ERP, Tablet PC turn heads at NSBA tech conference

For the 3,000-plus school leaders who gathered in Dallas Nov. 13 to 15, 2002, at the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology + Learning (T+L) conference, the talk focused squarely on how technology could help their schools meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Dozens of exhibitors offered solutions, but one development stood out: the emergence of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) approach to running K-12 districts.

ERP is a business management tactic that closely integrates all facets of the business—including planning, manufacturing, sales, and marketing—so managers instantly can see how changes in one area of the business affect all other areas.

As the ERP approach has become more popular, software applications have emerged to help business managers apply ERP solutions to processes such as inventory control, order tracking, customer service, and human resources—enabling executives to see the “big picture” so they can better measure their return on investment (ROI).

Now, savvy school leaders are taking these same principles and applying them to education, using a new generation of software programs that can track and record information about student progress in real time across multiple applications.

At T+L, Pearson Education Technologies (formerly NCS Learn) unveiled one of the most comprehensive versions of this concept. The company demonstrated a new suite of software applications, called Concert, that integrates instructional management and assessment tools with student data, financial, and human-resource systems. The result is a set of programs that link all the functions of a school district together seamlessly, enabling school district leaders to manage their entire educational enterprise effectively and efficiently.

The idea is to give school leaders the tools they need to measure their educational ROI, explained Mike Morache, president of Pearson Education Technologies. Given NCLB’s tough accountability standards, it’s a concept that is sure to resonate with educators.

“Superintendents want to be able to say, ‘See, we spent this much money—here’s what we got for results,'” he said.

Concert leverages the expertise of Pearson Education Technologies in many facets of school software, built through the numerous recent acquisitions of its parent company, London-based publishing giant Pearson plc—from the financial and student information systems of National Computer Systems (NCS), which Pearson acquired in 2000, to the instructional management and content delivery systems of other Pearson holdings such as Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC) and NovaNET.

The product marks the culmination of Pearson’s vision in purchasing these various companies, Morache said. Its numerous recent acquisitions now enable Pearson to offer a complete family of integrated software programs spanning the entire range of K-12 functions.

Using the web-based software, teachers will be able to draw from a database of standards-aligned resources to plan their instruction; create, administer, and score assessments; and view student mastery by class or individual using an online gradebook. Principals and curriculum directors will be able to create and manage curricula using a database of state and federal standards; analyze and assess student mastery by classroom, school, or district; report results in aggregated or disaggregated format; and manage multiple calendars. School business officials will be able to track and record expenditures, manage the grants and procurement processes, and direct human resources.

And superintendents will be able to oversee the entire operation, Morache said, making sure the various functions work together in concert to improve education—hence the product’s new name. (While in development, the product was called NCS4Schools; eSchool News readers might remember reading a preview of the technology last year. Morache said a name change for the software was appropriate to reflect the change in the company’s name.)

The first generation of Concert’s Instruction & Assessment package, released just after the conference, combines about 80 percent of the abilities of ABACUS, Pearson Education Technologies’ curriculum management and assessment system, with the student information management capabilities of the company’s SASI software, while also adding classroom management and parent communication functions. Future versions of the software will integrate content from the company’s SuccessMaker and NovaNET software, Morache said, and eventually the product will include the online resources of Pearson’s textbook publishers, such as Prentice Hall and Scott Foresman, for teachers to draw upon in their lesson planning.

On the business side, the Fund Accounting module for Concert Business is available now, with Procurement and HR modules to come.

Innovation on display

Just as it takes students, parents, teachers, and administrators working together to improve education, it takes technologists and educators working in concert for technology to transform learning. Keynote speaker Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), opened the conference by emphasizing the role that educators play in the success of ed-tech efforts.

Fiorina, who earned her undergraduate degree in medieval history, compared the relationship between technology companies and educators to that between printers and scholars in the Middle Ages. Although the printing press was an incredible advancement in technology, it didn’t advance knowledge by itself, she noted; it took scholars to translate texts from Latin to the languages readers were familiar with for the device to expand learning.

Similarly, today’s technology advancements cannot improve learning by themselves, Fiorina said—they require educators with a vision for how technology can be used as a tool to aid instruction in order to advance education.

Fiorina’s company has been in the spotlight for its massive acquisition of Compaq Computer Corp., and a member of the audience queried her about the integration of two companies with seemingly different philosophies. While HP traditionally has been known as a technology innovator, he said, Compaq was known more for its service-oriented approach. How does the new HP plan to reconcile this difference?

“We are trying to harness not only what is the same, but also what is different” about the two companies, Fiorina said. “The great opportunity we have is to take the best of both” by marrying innovation and customer service.

HP’s penchant for innovation was on display in the exhibit hall, where educators got their first glimpse yet of a Tablet PC device. Created by Microsoft Corp. and released in November, Tablet PC is a technology that combines the handiness of a handheld computer with the power and functionality of a laptop. Microsoft developed the operating system, and companies such as HP, Gateway, Acer America, and Toshiba have built machines to take advantage of it.

At the core of the Tablet PC is Microsoft’s “digital ink” technology, which enables users to take handwritten notes directly on the device’s screen with a stylus. Users can save these notes in their own handwriting or translate them into text automatically and add them to other text documents. Instead of using a flip-up screen, tablet computers resemble large personal digital assistants, in that their screens lie flat or pivot to create more of an ideal writing surface.

HP’s version of the Tablet PC, called the Compaq Tablet PC TC1000, comes with an optional keyboard that is detachable and an optional docking station so you can use the machine as a desktop PC if you’d like. It also runs on a Transmeta processor, which enables HP to tout it as the only sub-$2,000 Tablet PC device on the market. A configuration with a 1-gigahertz processor, 30-gigabyte hard drive, 256 megabytes of RAM, 802.11b wireless connectivity, and a one-year warranty sells for $1,799 (keyboard and docking station are extra).

Cost-conscious educators will note that $1,800 is still pricier than a laptop with comparable processing speed and memory. So why should schools spend the extra money on Tablet PC devices? George Warren, director of K-12 marketing for HP, said it comes down to how comfortable students and teachers feel using technology. The Tablet PC enables users to take notes and record information in a way they might be more familiar with, making the integration of technology a potentially simpler and less daunting experience for users, he said.

It remains to be seen whether educators will embrace the concept. Besides cost, another potential hurdle could be the devices’ durability. The machines are subjected to rigorous drop-tests, Warren said, but some educators worry that the Tablet PC’s exposed screens could present a problem when used by students.

Curriculum and assessment tools

On the exhibit floor, several companies demonstrated new curriculum and assessment tools designed to help schools comply with NCLB.

Harcourt Interactive Technology announced the launch of iLearningOnline, an internet-based reading assessment system aligned with state standards. The software is a “diagnostic, prescriptive, and instructional reading tool” that provides immediate feedback on students’ answers to an extensive database of reading comprehension questions, so teachers in grades two through 10 can assess their students’ skills or measure the effectiveness of their own instruction quickly and easily.

The program gives students frequent opportunities to practice their reading skills, and it gives teachers the ability to measure students’ performance before they take high-stakes exams. Teachers also can use the system to provide additional work for students at home. According to a study by the University of West Florida, the system helped raise the number of fourth-grade students in one central Florida elementary school who scored at high levels on the state’s reading test by 10 percent over the prior year.

Another new assessment system comes from LeapFrog SchoolHouse, the school division of the company that makes the popular line of LeapPad educational products for young children. At the conference, LeapFrog introduced a school version of its Quantum Pad learning system, which features the same interactive technology as the LeapPad platform, but in a more sophisticated design aimed at students in grades three and higher.

Like the LeapPad, the Quantum Pad is an interactive, multisensory learning tool that engages students in the practice of reading, math, and language-arts skills. Students insert a skills card or special book into the device, then use a stylus to complete the exercise. The company’s patented technology enables the device to “talk” to students based on the choices they make with the stylus.

The school version of the Quantum Pad comes equipped with headphones, so students can work independently without disturbing one another, as well as an AC adapter so teachers won’t spend their budgets replacing batteries. The device is intended to be used with the upper grades as part of the company’s LeapTrack System, a complete K-5 assessment and instructional program. Teachers can insert a cartridge into the device that records the student’s responses to a given assignment. When the session is finished, the teacher can remove the cartridge and insert it into a special docking station to import the data to a computer for analysis.

Sunburst Technology, which recently was acquired from Houghton Mifflin Co. by Washington, D.C.-based investment firm Thayer Capital Partners, unveiled a new line of standards-based software that targets basic math and reading skills for students in grades K through 2. The new “Key Skills” line of software includes an assessment tool for teachers that records student performance and creates a variety of reports. The first four titles in the series are Letters and Words, Basic Word Concepts, Basic Number Concepts, and Shapes, Numbers, and Measurement.

Each title includes 10 activities that focus on practicing a specific skill, making it easy for teachers to isolate the skills they want students to work on. The Teacher Assessment Tool, which is included with each title, integrates the content and student data from all Key Skills titles installed on a single computer or server, giving teachers the flexibility to buy only the titles they want while enabling them to add new content easily as more titles become available.

On-screen help provides instructions to students who need assistance, and read-aloud options help young learners follow text and instructions. The programs also provide instant verbal feedback to students as they answer questions, as well as a reward system for students when they answer questions correctly on the first try.

For students with learning or visual disabilities, Kurzweil Educational Systems introduced Version 7 of its Kurzweil 3000 software, which the company says is the first product that enables a teacher to selectively link both classroom and standardized tests to a wide range of customizable accommodations that help ensure that ability—and not disability—is being tested.

Depending on a student’s individual needs, educators can provide access during testing to a selection of writing and decoding tools, including annotations, voice notes, definitions, and more. The software is especially timely, given that special-needs students will be held to the same rigorous standards as their peers under NCLB’s stringent requirements.

Other company news

Electronic Education, a division of Pearson Education, said it was being renamed Pearson Electronic Learning as of Jan. 1. The change is intended to reflect the relationship between the software provider and its parent company more clearly, said Bob Roliardi, president and CEO of Electronic Education. The company makes the Waterford series of early reading and math software, as well as KnowledgeBox, a K-6 digital learning system containing ready-to-use lessons enhanced with video and animations.

Jones Knowledge said it would make its “e-education” online learning platform available to schools everywhere free of charge beginning Dec. 16. The no-cost availability of this online course creation, delivery, and management system—and its source code—comes at a time when overall online learning delivery costs are on the rise, the company said. “Eighty percent of our discussions with customers were about the platform, and only 20 percent were about content,” said Joyce Gietl, vice president of account management. “This should be the other way around.” Instead of spending money on a costly eLearning platform, she said, schools can use this money to purchase high-quality online content. For its part, Jones will focus on curriculum development, content licensing, and support and consulting services as its primary revenue sources.

Macromedia introduced a new desktop application that enables anyone to update or add content to existing web sites easily, without requiring technical skills beyond basic word processing. Called Contribute, the software puts the power of web publishing into the hands of non-technical users, while also providing sufficient control for the professionals who manage school web sites and intranets, the company said.

Contribute reportedly works with any hypertext markup language (HTML)-based web site, including those coded by hand or created with tools such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft FrontPage. Available for the Windows operating system now and for Mac OS X very soon, the software features an introductory price of $79 for educators. K-12 schools can purchase site licenses beginning at $999. To download a preview copy, go to contribute.


T+L Conference

Dennis Pierce

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