Crystal ball: Fortune favors assessment, test-prep

School spending on computer hardware and other educational technology will increase slightly in 2001, but spending on assessment, test prep, and professional development solutions is expected to soar, according to a report released in August by an education market analysis firm.

Eduventures.com’s report, called “Markets and Opportunities 2001,” analyzes what happened in 2000, predicts future school-spending trends, and projects growth in key education segments.

Eduventures expects overall K-12 spending to grow by 14 percent in 2001, but school spending on technology will grow by only 2 percent, the firm predicted.

“What you will see is a stabilization of spending on K-12 technology,” said Tom Evans, director and senior analyst at Eduventures.com. Evans attributed the leveling off to the “large influx of technology in schools over the past few years.”

In 2000, K-12 technology revenues grew 2.5 percent to reach $8 billion. But technology purchases funded directly by schools themselves actually decreased by 7 percent, as districts relied more heavily on eRate discounts and as spending on Y2K readiness no longer was needed.

2002 tech and tech-related spending pegged near $15 billion

The firm categorizes technology spending separately from expenditures on testing, tutoring and test preparation, and professional development, which increasingly include technology components. Viewing those categories together brings the firm’s spending projections to a little over $13 billion for 2001 and to nearly $15 billion for 2002.

According to Eduventures, much of the growth in technology revenues in 2000 was a result of the increase in the amount of eRate funding available. In 2000, eRate discounts increased to $2.25 billion from $1.7 billion allotted in 1999, an increase of 32 percent.

As for 2001, Eduventures expects K-12 technology revenue to grow by 2 percent to $8.1 billion.

“Absent funding initiatives from the federal government, K-12 technology spending will remain flat as districts digest expenditures made over the past five years,” the report said.

President George W. Bush’s education agenda—which hasn’t focused on technology, but rather on annual testing and increased accountability—instead will drive growth in professional development and testing software, Eduventures said.

“Tutoring and test-prep markets have been around [for awhile], but as accountability measures increase, that industry is expected to soar,” Evans said, adding that government support has a large influence on how schools target spending.

School expenditures on tutoring, test prep, and assessment are expected to grow between 10 percent and 15 percent annually over the next three years, according to the report.

Expenditures on virtual schools also are increasing, Evans said.

“eLearning is gaining adoption all over the business industry, [and] it’s just a matter of time before it’s adopted more widely in the K-12 market,” Evans said. It won’t be long before more states and school districts start their own virtual schools, he said.

School technology leaders who spoke with eSchool News mostly agreed with the report’s predictions.

“I think these predictions are probably right on target, as schools and institutions put their efforts into effective use of the existing technologies in the schools to support teaching and learning, both for students and educators,” said Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for the Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts.

But, Charlie Reisinger, technology director for the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania, said, “what I really think they missed as the ‘next big thing’ is online grading and reporting. Systems such as Lettergrade and PowerSchool are hot right now and will prove to revolutionize the way schools communicate with parents and students.”

Reisinger said his district currently is deploying Lettergrade, an online gradebook and attendance package that will let parents and students access teacher gradebooks through the web. “These types of systems will likely become extraordinarily commonplace,” he said.

Lean times for thin-client tech?

Other predictions by Eduventures.com were more controversial.

“We don’t see major adoption of thin-client or wireless [systems] over the next two years. You will see it district by district, but you won’t see widescale adoption,” Evans said. “We’ve been talking to several superintendents to plan our research for the coming year, and they tell us they are thinking about wireless, but more so, they are thinking about professional development. They’re also thinking about assessment and online learning.”

“This is probably true,” said Karen Littlefield, instructional technology coordinator for Mid-Del Schools in Oklahoma. “Wireless is a good solution for mobility but is not as reliable or fast as a hard-wired solution. I suspect we will have a combination of both to meet educational needs in a variety of locations.

“Thin-client [technology] just hasn’t proven itself to be affordable or any great improvement over the existing networking,” she added.

But Alan Whitworth, technology director for the Jefferson County School District in Kentucky, disagreed.

“We believe it’s all moving in that direction. We believe there will be devices for each student with some on-board capability for word processing, spreadsheet, database, draw/paint, et cetera, which will ‘come alive’ when it connects with the internet and school servers via local area wireless hubs,” Whitworth said.

Earlier this summer, the Arizona School Facilities Board announced that it had awarded a $28 million contract for more than 60 companies to provide the state’s schools with access to software and services over the internet, using the application service provider model. Arizona officials said it was their goal to move the state’s districts to thin clients to reach its goal of one computer for every two students.

Links:

Eduventures.com
http://www.eduventures.com

Kathy Schrock
http://kathyschrock.net

Penn Manor School District
http://www.pmsd.k12.pa.us

Mid-Del Schools
http://www.mid-del.k12.ok.us

Jefferson County School District
http://www.jefferson.k12.ky.us

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Mostly online high school classes OK with high tech parents

Nearly half (49 percent) of the public school parents who approve of online learning say they’d be comfortable with having their high-school-age kids take most of their high school courses online. This insight comes from the latest edition of the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

Those findings heartened some supporters of virtual schooling, but the poll also contained results less welcome to cyberschool advocates. According to the well-respected annual education poll, only about one-third of parents of public-school children say they approve of cyber education—that is, education in which students take classes through the internet instead of in a regular classroom.

For 33 years, the esteemed education journal Phi Delta Kappan—with the assistance of the Gallup polling organization—has been measuring the public’s opinions and attitudes toward the nation’s schools. In this year’s poll, the journal asked respondents two questions about cyber education for the first time.

First, pollsters asked respondents whether they approved or disapproved of students earning high school credits online via the internet without attending a regular school.

Researchers found that 63 percent of respondents identifying themselves as parents with children in public schools said they disapproved, while only 35 percent said they approved. Two percent of respondents said they did not know.

The second question—put only to those who said they approved of cyber education—asked, “Would you be willing or not willing to have a child of yours go through high school taking most courses online over the internet at home instead of attending a regular school?”

Response to this question was evenly split among parents. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they were willing to have their high-school-age children take mostly virtual classes, and 49 percent were unwilling to do so. Again, two percent said they did not know.

Julie Young, executive director of the Florida Virtual School (9-12, enr. 6,500), said these percentages indicate that, while some people approve of the general concept of cyber education, they don’t see it as a good option for their child.

Those are good instincts, she explained.

“Often we see traditional education as a ‘one size fits all’ deal—and we now know that is not true. There are students who are just not succeeding in that model,” she said. “Well, online education is not ‘one size fits all’ either, but it can be provided as an option for those kids [who] may need it.”

Young believes there is still a fear that online learning is being designed to replace traditional education. But the reality of virtual schooling is that it has been designed to enhance traditional education, she said.

Linda Pittenger, director of the Kentucky Virtual High School, agreed. “The significance may lie in … the way the question was worded. The phrase ‘without attending a regular school’ may raise the specter of easy credits with … an unqualified teacher and little, if any, rigor in the curriculum,” she said.

“The question implies that online courses are an alternative to any participation with a traditional school or school system; in many cases, online courses are offered through the traditional school to supplement their offerings. … If the question were asked differently, the responses might have been more positive.”

According to the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll, there also was a marked difference between the way Republicans and Democrats answered the questions. Thirty-three percent of Republican respondents said they approved of students earning high-school credits over the internet, compared with 22 percent of Democrats.

The fact that Republicans traditionally favor school-choice initiatives—such as vouchers—might have something to do with their broader acceptance of virtual schooling for kids, Young said.

In addition, a geographical disparity marked the poll. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in the West—but only 36 percent of those in the East—said they were willing to have their own children take most high school courses online. Considering different needs among geographical regions, these figures make sense to online education officials.

“I think that out west there is a more visible need for distance education,” said Young. “Schools are very spread out in some parts of that area. There is a geographical need, and that can often drive the educational option.”

Overall, Young said she was fairly pleased with the results of the poll.

“Considering we serve half of a percent of Florida, if 35 percent of parents say they approve [of virtual schooling], then I think that’s outstanding,” she said.

But because the poll asked only about students taking all or most of their classes online, it might not have painted a complete picture.

“It does not have to be all or nothing,” Young said. “Cyber-schooling is being positioned as a replacement for traditional education, and it just is not.”

Of last year’s 5,900 students enrolled at the Florida Virtual School, only about 100 were full-time, she said.

“If [pollsters] asked whether you’d consider an online course for your student that was otherwise unavailable at your child’s school, then I think [the figures would show] very widespread acceptance,” Young said.

Links:

33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools
http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0109gal.htm

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

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

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Study: Computer games might stunt learning

A controversial new study from a Japanese researcher finds that computer games might stunt teenagers’ developing brains and cause them to be more disposed to violence than their parents, regardless of the level of violence in the games’ content.

The video game industry and some educators dispute the study’s conclusions, citing other research that suggests video games actually can be beneficial to learning.

Brain-mapping expert Professor Ryuta Kawashima and his team at Tohoku University in Japan found that absorbing violence from computer games didn’t cause aggressive outbursts in children; instead, the outbursts were caused by stunting the development of the brain.

According to reports from the British newspaper The Observer, researchers measured and compared the level of brain activity in hundreds of teenagers playing a Nintendo game and doing a simple, repetitive math exercise known as the Kraepelin test, which involves adding single-digit numbers continuously for 30 minutes.

The researchers found that youths who played the computer game didn’t stimulate their frontal lobes, the area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and—most important—self-control. In humans, the frontal lobe continues to develop until about age 20, it is reported.

Playing video games only stimulated the parts of the brain responsible for vision and movement, the researchers found.

“The implications are very serious for an increasingly violent society, and these students will be doing more and more bad things if they are playing games and not doing other things like reading aloud or learning arithmetic,” Kawashima told The Observer. Kawashima reportedly conducted his research with the intention of helping game manufacturers prove that video games benefit the development of children. Now, Kawashima says children should be encouraged to read, write, and interact with others instead.

Esteemed researchers and video game advocates say Kawashima’s study is quick to assign blame.

“I think this is a considerable leap of faith from the neuroscience data to the conclusion [the researchers] draw,” said Chris Dede, Timothy Worth professor of learning technology at Harvard University. “The experts I talked to in neuroscience are very hesitant to make that kind of sweeping judgment on a single study of brain patterns.”

Dede, who currently is leading a $1 million research project to determine what impact—if any—the video game environment has on learning, added, “I think this work is certainly not conclusive in the way it’s being presented by the researchers. It is an important area to study, but it’s going to take a lot more than a single isolated neuroscience study for us to fully understand what the strengths and limits of kids being involved with games and simulations are.”

The European Leisure Software Publishers Association downplayed Kawashima’s research and described it as having a “very limited focus.”

“For too long now, our industry has been the target of ill-informed criticism and scare-mongering,” Roger Bennett, director general of the association, said in statement. “We want to help those who weren’t brought up on computer games to understand this exciting new medium and the part it can play in healthy balance of learning and leisure activities for all age groups.”

According to the association, recent studies suggest that computer games offer social, psychological, and cultural benefits.

A research project conducted by the University of Central Lancashire and Manchester University found that those who play video games experience the same level of concentration and involvement as those who compete in sports.

“It confirms many of the positive benefits we believe people can gain from playing computer games,” Bennett said. “This research will help to allay the concerns of many people—particularly parents of young children—by proving that game playing can significantly assist mental agility and aid concentration.”

Links:

Tohoku University
http://www.tohoku.ac.jp

Harvard University
http://www.harvard.edu

European Leisure Software Publishers Association
http://www.elspa.com

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School board weighs ban on student laptops, PDAs

Some school systems are doing their best to encourage students to use handheld devices and laptop computers, but the Washington County (Md.) Board of Education is considering prohibiting students from using such technology during school hours.

On August 21, a divided school board gave preliminary approval to a policy that would prohibit students from displaying or using any “portable electronic communication devices.” The category includes beepers and cell phones, but members also said it could include laptop computers and handhelds, also known as personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Board members who support the proposed rule said such devices are a distraction when used by individual students. Handheld computers can beam messages back and forth, they said, and laptops can be used for eMail. But educational technology advocates say the policy goes too far.

If the board’s policy wins final approval, Washington County would join a growing collection of school systems that have taken steps to ban students’ use of personal communications technologies, despite arguments that the devices have educational merit.

Wired News reports that, according to International Communications Research, 23 percent of teens say their schools forbid them from bringing in Palm Pilots or other handheld computers. The figures point to a “lack of agreement on whether the devices stimulate learning in the classroom or detract from it,” Wired said.

Washington County’s policy would be in effect from the time students board school buses or arrive at school until the school day is over. The devices also would be banned during any school-sponsored transportation for athletic games and field trips.

The proposed policy calls for violators to face disciplinary action and confiscation of their equipment.

Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, said other school systems appear to be relaxing restrictions on computers. Howard County Public Schools, for example, is taking steps to incorporate PDAs into instructional programs.

The policy under consideration in Washington County “kind of runs counter to what seems to be a statewide trend,” Peiffer said.

Bill McKinley, the school system’s executive director for support services, said he believes the policy is intended primarily to target cell phones and pagers. Currently, Washington County bans cell phones and pagers from school property at all times.

McKinley said the policy could be changed by the board before final approval. If it does not mention handheld or laptop computers specifically, it would be up to principals to decide whether either device was being used “appropriately,” he said.

Board member Doris Nipps said she hopes principals would use common sense, and that students would not be disciplined for using handheld planners or laptops for educational purposes.

Board member Edward Forrest said the proposed policy was prepared after polling principals on their thoughts about the devices being used in school. He said of the 20 or 30 who responded, most felt that the devices should be permitted on school property provided they are turned off during the school day.

But the board’s president, J. Herbert Hardin, said the board should also seek advice from teachers and students. “I don’t think we’ve done our homework,” Hardin said.

Board member Paul Bailey called the issue an “administrative nightmare” for principals, and he suggested student governments might help make sure the policy is followed.

At least one student council member was willing to take on the responsibility.

“I would be more than happy to police any policy the board of education makes, as long as it’s a fair and just policy,” said Nathan Kennedy, vice president of the Washington County Association of Student Councils.

Kennedy, who is also president of the North Hagerstown High School Student Council, said he believes pagers and laptops should be banned but that cell phones could be useful for emergency situations. Handheld planners, meanwhile, can offer educational and organizational benefits.

Educators at nearby Howard County Public Schools say that although cell phones and pagers have little educational value, laptops and handhelds can be instrumental in assisting teachers.

Howard County schools use Compaq’s iPaq handheld devices for instruction in one of their high schools as part of a pilot project with Mindsurf Technologies.

“Instructionally, the wireless devices have made a big difference in the way teachers are teaching and students are learning,” said Richard Weisenhoff, educational technology coordinator for Howard County Public Schools. “I think in the future more schools will be encouraging the use of handheld and laptop devices.”

Because high school students in Howard County are permitted to use the handheld devices, certain policies have been adopted to ensure that kids remain on task.

Although it’s possible for students to use their iPaqs to beam notes back and forth, Weisenhoff said, “we use software that allows teachers to monitor what is on the screen.”

The proprietary software from Mindsurf allows teachers to see exactly what the students are doing.

“The teacher can send out an assignment, and while the students are working on it, she can monitor what is going on,” he said. “That way, if a student is not on task, the teacher can instant-message that student in a nonconfrontational, private way and ask, ‘Is something wrong, and can I help?'”

Even educators in school systems without large-scale deployments of handheld computers wonder about the effectiveness of a sweeping ban on communications devices.

“I disagree with [Washington County’s proposed] policy as a whole, but I believe there should be policies that govern the use of all kinds of technology,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “However, districts need to be careful about throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

Marysville’s internet policy focuses on appropriate use.

“If there is to be a policy on other technologies—laptops, pagers, cell phones, PDAs, et cetera—then it should be specific to appropriate use rather than just a blanket policy that will ban all use,” said Liebman. “I can find both good and bad applications for every type of technology.”

How can school systems control the use of personal technologies in classrooms where teachers are not equipped with software that monitors the work being done on the devices?

According to Liebman, teachers can do the same kinds of things with portable computing devices that they already do with paper and pencils, textbooks, and written tests.

“In all cases, there will be violations by a few and compliance by many,” he said. “The way to make sure that technology is used well is to make the work relevant and interesting and at the same time focus on the personal skills of integrity, responsibility, and honesty.”

“Proper discipline and accountability can be the best deterrent,” agreed Maribeth Luftglass, chief information officer for the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools. “Banning valuable tools for all students because of the behavior of a few is not productive.”

The Washington County school board, on a 5-2 vote, approved the first reading of the proposed policy at its Aug. 21 business meeting. A second, final vote on the policy was scheduled for September. The board announced plans to seek additional staff and student comments before the second reading.

Links:

Washington County Public Schools
http://www.wcboe.k12.md.us

Howard County Public Schools
http://www.howard.k12.md.us

Marysville Joint Unified School District
http://www.mjusd.k12.ca.us

Fairfax County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us

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How to comply with the new filtering law without breaking the bank

With a new law forcing school districts receiving eRate discounts to block access to inappropriate materials on the internet, many school officials are searching for cost-effective ways to bring their districts into compliance.

They might want to follow the lead of some crafty educators who have turned to their internet service providers (ISPs) for filtering that essentially is paid for with eRate discounts.

According to the rules of the eRate, “Filtering is not eligible for discount, whether as a service or if purchased as software.” However, filtering technology that is bundled into the standard price of eligible equipment or services may be covered.

Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the group that administers the eRate, said that if a district were considering an ISP that had two different rates, one for filtered internet access and one for unfiltered access, then “obviously we would not pay for the filtered portion. You’d have to net that out.”

But Blackwell acknowledged that if filtering were offered as part of a total package of internet services, and if it came with no incidental cost either to the district or to the SLD, then the eRate conceivably could fund that filtered access.

“In everything, schools have to show that this is the most cost-effective service they could be using,” he said. “But if both options were exactly the same price and one was filtered, then the filtered option certainly would seem preferable.”

A decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding Tennessee’s Year One eRate application confirmed this “unwritten rule.” It also proved that filtered internet access may be eligible for support under the eRate, even if it’s a more expensive option.

Tennessee chose an ISP whose bid to provide internet access to the state’s schools was $23 million higher than a competitor’s but promised a superior level of service, including greater network capacity, security, and download speeds. As part of its “turnkey” approach, the winning bidder offered services such as web site caching and filtering that were bundled into its standard cost for service.

The competitor petitioned the SLD to reject Tennessee’s eRate application, but a decision by the FCC upheld the state’s request on appeal. (See “Appeals decision broadens program rules,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=642.)

Another example is Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough School District. For the past three years, the district has received filtered internet access–and a number of other services–through Alaska-based telecommunications provider General Communication Inc. (GCI).

GCI’s SchoolAccess service is a premium internet service that uses the eRate to help rural schools afford broadband access and high-quality services, such as filtering, eMail, web hosting, and network administration. All services are offered as part of the total SchoolAccess package at no extra charge.

That’s good news for Northwest Arctic Borough schools, which use the eRate to subsidize 82 percent of the service’s cost.

Without the eRate, the rural district could not afford internet service to its schools, said technology coordinator Karl Kowalski. “Satellite communications are just too costly–it would cost us $12,000 per month. And even if it were 90-percent subsidized, I still can’t afford $1,200 per month.”

Martin Cary is GCI’s vice president of broadband services. “The eRate talks about ‘bundled’ access,” he said. “Bundled service is eligible when it is the most cost-effective means of getting internet access. The additional cost we incur to offer this [service] is the cost it takes to compete in this particular segment.”

CGI is beginning to see more interest in its filtered ISP model, Cary said, and he believes part of the interest may come from educators concerned about the new filtering mandate.

“We have a lot of customers–about half, actually–that choose not to use the filtering portion, but they may end up having to use the feature now,” he said. “We’ve always felt filtering is an important benefit to schools. Now that it’s a requirement, it’s going to become even more important.”

The FCC’s rules for complying with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) state that schools and libraries must certify that they have an internet safety policy and are using filtering technology–or at least are “undertaking action” to choose a filtering solution–to be eligible for Year Four of the eRate, which began July 1. The final date for certifying this compliance is Saturday, Oct. 27.

“Undertaking action” can include holding a school board meeting with CIPA compliance listed as a topic on the agenda, with an eye toward drafting a Request for Proposals for filtered internet service that is eRate-eligible when Year Five rolls around.

Links:

Northwest Arctic Borough School District
http://szkotzebue.kotzebue.nwabsd.schoolzone.net

GCI’s SchoolAccess
http://www.schoolaccess.net

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

CIPA regulations
http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Orders/2001/fcc01120.doc

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‘Dot-net’ captures support of educational software developers

A new technology platform developed by Microsoft Corp. will simplify and enhance school computing, educational software developers insist, despite criticism from Microsoft rivals and some consumer advocates that the technology is aimed at extending the company’s software monopoly.

The new technology, called Microsoft .NET (dot-net), is an underlying architecture designed to allow a more personalized, seamless, web-enabled computing experience for the user. Several developers of educational software, such as Chancery, Blackboard, and GVOX, have built dot-net technology into the next generation of their software applications.

When teachers or school administrators currently use software, they often operate a word processor, eMail, instant messaging, a grade book, and an internet browser at the same time. The programs work independently from each another, and frequently the user has to switch between programs.

Microsoft’s dot-net technology aims to change that.

“Instead of five different applications working together, it’s one system working together,” said Roberto Bamberger, manager of learning solutions for Microsoft’s education group. “As far as the user is concerned, it’s one simple process.”

Dot-net technology—which is built on XML, or extensible markup language, a common architecture of the web that allows disparate systems to “speak” the same language—will save users from having to cut and paste data from one application to another, Bamberger said. This means no more switching between programs.

“It removes the burden from the user—whether [the user is] a parent, teacher, student, or administrator—from having to know ‘well, I take [information] from here and put it there,'” he said.

Among its capabilities, dot-net technology integrates different software programs with similar functions together. “What we’re talking about is the ability to stream together different programs without creating one monstrous application,” Bamberger said.

The end goal is to streamline the user’s experience.

“When you’re using a particular tool like Outlook, which is a communications and collaboration tool, you’ll be able to integrate in another collaboration tool like instant messaging,” Bamberger said. “None of us ever sit down at a computer to use just one product; you want to get something done. We want to reduce that friction.”

Dot-net enables functionality that never existed before, Bamberger said. For example, if a teacher researches lesson plans on the internet, he or she could perform a search and send an eMail containing the results to someone without switching software programs. “It takes out a few steps, which hopefully frees up some time,” he said.

Chancery uses dot-net technology to integrate a student database with both eMail and the internet to enhance the functionality of its next generation of student information systems.

Before dot-net, a school administrator had to request custom reports to identify problem areas. Now, when an event occurs in the student information database, Chancery’s software will send a message to notify the administrator, parent, or teacher instantly.

“Under the hood, what you have is integration of the messaging component and the database,” said Lee Wilson, vice president of marketing for Chancery’s student information systems.

For example, if parents are concerned about their children’s attendance, they can customize Chancery’s student information system to notify them by eMail when their children miss more than three classes in a week. The parents could receive this eMail notification on a cell phone, pager, personal digital assistant, or computer.

“Most people won’t know that this is a dot-net technology, but what they will know is this is a much better student information system than what they could have bought last year,” Bamberger said.

By using an openly defined platform such as dot-net, Chancery and other software developers can integrate blocks of functionality that fall outside their area of expertise, such as a calendar function.

“It allows us to focus our attention on what we know best, like scheduling and attendance,” Wilson said.

Blackboard Inc. is building Version 6 of its web-based learning platform using dot-net technology. Michael Stanton, a Blackboard spokesman, said this will allow the company to integrate a wider array of academic resources in a learning environment tailored to students’ individual needs and preferences.

“One of the hallmarks of Blackboard’s software is ease of use, and if it’s integrated with other products, it’s going to be so much easier for teachers, professors, administrators, everybody [to use],” Stanton said.

GVOX Inc., which provides web-based musical tools at its NotationStation.net web site, uses a small part of the dot-net platform to deliver its software to the user reliably.

“What changes is our ability to deliver software in a much quicker, superior fashion,” said Emanuel Mozes, director of information systems for the company.

“At one point we had NotationStation running on one server. But if we had to make changes, we had to shut the whole system down. With dot-net, we don’t have to do that,” Mozes said. “We could add five servers in one day without affecting the user. We could add new modules without affecting the user.”

Monopoly and compatibility issues

Microsoft is positioning its entire line of products and developments around dot-net technology.

Microsoft servers—such as the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and Exchange 2000 Server—are dot-net enabled. Microsoft just released a beta version of Visual Studio, which is used for programming with dot-net. The company’s Office XP and its Windows XP operating system, which is scheduled for release this fall, also are dot-net enabled.

In fact, dot-net is the cornerstone of a strategy that critics say aims to extend the company’s dominance in the operating systems market to other software systems and services, including internet-based subscription services.

Windows XP uses dot-net technology to knit together Microsoft versions of many utilities that currently are stand-alone products made by competitors, including a program for storing digital photos, an expanded music and video player, and an instant messaging system.

The features are designed to pave the way for subscription-based internet services that Microsoft plans to launch soon, an initiative the company reportedly has dubbed Hailstorm.

State attorneys general worried about the potential market impact of Windows XP and Microsoft’s planned subscription services are discussing whether to file another antitrust lawsuit against the software giant, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings for September on Microsoft’s business practices.

Meanwhile, a new federal judge was named Aug. 24 to decide how Microsoft should be punished for violating antitrust laws by bundling its Internet Explorer web browser with its Windows operating systems.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, a Clinton appointee with a reputation as a meticulous jurist, was selected to replace Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had ordered Microsoft to be split into two separate companies. Kollar-Kotelly must decide whether to break up Microsoft or impose another penalty.

There’s also the issue of compatibility. Microsoft is not the only company to develop an underlying technology architecture that aims to facilitate a more personalized, integrated computing experience for users. Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems, for instance, has been building its own web services architecture, called SunONE, which stands for Sun Open Net Environment.

SunONE is based on Sun’s Java, a popular programming language that lets developers write software applications that can run on a variety of computers, regardless of the underlying operating system.

“Java is an integral part of SunONE,” said Doron Aronson, education public relations manager for Sun Microsystems. But Microsoft’s dot-net technology does not support Java. (Microsoft announced in July that it was excluding support for Java from its Windows XP and all future systems so it wouldn’t violate a legal settlement with Sun. Sun had sued Microsoft three years ago, alleging the company violated the terms of an agreement signed in 1996 by creating a Windows-only version of Java that was incompatible with other operating systems.)

Java directly competes with Microsoft’s dot-net, but it’s not as broad in scope, according to Chancery’s Wilson. Because different platforms exist, software developers like Chancery are careful to build their software to be compatible with various technologies.

Blackboard officials agree. “We maintain relationships with Oracle and Sun. This isn’t an exclusive relationship with Microsoft, but it is a preferred relationship,” Stanton said. “I don’t want to diminish any of those other relationships.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

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

Microsoft .NET
http://www.microsoft.com/net

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

Blackboard Inc.
http://www.blackboard.com

GVOX Inc.
http://www.gvox.com

Sun Microsystems
http://www.sun.com

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Student hackers won’t test computer voting in Fla. county

In a Florida county notorious for its vote-counting fiasco during last year’s presidential election, an offhand remark about student hackers set off a brisk flap in mid-August. A Broward County, Fla., commissioner suggested the county should invite area students to test the security of a computerized voting machine by trying to hack into the system during a mock election.

Broward County school officials spiked the idea right away, saying it would send students the wrong message about computer ethics. But when word of the idea leaked out to the public, the elections supervisor’s office reportedly was besieged with inquiries from students ready to volunteer.

In the wake of the botched presidential election last fall, voting officials in Broward County are considering the $20 million purchase of a touch-screen voting system.

“One of the biggest concerns raised is whether there is the potential for computer abuse, and we really need to see how foolproof or tamperproof this equipment is,” said county commission Chairman John Rodstrom. “If there is a problem, it will happen now or later. And some of these kids are pretty smart.”

Broward Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant is pushing for the touch-screen system, which records votes on computer discs after voters use a video monitor to choose candidates.

Broward is forced to get rid of the punch-card ballots used in the last election. State lawmakers outlawed punch cards as part of an election-reform package quickly pulled together after the embarrassing presidential election.

Florida was the butt of jokes around the world as the country waited for a resolution while election workers squinted at ballots looking for dimples, pinpricks, or hanging chads.

Broward County commissioners have two concerns about touch-screen voting: cost and security. They want to hold mock elections at high schools and senior citizen centers to test the computerized system.

But school board members say they don’t want to send the wrong message to students by asking them to try breaking into the computers.

“Hackers in training? I don’t think so,” said Broward County school board Chairman Paul Eichner. “It’s not the image I want for the Broward County School District.”

When contacted by eSchool News, Eichner said, “We want to teach our kids character education: honesty, integrity, and the like. Suggesting that our students hack voting machines is clearly counterproductive.”

The commissioners received so many complaints about the idea that they now say students will not be asked to hack into any voting machines.

“It was just an idea that generated a lot of bad publicity, and we’re not going to do it,” said Bob Cantrell, director of government and public affairs for Oliphant’s office. “Although, after [the story broke], there was a tremendous number of kids who called us with an interest in taking on the project.”

The issue has generated some lively debate among school leaders outside of Broward County.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., agrees that encouraging students to hack may not be the best idea.

“It sets the students up to try their hand at other systems, and it puts the school system in the awkward and legally murky areas of … inviting students to defeat systems, which is probably not part of a healthy acceptable-use policy,” he said.

But others say the idea is not without precedent in the corporate world, where many businesses enlist the aid of tech-savvy youth to test their security systems.

According to Chris Mahoney, director of technology for Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton School District, it is absolutely a good idea for kids to try hacking into the system “in a controlled environment.”

“My students help our district know what is secure and what is not by helping us test certain software,” he said. “Students are the best resource for finding holes or glitches in the software.

“I prefer to have the so-called ‘hackers’ on my side in our district,” he added. “They are a very valuable asset for us.”

While Broward County students won’t be asked to hack into the system, Cantrell said students still may be used to test the system.

“The mock elections are a definite possibility,” he said. “First, the commission has to choose what machine they will be using, and then we’ll talk about using high-school students. That is certainly one thing we are considering.”

County officials hope that having students test the voting machines will increase voter participation among young adults.

“We want to get students involved in the democratic process,” said Cantrell. “There is a great need there, since there were eight million young people ages 18 to 22 who did not vote in the last election.”

County commissioners are also considering a far less expensive optical scan voting system, which Oliphant has said would cost the county $7 million. But Oliphant has said optical scan ballots—on which voters fill in a bubble or connect the ends of an arrow—can lead to missed votes and mistakes.

The touch-screen test would help voting officials demonstrate whether computers are as easy to use and mistake-free as touted, and whether it is easy to create a paper record of the vote from the computer records.

Links:

Broward County School District
http://www.browardschools.com

Broward County Supervisor of Elections
http://www.browardsoe.org

Board of County Commissioners
http://www.broward.org/pii01000.htm

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Tech savvy adults more likely to value internet in schools

The more adults use and understand technology, the higher is the value they place on it as a learning tool. At least, that’s the conclusion one might draw by comparing the sharply differing findings of two recent national polls.

In an Associated Press (AP) poll of 1,006 adults taken at the end of July, only about half of respondents said the ability to use the internet is important to learning. The other half said being able to use the internet is only “somewhat important” or “not important at all.” The poll was conducted for AP by ICR of Media, Pa., and reportedly has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

A separate survey of parents with high-speed internet access at home found something quite different. This study was commissioned by telecommunications company SBC Communications (the parent company of Pacific Bell, Southwestern Bell, Southern New England Telecommunications, and Ameritech). It found that respondents overwhelmingly considered the internet to be a valuable educational resource.

I/H/R Research Group of Tustin, Calif., interviewed 800 parents of school-age children, all of whom use SBC’s digital subscriber line (DSL) internet service. Ninety-three percent of these parents said the internet is an important resource for homework and other learning activities, according to the survey, called “Broadband Watch: Back to School.”

The starkly different results from these two polls suggest an “attitude gap” between those who use and understand technology at home and those who do not. The gap is even more pronounced between those who have no internet access at home and those described as broadband-internet users—people who have embraced the idea of technology to the extent that they’re willing to pay for faster service.

For educators who favor more technology in schools, these disparate findings suggest, the challenge is to win over those stakeholders who are less familiar with technology—and less likely to use it at home.

Age and location also appeared to affect how one views the utility of technology in education. The percentage of adults in the AP poll who felt internet skills were very important for children in school dropped steadily as the respondents’ ages increased. Residents of metropolitan areas also were far more likely than those in rural areas to say internet skills were very important for students.

The SBC poll also surveyed 300 random teachers. Ninety-six percent of teachers agreed that knowledge and use of the internet is an essential aspect of education for today’s students. More surprising was the finding that 47 percent said they would keep the internet rather than textbooks if they had to choose.

“We knew that the internet had become ingrained in education, but we were surprised by the number of teachers [who] preferred the internet over textbooks,” said Stacey Thomson, a spokeswoman for SBC Communications.

In addition, the SBC survey found that 80 percent of broadband-using parents said their kids are learning more about the internet from using it at home than at school. More than half (52 percent) of teachers agreed that internet skills are learned primarily at home rather than at school.

“While both parents and teachers see the internet as a powerful learning tool, the time and resources available for students to use it at school are limited,” said Michael Grasso, the company’s executive director of DSL internet service.

Since respondents upgraded to high-speed DSL internet access, 72 percent reported that their children use the internet more frequently for schoolwork. More than one-third of parents surveyed (39 percent) said grades have improved and their children are showing more interest in schoolwork since the family upgraded to faster internet service.

Nearly all teachers agreed that students with internet access at home enjoy an educational advantage, and 68 percent agreed that broadband internet access provides an educational advantage over dial-up connections.

“In the parents’ study, we asked what children would give up in exchange for DSL, and we were surprised that they said television, the telephone, and video games,” Thomson said. Forty percent of parents said kids would give up TV first, while 61 percent said kids would give up stereos or video game consoles before DSL internet service.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, downplayed the disparity between the results of the two surveys. He said it largely resulted from the wording of the questions and the audiences polled.

The AP poll asked respondents to indicate their level of agreement, whereas the SBC survey asked “yes or no” questions.

“If people were asked a straight-up ‘yes or no’ question—’Is the internet useful for school?’—then of course they would say ‘yeah,'” Rainie said. “The context matters a lot.”

Regarding the AP poll, he said, “Forty percent of a sample that size probably don’t have children in their lives. They’re probably guessing.”

Links:

The Associated Press
http://www.ap.com

SBC Communications Inc.
http://www.sbc.com

Pew Internet and American Life Project
http://www.pewinternet.org

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Technology becomes a ‘utility’ as schools try hands-off approach

As school computer networks become larger and more complex, some pioneering districts are beginning to lease their entire information technology systems from a single provider.

Where schools once had to manage their own hardware, software, installation, and upkeep, a growing number now pay a monthly fee—much like a utility bill—for another organization to provide equipment and perform all these services.

Outsourcing their technology needs to a single vendor frees cash-strapped school districts from having to hire a technical support staff to keep computers and networks running smoothly. It also enables district personnel to focus on their core functions of teaching and learning. But critics of this type of arrangement say they are wary of giving up control over mission-critical systems and putting it into the hands of a single service provider.

End-to-end solutions

Instead of making massive technology purchases and paying district employees to install and maintain technology services, districts such as Richardson Independent School District (RISD) in Texas are paying experts to do all the work.

In July, Compaq Computer Corp. announced that it had signed a five-year purchase agreement with a value estimated between $30 million and $35 million to provide a complete, end-to-end computing solution to Richardson schools.

RISD has more than 35,000 enrolled students on 60 campuses encompassing most of the city of Richardson, as well as parts of Dallas and Garland.

“Customers want to reduce the risks and costs associated with [information technology], while at the same time being able to benefit from the advantages it offers,” said Jim Weynand, Compaq’s vice president of government and education markets.

“Compaq is able to leverage its strengths in innovative, industry-leading technology coupled with its … management and support capabilities to deliver customers, like RISD, a total life-cycle solution. By reducing the complexity associated with managing an IT environment, RISD is able to focus on its core competency—delivering excellence in education,” he said.

Compaq has been a hardware provider to RISD for the last four years, providing the district with ProLiant industry-standard servers and high-performance Alpha servers.

According to Daniel New, executive director of technology program management for the district, a number of companies already have a contract in place under Texas purchasing guidelines, and Compaq is on the list of approved providers.

“Under the terms of the state contract, we could go directly into negotiations with Compaq at a price we could both agree on, without having to do a competitive bid, a [request for proposals], and all that,” he said.

Compaq’s Computing on Demand program is a collection of new solutions that gives customers a broad range of computing resources when they need them, where they need them, and at a predictable price and performance level. In fact, the only item RISD will go outside of the Compaq agreement to find is its internet service, which will continue to be provided by Nortel.

“Compaq is providing a complete life-cycle solution to reduce the complexity of managing 16,000 desktop and laptop systems throughout our schools and administrative offices,” said New.

According to the new five-year contract, Compaq Global Services will conduct a technology refresh, directly installing and supporting 14,000 Compaq Deskpro workstations, 2,000 Compaq Armada laptops, and 350 Compaq ProLiant servers.

Through the services component of the contract, Compaq Global Services will provide image loading, configuration, installation, break-fix and disposal services, onsite project and software management, disaster recovery, data warehousing, remedial maintenance, and many other services as district officials make requests.

“I’d say Compaq has picked up 90 percent of the responsibility for providing computers and computer services to the district under this agreement,” said New. ” We originally had an installation and maintenance department [composed] of 25 personnel. Under this agreement, the bulk of these personnel were transferred to Compaq.”

That means former district employees are now receiving paychecks from Compaq, relieving the district from its responsibility of managing and paying these people.

New estimates that, under this agreement, the district will save $2.6 million on payroll and operating budgets over the next five years.

Industry-wide trend

The concept of leasing whole computer networks from one provider is not new to business, but until recently it has rarely been seen in schools. Now, however, it seems most hardware providers have some sort of all-inclusive leasing solution that takes the pressure off of school officials and helps streamline district IT management.

At the National Educational Computing Conference in Chicago in June, Gateway Computer Inc. announced a similar program for leasing services to school districts, scheduled for an early October launch. TechSource is Gateway’s complete solution, but unlike Compaq’s Computing on Demand—which serves business as well as education—TechSource is aimed directly at schools.

Through its TechSource program, Gateway remotely monitors hardware performance and gives early warning of performance problems.

“We also give schools a help desk that’s exclusive to their school,” said Bill Goforth, director of education marketing for Gateway. “They decide what software solutions they want supported—we have a list of over 150 software providers—and we provide that [specialized] support,” he said.

The amount and type of hardware installed is up to schools themselves, explained Goforth.

“We don’t care if the hardware is Gateway, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, whomever,” he said. “If you already have the technology in place, we don’t care what it is.”

The company also recommends internet service providers from a list of more than 200 partners nationwide.

According to Dell spokesman Dean Kline, his company also offers a variety of flexible financing options for schools that want to outsource their technology services. Dell’s large contract with the Columbus (Ohio) Public Schools is a good example of an all-inclusive lease deal, he said.

“They have leased everything—from the hardware to software to installation services to trash removal and a myriad of other services,” he said. “All of that is contained under their lease.”

Though Dell has no formal outsourcing program for K-12 education, Kline said the computer maker can scale its offerings based on a customer’s needs.

Not all educators agree that handing a district’s technology functions over to an outside provider is a good idea.

Michael Parrish, distance learning coordinator for Guilford (N.C.) Public Schools, speaks from experience.

“We have had outside consultants, contract labor, and outsourced some functions. In each case we eventually returned to running our own system,” he said. Generally, outside organizations try to make schools fit a business-oriented model, Parrish found.

“They assume that school systems must have the latest and greatest. Our helpdesk software, for example, could handle 50 times more [work] than we needed, [and it] was expensive and difficult to maintain,” he said. “It is my experience that we are far better off maintaining control because we know what we need. In the end ‘it takes one to know one.'”

School officials involved in large-scale outsourcing programs, however, see the benefit of these agreements in a growing and changing technology environment in which schools constantly struggle with insufficient funds and staffing levels.

“This is cradle to grave—there is installation, maintenance, and ongoing support. [Suppliers are] basically broadening their spectrum of services,” said New. “I think we could see more districts turning to this type of solution. If done properly, it is certainly beneficial from a cost standpoint.”

Links:

Richardson Independent School District
http://www.richardson.k12.tx.us

Compaq Computer Corp.
http://www.compaq.com

Dell Computer Corp.
http://www.dell.com

Gateway Computer Inc.
http://www.gateway.com

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Legal fur flies over Pa. charter cyberschools

A county judge on Aug. 9 ordered a Pennsylvania cyberschool not to collect $43,700 in fees for 10 students it enrolled from the Butler Area School District in Butler County, Pa. This new ruling counters a decision on May 11 in favor of the cyberschools. This latest decision comes as lawsuits pile up over the status of charter cyberschools in Pennsylvania.

On May 11, Pennsylvania Judge Warren G. Morgan denied a request by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. PSBA had wanted the state education department to be barred from withholding aid from school districts that refuse to pay invoices from charter cyberschools.

But the new ruling, handed down on Aug. 9 by Judge William Shaffer, is meant to stop Einstein Academy, a charter cyberschool, from getting money from the Butler Area School District—at least until Shaffer can rule on a lawsuit the district filed against Einstein July 24.

In that suit, the Butler Eagle reported August 10, the district claims the cyberschool is operating illegally. Among other things, the Butler district claims Einstein has no physical address—just a post office box—and has no certified teachers.

Judge Shaffer set a hearing for Sept. 7 to determine whether the cyberschool legally can enroll Butler Area School District students. Until then, Einstein Academy was ordered not to enroll any more Butler Area students.

Since the May ruling favoring cyberschools, more Pennsylvania school districts have joined the legal fray, while others have simply refused to pay the bills issued by the state’s online charter schools.

Cyberschools offer students an opportunity to take classes via the internet. They are permitted in Pennsylvania under the state’s charter school law, but many school districts say cyberschools are costing them money because state funding follows the student.

Another Butler County district, the South Butler County School District, has joined the lawsuit and will attempt to keep Einstein from enrolling four of its students. That school district joined the fight too late to be included in Shaffer’s August 9 ruling, however.

Last month, the Downingtown Area School District in Pennsylvania’s Chester County filed a separate lawsuit against Einstein Academy, claiming the state’s four-year-old charter school law doesn’t apply to schools that operate over the internet. That lawsuit is still pending.

Einstein co-founder Mimi Rothschild said then that public school districts are attacking the state’s fledgling online charter schools movement to guard their educational monopoly.

“What we have here is a Burger King coming into a town where there’s only been a McDonald’s,” Rothschild said. “Naturally, McDonald’s won’t like it, but people like to have a choice between a Whopper and a Big Mac.”

In addition, according to an Aug. 17 Associated Press report, several school boards in Pennsylvania’s Erie County have passed resolutions vowing not to pay bills sent by “cyber charter schools.”

Other school districts simply ignore the bills from online charter schools, which began appearing about a year ago.

The charter cyberschools will, however, receive money through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is poised to recover the payments by withholding corresponding amounts of state funding from the school districts.

Erie school officials are not contesting the payments, saying they prefer to deal with the state.

“If we pay it now and then three months from now . . . six months from now, the school is not in business, we won’t get the money back,” said Iroquois School District business administrator Kim Smith. With the start of a new school year approaching, a charter cyberschool in Beaver County is looking at a huge rise in enrollment.

Already, the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has 1,100 students enrolled for the new school year. Another 400 students are scheduled to be interviewed for enrollment, and 300 more are waiting for their interviews to be set up.

That represents a big jump from last year—the cyberschool’s first—when it served about 500 students.

Nick Trombetta, chief administrative officer for the school, said he expects all interested students to be allowed to enroll.

“We have a huge infrastructure,” he said. “We have an extensive amount of talent and staff here. We can handle these numbers.”

Charter schools are established with approval from school districts but are not held to many of the mandates traditional public schools must meet. Under state guidelines, the districts then send per-pupil payments to the charter schools to help them operate.

Cyber charter schools offer a curriculum over the internet, and students who enroll can come from anywhere in the state. Pennsylvania currently has two cyberschools, Einstein Academy and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

Conflicts are expected to increase before they are resolved, though. Six more charter cyberschools are scheduled to open in the fall.

Links:

Einstein Academy
http://www.einsteinacademy.org

Butler Area School District
http://www.butler.k12.pa.us

South Butler County School District
http://southbutler.k12.pa.us

Downingtown Area School District
http://www.dasd-adm.org

Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School
http://www.midlandpa.org/wpccs

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