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• “Under construction” has been banned from the web site, and outdated information has been removed.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 “” equivalent.

• When it comes to parent-friendly content, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The National PTA, Great-, 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


Best Practice: ‘CIO Time Share’ connects small schools with high-tech help

For school systems that can’t afford to hire their own top-level technology staffs, an innovative new consulting service promises to provide the expertise of some of the best school chief information officers (CIOs) in the country.

The service, called CIO Time Share, connects small school districts with 25 experienced school CIOs.

“Small school systems–if they can’t manage technology well–are going to be second class,” said Eliot Levinson, chief executive officer of the BLE Group, an educational technology consulting firm founded in 1994 that specializes in all facets of technology planning, training, and implementation in schools.

Levinson started the CIO Time Share service as a way to close a rift he says is every bit as real as the digital divide, but doesn’t get enough attention: the gap in technological expertise between large and small school districts.

Small districts rarely can match the high wages offered by the corporate world and therefore have trouble finding technology personnel who can manage a school district’s day-to-day technology and can plan for the future, Levinson said.

Generally, a small school’s technology staff consists of former teachers whose background is in education, not the information technology field. “They don’t really understand enterprise-wide computing systems,” Levinson said.

Instead of hiring their own CIO, these school districts can borrow a CIO working in another district when they need to perform large tasks, such as auditing their hardware and software systems, drafting a technology plan, finding sources of funding, writing requests for proposals, or tackling other management problems they might have.

“The kind of help they need is strategic, not operational,” Levinson said. “We’ll answer any question they have within 24 hours.”

Bruce Bovard, superintendent of the Canon-McMillan School District in Pennsylvania, which has approximately 4,100 students, has been using CIO Time Share on a pilot basis since April 2000, because he says it’s hard to recruit and retain someone both skilled and affordable.

“You don’t really get someone who understands the big picture,” Bovard said. He relies on CIO Time Share to provide high-level strategic planning. “They are the experts we turn to when we can’t handle the question ourselves,” he said.

Through CIO Time Share, districts can get help writing budgets and presenting them to the school board, conduct quarterly reviews to see how well the school district followed its technology plan, or even negotiate deals with vendors.

According to Levinson, sharing services also can produce economies of scale and volume purchasing. “If we are bringing groups of schools together under a vendor, we expect to get better prices than an individual district could get,” he said.

CIO Time Share staff will spend a few days doing a systematic, on-site evaluation to assess how well a district is using its current technology, then create a plan for what the district could do to improve in the future. The service also provides a monthly technology newsletter to keep client districts apprised of recent trends.

Bovard said the time-share service is helping his district identify its needs, obtain grants for staff development, write technology standards for teachers (and a plan for how to achieve them), purchase a student curriculum management system, and develop guidelines for staff members who will be assigned laptops. One thing he appreciates about the service is that it’s vendor-neutral.

Bovard added that CIO Time Share is giving his district a “gentle nudge into the future.” The service is “pushing us,” he said. “It’s not just about helping us get where we want to go. [The consultants] let us know where the rest of the world is going.”

Related links:
BLE Group Inc.

Canon-McMillan School District


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, 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 Inc.

Cornell University Ergonomics Web Site


Schools could lose nearly $1B in unspent eRate funds

Beginning next April, all unused eRate funds will be carried over to subsequent program years and distributed as additional funding to schools and libraries, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled June 13.

Until that time, however, at least a sizable portion of these unused funds—estimated at $970 million by the FCC—will be returned to telecommunications carriers to stabilize their customers’ telephone bills, the agency said.

The ruling is intended to resolve the key question of what to do with millions of dollars left over from the program’s first three years. It marks a compromise between the interests of education groups that benefit from the eRate and telecommunications carriers, or telecoms, that pay for it.

Education groups wanted to see all unspent funds applied toward future program years, but telecoms claim the program’s funding mechanism is unfair and must be revised first.

The FCC is considering how to do this and will make changes as of April 1. In the meantime, the agency said it will use whatever unspent funds are necessary to keep consumers’ phone bills from increasing.

Now in its fifth year, the eRate is a federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries. Up to $2.25 billion in funding is available each year, but as interest in the program has soared among applicants in recent years, demand has far exceeded this figure. This year, for example, schools and libraries have requested nearly $6 billion in discounts.

The eRate is paid for by contributions from telecoms to the universal service fund, which ensures that customers in rural areas get rates that are comparable to those paid by city customers. To offset the cost of universal service, telecoms pass on the extra charges to their customers in the form of line-item surcharges on their telephone bills.

Contributions to the universal service fund are based on a telecom’s reported interstate revenues from the past two quarters. But as demand for the eRate has increased, interstate revenues have declined, forcing the FCC to increase the contribution rate for telecoms. This has led to higher phone bills for consumers, the agency says.

“All of our universal service programs serve important statutory goals, and I remain as committed as ever to achieving those goals,” said FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell in a statement. “We must always recognize, however, that the cost of these programs is ultimately borne by American consumers. Accordingly, … we must balance the needs of funding these programs against the real burden that our contribution requirements could impose on consumers if we do not manage those requirements carefully.”

All four FCC commissioners agreed to the ruling. But Powell broke from his colleagues—Commissioners Kathleen Q. Abernathy, Michael J. Copps, and Kevin J. Martin—in adding that he would have preferred to leave open the question of whether unused funds would be distributed to schools and libraries beginning in April.

Copps and Martin issued separate statements affirming their decision to distribute unused funds to schools and libraries in the future. Martin also dissented in part with the decision, saying he would have preferred another solution that would stabilize telecoms’ universal service contributions without taking any unused funds away from schools.

Education groups expressed mixed reaction to the agency’s decision.

“Obviously we’d love to have seen all unused eRate funds distributed to applicants,” said Mary Conk, legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators. “But we feel this is a great compromise, and we’re excited about the way the FCC has come down on this [issue].”

She added, “We’re especially encouraged by the support for the eRate shown by Commissioners Copps and Martin.”

Garnet Person, chief executive officer of the consulting firm eRate Elite Services Inc., which helps schools apply for funding, was more critical of the ruling.

“I don’t believe the solution should be using funds already collected for schools and libraries to fix future problems,” he said. “Fixing the [telecoms’] contribution factor is important, but these funds were already collected for the purpose of offering discounts to schools and libraries.”

Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the eRate, said he was unable to say how much money remains from the program’s first three years, as the agency is still resolving appeals and issuing funding commitments for Years Two and Three. Year Three of the eRate ended June 30, 2001.

But in a Notice of Proposed Rule Making issued by the FCC in January, the agency referred to $970 million in unused funds as of the end of Year Three.

Blackwell said $256 million in unused funds will be returned to the universal service pool to offset telecoms’ contributions for the third quarter of 2002. Additional sums will be taken for the fourth quarter of 2002 and the first quarter of 2003 as necessary, he said.

The FCC is weighing several proposals to revise how telecoms pay for universal service. One idea is to assess contributions based on the number and capacity of a telecom’s connections, rather than on the interstate revenue it earns. A decision on these issues is expected later this year.

Related Links:
Federal Communications Commission

eRate Elite Services Inc.

American Association of School Administrators

Schools and Libraries Division


New ISTE hopes to expand impact through merger with NECA

Educators who attended this year’s NECC most likely didn’t notice many changes, although the leadership behind the conference was different.

But the merger of the National Education Computing Association (NECA), which has planned and organized NECC for the past 23 years, with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) ultimately will be a boon for schools, according to ISTE officials, because it will broaden ISTE’s reach and expand the group’s impact.

“It’s just a natural pairing. We’ve been very strong, intertwined allies for such a long time,” said Marlene Nesary, marketing analyst for ISTE. “They are an event, and we are a professional society. Now their event is our event, and it’s the premier event of this profession.”

The transition is not yet complete, although it has been under way for quite some time. Currently, the new ISTE has two co-presidents: Cathleen Norris from NECA and Cheryl Williams from ISTE. The new ISTE is governed by a joint board of directors.

Jan Van Dam, director of new media at Oakland Schools in Michigan, was elected president of ISTE for next year.

Oakland Schools is a regional educational service center in Oakland County, Mich., serving 28 local school districts, 20,000 educators, and 200,000 students.

Don Knezek, ISTE’s new chief executive officer, said the merger provides ISTE with a broader audience and the opportunity to reach members at a national annual event, which will expand the group’s influence on ed-tech issues. Knezek formerly served as executive director of ISTE’s Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology.

ISTE has approximately 75,000 members nationally and internationally who are classroom teachers, technology coordinators, and school administrators. By playing a larger role in NECC, the society can reach conference attendees and develop partnerships with the corporate sector, Knezek said.

“We see the new ISTE making a difference in education through new corporate alliances,” he said.

As CEO, Knezek will work on building ISTE’s educational partnerships, programs, and international reach. Other priorities include growing and diversifying membership; strengthening alliances with government entities and corporate partners; and developing standards-based solutions that expand opportunities for all learners.

A transition team of 10 ISTE and NECA representatives developed new bylaws and outlined the merger process. Membership of both organizations voted for the new bylaws, approving the merger as of June 1.

ISTE’s activities to date have focused on knowledge generation, professional development, and ed-tech advocacy.

The society publishes a monthly magazine called Learning and Leading with Technology, as well as guidebooks to implementing the standards it has developed—including the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for both teachers and administrators.

Last year, ISTE developed the Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET), an online database of ed-tech research that school administrators can use to search for the latest research by category. CARET, which is a three-year project funded by a $1.05 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, translates research into user-friendly language that can be applied to school planning decisions.

ISTE’s professional development activities have included creating special-interest groups for certain demographics, such as multimedia specialists, education professors, and high school computer science teachers. These groups offer their members an active listserve devoted to their area of interest, as well as newsletters or magazines, meetings, and awards programs.

ISTE also creates custom professional development solutions for states and school districts designed to meet their specific needs. The society currently is working with China to develop a program for training that country’s teachers to use technology. ISTE already has completed similar projects with Jamaica and Bermuda, Nesary said.

Lastly, ISTE acts as a conduit of education policy information. The society issues a newsletter about ed-tech policy, called Washington Notes, written by its legal counsel, Leslie Harris and Associates. It also hosts roundtable discussions at which experts discuss prominent policy issues. ISTE plans to strengthen its policy role by moving its headquarters from Oregon to Washington, D.C., this summer.

NECA was composed not of individual members but of 13 professional societies, one of which was ISTE. To accommodate these members, ISTE has created a new class of membership, called Cooperating Professional Societies. These will be offered renewable one-year memberships to ISTE.

In the future, the new ISTE plans to continue to expand CARET, become more involved with state ed-tech directors, and increase its professional development offerings, Nesary said.

Related links:
International Society for Technology in Education

National Education Computing Conference


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


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


‘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 by way of an angry letter to the smaller, Texas-based news organization. The letter asked that “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 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, has removed its link to a Rodale-owned article. The site’s masthead now reads: “ 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


Once a classroom staple, chalkboards now biting the dust

Chalk it up to progress: Cleaner, more versatile whiteboards are quickly replacing traditional dust-clad chalkboards as a preferred tool for instruction.

While the old-fashioned chalkboard remains a fixture in most American classrooms, school designers have all but eliminated it from newer buildings. Emulating practices in the business world, they’re outfitting most new and remodeled schools with whiteboards, in many cases installing high-tech devices that effectively turn them into jumbo computer screens.

Teachers then can surf the internet in front of class, save and print out lessons, or even create animated diagrams that students can review on a home computer.

Whiteboards have “helped us to teach the way we’ve always wanted the class to go,” said Albert Throckmorton, director of curriculum technology at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.

Even before such gee-whiz devices came along, educators say, the chalkboard was on the way out, killed by computers. Chalk is compressed dust, after all, and dust is the enemy of computers. To a lesser degree, schools also worry about dust allergies.

Nancy Myers, an Indiana school planner, said that people in her firm “don’t even consider chalkboards in most cases” and that schools like the modern, businesslike look of whiteboards.

The dust-and-computers problem might be a bit overblown, she said. “The truth is, unless the computers are sitting right on top of the chalkboards, there isn’t going to be an issue.”

Myers’ firm is not alone. The demand for whiteboards has become so prevalent that most school design firms today no longer think in terms of dusty, old chalkboards.

“I’d say some 98 percent of [newly constructed] schools are going with whiteboards. There are very few chalkboards anymore,” said Angelina Burklo, an interior designer for Fanning/Howey Associates Inc.

Burklo, who works out of the company’s office in Celina, Ohio, said her branch has helped design between 30 and 50 schools over the last year. “A lot of times [school leaders] make a district-wide decision to go with all whiteboards,” she said.

Last year, school design firm SHW Group Inc. worked on more than 300 school projects, mostly in Texas.

“It is far and away the request of schools that we work to provide whiteboards over chalkboards,” said Bob Marcussen, SHW’s chief of specifications.

A few companies sell devices that turn whiteboards into oversized computer screens.

For $600, Electronics for Imaging Inc. offers eBeam, a portable system and various accessories that help capture images drawn on a classroom whiteboard for reference on the desktop computer or at home.

For about $3,000, SMART Technologies Inc. sells a more advanced camera system called Camfire. The device allows teachers to draw on a whiteboard, hit a button, and print copies on a laser printer—or save text and drawings to a hard drive or web server.

The mimio Xi, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Virtual Ink Corp., saves words or drawings stroke-by-stroke into a computer file, allowing teachers to create a digital movie of a lesson. Students can download and review the movie using a VCR-like program.

At Episcopal, a coed boarding school near Washington, D.C., Throckmorton bought four mimio Xi devices for $1,500. He said students are now “liberated to participate and understand more in class” because they know they can replay the lesson—which is especially helpful in understanding mathematical proofs, supply-and-demand curves, cell diagrams, and electron cycles, he said.

“In the classes where the board is used frequently, especially in our science department, we’ve discovered that students are more interested in participating in class and not be so bound to the manual task of note-taking,” he said. A few schools use a microphone so the teacher’s comments accompany the animation.

Pam Henry, advertising manager for Claridge Products and Equipment Inc.—a major supplier of chalkboard and whiteboard tools to schools—said one reason whiteboards have become such an attractive alternative is that, despite their technological advantages, they give up very little in terms of cost.

In fact, Claridge sells a 4-foot by 12-foot, classroom-sized whiteboard for $624. The same size traditional porcelain chalkboard sells for $598.

“There are still some old diehards out there requesting chalkboards,” Henry said. “But it’s not because of cost constraints.” Henry estimates that 75 percent of the orders she receives from schools today favor whiteboards.

Even with such advances, said Henry Ruggiero, president of New York Blackboard of New Jersey, a major blackboard manufacturer, teachers often plead with him not to replace their chalkboards. The grit offers just enough resistance for writing. “It seems to help the children with their handwriting,” he said.

Indeed, a common complaint of whiteboards is that they’re so slick students end up writing faster than their brains can think.

Ohio industrial designer Sandy Kate said many teachers simply like the feel of chalk. “I think it’s just one of those things,” she said. “People get used to something and don’t want to give it up.”

Kate gives chalkboards five years at most—making for a brighter, whiter future, but without the simple joy of clapping dusty erasers on the side of the school building.

“I do wonder what’s going to happen to all the youth who were sent forward to clean erasers,” Kidwell said. “That always seemed like a good use of youthful energy.”

Related links:
Episcopal High School

Fanning/Howey Associates Inc.

SHW Group Inc.

Claridge Products and Equipment Inc.

New York Blackboard of New Jersey Inc.


WorldCom scandal could sink support for school tech programs

In the wake of the accounting scandal that threatens to push telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc. into bankruptcy, educators are bracing for a ripple effect that is sure to be felt by their schools.

Besides shaking the faith of school customers in WorldCom, the nation’s No. 2 long-distance provider, as well as investors’ faith in corporate America at large, the scandal also threatens to derail WorldCom’s considerable support for school technology programs—including an initiative that reportedly trains some 10,000 teachers per month to use the internet in their classrooms.

The company operates a free, standards-based web site called MarcoPolo, which it created in conjunction with leading content experts such as National Geographic and the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge project. MarcoPolo’s online resources now include panel-reviewed links to top internet sites in many disciplines, professionally developed lesson plans, classroom activities, materials to help with daily classroom planning, and powerful search engines.

WorldCom also offers free professional development to introduce educators at all grade levels to MarcoPolo and how it can be integrated into the curriculum. The training sessions are led by internet education specialists, and all participants receive copies of a teacher training kit.

The content on the MarcoPolo web site doubles every year, and the site enjoys more than one million user sessions a month, said Caleb Schutz, a WorldCom vice president and president of the company’s foundation. All 50 states have signed up to use the site’s content, Schutz added.

But if WorldCom files for bankruptcy as many analysts predict, the fate of these and other education initiatives is unclear.

Schutz told eSchool News it was business as usual for the WorldCom Foundation right now, but he acknowledged that “it’s hard to predict” what will happen as a result of the scandal.

“This is an extremely important, compelling program for the country,” he said. “It would be a huge loss to pull the plug on all this content.”

Educators familiar with the program agreed.

“MarcoPolo is an incredible program,” said Bob Moore, director of information technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas. “It really is standards-based, and you’d hate to lose something like that. If WorldCom is unable to sustain programs like MarcoPolo, one would hope that some other company or foundation would be willing to help it continue.”

From a broader perspective, Moore added, “It would be terrible to lose the WorldCom Foundation. It has been such a tremendous supporter of quality, innovative educational programs.”

WorldCom slid toward bankruptcy June 26 after disclosing what is alleged to be the biggest case of crooked accounting in U.S. history. The news sent telecommunications stocks and other shares plunging on Wall Street.

President Bush said he was “deeply concerned” about some of the accounting practices in corporate America and called “outrageous” the disclosure that WorldCom had hidden $3.8 billion in expenses.

Bush said the Securities and Exchange Commission would investigate, and the Justice Department could step in. The SEC had already been looking into lending and accounting practices at WorldCom, which owns the MCI telephone company.

Analysts said the former Wall Street darling could declare bankruptcy as lenders call in millions in loans. WorldCom started laying off 17,000 people—about 20 percent of its global work force—on June 28.

“If loans are called, in order to avoid an immediate shutdown, leaving lots of customers in the lurch, they’d have to file for bankruptcy,” said Alec Ostrow, a partner in the bankruptcy law firm of Salomon, Green & Ostrow in New York.

WorldCom, second only to AT&T in the long-distance market, started as a small long-distance company but grew into a giant through acquisitions over the past 15 years. Two years ago, that growth stopped when regulators blocked WorldCom’s proposed $129 billion merger with Sprint Corp.

In April, chief executive Bernard Ebbers, the man who built WorldCom, resigned under pressure amid mounting debt at WorldCom and questions about $408 million in loans the company gave him.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., was blunt in his criticism of Ebbers.

“It is indeed sad to see companies like … MCI tarred with the same deceitful brush that has characterized Bernie Ebbers’ reign at WorldCom,” Bauer said. “To me, MCI was all about the internet, connectivity, and discovering the power of technology and learning. MCI [executives] paved the way for internet access for teachers and schools around the country. They ran a good company, sold good products, and had a soft spot for schools and teachers.”

Bauer continued, “I know MCI leaders like Todd Brekhus, a former teacher and technology coordinator, invested years of his life into creating and training thousands of teachers using MarcoPolo, and I fear that the auctioneer’s gavel may spell the death of this wonderful resource.”

In a report, J.P. Morgan analyst Marc Grossman offered some possibilities if WorldCom is forced to file for bankruptcy. In the short term, Grossman predicts WorldCom’s business and education customers will turn to “secure alternatives” such as AT&T and Sprint.

Grossman said WorldCom may make an attractive acquisition candidate for a Baby Bell looking to offer long-distance service to its customers. If such a combination occurred, it would pose a threat to AT&T. But a combination like that would not happen overnight, he said.