Students build their own high-speed computers

Some students at Fort Frye High School in Beverly, Ohio, are becoming quite knowledgeable about computers while saving their school district thousands of dollars.

Students in the school’s advanced industrial technology class are custom-building their own computer systems, helping to increase the number of computers in schools throughout the Fort Frye district.

“Some of these kids were really scared when they started this, and now they have more confidence and are getting really good at it,” said industrial technology teacher Andy Ring.

Brooke Buckley, technology coordinator for the Fort Frye school system, said the district was able to save more than $30,000 by building its own computer systems. With help from other funds, including private donations, the school system was able to build the computers for half what they would have cost brand-new, Buckley said.

According to Buckley, there were two main goals for the project. The first was to give Ring’s technology classes their own lab. Prior to the computer-building instruction, his students had been sharing a computer lab with the rest of the school. Ring said his students now have 10 Pentiums for their own use.

The district also wanted to get rid of its old, slow, unreliable 486 machines, Buckely said. The industrial technology class has replaced every one of these old computers and even has donated some of the new units to the local elementary school.

Funding for the project came from SchoolNet Plus, an Ohio technology program that initially provided funding for schools to get wired and later moved into funding computers in schools.

“Our technology coordinator was looking for a way to stretch the dollar,” said Ring, adding that the eight students enrolled in the industrial technology class have built 49 computers to date.

“I always wanted to learn [how to do this] but never had the chance,” said 18-year-old Blake McCurdy, a senior from Beverly, about 80 miles southeast of Columbus. “Now, kids won’t have to wait to get on computers.”

The students, some of whom wouldn’t have known how to open a computer case before the training, built the computers from the casing up.

Ring started by talking about the components of a computer and how they all work together.

“Then I put a machine together with them, and we just continued on through,” he said. “The first one took about three class periods. At the end we had them down to one computer per class, per student.”

“We knew we wanted those 49 computers to be very high quality,” said Buckley. She bought parts for the students to build Intel Pentium III machines, and students were in charge of installing video cards, sound cards, hard drives, memory, the motherboard, the processors, CPU fans, network cards, CD-ROM drives, and 3.5-inch floppy disk drives.

Ring laughs at how many students come to class telling him they now poke around inside their home computers.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” said Buckley. “When we first told the kids what they were going to be doing, they were like, ‘How do you think we’re going to do this?’ But Andy Ring just worked with them, and they eventually became comfortable with the process.”

Ring and his students built the systems working side by side, installing hardware into the casing bit by bit and component by component.

After a couple of weeks, Ring said, he found a number of his students working independently, and systems were completed in just a matter of days.

“I had a couple of students express interest in computers as a career when we first started, and this has reinforced that for them,” said Ring. He also said interest in the advanced industrial technology class has taken off.

“I had one kid talking to me just the other day, and he kept saying how ‘cool’ it was that he could do this stuff,” said Ring.

And there’s another benefit to training students to build and repair computers: While kids receive invaluable experience, the district gains a knowledgeable resource. Now, students can help the school with their computer expertise, fixing broken machines and installing software.

“Obviously it is cost-effective to have a group of kids with these skills, but more important is the knowledge this training gives the students,” said Buckley.

Ring said he thinks there might be enough interest to develop a class geared toward computer hardware and upgrades.

The computer systems easily can be improved in-house, he said: “If we want to make upgrades in two years, we won’t have to go out and buy new computers.”

The district is looking for funding to keep the program going for another year, as it’s a fairly expensive class to maintain.

“The state has cut SchoolNet funding for the next year. That means there won’t be any money coming down for equipment, so we are looking to other sources for funding,” said Buckley.

“We get better discounts if we buy 49 computers than if we just buy a couple,” she said. “It would be great to come up with another $30,000, but we’d settle for $20,000.”

Links:

Fort Frye Local School District
http://www.seovec.org/

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Alabama reopens bidding process for schools’ internet contract

Alabama has reopened the bidding for a contract to connect the state’s public schools to the internet amid complaints that the original process was unfair.

“There was just too much confusion,” said Ted Hosp, Gov. Don Siegelman’s legal adviser.

The apparent front-runner for the contract, valued at about $30 million over three years, was Trillion Digital Communications of Bessemer.

However, Trillion’s competitors and Republican legislators say the company had an unfair advantage because it had been chosen by the Democratic Siegelman administration to inventory computers in Alabama public schools, according to reports in the Mobile Register and the Birmingham News.

Like Trillion, the Siegelman administration denies any attempt to rig the bids.

“If the fix were in, the governor would not have canceled the bid,” Hosp told the Register in a story May 26. “Once the administration became aware of the confusion surrounding the bid process, that we canceled it is a very strong statement for the good faith of the administration.”

The three-person Public School and College Authority awarded Trillion a $789,998 contract without bidding in May 2000. The assessment was conducted to develop spending plans for internet connections and computer purchases.

Siegelman, state school Superintendent Ed Richardson, and state Finance Director Henry Mabry, a Siegelman appointee, serve on the authority. Richardson said he was not involved in the decision.

The project is designed to use money from the federal eRate program, which gives the biggest discounts on telecommunications services to the poorest school systems.

Hosp and Siegelman’s chief of staff, Paul Hamrick, said the administration wanted to implement the program quickly to upgrade schools.

Hamrick told the News in a story May 27 that Trillion approached the administration about putting the eRate money to use statewide.

Trillion’s web site says the company provides internet equipment and service to 43 percent of Alabama’s public schools, including pending contracts.

The state solicited bids for getting schools online in December. The low bid of $26 million a year came from Contact Network. Trillion’s bid was $31 million.

The committee that reviewed the bids in January said Trillion met more of the bid specifications, but left the final decision to the Siegelman administration.

On Feb. 6, the state canceled the contract because of procedural questions and a shortage of matching state money for the federal program, Hosp said.

Rick Rushing, a Trillion founder, maintained his company didn’t have an unfair advantage.

“Our company isn’t Republican or Democrat,” Rushing told the Register. “Our company is in the business of providing services to schools.”

Rushing said that if any of Trillion’s survey information was used in making bid specifications, it should have been made available to all bidders.

It wasn’t, according to competitors. Contact Network said its request to study the Trillion inventory survey was turned down.

“We’re not aware of any requests,” Hosp said. “I can’t imagine why they would be denied.”

Also, some of the required paperwork for bidders reportedly was missing from the web site they were told to use, causing at least three of the six bidders to be disallowed. They were later restored.

Republican legislators claimed the contract was another example of Siegelman awarding unbid contracts to friends.

“Something of this size should have been bid,” said Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile.

Rick Dent, who helped run Siegelman’s 1998 election campaign, is one of Trillion’s consultants. State Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, a Siegelman ally, is one of its attorneys.

Dent and Bedford said they did not lobby for Trillion to get the contract. Dent did defend the choice.

“They are a homegrown Alabama company,” he said. “And who better to connect the other 60 percent of schools than the company that’s already servicing the first 40 percent?”

Pringle has an indirect connection to one of the other five bidders, a group led by Southern Light LLC of Mobile. His wife, Gabrielle Reeves, is a lawyer at a Mobile firm where Bill Daniels also practices. Bill Daniels is the brother of Eric Daniels, Southern Light’s vice president for business development.

Pringle told the Register that he discovered the connection long after he became suspicious of Trillion, and it hasn’t influenced him.

Trillion was founded in 1997 as Herring & Associates Consulting Service. Rushing, his father Richard Rushing, Sr., and Harry Slaughter took over, transforming it into Trillion, a name designed to convey the unlimited opportunities of the internet, the Register reported.

Since the eRate program began, Trillion has collected more than $7.1 million in federal funds, according to Funds For Learning, an eRate consulting firm. Last year, Trillion was the second-largest recipient of eRate funds for internet service in the country, behind Nashville-based Education Networks of America.

According to a proposal sent out by two Connecticut investment banks to raise expansion capital for Trillion, the company had $2.8 million in revenues and $490,000 in profits before taxes, interest, and depreciation in 1999.

Links:

Gov. Don Siegelman
http://www.governor.state.al.us/index2.htm

Trillion Digital Communications
http://www.trillion21.com

Southern Light LLC
http://southernlightfiber.com

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Flexography makes high-tech impression in voc. ed

Educators who want their kids to leave school with marketable skills have a new option for their printing and design classes: industrial printing machines, supplied through a partnership with a national trade organization and local companies.

Oshkosh, Wis., North High School students T.J. Gohde and Aaron Tomason know the subtle details and nuances of the school’s new flexography machine so well they could be professional printers. Their teachers hope these two represent the next generation of print shop class.

According to the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA), flexography (flexo for short) is a simple and economical print method of direct rotary printing that uses resilient relief image plates of rubber or polymer material.

Plates are mounted on a rotary cylinder on a press equipped with from one to 12 color stations. The ink is fast-drying and is applied to a printing plate by way of a finely engraved rotary cylinder called an anilox roll.

Flexo can print just about any size job, from small labels to large boxes. Flexo presses can print on almost any type of substrate, from corrugated board to flexible plastic film, to textiles and cloth fabrics.

It took Oshkosh North High School two years to raise the more than $33,000 needed to bring the machine to its graphic arts and design classes. But school officials say it’s worth the time and effort: The flexography equipment is training the next generation of print shop workers and helping an industry that’s been yearning for skilled workers for 10 years.

“That’s what’s great about it,” Gohde said. “It gives us the ability to say, ‘We know what we’re doing.'”

The school got the machine at the beginning of the school year, and two semesters’ worth of students have used it to experiment on everything from goofy stickers to commercial packaging.

That’s what makes the machine so important in training students, said graphics arts teacher Michael Koslowski. It can print on material that makes up about 85 percent of all commercial printing.

Oshkosh North High School was the fourth school in the country to become involved with the FTA’s “Flexo in the High School” (FIHS) project, which now has 20 schools participating nationwide.

“It’s definitely cutting-edge, but you have to analyze if this is useful for your area of the country,” said Koslowski.

The $54,305 machine’s manufacturer, Comco International of Ohio, donated $21,070 toward the purchase. Through the sale of the high school’s old press machine and budget allocations, the school system came up with nearly $16,000. Local and regional corporate donors and the FTA provided a comparable amount.

“Being involved with [the FTA] really brought everything together for us,” said Koslowski.

According to the association, the FIHS program is a win-win proposition for schools and professional flexographers.

“The FIHS program is an opportunity for young people to start preparing for a career while still in high school. It is a program combining academics, occupational [and] technical instruction, and work-based learning with an employer,” the group says. “Students learn marketable skills and complete the program with a good chance of employment immediately after graduating, while industry benefits through the establishment of a pool of trained individuals with a basic understanding of the flexo technology.”

That’s great for kids interested in printing, many of whom otherwise would aim for careers in graphic design, said Koslowski.

“In our area there are a lot of companies involved in flexopgraphic printing, and they really need flexograph operators,” he said. “Many of our students would go into design, but that market seems to be saturated, and companies say they want people to work the presses.”

Understanding how to use complex industrial machinery such as a flexograph means almost immediate employment, said Koslowski. Students who want to receive further instruction also can go on to a local technical college for additional training.

To participate in the FIHS program, a high school must have an existing graphic arts program or the intention of implementing one.

The school then must find an “industry champion,” or a local company involved in flexography. Once that has taken place, a meeting can be arranged between school officials, industry supporters, and the FTA to discuss each party’s role in the process.

Once a school secures commitments, it can submit an application to the FTA. If the group approves the application, the school can place orders for the equipment needed, including a narrow-web press, a platemaker, a platemounter, anilox rolls, and tooling for the press.

Links:

Oshkosh Area School District
http://www.oshkosh.k12.wi.us

Flexographic Technical Association’s High School Program
http://www.flexography.org/online/education

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New technology has parents excited, students worried

Schools in Washington state are adopting a computer program that allows parents to check the internet every day to see whether their kids skipped class, handed in their homework, and even what they had for lunch.

A cooperative representing 277 of Washington’s 296 school districts signed a contract this month to start bringing the technology into the state’s schools by fall 2002. Districts in many states already have the programs, said Geannie Wells, director of the Center for Accountability Solutions at the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

Teachers enter information such as grades, homework assignments, and attendance into a web site, where parents with a password can see it. Parents can find out what foods have been charged to their children’s lunch money accounts and whether their children have been given detention.

Administrators say it’s easier than reaching a teacher by phone, and anything that encourages parents to be more involved in their child’s education is a blessing.

“I would have loved to have had access to that information when my daughters were in school,” says Cynthia Nelson, the technology director of the Edmonds (Wash.) School District. “Once they hit middle school, you don’t empty their backpacks every night. All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Don’t touch my stuff!'”

The Edmonds district is a member of the Washington Schools Information Processing Cooperative, an alliance designed to help the state’s schools afford technology. The cooperative’s executive director, Jeff Conklin, says it is investing about $20 million in a system made by a company called Skyward Inc., in Stevens Point, Wis. All of the cooperative’s schools should have access to the program within five years.

The system also will update schools’ administrative and accounting software, simplify scheduling, and make it easier for teachers to analyze data about classes and grades.

To save money, the cooperative chose a database solution from Progress Software instead of the industry leader, Oracle. This shows that less well-known companies have products that can fit the needs of schools at lower prices, said Adam Zand, a spokesman for the cooperative.

Parents love the system because it will help them keep better track of their kids. But a lot of kids—even those who go to class and earn decent grades—think it’s creepy.

“Our parents don’t need to know everything we do all the time,” says Brittany Tucker, a 15-year-old sophomore at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Wash. “High school’s supposed to be a time when you’re starting to get out on your own.”

Despite the suspicions of students who might feel their privacy is being violated, the law is clear that parents have a right to look into their childrens’ school records, said Andrew Shen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. As long as the information posted is accurate and the system is secure, there shouldn’t be a problem with privacy, he said.

Skyward has been wildly popular with parents in the Big Rapids School District in Michigan, said Joe Bouman, the district’s technology director.

“They’re ecstatic. We have parents signing up for the service every day,” Bouman said.

In one instance, he said, parents suspected that their middle-school child wasn’t eating a healthy lunch. Using the program, they found out the child was buying fruit juice and ice cream every day.

They asked administrators to block their kid from buying juice and ice cream. Now, whenever the child shows up at the register, the computer tells the lunch lady, no juice, no ice cream.

While many kids might object to being limited to chicken patties or sloppy joes, or to having their friends buy their junk food, there is an upside: Swiping meal cards and reading bar codes speeds up the lunch line, Bouman says.

Nevertheless, most of the system’s benefits are for teachers and parents, who, according to students, already have all the control they need.

Brittany Tucker’s father, John, says he knows kids might feel that way, but it’s good for them.

“Brittany’s a pretty good kid, but there are certainly times I wish I could keep better track of her,” he said. “I think the more we can control our kids, the better off in the long run they’ll be.”

Besides Skyward, other companies offering similar products include Chancery Software, NCS Pearson, Powerschool, and Administrative Assistants Ltd. (AAL).

Links:

Washington Schools Information Processing
Cooperative
http://www.wsipc.org

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

Skyward Inc.
http://www.skyward.com

Chancery Software Ltd.
http://www.chancery.com

NCS Pearson
http://www.ncspearson.com

Powerschool
http://www.powerschool.com

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

Progress Software Corporation
http://www.progress.com

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Supreme Court to consider law shielding children from web porn

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a law aimed at curbing children’s access to online pornography tramples the rights of adults to see or buy what they want on the internet.

The high court already has struck down one attempt by Congress to shield children from internet pornography. In addition to protecting children, the first law would have prevented adults from viewing the material, the court ruled in 1997.

Congress tried again a year later, when it passed the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued a day after then-President Clinton signed the act into law. Lower federal courts in Pennsylvania found the law was unconstitutional and blocked its enforcement, pending a final court ruling.

Although this latest attempt would impose fewer restrictions, civil liberties groups challenged it on the same First Amendment grounds the high court found persuasive before.

“We do believe this case is nearly identical,” said Ann Beeson, a lawyer for the ACLU.

Sexually explicit words and pictures that are deemed indecent but not obscene are protected by the First Amendment. COPA would make it a crime for commercial operations to knowingly place objectionable material within the unrestricted reach of children on the world wide web.

“We’re talking about material that would be harmful to minors. That is a test we have applied for years in the real world,” said Robert Flores, vice president of the National Law Center for Children and Families.

“If you walk into a bookstore, the pornography is wrapped, behind a blinder, or will be in a place where it is difficult for young children to reach it,” said Flores, whose group filed a friend-of-the court brief on the government’s behalf.

The difference, of course, is that a bricks-and-mortar bookstore or sex shop can physically restrict what a child could see, while allowing those over 18 to browse at will.

Age restrictions are trickier online, as the court observed in its first ruling striking down a major portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Filtering software is one option, but even some supporters of that technology say it is not failsafe. Special access codes or registration systems for adult users are another option, and this is the one Congress settled on in 1998.

The law requires commercial web sites to collect a credit card number or an access code as proof of age before allowing internet users to view online material deemed “harmful to minors.”

In an attempt to clear the Supreme Court hurdle, COPA defines indecency much more specifically. It also limits prosecution to commercial material found on the world wide web, as opposed to the wider online terrain of eMail and some chat rooms.

The ACLU and a group of bookstores, web site operators, and others say the new law would make it risky to offer online sex advice, as the online magazine Salon does, or to participate in racy online chats.

The legislation sets out criminal penalties of up to six months in jail or civil fines of up to $50,000 for failing to ensure that only adult eyes will see adult material offered commercially online.

“It would send adults to prison for commercial speech that is unquestionably protected for them,” the ACLU’s Beeson said.

The justices are expected to hear the case and issue a decision during the court term that begins in October.

The case is the second involving online pornography and children that the court has agreed to hear in the coming term. The other case tests bans on computer simulations that appear to depict children having sex.

Last year, Congress passed another law designed to protect children from internet pornography. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries to install filtering technology before receiving federal eRate discounts on connectivity this fall.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in federal court to block CIPA’s enforcement as well, but no decision has been issued yet.

The COPA case is Ashcroft v. ACLU, 00-1293.

Links:

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

National Law Center for Children and Families
http://www.nationallawcenter.org

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South Dakota shows human dimension still key to online learning

South Dakota’s attempt to offer advanced placement (AP) classes for high school students via the internet underscores the need for human interaction and sound scheduling, according to state and local education officials.

The online delivery of AP curriculum has increased access to these valuable classes for the state’s students, but, just as with face-to-face instruction, some students couldn’t keep up with the work or didn’t have the motivation required to complete the challenging classes, officials said.

Having a teacher in the classroom to assist students is still key to the courses’ success, said Jim Selchert, technology coordinator for Gayville-Volin School District in Gayville, S.D.

“Technology is going to expand incredibly what we can do in education, but you still need contact with a teacher to make sure it’s working,” he said. “At some point in each of these situations, you need a physical human being who can help.”

The online classes allow high school students to earn college-level credit for successfully completing the curriculum, which is delivered through a contract the state has with Apex Learning of Bellevue, Wash. According to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, South Dakota has spent $216,000 in recent months to provide classes to 116 students in 31 schools.

High school students can take one of 10 AP courses at no cost. Those who take the classes often can get credit at both their high school and college.

Kelly Gehrels, a senior at Rutland High School, took U.S. government and politics online because she hopes to major in the subject at South Dakota State University next year.

“I’m not exposed to as much political science as I should be to go into my major,” the 17-year-old said.

She spent 15 hours a week on the class during school hours and at home. She eMailed her teacher with questions and to send in assignments. Her online report card kept a running total of her grade. Each week, she answered an essay question that was posted and shared with other students in the class.

“It is so interesting to get into them and read what other people think,” she said.

The web-based courses were first offered to the state’s students in January, but before that only 38 of South Dakota’s nearly 200 high schools offered AP classes. The classes are mostly self-paced programs, and according to the Chronicle story, the program was set up to have someone at each school monitor students’ progress.

“We agree strongly that having an on-site support person—and a teacher is best—is a critical part of the success package,” said Keith Oelrich, president and chief executive officer of Apex Learning. “We try to encourage any school to appoint a site coordinator.”

The on-site mentor would help students when they have technology problems and when scheduling issues arise, said Oelrich. He also said it’s important to have an on-site person present to serve as a motivational resource and to ensure that students are keeping up with the challenging coursework.

But whether all districts have taken this step is unclear. “Our expectation is that there is an on-site coordinator, but that’s not information we have right now,” said Oelrich.

Tammy Bauck, director of technology for the South Dakota Department of Education and Cultural Affairs, said it’s also unclear how much those monitors help students.

“Who that person was and how much help they actually provided—encouragement and so on—we don’t know,” she said. To find out, Bauck said her office is sending surveys to teachers, mentors, and students who participated in the classes this year.

A ‘culture of AP’

Having a scheduled class time would help students, said Belle Fourche High School guidance counselor Jeff Caldwell.

He said he has seen a student struggle with and drop an online AP course in microeconomics.

“I think we should make a firm time each day, just as if it were a scheduled course, for that student to work on that course,” he said. “It would still require some homework, but that would provide some structure.”

Apex officials agree that scheduled class times are a good idea for implementing these courses. And, they acknowledge, there are special challenges that students taking online AP classes face.

For one thing, AP classes are designed to be more difficult that regular high school courses, whether they are delivered traditionally or online.

“AP classes are tough everywhere,” said Oelrich. “Completion rates even in the classroom are harder for kids.”

Linda Pittenger is the director of the Kentucky Virtual High School, which delivers online instruction in numerous subjects, including AP classes.

“Our biggest challenge this year has been creating and maintaining realistic expectations … about the rigors of these courses and the time and focus that [are] required,” she said. “The underestimation of these factors, in our limited experience, is the most significant contributor to students dropping classes.”

And, Oelrich said, South Dakota is using online learning to extend access to students that might not have had it before.

“By definition, we are playing the game with kids who aren’t the traditional AP students,” he said. “They may not be the kids who are most prepared for AP courses.”

“Many of the kids that take our classes have never taken an AP class before,” agreed Paul Bloom, vice president for strategic marketing at Apex. “There is not a ‘culture of AP’ at their school.” In schools where there is a “culture of AP,” students take their cues from their peers, Bloom said.

All of these factors may contribute to higher dropout rates among students taking the courses online. But Apex and South Dakota officials say there is not yet any data available to examine the number of completions versus attempts.

“We don’t have a success rate calculated on a per customer basis; we’ll pull that together at the end of the semester,” said Oelrich. “What I can say is that the people who are providing the program are pretty pleased with the results, and there is evidence they are … coming back next year.”

In fact, Oelrich cited a report from the College Board (the distributor of the AP exam) that said students taking the Apex online courses are doing just as well as or better than students taking courses through traditional means.

According to Oelrich, the most important factor in determining success at a particular school is “a really active, engaged, and enthusiastic champion on site.” That person can be a teacher, administrator, or counselor, he said, as long as he or she is there to help kids and get them excited.

It may take a while to get the formula right, Pittenger said.

“I think all concerned should not be too dismayed—or surprised—that, while many will [succeed], all students will not be successful until we learn much more about multiple dimensions of online learning at this level,” she said.

Links:

Gayville-Volin School District
http://www.gayvillevolin.com

Apex Learning
http://www.apexlearning.com

Kentucky Virtual High School
http://www.kvhs.org

Chronicle of Higher Education
http://chronicle.com

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New computer technology aids hearing-impaired students

School administrators charged with ensuring that handicapped students receive an education equal to their peers might welcome a powerful new technology that addresses the special needs of deaf or hearing-impaired students.

Created by Interactive Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of Teltronics, the iCommunicator system makes verbal communication possible between the hearing world and a person who is profoundly deaf, hard of hearing, or has special needs.

“Most children hard of hearing leave our school systems after 12 years with a fourth-grade reading level,” said Michael Dorety, president of Interactive Solutions. “We want to teach them to comprehend the spoken word and to read the written word effectively.”

iCommunicator consists of a high-powered laptop with software, a connection to the student’s hearing assistance device (if the student has one), and a small wireless microphone worn by the teacher. The microphone transmits directly to the student’s laptop.

“To our knowledge, there is no product like it,” said Dorety.

He said iCommunicator was conceived two years ago, when Dorety was approached by Virginia Greene and her then-16-year-old son, Morgan. Morgan is profoundly deaf and uses a hearing device called a cochlear implant.

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that create an artificial sense of sound by sending electrical impulses into the auditory nerve. iCommunicator can be connected to work with this device or a more traditional hearing aid worn externally.

“We were asked to invent a product that allowed Morgan to communicate with the hearing world and not rely on a sign language interpreter,” said Dorety. The problem with interpreters is that they are rare and can lead to dependency when deaf students rely on having them to communicate, he said.

“iCommunicator is not intended to replace sign language interpreters; it’s intended to support the child when the interpreter is not there,” said Dorety.

To use the iCommunicator, the teacher speaks into a small wireless microphone that transmits directly to the student’s laptop computer.

“The computer must be high-end—750 MHz or better—because as you speak, your voice is converted to text and simultaneously converted to sign language,” said Dorety.

When a teacher speaks a word, the student sees that word appear on the screen and simultaneously sees a video of an interpreter signing the same word. If a hearing-impaired child has a cochlear implant or wears a hearing aid, he or she also can hear the word pronounced.

“We take the teacher’s voice and convert it to a computer-generated voice,” said Dorety. “That computer-generated voice comes from the laptop and plugs directly into the student’s hearing aid or cochlear implant, eliminating all ambient noises.”

Not being able to determine whether sounds picked up by cochlear implants or hearing aids are actually words—rather than background noise—is one limitation of those devices, he said. With iCommunicator, when students hear a word, they know the sound they are hearing is, in fact, a word.

“The question here is how to make [hearing aids and implants] more usable,” said Dorety. “One of the [added benefits] of this technology is that the multisensory [elements] can allow for real comprehension.”

If a student wants to communicate back, he can type a response and the computer pronounces the words. That speech then loops back to the child so he can hear how the computer pronounces the words and can break them down into syllables, learning how to pronounce the words himself.

According to company officials, iCommunicator is based on an open-architecture platform and is effective for most children who have a basic understanding of reading and sign language, even as young as 5.

Sue Potteiger teaches third grade to 9-year-old Hilary Sedgeman at Bell Shoals Baptist Academy (preK-8, enr. 500) near Tampa, Fla. Hilary is almost entirely deaf and uses two high-powered hearing aids. Her classmates can hear normally.

“From the time Hilary was two she loved to use my computer—she really connected with it,” said Martha Cook, Hilary’s mother. “But there was nothing out there that would work for school.” Then last year Cook read about iCommunicator and purchased one of the systems for Hilary to use in second grade.

“She learned to use it and we took it to her private school and said, ‘Here, we need you to use this,'” said Cook.

During class, Potteiger must pronounce her words precisely, like a television broadcaster, Cook said.

“The trainers came and trained my voice into the technology so that it can recognize my speech patterns,” said Potteiger. “We also had a training session with the kids, where they could ask questions and understand that it is not a toy, but something that helps Hilary learn.”

She estimates that the professional development involved took no more than six to eight hours in total.

“In class you have to enunciate your words and slow down your normal conversational speech,” said Potteiger. “Beyond that, getting it plugged in and turned on every morning is really the biggest challenge. It is very user-friendly.”

“It’s [an] instantaneous, close-captioned classroom,” added Cook. “Hilary lip-reads, but with the iCommunicator the teacher can turn around and [Hilary] can still know what’s going on.”

Dorety cautioned that the iCommunicator is not a “silver bullet” and may not be appropriate for every child. “If there is a message I’d like to deliver, it is that educators need to assess both the product and the child for a match prior to purchasing this,” he said.

For those who decide iCommunicator would be a boon for their hearing-impaired students, the cost can be prohibitive. The price for a single unit is $8,100, and Dorety said the majority of that cost is equipment-related.

“The computers we use today are 750 MHz to 850 MHz Pentium laptops, and they are very expensive,” he said. “Six months from now the price may go down, but the system does run more efficiently with a higher processor.”

The warranty, service, and software integration are all included, but an optional teacher training package is an additional $1,200 to $1,400.

“The training on the product is down to a couple of hours now,” Dorety said. “We can establish very high voice-recognition accuracy by reading two short stories that take about an hour.”

The company encourages schools to bring in eight to 10 teachers for the training session and implement a ‘train the trainer’ system. Plans to offer training through the 150 New Horizons Learning Centers nationwide, as well as a web-based training option, are in the works.

To date, about 20 school districts and state and federal government agencies have placed orders for the iCommunicator system, Dorety said. Each organization is expected to purchase additional systems as funding is approved.

Links:

Interactive Solutions’ iCommunicator
http://www.teachthedeaf.com

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Judge: School districts must pay cyberschools for per-pupil attendance

In what might be the first legal case to address funding for online schools, a Pennsylvania judge has ruled that the state’s school districts must pay cyberschools their share of per-pupil state funding for students who enroll in online classes from their jurisdictions.

The judge rejected a Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) request to prevent the state from withholding funding for districts that refuse to pay invoices from the cyberschools.

PSBA filed a lawsuit against the state education department, seeking an injunction to stop the department from withholding state aid. The lawsuit contended that cyberschools, which deliver curriculum over the internet, are not authorized under Pennsylvania’s 1997 charter-school law.

In a decision issued May 11, Judge Warren G. Morgan said granting the injunction would put the 519-student Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in jeopardy, based on testimony from Nick Trombetta, superintendent of the Midland Borough School District and chief administrative officer of the online school.

“We conclude that greater injury would result by granting the requested relief than by denying it,” Morgan wrote.

PSBA spokesman Tom Gentzel said his organization had not decided whether to appeal Morgan’s ruling but would continue to challenge the legality of online charter schools. The Butler Area, Cameron County, Mars Area, and Pocono Mountain school districts joined the PSBA lawsuit.

“The merits of the case still have to be weighed,” Gentzel said.

Some school districts have raised concerns about cyberschools after receiving tuition bills for local students who have enrolled in them without the district’s knowledge, Gentzel said. The lawsuit also alleges that because cyberschool students learn at home, the schools violate a provision of state law banning charter schools for home-schooled children.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education planned to withhold an estimated $840,000 from approximately 100 school districts that refused to pay invoices from the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, according to the PSBA. The money owed would be deducted from the district’s state subsidiary and diverted directly to the cyberschool.

Education Department spokesman Al Bowman said that as of May 14, 50 school districts had refused to pay, but how much they owed had not been calculated. Bowman said the department was working to resolve factual disputes concerning questions such as the school district residency of the cyberschool students.

“Under the charter school law, a student is entitled to attend any school in the commonwealth,” Bowman said. “If they’ve chosen to attend a properly chartered charter school, then the school district is required to forward the taxpayer investment with the child.”

Under Pennsylvania law, if a school district receives funding for a student and then the student chooses to attend a school outside of the district’s jurisdiction, including a cyberschool, the district is required to transfer the funding to the other school.

If the school district neglects to give the funding to the other school, the Secretary of Education has the authority withhold those funds from the district and pay them directly to the school.

“We can make direct payment to the charter school in cases where the school district refuses to pay,” Bowman said.

Pennsylvania has one other online charter school, the SUSQ-CYBER Charter School in Northumberland County, which enrolls 115 students in grades nine through 12.

Untangling the issues

The Pennsylvania Department of Education maintains that cyberschools are lawful, Bowman said, adding that the PSBA has led a crusade to kill charter schools, and that is the group’s fundamental motive for the lawsuit.

“It is a control issue with cyberschools, and it’s a control issue with all charter schools,” he said. “The charter school law was not passed to empower school districts or charter schools, it was created to empower parents.”

The state education department advocates innovative schooling and a 21st-century, free-market ideology, and the state wants local school districts to refocus and reengineer the concept of schooling, Bowman said. This philosophy runs deep in the department and is demonstrated in projects such as the state’s Digital School District competition and Link to Learn initiative.

“We apply a free-market ideology to everything else in America except education,” Bowman said. “We live in an era where you have to provide what students need.”

Bowman said cyberschools are not comparable to home schools. Unlike cyberschools, home schools do not require state testing, approved curriculum, textbooks and materials, and compulsory attendance or hours logged.

“We recognize that it does not cost the same amount of money to educate a child in a cyberschool environment than in a regular school setting,” Bowman said. Starting last year, he said, the state decided that cyberschools would no longer get start-up funding that other charter schools receive, because they don’t have the same expenses.

“This lawsuit is not an attempt to address that. This is a crusade to kill charter schools,” Bowman said. “I think they are stuck in an old-world ideology of ‘If we build it, they must come.’ That’s a monopoly. A government-run monopoly is not any better then one run by a company.”

Jeff Litts, deputy chief counsel for PSBA, maintains that Pennsylvania’s cyberschools violate the Charter School Law Act 22 of 1997, which permits local school districts to operate charter schools.

“These types of schools are not authorized by law,” Litts said. “We are not saying cyber-education is bad. We’re not saying there are not benefits to cyber-education.”

But the main issue for PSBA appears to be money.

Since the law was enacted, a number of cyberschools have applied to the same district for charter school status, although they recruit students from all over the state, Litts said. Because funding follows the student, the district receives extra funds from all over the state.

Litts said this creates problems for school districts that plan their budgets based on projected enrollments, because when students attend a cyberschool in another region the district is required to give the funding to the district that presides over the cyberschool. Often, a district will receive a bill for the per-pupil funding in the middle of the school year.

Ninety-eight percent of the students and money originates from other school districts, but the district that presides over the cyberschool gets to make the decisions, Litts said. He considers it to be a “cozy financial arrangement” for the district that presides over the cyberschool.

Trombetta, the Midland superintendent and cyberschool administrator, said the lawsuit “comes down to two things: control and money. People are angry that they have no control and they have to pay money.”

Litts said the injunction is “just a bump in the road” and the lawsuit will continue. What the PSBA would like most from the lawsuit is to change the charter school law so it specifically addresses cyberschools, he said.

“We are actively trying to get the legislature to change this law. We’re willing to propose a solution. We’re willing to amend the law to make it legal,” Litts said.

“We’re like the Wild West when it comes to cyber-education,” he continued. “Colorado has a statue that has authorized online education, and [lawmakers] permitted students to be exempt from compulsory attendance if they are enrolled in online education.” Michigan and Florida have laws that permit and regulate cyberschools as well, Litts added.

Although Trombetta said he has not discussed the issue with the PSBA, he also favors legally regulating cyberschools.

“We asked legislators to place a moratorium on cyberschools until there are some guidelines about how much they should cost, what they should look like, and what they should do,” Trombetta said. “Without guidelines, people are going to overpromise and underserve. They’re going to put a lot of junk out there for kids.” As for funding, Trombetta said, “If the legislators want cyberschools, they should fund them, but [the state education department] doesn’t want to do it that way.” Instead, the state advocates a free-market education system, he said.

Links:

Pennsylvania School Board Association
http://www.psba.org

Midland Borough School District
http://www.midlandpa.org

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.psu.edu

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Microsoft’s new licensing options give schools greater flexibility

Volume licensing agreements for Microsoft’s education customers will change Aug. 1 to give schools more flexibility for their software and licensing needs, the company announced May 10.

Microsoft’s education customers said they wanted an easier way to renew licenses, greater flexibility in the products they can license, and better buyout options, said Marsha Kusznaul, a group manager for Microsoft’s Education Solutions Group. Microsoft’s new licensing agreements come in response to these requests.

The changes affect school districts that license Microsoft software by subscription, instead of purchasing the software outright.

Customers who subscribe to Microsoft’s products under School Agreement 3.0 subscriptions do not own the software, just the right to use it for a specific time period, which is typically 12 months, Kusznaul said. Starting in August, schools that subscribe to Microsoft products will be able to renew their licenses without formally reapplying.

“Previously, the customer was required to sign a full agreement that detailed their terms and conditions of usage every single year,” said Andrea Tanner, licensing manager for Microsoft’s Education Group. “Now, they won’t need to negotiate the terms and conditions every year.”

Because the agreement is a legal contract, many school districts had to have the contract legally reviewed each time. This not only took up time, it also cost money to have lawyers review the software contracts each year.

“If it means less paperwork, it might be good,” said Kipp Bentley, manager of educational technology at the Denver Public Schools. Bentley said his district had to go through the process of having the district’s lawyers review the terms and conditions of the agreement each year.

“Anything they can do to make it a less cumbersome process will be much appreciated, as long as it’s very clear what we’re getting into and it has a clear opt-in and opt-out feature,” Bentley said. “They seem to be hearing their customer base, and that’s a good thing.”

In addition, Microsoft has decided to give schools greater flexibility in the number of software titles they are required to license. Before, schools had to subscribe to the whole Microsoft suite of products, but now they can choose to license and pay for only the programs they need.

“If schools decide they mostly uses Microsoft Office, and they don’t have a need for the other products, they can choose only Microsoft Office,” Kusznaul said. “It could really bring their costs down.”

Also, for the first time with Microsoft products, K-12 schools can offer their students access to the software to use on their personal computers or family computers at home with a Student Option.

“This is the biggest change for schools. Not only do they have the flexibility to choose titles and renew their subscriptions, but they can extend the license to individual students,” Kusznaul said.

For the School Agreement 3.0 subscriptions, schools pay a fee based on the number of computers in the district. For the Student Option, schools just add the number of students who would use the software outside of school to the number of computers in the district.

“It extends access to the same tools they have at school to their personal machine at home,” Kusznaul said. “The extension to students is something we hear educators talk about a lot.”

Through the Student Option, schools can pay to license their students to use the most current technology on personally owned computers in the students’ homes, or on school computers dedicated to their use. The school is not required to license the entire student body; instead, it can choose to license any number of students, such as a single class or grade level.

Under the new plan, schools will have more options if they decide to buy software outright and stop leasing it. Without penalty, schools can choose to buy only a portion of the products they were subscribing to if they decide they don’t want all the programs.

Starting Oct. 1, Microsoft education customers who purchase software outright (and never subscribe) can buy Software Assurance, which provides the school with the rights to upgrade to the latest versions of products released during the term of the agreement.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com/education

Denver Public Schools
http://www.dpsk12.org

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School leaders learn to make data-driven decisions

Thanks to a U.S. Department of Education (ED) grant, school district administrators across the nation are receiving training on how to make informed decisions about instruction using data collected from students.

In 1999, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) wrote a grant in conjunction with the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to ED’s Office of Education Research and Improvement (OERI).

The grant has helped further the development of a software program from UCLA’s Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) that enables data-driven decision making at school districts.

CRESST’s Quality School Portfolio (QSP) software lets users disaggregate data with flexibility, import data from a variety of sources, and report on the data in any of 12 different formats that are tailored to the way educators tend to use and report school information.

The grant also enabled CRESST researchers and officials from AASA’s Center for Accountability Solutions to create a training program for educators and administrators interested in learning how to use QSP and how to make data-driven instructional decisions.

The three-year grant—now in year two—will train 15 districts each year. This year’s second group of five districts completed their training May 6.

New Hampshire’s Rochester School District was one of the first districts to receive training through the program.

“At the training sessions we learned different ways to use the data we collect,” said Rochester Superintendent Raymond Yeagley.

“For instance, we can use QSP to pull up student records information, Iowa Test of Basic Skills scores, and state assessment information and examine all that information for patterns,” said Yeagley.

The benefits of this type of cohesive comparison are numerous, say advocates of data-driven decision making.

“There are tons of data collected by school districts,” said Michael Parker, AASA’s assistant director of the Center for Accountability Solutions. “What’s new is that we are trying to get school districts to organize their data electronically and use that data to drive instructional practices.”

One benefit is that using QSP helps teachers and administrators disaggregate their data, so they can recognize early on if there are groups of students in need of intervention. And on a districtwide basis, the software allows educators to evaluate some of their programs and take corrective action if necessary, said Parker.

“We can also report things better,” said Yeagley. “One of my board members recently said, ‘I wish we knew how our kids are doing on this set of reading skills,’ so I pulled up QSP on my laptop, ran the report right there, and we had the answer to that question within five minutes.”

QSP works by allowing educators to export student data into fields that are crucial to that student’s record. Users import the data into QSP, then enter any assessment data they have, such as national test scores or locally developed assessments, to get a picture of how that student—or group of students—is performing throughout the year.

According to Parker, QSP is not meant to replace a district’s student information system; rather, it is meant to inform decision-making.

“QSP can hold approximately 54,000 student records every year and around 100 different data fields in each record,” he said.

“The technology has made this possible,” said Yeagley. “We are now able to do analysis on laptop computers that 30 years ago required a mainframe that was only available to a university. And the best part is, our laptops will do it faster and better.”

Yeagley uses QSP on a 166 MHz laptop. He said the minimum technology requirements would not be restrictive to most school districts.

What’s more, most districts stand to benefit greatly from the implementation of data-driven decision making and tools such as QSP.

Many schools are moving toward using research-based instructional techniques, said Yeagley. But the problem is, those schools often aren’t tracking the results.

“They need to know how those different software packages or school initiatives are working to make sure they are being implemented equally across the school population,” he said. In schools that are racially and economically diverse, teachers can use QSP to make sure no groups are disenfranchised.

The key, according to educators and AASA officials, lies in figuring out what the right questions are for your specific district.

“Sometimes districts approach this in the wrong way—they’ll pull all the indicators out there into one giant mass of data, and it can be overwhelming,” said Yeagley. “It is info overload.” QSP allows educators to manage those mountains of data.

“Info overload” is just one of the challenges facing administrators who want to start making data-driven decisions.

According to Parker and Yeagley, educators coming out of the training have agreed that it is definitely beneficial, but they admit there are a number of changes that still need to take place before districtwide adoption can take place.

“The biggest challenge is connected with the classroom practices,” said Parker. “The first thing that has to happen is that teachers [must] want to use data.”

According to Yeagley, QSP is a very user-friendly product, but it is not the only solution on the market. For example, a program from the Center for Resource Management, called Socrates, also provides schools with a web-based solution, in which the company does the analysis portion for educators.

“QSP happens to be free, while Socrates you pay for,” said Yeagley. “But with QSP, you have to delve in and find out the answers yourself, whereas Socrates will do the work for you. So it really depends on what you want.”

Parker urged school leaders to evaluate which indicators of student achievement they should use to report the student’s progress.

“Data can be scary and underutilized, but [they] can be [an educator’s] friend and make a difference in student achievement,” said Parker. AASA and CRESST emphasize that the cultural changes needed for making data-driven decisions are different for every school or district.

“It’s not something that has a formula. Every school district is unique, and it takes a long time to plan,” he said. “We recommend bringing the decision-makers in on the ground floor.”

Links:

AASA’s Center for Accountability Solutions
http://www.aasa.org/cas

Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST)
http://www.cse.ucla.edu

Quality School Portfolio (QSP)
http://qsp.cse.ucla.edu

The Center for Resource Management’s Socrates
http://www.crminc.com/socrates/

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