“Parlo” parlays online lessons into foreign language fluency

Parlo’s unique Virtual Immersion method of language learning enables students to enjoy a “study abroad” experience without having to leave the comfort of their computers. Students can visit the Parlo.com web site to enroll in premium online courses with enhanced audio and interactivity, as well as a wide range of free eMail lessons in French, Spanish, English, and Italian, with German coming soon. Parlo’s site also features pen pals, magazine articles, teachers’ materials, and shopping opportunities. This site is a great way for educators to supplement language learning in the classroom. Parlo offers a variety of materials that teachers can use to enhance the language immersion experience for students. Teachers can choose which lesson topic suits the needs of their students most. Dialogs, grammar explanations and exercises, reading selections, pronunciation activities, and quizzes can help emphasize important concepts learned in class and provide extra practice for students who need help with particular language skills. Students are encouraged to take a diagnostic test in their chosen language of study in order to help Parlo place them at the right level for lessons and chat rooms. Language Curriculum teams consist of top language teachers, linguists, publishers, and ESL specialists, with focused knowledge in technology and distance learning. Full online courses cost approximately $39 to $49 each.
http://www.parlo.com

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The landscape is changing for technology grant seekers

It’s the first few weeks of the new administration and everyone is wondering what changes the Bush administration will bring. As a grant writer, I am wondering how the federal and state funding landscape will change. Will there be new initiatives, an emphasis on new areas, or the demise of programs we became accustomed to the last eight years?

Here are some of my thoughts about what we may see, based solely on what I have read so far about President George W. Bush’s plans for education and conversations I have had with colleagues in the past few weeks. (Don’t be under the impression that I have “inside” information from the Beltway!)

In the education plan that Bush released in January, he proposed establishing a $3 billion technology fund. However, this fund would be a consolidation of eRate funds along with eight Department of Education technology programs that are part of Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. States and schools would have flexibility in using the technology funds for teacher training, software purchase and development, and systems integration.

What could this consolidation mean? From a grant-seeking perspective, it could mean fewer proposals to submit–a welcome change for many districts that do not have a grant writer on staff. The consolidation of programs may result in block grants, where schools would submit one application requesting funds and indicate which particular programs they want to be considered for (similar to the Community Development Block Grant program).

Although this could simplify the application process immensely, it might also mean a reduction in funding. States would have the authority, through block granting, to realign funding–and this does not necessarily mean that levels would remain the same as they were before the block grants were instituted. Some of my colleagues fear a significant reduction in eRate funds or, in the worst-case scenario, the elimination of funds. The same also could be said for any one of the technology programs in the Department of Education that are selected for consolidation.

Ultimately, what could occur is an increase in applications for the block grants (because of the simplification of the process), combined with less money being available. The result could be an even higher degree of competition for dollars than already exists. As grant seekers, we can do our part by lobbying our state and federal representatives to preserve funding levels for technology-related programs.

Will there be a shift in priority areas for education funding? According to Education Secretary Rod Paige (Education Week, January 17), “Core agenda items of the Bush administration include imposing new accountability demands on states and schools, providing more local control of federal funds, increasing parental choice, raising child literacy rates, improving school safety, and closing the achievement gaps between students of different family backgrounds.”

Some of these areas are not new. But the Bush plan is marked by an increased emphasis on reading, especially at an early age. One of President Bush’s campaign proposals was to establish a new $5 billion initiative to ensure that all students learn to read by the third grade, with an emphasis on disadvantaged children. Participating states in the initiative would be required to include phonics-based instruction in their programs, train K-2 teachers in reading preparation, and test students in reading in grades three through eight.

Note, also, that Bush would like to move the Head Start preschool program to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services. In the Education Week article, Secretary Paige stated, “I do not feel that the broad range of services by Head Start should be discontinued, but early education, especially reading, should become the centerpiece.”

An increase in accountability could result in increased student testing, which Bush strongly advocates, and an increased emphasis on the program-evaluation components of grant-funded projects. Reviewers may be looking for significant levels of testing of students to support an applicant’s assertion that his or her project will increase student achievement.

In addition, applicants may be asked more frequently to select research-based solutions to problems and to include the data that show the impact of these solutions on student learning. Vendors of software solutions should be collecting data showing their products’ impact beyond the testimonials of classroom teachers, because future grant seekers will be requesting this type of information from them.

Of course, these are only observations based on the few details we have of the Bush plan so far. I’d welcome any comments from readers who might disagree.

Whatever changes will occur under the new administration, they are unlikely to affect the current funding cycle for federal grant programs. But savvy grant seekers should keep an eye on future developments that could result in a whole new grant-seeking landscape next year.

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VISION brings eLearning to Oklahoma schools

Oklahoma education officials on Jan. 22 announced a pilot program to create a sophisticated “virtual network” of courses and services available via the internet to schools, libraries, and homes throughout the state.

The Virtual Internet School in Oklahoma Network (VISION) program, expected to launch before the end of March, will include an online curriculum that will offer algebra and other math courses for students in the fourth and seventh grades at nine pilot schools. If the program is successful, other subjects would be made available statewide.

“One of our greatest difficulties in Oklahoma is having equal access to education,” State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said during a presentation to administrators, legislators, and corporate partners. “From the smallest, most remote schools to the urban, inner-city schools, this [project] will ensure equal opportunity.”

But Garrett said VISION encompasses far more than just distance learning. “What we’re really talking about is a total managed learning system,” she said.

The project will contain a relational database that tracks all aspects of learning, from student records to human resources information. It also will include an eBusiness component that tracks costs and expenditures and allows for online purchasing and accounting.

The pilot program is expected to be implemented within 18 months, said Garrett.

Legislators approved the program last year. Since then, state education officials have been working with administrators, teachers, and corporate partners to figure out how to implement the program.

Corporate partners include Intel Corp., JES & Co., Microsoft, Dell Computer, SAP, and Ignite!, an Austin, Texas-based company run by Neil Bush, a younger brother of President George W. Bush.

Dell is providing servers for the project, while Intel is providing support for the servers and some hardware. Garrett said SAP will be the primary software provider.

Oklahoma City’s Western Heights is one of the nine school districts involved in the pilot. Western Heights Superintendent Joe Kitchens said the program’s online curriculum will include high-quality video streaming, along with two-way videoconferencing and traditional text and graphics. The online courses could be offered as stand-alone lessons or as a supplement to classroom instruction.

“It reaches the students when, where, and how they need to be reached. Some students are visual learners. Some are auditory learners. This can play to their strengths,” Kitchens said.

To take advantage of the technology, schools will need a T-1 or DS-3 (45-megabit) connection. Many Oklahoma schools already have the necessary degree of connectivity thanks to the state’s Onenet project, initiated in 1993 to upgrade the state’s technology capabilities.

The nine pilot districts and eight other districts also have formed a cooperative in hopes of qualifying for $20 million in eRate discounts to make additional infrastructure improvements next year.

The project’s eBusiness component would enable districts to integrate academics with management in a way not previously possible, Garrett said. It would help schools better manage their money, through the use of student and management data to identify which academic programs work best and most efficiently.

Such a system also would allow districts to submit their financial data to the state Education Department electronically.

Chief state school officers from Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maine, Virginia, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were invited to a technical briefing at the Oklahoma State Capitol to hear the details of the project. The school leaders were chosen for participation because their states have similar or related projects.

Links

Oklahoma State Department of Education
http://sde.state.ok.us

Western Heights School District
http://www.westernheights.k12.ok.us

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Contract lets Arizona schools join web fast lane

High-speed internet access and streaming video is headed to each Arizona public school, thanks to a $100 million contract awarded Feb. 1 to Qwest Communications.

The contract, approved by the state School Facilities Board, will link a district’s computers to allow for instant communication and the sharing of documents. As part of the contract, Qwest will provide toll-free, 24-hour technical support for at least 18 months after installation.

Putting computers in the schools and creating a computer network system are mandated under Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today) legislation.

Although all districts can benefit from the program, it stands to have the most effect in Arizona’s rural districts, said Phil Geiger, executive director of the School Facilities Board.

“This will get them to be part of the ballgame. This will make it all happen,” he told the Arizona Republic.

School districts will find out in a conference later this month how and when the computer networks will be installed.

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Kansas House approves bill linking schools, libraries, hospitals

The Kansas House of Representatives approved an act Jan. 25 creating a technology network linking schools, libraries, colleges, and hospitals.

Known as the KAN-ED Act, the bill would link the state’s institutions with a broadband network that provides high-speed internet access, distance learning, and medical evaluation.

The act was approved 114-8, sending it to the Senate. Funding for the network would be contained in a separate bill.

Schools and libraries would begin connecting to the network by July 1, 2002. Hospitals have until July 1, 2003. A nine-member board would oversee the network, which would be maintained by the private sector.

Rep. Carl Krehbiel, R-Moundridge, said the state stood to get federal funding for the network. Other funds could come from the $68 million in new spending Gov. Bill Graves has recommended for education.

“The state is going to need to put something up,” said Krehbiel, a member of the Utilities Committee, which sponsored the bill. “It will probably have to be a few million dollars to demonstrate the state’s commitment.”

Krehbiel said the bill stood a better chance of passage this session than last.

“The bill failed in the Senate last year primarily because a state agency was going to run [the network] and the telecommunications industry had been left out,” he said.

The KAN-ED act is HB 2035.

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‘Rolling blackouts’ threaten California school tech programs

As California’s energy crisis worsens, skyrocketing power bills and rolling blackouts are holding many of the state’s school districts–and their technology programs–hostage.

“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve had no blackouts at all, and all our servers have battery backups,” said Kitty Sanchez-Pfeiffer, director of technology at San Marcos Unified School District (K-12, enrollment 12,000). “We’ve also told our schools to shut their client machines down if there is enough warning–but, of course, if the blackouts come without warning, the client machines will just go down with the power.”

Jamie Morse, director of technology for the Cambrian School District (K-12, enrollment 3,000) in West San Jose, agreed on the importance of power backups for the district’s all-important servers.

“Thankfully, all our servers have uninterruptible power supplies, or UPS, so they will shut down gracefully if a power outage occurs, rather than crash,” he said.

Morse said his district has yet to experience a blackout, “but basically, we are at the mercy of the power company.”

Most observers consider the Golden State’s current energy crisis to be a direct result of attempts to deregulate the industry over the past few years.

A rate freeze, part of California’s 1996 deregulation law, was established at what was then a generous level to assure utilities a steady stream of revenue as they sold off power plants and made the transition to deregulation. But last year, the price of wholesale electricity skyrocketed.

Because of the rate freeze, the state’s public utilities–which usually buy power for roughly 30 cents a kilowatt-hour–could charge customers only about a fifth of that amount, leaving many utilities serving California operating at a loss.

Electric companies have been selling their power to other states with less severe regulations, resulting in a lack of affordable power throughout the state. And that lack of power is affecting schools’ ability to operate.

Tony Hesch, field consultant for the California Department of Education, identified three possible scenarios that could result from the energy crisis.

“First, there are the rolling one-hour blackouts,” he said. “They are applied where the energy grid is short on power, and they may not hit every community. When they hit, most schools continue to operate, but the schools might go into a ‘study mode’ where they discuss electricity, power outages, and the current problems.”

Second, explained Hesch, is the possibility of more severe blackouts.

“In theory, if the energy isn’t shut down periodically with the rolling blackouts, a large portion of the state could go out,” he said. “In a school environment, we have to prepare for the worst, like what happens when an entire plant goes down.”

Finally, Hesch cited problems with some California districts that signed up to buy power at discounted rates years ago, when deregulation first started. “The really low rates were what we call ‘interruptible contracts,'” he said. “What that means is that the company will provide you with power, but when power is short–like it is right now–you’re expected to turn your power off.”

To make matters worse, nervous school administrators have no way of knowing when a blackout will hit their schools.

“We don’t announce it in advance for security reasons,” Ron Low, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) representative, told the Associated Press. “We don’t want burglars to know where the power’s going to be off and where security alarms are going to be down.”

Security concerns aside, the state’s two largest utilities say there often isn’t enough time to issue such warnings.

But that leaves schools with hard decisions about how to teach.

“Imagine holding a computer class when you know that a rolling blackout might take down the power at any time,” said Hesch. “It’s hard to decide whether to go ahead and power up, and it’s also hard to find alternative curriculum.”

A ‘real hardship’

The threat of losing power isn’t the only peril facing California schools. With prices escalating, some schools have had to reassess the way they use their increasingly precious power supply–including the possibility of limiting computer use.

Some schools have seen their rates go up to as much as $9 per kilowatt-hour, Hesch said.

“They were spending more money on electricity than was in their entire general fund,” he added. “At least four schools that I know of have had to close for a prolonged period of time. They are all back up now, but that could happen again.”

California Gov. Gray Davis used his Dec. 8 State of the State address to take his toughest stance yet on California’s electricity crunch, threatening to take over power plants to avoid blackouts and utility bankruptcies. But many school officials think the situation will get worse before it improves.

“In my opinion, we are looking at probably another 15 [percent] to 20 percent increase [in power bills] before this gets better,” said Morse.

Morse said his district is taking several steps to limit its power consumption–but, so far, none of these have involved limiting computer use. “We just make sure our maintenance crews are ensuring that the timers on the heating [controls] are working properly. They are supposed to turn off automatically at night, but you have to check up on that,” he said. “We’ve also told teachers and janitors to ensure that everything is turned off [when not in use], including lights, PCs, and classroom equipment.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer agreed: “We are trying to conserve in other areas. It’s difficult to conserve energy when it comes to technology. But in my office, for instance, I have three fluorescent lights and we took out one, so it’s a little darker, but more energy-efficient.”

Most of the time, Sanchez-Pfeiffer explained, districts are unwilling to change their patterns where students are concerned.

“Right now, everything remains as we normally function,” she said. “We really try to protect our hardware, internet access, and the curriculum we deliver electronically.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer said the city of San Marcos, the school district, and California State University at San Marcos are looking into other power sources, and district officials have notified school sites to shut down computers not being used.

“The problem is that we’ve found most of the computers in our district are being used,” she said–a situation that usually would be enviable.

Some observers wonder if the state’s energy crunch will force school districts to cut their technology budgets if it continues much longer.

“We are stressing that schools be prepared,” said Hesch. “The districts are doing a good job and rising to the challenge, but if this goes on for months, it will be a real hardship.”

Links:

San Marcos Unified School District
http://www.smusd.k12.ca.us

Cambrian School District
http://www.cambrian.k12.ca.us

California Department of Education Energy Challenge
http://www.cde.ca.gov/facilities/energyefficiency

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eMail messages from around the globe spark third-grade geography

An eMail message that a Durham, N.C., third-grade teacher sent to spur her students’ interest in geography also has taught them about the power of the internet.

Nicole Thompson’s students can tell you all about the penguins and killer whales in Antarctica. They also know about the months of darkness that grip Iceland each year and the tea that grows in Darjeeling, India.

The Greenbriar Academy children learned those facts, and countless more, thanks to a simple eMail message from Thompson that has raced around the globe and brought more than 20,000 responses in six weeks.

“It’s crazy, just crazy,” Thompson said. “At most, I thought we’d get about 2,000 replies.”

In early December, Thompson sent a note to about 100 people, mostly friends and relatives or those of her students’ parents. She asked the recipients to forward her eMail to people they know in other states or countries and to urge those people to write to her class.

She hoped the exercise would make geography lessons more interesting for her students at Greenbriar, a small private school.

As the messages started pouring in from every direction, Thompson realized she had greatly underestimated the power of the internet. By mid-January, messages had arrived from all 50 states, 87 countries, and each of the seven continents.

A chart at the front of Thompson’s classroom listed each nation she and the children had heard from. As more messages arrived, the children colored in each new country on a world map.

The children heard from a missionary in Tonga, an English teacher in Mongolia, a business owner in Israel, and a civilian worker at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I know where Mongolia is,” said 9-year-old Hunter Frank. “It’s easy to find on the map. Russia is even easier.”

One of the most interesting notes, Thompson said, came from a carpenter named John Ackley living at a research station in Antarctica.

“I am at McMurdo Station, which is about 800 miles from the South Pole,” Ackley wrote. “Temperatures are not too bad this time of year. Over the past three weeks, it has been around zero to 35 above zero. Not what you might expect from the coldest continent on Earth.”

Ackley sent photographs of killer whales and other life found in Antarctica, as well as shots of his surroundings.

Messages like that keep school fresh and exciting, Thompson said, and that helps children learn.

“I want to go to Antarctica,” said 8-year-old Caitie Attarian. “I also want to see Greenland. I just think it would be really neat.”

Thompson initially planned to end the project when the children had heard from all seven continents, but now she has set her sights a little higher. The new goal is to collect messages from every country recognized by the United Nations.

Some of the stragglers she is still waiting for include Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. But with more than 1,000 eMail messages arriving some days, Thompson figures it’s only a matter of time until the map is completely colored in.

“The kids are thrilled with this,” she said. “They just can’t wait to get to class.”

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Free-speech groups sue to block filtering law

School officials worried about compliance with the new internet filtering law may not have to choose between installing filters or relinquishing federal funds–that is, if such groups as the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have anything to say about the issue.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), signed into law Dec. 21 as part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill, has come under fire from school groups and First Amendment activists who say it is unconstitutional to mandate filtering in schools.

On Jan. 18, the ALA’s executive board voted to file a lawsuit challenging CIPA, which is scheduled to take effect April 20. The decision came after more than a week of intense discussion among the association’s members.

The ALA contends the act is unconstitutional and creates an infringement of First Amendment protections.

The federal filtering mandate, which was spearheaded by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., would require libraries and schools to install content filters on all computers that offer internet access to minors as a prerequisite to receiving federal technology funds.

According to the McCain camp, “There is ample precedent for conditioning receipt of federal assistance.”

Perhaps, but ALA officials argue that “no filtering software successfully differentiates constitutionally protected speech from illegal speech on the internet.”

An ALA announcement also cited a recent report by the Congressional Web-based Education Commission, a bipartisan commission charged with gathering evidence about online learning. That group found internet filtering to be far from perfect, based on witness testimony.

“Even the federal commission appointed to study child safety on the internet concluded [that] filters are not effective in blocking all content that some may find objectionable, but they do block much useful and constitutionally protected information,” said the ALA.

And the ALA is not the only organization taking legal action against CIPA.

“This is nothing less than Big Brother in the classroom,” said Ann Beeson, ACLU national staff attorney and cyberlaw expert. Her statement came in 1998, when the legislation was first proposed in the Senate. “We believe that educators, not Congress, should be the ones making decisions about what students can learn on the internet,” she said.

At press time, the ACLU was gearing up to challenge the law in federal court, possibly in Philadelphia. However, the group has not yet decided whether its lawsuit would address the school-based filtering requirements.

Why the lawsuits?

Opponents of the law say its intentions may be laudable, but it nevertheless tramples on important constitutional rights.

“The technology just isn’t sufficient,” said Nancy Willard, a research associate at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education. Willard said that internet filters inevitably “overblock,” or exclude, sites that are constitutionally protected.

And that’s just one of the reasons the ALA has decided to step into the fracas, according to Judith Krug, director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom.

“We are firmly convinced that the types of decisions about protecting young people–and older people, for that matter–should be local decisions and have nothing to do with the federal government,” said Krug.

Krug said she knows of some real “horror stories” from districts that have had problems with filters.

“For instance, I know of one school system that can’t access any American Indian sites because some sites use peyote–a mind-altering drug–in some of their tribal rituals, so this filter blocked all Native American sites,” she said.

“And during the Mars shot–a major scientific event–many schools could not access online resources, because the URL was www.marsexpl.org and the word ‘sex’ was right in the middle of it.”

Besides First Amendment issues, accountability is another sticking point for critics of the law. According to Willard, companies such as Cyberpatrol, Net Nanny, and N2H2 will not reveal the lists of sites they block.

“All of the major filtering companies protect their lists of blocked sites fiercely. They say they can’t reveal them because they are trade secrets, so no one will give accurate information about what is actually being blocked,” she explained. “There has been no effective analysis to determine the effectiveness of their blocking.”

And those worried about the merits of internet filtering see even more insidious repercussions for schools and libraries: namely, a new way to widen the so-called digital divide, the economic and societal gap that separates those who are connected to the internet and those who are not.

“The problem is that there are so many people who don’t have any access to the internet except through schools and libraries, and what we’re doing is giving them an imperfect device,” said Krug.

Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said the law “may be a violation of the equal protection clause” of the Constitution, because many minorities only have access to the internet through schools and libraries.

Defenders speak out

McCain is confident the law will not be overturned in court.

“When a school or library accepts federal dollars through the universal service fund, [it becomes] a partner with the federal government in pursuing the compelling interest of protecting children,” he said.

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that schools have the authority to remove inappropriate books from school libraries. The internet is simply another method for making information available in a school or library.”

Pia Pialorsi, a spokeswoman for the Senate Commerce Committee that McCain chairs, said the senator “has every confidence that the bill will pass constitutional muster, because it does not dictate what technology the library or school has to use, and [it] does not dictate what they have to filter out.”

In 1998, a federal judge ruled that the community of Loudoun County, Virginia, violated free expression rights by screening access to internet sites on all computers in its public libraries. But observers say the current law is different, because it mandates filters only on machines used by minors.

McCain also dismisses the charge that filters are ineffective and unavoidably block useful material.

Quoting the testimony of Peter Nickerson, chief executive officer of Net Nanny Software, to the Senate, McCain said, “A general perception exists that internet filtering is seriously flawed and in many situations unusable. … These notions are naive and based largely on problems associated with earlier versions of client-based software that are admittedly crude and ineffective.”

While some inferior filtering products still exist, McCain said, filtering is now highly effective, well-received by educators, and in high demand. Most problems with filtering software today are the result of users not taking the time to learn how to customize the software to screen only objectionable content, supporters of the law claim.

According to the ALA web site, schools need not rush out and buy filters to comply with CIPA just yet. The organization advises schools to bide their time and await the result of legal action before making any major investments.

“My advice to schools is the same as the ALA’s,” said Willard. “Don’t do anything yet. There are no regulations yet, and there’s at least a year and a half before [the courts will resolve this issue].”

Links:

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
http://www.senate.gov/~mccain

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Fingerprint technology speeds school lunch lines

Some Pennsylvania schools are testing a fingerprinting program that lets pupils pay for chicken nuggets, sloppy joes, pizza, and other cafeteria delicacies without ever carrying cash.

If the program proves successful, the little ridges on index fingers eventually could make school lunch money and lunch-line bullies things of the past.

“It’s certainly a lot faster,” said Linda Kelly, cafeteria manager at Welsh Valley Middle School, about 10 miles from Philadelphia.

The program doesn’t use a complete fingerprint; instead, it relies on a computer program to match 27 mapped points on a finger. Even so, the technology remains controversial.

The Penn Cambria School District, about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh, began the program in August 1999 and plans to use it in all five of its schools by next year. To avoid controversy, administrators never used the word “fingerprint.”

“We say ‘finger-image’ or ‘finger-picture,'” said Milton Miller, Penn Cambria’s director of food services.

The program has sped up the high school lunch line, which has been growing with the student population.

The other benefits? “One, no lost [ID] cards; two, no one can access another person’s account with a lost PIN number; three, it’s good for the parents. The money is in the account, and they know that the money is only being spent on school lunches,” Miller said.

Another advantage of the program, which also is used in the Tussey Mountain School District in central Pennsylvania, is that students who receive free and reduced-price lunches aren’t embarrassed by having their names checked off a list or by turning in lunch tickets while their classmates pay cash in cafeteria lines.

“At 16 years old, the last thing you want to be known as is poor,” said Mitch Johnson, president of Food Service Solutions, the Altoona-based firm that installed the program. To the best of his knowledge, he said, the system is unique to Pennsylvania.

Johnson said the program, which will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 per lunch lane, was developed to help schools comply with a federal law that says schools can’t overtly identify those receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits,” said David Magill, the Lower Merion School District superintendent. “They won’t be stigmatized.”

His growing district just wants to find the most efficient system that will get a couple of hundred children through lunch lines in 40 minutes with time to eat, Magill said.

“What we’re really looking for is the system that works the best,” he said. Because the program is in the testing phase, the district is not paying for it.

Some cafeteria customers still have doubts about whether fingerprinting is the right program.

Ian Murry, 13, bypassed the fingerprint system and went straight for his wallet during lunch at Welsh Valley Middle School. “I don’t like it,” Murry said. “It doesn’t always work. Then the line gets slower.”

Tawanda Worthy, on the other hand, said she approved of the program, new at her school this year. “You don’t have to bring lunch money, so somebody can’t take it,” she said.

So far, a minority of the middle school’s 700 children have declined to be fingerprinted. “They think the FBI’s going to get them or something,” said Kelly, the cafeteria manager.

Magill said he hasn’t heard any negative input from parents regarding the program. He knows fingerprinting children could raise a few eyebrows, however, and he rejects Orwellian theories.

“We’re not using fingerprints for anything other than a quick way of identifying the student in the cafeteria line,” he said.

In Michigan, privacy concerns have made it against the law for schools to use electronic fingerprinting.

Citing a 1985 law called the Child Identification and Protection Act, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm ruled Dec. 12 that school districts in Michigan can’t use electronic fingerprinting technology to identify a child for school-related purposes.

Granholm’s ruling came in response to a query from state Sen. Ken Sikkema, who said a constituent of his was interested in the finger-imaging technology and asked if it were allowed in schools.

Links

Penn Cambria School District
http://www.pcam.org

Food Service Solutions
http://www.foodserve.com

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AFT releases standard for online learning

A new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recommends a broad set of guidelines for ensuring successful instructional outcomes in the evolving realm of online education.

The report, released Jan. 17, outlines a set of “quality standards” for distance education programs at the college level. It calls for, among other things, clear standards for content, technical support and counseling for students, protection of intellectual property rights, and proper training for faculty.

But AFT officials believe the standards can–and should–apply to online programs at the K-12 level as well.

“Distance Learning Guidelines for Good Practice” is based on a survey of AFT members who teach distance-learning classes, as well as previous studies by the union and a resolution at AFT’s last convention. The report includes the following recommendations, among others:

Distance-education students should be given advance information about course requirements, equipment needs, and techniques for succeeding in a distance-learning environment, as well as technical training and support throughout the course.

Close personal interaction should be maintained among students and teachers.

Equivalent library materials and research opportunities should be made available to distance-education students.

Assessment of student knowledge, skills, and performance should be as rigorous as in classroom-based courses.

Academic counseling and advising should be available in distance education to the same extent that it is for students in more-traditional environments.

Faculty should shape, approve, and evaluate distance-education classes. Faculty members need to be adequately compensated and provided with the necessary time, training, and technical support to develop and conduct online classes.

Full undergraduate degree programs (and, presumably, full elementary or secondary school programs) also should include classroom-based coursework, with exceptions made for students who are truly unable to come to classes, for whatever reason.

According to AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz, “Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice” is the result of member cooperation and outside research at the AFT.

Four years ago, the group commissioned a research project on distance education from the Institute for Higher Education Policy at the request of AFT members who wanted to learn more about the subject.

“Essentially, we wanted to look at distance learning in a very open-minded way, and what we found was that there was a dearth of research available,” Horwitz said.

The study found that some classes lend themselves to distance education more easily than others, he said. The AFT resolved to provide some guidelines to help educators successfully implement online learning programs.

“While online and distance learning are, in general, good options for taking a particular course or set of courses, this does not automatically mean that it is acceptable for an entire undergraduate degree program to have no in-class component,” said AFT President Sandra Feldman.

And this goes for the K-12 level, too, Horwitz said.

“Higher education foreshadows what may come along in K-12. Our members still advocate some in-person education at the undergraduate level, and I think they would feel even more strongly about the necessity of that for K-12 [education],” he said. “We believe the lower [in grade level] you go, the more you need real human interaction.”

The AFT tempers its praise for distance education with some real-life concerns about the benefits of educational programs offered entirely online. Large-scale, all-online K-12 institutions–such as the newly announced K12 Online School, led by conservative William Bennett–may not be right for every student, officials said.

“Is it really good to take a chemistry class, like the one that Bennett plans to offer, with animated beakers and Bunsen burners?” asked Horwitz. “A class where the students never smell the sulfur, conduct hands-on experiments, or learn about the importance of safety conditions in a lab? It just seems unrealistic.”

Only certain types of learners will prove successful with internet-based learning, Horwitz said: “It’s good for self-motivated learners, but most students have a real need for a personal connection.”

Educators who run online programs at the K-12 level generally agreed with the AFT’s recommendations.

“Overall, these are things that we value at my institution,” said Kathi Baldwin, educational technologist for the SeeUonline virtual school in Palmer, Alaska. “We definitely value student-teacher relationships, but we know that online education is not for every student. It can be good for some students and horrible for others.”

But Baldwin took exception to the implication that online simulations can’t provide a comparable experience for some students.

“I’d put a large caution on saying any class has to do this or has to do that,” she said. “To me, the real test of a good distance learning program is this: Is it as good, or better, than what I can take face to face?”

Links:

Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice
http://www.aft.org/higher_ed/technology

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