School superintendents from West Hempstead to Wyoming gathered in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for a unique technology summit April 30 and May 1. Hosted by eSchool News, the summit gave attendees a chance to help set the technology agenda for the nation’s schools.
Between sessions designed to enhance their technology leadership skills, the superintendents met to develop three “National K-12 Advisories.” These are consensus documents that address a trio of topical issues affecting how technology will be used in schools: virtual schooling, privacy versus security, and application service providers (ASPs).
Keynote speaker Gary Marx, president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Va., began the summit by noting that superintendents should use interactive technologies to drive consensus-building and decision-making in their districts. That’s just what attendees did later in the conference, as they used an interactive group-response system to achieve consensus.
First, however, attendees met in separate groups to study each issue more closely. After briefings from experts on each topic, superintendent moderators worked with their colleagues to define key questions for the assembly at large to consider.
In a general session on Day Two, the moderators for each group led attendees through the consensus-building process. Using Group Interactive Feedback Technology developed by Leadership Technology Group Inc., attendees indicated their responses to a set of questions for each topic on the keypad of a handheld device.
Responses were transmitted wirelessly using radio-frequency technology to a computer running software that tabulated them instantly, so results could be projected for the entire assembly to see.
eSchool News will disseminate the statements resulting from these responses to government officials, opinion leaders, and fellow school leaders from coast to coast. These “National K-12 Advisories” also will be posted to the eSchool News web site so other school leaders may weigh in with their perspectives, further extending the influence of local school executives.
Virtual schools, in which students complete courses over the internet without ever meeting the teacher or stepping inside a building, offer solutions to a number of educational problems, their proponents say, including providing access to rare classes, remedial work for the academically at-risk, and solutions to scheduling problems.
Another advantage to virtual schools is that students can learn at their own pace, according to Phyllis Lentz of the Florida High School, one of the nation’s first online high schools. Lentz, who served as the expert in the brainstorming session, said students who learn best in an online setting tend to be self-motivated.
Some of the issues that must be resolved in virtual schooling include how to handle socialization and discourage cheating–or, as one participant said, “How do you take down the walls and leave the barriers up?” By removing geographical boundaries from students’ education, virtual schools also challenge educators to develop new models for funding, accreditation, and intellectual property rights.
The evolution of virtual schooling requires a clear understanding of who is responsible for student learning as it relates to local, state, and federal guidelines, standards, and accountability, participants decided. Local school districts should ensure the quality of curriculum in virtual schools, and virtual schools should align their curricula to the state and local standards where their students reside, Summit attendees decided.
Superintendents were not unanimous on whether funding for virtual schools should stay at the local level. But a clear majority (63 percent) said credit should be issued through a local school district, not the virtual school. And most agreed that certification of teachers should be approved at the local level. In addition, 43 percent “strongly agreed” that virtual schools should be required to provide community involvement in curriculum.
Privacy vs. security
In the aftermath of Columbine and other terrible tragedies, many school systems are turning to technology to keep their students safe. But electronic surveillance and other high-tech security measures can raise a host of legal and constitutional issues, warned David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Supporters of school surveillance say it provides another set of eyes for the administration, as cameras can be where personnel can’t be all the time. But Sobel said there’s a fine line between keeping students safe and treading on students’ privacy rights.
The problem is, the laws in this area haven’t kept up with advancements in technology. As a result, school leaders are left with no clear guidelines. But notifying students and staff of what measures you’re taking and why, getting consent from stakeholders, and giving them access to the information you collect about them, if requested, could be the keys to avoiding a lawsuit, Sobel said.
Though there are no easy answers to the question of when security measures begin to encroach on privacy rights, Sobel said, it’s important to plan for problems that may arise. For instance, suppose you decide to install security cameras inside the doors of your elementary schools, and each camera is equipped with software that scans an entrant’s face and compares it to a database of known sexual predators. You’d better have a plan for dealing with the “false positives” you’re likely to encounter in this scenario, he said.
Fifty-nine percent of superintendents at the summit said it is better to err on the side of security rather than privacy. An overwhelming number (88 percent) agreed that parents’ views on the topic differ considerably from those of their children, and parents’ views should prevail, the superintendents said.
Two-thirds of participants said the electronic images from surveillance cameras should be stored for a month or more, while only four percent said they should not be stored at all. And 57 percent said biometric and/or facial recognition technologies may be appropriate for use in schools.
Despite these figures, 73 percent of attendees worry that state open-records laws encourage school systems to veer more toward the privacy end of the spectrum, thus hampering security efforts. Nearly all agreed that states should compile a policy guidebook that explains what local schools need to do to comply with existing privacy laws.
Application service providers
ASPs host applications–such as student information systems, back-office functions, and curriculum software–from a remote location and deliver them to schools over the internet. While this emerging model of software management promises several benefits, it also brings key concerns.
The ability to have instant access to the latest software is the chief benefit of the ASP model, attendees decided. This was followed, in order of importance, by the ability to standardize software; the availability of support for both software and hardware; the speed of delivery and development; and lower hardware costs, as older and “thin-client” machines can be used to project software that is hosted and run from an ASP’s servers.
Chief among superintendents’ concerns is the privacy of information stored on a remote company’s servers, followed by the loss of control or customization of the software; reliability of its delivery; potential for data loss or other “disasters”; and financial viability of ASPs, given the downturn in the internet economy.
Total cost of ownership is the single most important factor in deciding whether to use an ASP solution, superintendents decided, followed by measurements of effectiveness; mission-criticality of data; return on investment; and research on ASPs.
Other summit topics
Besides helping to shape technology policy for each of these three key issues, superintendents who attended the summit were able to sharpen their technology leadership skills by taking part in any of 12 informative sessions.
Topics included guiding the integration of technology into the curriculum, using technology to streamline educational operations, communicating your district’s technology plan to board members and business leaders, and evaluating the “learning return” on your technology investment.
The Superintendents’ Technology Summit was co-sponsored by Centrinity, Homeroom (from the Princeton Review), bigchalk.com, Brainfuse, Executive Source Quality (ESQ) Computer Solutions, Interactive Products Division – Numonics, JonesKnowledge.com, kwiktag, Learn.com, Learning.com, NetOp School, NetSchools Corp., Nortel Networks, Performance Learning Systems Inc., SMART Technologies, TestU, The Leadership Technology Group, and Troxell. Education Partners for the Summit were the Consortium for School Networking, George Mason University, and the Association for Educational Computing and Technology.
Plans are under way to mount another edition of the Superintendents’ Technology Summit. It will be held at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., October 22 and 23.
Superintendents’ Technology Summit
Executive Source Quality (ESQ)
Interactive Products Division – Numonics
NetOp School from Cross Tec Corporation
Performance Learning Systems Inc.
The Leadership Technology Group
Consortium for School Networking
George Mason University
Association for Educational Computing and Technology