Ohio school district takes on Lucent Technologies: Company denies wrongdoing, promises to fulfill contract

The superintendent of a 3,500-student Ohio school district is charging Lucent Technologies with abandoning work it has been paid nearly $1 million to do in favor of drumming up more school business. At least five other school districts in the state have voiced similar complaints about the communications equipment giant, the school chief said.

Superintendent James Crawford, head of the Whitehall (Ohio) City School District near Columbus, told eSchool News he also is displeased with the company’s handling of a personnel matter. Shortly after the school district’s technology director signed a “scope of work” contract with Lucent without the superintendent’s knowledge, Crawford said, the company received “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from the district and later hired that same technology director as a Lucent account executive.

A company spokesman said Lucent would not give Whitehall’s former technology director permission to speak with eSchool News, but Lucent denied any wrongdoing and insisted it was “moving heaven and earth” in an effort to fulfill its contract obligations to the Whitehall schools.

Officials in Whitehall dispute that. After waiting one year and spending nearly $1 million, they claim, their five-school district is not much closer to its goal of a high-speed, fiber-optic wide area network (WAN) than it was when it started. Instead, they say, the district bought itself a sluggish, partial network, sustained $140,000 in expenses that should have been unnecessary, and was faced with the need to recruit a new technology director.

The company at the center of this controversy evolved from what was once known as Bell Laboratories. Lucent Technologies is now a $99 billion spin-off of AT&T. AT&T is best known as a long distance telephone service provider, but Lucent Technologies now is an independently traded New Jersey company that specializes in the sale and installation of internet and networking hardware. Its chief rival in the school field and elsewhere is Cisco Systems, a much smaller California firm.

Lucent Technologies made news in the business pages several weeks ago when its market value exceeded that of AT&T for the first time. AT&T has a market value pegged at approximately $96 billion.

But all of Lucent’s financial success doesn’t soothe school officials in Whitehall. They’re saying the firm abandoned construction of the schools’ $1.9 million network nearly four months ago. That was in January, when Don Moore, Whitehall’s former technology director, left the district to work as an account executive for Lucent.

“Back burner”

Moore was overseeing Lucent’s installation of the WAN, Whitehall officials said, and was supposed to have completed the network by last August. But the technology director and Lucent left the district with an incomplete, inoperable network, according to school leaders. Work on the WAN has ground to a complete halt since Moore’s departure, said Joyce Hinds, Whitehall’s curriculum director.

Students at Whitehall have some internet access now, but only because of last-minute efforts by the district.

Lucent counters school district charges with the contention that Whitehall schools haven’t obtained the necessary city permits to enable Lucent technicians to complete their work.

Whitehall says it was Lucent’s responsibility to obtain the permits and that the company is ignoring the needs of the district in favor of garnering more school contracts in Ohio, where the state’s SchoolNet program provides almost $100 million in funds to install video, data, and voice networks to all classrooms in the state.

“[Lucent was] too busy going around the state getting more contracts, and they just put us on the back burner,” said Supt. Crawford.

Crawford says he’s not the only school executive unhappy with Lucent. After putting out a query on an internet listserve, Crawford says he heard from officials in five other Ohio school districts, all with complaints about Lucent.

One is Rick Berdine, formerly of the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, City School District. Berdine said his former district was able to work out its contract disputes with Lucent, but only after “a drawn-out process that took some aggravation.”

Berdine also echoed what Crawford said about feeling the school district was being “put on the back burner” while Lucent rushed to secure bigger, multimillion-dollar contracts around the state.

But neglect wasn’t always what Whitehall got from Lucent, Crawford said. According to Crawford, George Raaber, a Lucent account executive who works with the district, told the superintendent that Lucent would make the Whitehall school system the “flagship district” of central Ohio.

Whitehall officials are equally miffed about what happened with the technology director. The district’s school attorney reportedly is looking into possible employment contract violations, said Crawford.

The former technology director was unavailable for comment, but Lucent denies any wrongdoing. “We have done nothing illegal or unethical,” said Larry Kearney, regional public relations manager for Lucent. He described Moore’s departure from Whitehall as “abrupt.”

Where’s the WAN?

Lucent agreed to build a WAN that would connect the central office and all five schools in the Whitehall district. The WAN was supposed to give students immediate, dedicated access to the internet by August of 1997, Hinds said.

In addition, Whitehall wanted an updated telephone system and internet access for up to eight computers per classroom. Whitehall, a 35 percent low-income school district, plans to spend $3 million on its technology plan over the next five years.

But months after the project was supposed to have been completed, students still didn’t have access to the internet, and school district officials began putting pressure on the technology director to get Lucent to speed up construction.

In November of 1997, according to Crawford, Technology Director Moore signed a “scope of work” form without the superintendent’s knowledge. It was a few weeks later, in December, Crawford said, that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” were paid out to Lucent.

Moore left Whitehall in January of 1998. A week later his employment as a Lucent account executive was announced.

After Moore’s departure, Crawford was shocked to discover the state of the WAN, he said. Classrooms were inadequately wired for any kind of networking, he said, and in one building–Whitehall’s high school–cheaper copper wires had been installed where fiber optic should have been.

The superintendent said Moore and a Lucent employee had told him the network was near completion.

“They both pulled the wool over our eyes and led us to believe everything was OK when it really wasn’t,” said Crawford. “They breached an awful lot of trust with our community–I don’t think we could recommend them.”

Crawford said he hasn’t able to learn at exactly what point Moore applied for the Lucent job. Neither could Crawford find out, he said, who at Lucent interviewed Moore, who hired him, or when Lucent officials knew Moore would be leaving Whitehall.

After discovering this winter how far its classrooms were from internet connectivity, the district had to scramble to provide some networking capability–such as eMail–to students before the school year ended.

One school official estimates that more than $140,000 had to be spent on last-minute purchases and staff overtime to try to provide some technology programming to students as planned.

“We’ve lost quite a bit of money–quite a bit,” said the official.

In dispute

Regarding the disputed responsibility for obtaining city permits, the district maintains that a Lucent account executive promised to get the permits on March 20, but Lucent denies it.

Discussing the matter with eSchool News, Kearney, the Lucent spokesman, said permits were necessary only for cabling that extends beyond the school district’s property. He didn’t explain why cables couldn’t be installed on school property. Nor did he explain why Lucent, before project progress halted, was able to install a fiber-optic connection between Whitehall’s central administrative office and the high school.

In any case, according to Ryan Fletcher, the school district’s network administrator, that headquarters-to-high school hookup still is running at only half the speed Lucent originally promised. Lucent technologists have been back to troubleshoot, Fletcher acknowledged, but he says they haven’t been able to figure out why the connection isn’t working at full speed.

“It just doesn’t seem like anything’s getting fixed,” Fletcher said. “The equipment just isn’t operating.”

“Not significant”

The district began petitioning Lucent in January to come back and finish the network. “We have asked them to come back and provide a solution for the rest of the computers,” Hinds said. “We’ve asked them to work on the speed of the network, and we’ve asked for fiber optic for the WAN.

“We were not significant to them,” summed Hinds.

Whitehall already has paid Lucent $905,000, school officials say–about half the total cost of the project. In addition, to help the schools connect to the internet on their own, the school district used $92,720 of SchoolNet funding. SchoolNet is Ohio’s program to help schools connect to the internet.

Lucent’s Kearney said his company is “moving heaven and earth to get the system in.” Lucent Technologies expects the Whitehall project will be completed this August, Kearney told eSchool News. If that deadline is met, it would bring the project to a close exactly one year after the date school officials say it was promised.

Lucent Technologies


eRate Update: Battle rages Over eRate

The eRate program, designed to help schools and libraries pay for access to the internet, staggered in mid-June under a barrage of criticism from telecommunications companies (telcos), consumer groups, and certain members of Congress. But as the clock ticked toward the deadline for authorizing 1998 funding for the program, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief William Kennard appeared to have the votes to save the eRate.

At press time, sources inside the FCC said the five-member commission would fund the program, but at a lower dollar amount than the total requested by schools and libraries. Those institutions had requested $2.02 billion in internet connection discounts, but the figure most frequently cited as likely to be approved was $1.67 billion. Last minute reversals notwithstanding, disbursement of the first eRate funding was expected to begin near the end of June.

Uncertainty descends

Uncertainty descended over the eRate from the moment four powerful members of Congress demanded on June 4 that the FCC stop collecting money for the program.

“The commission should immediately suspend further collection of funding for its schools and libraries program,” wrote Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.; Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va.; and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.; in a blistering letter to FCC Chairman Kennard.

The four lawmakers are the ranking Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House Commerce committees, which hold jurisdiction over the FCC. The lawmakers’ letter brought an already heated political battle between supporters and opponents of the eRate to a boil.

The letter prompted the FCC to cancel a meeting on universal service that had been scheduled for June 9. The FCC had been expected to announce its decision on eRate funding at that meeting.

“Consumers’ phone bills are set to increase,” the lawmakers had written. “This is not what we intended when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996….We believe it is too late for the commission to rescue itself merely by tinkering with a fundamentally flawed and legally suspect program.”

The letter went on to call the FCC’s work on the eRate “a spectacular failure.”

An ultimatum

The ultimatum from the four lawmakers followed announcements from AT&T and MCI that they would begin charging their residential customers new fees of up to 6 percent starting in July. These invoice surcharges were ostensibly to offset the cost of providing telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries.

Critics of the eRate charged the FCC with creating a bloated, costly program that is forcing these long-distance phone companies to raise their rates. One of the critics’ main objections was that schools would use the eRate funds to improve existing infrastructure.

In an earlier report to Congress, FCC commissioner Harold Furtchgott-Roth, a Republican who was on record as objecting to his agency’s handling of the eRate, wrote, “This entire [surcharge] dilemma has been caused…by the commission’s misguided and unlawful decision to fund inside wiring and other non-telecommunications services.”

According to the Schools and Libraries Corporation (SLC), the agency established to administer the discounts, only $655 million, or 33 percent, of the $2.02 billion requested in eRate discounts this year would fund telecommunications services. Sixty-three percent, or $1.3 billion, would fund internal connections such as routers, hubs, and inside wiring.

But supporters of the eRate countered that telcos themselves are to blame for the surcharges. They argued that phone rates shouldn’t be rising because the FCC has lowered the access fees these long-distance companies pay to local companies by more than $2 billion over the past two years. Access-fee reductions should be offsetting the cost of the eRate, they said.

On June 4, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., had written a letter to the heads of AT&T and MCI blasting them for attempting to stir political opposition to the eRate.

Kerrey pledged to introduce legislation requiring telcos to display their profits on their customers’ bills alongside the new surcharges. “If afterward you still feel the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is costing you too much money, I will be happy to entertain any suggestions for repealing it,” he wrote.

Supporters also maintained that funding only telecommunications services would miss the point of the program, which is to extend internet service to all schools universally. Without the one-time expense of wiring and internal connections, supporters said, discounts for telecommunications services would be virtually useless.

The debate spilled over into a Senate Communications subcommittee hearing on June 10, when Kennard and the other FCC commissioners were grilled at length about the program’s cost and efficiency.

“I don’t think anyone in the Senate ever thought that the limited language we included in the 1996 Telecommunications Act would be used to create a massive new entitlement program through universal service,” Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said in his opening statement.

But Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W. Va., who helped draft the section of the 1996 Telecom Act that created the eRate, saw things differently. As one means of persuading Congress to deregulate the telecommunications industry, he said, telcos promised to fund universal service for schools and libraries.

“We made a deal, and it seems to me we should make people stick to it,” Rockefeller said. “We need to insist on the commitment that these companies made–including AT&T, including MCI.”

A majority of senators pressured the FCC commissioners to suspend the eRate until their concerns about the program could be addressed. But Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also co-authored the eRate provision, blasted her colleagues for trying to kill the eRate.

“If there’s a problem with the bureaucracy, let’s fix it,” Snowe said. “But that shouldn’t be the ruse for freezing this program.”

Prudent progress

Kennard expressed his own determination to push forward “prudently” on the eRate, arguing that the FCC was already addressing legitimate concerns.

Kennard pointed out that the FCC already had voted on May 8 to streamline eRate administration by folding the SLC and the Rural Health Care Corp. into a single entity. The resulting agency was scheduled to begin administering universal service on Jan. 4, 1999. The FCC also would be voting to cut the salaries of SLC officials, Kennard said.

Kennard said the FCC should lengthen from one year to 18 months the period over which eRate discounts are disbursed.

“I submit that the best thing we can do is proceed ahead prudently,” Kennard told the subcommittee. “We shouldn’t abandon the 30,000 applicants who have already invested their time and money in the program.”

Although the basic program appeared at press time to have weathered the initial storm of opposition, the eRate seemed destined to be the source of continuing partisan political combat.

Speaking to a communications industry trade show in Atlanta on June 8, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., issued this prediction about the eRate: “We’ll probably block it in the next two weeks.”

eSchool News Online (for the latest eRate developments)


Federal Communications Commisssion

Schools and Libraries Corporation

eMail Action Center (to send a message to Congress or the FCC)


When satellite tilts out of orbit, pager service bumps distance learning

Classes were canceled for thousands of students who participate in distance learning programs when the guidance system aboard a U.S. satellite malfunctioned on May 19.

Galaxy 4, owned and operated by PanAmSat of Greenwich, Conn., tilted away from Earth at 6:13 EST, wiping out broadcasts across the country and proving how fragile wireless communications can be.

The loss of the satellite–which effectively pulled the plug on about 90 percent of the paging network in the U.S. and disrupted broadcasts by CBS, CNN, and National Public Radio–also hit many schools.

One of the programs affected by the malfunction was SCOLA–Satellite Communications for Learning. SCOLA relied on the Galaxy 4 satellite to broadcast authentic foreign programming to several thousand K-12 schools.

“The satellite was our only communica tions link, and now it’s gone,” said Francis Labja, director of operations for SCOLA.

SCOLA is a non-profit educational consortium that receives and re-transmits television programming from more than 50 different countries in their native languages. SCOLA’s broadcasts are used to teach or reinforce curriculum in many social studies and foreign language classes in the U.S.

Contingency plan

One day after the malfunction, PanAmSat chief technology officer Robert Bednarek issued a statement outlining a contingency plan for the Galaxy 4. Bednarek said that another satellite, the Galaxy 6, would be moved out of its current orbit to replace the Galaxy 4, which remained inoperable.

The repositioning of Galaxy 6 was expected to take as many as six days, Bednarek said. Meanwhile, Galaxy 4 customers scrambled to make alternative broadcasting arrangements.

Labja said he’s explored other ways of providing satellite transmission to SCOLA’s participating schools. But unlike CBS or CNN, SCOLA cannot afford to make other arrangements. Labja expected SCOLA’s service to be out until at least May 26.

PanAmSat’s decision to replace the Galaxy 4 with the Galaxy 6 triggered a whole new set of problems for schools. Those that relied on the Galaxy 6 for their distance learning programs found their service yanked out from under them to save what PanAmSat considered a more vital group of customers.

The Virginia Satellite Education Network (VSEN), which broadcasts foreign language and Advanced Placement classes to 2,000 middle and high school students in 30 states through the Galaxy 6, was out of service for two days before its director, Greg Weisiger, could make other arrangements to transmit the network’s signal. Weisiger ended up finding time on another satellite, but only temporarily.

Telstar redux

“Now I know what Telstar’s users went through,” said Weisiger. The Telstar 4 satellite was damaged by solar winds in January 1997, disrupting classes broadcast by the Satellite Education Resources Consortium and Oklahoma State University (OSU), among many others.

OSU also uses the Galaxy 4 to broadcast its “German by Satellite” program to hundreds of high school students, but that course had ended just six days before Galaxy 4 malfunctioned.

A spokeswoman for PanAmSat said Galaxy 6 was a “preemptable” satellite, meaning it had been designated as a potential back-up if one of the company’s 16 other satellites should fail. PanAmSat recommends that broadcasters write contingency clauses into their contracts if they opt for service through a preemptable satellite.

PanAmSat has no plans to launch a replacement satellite for the Galaxy 6 before the end of next year, the spokeswoman said.



Virginia Satellite Education Network


Small district makes big splash with Techno Expo: Attendance cited at 22,000

What began as a way of introducing local school kids to technology in the everyday world has blossomed three years later into a significant regional showcase for schools and product vendors–organized and lead by a small school district in Pennsylvania.

It took the Upper St. Clair School District an entire school year of planning, thousands of man-hours, more than 1,000 volunteers, and the assistance of approximately 50 area businesses and government agencies–and one of the area’s most prestigious universities–to present Techno Expo ’98.

The day-long May 30 event drew a record crowd of over 22,000 local school children, parents, teachers and administrators, said Cara Zanella, a spokeswoman for the event.

Zanella said what started as a “little teeny science fair” now aims to help kids, mostly from middle schools, understand the importance of technology in everyday life.

A river rescue show performed by the U.S. Coast Guard showed kids how aerial technology works to save lives. A surgeon from St. Clair Hospital helped attendees perform a mock surgery using the latest video technology, and the University of Pittsburgh put on a pyrotechnic show. Kids also explored high-tech vehicles brought by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Reserves.

Techno Expo featured art exhibits by area students and was supported by more than 100 exhibitor booths. Exhibitors included Sony, Dick Corporation, Huntingdon Learning Center, Coca Cola, and Allegheny Power.

Event organizers were also able to attract contributions from Disney, who supplied a Mickey Mouse to present State Attorney General Mike Fisher with a plaque to commemorate event, and the Lost In Space robot, said Zanella.

Community partnerships

The expo is the brainchild of Thomas Harshman, director of middle level education for Upper St. Clair and co-chair of the event. Harshman sought help to grow the event and was able to attract major sponsorships from the Community Foundation of Upper St. Clair, TCI of Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“The vision of The Community Foundation . . . was to create a partnership between our schools and higher education and businesses,” said Harshman. TCI and Duquesne and all of our sponsors and participating districts have made the vision a reality.”

Event organizers managed to convince lofty Duquesne University to co-host the event on its campus when event organizers realized that the crowd would overrun school grounds. Upper St. Clair is a six-building district just outside of Pittsburgh.

The committee consists of Upper St. Clair School District and Duquesne University representatives, educators, parents, business owners, lawyers, physicians technology and maintenance personnel and consultants.

Lead by Co-chairmen Thomas Harshman, Thomas Labanc and John Dell, the team of 30 people worked together with children at the core to make the event happen.

“Teamwork, cooperation and community volunteerism found a home at the Expo,” said Harshman. “Many business, government, higher education and local school district personnel put aside their individual concerns to help create a wonderful opportunity for Pittsburgh’s children.”

In addition to Fisher, Sen. Tim Murphy and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy appeared at the expo.

Upper St. Clair School District

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


The Crocodile’s Mother

Now that the anti-eRate rhetoric has subsided for just a moment, it might be the perfect time for the telecommunications companies (telcos) to ponder carefully that old Indian proverb:

“Revileth not the crocodile’s mother while soaking in the Ganges.”

As our front page story details, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at press time appeared about to underfund this year’s eRate program. The upshot: eRate funding still would be substantial, but schools like yours all over America now would have to make do with millions less than they need and might otherwise have gotten.

This development is being heralded in some circles as testimony to the lobbying prowess of the telecommunications industry. But if it is a telco triumph, it might prove Pyrrhic.

The long-term costs could well turn out to be higher for the phone companies than a fully funded eRate would have. Ill will lingers, and emotions have been running high on both sides of the eRate issue. Certainly, the lobbying has been fierce.

Paul Houston, head of the American Association of School Administrators, says educators sent Congress nearly 10,000 eMail messages in May supporting the eRate and full funding.

Unfortunately, the anti-eRate forces unleashed by the telcos were even more ferocious. Toward the end of the campaign, Telco allies actually were comparing schools applying for eRate discounts to “pigs in a trough.” And articles in the Washington Post and Time magazine did their best to incite the toxic partisanship so fashionable in Washington these days. Because Vice President Gore has championed the eRate, both articles sought to disparage the program’s costs as the “Gore tax.”

This gambit was made possible because, in a highly effective PR move, the telcos promised to put an eRate “surcharge” on the telephone bills going to businesses and consumers. When this telco tactic was challenged, the companies responded in highest dudgeon, loudly defending the public’s sacred “right to know.”

In his Washington Post column, James Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute claimed the FCC was putting intense pressure on telcos to keep the surcharge secret.

But the companies might wish to tread lightly here. Some at the FCC have so wholeheartedly embraced this concept of “full disclosure” that now they’re calling for the telcos to take the idea to its logical conclusion. They say the telcos should tell the American people exactly what the companies are saving in access-charge reductions. Those reductions were extended to the telcos by the FCC to cover the eRate’s costs.

“These companies are getting substantial cost savings that the public needs to know about,” said Anne Bryant, head of the National School Boards Association. As one eRate proponent put it: The telcos should go right ahead and acknowledge that they’ve been billing the public twice.

That’s the trouble with stirring up a tempest. It can swamp a lot of things. All that bad mouthing could even whip around, like a crocodile, and bite somebody from behind.

Gregg W. Downey

Editor & Publisher


Student jailed for unleashing virus on school network

A Rhinelander, Wis., high school student has been sentenced to 90 days in jail for sabotaging his school district’s computer network with a virus.

Outdated technology contributed to the destruction of the district’s network, which cost $20,000 to repair, and the incident has many educators concerned about network security and how to stay technologically ahead of student saboteurs.

Adam J. Kope, 17, pleaded no contest to six misdemeanor counts of modifying computer data. A felony count of willfully destroying data was dropped in return for the no-contest plea to the misdemeanors.

According to a report from the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, Kope admitted corrupting school computers with a disk containing 89 viruses. Although the district’s server was running a virus protection software, one of the viruses managed to get through to infect the system. Kope had downloaded the viruses from a site on the internet.

Andrea Deau, the district’s technology coordinator, said the virus infected older machines running on Windows 3.1 but spared the Windows 95 machines, which had a second layer of protection. Still, about 350 of the district’s 600 computers were disabled.

Final exams disrupted

The network was down for two days while Deau and her technology staff worked to repair the damage. Because the attack came at the end of the semester, students taking computer classes were not able to take their final exams. The district was forced to release grades much later than planned.

All told, it took 45 days and $20,000 to clean out and reprogram the infected computers. Labor costs made up the bulk of the expense.

Kope was ordered to pay the school the $20,000 clean-up cost and serve 300 hours of community service. He was expelled from school and placed on three years’ probation. During his probation he must obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma. Judge Mark Mangerson sentenced Kope on May 7.

“I hope that any other kid in a similar situation gets the message that paying back $20,000 and 90 days in jail is just not worth it,” Oneida County Assistant District Attorney Steve Michlig said.

Deau said she was pleased with the sentence, because she said it might deter others from committing similar acts. “Students have to realize that this is not a game–it affects a lot of people,” she said.

How to protect your network

For Deau, what’s disturbing about the attack is that her district’s network was supposed to be protected from computer viruses.

“You’re never going to be able to protect yourself 100 percent,” she said. “As these kids get more savvy, they’re going to test their skills.” New viruses are being written all the time, she added.

What you can do, experts say, is make sure you have at least two levels of anti-virus scanning protection, one on the desktop and one on the server. Each level should use a different type of software–that way, if a virus escapes the detection of one system, it still has a chance of being detected by the other.

Deau said her district bought a second type of software to help clean the infected computers. Now all computers have a second layer of protection installed.

But as the Rhinelander incident proves, you can’t rely completely on technology.

“Probably the most important protection is common sense and supervision of student users,” said Bob Moore, director of information and technology for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas. “Layers of security features are critical, but it still comes down to the user.”

Deau agrees. She recommends that teachers be taught what to look for to make sure students are using computers appropriately. For example, are they working in the application they’re supposed to be?

“Any application or screen–like the black DOS screen if your district runs Windows–that you’re not used to seeing may be a sign that a student is misusing the system,” Deau said.

International Computer Security Association (ICSA) Anti-Virus Lab

Sandrin Anti-Virus Connection Expressway


Some give ‘latent semantic analysis’ a failing grade

Your teachers’ bleary-eyed nights of reading stacks of essays on “How I spent my summer vacation” might soon be over, thanks to an essay-grading software program.

Relying on a technology called “latent semantic analysis,” the software program allows a computer to grade student essays. It soon might be available to schools, but many educators question whether evaluating essays, in which students must synthesize their knowledge of a specific topic, is an appropriate use of today’s technology.

The software, called Intelligent Essay Assessor (IEA), uses mathematical analysis to measure the quality of knowledge expressed in writing. The program was developed by Thomas Landauer, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) and debuted at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting on April 16.

“One of our goals is to have the instructor spend more time teaching and the students writing more essays,” Landauer said.

Although essay tests provide a better assessment of a student’s knowledge than other types of exams, he noted, they are often time-consuming and difficult to grade fairly and accurately, especially for teachers with large classes or for nationally administered exams.

Landauer has worked on the technology behind the program for 10 years, along with CU-Boulder doctoral candidate Darrell Laham and New Mexico State University psychology professor Peter Foltz.

IEA’s developers see the program as a way to fit more written work into a student’s evaluation, instead of relying on term-recognition methods such as multiple-choice tests. Teachers with large classes could use the software to supplement their grading of hundreds of essays and thereby ease their workload.

How the program works

The program does more than just count words or analyze mechanics and grammar, the way earlier essay scoring applications did. Laham said his program can look at large chunks of text and determine the similarity between them.

The technology behind the software is a new type of artificial intelligence much like a neural network. “In a sense, it tries to mimic the function of the human brain,” Laham said.

First, the program is fed information about a topic from online textbooks or other sources. It “learns” from the text and then assigns a mathematical degree of similarity between the meaning of each word and any other word. This allows students to use different words that mean the same thing and receive the same score–words such as “physician” and “doctor,” for example.

Next, the teacher grades enough essays to provide a statistical sample of the range from good to bad examples–say, 30 to 40 out of a total of 100 essays, Laham said. The computer then can grade the rest.

“It takes the combination of words in the student essay and computes its similarity to the combination of words in the comparison essays,” Laham said.

Laham said that in test after test, the program showed the same range of consistency between a human grader and a computer as there was between two different human graders. “The program has perfect consistency in grading–an attribute that human graders almost never have,” Laham said. “The system does not get bored, rushed, sleepy, impatient, or forgetful.”

But skeptics persist

Though it’s proven consistent in trial runs, the program already has drawn its share of critics. Writing, they say, should teach communication skills between people.

Mary Burgan, executive director of the American Association of University Professors, says the program misses the point of having students write essays.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. Education is not about spewing back information but assimilating it into language,” Burgan told the Associated Press.

Richard Anderson, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Champaign, said, “I feel [the program’s creators] are doing a good job, but I have a general worry that these types of systems will have unintended consequences in terms of how students prepare [for essay exams].”

Anderson served as a discussant for an AERA presentation of the software. Although the program can perform a sophisticated form of vocabulary matching, he said, its main problem is that it cannot analyze syntactical relationships–the ‘who does what to whom.’

For example, if a student were asked to write an essay about the New Deal and its impact on the Great Depression, the program could look to see if all the relevant terms were there: Franklin Roosevelt, “alphabet agencies,” 1930s, unemployment, Tennessee Valley Authority, and so on. But the program might not be able to distinguish between an essay with the statement, “In 1933, Roosevelt signed the TVA Act” and one with the statement, “In 1933, Roosevelt vetoed the TVA Act.”

The software can assess whether students are writing in typical English sentences, thereby preventing students from simply listing key concepts without tying them together in essay form. It can also recognize when students are straying too far from the topic at hand, and it directs such essays to the teacher’s attention for a closer review.

But Anderson said he thought the system could be beaten once students put their minds to it–and he feared they would.

“[IEA’s makers] need to do a field trial outside of the ‘friendly’ environment of their schools and their students to look for any unintended side effects,” Anderson said.

Bring on the beta testing

That’s precisely what Landauer and his colleagues plan to do. They have applied for a patent and are now seeking reactions from other educators.

Laham acknowledged the program’s shortcomings. “This isn’t meant to replace creative writing or term-paper grading,” he said. Nor is it meant to evaluate language or rhetorical skills. Rather, the software works best when used to measure content knowledge derived from short-answer, directed responses.

Studying still pays off

Landauer sees backing up or checking a human grader’s evaluation as another application of the software. For example, the program could be used in a situation where two or three people are normally used to ensure that students receive a fair score, as on a final exam or a national test.

What about the argument that the system can be beaten on an exam? “We’ve tried to write bad essays and get good grades, and we can sometimes do it if we know the material really well,” Landauer said. “The easiest way to cheat this system is to study hard, know the material, and write a good essay.”

University of Colorado at Boulder

New Mexico State University

American Association of University Professors

American Educational Research Association

University of Illinois at Champaign


Free cable internet service for Boston Public Schools

Boston’s schools and libraries stand to win big from a franchise deal reached on May 11 between the city and a local cable company.

With competition from a rival company looming, Cablevision Systems Corp.–which has served as Boston’s primary cable television provider for 15 years–negotiated a 10-year extension of its franchise status with the city. One of the terms of the agreement requires the company to offer free cable modems and internet access for the city’s public schools and libraries.

A statement issued by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s office said the deal marks a tenfold increase in transmission capacity over current internet access for the city’s schools. Menino estimated the value of Cablevision’s donation to schools to be several million dollars per year.


FamilyEducation Network is AOL anchor

In yet another nod to the growing importance of education, America Online (AOL) has invested $14 million in FamilyEducation Co., the owner of the FamilyEducation Network, which hosts free web sites for schools. As the newest “anchor tenant” in AOL’s education channel, the FamilyEducation Network (FEN)–and the school sites it hosts–will be regularly offered up to the eyeballs of 12 million AOL members.

That’s the largest online community in the world. AOL members make up nearly half of all the people online, and its membership grows by about a million every three or four months, said Jon Carson, the president and co-founder of FEN.

With a spate of recent efforts in the K-12 market, AOL seems to be getting into the K-12 game–unfamiliar territory for the consumer industry giant. AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case, in announcing the FEN partnership, said, “It’s time to shift the education focus in this country from wiring schools by connecting computers to engaging parents by building home-to-school communities.”

FEN provides free web sites to any public or private K-12 school in the United States. Pre-designed templates allow schools who want it access to FEN’s online services and tools. Customized web pages give parents and other community members information such as the school calendar, classroom assignments, and lunch menus. It also gives schools a way to share FEN’s extensive content with parents.

FEN’s content will still be available to the public via the world wide web.

But it will also be available to AOL users through the provider’s education channel. A “channel” is a series of clickable buttons that AOL uses to organize its content.

Carson said access to AOL’s parent population will be a boon for school superintendents and technology staff. “The thing they struggle with is getting an audience to the web site,” he said. “In every community, between 40 and 50 percent of parents are on AOL.”

Emmett Lippe, superintendent of the 5,400-student Novi (Mich.) Community School District near Detroit, agreed that the AOL channel will drive more traffic to his schools’ web sites on FEN. Novi found FEN last year when the schools went looking for ways to improve communications with parents over the internet, Lippe said.

Parents might not know about Novi’s web sites or might forget to check the web site as often as they should, Lippe said. He expects FEN’s presence on the AOL education channel will help remind them. “It’ll be a big help,” he said.

More traffic to school web sites

FEN will be the only anchor tenant in the extended school community space on AOL. Anchor tenants are web sites that through agreements with AOL lend their content to an AOL channel. Click on the “Families” channel, for instance, and a new window will open that shows the front page from the Parent Soup web site. You can click through the various articles and links that Parent Soup has to offer, but you’re not really visiting their web site on the internet.

But the anchor tenancy piece of the deal, said Trisha Primrose, a spokeswoman for AOL, is only one part of the strategic partnership.

Parents and others will be able to find information about schools that are already a part of FEN with a simple keyword search on AOL. In addition, AOL’s “Instant Messenger” service–where logged-on users can send each other short eMail messages–will allow parents and teachers to have private “real time” communication. In return, FEN will provide its educational resources to AOL members through the service.

Primrose said the partnership will help improve the way teachers and parents communicate. “Time is the biggest hurdle both teachers and parents face each and every day. What the AOL/FEN partnership will do is help parents and teachers in a much more convenient and time-saving way do everything from staying in touch on a student’s progress to finding out the latest information about a field trip–all online.”

The investment gives AOL a 20 percent stake in the privately held company, also a publisher of magazines and newsletters for parents. According to Carson, companies chosen as AOL anchor tenants see their stock value skyrocket. Other anchor tenants include such powerhouse sites as CBS Sportsline, E! Online, and the New York Times.

Building Communities

The Novi district maintains a presence on FEN in addition to its own web site, Lippe said, because parents and board members like the resources the network can provide. Being associated with FEN and AOL will give community parents the kinds of information and up-to-date content his staff could never provide on the Novi web site, Lippe said.

“There wasn’t any comprehensive plan to have a web page with a lot of additional info,” Lippe said. “We don’t have the capability of putting that kind of information on our web page.”

Carson calls this “school web site problem.”

School web sites are only as useful as their content, Carson said. “To do a really good web site is mega expensive. You can’t just upload some brochures and then you’re done.”

But many schools don’t have the resources to create and maintain effective web sites. To that end, Carson said, the development of school web sites lends itself to a network model.

“Our idea is build one web site and let many people collaborate on it,” Carson said. FEN’s goal has been to build a community of online parents to share scarce resources, Carson said, and in the business of building communities, “AOL is the eight-hundred pound gorilla.”

Although FEN’s services are free, not all schools are rushing to get signed up. The updating required for a small school district like Novi, with seven schools, might not add much burden for the staff. But for a larger school district trying to maintain its own web sites in addition to the FEN sites, said Pete Schafer, internet specialist with Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, it’s not always worth the effort.

“It’s difficult to manage,” Schafer said. “It’s another 200 web sites to manage.” Schafer’s goals for the school web site are also much different. “For me the perfect model is for students to develop web sites and teachers to help with that,” Schafer said. At FEN, “I feel the major focus is parents.”

AOL overtures to K-12

The acquisition of FEN for its education channel is another overture AOL seems to be making toward K-12 schools.

Commercial services such as AOL, which provides only five screen names for more than $20 a month, aren’t really appropriate for large districts with many hundreds or thousands of potential users. But AOL has always been popular with teachers, who seem to favor the user-friendly visual interface and interactivity features.

AOL is focusing many of its resources on the K-12 market. In addition to building up its educational content area, the company also recently began offering educators daytime access for $9.95 a month. AOL makes contributions to schools through the AOL Foundation, and promotes its partnerships with America’s Promise, Read to Succeed, and other child-focused organizations

Said Primrose: “AOL believes that the interactive online medium can be a catalyst for positive social change. We are focused on pioneering the development of strategies and programs that leverage the power of this emerging global medium to improve the lives of families and children, and empowering the disadvantaged.”

FamilyEducation Network

America Online

Novi Community School District


DVD’s day is dawning on the school field

K-12 decision makers generally have taken a wait-and-see attitude about digital video discs (DVD), the technology expected to replace CD-ROM. But a decision by the nation’s leading education software company might hasten the day when schools begin the wholesale transition to the new format.

The Learning Company (TLC) unveiled a clutch of new software titles at May’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta, and three of the most popular titles now are on DVDs. DVD is a relatively new technology with a huge storage capacity and high-quality video output. Industry insiders are saying that TLC’s lead in developing DVD software for the education market could push DVD technology into mainstream acceptance.

“It’s just a matter of time before others follow suit,” said David Obelcz, a software solutions technologist for Compaq Computer.

The DVD-ROM titles that TLC is debuting in Atlanta are “The Complete National Geographic: 109 Years of National Geographic Magazine,” “Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia 1999,” and “The Oregon Trail, 3rd Edition.

DVD defined

DVD stands for “digital video disc” or “digital versatile disc,” depending on whom you ask. It’s a new type of CD-ROM that holds anywhere from 4.7 gigabytes (GB) of memory to 17 GB–up to 26 times the data contained on a single CD.

Toshiba pioneered the DVD standard two years ago to replace laser discs in the consumer entertainment industry. DVD uses a video compression standard called MPEG-2 to compress video data. A full-length feature film (up to 133 minutes) can fit onto a single-sided disc. MPEG-2 allows for full-screen, high-resolution video of superior quality.

DVD drives have begun to appear in many desktop and portable models from each of the major computer vendors as an optional upgrade from CD-ROM, and some manufacturers even offer it as the standard drive in their higher-end models. But until now, the hardware has been well ahead of the software in terms of development.

Obelcz calls this the “rubber band effect.” “Generally, there’s a two-year period with any new technology before the applications can catch up to it,” Obelcz said. “We’re about a year into that period with DVD.”

The vast majority of DVD software titles are still movies or other entertainment-oriented titles. “Right now, no one has a good sense of what exactly can be done with DVD,” said David Nichols, manager of mobile and consumer options for IBM.

Clearly, though, DVD’s huge storage capacity is an advantage over CD-ROM. TLC’s “The Complete National Geographic,” for example, fits every article of every issue of National Geographic Magazine from 1888 through 1997 onto four DVDs.

But software developers also are starting to realize the enormous potential for creating multimedia applications for schools with DVD. In addition to TLC’s titles, Community Network Systems (CNS) is releasing a multimedia version of the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia on DVD.

“DVD holds incredible potential for the education market,” said Matthew Barlow, CNS’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “The amount of storage available on DVD and the quality of its video means that any reference-based product can have a much richer multimedia capability–which also means it can demonstrate concepts more effectively.”

DVD forecast

So, should you invest in a DVD-drive if you’re buying new computers for your schools? Probably–especially if you want to protect your investment from obsolescence in a few years.

International Data Corporation (IDC) and other industry trackers are predicting that DVDs will replace CD-ROMs as the industry standard by the year 2000–much as CD-ROMs have replaced floppy disks. “There’s a real critical mass coming, and it’s happening very soon,” predicts Obelcz.

You can expect to pay a few hundred dollars extra for a DVD drive as an installed option. Apple Computer, for example, offers DVD-drive upgrades in its desktop machines for $130 and in its PowerBook notebook computers for $200, but you have to buy a special MPEG-2 decoder card if you want to watch MPEG-2 encoded video. Elecede Technologies (E4) just released a Mac DVD playback card that will ship June 30 and retail for about $250.

Many vendors include their own MPEG-2 decoder cards when you buy a DVD-enabled computer. Gateway offers DVD drives on its computers for around $200 with a decoder card included. Dell just started shipping its Inspiron line of notebooks with DVD drives and decoder cards for an extra $299, and DVD drives will be an option on its Latitude line this fall. Dell’s Dimension line of desktops have included DVD drives as an option for a few months.

The fact that few software applications exist yet on DVD is still a consideration. But one advantage of buying computers with DVD drives is that they’re backwards-compatible with CD-ROMs, meaning your DVD drive can still read and play CD-ROMs. A caveat: If you’re going to buy a DVD-enabled machine, make sure it has a “phase 2” DVD drive (the phase 1 drives cannot read discs that have been digitally remastered on CD-R drives).

Todd Nelson, portables manager for Dell’s education division, warns that it might still be a year before you see a wide range of education titles on DVD. But Nelson sees one potential application for DVD right now in foreign language classes–DVD movie discs can be programmed in up to eight different languages, complete with subtitles.

“You wouldn’t even have to buy DVD drives for every machine–you could buy a portable computer with a DVD drive and use it like a VCR,” Nelson said.

Obelcz admits the short-term value of DVD for education is still elusive–but it was for CD-ROMs, too, he says. “Schools are caught in an endless balancing act,” Obelcz pointed out. “On the one hand, they don’t want the technology they buy to be obsolete, but on the other hand, they’re often constrained by tight budgets. I’d say it’s worth at least considering a DVD drive as an investment in the future.”


The Learning Company

Compaq Computer

Toshiba http://www.toshiba.com

Community Network Systems

International Data Corporation

Apple Computer


Dell Computer