ZapMe! ‘free computer labs’ could prove costly for schools

Thousands of schools might be left in the lurch thanks to a change in direction at ZapMe!, a company that made headlines in 1998 with its promise to supply schools with free computer labs in exchange for advertising on student desktops. According to earlier company statements, more than 5,000 schools signed up.

With none of the fanfare the company used to usher in its controversial program, ZapMe! has ceased providing new computer equipment to schools and is warning it might have to remove installed equipment or charge those schools that accepted its offer in the past.

Company representatives promised not to charge for the installed computers until they have exhausted all other potential sources of funding for the equipment.

Rumblings that the too-good-to-be-true deal was coming undone began to be heard in early October, when Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd. acquired 51 percent of ZapMe!’s approximately 44.3 million outstanding shares at $2.32 per share.

That transaction marked the beginning of the end for free school computer labs. The restructuring also reduced the ZapMe! workforce from 180 to 138 employees.

In a company statement dated October 3, ZapMe! announced that the company “plans to begin reducing its emphasis on the free-service business model,” and intends to focus on a new fee-based model and on commercial and public markets.

The statement assured current users that “currently served schools will continue to receive internet service, although going forward, the company will discontinue the installation of free computer labs for schools.”

But a few schools already had the PCs on-site and were merely awaiting installation. Officials from a high school in Plainfield, Conn., told the New York Times the change in corporate strategy has proved both disappointing and costly for that school.

Plainfield High School had already received a free satellite dish and a server, to be connected to the ZapMe! network. All that was left at Plainfield was to hook the system up.

According to the company, the Plainfield district superintendent received an eMail message from a ZapMe! employee, saying that the Plainfield High School would not be receiving the free computer lab, as promised.

Instead the company would give the school several choices. First, administrators could elect to pay for the installation and hardware they had been promised for free—in that case, they could wait a while and determine exactly how much that would cost the district—or they could ship the computers back to ZapMe!

“It was quite a shock,” Superintendent Mary Conley told the Times. Plainfield had spent $4,000 to prepare the computer room for the new lab.

“Losing money like that could be a devastating blow, depending on the availability of funding at that school. I know we could not afford to waste even one dollar to a wrong decision,” said Ted Maddock, technology director at El Diablo High School in Concord, Calif. El Diablo was one of the first districts in the country to adopt ZapMe!

“If we had to pay for the service [that was previously free through ZapMe!] it [would mean] we would have to take the lab out. Even with California’s Digital High School initiative, I still don’t think we’ll have the money to pay for the lab we have now,” said Maddock.

The new corporate strategy was only one of the changes at ZapMe! The change of corporate ownership also involved a reorganization of the company’s leadership. On October 9, the board of directors announced that Lance Mortensen was appointed CEO and Rick Inatome was named chairman of the board. Previously, Mortensen was chairman, and Inatome CEO.

“Although the company is no longer focused on my passion, education, I will enjoy supporting Lance as he leads the company in this important new direction,” said Inatome.

Despite ZapMe!’s assurance that currently served schools will not be discontinued, Mortensen can make no promises about the continuation of free services.

“After we have exhausted many opportunities, including—but not limited to—partnerships, joint ventures, the outright sale of the network, foundations, government grants, and other alternative options, only then will we have to make some difficult decisions,” he said.

“The goal is to never have to remove equipment or charge schools anything, but frankly, if we are unsuccessful in finding an alternative solution, we can’t promise them we won’t have to present schools with some options,” said Mortensen.

“If that is the case, we may have to have schools pay for the service, or we will understand, and we’ll take back the equipment for them,” he added.

These developments are only the latest in the controversies surrounding the company. ZapMe! has long been the subject of heated disagreements over its business model, which promised free computers labs to schools, with a catch.

The free labs were granted in return for placing advertisements in the lower left-hand corner of ZapMe!’s browser, an action that spurred both educators and activists to protest the commercialization.

According to Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert , a Washington D.C consumer advocacy group affiliated with Ralph Nader, “The breadth of the coalition against ZapMe! was notable. Right, left, and everyone in between thought ZapMe! was a terrible business model.”

Commercial Alert believes that ZapMe! put children at dangerous risk of exposure to commercial advertising and compromised their education.

Not so, argues El Diablo’s Maddock.

“I never saw commercialism as a threat. To be honest, the kids were not interested in surfing ads. That target audience was just not as good as ZapMe! thought it would be,” he said.

“I am extremely disappointed and saddened that our critics considered our business model inappropriate, but I don’t think that schools ever did,” said Mortensen. “We got thousands of schools hooked up to the internet, and yes, our advertisers did underwrite that cost.”

The breaking point may have come when ZapMe! proposed a ZapPoints program, which would have collected personal information about the kids accessing the online ads and sharing summaries of that information with advertisers.

“Those computer labs weren’t free,” said activist Ruskin. “Violating the privacy of school children is a high cost.”

But the ZapPoints program, according to the company, never came to fruition.

“We never violated anyone’s privacy. Commercial Alert called what were trying to do ‘borderline child abuse,’ but we never took a name, an address, or a phone number from any child. It is just ridiculous,” said Mortensen. “We even had Pricewaterhouse Coopers come in and do a privacy audit. Yahoo! and Microsoft don’t even do that.”

“To my knowledge ZapMe! never did use any tracking information. All they had was a ZIP code, the user’s gender, and age,” agreed Maddock.

Maddock has his own ideas about why ZapMe! has had to change its business model.

“I don’t think the business model was as viable as they thought. It is part of the shakeout in the whole dot-com industry. I’m sure the bad press also had some effect. The sharks were definitely out,” he added.

Mortensen places the responsibility for ZapMe!’s demise squarely on the shoulders of groups like Commercial Alert.

“I’d actually like to congratulate our critics for a job well done. They have successfully helped remove technology from our schools. That does not benefit anyone. All they are doing is hurting kids by not providing them with access to information,” said Mortensen.

Whoever was responsible for the change in ZapMe!’s model, schools will be the ones to suffer, educators agree.

“The program meant a lot for us. It meant that a school that previously had no internet connection could allow teachers to take their classes to the lab and do high-speed, high-quality internet research for the last three years,” said Maddock .

Links:

ZapMe!
http://www.zapme.com

Commercial Alert
http://www.essential.org/alert/

Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd.
http://www.gilat.com/gilat/

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Porn files on supe’s laptop led to abrupt resignation

More than a month after the abrupt, previously unexplained resignation of their new superintendent, taxpayers of the Hamilton Southeastern School District in Fishers, Ind., found out what happened.

Sexually explicit documents, described by the school district as “male porn images,” were discovered last August along with other explicit images of both sexes on the district laptop computer used by then-superintendent Robert Herrold, the Associated Press (AP) reported. A member of the district’s technology staff reportedly discovered the material while servicing the superintendent’s computer.

Herrold resigned just 11 weeks after he’d assumed the superintendency, but both he and his school board refused to offer any explanation except to say Herrold had violated the district’s internet policy.

It took a county prosecutor’s inquiry, Freedom of Information actions by two newspapers, and the ruling of the state’s public access counselor to pry loose the rest of the story. Superintendent Herrold has declined to comment, and the Hamilton Southeastern school board initially sought to avoid explaining what happened by saying it was a personnel matter and, thus, exempt from the state’s public access laws.

In his resignation letter, Herrold said he regretted leaving the post and apologized to school board members “for all of the trouble and embarrassment I have caused.”

Asked why he was leaving, Herrold declined to explain. “I think silence is best,” he told the local press. He denied he had used school computers for gambling but refused to comment further when asked if he had accessed sexually related material.

The district’s internet policy prohibits handling sexually explicit material; accessing another person’s eMail; or violating copyright laws, among other rules.

When news organizations in Indiana requested access to the computer files, the school board instead asked county prosecutor, Sonia Leerkamp to launch an inquiry to determine whether criminal wrongdoing had occurred. Ultimately, Leerkamp determined the superintendent had done nothing illegal, then she too refused to comment further.

Two days after Leerkamp was asked to investigate, police impounded two computers from the school district and turned them over to a federal crime lab. The Daily Ledger of Fishers and the Indianapolis Star filed Freedom of Information requests with the school district following the superintendent’s resignation.

After Leerkamp announced that no criminal charges would be filed, the newspapers again requested the files, and Anne O’Connor, the state’s public access counselor, was called in to decide whether the records were to be considered public or private. All parties in the matter, including Herrold, agreed to abide by O’Connor’s decision.

The school district’s attorney, Brad Cook, had said previously that release of the records would have a devastating impact on Herrold’s reputation. Cook argued that the documents were personal and therefore could not be released to the public.

Said Interim Superintendent Charles Leonard, “We think this may fall in the ‘personal records’ area.” Regardless, O’Connor ruled Oct. 27 that the internet records must be made public.

“Information that constitutes the electronic evidence of access to internet sites on a public agency’s equipment is a public record,” O’Connor wrote. “There is no exception to disclosure making this information either confidential or otherwise nondisclosable.”

Leonard began making the information public moments after he was informed of O’Connor’s statement. Herrold used a school-owned laptop computer to view sexually explicit material over a period of about one-week in August, according to documents released by the district, AP reported.

School officials released 198 pages of material that included records of web sites visited, computer “cookies” and the contents of Herrold’s “my documents” folder. Cookies are small data files that contain information about the computer’s interaction with the internet. The files are stored on the machine’s hard drive and are accessed when the user connects to a web site.

School business manager Mike Reuter said there is no way to tell which of the various sites Herrold actually visited. All sites linked to a particular web page viewed by Herrold would appear on the document, Reuter said, whether Herrold visited the links or not.

A school technology employee discovered the files in August when he was working on another problem with the school computers, Assistant Superintendent Rich Hogue said.

“No one has examined each one of these sites,” said Hogue. A school district employee reportedly had viewed one site to confirm it was in violation of the district’s internet-use policy.

Mike Peterson, president of the school board, was notified of Herrold’s possible internet-policy violation in August. Peterson said administrators then learned of rumors in the community about Herrold’s internet activity. He said officials feared people would contact the newsmedia with their suspicions.

“Everything was starting to come out; it appeared it would become public,” Peterson said. “I called the meeting quickly because I didn’t want it to become public before the board had an opportunity to discuss it.” He said the tone at the Sept. 18 emergency meeting “was shock and surprise.”

“At that point we wanted to hear [Superintendent Herrold’s] explanation and see where it would go from there. The tone was not ‘We’re going to call him in and fire him.'”

But when Herrold was asked to join the emergency board meeting, Peterson said, “He said, ‘No, I won’t go in.'” Herrold then submitted his resignation, Peterson said.

Links:

Hamilton Southeastern Schools
http://www.hse.k12.in.us/

Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office
http://www.co.hamilton.in.us/Gov/Prose

Town of Fishers, Ind. Web Site
http://www.fishers.in.us/

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eSN Special Focus: Disposing of school computers, school hardware components can threaten environment

With the influx of new computer equipment into the nation’s schools, district officials face a new and perplexing problem: what to do with piles of broken or obsolete electronic equipment.

Several states—most notably Massachusetts, in March of this year—have passed laws banning computer equipment from landfills. That means districts that used to put their old CPUs, monitors, and peripherals out on the curb for the trash collector have to come up with creative solutions to deal with an increasing amount of obsolete, broken, or unusable equipment.

According to Bill Sheehan, director of the Grassroots Recycling Network in Athens, Ga., “There is more toxic material in computers than most people realize—five or six pounds of lead in monitors. If that goes into a landfill and seeps into the groundwater, it can cause mental retardation and other serious health problems.”

If significant amounts of lead were to enter the water supply, it could cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system, and kidneys in humans, environmentalists say.

Cadmium, which can be found in chip resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductors, and older types of cathode ray tubes, easily can accumulate in amounts that could cause symptoms of poisoning. And the mercury found in batteries, switches, housing, and printed wiring boards also can cause chronic damage to the brain, according to environmental watchdog groups.

Accountability and environmental sustainability are now becoming watchwords for school technologists, who suddenly are forced to deal with an issue that used to fall under the jurisdiction of grounds and maintenance.

Said Pat Hartley, technology director for Evergreen School District in Washington, “There are good reasons why you can’t just throw computer equipment away. First, the landfills won’t take it anymore, and then there are political issues that arise if a school just discards old equipment. We’ve had to find other solutions.”

The problem

According to a report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), “Most consumers are unaware of the toxic materials in the products they rely on for word processing, data management, and access to the internet.”

SVTC is a nonprofit organization consisting of environmental and neighborhood groups, labor unions, public health leaders, and people affected by toxic exposure.

The SVTC web site explains that computer equipment can contain more than 1,000 materials, many of which are highly toxic, such as chlorinated and brominated substances, toxic gases, toxic metals, biologically active materials, acids, plastics, and plastic additives.

According to the organization, the health impact of these products often is not known, but all signs point to dangerous levels of toxicity in computer waste. Furthermore, the rapid pace of computer development enhances the problem.

“The fundamental dynamism of computer manufacturing that has transformed life in the second half of the 20th century—especially the speed of innovation—also leads to rapid product obsolescence. The average computer platform has a lifespan of less than two years, and hardware and software companies—especially Intel and Microsoft—constantly generate new programs that fuel the demand for more speed, memory, and power,” says the SVTC site.

Simply put, because computers become out of date so fast, there are a lot of them waiting to be disposed of.

According to Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), disposal of computer waste “is one area of specific concern, because the lifespan of a computer is less than the lifespan of most technology containing cathode-ray tubes. Most people will keep their television set longer than their computer.”

SVTC points out that it is often cheaper and more convenient to buy new computer technology than it is to spend time and money upgrading old equipment. According to the organization, “Three-quarters of all computers ever bought in the U.S. are sitting in people’s attics and basements because they don’t know what to do with them.”

There are also political concerns regarding old equipment.

“At Evergreen, we have very high computing standards, and we don’t deal with anything that’s not a Pentium or better,” said technology director Hartley. “But it is hard for a school district to turn away a donation from a community member, so we usually accept what they give us, knowing we will just have to turn around and get rid of it.”

Mary Miller is the district recycling coordinator for Pasco County Schools in Florida. “Some districts are just stockpiling computers in storage because they have to find a way to dispose of them as hazardous waste,” she said.

“The biggest challenge for schools is disposing of the old equipment in away that the community finds acceptable and responsible,” explained Hartley. “Believe me, we try and squeeze every drop out of our computers. High-tech companies change computers every 30 months. The average age of instructional computers at Evergreen is five years … The community has to accept the idea that technology does not last forever. It can really be a political nightmare.”

And dealing with old and broken equipment costs schools both time and money.

“It is really a lot of work to deal with. In order to ‘surplus out’ equipment at a school, that school has to send me a ‘disposition of property’ form, and we have to arrange to have it picked up,” Miller said. “You would not believe how much of it we deal with. Just about every day, a request comes across my desk to have some computer equipment picked up.”

Agreed Hartley, “We figure it costs between $75 and $150 to take a computer out of service. We have to take out the hard drive and demagnetize it so that no personal or sensitive information remains on it, which takes manpower, and then we have to store the old units somewhere.”

Solution one: auctioning

One possible solution for school technologists faced with dwindling budgets and looming piles of obsolete equipment is to auction off old computers to bidders in the community.

In 1998, eSchool News reported how the Arlington, Texas, School District raised $24,000 selling off old 386s and 486s to local families who could not afford newer models.

Texas auctioneer Tommy Lutes, who has been providing auctioning services to local school districts for decades, said a district like Arlington normally can bring in around $20,000 from a computer auction.

In 1998, Arlington did much better than the $15,000 it was anticipating, he said. Another area system, Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District, raised nearly $40,000 in an auction that year.

The majority of old equipment in Florida’s Pasco County Schools has been auctioned off over the last several years, according to technology director Miller. But what has worked in the past may not be a viable option much longer, she fears.

“The computers are so worn out by the time we send them that they can only be used for scrap, and our auctioneer does not want them, because he can’t sell them,” Miller said. “It has been increasingly difficult for our auctioneer to get rid of [the equipment] because the stuff we give him is either really obsolete or it has been cannibalized for parts.”

Florida was one of the first states to ban certain organizations from disposing of old computer equipment in landfills.

“It is a state law that our old computer equipment is considered hazardous waste because, as a school district, we are considered a ‘small quantity generator,'” Miller said. “A homeowner does not fall into that category, so they can throw their old televisions and equipment away, but we can’t.”

Evergreen’s Hartley says his district has always found takers for the old equipment—until recently, that is. He believes Evergreen will have to turn to a new solution for disposing of its old equipment in the near future.

“I think we will have to recycle soon because we will have no other choice,” he said. “Until now, we’ve found organizations willing to take our old stuff.”

Pasco County Schools also is considering the recycling option.

“We are looking at recycling, and I’ve collected some price quotes. I’m going to recommend to the school board that we recycle our equipment from now on,” Miller said. “If this works out, we hope to go with a local company that will do the recycling free of charge. This company will break the computers all the way down and make new computers out of the old materials. There is minimal hassle, because they come to pick [the machines] up.”

Solution two: recycling

There are several organizations willing to help schools with the disposal of old computers and peripherals.

One such group is the Computer Recycling Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. The center’s web site boasts that it “accepts all computer hardware of any age, working or not (yes, everything) and packaged/sealed software from individuals and companies.”

The Computer Recycling Center says its primary goal is “to keep electronic items out of the landfill, reuse the best, and recycle the rest.”

Organizations that donate old computer hardware or telecommunications equipment get a tax-deductible, 501(c)(3) charitable receipt from the center. This might be a consideration for some private schools.

According to Hartley, Evergreen likely will turn to an organization similar to the Computer Recycling Center in the future.

“In Oregon, a few hours away, there are recycling centers that take computers. They strip them down and send the parts overseas, where they are completely broken down and reused. It is just not cost-effective to pay someone to do that in the United States,” he explained.

Said Bill Sheehan of the Grassroots Recycling Network, “There are a lot of options that are state-specific or city-specific where [schools] can take their old computers.”

In states such as Massachusetts, where some computer equipment is totally banned from landfills, local organizations usually pay to have their equipment recycled.

“There are contracts schools can use that are state-subsidized,” said EPA’s Ferson. “I can’t say what it would cost, because cost depends on the amount of equipment being disposed of and what it is.”

The Grassroots Recycling Network, in conjunction with groups such as SVTC, is working on fundamental solutions to the problem of computer waste disposal.

“We want extended producer responsibility for waste, but there is a really strong resistance to it in the American business world,” Sheehan said. “We are way behind Europe and other countries. In this country, the producers just make whatever they want, and the local government and taxpayers pay what it takes to deal with the product at the end of its life. The taxpayer is really left holding the bag.”

Too true, agree officials at SVTC.

“In 1998 only six percent of computers were recycled, compared to the number of new computers put on the market that year. By the year 2004, experts estimate that we will have over 315 million obsolete computers in the U.S., many of which will be destined for landfills, incinerators, or hazardous waste exports,” states the SVTC web site.

The European Union is developing legislation, including “take-back” requirements and toxic materials phase-outs, that encourages cleaner product design and less waste. “To date no such initiative has occurred in North America and, in fact, the U.S. Trade Representative—at the request of the American electronics trade associations—is currently lobbying against this European Union initiative,” SVTC officials said.

Solution three: refurbishment

There are a few solutions outside of recycling that could extend the life of older computers or make them reusable.

“We can repurpose old equipment by saying, ‘This can no longer be a network computer, but we can still use it as a stand-alone machine for one program,'” Hartley suggests. “But there will still be the cost of finding replacement parts for older computers.”

Hartley also notes that Evergreen sometimes sends older computers to its vocational education department, where students break them down into parts and put them back together until they can’t be used any more.

“But, then again, we are still faced with what to do with the old parts,” he said.

Another option he suggested was using old equipment as a “thin client,” where all the actual computing goes on in a server and the user only sees pictures of those processes displayed on the older unit. Thin-client computing would enable school technologists to run advanced programs on computers that otherwise are incapable of handling them.

“Also, districts sometimes can give old equipment away to the community. We hope to be able to hold one-day refurbishment sessions where the recipients come in for a day and help refurbish the computers, then get to buy them at the end of the day for $1,” Hartley said.

Organizations that accept donations of older, broken machines sometimes can rebuild the donated machines and place them back into needy schools.

One Cleveland-area group, Computers for Education, does just that, with the bulk of its more than 4,000 refurbished computers going to inner-city schools.

That organization charges a small fee for reworked computers, depending on the quality of the refurbished machine. But, according to the group’s Kenneth Kovatch, all machines they sell are internet-ready and backed by a one-year warranty.

Even with a number of options available to educators, some fear the problems that come with keeping school networks up to date and responsibly disposing of outdated or broken machines have only just begun to surface.

Said Miller, “We’ve been hearing for something like three years that dealing with old computer equipment will be a very big issue, and now that time has come.”

Links:

Arlington Independent School District
http://www.arlington.k12.tx.u

Computer Recycling Center
http://www.crc.org

Evergreen School District
http://www.egreen.wednet.edu

Grassroots Recycling Network
http://www.grrn.org

Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District
http://www.hebisd.edu

Pasco County Schools
http://www.pasco.k12.fl.us/department.html

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
http://www.svtc.org

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Riley calls for more research, funding for school technology

As Congress continued to deliberate next year’s spending, Education Secretary Richard Riley repeated the Clinton administration’s call for an increase in federal funding to prepare teachers to use technology.

Although most teachers and students now have access to computers, Riley said, teachers still are not fully prepared to use them.

“We are asking Congress to double the funding—to $150 million—to help prepare [tomorrow’s] teachers to use technology,” he said. “Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t fully agreed to this increase. But it isn’t too late. In the next few weeks, they have another opportunity to fully fund this initiative.”

Riley’s comments came at the U.S. Department of Education’s annual Conference on Educational Technology, held Sept. 11 and 12 in Arlington, Va. During the conference, officials showcased promising practices and called for more research into what works and what doesn’t.

Riley, Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard, and keynote speaker Eric Benhamou, president and chief executive of 3Com Corp., released a study that shows how instrumental the eRate has been in helping connect most public schools—especially those in high-poverty areas—to the internet.

“eRate and the Digital Divide,” written by the Urban Institute, shows that the eRate has provided more than $3 billion for America’s public schools, three out of four public schools and districts applied for the program in its first two years, and per-pupil funding for high-poverty schools was more than twice the national average and nearly 10 times that of the wealthiest schools.

Despite the fact that the program targets the poorest schools, however, the most impoverished schools submitted the fewest applications. Larger districts and schools were more likely to apply than smaller ones, the study found.

Riley also announced the results of a second study, called “Teachers’ Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers’ Use of Technology,” which found that although most teachers have access to computers, only half use them for classroom instruction.

Based on information gathered from surveys conducted in 1999, this National Center for Education Statistics report found that teachers use computers mostly for word processing or creating spreadsheets, followed by internet research and practice drills.

Teachers were more likely to use a computer if it was located in their classroom, while students were most likely to use computers outside the classroom. Although 84 percent of teachers said they had at least one computer in their classroom, only 10 percent reported having more than five computers in their room.

According to the report, the two biggest barriers to using computers and the internet for instruction are lack of release time for teachers to learn how to integrate computers into the curriculum (82 percent) and lack of time in the schedule for students to use computers in class (80 percent).

Promising practices

Despite these challenges, pockets of innovation exist in schools around the country, Riley said. At the conference, students and educators from select schools demonstrated how they have learned to use technology to enhance classroom instruction.

Students from a Virginia-based organization called Kidz Online broadcast the entire two-day conference over the internet while nearly 600 participants listened and dined.

High school students from South Burlington, Vt., showed off digital graphics and animation they created in a course designed by English teacher Tim Comolli. In the course, students learn to use industry-standard graphic software like Adobe Photoshop.

Conference attendees gave two students from Mott Hall School in New York City a standing ovation after their speech about how technology has transformed the learning experience since every student and teacher at the school received a laptop computer.

“I became the [technology] expert in the family,” said 13-year-old Anthony Reyes in an interview. “My mom uses it. My whole family uses it. It’s cool.”

Besides helping him to be more organized and creative, Reyes said, his laptop brings information and resources right to his fingertips.

Mott Hall School commissioned a study of its laptop program by Metis Associates Inc. to see how it affects student achievement.

“Our research has proven significant improvement in writing, critical thinking, and research skills,” said Principal Mirian Acost-Sing.

At the conference, Microsoft Corp. also released a study of its Anytime Anywhere Learning program, in which all students in a school own laptops that use Microsoft software. After three years of the program, research done by Rockman et al suggests that students become better writers, collaborate more on group projects, and are more involved in their schoolwork.

The study also suggests that teachers who use laptops show greater confidence in using technology tools. But critics of the study point out that it was commissioned and funded by Microsoft and that it lacks hard figures to quantify its results.

Better evaluation needed

Though conference speakers and attendees shared anecdotal evidence of technology’s impact on learning, officials called for more extensive research on the topic. The need for more studies was underscored by a Sept. 12 press conference in nearby Washington, D.C., in which participants called for a moratorium on technology spending in younger grades until there is further proof of technology’s impact (see story, page 1).

Several speakers discussed tools they are developing to help measure the success of their technology programs.

Elliot Soloway, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, described a tool he and some colleagues are developing, called the Online Snapshot Survey, which allows schools to gather input from teachers and administrators by conducting an online survey so officials can make more informed decisions about technology.

“If you do a survey, you can get a sense of distribution in your district and where you should buy,” Soloway said. He said that once the web site is running, educators could choose from approximately 80 existing surveys or could make up their own.

Jim Nazworthy, of the High Plains Regional Technology in Education Consortium, discussed Profiler, a tool that surveys teachers to assess their professional development needs. It’s essentially a knowledge audit, he said. By taking the survey, teachers can assess their technology abilities, and Profiler helps them find someone at their school who can help them learn the skills they don’t know.

The Secretary’s Conference on Education Technology

http://www.ed.gov/Technology/techconf/2000

The eRate and the Digital Divide

http://www.ed.gov/offices/OUS/eval/erate_fr.pdf

Teachers’ Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers’ Use of Technology

http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2000102

The Online Snapshot Survey

http://snapshotsurvey.org

Profiler

http://profiler.scrtec.org

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Michigan to buy 91,000 computers for educators

In what might be the largest initiative of its kind, Michigan is buying 91,000 computers for its public school educators, and officials say deliveries will begin by year’s end.

State officials are seeking bids to purchase 83,000 laptop and 8,000 desktop computers with internet access. It’s part of the $110-million, one-time initiative approved by the Legislature last summer for Gov. John Engler’s Teacher Technology Initiative.

“We know technology is going to drive educational quality and improvement,” said Engler spokesman John Truscott. “This should translate directly to quality in the classroom, and it’ll give teachers a chance to share with their colleagues ideas that work through eMail and chat rooms.”

Contracts were expected to be given in October to between three and five vendors to provide the equipment, software, and support services. Districts are expected to begin ordering computers in November.

Jamey Fitzpatrick, vice president of Michigan Virtual University, which is helping to coordinate the program, called it a leading-edge initiative. “No other state has ever approached anything like this,” he told the Detroit News for a story published Sept. 25.

Teachers will be able to use the laptops to communicate with parents, develop curriculum, foster professional development online, and work at home, Engler said when he proposed the idea in January.

“The teachers will be able to take the computer home, use it in the summer months and on weekends,” Fitzpatrick said. “The idea is if teachers begin to feel comfortable using technology for something of personal interest to them, it won’t be long before they use the same tool in the classroom.”

While the computers will end up in the hands of individual teachers, they ultimately will belong to local school districts. If a teacher stops teaching at a specific district, the computer stays with that district.

Training also is part of the package, officials say. Teachers who don’t have basic training will receive it, and those already proficient will receive advanced training. Teachers must demonstrate a minimum level of computer competency to be eligible for a state-funded computer. That means they must know how to get onto the internet and how to send eMail.

The state will offer free online courses to bolster training and will assess progress after one year. Teachers in a school building may vote to split program funding between technological equipment and more advanced computer training.

School districts must report their numbers of eligible full-time teachers who can take part in the program. Once they report this information, they will get an increase in state aid equal to the cost of the program—$1,200 per eligible teacher—to buy or lease the machines. A panel of educators drew up the computer specifications; school districts likely will have a few options.

Teachers will have the computers for business and personal use. However, guidelines will be imposed, Fitzpatrick said. He said the state is drafting a policy that would allow teachers to do their taxes on the computers, for example, but not use them to sell pornography.

Detroit Public Schools second-grade teacher Judy Eggly said she’s excited about getting a free laptop computer from the state.

“A lot of us don’t have access to computers at home, whether our classrooms are equipped or not,” she told the Detroit News. “I know a lot of things $110 million could be used for, but this will be a real plus to teachers who want to do lesson plans and research at home. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Michigan Gov. John Engler

http://www.migov.state.mi.us/MichiganGovernor.htm

Michigan Virtual University

http://www.mivu.org

Detroit Public Schools

http://www.detroit.k12.mi.us

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Dell recalls computer batteries, citing fire hazard

In cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Dell Computer Corp. announced Oct. 13 it is recalling batteries used in notebook computers sold to schools and others (see accompanying list for affected models).

The voluntary recall reportedly involves 27,000 batteries that were sold for use with some models of Latitude and Inspiron notebook computers. These batteries can short circuit, even when the battery is not in use, potentially causing them to become hot, release smoke, and possibly catch fire.

It was the second notebook-related problem this year at Dell. The company in August warned as many as 400,000 customers that their machines may have contained defective memory chips. Dell initiated both actions.

The Round Rock, Texas-based computer maker announced the battery recall after it received one report of a Dell computer short-circuiting and catching fire. No one was injured in the fire, which caused minor property damage, the company said.

The recall involves only certain batteries—not the computers themselves. Dell initially will replace one battery then provide a second after supplier Sanyo Electric exchanges the potentially defective part.

The potential problem stems from a Sanyo flaw, Dell said. A part of the battery’s cell could malfunction, causing a short circuit, overheating, and possibly igniting.

“We’ve taken the broader rather than the narrower approach,” said Dell spokesman T.R. Reid. “If there’s even one more (fire) that would be too many.”

The batteries were sold primarily with notebook computers shipped to customers from June 22 through Sept. 15 in North, Central, and South America. Units shipped to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa between June 22 and Oct. 4 also are included in the recall.

The batteries insert into the front-left and/or front-right of the computer. Affected schools should call Dell or visit a Web site the company has set up (see Links below).

Because Dell sells directly to customers the company expects the recall to flow smoothly. Because the flaw occurred at Sanyo, the recall will not hurt Dell financially, Reid said. Sanyo was not immediately available for comment.

Component troubles in desktop machines have been an ongoing problem for PC makers. In September, Intel reportedly delayed the launch of its Pentium 4 processor because of a chipset problem. In August, the company pulled 1.13-GHz Pentium III processors and earlier replaced as many as a million motherboards because of defective chips, according the CNET.com.

But notebook problems have been less frequent, the news service said. IBM in May recalled as many as 220,000 faulty AC adapters for ThinkPad portables, CNET.com reported; in March, Toshiba replaced notebooks containing flawed processor components.

Dell Computer Corp.

http://www.dell.com

Dell Battery Recall Information

http://www.support.dell.com/battery

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Glenn Commission: Math, science ed crisis threatens U.S.

The key to fixing America’s math and science education–described as a crisis that is “dangerous to national prosperity and security”–is improved teacher quality, according to a nonpartisan commission convened to investigate the quality of math and science teaching in United States schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley directed the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century to consider ways of improving recruitment, preparation, retention, and professional growth for math and science teachers in K-12 classrooms nationwide.

The commission’s report, titled “Before It’s Too Late,” summarizes its findings and recommendations.

“If you detect a note of urgency in that title, then our basic message to you and to the American people is already clear,” said former Sen. John Glenn, the commission’s chair.

Test scores across the country are increasing, but when American students are compared to those in 41 other nations, their performance lags, Glenn said, citing the Third International Mathematics and Science study.

“Our American fourth-grade children were among … the top two or three countries in the world,” he said. But “by the time American students had graduated from high school, they were almost last. They are about two or three from the bottom in that list of nations.”

Yet, we’re competing economically and technologically with the people from those nations. “Globalization has occurred,” Glenn said. “It’s no longer a futuristic theory; it’s here.”

He also said the military security of the United States depends on math and science education. So do medical advances, new pharmaceuticals, automobiles, airplanes, new engines, safety, environmental concerns, and more. In fact, the federal government recently passed special immigration legislation to let foreigners fill technology jobs because the U.S. doesn’t have enough qualified people.

The report states that 60 percent of all new jobs in the 21st century will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current work force.

“These figures compel me to upgrade our previous word of ‘unacceptable’ perhaps to a stronger word of ‘dangerous’–and I think we must address the problem forcefully and persistently,” Glenn said.

After spending more than a year studying and listening to experts, the report recommends that America launch an all-out effort to recruit and retain talented math and science teachers to correct these problems.

Although many teachers are doing a good job of teaching and motivating students, the report said, many are not. Too many teachers are underqualified or have insufficient content knowledge. Too many are leaving the profession altogether.

One-fourth of our math and science teachers never received a degree in the subjects they are teaching, and 30 percent of new teachers leave within three years, according to the report.

To combat these problems, the commission’s report offers a three-goal strategy.

First, improve the quality of math and science education now by radically and systematically improving the professional development of new and veteran teachers.

To do this, the report suggests creating math and science teaching academies within existing schools and colleges. These teaching academies would produce a new crop of well-versed teachers not currently in the math and science fields, Glenn said.

In addition to teaching academies, offering summer institutes will help new and veteran teachers hone their skills and improve their knowledge in a concentrated session.

Second, increase the number of teachers put into math and science classrooms by hiring qualified mid-career professionals with an interest in teaching those subjects.

Third, improve the working environment for teachers, and make the teaching profession much more attractive for all K-12 math and science teachers. The report, which describes teachers’ wages as “scandalous,” recommends giving incentives and higher pay.

Eleven percent of teachers leave the profession each year, the report said. By developing a reward-and-recognition program, fewer teachers might drop out.

The report also suggests creating a loan-forgiveness program to entice people to become teachers. The number of new loans offered each year could be adjusted to fit the demand for math and science teachers, the report said.

“Unless we begin our pursuit of these goals today, this nation may arrive on tomorrow’s doorstep a day late and a dollar short,” Glenn said.

Nation Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century

http://www.ed.gov/inits/Math/glenn

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Three studies: Technology can make a difference

“Fool’s Gold” argues that money spent on technology in K-6 education could better be spent on other, more pressing concerns, such as eliminating the threat of lead poisoning in some urban school districts or paying for educational field trips.

According to Stanford University’s Larry Cuban, a supporter of the Alliance for Childhood report, “There is no clear, commanding body of evidence that students’ sustained use of multimedia machines, the internet, word processing, spreadsheets, and other popular applications has any impact on academic achievement.”

But many technology advocates think there is little long-term evidence showing the effectiveness of technology on learning simply because educational technology is still coming of age in schools. They point to anecdotal, hard-to-quantify evidence that suggests technology can make a difference for students who are more motivated to learn or students collaborating with others across vast distances.

Although quantifiable evidence is hard to come by, a small but growing body of research is beginning to emerge. Besides the study of technology use in Illinois schools (see story, page 10), here are other recent studies that suggest that, used correctly, technology can improve educational outcomes:

1. “West Virginia Story: Achievement Gains from a Statewide Comprehensive Instructional Tech- nology Program” by Dr. Dale Mann, Columbia University; Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, Hofstra University; Jonathan Becker, J.D., Columbia University; and Dr. Robert Kottkamp, Hofstra University (1999).

In this landmark study, researchers examined the educational outcomes of the West Virginia Basic Skills/Computer Education (BS/CE) program, which began in 1990-’91.

At a cost of about $7 million per year, West Virginia provided every elementary school with enough equipment so that each classroom serving the grade targeted that year would have three to four computers, a printer, and a school-wide networked file server.

The program started with the kindergarten class of 1990-’91 and, as that class moved up in grade level, so did the successive waves of new computer installations.

The study revealed that as students were exposed to more elements of the BS/CE program, they scored higher on the Stanford-9 state exam. Researchers attributed an 11-percent rise in test scores to the state’s technology program.

The study also revealed that while participation in BS/CE helped all students perform better, it helped the neediest students the most. According to the report, “Those children without computers at home made the biggest gains in (1) total basic skills, (2) total language, (3) language expression, (4) total reading, (5) reading comprehension, and (6) vocabulary.” http://www.mff.org/publications/publications.taf?page=155

2. “Idaho Technology Initiative: An Accountability Report to the Idaho Legislature,” prepared by the state Division of Vocational Education and the State Department of Education, Bureau of Technology Services (1999). Produced by the Idaho Council for Technology in Learning, this January 1999 report was charged with justifying the expenditure of one-time and ongoing funds to purchase and integrate technology into the state’s K-12 public schools. It drew from a sampling of 35,885 students.

The principal question of the report asked, “Have students improved their academic performance as a result of the integration of technology in Idaho’s K-12 schools?”

To answer this question, researchers targeted two groups of students, those who were in eighth grade at the time of the study and were preparing to take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and those who were in 11th grade and were preparing for the Test of Academic Proficiency.

Based on findings from the sample group, the researchers concluded, “The benefits of technology in teaching and learning are clear: an increase in academic achievement in reading, mathematics, language, and core studies; improved technology literacy; increased communication; well-trained, innovative teaching; positive relationships with the community; more efficient operation of schools; and technically qualified students ready to enter today’s workforce.”

3. “Does it Compute? The Relationship Between Educational Technology and Student Achievement in Mathematics” by Harold Wenglinsky (1998). With support from Education Week and the now-defunct Milken Exchange on Education Technology, Educational Testing Service researcher Harold Wenglinsky provided the first nationwide study of computers in the classroom.

Using data on the performance of fourth- and eighth-graders on the math section of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and correlating them to other NAEP data on student use of computers at home and in school, Wenglinsky concluded that computers can have a positive impact on student achievement when used selectively by trained teachers.

Learning is enhanced, he found, when computers are used to encourage the development of higher-thinking skills. Simulations and applications, such as spreadsheets, are effective in eighth grade, and math learning games enhance achievement in fourth. Other uses, such as for rote drill-and-practice exercises, may actually have a negative impact.

“When computers are used to perform certain tasks, namely applying higher-order concepts, and when teachers are proficient enough in computer use to direct students toward productive uses … computers do seem to be associated with significant gains in math achievement,” Wenglinsky said.

http://www.ets.org/research/pic/pir.html

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New study: Technology boosts student performance

For advocates of classroom technology, a new study linking technology with student achievement provides welcome news: The use of educational technology in Illinois public schools has had “a small but significant impact” on student performance, according to a statistical analysis. The Illinois State Board of Education commissioned Westat, a research firm based in Rockville, Md., to find out how the state’s classrooms use technology and what effect computers and the internet have had on student performance. The state has spent nearly $240 million on technology grants to schools since 1995, but it does not keep records on the number of computers or internet connections in a school or district, according to a state Department of Education spokesman.

After completing a two-and-a-half-year study, Westat concluded that Illinois’ investment in learning technologies appears to be paying off. “We are beginning to see a relationship between technology in the classroom and student achievement,” said Gary Silverstein, principal investigator for the study. “In schools where [technology] usage was the highest, students’ scores on certain subjects tended to be higher.” Westat researchers surveyed 440 elementary, middle, and high school principals twice to measure the scope and implementation of educational technology. They also surveyed 718 teachers from the same schools to find out about their use of technology in the classroom. In addition, the researchers visited 15 schools that were making effective use of technology and five schools that weren’t. They also conducted telephone interviews with 28 teachers and 28 technology coordinators, and they analyzed the state’s standardized test scores. The researchers’ questions focused on technology access, use, competency, student learning, productivity, best practices, and factors that influence these items.

To determine the impact of technology on student achievement, Westat statistically analyzed these variables: poverty, access to educational technology, professional development, extent of technology use, and scores from the state’s 1998-99 standardized tests.

The statistical analysis shows that in cases where teachers’ use of technology to facilitate or enhance classroom instruction was high, standardized test scores also were high. Technology’s impact was strongest in the higher grades, but not in every subject area. It had the greatest influence on 11th-grade science and 10th-grade reading test scores. Westat also found technology use was positively influenced by the amount of access and teacher training a school had.

The study “certainly suggests the state’s investment was a good one,” Silverstein said. “There certainly was a pay-off.” Poverty a greater factor However, poorer districts continue to lag behind wealthier ones. In fact, the percentage of poor students in a school affects its test scores by at least twice as much as technology, the study found.

Although “there were no instances where the use of technology had a negative impact” on students’ scores, poverty still has the strongest impact on student achievement, Silverstein said. “The findings indicate there is a significant difference in terms of access, usage, and professional development in various areas of the state,” Silverstein said. “High-poverty areas were making less use of computers and had less access to computers.”

Westat recommended that the state place special emphasis on providing technology access and teacher training in high-poverty areas, because a combination of barriers is preventing poor schools from taking full advantage of educational technology.

Teachers also need more technology professional development, the study suggested. “Just putting a computer in a classroom doesn’t seem to be enough,” Silverstein noted. Schools should take a more proactive approach and require or encourage teachers to take technology training, the study recommended. In districts that mandated or gave incentives for professional development, technology use was higher. “If you have a school policy promoting professional development, you have increased usage—which, in turn, increases student achievement,” Silverstein said.

Illinois State Board of Education http://www.isbe.state.il.us

Westat http://www.westat.com

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Project models educational benefits of enhanced digital TV

Maryland parents, students, and teachers will be among the first to reap the educational benefits of enhanced digital television programming, thanks to a $10 million grant awarded to Maryland Public Television (MPT).

Using the grant money, MPT will develop educational video and online content for digital TV broadcasting, as well as professional development tools for Maryland educators. “With the advent of digital broadcasting, technology finally enables the television set to become a self-contained, fully interactive communications device. MPT is proud to bring this promise to life for Maryland and the nation,” said Robert Shuman, MPT president and chief executive. The U.S. Department of Education’s “Star Schools” program provided the grant. Founded in 1988, Star Schools funds innovative projects using technology for distance education.

What makes MPT’s ambitious plans possible is a physical feature of the digital broadcast signal enabling the transmission of several content streams simultaneously, known within the industry as “multicasting.”

Multicasting allows broadcasters to transmit not only the audio and video signals commonly associated with television, but also large streams of data. The combination of the two into a single program is known as “enhanced television.” Using enhanced television signals, viewers can explore content addressed in the program in detail, providing a more meaningful viewing experience. Data accompanying enhanced television programs is likely to include web links, bibliographies, transcripts, and detailed background material on the show’s subject.

‘Digital Schools’ initiative While all broadcasters will transmit signals enabling multicasting by 2003, MPT’s initiative is unique in that the station is devoting a portion of its new digital spectrum to enhanced educational programming for teachers and the public.

An entire department of creative talent is being added to MPT to develop original enhanced television programming. These new programs will incorporate lesson plans, internet tools, and guided learning activities for use in the classroom and at home, all embedded within the digital television signal.

The materials will be prepared in conjunction with teams of teachers throughout Maryland and will be distributed under the moniker “Maryland Digital Schools.”

Content will be delivered via MPT’s statewide network of digital stations located throughout Maryland and surrounding areas.

MPT’s Gail Porter Long, vice president of Community Learning Ventures, said, “We want to target the bulk of our programming to teachers, students, and the families of students in grades K-12. However, we also want to include material appropriate for the community at large.”

According to Long, MPT’s signal extends beyond the border of Maryland, touching the District of Columbia, northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and parts of eastern West Virginia.

Long notes that educators, not broadcasters, will decide what is useful in Maryland schools. Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Prince George’s County Public Schools, in particular, will be important to the development of the Maryland Digital Schools project.

“All of us in education have learned that projects to improve teaching and learning cannot be developed apart from schools. We are working closely with teachers, curriculum specialists, technology specialists, and administrators,” she said.

Plans for the future MPT currently broadcasts a digital signal only from WMPT-DT in Annapolis. The network won’t have all six of its transmitters converted to full-time digital broadcasting until 2003. Nevertheless, the pieces are in place to begin implementing the enhanced television project.

According to officials from project partner Johns Hopkins University, the grant will support the creation of a web portal with supplemental content for both parents and educators, designed to complement the digital television programming by MPT. The web portal is expected to be up and running by the start of the next school year. As digital signals become more accessible to viewers in the next 24 to 36 months, this content will migrate to the programs themselves, where it will be embedded in the transmission.

“It is going to change TV from a sit-back, passive medium to a lean-forward, active medium. When enhanced television is fully implemented, we’ll be able to invite viewers to send inquiries to our experts and engage in chats related to our programming,” Long said.

Joining MPT in this venture are the Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education and Macro International Inc., a Prince George’s County research firm that will provide a third-party evaluation of the project’s effectiveness.

Johns Hopkins University will provide training to K-12 educators on how to use enhanced television and how to anchor the broadcasts to effective instruction, according to Lynne Mainzer, program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for

Technology in Education. The actual number of teachers to receive instruction has yet to be determined, but Mainzer said workshops and training institutes would begin this year to prepare educators for the program rollout in the 2001-02 school year.

Other organizations sharing their expertise with MPT are Verizon Maryland Inc., Maryland Teaching and Learning with Technology Consortium, National School Boards Association, and Towson University College of Education.

Maryland Public Television http://www.mpt.org

Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education http://cte.jhu.edu

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