School leaders attending the second annual eSchool Technology Conference and Exposition were treated to tools and strategies designed to make their schools more efficient, their management of technology more effective, and their teachers better equipped to face the challenges of teaching in the 21st century.

The conference, held Oct. 2 through 4 in Orlando, drew hundreds of technology coordinators and other key decision makers charged with purchasing and managing technology for their schools. Produced by eSchool News and co-sponsored by Follett Software Co., the event gave attendees a unique chance to learn from 24 sessions in three program tracks: Leadership and Vision, Integration and Development, and Methods and Management.

Among the topics covered were strategies for recruiting and retaining top-notch technology staff, calculating total cost of ownership, making the web an integral part of school communications, and integrating technology into the 21st-century curriculum.

The conference also featured a “Blue Ribbon” Technology Exposition, where 50 of the world’s leading school technology companies exhibited their products. (A complete description of each exhibitor follows this story.) The highlight of the exposition was a state-of-the-art Command Center, produced by JDL Technologies, in which attendees got a “sneak peek” at how the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), which soon will allow different software applications to “talk” to each other regardless of their manufacturers, will make their jobs easier.

The initiative’s goal is to reduce the amount of time that staff members-from teachers and administrators to office clerks-spend entering and managing data by allowing information to flow seamlessly between software programs used by different departments and even schools. Nearly 100 companies have signed on to incorporate the new SIF specification into their K-12 products.

Participating in the live demonstration at the conference were NCS Pearson, which develops student information systems; School-Link Network, which produces a universal student ID card program called myCard@School; Follett Software, which makes library automation software; and SNAP Systems, maker of food service software.

Attendees could enter their personal information into NCS’s SASIxp software and get a bar-coded photo ID badge courtesy of the myCard@School system. Waving the badge under a bar-code reader connected to a PC running Follett’s Circulation Plus software called up attendees’ library account information automatically.

Likewise, scanning the ID card using a computer running SNAP’s WinSNAP software automatically brought up attendees’ accounts on the screen, ready to be adjusted by adding to or subtracting from their (hypothetical) food service credit.

SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 was released in June by the SIF Working Group, a subset of the Software and Information Industry Association. Though conference attendees were able to view the standard in action, no SIF-compliant products yet exist on the market, as the SIF Working Group still must develop a process for reviewing new products to ensure they are SIF-compliant.

The ‘online purchasing revolution’

Keeping with the theme of saving schools money while making their internal processes more efficient, keynote speaker Lamar Alexander told attendees how his company aims to save schools $10 billion in the next five years by transferring the procurement process to the internet.

A former Tennessee governor, education secretary, and United States presidential candidate, Alexander is co-founder and chairman of Simplexis, one of many online purchasing companies that cater to schools. Like its competitors-which include eschoolmall.com, DemandStar.com, and Epylon.com-Simplexis aims to streamline school purchasing by providing side-by-side comparisons of products and services online, eliminating the bureaucratic red tape that currently exists in the purchasing process, and becoming a single source for everything a school district needs to operate.

Alexander told attendees how, as education secretary, he fought for legislation to reduce class sizes and set tougher standards in the classroom. Now, as an entrepreneur in the private sector, he has come to realize that “technology can do a better job of changing education than new laws can,” because it leaves educators in control.

“Companies like GE [General Electric] are saving up to 20 percent of their budgets by moving the purchasing process online,” Alexander said. “Our goal is to shift the billions of dollars that schools spend each year on paperwork into the classroom. … That, to me, is true education reform.”

In a breakout session titled “What You Should Demand from the Online Purchasing Revolution,” Simplexis Chief Executive Amar Singh was joined by eschoolmall.com Senior Vice President Mark Smith, Epylon.com founder and CEO Stephen George, and technology consultant and former superintendent in West Palm Beach, Fla., Joan Kowal in a discussion of what school leaders should look for in an online procurement solution. All agreed that the ability of such solutions to integrate seamlessly with a school district’s back-end accounting system is a key to their success.

Singh said his company has developed a software module called SimpleLink that addresses this need. Simplexis has partnered with Kirtley Technology Corp., a provider of information systems for schools and businesses, to customize its SimpleLink module to each school district client’s existing software.

The company’s first success story is the Rockford, Ill., Public School District, which now enjoys a seamless, transparent exchange of business operations data between its front-end online purchasing package and its back-office accounting and management software, Singh said.

Eschoolmall.com has had similar success with the Palisades School District in Pennsylvania, the company’s Smith said.

Integrating technology into instruction

Of course, the real business of schools is teaching and learning, and the question of how to use technology to improve the instructional opportunities for teachers and students was foremost on attendees’ minds.

General session speaker and noted technology consultant Ian Jukes kicked off the conference by summing up the difficulties school leaders face in integrating technology into instruction. He likened the process to “dancing on quicksand” because of the rapid change in new technologies.

“It’s not about hardware-it’s about headware, or mindset,” Jukes said. “We just can’t keep up if we focus on the technology itself.” Learning must drive the technology, he said, not the other way around; school leaders should focus on instructional tasks, not gadgets.

In a session titled “New Models for Your Districtwide Technology Planning and Software Management,” Robert Fox described how his nonprofit organization, the MINDS Institute, is supplying its member school districts with access to interactive lesson plans and a video archive of more than 1,600 clips for use in the classroom.

MINDS, which stands for Multimedia Instructional Network Delivery System, is an educator-driven nonprofit that started regionally by taking advantage of the high-speed Ohio Regional Network backbone to deliver video content to that state’s schools. The project is now open to all K-12 schools nationally. “The idea is that we don’t want Turner or Disney to own all the content-we want educators to own it,” said Fox, who is the group’s director of marketing.

Through the MINDS portal site, member districts have access to the group’s complete video-on-demand archive. Teachers can take their classes on a virtual field trip to the Atlanta Zoo or visit NASA to learn how space affects global weather patterns. They can create a multimedia instructional unit that brings the civil rights movement alive with actual sounds and sights from the period.

The MINDS portal gives teachers the ability to search for relevant video clips, download these clips into a “virtual backpack,” edit them to extract only the highlights they would like to show in class, and create a shortcut they can use to launch the video from their own computer instantly, giving rise to a “teachable moment.”

“With MINDS, schools don’t have to capture, organize, index, manage, or distribute video themselves-it’s all done for them,” Fox said. “This allows schools to focus on the tasks of teaching and learning.”

To join the MINDS consortium, districts must pay a yearly fee that varies according to the size of a district and how much content of its own it can contribute to the MINDS database. In this way, the MINDS collection grows with each new member. Districts must have at least a T1 line connecting their buildings to take advantage of the group’s content, Fox said.

Another key to successful technology integration is knowing what your teachers’ classroom needs are. In the final general session of the conference, two university-level researchers described a project they are working on to give school districts a simple way to survey their teachers’ needs over the internet.

Elliot Soloway, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, and Cathleen Norris, a University of North Texas professor and president of the National Educational Computing Association, have developed a “Snapshot Survey” service that is available to K-12 districts at no charge. The service can be tailored to a district’s individual needs and lets participating districts poll teachers at their own convenience on a web site hosted by the Snapshot Survey team, allowing for instant feedback.

Survey results can be used to help define school district policy and set priorities. For example, a survey of Nebraska teachers conducted over 10 days in February revealed that science teachers in the state have more computers in their classrooms than other teachers, but do not use them any more frequently; math teachers still need compelling reasons to use technology in their instruction; and technology-mature teachers need more time to change their curriculum, while technology novices need more training in how to use the technology itself.

The results of the Nebraska survey will be used to target professional development of the state’s teachers according to each group’s specific needs.

Soloway also highlighted a free collection of 4,300 safe, focused web sites for middle-grade students, called the Middle Years Digital Library (MYDL). Developed by the University of Michigan, MYDL “eliminates wasted time in searching for relevant web sites,” he said.

The eSchool Technology Conference and Exposition was co-sponsored by Follett Software Co., with additional support from eschoolmall.com, JDL Technologies, Simplexis, DemandStar.com, Riverdeep Interactive Learning (a provider of interactive curriculum materials via CD-ROM and the web), and HostLogic (a managed application provider of school enterprise solutions over the internet). For more information about the conference, see the web site below.

Links:

eSchool Technology Conference and Exposition
http://www.eschoolnews.org/estc>

Follett Software Co.
http://www.fsc.follett.com

Schools Interoperability Framework
http://www.sifinfo.org

JDL Technologies
http://www.jdltech.com

NCS Pearson
http://www.ncs.com

School-Link Network
http://www.ncs.com

SNAP Systems
http://www.snapsystems.com

Simplexis
http://www.simplexis.com

eschoolmall.com
http://www.eschoolmall.com

DemandStar.com
http://www.demandstar.com

Epylon.com
http://www.epylon.com

MINDS Institute
http://www.mindsnet.com

Snapshot Survey
http://snapshotsurvey.org

Middle Years Digital Library
http://www.webartemis.org

Riverdeep Interactive Group
http://www.riverdeep.net

HostLogic
http://www.hostlogic.com

Companies of the “Blue Ribbon” eSchool Technology Exposition

AdventureOnline.com demonstrated its web-based learning adventures, which are grounded in real-world travels such as dog-sledding expeditions and trips down the Nile river, as well as its standards and assessment tools for K-12 teachers. Used by more than 3,000 schools nationwide, AdventureOnline.com helps students in grades 1 through 6 learn reading, math, social studies, and science through interactive puzzles and projects. The company announced a limited-time special offer of $98 per year for a classroom subscription, and site licenses also are available. AdventureOnline.com also includes a free 30-day trial period for teachers to evaluate the site. http://www.adventureonline.com

American School Directory demonstrated its free internet tools for school districts, including its school web site hosting and fund-raising services. http://www.asd.com

Audio Enhancement displayed its classroom amplification systems, which improve student attention and give teachers more control over their classroom environment. The company’s latest system uses infrared technology instead of radio waves to amplify teachers’ voices. Audio Enhancement says its infrared system cuts down on outside interference because it does not need different frequencies for each microphone-yet it doesn’t sacrifice performance, either, as there are enough reflective surfaces inside a classroom for the infrared signal to work without a true line of sight to the receiver. http://www.audioenhancement.com

AWS Convergence Technologies Inc. demonstrated its WeatherNet service, which allows schools to incorporate technology into the curriculum through real-world applications. Schools use the company’s AirWatch system to track local weather conditions and report them in real time to the national School Weather Network. The newest component of the system is InstaCam, a digital camera that records live and time-lapsed images of weather conditions and broadcasts them over the network, helping all types of learners. AWS also introduced WeatherBug, a free application that, when downloaded to a desktop computer, provides users with real-time weather data for their zip code. The application, which contains no advertising, can be used as a school fund-raising project; by promoting it within the community, schools can earn up to $2,000 if 2,000 or more members of the community download the WeatherBug to their computers. http://www.aws.com
http://www.weatherbug.com/schools

AXEL displayed its line of thin-client solutions, including the new VNCviewer, which was just introduced in September. The VNCviewer allows for graphical remote display and is based on VNC (virtual network computing) architecture. Unlike Citrix, VNC is an open protocol, making the VNCviewer a low-cost solution because there is no licensing fee for its thin-client architecture. The VNCviewer, which works in virtually any server environment, comes with built-in Ethernet connectivity and sells for about $300. http://www.axel-tech.com

BASCOM demonstrated its server-based filtering solution and its Global Chalkboard internet productivity tool. The BASCOM product sits between the internet and a school’s server, acting as a proxy server that caches frequently-requested web sites. Users can choose from among four “Learning Zones,” or levels of access that students will be given to the web: Internet, for unlimited access; Research, which uses Cyber Patrol’s CyberNOT list to filter objectionable content; School, which limits students to the 10,000 hand-picked educational sites in BASCOM’s Global Chalkboard database; or Lesson, which limits students to sites chosen in advance by the teacher for a particular assignment. Global Chalkboard is intended to represent the very best of the web; its sites are organized in a pyramidal structure, so that within five “clicks,” students will be able to find what they are looking for. The sites contain no advertising, and BASCOM also offers built-in online training and sample internet lesson plans. The solution is available for a one-time set-up fee of $7,000 to $10,000, plus a yearly subscription of about $2 per student, which includes daily updates to the list of objectionable sites and daily archival back-up. http://www.bascom.com

ChildU demonstrated The Learning Odyssey, a comprehensive, individualized curriculum for students in grades 1 to 8 delivered entirely over the internet. Its hundreds of learning activities for each grade meet state and national standards and are enhanced with web links, animations, and audio and video clips. Because they are internet-based, the materials are available from home or from school. http://www.childu.com

Classroll.com introduced its web-based classroom management system, which allows teachers to post and maintain students’ grades, attendance, lesson plans, homework, discipline, and other bulletins online at a secure site hosted by the company. Parents have round-the-clock, password-protected access to this information in real time. Classroll.com markets its product as a district-wide solution, and the company is working with three states to implement its service as a statewide solution. A six-month free introductory offer ends in mid-November; after that, the service will be available for a one-time fee. http://www.classroll.com

Command Software Systems exhibited its integrated network and computer security solutions and antivirus software designed to defend schools’ mission-critical data against malicious code threats. http://www.commandcom.com

DDC Publishing displayed its step-by-step tutorial workbooks, Quick Reference Guides, and Visual Reference Basics for mastering or teaching the internet, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Windows, and other software and technologies. http://www.ddcpublishing.com

DemandStar.com exhibited its free online purchasing and procurement system for school districts and other government entities. The DemandStar system, which is in use in 24 states and more than 150 agencies, can handle all goods and services that an agency acquires through a mandatory bid process. An online quote system, which would enable school districts to send out queries by eMail and receive an automatic tabulation of results, was scheduled for release in October. http://www.demandstar.com

Edmin.com demonstrated its Virtual EDucation System, a suite of internet-based software modules that allow schools to manage and report student progress as aligned with district and state standards. One feature of the system lets students see how their work compares to the class average, for example; another feature creates a digital portfolio, in which students can store authentic examples of their class work online. Parents and teachers have secure, password-protected access to their children’s or classes’ information, and district administrators can see at a glance what is working and what isn’t, helping them make strategic decisions about their schools. http://www.edmin.com

Enterprises Computing Services Inc. (ECS) previewed S.H.O.T.S. (Student Health Online Tracking System), a secure, web-based system for tracking and reporting students’ immunization records. Using the system, school building-level administrators will be able to manage their school immunization certificates easily through simple input screens that have same look and feel as each state’s required certificates. District-level administrators will be able to view any school’s immunization standing, run immunization status reports for any school in the district, and maintain a list of valid users of the system. Parents will have secure, view-only access to their child’s immunization records and will be able to view all family records with a single log-on. The system is expected to be released in November. ECS also demonstrated e-D3, a data warehousing solution for school districts; eGrants Manager, a grants management system; and Asset Manager, a facility asset tracking and management system. http://www.ecs-eduk12.com

eschoolmall.com exhibited its online procurement systems for school districts. The company also announced that it has signed three more key vendors: Didax, which publishes books, manipulatives, and software for math, reading, science, and art; Maintenance Warehouse, a leading supplier of maintenance, repair, and replacement products to schools; and GesslerQ, a publisher of innovative language learning materials. These suppliers have joined eschoolmall.com’s 20,000-name vendor directory, which the company calls “the largest of its kind in the country.” http://www.eschoolmall.com

Follett Software Co. previewed Find-It-All, a new add-on feature to its Catalog Plus library automation software that will enable students and staff to perform a single, simultaneous search of every information database a school or district subscribes to while avoiding time-consuming, repetitive searches. Find-It-All will be available with the next release of Catalog Plus (version 4.2), which is scheduled for November. Follett also announced an agreement with netLibrary, one of the premier providers of electronic texts, or eBooks, over the internet. The agreement will allow K-12 libraries to purchase eBooks for their collections through Follett Library Resources and also to integrate eBooks into their daily operations through Follett’s library automation software. http://www.fsc.follett.com

Forest Technologies displayed its educational software, print products, and internet tools designed to enrich learning, enhance discovery, teach thinking skills, and increase teacher productivity. Combining its intimate knowledge of the educational industry and a vast array of important contacts, the company adds value to, markets, sells, and distributes products in partnership with multimedia developers such as the Discovery Channel, Educational Insights, National Geographic, Scholastic Software, Simon & Schuster Interactive, and others. http://www.foresttech.com

Get A Clue Software, a division of Lyceum Communications LLC, announced that its innovative vocabulary programs are now available over the internet in addition to CD-ROM. The Get a Clue Vocabulary Development Series is based on the company’s patented system for teaching vocabulary, called WATS (Words and their Stories), and includes a teacher’s module with complete assessment and tracking capabilities. The web-based edition is available to schools, school districts, and home users on a subscription basis. http://www.getaclue.com

GollyGee Software introduced its first product, GollyGee Blocks, a three-dimensional creativity tool for children ages 6 to 12 that lets children create their own 3-D worlds using traditional building block shapes and a library of pre-made objects. Intuitive editing tools let kids move, stretch, rotate, stack, copy, color, and texture the blocks, as well as view them from any angle. Scenes can be saved, printed, and sent over the internet. The company said it would post a 15-lesson outline of suggestions for using the software to teach math and spatial concepts on its web site by the end of October and is looking for pilot schools to test the product in their classrooms. Educators who are interested in taking part in the pilot are encouraged to contact the company directly. http://www.gollygee.com

GVOX demonstrated its NotationStation.net online music portal, a free and easy-to-use web site that enables teachers and students to create and compose music online without having to purchase notation software. By signing up for a personalized class site, music teachers can post their lessons on the web; students can access these lessons 24 hours a day using a private class code. Another benefit is the Lesson Library, which allows users to search-and add to-the vast archive of lessons posted by other educators at NotationStation.net. The site also lets students post their compositions and homework instantly to their class site for review. The Class Roster automatically keeps track of all students logging into a class and all of their submissions. http://www.notationstation.net

HostLogic demonstrated its SchoolSmart enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for school districts, a web-based package hosted by the company that includes everything needed for a K-12 school system to access enterprise software without a large up-front investment. SchoolSmart is a pre-packaged, fully scalable, SAP-based solution that ties a district’s business systems together-from accounting to payroll to human resources-and delivers them over the internet, eliminating the need for the district to deploy the software itself. School districts pay per user, per month, for the service-but they don’t have to pay until the system goes live, so there are no out-of-pocket expenses. http://www.hostlogic.com

ICONIX International previewed Version 5 of its UserNet network management software for the education market. UserNet provides tools for customizing internet access and managing all users, groups, and software installations from a single software package. Its Safexplorer browsing technology allows teachers to bring focus to students’ internet experiences by locking students into relevant content; this content can be teacher-configured, or teachers can use the company’s list of “safe” sites. UserNet’s PictureTaker application is an easy tool for installing or distributing Windows-based software across a local or wide area network. Version 5 also adds directory management capabilities, which allow school network administrators to manage individual accounts across an entire district instead of on a server-by-server basis. Version 5 of UserNet is expected to be released at the end of October. http://www.iconix.com

Iomega Corp. displayed its Zip and Jaz lines of storage devices, which greatly enhance the removable storage capacity of laptop and desktop computers. The company’s most recent products are a 250 megabyte (MB) Zip drive that plugs into a computer’s USB port, making it both Mac- and PC-compatible; the PocketZip PC Card drive, which fits directly into a PC card slot on most laptop computers and runs PocketZip disks that can store up to 40 MB of data; and the HipZip Digital Audio Player, which downloads and plays MP3 music files on PocketZip disks, which sell for a fraction of the cost of flash memory cards. http://www.iomega.com

iSolute.com introduced iSoluteClassroom, a web-based communication tool for teachers that officially launches Nov. 6. The company has created a shell of a classroom web site, which teachers can customize using simple templates that do not require knowledge of hypertext markup language (HTML) to complete. Safety and security are the company’s priorities, according to Heidi Dill, manager of web applications; before parents can get access, they have to return a Child Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) compliance form, which indicates they understand that student information cannot be collected over the internet without their permission. Every page of iSoluteClassroom is password-protected, and each parent has a unique username and password for private viewing of their children’s grades, photos, etc. The service even includes a feature by which parents will be able to give permission for field trips and other events over the internet through an online permission slip. Dill said iSolute.com will send employees out to a school to make sure data can be imported automatically from the school’s existing gradebook and attendance system to the iSoluteClassroom pages, so teachers will not have to enter data twice. The iSoluteClassroom sites will be ad-free; the company will charge a monthly subscription fee of $10 per classroom, but schools will get a three-week trial period first. http://www.isolute.com

JDL Technologies highlighted its Infrastructure Acres program, a complete, eight-step school network solution that includes analysis, planning, design, procurement, installation, training, implementation, and support. JDL also assembled the Schools Interoperability Framework demonstration in the exposition’s Command Center and managed the entire show’s computer network from its network operating center (NOC), running Hewlett-Packard’s OpenView and CastleRock’s SNMPc network management software to monitor each vendor’s internet connection. http://www.jdltech.com

MeshworX spotlighted its seamless, single-point-of-contact solution for internet service, filtering, caching, web and standards-based curriculum authoring and assessment tools, content, and application services. In collaboration with its sister company, Safesites, MeshworX is building what it calls the country’s first dedicated, high-speed, “education only” K-12 network. Safe from inappropriate material and free of commercial advertising, Safesites offers teachers, students, parents, and administrators a customized, efficient way to use the internet as a tool for learning, the company said. http://www.meshworx.com

N2H2 Inc. demonstrated the Learning Zone, a new area on its Searchopolis education resource center that delivers educational content and learning activities from leading content providers, such as Riverdeep Interactive Learning, AdventureOnline.com, and MathRealm.com. This content is provided at no extra charge to schools that use Searchopolis and N2H2’s Bess filtering solution. http://www.n2h2.com

NCS Pearson, formerly National Computer Systems Inc., demonstrated its hardware, software, and application services for the K-12 market, which include tools for student and financial records management, instructional and curriculum management, electronic document management, and parent-school communications. The company also demonstrated its NovaNet comprehensive online courseware system, which offers more than 10,000 hours of fully interactive, standards-based curricula, as well as integrated assessment and testing tools and student management and recordkeeping features. http://www.ncs.com

Network Data Services Inc. (NDS) highlighted its complete line of network installation, design, and maintenance services for K-12 school districts nationwide. http://www.ndservices.com

Nextel Communications, a worldwide leader in wireless personal communications, displayed its 4-in-1 business solution, which integrates all-digital cellular service, text and numeric paging capabilities, Direct Connect digital two-way messaging (which enables users of Nextel Plus phones to send, receive, and reply to short text messages wirelessly over the internet), and Nextel Online wireless internet services. http://www.nextel.com

Numonics Corp.’s Interactive Products Division showcased its Interactive Presentation Manager (IPM), an all-in-one digital presentation tool that is perfect for the integration of content-rich, attention-keeping