Teachers leery of online education certification program

Educators are questioning how an online certification program approved by the Idaho Board of Education can adequately prepare teachers to handle the demands of a classroom.

The State Board of Education, with only State Superintendent Marilyn Howard dissenting, approved the federal Passport to Teaching certification process in November, which bypasses requirements of state education colleges.

The test is sponsored by the nonprofit American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, based in Washington, D.C. The computer-based course, which includes essay requirements, incorporates video and audio interactive scenarios designed to test candidates’ skills and knowledge.

For a $500 fee and one year of study, the board claims its course prepares candidates to meet state teaching guidelines as well as college-trained teachers, who spend an average of five years of study and classroom training with mentors.

“I can’t believe that this is even being entertained,” said Cindy Bechinski, curriculum director for the Moscow, Idaho, School District, who was on the state committee that developed the new assessment and accountability standards for students. “All the preparation that teachers have to undergo is so intensive you could not possibly get the same depth of understanding from sitting in front of a computer.”

Idaho is only the second state in the country to approve the online certification program since it debuted last year (see “Web program gives fast track to certification,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4651). Pennsylvania also accepted the program, but Brian Christopher, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said his state has since backed away from the idea.

“The idea is that we don’t want them to depend simply on certification alone,” Christopher said. “We believe in a strong internship program as well, and to be in a supervised environment. You really need hands-on training before you take control of a classroom.”

There are eight candidates for the program in Idaho, but so far no candidate in Idaho or Pennsylvania has been certified.

Members of the Idaho Board of Education say the move does not threaten traditional certification; it’s just an alternative to allow small, rural school districts to fill vacancies.

But Greg Bailey, curriculum director for Grangeville-based District 241, said rural districts now have the option of hiring consulting specialistspeople who have the knowledge base to teach a course, but lack teacher certification.

Although board members Karen McGee of Pocatello and Paul Agidius of Moscow said the test cannot replace college- and university-certified teachers, they said the board was eager to at least try something to fix the problem in rural areas.

McGee said there are already more than 200 non-certified teachers in the system operating under waivers granted by the board on a per-case basis. Agidius said the system of granting waivers one by one was time-consuming and unreliable, because board members don’t have the expertise in teacher qualifications.

Schools can have a certain number of teachers assigned to teach classes outside their fields of expertise. But educators question the validity of a standardized test designated to give certification.

“No one test should ever be used to judge the effectiveness of knowledge or skill,” says Barb Bussolini, a mentor and principal of McSorley Elementary School in Lewiston, Idaho.

“Teaching is extremely interactive,” she said. “You need to know if someone can apply what they’ve learned by paper and pencil.”

Links:

Idaho Board of Education
http://www.idahoboardofed.org

Passport to Teaching
http://www.abcte.org/passport.html

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Wanted: Scientific proof for learning arts

The scientifically based research (SBR) requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is slowly changing the way schools approach new learning solutions. It’s also changing the way companies market their products to educators. But while everyone agrees the provision’s intentions are good, the law has created a host of new problems its authors never anticipated.

Educators, policy experts, and industry heads who spoke with eSchool News all agreed that a cloud of confusion still exists around the SBR portion of the law. And while parties on both sides have struggled to make the necessary adjustments, some school leaders contend that finding proven solutions often amounts to a blind leap of faith in favor of strategies that simply sound good.

At its best, the provision’s staunchest supporters contend, SBR will lead to a paradigm shift in education, where a research-based approach to learning eventually will elicit a level of accountability equaled only in the medical field. At its worst, critics say, the law offers too little guidance and asks students to play the role of guinea pigs in a disruptive chain of control-based research experiments that would serve only to reinforce the line between the haves and the have-nots in the nation’s schools.

In short, the law specifies that all federally funded education initiatives deployed in grades three to eight must be proven effective by way of “scientifically based research.” So if a school district uses federal grant money to purchase reading software, for example, the software in question must be proven to work through rigorous analysis. The same holds true for math and science software, and so on.

But what, exactly, constitutes rigorous analysis? Unfortunately for educators, opinions vary. Mark Dynarski of Mathematica Policy Research Inc., an independent research group tapped by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in October to begin evaluating the effectiveness of educational technology initiatives in the nation’s schools, says the most effective form of research is what’s known as random assignment.

Dynarski says service providers can test the effectiveness of their products by conducting control-based experiments on two like groups of students to demonstrate the products had a direct impact on student test scores, for example.

But for many school leaders, the control approach–while effective–raises serious political and ethical concerns. To conduct such research, educators would have to give the technology or learning solution in question to a single group of students within the school, while denying other students access to the same potential benefits.

Many people who spoke with eSchool News agreed the dilemma has resulted in a standoff between companies looking to put the evidenced-based seal of approval on their products and educators who ask: What’s in it for us? While some schools have requested that the companies leave their products behind when they finish, others have demanded their corporate partners pay for staff development or, in some cases, reportedly buy their way into the schools the old-fashioned way: with cold, hard cash.

Though he has yet to hear of any schools asking for money in exchange for serving as a test bed for corporate research, Russ Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences at ED, said it’s not uncommon for schools to ask for something in return.

“I have heard about this dance that goes on as [companies and schools] try to develop these partnerships,” he said. “I think there needs to be a quid pro quo.”

“It’s definitely a problem,” agreed Mark Schneiderman, director of education policy at the Software and Information Industry Association, which has been working to help software providers understand the law. For the research-based approach to be effective, Schneiderman believes school leaders need to adjust their way of thinking when it comes to issues of equity and begin looking at control-based experiments not as impediments to learning, but as pilot projects used to explore new possibilities and potential best practices for the classroom.

“The greatest issue of concern is the amount of time and resources that would be needed here,” he said. “This is, in many ways, a new thing for educational technology. You’ve got what amounts to a huge learning curve for everybody.”

To help schools better understand the value of controlled research, ED has tapped Mathematica to conduct a national study of 16 computer-based reading and math products from 12 different companies, developed to enhance the learning of reading in grade one, reading comprehension in grade four, pre-algebra in grade six, and algebra in grade nine. The study is part of a three-year, $10 million contract the department inked with Mathematica using money provided through NCLB.

The study will provide information for policy makers and educators about how educational technology can improve student achievement in reading and math, as well as the conditions and practices under which the technologies are most effective.

Teachers will be trained to use the products, which will be demonstrated in schools during the 2004-05 school year, with achievement gains reported at the end of the year.

But results of the study aren’t expected until April 2006 at the earliest, Dynarsky said. That’s because research, like any form of analysis, takes time–something school leaders say they have little of, considering the law calls for them to make these changes now.

In the meantime, many say what works under the law is open to interpretation.

ED officials “don’t know what they mean in the law…or least they do not clarify what they want,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “I don’t believe they want [every piece of software] tested in rigorous field tests, but that the strategies used be based on tested techniques. Having done statistical testing of instructional approaches, this is a multiple-year, multiple-sample process. For each textbook or instructional material to go through this [process] is not logical, realistic, or possible.”

What the administration wants, Liebman believes, is for schools to choose “materials that are developed around proven strategies. We therefore look to the existing body of research from colleges and universities on which to base curriculum and professional development.”

But not everyone sees it that way. “My understanding of scientifically based research is that there be random sampling,” said Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Oswego City School District in New York. “That is nearly impossible. Have they revised the definition to [say] something less stringent? If so, there are a lot [of] people waiting to hear. Otherwise, no one is going to meet the criteria.”

While control-group testing would certainly be the preferred mode of analysis for deeming a product “scientifically based” under the law, ED’s Whitehurst says the department recognizes that, to date, the body of research for products tested under that level of rigor is virtually non-existent.

The scenario is perhaps best for reading programs, Whitehurst said. But the criteria for meeting the law’s requirements are even more ambiguous when it comes to validating math and science options. Sometimes educators “have to make a best guess” based on the data that are available, he concluded: “It’s not as clear as we would like it to be. But that’s the reality of it.”

In the event that high-quality, control-based data do not exist, Whitehurst said, school leaders should turn to products that employ the strategies and meet the guidelines proposed by expert panels. For example, when selecting reading software, educators should, at the very least, make sure the solution is in line with the “five pillars of reading” as outlined by the National Reading Panel.

But Dynarsky said he’d be leery of products that cling to talking points without the actual classroom-tested evidence to support such claims. If the product doesn’t have classroom-based evidence that shows a marked improvement in student achievement, then “it doesn’t tell me anything,” he said–“except maybe that you’ve been reading the literature that’s out there.”

Some companies say they’ve enjoyed success in getting schools to buy into the test-bed approach. But it hasn’t been easy.

Marcy Baughman, director of research for Pearson Education’s K-12 School Group, which includes the Scott Forsman and Prentice Hall publishing divisions, said the company currently is engaged in 21 evidence-based studies of its products in schools across the country.

To reduce the anxiety that sometimes follows large corporations into the public schools, Baughman said Pearson turns to third-party researchers to conduct the experiments, with the understanding that researchers be as sensitive to the educational institution as possible.

“One of the easiest ways to get the districts to feel comfortable is to let them know that you are willing to share the information [with them],” Baughman said. “We’re not testing their students. What we’re testing, really, is our product.”

Pearson also plans to share the information it gathers from its on-site evaluations with officials at ED’s What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). Founded in August 2002, WWC is intended to provide a repository of scientifically proven teaching practices for educators, policy makers, and the general public. The results from the Mathematica study also will reside there, officials said.

Sloane O’Neal, vice president of marketing for educational software provider CompassLearning, said she gets the feeling resistance from the school community is waning.

“Initially, after NCLB was passed, there was some confusion in the marketplace,” she said. “But people have made it overly complicated, I think.”

Yet, for all the good research does, it can be an expensive process–and one that might preclude smaller software companies from being able to compete in the new market climate. CompassLearning alone spends “several hundred thousand dollars a year” on such projects, O’Neal said.

Perhaps more trying is the amount of time each project takes to complete.

Though the research-based approach can lead to hard evidence of student achievement, O’Neal said she’s heard grumblings that the extensive nature of such projects also might limit the number of solutions companies are able to roll out to schools, simply because of the additional time and money they have to spend on research and development of new products.

“It would stifle innovation if we had to spend years testing the product before we could launch it,” she said.

But while confusion still reigns over how to comply with the SBR provision of the law, few educators deny the benefits of incorporating proven educational strategies in the classroom.

Dave Craven, instructional technology director for the Cherry Creek Schools in Greenwood Village, Colo., said anytime a product has a body of evidence to stand on, it makes an educator’s decision to use that solution “just that much more sound.”

Links:

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

Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
http://www.mathematica-mpr.com

Pearson Education
http://www.pearson.com/about/ped/index.shtml

CompassLearning
http://www.compasslearning.com

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FCC to develop rules for internet phone calls

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Feb. 12 moved one step closer to resolving whether voice-over-IP (VoIP) services should be subject to the same regulations as traditional telephone services. The ultimate outcome of the debate could have significant implications for schools and colleges, as VoIP services continue to gain popularity.

In a split decision issued Feb. 12, the FCC ruled that voice communications transmitted entirely online should remain free from regulation. The ruling applies only to services that allow users to place calls to each other without using conventional telephones, such as Pulver.com’s Free World Dialup (FWD) and Skype. These services use special numbers to route calls rather than 10-digit phone numbers, and calls are placed from computer to computer.

In a second, unanimous vote, the agency said it would solicit public comment to decide how to regulate telephone calls made via high-speed internet connections, which bypass at least part of the conventional phone network. The vast majority of VoIP services fall into this category.

“When these applications become more complicated, or more traditional, or they touch public-switched networks, they present even more complications,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said.

Among the issues to be considered is whether such calls should be subject to the same fees as regular telephone service, such as for 911 emergency services or bringing telephone service to poor and rural areas, schools, and libraries. Also to be decided is whether providers of these new services need to pay fees to local telephone companies to complete calls to conventional phones.

The answers to these questions will decide whether VoIP services of this nature are eligible for support by the federal eRate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

Under current eRate rules, only the equipment needed to provide VoIP service is eligible for support. If the FCC eventually rules that VoIP services delivered via traditional phones are telecommunications services subject to regulation, then these services also would be eligible for eRate discounts.

In addition to high-tech upstarts, conventional phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T are shifting calls away from devices that transmit voices and switching them to computers that convert sounds into data and transmit them along with eMail messages, movies-on-demand, and web pages.

VoIP technology is growing. Time Warner Cable has signed up more than 7,500 customers since it rolled out its telephone service over high-speed internet lines in Portland, Maine, in May. BellSouth Corp. began offering internet phone service in October to its business customers. Verizon also offers some businesses the chance to make internet calls and is preparing to offer similar services to consumers using its broadband DSL connections.

VoIP providers can offer service cheaper than conventional telephone companies. “Voice is just another application that rides on our broadband platform,” said John Billock, chief operating officer of Time Warner Cable.

Arguing against regulation, high-tech company officials say that while a handful of telephone companies have a near-monopoly control over the local networks, and therefore government controls are needed, no companies exercise dominance of internet phone service.

“It’s monopoly that calls out for regulation. We don’t have it here,” said Tom Evslin, chief executive officer of ITXC Corp., a Princeton, N.J.-based company that transmits international calls over the internet.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says it is wrong for internet calls not to be treated the same as conventional phone calls for provision of 911 emergency services, paying into the universal service fund, or helping law enforcement officials track calls.

“Fundamental public interest considerations are at stake,” said Adelstein, who dissented in part with the agency’s FWD decision. “Such ‘hands off’ treatment could mean we are undercutting the safety of consumers, law enforcement and national security, and the integrity of the underlying network and the universal service funding mechanism.”

Separately, the FCC said it would later develop rules concerning law enforcement issues and VoIP service, such as making sure the technology that allows internet calls also allows investigators to tap and trace them.

The commission also voted to develop rules that would allow the power lines that bring electricity to homes and businesses to deliver high-speed internet connections as well. This new technology has the potential to vastly boost the spread of broadband internet access to consumers.

Once a utility or a company it contracts with installs the necessary equipment, a computer user would only have to plug the machine into a special modem that plugs into a conventional electric outlet, according to Jay Birnbaum, vice president of Current Technologies, a company now testing such connections in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Links:

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

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Ed advocates cheer eRate leadership changes

Leadership changes at the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC) are likely to have a positive impact on the $2.25 billion-a-year federal eRate program, according to knowledgeable education advocates.

The departure of a strident eRate opponent in the House and the arrival of an experienced eRate administrator at USAC are causes for optimism, insiders say. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., on Feb. 3 announced his decision to resign as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, effective Feb. 16, after being hospitalized for health problems. A long-time critic of the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries, Tauzin initiated a probe into the eRate last March after a report from the Center for Public Integrity called the program “honeycombed with fraud and financial shenanigans.”

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, not generally considered an opponent of the eRate, is pegged to be the next chairman of the committee. Barton did not return an eSchool News reporter’s telephone calls by press time.

Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said he doubts the change in leadership will have any impact on the committee’s investigations, because the probe is being overseen by Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

“We are knee-deep in investigations, and we plan to hold hearings this spring,” Johnson said.

eRate insiders say they are interested to see the tone of the remainder of the investigations and the hearings after Tauzin’s departure.

“It’s going to show us: Was this a personal vendetta of Tauzin, or was this a clear concern of the committee?” said Gary Rawson, infrastructure planning and eRate coordinator for Mississippi’s Information Technology Services department and chairman of the State eRate Coordinator Alliance, which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of communications for eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning LLC, said she believes that if the hearings go forward, they will be “a temperate, reasonable look at the program” now that Tauzin is no longer involved.

USAC, the agency that administers the eRate, also will have new leadership. In January, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell named Lisa Zaina, former senior legal advisor for FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, to replace Cheryl Parrino as USAC’s chief executive.

It’s too soon to know what impact Zaina’s leadership will have on the eRate, said Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) because she doesn’t start until March 1.

But, he added, “I think the overall impact will be great. She understands the program. She knows the program. She has worked with the program. I think she is a tremendous addition and will make a seamless transition.”

Fitzgerald said: “I think the fact they turned to an FCC person is good and will continue a good working relationship between the FCC and USAC.”

Critical juncture

The two changes in leadership come at a critical juncture for the eRate, as House investigators prepare to release the findings of their probe.

In mid-January, the House Commerce Committee discovered that about $5 million worth of computer and telecommunications equipment bought for Chicago schools with eRate dollars has languished in a warehouse for years. “Instances like that have prompted us to further our investigations,” committee spokesman Johnson said. (See “Federal probe turns up $5 million in unused computer equipment,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=4841.)

The eRate also received low marks for planning (11 percent), management (27 percent), and results accountability (7 percent), according to a federal performance evaluation released Feb. 2 as part of President Bush’s fiscal year 2005 budget request.

In its evaluation of the program, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) found that “sufficient performance data from funding recipients are not regularly collected.” Other problems cited include a lack of third-party evaluations of the program and long-term, outcome-oriented performance goals. In the “purpose” category, however, the eRate received a grade of “A.”

In response to these findings, the FCC has been asked to develop annual outcome and efficiency measures and to work with the U.S. Department of Education to develop additional evaluations of the program.

“Not knowing how they arrived at the results, I really couldn’t comment on” the OMB’s evaluation, Blackwell said.

The Education and Libraries Network Coalition (EdLiNC), a group that represents several public and private school associations and the American Library Association, disagreed with the OMB’s assertion that the eRate has not demonstrated results.

“Prior to the creation of the eRate program, few of our nation’s classrooms and libraries were connected to the internet, which has become an indispensable information source and teaching and learning tool,” EdLiNC said. “Now, after six years of the eRate program, 92 percent of America’s public school classrooms and 95 percent of its libraries are connected to the internet.”

As for independent research, EdLiNC’s most recent report, “eRate: A Vision of Opportunity and Innovation,” provides detailed case studies of 39 of the thousands of communities in America that have used eRate funds, the group noted.

Other program news

In other eRate news, the public has until March 11 to submit comments regarding additional proposed changes to the program. A new “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” first announced in December by the FCC, was published in the Federal Register Feb. 10.

The FCC is seeking feedback on whether (and how) it should change the current discount matrix used to determine an applicant’s discount level; impose a limit on the total funding an applicant can request each year; and modify competitive-bidding procedures and the definitions of rural applicants, internet access, and leased wide-area networks, among other issues.

Also, the SLD said it would not fulfill any more funding requests for internal connections for Funding Year 2003 until after March 1 to give applicants a full year to use the money. eRate rules say that applicants who receive funding commitment letters after March 1 get an automatic one-year extension of the deadline by which funds must be spent. The SLD also did this last year. “That’s part of listening to our customers,” Blackwell said.

As schools and libraries raced to complete their 2004 eRate applications before the Feb. 4 deadline, USAC reported that it currently has $100 million in unused funding available to roll over for the 2004 program year. That figure is in addition to the $420 million that has been rolled over from previous years to support additional funding commitments for 2003.

Finally, a number of school applicants that failed to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) before the start of the 2002 program year–July 1, 2002–have been asked to return a portion of their 2002 eRate funds. CIPA requires schools and libraries receiving eRate discounts to use a “technology protection measure” to shield children from inappropriate content online.

The Morris Catholic High School in Denville, N.J., which was asked to return $526.05, did not comply with the law until Aug. 12, 2002, and Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, N.J., which was asked to return $1,036.27, did not comply until Jan. 14, 2003, SLD officials said. Both schools reportedly had certified that they were in compliance with CIPA before the start of the 2002 program year.

Links:

U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee
http://www.house.gov/commerce

Universal Service Administrative Co.
http://www.universalservice.org

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

“Performance Evaluation: Budget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 2005”
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2005/pdf/ap_cd_rom/part.pdf

“eRate: A Vision of Opportunity and Innovation”
http://www.edlinc.org

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Teach media literacy with the aid of this new online resource

“Five questions that can change the world.” That’s what educators are calling the Five Key Questions that form the basis of the new “MediaLit Kit,” an educational framework and curriculum guide developed by the Center for Media Literacy. Adaptable to all grades, the Five Key Questions are designed to help children and teens critique and challenge the thousands of media messages bombarding them daily, the center contends. “We live in increasingly complex times, and unless we teach our children how to read about, watch, interpret, understand, and analyze the day’s events, we risk raising a generation of civic illiterates, political ignoramuses, and uncritical consumers, vulnerable not only to crackpot ideas, faulty reasoning, and putative despots but fraudulent sales pitches and misleading advertising claims,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Shaw in a Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times editorial endorsing the service. Now, nearly two years in the making, the MediaLit Kit provides an overview of the core elements in the burgeoning field of media literacy education, as well as powerful and practical implementation tools for classrooms from kindergarten to college.

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‘Digital credentials’ aim to keep kids safer online

i-SAFE America, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to informing children about the dangers that lurk in cyberspace, on Feb. 10 unveiled a new technology meant to dramatically enhance the security of online communications for school-age children.

i-SAFE’s Digital Credential Program provides a piece of hardware that students would carry around on a keychain and insert into the USB ports on their computers. Every device would be uploaded with a unique digital profile that electronically confirms each child’s identity and the identities of others who use the devices online.

The idea, according to i-SAFE founder and president Teri Schroeder, is to provide students with a tool that gives them more control over the relationships they cultivate online, keeping them from cavorting with pedophiles and predators in internet chat rooms and in the other traditionally dark corners of cyberspace.

“This really empowers the nation’s youth for the first time with a tool that enables them to defend themselves,” Schroeder said.

The Digital Credential, supplied by internet and telecommunications specialist VeriSign Inc., resembles an electronic token. It contains a computer chip uploaded with a digital certificate, which is used to identify the user whenever he or she goes online. The technology evolved from the concept of Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI, a series of cryptographic symbols often used by the officials in the U.S. Department of Defense and elsewhere in the intelligence-gathering community to protect sensitive information, according to George Schu, vice president of VeriSign’s public sector and a leader in the company’s partnership with i-SAFE.

Schu expects the technology will come in handy in schools, where students often go online to chat with their peers and are unwittingly duped into exchanging information with cyber predators instead. With the devices, he said, students can log into a chat room and immediately identify those people who are, in fact, students, as opposed to merely taking their word for it.

Eventually, he said, companies such as Microsoft and America Online could create restricted chat rooms and other electronic mediums where only students who possess a valid digital credential would be permitted access. The idea would be to build a safe haven in cyberspace, where school children can communicate without having to worry about being approached by one of the many cyber stalkers lurking online.

“This is entirely within the capabilities of digital credentials,” Schu said, calling the technology “pretty water-tight.”

And what if a student leaves his or her digital credential on the bus or loses it in the locker room after school? Not a problem, Schu says. The authentication devices are not replicable and are deactivated automatically the moment they are reported missing, making it virtually impossible for anyone to steal the keys and intentionally misrepresent themselves to others online.

The authentication devices also are password-protected, meaning that before students can sign on to the internet using a digital credential, they must be familiar with the individual log-in codes, which are different for every device.

i-SAFE plans to begin offering the devices to select schools as part of a pilot program beginning this summer. Depending on how well the technology is received, the company and its partners hope to make the technology available at no cost to schools across the country on an opt-in basis, Schroeder said. It then would become the schools’ responsibility to distribute the devices based on parental buy-in and encourage their use in the classroom, the computer lab, and even from home.

Of course, no technology is foolproof. For many internet safety experts, the only surefire way to keep kids safe online is to create a new culture of awareness among the nation’s computer users–both young and old.

During a panel discussion about internet safety held in conjunction with i-SAFE’s announcement, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) talked about ways in which the agency’s Community Outreach Program plans to work with i-SAFE to prevent the victimization of children by online predators.

In addition to distributing literature to parents, schools, and children across the country, the FBI also will promote safe, responsible internet use through its Adopt-A-School Program, an effort already under way in 56 field offices throughout the country. In the program, field agents and outreach personnel visit schools and participate in educational programs to help children and their parents better understand the dangers that exist online.

“Through the FBI’s partnership with i-SAFE, it is the FBI’s hope that such initiatives will reduce children’s exposure to predators by providing these educational materials to parents and children,” said the Bobi Wallace, chief of the FBI’s Outreach Unit. “The need for community outreach programs is predicated on the rapid growth of the internet, which has become a catalyst for the widespread victimization of children.”

Under its agreement with i-SAFE, representatives from FBI field offices in 12 major American cities–Birmingham, Chicago, Honolulu, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Memphis, Mobile, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco–will work to combat child pornography and sexual exploitation of children on the internet by undergoing training courses provided by i-SAFE, as well as incorporating relevant lesson plans and educational materials into the agency’s outreach efforts at the schools.

Industry experts who participated in the discussion agreed that education and outreach are paramount to creating a safer online environment for America’s youth, no matter how much new technologies eventually might help.

Tiffany Jones, director of government relations for internet security firm Symantec Corp., whose company has worked with i-SAFE to provide scholarships and training opportunities for people interested in learning more about online safety, said security and awareness are critical not only for students and children, but for everyone who uses the internet as part of their day-to-day lives.

Her concerns seem increasingly relevant today as the online community grapples with the problem of rapidly spreading computer viruses and eMail worms–many of which reportedly are created by school-age children.

“To keep children safe, we need to educate them,” Jones said. “It’s kind of like teaching [kids] to drive. You don’t just hand over the keys without giving them the proper training.”

Links:

i-SAFE America
http://www.isafe.org

VeriSign Inc.
http://www.verisign.com

Federal Bureau of Investigation
http://www.fbi.gov

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

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Robotic dogs sniff out toxins near schools

They sniff, wag their tails, fetch, and run in packs. Inside their plastic and metallic skins, robotic dogs programmed by engineering students at Yale University even have a social conscience.

The mechanical canines, equipped with just about everything but a wet nose, are wired to sniff out toxic materials at former landfills and radioactive sites, providing environmental information about parks, school yards, and other public spaces.

The robots have spurred toxic search projects in the United States, Europe, and Australia. They are the brainchild of Natalie Jeremijenko, a lecturer in engineering at Yale and self-described technoartist.

“Technology is a social actor,” she said. “These dogs are programmed into instruments for social activism. It’s technological politics in another form.”

The dogs were originally designed, manufactured, and marketed commercially as toys by Sony Electronics Inc., Mattel Inc., and other companies.

Sony’s AIBO, which has been on the market since 1999 and sells for $1,599, is intended to draw emotional responses from its masters, said Jon Piazza, a spokesman for Sony robotics entertainment in New York. The dogs’ software platform is available on the company’s web site and may be used for other purposes, he said.

For example, a competition has drawn 20 universities with programmed robotic toys that participate in a “Robo Cup,” he said.

The Yale project is different.

Jeremijenko, a mechanical engineer and computer scientist, designed her robotic dogs 18 months ago as a spinoff from a research project she began in the late 1990s that she calls an Interaction Triggered System. Its intent was to see how people interact with technology.

Distribution and cost are two major advantages of transforming the dogs into community activists. The toys are easily available, and gutting them for a university engineering project is the least expensive way to teach robotics, she said.

And dogs–the real ones–are a good model for robots, because they’re companion animals and “can sense things we can’t sense,” Jeremijenko said.

Robotic technology is hardly new. It’s increasingly being applied to repetitive factory tasks or dangerous work such as defusing bombs or finding victims in collapsed buildings.

Advances in microtechnology lead to ever-smaller sensors as engineers and scientists seek new uses. For Jeremijenko, one of these new uses is the feral dog project–so named, she says, because feral dogs are street-smart and wily.

The dogs’ “brains” are upgraded and their “noses” programmed to pick up the scent of common volatile organic compounds–such as paint thinners or dry cleaning fluids–or more dangerous toxins. They also are built to navigate a variety of terrains.

In addition, cameras are placed in the dogs’ hindquarters to allow researchers to observe their interaction with handlers.

The dogs also are wired to move in packs. To collect samples from a larger area more effectively, the pack is programmed to follow the dog with the strongest sensor reading.

The result is the collection of data from a broad area with time-specific samples and extensive mapping of the area being surveyed.

The robotic dogs have been assigned to work at several sites, often with youngsters who are fascinated by the machines and, Jeremijenko hopes, learn from the experience.

Of 12 robotic dogs wired at Yale, several have been put to work in nearby Hamden, Conn., where tests have found arsenic, lead. and other pollutants in soil beneath a school and nearby homes. Four canine robots also have been sniffing around a park on former Consolidated Edison property along the Bronx River in New York.

Jeremijenko’s project has spawned an internet presence, inspiring others to sic robotic dogs on sites in Belarus that were in the path of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, on sites in Australia used for atomic testing in the 1950s, and on radioactive waste sites in Idaho.

The dogs are available “wherever there’s a site of community interest and kids are interested in robotics,” Jeremijenko said.

They also advance her teaching philosophy.

“It’s part of a larger shift in education: how to apply your knowledge to local problems,” Jeremijenko said. “It’s extremely important that engineers understand the social implications of their designs.”

Links:

Feral dog project
http://xdesign.eng.yale.edu/feralrobots

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New web site promises convenient access to school data nationwide

Federal, state, and private education leaders launched a web site Jan. 29 that promises unprecedented access to information about public school performance.

The site, www.SchoolResults.org, will serve as a clearinghouse for new state report cards on education, including data broken down to the school district and school building level.

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the new federal education law, states must report data on a range of fronts, including teacher qualifications and achievement among all major population groups of students.

The web site is designed to present that information in a convenient and uniform way, so parents and policy makers can make comparisons across districts and track student progress.

The U.S. Education Department (ED) and the Broad Foundation are sharing the $9 million cost of the project’s first phase. Six states–Delaware, Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington–are the first to take part. Organizers hope to post data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico by summer.

“There’s no more important contribution we could make as Americans than to improve and reform public education,” said Eli Broad, a public school reform advocate and founder of the Broad Foundation.

“The new web site gives parents real information in real time,” Broad said. “It gives superintendents a way to compare how their district is doing compared to other districts in the state.”

For each school, district, county, and state, the web site shows the subjects and grades in which students are making the grade.

“In Minnesota, we have been working toward some type of tool like this for years,” Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said. “I’m excited to have a usable, ready tool today.”

Parents, teachers, and taxpayers can use SchoolResults.org to see the data for themselves and find out how schools are performing. “The bottom line is, we want to know: Are the funding and reform initiatives really improving education?” Pawlenty said.

“We were thinking of instituting this project on our own, so it was great when someone else was going to come in and pay for it,” Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner said.

The Broad Foundation, with help from ED, is paying about $54 million for the initial cost creating SchoolResults.org and entering the data for the first two years. After that, it appears the states themselves will have to pay for updating the data–an estimated cost of $15,000 per state, per year.

Regarding recent news reports about falsifying school accountability data, SchoolResults.org does not have a way to protect against false data. Instead, the site–which uses the same data reported to ED–relies on the honor system.

“There’s no guarantee that somewhere deep in the system there is not some type of flaw,” said Bill Cox, managing director of Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, one of the partners behind the SchoolResults.org web site.

Visitors to SchoolResults.org will see a large map of the United States on the site’s home page. When you click on a state, the site asks you to narrow your search to a school, county, district, or the entire state. From those search results, you can keep drilling down through the site to see a brief summary, a data snapshot, or information about Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), specific subject-area performance, enrollment, and teacher qualifications.

For a particular school, for example, visitors quickly can view basic information such as student enrollment, grade levels served, AYP results, percentage of economically disadvantaged students, and Title I eligibility.

Then, visitors can drill down to see the specific math or reading AYP scores by grade levels for different population groups: white, black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities.

For more advanced analysis, visitors can compare one school’s performance with that of others by selecting particular schools by name or by searching for better-performing schools with similar circumstances. Visitors also can project a school’s ability to reach 100-percent proficiency by 2014, the site’s organizers claim.

The site offers a user guide, a description of its tools, and links to information about NCLB. Visitors, especially novice data-crunchers, probably will need to spend some time with these resources to take full advantage of the site’s analysis tools.

Links:

SchoolResults.org
http://www.SchoolResults.org

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Studies validate laptop programs in U.S., Canada

Two recent studies of schoolwide one-to-one computing initiatives–one in the United States and one in Canada–suggest that using laptops in the classroom can help improve students’ writing skills and bolster overall academic success. The studies come as an increasing number of states and school districts are rolling out laptop programs of their own.

In Maine, educators at the Piscataquis Community High School (PCHS) in the rural community of Guilford are touting the results of a survey released last month, which demonstrates that laptops can have a significant positive impact on learning, especially for at-risk and traditionally low-achieving students. Researchers say the results, while unique to Piscataquis, might help sway lawmakers as they consider expanding to high schools the state’s current laptop program for middle school students.

And in British Columbia, another one-to-one computing study finds that students who use laptop computers to complete their writing assignments can boost their English scores by an average of 30 percent. According to the report, at least 150 middle school students at the Peace River North School District in northern British Columbia showed “vast improvements” in their writing ability last year after wireless laptops were integrated into the classroom. This year, 90 percent of students who used the machines met the province’s writing education standards. Before the laptop program, only 70 percent of students were able to meet the requirements, the study said.

Across the country, one-to-one computing initiatives have been gathering steam as educators and policy makers continue to explore the direct link between technology and student achievement. With this research, many now say the connection is indisputable.

“These studies are vital,” said PCHS Principal Kevin Jordan. “You can listen to what other people say … but this really validates the entire process.”

The Maine study, undertaken by the independent Mitchell Institute (named after former U.S. Senator George Mitchell) and conducted by the Great Maine Schools Project with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is among the first to examine one-to-one computing in a high school environment. The findings reflect information gleaned from the first two years of the project.

In all, 285 students in grades 9-12 and all 26 teachers were given a laptop computer to use at home and at school. Every machine was outfitted with a wireless access card to provide access to the internet from anywhere on campus.

Seventy-nine percent of the students said laptops make lessons more interesting, and 60 percent said they felt more motivated to complete assignments using a laptop.

What’s more, most students agree that laptops have improved the quality of their schoolwork. According to the study, more than half (54 percent) of students say having a laptop has improved their grades, and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of teachers agree that student achievement in their classes has improved since the laptop program began.

Jordan said teachers and students use the laptops in a variety of ways, from conducting research and creating PowerPoint presentations to completing web quests. For teachers, Jordan said, “this is just one more part of their arsenal.”

According to the study, more than 70 percent of teachers reported that the laptop program has improved student interaction with teachers and has improved interaction among students, especially those traditionally defined as “at-risk” or “low-achieving.” More than three-quarters of teachers said the laptops had improved their students’ engagement, class participation, motivation, ability to work in groups, and ability to work independently.

Where low-achieving and at-risk students are concerned, Jordan said the laptops “seem to engage them and keep them engaged.” He believes that’s because the interactive nature of the technology appeals to students with very different learning styles.

“Face it, we’re in a digital world now,” he said. “This is just one more mode for them to utilize.”

To implement its high school laptop initiative, PCHS used more than $500,000 in donations and grants to purchase iBook laptops from Apple Computer for every teacher and student at the school. Also included in the price was the cost of installing wireless internet access throughout the building.

But the process isn’t quite as easy as plug-and-play. Jordan said it does take time for staff and students to become acquainted with the technology.

To prepare for the integration at PCHS, some of the school’s more tech-savvy students were invited to participate in a four-day “boot camp” covering everything from performing simple repairs on laptops to loading software and computer programming, Jordan said. Those students, in turn, were asked to provide on-site technical support throughout the initial deployment, he said.

It didn’t hurt that many of the students already had a leg up on the technology, he added. PCHS remains the only high school across the state to have successfully implemented a schoolwide laptop program, but it is far from being the only school.

As part of his legacy in 2002, former Gov. Angus King launched the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, the first one-to-one computing program in the country to provide laptops to every seventh and eighth grader throughout the state. Because the majority of PCHS students hailed from middle schools where laptops are now the standard, Jordan said it wasn’t hard to find good help.

“We sort of utilized the kids as experts,” he said. “It was a kind of train-the-trainer model … with the kids as facilitators.”

Jordan said he hasn’t seen any drawbacks to using the technology, save for the tendency of students to use instant-messaging software to exchange quick-witted virtual notes with one another. But that’s nothing that “good-quality classroom management” can’t fix, he said: “It’s all about setting the culture of the schools as time goes on.”

In British Columbia, educators also are having success with a laptop program. In February 2002, Peace River North–a school for middle-grade students, part of the province’s School District 60–initiated the Wireless Writing Project, a classroom-based, one-to-one laptop program designed to spur student achievement in grades six and seven, particularly in written expression.

What they found was encouraging.

In May 2003, 92 percent of the school’s students produced writing samples that met expectations on the BC Performance Standards–the student assessment metric used by the province–compared with 70 percent of students on the pretest. The project also found that teachers, parents, and students were enthusiastic about the integration of laptops and what impact the machines would have on student achievement, motivation, and attitude.

Teachers, parents, and students describe positive changes in other aspects of achievement as well, most notably technology skills and student attitudes, motivation, and work habits. Since moving to the laptops, researchers say students appear to be better organized, more responsible, and more confident.

Success stories like these might spur other states and school systems to invest in similar programs. Already, some enterprising states are following Maine’s lead.

In New Mexico, for instance, Gov. Bill Richardson recently announced plans for a new statewide laptop program that officials say they modeled after the Maine program.

Called the Governor’s Laptop Learning Initiative, the program reportedly will provide laptop computers to all seventh graders and their teachers. More than 700 students and 80 teachers in six schools will receive laptop computers in the first phase of the initiative, with the goal of eventually providing computers to every seventh grader in the state.

According to published reports, the cost for each laptop is $1,128, including grade- and curriculum-specific software. Dell Inc. is providing the laptops for the initiative.

In New Hampshire, the Associated Press (AP) reported that more than 400 students and 40 teachers at six middle schools recently received laptop computers as part of a $1.2 million grant initiative. According to AP, the schools also received projectors, printers, digital cameras, a server, and a wireless network connecting the laptops to each other and to the internet.

Officials say their program, too, was inspired by the one in Maine.

One hope is that the machines eventually could replace textbooks, said Betsey Cox Stebbins, principal at Armand R. Dupont School, one of the six participating schools. “It would be wonderful to see lighter backpacks,” she said.

Pupils will return the laptops at the end of the school year for use by the next class of seventh-graders.

Michigan also is in the process of rolling out its version of a statewide laptop program. Because of recent budget cuts, however, the extent of that initiative–which lawmakers have dubbed Freedom to Learn–is still uncertain.

Links:

Great Maine Schools Project
http://www.mitchellinstitute.org/Gates

Report: “One to One Laptops in a High School Environment”
http://www.mitchellinstitute.org/PCHSinterimrpt.pdf

Wireless Writing Project
http://www.prn.bc.ca/Wireless_Writing_Program.html

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eSN Exclusive: Access, inclusion Bailey’s ED legacy

John Bailey, the nation’s top educational technology administrator, has resigned his post to become deputy policy director for President Bush’s reelection campaign.

Bailey’s tenure ended Jan. 30 after two years as director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Deputy Director Susan Patrick took over as acting director of the office Feb. 2.

In an interview with eSchool News, Bailey said he hopes he’ll have the chance to take the promise of educational technology to an even higher level in his new position–the White House.

“I was very content with my job and very excited working with Secretary [of Education Rod] Paige,” Bailey said. “I think this is a great opportunity for me personally and for the issues we’ve been discussing for the last three years. It’s great for education and great for ed tech.”

Bailey said he was most thankful during his tenure to play a role in implementing the new education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). “Love it or hate it, it is changing the way people talk about education,” he said.

In speeches and visits to schools across the nation, Bailey consistently emphasized ways in which technology could aid in fulfilling the accountability and achievement requirements of NCLB.

Because the law places a strong value on research-based methods, Bailey helped steer funding to 28 new research projects, worth $54 million, to study technology-related topics such as the effects of one-to-one computing initiatives in schools, virtual schooling, and conditions for using technology effectively in the classroom.

“I’m proud that we’ve launched these research studies. What it means is that schools will have a range of studies coming in the next two to three years,” he said.

But as ED’s educational technology director, Bailey’s most significant task was to oversee the writing of a new national ed-tech plan with the help of students and of state and local education officials from across the country.

Bailey is leaving before the plan is complete, but because of the groundwork he laid, it is sure to have his fingerprint. Unlike previous plans, Bailey made sure the public could submit comments online and that it reflected the needs and opinions of today’s students. As a result, at least 400 people have contributed to the plan’s development online, and more than 210,000 students contributed through the National Speak-Up Day organized by the national nonprofit group NetDay.

“He placed such an emphasis on student voices. To listen to that millennial generation is important,” said Irene Spero, vice president of the Consortium for School Networking and director of external relations at NetDay. “The millennials are growing up using the technology everyone else is learning how to use.”

Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Henrico County, Va., Public Schools, which last year launched a groundbreaking laptop program for some 20,000 students, said he was impressed that Bailey brought in different stakeholders and convened a series of focus groups to look at the national ed-tech plan. “I feel that even though he’s accepted this new challenge, he’ll still want to make sure in working with Susan that the plan is finalized,” Edwards added.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, also liked the outreach effort that Bailey helped organize. “That’s a real legacy to John: He began asking students what they think,” Knezek said.

With $1 million in ED funding, Bailey also invested in the formation of SETDA, the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “When I was a state ed-tech director [in Pennsylvania] for nearly eight years, we never had a group like that to get together and talk and share. That’s what SETDA does,” Bailey said.

“John has been such a supporter for SETDA. He was such an advocate. As a former ed-tech director himself, he really saw the need,” said Melinda George, the group’s executive director.

Educators and colleagues alike say they will miss Bailey’s leadership and approachability most of all.

“It’s a sad loss for us because he was a real advocate for us, he was really accessible,” Spero said.

Though ISTE and the Bush administration disagreed philosophically about the need for federal leadership in preparing new teachers to integrate technology–at Bush’s request, Congress last year pulled the plug on the $62.5 million Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program, a move supported publicly by Bailey–Knezek said Bailey was a tremendous leader who gave honest feedback and insisted on authentic evidence of educational results.

“He wasn’t overboard on hype, and he wasn’t overboard on skepticism,” Knezek said. “He was the right man for the job at the right time.”

Said Julie Young, executive director of the Florida Online High School: “John has a level of passion for education you don’t always find. I see him as somewhat of a change agent. He tried to bring the focus to kids instead of computers.

“He has a way about him that makes you think that he’s not an untouchable bureaucrat. He’s approachable, and he’s available. He would answer his eMail and answer his phone and be available for people. I think he’s been a wonderful role model.”

ED declined a request by eSchool News to interview Patrick, the acting successor to Bailey, but educators and industry leaders said they are confident in her ability to make a seamless transition.

“She’ll be able to pick up where he left off. She’s up to date on all the issues,” Spero said.

Bailey, too, said he’s not worried that national ed-tech leadership will suffer from his departure.

“Ed-tech leadership is much bigger than just one person and this office,” he said. “It’s really reflective of a community of individuals who are passionate about this topic.”

Links:

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

George W. Bush’s Campaign web site
http://www.georgewbush.com

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org

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