He missed last year’s American Association of School Administrators (AASA) conference because of a federal investigation, but on Feb. 22 Microsoft chairman Bill Gates made time to map the digital future of schools and tell superintendents and other school leaders that the software giant is leading an industry initiative to improve the interoperability of software for schools.

Speaking at this year’s AASA conference, held in New Orleans Feb. 19-22, Gates was on hand mainly to promote Microsoft’s new software interoperability initiative (see cover story, page 1). But along the way he also set forth his concept of a “digital nervous system.”

In this “digital nervous system,” Gates said, any school “ought to be able to call up the data about its basic operation, collaborate about its planning, make it easy to interact with…the students and the parents, and really have better organizational reflexes than it’s possible to have when things are simply done on paper.”

To encourage the growth of this “digital nervous system” in schools, Gates said, administrators should think about six key concerns about how technology is being used at their schools:

1. Student involvement. “How do you get the students to be the ones that often manage and help maintain the systems so that there’s not personnel costs or very little personnel costs in setting [networks] up?” Gates asked.

2. Curriculum integration. “It’s only when you get the interaction with the computer to be rich enough,” Gates said, “that it’s part of learning, not just of testing.”

3. Student data storage and retrieval. “Is it easy to look up and see the trends in terms of attendance and grades? Is it easy to look at your seniors, what colleges are they going to, how does that correlate to the different programs that they’ve gone through?”

4. Office paper elimination. “This is a challenge I make to businesses and schools alike,” Gates said. “At Microsoft we’ve completely eliminated all the paper forms we used to use internally.”

5. Streamlining routine tasks for administrators. “And when it comes to something like placing an order to buy something, can you get all the information about the necessary criteria and how that’s going to be tracked, how it relates to the budget?” Gates asked.

6. Giving teachers and parents greater access to classroom learning and school activities.

Exhibit highlights

Gates’ idea that technology will soon permeate every facet of school life was confirmed on the exhibit floor, which was crowded with curriculum and management software, hardware and network equipment, and computer-based professional development companies.

Here are some highlights from the three days of the conference:

FamilyEducation Network (FEN) began showing off its new set of web tools for schools. FEN provides schools with a low-maintenance solution for establishing (or enhancing) your web sites at no cost. Its new “InterCom WebTools” allow web authors to add to and maintain the web site FEN gives you without having to know HTML or other computer languages. The tools should be available to school users before the end of the academic year.

Teacher Universe announced its premiere at the conference. Teacher Universe offers a range of technology and professional development programs. Its services will include tools to help schools develop technology plans that conform to state, district and school requirements; training for administrators in using productivity tools and technology systems; and hands-on instruction in how to infuse technology into the daily curriculum. Teacher Universe is a Knowledge Universe company.

Brother Corp. announced a pretty nice special show promotion for schools: buy 20 of its GeoBooks (or Super PowerNotes) and receive a free Laser Printer. The GeoBook is a portable laptop that runs on the BrotherWorks operating system. It offers students low-cost access to a word processor, spreadsheet, internet and eMail applications, and more. At $399, $499, and $599, the GeoBooks are some of the most affordable machines available to teach children basic computing skills. You can find more details about the offer on the Brother web site.

The Bedford, Mass.-based Pre-Owned Electronics, which rebuilds and repairs computers to sell at super-cheap prices, said it will offer PowerMacs at $700. The PowerMac can run many education software programs, access the internet through built-in ethernet support, and can be upgraded to a G3 system with an upgrade card. Pre-Owned Electronics also carries service parts for Compaq and Mac equipment-including that long list of service parts Apple recently discontinued.

Makers of administrative tools for the public sector, FreeBalance announced that it is offering free financial management software for schools. School financial managers can download a free, five-user copy of the “FreeBalance Foundation” software, which includes basic fund, budget, and general ledger and expenditure applications. The company says that school board financial managers can use the suite for immediate production purposes or as a low-cost contingency solution to their Year 2000 financial system replacements initiatives. You can find the software on the company’s web site.

The Lightspan Partnership is showing some impressive results with its “Lightspan Adventures” learning curriculum. According to the company, a recent survey showed that 95 percent of teachers who used the curriculum said it improved student performance in math, and 97 percent said it helped students perform better in reading. The curriculum can also be run on an inexpensive Sony Playstation game console-making it accessible for schools or families who can’t afford computers.

DISH Network announced its satellite-based offerings for schools. Its program menu includes the Schoolhouse Network, courses and learning materials developed by K-12 providers such as the L.A. County Office of Education’s TEAMS and ETN projects. Other professional development and interactive learning programs offered by DISH Network include the Jason Project, National Schools Conference Institute, and Foreign Language TV. Contact the company for prices.

Sphere Communications Inc. announced that its ATM-based phone service is now available to schools across the country and qualifies for eRate support. With new technology that allows voice and data to travel over the same line, Sphere is able to offer “Centrex-like” phone capabilities over your high-speed ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) data network for a fraction of the cost of a conventional phone system. “We can now offer phone service in virtually every classroom, with features and functions that boost productivity and ensure greater safety and improved communications with staff and parents,” said John Schmidt, the technology leader of the Schenectady, N.Y., School District.

New Century Education Corporation demonstrated its Integrated Instructional System, a computer-based curriculum designed to align with state and national instructional standards. Teachers can correlate standards to the appropriate lessons offered by New Century on its web site. The curriculum also offers integrated assessment and individualized test preparation tools.

Acer America Corp. introduced its “EduCart,” a hardware system designed to help teachers present interactive lessons to classrooms. The system consists of a PC connected to a projector, video camera, and a document camera. Specially-designed software allows the components to work together to allow teachers to project images from web sites or printed materials and make annotations which can be captured as PowerPoint slides or HTML pages. Any Windows-based application can also be projected and annotated.

Voyager launched its middle school curriculum package, which includes interactive lessons, parent and teacher guides, and optional training sessions for instructors. The curriculum is designed to give students opportunities to learn through real-world contexts, explore future career possibilities, discuss moral and ethical issues, and develop problem-solving skills. Programs include “Pre+Med Code Blue,” “Prelaw Justice for All,” and “American Dream,” where students explore history, government, economics and sociology through the context of the American “melting pot.”

Educational Technologies Software & Services Inc. (ETSS) unveiled a product that combines the federal reporting and test-analysis components of one popular ETSS product with the student-management abilities of another. According to ETSS President Nancy Driscoll, Advantage 5.0 is a Y2K-compliant student information management system offering totally integrated student information, analysis, grading, and scheduling. The software is designed with standards and accountability requirements in mind, offers rapid implementation, and can link to Human Resources and payroll systems. It features on-menu data analysis, special capabilities for case-management for high-risk students, and extensive family and language data, but requires no complicated query protocols.

HTE Education Systems, another provider of software applications for K-12 administrators and business managers, featured its “Student Administration System.” This student-oriented system provides comprehensive tracking and maintenance of student information, said Pam Kelly, a company representative. The package includes registration, attendance, scheduling, grade reporting, and transcripts. The software also supports bar coding and scanning for attendance and grade reporting, and it has the capability to store and print student photos for ID cards, homeroom lists, and rolodex cards. The company’s applications run in a Microsoft Windows NT environment and integrate fully with Microsoft Office applications to provide a complete school administration solution, Kelly said.

SNAP Systems highlighted its WinSNAP software, reportedly the first food-service software product to take full advantage of the emerging hardware and operating systems now dominating the market. The beauty of WinSNAP lies in its design, the company said. The software is written specifically for Windows 95/Windows NT and the 32-bit operating environment. Software modules include menu planning, point-of-sale accounting, communications, reports, edits, production, inventory, purchasing, free and reduced-price meals tracking, a commodity maximizer, utilities, and nutrient analysis. WinSNAP also can be connected to student and financial systems, the company said.

Microsoft Corp.

http://www.microsoft.com

Schools Interoperability Framework initiative

http://www.schoolsinterop.org

Acer America Corporation

http://www.acer.com

Brother Corp.

http://www.brother.com

Educational Technologies Software & Service Inc.

http://www.etss.com/index.html

DISH Network

http://www.dishnetwork.com

FamilyEducation Network

http://www.familyeducation.com

FreeBalance

http://www.freebalance.com

HTE Education Systems

http://www.hteinc.com/education/education.html

Lightspan Partnership

http://www.lightspan.com

New Century Education Corporation

http://www.ncecorp.com

Pre-Owned Electronics

http://www.preowned.com

SNAP Systems

http://www.snapsystems.com/index.html

Sphere Communications Inc.

http://www.spherecom.com

Teacher Universe

http://www.teacheruniverse.com

Voyager

http://www.iamvoyager.com