Visions of learning in 2020 will help shape future ed-tech policy

A new report that forecasts what education will look like in the year 2020 will help shape the new National Educational Technology Plan due in January as required by the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as the president’s budget priorities for education research.

The report, “2020 Visions: Transforming Education and Training Through Advanced Technologies,” was released Sept. 17 by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

“2020 Visions” is a compilation of 14 short stories written by experts and scholars that illustrate what a child’s day might be like in a futuristic, technology-infused world.

These fictional accounts describe students learning through simulations, immersive environments, game playing, intelligent tutors, networks of learners, and digitized content.

“They really stretch our traditional notions of education,” said John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology. “I think that is always helpful when you are setting out to plan education.”

Representatives from Harvard University, the National Education Association, Microsoft Corp., WorldCom, and more contributed to the report.

What is absent from the tales is as important as what they describe, Bailey said. “You don’t see a lot of reference to schools, you don’t see a lot of reference to grade [levels],” he said.

Some vignettes are optimistic and describe scenes where learning is engaging, enticing, and takes place all day. Students interact virtually with multiple experts, engage in hands-on simulations, and education is personalized for each student.

Others highlight sinister consequences in which students become anti-social, they drown in information, and robots replace teachers entirely while corporations profit.

Each author predicts which technologies will succeed and fail. For example, Randy Pausch, co-director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, writes, “Virtual reality will (finally!) arrive, and we won’t use it very much. While the experience of being perceptually immersed is extremely powerful, the cost (not in the technology, but in the content matter) of developing these experiences will remain prohibitive. How often does Hollywood spend $100 million on a film to teach history to third graders?”

Different roles for teachers

Ruzena Bajcsy, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, suggests that school buildings might not be necessary in 2020 because of a technology still in development, called tele-immersion. This technology could project a three-dimensional, life-like image of the teacher to a student’s home, for example, and they could meet and interact online in real time.

But tele-immersion could present some problems, Bajcsy said. “One open question remains—can the tele-presence reproduce a sense of being there, so that what is learned transfers to the real world?” she wrote. She added that this technology would require significant financial investment to be usable and sustainable.

Teachers would not lecture in the future, ventured Caleb Schutz and Vinton Cerf of WorldCom. Instead, students’ learning would be self-paced, they said.

Many authors predicted that computers imbedded in everything from furniture to clothing would assess, track, and monitor students’ progress and interest in various subjects—even from the moment they woke up in the morning. Computers would start creating these profiles for children when they are infants. Their toys, and other things they touched, would access and record their interest and behaviors.

Some expect robots to play a larger role in educating students. For example, Chris Dede, a Timothy Wirth professor of learning technology at Harvard University, describes a school where “machine-based ‘intelligent’ tutors” replace some teachers and reduce the need for so much staff.

“While the school board appreciated the cost savings with a pupil-teacher ratio of 150 to 1, maintaining order with that many students was hard even with the ever-vigilant Hal-tutors monitoring each classroom,” Dede wrote in his vision.

While some predict student-teacher ratios will widen, others predict technology will facilitate one-on-one tutoring and apprenticeship relationships, reminiscent of the days before the printing press.

Michael Zyda, director of the Modeling, Virtual Environments, and Simulation (MOVES) Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School, and Douglas H. Bennett, study director for the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, described a future where students each have their own “constant school-time companion.” This companion—known as a “Cog” in the story—is a wearable robot that provides students with specific instruction and guidance.

“Spiral kicked at the dirt in the recess yard. He looked up and saw a group of his classmates looking at him and whispering. They knew his Cog, Vivian, was chastising him through his ear gels—the combination speaker and microphone that molded like soft chewing gum to the inner curve of each ear,” they wrote.

In their vignette, a corporation designs the Cog by studying the science behind teaching, and eventually these Cogs completely replace teachers.

“We put monitoring systems in over a thousand classrooms across the United States and watched them for over a year. We were able to break down exactly how the best teachers teach kids and turn that into a personalized teaching device for students. That is where the Cogs came from. And, in the process, we created a one-to-one student-teacher ratio,” Zyda and Bennett wrote.

Use of the report

Looking into the future nearly 20 years, the report aims to give policy makers some guidance as to technology’s potential to transform learning, for both good and ill effect. It also aims to suggest what additional research is needed and what challenges lie ahead.

“We can’t plan for what we don’t know, but we can set up some good guidelines for the technology that is going to exist,” said Bailey, who added that policy makers at the federal level likely will incorporate some of the concepts outlined in the report when they draft a new national ed-tech plan this fall.

Ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News were pleased that this forward-thinking document would be used to shape education policy.

“Here we have a very fine document written by leading lights in education, but what do we do next? I was very pleased to hear from John Bailey that this report is going to be used to help form the next educational technology plan,” said Irene Spero, executive director of the SchoolTone Alliance and director of external relations for NetDay.

“I read all of the vignettes with interest and am excited about what [some of] the visionaries are predicting. … [S]ome of the things they predict are starting to happen already in our schools,” said Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for the Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts.

“The one thing I did notice was that none of the vignettes was written by a practicing educator,” Schrock said. “I feel that a practicing educator could have written an additional compelling vignette which illustrated [his or her] perception of technology use in the classroom in 2020.”

Links:

“2020 Visions: Transforming Education and Training Through Advanced Technologies”
http://www.ta.doc.gov/reports/TechPolicy/2020Visions.pdf

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Study: Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts use wireless technologies

Wireless technologies and mobile computing have moved beyond the pilot and early-adoption stage and into mainstream use in United States schools, according to a study co-published by The Peak Group and The Heller Reports, a division of market research firm Quality Education Data.

The study polled a random sampling of public and private schools and districts representing about 3 percent of the total student population. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they are currently implementing some form of wireless networking in their schools.

Projected across the entire student population, the responses of those surveyed suggest the total market size for wireless technologies during the 2001-2002 school year was $495 million—and this figure is expected to jump to $776 million during the 2002-2003 school year, or roughly 14 percent of the total ed-tech market, according to the study.

The growth in wireless “has been fueled by several benefits that wireless technologies provide to the education environment [such as portability and flexibility of deployment], as well as falling prices, significant improvements in the technology, and increased applications,” the report said. “Maturing standards, feature-rich handheld devices, and education-specific applications are also driving the education market to seriously consider wireless technologies.”

Student access to wireless technologies is projected to more than triple in the next two years, and teacher access is expected to more than double, the study said. As many as 24 percent of respondents said student access would be in the 75 to 100 percent range for their schools or districts by the 2003-2004 school year, up from 7 percent during the 2001-2002 school year. Similarly, 21 percent of respondents said teacher access would be in the 75 to 100 percent range for their schools or districts by the 2003-2004 school year, up from 9 percent during the 2001-2002 school year.

Despite the surge in wireless, educators who responded to the survey said a variety of challenges still concern them regarding the technology. One of the biggest obstacles—mentioned by 25 percent of respondents—is understanding the many wireless platforms and standards that aren’t necessarily compatible with each other.

For example, educators who deploy wireless networks must choose between infrared, cellular, microwave, and radio frequency (RF) technologies, the report said. Among RF technologies, several established and emerging standards—including 802.11b, .11a, and .11g—force educators to make tough decisions about which types of products to buy.

Other obstacles to wireless deployment include cost and the security of data transmitted wirelessly, respondents said.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., said his school is using bi-mode 802.11a and 802.11b wireless technologies. Like respondents of the Peak Group study, Bauer told eSchool News his school’s use of wireless isn’t worry-free.

“Clearly there are benefits, but we would like to technology to quiesce a lot more for schools to deploy it more broadly,” Bauer said. “I think one of the concerns we have is that we don’t want to be the poster child for the ‘next big thing’ in a technology space that is so constantly changing. We need shelf lives for products and technology that are longer than the manufacturers are producing.”

Bauer also agreed that security remains a huge concern for schools.

“The vendors have, to my mind, been far more concerned about selling gear than making sure schools configure it well, leaving security to be ‘bolted on’ afterward,” he said. “My suggestion is for some of them to stop selling us products with these liabilities if they can’t step in and provide the training and management advice in the configuration and deployment phases.”

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California, said wireless has the potential to give students more access to technology, as well as allow technology to be used in more ways and locations. But for districts with high-speed, hard-wired networks, the cost of transition might outweigh the value gained, he added.

“At this point I would rather spend more of my limited resources on computers, thereby reducing our user-to-computer ratio, [instead of] transitioning to a new technology of distribution,” Liebman said.

Links:

The Peak Group
http://www.peakgroup.net

The Heller Reports
http://www.hellerreports.com

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

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

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FCC seeks comment on digital copyright technology

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has entered the fray of the digital copyright debate, setting an Oct. 30 deadline for public comments on a new technology that would prohibit consumers—including educators—from making copies of digitally broadcast television programs.

At stake is whether or not content owners and device manufacturers should be allowed to equip their products with a new copyright-protection measure known as a “broadcast flag,” which would eliminate the free reign owners of DVD players and other digital recording devices have to make copies of programs broadcast on TV.

A “broadcast flag,” essentially, would be an electronic marking or signal sent out by digital television content and picked up by newly equipped televisions or digital recorders, prohibiting the machines from copying certain programs. The issue presents a special problem for educators, many of whom record news and media content at home for redistribution in the classroom.

The proposal is part of the Consumer Broadband Digital Television Promotion Act (S. 2048). Sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., the bill is meant to encourage media companies—disheartened by a nationwide increase in movie and music piracy—to continue developing emerging media technologies, including the eventual rollout of digital television across the nation.

The bill’s opponents argue that, while it is important to protect the rights of intellectual property owners, the new “broadcast flag” is too extreme a solution. They say the measure would limit how content can be used for important education-related purposes and would anger consumers.

“Consumers have interests in protecting copyrights for digital television so that high-quality content will be available. They also have an interest in protecting their own reasonable expectations about personal use of programming and in the future health and growth of the internet,” said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a statement. “The ‘broadcast flag’ raises many unsettled policy questions, and it is fair for consumers to ask that those questions be addressed before regulations are made.”

To meet these concerns, the FCC last month began soliciting comments from the public in a Notice of Proposed Rule-Making on its web site.

Some questions the agency is asking consumers include:

  • Are there any First Amendment rights that would be affected as a result of the proposed broadcast flagging system?
  • Will the technology allow consumers—especially educators—to exercise the same fair-use exceptions to copyright laws they have come to expect in the past?
  • Will broadcast flagging have a downstream impact on the growth and emergence of other technologies, including the internet?
  • Will the legislation open the door for broader government involvement in setting standards?
  • Do consumers fear it will be impossible for them to make secure copies for educational and home use under a flagging system?
  • Are broadcast flags likely to drive up the price of equipment to unaffordable levels?
  • Do the benefits of such a proposal outweigh the costs to the consumer market?

Likewise, some questions for manufacturers include:

  • What is the true extent to which high-quality digital programming is being withheld from the public for fear of piracy?
  • What are the technical impediments to implementing a broadcast flagging system on existing consumer electronics devices?
  • If the FCC refuses to accept broadcast flagging, how will that affect the industry’s position on the implementation of digital TV nationally?
  • Is the flagging technology efficient, and will it have the capability to be upgraded or changed easily over time?
  • Should the FCC impose regulations that require makers of consumer electronics devices to begin installing the technology, or is there a better, more efficient type of marking system that should be used instead?

eSchool News first reported on the Hollings bill in May. Even then, there was speculation as to how the bill—especially the “broadcast flag” provision—could be carried out without infringing upon the fair-use rights of educators.

“A one-size-fits-all technology mandate is not good for innovation on the internet, and [it] is not good for what we consider to be reasonable uses of content,” said Alan Davidson, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “The reason is that there are some major consumer concerns that haven’t yet been addressed by Congress.”

One problem, he said, is that the legislation did not mention how educators could get around the use of broadcast flags to redistribute digital TV recordings and other content for use in the classroom.

“It doesn’t tell us, ‘Can you replay portions of a recording for educational purposes?'” he said of the bill.

Davidson added that the current legislation does not specify how the new technology requirement would affect consumers with older equipment. For example, it’s unclear whether consumers would be forced to buy new equipment to meet the bill’s proposed technology specifications. If so, he said, the switchover could be a costly one for schools as well as consumers.

“A lot of people are not going to be happy when they see these proposals moving forward,” he said.

Despite these criticisms, a representative from Sen. Hollings’ office said the lawmaker remains wholly supportive of the legislation. Hollings is pleased that the FCC is taking comments from both industry leaders and consumers on how best to approach possible regulations, the spokesman added.

The issue of piracy has taken on a new urgency for the entertainment industry as analog recordings have given way to digital reproductions, which have allowed people to produce high-quality copies of pirated video and music from home.

Davidson thinks it’s unlikely that Hollings’ bill will pass this session of Congress in its current form. But, he said, it’s possible that many of the provisions included in the bill could reappear in the future as “a bunch of mini-Hollings bills.”

“They would be smaller, narrower technology mandates—like the ‘broadcast flag’—that still raise major consumer concerns that haven’t fully been addressed yet,” he said.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

Notice of Proposed Rule-Making
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-02-231A1.txt

Center for Democracy and Technology
http://www.cdt.org

Sen. Fritz Hollings’ Online Office
http://hollings.senate.gov

Digital piracy bill raises fair-use concerns; eSchool News, May 2002
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3672

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Study: District leadership, technology keys to urban school reform

Urban school districts that use data-driven decision making and other tactics to spur system-wide reforms are more likely to achieve academic improvement than those districts that adjust solely on a school-by-school basis, according to a study released by the Council of the Great City Schools Sept. 5.

The survey, “Foundations For Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve Student Achievement,” takes a look at four of the nation’s most rapidly improving urban districts: Houston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Sacramento, and New York City.

Its findings indicate that some of the nation’s urban school districts are raising academic scores while reducing achievement gaps by implementing strong, district-wide approaches to leadership, professional development, and data-driven accountability systems. These gains are especially important in light of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, which now requires schools to provide documented proof of improvement or risk losing federal funding for certain programs.

Although there are 16,850 school districts in the country, just 100 of these—mostly urban districts—serve approximately 23 percent of the nation’s students, the report said.

“While there has been much research on what makes an effective school, there is relatively little information on what makes an effective district and whether district-level changes could affect individual school performance,” said the council’s executive director, Michael Casserly. “This new research will help us understand how to provide all students with the opportunity to achieve new levels of academic success.”

According to researchers, urban schools face a number of problems that “exist above the level of individual schools.” Some of these difficulties include poor academic achievement, political conflicts, inexperienced teachers, lack of demanding curriculum, lack of instructional cohesion, high student transfer rates, and unsatisfactory business operations.

In Houston, for example, one-fourth of the students did not speak fluent English and less than half performed at grade level. In Charlotte, N.C., violence, a lack of community support, poor funding, and wide achievement gaps between students of different socio-economic backgrounds kept schools from reaching desired levels of performance. Urban schools in New York and Sacramento saw much of the same. However, in the study, researchers claim that district-wide reforms have led to notable improvements on all fronts.

“Individual school reform is necessary but far from efficient” when dealing with large urban districts, said Sharon Lewis, research director for the council. The problem, she added, is that just because a program works well in one school doesn’t mean it will be successful in another. There are too many variables to consider, including students’ socio-economic status, computer accessibility, racial disparities, and teacher quality.

To combat the uncertainty associated with such variables, the four most improved districts concentrated on reform efforts that could be filtered down to schools from the district level.

One such effort included the use of data-driven decision making and computer assessment tools to judge how well individual students throughout the district were performing at various schools compared with their peers. According to Lewis, the information collected by school districts included student test scores broken down by race, school, and individual grade level. The data also were disaggregated, she said, to help show which concepts certain students understood and which concepts needed to be emphasized more effectively in the classroom.

All four of the districts profiled in the study used some sort of data-mining tool to diagnose the specific instructional needs of students, Lewis said: “Each of these school districts used data extensively.”

According to the study, “Teachers may be able to use achievement data as a tool to help them improve instructional practice, diagnose students’ specific instructional needs, and increase student learning.” However, researchers caution that data mining is only effective when performed at regular intervals from the start of the academic year until its conclusion to show what improvements, if any, have been made by traditionally underachieving groups within a given school system.

Lewis said data-driven decision making is especially important in large urban school districts, because students with various levels of learning—as well as teachers at various levels of professional training—are constantly moving about and changing positions throughout the system.

“Students come in with more challenges. Teachers often come with less support and need more training,” she said of urban districts.

Lewis added that each of the four best-performing districts also used a variety of professional development tactics, including everything from in-class coaching to online curriculum tools and a library of computer-accessible lesson plans.

“It’s the idea of giving teachers a variety of strategies to address different needs in the classroom,” she said. “The common themes just sort of jumped out at us.”

But better use of technology alone won’t bring on massive improvements at the district level. According to the study, there are three key contextual factors that also affect change in large urban school systems.

The first, of course, is budget pressures. Although none was in dire financial straits at the time, the study said even the four best-performing districts faced some mandatory cutbacks in spending.

Another factor—the increasing focus on accountability in schools—helped stakeholders find new ways to focus on boosting student achievement, the study said: “Each of the four case-study districts operated within a broader policy context that emphasized student academic achievement, concrete goals for improvement, and incentives and consequences for performance.”

Finally, there was some dissention regarding school reform in those cities and surrounding areas where local politics and power relations were particularly volatile, owing either to longstanding polices or strained race relations, the study found.

Still, urban districts that improved at a faster rate than others within their respective states were able to adapt these nine shared strategies for success:

  • Districts should focus on specific achievement goals geared toward state standards.
  • Districts should employ concrete accountability systems, including data-mining tools, which measure student progress and hold individual staff responsible for results.
  • District-wide improvements—including better professional development and improved teacher quality—should focus on boosting performance at the lowest-achieving schools.
  • Districts should adopt a system-wide curriculum that is proven to work and can be shared by educators, instead of relying on individual instructors to devise their own well-meaning lessons.
  • All incoming, as well as current, teachers should be familiar with district-specific polices and other educational strategies for improvement.
  • The central office should play a role in guiding, supporting, and improving instruction at the building level.
  • Teachers must be schooled in how to interpret the data that are mined as a result of new data-driven decision-making technologies.
  • Reforms should be initiated at the lowest levels, such as in the elementary grades, instead of trying to fix everything at once.
  • Districts must step up instructional efforts for critical subjects such as reading and math, even at the expense of other subjects.
According to the study, all four cities made use of these strategies to improve the quality of education in schools throughout their systems. Researchers claim notable progress occurred in standardized test scores, especially where racial disparities were concerned. And traditionally low-end achievers performed particularly well during these reforms, the study said. Also, progress was most evident at the elementary school level, where reforms are the easiest to implement and carry out, according to the study.

“Urban school districts serve a large proportion of children in the United States, yet face the biggest challenges,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a statement. “This report provides great promise for helping children in city schools and beyond get the education they need to succeed in life.”

Links:

Council of the Great City Schools
http://www.cgcs.org

Report: Foundations For Success
http://www.cgcs.org/reports

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

No Child Left Behind
http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov

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National School Backpack Awareness Day 2002

On September 25, AOTA is sponsoring National School Backpack Awareness Day, the first national event to call attention to health problems in children caused by backpacks that are too heavy or worn improperly.

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Police investigate alleged computer theft in San Diego schools

When school board member John DeBeck ordered a new laptop through a company under contract with the San Diego City Schools, he fully expected to receive it. But when the machine failed to arrive, he became suspicious.

Now, authorities are investigating an alleged scam within the school system in which one or more district employees, reportedly working in concert with Oregon-based computer reseller NSX Technologies Inc., might have swindled the city’s schools out of thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment over the last several months.

According to San Diego City Schools Police Chief Tom Hall, the investigation began several months ago, following an anonymous letter to police alleging “unlawful activities” within the school system.

Upon receiving the tip, Hall said police served several search warrants and found enough evidence to indicate potential corruption on the part of NSX Technologies and at least one school system employee.

“We found activity that would lead one to believe that some amount of foul play was taking place,” he said. “We are examining the evidence.”

NSX Technologies is a major reseller of software and hardware products to both schools and corporations. Its catalog includes everything from hard drives and keyboards to mouse pads and power strips.

Although one company representative said he had heard about the ongoing investigation, Todd McKelvie, the company’s president, declined an interview with eSchool News. McKelvie’s lawyer, Richard Boesen, said his client would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

DeBeck—who was unaware that an official investigation already was under way—said he became suspicious of a problem when the laptop computer he had ordered supposedly was received by the school system and then suddenly disappeared.

“At first, we had thought it simply got placed in another school—no big deal there,” he said.

According to DeBeck, the school system has a procedure for checking all purchases it makes and receives before sending payment. Once a piece of equipment is ordered and an invoice is received, then a purchase order is created, he said. Only when the equipment is delivered is the purchase order signed and the transaction completed.

However, in this particular case it appears some amount of equipment was ordered, signed off on, and paid for—but either never was received or somehow was returned to the company, he said.

So far, it is unclear exactly how much equipment is unaccounted for. On Aug. 16, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported as much as $600,000 worth of merchandise was missing. But police chief Hall said that number is inaccurate.

“We never released that information at all,” he said. “We are not prepared to commit to a number.”

He did say the investigation involves a myriad of computer components, including hard drives, floppy drives, laptops, and some fully equipped desktop computers.

Hall, who called the investigation “very complex,” said the police have enlisted the help of two investigators from the district attorney’s office, several special auditors, and inspectors from a regional computer forensics task force to help sort through the evidence. It will be the job of computer forensics experts to dig through the district’s computer files and find records that might have been deleted or erased to cover up any illegal activity, he said.

DeBeck said this is not the first time the San Diego City Schools have experienced potential accounting problems that led to costly mistakes in receivables and the loss of computer equipment. In fact, police investigated reports of a similar problem not more than two years ago, he said.

DeBeck said the school system had been forewarned during the first such investigation that its accounting system was disorganized and susceptible to corruption.

“During the last investigation, the police investigators told us that our internal controls were terrible,” he said.

DeBeck said he had hoped Superintendent Alan Bersin, a lawyer and former businessman, would step in and denounce questionable practices within the district’s accounting office. But so far, he said, there has been little change.

“You would assume that there would be a better set of checks and balances when you have such a large system as this,” DeBeck said.

Steven Baratte, a spokesman for San Diego City Schools, told eSchool News the district is currently reviewing its business practices.

“The district is currently in the process of a business-modernization overhaul designed to improve the efficiency and increase the accountability of all aspects of its business,” he said. “We are currently taking a look at all of our business policies including those in our accounting department.”

So far, no criminal charges have been filed against NSX Technologies or any district employees, Hall said. However, at least one employee has been placed on paid leave and removed from the work force for an undetermined amount of time.

Police say the investigation is still under way.

Links:

San Diego City Schools
http://www.sdcs.k12.ca.us

NSX Technologies Inc.
http://www.macx.com

San Diego City Schools Police Department
http://prod031.sandi.net/policeservices/frame.htm

County of San Diego District Attorney’s Office
http://www.co.san-diego.ca.us/cnty/cntydepts/safety/da

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AOTA launches school ergonomics program

Teachers and school administrators can take inexpensive steps to improve classroom ergonomics and prevent health risks caused by heavy backpacks and frequent computer use, according to Strategies for Schools, a program released by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Sept. 19.

Placing computer monitors at eye level, having students take breaks every 30 minutes to stretch out, and putting course material online can ease muscle strain and reinforce good computing behavior, the group said.

Students tend to use computers sporadically at school and for longer periods at home, but AOTA hopes that by setting good examples, schools can instill in students proper computer habits that will last a lifetime.

“We are trying to change behaviors in children, and I think schools can be role models for correct computing behavior,” said Karen Jacobs, a school ergonomics expert and professor of occupational therapy at Boston University.

Jacobs, a former AOTA president who is in the middle of a school ergonomics research project, has surveyed 452 middle school students about their health and analyzed their computer workstations. She plans to compare each student’s survey results in relation to his or her workstation.

“[More than] 42 percent of kids are complaining of muscular skeletal problems from computer use,” Jacobs said. “The same kids complaining of muscular skeletal pain from computers said they had difficulty carrying their backpacks.”

She added, “We aren’t talking about complainers; we are talking about kids [who] are hurting.”

Working in ill-conceived and poorly designed classrooms can translate into a lifetime of problems for students, Jacobs said. She recommended that educators consult their schools’ occupational therapists for guidance, because they are trained in ergonomics. Nearly 10,000 occupational therapists already work in schools with special-needs students as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“As occupational therapists, we can make simple changes that really can reduce some of these hazards or eliminate them completely,” she said.

The release of these strategies coincides with the first National School Backpack Awareness Day, which takes place Sept. 25. School occupational therapists in more than 25 states will get students to weigh their backpacks and teach them proper ways to select, pack, and wear their bags.

Backpacks should weigh no more than 15 percent of a student’s weight, AOTA says.

But more than half of the 40 million students who wear backpacks carry too much weight, and this causes neck, shoulder, and back pain; posture and spine development problems; labored breathing; and fatigue.

Schools interested in participating in the Backpack Awareness Day can get free materials from the AOTA web site, including a printable weigh-in sheet, pamphlets, and permission forms. The site also has an eMail list for event planners.

To lighten backpacks, AOTA recommends the following steps for educators:

  • Examine what students carry and remove unnecessary items;
  • Supply lockers or cubicles to store books, supplies, and athletic equipment;
  • Rethink homework so students don’t have to carry multiple textbooks at once;
  • Consider making course materials and resources available online, providing two sets of books (one for home and one for school), or buying from companies that divide a large textbook into multiple volumes;
  • Ask students for suggestions.

In the classroom, AOTA suggests that school leaders do the following:

  • Provide a variety of chair and desk sizes to fit different-sized students, or adjustable furniture that can expand as children grow;
  • Place computer monitors at eye level to avoid neck and shoulder strain. If using a laptop, plug in a separate keyboard so the monitor can be raised to the appropriate level;
  • Make students take stretching breaks while using the computer to decrease continuous pressure on the spine. Jacobs offers free software, called Stretch Break for Kids, that educators can download from her web site. The software runs in the back ground, and every 30 minutes a two-minute stretching activity pop ups for kids to follow. The software is available for both PCs and Macs.
  • Give students a platform or phone book beneath their desk, so they can rest their feet instead of dangling them. For taller kids, raise the desk’s height with wooden blocks.

Links:

American Occupational Therapy Association
http://www.aota.org

National School Backpack Awareness Day 2002
http://www.aota.org/backpack/index.asp

“Stretch Break for Kids” software
http://people.bu.edu/kjacobs

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Free-speech groups sound off on CIPA in schools

With a victory in the public libraries behind them, anti-censorship activists joined with parents, teachers, and students Sept. 18 in a move to beat back the imposition of federally mandated web filters in schools.

The nationwide “speak-out” served as a rallying point for anti-censorship organizations—including, the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Coalition Against Censorship—to sound off against the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law that requires all schools receiving eRate funds to use “technology protection measures” to keep kids from accessing inappropriate material online.

Although the event, which took place simultaneously in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, did not include the announcement of any formal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of CIPA in schools, it did encourage a national student letter-writing campaign, which organizers hope will increase public scrutiny of the act and pressure lawmakers to adopt new policies for safe, effective internet use in schools.

CIPA detractors claim that school-imposed web filters inadvertently block access to educational sites, making it virtually impossible for teachers to use professional discretion when deciding what content to allow in the classroom.

One speak-out participant, Marjorie Heins, who is director of the Free Expression Policy Project and author of Not in Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, called the law “outrageous,” saying it’s inconceivable that the federal government should ask teachers to give up their professional discretion in favor of corporate filtering products designed by companies that are far removed from students and their individual instructional needs.

Several educators agreed with Heins. These needs, they said, go unfulfilled because web filters often operate by singling out certain words—including “rape,” “terrorism,” and “anarchy”—which might or might not be used in an inappropriate fashion.

For instance, in one New York City school, students were blocked from accessing information related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because the filtering system there inadvertently identified the word “terrorism” as dangerous and offensive to students, said John Elfrank, a social studies teacher with the city’s school system.

David Burt, public relations manger for N2H2 Inc., which makes one of the most widely used filtering products in schools, said a lot more goes into choosing blocked sites than simply red-flagging certain words for detection. Burt said N2H2’s filter does not block solely on the recognition of a potentially harmful word, but rather looks for such indicators as adult warnings, pornographic content, and specific tags in web addresses commonly associated with lewd or inappropriate content. Like most other filtering companies, N2H2 also uses human reviewers to check red-flagged sites to make sure they are not blocked inadvertently.

But critics of filtering software argue there is no way a team of employees can keep up with the thousands of new sites on the internet each day, and mistakes are inevitable.

Elfrank, who spoke during the event, told eSchool News that as a social studies teacher his duty is to instill democratic values in his students. It’s hard to do that, he said, when kids are not allowed to think for themselves.

“It’s demoralizing to students,” he said of filtering. “Especially when 99.9 percent of the time they are trying to access legitimate content. It can be really frustrating.”

According to Elfrank, schools in New York City have centralized lists where teachers can lobby to have certain words removed from the filtering cipher. But, he said, busy teachers have little time to take on the bureaucratic red tape required to make these changes. Also, it’s difficult to know what words are being blocked, because most filtering manufacturers have refused to release such lists. They say doing so would hurt their competitive advantage.

“Teachers should be able to control the content that comes into their classroom,” Elfrank said. “They should have the right to exercise professional discretion.”

“We couldn’t even get the New York Times [web site] up,” said Jan Shafkosky, a former New York City school teacher, who retired this year after 30 years of service. Another example of inadvertent filtering reportedly came when students were denied access to the government’s Thomas.gov site while attempting to access information on the Date Rape Act of 2001. “There was some very political blocking,” she said. “And students could not do research.”

Shafkosky said schools that operate off the New York Department of Education’s web server are at a distinct disadvantage compared with city schools operating off of local college or other public web servers, because only those schools on the department’s server are subject to web filtering.

“Don’t be under the delusion that there is equal education in New York City,” she said, adding that it’s difficult to promote equality in education when some students are granted greater levels of access and personal responsibility than others.

“Look, I don’t believe children should be able to access [pornography],” she said. “But I think people have to realize that we need to teach our own kids how to” think critically and make decisions.

Shafkosky said school filters also often blocked sites providing information on such topics as gun control, diabetes, abortion, and smoking.

In fact, the Free Expression Policy Project has compiled a list of hundreds of blocked sites as reported by educators and has included it in “Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report,” which is available on the organization’s web site.

Another organization, Peacefire.org, established in 1996 to protect the free-speech rights of children under 18 on the internet, highlights a new inadvertently blocked site every week. One example: the 19th-century classic Jane Eyre, which Peacefire claims is blocked by Symantec Corp.’s I-Gear filter when accessed through the archives at Carnegie Mellon University.

Shafkosky said she became so irate with the limitations imposed by school web filters that she sometimes would bring her own laptop into school and plug it directly into a classroom phone line, using dial-up internet access to evade the blocks. “You couldn’t do any work,” she said.

Despite the frustrations of some, many educators contend filters are necessary for keeping children safe online while at school.

“I definitely think filtering is necessary,” said Carlos de Sousa, network manager for the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill, Mass.

Sousa draws his convictions from the memory of an incident that occurred six years earlier, while he was working at a different Massachusetts school.

According to Sousa, a third-grader had accessed pornography over the internet at home, then printed a few lewd pictures and brought them into school. When the child showed a few of his peers the printed photos, they insisted that the boy use a school computer to show them where the pornography could be found. He did so.

“I deal with kids every day, and I know that the temptation is great to seek out that kind of stuff,” Sousa said. “We’re not talking lace and lingerie, either, but real, hard-core pornography.”

Even more disturbing than when students seek out inappropriate content in school is when they stumble upon it by mistake, Sousa said. He believes filters are needed to keep students from accidentally stumbling upon inappropriate sites with web addresses that closely resemble those of popular educational and children’s web sites.

Other proponents of CIPA, which was introduced in 1999 and co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., argue that 75 percent of schools already used some type of filtering technology before the bill became law.

Still, critics argue that CIPA, which requires compliance for all schools seeking eRate funds, imposes excessive limitations that were not in place when schools were drawing up localized filtering policies independent of government mandates.

According to Chris Hunter, a filtering expert who testified during the challenge of CIPA in America’s public libraries, the requirement is so stringent that it does not even allow teachers to disable the filters when accessing the internet to do research or construct lesson plans.

Any time an educator wants to have a site unblocked, he or she first must ask permission from the administration, Hunter said. This stipulation was not widespread when schools were devising their own independent policies.

CIPA’s opponents are critical of the use of web filters in schools as a means to protect children from the internet, but many say they are not adverse to employing other methods of online protection, including better teacher training, student preparation, disciplinary action, and strategic computer lab setups that would allow teachers to monitor each student’s screen.

Although organizers of the Sept. 18 speak-out said they don’t expect the event to cause an automatic change in the status of the law, many said they hope the event will serve to promote a greater awareness and understanding of the debate at hand.

“I am hopeful that if we keep the pressure on, the fear level will be greatly reduced,” Elfrank said. “There will be fewer people in the education community [who] will be so reactionary.”

“What this press conference does indicate is that, now that there has been success on the library front, the spotlight is turning to schools. The use of these [filtering] products in public schools will not survive scrutiny,” said Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education.

Links:

Free Expression Policy Project’s “Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report”
http://www.fepproject.org/issues/filteringreports.html#BESS

New York City Department of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu

Peacefire.org
http://www.peacefire.org

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

Symantec Corp.
http://www.symantec.com

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$20 billion ed-tech project awaits action by Congress

Legislation that would funnel an estimated $20 billion in revenue toward educational technology research and development (R&D) is languishing in committee in both the Senate and the House, and supporters of the measure say it’s doubtful that Congress will take up either bill before the end of the current legislative session.

The Senate’s version of the legislation, called the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust Act (S. 2603), proposes creating a billion-dollar government agency—on par with the National Institutes of Health or National Science Academies—to enhance federal ed-tech programs.

Funding would come from auctioning the publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum that carries television, radio, telephone, and other signals. Portions of this spectrum are still being allocated and reallocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the highest-bidding companies, government agencies, and others.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and James Jeffords, I-Vt., estimate that auctioning the remaining spectrum could yield more than $20 billion in revenue for the United States Treasury.

Normally these proceeds go into the treasury as general funds, but the lawmakers propose they be used to transform learning in the 21st century.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced a similar version of the bill in the House of Representatives, called the Wireless Technology Investment and Digital Dividends Act of 2002 (H.R. 4641).

Former NBC News President Larry K. Grossman and former FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow came up with the idea for the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust last year and have been promoting it through their Digital Promise Project web site.

The premise is that the educational potential of the internet and other technologies have barely been tapped—and while many institutions serve as repositories of knowledge, information, and educational resources and programs, they are fragmented and uncoordinated.

The project’s organizers envision developing the internet, virtual reality, gaming, and software applications in ways that truly transform learning.

“The internet is at that very infantile stage. It’s not even crawling yet,” said Anne Murphy, director of the Digital Promise Project. “We think there needs to be a drive and focus on getting technology to support learning.”

One of the goals is to digitize content from museums, libraries, and universities and make it available online to revolutionize learning.

“What research is being done is great, but it’s not being done in a concerted way and there’s no cohesive plan,” said Murphy, who added that the bill appears unlikely to move this year.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) was one of the first educational organizations to endorse the Digital Promise Project.

“We think it’s important that there be some investment in research and development as well as online content,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director. “We think there is a lack of R&D on educational technology in general.”

The eRate has provided schools with technology infrastructure, and schools are adding increased bandwidth that makes interactive content possible. “What good is bandwidth without good applications and content?” asked Krueger, who added that he’s not surprised the legislation appears stalled this session.

“It’s been moving faster than most would have predicted, given the size of the request,” he said. “It took several years [for the eRate to pass]. … I think this is laying the groundwork for the next [session of] Congress.”

Some educators applaud the legislation’s goals.

“We need to anticipate the future,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania. “I am impressed with the potential.”

Others question how useful the measure would be to educators, considering the value of what already exists.

“I think that the bill is on the right track, as there is a need for research and a comprehensive [strategy],” said Marc B. Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “However, this is not a $20 billion project. Much of the work is already done and just needs to be codified and translated into useable strategies for schools.”

The legislation proposes using the funds from the spectrum sale to supplement federal funds for education programs, funding innovative research, training teachers, researching and developing educational software, digitizing educational materials, retraining workers and unemployed individuals, and to enable schools, community colleges, universities, libraries, museums, civic organizations, and nonprofit agencies to take advantage of innovative telecommunications and information technologies to reach outside their walls and into homes, schools, and the workplace.

Links:

Digital Opportunity Investment Trust
http://www.digitalpromise.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

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Feds: Schools could save $1.5 billion in energy costs

Without an act of Congress or a single tax levy, our schools could get $1.5 billion in brand-new funding, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s the amount of money the department estimates schools are spending on unnecessary energy costs.

Some enterprising school systems are striving to put a damper on their excess energy bills, and they’re taking clever steps to save energy—from replacing inefficient computers and other appliances to installing fuel cells and solar panels.

The average California school spends about $180 per student each year on energy and only about $150 per student for books, according to Daryl Mills, a supervisor at the California Energy Commission.

To successfully correct that imbalance will take focus and dedication. That’s why, at the Rio Linda Union School District in Sacramento, Calif., Resource Conservation Manager Tim Bond has just one job: Save money.

Since starting last year, Bond reportedly has helped the district reduce its $1.1 million energy costs by more than 10 percent.

“Fifty percent of the savings can come from just getting teachers and students to change their behavior on a day-to-day basis,” Bond said.

He’s also replaced inefficient appliances and computers, installed heat-saving windows, and popped in more than 7,800 low-watt light bulbs.

Bond is working with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, which has agreed to pay his salary for two years. After that, the 24-school district will use energy savings to pay him.

Schools across California and the nation are taking advantage of several state and federal programs to make their schools more energy efficient, using projected savings to pay for the conservation projects.

Although such programs have been around for years, many schools have redoubled their efforts to reduce energy costs since California’s 2001 energy crisis, when the state’s wholesale electricity prices skyrocketed.

California’s two main energy conservation initiatives, the Bright Schools and the High Performance Schools programs, provide design consultation; help identify cost-effective, energy-saving measures; and provide low-interest loans to outfit schools. Starting this fall, for instance, California school districts have been able to get a rebate of up to 90 percent for installing solar panels.

“A lot of the programs grew from the energy crisis,” Mills said “And interest in the programs has increased dramatically. We spent about $10 million a year in loans before, and last year we did about $65 million.”

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the energy bill for schools across the nation tops $6 billion—about 25 percent more than necessary.

At least a dozen California school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and the West Contra Costa School District, are participating in the federal EnergySmart Schools program.

The program intends to reduce schools’ energy costs while increasing their use of clean-energy technologies. Participating schools receive information about improving temperature control and indoor air quality through the use of new energy-saving technologies, such as energy-efficient lighting systems and geothermal heating and cooling systems.

Schools also can finance energy-conservation projects through private companies and pay off loans from projected savings.

The Cape Cod Community College in Massachusetts, for example, recently worked with Noresco, a national energy service company, to complete a $1.3 million campus improvement project. It included installation of a clean-burning fuel cell that provides electricity and warms the library using heat that otherwise would dissipate.

“Technically, [the improvement project] doesn’t cost us any money, and it doesn’t cost the taxpayers any money,” said Robert Cleghorn, the school’s director of environmental health and safety, explaining that energy savings match or exceed the program’s costs.

Links:

California Energy Commission
http://www.energy.ca.gov

EnergySmart Schools program
http://www.eren.doe.gov/energysmartschools

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