Bush administration appeals internet-porn ruling

The Bush administration renewed its legal fight against internet pornography on June 20, asking the Supreme Court to permit Congress to pressure public libraries to block sexually explicit web sites.

In May, a three-judge panel in Philadelphia struck down the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which would have taken effect July 1. The law, signed by President Clinton in 2000, required libraries to install software filters on internet computers or risk the loss of federal funds.

Public schools and school libraries are still subject to the law.

The Justice Department, acting on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, formally notified the Supreme Court that it will appeal the ruling.

The panel from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled unanimously that the law relies on filtering programs that also block sites on politics, health, science, and other topics that should not be suppressed. Its decision was the third time since 1996 that courts have struck down U.S. laws aimed at keeping children from seeing internet pornography.

“Given the crudeness of filtering technology, any technology protection measure mandated by CIPA will necessarily block access to a substantial amount of speech whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest,” the judges wrote.

Under the law, adults could have asked for librarians to turn off the filters. But the court said some patrons might be too embarrassed to ask, and librarians may not know how.

Justice Department lawyers have argued that internet smut is so pervasive that protections are necessary to keep it away from youngsters, and that the law simply calls for libraries to use the same care in selecting online content that they use for books and magazines. They also pointed out that libraries could turn down federal funding if they want to provide unfiltered web access.


Back to school means back to web basics

With more and more parents, realtors, reporters, and other key audiences turning to the web first for information, eMarketing basics are becoming increasingly important. Use the checklist that follows to refresh your web site as students head back to school.

• School and district statistics, headlines, and photos are new. Updated information has been posted about the board of education, school administration, key departments, faculty, staff, and students.

• All district and school addresses, phone numbers, eMail addresses, and fax numbers are current and easy to find and include the area code numbers and zip codes. (Remember, this is the World Wide Web, not a local network.)

• Key “Welcome Back” and “New to the District” information may be accessed from the home page. When school starts, registration, student placement, the bell schedule, transportation, school supplies (by grade level), “meet the teacher” events, open houses, lunch menus, athletics, discipline policies, before and after-school care, and co-curricular activities are just some of the items parents will be looking for.

• “How to” tips for parents are gathered in a special web section that may be accessed using a hotlink from the front page. Potential topics include smoothing the end-of-summer transition, preparing a young child for full-day kindergarten, assisting children with homework, creating lifelong readers, recognizing warning signs, and other parent-friendly items.

• Information about academics, teaching methods, grade-level expectations, goals, testing requirements, special programs, and graduation standards is posted in jargon-free language and photos that walk parents through their child’s school day, generating a sense of excitement and enthusiasm for learning.

• Parents may use a keyword search to find what they’re looking for on your web site, and they don’t have to rely on your site structure or flow chart for guidance. A glossary of educational terms has been developed, along with answers to the most commonly asked questions, and these are linked to the district’s front page.

• “Under construction” has been banned from the web site, and outdated information has been removed. All documents and pages posted last school year have been reviewed for relevancy, edited, and spell-checked.

• The latest test scores and other student achievement data are posted and explained in non-educational terms for parents and other site visitors. Disaggregated data are available on a district-wide and school-by-school basis.

• School and district success stories are highlighted with photos and crisp, compelling copy. Parents want to know how the Class of 2002 fared, including SAT scores, academic and athletic scholarships, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test data, showcased graduation and attendance rates, anticipated college attendance, etc.

• New teachers, administrators, and support staff are welcomed and highlighted appropriately, with photos and brief biographies. Teacher and principal eMail addresses and phone numbers are posted with the commitment to respond to all queries within 48 hours.

Now that you’ve updated your site, add even more value to your eMarketing efforts by following these guidelines:

• Post something new on your school or district home page every day. News headlines and news releases should be archived after one week, unless there is a compelling reason to leave them up longer.

• Get help. Enlist students, support staff, and your colleagues in serving as web news hounds, digital photographers, proofreaders, and content developers. Kick off the new school year with a web success party that mixes staff development, web protocol, and guidelines with camaraderie and fun.

• Check out the 2002 web site award winners from the National School Public Relations Association and other groups and steal (I mean borrow, adapt, and modify) all the ideas you can. Contact the winners for advice and tips.

• Adopt a new policy that allows the webmaster to remove outdated or inaccurate information without waiting for the blessing or approval of the content developer. Agree to repost the information once the content developer has corrected the error and eMailed it to the webmaster. Of course, common courtesy indicates that the webmaster will provide some advanced warning.

• Establish a good working relationship with your district technology folks and enlist their support and guidance in developing and fine-tuning your web site.

• Add a pop-up survey to keep track of parental concerns and to gauge your web site’s effectiveness. Make sure that all webmaster queries are answered within 48 hours. If you must forward the query on to another staff member, let the person who eMailed you know who the appropriate contact is and how to get in touch with him or her.

• Use Gifwizard or other free or low-cost webware to manage memory hogs such as photographs and graphics so it doesn’t take long to load your pages—even when using a less-than-optimal internet connection. Keep the use of Flash and other gimmicks to a minimum. As my colleague Elliott Levine always says, “This is the information—not the animation—highway.”

• Find the worst computer in your school or department (or use your home machine) and log onto your web site. Do the graphics fit the screen? Are the load times satisfactory? (Anything more than 10 seconds and your site visitor is probably going to give up.) Have the colors morphed into something horrendous? Adjust your web site so it looks good, even if the machine is a relic.

• Type the name of your school or district into Google, Yahoo, Excite, and other common search engines. Does yours pop up right away? If not, you’re probably not using enough metatags—keywords embedded into your HTML code that make it easy for search engines to find you. You might want to register your site with these and other search engines as well.

• Before you get hit with an anti-site, buy up all the possible web site variations that could apply to your school or district. The cost is minimal and is well worth sparing you, the superintendent, and the Board of Education the embarrassment of a “microsoftsucks.com” equivalent.

• When it comes to parent-friendly content, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The National PTA, Great- Schools.net, and other parent-oriented, nonprofit organizations have developed powerful content that you can help your site visitors access simply by providing hotlinks to these sites.

Building better web sites doesn’t have to become a black hole that mysteriously drains all your time away. By following these tips and enlisting students and other volunteers in your efforts, you can develop an effective and award-winning site that keeps parents and other key people coming back for more.

Related links:
National School Public Relations Association


National PTA



eSN Analysis: Costs, complications slow SIF’s arrival in schools

Educators agree that sharing student data among multiple software programs without any retyping is an efficient, must-have capability for schools—especially in light of new data-sharing requirements imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. But a highly touted solution in the works now for going on four years has yet to be deployed outside of a handful of enterprising school districts.

The Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) is an open-standard specification that lets different K-12 software programs—such as student information systems and library automation software—connect through a central server and share information in a common computer language. But a number of factors have hindered the more widespread adoption of the standard, school technology directors told eSchool News, including its difficulty to implement and the lack of a clear certification process for SIF-compliant products.

Driven by K-12 education technology providers, SIF—a division of the Software and Information Industry Association—aims to save educators from repeatedly entering and updating student information. The project’s goal is to enable diverse software applications to interact and share data efficiently, reliably, and securely in real time, regardless of their respective platform.

The initiative has officially been under development since early 1999. In August 2000, eSchool News reported that SIF Implementation Specification v1.0 had been released to software developers. In February 2002, a remote demonstration of SIF-compliant products proved the specification works.

Now, 10 new school districts will become showcase sites, bringing the total number of districts to use SIF to 14, according to an announcement made June 17 at the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio. But educators are eager to see the solution implemented across the board.

“All of us in the school IT [information technology] community were cautiously hopeful that true interoperability might be realized, but from an outsider’s perspective, it appears that there are still no deliverables,” said Bob Moore, director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

“It doesn’t seem to be rolling out, and I think that is becoming very frustrating for people,” said Charlie Garten, executive technology director for the Poway Unified School District in California. “It’s a wonderful concept. We really do want it, and we need it. But how do they get it out to us now?”

Perception problem

SIF organizers have advised school districts to ask for SIF-enabled products from their vendors. Many school officials told eSchool News they already use these products, but without interoperability. The reasons for this vary.

Terry Allan, information technology manager for the Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools, said his district already has begun using SIF-enabled products, such as Microsoft’s Class Server and software from HOSTS Learning. But Allan says a lack of wider acceptance of SIF is holding full interoperability back.

“What will it take? Someone to grab the flag, raise it high, and say, ‘Follow me,'” Allan said.

Tia Washington-Davis, IT coordinator for Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools, blames a lack of marketing.

“School districts throughout the country see the need for viable, interoperable products on the market so we can make intelligent and informed decisions about purchasing,” Washington-Davis said. “Many technology directors stated that they have not seen these types of products available in the marketplace targeting the education sector.”

Garten agrees: “I don’t feel like anyone is really marketing [SIF].”

Terri Fallon, director of marketing for VersaTrans, which makes a school bus planning and routing system that is SIF-enabled, thinks SIF might have been marketed too well.

“Probably our marketing was ahead of the game and got everyone excited. That probably hurt us, because everyone thinks it should be here by now,” Fallon said.

Not a simple solution

SIF director Tim Magner maintains the progress SIF has had to date is a tremendous success. “Think about how difficult it is to get consensus from your friends about going out to dinner, then think about getting consensus from 120 different companies,” he said.

The technology is commercially available, and there are an increasing number of vendors that support SIF, Magner said: “What schools have to do is decide that they want to use SIF to manage their data and then contact their vendors and ask for SIF-enabled products.”

But there’s more to it than that. A key reason SIF hasn’t caught on more widely is that it’s not simply an out-of-the-box solution.

SIF is a custom solution, Magner said, and its implementation will look different for every school district. Schools must decide which combination of software applications they want to work together.

“There’s not one model for how this works, because there are so many systems that have to come together and there are so many different ways that school districts work,” he said.

The 14 showcase sites will demonstrate different ways SIF can work in a school district. School leaders can look to these sites to find examples that are similar to their own districts for guidance.

School districts must designate a project director who will manage the implementation and decide what data will be shared, what applications will be included, and who will update the data. “You begin to see how it’s much more of a management solution than a technology solution,” Magner said.

Another possible factor in the holdup of SIF is the lack of a clear process for certifying that a vendor’s products are SIF-compliant. Magner said his organization is working on creating a compliance program to give vendors a third-party “seal of approval” that their products work well with other SIF-compliant software.

Such a process would give school purchasers “the confidence that [a vendor’s] products meet the specificifications,” he said.

Cost also a factor

Yet another holdup is that SIF requires a large investment up front, which really requires community support and buy-in so that adequate funding and staff resources can be devoted to the project.

“It requires that a school district be in a place where they want to implement it,” Magner said. “There is an up-front investment of resources, of time, and possibly infrastructure.”

Garten said his district’s tight budget prevented it from becoming one of the showcase sites, because officials there didn’t have the funds to pay for someone set it up or to buy the necessary hardware and software. “Down the line it’ll give us money back, it’s that initial cost that has caused problems,” Garten said.

SIF takes a long time to implement, too.

“It took several months to get the showcase sites up and running,” Magner said. “It is important to recognize that SIF implementation is like any other large-scale implementation.”

But SIF promises greater efficiency and will pay for itself over time, Magner said: “You make the investment up front, and over the life of the system it pays for itself. There are a lot of things that technology can automate. Once they are automated, we can free up those resources.”

Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, thinks it won’t be long before SIF begins to reach schools on a more widespread basis. But it will take strong leadership to make that happen, he said.

“The concept is solid, the technology is solid, it’s just a matter of … when a key group of customers—schools—aligns with a key group of vendors to push SIF into the mainstream,” Hirsch said.

Related links:
Schools Interoperability Framework

Blue Valley School District

Poway Unified School District

Vancouver Public Schools

Prince George’s County Public Schools

Plano Independent School District


Software group’s anti-piracy campaign targets students

Hoping to spread the message to a new generation of students that copying software from the internet is wrong, the Business Software Alliance (BSA)—an industry trade group that represents software developers around the world—will distribute a free anti-piracy curriculum to 25,000 U.S. elementary and middle schools this August.

Although school leaders agree respecting intellectual property is an important concept for students to understand, some educators question the value of BSA’s curriculum.

“Play It Safe in Cyberspace” is the second anti-piracy curriculum developed by BSA. The new curriculum will target young computer users.

“Kids are increasingly becoming more cyber-savvy at a younger age,” said Laurie Head, BSA’s director of marketing and communications. “We thought it was best to reach out to them at a younger age, when they are still forming their internet behaviors.”

Software piracy remains a threat to the software industry, Head said.

“Almost half of all internet users have downloaded software on the internet. Eighty-one percent [of users] have not paid for all the copies they have made,” she said, citing figures from a BSA survey released May 29.

The U.S. software industry reportedly lost more than $2.6 billion to software piracy in 2000, according to “The 2000 Global Software Piracy Report,” conducted by the International Planning and Research Corp.

In 1998, BSA created a similar curriculum with Scholastic Inc., called “Reboot Your Attitude,” that focused on why kids shouldn’t swap computer disks. But the proliferation of the internet has made it easier for students and others to copy software illegally, so the BSA felt the need to update its curriculum.

BSA is developing its newest curriculum with Weekly Reader, a 100-year-old company that publishes a weekly four-page newspaper for students in seven different grade levels that is distributed to some 50,000 schools nationwide.

The Play It Safe in Cyberspace curriculum includes four activities for grades three to five and four activities for grades six to eight. Students will address questions such as: What is creative work? What is copyright law? Who get hurts when you copy software? What’s your piracy I.Q.?

“It’ll involve some online work and some interactive discussion in the classroom,” Head said.

BSA plans to mail 25,000 curriculum kits to U.S. schools on Weekly Reader’s distribution list this fall, and PDF versions will be available to download from the group’s web site.

Many school districts have adopted policies that prohibit software theft, and several schools already educate their students about software piracy.

“Students seem to have a laid-back attitude about sharing software, and they don’t seem to understand how it affects companies or how serious an offense it is,” said Chris Mahoney, director of technology for the Lake Hamilton Schools in Arkansas, where media specialists begin teaching about software piracy in middle school.

Mahoney said some teachers may need more than just a free curriculum before they can start teaching the subject.

“Teachers need to be trained in issues concerning software piracy before they are asked to incorporate it into their lesson plans,” he said. “Staff development would be an important key to make the teachers more aware of software piracy themselves.”

Others are skeptical of receiving educational content from a software trade group such as BSA. One of BSA’s most prominent members is software giant Microsoft Corp., which has been criticized by some educators for its aggressive business tactics.

BSA’s new anti-piracy curriculum “puts [the group] in the position of enforcing compliance with the law when they are representing an organization [Microsoft] that has been convicted of violating the law. Somehow I doubt the BSA curriculum explains all of this,” said Dick Barkey, executive director of information technology for the Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado.

Related links:
Business Software Alliance

Weekly Reader


Annenberg grants offer lessons in school reform

School leaders can close gaps in student achievement by reaching out to other schools and forming networks, enlisting the help of parents and other stakeholders, making professional development for teachers a higher priority, and using data to make better decisions about instruction.

These are some of the lessons learned from the Annenberg Challenge, the largest and most ambitious effort yet by a private foundation to reform public education. Its results should prove illuminating as school leaders embark upon the education reforms required by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The Annenberg Challenge was launched at the White House in 1993, when former U.S. ambassador Walter Annenberg announced he would give $500 million to improve the nation’s public schools. The 85-year-old philanthropist, who made his fortune in publishing and communications, challenged others to match his gift.

Eight years and $1.1 billion later, the Annenberg Challenge is winding down. The institute that runs the project released a report on June 12 summarizing its findings.

“The Challenge did not work miracles, but it frequently beat the odds and helped public schools do better,” said Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “It was time and money well spent.”

The 18 Annenberg Challenge projects benefited an estimated 1.5 million students in 2,400 schools across 35 states, according to the report. The program’s main goal was to improve public education in several of the nation’s largest cities, but it also strove to expand arts education and improve rural schools.

The 18 sites each took different approaches to school reform, but an underlying principle of the grants was that teachers needed to measure students’ abilities on a regular basis and use the results to tailor their instruction accordingly.

Toward that end, teachers and administrators in many participating schools were taught to make data-driven decisions.

“You have to create a culture of inquiry that is always flowing from the system, where people are eager to learn and to ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are the kids learning? Which ones? Who isn’t?’ To do that, you need good data,” said Maria Casillas, executive director of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project.

Making sense of test data is no easy task for educators, the report notes. To help, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform distributed a document called the “Framework for Accountability,” which shows how to make students’ work the center of the accountability process.

The investments appear to be paying off. Stanford University researchers found that teachers in 75 percent of the participating San Francisco Bay area schools were breaking down achievement data to examine racial and ethnic disparities.

Based on these data, one Bay area school retooled its curriculum and support structures to better serve African-American and Latino students, the report says.

A centerpiece of NCLB and its own accompanying school reforms, data-driven decision making soon will be required of all school districts. Under the new law, districts must report annually on student performance by race, gender, income, and other characteristics starting next year.

Schools will have to show that students are making “adequate yearly progress” in reading and math; if a school falls short, parents will be able to ask that their children be transferred to a better performing school or receive supplemental services such as tutoring or virtual schooling.

While recognizing that schools cannot improve without this kind of accountability, the Annenberg Challenge report sounds this note of caution: “Accountability is a two-way street. The political leaders who are demanding rightfully that our students, teachers, and schools meet higher standards must give them the resources to get the job done.” Those who set the policy and allocate the resources also must be held accountable, the report says.

Here are other lessons cited in the report:

• Schools are too isolated. By reaching out to other schools and forming networks for mutual support and criticism, educators can solve problems more easily.

• Schools need many allies to achieve results. Parents, businesses, and other stakeholders can help—but they must be recruited.

• Sustained professional development is the No. 1 key to better schools.

Related links:
Annenberg Foundation

“The Annenberg Challenge: Lessons and Reflections on Public School Reform”

Annenberg Institute for School Reform


‘Deep-linking’ flap threatens direct links to web content

Educators should be aware of a brewing controversy that soon could limit how they are allowed to connect students to news articles and other copyrighted materials over the internet: Some online publishers, angry about the practice of “deep-linking” to their web sites, have begun threatening legal action against users of the tactic, calling it a violation of U.S. copyright law.

This so-called deep-linking occurs whenever a teacher or some other person provides a web link that bypasses another site’s home page and goes directly to a specific article deep within that internet site. Many teachers say they often supply their students with deep links, because it is the most time-efficient way to guarantee that children safely reach the content that pertains to their lessons.

“In the precious time we have with them, we like to guide students to the most appropriate resources for specific projects. We hope that deep-linking will continue to be an acceptable way of guiding students to information pre-selected by educators for them,” said Nancy Messmer, director of library media and technology for the Bellingham, Wash., Public Schools.

Despite Messmer’s hopes, the legal future of deep-linking remains in flux as lawyers, internet users, and online publishers debate whether deep-linking infringes on the rights of web site owners and content providers. Opponents of deep-linking argue that it costs sites in valuable advertising revenue if visitors are not required to visit the home page first.

A number of cases are cropping up in which online publishers and content providers have sought to prohibit deep-linking to their sites.

Recently, the Dallas Morning News voiced displeasure with deep links to its site from BarkingDogs.org by way of an angry letter to the smaller, Texas-based news organization. The letter asked that BarkingDogs.org “cease and desist” what it called “an unauthorized use of content.”

Rodale—which publishes Runner’s World, Backpacker, Bicycling, and Men’s Health magazines, among others—lodged a similar complaint against LetsRun.com. Most of that site’s content is composed of deep links to articles from publications across the nation. In response to the Rodale’s complaint, LetsRun.com has removed its link to a Rodale-owned article. The site’s masthead now reads: “LetsRun.com: Where we have no legal team.”

In both of these cases, of course, the offenders were competitors. But the question remains whether it’s possible to draw a legal line between who is allowed to deep link to a particular site and who is not.

Intellectual property lawyer Harvey Jacobs said that fair-use exceptions tend to be broader where education is concerned, because schools do not pose a direct competitive threat to content providers jockeying over ad revenue. He said arguments against deep-linking go against “the general grain” of the internet as a medium for shared information. But Jacobs did not rule out the possibility of a deep-linking ban for educators.

According to Jacobs, property owners have a right to protect what is theirs, even on the web. “The owner of that content can decide to be a bad neighbor,” he said.

A recent ruling by a Danish court has some proponents of deep-linking worried. In its July 5 decision, the Bailiff’s Court of Copenhagen sided with the Danish Newspaper Publishers Association in claiming that Danish company Newsbooster violated copyright laws by deep-linking to articles on some Danish newspapers’ web sites.

Although no legal precedent has been established yet in the United States that would classify deep-linking as a clear violation of copyright, the problem for educators lies in this possibility.

“It would cause some problems, in that internet use in some cases would not be as efficient,” said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, said the very thought of schools losing their ability to deep link was cause for serious concern.

According to Becker, deep-linking is useful because it allows students to bypass certain types of content—including home-page advertising that can, at times, be viewed as offensive and often is blocked by federally mandated web filters in schools.

“Many of the ads [on the home pages of news web sites] deal with sexual materials,” Becker said.

Deep-linking also provides the easiest and most direct route to relevant content for younger web-surfers, who often are overwhelmed by the massive amount of content available to them online, Becker said.

“This will be a major problem for K-12 education if [deep-linking] were deemed a copyright violation,” she said.

Legal experts familiar with intellectual property issues don’t discount the charges leveled by web site owners and content providers. But, they say, there’s a reason for the lack of legal precedent in America: Chances are uncertain at best that a case against deep-linking would hold up in U.S. court.

Randy Lipsitz, a copyright attorney for New York-based Kramer Levin, said he does not think deep links infringe on current U.S. copyright laws. “Copyright protects against copying original works of authorship and claiming them as your own,” he said.

According to Lipsitz, deep links are a means of providing access to the content. That’s different than passing it off as original work.

Lipsitz didn’t rule out the possibility of a future ban on deep-linking. Instead, he described internet law as still evolving.

“The internet is still a new medium of communicating,” he said. “Things that couldn’t be done before are now being done.”

Intellectual property lawyer Jacobs said he expects any lawsuits against deep-linking would encounter several hurdles. But he sees two possible strategies for those who would challenge the practice in court: First, that deep-linking is a form of trespassing. It could be argued that web site owners have a right to control how people gain access to their sites in much the same way homeowners can control how people gain access to their homes, Jacobs said.

The second charge—and a more plausible argument, according to Jacobs—would be that visitors who enter a site by way of a deep link cannot knowingly agree to the terms and conditions of that site, which normally are listed on the home page.

Challengers “would argue that visitors came in through the side door instead of through the front door, where messages were posted,” Jacobs said.

Many legal experts agree that, even if the right to deep-link is preserved in court, content providers still have the ability to reroute visitors—including students— unwillingly to the home page of their web sites.

According to Lipsitz, when a user clicks on a web link, the receiving site can identify where the user is coming from. If the receiving site does not recognize the referring web address, there is technology available to redirect visitors to the site’s home page.

Lipsitz said that if web owners are concerned that potential visitors might miss out on home page banners and advertising, “all they’d have to do is just turn that technology on.”

Anji Stinson, an intellectual property lawyer for McGuire Woods LLP, posed this suggestion for teachers who want to make sure no copyright violation has occurred: Always ask permission from the web site owner before directing students to a deep link.

“It’s not much different than seeking a license to reproduce copyrighted material in a course packet. It’s a way to protect yourself,” she said.

From an educator’s point of view, Blue Valley’s Moore offered this advice: “The best way around this [issue] is for the school to subscribe to one of the many periodicals databases that exist. These are a far better way for students and teachers to access online articles from periodicals [than deep-linking].”

Bellingham’s Messmer concluded: “We teach kids about intellectual property and copyright at every turn. We respect the folks who share information and always try to give credit to authors and originators. We would just have to work harder with kids if every information search involved multiple decisions and extra clicks.”

eSchool News Online permits and, indeed, encourages educators to link directly to articles and other information posted on our web site and, in fact, provides a Content Exchange page to make deep-linking to news articles easier.

Related links:
Bellingham Public Schools

Dallas Morning News

eSchool News Content Exchange page


Blue Valley School District

Governor Mifflin School District


SAT essay requirement spotlights writing-assessment tools

When The College Board—distributor of several national standardized tests—announced June 27 that its Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) would include a handwritten essay by March 2005, improved writing instruction moved up on the test-preparation agenda for schools from coast to coast.

Although some educators remain skeptical, companies such as Vantage Learning Inc. of Yardley, Pa., report they have just what educators are looking for to help ease the burden of grading student essays by hand. In May, Vantage was selected to provide writing-assessment and development services to some of Massachusetts’ largest school districts.

The pilot program enables approximately 2,000 students in grades 10 and 11 in Boston, Springfield, Worcester, and Southern Berkshire Regional school districts to practice their writing online and receive immediate feedback.

Scott Elliot, chief operating officer for Vantage, said the inclusion of an essay question on the SAT will highlight the need for improved writing instruction in the classroom.

“It underscores the importance of writing, and that is really going to apply downward pressure on middle and high schools to teach these skills,” Elliot said.

One possible solution: Vantage’s My Access!. This online writing-development tool employs the company’s IntelliMetric essay-scoring technology to assess how well students are answering written questions. It also provides a portfolio that enables users to update their work, while letting teachers monitor student progress more easily.

IntelliMetric (see “Pennsylvania tests essay-grading software,” January 2001) works by learning the pattern of several hundred essay scores. Once a pattern is recognized, the application is able to match individual student essays to that pattern, providing instant feedback on grammar, content, style, and structure, Vantage said.

According to Elliot, the product can drastically reduce the cost of grading tests. Machines can do the job in less time and for less money than humans can, he said: “There is dramatic cost savings to be had.”

Besides Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, three other states—California, Oregon, and Texas—have used the company’s My Access! product, including the IntelliMetric essay-grading tool, on a pilot basis.

In Pennsylvania, educators confirmed the IntelliMetric tool was an effective way to cut costs.

“It is cost-effective,” said Beth Gaydos, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “Being able to use the software actually cuts the cost of test-grading in half.”

But Pennsylvania has no plans to enter into a long-term contract with Vantage, Gaydos added. The initial contract expired last January.

Although the technology proved effective for technical writing errors such as spelling and grammar mistakes, Gaydos said, it was unable to adjust to the various writing styles of different students. “There are just some things only a teacher can pick up,” she said.

But there is a more basic obstacle to adopting the technology throughout the state, Gaydos explained. Implementing Vantage’s system effectively on a statewide basis is not feasible for Pennsylvania schools, she said, because to do so would require more computers than the schools could afford.

“It would almost require every classroom to have a computer for every student,” she said.

Educators who spoke with eSchool News said they were encouraged by the addition of an essay question on the SAT. But many remained skeptical of the potential for machine markers to aid teachers in the scoring of written exams. Some maintained it is impossible for machines to provide balanced literary criticism and feedback, two elements essential for effective critiques.

“I am pleased to learn that there will be an essay. I believe it will make the SAT more valuable and a better measure of probable college success,” said Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., Public Schools and an expert on student information systems.

But Yeagley has his doubts about essay-grading technology: “I would be suspicious of the quality of scoring. The software may be good at checking against rules. However, I doubt that the software would be able to judge content or pick up on the times when a departure from standard rules will create a subtle impact on the meaning or impression of a phrase.”

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville, Calif., Joint Unified School District, shares his New Hampshire colleague’s reservations about essay-grading software.

“There are programs that pick out words and phrases to assess whether or not a written document is on task. There are programs that will evaluate grammar,” he said. “But neither of these is comprehensive enough, nor has the intelligence to subjectively evaluate the author’s thinking, organization, or writing skills. This is a task that needs the human touch to be accurately evaluated.”

Such cautionary attitudes notwithstanding, The College Board now incorporates IntelliMetric technology in programs designed for use in higher education. The assessment system is at the heart of The College Board’s ACCUPLACER Online service, a placement- testing program for incoming college students. It is used in Writeplacer Plus and in the new Writerplacer ESL, unveiled June 27, for assessing writing skills among students who use English as a second language.

According to Elliot, technology from his company already assesses more than 4 million students per year.

IntelliMetric won’t be used to grade the revised SAT, according to The College Board, because the technology does not work on handwritten assignments.

According to Wayne Camara, vice president of research for The College Board, the essays will be graded by certified teachers and educators, who will be allowed to access the handwritten essays from their desktops at home. The handwritten tests will be scanned into a computer and made accessible over the internet, he said.

The human graders will be expected to evaluate more than 3 million essays during the first year of full-scale implementation.

“The increased importance of solid writing skills is going to put more emphasis on writing instruction,” Elliot said. “The criticality of writing is increasing.”

Related links:
Marysville Joint Unified School District

Rochester Public Schools

The College Board


Writerplacer Plus Electronic


Attendance, accountability mark this year’s NECC

Like the joyful tumult spawned by a drenching downpour after months of drought, the hubbub and energy swirled through the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center at the 2002 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in San Antonio, June 17-19.

By organizer reckoning, more than 14,000 were on hand for the conference and exposition—some 3,500 exhibitors staffing approximately 425 booths and more than 10,000 teachers, administrators, and professors cramming into session rooms.

Exact numbers aside, the hall and corridors certainly were teeming throughout the meeting, and several general sessions drew standing-room-only attendance. In glowing contrast to the somber, sparsely attended confabs held late last year and earlier in 2002, the NECC show reminded some seasoned conference-goers of happier times in the technology sector.

Two main topics seemed to dominate the conversations at NECC: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), with all its attendant opportunities and problems, and the turnout and enthusiasm of the conference itself. Both had origins in Texas.

For a sampling of the presentations delivered at NECC, visit the link at the end of this story for nearly 200 presenter handouts available in PDF format.

NECC, now merged into the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), benefited because Texas has been less hard hit economically than many other states and because schools were out throughout the state by conference time. This meant districts could send teachers without having to hire substitutes.

Whether NECC’s success was a singular phenomenon or the harbinger of a sustainable trend will be clearer when the National School Boards Association’s Technology + Learning Conference is held in Dallas in November.

Meanwhile, the exhibit hall was alive with vendors eager to do their part in helping educators take advantage of every edge high tech has to offer in the struggle to meet old challenges and new federal requirements. Here’s a quick tour of some of the key offerings attendees found in the NECC exhibit hall:

Tracking, reporting, and accountability

Many exhibitors aimed their products and services squarely at the No Child Left Behind Act and its new accountability requirements for schools.

To help schools with tracking and reporting necessary performance data, NCS Learn introduced SASIxp 5.0, the newest release of its K-12 student administrative system. Version 5.0 expands the system’s functionality with a new Report Designer module, which gives users access to a wide variety of report templates and the ability to create and customize reports easily—a feature that will help schools aggregate and present data as they strive to comply with the requirements of NCLB, said Allison Duquette, the company’s vice president of product management and marketing.

Another provider of student information systems, Administrative Assistants Ltd. (AAL), announced that two school districts in Arizona have become the first in the nation to implement the company’s new web-based student information system, called eSIS. Yuma School District No.1 and Yuma Union High School District No. 70 will use the system to provide administrators, teachers, and professional staff from 22 schools with a solution to better manage student information. eSIS users will have real-time access to all types of student records, from bus schedules and health records to attendance sheets, the company said. The product will allow school leaders to cross-reference and compare statistics throughout the district while giving teachers access to up-to-date student information immediately.

Swift Knowledge Inc. announced that the Arizona Department of Education has expanded its contract with the company, asking it to provide its Student Accountability Information System (SAIS) to all schools across the state. According to the company, SAIS is a data management solution that will track the performance of the state’s 800,000 K-12 public school students in a safe, secure fashion. Arizona officials said expansion of SAIS across the state was necessary to ensure that schools would meet new standards for accountability under NCLB. SAIS tracks test data, correlates results, breaks down figures, and is easily accessible through a user-friendly interface, the company said.

On the instructional side, HOSTS Learning—a company that provides research-based learning systems for reading and math—is seeking to help educators meet the requirements of NCLB with the announcement of its LearnerLink offering. According to the company, LearnerLink is an internet-based tool that helps teachers manage, educate, and assess the progress of classroom reading instruction. The product makes it possible to create standards-based lessons and aggregate performance results at the individual student, class, school, district, or state levels.

HOSTS also unveiled the Reading Centered School, a school-wide literacy system aimed at helping schools secure funds under the Bush administration’s Reading First initiative. The company says the program can be integrated with scientifically based reading textbooks to provide assessment for students and professional development for teachers. A record-keeping and reporting function lets schools demonstrate proven rates of success and helps secure funds now hinged on accountability, the company said.

In terms of assessment, EdVISION Corp. said that South Dakota recently completed an online assessment of students’ abilities in every school across the state using the company’s Performance Series. The product is an entirely web-based tool for the assessment of individual students’ abilities in several major subject areas, including reading, math, science, and language arts. In light of the product’s success in South Dakota, 60 Central Michigan University charter schools have selected the Performance Series to track student growth, the company said.

Handheld technology

This year’s NECC offered further evidence that handheld technologies continue to make inroads into K-12 schools. David Nagel, chief executive officer of PalmSource—the Palm OS subsidiary of Palm Inc.—cited figures from market research firm International Data Corp. that show the trend toward mobility building quickly: In a May 30 press release, IDC said, “The K-12 market is moving from desktop PCs toward notebook computers and smart handheld devices, a shift expected to rapidly accelerate at the start of the 2003-2004 academic year.”

Palm and its operating system will play a big part in the shift, Nagel said. Educators can expect to see broader choices in mobile products for education as more and more companies, such as AlphaSmart, develop new products around the Palm OS.

At NECC, AlphaSmart introduced the first Palm-powered laptop designed specifically for education. The device, called Dana, costs $369 and operates all Palm applications on a body that looks more like a traditional AlphaSmart computer. It supports graffiti and has a pen stylus, but it also has a built-in, full-sized keyboard for text entry. “We think the majority of text entry will be with the keyboard,” said Chris Bryant, AlphaSmart’s vice president of marketing and business development.

Dana—which combines the functionality and affordability of a handheld computer with the larger screen size and greater durability of a laptop—also features two USB ports that let students connect to computers, science probes, or printers. “It also charges through the USB port, so it can charge from any computer or device it is connected to,” Bryant said. “If a student is walking around and the power is getting low, [he or she] can be a little parasite and charge the power off any nearby computer.”

The device’s display is three and half times larger than the typical Palm display. Students can choose to view programs in landscape or portrait fashion. At 12 inches wide, 9 inches long, and 2 inches thick, Dana is larger than most handheld devices. Weighing two pounds, Dana is light and as rugged as a traditional AlphaSmart computer, successfully passing a three-foot drop test.

Not to be outdone, Texas Instruments introduced TI Keyboard, a full-size QWERTY (or traditional typewriter) keyboard available for use with the company’s most popular handheld devices, including the TI-83 Plus graphing calculator. The keyboard allows students to type notes directly into their TI handheld devices, expanding the instruments’ versatility beyond math and science classes. The device comes prepackaged with a cradle to hold students’ TI handhelds at an easy-to-see angle and is small enough to fit into a backpack. TI also announced that it is working with the National Council of Social Studies and the National Council of Teachers of English to develop standards-based, classroom-ready activities for students and teachers to use with handheld technologies in these subjects.

eLearning options

Proof that online learning continues to thrive also abounded at this year’s NECC, as several traditional textbook publishers unveiled new eLearning initiatives.

Publisher Harcourt Inc. introduced a new eLearning team to support the development of online educational products and services throughout the company’s many business units. The new team will be responsible for providing technical expertise, research, and intelligence for product development, support, and further acquisitions, the company said. Also at NECC, Classroom Connect—a division of Harcourt that provides educational services through online subscriptions—announced that it has partnered with several state departments of education to create customized web content and educational resources for state web sites.

Another Harcourt company, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, announced the release of an online social studies textbook series for grades six through 12. The new Holt Online Learning series is the first of its kind to seamlessly integrate print and technology components, giving students and teachers a choice of instructional media, according to the company. The online textbooks don’t just deliver text on a web site; instead, each online textbook boosts student interaction and relates history to current events with tools such as CNN Student News. The online textbooks also include Interactive Time Lines, Interactive Maps, the Holt Researcher Online, the Holt Grapher, Homework Practice Online, Standardized Test Preparation, and project-based portfolio activities, the company said.

Further signaling the growth of eLearning in K-12 schools, America Online announced that its online learning program AOL@School has reached more than 36 percent of K-12 schools in all 50 states. The two-year-old program was devised to help bridge the digital divide by providing free online services targeted toward less affluent communities. The company said it recently expanded AOL@School’s offerings through partnerships with several companies, including APTE, Artsonia, ipicturebooks, Tritone Music, and TestU. New features include learning games, custom art galleries, eBooks, and beginning music courses.

Apex Learning, a provider of online instruction and resources for high schools, announced that more than 75,000 students have used the company’s online courses, learning tools, and test preparation vehicles in the past four years. Apex also touted the success of its AP Exam Review, which delivers online diagnostics and creates personal study plans to help students succeed in advanced placement courses. The company is offering its ClassTools lesson design feature at a 28-percent discount to educators until July 15. Apex also unveiled a number of new online AP courses for the fall, including biology, Spanish, and psychology.

Filtering and network security

Absolute Software, a provider of managed services for computer security and tracking, demonstrated its ComputracePlus computer tracking software. ComputracePlus enables school administrators to keep track of remote, mobile, and local PCs and stop uncontrolled losses. The software helps security departments monitor PC asset location on a daily basis and attempt to recover assets if they are stolen. The company also previewed AbsoluteTrack, a secure asset tracking and inventory management solution. Powered by the companyís Computrace technology platform, AbsoluteTrack simplifies the management of software licenses, computer leases, machine configuration, PC retirement, upgrades, and device ownership, while helping to control PC loss and monitor security policy violations.

N2H2 announced the upcoming release of a fully integrated, scalable web filtering solution for schools using Novell BorderManager. The solution, to be released in late summer, leverages the identity-based policy engine of BorderManager, enabling users to control and monitor students’ and employees’ internet access down to the individual user and session time. N2H2 also said it has added the Houston and Baltimore school districts to its list of education customers.

Rival filtering company SurfControl launched eMail Filter 4.0, a comprehensive eMail content management solution for schools. The software comes with a unique RiskFilter technology that automatically stops the delivery of spam and other digital junk such as hoaxes, chain letters, jokes, and graphic file attachments that contain offensive material and open a school to potential liability or network vulnerability. It also offers a new, add-on component called the Virtual Learning Agent, an intelligent tool that “learns” an organization’s specific information and then keeps sensitive documents from being accidentally, or purposely, eMailed to unintended or unauthorized recipients—a feature particularly important to schools, which maintain personal student records, SurfControl said. eMail Filter 4.0 costs about $19 per user, based on an installation of 500 users. A free, 30-day evaluation copy of the product can be found at the company’s web site.

Contests, grants, and special offers

Adobe has bundled some of its most popular software products and is offering educators a back-to-school special under the Adobe Design Collection brand. The bundle includes Adobe Photoshop 7.0, Illustrator 10, InDesign 2.0, and Acrobat 5.0, along with a GoLive 6.0 and LiveMotion 2.0 training CD. The collection bears a suggested reseller price of $399.

eZedia Inc., makers of digital media software, introduced Zoom-ed, a free educational program that provides lesson plans, media content, training, and grant information. Users of the free service will receive a special price discount on EZediaMX, the company’s multimedia authoring software, eZedia said. The product allows students and teachers to create interactive presentations, electronic portfolios, digital storybooks, and courseware using a combination of video, graphics, sound, text, and the web. For a limited time, Zoom-ed’s Classroom Contest also gives teachers a chance to win one of three free Apple eMacs for their schools.

Hewlett-Packard Co. and IndiVisual Learning LLC announced a partnership to award two $25,000 “Read for Life” scholarships. The awards will be given to two private, public, charter, or parochial schools that demonstrate a need for financial aid, a high population of English as a Second Language or Limited English Proficient students, and staff that are dedicated to the integration of technology. Winners also will receive a wireless mobile computer lab and five in-class workstations, plus three years’ free use of IndiVisual’s Reading product, a computer-based intervention program for students ages eight to 18. Educators may apply for the grant award by visiting IndiVisual’s web site.

National Semiconductor, along with Wyse Technology and Citrix Systems Inc., announced the 2002 winner of the companies’ Thin Client@School contest, which supplies thin-client hardware, software, and networking services to an economically disadvantaged school to create a low-cost, easy-to-manage computer network. This year’s winner is Rehoboth Christian School of Gallup, N.M., which received equipment and services valued at $104,000. The award will allow Rehoboth to create new technology-based programs in science, economics, history, and current events.

Hardware and connectivity

3Com Corp. briefed attendees on a number of new developments, including its NJ100 Network Jack. The company says this wall-mounted jack will reduce the cost of wiring for cabling infrastructure and bring Ethernet switching technology closer to the desktop. The jack fits into any standard-size wall cutout and comes complete with six device ports, as opposed to the standard one or two seen with traditional Ethernet jacks. 3Com also announced that the University City, Miss., School District will upgrade its local area network with $350,000 worth of the company’s Gigabit Ethernet and firewall products. The district, which educates 4,200 students, will use 3Com’s Switch 4007 to deliver online learning applications and its SuperStack 3 firewall to improve security and control internet access in schools, the company said.

Dell Computer sought to broaden its lead in the education market with the announcement of its new Cyberspace Modular Classroom. In partnership with Williams Scotsman, a provider of modular buildings and portable classrooms, the computer giant has developed portable classrooms equipped with an array of computer systems and peripherals, which can be customized to work with schools’ existing technology infrastructure, allowing students in portable classrooms to achieve the same connectivity as those inside fully wired buildings or computer labs.

Dell also announced a partnership with Microsoft Corp. to sell specially packaged network servers and notebook computers to schools in the United States under the Class Server brand. The agreement means Dell will manufacture and sell servers and computers that feature Microsoft education software designed to allow teachers and school administrators to organize and manage institutional resources and individualize student lessons. The new systems are expected to be available for order this summer.

InFocus Corp. demonstrated its latest two classroom projectors. The LP250 and the LP240 combine portability and ease of use with seamless images and software compatibility, the company said. Each of the company’s new projectors comes with a variety of tools aimed to help teachers use precious instruction time more effectively. The projectors have color-coded cables for easy setup; large, readable buttons; simplified user interfaces with pull-down menus; and interactive keypads. According to the company, both products are lightweight and easy to move around the school, and each machine works with the company’s ProjectorNet software, which lets schools manage and maintain any number of projectors from a centralized location.

Productivity suites and professional development

Certiport Inc. and Course Technology are teaming up to provide performance-based computer certification programs to educators and students. The Internet and Computing Core Certification (IC3) exams cover a number of basic computing concepts from networking to internet knowledge, the companies said. Under the partnership, Certiport will enable certain schools to become iQcenters. Only selected schools and institutions will be able to administer the certification exams. The decision is part of an effort to ensure that all exams are given correctly, securely, and according to procedure. The companies said IC3 is the first computer certification course recognized by the National Skill Standards Board for its quality and effectiveness.

Along with its array of server, desktop, and laptop products, Gateway offered attendees online professional development. The company’s Educator Productivity Online Learning Subscription is designed to match any educator’s skill level and learning goals. This online library allows educators to learn about software such as Word, Excel, WordPerfect and take their skills from beginner to mastery level. Besides the convenience of online learning, many of Gateway’s Online Learning Library courses allow educators to earn Continuing Education Units.

Lightspan Inc. announced that Academic Systems, a division of the company that previously has targeted colleges and universities, now will offer its services to secondary schools. Academic Systems’ Interactive Mathematics is a computer-based learning tool that helps students prepare for important standardized tests and improve their math skills overall. Also, in a move to satisfy a high demand for professional development among America’s teachers, Lightspan announced that it will offer teachers continuing education credits through its Lightspan University professional development programs.

PLATO Learning, which acquired Georgia-based NetSchools Corp. in May, announced the creation of a new professional services division called TeachMaster Professional Services Group, which combines PLATO Learning and NetSchools education consultants under the leadership of Donna Elmore, previously with NetSchools. The new division will offer schools a choice of training programs and flexible blocks of professional development time. “Services will be offered throughout the school year and via different delivery methods to meet the varying needs and expertise levels of schools,” said Elmore, a former South Carolina school superintendent with 30 years’ experience in education.

Sun Microsystems has responded to tight school budgets with the StarOffice 6.0 Office Suite, a full-feature, multi-platform productivity program providing word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, and database functionality. What’s remarkable about this product is its cost: Free. Schools receive no-cost licenses for StarOffice 6.0. They pay only for the delivery medium and shipping, which amounts to less than $30, according to Sun. The software package runs on Windows, Linux, or Solaris operating systems and is file-compatible with Microsoft Office. Sun offers free training and technical support for StarOffice.

Other announcements

Apple Computer, maker of the popular iMac and new eMac desktop computers, announced an updated version of its PowerSchool student information system. PowerSchool SIS V.3 now supports the Mac OS X, the company said. Further advancements include a new integrated schedule builder, an updated PowerGrade tool that lets teachers include students’ photos with seating charts, and an easier-to-use graphic interface. Also at NECC, Apple announced its Apple Digital Campus Curriculum. The new project- and computer-based learning activities seek to modernize schools’ course offerings by providing instruction support in areas such as web communication, web design, and video journalism. According to Apple, the courses come complete with 10 days of hands-on training, plus a year of mentoring and support.

LearnStar, a provider of interactive educational software programs, debuted its ESL and GEDstar products during NECC. According to the company, ESL is a software program designed to emphasize vocabulary, grammar skills, listening, reading comprehension, and cultural knowledge for students learning English as a second language, while GEDstar is a preparatory solution that helps kids study for the GED exam. All of LearnStar’s products are designed to function on a variety of operating platforms, including desktops, laptops, and wireless handhelds.

Riverdeep Interactive Learning announced that IBM’s Learning Village, an educational portal that grew out of IBM’s $70 million Reinventing Education grant program, now is a part of the Riverdeep family of products. It will be jointly marketed and sold by the two companies and will be known as Riverdeep Learning Village. An instructional portal that provides a single point of access for K-12 educators, students, and their parents and offers tools that improve teaching and facilitate school improvement, Riverdeep Learning Village combines the strengths of both companies: IBM’s technology integration and services expertise and Riverdeep’s K-12 curriculum.

SMART Technologies demonstrated a host of new presentation products for schools, including a whiteboard camera system called Camfire, a projector mount called LightRaise, concept-mapping software called SMART Ideas, version 3.0 of its SynchronEyes computer-lab instruction software, and Video Player, a new feature that enables users of any SMART Board interactive whiteboard to annotate over moving or paused video. The company also announced a donation of more than $300,000 in interactive classroom technology to support the Intel Teach to the Future program in North America, as well as a new curriculum development service that helps teachers incorporate its products into the classroom.

Sunburst Technology announced three additions to its Learn About Science software for schools. The new curricula were added to broaden the scope of age-appropriate science content offered to students in grades K-2. “The Human Body” focuses on human organs and anatomy, while “Animals” deals with the habitats and classification systems of living creatures. “Dinosaurs” returns kids to prehistoric times for lessons on the life, extinction, and subsequent research of the species.

Encyclopedia publisher World Book Inc. announced the new World Book Research Libraries, a fully online database containing more that 4,700 complete books and 174,000 documents, with more on the way. A “QuickFind” option allows users to type in keywords and find documents that are germane to specific topics of interest. Results also can be found by title, author, and date. The databases include information on a number of different subject areas, including world and U.S. history, political science and law, social studies, literature, science and mathematics, language arts, philosophy, and religion.

Related links:
NECC 2002 Presenter Handouts


Corporate leaders ponder ways to serve schools better

Several corporate leaders have banded together to serve school customers better through the SchoolTone Alliance, a group of ed-tech companies focused on promoting the use of internet technologies in schools. At the group’s annual meeting, held June 17 at NECC, members discussed opportunities for companies that provide web services, tools, and applications for education to work together.

For example, the alliance is seeking to identify large, statewide requests for proposals, where several of its members can work together to provide schools with the necessary technology products and services. The group now also produces a monthly electronic newsletter about policy issues that are relevant to K-12 schools, so its members can better understand the needs of their school customers, and members can share case studies and best practices with each other through the SchoolTone Alliance web site.

At the meeting, John Bailey, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, encouraged vendors to target underperforming school districts as showcase sites for how their technology solutions can turn a school district around.

Bailey also suggested that members lose the tech jargon and speak to educators in plain English so they can be understood more easily. He added that vendors should start reaching out to educators who are not actively engaged with technology—such as grant writers for school reading programs—but who could use technology as a solution.

Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), reportedly recommended that vendors read state technology plans before they contact state officials. In addition to its other listservs, SETDA also is creating a corporate listserv for education vendors, George said.

SchoolTone Alliance member companies include AOL@School, bigchalk, Blackboard Inc., Citrix Systems Inc., Lucent Technologies, National Semiconductor, ACTV HyperTV Networks, Sun Microsystems, and Verizon.

Related links:
SchoolTone Alliance

State Educational Technology Directors Association


Best Practice: Ergonomics program teaches kids to use computers safely

As children start spending more time on computers, experts say they might be putting themselves at risk of repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which could show up as early as their teenage years.

But an innovative ergonomics program at Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish, Wash., is trying to prevent that by teaching students to take breaks during long computer sessions, use correct posture to reduce strain on the upper body, and exercise fatigued muscles.

“Get TechFit!” was designed by Diane Tien, the school’s instructional technology assistant, with help from some of the country’s leading children ergonomists. School officials say it’s one of the only such programs in the nation aimed at children.

Ergonomics programs are important in the workplace because repetitive stress injuries cost companies money and time. But experts say that without increased education for children, the wave of computer-related injuries that hit adults in the mid-1990s may occur next in children.

“I think all the problems that you’ve seen in adults, you can see mirrored in children,” said Dan Eisman, co-founder of HealthyComputing.com, an ergonomics resource web site. “Now they’re starting to work on computers at 5, and by the time they are 9 and 10, they start having problems.”

These problems might include back, neck, and arm pain; wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome; and vision problems that lead to blurriness, headaches, and possibly an earlier onset of nearsightedness, said Eisman.

“We know kids are experiencing problems,” said Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University and one of the first children ergonomists.

Although there is little ergonomics research on children, current research on adults gives some insight into why children might be at risk.

Peter Johnson, a professor at the University of Washington, has studied why women are injured at the workplace more often than men. Johnson found that computers are better designed for men, who have broader shoulders and thicker wrists. Women must extend their wrists and arms unnaturally to type and move the mouse.

“If you’re a small-wristed child, you will be in greater extension,” Johnson said, increasing the risk of injury.

Children often have to use equipment designed for adults or machines that must accommodate many different-sized children.

“The problem is [schools] buy everything in bulk,” Eisman said. “That doesn’t really allow for a good variety.”

And because parents and schools often cannot afford the smaller desks, miniature keyboards, and adjustable chairs that increase ergonomic safety, they tend to ignore the problem altogether.

But being sensitive to ergonomics “doesn’t have to be expensive,” Hedge said.

Small, inexpensive changes, such as using a pillow as support for the lower back or a crate as a footrest, can make a big difference in a child’s health, Hedge said.

The goal of “Get TechFit!,” which is taught for one week out of the school year, is to teach children how to change their environments to fit them, regardless of where they are or what is around them, Tien said.

“It isn’t so much that [the students] have to learn what the definition of ergonomics is,” Tien said while describing the program’s philosophy. “They have to understand their own physical needs first.”

In gym class, students learn exercises to ease tension and relieve weary muscles. To learn correct posture, the students use sand-filled balls placed on their heads to simulate the pressure their heads put on their backs.

“When you sit like this,” said second-grader Victoria Roadifer as she slouched down in her seat, “it’s hard to hold your head and it kind of hurts your back. It’s easier to hold it on your head when you sit up straight.”

Fifth-graders use math skills to find the correct angles for arms, wrists, and legs when using computers. They use these angles to create ergonomically safe workstations for second-graders.

The program also increases parental awareness, which often leads to safer computer use at home.

Fifth-grader Alysha Greig even taught her mother a lesson when she saw her mom using a laptop on her bed with “one leg on the bed and one leg off,” she said. She reminded her mother to sit with both feet on the floor and use correct posture.

“I’m telling her all this stuff about ergonomics,” she said proudly.

Related links:
Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School

HealthyComputing.com Inc.

Cornell University Ergonomics Web Site