“The JASON Project” takes students on an educational odyssey

Using technology to teach and excite students in the study of science is the aim of famed explorer Robert Ballard and the JASON Project. Best known for his discovery of the shipwrecked Titanic, Ballard has announced the eighth installment of this popular educational series. “JASON XIII: Frozen Worlds” will take students and teachers to some of the colder regions of our planet and solar system, with Alaska and the polar regions as comparative venues. The three main research questions for Frozen Worlds are: What are the dynamic systems of Earth and Space? How do these systems affect life on Earth? What technologies do we use to study these systems, and why? The JASON Project offers students and teachers in grades four through nine a comprehensive, multimedia approach to enhance teaching and learning in science, technology, math, geography, and associated disciplines. The project delivers its educational content through a print curriculum, videos, fully interactive internet programming, and live satellite “telepresence” broadcasts. The award-winning online content from the JASON expedition is being viewed by millions of students in connected classrooms across the world.


98 percent of public schools have internet access

The percentage of public schools wired to the internet has increased to 98 percent–up from 95 percent last year–according to statistics released May 9, but education groups say more work still needs to be done.

Since 1994, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has surveyed approximately 1,000 public schools each year to find out how many are connected to the internet, so the U.S. Department of Education can measure the progress of the nation’s investment in technology.

According to the report, in the fall of 2000, 98 percent of the nation’s public schools had access to the internet, up from 35 percent in 1994. The percentage of classrooms wired to the internet also has increased dramatically. In 2000, 77 percent of classrooms offered internet access, compared to 64 percent last year and three percent in 1994. Unlike previous years, there were virtually no differences in access to the internet by school characteristics–such as poverty level and metropolitan status–in 1999 or 2000, the report said.

For example, in 1997 there was a gap of 24 points between the percentage of the wealthiest schools (86 percent) and poorest schools (62 percent) connected to the internet. In 2000, that gap was only 5 percentage points.

The overall ratio of students to instructional computers reached five to one last fall, better than six to one in 1999. Similarly, the ratio of students to instructional computers with internet access improved. It was nine to one in 1999 and seven to one in 2000.

Despite these advances, education advocates say the battle is not over yet.

“It’s great news and not so great news. We made tremendous strides in the highest-poverty schools, but we’re still not there yet,” said Norris Dickard, senior associate at the Benton Foundation. “There’s enough in this report to show that the job is not done yet.”

In the poorest schools, the ratio of students to internet-connected computers improved from 17 to 1 in 1999 to 9 to 1 in 2000. However, nine students to one computer is still higher than the national average of 7 to 1.

Percentage of schools connected to the internet:

Percentage of classrooms connected to the internet:

Student to computer ratio:

Student to internet-connected computer ratio:

Student to internet-connected computer ratio in poorest schools:

Percentage of schools with computers accessibe after school hours:


Mindsurf Networks to Acquire Discourse Technologies

Mindsurf Networks Inc., a provider of wireless computing solutions for the K-12 market, announced it will acquire Discourse Technologies Inc., a developer of groupware applications for the school market. The Discourse product suite is designed to provide real-time individual student assessment.

“The Discourse product suite adds powerful teaching functions to the Mindsurf Networks solution,” said Bruce Davis, CEO of Mindsurf Networks. “In conjunction with our wireless technology, teachers can now administer electronic curriculum and assessments to their students in a controlled and direct fashion. They will immediately know which students understand a concept and which students do not. That kind of real-time feedback leads to results.”

With the integration of the Discourse software into the Mindsurf Networks solution, teachers will be able to follow all students’ learning in real-time and assess comprehension while teaching. As a result, they can instantly remediate, provide additional resources and even track and score results. For example, a teacher conducting a lesson on metamorphosis can push a video clip from the internet to all students, which they view on their individual handheld computers. The teacher can ask them questions and then watch their responses–student by student–on a PC.

Mindsurf Networks delivers a wireless computing solution for K-12 educators and students that enables ubiquitous, handheld computing at very low cost. Launched in July 2000, Mindsurf Networks is a $70 million joint venture between Sylvan Ventures, the venture arm of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., and Aether Systems Inc.


N2H2 taps new chief executive

N2H2 Inc., the leading internet filtering company in schools with a reported 14 million K-12 users, announced that Microsoft veteran Philip Welt, 45, has joined the company as its new president and chief executive officer. In his new role, Welt will be responsible for broadening the company’s enterprise offerings and building upon its extensive educational client base. Former N2H2 CEO Peter Nickerson has assumed the role of board chairman.

Welt’s track record for consistently delivering strong growth and impressive operating results was a driving force for the move, according to company officials. Welt, helped expand the software giant’s presence in Mexico, growing sales revenues in the region by more than 400 percent in one year. In 1995, Welt became director of worldwide sales for Microsoft subsidiary Softimage.

“Moving forward, my goal in leading N2H2 is to drive toward profitability and establish the same dominant presence in the enterprise filtering market that we have already achieved in the K-12 global school market,” said Welt. “Over the coming months you’ll see N2H2 introducing a broad array of new enterprise products, as well as engaging in some significant partner and customer relationships that will greatly expand our reach into the corporate filtering market.”

Though Welt will focus on broadening the company’s enterprise business, school customers of N2H2 may be reassured to note that Welt is involved with several nonprofit philanthropic endeavors specifically focused on education. These include financing the Louis Gregory Scholarship Fund,working in Seattle public schools, and sitting on the board of a multicultural private school in Seattle’s Central District.


Libraries win partial victory in filtering lawsuit

Public libraries will have until July 2002 to certify that they have adopted internet filtering technologies required by a new federal law, under terms of an agreement reached in U.S. district court.

The agreement came during a hearing on the twin lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association challenging portions of the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

Under the law passed last year, libraries and schools would lose federal grants earmarked for technology unless they install computer filtering software that blocks access to online material deemed “obscene,” “harmful to minors,” or “child pornography.” Libraries were supposed to be in compliance by July 31, with certification by October.

The lawsuits challenge portions of the law that affect libraries, not schools. The suits contend the law violates freedom of speech.

The agreement reached May 15 with federal prosecutors requires libraries to indicate this year that they are evaluating their options, said Theresa A. Chmara, a lawyer for the library association. Schools will still have to begin complying by July 1 and certify their compliance with the law by October 27.


Maryland governor signs repeal of school cell phone ban

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening has approved repealing a ban on bringing cellular phones and pagers to school in 16 of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions. The ban will remain in place in Baltimore city and Baltimore, Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico, and Worcester counties.

Local school officials from other counties will work with the state Department of Education to develop their own policies.

The ban initially was intended to head off drug crimes and distraction in schools. But Ron Peiffer, a state Department of Education spokesman, said the state school board supported repealing the ban because many parents want their children to carry cellular phones for their own safety.

The prohibition, which applied to other forms of wireless technology, also prevented teachers and students from using some cutting-edge equipment in classrooms, Peiffer said.

“I think these other things have now outweighed the concerns about it,” Peiffer said. “Locally, if people still see the potential for problems, they can close it down.”


Mississippi’s effort to put computers in classrooms needs more money

Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s effort to put a computer in every public classroom in the state by late 2002 is on track, but more money is needed to finish the project, a state official says.

“Right now, we have an immediate need of $2 million to fund the remainder of the 6,300 computers which have to be installed by the first of the school year,” said Michael Boyd, policy and planning director for Musgrove.

Boyd said a recent survey of 30,000 classrooms statewide showed that only 12,602 did not have internet accessible computers.

The $28 million total project is the largest public-private partnership in the nation, Musgrove said in May. Musgrove and the leader of Entergy Mississippi traveled the state in a bid to raise the additional $2 million from private donors. About $4 million has been raised already.

Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, said communities are getting on board with the project because they can see where their money is going.

“Every dollar raised–100 percent–goes to the purchase of the computers and the training of teachers to use them,” Wilson said. “This is not just to put computers in the corner of the classroom to collect dust.”


Three board members resign from Ohio virtual school

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (eCOT), an online charter school serving Ohio students, experienced another setback in May when three board members resigned. The members said they disagreed with the school’s management and spent too much time trying to solve the school’s problems.

Board members Douglas Lumpkin and Harry Beale resigned May 9. Clyde Card submitted a letter of resignation but did not leave his post until the following week, when the board appointed replacements, said Donald Wihl, the board’s chairman.

The school is based in Columbus and sponsored by the Lucas County Educational Service Center near Toledo. It has enrolled more than 2,000 students in its first year, quickly becoming the state’s largest charter school and one of the biggest of the dozens of new online schools around the country.

Wihl said the members resigned because the board meetings took too much of their time. Beale, an industrialist in Columbus, said in his letter of resignation that his businesses have suffered because of the time he’s spent trying to correct problems with eCOT.

The school has drawn criticism from some public school superintendents, who accused eCOT of exaggerating enrollment, causing their districts to lose funding to the charter school before the numbers were verified. Meanwhile, some parents complained about long delays receiving computers.

Beale said he still believes that the idea of an internet-based school is “a fantastic idea.” But, he said, “I think I have philosophical differences with the management company.”

Card also said he had differences with management company Altair Learning Management LLC. “I just didn’t really agree with the way the organization was going,” Card said, declining to elaborate.

The new board members, named May 16, are N. Eugene Brundige, a former deputy director of human resources for the city of Columbus; Carolyn L. Nellon of Columbus, human resources manager for the Ohio Department of Aging and a former personnel director for Columbus Public Schools; and Cynthia Baird of Trenton, a nurse who has three children enrolled with eCOT.


Schools soon could face web-accessibility law

A federal law that took effect last month could mean that school districts might one day be required to employ special software designed to make their web sites and technology practices accessible to visually impaired stakeholders.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 mandated that federal government agencies had until June 21 of this year to make sure that members of the public with disabilities, such as hearing or vision impairment, have access to information, computers, and networks comparable with the access enjoyed by people without disabilities.

All federal agency web sites must have a text equivalent–a description that can be vocalized–representing every picture, graphic, or icon. Multimedia presentations also must be synchronized with audio presentations. In other words, if you can’t see it, you must be able to hear it.

“There is nothing more frustrating than when the government says, ‘Well, it’s on the web. It’s a matter of public information. Just go and read it,'” said Ross Doerr, technology consultant for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. Doerr is a lawyer specializing in access for the disabled and is visually impaired himself.

Making government more accessible to the disabled involves more than adding wheelchair ramps to buildings, experts say. A New Hampshire software company is creating on-ramps to the information superhighway and helping government agencies bring themselves into compliance with the new regulations.

Hiawatha Island Software Co., or HiSoftware, produces AccVerify, a program that is helping several government agencies update their web sites so that visually impaired people can retrieve information. Users who log on to the edited sites can either zoom in on magnified images or hear descriptions of what appears on the screen.

“It’s very easy to think of buildings being accessible–bathrooms, wheelchair ramps–but when you talk to people about web site accessibility, they look at you and say, ‘What are you talking about?'” said Dana Simberkoff, the company’s vice president.

Even a blind person with state-of-the-art technology can only access between 20 percent and 40 percent of what’s on the internet, said Doerr.

“A computer that talks is not a machine for a blind person. It is their eyes,” he said. “It is doing something for that person that the medical community cannot do yet. It gives them independence.”

HiSoftware counts among its clients the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the Department of Agriculture.

Using the software, agencies can “comply overnight and understand [the law],” said company President Robert Yonaitis.

The software tells the agencies the exact page, row, and column of their web site that must be made accessible and how to fix it. Yonaitis said he used the software on his own web site, making the material 98-percent accessible within four hours.

Though states aren’t required to make the same changes, HiSoftware is working with many state agencies to improve their web sites.

According to HiSoftware’s Simberkoff, Section 508 may be only a federal mandate right now, but a number of people believe the law will apply to state and local agencies and even corporate entities in the near future.

“Usually when the federal government sets a mandate like this, it is the bottom floor,” she said. “Other agencies will adopt the same policies after that.”

This “trickle-down” form of policy adoption is common when federal agencies implement broad-based regulations like Section 508, agreed Doerr, who said the law is likely to apply to school systems, too, in the near future.

Doerr explained that any regulations on making school web sites accessible to the blind will be state-specific, and he urged educators to contact their state education department and ask if there are regulations in place regarding web accessibility for the disabled.

He also said the issue of universal accessibility is a topic that should be addressed in any class that teaches students how to build useful, responsible web sites.

“If your schools are going to be teaching students how to create web sites, it’s best to look at this type of program so that you can build accessibility into your teaching,” said Doerr.


Hiawatha Island Software Co.

New Hampshire Association for the Blind


Wall Street’s S&P begins rating school districts online

Michigan is paying Wall Street’s Standard & Poor’s (S&P) $10 million to run an online service that rates the state’s school districts. Pennsylvania and other states are expected to follow Michigan’s lead. Critics say it would be better to spend those millions directly on education.

S&P has been providing investors with information about the credit-worthiness of businesses and governments for more than 85 years. On May 25, S&P debuted an online school evaluation system that provides up to 1,500 items of information for each Michigan school district, as well as 12- to 15-page summaries of each district’s strengths and weaknesses.

The idea is to use the internet to make school systems more accountable to their stakeholders by showing the “return on investment” for tax dollars spent on education, measured in terms of test scores and other raw data.

The S&P web site isn’t the first of its kind. But the participation of a well-respected financial analysis firm lends a high profile to the endeavor, and the site also marks the first attempt by a major corporation to cash in on the drive for school accountability.

William Cox, director of school evaluation services for S&P, said that response to the system had been “overwhelmingly positive.” He wouldn’t say how many hits the company’s web site had received, but he described it as “a substantial amount of traffic.”

“The largest number of comments have come from districts who found that they have perhaps sent in some information incorrectly to the state,” Cox said. “So already the service is helping people improve their data quality.”

Michigan plans to pay S&P $10 million over the next five years to maintain the site. State officials say it’s worth the money, because the company can provide objective analysis and has the capacity to run the site.

But Choices for Children, a group that advocates charter schools and vouchers, questioned the cost of the program, especially since the state already had the data being presented.

“Particularly during a down economy, this is money that could have been spent developing new standardized tests or raising teachers’ salaries, things that would have an immediate benefit for children,” spokesman Greg McNeilly said.

McNeilly also criticized the site because it posts explanations of the data from superintendents, but it doesn’t post comments from parents.

“We spend $14 billion a year on education in Michigan, and parents and taxpayers are the primary stakeholders,” he said.

State Superintendent Tom Watkins praised the system, saying it will help districts make the most of their resources by allowing them to compare themselves to others. This information “helps public education do right by our children,” he said.

An evaluation of Pennsylvania school districts reportedly will go online later this summer, and S&P says it is negotiating with other states as well.

In Lansing, Mich., administrators spent the day of the site’s debut checking it for accuracy. Spokesman Mark Mayes said once the district is comfortable the data are correct, the system can be a valuable tool.

“It’s becoming more and more important for educators to put on that business hat and run the district more like a business,” he said. “The more data we have, the more areas we can pinpoint, the more areas we can improve on.”

New Hampshire and Illinois are among the states that already provide web-based school evaluation services. The Illinois School Improvement site, for example, built with $140,000 from the federally funded North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Ill., includes charts comparing the state’s schools with each other.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit site GreatSchools.net has been supplying educators and parents with information about California and Arizona schools since September 1999, providing school profiles that include information on enrollment, facilities, teacher qualifications, student demographics, and test scores.

Making information about schools public is part of the Bush administration’s strategy for improving accountability, said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.


Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services

Illinois School Improvement web site