Students have a say in national ed-tech plan

More than 210,000 students from 1,535 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia responded to a recent call by the nonprofit group NetDay to share their ideas about how technology should be used in schools. The results will help shape the nation’s third National Educational Technology Plan now in development, federal officials say.

During an initiative called Speak Up Day, NetDay and its partners solicited student feedback on technology through an online survey. Although the event was supposed to last one day–Oct. 29–organizers extended participation through Nov. 5 in light of the tremendous response.

“We are overwhelmed with the thoughtful responses expressed by the students who participated and the teachers who guided them through the survey,” said Julie Evans, chief executive officer of NetDay, a national organization known for its successful school wiring programs.

Of the 210,000 students who responded to the survey, 5 percent–or more than 10,000–were students in grades K-3.

Not surprisingly, respondents overwhelmingly indicated that technology is important to their education. Ninety-seven percent of students in grades 7-12 said it’s important or very important, and 83 percent of these students said losing internet access would have a definite impact on their schooling.

When asked what they plan to do to get more involved with decisions about technology at their school, responses ranged from “set up a school-only chat room for kids to talk about technology” and “start a new club about technology” to “run a fundraiser to get more money for computers” and “find a way to turn every desk into a laptop.”

“I am thoroughly impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students’ responses and the almost total lack of apathy,” Evans said. “The responses are very action-oriented, with a lot of personal responsibility and initiative. These kids are not only interested in how technology is being used at their schools, they are also interested in helping to find solutions to the challenges–and that includes financial challenges.”

She continued, “Many of the quotes include ideas that the kids have for fundraisers and other ideas to get new or more equipment at their schools. These students view themselves as part of the solution, and I think that is very positive for the future. I am especially impressed in the grades 3-6 student responses to this rather sophisticated call to action.”

Evans said organizers are compiling the responses and will prepare a national summary report no later than Jan. 1. The group will conduct a more in-depth analysis of the results after that and will brief members of Congress this winter, she added.

In addition, school leaders will be able to log onto the NetDay web site in December to view the survey responses from their own schools and compare these responses with their state results and the national report.

“We think getting [those] data back out to the schools to help jump-start dialog at the local level is important,” Evans said.

Teachers whose students participated in the survey agreed that having student feedback will be instrumental to spurring local success with technology.

The responses were “real eye openers,” according to Anne Beacham, educational technologist at DeLalio Elementary School in Jacksonville, N.C. “We had a chance to see technology through the eyes of the students. We are looking forward to the survey results and anticipating making valuable adjustments in the way technology is used at [our school].”

“Kids need to have a voice,” said Diane Bennett, technology coach at Mt. Juliet High School in Tennessee. “We learned from the students that they are using instant messaging at home to help each other. Now I am investigating and researching through the web how we can impact learning using that strategy. We can’t meet needs unless we hear from the students.”

John Bailey, director of technology for the U.S. Department of Education, called the Speak Up Day initiative a “tremendous success” and said he is looking forward to reviewing the summary report in December.

Bailey said the event is part of a two-pronged approach to making sure students have a voice in the creation of a national ed-tech strategy. The other part is looking at market research to identify who today’s students are, what they are looking for from their schools, and how education can meet their needs, he said.

NetDay’s partners in the Speak Up Day intiative included the American Association of School Administrators, Benton Foundation, Cable in the Classroom, Consortium for School Networking, International Society for Technology in Education, National School Boards Association, State Education Technology Directors Association, and TECH CORPS.

In addition, the following corporate partners helped support the effort: Bell South Foundation, Sun Microsystems, Google, and Apple Computer.



U.S. Department of Education


ED’s revamped web site aims to be more user-friendly

The U.S. Department of Education is revamping how it delivers tools and resources to stakeholders. The agency’s newly redesigned web site is one of the steps ED said it’s taking to make information and resources more readily available to educators, parents, and students alike. “This redesigned site can help reduce the time teachers, parents, and others spend looking for information, so they can spend more time using it to help children learn,” said Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Among the latest improvements is the reorganization of data into five major categories: grants and contracts, financial aide for students, education resources, research and statistics, and policy. Officials also have added customized pages for teachers, principals, parents, students, institutions of higher education, grantees, and technical assistance providers. Each visitor now has the option to personalize his or her own version of the site, so users automatically see information about the topics that interest them specifically. Developers also have been working to improve the site’s search engine so that queries can be answered with greater speed, accuracy, and reliability, ED officials say.


Research: Nearly one-third of Americans now form ‘tech-savvy elite’

Your stakeholders are more likely than you might have realized to be highly tech-savvy. A study released Nov. 23 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 31 percent of Americans value the internet, cell phones, and handheld organizers more than TV and traditional wired telephones. Schools and colleges increasingly will be working with this so-called “tech elite.”

Although the American family has been growing smaller, the researchers said, Americans are more often using technology to communicate with one another, establish relationships, and gather information. One manifestation is that these people are able to interact more effectively.

Consider the “smart mob,” a phenomenon in which people use text-messaging devices to assemble previously unconnected people for some common purpose. Quickly assembled crowds have become a celebrated feature of the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. Such rapid deployment fostered by information technology also could have implications for a variety of activities related to schools and colleges–from school board attendance and bond-issue turnout to impromptu alumni gatherings.

Researchers who conducted the study said they were somewhat surprised by the size of this new tech elite. Furthermore, they found, these tech-savvy stakeholders are not just twenty-somethings, although the young do compose the plurality of the tech elite. Researchers also found a substantial number of baby boomers and seniors who are equally ardent about using technology.

According to the study, a “young elite” makes up 20 percent of this group. Their average age is 22. Older “baby boomers” make up another 20 percent. Their average age is 52. And wired “genXers” make up 60 percent of the group. Their average age is 36.

Each age group has its own characteristics when it comes to technology, the researchers said. Techies in their late teens and 20s are more likely to create online content, such as Web logs, or “blogs.” Generation Xers are more likely to pay for content on the web, while wired boomers and seniors generally plumb the internet for news or to do work-related research.

Sound like anybody you know? To determine if you or your colleagues might be swelling the ranks of the tech elite, consider these other Pew findings about this group:

  • They spend, on average, a total of $169 a month on broadband internet service, satellite, or cable TV, cell phones, and web content. That’s 39 percent higher than the national average, $122.

  • Some 29 percent of them have broadband connections, compared with 17 percent of everyone else.

  • About 7 percent of technology aficionados have canceled their landline phone and gone all-wireless. Only 2 percent of nontechies have done that.

  • Despite being plugged in to the internet and other sources of data more often, only 13 percent of the tech-savvy crowd feels overwhelmed by information. By contrast, a sense of information overload plagues 25 percent of the rest of the population.

    So why do the people who immerse themselves in information feel less besieged by it?

    It could be that technology helps some people organize or take control of their lives, said John Horrigan, author of the PEW report. Or others are simply better at knowing “what to do and how to cope with the information that is flooding at them,” he said.

    Pew produced the report after surveying 1,677 American adults in October. The study has a margin of error of two percentage points.


    Pew Internet & American Life Project

    Full Report in PDF

  • tags

    As students power up, colleges rewire

    Steve Leslie’s dorm room at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has 20 plugs sprouting from the walls. They power a color TV, stereo, compact disc and DVD players, video game player, desktop computer and laptop, printer, scanner, refrigerator, microwave, and two fans. Then there are rechargers for a cell phone, handheld computer, camera, electric razor, and toothbrush.

    “I just keep adding stuff,” said Leslie, 20, a junior who shares the room with another student. “I fill up my car and my dad’s truck. Some of the bigger stuff, like the speakers, have to wait for the second trip.”

    Today’s collegians are part of a generation raised on electronics, and colleges are having no choice but to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade electrical systems. Often, the upgrade costs are getting passed on to parents and students in the form of higher fees.

    “It looks like Circuit City in some of those rooms,” said Dan Bertsos, director of residence services at Wright State University near Dayton, Ohio.

    New and renovated dorms at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, are being wired to handle the increasing load.

    “Kids used to come to college with an AM radio and an electric razor. Now they arrive with every electronic device there is,” said Roger Fisher, director of residential services. “They come to campus in a U-Haul, and Dad follows in a Suburban.”

    The average freshman at Miami University takes 18 appliances to campus, according to a March survey by the school.

    As part of a $7 million renovation of one dorm, Ogden Hall, the university spent $212,548 in 2000 to add building substations, electrical distribution panels, and electrical outlets. The 7,000 students who live on campus pay an extra $100 a year in housing fees to cover the renovation costs.

    “These days the students’ lives are quite changed. They need more appliances,” said Takashi Kawai, a 64-year-old Dayton-area man whose son lives in a dorm at Miami.

    In a renovation a few years ago, Wright State doubled to four the number of electrical outlets in each of the 162 rooms at Hamilton Hall, increased the number of circuit breakers, installed new electrical-switch gear, and rewired fuse boxes and student rooms. The cost was about $500,000, or $1,000 per student.

    At Penn State University, electrical consumption in October was 33 million kilowatt hours, up from 27 million in October 1996. The school’s electric bill is about $1 million a month. Paul Ruskin, with the university’s physical-plant office, said power use by the 13,000 student residents contributed to the increase.

    Some officials say higher energy costs, campus expansions, lighting, and the addition of computer labs and other energy-eating facilities are more to blame for increased power demand than student appliances.

    And upgrading electrical systems in new and renovated dorms is often required by law under newer, more demanding building safety codes.

    Andrew Matthews, of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International, said many dorms were built in the 1950s and 1960s and don’t have the electrical capacity for power-dependent students.

    The higher amp load has some schools setting limits and conserving.

    The University of Dayton had to stop installing air conditioners in the dorm rooms of students who requested them for such things as allergies and asthma. Craig Schmitt, executive director of residential services, said the school will be able to accommodate those students next fall in a new, air-conditioned dorm.

    Miami University has been replacing incandescent lights around campus with more efficient fluorescent ones.

    But conservation alone is oftentimes not enough.

    Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn., decided to tear down one residence hall last year and build a new dorm at a cost of $7 million.

    “If too many women turned on their hair dryers in the morning, the circuit breakers would blow. That was happening daily,” said Bill Seymour, vice president and dean of students.


    Association of College and University Housing Officers-International


    Apples are in, board members are out in laptop flap

    Frustrated by the local school board’s decision to spend $1.7 million to provide Apple laptop computers for some junior high students but not others, residents of Stillwater, Minn., voiced their opposition by unseating three board members, while selecting a newcomer from the ballot and electing two write-in candidates in the Nov. 4 elections.

    It took only a month of campaigning for write-in candidates Nancy Hoffman and Christopher Kunze to harness the public’s anger over the decision, which critics also said was an unnecessary expense in a time of tight budgets.

    Though it’s unclear whether the election results will change the district’s laptop plans, observers say the incident serves as a stark reminder for school leaders nationwide of the importance of getting stakeholder buy-in before launching any ambitious technology initiative.

    Stillwater’s anger runs deep

    In late September, district officials announced that Oak-Land Junior High School, one of two area junior high schools, would become one of four National Demonstration Sites for student laptop computing during the next five years.

    The program was created by Apple Computer to nominate schools of high standing that could further promote effective learning by integrating portable and wireless computing into the curriculum.

    The district’s other junior high school, Stillwater Junior High School, also will take part in the program as a study site. The initiative will allow the schools to be part of a national network dedicated to sharing curricula and teaching methods to improve education for students, officials said. Both schools will receive extensive training, wireless access, microscopes, computers, and other digital equipment.

    For Hoffman and Kunze, the plan seemed to come out of the blue. It also seemed part of a larger pattern of the school board acting without enough public input.

    So they decided to do something about it.

    With a month left before Election Day, the two–who knew each other only slightly at the time–started campaigning together as write-in candidates to send the district a message that residents were fed up.

    That message was received–and then some–on Nov. 4 when Hoffman and Kunze were elected to the school board and the three incumbents who had voted for the laptop plan were defeated.

    “This was an impossible task that became possible,” Kunze said. “It really was a grass-roots campaign.”

    In an interview with eSchool News, Hoffman–who said she supports the use of technology in schools–cited cost and equity as her two main objections to the district’s laptop plans.

    A large chunk of the district’s technology budget would be used to fund the program, she noted, even though the benefits would be reaped primarily by students at the two junior high schools. Further, while Stillwater students would have the computers for use in school, only Oak-Land students would be allowed to bring the machines home with them.

    Hoffman also questioned whether district officials had made provisions for potential down-the-road costs, including additional support staff, maintenance, and related platform concerns likely to result as school technology leaders mull the switch from PCs to a predominantly Macintosh architecture.

    According to school officials, the program will cost $340,000 per year for five years. The district said it plans to pay for the program by extracting $250,000 a year from the annual district-wide technology budget and $90,000 from Oak-Land’s existing capital budget. In addition, Apple has agreed to pay for training of school employees, installation services, and any additional network equipment.

    But Hoffman and others opposed to the contract argue that pulling a quarter of a million dollars a year from a technology levy of $700,000 probably isn’t the best use of taxpayer money, especially in light of current budget shortfalls. “It’s just not cost-effective given the tight budgets,” she said.

    Hoffman suggested the money could have been better spent at the high school level, where computers and other resources already have been stretched thin. As it stands now, the Stillwater Area High School could receive replenishment computers from the middle school, if and when the laptops arrive.

    In defense of its actions, the district said it chose the program as a way to bolster student achievement.

    “The decision to take part in this program stems from the district’s commitment to raising student achievement to the top 1 percent of students nationally,” officials said in a statement.

    “All of our students will benefit by what we learn at Oak-Land and Stillwater Junior High School,” added Superintendent Kathleen Macy.

    District officials had not returned eSchool News telephone calls before press time.

    A lesson in electronic campaigning

    Write-in candidates win school board seats from time to time, said Mike Torkelson of the Minnesota School Boards Association, but two in one race is highly unusual.

    The scale of what Hoffman and Kunze accomplished impressed even some district residents who favor the laptop plan.

    Afton resident Jim Amaral, a laptop proponent, said he is disappointed the board will be losing the experience and leadership of defeated incumbents Mary Cecconi, Christy Hlavacek, and John Uppgren.

    “But I have to say, this is democracy in action,” he said. “What a great lesson.”

    As soon as the district made the deal with Apple to provide students and teachers at Oak-Land Junior High with round-the-clock access to laptops, which would eventually be returned to the district, Hoffman and other residents started looking around for write-in candidates.

    Someone told her about Kunze, a Stillwater resident with two young children who had been toying with the idea of running for school board.

    Hoffman approached him, and they decided to pool their resources.

    Kunze, a computer consultant, became the computer guru, setting up a web site with biographical information about himself and Hoffman as well as their stand on the laptop issue.

    The site also had campaign posters people could download and stick on their cars.

    Hoffman, a Stillwater resident with three children–including one at Stillwater Junior High, where students are not getting laptops for home use–coordinated the dozens of friends who came forward to volunteer.

    Some made fliers, others brought literature door-to-door or passed it out at local meetings, and most called their friends or sent out eMail messages letting people know exactly how to enter Hoffman’s and Kunze’s names on Election Day.

    Kunze estimates he worked two to three hours each weekday and eight hours each weekend day campaigning and answering voters’ questions.

    “It was a part-time job,” Hoffman said.

    Hoffman’s and Kunze’s campaign seemed to touch a nerve with Stillwater-area voters.

    Close to 18 percent of the district’s registered voters submitted ballots, which was a higher turnout than surrounding districts and impressive given the lack of a levy question, said Kevin Corbid, who oversees Washington County’s elections.

    About 27 percent of the more than 20,000 votes cast went to Hoffman and Kunze, a figure that election officials said was unusually high for write-in candidates.

    Technology and equity are hot-button issue in many communities, especially as budgets have been cut or stretched to the breaking point in recent years, said Nora Carr, senior vice president of advertising and public relations firm Luquire George Andrews Inc. and an eSchool News columnist.

    “Parents want equal access to the best technology the district has to offer, same as they desire access to any other perceived advantage for their children,” she said.

    But that often puts districts in an impossible situation, Carr said. Budget constraints make corporate partnerships and offers very attractive–but if these partnerships come with a lot of strings attached, competitors and others are not going to be very happy about it. Budget issues also mean that new technologies have to be phased in, she said, which means some children are going to have access to the latest technology and some are not.

    “Communication with all constituency groups has to be much more extensive than in years past, and issues can flare up and become white-hot much more quickly, putting surprised administrators on the defensive,” Carr said.

    “The only way to manage potential issues is to get out in front and communicate, communicate, communicate throughout the process. The web and direct marketing through electronic newsletters or e-blasts to key constituents can be very effective tools in this new 24-7 world we find ourselves in.”

    What Carr said she finds most intriguing about this situation is that a few parents were able to quickly put together a web-based write-in campaign and win.

    “Superintendents, principals, and other district communicators need to catch up to where their constituents already are,” she said. “If you can’t get a compelling, jargon-free eMail message on an important issue out to key people in your community in 30 minutes or less, you’re simply not prepared to communicate effectively in the new media age.”

    Despite Hoffman’s and Kunzie’s success, it’s unclear whether the election results will change anything about the laptop initiative.

    Superintendent Macy said the contract with Apple will be executed as planned. Kunze said it wouldn’t make much sense to break the contract, because doing so probably would cost the district a lot of money.

    Some wonder if the plan could be tweaked–maybe dividing up the computers between the district’s junior highs.

    “The school board has to gain back trust,” Kunze said. “And if we don’t, we’re in a lot of trouble.”


    Stillwater Area Schools

    Hoffman’s and Kunze’s web site

    Apple Computer Inc.


    New study reveals 187 key web design rules

    A new report from the federal government distills thousands of pages of research down to 187 key recommendations for how web sites should be constructed to maximize their effectiveness as communication tools.

    The “Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines,” released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), can help educators and others design their own web sites based on proven research about what works–and what doesn’t–to ensure the greatest use among stakeholders. For example, are school web site designers using the best fonts, download times, screen resolution, or sentence length?

    “When we start using our own guesswork, literally, we find our web sites are all over the place,” said SanJay J. Koyani, senior usability engineer in the Office of Public Affairs at HHS. “It’s not good to have consistently bad web sites.”

    As many as 1,000 research papers on web design are published each year, Koyani said–but many of them are hard to access or understand, and not all of them are relevant.

    “The No. 1 problem was none of [these studies] agreed, and the second problem was none of them referenced research,” he said.

    In the Usability Guidelines report, however, each recommendation receives two ratings: one to gauge its “relative importance” to the success of a web site, and another to determine its “strength of the evidence.”

    Some recommendations have a greater impact on the overall success of a web site than others, and the available research to support each recommendation is not equal in quality and scope, Koyani said.

    Researchers audited and reviewed many research papers and a dozen popular web design style guides before settling upon their 187 guidelines, organized into 13 chapters.

    The report addresses topics such as web accessibility, navigation, page layout, titles and headings, writing for the web, graphics, animation, searches, and more.

    “I thought it was interesting that there was so much information and research out there,” Koyani said. “I had no idea there was such conclusive data on this stuff.”

    Initially, this compendium of the latest research began as a project to help the National Cancer Institute (NCI) create more usable cancer information web sites, so the guidelines are consistent with NCI’s cancer information dissemination model: “rapidly collect, organize, and distribute information in a usable format to those who need it.”

    But the usefulness of the report grew to encompass all web developers.

    “These guidelines aren’t prescriptive; they are guides,” Koyani said. “The goal is not to stifle creativity, it’s to give people starting points.”

    Koyani warns that many of the guidelines seem simple and obvious, but many web site developers nonetheless fail to follow them.

    For example, the report recommends that a web site should be easy to find online, because research shows that web searchers won’t look past the first 30 responses generated by a search engine query.

    After a major redesign, web site owners should notify visitors, the report says, because according to at least three studies, users often do not know what to do when they are suddenly confronted with a new look or navigation structure.

    The report also recommends using at least a 12-point font, because research shows that “fonts smaller than 12 points elicit slower reading performance from users.”

    The following guidelines have the strongest supporting evidence:

    1. Use an iterative design approach. This means making and testing both paper and software prototypes until the most useful and usable web site is created.

    2. Provide useful content. Studies show that content is the most critical element of a web site–even more critical than navigation, visual design, functionality, and interactivity. Content should be engaging, relevant, and appropriate to the audience.

    3. Recognize tester bias. Multiple web testers each will identify different problems when evaluating a web site, so web developers should specify which usability objectives the testers should be looking for.

    4. Use heuristics cautiously. It is common practice to use heuristic evaluations (exploratory problem-solving techniques), or expert reviews, before conducting usability performance tests on a web site, but these kinds of reviews tend to detect far more problems than actually exist.

    5. Use cognitive walkthroughs cautiously. Cognitive walkthroughs are often used to resolve obvious problems before conducting performance tests, but they also find more potential problems than actually exist.

    6. Standardize task sequences. Web visitors should be able to do things in the same way and sequence each time. For example, when offering a calendar for scheduling appointments online, don’t make visitors use a drop-down menu on one page and a pop-up menu on the next page.

    7. Design for working memory limitations. When visitors must remember information on one web page for use on another page or another location on the same page, they can only remember about three or four items for a few seconds at a time, the report says.

    8. Align items on a page. Short lines of text, text blocks, rows, columns, check boxes, radio buttons, data entry fields, and so on should be lined up either horizontally or vertically–and never diagonally.

    9. Choose appropriate line lengths. On a computer, it takes less time to read longer lines (75 to 100 characters) of text than it takes to read short lines (less than 20 characters), research shows.

    10. Use descriptive headings liberally. Visitors can scan well-written headings faster, so they can locate what they are searching for quickly.

    11. Use black text on plain, high-contrast backgrounds. People can read black text on a white background up to 32 percent faster than reading light text on a dark background, the report says.

    12. Ensure visual consistency. This involves using the same size, font, and spacing of characters; the same colors for labels, fonts, and backgrounds; and the same locations of labels, text, and pictures.

    13. Use at least a 12-point font. Traditional, paper-based font sizes do not translate well to the web because of how various operating systems interpret and display font sizes. What looks good on a PC might appear small and illegible on a Mac, for example.

    14. Use familiar fonts. Recommended fonts include Times New Roman, Georgia, Arial, Helvetica, and Verdana.

    15. Emphasize importance. Changing font characteristics–such as using bold type, italics, upper-case letters, or a larger font size–draws importance to words and phrases. However, research shows these features also slow reading by 20 percent and therefore should be used sparingly. Also, do not underline words to show emphasis, because underlining on the web indicates a link and will confuse visitors.

    16. Use attention-attracting features when appropriate. Movement or animation is the most effective means, but other ways include making important items larger, adding photos, and using bright colors.

    17. Order elements to maximize user performance. Organize lists, sets of links, or tabs alphabetically or numerically. The user’s logic should prevail rather than the designer’s logic, the report says.

    18. Use data entry fields to speed performance. Studies have found that text entry is faster and preferred over all other methods (such as a selection list box often used to choose a state or province), even though text entry results in more errors.

    19. Use video, animation, and audio meaningfully. These features should only help convey or support a web site’s content.

    20. Ensure that images do not slow downloads. Using smaller images and limiting page size to less than 30,000 bytes will result in faster response time for visitors, the report says.

    21. Use simple background images. Text on top of a background image is difficult to read, and large background images also slow download times.

    22. Use images to facilitate learning. In learning situations, pictures and diagrams are more powerful than words because the brain recalls them better.

    23. Use mixed case with prose. This means capitalize writing conventionally, such as starting the first word in each sentence with an upper-case letter, the report says. Avoid writing whole paragraphs in upper case or capitalizing the first letter of every word.

    24. Facilitate scanning. Visitors generally skim a web page by looking at headings only until they find what they are looking for, so don’t bury the information in dense text.

    25. Group related elements. This will save visitors time as they scan the page, the report says.

    26. Design quantitative content for quick understanding. Tables, graphics, and charts often speed the understanding of information.

    27. Use color for grouping. The report says people can distinguish up to 10 different colors that are assigned to different categories, but it recommends you use no more than five different colors to differentiate categories. Also, do not use color alone to convey information, as blind or visually impaired people who access the site with a text reader will not be able to make sense of the color.


    Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines (PDF 39.5 MB)


    Tech foundations join in $130M education project

    Charitable foundations established by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Dell Inc. founder Michael Dell are combining to donate $55 million toward a massive statewide project to redesign and improve Texas high schools.

    Gov. Rick Perry on Nov. 12 announced the $130 million “Texas High School Project” initiative, which calls for restructuring or building high schools in the state’s 140 districts, mostly in minority or low-income areas.

    “It’s one of the largest public-private efforts of its kind aimed at improving public schools, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Perry.

    Contributions include $35 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $20 million from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, $7 million from the Communities Foundation of Texas, and $2.5 million from an anonymous donor.

    Another $65 million will come from state funds approved by lawmakers last spring.

    Texas high schools will compete for grants to target such things as dropout rates, better teacher-student relationships, and stronger college-preparation programs. Charter schools also are eligible for the grants.

    “The aim of this [program] is to aid struggling schools and create new schools in struggling communities,” said Tom Vander Ark, an executive director for the Gates Foundation.

    Grants for 70 districts are expected to be awarded in February, with a second round to be allocated in September.

    The five-year initiative will restructure high schools to meet rigorous curricula while providing a supportive learning environment. Goals include improving the student-counselor ratio and providing after-school programs, tutoring, and early intervention.

    The initiative calls for breaking large schools into smaller learning environments. College-prep classes, already a focus, would become more prevalent.

    New, smaller high schools will be built and patterned after successful models elsewhere, such as High Tech High School in San Diego, Calif., where nearly two-thirds of the students meet or exceed California’s math and English standards

    Perry pointed to improvements Texas has made with elementary and middle schools in recent years. Now high schools need similar attention, he said.

    Last year, 1,000 Texas high schools had less than 50 percent of their students pass all sections of the state Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Only about one-third of minority and low-income students passed the full test.

    In Texas, only 80 percent of the ninth-graders in high school graduate, said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who is on the Texas Senate Education Committee.

    Nearly one-third of Texas high school graduates who attend college must take remedial courses–something Shapiro called “totally unacceptable.”

    Yet some Texas high schools are making strides.

    Susan Dell pointed to the Austin Independent School District, where one of their programs resulted in 95 percent of the students taking honors courses and a 100-percent graduation rate.

    “We recognize that it’s this type of visionary and bold initiative that Texas must undertake to overcome the huge obstacles that are facing high school students,” Dell said.

    The Gates Foundation funds education programs nationwide, but what attracted foundation officials to Texas, they said, was the need coupled with the leadership in place to undertake the massive overhaul.

    Both tech giants have Texas connections. Dell is based in Round Rock, near Austin, and Melinda Gates is a Dallas native.

    Perry pointed out that the Texas High School Project dovetails nicely into ongoing efforts, such as the push for Advanced Placement courses and test-taking.

    “In the state of Texas, there are no second-class citizens, no second-rate dreams,” Perry said. “This high school reform plan will provide new resources and new tools to ensure students complete their studies, attend college, and achieve their dreams.”


    Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

    Michael and Susan Dell Foundation

    Communities Foundation of Texas

    Office of Gov. Rick Perry


    Chart the past–and present–of geographic exploration with this site commemorating Lewis and Clark

    Commemorating 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their pioneering expedition throughout North America, ESRI, a maker of geographic information systems (GIS) software, has developed a new web site called “Lewis and Clark 200.” The site provides an introduction to modern techniques of exploration, as well as a detailed history of mapmaking–from the tools first used by the famous pair’s Corps of Discovery to more recent cartographic methods such as GIS, a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing places and events. What’s more, the web site offers many resources for geographic study, including classroom learning guides and links to Lewis and Clark maps and journals. The expedition and its bicentennial commemoration provide an evocative starting-off point for students interested in the study of geography, as well as an opportunity to use technology to understand changing environments. Today, geographic technologies are used to pinpoint the location of people, define landscape features, carefully manage the use of resources, and plan for sustainable development, according to the site.


    Controversial radio ID tags keep track of kids

    At the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, N.Y., a controversial new technology is now in play that administrators say can detect whether students are in school or playing hooky using microchips embedded inside their student ID cards.

    The tiny identifiers are known as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags–inexpensive computer chips uploaded with personal information about individual students and monitored by an electronic reader located just inside the entrance to the school.

    Proponents of the technology say the chips, viewed by many as next-generation bar codes, will help automate administrative tasks from the front office to the lunch line, thus enabling educators to spend less time filling in their grade books and more time on instruction. But some privacy experts fear the devices, if used to their full potential, would tread on the personal rights of students by providing a means to monitor their every move.

    Gary Stillman, the school’s director, says he was drawn to the technology not for its potential to spy on students, but for its ability to assist in what otherwise would be a very labor-intensive hassle: keeping attendance.

    “The idea was to speed up the process so that teachers would be able to spend more time on task,” he said.

    All 422 students enrolled in this inner-city K-8 institution are required to wear the tags, which are embedded into the photo identification badges draped around their necks. When students arrive at school, they must present their ID card in front of an electronic kiosk. Once their names are verified by the RFID reader, their photos appear on the screen. Students must touch their photos to confirm their entrance into the building. This information is then forwarded to the school’s database for attendance records, and a copy is provided in real time to all classroom teachers.

    Faculty members also wear the tags, outfitted with a special feature that enables them to open locked doors.

    Unlike traditional bar codes, RFID devices do not require manual scanning. Rather, as long as the chips are within proximity of a reading device, they can be tracked via an electromagnetic signal.

    Each RFID tag contains a microchip capable of housing the individual names, attendance records, and account information for each student. When students approach the kiosk, these data automatically are registered by an RFID reader, or antenna, installed in the kiosk and are beamed to a server that records the information and makes it accessible from a central database. That way, when homeroom teachers pull up their class rosters on the computer, they can see whether or not a student has checked in for the day.

    In all, Stillman said the school spent approximately $25,000 on its initial investment. The most expensive piece was the multipurpose kiosk with the RFID reader installed. That device, which doubles as a touch-screen display for school news and information, sells for $4,000, according to David Straitiff, president and chief executive officer at Intuitek, the Buffalo-based systems integration firm responsible for supplying the technology. The chips themselves sell for between $2 and $3 apiece–a price Straitiff said was comparable to the cost of other types of security access cards used in schools today.

    Enterprise is believed to be the first school in the nation to use RFID technology to track student attendance. The chip Intuitek uses in its student nametags is manufactured by electronics giant Texas Instruments. Other big-name companies, including Philips Electronics, have begun selling similar devices.

    RFID entered the national spotlight earlier this year when corporations such as Wal-Mart and clothing retailer Benetton began using the chips in favor of bar codes to monitor inventory and keep track of goods.

    But in October, when officials at the San Francisco Public Library announced plans to track more than 2 million books, CDs, and audiovisual materials by inserting RFID chips into borrowed merchandise likely to find its way off the shelves and into people’s homes, privacy advocates sounded an alarm. (See “Book-tracking technology has critics speaking volumes,”

    According to news reports, officials planned to use the chips primarily for streamlining inventory and checkout processes with promises to disable the technology once materials were removed from the library. However, privacy advocates questioned whether computer hackers–or possibly even law-enforcement agents–might find ways to reactivate the chips, thus enabling them to track people without their knowledge.

    Despite the outcry, San Francisco officials say they plan to forge ahead with the program, which is expected to go live in 2005.

    Whether or not the technology finds its way onto the shelves at public libraries, its critics contend that when it comes to schools and children, RFID chips cross a very delicate line. “This is a technology usually reserved for prisoners in our society,” said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

    In fact, the same kinds of chips have been used to keep tabs on inmates and are currently employed by the U.S. military to track prisoners of war in Iraq.

    But where schools are concerned, Hoofnagle branded the technology “nonsensical waste.” At a time when schools nationwide are strapped for cash, who’s going to pay for a gizmo that essentially takes the attendance, he asked rhetorically.

    Beyond the bottom line, Hoofnagle fears the evolution of RFID tags in schools will make it harder for students to act as individuals. Though Enterprise is using the system only to record when students enter the building, the system theoretically could be set up track where students are inside the building at all times.

    “The most fundamental risk is that when [people are] being watched, they tend to behave differently,” Hoofnagle said. “It comes to down to issues of free will and authority. Clearly, there are some risks and harms worth avoiding here.”

    Although proponents of RFID technology don’t deny certain privacy implications, they say these anxieties are overblown.

    “Privacy is a serious concern and should be a concern with RFID,” acknowledged Intuitek’s Straitiff. “However, the current technology has a very limited range.”

    In Buffalo, for example, the nametags students wear around their necks are only readable within a few feet of the kiosk. Outside of that, students can roam freely without fear of being monitored.

    “We’re not adding any sort of technology that is really changing the paradigm here,” Straitiff said in defense of the system.

    Stillman, too, shrugged off allegations that the technology could be used to spy on children. “I don’t have the money to put in secret readers everywhere,” he scoffed. “Why would I want to do that?”

    Eventually, the school’s goal is to use the RFID cards to debit student lunch accounts, so kids who receive free and reduced-price lunches are spared the embarrassment of announcing their circumstances in front of their classmates. Using the cards to check out books in the school library is another possibility, but one not yet under consideration in Buffalo.

    “The beauty of this whole thing is that one card could be used for multiple purposes,” Straitiff said. “So far, the feedback we’ve gotten has been very positive from parents and staff.”


    Enterprise Charter School


    Electronic Privacy Information Center


    School knits off-the-shelf Macs into third-fastest supercomputer

    In a squat cement building at the outskirts of Virginia Tech’s campus, 1,100 Macintosh computers are stacked like library books–arranged by students in exchange for football tickets and pizza.

    Despite its humble appearance, this cluster of off-the-shelf G5 Power Macs, or the “Big Mac” as students have begun calling it, is about to rank as the world’s third-fastest supercomputer, at 10.3 trillion operations per second.

    The cost: About $7 million, significantly less than the custom supercomputers that labs use for weather and weapons simulations, chemical experiments, and other highly complex projects.

    “It’s really quite impressive,” said Jack Dongarra, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee who compiles an annual list of the top 500 supercomputers. “They’re now competing in terms of performance with our foremost research facilities.”

    Dongarra, who was about to release the 2003 rankings on Nov. 17, said he expects the only faster supercomputers to be the Earth Simulator Center in Japan, which cost at least $250 million and has been clocked at 33.9 trillion operations per second, and a computer at Los Alamos National Laboratory (clocked at 13.9 trillion operations per second) made for $215 million.

    As impressive as Big Mac is, some experts believe the supercomputer business probably need not fear a new generation of home-brew rivals.

    “To be honest, these clusters have their trouble points,” said Ed Seidel, who supervises a computer cluster at Louisiana State University. “You know how often your own PC fails sometimes? Just think of 1,000 computers. Custom-built systems are more reliable at times–they were engineered to be supercomputers.”

    Even so, Virginia Tech’s computer cluster dwarfs the power of other computer clusters.

    Each of the 1,100 Macs has two IBM PowerPC 970 microprocessors that are based on a relatively new 64-bit design, which means they process data in chunks of 64 bits–a method exponentially faster than older, 32-bit technology. The processors are connected by a high-speed network called Infiniband that allows them to break up major calculations and analyze each part at the same time.

    Virginia Tech quantum chemist Daniel Crawford said Big Mac will shorten the time he spends building computer models of chemicals from years to just days.

    “It opens an entire new area of chemistry,” said Crawford, who will be one of the first to use the computer in December. Before Big Mac, Crawford would have had to wait in line to use part of another computer. “You could spend your entire career on just a few calculations,” he said.

    Project leader Srinidhi Varadarajan said other universities likely will follow with even faster clusters, drawn as Virginia Tech was to the cheap components and the pressure to enhance their academic reputation despite severe budget cuts.

    Dan Powers, vice president of grid computing strategy at IBM Corp., says he’s not worried about such off-the-shelf PC clusters threatening sales of traditional supercomputers.

    For one thing, Powers says, the Big Mac project took a lot of labor that Virginia Tech was able to get for free.

    Virginia Tech’s 160 student volunteers spent days removing the computers from their boxes, installing communications software, and loading them on rows of liquid-cooled metal racks.

    Powers said almost all supercomputer users would rather pay the $100,000 to $10 million for a supercomputer than try to build their own. (Highly advanced models range closer to $200 million.)

    But Apple Computer Vice President Greg Joswiak said the company is getting phone calls from other institutions interested in duplicating Big Mac’s success.

    Varadarajan and his staff have spent the past six weeks running test programs, teaching Big Mac to think faster. The supercomputer already has added about 3 trillion operations per second to its initial performance benchmark.

    “This is like tweaking a race car,” he said.


    Va. Tech’s Terascale Cluster project

    Dongarra’s “Top 500 Supercomputers”