space shuttle missions in early 1993).

Internet participants in the newsgroups have shared their expertise in technology, programming, science, and math with high school students and teachers in K12Net, and have expressed interest in the programs developed by K12Net language specialists. The Usenet gateway has been particularly valuable in its role as a vehicle to attract new and prospective System Operators who are interested in promoting telecommunications in K-12 education.

The strength and continued popularity of K12Net depends upon its identity as a significant collection of educationally-related conferences. To this end, each echo is "animated" by an educator who is familiar with the subject matter, sensitive to the needs of new users, and adept at steering conversation in an educationally appropriate environment. Each of the curricular areas has developed a focus and personality directly related to the enthusiasm of its Moderator, who monitors all messages entered in the conference and helps educate new users in telecommunications etiquette. K12Net System Operators generally restrict "write" privileges to known users, but the messages are not screened before they are sent to the conference.

K12Net also promotes language exchanges with native speakers in French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Russian. The former K12Net Russian moderator has been particularly active in developing appropriate software for exchanges incorporating Cyrillic fonts, and a K12Net friend in France has developed a multilanguage "game" which allows the user to select between French, English, Swedish, Italian, German, Dutch, and Russian. Another experiment in multilingual exchanges was moderated by a teacher in Quebec who elicited Christmas customs and traditions from around the world in their native languages. Messages in Dutch (from Belgium) and French received responses from second graders on Prince Edwards' Island, Canada.

The k12.lang.* newsgroups have attracted significant participation from European Usenet subscribers. Responses to messages in k12.lang.deutsch-eng have been posted from several different sites on the German SchuleNetz (*.schule.de) and the universality of the French language is reflected in Usenet and FidoNet postings from Finland, Belgium, and the Netherlands as well as Quebec and France. In December, 1992, Robert Brault, Moderator of k12.lang.francais, conducted a successful experiment using high bit ASCII characters to represent accented French and German characters (which were widely rumored to cause havoc on UNIX and Apple platforms) and they now commonly appear in the language newsgroups. The recent addition of a FidoNet node in Madrid and a Usenet subscriber in Chile have enriched the content of k12.lang.esp-eng.


Classroom-to-classroom projects are featured in the K12 "Channels" which are periodically reassigned based on usage and appropriate project length. Projects are designed by classroom teachers and proposed in K12.Projects. Once sufficient interest has been established, a channel is assigned to the project, and participants move their discussion to the designated channel. Projects are wide ranging,interdisciplinary, and have been designed for a variety of educational levels.

High school Physics students in Oregon, California, Nova Scotia, and Maryland attempted to replicate Eratosthenes' experiment to measure the size of the earth by measuring the length of a shadow cast by a stick at "true" noon on three successive Mondays in October 1991, posting their data, and performing the necessary calculations in the "Physics Challenge" channel. Their calculations were accurate to within 7%. Elementary and middle school students shared weekly "top ten" lists on topics proposed by participating classes, and graphed the results.

Students at all levels have participated in the "CO2 Challenge" project to reduce carbon dioxide in the environment. Led by Marshall Gilmore of Earth Kids Net, students have tackled the issue of global warming with "Quick Facts" questions and answers as well as a number of environmental projects. More recently, students have been participating in the "Global Environmental Watch." The Global Village News project solicits local news items from the student participants, and expects them to analyze the feature stories for local and regional differences in news reporting.

"Brown Bag Science" promotes experiments which can be performed with commonly available household materials. Each lesson features educational objectives and clear instructions for young scientists encouraged to test their hypotheses by experience. "MathMagic" is designed to capture student interest and imagination, and it features problems to which the solution is not immediately obvious, which can be solved using more than one strategy and may yield more than one solution. These two elementary science and mathematics projects have elicited the broadest participation from the widest geographic area because they are highly structured with well-defined goals and expectations.

A handicapped System Operator in the United Kingdom led a discussion of problems faced by those with special needs; an important conclusion emerged from this topic: telecommunications networks are significant equalizers because the participants are evaluated by their contributions rather than their appearance, race, or ethnic background. It is this aspect of K12Net which offers the most significant opportunity to effect social change. Students who telecommunicate with their fellow students around the world are less likely to accept the stereotypes fostered by their communities and governments. Differences in the age of participants are similarly diffused in an environment which applauds eloquence and depth of expression. Teachers in rural schools can expand their gifted students' horizons by giving them access to K12Net and appropriate peers to stimulate their intellectual and artistic creativity. The success of these projects and other K12Net conferences is reflected by the dramatic growth in number of messages per week.

K12Net system operators have collected more than 100mb of educational text files and programs in the public domain which are housed in nineteen regional K12Net Library sites on three continents. These files range from administrative software (such as gradebook programs and crossword puzzle makers) to tutorials in English and other languages, math, and science at all grade levels, to text files and lesson plans in a variety of subjects, to reports published by the U.S. Department of Education and other U.S.national databases such as NASA, OERI, ERIC, and the National Science Foundation's PSINet. FidoNet users can request lists of available files and/or individual files from any of the regional sites.

Figure 1: K12Net Nodes: Growth . . . from three systems in July, 1990 to 308 in February, 1993

Figure 2: Growth in Nodes vs. Growth in Traffic: from less than 100 messages per week in September, 1990 to 2000 messages per week in February, 1993.

Figure 3: Distribution of K12Net Nodes (January, 1993)


Unlike many other experiments in K-12 educational telecommunications, K12Net has developed as a grassroots organization, growing and expanding in response to the expressed needs of its users. K12Net actively promotes cooperation with other educational networks such as the Apple-based FrEdMail network which has recently expanded to provide SCHLnet forums in a series of Usenet newsgroups. International marketing students in Portland, Oreg. participated in the Global Grocery Shopping List project sponsored by FrEdMail by gathering and comparing prices of widely available food items with students in Japan and other parts of the United States and Canada.

The Moderator of k12.ed.math assisted in the establishment of an electronic "Geometry Forum" which originates from Swarthmore College. Several K12Net systems participated in an experiment to broadly distribute discussion topics from the Bangkok international conference on distance education in October 1992. K12 News electronically redistributes the "Daily Report Card", a compilation of news items pertaining to America's educational goals for the year 2000, as well as news from other K-12 educational telecommunicating initiatives.

Although the National Research and Education Network legislation finally signed into U.S. law in December 1991, did not contain significant K-12 educational and community access components, advocates for these groups are encouraged by the fact that the current administration regards public availability as a high priority. National legislation designed to expand the information infrastructure and fund access for libraries and K-12 schools was introduced in the U.S. Senate on the first day bills could be proposed. By giving it one of the first five bill numbers, the Senate Democratic leadership signalled that technology and competitiveness will be at the top of the agenda in the 103rd Congress. Several studies have been specifically commissioned to survey current K-12 educational use of telecommunications in both the U.S. and Canada. Members of the K12Net Council of Coordinators have been significant participants in these studies as well as representatives on the relevant IETF committees. The January 1993, adoption of a structure for assigning geographic Internet domain names in zones "lib" and "k12" further reflects the growing level of interest in teleconnectivity for the public library and K-12 educational communities.

K12Net continues its dramatic expansion, with the recent addition of systems in Chile, Czechoslovakia, Israel, Spain, and Taiwan. The geographic distribution of K12Net nodes is fairly even throughout the originating areas of the world (as shown in the subsequent graph), but significant expansion to developing countries remains a challenge. The development of easily-installed software which has been widely distributed in South America, Africa, and Asia promises to facilitate the distribution of K12Net.

Seth J. Itzkan studied the extent of the "global classroom" in 1991-92, commenting, "No one observing the recent development in international telecomputing activities for K-12 students can fail to notice the extraordinary growth in the size and scope of projects, as well as the increasing representation from an ever increasing number of countries." [3] His conservative prediction (15% growth) prejects 3 to 4 million K-12 student users by the year 2000. Denis Newman and his associates surveyed the school networking landscape in May 1992. Their conclusions were both visionary and discouraging: while they agreed that "a paradigm shift . . . must take place in school networking," and compared six existing models, their study also disclosed that in a significant majority of schools which have the technical capacity for internetworking to provide access to information, very few of them have taken advantage of that capacity to integrate local area (instructional) networks with wide area (information) networks. [10] In [9], Newman expanded on his ongoing experiment with networking in the Ralph Bunche elementary school in New York City, noting that he "observed substantial movement from whole-class teaching toward more collaborative work in small groups. . . . Instead of giving the teacher greater centralized control of individualized instruction, as is common in integrated learning systems, the network allows control to be distributed to the students."

The implications for K-12 telecommunications are clear: as networks continue to expand, so will the participation of K-12 teachers and students who are seeking to promote global awareness and eliminate geographic barriers. In the immediate future, the FidoNet environment promises the least expensive and broadest available access for schools which have limited budgets and barely an emerging understanding of the value of telecomunications for their teachers and students.

K12Net is guided by a Council of Coordinators composed of the seven major hubs, the K12Net Files Librarian and the Channels (Projects) Coordinator. It is a significant vehicle for computer-mediated communication-based distance education because it relies on entry level technology and free or inexpensive software available for a wide variety of personal computers, uses well-established and broadly distributed FidoNet technology, and is redistributed to a significant number of Internet sites as Usenet newsgroups.

Acknowledgments: I appreciate the insightful comments, support, and encouragement of Larry Landweber and Randy Bush.

TABLE 1: K12Net Conferences


FidoNet TAG Description Usenet Newsgroup
K12_ART_EDArt & Crafts Educationk12.ed.art
K12_BUS_EDBusiness Educationk12.ed.business
K12_COMP_LITComputer Literacyk12.ed.comp.literacy
K12_HLTH_PEHealth & Physical Educationk12.ed.health-pe
K12_LIF_SKIL Life Skills Educationk12.ed.life-skills
K12_LANG_ART Language Arts Education k12.lang.art
K12_MATH_EDMathematics Educationk12.ed.math
K12_MUSIC_EDMusic & Performing Artsk12.ed.music
K12_SCI_EDScience Education k12.ed.science
K12_SOC_STUD Social Studies Education k12.ed soc-studies
K12_SPEC_ED Compensatory Education k12.ed.special
K12_TAG Talented & Gifted Education k12.ed.tag
K12_TECH_ED Technology Education k12.ed.tech


K12_FRANCAIS Discussion in French only k12.lang.francais
K12_GERM_ENG Bilingual German/English k12.lang.deutsch-eng
K12_SPAN_ENG Bilingual Spanish/English k12.lang.esp-eng
K12_RUSSIAN Discussion in Russian only k12.lang.russian


K12.PROJECTS Discussion of potential projects k12.sys.projects
K12.CH0-12 Projects in progress k12.sys.ch0-12

[SIDEBAR: What Is FidoNet?]

FidoNet is an international network of bulletin board systems managed by amateurs and hobbyists which operates on personal microcomputers using free or low-cost shareware software, thus making it possible to inexpensively establish a K12Net node in an individual school. Newsgroups, electronic mail, and files are transported by modems over direct-dial telephone lines using a "store-and-forward" topology and unique transfer protocols. [2, 279] FidoNet allows users with virtually any type of microcomputer (the antiquated Apple II series, Ataris, Commodores, and TRS-80's prevalent in schools) equipped with a modem and free or inexpensive telecommunications shareware to access a local FidoNet bulletin board without cost. The FidoNet menus are user-friendly with onscreen prompts, so even those unfamiliar with telecommunications can become active users with very little training.


1. Bush, Randy. How FidoNet Tunnels the Internet. Portland, OR.: Pacific Systems Group, 1992.

2. Bush, Randy. FidoNet: Use, Technology, and Tools. In Proceedings of INET'92 (Kobe, Japan, June, 1992), 279-285.

3. Itzkan, Seth J. How Big is the Global Classroom? Matrix News (October, 1992), 1+.

4. Mangan, Katherine S. Computer Networks Help Public Schools Forge New Ties with Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 9, 1992), A17-A18.

5. Miller, Michael W. A New Medium: Bulletin boards become a major means of communication. The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 21, 1991), R8-R9.

6. Murray, Janet. Dreaming . . . of a Truly Global Village. Interchange [Journal of the Oregon Educational Media Association] (Fall, 1992), 19-21.

7. Murray, Janet. Inexpensive Communication for K-12 Educators. Telecommunications in Education News. (Summer, 1991), 4-5.

8. Murray, Janet. International Telecommunications Opportunities for K-12 Schools. In Proceedings of the 55th ASIS Annual Meeting. (Pittsburgh, PA, Oct. 1992)

9. Newman, Denis, Bernstein, S. I. and Reese, P.A. Local Infrastructures for School Networking: Current Models and Prospects. Technical Report No. 22, Center for Technology in Education (May, 1992).

10. Newman, Denis. Technology as Support for School Structure and School Restructuring. Phi Delta Kappan (Dec. 1992), 308-315.

11. Press, Larry. RELCOM, An Appropriate Technology Network. In Proceedings of INET'92 (Kobe, Japan, June, 1992), 259-267.

12. Rickard, Jack. K12Net - Linking Bulletin Boards for Education. Boardwatch (June, 1991), 39-41.

13. Rose, Mike. Are You Plugged into the Global Classroom? American Teacher (May/June, 1992), 8-9.

14. Stefanich, Juan Miguel. UUCP Networking in an Institutional, National, and International Context. In Proceedings of INET'92 (Kobe, Japan, June, 1992), 287-295.

CR Categories and Subject Descriptors: H.4.3 [Information Systems Applications]: Communications Applications -- bulletin boards; computer conferencing and teleconferencing; K.3.1 [Computers and Education]: Computer Uses in Education

General Terms: Human Factors

Additional Key Words and Phrases: K-12 Educational telecommunications

About the Author: Janet Murray is the librarian at a comprehensive public high school serving 1,550 students. She is a cofounder of K12Net and an enthusiastic promoter of broad civic access to technological information in electronic formats. Author's Present Address: Wilson High School, 1151 S.W. Vermont St., Portland, OR 97219.

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