In the late 1980s and early 1990s, “integrated learning systems” (ILS) was the buzzword for high-end software packages sold to school districts by giants like Jostens Learning Corp. and Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC). Recently, however, a new terminology has emerged: “comprehensive courseware” is replacing yesterday’s ILS.

Whereas the earlier ILS offerings were more supplementary in nature, today’s software packages are intended to provide a comprehensive, soup-to-nuts learning scheme for students, complete with a correlation of lesson plans to state standards of assessment. A good example is Classworks Gold, from the California-based company Knowledge Adventure.

Knowledge Adventure evolved from the corporate merging and buyouts of numerous popular educational software companies in the 1990s, including Davidson, Sierra, Syracuse Language, Educational Resources, and recently Roger Wagner Publishing, among others. Surviving a shaky spinoff by Cendant Corp. in 1998 and now under ownership of the huge Havas Company in Paris, France, Knowledge Adventure is briskly embarking on a worldwide strategy of software sales.

The company’s new wunderkind product, Classworks Gold, is a complete updating of its predecessor, Classworks Silver, and represents a huge investment in research, programming, and development. This easy-to-use curriculum management system incorporates 150 popular educational software programs from more than 20 publishers into a single networked program. Teachers will recognize many of the programs used in Classworks Gold, such as Jumpstart, Grammar Games, Hyperstudio, Kid Phonics, Math Blaster, Reading Blaster, and Fraction-oids I and II.

The Freeport Area School District in Freeport, Pa., has been using Classworks Silver for several years and recently upgraded to the Gold version. Joseph Malek, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, said he’s been very happy with the results.

“Our student performance on the Iowa Skills test and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests have shown steady gains in reading and mathematics since we began using Classworks,” Malek said. “It also helps that we have 100 percent computer literacy among our teachers.

“In our elementary school, we built a computer lab in 1992 to facilitate teacher training as well as provide a student learning center,” he continued. “Now we have a computer on every teacher’s desk, as well as four additional workstations for student use. Students spend about 20 minutes a day working on Classworks Gold components in the classroom.”

The district’s workstations are connected with fiber optic cabling, and its new Pentium computers came with Office 2000 preloaded this summer. Teachers brainstorm on correlating lesson plans with the Classworks software.

“Our school has been designated a National Blue Ribbon School, and the technology aids have been a big help in assisting our teachers and students in attaining that honor,” Malek said.

Perry County District 32 in Perryville, Missouri, used a national technology grant to purchase Classworks Gold for its PC-based network. Lisa Bailey, project director for the district’s schools, said Knowledge Adventure helped find the right package deal that would fit the district’s grant budget.

“Teachers were happy to have such a wide variety of software at a difficulty level suitable for their students,” she said.

In Texas, a number of school districts are rolling out a special Texas edition of Classworks Gold. The Texas version imports student scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) and sets up a learning path based on individual student performance on the test’s objectives. The Texas edition also aligns curriculum to both the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and TAAS tests. Extensive reporting features track students’ progress in mastering district objectives and TAAS-tested skills.

In Florida, Classworks Gold has been aligned to the Sunshine State Standards, Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), and Flordia Writing Assessment. Packages for Florida educators are bundled with printed correlations of the Classworks Gold curriculum to those state standards.

Tennessee kicks off its first Classworks Gold usage this fall in Knox county, with nine Knoxville schools scheduled to begin using the software. As with other versions of Classworks, the Tennessee software is based on national standards and benchmarks like NCTM and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and English); state standards of learning; standardized tests, including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the SAT-9; and popular textbooks from top school publishers.

Classworks Gold is available in Power Macintosh and Windows packages suitable for grades K-3, 4-6, 6-8, or K-8 in language arts, math, or both. Athough pricing schemes are closely guarded in the highly competitive courseware industry, Knowledge Adventure pricing generally starts at an entry-level figure of $20,000 for a medium-sized district. The company provides several days of teacher training, and regional sales consultants offer assistance in funding options like state and federal grants.

‘Cyber teachers’

Schools in Texas and Louisiana are using a unique software system called I CAN Learn that goes one step further than most comprehensive courseware solutions in becoming a full-time teaching tool: It provides a “cyber teacher” that delivers lessons by full-motion video.

The I CAN Learn (short for Interactive Computer-Aided Natural Learning) Education System is a niche product in the area of comprehensive courseware, as it covers only one course: Algebra I. Yet, in doing so, publisher JRL Enterprises has thrown the gauntlet at the other courseware companies, because this product is a standard textbook replacement. In fact, it’s the only software product officially adopted as a textbook by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Born as the brainchild of ex-engineer and New Orleans-based entrepreneur John R. Lee, the I CAN Learn project began in 1990 and was funded from a big legal settlement that Lee received as compensation for an industrial lawsuit. Instead of following the trend by other high-end software packages of providing supplementary instruction, Lee decided he’d develop educational technology as a full-time teaching tool.

The result of Lee’s brainstorm was a collaboration with professors from Tulane University and the University of New Orleans. Spurred by donations of classroom sets by Lee to local New Orleans classrooms and then, later, federal grants to provide the system in additional classrooms, I CAN Learn began to accumulate a track record of student success.

Peggy Kirby, a research professor at the University of New Orleans, did two independent studies in 1995 and 1996 on the early I CAN Learn test groups and found that students learned an average of 53 percent faster and retained 37 percent more than a “chalk and talk”-taught control group.

The I CAN Learn system consists of an entire classroom of computers and a set of 25 instructional CD-ROMs—soon to be available on four DVD disks—for each workstation. The system delivers a complete one-year course curriculum of Algebra I and tracks each individual student’s abilities in all areas. It also lets you monitor student attendance and discipline reports, assign homework, and administer and grade tests.

The unique nature of this instruction lies in the self-paced nature of the 109 Algebra I lessons, which cover a full year of instruction. Since students progress at their own rate, some will finish early and can enroll in honors distance learning courses from Stanford University, frequently earning college credit while still in middle or high school.

“One of the beauties of I CAN Learn is the master math cyber-teacher, Elaine Gay, who is never absent and patiently explains Algebra concepts in full-screen, TV-like video segments,” said Tom Hohan, vice president of marketing and public relations for JRL Enterprises. “Kids are really excited to be able to control their own destiny in the classroom, and while the regular classroom teacher is helping one student, the other students remain on task with their own computer lesson.”

Gay, a mathematics professor at the University of New Orleans, delivers the lessons by video. The lessons are written by a team of teachers hired by JRL Enterprises.

Responding to questions about the replacement of certified teachers by a “cyber” instructor, Hohan said his company recommends the use of a certified math teacher in the classroom when students are using the program. However, he pointed out that the shortage of math teachers nationwide—and especially the shortage of “good math teachers”—makes a program like I CAN Learn highly useful to many districts.

“We are trying to enhance teachers’ methods, not replace teachers,” he said.

The tracking software runs on an NT server, and students use Windows-based client workstations. Each student has a full set of CD-ROMs, soon to be DVD disks, for his or her machine.

The company provides custom recessed computer workstations with monitors sitting at an angle beneath a smoked glass top. FoolProof software from SmartStuff is used for protection on the operating system. Headphones are provided as well, and students may use the headsets if they wish by plugging them into an extender cable outlet.

The Classroom Explorer from JRL Enterprises is a proprietary module that allows the teacher to monitor grading, attendance, discipline, and student progress on lessons. Mastery of the 109 lessons is set by the teacher (usually at 75 percent). Color-coded histograms track the students’ progress on the teacher’s monitor and let the teacher know who needs immediate assistance.

Internet access is set up only on the teacher’s computer, as the distracting nature of the internet can slow students’ progress in their studies. Yet students frequently ask to work before school, after school, and on Saturdays to accelerate their pace, Hohan said.

The software contains a huge database of questions for mastery tests, so students will face a completely different set of questions each time they take a retest on a lesson they’ve failed.

Initial training for teachers consists of a 20-hour course, with one visit per week during the school year from a math consultant and also a technical consultant. Unlike many competitors, JRL Enterprises requires no annual licensing fees, and buyers are guaranteed lifetime upgrades on the software. According to Hohan, the company’s tenet is “unparalleled classroom support and services.”

Pricing for the I CAN Learn program averages $100,000 and up for a 30-station computer classroom. The Fort Worth (Texas) Independent School District recently signed a three-year deal with JRL Enterprises to provide a turnkey solution of one 30-station classroom (with DVD drives in anticipation of the upcoming DVD edition) at each of 13 Fort Worth high schools, for a total cost of $3.1 million.

JRL Enterprises also is developing a K-3 reading system and a middle math program covering up to pre-algebra. From just a handful of employees in 1990, the company has grown to 75 full-time employees and may expand to as many as 1,000 employees in the next year.

Take-home curriculum solutions

Along with comprehensive courseware packages, another recent trend in instructional media has been the rise of “take-home” solutions that extend the learning hours for students. These programs have the added benefit of helping to bridge the gap between the technology haves and have-nots by giving students further access to learning technologies in the home.

Building on the success of Microsoft’s Anytime, Anywhere Learning program, Jostens Learning Corp., a pioneer in the electronically delivered curriculum marketplace, recently launched two new take-home instructional curriculum programs, Take Home Connection and Compass Virtual Classroom.

Take Home Connection is a promising new offering from Jostens with the added clout of a mega-business partner: Dell Computer Corp. The program couples a Pentium II Dell Latitude notebook computer with Josten’s award-winning Tomorrow’s Promise stand-alone curriculum software on CD-ROMs. The selection of 30 CDs includes grade-level reading, math, language arts, spelling, science, and algebra.

Other components of the program include a school guide with step-by-step instructions for establishing and managing a take-home program; a home guide for parents and students, with instructions for setting up the computer and using the curriculum software successfully; curriculum supplements by grade and subject, which give parents an overview of the instructional content and enable teachers, parents, and students to track progress; and optional offerings, such as headsets, modems, and support services.

The Dell Latitude laptop comes with a price tag of $2,160 and these specifications: 300 Mhz processor, 12.1-inch monitor, 64 MB RAM, 4.2 GB hard drive, 24x CD-ROM drive, floppy drive, Windows 98, carrying case, Fortres Grand desktop security software, and three-year on-site warranty from Dell.

Compass Virtual Classroom, an internet-based take-home solution, provides students with extended learning sessions in grades K-8 reading, 3-8 language arts, K-12 mathematics, and 7-12 science via the internet. It also provides students with complete K-8 assessment, as well as lessons for grades 5-8 that have a cross-curricular emphasis. In addition, teachers can use Compass Virtual Classroom to do all their Compass-based management tasks from the comfort of home.

At-home users of Compass Virtual Classroom must have a Windows-based computer, a modem and phone line, and an internet service provider, requirements that may place the system out of reach for many districts. For parents, the accompanying booklet offers guidelines for supporting children who are working at home on instructional and assessment CD-ROM materials.

Districts with limited technology budgets can find a less costly alternative from one of the originators of take-home instructional media, The Lightspan Partnership. Headed by two former top Jostens officials (chief executive officer John Kernan and chief operating officer Carl Zeiger), Lightspan also has three former Disney executives and an ex-Jostens senior software programmer on its payroll (Sergio Garcia of Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia fame).

Lightspan’s first commercial product, introduced in 1993 and still available, is a CD-ROM set of early learning software that is playable on either PC computers or Sony playstations. The inexpensive Sony playstations are sent home with students along with learning disks to help build essential curriculum skills.

Currently, however, Lightspan’s flagship product is its membership to Lightspan.com, an internet-based curriculum resource that offers a variety of educational services.

The most popular component of a Lightspan.com school membership is the Lightspan Network, which gives registered users free access to The Learning Company’s Comptons Online Encyclopedia; a customizable eMail account (with safety features) for each student, educator, and family member; online software components for grades K-8 in reading, writing, math, vocabulary, and web literacy; a Daily Flash with an educational quiz question (answers follow the next day); and an internet search engine that is filtered for appropriate materials and uses grade level clustering as well as ratings by teachers, students, and parents.

The network also contains a large database of lesson plans correlated to several states’ standards, including Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois, and Oklahoma. In the Teacher Center, teachers can make printable awards for students, connect with other Lightspan teachers across the country who are willing to collaborate, or find information on school and internet safety, as well as a host of other useful teacher activities.

Lightspan modules are generally sold on a student block population basis. Every 300 students costs slightly less than $2,000 for each Lightspan component (except for the company’s free PageOne internet service; see July 1999 Netwatch for more details). The interactive Learning Activities online software components are best utilized by direct connections to the internet at T1 or near-T1 speeds.

The latest generation of high-end learning system software is more comprehensive than ever before. As software vendors develop increasingly sophisticated instructional media programs, schools can look forward to an easier time with tracking and managing student performance according to important benchmarks such as state standards of learning.