NEA tech exhibit aims to knock your socks off:

Chances are, K-12 administrators would benefit from actually being able to see and play with the state-of-the-art computer equipment on their wish lists before spending any money on these advanced technologies.

That’s what researchers and technology advocates at the National Education Association (NEA) are counting on, anyway, as they announce the opening of a new exhibit, “TECH: Making the Grade.”

The exhibit, which has been five years in the making at NEA, is focused on educating policymakers, parents, community activists, and K-12 leaders about the role of technology in education.

“TECH: Making the Grade” was conceived as a way to address the fact that nearly half of America’s classrooms still have little or no access to technology, and less than 3 percent of schools are effectively integrating technology into instruction, according to NEA figures.

Located in 2,500 square feet of the NEA building’s main floor in Washington, D.C., the “Making the Grade” exhibit serves as a public forum for engaging in and learning about the possibilities for technology in education, and is expected to last three years. Issues addressed by the exhibit include classroom use of technology, managing the business of schooling, improving school-to-home connections, and distance learning.

The exhibit’s designers hope to show the importance of making technology available to students and teachers as a basic resource. “This is an advocacy exhibit,” said Carolyn Breedlove, exhibit manager. “We want folks to see this, get excited about it, and go out and implement these types of things.”

The exhibition hall was funded through partnerships between NEA and several corporations and education organizations. Partners such as Apple, AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Compaq, Homework Hotline, NEC, and Prudential contributed time, equipment, and funding to create 16 interactive experiences designed to engage visitors in activities that help define the relationship between technology and students, educators, and schools.

All visitors are encouraged to try their hand at exhibits like “State of the States,” a computer set-up which allows users to find out how their state and others rate on the road to effective use of technology. With a single mouse click, the program gives statistics on state internet access, student to computer ratios, teacher requirements, and levels of integration.

The “Student TV” exhibit is a sophisticated demonstration of technology’s capabilities. It lets users create their own television news shows using video, sound, and actual broadcasting equipment.

Visitors also can check out exceptional personal web sites created by elementary school kids, play with a light-sensing robot created by high-schoolers, and test programs designed to demonstrate the proper use of filtering software.

But the exposition is not just all fun and games. Administrators and technology coordinators will benefit from getting first-hand experience using troubleshooting devices, online support, scheduling, classroom planning, professional development, and student progress-tracking software.

Computers also are set up for visitors to try out specific educational software and web sites to get an idea of the resources available to them.

Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is the “Good Connections” demonstration, which shows the technology that is available to create a learning link between the home and the classroom. The demonstration includes “classroom” and “home” components and features technology that opens up the lines of communication through voice messaging, homework hotlines, helplines, school and home web sites, eMail, and interactive cable programming.

“TECH: Making the Grade” also includes a distinctive message panel throughout the exhibit, designed to guide visitors through the displays and help them understand key concepts during and after each experience.

Exhibition staffers say it’s not necessary to make the pilgrimage to Washington to get a feel for the technology demonstrated in “Making the Grade.” Most of the exhibit’s audio and visual components are available at the project’s official web site (see link below).

If you’re interested in visiting the exhibit first-hand, call the NEA at (202) 822-7360 to make group reservations. The optimal group size is about 50 people, but staffers are more than willing to accommodate larger or smaller groups. Exhibit hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but private receptions can be arranged.

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eSN Special Report:

Japanese food on the lunch menu proved to a small Georgia elementary school that folks were reading their internet page.

Patti O’Neal, webmaster at Bright Star Elementary School, had posted the lunch menu for the 500-student Douglasville, Ga., school. Checking what the cafeteria’s serving is just one of the many things parents can find on the school’s internet page, hosted by FamilyEducation Network.

“Oh, [parents] can do anything” on the web page, brags O’Neal, whose main job had been to monitor the school clinic before she volunteered to manage the web page. “Find out about field trips, weekly homework, lunch menus, important dates for each month, school rules, county rules. There’s [even an] eMail address for every teacher.”

About that lunch menu. Seems folks were planning to visit the school for its open house on a day when the cafeteria planned to serve teriyaki beef. But the “f” and the “r” are right next to each other on a keyboard, so what was posted for everyone to see was “teriyaki beer.” And boy, did the office clerk-turned-webmaster hear about it.

“Oh yeah, we heard about it” from dozens of people, chuckles O’Neal in her honey-coated Southern accent.

How many people notice a typo in the lunch menu is just one way schools can gauge whether parents are reading their web pages. For already, the internet is changing how schools communicate with parents.

Better student achievement goes hand in hand with improved communication with parents, any education researcher will tell you. But anyone who’s ever heard the annoying drone of a busy signal when trying to contact a school at quitting time knows how difficult such contact can be.

Changing school habits

Most experts think it’s not a question of whether schools will be communicating with parents via the internet, but how and how soon. In 1998, 89 percent of U.S. public schools and 51 percent of U.S. classrooms had internet access, according the latest federal figures.

Many schools are posting not only lunch menus and announcements, but homework assignments, individual student grades, and attendance.

“We may, indeed, get the internet in classrooms before telephones,” says Jim Hirsch, a member of the executive board of the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Some schools and districts are venturing into cyberspace on their own with web sites hosted by a district server. Others are joining online communities—such as FamilyEducation Network (FEN), The Lightspan Partnership, or nSchool.com—which provide a template schools can use to create and maintain school web pages, without having to learn HTML or web programming. Still others are using third-party grade and attendance software packages that include an online component.

“Being on the internet changes how a school will interact with the local and national community,” says Elliott Levine, communications director for Lawrence, N.Y., Public Schools. “It sets up a series of expectations on how you are going to communicate.”

Schools, like companies, will have to find ways to change their work habits to accommodate that scrutiny. Educators will have to choose whether to have advertising or not, whether to hand out teachers’ eMail addresses, whether web sites can be secure enough for student data, and whether to allow students the same access to information about them as parents.

Experts say some schools haven’t chosen wisely so far.

“There are plenty of school sites out there [where] it would be better if they turned off the switch,” Levine says. “That’s one of the reasons why major, major companies have not gone into the web. They know they are not ready, and that’s okay.”

Too many schools “want to do a web site because they want to be able to say they have a web site,” he adds.

eMail that waits a month for a response isn’t going to speak well of the school. And yet, just having eMail has the potential to alter communications dramatically, says Hirsch, who also is executive director of technology for the Plano, Texas, Independent School District.

“For many teachers, eMail is the number one mode for receiving a request from a parent,” says Hirsch.

Plano, which hosts its own web site, has put internet access into all 3,500 classrooms of the 45,600-student system and given each staffer an eMail account. The district’s goal is for someone to respond to parental requests within 24 hours, Hirsch says.

Still, the value of more traditional modes of human contact is not lost in Texas, for Plano encourages teachers to respond by telephone or a face-to-face meeting.

But many school districts don’t want to distribute teacher eMail addresses to parents, Hirsch says, just as some don’t want to disseminate telephone numbers.

“When we first put eMail out, no one knew what impact it would have on a teacher’s daily life,” says Hirsch. Online grades, accessible daily, may not match a teacher’s normal work style, which may include updating a gradebook at the end of the week.

“I’m going to guess that, on average, from conversations I’ve had with teachers, eMail access to teachers … adds about 15 minutes [to their] day,” says Hirsch.

While that means teachers have to carve time from something else, Hirsch points out that “we’re getting more work accomplished than before.”

Lawrence, N.Y., communications director Levine thinks schools ought to concentrate more on communication than technology. The basic act of setting up a web presence “isn’t that hard,” he says.

“The problem is, everybody is putting this in the hands of technicians who don’t know how to communicate,” says Levine. That’s just like putting the print shop staff in charge of writing the newsletter.

“And what is there different about the web than the newsletter?” he asks.

Levine also complains that some schools have confused the information superhighway with the animation superhighway and created graphic-rich sites with “not a stitch of meaningful content.” One such site had a page with 200K of graphics that took 2.5 minutes to load.

“If I were a parent in that community, I’d be [upset],” he says.

The commercialism factor

Levine and some others are concerned about commercialism on free web sites, such as FamilyEducation’s school network, which he says do nothing more than “sugar coat ‘school communication’ as a method of building hits for a web site and selling ads.”

Jean Armour Polly, a former librarian and author who coined the term “surfing the internet,” says she, too, is concerned about school-endorsed internet sites with loads of advertising.

“It is teaching consumerism to have all those banners in your face and getting mall bucks for doing your homework, encouraging people to stay on and on in chat rooms, and seeing more ads,” says Polly, who maintains the netmom.com web site.

But cash-strapped schools that have signed up for free web sites aren’t complaining. Claudette Rowe, vice president of FamilyEducation affiliate MySchoolOnline.com, says more than 9,000 schools participate in the company’s online programs, which include free web building tools, web site hosting, eMail addresses, and an hour or two of initial training, plus ongoing support and training.

“Not all schools can invest in technology,” says Rowe.

Bright Star Elementary’s O’Neal is thrilled with FEN and isn’t concerned about advertising. If the site had charged, the school probably wouldn’t have a presence on the web.

“I can’t say enough nice things about those folks. For Yankees, they’re not too bad,” she jokes.

MySchoolOnline.com is considering eventually enabling schools to post individual student information, such as grades and attendance, as well as expanding the content to offer more academic help, Rowe says.

Bright Star Elementary doesn’t post grades, and O’Neal is cautious about putting the whole name of children on class lists. She only puts full names and photos of children on the site “with parents’ permission.”

Based largely on FEN’s success, one company that offers schools commercial-free, subscription-supported web site hosting has jumped into the free, advertising-supported web business as well. Last year, The Lightspan Partnership launched a site offering schools and teachers free web site hosting with on-screen sponsorship, according to Winnie Wechsler, a Lightspan executive vice president.

Lightspan, which makes curriculum-based content for the Sony PlayStation, has been marketing the internet-based Lightspan Network, a subscriber service. The network offers online delivery of lessons and a learning search section with more than 115,000 web sites that have been reviewed and ranked by educators.

While Wechsler says it’s too soon to tell how the two services will coexist, the subscription service does offer value-added features, including content tailored to particular state curriculum standards and the ability to customize content.

But thousands of teachers already make use of Lightspan’s free web site service, called PageOne, including Lori Davis.

Davis, a teacher at Princeton Elementary School in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, has used Lightspan’s PageOne feature to post pictures, important dates, and to highlight web sites for parents and students.

“Grandparents from all over the country love Class Album,” she says. “They enjoy seeing children’s work, even though they may be far away. So does my mom, who lives in Oklahoma, and my aunt, who is a retired school teacher.”

A mandate for change

While some educators argue over whether to make individual student data available to parents over the web, the Utah legislature ended the debate last year. Under Utah’s 1999 Digital State law, Utah schools must “make reasonable progress” toward making a student’s grades, progress reports, teacher eMail addresses, and other information available on the internet by July 1, 2002.

The law also directs schools to set up sites that will let teachers, PTAs, and administrators communicate and post school calendars, schedules, teaching plans, curriculum guides, and media resources online.

Vicky Dahn, coordinator of curriculum and instructional technology for the Utah State Office of Education, says most of the state’s 40 school districts are well on their way to making all of these services available, and some are already there. About 45 percent of the state’s districts are using web-based administrative software “with great success,” she said.

Dahn’s office also has a program that is “essentially free to districts” that will provide parental access, and she expects about 40 percent of the state’s districts are, or will be, using that program as well.

Utah’s new law pushed the Cache County School District into using nSchool.com, a sponsor-supported free web site. Judy Gibbons, district technology specialist for Cache County, says nSchool.com lets parents have access to school calendars and lesson plans.

When students needed more than 1K of space for eMailed assignments, nSchool increased the capacity to 3K for everybody. The company also has provided training materials for teachers, parents, and students, says Gibbons.

Some teachers, already burdened with too much to do, have complained, “Don’t make us do more.”

“But they had no choice,” Gibbons explains. “This is required by law.”

While nSchool.com won’t provide grades and attendance online, Gibbons says she thinks computerized student information systems will be able to handle that. However, Gibbons admits this system will require “a bit of duplicate data entry,” which won’t be popular with time-strapped teachers.

Lindsey Cook, president of nSchool.com, says his company plans to release a new version this month with better content.

The nSchool.com sites are financed by education-related sponsors, such as books or tutorial sites where teachers or students can earn credits for online courses. If a child were struggling in algebra, for example, the site might offer the parent the option of a for-pay algebra tutorial.

Other options include test preparation programs to help students pass college admissions examinations or the end-of-course examinations, such as those given in Texas, that are becoming increasingly popular around the nation, Cook says.

Posting grades and attendance

While some schools and vendors aren’t interested in having individual student data online, others say it’s the key to meaningful content.

Lee Wilson of Chancery Software, which is launching an online component to its student information system (SIS) called K12Planet, says individual student data is much more likely to connect with parents than the generic information most school sites offer.

“I don’t care about generic information,” says Wilson. “I care about how [I can] help my kid.”

Several companies that offer SIS software—Excelsior, Chancery, NCS, Parlant, PowerSchool—have a head start in making grades and attendance available online.

Their systems prevent teachers from having to keep two sets of records: gradebooks on paper and on computer. Most, if not all, of these systems enable schools to alert parents, counselors, and teachers of absences, academic problems, and disciplinary actions automatically.

“I wish I had this when my boys were younger,” says Cache County’s Gibbons, a mother of five. “One of my children failed a class, and I wasn’t notified until the term ended.

“My son had been telling me that assignments were not due. But he didn’t want to do them. This way, I will know that, before it’s too late.”

The results of putting individual student data on the internet can be astounding. In one instance, a serviceman stationed in Alaska was using Excelsior’s Pinnacle system to monitor his son’s and daughter’s progress at their school in Florida.

“He was calling his kids [and] saying, ‘What happened today? I got your latest report and I noticed your math grades have really dropped,'” says Don Zaggle, director of marketing for Excelsior Software.

The system also allows principals to look at trends, to see if students seem to be doing better in one particular teacher’s class than in another, or if girls are doing better than boys are. That information can be used to help teachers or students, Zaggle points out.

Pat Punches, principal of White Mountain Junior High School in Rock Springs, Wyoming, enjoys using a similar feature of another brand of software, PowerSchool. Punches uses PowerSchool to see if teachers are giving assignments, marking attendance, and maintaining gradebooks.

“It’s available for me to use as a way to determine whether or not someone is up to snuff,” says Punches.

Punches thinks putting individual student information online is a powerful educational tool: “When an adolescent comes home and says they either didn’t have homework or they did it at school, a parent no longer has to rely on the child’s word.”

Every Monday morning, the PowerSchool system generates a report of every student who is academically ineligible to play sports. Although the system initially declared some students ineligible because teachers hadn’t completed their grades, those students ultimately were declared eligible.

Students who aren’t eligible can’t participate in any games until the following week, and only then if they raise their grades.

One Monday, only eight of 20 eighth-grade basketball players were eligible. A few managed to get notes from teachers who admitted the problem was theirs. By the following Monday, only two were still ineligible.

“They did get a wakeup call,” says Punches.

In the 5,000-student Rock Springs, Wyoming, school district, 80 percent of parents regularly use the system to keep tabs on their children’s academic progress. About half of all parents do this via the internet, says Tom Biedshied, the district’s technology coordinator.

When the school system in this blue-collar Wyoming mining town piloted the program last year, Biedshied says, there was a lot of apprehension.

“When you launch this kind of software, you’re opening the doors wide open to the public and saying, ‘Here’s how we do business on a daily basis,’ which is historically not the way schools operate,” says Biedshied.

The information has radically changed parent-teacher conferences. This year, at the end of the first quarter, most parents walked into class with a print-out in hand. Conference night became more of a social night and an opportunity for parents to find out about what was happening in class, rather than focusing on student progress.

Biedshied says the program has actually saved the district money, cutting the $25,000 annual expense for producing grade reports down to about $6,000 in maintenance, since all grading and reporting is done by computer. The district opted to dispense with mid-term progress reports, since parents can get the same information online or via phone.

About 1,500 schools nationwide are using ParentLink, a product of Parlant Technology, which has produced a new version of the software that allows parents to get grades, attendance, and class registration information either online or by telephone. The cost, depending on the size of the school, ranges from $5,000-$20,000 but averages $10,000, says Parlant’s Charles Rogell.

ParentLink is a hit with parents at the Bellwood-Antis School District in Pennsylvania, where 99 percent of parents surveyed after a parent night last fall felt they were more involved with their children’s education after using the system.

Seven out of 10 parents surveyed thought their children’s performance improved after they started using ParentLink, and three out of four respondents use the internet to access the system one to three times a week.

Embedded in the highly favorable parent comments, however, were a few complaints about online grades not matching report card data, underscoring the importance of keeping the information accurate and updated.

Privacy concerns

Some people worry that posting individual student data invites problems with privacy. Joel Gedalius—a 17-year-old North Woodmere, N.Y., student who’s designed web pages for a record label, a chocolate distributor, and the community newspaper, among others—thinks most schools aren’t yet equipped to post individual student data on the internet.

“Transmitting student grades, records, and other such information over an internet connection presents a very real security hazard,” says Gedalius, who has been the student webmaster for the Lawrence, N.Y., public school system since eighth grade. “There is no such thing as a truly secure flow of information, and it is imperative to disseminate student information in a private manner.”

Zaggle says his company’s accessed Pinnacle server acts as a firewall, so there’s no way that a student can change data in a teacher’s gradebook. Not that some students haven’t tried, he says.

Once, in a school that will go unnamed, administrators were puzzled when teachers’ grades were disappearing. They reasoned the only way this could happen was if someone could get into a teacher’s computer.

“Sure enough, we found this student in a classroom where a teacher had left a computer open. The student was making changes,” says Zaggle.

The story doesn’t end there. After the school punished the student and announced who he was, the student, who happened to be involved with sports, went to his coach and said, “Coach, do you mind if I use your computer?”

The coach agreed, until he remembered the student’s disciplinary history and pulled the plug. Zaggle says the school has corrected the problem.

In fact, Zaggle says his company’s 13-year experience in school administrative software means it has encountered—and fixed—a lot of problems.

To prevent tampering, NCS’s ParentCONNECTxp puts its online data in a read-only file, and parents are issued passwords and urged not to share them to protect the privacy of the information. The system links into NCS’s SASIxp student administration software, used by some 12,000 schools, and allows parents to go online and get information about their school, student assignments, attendance, discipline, and academic subjects, according to NCS spokeswoman Tamara Dutch.

The password is not given to the child, says Dutch, although some parents may use the system with their children.

But a competitor, Chancery Software, has the opposite philosophy. Maintaining that students should have access to the same information as parents, students will get passwords to Chancery’s K12Planet.

K12Planet links information in an electronic SIS to the internet and also links parents from various schools who may have a common interest, such as parents of students with attention deficit disorder (ADD), so they can share resources and tips.

Next month, Chancery plans to ship K12Planet software to every one of the 14,000 North American schools—including the entire state of Hawaii—using its MacSchool or WinSchool administrative software.

The new software will enable those schools to post administrative data, such as grades and attendance, on the internet through a secure server hosted by Exodus. The server will automatically upload the data from MacSchool or WinSchool as frequently as schools desire (typically once per day), meaning no extra effort is required to keep the site updated.

K12Planet will post individual student data to the internet from a mirror site, created from a copy of the original data, which should prevent crafty students from manipulating their grades.

“Even if someone got through the firewall, they are not going to be able to affect real data,” Wilson says.

Wilson cautions that schools can encounter problems when they start exporting and importing student information into web portals.

“What happens when the back-end company changes the file format? Let’s say, all of a sudden you have 12 new attendance codes. How does the system handle that?” he asks rhetorically.

Including all parents

What about those who don’t have access to the internet? Many school sites offer no options for these parents. Some others—like Chancery, Excelsior, PowerSchool, and Parlant—have programs that translate internet data into voice data, enabling parents with telephones to access some of the information they could not get on the internet. Cook, from nSchool.com, says his company is considering adding this voice application as well.

Chancery’s system also enables teachers who broadcast a message to produce “carbon fiber-based communication” or printed letters to parents without internet access, Wilson says.

Excelsior’s Zaggle says reaching parents without internet access might involve getting businesses to sponsor internet kiosks in banks, churches, and supermarkets in the future.

The good news for schools who have waited until now to get into the technology is they have the potential to post the most up-to-date sites, says Plano’s Hirsch. School districts that invested in technology in the mid-80s are forced to solve more problems, such as translating the software.

“The last in is almost the first out,” says Hirsch. Most software purchased now, he points out, is “already ready to access the internet.”

Bright Star Elementary
http://www.familyeducation.com/brightstar

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Lawrence Public Schools
http://www.lawrence.org

Plano Independent School District
http://www.pisd.edu

Utah’s 1999 Digital State law
http://www.le.state.ut.us/~1999/bills/sbillenr/SB0188.htm

Jean Armour Polly’s Net-Mom site
http://www.netmom.com

Sweetwater County School District #1 (Rock Springs, Wyo.)
http://www.sw1.k12.wy.us

Bellwood-Antis School District
http://tuckahoe.blwd.k12.pa.us

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Tips for forging stronger home-school connections

As more and more schools seek to forge closer connections with parents and families, the web can be a powerful communications ally. Time-stressed parents appreciate the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week availability and convenience of the web. And, as the recent merger of Time Warner Cable and America Online shows, this “new” media is no longer the purview of the rich or the technologically elite.

Developing a family-friendly web site takes careful planning and special consideration, however. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

• Know your audience and design your site with their needs—and not the district administrative staff’s desires—in mind.

Conduct a series of focus groups, either face-to-face or online, and ask parents what they want and need from your web site. Put yourself in their shoes, and at their reading level, and ask yourself what you would want to know about your district or school if you were a parent.

Offer a special section for parents that includes information about your curriculum, latest test scores, homework assignments and project deadlines, menus (always a big deal in our house), daily classroom routines, and teacher contact information. Then consider adding parent tips, password-protected access to grades, online registration, links to day-care and after-school programs, and other services.

Keep in mind that today’s parents are obsessed with safety, order, and the basics, so make sure you include plenty of information about these topics. They also want to know that their son or daughter isn’t going to be a number or get lost in the crowd. So keep your site personal, warm, and caring.

• Make your site easy to navigate.

Nothing is more frustrating to parents then needing a site map in order to find anything on your web site. Use consistent web frames, buttons, and links—and simple language—to guide and direct parents from page to page and section to section. Make it easy for them to get back to your home page, or to find another section without having to back-track endlessly.

Make sure you design your web site flow with the needs and interests of parents and the community as the top priority. In other words, the Parent Connection section should take precedence over messages from the superintendent or endless streams of data about the district or its history. Make it easy to find individual schools, and provide complete contact information, addresses, maps, and directions.

• Keep it simple and to the point.

Take the time to translate long-winded documents and jargon into simple, clear, direct terms and language. You can have a master’s degree in engineering and not understand terms like thematic instruction, authentic assessment, instructional accountability, educational equity, and experiential learning.

When it comes to communication, less is more and simpler is better. Avoid dumping all of your print brochures into Adobe Acrobat and take the time to reformat the same content and images specifically for the web. Many parents don’t have sophisticated enough equipment and software to handle such memory-hogging programs, and no one has the time to wait for long downloads of pictures, graphics, and text.

• Share the workload, but save teachers time.

Creating appealing, family-friendly web sites worth visiting often takes weekly, if not daily, updating. This means you’re going to need to get many members of the school family involved in creating web pages and content.

The most effective web sites have multiple authors who use mutually agreed upon guidelines for content, artwork, fonts, and design elements. Many schools accomplish this by using templates or basic page frameworks that are created in advance by one designer or webmaster. Sharing the same software packages, and providing frequent, ongoing training for teachers, students, interns, media coordinators, and office personnel, is a must.

• Try a teacher pilot.

When you want to debut a new web service, such as posting student grades or test scores, sometimes a practice run with a technology-friendly teacher or two can help you move your idea from concept to action. The key is to find ways to work smarter, not harder, so teachers don’t have to enter key data such as grades, homework assignments, class projects, and other details more than once. If it’s easy, they’ll do it. If it’s hard, “fug ad aboud it.”

Partnering with a teacher or two to develop new strategies can help you avoid pitfalls you might not even know exist. Keep in mind that many educators are intimidated by technology, so providing one-on-one coaching and technical assistance, at least in the early stages, is going to be essential to help teachers feel confident and competent in eCommunications. The speed inherent in eCommunications has enormous customer service implications, so make sure you stress the importance of checking and responding to eMails on a daily basis.

• Keep it simple, software!

Staying within one family of software throughout your school and across the district for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, eMail, internet access, publications, and web design pays huge dividends when it comes to effective and efficient communications.

Develop a system for keeping all hardware, software and operating systems up-to-date and current with each other. This makes transferring files, sending eMails, attaching documents, converting to HTML, and posting web pages much easier by eliminating compatibility problems.

Inequities and variances from school to school, and from department to department, can also have a negative impact on morale. Every employee deserves equal access to the tools and technology required for maximum productivity. School systems need to do a better job of putting these key items on rotating schedules, similar to those developed for new textbooks and curriculum.

• Recruit a webmaster for every school.

Every school, department, and office should have one person who serves as the web author and gatekeeper. While technological literacy is always helpful, this person can be a “non-techy,” as long as he or she is knowledgeable about your area’s key people, activities, programs, services, and successes.

Guidelines for online publishing should be established in advance by a cross-functional team or committee, and should be enforced by the school or department webmaster. Having one person as the final online editor reduces communication clutter and ensures that inappropriate items or links are kept off the school or district web site.

• Restrict server access.

While you want to get as many people as possible involved in producing content and pages for your web site, you need to keep the keys to the system—access to your server and district passwords—in as few hands as possible.

In addition to the obvious security concerns, you want to protect the integrity of your site in terms of content, image, and design so you can communicate powerfully, simply, clearly, and effectively. If a committee takes charge of your overall design and web strategy, your site will end up looking like the proverbial camel instead of the sleek racehorse you envisioned. — Nora Carr

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New software puts the ‘work’ back into homework

Two Tennessee Tech engineering professors are using computer technology to combat an old problem that has relevance in K-12 as well as higher education—cheating on homework.

Craig Henderson and Richard Lowhorn say professors know it’s easy for students to get copies of homework solutions—many fraternities even keep such papers on file. So, they spent two years creating a software program that forces students to figure out homework answers on their own.

“The real emphasis is not on cheating,” Henderson said. “What we are really doing is just emphasizing practice for students—to just do problems, do problems, do problems until they are proficient at it.”

The program was designed to complement their course textbook, a mechanical engineering tome titled “Statics,” about the forces that keep objects still.

All 1,500 problems and graphics from the book went into the companion CD-ROM, “The Homework Laboratory.” But while the problems are identical to the book’s, the computer randomly varies elements in the equations.

The result: No two homework answers are the same.

The computer still can grade them as if they were. It also will allow students to try again with new variables, give helpful hints, provide ungraded practice problems and timed tests, and record the encrypted results in a full-semester tally for the professor.

The National Science Foundation saw enough promise in “The Homework Laboratory” to award a $135,000 grant to test the program in engineering classes at Tennessee Tech and the University of Texas-Austin, where the textbook’s authors, Marc Bedford and Wallace Fowler, teach.

“The main thing that was of interest to us is that it is aimed at increasing both the understanding and the retention of information,” said Eric Sheppard, an NSF program director in undergraduate education.

“It also is something that is flexible enough to have national impact. It is the type of product that could be used in other science or nonscience courses.”

The NSF-funded testing began last fall and is expected to continue this year. A component of the project is developing a comparable program for eighth- and ninth-graders.

Initial results have been encouraging.

“I plotted it for the first course and it was a pretty straight line,” Henderson said. “The people who used ‘The Homework Laboratory,’ that took the practice tests, that did well on the lab, got much higher grades in the classes.”

Students appear to like it, too.

“It is almost like another teacher to me,” said Adam Graves, a Tennessee Tech student.

“It makes me do homework,” classmate Simon Tremblay-LaRouche said.

Eric Svendsen, a senior editor at textbook publisher Prentice Hall, said lots of textbooks offer companion CDs, “but this is the first one that allows random generation of problem material. The concept is something that is applicable to a lot of other books.”

He said some bugs need to be worked out in loading the software, but “The Homework Laboratory” could be ready for market by summer.

Fowler, president-elect of the American Society of Engineering Education, said “The Homework Laboratory” is “the first set of software that has basically done something for students and for faculty members and for the academic institution itself, all in one fell swoop.”

Students can get endless practice on varied problems. They can get immediate help without waiting to see their professor. And professors, or their paid graders, don’t have all that homework to check, he said.

“This concept is so good that I expect 10 years from now you will see a lot of things like this,” Fowler said.

Tennessee Tech University
http://www.tntech.edu

National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov

University of Texas at Austin
http://www.utexas.edu

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Principals, police use internet to track troubled teens

In the town of Normal, Ill., school administrators and local law enforcement officials are taking steps to ensure that events here live up to the community’s name.

To prevent the kind of violence that has occurred recently in places such as Littleton, Colo., and Springfield, Ore., local officials are teaming up to form a computer network that will keep track of teen-agers who might commit crimes in or out of school.

The network will link authorized users from the Bloomington and Normal police departments, McLean County state’s attorney’s office, the juvenile division of the Illinois Department of County Court Services, the local office of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the junior highs and high schools in District 87 and McLean County Unit 5 school districts.

The idea behind the “safe school shared information system” is to give officials who have dealings with a particular teen a single formalized process to share information so they can see if there is a trend of unsafe or criminal behavior, said Mindy Frazier, information services manager for the town of Normal.

For example, if a police officer responds to a fight among teens over the weekend, principals would know to stay alert for any spillover into the school Monday morning. Some of that type of sharing occurs now, but on a limited basis, Frazier said.

Conversely, when schools report alleged or suspected criminal behavior to police, information from those incidents would be included in the network as well.

Once potential problems are identified, school officials hope to intervene before any outside hostilities manifest themselves on school grounds. Students who have been in trouble outside of school will be called into direct conferences with administrators to talk about problems, or they will be asked to participate in parent-teacher meetings, counseling, or peer intervention.

The idea for the network came out of a brainstorming session at the regional advisory council meeting of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-Southeast (NLECTC-SE). The assembly brought together law enforcement officials and community leaders looking for ways to prevent school violence by nipping instances of violent behavior in the bud.

“With this program, we hope to share information and give schools a heads up to young people who might be predisposed to violence,” said Assistant Chief Gary Speers of the Normal Police Department.

The money for the pilot program was obtained through a grant from NLECTC-SE and the National Institute of Justice. An estimated $36,000 in start-up equipment was needed, and the remaining funds will be used to provide each location with the expertise, equipment, and support needed to tie the system together, Speers said. School officials do not expect upkeep for the program to be very expensive.

The project will create a “virtual private network” that uses encryption and other security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that the data cannot be intercepted. Members of the network will receive software that allows them to hook into the network’s web server, currently being housed at the Normal City Hall.

Frazier said there are very specific guidelines about what kinds of information can be shared. Private student records cannot be shared without a court order, for example.

McLean County State’s Attorney Charles Reynard said he was “thrilled” to have the system available. In addition to sharing and receiving information via the network, his office will provide the legal research to make sure no information added to the network breaks confidentiality or privacy laws.

Each member of the network will designate one or two individuals to check it regularly for youngsters who have committed an act of violence and alert other members. Normal Community West High School Principal Jerry Crabtree said the two educational deans at his school will be the only employees with access to the highly sensitive information.

“The one feature I really like is the confidentiality aspect,” Crabtree noted. “Only one or two people will have access to the software—and it’s all protected through passwords.”

Those involved in the pilot project expect some degree of resistance from civil liberties groups regarding the issue of privacy infringement, but note that measures have been taken to ensure the network’s constitutionality. “We put together a list of the types of items we’d like to share [within the network] and ran them past the state’s attorney, who had no problem with the list we presented,” Speers said.

Though there has been a slight decrease in the occurrence of teen violence over the past year, school officials have been busier than ever dealing with a huge increase in threats of violence, Speers said. Added Crabtree, “We’re trying to head off potential problems. The concept just makes sense. This way, we can be proactive rather than reactive.”

McLean County Unit District 5
http://www.unit5.org

National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-Southeast
http://www.nlectc.org/nlectcse

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Students create ‘biomaps’ using sophisticated GIS software

Students at Hopkinton High School in New Hampshire are taking a hands-on approach to learning about their local flora and fauna, with the help of very sophisticated mapping software.

Hopkinton geography and science students have been using high-tech geographic information system (GIS) software called ArcView to create complex, multi-dimensional maps of the environment in and around their hometown.

"ArcView seems to be the industry standard for mapping software. It’s what the state of New Hampshire uses," said geography teacher Bob Woolner.

Woolner and biology teacher Scott Semmens are among the first educators to teach GIS software programs and their applications at the high school level. Typically, use of the technology is reserved for college-level courses.

Students began the project by collecting data in the field and observing patterns in their environment. They collected data on water quality at a local creek that leads into a large watershed, then entered their findings into the GIS system.

Currently, students are scouring the natural environment in Hopkinton looking for evidence of wildlife. They record information on animal droppings, dens, teeth marks, and antler marks in order to determine which areas are significant animal corridors. The students dutifully record all of the information gathered in the field, and this information is entered into ArcView, where it is organized and mapped.

Each category of information collected produces its own map, called a GIS layer. Each layer can then be transposed over the others to produce a many-layered map, which offers a more complete picture of a certain geographic area than a traditional map.

Students seem to enjoy using technology to map the data they have gathered themselves. "It’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to be able to go into the field and study tracking. And everyone is starting to learn ArcView," commented Hopkinton freshman Andrew Secor. "It’s pretty easy to pick up," he added.

Responses like this were just what the teaching team was hoping for when they conceptualized the idea last summer, after Woolner received a free site license for attending a conference hosted by the Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI).

ESRI agreed to fund the effort at Hopkinton, though Woolner noted that the high school has kept hardware costs to a minimum by using machines assembled by seventh-graders. He estimates that the ArcView software can cost up to $17,000, but the basic program starts around $1,200.

Semmens admits there was an initial degree of frustration for some students who did not have previous computer experience, but he added, "Now, students can see the connection between what they see in the field and what they plot on the computer. So far, reactions are really positive."

Though programs like the GIS class normally are taught only at the college and graduate level, Semmens believes that many science and social studies high school standards can be fulfilled by teaching ArcView.

"We are fulfilling both the science and technology standard and also integrating different scientific fields into the curriculum, including geography, ecology, geology, biology, and physiology," he said.

Woolner and Semmens have big plans for teaching with ArcView as the school year progresses. "In the spring, we’ll be examining vernal pools and using a higher version of GIS to create a polygon, or a realistically shaped pond on which to map data," Semmens said. "We also hope to use satellite images and field checks to establish forest composition."

Students using ArcView today are setting the groundwork for a program that both teachers hope will extend years into the future. Semmens also thinks the implications of such a program could have a positive effect on the community as a whole.

"The more information we gather, the more information town planners can have for decision-making," he said. "As the population continues to increase, more and more resources are becoming overwhelmed. Parts of the state are really growing, and those parts need to be carefully monitored."

Programs like the ArcView class help students understand more about their community and the natural environment, Semmens concluded: "Students are often very sensitive to community issues like these, and this class is a great way to involve them."

Hopkinton High School
http://www.conknet.com/hhs

 

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Educators team up with NASA scientists to involve students in real space research

Science students at Pottsville High School in Arkansas have been chosen, along with students in 19 other schools nationally, to participate in a new computer network involving the International Space Station.

The program—called the Tele-science Resource Kit, or TReK for short—was designed by NASA engineers to allow scientists from around the world to access experimental data collected on board the space station.

Researchers who have been approved to fly experiments aboard the space station will be able to monitor their projects via the internet without actually being in space or at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Voice communication with the astronauts also will be possible.

NASA is using the 20 public schools as test sites for voice-over-IP, video, and data experiments. The schools will be able to receive information from real experiments as it is generated.

Pottsville High School became involved when teacher Ed Roberts attended an internship at the Marshall Space Flight Center last summer.

“NASA was looking to set up [its] test network to verify reliability in the TReK system,” Roberts said. “Since education is a high priority for NASA, it became apparent to the researchers developing TReK that the help they needed could be furnished by teachers attending the summer institute.

“All we had to do was agree to become a NASA research site, an exciting way for our schools to integrate space technology in our classrooms,” he said.

The TReK testing will continue for about six months, at which time the system will become operational and Pottsville High School will be given the opportunity to participate in research being conducted by NASA scientists.

“I feel very lucky to be given the opportunity to bring this type of cutting-edge technology to our students,” Roberts added.

The idea behind TReK is to make it easy for science teams working in their own laboratories on Earth to receive information from and transmit commands to their experiments aboard the Space Station, 220 miles in space.

“TReK is a user-friendly, PC-based system,” said Michelle Schneider, who leads the team of NASA engineers who developed TReK at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “PC advancements—processing power, memory, and networking capabilities—enable PCs to support this system.”

TReK uses off-the-shelf computer hardware and software, which makes it cost-effective for users. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel if what we needed was already out there,” said Schneider. “We provide users with TReK, the noncommercial software, and a list of suggested hardware—basically, any PC—and software that is readily available.”

NASA provided all equipment free. The equipment already is in the schools, connected to the NASA network, and initial tests are underway.

One of the first voice tests planned at Pottsville High School will be to conduct an interview. Roberts’ students will be able to ask questions to an astronaut at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The students already have held data tests with the other schools, as well as with NASA scientists in Alabama.

TReK works by receiving and relaying information to the main computer system in the Science Operations Center at the Marshall Center. Science teams will specify what information they want to obtain from their experiments and in what intervals.

Once the experiment is underway, the main computer system in the Operations Center retrieves the requested information and routes it to the TReK system. TReK processes and displays the information for the science teams. In turn, science teams can send information through TReK to the main computer system, which relays it to the experiment.

“TReK is not just another NASA-sponsored educational program,” Roberts said. “It is an actual space research initiative utilizing the latest in internet capabilities to conduct space-related research and activities aboard the International Space Station.”

Pottsville School District
http://apache.afsc.k12.ar.us/

Marshall Space Flight Center
http://www.msfc.nasa.gov/

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Training and education aren’t the same thing

By the time the third faculty member left my office, I was ready to crawl into a hole. Grades had been mailed the night before, and teachers who were checking grades on the computer began to report discrepancies between the grades they submitted and the grades that were now in the system.

My response was immediate panic. Had a student hacked our network? Had a faculty member allowed a student to see his password? Would I have to tell the entire faculty that all grades and comments needed to be re-submitted? How do you explain to all those parents that their son’s grades are not accurate, or that he didn’t really make the honor roll this term? What about seniors who had to send these grades to colleges? These and other questions kept me busy for most of the day and kept me awake most of that night.

Upon closer inspection, however, the problem was not as bad as it originally appeared. There were only a handful of teachers who reported discrepancies, and we were able to fix them without much difficulty. The security of the network had not been compromised, and while there were some minor technical problems during grade input, those problems did not impact the accuracy of the grades.

Rather, the discrepancies were the result of input errors that came from a combination of poor understanding of our electronic gradebook program and a user interface that is somewhat misleading.

For instance, the gradebook program we use allows teachers to customize their own grading system. Some teachers did not change the default grade cutoffs in all of their classes, and so students were assigned letter grades that didn’t correspond to the teacher’s numeric average.

In other cases, due to the way averaged columns were displayed, faculty members had made manual changes to grades in the column for final grades, thinking they were changing semester grades.

As I began to realize the cause of the problem, my first reaction was one of relief—followed by frustration: “Whew! It’s not my fault. The problem isn’t in the program or the network. It’s in the users. We just need to get a new faculty. That’ll fix it! We need a faculty that can follow the directions that I type up and explain to them in workshop after workshop.” It felt a lot better to be able to shift the blame to someone else.

The more I thought about why I was frustrated, though, the less sense it made. If only one or two people had a problem, it would be easier to dismiss it as their own fault, but problems were reported by about 10 percent of the teachers. These are educated people. All of them have at least four years of college, and some have their Ph.D.’s They are entrusted with the daily shaping of young minds, and they all do a pretty good job of it.

Additionally, some of the teachers who had problems with their grades are among the most active computer users on the faculty. So if the problem wasn’t the system, and it wasn’t the faculty, then what was the real cause of the problem?

Logic lead me to think that this was a training problem, but we’ve had numerous workshops in the use of this program, ranging from full faculty workshops at grade input time to individual training sessions throughout the term when faculty were having trouble. How many workshops can you really have?

Eventually, however, I realized that the problem stemmed from the quality and type of training, not the quantity of it.

In order to spark motivation, we have employed “just-in-time” training. For us, this means having a workshop on how to use the various features of the grade input program as teachers need to use them.

For example, we taught teachers how to set up rosters and seating charts before the first day of school. We taught them how to add assignments during the first week of school, and in the week that first-term grades were due, we taught them how to adjust and submit their grades to be printed on report cards.

The philosophy behind this was that faculty members’ needs to get their job done would drive their motivation to learn the skills being taught in the workshop. The fact that they were working on “real” projects would better engage their attention and make them more active participants in the workshop.

This type of training is very effective when you are trying to teach very discrete skills. However, something was missing from our training which, I believe, led to the difficulties we experienced this quarter.

The focus of our just-in-time training was the accomplishment of a specific goal by following a series of specific instructions. This way, faculty members mastered a specific and essential task without being overloaded with information and confused.

Although they were able to perform these various tasks, not all faculty members were able to see how these different tasks related to each other. For some teachers, the transfer of skills from one task to a new one was more difficult.

Our training also failed to provide users with a general overview of how the program works. While some teachers could perform certain tasks very well, they had difficulty solving unexpected problems or adjusting to situations beyond those to which they had been exposed.

In short, we were training our users, rather than educating them.

Training is a perfectly acceptable solution for users who perform basic and repetitive functions on their computers. These users may never need to respond to situations outside the scope of their training.

Many users, however, require more than training. They require education. They require practice in the type of thinking required to perform complex tasks on a computer, like maintaining a gradebook, which are highly customizable and likely to present situations and problems that are unique to each user.

While the fundamental principles of our training program are sound, I plan to add more activities next year which will require the transfer of skills from different areas of the program. It is important that users have a more general understanding of how the program works.

Additionally, I plan to add activities which present problems requiring the user to look up answers in the manual or help file. While I would like the main focus of the training to be on “real” projects, I plan to add some simulated problems and evaluate the learner’s response to these problems.

Telling isn’t the same as teaching, and training isn’t the same as educating. Those of us who design and run workshops need to take our cues from our teachers in the classroom and model workshops that reflect a slightly more constructivist approach to learning, rather than the memorization of how to perform certain tasks.

Even the most avid of computer users would benefit from a greater overall understanding of a particular program or system and how to respond to unique and unexpected problems. Not only will this type of training help to avoid problems like we experienced this quarter, but it will lead to a more independent, productive, and creative end user.

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‘Beaming’ students won’t make teachers smile:

The age-old art of passing notes in class has gone high-tech, as students with handheld computers are foregoing pencil and paper to swap information surreptitiously via infrared beams.

The phenomenon, known as “beaming,” is catching on for its novelty and convenience. Standing or sitting just a few feet apart, people with portable devices like 3Com’s Palm Computing series or Handspring’s Visor can send notes, memos, business cards, and even software with a touch of a button.

“It’s kind of the geek handshake,” said Steve Kan, a management consultant in Los Angeles. When members of Kan’s family get together with their Palm computers, he said, “we swap information all the time.”

It is just one more way that technology is making it easier for people to exchange information quickly, without a lot of conversation or writing. Technology tools also make it easier for people to share very specific information, said Scott Chadwick, assistant professor of organizational communication at Iowa State University.

“People intentionally select and edit what they are going to communicate,” Chadwick said. “Beaming is a perfect example of that.”

Exchanging business cards is perhaps the most common use of this technology because the “beamed” information can automatically be stored in the computers’ address book. But the ease of beaming and the growing sales of handheld computing devices are making it popular beyond the professional realm.

At retailer Banana Republic’s flagship store in New York City, shoppers toting their handheld computers can get a map and directory of the store beamed to them by a concierge at the front desk.

“Technology is a part of everyone’s life,” said Cindy Capobianco, a company representative. “We wanted to recognize that and make it part of the shopping experience as well.”

A new television ad for Palm Computing shows its romantic possibilities: A woman on a train locks eyes with a man on another train the next track over. Just as they are about to speed off in opposite directions, she pulls out her computer and beams her number to him.

Naturally, students too are getting into the act. Chris Johnson, an information technology administrator in Western Australia, began beaming more than five years ago. Back then, he used an Apple Newton Messagepad to surreptitiously pass doodle-type notes in class.

“It has risen to the level of an information appliance,” said Jeff Bowman, a physician executive at St. Vincent Hospitals and Health Systems in Indianapolis. In the past few years, he has seen the popularity of the handheld computers burgeon among his colleagues, so that the staff at the center now shares meeting notes and other information.

Students and consumers are taking greater advantage of beaming as more friends and coworkers pick up their own devices, said John Cook, director of consumer products for Palm Computing.

Worldwide sales of handheld computers were expected to exceed $5.7 million in 1999, a 47 percent increase over 1998, according to the research firm Dataquest. Sales are expected to reach $21 million in 2003.

The technology’s applications are growing. For example, some owners of handheld devices also have infrared beaming equipment on their standard laptops or personal computers. That makes it possible for them to synchronize information between their machines.

Interactive games, where participants beam their moves back and forth to each other, are becoming another well-loved feature—much to the dismay of some teachers, who have seen their students play games from across the room instead of paying attention in class.

As beaming becomes more widespread, it is beginning to alter the way people interact. Cook cited the popularity of beaming in Japan, where trading business cards often is part of a cordial greeting. Now, users of handheld devices are “beaming and bowing.”

So, will handwritten notes soon become history? And will technology such as beaming become a substitute for real conversation? No one knows.

“I do counsel people to be careful, especially when it comes to communication,” said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Palm Computing
http://www.palm.com/

Handspring Inc.
http://www.handspring.com/

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Students reject board’s tough web publishing options

Students at Maize High School in Kansas have chosen to reject four options presented to them by the school board regarding the publishing of student names and photos in the school’s online newspaper.

Many students do not like the district’s policy, which prohibits their full names or identifiable photographs from being published online. Students claim the policy inhibits their free press rights and affects the newspaper’s credibility.

School officials, meanwhile, say they are trying to protect students from internet stalkers, harassment, or other cybercrimes.

Tony Wedel, online editor of the student newspaper Express, commented, “We had a safety situation in our school which dampened our spirits a bit. There was a threat of someone shooting up the school, and someone had written ‘Maize is next’ on a chalkboard, so they had to conduct a bunch of searches [a few days] before we went to the school board.”

Wedel suggested that these events may have influenced the board’s decision not to allow full names to be published online.

The school board issued four options after students argued at a November board meeting that the district’s first-names-only web policy compromised the credibility of their online reporting.

The board wanted to come up with a short-term solution, said board member Jeff Longwell, as well as look at the issue more in-depth.

He said the board could not ignore the hundreds of parents who do not want their children’s names or photographs on the internet. At the same time, members wanted to give the journalism students as much freedom as possible, he said.

Similar policies nationwide are setting up battles between students’ free press rights and administrators’ responsibilities to protect students.

According to the school board, the Maize High School Express could have:

• Posted to the district intranet, an in-house web network, with no restrictions.

• Posted to the district web page if all student names and photos were checked against a list of students whose parents had said they did not want their child’s name or photo online, and removed from coverage where required. The Express was last posted online last spring.

• Set up passwords, which would have been maintained by the journalism students, for access to the Express online.

• Not posted the Express online.

“We decided that for various reasons, those options would not suit us, so we’ve decide to hold off [on publishing the Express online] for the rest of the year,” Wedel said.

About a third of the high school population, or 488 students, could not have their full names published online under the district’s current policy, editor Kris Hinson said.

Prior to the board’s decision, journalism students went through an issue of Express, marking every name that appeared on the list. It affected at least one item on every page, he said.

“This could be a problem with coverage,” Hinson said, “and leave huge holes in the paper. Entire stories would have to be changed or just omitted.”

The password and intranet options would have offered access only to those who already had access to the printed version, he added.

“It’s a limited audience; not everyone could see it,” Hinson said. “We don’t increase our readership.”

Wedel said he and his classmates came up with a different option that appealed to them. The students could have a link from the district’s web site to the Express, which would be on a different, independent server. The district then would not be liable, he said.

School board officials had no comment on the students’ proposal.

“I’m not satisfied with the decision, but I am happy with where we’re at,” Wedel said. “Things can always change next year.”

Maize School District
http://www.usd266.com

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