Reeling from budget shortfalls from coast to coast and desperate for solutions that promise to save money while helping schools meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), education stakeholders arrived at the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology + Learning conference short on money and long on skepticism.

It didn’t help that the event–held Oct. 22-24 in Anaheim, Calif.–saw a sharp drop in attendance from previous years, with NSBA officials reporting 1,300 paid attendees and another 500 guests.

Even before the first wildfires ignited in southern California, organizers already were taking the heat for the show’s weaker-than-expected attendance. The effects of a difficult budget year could be seen clearly in the conference exhibit hall, where vendors tended to outnumber educators.

“Traffic was a little light,” acknowledged Ann Flynn, NSBA’s director of technology, especially when compared with previous years. Still, that’s to be expected in a time of financial shortfalls and reduced travel expenditures for schools, she added.

Despite a disappointing turnout, organizers along with many attendees and even some exhibitors voiced satisfaction with the show overall, which NSBA has shifted in recent years away from showcasing the latest whiz-bang solutions and more toward working with educators to establish a practical role for technology as it can be used to boost student performance under NCLB.

“This is a conversation a lot of schools still are needing help with,” Flynn told eSchool News. “Today, it’s really all about the end results, the proven results.”

Though the challenge of funding remained a popular topic in the hallways, over dinner, and throughout the exhibit hall, attendees for the most part did more than complain about their troubles. Instead, many turned their frustrations into action by touching off conversations about the importance of technology in the classroom and by weighing alterative sources of funding, including the use of public-private partnerships, to help prepare their students for life and work in the 21st century.

Online assessment: Problems and promise

At one such discussion, more than 100 chief technology officers, business leaders, and stakeholders from across the country turned out to examine technology’s role in assessment.

The joint forum–hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), and the State Educational Technology Directors Association–sought to confront the barriers presented by technology-based assessments in the classroom. Despite these barriers, proponents of online assessments believe they enable educators to make pedagogical adjustments based on real-time analysis of student performance data.

“This is an important topic, and it’s one not often talked about,” said John Bailey, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). During the forum, Bailey reminded participants that NCLB requires schools to be more proactive in identifying which students are falling behind–and online assessment advances the idea of data-driven decision making.

Creating policy is the easy part; it’s implementing the practice that often presents a problem, Bailey said. During the forum, technology leaders from Idaho, Utah, and Virginia outlined the successes and hurdles encountered by online assessment programs already under way in those states.

The state of Virginia, for instance, plans to deliver more than 100,000 online tests to students this year, according to Lan Neugent, assistant superintendent for technology at the Virginia Department of Education. By the end of next year, that number could climb to as many as 400,000, he said.

Neugent said educators are particularly fond of the online approach, because it provides test scores broken out in a variety of categories and subcategories for more accurate reporting, thus enabling teachers to better pinpoint the exact weaknesses of individual students.

Though online assessments can help schools meet the reporting elements set forth by NCLB, the high-tech approach is also heir to a number of pitfalls and potential security risks that many schools still are not quite sure how to deal with, according to panelists.

One problem is that schools have to spend both time and money to ensure stakeholders know exactly how to use the information culled from these tests. Although charts and statistics can greatly improve an educator’s understanding of his or her students’ comprehension rate, money spent on expensive systems is wasted unless both teachers and school decision makers are prepared to tap the full power derived from such investments, panelists said.

What’s more, some educators cautioned it would be a mistake to approach online assessment as a one-size-fits-all solution. Thanks in part to the varying degrees of technology available in classrooms and computer labs throughout the country, the different circumstances under which students might be forced to take online assessments could potentially skew the results of such tests, creating situations where educators are saddled with unreliable data.

Security also is a concern. For instance, panelists worried whether test data and other sensitive information would remain safe if they were made accessible to stakeholders via the web. According to Neugent, moving the Virginia state tests online has created some consternation among stakeholders in that state, many of whom question the level of protection of sensitive test material and personal student information.

Most participants concluded there would be an upside to providing formative testing to students through an online model. But others remained leery of the risks associated with bringing high-stakes tests to the internet, at least for now.

‘Cyber Security for the Digital District’

Educators at this year’s show also were abuzz with another concern: network security.

That topic was the focus of CoSN’s latest Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Forum. During an intense, two-hour discussion, CoSN invited educators, policy makers, and executives from leading security companies to ponder solutions to the growing security challenges facing mission-critical school infrastructures and their vulnerability to potentially catastrophic attacks.

“Security is one of those things that if you’re not worried about it, you should be having nightmares about it,” said Steve Miller, executive director of Mass Networks and a CoSN board member. Miller is helping to spearhead the organization’s “Cyber Security for the Digital District,” a multi-year initiative that aims to provide educational technology leaders and policy makers with strategies and tools they can use to ensure the privacy of data and the safe operation of technology within their school systems.

According to Miller, attacks on school computer systems– from unintentional breaches to malicious viruses–are doubling every year. During the forum, security took on new importance as many participants pondered what might happen if the data schools now are required to collect under NCLB were compromised or, worse, stolen as the result of an unsuspected cyber attack.

“Technology has expanded our opportunities, but as everything becomes more sophisticated, so do our vulnerabilities,” Miller pointed out.

To address the problem, participants identified several potential holes that could be exploited by hackers and others within a school system who might feel inclined to poke around where they shouldn’t.

At the top of the list was the proliferation of mobile devices in schools, which allow faculty and students to remove hardware from the network for use off-site.

Once this disconnect occurs, however, it becomes increasingly difficult for technology leaders to ensure that the machines are still secure. Whether a user downloads a virus by mistake or does so intentionally, the results can be catastrophic once that machine is reconnected to the system, officials said.

The use of wireless networks in schools presents yet another problem. Though many schools that use wireless access points already have taken great pains to close down wireless “hot spots” and other gateways that allow intruders to piggy-back on their open-air networks, the potential for new breaches persists as more and more schools begin to experiment with the technology.

CoSN’s latest security program is considered vendor-neutral, but the organization says it will work with such leading security companies as SurfControl, SonicWALL, Symantec, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft to help identify problems and close holes before new breaches occur.

From their end, educators contend the key to a secure digital society lies in the formation of well-designed security policies that identify these risks and clearly state the various responsibilities of users and administrators who work on the network.

In schools, where the free exchange of information is critical to the education of students, educators say the worst they could do is to lock down their networks entirely. “We are not the police. We need to trust our users,” Miller said.

The CoSN initiative already has won the support of ED officials, who contend increased vigilance is necessary to help schools meet the demands of President Bush’s National Cyber Security Plan, which calls on technology leaders to batten down their networks and prevent critical infrastructures from being used as a launching ground for cyber attacks.

“President Bush has made it a priority to provide safe schools for our nation’s children. In our digital world, we must also secure our school networks to keep children safe,” said ED’s Bailey. “Working with state and local governments, school districts, and the private sector–together we can identify specific ways to improve network security from administration down to the classroom.”

He added: “You can’t learn if your school environment is not safe.”

The digital workforce

To address the need for technology-savvy workers in the 21st century, ED announced it has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Commerce, as well as several visionaries from the corporate world, to explore how emerging technologies can be used in the classroom to help push students toward digital competency.

The Interagency Working Group on Advanced Technologies for Education and Training was designed to explore ways technology could boost the productivity of learning while at the same time lowering its costs and helping to make the U.S. workforce more competitive globally.

“America’s competitiveness in the knowledge-based economy depends on the skills and abilities of our workforce,” said Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology Phillip Bond. “In the face of intense global competition, nations around the world are competing for jobs and economic growth by developing a world-class workforce. To compete and win, our workers need broad and rapid access to high-quality knowledge and skills development from K to gray,” he said, referring to everyone from kindergarteners to older adults.

Bond’s point is that a changing economic climate means both students and adult workers must approach learning as a lifelong process–one that starts early and continues well after a student receives a high school or college diploma.

The current working group is founded upon the principles of a September 2002 Commerce report entitled “Visions 2020: Transforming Education and Training Through Advanced Technologies.” The document discusses how emerging technologies might be harnessed in schools to change the way children learn. (See “Visions of learning in 2020 will help shape future ed-tech policy,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3983.)

One of the emerging technologies the group already is considering is haptics–a sophisticated new training tool that enables students and educators to experience the sense of touch online (see “Researchers simulate sense of touch online,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4606). Other possibilities include the use of nanotechnology, or microprocessors so small they can be imbedded into paint on a wall, and the use of video gaming for educational purposes–a movement that has seen significant attention recently with the unprecedented popularity of interactive gaming systems, including the Nintendo Game Cube and Sony Playstation devices.

Bond said the federal government also plans to work closely with companies in the private sector to help eliminate market barriers and other hurdles that might prohibit new technologies from making their way into schools and homes sooner.

During the announcement, however, officials failed to say how long it might be before schools begin to see the results of the group’s efforts. Right now, according to Bailey, the project’s leaders are focused on collecting information about the various emerging technologies that are available. As of yet, there is no set timetable for a release of their findings, he said.

But whether the results take two months or two years, the announcement could be significant to the future of education, because it marks a rare instance of cross-agency cooperation between two of the largest federal agencies–not to mention an uncommon alliance between government officials and private-sector business leaders with regard to the formation of education policy.

ED isn’t the only group saying it’s time for the private sector to take a more proactive role in education. Following the announcement, several special interest groups publicly announced their support of the initiative.

The National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges and the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) tipped their hats to the project.

“This is excellent news,” said Molly Broad, president of the University of North Carolina and co-chair of the BHEF working group on learning and technology. “With the pending retirement of the baby-boom generation and the continued expansion of jobs requiring college-level learning, higher-education institutions must develop and adopt bold new approaches to teaching and learning.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a public-private partnership for the advancement of education, also supports the initiative. “We applaud the federal government’s efforts to foster advanced technologies for education and training,” said Amelia Maurizio, partnership chair, in a statement. “We believe there needs to be a strong dialogue between government, business, and education to develop a consensus, vision, and work plan in these two areas.”

In fact, many who spoke during this year’s conference seemed keenly interested in exploring what value private corporations might hold for the advancement of public education.

According to keynote speaker Juan Enriquez, director of the Life Science Project at the Harvard Business School, the future of education has been revolutionized in the digital age. Today, he said, technology is responsible for transforming the way people around the world do business. “We’re building a knowledge economy by coding and transmitting information,” Enriquez said.

According to Enriquez, recent technological discoveries such as those associated with the exploration of the human genome have opened nearly infinite possibilities in medicine, industry, and research. Sadly, he said, the United States struggles to remain a leader in these fields. That’s because today’s schools have not prepared tomorrow’s workers to enter what has become an increasingly technology-driven economy, he warned.

“The most important language in the world today is Microsoft and Linux,” Enriquez told an audience of more than 100 school leaders. “You make money with brains. That’s why the single most important institution is education.”

News from the exhibit hall

Though policy and progress seemed to dominate the discussions at this year’s conference, there were plenty of products and solutions on display in the exhibit hall:

AAL Solutions, offering enterprise management planning for student information systems, displayed its eSIS product, a tool designed for progressive statewide enterprises and regional service agencies across North America. eSIS, according to AAL Solutions, provides information management for everything from student records and attendance to fees management. “Because eSIS is a web solution,” AAL Solutions said, “you have improved access to real-time data–up-to-the-minute statistics and information, accessible from any computer, anytime, anywhere. That translates into major costs savings and improved data management. Plus, eSIS can be customized to meet the special needs of your school district.” http://www.aalsolutions.com/home.asp

AOL@SCHOOL demonstrated the latest additions to its free online learning service for teachers and students. Most notable might be the addition of customizable content from the Discovery Channel and a new feature for young job-seekers courtesy of VirtualJobShadow.com. This interactive, multimedia tool lets students watch videos and interviews with professionals in various fields to get a sense of what different careers are like. AOL@SCHOOL also announced expanded partnerships with BrainPOP, a producer of online, animated educational videos for schools, and Tom Snyder Productions, a leading supplier of educational software. The latest version of AOL@SCHOOL also provides a free, customizable search engine, which enables educators to surf the web for content relevant for classroom use. http://www.aolatschool.com/

Apple Computer unveiled a new series of iBook notebook computers featuring the company’s PowerPC G4 processor. Apple is calling these latest editions “the most affordable G4 notebooks ever.” A device with a 12-inch display can be purchased for $1,099, executives said. That price includes wireless capability and 256 megabytes of Double Data Rate memory. Each machine also is equipped with slot-load Combo drives for burning CDs and watching DVDs. The devices run on Apple’s latest Mac OS X version 10.3 (“Panther”) operating system. The company also announced lower prices on its popular eMac desktop computers. The all-in-one, SuperDrive-equipped machines also are selling for $1,099. http://www.apple.com/education/

Executives at Aspire Learning Corp. discussed some of the latest capabilities of Aspire, the company’s online suite of teaching, reporting, and communication tools. With the focus on data reporting and student achievement as required by NCLB, schools now can use Aspire’s new grading and reporting features to judge student progress and coordinate lesson plans with state standards, among other things. Plus, a new version of the product’s Quiz Builder feature enables educators to take advantage of a nationwide move toward more formative online assessments by providing a tool that builds customizable quizzes for students. Aspire now is compatible with the Schools Interoperability Framework, a standard to ensure that software applications can share and communicate data seamlessly across systems. http://www.aspire.com

Century Consultants, a firm specializing in K-12 administrative solutions, told attendees all about the Star Base Student Management School Suite, a family of web-based software applications that comprise the back-office data needs of school districts. The suite consists of student information, curriculum and assessment, financial and human resources, hand-held products for the Palm OS, an internet community portal, and an interactive voice-response system. http://www.centuryltd.com/home.html

CTB/McGraw-Hill, a leading provider of assessment solutions, announced a new strategic alliance with TurnLeaf Solutions Inc. to enhance CTB’s i-know family of online assessment products and student achievement reporting systems. Its alliance with TurnLeaf enables CTB to offer three new additional reporting systems to meet the needs of states, districts, schools, and individual classrooms as required by NCLB, executives said. http://www.ctb.com/

eZedia Inc. recently received one of Technology and Learning magazine’s Awards of Excellence for its multimedia web authoring software eZediaQTI, the company said. Students and teachers can use the tool to create web sites, do online presentations, build internet banners, direct interactive videos, and more. http://www.ezedia.com

Follett Software Co. demonstrated how its new Destiny Library Management tool is saving users money. The new tool runs from district servers over a wide-area network, the internet, or both. Because the product enables users to access interactive library databases and other resources via a web browser, and because it allows schools to house their library media resources in a single, centralized location, advocates of the tool say it can dramatically reduce the amount of time and money schools and library personnel must spend to update their online library systems. The result, they say, is that librarians can spend more time doing what it is they do best: teaching. After investing in the system, Information Technology Director Mike Ingram of the Orange County Schools in Hillsborough, N.C., said his district saved more than $100,000 in technology costs and that staffers were able to reduce their support time by some 98 percent. http://www.fsc.follett.com/

According to eRate specialist Funds for Learning LLC, cash-starved schools and libraries could lose millions of dollars in approved eRate discounts if they fail to follow up with the required paperwork by two fast-approaching deadlines. The latest Funds For Learning analysis showed that as of Oct. 1, schools and libraries whose discounts were approved before the start of the 2003 funding year last July 1 had not yet taken the first step required to make use of up to $208 million in approved discounts for telecommunications services and internet access. Assuming that applicants were using these services when the funding year began, they faced an Oct. 29 deadline to notify the program administrators that these services had begun. Schools–or their vendors–also might be failing to complete the necessary paperwork specifying the precise discount payments they are owed, the company said. To help schools better adhere to the rules and floating deadlines of the program, Funds for Learning demonstrated its E-Rate Manager, a free, web-based tool that allows districts to keep track of eRate filing deadlines and to make sure they are spending their money accordingly. Executives hope the tool will keep schools from getting shut out of valuable eRate discounts. http://www.fundsforlearning.com/

During one of the most highly attended presentations given in the exhibit hall this year, Gateway Inc. invited conference attendees to participate in a mock version CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman, in which an impressionist flipped note cards and interviewed members of a live “studio audience,” all the while plugging products such as the Gateway Tablet PC. This device is being offered to schools for $2,099, or $200 off the list price, for a limited time only, the company said. http://www.gateway.com/work/ed/index.shtml

Hewlett-Packard Co. and Educational Testing Service (ETS) have come together to launch the Discourse Challenge, a competition that calls on schools to try ETS’s new computer-based assessment tool, then submit an essay about how the product helped improve teacher productivity and student outcomes in the classroom. Five finalists will receive airfare and hotel accomodations for next year’s National Educational Computing Conference in New Orleans. The winning educator also will receive a Discourse-equipped HP Tablet PC Mobile Classroom, courtesy of HP. The runners-up each get free Discourse software licenses and training. http://www.ets.org/
http://welcome.hp.com/country/us/en/solutions/pub_sector.html

InFocus Corp. , a maker of digital projectors and presentation systems for schools, demonstrated its latest wireless projection devices for the classroom, including the recently announced LP840 and LP850 large-screen projectors for use in auditoriums and board rooms. Both machines allow users to project their ideas from a PC to anywhere in the room for use in collaborative or interactive presentations. According to the company, each projector is easy to use and operates with simple menus that are accessible by remote control. The company also showcased its family of portable projection devices, including the lightweight InFocus X1. Priced at just under $1,000, the 6-pound machine can go just about anywhere and is capable of projecting everything from interactive PowerPoint presentations to MPEG and DVD video applications. If you’re concerned about the security of your wireless projectors, InFocus also markets a product called ProjectorNet 2.0, which enables administrators to remotely monitor the status of every projector on the network. http://www.infocus.com/

InfoTech Strategies, the information and communication technology consulting firm behind the CEO Forum on Education & Technology and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, announced the addition of Terry Crane as a senior education adviser to the firm. Crane will join InfoTech Chairman Ken Kay in leading the organization’s technology practices. Crane, formerly at the helm of AOL@SCHOOL, says she plans to ensure the organization’s clients “apply learning technologies to the challenges of educators.” Crane will play a critical role at InfoTech as it strives to prepare schools for working and learning in the 21st century, the group said. http://www.itstrategies.com/

Point-of-instruction assessment and remediation were being emphasized by Kaplan K-12 Learning Services. Most notable among the firm’s offerings might be the Kaplan Achievement Planner, a tool the company says can turn actual state test data into improved student results. The product is a web-based teacher tool that aggregates state test results into a valuable portrait of specific class needs. It gives teachers an easy way to incorporate focused, standards-based review into classroom instruction. According to the company, the Kaplan Achievement Planner: analyzes actual state assessment data and reports on students’ skill gaps, prescribes proven Kaplan lesson plans with student activities that close skill gaps, and three assesses student progress with ongoing benchmark assessments that mirror state exams. http://www.kaptest.com/K12_home.jhtml

Learning.com, a maker of technology curriculum and integration tools, announced plans to offer a new professional development product by November 2003. The program will include on-site workshops, regional conferences, and training certification academies to help educators more skillfully and confidently integrate technology within their core curricula. A total of 13 full-day professional development workshops will be offered in cities throughout the nation. Individual workshops will cover topics such as high-stakes testing, technology integration, and technology and English-language learners. Additional topics will focus specifically on meeting ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards for Students and Teachers. All workshops are aligned with the National Staff Development Council’s Standards for Staff Development, and in many states, professional development hours are available for workshop participation. http://www.learning.com/

Macromedia Inc. announced the availability of new education solutions to assist educators in teaching digital skills through project-based curriculum and professional development resources. The company’s latest curriculum and training materials for K-12 education support a variety of courses, from teaching web design and development to integrating technology into the curriculum. The new Digital Design curriculum for high schools and the new Digital Design Staff Development Guide aim to help students and teachers build basic IT skills using Macromedia’s MX 2004 software. Digital Design Curriculum Guide is a year-long course focusing on design, communication, project management, and web technology. http://www.macromedia.com/

The National School Boards Foundation and Microsoft Corp. announced a joint initiative to provide the nation’s 95,000 school board members with tools and resources to help them better understand the issues surrounding NCLB. Project LeadersLearn is a series of online training videos designed to provide school leaders with the background and information necessary to interpret the rules of NCLB and enable them to serve their districts better and more efficiently. NCLB places significant requirements on school systems in the areas of data collection and reporting, student assessment, professional development, and parental notification. To help schools meet these requirements, Project LeadersLearn will provide state school boards associations with resources to conduct NCLB training seminars. http://www.nsbf.org/
http://www.microsoft.com/education/?ID=K12Savings

netTrekker, a customizable, educator-tested search engine for schools, said it will join forces with Sagebrush Corp. to help deliver a new library search tool called Pinpoint. Through the agreement, Sagebrush will resell the netTrekker search engine as part of its Pinpoint product. Pinpoint is a unique library search tool designed to help librarians, teachers, and students access the best resources for teaching and learning by e