Personalized learning services stand out at FETC 2003

In search of tools to help them meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), thousands of educators came to the 23rd annual Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) Feb. 4-6 in Orlando. What they found was an evolution in thinking, from one-size-fits-all technology solutions to customizable, online services tailored to the individual student needs.

Despite a bleak fiscal landscape, attendance at this year’s event was estimated at more than 12,000 educators, vendors, and other stakeholders—an increase of some 20 percent over the previous year, according to conference producers. Attendees who eventually made their way out of the sun and into the exhibit hall at the Orange County Convention Center got to test-drive new technology solutions from more than 500 educational vendors, take part in any of 200 sessions, and network with colleagues during any of 67 hands-on workshops.

While such products as the Tablet PC and personal digital assistant (PDA) arrived on the ed-tech scene with great corporate fanfare, it is the less publicized, internet-based applications used to create personalized assessments and individualized learning experiences that might provide the clearest indication of what the future holds for technology in America’s schools.

Online assessment

Scantron Corp., the company whose name for years has been synonymous with the bubble-style scoring sheets used on most high-stakes tests, is touting one such program. The company’s ParSYSTEM 6.0 product suite consists of several components designed to help educators pinpoint the strengths and weakness of individual students.

Scantron administers online assessments to students and then uses its technology to break out data on such assessments at state, district, class, or individual levels. The results, which are password-protected, can be accessed by teachers and administrators in real time, then used to decide which subject areas teachers need to emphasize in class or even to students individually. The scores come complete with graphs and charts to illustrate where each student, class, or school stands in relationship to others.

According to Bill Tudor, Scantron’s executive vice president, the technology will be particularly useful as schools search for ways to meet the new standards of accountability put in place by NCLB. “The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools measure each student’s grade level progress, and in a large district the sheer volume of student data associated with this kind of testing can pose an enormous management challenge,” he said.

In a demonstration for eSchool News, Tudor showed how the technology was able to aggregate data to illustrate achievement gaps between different demographic and socioeconomic groups, letting educators know immediately how much work needs to be done in what subject areas, and making sure each school and every student is performing at satisfactory levels under the new law.

Larry Bolinger, principal of Merritt Brown Middle School in Panama City, Fla., called Scantron’s new system ideal for preparing students for major high-stakes tests. “This is the best diagnostic tool I’ve come across in terms of accuracy and reliability with the FCAT [Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test],” he said. “You can access real-time, accurate data and then use [the data] to adjust instruction individually by student.”

To provide even more immediate testing results, Scantron also offers ParSYSTEM as part of its Classroom Wizard tool. The Wizard enables teachers to administer online tests using handheld devices and then collects the scores immediately from students for real-time assessment. Scantron houses all the data recorded for each school customer online, so school leaders don’t have to worry about the problem of long-term storage. The company said it can schedule up to 2 million online assessments a day.

‘Intelligent’ instruction

Educational service providers are using the internet to do more than just personalize assessment data. Many companies also are turning to technology to provide customized curricula aimed at encouraging students to take a more active—or, perhaps, interactive—role in their education.

During the conference, educational publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston made available its Quantum Artificial Intelligence Tutors for students in need of help with chemistry and other science concepts. The programs’ artificial-intelligence (AI) technology enables students to go online from school or at home to practice how to write equations and complete formulas. What separates Holt’s AI technology from other internet-based tutors is that it helps coach the learner to the correct answer by pointing out individual mistakes and providing clues that evoke critical thinking skills based on these mistakes. The more well-versed a student becomes with the subject matter, the more complex the reasoning used by the technology becomes.

The Quantum Tutors are part of Holt’s Online Learning Program, which also provides interactive, online access to any number of the company’s educational textbook titles. By accessing the books online, students not only get to read the information printed in the hardcover editions; they also get access to links for additional study and various other resources related to the subject matter. Plus, the online versions save them from having to lug heavy textbooks to and from school each day, said Pam Nelson, the company’s senior vice president of marketing. Now all kids have to do is go home, log on to a computer, and pull up the night’s assignment.

Bridging the communication gap

Just as technology can be used to personalize learning and make curricula come alive, it also can be employed to bridge the communications gap between stakeholders, making learning more intimate for everyone involved—from teachers and students to parents and administrators.

At least, that’s what the people at Aspire Learning Corp. have attempted to do. More than a student information system, Aspire’s internet-based suite of teaching, reporting, and communication tools focuses on customizable technology applications that are easily integrated into a school system’s existing infrastructure—and are just as easy for educators to use.

“Aspire is designed for the teacher who is intimidated by technology,” said Scott Collins, the company’s head of marketing.

By logging onto the Aspire Learning System, educators get access to a number of communication features designed to include parents and other stakeholders in the business of educating their children. From their computers at home or at work, parents can compose messages to instructors, access school calendar information, peek at real-time grades, and even take a look at what assignments are due on a given week.

On the teacher side, educators can communicate with parents by conducting surveys to gauge opinions about a particular program or idea before its implementation. They can also create an accessible web site library used to store relevant educational links and tap into online quiz, test, and grade assessment features, as well as an online grade book and attendance ledger.

The communication tool can be accessed from school or home directly through the school’s web site without installation of any additional hardware or software, according to Aspire President Andy Little.

During FETC, Aspire also announced a partnership with CCV Software Inc. to provide a trial version of the Aspire Learning System to schools at no cost by way of a program called Test Drive.

A paradigm shift

The shift in excitement from sleek new hardware products to comprehensive, internet-based applications and assessment tools at FETC 2003 is representative of a paradigm shift in educational technology. Now that most schools have had access to internet-connected computers for years—and many already are abandoning traditional desktop machines in favor of portable laptops and wireless handheld devices—the questions no longer center on what types of hardware solutions are needed, but rather on how technology can be used to provide bona fide proof of achievement in schools.

Several vendors and educators interviewed by eSchool News agreed that by cutting down on the amount of paperwork teachers and administrators must process in schools, technology is freeing up more time for individualized instruction and placing the emphasis where it needs to be: in the classroom, with the students.

Of course, that’s not to say eye-catching new hardware solutions went unseen at this year’s show. The folks at Gateway Inc., for instance, said they received a great deal of interest in a number of products, including their flat-panel plasma display screens, as well as several laptop computer models and another much inquired-about device: the Tablet PC.

After watching one demonstration of how certain models of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Compaq Tablet PC technology are able to record voice and then transform these voice recordings into text, special education teacher Gayle Mamer said she couldn’t wait to see the value of this technology at work in her classroom. “It was really cool,” she said. “You know, the way it records speech and then turns it into text.”

Empowering educators

But while a number of hardware companies were touting their various nuts-and-bolts solutions, Dell Computer Corp. placed its focus on equipping students and teachers with the skills and planning tools necessary to use technology effectively.

Fresh from the Jan. 24 Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Literacy Summit in Washington, D.C., executives from Dell announced plans to promote a new technology planning architecture, which the company hopes will help educators meet the accountability demands of NCLB while equipping students with the skills they’ll need to be successful in the 21st century.

The Dell School Architecture enables the company’s school customers to take advantage of a number of new services, including customized technology planning, yearly progress reports on student achievement, and professional development programs aimed at helping educators understand how their Dell systems can be used in a classroom setting.

In an interview with eSchool News, Scott Campbell, Dell’s director of K-12 services, said the idea is to change Dell’s image in the marketplace from vendor to partner. Industry partners, he said, are able to play a critical role in helping schools reach their achievement goals.

“Technology does not teach, it enables us to teach,” Campbell said. “Dell is not just a vendor anymore, we’re a partner.”

Another company that believes the first step to effective technology integration starts with empowering educators is Macromedia Inc. One of the industry’s leading providers of web development software, Macromedia was on hand at FETC to showcase its Contribute product.

With Contribute, educators who have only a basic understanding of web page design can update, customize, and develop their own interactive web pages, which are linked to the school’s server and made accessible from its home page. The program works by supplying a template, which is created by the school’s web master, for teachers to work from. Once the template is created, the Contribute software lets teachers access the pages and make changes by adding text in simple text boxes and copying images from an image library or other resources directly onto the page. The program evens lets educators cut and paste Microsoft Word and Excel documents onto the template while keeping the formatting intact.

“It really allows you to do things in terms of building a community, which we’ve wanted to do but haven’t yet been able to do,” said Kim Cavanaugh, an author and web design instructor for Florida’s Palm Beach County School District.

Cavanaugh, who has been using Macromedia’s software for years, said educators in his district have welcomed the new product because it allows them to integrate the use of the web in their classrooms more fully without seeking constant support from already busy IT staff.

An air of sadness

Back on the exhibit floor, amidst the high energy and activity surrounding the arrival of so many new product announcements, technology demonstrations, and press conferences, there also was an air of sadness at this year’s show.

Still reeling from the tragic loss of seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia, representatives from NASA were on hand to remind educators that the need for high-quality science and technology instruction in America’s schools continues, and that NASA is committed to helping schools groom young scientists for future missions.

The shuttle, lost Feb. 1, was launched into space Jan. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center, one hour south of the convention site.

“NASA wants to inspire the next generation of explorers,” said former teacher Shannon Ricles, coordinator and producer of the award-winning NASA Science Files—a free, interactive web site for students. “You can’t get them more excited about math and science instruction than you can by doing it using space as a backdrop.”

In light of the tragedy, Ricles said NASA is working hard to generate continued excitement for its educational programs, most of which are offered at no cost to schools.

More news from the exhibit floor

Apple Computer announced its spring line of iMac computers, featuring two new models. The new 17-inch widescreen model features a 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processor with faster processing capability and more memory, as well as a faster 4x SuperDrive for playing and burning both CDs and DVDs and internal support for AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth wireless technologies, all for $1,799. The second model, which comes with a 15-inch, flat-panel display, features an 800 MHz G4 processor and is priced at $1,299. Apple also announced lower pricing on its eMac line of consumer and education computers.

Corel Corp. demonstrated its new web-based product, Corel Classroom. Delivered by Element K, a provider of online training services, this fully interactive training program provides professional development courses for educators to master Corel’s WordPerfect and CorelDraw applications.

CrossTec Corp. demonstrated its NetOP School technology. The program allows instructors to monitor the work of students at every PC or lab in a given classroom. The ability to see each screen on a single monitor helps educators keep their students on task while they work. The application also lets teachers take full control over each student’s screen individually or as a class, giving teachers the ability to use one person’s work as an example or demonstrate the steps of a given exercise in real time. With NetOP, students who do not understand a particular technology concept also can send private instant messages to the instructor’s computer. A classroom suite for one teacher and 10 students costs $895.

Curriculum Associates launched its BRIGANCE Screens Online Scoring Service. This entirely web-based service lets educators run customized academic skills reports on kindergarten and first-grade students to help ensure that appropriate accountability and intervention measures are put into place at a young age. The company offers free training for the screening service at

The Discovery Channel School and CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G) launched a new partnership geared toward helping students learn about technology. As a result of the agreement, CDW-G and Discovery will produce “All About Computers,” a set of technology-related curriculum materials designed for middle and high school students. As part of the roll-out, the products will be sent free of charge to 5,000 district-level technology personnel nationwide. Plus, an additional 50,000 posters depicting how wireless technology works will be shipped to technology specialists at middle and high schools.

eBook Systems unveiled its latest technology, FlipAlbum 5 Professional, which lets students and teachers create interactive photo presentations complete with video clips, sound effects, a searchable table of contents, and customized text. Unlike Micro-soft’s familiar Power-Point presentation tool, FlipAlbum organizes its presentations in the form of an interactive book, complete with turning pages and a unique bookmarking application, which lets the presenter skip easily to specific parts of a presentation. FlipAlbum books can be shared online or burned onto a compact disc. Once the albums are put onto a CD, they can be opened and viewed on any Macintosh or Windows-based platform, regardless of whether the FlipAlbum software is installed on that computer.

Generation Yes announced that teachers will be able to receive college credit for participation in the company’s Generation Y program. This unorthodox professional development model also meets a national call for 21st-century skills among students by using students to assist teachers in the integration of technology into classrooms. Teachers from anywhere in the world now can complete the program online through Washington State University’s Distance Degree Program.

Intellitools hopes to ease the instructional burdens of overworked teachers by adding to its line of ReadyMade curriculum products. At FETC, the company announced two new additions to its suite of titles: Primary Literacy for grades K-2 and Lewis and Clark for social studies teachers in grades 3-5. All of the products in the company’s ReadyMade product line provide ready-to-use, technology-based lessons aligned to national education standards.

Kaplan K12 Learning Services introduced a number of products to help schools meet the accountability challenges leveled by NCLB. The Kaplan Achievement Planner is a software application designed to analyze high-stakes test results at district, school, class, and student levels. It also provides lesson plans aimed at closing existing achievement gaps. The Kaplan Reading Empowerment Program is another recently-released software solution that gives educators the ability to pinpoint specific reading needs of students through assessments based on Autoskill’s popular Academy of Reading software. The software lets educators track individual student progress, plan professional development workshops, and schedule one-on-one conferences to discuss student results.

Kurzweil Educational Systems—maker of the Kurzweil 3000, a software application that converts text to audio for students with learning and visual disabilities—touted the latest version of its 3000 product as a potential test-taking aid for special-needs students. The 3000 comes with a variety of interactive features, including study aids, highlighting, note-taking, and writing supports. Students can scan in text from books and worksheets, then have the content read back to them, or they can use a web reading application to hear the text of web pages read while surfing the net.

In a move to give schools more affordable access to eBook technology, Palm Digital Media and Lightning Source Inc. unveiled the Classics Collection. Students, teachers, and administrators now can have access to more that 500 classic eBook titles—from William Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf—for an entire school year. The books can be downloaded in less than a minute to all Palm-powered handheld computers, Pocket PC devices, and Mac and Windows desktops, as well as Microsoft Tablet PC devices and Dana computers from AlphaSmart. Licensing begins at $499 for the school year and gives schools unlimited access to the books.

PLATO Learning celebrated its 40th birthday this year at FETC. The provider of computer-based instruction also was pushing its K-3 FOCUS Reading and Language Program, which emphasizes the five components of reading as outlined by the National Reading Panel. K-3 FOCUS recently was reviewed and validated by the Florida Center for Reading Research.

SMART Technologies demonstrated a number of stylish new devices, including its Sympodium Interactive Lectern. Through a touch-sensitive screen attached to the lectern, teachers can annotate and give interactive presentations using a digital stylus. The stylus enables users to make real-time corrections to charts and tables. In addition, the company’s SychronEyes software puts educators in control of every student’s desktop. With SychronEyes, teachers can peek in on individual student monitors or freeze every computer in the classroom with a click of a button.

See these related links:

Scantron Corp.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Aspire Learning Corp.

Gateway Inc.

Hewlett-Packard Co.

Dell Computer Corp.

Macromedia Inc. Consortium for School Networking

U.S. Department of Education NASA

eSchool News Staff

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