Need a starting point to teach students or teachers about the internet? Check out the CyberPilot’s License site. Like driver’s education, this site addresses not only the skills necessary to operate internet machinery, but also the attitudes and behaviors that promote healthy internet surfing. CyberPilot’s License is dedicated to boosting web ethics and developing healthy online environments. Participants learn to use search engines and discussion forums without harming themselves or others. This site explores the technology and terminology of cyberspace as well as the moral and ethical issues surrounding web surfing. Educators can adapt the program to suit their needs. The CyberPilot’s License program is a proactive approach to reducing web-induced anxiety. It also serves as an interactive meeting place for students, educators, and parents to discuss web ethics.
Nearly every public school in America now has access to the internet, according to a study released Feb. 16 by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). But the type of access varies among schools, with poor students and those in large cities more likely to share internet access in a single school location.
The results of the study, “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-99,” show significant progress toward the goal set by the Clinton administration’s National Information Infrastructure initiative six years ago.
According to the report, internet connectivity has jumped from a little more than one-third of schools in 1994 to 95 percent of schools in 1999. Furthermore, there is virtually no difference in which schools are most likely to have internet access, according to NCES.
Before 1994, the schools that had internet access were almost always wealthier suburban high schools, as opposed to lower-level urban schools with high levels of poverty, the agency said.
The rapid expansion from 1994 to 1999 can be attributed to everything from increased technology funding at the state and local levels, to donations by technology companies eager to train future workers, to federal government efforts such as the eRate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries.
The eRate has committed more than $3.6 billion to schools and libraries during the past two years. Officials say the program has helped connect more than a million classrooms to the internet, mostly by helping pay for internal wiring.
In 1994, 3 percent of all U.S. public school instructional roomsnamely classrooms, computer labs, and library or media centerswere connected to the internet. This figure jumped to 63 percent in 1999.
“My feeling is that we were expecting the upward trend to continue for school connectivity, but what I’m most impressed with was the dramatic increase in classrooms connections,” said Edith McArthur, NCES demographer and one of the study’s researchers.
The report revealed that the type of access still varies among schools of different poverty concentrations, grade levels, and metropolitan status, however.
The digital divide showed up between poor and more affluent schools, with the latter having nearly twice as much classroom access to the internet. Only 39 percent of instructional rooms had internet access in schools with high concentrations of poverty (defined as schools having 71 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches). By contrast, schools with less than 11 percent of students eligible for the federal lunch program had internet connections in 74 percent of their instructional rooms.
“One problem may be that older schools tend to be in cities and rural areas, and those schools may need renovation to handle the new wiring,” McArthur said. “While the money may have been committed, [structural considerations] may be slowing things down.”
Students were more likely to have to share internet access in larger schools, where the ratio of students to computers with internet access was 10 to 1; in the smallest schools, the ratio was six students for every computer with internet access.
The study also shows that drastic changes have occurred in how students and educators actually hook up to the internet.
NCES reports that in 1996, dial-up network connections were used by nearly three-quarters of public schools. By 1999, 63 percent of the nation’s public schools were using faster dedicated lines to connect to the web, with only 14 percent of schools using dial-up modems and 23 percent using other connection types, such as ISDN lines, wireless connections, or cable modems.
About 77 percent of secondary schools were connected to the internet via dedicated lines, compared with 60 percent of elementary schools. In addition, 72 percent of the wealthiest schools had dedicated lines wired to their buildings, while only 50 percent of the very poorest schools were wired with dedicated lines.
The study determined that nine out of 10 public schools received funding from their districts and 72 percent received funding from state and local governments. One-third of schools received money from parents and parent organizations, and one-third reported getting funds from local businesses.
Forty-eight percent of schools with the highest concentrations of poverty reported that the government was their primary source for funding, while only 14 percent of the wealthiest schools cited government funds as their primary resource.
McArthur said the NCES plans to release a survey on how teachers use the internet in April.
National Center for Educational Statistics
Maine Gov. Angus King, trying to bridge the digital divide in one of the poorest states in the country, has proposed giving all seventh-graders laptop computers to keep. If King gets his way, every child in Maine from seventh grade on will have his or her own laptop computer within six years.
Starting in 2002, the governor wants each of the state’s roughly 17,000 seventh-graders to get a computer, regardless of whether they have one at home. “We’re heading into an age when computer literacy is essential. It’s going to be as important as knowing how to read or write,” King told a small audience of students and teachers at Gardiner Middle School on March 2. “This isn’t a frill. This is essential … this is where the country’s going.”
A Gardiner seventh-grader, Jessie Stangel, called the idea great. “I have a computer at home, but it’s not so good, so I have to go to my neighbor’s house to do research.” The 13-year-old said that having her own computer would save her that trouble.
What King calls the nation’s most far-reaching school computer initiative has generated a cool, if not skeptical, response in the state house. Reaction among educators is mixed, but students are upbeat.
“The haves don’t need two or three computers at home,” said Howard McFadden, principal of an 80-student school in the tiny community of Edmunds Township. He would like to see the have-nots get computers, though.
The Edmunds Consolidated School is wired for computers, so there is one for every three or four pupils from kindergarten through the eighth grade, McFadden said.
Under the proposal, the governor hopes to draw $15 million in federal and private sources to supplement $50 million in surplus state money to create an endowment. Interest would buy every child a computer when he or she reaches seventh grade. King said students could use their laptops anywhereat school, at home, even on the bus.
Some lawmakers have balked at the one-time cost of $50 million from the state budget, suggesting that fixing leaky school roofs and replacing worn buildings should get a higher priority. Requests for school repairs already far exceed the money available, they say.
“The choice of laptops over school renovations is something I can’t fathom,” said Rep. Elizabeth Townsend, D-Portland. Townsend, who cochairs the Appropriations Committee, says needed renovations in schools across the state add up to more than $100 million.
The proposal earned King praise from educators such as Chris Toy, principal of the Freeport Middle School in southern Maine, where 100 seventh-graders would be eligible.
“I think it’s a pretty reasonable approach. It’s a right of passage. You enter the seventh grade and you get your computer,” he said.
He discounted concerns about the cost, saying the money comes from a different source than the fund for school repairs and construction. “You definitely have to take care of bricks and mortar, but we also need to look at constructing students’ minds,” he said.
In Fort Kent, in the far northern corner of the state, Superintendent Sandra Bernstein called King’s plan interesting, but said she would rather see the money go to general school aid. “What I struggle with is the balance of need. When I’m faced with asking my board to hire an elementary art or phys-ed teacher, or every seventh-grader getting a computer, the scale balances toward the extra art or phys-ed teacher,” she said.
The prototype laptops sell for about $600 or $700, but the governor said he found prices in the $450 to $500 range while poking around on the internet.
According to a statewide survey of 400 Mainers in December, nearly six in 10 households had personal computers and about three-fourths of those with computers were connected to the internet.
King took issue with those who contend the money should be used for school repairs, saying, “We’re doing a ton of construction.” He said the state should not wait to implement his program “until every last gutter is fixed.”
The governor conceded that some computers would get broken, but said the state has “a built-in repair shopit’s called the Maine Correctional Center,” where inmates rehabilitate computers for schools.
Maine Gov. Angus King’s office
The nation’s top researchers would provide scientific data regarding the best technology to use in American public schools and libraries, says an amendment by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., that passed the House of Representatives Feb. 15.
The government would commission three federal agenciesthe National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technologyto research and produce a report on which Congress would act.
The report would identify the most effective and economic means of providing all public elementary and secondary schools and libraries with high-speed, broad-bandwidth internet access in relation to each school and library’s location, Larson said.
It also would recommend how to provide adequate access at individual workstations within each school and library, identify the most cutting-edge tools, and indicate how schools can put them into practice.
The amendment would “give people the empirical data that they don’t have,” Larson said in an interview with eSchool News. “Many people have different ideas; we want the scientific data.”
Such a large-scale study would level the playing field and help close the digital divide by determining the best way to give all students the same level of access to voice, video, and data technologies, Larson said.
“This [problem] is crying out for a national solution,” he said.
Schools need to know the most cost-effective ways to implement technology, Larson said, since it advances so rapidly that schools are constantly spending to upgrade what they already have.
The research mandated by Larson’s amendment would be a remedy to the “hodgepodge, piecemeal approach to closing the digital divide” that has been going on so far, he said.
Larson’s amendment is part of the Networking and Information Technology Research Development Act, which authorizes spending $6.9 billion in the next five years to conduct research into advanced computing and communications technologies. It also authorizes research programs proposed by President Clinton and guided by the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee.
Larson said his amendment would create inter-agency cooperation, allowing research organizations to work together to avoid duplication.
John Vaille, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, agrees that creating a master plan for educational technology could be beneficial, but he is also a little skeptical.
“I don’t think America’s schools are as naive about this as a legislator might think,” Vaille said. “I don’t know if it needs to be studied nationally.”
George Strawn, executive officer of NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, said it will be difficult to predict what products schools should buy, although NSF is an authority on up-and-coming technology.
“This stuff is changing so fast, it is not going to be possible,” he said. There are 100 million new products in development now, but only about 100,000 of those will make it to consumers, he added.
“In most cases, you just have to watch how things fall out,” Strawn said. Scientists can make predictions, but they aren’t always accurate.
For example, Strawn said, when the World Wide Web was being developed, researchers he spoke to said it would never replace Gopher, because it was too complicated for the average user. “They didn’t think the complexity could be hidden by something called a browser,” he said.
Larson said his amendment is intended to provide “an objective assessment and inventory” of the technologies that are out there.
As Larson describes it, the report is meant to evaluate which technologies exist to provide high-speed internet access and specify which are the most cost-effective for each region of the country. The scope of such research would be enormous.
The bill must still pass the Senate, and the exact terms of the research need to be defined. But Strawn said his agency is prepared to take on the project if asked.
“The NSF is very good at assembling members of the scientific community to do studies. Our friends are the smartest people in the world. We know who to contact,” he said.
Rep. John Larson
National Science Foundation
International Society for Technology in Education
Who wants cookies? That’s the question being asked by some lawmakers troubled by how internet marketers can track the movements of, and learn about, people who cruise the world wide web.
According to a federal law that goes into effect April 21, web site operators must get parents’ permission to collect personal information from children online. But there are no laws governing the use of “cookies,” or virtual tags that can pinpoint which sites an internet user has visited.
Many commercial web sites attach cookies to a person’s computer that identify the user when he or she returns. Cookies are what allow a book-selling site, for instance, to welcome you back by name and suggest new reading selections based on your prior purchases.
Critics of cookie technology say that more sinister purposes also are possible.
In one high-profile case, the Federal Trade Commission and some states are investigating whether the nation’s largest online advertising firm, DoubleClick Inc., violated the privacy of consumers.
Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm alleged that DoubleClick implants electronic files on the hard drives of users’ computers and plans to use the customer information to create personal dossiers for marketing purposes.
“It is a disturbing reality that when we are online, everything we read and write, every web site that we visit, may be secretly monitored, recorded, and shared by companies looking to profit from our behavior,” Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., said in a speech on the Senate floor. Torricelli recently introduced a bill that would presume computer surfers do not want web sites to share their information unless they “opt in,” that is, notify the site that sharing information with marketers is OK.
Small numbers of web sites now offer an “opt-in” option; on others, it is possible to “opt out.” But in a letter to colleagues seeking support for the bill, Torricelli said the problem with the “opt-out” option is that most internet users don’t know how to do itor they don’t know that opting out is possible.
“Rather than opting out of having personal details shared, the burden should be placed on companies to contact consumers so that they have control over whether or not personal information is disclosed,” Torricelli wrote.
Critics say placing that burden on web sites could cripple marketing and commerce on the internet, because so few people would bother to “opt in.”
But Torricelli said his idea strikes “a workable balance” between entrepreneurial opportunity and the right to privacy.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., is a believer in the “opt-out” concept. His recently proposed bill would require commercial web sites to notify visitors if any personal information is being collected while they are on the site.
Visitors would be asked if they wanted to opt out of having that information used or disseminated by the site operator.
“The bottom line is that the American public has the right to know who is collecting information about them, and how that information is used,” Frelinghuysen said.
Another New Jersey lawmaker, Republican Congressman Bob Franks, is pushing a bill that would ban web sites from disclosing to a third party the Social Security number or related information of a visitor to the site without the person’s prior written consent.
Frank’s bill was introduced a year ago but has not advanced.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology offers a list of 10 ways to protect privacy online, including these:
• Look for privacy policies at web sites. If none is found, eMail the site and urge posting of a policy.
• Teach children that giving out personal information online is like giving it to strangers.
• Search your computer’s hard drive for a file with the word “cookie” in it and check it out. Consider deleting any unnecessary cookies.
Federal Trade Commission
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen
Center for Democracy and Technology
A month after becoming the world’s largest philanthropic foundation with an endowment of more than $21 billion, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said on March 2 that it would direct $350 million during the next three years toward improving K-12 education in the United States.
This latest announcement moves the foundationalready a major donor of computers and software to classrooms and a funder of scholarships for minority studentssquarely in line with an issue that is considered a key to education in the next decade and beyond: using schools’ rapidly growing internet access to transform education.
To this end, the foundation is seeking innovative strategies that encourage new approaches to learning, said Executive Director Tom Vander Ark.
“The investments we are making in education all derive from a core belief that all students can achieve if you provide the right leadership, the right learning environment, and the right tools,” he said.
At the same time the three-year program was announced, the foundation announced the first phase of its supporta $25.9 million grant to the Alliance for Education and the Seattle Public Schools.
The partners will “create a model school district in Seattle through improved teaching and learning, increased access to technology, and stronger home and community partnerships,” said Robin Pasquarella, president of the Alliance for Education.
Specifically, funds from the Gates Foundation will be used to enable each of the Seattle district’s 97 K-12 schools to purchase technology resources, obtain technical assistance, and train staff in the use of technology. These “transformation grants” will account for approximately $21 million of the funds. They also will support development of a districtwide network, dubbed the Academic Operating System.
This network will serve as the infrastructure for instructional technology and administrative tasks. In addition, funding will accelerate wiring of all schools into local and wide area networks, thus connecting workstations and providing internet access in the offices, libraries, computer labs, and other student spaces.
During the next three years, of the foundation’s $350 million commitment will support four types of activities:
• State Challenge Grant for Leadership Development ($100 million): Leadership development for administrators who are dedicated to using technology to improve student learning. Modeled after the Smart Tools Academya partnership among the Gates Foundation, the University of Washington, and the Seattle nonprofit Technology Alliancethis program will be open to every superintendent and principal in the country by making grants to consortia in every state.
• Teacher Leadership Grants ($70 million): This grant will continue a Washington state program that trains teachers on how to use technology in the classroom so they can help their students meet state standards and “create strong learning environments based on active inquiry, in-depth learning, and high expectations.” About $45 million will go toward training 1,000 Washington teachers in each of the next three years, and $25 million will support similar programs elsewhere in the country.
• Districts Grants ($150 million): Funds will support 10 Washington districts and 20 other districts nationwide in projects to improve teaching and learning and enhance student access to technology.
• School Grants ($30 million): Washington schools can use these funds to improve teaching and learning and enhance student access to technology.
Much of this year’s funding will be targeted toward schools in Washington state. However, foundation officials said the Washington state grants will develop model programs that, over the three-year period, will be replicated nationally with support from the Gates Foundation. The State Challenge Grants are open nationally now.
Eligibility requirements and applications are available on the foundation’s web site (see link below).
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Alliance for Education
Seattle Public Schools
Despite the vastness of the internet, half of all school-based web traffic is spent on just 100 sites, according to a study by N2H2 Inc. of Seattle, maker of the popular Bess filtering software used in about 2,000 schools.
The study, which is based on aggregate data from a sample of 43 proxy servers selected from major urban areas, also found that search engines and “entertainment” sitesthose focused on music, sports, games, and filmaccounted for more than half of all web page hits in schools.
“What the data tells us is that we’re not yet using the internet effectively in schools,” said Jim O’Halloran, vice president of marketing for N2H2. “There’s a need for better tools and better methods to make this technology more effective.”
O’Halloran said the figures represent the usage of more than 350,000 students during a one-month period. While the figures don’t distinguish between web hits that occurred during class time or after school, they do suggest that studentsand perhaps teachersare wasting too much time using ineffective techniques for finding information, he added.
N2H2 will continue to study schools’ internet use, O’Halloran said, with the goal of providing information that could improve how educators use the technology in classrooms.
It’s April, and the reports and studies about school technology are popping out like cherry blossoms. The research making news this month runs the gamut from funding to fretting: As the nation’s schools gear up to spend some $8.45 billion on technology in this school year (see our Front Page lead story), some educators worry that all that technology will erode elementary education and spoil childhood (“Viewpoint,” page 52).
Also on the Front Page, you’ll read about a Boston College study of the relationship between technology and testing, and you’ll learn of a program from the University of Illinois at Chicago studying the effects of virtual reality on children.
Inside the newspaper, the research theme continues. On page 18, you’ll get the latest findings from the National Center for Education Statistics: 95 percent of the nation’s schools now have at least one link to the internet.
But you can never be too connected or have too much bandwidth, so on page 14, we tell you about a new bill in Congress to launch a search for the most effective ways to bring high-speed, broadband internet access to your schools. On page 41, you’ll read about a Rutgers/University of Connecticut study showing that American workers strongly support government funding of internet access for schools.
But lest the fervor for connectivity go untempered, a trio of cautionary reports, on page 38, warn against the isolating potential of the internet.
And right here on this page, in “By The Numbers,” we bring you brand-new findings from N2H2 about where our students and teachers actually are spending their online time.
In fact, at least a dozen stories in this issue deal with research important to education and technology. But even that dozen doesn’t exhaust the topic. So now, like a friendly baker, I’ll give you yet one more late-breaking report.
Now pay attention, because this one could take you to the head of the class.
Neuroscientists, using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), have succeeded in mapping the brain-development processes that go on inside the heads of growing children. It’s the first time such detailed information has been available.
Researchers at UCLA and McGill University used MRI technology to scan children’s brains as they matured from babyhood to adolescence. According to a report released March 8 in the British journal Nature, the scientists used high-performance computers to analyze the images and track an intricate pattern of growth spurts and slow-downs within various brain systems.
The scientists found that from ages 3 to 6, the most rapid growth takes place in frontal-lobe areas involved in planning and organizing new actions and maintaining attention to tasks. Then, from 6 to puberty, they found, the growth spurts shift to the temporal and parietal lobes that play a major role in language skills and spatial relations. After age 12, the growth rate declines sharply, corresponding with the widely observed reduction in one’s ability to learn languages.
According to the scientists, the rule for brain development in adolescence is this: “Use it or lose it.” Here’s why:
First, during the growth spurts, the brain overproduces neurons that are not permanently connected to the neural circuits. Next, the brain cells begin to organize themselves, depending on which connections are reinforced by various forms of mental and physical activity. Then, the least-used cells and pathways die out as fibers connecting nerve cells firm up around the most-used connections.
“In the womb and during the first 18 months of life” when the brain grows most, researcher Jay N. Giedd told the Washington Post, “an infant doesn’t have much to say about the way things turn out. But during the teenage years, a person has a lot to say” about how his or her brain develops.
Teenagers who recognize this “feel empowered,” Giedd said, especially if they “realize that the stakes are pretty high.”
Elizabeth R. Sowell, another researcher, was candid: The neuroscientists don’t have clue about the practical implications of this new snapshot of brain development. “We’re all hoping that perhaps the experts in education or psychology will see these things that we’re showing them and find ways to make those connections,” she said.
If you’re an education expert, use your head. You can start by pointing your browser to http://www.nature.com. For $10 U.S., you can download the full report from Nature. Just don’t forget to drop eSchool News a line when you’ve got everything figured out.
Students from the Wellesley, Mass., public schools are taking part in an experiment to see if the state’s students should use laptop computers when they take the open-ended question section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam.
The experiment’s leaders, Boston College researcher Mike Russell and Thomas Plati, Wellesley’s director of libraries and educational technologies, want to determine whether students do better writing on computers than using pencil and paper.
Because many students routinely use computers to complete writing assignments, Russell and Plati hypothesize that it’s unfair to test these students in composition using old-fashioned methods.
The state makes decisions based on the scores, Russell added, so it’s vital for the test to measure students’ abilities accurately.
Russell and Plati are leading the experiment in conjunction with the state Department of Education. If the experiment bears out the researchers’ expectations, department officials might consider having students use laptops when they take the MCAS exam in future years.
“We want further proof” that the state’s current testing methods do not accurately reflect students’ abilities, said Connie Louie, instructional technology director for the state Department of Education.
The department is planning to invest more in technology, so officials want to know how current technology is working, Louie said.
In Massachusetts, as in other states, the stakes for such test scores are high. Starting in 2001, 10th-graders will have to pass the MCAS to graduate from high school.
Thirty-eight states will have similar graduation rules in place within the next four years, Russell said. Across the nation, standards-based test scores affect everything from student advancement to teacher contracts to management job security.
Texas has seen the highest number of ninth-grade students held back since standards-based tests have become mandatory, Russell said. The schools want to look better, so they hold poorer students back a year to avoid the risk of having them fail the state test, he said.
“For those borderline kids, if they are used to using computers and they took the test using the computer, they could move from borderline to proficient,” Russell said.
Russell bases his claim on two previous studies he and a colleague, Walter Haney of Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, did that suggest computer-literate students who take traditional tests with paper and pencil are in unfamiliar territory and, therefore, do not score as well. The studies can be found online in the Education Policy Analysis Archives published by Arizona State University.
In this most recent study, fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders from the Wellesley Public Schools used a combination of paper and pencil, word processors, and desktop computers to answer composition questions from last year’s MCAS exam.
More than 500 students from Wellesley, a suburban school district with a heavy technology investment, participated in the one-day experiment.
In the 10th grade, half the students used desktop computers and half used paper and pencil. In the eighth grade, a third of the students used eMates, a third used desktop computers, and the remainder used paper and pencil. In the fourth grade, a third used AlphaSmarts, a third used desktop computers, and the rest used paper and pencil.
The eMates and AlphaSmarts are portable battery-powered word processors that have a keyboard, a small viewing screen, and limited memory. They can connect to computers for easy printing and file sharing.
The students were given last year’s MCAS long-answer questions and were marked according to last year’s evaluation guide, said Plati. The paper and pencil answers were typed word for word onto a computer, so all the tests look the same.
“The weakness of this study is that you’re asking [students] to perform on something that doesn’t count,” Russell said. “The state should do experiments during the state tests to add to the authenticity of the study.”
To enhance his analysis of the test results, Russell said, he gave the students a survey and a keyboarding test to determine their level of computer ability, in addition to collecting their writing grades from previous assignments.
In his two previous studies, Russell said, he found that students who were tested on a computer gave better answers than those who wrote their answers longhand.
Plati said he is not surprised. Computers have encouraged today’s students to be more conscious of grammar and punctuation, because they can easily edit and revise their writing on the computer. “You can’t make them do four or five drafts by hand,” Plati said. “Technology has to be part of the picture.”
Because students can cut and paste so easily, the quality of their writing has increased dramatically, he said.
Critics argue that computer spell-checks have had something to do with this, however, and they question whether computer use really makes better writers of students.
Although Russell said he hasn’t analyzed the data for this study yet, he anticipates the difference between fourth-graders who took the composition test on computers and those who wrote in longhand would not be noticeable, because fourth-graders have not had as much writing experience yet.
Wellesley Public Schools
Boston College Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy
Massachusetts Department of Education
Education Policy Analysis Archives
Elementary school teachers at Abraham Lincoln School in Oak Park, Ill., have access to a wider variety of high-tech teaching tools than most teachers. That’s because their school is the first in the country to house a semi-permanent virtual reality unit.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have installed a virtual reality unit at the school. The researchers are testing the students to find out if the technology is an effective teaching tool.
The leaders of the study—Tom Moher, associate professor of computer science, Andy Johnson, assistant professor of computer science, and Stellan Ohlsson, associate professor of psychology—have asked the teachers to integrate virtual reality into their lesson plans.
“Virtual reality, for us, is another tool for visualization, like the pictures in a textbook or the globe on the teacher’s desk, or the blackboard, or filmstrips,” Johnson said. “We want to give the teachers another tool that they can use when it’s appropriate.”
Virtual reality can illustrate things in a way current two-dimensional media cannot. It’s interactive, immersive, and life-like.
“Our aim is to find out whether this advanced visual technology can have a positive impact on learning,” Moher said. However, he cautioned that the researchers are not hyping the technology “as some magical solution” to education.
Since this technology is “still very fragile” and costs a quarter of a million dollars, not many schools will be able to afford virtual reality in the near future.
But “within a decade, this technology will be at a [price] level that school districts can buy into,” Moher predicted.
Before schools can afford to purchase virtual reality equipment, Moher said, researchers want to know how virtual learning can be used to improve education in the K-12 classroom.
He said they’d like to prevent what happened with computers, where schools bought them without any ideas of what to do with them.
The research project is funded by the National Science Foundation. The unit, called the ImmersaDesk, was developed by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The ImmersaDesk is available commercially through FakeSpace Systems Inc.
The ImmersaDesk is the baby sister of CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), another virtual reality unit EVL developed.
Both units operate using the same concepts, but the ImmersaDesk is a smaller, portable version with only one 4-foot by 5-foot projector screen angled at 45 degrees. CAVE is room-sized, with four rear-mounted projectors that display images on the walls and the floor. The ImmersaDesk offers a semi-immersed experience, whereas CAVE provides a fully immersed feeling that surrounds the user with graphics and blocks out the real world.
Unlike the red and blue paper glasses used at 3-D movies, students using these virtual reality units wear lightweight shutter glasses. The projector displays two images: one for the left eye and one for the right eye. A shutter on each of the liquid crystal lenses flashes 120 times per second to separate what the left and right eye see. This process allows the eyes to see a three-dimensional image, Moher said.
Both units also have infrared sensors that track the position of the user’s head and hand. This enables the software to calculate and update images from the user’s point of view. Both systems are capable of running the same software, called CAVE Library Software.
Groups of three or four students use the ImmersaDesk at the same time, so it creates a social learning space. Users have a hand tool called the “wand” that features a joystick for navigating and three buttons which can be programmed for interacting.
Originally, researchers tried bringing students into their virtual reality lab at the university, but they found their research had no validity because the children were not in an actual learning environment.
“We try to integrate [our studies] with the school curriculum,” Moher said, to ensure the learning is meaningful. The researchers plan to stay at Lincoln Elementary for the next three years to make sure the information they are collecting is accurate.
Most of their research is qualitative. “We watch a lot of kids do a lot of stuff,” Moher said.
One of the programs the researchers tested, called The Round Earth, taught first- and second-graders the concept that the earth is round.
“Telling a young child that the earth is spherical comes up against a lot of baggage the child carries around that the earth is flat,” Johnson said.
Using virtual reality, the researchers put the children on an asteroid to demonstrate what it was like to walk on a spherical body. The students thought they would fall off, Moher said.
Before the students took part in the program, researchers asked them to describe their understanding of the earth’s shape through drawings, conversation, and clay. After their participation in the Round Earth program, the researchers gave them the same test a day or two later, and again four months later.
“Our initial Round Earth work suggests that the combination of the virtual reality experience and discussion afterward was valuable in changing the ‘flat earthers’ into ‘spherical earthers,'” Johnson said. “In all of this work, we don’t see virtual reality acting alone. It’s a teacher using virtual reality that promotes learning.”
Another part of their research, called QuickWorlds, focuses on teachers’ requests for 3-D models to use for teaching their curriculum. QuickWorlds gives the researchers an understanding of the various ways teachers can incorporate virtual reality technology into their lessons.
Since virtual reality is still in the development stage, Moher said, the researchers have to create software programs as they go along. In a week or so, they can build interactive, animated, three-dimensional models.
“Teachers have always used models,” Moher said. “Some are too big to fit in the classroom.”
The physical education teacher asked for a model of a heart that demonstrates blood flow to replace her traditional method of teaching the concept, which involved students carrying blood cells—which were really dodge balls—through heart chambers that she mapped out on paper on the gym floor, Johnson said.
The difficulty in producing virtual worlds varies according to the level of interaction that the program requires. The QuickWorlds, which are relatively easy to develop, have limited interaction, but users can walk around them and manipulate them.
“Kids can cut through the heart and see the internal structure from whatever angle they choose,” Johnson said. “The heart, the bones of the inner ear, et cetera, are hard to see in 2-D and make much more sense when you see them moving appropriately in 3-D.”
Other models the researchers have created for the teachers include a spinning solar system, an iceberg, an ant, and a volcano. Using virtual reality, the possibilities for scientific learning are endless, Moher said.
“A kid living in Chicago can’t experience hills, outer space, or the Arctic,” he said. With virtual reality, these environments can be simulated effectively, and children can practice making observations, counting, or searching for things.
“Not everyone can visit a Greek temple, and nobody can go back in time to see that Greek temple when it was just completed,” Johnson said, but “virtual reality can give us a taste of that.”
The technology relies on the concept that learning is better when students actually see and experience a concept, rather than talking about it or looking at it in a book. Virtual reality can provide the same sensations as doing and seeing, because it is interactive.
Considering the technology is still in an experimental stage, Moher said, the researchers have had a number of problems with the equipment. Installing it in the school was difficult.
“It’s heavy and big, and the school didn’t have any elevators,” Moher said. They’ve also had to overcome problems with power, cooling, and lighting.
The researchers needed a dark space to operate the ImmersaDesk—and that wasn’t easy to find in a school. They had to hang dark curtains.
Finding a location to house the virtual reality unit also was a problem. “The school is crushed for space,” Moher said. The room it occupies also holds reference books and special education lessons.
The researchers found scheduling with teachers to be trying, as was getting permission from parents to allow their children to participate. One of the side effects of virtual reality is that it can induce queasiness, similar to motion sickness.
“Your body tells you you’re standing still, but your eyes are telling you you’re moving,” Moher said. Of 150 students tested so far, only one has vomited, he reported.
The researchers who operate the machinery have to be sensitive to children who start swaying or adjusting their glasses a lot. Before each session, the researchers remind students that they might get sick and what the warning signs are.
There are other virtual reality learning experiments going on across the country, but the experiment at Abraham Lincoln School is the only one focused on elementary school applications, Moher said.
Abraham Lincoln School
University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory
Round Earth Project
FakeSpace Systems Inc.