To help schools make better use of their networks and computers, two major technology companies are launching solutions that deliver textbook content from leading education publishers onto each desktop in every classroom or computer lab from a central district server.

So far, educational content resources—including everything from aging textbooks and, CD-ROM collections to video libraries housed across town and on the internet—have remained largely scattered, making it difficult for educators to manage them effectively.

“We’ve been noticing when we go to see our customers, they aren’t taking advantage of multimedia content,” said Leslie Saul, education industry manager at 3Com Corp., which has been selling networks to schools for the past six years.

In February, 3Com will begin selling the Media Ease Learning Solution, an all-in-one technology solution that lets teachers create lessons and deliver engaging digitized content from McGraw-Hill Education, a leading publisher in the educational market.

Microsoft Corp., which also recognized a need to solve content management problems in schools, this month will launch the Encarta Class Server, a teaching tool for K-12 schools that combines high-quality educational content with anytime, anywhere access for teachers, students, and parents.

“From working closely with educators, we have come to understand that teachers don’t have the resources they need to connect digital tools with their daily curriculum,” said Jim Kuhr, manager of Microsoft’s K-12 Product Unit.

Schools are dealing with out-of-date content in textbooks and the physical burden that heavy books place on children, Kuhr said. He also said some new schools are built without lockers in effort to reduce contraband, and this costs a lot of money because schools have to buy two sets of textbooks so students can have one at school and one at home.

The fact that several companies are beginning to address the need for electronic content management “verifies that there is this need in schools, and it gives consumers more choice,” Kuhr said.

Media Ease

McGraw-Hill Education will provide video, audio, text, and testing materials for Media Ease’s content libraries, which are indexed and searchable by grade level or subject matter. 3Com’s Saul said the content is trusted and relevant material that soon will be corrulated to state standards.

As soon as teachers have logged on to the Media Ease server through a browser-based interface, they can begin searching for content, creating lessons or tests, and scheduling presentations.

“We’ve tried to create something that is very compelling in media-rich content but requires very little training to use,” Saul said. “We hope the amount of training teachers would need to have would be very minimal.”

Media Ease will let teachers preview and assemble digital content—including voice, data, and video—into dynamic lessons that can be played, saved, and updated. The solution also supports both multicast and unicast functions to enable lessons developed by teachers to be shown to individual students or to a group of students simultaneously.

Teachers can share lesson plans with anyone connected to the same central service point, whether it is all the schools in a district or all the schools in a state, Saul said. Media Ease can also be used to deliver online professional development for teachers.

Because Media Ease offers a variety of content mediums, such as video and audio, teachers can easily engage students with different learning styles and abilities, Saul said.

“We’ve overcome all the barriers of bringing media content into the classroom and made it reliable and easy,” Saul said. Media Ease’s content is different than the educational content provided by many internet companies because it is not designed to be used over 56K connections, she said. Media Ease’s content is more visually and audibly intense.

Today’s students are used to being highly stimulated all the time, Saul said. “It’s a huge challenge for the classroom teacher to make the classroom environment as stimulating as the rest of their day.”

Media Ease consists of a centralized server housed at the district level, a remote server located at each school, networking components, and application software. Saul said schools “would need a switched network—which most schools already have because of the eRate—and they would need to add a relay point.”

Unlike Encarta Class Server, Media Ease doesn’t involve parents at this time, Saul said. “We can guarantee quality of multimedia service,” she said of 3Com’s new product. “When you take it out into the home, you can’t guarantee quality of service because you are definitely going over the internet.”

Encarta Class Server

Encarta Class Server will enable true anytime, anywhere learning because teachers, students, and parents will be able to access its educational content whether they are at school or at home by connecting with a standard web browser through the internet or an intranet, Microsoft’s Kuhr said.

The content is provided by major education publishers, including Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Reed Publishing, Times-Learning Systems, and Barrett-Kendall.

“With the Encarta Class Server, educators can locate, manipulate, and create core curriculum materials using a secure web-based learning environment,” Kuhr said. “Students have more access to learning resources, and parents can become more involved in their children’s education without creating more work for the teacher.”

The Learning Resource editor tool lets teachers create their own content and assessment. The editor is HTML-based, so teachers can choose to use it or any other HTML editor they like, Kuhr said.

“Based on testing within schools, Encarta Class Server has been very easy for teachers to learn and use,” Kuhr said. “Once educators become familiar with the platform, time saved in searching for quality content and grading student work can be dedicated to other important areas.”

Teachers can customize assignments for an entire class, a group of students, or even a single student. With customizable online rubrics and a built-in grading tool, teachers control the automatic assessment and can provide individual feedback to students on an assignment.

When a teacher gives an assignment to a student, it’s immediately available to the student. Students may view, complete, and hand in assignments electronically using their own secure web page. They can also access past assignments and teacher’s comments.

“It’s all very secure and managed in an environment that doesn’t allow one student in a class to see another student’s scores,” Kuhr said.

Parents can also view their child’s assignments, graded work, and teacher comments from a password-protected site, he said.

The solution “provides parents a view into the classroom without the teacher incurring any additional work,” Kuhr said. “Teachers are overburdened today, and we have to find ways to make their jobs easier while providing access for parents.”

The Encarta Class Server also will give educators access to browser-based “Learning Resources”—complete with a lesson plan, content, and a student assessment—that teachers can revise to match their individual needs. The resources, which are public and fee-based, can be shared with colleagues locally or with other teachers throughout the world via an internet-based automatic content indexing service hosted by Microsoft.

3Com’s Media Ease

Microsoft’s Encarta Class Server

Compaq Computer Corp.