NASBE urges states to embrace eLearning

A new report on eLearning urges state lawmakers and boards of education to lead education into the 21st century by rethinking education policies, guaranteeing equity for all learners, and delivering high-quality online instruction.

The nearly $7 billion that schools spend each year on technology has resulted in “islands of innovation,” the report says. But the quality of these programs varies widely, and poor and minority students often are excluded.

The study, “Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace: Taking the Lead on eLearning Policy,” was released Oct. 19 by the National Association of the State Boards of Education (NASBE) after a year-long development process.

Twenty state board members representing 16 states studied literature, heard presentations, and participated in group discussions to produce this 54-page report intended as a policy handbook for decision makers.

“The report is an outline or blueprint for other members as they decide policy in their own states,” said David Griffith, director of public affairs at NASBE. “Our focus is directed toward state policy level, but we have found our reports are also applicable at the local level.”

The group chose this subject because so many education leaders are not conscious of educational technology trends, Griffith said.

“Unfortunately, education is woefully behind the curve when it comes to technology,” he said. “Modem speeds are doubling and computer speed is increasing, and it’s hard for schools to keep up.”

According to NASBE’s report, preliminary research shows that eLearning has had a positive impact on student achievement, but much more needs to be done.

“State education policy makers should seize the opportunity to take the lead and move decisively to assure that eLearning spreads rapidly and equitably, is used well, and strengthens the public education system,” it says.

“There are a lot of good things being done with eLearning and a lot of not-so-good things being done,” Griffith said. “Policy makers have to catch up.”

The report outlines some of the policy changes school leaders should undertake to make eLearning effective and, in some cases, possible.

“The very basics of the school building, the school day, even the classroom teacher at the blackboard with students sitting at their desks are all open for reconsideration,” said Brenda Welburn, executive director of NASBE.

The report urges state policy makers to:

  • Revise what should be stressed in academic standards;

  • Develop and implement computer-based assessment systems;

  • Revise all policies that inhibit eLearning;

  • Empower families with educational choices; and

  • Enact policies that allow for collaboration between different states.

According to the report, a state’s method of assessment should reflect its method of instruction. If technology is used in instruction, it should also be used for testing.

“The cost of developing new state assessments is significant, [but] once they are up and running a state will almost certainly save a considerable amount of money in staff time, printing, warehousing, and shipping costs” by implementing online assessments, the report says. Oregon paid nearly $600,000 a year for its online testing program, and Virginia paid more then $2 million on a demonstration program in nine high schools.

With an electronic assessment system, Florida is able to track students’ progress from year to year, and Texas can track migrant students as they move from school to school.

Not all students have to be tested at the same time. For example, the Edison Schools test students periodically and document the results in a digital portfolio.

In addition, the report says state school boards should lead the effort in ensuring equity to all learners, regardless of their location, family or cultural background, or disability, by:

  • Establishing well-prepared, well-supported teachers who are equitably deployed;

  • Providing access to hardware, software, and fast internet connections at school;

  • Offering after-school access to eLearning opportunities; and

  • Supplying assistive technologies to special-needs students.

North Carolina was one of the first states to implement technology standards for teachers, through a program called the Technology Competencies for Educators. Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia also have technology components in their recertification requirements but—to date—34 states do not.

In addition, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Louisiana operate comprehensive technology professional development programs for teachers, the report states.

Lastly, the report recommends that state boards regulate the quality of eLearning instruction by:

  • Establishing policies and procedures for students taking credits online;

  • Determining ways to provide a wide range of eLearning resources; and

  • Revisiting policies that govern internet use and protect student privacy.

Paying for the development of online courses is a big issue for state school boards, because development costs can be quite high. The Illinois Virtual High School devised an economical solution by requiring each school to contribute online courses and instruction in proportion to the number of its students enrolled in the state’s virtual school.

Other states offer small grants to schools who get teachers to develop online courses during the summer.

“The report doesn’t have all the answers, but it doesn’t have all the questions, either,” Griffith said. “It just raises the main issues.”

Its main goal is to help school leaders take revolutionary steps and refocus efforts on building a global community of learners through technology. According to Kathleen Fulton, former project director of the Web-based Education Commission, the report looks like it might be successful.

“It will shake up the status quo in a way few education reports have done before,” Fulton predicted. “The tone is strong and urgent, the examples are compelling, the research is convincing, the resources are invaluable, and, most importantly, the policy opportunities are clearly focused and right on target.”

The Milken Family Foundation, Lightspan Inc., and NetSchools Corp. sponsored the report, which can be downloaded from NASBE’s web site.

Links:

National Association of State Boards of Education
http://www.nasbe.org

Milken Family Foundation
http://www.mff.org

Lightspan Inc.
http://www.lightspan.com

NetSchools Corp.
http://www.netschools.com

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After 9-11, educators turn to electronic field trips

As school districts across the country reevaluate their plans for field trips in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some educators are turning to electronic options as a substitute for travel.

“I wouldn’t take [my students] into Boston right now,” said Mary Larcome, a third-grade teacher at Golden Hill Elementary School in Haverhill, Mass. Lancome’s desire to safeguard her students could lead her to a virtual field trip of the kind she used two years ago.

At that time, her students visited the Cincinnati Zoo with help of videoconferencing technology from PictureTel Corp. in Andover, Mass. With equipment stationed at each end of the interaction, students were able to see animals—such as panda bears—up close and interact with a teacher stationed at the zoo.

The ability to see things not available locally was one reason Larcome opted for an electronic field trip. “We don’t have those kinds of animals available [nearby],” she said.

Providers of virtual field trips report a heightened interest among schools since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of calls from people wanting to use our facilities,” said Sarah Lake, director of electronic field trips for PictureTel. Lake also said content providers for the trips report a greater than 50-percent increase in interest during the same period. Other content providers, such as NASA’s International Space Station and Johnson Space Center, have found a continual demand for their experience that is independent of the recent concerns about travel. “We’ve always had a waiting list,” said Susan Anderson, program lead, who estimates that NASA’s Distance Learning Outpost program serves 800 point-to-point connections each year.

Collaborations between technology and content providers can give students access to experiences that are not available to anyone in person, regardless of physical location or security concerns. For example, through Project DIANE (Diversified Information and Assistance Network), students in Tennessee can visit the Elephant Sanctuary in Honewald, Tenn., an animal reserve off limits to any visitor.

Most client schools from Tennessee can visit for free, thanks to a variety of state grants; schools in other states may be asked to pay a small fee to the content provider, however. For schools looking to replace a trip to New York or Washington, Classroom Connect offers options to study these areas online. The Field Trip option, available with a subscription to Classroom Today, offers focused experiences that are easy to integrate into the curriculum, such as a study of the Lower East Side of New York in 1900 compared with 2000, part of a study on immigration. The company’s Cybertrips option also includes a virtual field trip to Washington.

Even Classroom Connect’s Quest program, which sends explorers to remote parts of the globe to transmit experiences back to students, has been affected by the attacks. “We’ve seen an increase in interest [among] our online community in learning more about the Middle East,” said Seija Surra, director of online curriculum for Classroom Connect. “[People have] always been concerned about going on large field trips. Now there is an urgency about it,” said Andrew Casey, director of INET.

Part of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, INET has worked with VBrick Systems Inc. in Wallingford, Conn., to use videoconferencing to link 25 schools in the area to cultural sites, including Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History. A similar system already links all of the K-12 and higher-education institutions in the state of Utah. “There has been a dramatic increase in interest since September 11. Our web hits are up 70 percent,” said Rich Mavrogeanes, president of VBrick Systems.

As with other videoconferencing providers, he finds that quality of transmission plays a large role in the acceptance of the technology. “If students aren’t given what they’re used to—TV—they’ll miss the educational message,” he said, comparing the quality of transmission to broadcast television. Technology is on the horizon to bring the cost of videoconferencing—and virtual field trips—down even further. Debby McDonald is chief executive officer of Vugenix, a company that is working on using MPEG-4 technology to transfer broadcast-quality transmissions over internet protocol (IP) networks or via cable modem. This solution will require no new hardware (except, perhaps, the addition of a camera on each end).

McDonald expects to bring point-to-point compression software to the market for around $50; the software is expected to be released by the end of the year.

No one expects virtual field trips to replace in-person visits, but electronic travel offers educators another way to expand students’ experiences—even in perilous times.

Links:

PictureTel Corp.
http://www.picturetel.com

NASA Distance Learning Outpost
http://learningoutpost.jsc.nasa.gov

Project DIANE
http://www.diane.tnstate.edu

Classroom Connect
http://www.classroom.com

VBrick Systems Inc.
http://www.vbrick.com

Vugenix
http://www.vugenix.com

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SLD: Not all schools must comply with CIPA’s Oct. 27 deadline

If you still haven’t received a funding letter for Year Four of the eRate, don’t panic—the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co. said it has suspended notification for some 3,000 to 4,000 applicants until after the Oct. 27 deadline for certifying compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).

These applicants will have extra time to certify their compliance with the law, which requires schools receiving eRate discounts for their internet access or internal connections to adopt internet safety policies and block students’ access to inappropriate materials online.

Only schools that were notified of their Year Four funding in waves one through six of decision letters must file a revised Form 486 certifying their compliance with CIPA by Oct. 27. The agency mailed its sixth wave of letters Sept. 28.

SLD officials decided to hold off on mailing all successive waves until after the Oct. 27 deadline because they wanted to give applicants enough time to review their funding and complete the paperwork necessary for certifying compliance, said Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for the agency.

If you’re among those applicants who haven’t received a letter yet, you’ll have 120 days from the date your letter is postmarked to certify your compliance with CIPA, according to Blackwell.

But SLD recommends that you check the Funding Commitments section of its web site to verify whether or not you are listed in waves one through six first; it may be that a letter was mailed to you and you did not receive it. If that’s the case, you can call the agency’s Client Service Bureau at (888) 203-8100 to request a duplicate letter.

For further information about CIPA and what schools must do to comply, refer to the CIPA Survival Guide on the eSchool News web site (see link below).

Links:

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

CIPA Survival Guide
http://www.eschoolnews.com/features/cipa

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PC makers’ incentives could benefit schools

With the slumping U.S. economy having slowed computer sales, some PC manufacturers are launching innovative marketing campaigns to help persuade shoppers to buy new machines. Some analysts say now is a good time for schools to buy, too.

Overall, computer prices have dropped dramatically. And now both Compaq Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. have announced new financing plans that allow customers to defer payments for at least three months for a limited time.

Compaq’s new four-month deferral plan applies to leases on all of the company’s products and services, including servers, handhelds, wireless devices, PCs, storage solutions, and service agreements. Customers make no payments for the first four months of the lease term, followed by 20, 32, or 44 monthly payments. The offer is effective until December 31.

IBM’s 90-day payment deferral plan also is effective through December 31, but it applies only to transactions of $50,000 or more.

“Clearly, computer manufacturers have been hit by the downturn in the market,” said Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, an educational technology research and consulting firm. “There is some saturation, too.”

PC shipments have declined 11.6 percent compared to this time last year, according to preliminary results from Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner Group.

“In the third quarter, the PC market continued to suffer from the impact of PC saturation in developed markets, and the effects of the U.S. economic downturn came heavily to bear on all PC regions,” said Charles Smulders, vice president of Dataquest’s Computing Platforms Worldwide group, in a statement.

Despite lagging PC shipments experienced by several top computer vendors, Dell Computer Corp. managed to grow 10.8 percent in its last fiscal quarter. While Dell saw a quick return to business after the events of Sept. 11, Compaq estimated that these events resulted in 300,000 fewer units sold in the United States, Dataquest said.

Apple Computer also reported growth in its last quarter, which the company attributed to strong education sales. Of the 850,000 computers Apple sold in its last quarter, 350,000 were bought by education customers.

“We accomplished a lot in [fiscal year] 2001, even though it was a challenging year for us and our industry,” Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs said in a statement. “We gained market share in education, and iBook sales to education tripled last quarter; we launched Mac OS X and released the stunningly fast 10.1 update in September; we opened our first Apple retail stores and are on track to open 25 stores across the U.S. by the end of 2001.”

Grunwald said Dell and Apple have succeeded in these hard economic times because of their innovative strategies. “Apple has reinforced its position as an innovator in both ease of use and computing power,” he said.

Dell—which doesn’t make its computers until customers orders them online—has an attractive, economical approach because it doesn’t invest as much in infrastructure as other computer companies, Grunwald said.

Compaq continued to suffer from competition in its supply chain, as well as uncertain reaction to its announced merger with Hewlett-Packard, Smulders said.

“HP experienced its slowest growth for worldwide shipments since the first quarter of 1997. As with Compaq, HP’s strong dependency on the U.S. home market is taking a great toll on its overall performance,” Smulders said.

Because computers are so fast now, PC vendors are having a hard time getting users to upgrade their systems. “Hardware performance has leapt ahead of most common software requirements, which provides the opportunity for users to extend their PC life cycles,” Smulders said.

The economic downturn also has reduced the need for computers as companies lay off staff, fewer businesses are created, and transfers between companies slow down.

“The one area of hope for vendors was the back-to-school business, but early indications show that this area was also performing weakly,” Smulders said.

Although now is a good time for schools to buy computers because of low prices and attractive incentives, Grunwald said some schools should be aware that new computers most likely will come preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP.

“It’s probably a good idea to wait a couple of weeks for the Windows XP shakeout,” Grunwald said. “It pays to wait a little while for any new bugs of any new operating system to get identified and fixed.”

Grunwald believes low prices and attractive incentives will increase the number of computers sold, helping to narrow the digital divide. Consequently, more computer users will pressure internet companies to provide better-quality content online.

“Ultimately, we think what is happening in the computer market is going to impact what’s happening on the internet,” he said.

Links:

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

IBM
http://www.ibm.com

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com

Gartner Inc.
http://www.gartner.com

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

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

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Principals’ Organization Advances Online School Leadership Resources

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) now offers even more online opportunities to users. A variety of resources are
available, including: selected articles from their award-winning publications; message boards and chats covering various educational issues;
a principals’ job board; and the latest research and publications of significance for educators.

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Report: Cyber schools are costing Pennsylvania districts big bucks

In the latest volley in a dispute over who should pay for the education of Pennsylvania students online, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association claims that charter cyber schools have chewed up $18 million in unbudgeted expenses from the state’s public education system.

In a highly critical report on the state’s growing cyber-school movement, the association also said the cyber schools have attracted mostly students who were home-schooled last year at no taxpayer expense.

The association presented its report Oct. 16 as part of its push for legislation that would provide state funding and specific regulation of online charter schools. The report’s findings are based on a survey conducted by the association in August and September.

Seven cyber schools—five of them new this fall—are providing internet-based education to students across the state.

“This survey underscores what we have known all along, that there is a serious lack of accountability for these programs,” spokesman Thomas Gentzel said.

The survey, which elicited responses from about 420 of the state’s 501 districts, found that 2,700 students from 399 districts were enrolled in cyber schools. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the state’s seven cyber charter schools reported a combined enrollment of nearly 5,200 for the school year that began in September.

This discrepancy, as well as other concerns, raises questions about whether the schools are keeping accurate records, Gentzel said.

“We heard from a lot of school districts that they’ve been billed multiple times for the same student by different cyber schools,” he said. “They’ve been billed by cyber schools for students who were still sitting in a public school. We think that needs further investigation.”

The association filed a lawsuit in April arguing that cyber charter schools are not currently permitted under a 1997 law that authorized the creation of publicly funded, independently operated charter schools.

One of the association’s key concerns is that under the charter school law, cyber schools are funded under a formula based on the per-pupil spending of the student’s home district, yet the districts receive no state subsidies for cyber school students.

More than half of the state’s school districts are refusing to pay the tuition because they want the authority to decide whether their students can enroll in cyber schools.

Another concern is that cyber schools are attracting a significant number of students who were previously home-schooled. Home-schooled students account for 57 percent of the total current cyber school enrollment, according to the report.

State lawmakers established standards for home schooling under a 1988 law, including provisions that require an adult to be present at home and academic portfolios of students’ work to be submitted to local school officials. None of those requirements are applied to cyber school students, Gentzel said.

“What we have is home schooling, in effect, outside of the home-schooling law,” he said.

The state education department is conducting its own study of cyber charter schools and plans to issue a report to lawmakers by Oct. 30. Spokeswoman Gretchen Toner said the department was reviewing the association’s report and declined to comment on it.

“We agree … that we should keep cyber schools as an option, but we need to address some of the logistical issues. We are certainly doing it in our study,” she said.

State lawmakers have introduced two bills intended to establish guidelines for cyber charter schools. A measure sponsored by Rep. Jess Stairs, R-Westmoreland, would require the state to fund the schools, and legislation sponsored by Sen. James Rhoades, R-Schuylkill, would require cyber schools to sign agreements with local districts before enrolling their students.

Most Pennsylvania school leaders agree that online schools hold great potential for students; they just disagree with how the state’s cyber-school movement has taken shape.

“It is the future,” Cranberry superintendent Richard Varrati said of cyber education. “But it needs to be regulated.”

Other states with virtual schools—such as Michigan, Kentucky, and Illinois—have not experienced the kind of conflicts Pennsylvania has because they established their virtual schools as state-funded initiatives, said Liz Pape, chief executive officer of the Virtual High School Inc., which provides online high school courses to school districts.

In these other states, “the money is coming from the state, so there is less opportunity to take the money away from districts,” Pape said. But in Pennsylvania, “setting up [cyber] charter schools where funding follows the students … unfortunately sets up a tension that doesn’t need to exist.”

Links:

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

Pennsylvania charter school movement
http://www.pde.psu.edu/charter.html

Virtual High School Inc.
http://www.govhs.org

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Internet allows students to discuss Sept. 11 attacks

Thirteen-year-old Victoria Nunnely leans across her computer at South Carolina’s Mauldin Middle School to talk with her classmate about a question posed online: Should we rebuild the World Trade Center?

“We should show them that we will rebuild and we will be stronger,” said Alexandria Roberts, 13.

“I think we should rebuild, but we should put parachutes in there and special glass or something,” Victoria said. “Because we saw people jumping out of the building.”

Horrifying images from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington are fresh in the minds of many students. Now, a month later, the shock has worn off and led to thoughtful discussions of war and the future by teens who are watching history unfold before them.

To help them share their thoughts with their peers in other states, South Carolina Educational Television has set up an online bulletin board called Bridge Builders.

“I knew it made me feel better to share my feelings,” said John Bane, director of creative services at SCETV and creator of the bulletin board. “I wanted kids who were directly affected by the attacks to know that kids elsewhere shared their feelings of hurt and bewilderment.”

ETV asked South Carolina social studies teachers to get their classes involved. The network contacted school boards in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Boston to involve students touched by the horror.

Students on the internet bulletin board have discussed religion, discrimination, and chemical warfare and evaluated President Bush’s handling of the incidents.

“I think this has helped everybody,” said Shanaya Suchak, 13. “If you don’t talk about it, it grows bigger and bigger. A lot of people just want to get out what they’re feeling.”

Teen-agers at Newcomers High School in Long Island City, N.Y., have been sharing their unique perspective with other American students.

Students at the school, which looks out on the New York City skyline, are immigrants representing 65 countries. Many of them came to the United States expecting a safer life, said teacher Julie Mann.

“You are safer in some places than others, but I didn’t expect that to happen here. That’s why I moved here,” said Sebastian Duque, 16, from Colombia.

Assaba Massougbadji, 16, is worried about discrimination and racial profiling. Massougbadji moved to New York from Togo in West Africa almost two years ago and has become friends with many Arab and Afghan teens.

“I’m really scared for my friends,” she said. “What happened Sept. 11 was done by Arabs, but that doesn’t mean all Arabs feel the same way.”

Sebastian and Assaba agree that the attacks damaged the country but did not destroy it.

“We feel more united as Americans now,” Sebastian said. “The purpose was to separate us, but I think it didn’t happen. It made us be together—as people, as a society.”

Back in the South Carolina suburbs, Irmo High School Spanish teacher Sibela Nye said her students have been thinking about the world differently since the attacks.

“Kids don’t know about international affairs. They don’t care,” Nye said. “But there’s been a change. They’re asking questions.”

Links:

South Carolina Educational Television
http://www.scetv.org

Bridge Builders
http://www.knowitall.org/bridgebuilders

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Best Practice: School vision testing goes high tech

Using an ordinary computer lab, a Colorado school district is working with a software maker to streamline vision tests for students in the first, fourth, and ninth grades.

“We’ve been doing vision screening the same way since probably World War II,” said Sue McCarroll, coordinator of health services for the Aurora Public Schools. Last year, she piloted a new approach with 400 students. She used a software product called VisionRx, she said.

VisionRx software performs clinical eye-tests and is used by motor vehicle departments, health care practitioners, and other places where it’s important to test vision.

McCarroll said she wanted an easier way to do mass vision-testing in her district. Currently, vision testing requires a large room and lots of staff or school volunteers to coordinate the effort and process students.

Lately, finding enough people to help has become a problem. “We used to do vision screening with parent volunteers, but we don’t have enough stay-at-home parents anymore,” McCarroll said.

Additionally, the sooner students can be tested at the beginning of the school year, the sooner those with vision problems can be referred to an optometrist.

McCarroll also wanted an easy way to test new students entering the district and a way to record and analyze the data to help determine how often vision tests should occur.

Currently, schools use the Snellen Chart—which consists of rows of text that get smaller and smaller—to test vision. Patients simply read one line at a time on a chart for as far as they can.

The Snellen Chart only measures distance-vision acuity, while VisionRx software measures visual acuity, color, contrast, and field of vision.

“All of those things add up to a child’s total vision,” said Jeffrey Stewart, chairman and founder of VisionRx. “Parents think their child’s vision is being tested, but in reality only one parameter is being tested.”

McCarroll tested students’ ability to see close up and at a distance in a computer lab with 10 computers. “The test requires nothing specialized in the way of hardware, just a normal computer and monitor,” Stewart said. The software can be accessed online or from a CD-ROM.

The students had to log in into the VisionRx web site using an identification number, their name, and birth date.

As the students went through the test, they had to cover each eye alternately and sit either 18 inches or 3 feet from the computer monitor. Each user receives a random test, so no one can memorize or circumvent the chart.

McCarroll said the hardest part was getting the students to follow the directions. The first-graders had to be instructed to cover their eye and sit properly.

“The ninth-graders needed to be told to slow down,” McCarroll said. “They treated it like a video game, and they wanted to win.”

Realistically, she said, one adult could administer the test properly to two first-graders or three ninth-graders at the same time.

The test can’t be rushed, or the results won’t be accurate, so it took much longer to administer the test than it did with the old system, McCarroll said.

But she thinks that will improve as the snags get worked out. “I feel optimistic that they are using it in the department of motor vehicles in a couple of states—that tells me it’s doable,” McCarroll said.

Traditionally, the administrative work required for eye-testing is laborious and mundane, McCarroll said. The test results are written by hand onto a screening card for each student. The nurse then collects all the cards, picks out the failed cards, and sends a notice home to parents.

With VisionRx, the entire process is automated. The software automatically scores the test and stores the results. It also prints a report on demand and runs a statistical analysis.

The software can even been customized to print a letter automatically for the parent of each student who needs to be referred.

McCarroll said it’s possible that early detection of vision problems could help some students learn better.

“Kids with vision problems may have trouble focusing on a textbook or [the blackboard],” McCarroll said. “If they can’t see, they are going to be distracted, and that will lead to bad behavior.”

According to Stewart, several studies suggest a strong correlation between vision problems and bad behavior.

“One in four children has a vision problem significant enough to affect learning,” he said. “Seven out of 10 juvenile delinquents have had vision problems at one time.” He added that some students are diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder “when all they need is a pair of glasses.”

VisionRx plans to charge schools a fee for each test administered, Stewart said.

Links:

Aurora Public Schools
http://www.aps.k12.co.us

VisionRx
http://www.visionrx.com

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Schools react to Microsoft’s new licensing policy

Software giant Microsoft Corp. is taking some heat for a controversial new licensing program aimed at businesses, school districts, and other large-scale customers.

The plan, called Software Assurance, provides a new option for large-volume purchases of popular Microsoft programs such as Windows and Office. Rather than choosing when to upgrade—a good option for districts on tight budgets—customers are encouraged to buy contracts that would give them software upgrades as they are released.

Customers may choose to forgo the plan and continue upgrading at their own pace, but they would lose the volume discounts they currently enjoy.

Microsoft bills its new plan as a way to simplify the tracking and administration of software, while keeping current on technology. The plan is intended to replace the company’s confusing “alphabet soup” of upgrade options (VUP, or version upgrade; CUP, competitive upgrade; PUP, product upgrade; and UA, upgrade advantage) and can be purchased for individual machines or for an entire organization’s PCs and servers.

But customers ranging from small city governments to large corporations have complained about the new plan. One group of British companies claims the licensing program will cost its businesses an additional $1.3 billion.

In a survey of 4,500 corporate information technology (IT) professionals, conducted by Giga Information Group and Sunbelt Software, 80 percent of respondents held a negative view of the program. The survey found that only 36 percent of respondents were considering such a change.

“They think they’re being put on a forced march, and that’s what they don’t like about it,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga.

Eighty percent of the corporate IT professionals surveyed said their costs would increase under the new program. Microsoft has said that only 20 percent of its customer base would see a cost increase, and that some customers would actually save money.

School leaders told eSchool News the new plan would not seem to make sense for most districts, which rarely upgrade their software as frequently as businesses.

The program “will [force] schools to rethink how important Microsoft Office upgrades are to them,” said Chris Mahoney, director of technology for the Lake Hamilton Schools in Arkansas. “There are many other products out there for Windows that are not Microsoft products, and when you buy them, you own them. I get the feeling from Microsoft that when you buy their product, they own you.”

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for the Hill School in Pennsylvania, noted that schools differ from corporations in that their life cycle for a computer “stretches out four to five years” in many cases. In these situations, he said, “it may not be prudent or effective to upgrade an operating system or desktop application as frequently as Microsoft directs schools.”

But Bauer is more willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt.

“It will be interesting to see how this significant difference between corporate purchasing and school purchasing plays out,” he said. “I am confident that Microsoft will find a fair and equitable way to assure that schools are able to continue to upgrade their software, yet not be forced to upgrade at the tempo of the average bleeding-edge corporate concern.”

Microsoft’s manager of public relations and government affairs, Robin Freedman, said education discounts still would apply to schools, even if they are no longer eligible for volume discounts.

“Schools that are looking for easier licensing administration, as well as access to the latest technology, are encouraged to participate in the Software Assurance offering,” she said. But “regardless of which licensing program schools choose to … fit their needs, Microsoft’s academic licensing programs reflect an 85-percent discount from the retail price.”

When Microsoft unveiled its new plan in early October, it gave customers until Feb. 28, 2002, to decide whether to adopt the plan. In response to widespread customer criticism, however, the company has extended this deadline to July 31.

Bob Landefeld, Microsoft’s vice president for worldwide volume licensing, said the company decided to extend the time frame after customers said they could not make such a major decision in just a few months.

“Given the complexity and the current economic environment, customers needed more time,” Landefeld said.

Giga’s Enderle said the extra time may give Microsoft more time to sell its customers on the plan.

Microsoft is not the only company to adopt such licensing changes in recent years. Landefeld said the move is part of the company’s long-term plan of creating “software as a service” that can be upgraded regularly as changes develop, rather than with big new product launches every few years.

While that strategy makes sense in the long-term, Enderle said the software giant could not foresee the current dismal economic climate, and the purse-tightening that inevitably would ensue.

“The issue here is timing,” he said. “In hindsight, this would have been a very bad year to do this.”

Microsoft has had its share of troubles recently. On Oct. 9, the company lost an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and all sides said they will focus on settling the government’s long-running antitrust case against the company.

The high court opted to stay out of the case for now, ending Microsoft’s hopes for a fresh start as it tries to avoid penalties for anti-competitive behavior. That leaves the case in the hands of a federal judge who has told the company and the government to settle out of court. “It’s back to settlement,” said Robert E. Litan, a former Justice Department antitrust chief. “This was Microsoft’s long ball that didn’t get completed.”

Links:

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

Giga Information Group
http://www.gigaweb.com

Lake Hamilton Schools
http://www.lh.dsc.k12.ar.us

The Hill School
http://www.thehill.org

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Schools to get $1 billion for technology

Schools will receive an additional $130 million in federal funding for technology in fiscal year 2002, under action taken in both the House and the Senate last week.

What remains unclear is how the money will be distributed.

After Congressional leaders and the Bush administration reached a general budget agreement, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees each approved separate versions of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill.

Both versions would raise the amount of money available for school technology to $1 billion, up from $872 million in fiscal 2001. But, because each bill follows the framework outlined in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by its respective chamber, there are significant disparities between the two versions.

The House version, passed by the Appropriations Committee Oct. 12, would increase overall education spending by $7 billion, to $49.2 billion. Total funding for elementary and secondary education programs is pegged at $29.9 billion, nearly $5 billion more than last year’s spending.

Of this figure, $1 billion is directed to a single technology block grant program that would be distributed to school districts by state education departments, and an additional $16 million is provided for the Ready to Learn program, which funds the creation of educational public television programming.

The Senate version, approved by the Appropriations Committee Oct. 11, would increase overall education spending by $6.3 billion, to $48.5 billion.

Of this figure, $1 billion is allocated for technology among five separate programs: $777 million to the core technology block grant program (Technology Literacy Challenge Fund); $125 for the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program; $59 million for the Star Schools program; and $39 million for the Ready to Teach and Ready to Learn programs.

A final compromise version of the appropriations bill is not expected until House and Senate leaders can agree on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But, because both branches of Congress agree on the basic amount of school technology funding, it’s likely this figure would remain set.

Besides the spending levels for various technology programs, legislators also must agree on how the main block grant will be distributed to schools. The House version of the ESEA reauthorization bill would distribute 60 percent of the funds by formula and the remaining 40 percent by competitive grants. The Senate version would distribute all of the funds through competitive grants.

Educational technology advocacy groups, such as the Software and Information Industry Association and the Consortium for School Networking, favor the competitive approach because they say a formula allocation would spread funds too thinly to be effective. But school officials in comparatively wealthier districts generally favor the formula approach because they say it is a more equitable solution.

Until a compromise can be reached, federal programs for school technology and other education initiatives are being funded by a continuing resolution. The new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

Links:

House Appropriations Committee
http://www.house.gov/appropriations

Senate Appropriations Committee
http://appropriations.senate.gov

Sidebar: Education appropriations figures for fiscal year 2002

Here’s how funding for educational technology and other programs that directly or indirectly support school technology stack up in the House and Senate appropriations bills approved in committee last week:

Program House Senate FY2001
Educational Technology $1.016B $1B $872M
Title I (disadvantaged students) $10.5B $10.2B $8.76B
Teacher Quality/Training $3.175B $3.04B $485M
Class Size Reduction $0 $0 $1.62B
School Construction $0 $925M $1.2B
21st Century Learning Centers $1B $1B $846M
Innovative Ed. Programs (Title I) $385M $410M $385M
Bilingual & Immigrant Education $700M $516M $460M
Special Education (IDEA) $8.53B $8.11B $7.11B
Educational Technology $1.016B $1B $872M
(Source: Software & Information Industry Association)
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