Internet: Piloting a web-based curriculum project.

With some 600 schools and 450,000 students, Chicago Public Schools face a greater-than-average challenge in communicating standards and getting all the district’s teachers and students on the same page.

To solve the problem, the nation’s third-largest district has turned to the internet—and a technology firm called Saber Consulting, led by 28-year-old wunderkind CEO Nitin Khanna—to create a highly successful networked system.

The system, called the Technology Infusion Project, is an internet application by which the district’s teachers can build curriculum around the state’s and the city’s goal-tracking benchmarks—the Illinois State Goals and the Chicago Academic Framework.

By putting all of the curriculum and lesson plans online, teachers are able to share what works and learn what doesn’t—and administrators can be sure that specific initatives are being addressed in the classroom.

In addition, when the Technology Infusion Project is complete, the district’s students will be able to work together online on a variety of tasks assigned by their teachers. They’ll also be able to share research and eMail with each other from school or at home.

How the system works

Officials in the district’s Online Services office wanted a web-based system that would be simple enough for students from kindergarten through high school to use. And, of course, the system had to be secure, as students’ work needed to be protected online.

When they had trouble finding an off-the-shelf program that met their needs, they turned to Saber in April 1999. By July 19, the first phase of the project was completed, to the tune of more than 200 custom web pages.

According to Khanna, it was critical that the new system be free of glitches and other problems, as already-wary K-12 teachers would be discouraged from using the system if it were hard to use.

Another challenge was getting teachers trained to use the new equipment over the summer, with very little notice, so they could be ready to implement the system in August.

The resulting project, which incorporates Saber’s implementation strategy and database and web server technologies from Oracle Corp., currently is being tested by about 6,000 of the district’s students and teachers—and so far, it has been a smashing success, according to the project’s lead teacher, Helen Hoffenberg.

“Everyone has been wonderfully receptive. We’ve also had great turnouts at the [professional development] classes we offer,” she said.

The district’s Technology Infusion Project has made it possible for students to create online projects and add tasks, quizzes, and activities to those projects. Students also can upload any document directly into the system.

The system incorporates a messaging service between teachers and students, and a library where teachers can store resources such as documents, images, and web links. The administration center allows teachers to set up classes and groups of students, and the submission center encourages students to submit their work to these projects.

Teachers can use the new system to create interactive multimedia projects as a way to engage the interest of their students, as well as meet state standards.

“Teacher-created projects are titled, and the teacher then chooses a grade level and subject for the project,” explained Hoffenberg. “Once they enter this information, a set of appropriate standards pops up immediately, so teachers have to choose which standards they are addressing even before they create the project.”

Professional development classes and field guides support the district’s instructors. “With all the support, teachers now say they are not afraid to try new things,” Hoffenberg said.

Other features of the project include:

• The ability for teachers to send eMail to all students in a class, group, or individually with the click of a button;

• The ability for students to do work or take quizzes from their homes (for example, if students are out sick or on vacation with their parents);

• The ability for teachers in one school to copy the work and projects of teachers in another school or from another school year; and

• The ability for teachers to collaborate on projects in one of two ways: Each teacher can manage the project separately, with students only seeing what their teacher wants them to see; or teachers can work together as a group, and all of their students see the same project.

A sample project

Teachers, too, have expressed satisfaction with the Technology Infusion Project. Sixth- through eighth-grade creative writing teacher Lynn Heise has created a project to help her students understand the plight of the immigrant in the early 1900s.

On Heise’s Immigration page, students have access to 10-15 web resources, and they are encouraged to use all their creative talents to integrate the facts they gather into a fictional narrative. Students are asked to pretend they are actually immigrating to the United States from Ireland or Italy.

Heise encourages her students to eMail any comments or questions they might have to her, and she estimates that her students access the secure Technology Infusion site at least two or three times per week.

“Considering I literally knew nothing about computers in July, it’s just incredible,” she said of her involvement with the district’s new program. “I took the training course over the summer and it turned me on so much to the possibilities that I now use the computer almost every day. And the work I get from my students is ten times better now than it was before.”

Saber Consulting is three years old and specializes in rapid development technology using Oracle technology. “We help to develop custom applications as quickly as off-the-shelf. And happily, Saber’s needs have managed to coincide with the online and eCommerce craze,” Khanna said.

In the case of Chicago Public Schools, Khanna said that the company identified a need to implement an engaged learning method. “Prior to the internet, there was really no way to achieve engaged learning. Schools needed to go online, but until now there was a lack of a rallying point,” he said.

With the Technology Infusion Project, teachers, students, and parents can foster open and engaged communication. “We all love it,” added Heise. “I just can’t say enough good stuff.”

Chicago Public Schools

Saber Consulting

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