‘Concept mapping’ promises to enhance web browsing

Ever since Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press nearly six centuries ago, people have been organizing information page by page. Even in the computer age, they still are doing it on web pages.

That perplexed researchers at the University of West Florida’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, which works to make computers more useful and user-friendly.

“Why should we organize [information] as pages? There’s no reason,” said Associate Director Alberto Canas. “It’s just that we’re used to it.”

Canas heads a team that took a learning tool called concept mapping, developed with paper and pencil in the 1970s, and turned it into a pageless method of browsing web sites. It will not replace web browsers, but any existing browser can be used to view concept map, or C-map, sites, Canas said.

“If you can do something about helping humans better exploit the sort of information ghetto on the web, you’ve got lots of customers,” said institute director Ken Ford. “They all know that their browser’s no good, because when you ask them which button they click most, they all say the back arrow.”

The patented software is written in the Java computer language and runs on a variety of operating systems, including Windows, Macintosh, and variations of Unix.

Government agencies, schools, students, and others using the software for nonprofit purposes can download it free from the institute’s web site.

The software is not yet available for commercial use, though the institute is considering licensing it and has been approached by private companies.

One of them is Cincinatti-based Cincom Inc., which is seeking licensing rights for software it designs for manufacturers.

“We have looked at everything we can find that is similar, or designed for the purpose of knowledge management, and we find concept mapping to be light-years ahead,” said Barry Brosch, a senior consultant with Cincom.

A C-map is just what its name implies—a graphic representation of a subject that shows how it is linked to related topics and subtopics.

Geoffrey Briggs, director of the Center for Mars Exploration at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, is among the first users. He created a Mars concept map on the ‘net.

“Mars” appears in a red box at the top with lines connecting it to related concepts, including “Search for Evidence of Life,” “Exploration Strategy,” and even “Science Fiction.” Clicking on concept-box icons can open additional maps or provide links to appropriate web sites.

“That’s a powerful means, from my perspective, of communicating information and giving people an immediate grasp of the subject,” Briggs said.

He also wants to use C-maps to brainstorm the selection of Mars landing sites. Scientists each could do a concept map on a preferred site and then discuss, compare, and criticize each other’s ideas by computer.

The software was developed as part of a broader $6 million federally funded project that includes the creation of related tools for NASA and the Navy, which plans to use concept maps for on-the-job training aboard ships.

The software also has advanced the original purpose of C-maps, said Joseph Novak, who developed the idea about 25 years ago while at Cornell University, where he is a professor emeritus of education and biology.

It has been used to help education researchers present large amounts of data in a concise and cogent way, and for course planning and knowledge-sharing. Students are also assessed by having them build C-maps.

Other concept-mapping software is available commercially, including Inspiration by Inspiration Software Inc., Decision Explorer by Banaxia Software Ltd., MindManager by Mindjet, and VisiMap by CoCo Systems Ltd.

The institute’s version has the advantage of being free for nonprofit uses—schools all over the globe have used it—and its features include a method for easy access to other web sources, said Novak, a senior research scientist at the University of West Florida.

“All the fundamental assumptions that underlie concept-mapping have been embedded in the ways in which the software works,” Novak said. “It facilitates building [web sites] the way they ought to be built.”

Links:

Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
http://www.coginst.uwf.edu

Mars concept map
http://cmex.arc.nasa.gov/cmaps/Mars2001/Mars%20Prime.html

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South Dakota mounts revolutionary online testing program

In a move that may mark the first statewide implementation of a purely internet-delivered assessment test, South Dakota legislators recently approved the use of an online exam linked directly to that state’s standards of learning.

Bill 234, signed into law by Gov. Bill Janklow March 5, specifies that “every school district shall administer the same criterion-referenced academic achievement test, once in the fall semester and once again in the spring semester, to all students in grades three, six, and 10.”

But what is revolutionary about the Dakota Assessment of Curriculum Standards (DACS) test, created by EdVISION Corp., is that it marks the first time a state-mandated test will be delivered only through online means, state and company officials say.

According to Ray Christensen, state secretary of education and cultural affairs, the online test has several features that will streamline testing procedures and help educators make data-driven decisions about curriculum.

“A major cost of testing traditionally has been the scoring,” he said. Administering the test online will “limit that cost and provide instant feedback to students, teachers, and parents.”

What’s more, the online curriculum standards test—unlike its pencil-and-paper counterparts—is computer-adaptive.

“That means the test adjusts ‘on the fly’ as students answer the questions,” Christensen said. “For instance, if a child is highly proficient in math and keeps getting all the math questions right, the test will keep making the questions more difficult.”

Computer-adaptive testing helps accurately identify the skill level of children who are outside the norm, either far advanced for their grade or below standard grade-level proficiency. In doing so, it give educators more information about a student’s specific strengths and weaknesses than they receive from traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

“We knew we needed to develop a test that any teacher could use to … determine what grade level [students] were [working at],” said Bill Tudor, president and chief executive of EdVISION (formerly Tudor Publishing), based in San Diego. “We call this ‘standards-based adaptive testing.'”

EdVISION developed a general set of learning objectives that encompass all state tests by looking at standards for all areas of learning, from first through 12th grade.

“Basically, we developed a test that will work for all 50 states, but we have also developed a propriety ‘sleeve’ that allows us to do reporting that is relevant to South Dakota’s specific state standards,” Tudor said.

The system employs an “expert artificial intelligence system” that determines which grade level a student is testing at in each individual unit, such as fractions, decimals, and algebraic equations.

“We have applied for a patent on this technology,” said Tudor. “We have done 10 years’ worth of research on determining exactly how different learning objectives relate to each other, and we can take a picture of those relationships to show a particular student’s strengths and weaknesses.”

In one class period, said Tudor, the EdVISION test can find exactly where a student is performing in a whole 12-grade range. The company then reports these results using the standards of a specific state or district.

Each learning objective is assigned a difficulty level, and students who are proficient at combining these objectives would raise the bar until they encountered a question they could not answer.

“This test is like a high-bar,” said Christensen. “It pushes each kid to go until [he or she] can’t go any more.”

And, he added, “It’s also great for kids who might be less proficient in a subject because, as the questions adjust to their level, [the test] becomes less intimidating.”

Christensen said the state has purchased the test on a per-student subscription basis, enabling educators to test as many times per year as they see fit.

The law currently mandates twice-yearly DACS testing in the three grades, but Christensen added, “I think we’ll be doing these tests three times per year, eventually—in the fall, winter, and spring.”

The test is intended to look at student growth, not to decide whether students or teachers should be promoted.

Christensen said the test will enable data-driven decision-making at both the school and district level. Teachers will get reports on each child, so they can know where to direct instruction, and parents will receive copies of the report as well.

Infrastructure already in place

Despite his excitement about the test, Christensen said one disadvantage to online testing is that it requires a substantial technology infrastructure at each school to support the program.

But that’s no problem for South Dakota.

“We have a T1 [line] to every classroom in the state, and our Digital Dakota Network links every school and every K-12 classroom with the state government, tech schools, and higher education institutions,” Christensen said. “We also have two very large pipelines—both DS3s—going out to the public internet, and we have five or six hard-wired drops in each classroom.”

“We have a real opportunity to do something like this because of the level of access our schools have,” said Elaine Roberts, president of the South Dakota Education Association, the state’s National Education Association affiliate.

“Most teachers find [the test] takes about 30 minutes,” Roberts added. “They can take their students to the lab and administer the test all at once, or they can use their four or five classroom computers and rotate the students through them over a couple of days.”

South Dakota has been running a volunteer-only trial program for the past year. About 13 percent of the state’s students have participated in the trial program, and state officials are encouraged by the response they’ve received so far.

Though the trials revealed early glitches, these have been addressed and teachers “are pleased with the results and the kind of data they’re getting,” Roberts said.

And kids are happy to test online as well.

“What I’ve heard is that most children like [being tested] online, and they don’t find it at all difficult. They are just so eager to use technology,” added Roberts.

Once the DACS is up and running, South Dakota will have three mandatory state tests in place.

The Stanford Achievement Test 9 (SAT 9) still will be administered to students in grades two, four, eight, and 11. “We are not using this to replace the SAT 9. That is still a proven and valuable test for students,” Christensen said.

The state also requires yearly writing tests for students in grades five and nine.

State officials say pricing will be reasonable for DACS. Though an exact rate has not yet been determined, published reports indicate the state has set aside $500,000 for the program in its proposed budget for fiscal 2002. “We’re working on the pricing right now, but we know the cost will be comparable to what it would be for a paper-and-pencil test,” said Christensen.

The legislation calls for the test to be implemented as of next spring.

Links:

Gov. William J. Janklow
http://www.state.sd.us/governor

South Dakota State Legislature, Bill 234
http://legis.state.sd.us/sessions/2001/index.cfm?FuseAction=DisplayBills

South Dakota Education Association
http://www.sdea.org

South Dakota Department of Education and Cultural Affairs
http://www.state.sd.us/deca

EdVISION
http://www.edvision.com

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Tech funding, accountability key in ESEA renewal

As Congress begins debate on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), which shapes the federal government’s investment in education, school officials are getting an early glimpse of what might be in store for their technology programs.

Block grants seem like a foregone conclusion, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support President George W. Bush’s plan to consolidate funding. Of more concern to educators, however, are proposed accountability measures that would tie federal dollars to proven technology solutions and best practices.

Senate action

The Senate is expected to introduce a bill this week that would request $1 billion for educational technology under a subpart of Title II, called “State and Local Programs for Technology in the Classroom.”

Developed by the Health, Education, and Labor Committee as a compromise between Republican and Democratic leaders, the bill would consolidate funding into a single block grant that states would administer to local school districts on a competitive basis, as Bush advocated in his education plan, “No Child Left Behind.”

Although the money could be spent on a variety of technologies, the Senate bill would attach several stipulations.

For example, states and school districts would have to submit detailed technology plans to be eligible for funding; school districts would have to spend at least 30 percent of their funds on professional development; and districts would have to propose initiatives that have been proven by scientific research to increase student achievement.

Also, school districts would have to evaluate how their instructional technology programs have increased student achievement and submit the results in a yearly progress report. If, after three years, a school district does not show measurable improvements, the district would not receive funding in subsequent years.

In addition, the Senate bill would retain the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers To Use Technology (PT3) program as a separate subpart of Title II. Under this program, colleges would be eligible for $150 million to pay for programs that prepare preservice teachers to integrate technology into their curriculum.

Finally, the bill would provide $5 million to fund the Eisenhower Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education, which compiles and disseminates information about math, science, and technology programs. It also would direct Education Secretary Rod Paige to write a long-range National Education Technology Plan within 12 months of the bill becoming law.

Overall, education lobbyists and school technology directors contacted by eSchool News said they were satisfied with the committee’s version of the bill.

“We think it’s a reasonable package. We are pleased that [Congress is] not doing anything to the eRate,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Bush’s plan originally called for the eRate to be consolidated with other technology programs under ESEA funding, but the administration has backed away from this idea in recent weeks.

Many educators said they liked the fact that the Senate bill reflects the need for national leadership on key ed-tech issues—particularly professional development.

The need for teacher training is real and huge, said Steve Cameron, educational technology director for St. Louis Public Schools. “If you don’t have pilots, don’t waste money on planes,” he said.

Tom Sextro, technology director for the Holton Unified School District in Kansas, agreed: “By emphasizing and making professional development mandatory, the [Senate] ESEA bill is providing a clear vision to administrators about its importance. In too many school districts, professional development isn’t a high enough priority.”

But observers expressed concern about the bill’s accountability measures. Many school leaders pointed out that it’s hard to measure the direct impact of technology on education.

“While numerous studies have correlated student improvement with investments in instructional technology, it is very difficult to tightly connect cause and effect,” said Dick Barkey, executive director of information technology at Adams Twelve Five Star Schools in Colorado.

Instead of eliminating federal funding for technology automatically after three years of disappointing results, perhaps further funding should require additional justification or subject a school to program audits, Barkey said.

Also, since the Senate bill would give local school districts the responsibility of creating their own evaluations, results would vary from region to region, said Leslie Harris, public policy consultant for the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking.

“If everyone is testing with different measures, it’s hard to tell what is working,” Harris said. “Even under the current [ESEA structure], it’s always been a problem to say what is happening in a particular area.”

House action

In the House of Representatives, lawmakers remain divided on education issues.

House Republicans introduced their version of the ESEA reauthorization act (H.R. 1) on March 22. Called “No Child Left Behind,” the bill more closely mirrors the agenda Bush set out in his education plan of the same name.

“The House bill is much more of a traditional block grant with [fewer] obligations on the part of school districts, except for regular testing,” Harris said.

A subpart of Title V, called “Enhancing Education Through Technology,” aims to help school districts implement technology initiatives that lead to increased student achievement. If the initiatives turn out to be successful after evaluation, they would be replicated.

The Republican version of the House plan asks for $872 million for education technology—the amount at which current Title III technology programs are funded for fiscal year 2001—to be distributed to school districts by states through a formula that targets high-need schools.

Each state would have to submit a technology plan that describes how the money will be spent to improve student achievement and how the state will evaluate results. School districts would have to use at least 20 percent of these funds on research-based professional development.

In contrast to the Republican bill, House Democrats have released their own version, called the “Excellence and Accountability in Education Act” (H.R. 340).

H.R. 340 would revise and consolidate ESEA programs under a subpart of Title III, called “Technology For Education.” The bill would provide $450 million for a national long-range technology plan and activities, $2 billion for state and local technology innovation and learning, and $50 million for a program called Getting Girls Ready for the 21st Century (the “Go Girl Act”) in mathematics, science, technology, and engineering.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who introduced the Democrats’ bill, said in a statement, “Despite our differences on some key issues, I remain optimistic that by building on our area of agreement, we can forge a bipartisan agreement this year.”

Links:

Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Labor
http://www.senate.gov/~labor

House Education and Workforce Committee
http://edworkforce.house.gov

National Education Association
http://www.nea,org

St. Louis Public Schools
http://www.slps.k12.mo.us

Holton Unified School District
http://www.holton.k12.ks.us

Leslie Harris & Associates
http://www.lharris.com

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Grants for strengthening education in low-income neighborhoods

The Citigroup Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Citibank Corp., dedicates approximately 75 percent of its charitable contributions to community development and education programs. The foundation’s K-12 giving focuses on strengthening education in low-income neighborhoods. Its grants emphasize the creation of “smarter schools” and “smarter classrooms.” The “smarter schools” initiative supports improvements in the governance of public schools and higher standards for student performance. It also funds alternative schools that offer more individual attention to students, as well as mentoring and tutoring programs. The “smarter classrooms” initiative supports innovative classroom technologies and successful school-to-work programs. The Citigroup Foundation prefers to solicit proposals from grantees with demonstrated successes. Unsolicited proposals will be accepted, but a favorable decision is less likely. For guidelines, see the foundation’s web site.

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Internet photo site draws concern from schools, watchdog group

A commercially operated internet site that lets parents capture memories of their children’s school activities might unintentionally be capturing the fancy of child-sex predators, according to area school officials and an internet watchdog group.

The American Sports Photo Network, a subsidiary of Photowave based in Marshall Township, Pa., pays employees across the country to photograph students at sports and cheerleading events. Those pictures are available on a web site for parents to download later to make calendars and other keepsakes.

But Blue Ridge Thunder, an internet watchdog group, said the site and others like it are ripe for abuse by pedophiles who can log on and view the pictures—although that’s not Photowave’s fault.

“Decent people have no idea [of the potential abuses], because we don’t think in a sick, perverted way,” said Lt. Rick Wiita, of the Bedford County, Va., Sheriff’s Office, where Blue Ridge Thunder is based.

Chief Michael Bookser of the Bellevue Police Department in suburban Pittsburgh is a member of the Governor’s Community Partnership for Safe Children. He said pictures of local students online can expose them to predators worldwide.

“Ten years ago, whenever your kids went to the corner, they learned what they learned on the corner,” Bookser said. “Now, with the internet, they’re on a street corner in Amsterdam. That’s what the internet [allows].”

Kirk Russell, vice president of marketing and sales for Photowave, said no one has raised such concerns with his company before.

“This is news to me and news to our company,” Russell said. “If this is the issue, I don’t see how we would have a viable business. We’re all parents. I certainly would not do anything to jeopardize the safety of children.”

Russell said Photowave has had only five parents contact the company about removing their child’s picture in one-and-a-half years. “We have over 330,000 images. We do not post any images without authorization from the organizations,” Russell said.

But officials in several Pittsburgh-area school districts said they were unaware that pictures of some of their students were posted on the web site.

“I’m not aware of it. This is news to me,” said James Manley, superintendent of the Pine-Richland School District. “Our position is to do our best not to place student pictures on web sites, even our own web site.”

Mars Area Superintendent William Pettigrew said he, too, wasn’t aware of student pictures on the web site—but after checking into it, he learned that parents gave Photowave permission to post pictures of individual students. Pettigrew said the district has no agreement with the company.

Russell said the site uses a security feature on photos that are not purchased that prevents them from being saved on computer disks. But when photos are viewed on the site—which identifies the athlete’s or cheerleader’s team name and state—they can be reproduced or altered.

“The simple fact is that sites such as that can be used for some very evil purposes. That may not be the intent,” Wiita said. “This site may not be alone in that … [but] it’s fraught with danger. We encourage our schools and everyone else not to do that.”

Links:

American Sports Photo Network
http://www.aspn.com

Blue Ridge Thunder
http://www.blueridgethunder.com

Pine-Richland School District
http://www.prsd.k12.pa.us

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Apple acquires SIS firm PowerSchool

In what industry analysts say is a “startling” move that confirms the company’s rededication to education, Apple Computer announced March 14 that it would acquire privately held PowerSchool Inc., a leading provider of web-based student information systems (SIS) for the K-12 market.

“Apple has a legacy of helping teachers teach and students learn. We are now expanding that mission to include helping schools run more effectively,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, in a company statement.

Like other web-based systems—such as Chancery Software’s K12Planet.com, NCS Pearson’s SchoolCONNECTxp, and Administrative Assistants Ltd.’s eSIS—PowerSchool’s eponymous software gives teachers and administrators the ability to manage student records via the internet and gives parents real-time access to their children’s grades and other information.

Voted the third-best SIS in a recent eSchool News Readers’ Choice Awards poll, PowerSchool reportedly is used by some 2,000 schools nationwide.

“By acquiring PowerSchool and welcoming its talented employees to Apple, we instantly become the leading provider of web-based student information systems nationwide,” said Jobs.

PowerSchool’s competitors were unavailable for comment at press time.

Though an Apple spokeswoman would not discuss the acquisition, a company press release suggests why Apple made the move: “Apple’s focus on administrative leadership is a major commitment. We recognize school leaders need access to reliable data in order to make informed decisions, which will lead to improved student performance. … Administrative leadership also means ensuring that all district stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, and administrators—have access to the tools and information necessary for their work.”

Some industry experts think the deal proves that Apple, once the undisputed leader in America’s schools, may be trying to regain its position atop the education market.

“The education segment is clearly very important for Apple, and it’s an area in which they are coming under pressure, particularly from Intel-based competitors,” said Charles Smulders, principal analyst the Gartner Group market research firm Dataquest. “They need to find ways to distinguish themselves.”

An industry expert who wished to remain anonymous put it another way: “It’s startling. This is far beyond the scope of what Apple’s ever done before, and I’ve always been very impressed with PowerSchool’s product.”

Apple has attempted to breathe new life into its education division recently, particularly with the rehiring of Cheryl Vedoe. A former vice president of Apple’s education division, Vedoe rejoined the company in November in the newly created position of vice president of Education Marketing and Solutions, reporting directly to Jobs.

In an interview with eSchool News, Vedoe said her position indicates a renewed dedication to Apple’s education division going forward. “Very simply, the fact that my position was created is an indication that Apple is serious about education,” she said.

Apple also announced two recent education hires that may ring a bell in the ed-tech community.

David Dwyer, formerly of Apple Education and Computer Curriculum Corp., recently was hired as Apple’s director of education technology.

Apple also hired David Byer, former executive director of the Congressional Web-based Education Commission, a high-profile bipartisan group charged with receiving testimony and reporting on the uses and effects of technology in K-12 schools. Byer was hired as a senior manager of education strategy relations.

Signs that Apple was losing its market share in education began to surface in 1999, when rival Dell Computer cited figures from Dataquest indicating it had surpassed Apple as the No. 1 supplier of computers to schools, despite the popularity of the iMac.

Apple will acquire PowerSchool for $62 million in stock. PowerSchool, located in Folsom, Calif., currently has 160 employees. Completion of the transaction is subject to regulatory approvals and the approval of shareholders.

Links:

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com

PowerSchool Inc.
http://www.powerschool.com

Chancery Software
http://www.chancery.com

NCS Pearson
http://www.ncs.com

Administrative Assistants Ltd.
http://www.admassist.com

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Senate bill would extend ‘fair use’ clause to online education

Educators involved in distance-learning programs that use digital technologies would be able to use portions of copyrighted materials—such as film, sound, and other media clips—without the expressed permission of the copyright holder, under a bill introduced into the Senate March 7.

Senate bill S.487, the Technology Education and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act, is intended to update the Copyright Act of 1976 and account for advancements in digital transmission technologies that support distance education.

The current fair-use provisions for distance education, as set out in the 1976 law, grant an exemption from copyright liability for “in-class performance, displays of certain copyrighted works, and the transmission of those performances to outside locations” via broadcast television (analog technology).

“Unfortunately, currently copyright law does not allow the sharing of many copyrighted materials for educational purposes through digital means,” such as satellite broadcasts, two-way videoconferencing, and internet-based courses, said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who introduced the bill along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The legislation attempts to expand the fair-use exemptions of the current law, while minimizing the risks to copyright owners that are inherent in using digital formats to transmit materials.

If passed, the TEACH Act would:

  • Eliminate the current requirement that the instruction occurs in a physical classroom or that special circumstances prevent the attendance of students in the classroom;

  • Clarify that the distance-learning exemption covers the temporary copies that would need to be made in networked file servers to transmit material over the internet; and

  • Amend the current law to let educators show limited portions of dramatic literary and musical works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings, in addition to complete versions of non-dramatic literary and musical works, which currently are exempted.

The bill closely follows the recommendations of the U.S. Copyright Office, which had issued a report in 1999 urging Congress to update the current copyright law exemptions for distance education, while creating safeguards in response to proprietors’ concerns.

These safeguards include mandating that “any transient copies are retained for no longer than reasonably necessary to complete the transmission,” and requiring schools to use “technological measures that reasonably prevent unauthorized access to and dissemination of the work.”

Some critics of the bill, including the Association of American Publishers (AAP), say these safeguards don’t go far enough.

Citing the example of Napster, the MP3 file-swapping service that is the focal point of a current copyright lawsuit, a lobbyist for the AAP warned members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that changes to the current law could lead to increased piracy of copyrighted materials.

In a March 13 hearing on the TEACH Act, Allen Adler, AAP’s vice president of legal and governmental affairs, said he hoped the committee would reconsider the bill “so that the clever acronym that you’ve come up with for this legislation, TEACH, does not devolve into something that really would stand more for the Technology Education And Copyright Heist Act in the way it would be performed in application.”

But educators who testified at the hearing said the bill is sorely needed, as licensing fees for the use of copyrighted materials threaten to undermine the growth of distance-education programs.

The “limitation on the types of works that may be [used] in remote transmission drives an untenable wedge between content in the classroom and content in distance education,” said Gerald Heeger, president of the University of Maryland’s University College.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Marlboro College in Vermont, told the committee that a student at his college wanted to use 15 seconds from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V for a multimedia presentation a few years ago. “It took almost two weeks to track down the right person with whom to speak, and when we finally had that conversation, they reported back to us that it would cost the student $2,000 for a one-time use of that video,” he said.

Educators hope that the bill, if passed, will bring practical changes to the copyright law.

“Students should be afforded the same opportunities and materials—copyrighted or otherwise—whether their classroom is created out of bricks and mortar or bits and bytes,” Becky Huggins, educational technologist for the seeUonline virtual school program run by Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna School District, told eSchool News.

While he doubts whether the TEACH Act will create the “umbrella of fair use” that protects schools using analog-based resources, Rick Bauer, chief information officer for Pennsylvania’s The Hill School, said he believes the legislation is a step in the right direction.

“This legislation is long overdue, but it will not put an end, by itself, to the continued pressure by content providers to secure a ‘pay-per-view’ treatment of educational materials in schools,” Bauer said. “There is simply too much money to be made charging [licensing fees] based on individual use [of digital materials].”

Bauer also expressed concern about whether schools could be held liable for not adequately safeguarding the materials they make available to students digitally, if the legislation were to be enacted.

“School libraries could find themselves accused of being the ‘Napster’ of the electronic resources they provide online and should prepare themselves accordingly,” Bauer said. On the other hand, he said, “schools and libraries need to clearly protect the copyrighted materials that have been entrusted to them—whether analog or digital—and I see far too much abuse or lack of concern in this area.”

Links:

Report on Copyright and Digital Distance Education
http://www.loc.gov/copyright/docs/de_rprt.pdf

Association of American Publishers
http://www.publishers.org

seeUonline
http://www.seeuonline.org

The Hill School
http://www.thehill.org

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Schools use technology to ‘map’ their curricula

As states clamp down on what students should know and be able to do after each grade level, school districts across the country are tapping a new tool afforded by technology to avoid reruns and gaps in lessons over students’ 13-year public school education. The tool: curriculum maps.

Curriculum maps help school districts know if students are learning the same skills and concepts year after year. They also get teachers talking about what curriculum they actually teach—or, in some cases, don’t teach.

“In an elementary school, you could find [that] in second, third, and fourth grade, they are doing a unit on dinosaurs,” said Linda Antonowich, assistant superintendent for curriculum and staff development at Pennsylvania’s West Chester Area School District. “That’s not exactly bad [if the concepts taught are different], but you have to go back and find out what, exactly, is being taught.”

West Chester has created and deployed its own curriculum mapping program, now that the district has a widespread technology infrastructure in place. At any time, the district’s teachers—roughly 850 of them—will be able to look in a district computer folder to review the lessons taught by fellow educators.

The West Chester technology department created a standard curriculum map form, saved on the district’s server, for each teacher to fill out. Each form contains areas for teachers to record the skills and content they teach and the assessment tools they use. At the top of the form, teachers fill in their name, school, and subject area. After teachers fill out the forms electronically, they resave them on the server.

Teachers, administrators, and an outside consultant say the maps are integral to creating a curriculum with smooth, sensible transitions for students.

Seventh-grade English teacher Michele Curay-Cramer said “it was extremely effective” when teachers in her department at Peirce Middle School sat down in late September to review the lessons they give, looking at the lessons they had logged by month on the computerized forms.

“We realized [that] with grammar, each year everybody was starting with nouns,” she said. “That was a big relief, actually,” because it lightens the load when teachers can skim off what proves to be redundant. As a further example, she said eighth-grade teachers asked seventh-grade teachers to put more focus on writing a paragraph and spend less time on style; they’d cover style instead.

Sixth-grade math teacher John Hogan said the alignment will help streamline the district’s education between school buildings, too.

“It’s going to be a big help in coordinating our curriculum with the elementary and the high school,” said Hogan, who teaches at Fugett Middle School. “In our situation, we get children from four different elementary schools. Some schools have gone further with their math curriculum than others.”

America’s classrooms function like a smattering of one-room schoolhouses, said Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, an international education consultant speaking to teachers from two of the district’s 10 elementary schools. Any one student will have as many as 75 teachers in his or her 13-year primary and secondary school career—and these teachers often aren’t on the same page, even within the same district.

“One of the dilemmas is the isolation of the classroom teachers,” said Hayes-Jacobs, who previously taught high school, junior high, and elementary school children in three states. “If you think there’s gaps between grade levels, there are grand canyons between buildings.

“Nobody knows what’s being taught, really,” she whispered to the elementary teachers who started to write their maps in November. “The person who really knows what happens from year to year is the kid.”

Technology is the vehicle that will deliver the lesson-plan maps to all teachers in the district, helping to bridge those gaps.

Curriculum mapping isn’t actually new, said Hayes-Jacobs, an adjunct professor at the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Columbia University Teachers College. But the maps weren’t effective when they depended on paper and pencil blueprints of classroom lessons. “Technology is central to this work,” she said, as it enables teachers to create an organic document that all staff members have access to.

Hayes-Jacobs, also president of Curriculum Designers Inc., is known for developing the concept of curriculum mapping, according to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Hayes-Jacobs wrote a book published by ASCD, called “Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12,” in 1997.

West Chester teachers use a computerized form in which they write, by month, their curriculum content, the skills children are to acquire, and an assessment of the lessons. For now, the assessment columns are blank.

Now that every teacher has access to computers, the curriculum mapping process will be easier, Antonowich said. “Five years ago, most of the maps would have to be done by hand.” The present goal is to get the middle and elementary schools’ curricula aligned; after that, the high school teachers will get busy filling in their maps, Antonowich said.

In the maps, teachers will “tell us what they teach, not what they think they teach” or what they’re supposed to teach, Antonowich said.

The next step is for the teachers to make sure the classroom lessons are aligned with the state’s education standards. In many ways, West Chester’s curriculum already has been put in synchronization with Pennsylvania’s established education benchmarks, Antonowich said, adding, “What is really taking place is a refinement of the curriculum.”

A curriculum is a living organism that must be given constant attention, and computer technologies facilitate revision, with the computer’s clear message to its user being to revise and alter, said Hayes-Jacobs.

The West Chester district is searching for software capable of sorting through the data in the maps, looking for lesson overlaps. That could be particularly useful, since more and more teachers are collaborating on cross-disciplinary projects.

The Curriculum Designers web site (see link below) contains a list of software programs and other resources that facilitate computer- and network-based curriculum mapping, Hayes-Jacobs said.

A district-wide implementation of the curriculum maps is still several years off in West Chester, but teachers like Curay-Cramer, who began writing their maps last school year, think they’re going to see results in their students soon.

“I think next year and the year after, I’ll notice a difference in the sixth-graders coming to me,” she said.

Links:

West Chester Area School District
http://www.wcasd.k12.pa.us

Columbia University Teachers College
http://www.tc.columbia.edu

Curriculum Designers Inc.
http://www.curriculumdesigners.com

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Accommodating cell phones, other devices could punish education

Because of the burgeoning frequency requirements for cell phones, pagers, and other wireless devices, some school districts could lose substantial funding or incur significant new costs. The risk comes as a result of new spectrum-reallocation proposals now before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC is looking for ways to accommodate new wireless technologies for consumers. Consequently, school districts might be forced to give up a portion of the wireless spectrum that currently supports distance learning and videoconferencing for thousands of students.

In one of many possible FCC scenarios, educators would not lose access to this spectrum entirely. Instead, some school districts that hold licenses in the portion of the spectrum now reserved for educational applications would be moved to another band of frequencies, as the FCC tries to make room for advanced wireless solutions (also called third-generation, or 3G, technologies).

But if that were to happen, some communities could lose their educational services altogether, while others could face new equipment costs, disruption or curtailment of service, lower quality of service, or signal interference, according to Wireless Education Broadband (WEB) NOW, a campaign to preserve the portion of the wireless spectrum devoted to education.

What’s more, school districts stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees if the move were to occur. Many districts now lease their excess spectrum capacity to companies such as WorldCom or Sprint in exchange for computer labs, equipment, broadband access, or cash. If these companies don’t follow the districts to their new frequency channels, such partnerships no longer would apply.

The spectrum battle

According to the FCC, the number of subscribers to wireless services such as mobile cell phones, pagers, and personal digital assistants more than doubled from 1996 to 1999, to more than 86 million users.

As the demand for mobile data services—such as wireless internet access, eMail, and short messaging services—continues to grow, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is developing standards for 3G technologies, estimates that 160 megahertz (MHz) of additional spectrum will be needed to meet the projected requirements of 3G technologies by 2010.

To accommodate this demand, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) Jan. 5, seeking comment on several possible solutions. This NPRM (FCC Document No. 00-455) proposed using any, or all, of five frequency bands currently used for other applications to support emerging 3G technologies.

One of the frequency bands in question, 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz, is shared by the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), a distance-learning technology that has provided educational services to students and teachers since the 1960s, and the Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS), a fixed wireless broadband service provided by a commercial entity.

ITFS licenses are only available to K-12 and higher-education institutions engaged in the formal education of students, or nonprofit organizations providing educational programming for schools and communities.

“There are between 2,000 and 3,000 [ITFS] license holders, and of those, about 750 are K-12 schools,” said Mary Conk, a legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “But what many [people] don’t realize is that ITFS affects not only those license holders, but also any schools in the areas covered by those licenses.”

ITFS is used for a broad range of services, from in-service teacher training to classroom instruction for students.

“Initially, the ITFS spectrum was given out in the 1960s as one-way analog,” said Conk. “Schools have traditionally used the spectrum for internal television stations to deliver professional development.”

About three years ago, ITFS license holders were given the opportunity to use digital technologies—and the results have been “amazing,” Conk said: “Only recently have we been able to do bigger and better things with this, like [offering] high-speed broadband access and wireless [service].”

Almost all of California’s professional development occurs over ITFS, Conk said. California education officials “have used it very effectively for alternative certification classes to get teachers at inner-city schools certified.”

Schools also use the ITFS spectrum to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

“There are lots of schools without the staff to offer an entire [AP] section, and this is a great way to deliver it,” said Conk. But many schools use the ITFS spectrum to offer general courses, too, she added.

For instance, Conk said, Kansas requires its students to take a certain number of foreign language classes to graduate, but many rural schools don’t have the capacity to hire more than one teacher to teach foreign languages. Many of these underserved schools use the ITFS spectrum to offer these courses via distance learning, she said.

Potential impact

According to the FCC, if ITFS has to make room for commercial 3G applications, schools would not have their spectrum taken away entirely; instead, they would be relocated to another part of the spectrum. One plan suggested by the FCC would set aside 90 MHz of the 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz spectrum band for emerging wireless services, leaving 100 MHz for ITFS and MMDS.

Though it’s only one of several possible scenarios, the education community has expressed “major concerns” about moving ITFS from its current portion of the spectrum, said Conk. Besides the disruption in service that could occur, schools also fear they’ll lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from partnerships with MMDS providers using the same spectrum band.

Currently, many school districts operate in a symbiotic relationship with wireless MMDS companies such as WorldCom and Sprint, with the districts allowing these companies to use an extra channel or two in exchange for a fee and the opportunity to develop new wireless technologies at the schools.

“That has been really important, because most schools don’t have the capital to develop wireless technologies by themselves,” said Conk. “If we were [to be] moved, it has been said that our commercial partners would not go with us. They are established in this portion of the spectrum, and the cost for them to change over would be astronomical.” Bob Baker is the director of technology services at Houston Region 4 Education Service Center, an organization that includes 54 school districts and approximately 900,000 students—about 25 percent of the state’s enrollment.

“We’ve been on an ITFS network for 15 years,” Baker said. “We use it for all our traditional distance education programs, including for-credit programs in rural areas, professional development for teachers and administrators, conducting administrative meetings, and going on electronic field trips.”

The Houston service center has had a partnership with its local cable wireless operator, Sprint Broadband Group, for several years.

“They’ve provided us with the access to some wireless cable learning channels, they pay for upgrades and maintenance on the transmitter, they pay for FCC [legal filings], and they pay us a monthly royalty fee,” Baker said.

The service center holds licenses for eight channels in the Houston area, only three of which are used for its own programming. The other five are leased to Sprint.

“My understanding is that the proposed area [of spectrum] we’d be moved to would not be of interest [to Sprint],” said Baker. “We’d be moved for free, but the cost of operating the network would not be recovered from our districts. We’d either have to underwrite it somehow or shut it down.”

The move would mean the loss of $10,000 per month in fees and services to the 54 school districts represented by the service center, he said.

“Without our wireless partners, we’d be dead in the water,” Baker said.

The telcos’ side

In petitions filed with the FCC, some wireless telecommunications carriers that don’t own MMDS licenses have asked the agency to open a portion of the ITFS/MMDS band for 3G use. Many of these companies have cited the fact that current ITFS license holders already lease portions of unused spectrum to commercial companies as evidence that 3G technologies can be accommodated easily on this spectrum band.

For example, Verizon Wireless pointed out that “while it was originally allocated for the transmission of instructional programming, this [2500 MHz to 2690 MHz] band is now predominantly used for commercial purposes. In the past, when the [FCC] determined that spectrum was not being used predominantly for its intended purpose, it has reallocated a portion of the band to accommodate other services needing spectrum. The [FCC] should take the same action here.”

A spokesman for Verizon Wireless declined to comment on the company’s position or how it may affect current ITFS license holders.

Groups such as AASA and the National ITFS Association, which launched WEB NOW, are urging educators to contact their legislators and the FCC to express their concern with the potential relocation of ITFS.

FCC spokesman Brad Lerner said the agency could not comment about ITFS and 3G at this time, because its “notice of proposed rule making” is still pending.

“It’s a restrictive proceeding, so we can’t answer specific questions at this time,” said Lerner. “But I can say we have made no decisions yet, and [moving ITFS] is only one option we’re discussing.”

Links:

FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making
http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Engineering_Technology/Notices/2000/fcc00455.pdf

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

Houston Region 4 Education Service Center
http://www.esc4.net

National ITFS Association
http://www.itfs.org

WEB NOW
http://www.itfs.org/webnow

Verizon Wireless
http://www.verizonwireless.com

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Bush administration backs away from plan to overhaul eRate

For the first time since President George W. Bush released his education plan, “No Child Left Behind,” in January, there are indications the Bush administration will not seek to merge the Federal Communications Commission’s eRate program into a state-based block grant with other technology programs administered by the Department of Education.

In his testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce March 7th, Education Secretary Roderick Paige said Bush would not try to change the structure of the eRate, despite the president’s earlier statements to the contrary. Paige’s comment came during a hearing in which he testified about the President’s education plan. Congress is expected to tackle the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Kozburg confirmed Paige’s statement, saying Bush’s plan aims to consolidate six ESEA technology grants into a single block grant that—at this time—does not include the eRate.

“It’s not something that’s happening with this round of consolidations,” Kozburg said of restructuring the eRate. “What we are persuing right now is [the consolidation of] programs that are currently [administered by] the Department of Education.”

However, Kozburg said, the Bush administration continues to explore whether it would be feasible to merge the eRate into this single block grant at a later date.

“We are certainly reviewing whether we can, and should, consolidate the eRate,” Kozburg said. “It’s still going through a review process.”

The news was welcomed by key education groups that had lobbied the new administration to keep the eRate as a separate program administered by the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., under the direction of the FCC.

In February, the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking issued a joint position paper saying, in part, “Calls for the eRate to be moved to the Department of Education and folded into block grants are misguided. Not only is the legal authority for such action unresolved … but ending the program and placing it in the annual appropriations process would jeopardize the security of its funding and undermine the careful technology planning of thousands of eRate participants…”

“CoSN and other members of EdLiNC [the Education and Libraries Network Coalition, another eRate supporter] are pleased that the administration has backed away from folding the eRate into the Education Department,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director.

As for extending the review process to determine whether it’s feasible to consolidate the eRate with other programs, Krueger said, “It’s probably been the most studied, most audited federal program,” but subjecting it to this process gives the eRate the chance to convert more supporters.

Currently, the eRate is written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a universal service program paid for by telecommunications carriers. The eRate provides discounts to schools and libraries of up to $2.25 billion on telecommunications services.

Applying for eRate discounts is a complicated process, however, and some school officials said they would welcome the simplification that presumably would occur if the program were to be merged with Department of Education funding.

In other eRate news, the SLD announced that demand for Year Four of the eRate is estimated at $5.787 billion—an all-time high—from 37,188 applications.

In fact, SLD predicts it won’t be able to fund internal connections (the wiring, routers, and switches necessary to bring internet access into classrooms) for even the neediest schools—those eligible for 90-percent discounts—for the first time ever.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

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