New speech-recognition technology is a boon for dyslexic students

Educators who struggle to accommodate the needs of children with certain language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, are finding that new “continuous” speech-recognition technology may provide a solution.

Unlike older voice-recognition (VR) software, programs such as NaturallySpeaking by Dragon Systems and ViaVoice from IBM allow kids to talk at normal speed, without having to put pauses between each word.

Once they say the words aloud, the program “hears” them and types their message for them on the computer.

VR software has been available commercially for about seven years, but until recently it was not ideally suited to the classroom environment, said Susan Barton, a consultant on dyslexia and developer of the Barton Reading and Spelling System.

Older technologies that required students to speak in a slow and stilted manner and precisely enunciate each word were extremely difficult for learning-disabled kids to use.

“Many kids who are dyslexic also have attention-deficit disorder, so it can be really hard to teach them to slow down and say one word at a time,” said Barton.

The primary reason for using VR software as a tool for dyslexic students has to do with the nature of the learning disability itself.

“People with dyslexia usually have excellent verbal skills, but they have extreme difficulty getting their thoughts onto paper in a legible form,” said Barton. “Not only do they have terrible spelling, but they almost always have ‘dysgraphia’—extreme difficulty with the act of handwriting.”

Not only is the handwriting of a dyslexic child extremely messy, but the act of handwriting can be slow, painful, and tedious.

Typing can be difficult for dyslexics, too.

“People with dyslexia face a significant challenge when it comes to memorizing, and they will always be confused about left versus right,” said Barton. “That’s why learning to touch-type is difficult. To be a good typist, you have to memorize which keys are pressed with the left hand and which with the right hand.”

According to advocates of VR software for dyslexics, the newer software provides a way to bypass those weak areas.

“You can easily get your thoughts onto paper without handwriting, typing, or worrying about correct spelling,” Barton said.

Experts agree that typing, writing, and spelling are all basic skills that students should master, whether they have dyslexia or not. Preferably, Barton said, learning-disabled students should receive corrective training while using assistive technology, like VR.

“There are two ways to approach a child with disabilities—accommodation and remediation,” she said. “Ideally, a child will have both going on at the same time.”

Because it can take two or three years to get a dyslexic child’s reading, writing, and spelling up to grade level, VR is a way to ensure that kids aren’t loosing that time.

Research has even shown that using VR technology might be more than an assistive technology—it might actually improve certain reading skills in dyslexics.

Dr. Marshall Raskind and Dr. Eleanor Higgens are learning-disability researchers at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, Calif. In a series of studies of children ages 9 to 18 with diagnosed learning disabilities, they found that children who use VR software to write for a total of 10.5 hours improved significantly in word recognition, word decoding, comprehension, and spelling.

“What appears to be responsible for those gains were improvements in phonological awareness,” said Raskind. “Users say a word and then the word appears on the screen. That’s basically a linking of the way the word sounds with the way the word looks.”

But Raskind is quick to add that speech-recognition technology is not a panacea.

“It does not work for everyone,” he said. “We need to continue research, and there need to be mechanisms for disseminating that research outside of professional journals.”

The Gow School in South Wales, N.Y., is for children with dyslexia and learning disabilities. Students there have been using Dragon System’s DragonSpeak software for several years, primarily for doing their homework and writing reports.

The school’s director, Jeffery Sweet, explained that the disruptive nature of the technology (it requires students to speak out loud) makes it inappropriate for an in-class setting. The Gow School made the technology available to students during study hall, in the school’s technology lab.

So far, experts say mainstream public schools have been slow to adopt VR technology for their special-needs students.

“People have to ask for it. I give seminars to parents constantly, and they say, ‘My child has an individualized education plan and the school will buy us whatever we want,’ and they just don’t know what to ask for,” said Barton.

The push for VR technology has to come from either mainstream education teachers or parents, she said.

“In public schools, the resource specialists are so overworked and overwhelmed that they can’t keep up with all the latest technology in all the different fields. Technology like this will make the resource specialist’s life so much easier, so I think they’ll jump at it, but they are surrounded by demands,” she added.

The cost is not prohibitive for schools, especially because the software could be funded through government subsidies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to Barton, one $100 copy of NaturallySpeaking serves 25 students.

“This has not been adopted in a big way [by schools], and I hope it is in the future,” she said. “It’s not just dyslexic students who could benefit. The program—originally written for quadriplegics—could also help visually impaired or blind students.”

Continuous voice-recognition software does not require that teachers take a lot of training, but it does take a small amount of training for students to use it, explained Barton.

“Some technologies require teachers to go to classes for hours and hours, but this is really pretty simple,” she said. “I find that normally I just have to demonstrate it [to educators] and show them what it does.”

One point of difficulty for dyslexic students: The software has to ‘learn’ to recognize each user’s voice before the software will operate properly. Software programs normally require first-time users to read a passage from a book aloud, so the program can analyze the user’s inflection and pronunciation.

“The problem is that many dyslexic students can’t read very well, so they need to be prompted by a parent or teacher,” said Barton. Normally setting the program up would only take 45 minutes, but with dyslexic students it could take up to four hours.

“But boy, is it worth it,” said Barton. “[The software] allows these kids to be independent, and that is so important.”

“I think [the use of] speech recognition has grown and will continue to grow,” said Raskind. “And this has become so affordable. I’ve seen this technology go from thousands of dollars to under a hundred.”

Most VR software packages currently on the market require a relatively high-end Windows-based PC with a standard soundboard and microphone.


Bright Solutions for Dyslexia

Dragon Systems Inc.

IBM Voice Systems

The Gow School

The Frostig Center


Animals to teach life science in zoo’s online curriculum

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) and the Bronx Zoo have been awarded a $450,000 grant to make life science a wild experience for high school students across the country using web-based instruction and live animals. To be developed over the next four years, the project will use the appeal of animals to bring science closer to students.

“We know that people of all ages love live animals,” said Tom Naiman, director of curriculum development and international education at the WCS, headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. “What we strive to do is use these exciting and charismatic animals to teach science and make the scientific process something that is fun.”

Using the internet, students will be able to observe the behavior of different animals and communicate one-on-one with zoo experts via eMail and threaded discussions. “The internet allows us to bring the zoo into the classroom in a way that you just can’t do with printed materials,” Naiman said.

“We might, for example, use some of the data gathered on the movement of wolf packs in Yellowstone,” Naiman explained to reporters. “We would put that info on the web site and ask students to draw conclusions about their movements. We’ll also have opportunities for students to get their own data on air temperature, water quality and wildlife populations.”

The project is called “Wild Science.” The grant to the Bronx Zoo is part of the $12 million the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) donated this year to advance science education.

“One of the things that makes curriculum development richer at a place like this is that we have a staff of leading scientists on site here at the Bronx Zoo,” Naiman said. The zoo, which has been managing living animal collections for 100 years, employs distinguished field and zoo scientists who have conducted groundbreaking research in disciplines from genetics to primatology.

In addition, the zoo’s wildlife exhibits are excellent living laboratories that students can use to study animal biology, behavior, adaptations, and habitats, Naiman said.

Thousands of schoolchildren attend Bronx Zoo education programs each year, but most children, even in New York City, can’t visit the zoo daily to see the animals. The internet will dramatically increase access for children across the country and around the world.

The Wild Science curriculum will have a web site featuring internet-based learning activities, projects, and videos of the animals. In addition, the web site will have links to online study resources, late-breaking scientific news, a gallery for sharing student projects, and online teachers’ support consisting of virtual newsletters and bulletin boards.

Over the next four years, WCS plans to create enough content to fill an entire school semester, but it will be broken into modules to give teachers flexibility to do only one or two units. Some of the topics include genetics, predators, nutrition, and primatology.

“Our goal is to turn high school students into wildlife scientists,” Naiman said. Students will not only learn what zoo experts do at work, but will learn the science behind the work. The curriculum aims to place students in the role of true scientists. They will tackle real-life ecological challenges while practicing scientific inquiry.

For example, students will learn how to do the same census techniques used by real wildlife scientists. In one of the activities, students will conduct a wildlife census in their own neighborhood and learn to mathematically approximate the size of local wildlife populations. “If they are in a school in New York City near Central Park, they might see mammals, insects, and bird species,” Naiman said.

Working with the zoo’s nutritionist, students will learn about and create model diets for various species including the correct proportions of calories and vitamins.

A unit on genetics will teach students about the intricacies of breeding animals. For instance, the zoo employs a species coordinator who is responsible for making sure there is no inbreeding amongst animals kept in the nation’s zoos.

The curriculum will use real data and the work from the zoo’s scientists so students can analyze it compared to their own observations and draw conclusions. There will be some printed materials available for schools without internet access, but primarily the content and resources will be accessible online.

“Our goal is to really provide some depth and let students really sink their teeth into science,” Naiman said.

WCS also believes teaching life science with live animals will help make students more environmentally aware. “We believe for people to be environmentally literate and conscious-minded they have to have a strong education in the sciences,” Naiman said.

The WCS will develop Wild Science in light of the national science education standards and in consultation with a group of teachers from metropolitan New York City.

“A lot of curriculum publishing is done by publishing companies with minimal involvement of classroom teachers,” Naiman asserted. “We think it’s crucial to involve teachers along the way.”

WCS has not yet determined how much this curriculum will cost. “Our goal is not to make money off this,” Naiman said. The grant to WCS came in the fourth round of funding to such projects from HHMI. The institute’s grant program does not rule out school-based projects, but it is specifically targeted to science education programs originating outside the traditional elementary or secondary school setting.

The institute’s stated funding objectives are “to strengthen the science literacy of children and their families, to provide resources for better science teaching, to engage families and communities in science education, to stimulate an interest in careers in research and education, and to foster collaborations between informal science education centers and other community institutions.”

A panel of scientists, educators, and museum-program specialists reviewed 235 applications for the current round of funding. Since 1992, HHMI has awarded 125 grants totaling $30.6 million to museums and other informal science education centers.


Wildlife Conservation Society

Howard Hughes Medical Institute


‘Free’ technology renews debate over in-school ad access to kids

Yet another company has entered the educational market with the promise of free computer equipment in exchange for displaying banner ads to schoolchildren. Similar ad-based models from other education companies have failed more often than they have succeeded, but leaders of the current program contend they have the formula for success.

Internet Education Concepts, Inc., (IEC) an educational start-up in Point Breeze, Pa., offers schools what looks like a sweet deal: free “Discovery Stations,” complete with a hard drive, monitor, keyboard, mouse, LCD projector, Windows ’98, mobile computer cart, Ethernet card to connect to the web, educational links, and free installation and training.

The company says it currently has 500 participating high schools in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington D.C.

Company officials said they expect to have 1,000 high schools signed up by fall and to be in the black in the next 12 months.

So what’s in it for IEC?

According to the company, banner ads from IEC sponsors are continuously displayed and projected for the entire class to view.

That’s not a trade-off everyone is comfortable with. According to Gary Ruskin, director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Commercial Alert, companies using ad-based models in schools—such as IEC and the now-defunct ZapMe! Corp.—are inappropriate for schools.

Commercial Alert, a group supported by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader, maintains that companies that give free technology to school in exchange for advertising to children should be outlawed.

Commercial Alert recently released a statement lambasting IEC for its ad-based revenue stream and for collecting and selling student data. Commercial Alert also claimed at least partial responsibility for striking the deathblow to ZapMe! Corp. in November 2000.

Mixed precedents

According to the Commercial Alert release, “Commercial Alert, Obligation Inc., and Junkbusters [two other anti-commercialism groups] ran a campaign that helped lead to the demise of the ZapMe! Corp., a similar company that advertised and gathered market research from schoolchildren.”

“Similar public outrage forced another company—[the internet-filtering firm] N2H2 Inc.—to announce that it would stop gathering market research from schoolchildren,” the anti-commercialism advocates said.

IEC’s president, Steve Gongaware, told eSchool News that IEC has never sold student information, despite the allegation in the recent release from Commercial Alert.

“We had a development project going with another service, and we stopped that over a year ago,” he said, citing “technical reasons” for not enacting the data collection. “Unfortunately, we neglected to delete it from our web site.”

Still, opponents of school advertising—and even some officials of companies that have tried it—have said the ad-based business model is destined to fail.

“Internet advertising is a very new concept, and it has not been proven,” Jim O’Halloran, N2H2’s former director of product marketing told eSchool News. So far, companies have not found it to be effective.

In January, N2H2 abandoned its ad-based Bess Partners Program, which offered free filtering to schools that agreed to present banner ads to students. Advertisers simply failed to give the program sufficient support, the company explained.

O’Halloran said the company’s intention with the Bess Partners Program was “to allow responsible corporate sponsors to subsidize the service for schools.”

“What we have discovered is that the ‘blue-chip’ sponsors we had targeted to help with this [initiative] did not come forward,” he said, adding, “Any observer of the internet industry can see that the internet world is having to reckon with online advertising problems. That model does not seem viable.”

Ted Maddock, technology director at El Diablo High School in Concord, Calif., was sorry to lose the free computer lab provided to his school by ZapMe!. He agreed the ad-based business model might have been to blame.

“I don’t think the business model was as viable as they thought,” he said, referring to N2H2 officials. “It is part of the shakeout in the whole dot-com industry.”

IEC’s Gongaware disagrees. The ad-based model is not inherently flawed, he asserted.

“If that’s the case, then why is ChannelOne [a company that supplies cable to schools in exchange for daily televised advertisements] a profitable business to the tune of $100 million per year?” he asked rhetorically.

Gongaware insists the problem was due to other business mistakes made by the companies.

“If [Commercial Alert is] under the false impression that they killed ZapMe!, then they are mistaken. [ZapMe!] failed because of a number of ways they ran their business wrong,” he said. “ZapMe! [leaders] did not want to say that they were stupid and that’s why they failed. Of course they are going to blame it on the organization that went after them.”

And as for N2H2, Gongaware said, “The whole concept for them was silly—why would you give filtering software for free?”

Regardless, those opposed to advertising in schools see trouble ahead for IEC. “I think what will happen to them is what happened to ZapMe!—once the press gets a hold of this, the public will expel them from schools,” said Commercial Alert’s Ruskin.

Legislative action

Even though he contends such endeavors are destined to fail, he says companies keep trying it because they believe substantial profits can be made by marketing to a captive audience of schoolchildren.

Said Ruskin, “[Companies] continue [to try it,] because, increasingly, corporations see kids as an economic resource to be exploited just like timber or iron ore. They think taking money from kids is like taking candy from a baby.

“This just speaks to how desperate companies are to market to children. It’s like flies to fly paper. They lust after the money that is in children’s pockets, and they’ll continue to be drawn to it until we pass legislation that makes this marketing illegal in schools,” Ruskin declared.

Ruskin’s view is not without supporters on Capitol Hill. On June 14, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the “Student Privacy Protection Act,” sponsored by Senators Richard Shelby, R.-Ala., and Christopher Dodd, D.-Conn. This bill would require parental consent before a company could extract market research from a child in school. A version of this bill previously was approved in the House, and the measure currently is pending before a House-Senate conference committee.

Gongaware and proponents of local control object. It’s not up to Washington lawmakers to tell local educators how to run their schools, they contend.

“Schools are obviously aware of what they are agreeing to, and they feel that since schools are funded locally, they have the right to decide locally what they are going to do,” the IEC president said. “That is the school board’s responsibility, to weigh the pros and cons and make [its] decisions accordingly.”

In letters to Commercial Alert, several educators using the Discovery Stations defended IEC.

“The fact of the matter is that what Discovery Station has to offer our school in return for what they want from us clearly gives the school an exceptional benefit,” said Mike Craig, a science teacher at Johnstown-Monroe High School, in Johnstown, Ohio.

“When tax levies for schools are regularly defeated, the reality is that we need resources to educate our children better. If someone really wants to eliminate corporate sponsorship in schools, he or she needs to campaign for superior funding for schools so that schools will not need the money,” said Barry S. Riehle, an educator at Turpin High School, in Cincinnati. “That will truly defeat corporate sponsorship.”

So far, Gongaware said, IEC has not received a single complaint from any of its participating schools.


Internet Education Concepts, Inc.

Commercial Alert


Software firm’s give-away strategy: ‘Try it, You’ll like it’

The Michigan-based software company cheerfully acknowledges it: Giving away a computer program that reads text out loud to help visually impaired or literacy-challenged students is a blatant marketing gimmick.

“At this point, we’ve given Scan and Read away to more than 4,000 schools and libraries,” said Steve Timmer, president of Premier Programming Solutions.

The company is offering every school a free single-user license for its Scan and Read software package, so a student who needs it can have the opportunity to use this technology.

“Our competitors sell the software starting at $1,000, and that’s ridiculous,” declared Kenneth Springer, chief operating officer of Premier Programming Solutions. “Schools are on a tight budget.”

“We’re a very small company, and we don’t do much marketing,” Springer added. “Our products don’t cost very much, so our budget is small. But we don’t want to sell it for $1,000.”

Premier Programming Solutions, which has only three employees, said the company expects to get subsequent sales from customers who first try out the software in schools, libraries, literacy groups, and other non-profit settings.

“It’s inexpensive enough that if a child has been using it at school, then a parent can afford to buy it for at home, too,” Timmer said. “Sure it’s a marketing scheme, but it’s easier to show people how it works than it is to explain it.”

Timmer, a software developer and former nuclear engineer, developed the Scan and Read system in his basement after losing most of his vision to macular degeneration in 1996. He needed something to assist him in reading, but found the products on the market too expensive and complicated.

“When I first lost my vision, I quickly became frustrated with the price and complexity of other text-to-voice conversion programs,” he said. “Some people can pay $1,000 but most people can’t.”

Scan and Read, which is available to the public for $89.95, translates written text into spoken language. It will read any type of printed material including computer files, eBooks, books, magazines, and forms.

“You can pull up any existing text file or scan in any text—like a book or newspaper—and it’ll read it to you,” Springer said.

It works with any Windows-based PC and any standard flatbed scanner. Users must turn the text into a digital format by scanning the text.

The software highlights each word on the screen as it reads the text aloud. “You can read a letter or line at a time, so it helps students follow along,” Springer said.

It also lets users control how fast the computer reads, and it can read in 17 different voices, according to company literature.

Dianne Yarnell, technology coordinator at the Arkansas Adult Learning Resource Center, which operates 53 adult literacy centers in the state, was delighted to get the Scan and Read software for free.

“I’m a scrounger so the first thing I did when I heard about Scan and Read was to call for a free copy,” Yarnell said. “This is one of those programs that if it wasn’t offered for free I would have scraped together the money to buy it.”

Although Yarnell didn’t compare any competing products, she liked the Scan and Read program on the first glance.

“When I first loaded it and looked at it, I watched to see if I had to do any training with our teachers, and I didn’t have to do anything,” Yarnell said. “It’s that easy to use.”

Because students in adult literacy programs often don’t have computer skills, the opportunity to use software to learn to read is a real bonus, said Yarnell.

“To me the computer is a basic tool. Using this software kind of kills two birds with one stone. [Users are] learning to use the mouse and computer, and they’re learning to read,” Yarnell said.

Some competitors, such as Kurzweil, part of the Lernout & Hauspie group, sell text-to-speech programs that are more robust and more expensive than Scan and Read.

Kurzweil offers the three different scanning and reading products, the company said: The Kurzweil 3000 for $1,895 assists those with learning disabilities, the MagniReader at $349 is for people with impaired vision, and the Kurzweil 1000 for $995 is for the blind.

Unlike Scan and Read, the Kurzweill 1000 can read text in 170 languages and switch between different languages instantly.

“There’s always a market that wants something for free, but those aren’t the customers who buy Kurzweil,” said David Bradburn, director of product management at Kurzweil. “We’d like to give our product away too, but we’re a for-profit company.”

According to one market analyst, newer companies with cheaper, smaller products often threaten more-established products like the Kurzweil line, but not always.

“Something that happens with mature companies is that they don’t want to compete on price but on features,” said Peter Stokes, executive vice president at Then, a new company comes along and offers a cheaper, lighter version of the product and often kills the giant company.

So will this marketing ploy help Premier Programming Solutions gain market share?

“Unless the product serves a real need of the institution, [giving it away for free] is not going to get the marketing bang their expecting,” Stokes said. “The critical challenge for that strategy to succeed is moving beyond schools saying ‘Yes, they’ll take it,’ to schools using it effectively.”

The worst possibility, according to Stokes: Potential customers would take the software because it’s free, but then never used it.

“Giving stuff away free to teachers does not necessarily result in sales or translate into paying customers,” Stokes said. “It’s definitely a difficult row to hoe.”

To obtain Scan and Read, call the company at (517) 668-8188 or visit its web site to apply for a free copy or to download a demonstration copy.


Premier Programming Solutions

Lernout & Hauspie’s Kurzweil Education Systems Group

Michigan Assistive Technology Resources


LA schools invest $44 million in computer reading program

In the wake of the Bush administration’s vow to improve literacy at the earliest grade levels, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is turning to technology to help its elementary students learn to read.

LAUSD on July 19 announced that 244 of its 427 elementary schools will receive the Waterford Early Reading Program, an individualized computer reading program school officials say has been proven effective in helping students learn to read. District officials say they hope the $44 million project, encompassing hardware, software, and training, will help bridge the gap in student learning and improve reading in the early grades.

“This is a major commitment to change in this district,” said Superintendent Roy Romer. “It is like putting a turbo-charger on a car engine: We are going to accelerate reading performance in kindergarten and first grade.”

The Waterford Early Reading Program is a classroom-based program aligned to California language-arts development standards. The program combines computerized multimedia reading instruction—featuring animated characters that teach basic phonics and more-advanced reading comprehension—with more-traditional student and teacher materials, such as books and videos.

The program’s price tag includes some fairly sophisticated hardware, explained Karen Merman, instructional technology applications facilitator for the Waterford project. Each participating classroom will be given a three-computer station, consisting of a teacher station and two student stations.

All three units will be Ethernet-ready Pentium III computers with 866-megahertz processors, digital video disc drives, and 60-gigabyte hard drives, Merman said.

“Some of these elementary schools still have Apple IIes, so this is quite an update,” she said. “For these schools, this is an incredible change.”

The Waterford system supports reading in the classroom by working “essentially [as] a one-on-one tutor,” said district spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez.

The program was designed to integrate seamlessly into kindergarten through second-grade classes during the two hours allotted for language arts by the LAUSD literacy plan.

Ramirez said a typical school day with the Waterford program would find the children sitting with their teacher going over a reading lesson at reading time. At the back of each classroom sits a printer and three computers, outfitted with headsets, microphones, and Waterford software.

During reading time, each kindergarten-age child gets 15 minutes per day to work on the computer. That time is increased to 30 minutes per day for first- and second-graders.

Once students have completed their sessions, the Waterford program shows them the name and photo of a classmate, and they just go over, tap that student on the shoulder, and rejoin the lesson. That way, the teacher never has to stop class for individual tutoring sessions.

“It works like this: Kids are in the classroom going through a lesson—say on the ‘s’ sound—and a child leaves the lesson, logs on to Waterford, and does [his or her] individualized program on the same topic. The teacher can then go back and continue to work with the class on the letter ‘s,'” explained Ramirez.

The program tracks individual student progress, so teachers can get immediate feedback on each student’s specific problems.

“This computer-assisted instruction provides teachers with an opportunity to assess students individually and—through an essentially reduced class size—gives students material tailored to their academic growth,” said school board member David Tokofsky.

“The lessons complement what goes on … in class,” agreed Ramirez. “It’s great, because we have a high percentage of English-language learners. [The program] models good academic language, it’s animated and fun, but [students] are learning the whole time.”

To reinforce reading skills at home, each kindergarten student receives a collection of four videotapes and 52 books encompassing rhymes, the alphabet, and other lessons to take home. “With our enrollment, often these books are the only books in the home,” said Ramirez.

“There are a lot of individual shrink-wrapped packages that are very small and limited,” said Benjamin Heuston, director of Waterford’s Provo, Utah, office. “We have a complete curriculum.”

District officials say Waterford already has been proven effective in the city’s schools. In the past year, the Waterford program has been used in more than 400 of LAUSD’s second-grade Intensive Academic Support classrooms (for students who were held back) and in a few schools that are part of a state “Reading Alliance.”

Feedback from classroom teachers and school administrators has been overwhelmingly positive, Ramirez said.

Studies of other school districts using the Waterford program have shown that Waterford users demonstrate average improvement rates significantly higher than students who did not use the program, school officials say.

In California’s Whittier City and Hacienda La Puente school districts, the average growth rate of limited English-proficiency students reportedly was double that of the English-proficient group in letter recognition and phonological awareness.

Waterford can be successful for all students, regardless of their primary language or beginning level of fluency, company officials claim. Last school year, 42 percent of LAUSD’s students were English-language learners.

“Now our classrooms are taking the lead in closing the digital divide,” said school board President Caprice Young. “With Waterford, advanced kids can work ahead, and kids who are behind can catch up quickly.”

Schools that have reading scores below the 45th percentile on the Stanford 9 test and a high percentage of English-language learners enrolled in the first grade will receive the Waterford program this year.

The 2,235 kindergarten and first-grade classrooms being equipped this year will serve more than 81,000 students. District officials expect to have the software installed in all participating schools by September.

Teacher training is included in the program, and each educator using the Waterford program is required to complete a day of company-led professional development, school officials said. Training sessions started at the end of June and will go on until the end of September, said Ramirez. This summer, more than 3,000 elementary school teachers and literacy coaches will receive training.

“We also have instructional technology applications facilitators … [who] can help the teachers with the instructional aspects of the machines,” said Merman, adding that teachers are fully supported on both the hardware and software side.

But company officials say the learning curve for teacher is not prohibitive. “The biggest time expenditure for the teachers is in initially setting the system up, getting the names in, organizing the students into groups if they want to, and figuring out how to schedule the kids,” said Heuston.

The Waterford program includes a parent-literacy support component, in which parents work with their own children after school to reinforce the classroom reading lessons at home.

Funding for the project has come from various grants, adult-education funds, and state education department funding.


Los Angeles Unified School District

Waterford Early Reading Program


Students face controversial new lunch-line technology

Starting this fall, some students will buy their lunch simply by looking at a web camera in the school cafeteria and saying their name, thanks to a food service company that is tapping face and voice recognition technology.

The most prevalent biometric authentication used in schools today is fingerprint scanning, but companies such as Food Service Solutions Inc. say they want to avoid the stigma attached to fingerprinting—especially in schools.

“You bring up the word ‘fingerprinting,’ and there’s a connotation,” said Mitch Johns, president of Food Service Solutions. In real life and on television, only “bad guys” are fingerprinted after being arrested by the police, Johns said.

“We feel like we’re a leader in bringing new technology to the market, and we feel the new system is a more acceptable device,” he said.

Some of Food Service’s school clients do use fingerprint technology in the cafeteria, but according to feedback from these schools, fingerprinting is still too slow, Johns said. Even though the students don’t have to fumble with change or swipe a card with their personal identification number (PIN), they still have to stop and touch the fingerprint reader.

With face and voice recognition, students merely position themselves in front of a web camera attached to computer monitor and say their name or any chosen word. Reportedly, the computer identifies the students instantly and deducts the meals from their accounts.

“For our system, it takes less then two seconds for the whole process,” said Jeffrey Buechler, director of sales for BioID America Inc., the company that has partnered with Food Service Solutions on the system.

BioID’s biometric authentication software recognizes a user’s face, voice, and lip movement simultaneously.

“It measures speed, direction, and flow as you are speaking,” Buechler said. “We take lots of points around your face and measure how they move.”

To enroll, the student looks at the camera and says his or her name three times for verification. “If I’m saying ‘Jeffrey,’ I say my name the same way every time,” Buechler said.

The software can be set up to add a new recording daily, weekly, or monthly to compensate for students’ growth spurts, Buechler said. Students can opt out if they want to; it’s completely voluntary.

Like other biometric authentication technologies, face- and voice-recognition technology lets students buy meals at school without cash, passwords, or meal tickets. It also prevents students who participate in the free or reduced-priced lunch program from being identified.

“It will definitely reduce the stigma attached to subsidized lunch programs. No one will know,” Buechler said.

Johns said voice recognition keeps pass cards from being forgotten, stolen, or lost. It also remedies the problem of students giving out their PINs.

“Our technology enables kids to get their meals without a password, without PINs, and without cards. There’s absolutely nothing for a child to pass to another child,” Buechler said.

It’s also an easier system for young students. “If you have a kindergarten student, you have to teach them and train them to remember and use the number,” Johns said.

If students fool around or try to beat the system, they just won’t get lunch.

“You have to want to get authenticated. I could put my hand over my face, but then I wouldn’t be identified,” Buechler said. “They only have 45 minutes for lunch. I don’t think they’ll fool around that much.”

Privacy concerns

BioID’s face and voice recognition system “is unlike other biometrics systems in that it protects users’ privacy,” Buechler said. An algorithm built into the software program prevents the data from being used for anything else.

“It’s taking a photograph and breaking it down into ones and zeroes using a special algorithm, so there’s no actual recording kept,” Buechler said.

But privacy advocates say face- and voice-recognition technologies raise even greater privacy concerns—and the less information you give to others, the better.

“Privacy advocates always follow the idea that one should minimize the amount of data about oneself held by other parties,” said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

According to Hoofnagle, there’s not much schools can do to keep this kind of data from the police. “Undoubtedly, law enforcement will enter and ask the school for the student data as soon as a crime occurs,” he said.

Earlier this year, at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, police used face-recognition technology to match mug shots of wanted criminals with people in the crowd. In a nightlife section of Tampa, called Ybor City, police have set up surveillance so they can continually match people’s faces to their archive of wanted criminals.

Hoofnagle worries that by using this technology in school, children will become accustomed to it and will give out this kind of personal information without thinking twice. If they grow up using this technology, perhaps they won’t question why the grocery store and government offices use it as well.

“With the use of biometrics, you begin to breed children that are used to the system,” Hoofnagle said. “Especially when you start with young people, you can easily begin to [develop] a surveillance state.”

Johns doesn’t consider this to be an issue in a school setting, because students choose to use the system and are aware that the scanning is taking place.

“In my opinion, giving over [your social security number] can cause far more damage than being in a school lunch line,” Johns said. “This type of technology is already here, and its use is going to be more prevalent.”

Eventually, Johns said, Food Service Solutions will expand the use of voice- and face-recognition technology to the library and for taking attendance.

Before that happens, the company will see how students respond to the technology. “We will be looking for acceptance from the students, because they are going to have to use it,” Johns said.


BioID America Inc.

Food Service Solutions Inc.

Electronic Privacy Information Center


Solar energy and computer technologies fuel students’ eight-day race

In a cross-country race using solar-powered vehicles, in which every driving decision counts, eight teams of high school students from across the United States and Mexico are relying on advanced technologies such as notebook computers, wireless communications, and global positioning system (GPS) software to help them reach the finish line.

The students are participating in the Green Mountain Energy Co. Winston Solar Challenge, an eight-day, 1,400-mile competition designed to motivate students in the sciences, provide hands-on experience with advanced technology, and emphasize the value of alternative energy sources, all in a project-based learning environment.

On July 17, the student racers began driving the solar-powered cars they built from Dell Computer Corp.’s campus in Round Rock, Texas, to the finish line in Columbus, Ind., near Indianapolis. They are scheduled to reach the finish line July 25.

Teams from Cameron, Dallas, and San Antonio, Texas; Columbus, Ind.; Houston, Miss.; Irvine, Calif.; Spartanburg, S.C.; and Juarez, Mexico are participating in this year’s competition.

“The kids did all of the work and installation. They wrote the programs, they monitor the race, and if there is a problem with anything, they fix it each night,” said the event’s director, Lehman Marks. “There is no one older than 21 doing anything technical.”

Each solar car is accompanied by a “chase team” riding in a normal vehicle fitted with some not-so-normal technologies.

The chase teams are using Dell Inspiron notebook computers to fix each solar car’s location, gauge battery usage, monitor weather patterns, track the competition, and record other important race data that factor into their race strategies. Solar car enthusiasts can track the progress of each team in real time on the Winston Solar Challenge web site.

The laptop computers allow students in this internationally recognized race to plan and track their cross-country trip with the help of wireless satellite and GPS technologies.

“The students participating in this program are learning collaboration and teamwork, and [they] are gaining a rich understanding of technology and communication skills—all of which are critical for success in the workplace of the 21st century,” said Bill Rodrigues, Dell’s vice president and general manager for education.

And they’re using some pretty serious “gee-whiz” equipment, too.

“On the solar car side, you have some really sophisticated technology with the cars themselves,” explained Marks.

The motors used are complex and monitored by computer to make sure they are working effectively. Participants also use some of the most sophisticated power-tracking instruments in the world to monitor the level of solar power their cars contain.

“The coolest technology in the car is the battery,” said student participant Jason Hendrickson, a senior at Buhler High School in Buhler, Kan. “There are lots of lighter batteries coming out now, and the big thing with solar cars is making the cars light but powerful.”

But the No. 1 technology item that excites kids is the motor, Hendrickson said. “They are these cool things called hub motors, and they use electromagnets. They are really efficient.”

Participants also use weather-tracking technology so they know what conditions they are driving into, Marks said. “If you are going to race a solar car, you have to know when there are clouds in front of you. This technology gives them real-time Doppler radar [imaging] of anywhere in the country.

“Students will not only use Dell notebooks to formulate their strategies to reach the checkered flag, they will also have the ability to communicate with family and supporters back home throughout the race,” he added.

Working in partnership with Dell are Verizon Wireless, 3Com, Terion Corp., Clear Stream Video, Texas Christian University, Casio, and Raytheon employees.

Some of the uses of technology during the race include:

  • Race judges provide solar team racing information wirelessly. Using a network consisting of Dell laptop computers, Verizon Wireless systems, 3Com modems, and special software developed by student participant William Shih, race observers can access real-time data on each solar team via the challenge’s web site. Race judges, traveling in a chase vehicle, provide almost continuous information to the site.

  • GPS systems provide solar team locations. GPS systems from Terion Corp. are located on each chase vehicle and provide data on each team’s movements along the racecourse. That information is displayed on the challenge’s home page via a link to the Terion home page.

  • Digital paging systems keep race staff informed. Winston Solar Challenge staff remain in contact with one other along each day’s 200-mile race course using Verizon’s new digital paging systems.

  • Streaming video shows each day’s race events. Clear Stream Video and Texas Christian University have teamed up to provide streaming video from each day’s race events. “We are all interconnected by this great technology that is run, operated, and connected by kids,” said Marks. Participants have the use of digital eMail and streaming video, maintained and run by students.

  • High-resolution digital photos also document the events. High-resolution digital photos are available each day along the racecourse, courtesy of Casio.

“The students participating in this race are our future—and so are clean energy sources,” said Gillan Taddune, vice president of the Texas arm of Green Mountain Energy Co., the title sponsor for the 2001 Winston Solar Challenge.

The communities along the racecourse have become involved with the annual summer race, according to Marks. “There are 10 million people between Austin and Indianapolis, and I think we may meet every one of them,” he said. “People all want to come out and see the cars and meet the kids. It’s wonderful.”

The Winston Solar Car Team hosted the first challenge in 1995, with 90 schools vying for a chance to compete in the event, nine schools building cars for the race, and three cars qualifying to participate.

The Winston School, an independent school in Dallas, Texas, now hosts the challenge annually. Even-numbered year events are closed-track races, and odd-numbered year events, like this year’s, are cross-country races.

Since its inception nine years ago, the Winston Solar Education Program has helped students from more than 800 schools in 20 countries learn the science and art of building and racing solar-powered cars.

“The most amazing thing about the Winston Solar Car Challenge is that technology is being used by kids to make decisions,” said Marks. “Every day in schools, you see lots of technology that kids just play with, and that is just not real. This is the real thing.”


Winston Solar Challenge

Green Mountain Energy Co.

Winston School


eRate agency begins notifying schools of Year Four funding

Schools that applied for Year Four eRate discounts will receive notification of funding starting this week. The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.–the group that administers the program–said it would mail the first wave of funding letters to 23,800 applicants and 5,100 service providers on July 23.

The first wave will commit more than $395 million in eRate discounts and will reach about 70 percent of the total number of applicants, an SLD notice said. But about 6,000 of the letters will not contain funding, because they represent requests for internal connections from applicants who qualify for discounts below 85 percent.

At this point in the processing of Year Four applications, it is clear there will be enough money to fund all requests for so-called Priority One services, or telecommunications services and internet access.

But, given the extraordinarily high demand for discounts this year ($5.2 billion in requests, or nearly double the $2.25 billion cap on funding), the SLD said it’s unclear whether applicants who qualify for discounts of 85 percent to 89 percent will get funding for internal connections–or even whether there will be enough money to fund all requests for internal connections from the 90-percent discount band.

Thus, in the first wave of letters, approved requests for internal connections at a 90-percent discount will appear with a status of “As Yet Unfunded,” and those applicants will get a second letter when it becomes clear whether there’s enough money to fund these requests in full or whether the requests will have to be funded on a prorated basis.

No applicants who requested discounts of 85 percent to 89 percent on internal connections will receive a letter in this first wave.

Applicants should note there’s a new version of Form 486, which is used to notify the SLD of when services begin. This new version, expected to be posted to the SLD’s web site July 23, includes the certifications required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (see eSN Exclusive: Filtering and the eRate: What you need to know right now for more information) and also is available by calling the SLD’s Client Service Bureau at (888) 203-8100. The agency will not accept older versions of the form.

The SLD promises additional waves of funding letters every two weeks. Wave Two will be mailed on Friday, August 3, and all subsequent waves will be mailed on Fridays as well, with information about each wave posted on the SLD’s web site the following Monday.


Schools and Libraries Division


NYC board’s web policy rankles teachers

The New York City Board of Education is taking some heat for a stringent internet acceptable-use policy (AUP) that would require each student, teacher, and district web page to be hosted and reviewed at the board level beginning in September.

Board members wanted to control what gets published online under the auspices of the city’s schools, thereby limiting their liability in any legal matters. But teachers in the nation’s largest school system say the policy goes overboard and would undermine the web’s immediacy as a communications tool.

The situation illustrates the difficulties faced by school districts across the country as they try to balance management, safety, and liability issues with how the internet is used at the classroom level.

The board’s AUP, enacted in February of this year, states that each district, school, teacher, student, and staff web page in New York City must be housed on a server at the board by September.

That means approximately 1,100 schools would have to submit all web sites created by the school, teachers, or students to the board for approval. Considering there are more than 78,000 teachers and one million students in the city’s schools, the effort needed to transfer, review, and update the sites would be staggering.

Some New York City educators are wondering how the board plans to do it.

“A lot of my colleagues are just laughing. [The board] can’t even run an eMail system. How are they going to control this?” said John Elfrank-Dana, web master at New York City’s Murry Bergtraum High School. “I think they’re going to realize this isn’t practical.”

Ted Nellen, a cybrarian for the city’s alternative schools program, said, “They are dreaming if they plan to host [all the web sites of] teachers and kids in New York City. It will never happen, so I’m not worried about it. And as far as enforcing it, they have bigger problems, like not enough teachers, not enough schools, not enough basic supplies.”

In addition to hosting web pages, the policy says each district superintendent will designate a “district web publisher” who will develop style and content guidelines for district and school web pages in accordance with the board rules. Also, the district web publisher will develop a process for approving, posting, and removing web material.

“One of the most atrocious things is all the teaching content, any content, must be reviewed by some staff at the district before it can be published,” Elfrank-Dana said. “Now, all information has to go through the board of education censor. It could take weeks to get information out there.”

He added, “If I’m putting together a lesson plan and some bureaucrat at the board of education has the final say, it sets a bad precedent.” Elfrank-Dana said he didn’t know whether the reviewers would be teachers or not.

Nellen warns that a complicated review process could reverse progress the board and individual districts have made in getting teachers to use the internet in the classroom.

“What this policy … will do is to compound the problem of frustration felt by teachers in trying to use the ‘net in their classrooms. Folks on the edge will just not use it and all that money already spent will be wasted, because this is just one more hoop to jump through,” Nellen said.

Furthermore, the board’s web policy, which can be downloaded from its web site, says web pages shall not “contain web links to or advertisements for profit-making entities, such as publishers or other consumer goods purveyors, unless approved by the board.”

Elfrank-Dana said it’s sometimes necessary to post a link to a commercial site such as Adobe Acrobat—especially because the board posts PDF files on its web site. “I’m prohibited from linking to Adobe because they have advertising on their site,” he said.

In addition, he called this policy a double standard, because many teachers use the New York Times in the classroom and it is full of advertising.

Geannie Wells, director for the American Association of School Administrators’ Center of Accountability Solutions, said this approval process “really takes away from the dynamic of the web.”

She recommends writing a more specific web policy for teachers and staff that states exactly what is allowed and is not allowed on web pages, and establishing a review process for student web pages only.

“It’s all about a good policy,” Wells said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s all about reflecting the values of the community.”

Board members acknowledge their policy is not feasible and needs to be changed.

“It’s not official, but we’re in the process of going through a revision,” said Jackson Tung, chief information officer for the New York City Board of Education, in a telephone interview.

The current policy requires compliance by September, but Tung said, “We fully expect the revision to kick in before that to remedy [the deadline].” The board doesn’t have the resources to review all content for every possible web site before it is published, he said.

“We are hosting the majority of the school’s web sites, but to make it a requirement is more trouble than it’s worth,” Tung said. “I think there will be an explosion of the number of web sites from teachers, students, and schools. It’s really not feasible for us to address them all. What’s really important is that the web sites—however they are hosted—follow the [board’s] policy.”

In revising the policy, the board said it will consult a wide group of people.

“We need to get a lot of stakeholders’ input,” Tung said. “There’s a whole community of parents, teachers, board members, and stakeholders that we are working with.”

“They are always rewriting [policies], and I’d love to know who the educators [who are involved] are. There are a few of us in New York City who have never been involved with this process, in spite of our success in the city’s schools and elsewhere,” Nellen said.

“There are many of us in the system that have been using the internet extensively in education, but none of us were consulted,” Elfrank-Dana added. Lawyers and technology staff created the policy because the district wanted “to insulate themselves from any legal obligations.”


New York City Board of Education

John Elfrank-Dana’s teaching web site

Alternative Schools program

American Association of School Administrators


Students take to the web for driver ed

Some driver education students in Buhler, Kan., are learning to drive by using the information superhighway. Instead of getting right behind the wheel of a car, they’re getting started behind a computer keyboard.

Technology isn’t new to driver education programs; for years, driving simulators have helped prepare students in some school districts for unexpected situations before they got out on the road. But the Buhler Unified School District (BUSD) recently started the state’s first online driver education program, according to Stefani Curchy, assistant principal for Buhler High School and a driving instructor who helped create the program.

The program allows students to study the textbook at home and take quizzes at any computer with internet access. Students piloting the program at Buhler High School this past spring were still required to show up for a final exam and take road-driving lessons, but the rest of the work could be done anytime within a four-week period.

Moving the course online offers flexibility for students while saving schools money, Curchy said. Currently, most Kansas school districts only offer driver education programs during the summer.

The idea became a reality during the 2000-2001 school year, as driver education teachers developed a program that fulfilled all state requirements. While there were a few kinks to work out when 17 students went through the program in April, two subsequent programs in May went smoothly, Curchy said.

“We felt virtual learning would work well, even though it’s not face-to-face contact,” Curchy said. “Parents and students said they liked the online system and would rather [take the course via the internet] than sit in a lecture.”

Instructors want to offer the program year-round and eventually expand the program to other school districts.

“We will start it up again in the fall for students who come of age during the school year and want to take it at that time,” said Superintendent David Brax. “We have also talked about the possibility of contracting with other districts, in which we would provide the online course work and they would do the driving [portion].”

“To my knowledge, I don’t think there are other states doing this,” Curchy said. “A national speaker for driver education recently told a group of us there was nothing like this yet, but it’s coming soon.”

Students receive a textbook at the start of class and can read chapters and take the 16 chapter quizzes at their own pace. When they get 80 percent or above on a quiz, they move forward in the program.

If a student is having trouble on a quiz, an instructor can eMail or call the student. The student then has another opportunity to pass the quiz.

“While it’s not face to face, we still contact [students] and eMail them,” Curchy said. “Also, most of the learning still takes place in the car, which is similar to any other driver education program.”

Joan Peterson, director for driver education at the Kansas Department of Education and a member of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, has some doubts about whether online driver education is a suitable alternative to traditional in-class learning.

“I think there is a lot missing from the online course as far as personal experiences from the teacher and guest speakers like the police department, motorcycle safety, and ex-students,” she said. “I really think that was beneficial. That is all gone in this type of a format, and I wish it wasn’t.”

Another drawback, according to Peterson, involves state regulations about who teaches driver education. Instructors must be certified and endorsed to teach the course.

“I’m afraid now everyone is going to jump in and say, ‘I have a program.’ You just can’t be sure who is delivering the program,” Peterson said. “An [online] curriculum developed in California may not apply to the regulations in Kansas.”

Furthermore, the online version of driver education makes it impossible to tell if students are really doing the work themselves. “The only test they do with any kind of supervision is the final exam,” she explained. “Anyone could be helping when they do these quizzes at home.”

That’s why Peterson compares the class to a “quiz-out,” meaning that the only true determination of competency takes place at the instructor-led final exam.

“It could be life-saving to know this stuff, and you know that a comprehensive final cannot cover everything,” she said.

“Kids and parents are definitely on the honor system,” acknowledged Curchy. To help ensure honesty, the district sent out forms to parents asking them to sign a statement saying that their child—and no one else—was the one taking the tests.

Peterson said there are also some practical issues that may inhibit widespread acceptance of online driver education.

“Actually, I don’t know of many programs like this, and there is a good reason why,” she said. “The fact is that you cannot guarantee who is actually doing the work.” That is particularly a problem in Kansas, where schools are reimbursed for successful driver education students based on the results of a post-class audit.

“The auditor has to be able to verify that kids have done the work themselves, and the way it normally works is that the auditors actually look at the graded papers teachers have kept … to make sure the schools are reporting accurately,” she said. With online classes, there would be no hard copies of graded work.

That was all worked out during the planning phase, according to BUSD officials.

“After talking to the auditors and the [Department of Motor Vehicles], we decided that the kids would take the 16 chapter tests online. At the end of the four-week class, they take an in-class exam, and that’s the one the auditors look at,” said Curchy.

Despite her reservations, Peterson admits that the online class allows for more flexible scheduling and cost-savings, because one teacher can handle more online students than in-class students.

Special times were arranged in computer labs at both Buhler High School and Prairie Hills Middle School for students who wished to complete their work at school, said district officials.

Brax said he’d been considering offering driver’s education online for a while and felt it would be a success, given the changing times and improved technology.

“Virtual technology is utilized more and more, and we thought going online was a natural fit,” he said. “This is a just a different delivery service to accommodate student needs.”

Curchy says the district plans to deliver both traditional and online driver education, at least for the next couple years.

“The fact that [BUSD is] offering it both ways is a good thing,” said Peterson. “I don’t think an only online course would benefit all students.”


Buhler Unified School District

American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association