A handheld computer or software for winning contest entries

Achievement Technologies, publisher of the online instruction program SkillsTutor, is celebrating its one millionth user with a software and handheld giveaway. Educators, parents, and school organizations are invited to guess the date when the company’s one millionth user will register, and winners will receive a one-year subscription to SkillsTutor ($4,000 value) or a Palm handheld computer. Participants must submit their name, school, state, eMail address, and telephone number, along with the date of their guess, to the web site below. There is no obligation to purchase. Entries are limited to one per person.

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Laptop computers for an essay contest winner and his or her teacher

GiveKidsGoodSchools.com is giving away two new laptop computers to the middle school student who writes the winning essay and the teacher who is the subject of the student’s winning essay. Essays should describe the student’s favorite teacher and explain what makes this person a good teacher and why. Essays must be no longer than 250 words in length, typed or printed legibly, and double-spaced. Essays must be submitted along with an accurately completed and signed entry form. The contest is open only to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in public schools (including public charter schools) in the United States and its territories.

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Free software and other prizes for best uses of streaming video

The AIMS Multimedia Second Annual Digital Teacher Award recognizes and honors educators such as teachers, media center directors, librarians, and curriculum specialists for best practices in using streaming digital video in the classroom, media center, or computer lab. A panel of educational technology experts from the AIMS Multimedia Digital Learning Advisory Board will review all finalists and name winners. Prizes include a complimentary subscription to the companys DigitalCurriculum teaching and learning system, a $1,000 savings bond, and complimentary subscriptions to selected ed-tech publications. Educators whose schools do not currently subscribe to DigitalCurriculum can sign up for a free, 30-day trial so they may participate in the Digital Teacher Award program.

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Could brain implants liberate students with disabilities?

For years, futurists have dreamed of machines that could translate pure thought into action. Now, human trials are set to begin on an interface involving chips implanted in the brain that one day might enable students with severe disabilities to communicate effectively and even learn in a traditional classroom setting.

Cyberkinetics Inc. of Foxboro, Mass., has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin a clinical trial in which four-square-millimeter chips will be placed beneath the skulls of paralyzed patients.

If successful, the chips could allow patients to command a computer to act–merely by thinking about the instructions they wish to send.

It’s a small, early step in a mission to improve the quality of life for victims of strokes and debilitating diseases such as cerebral palsy or Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Many victims of such ailments now can survive for long periods thanks to life support, but their quality of life is poor.

“A computer is a gateway to everything else these patients would like to do, including motivating your own muscles through electrical stimulation,” said Cyberkinetics chief executive Tim Surgenor. “This is a step in the process.”

The company is far from the only research group active in the field. An Atlanta company, Neural Signals, has conducted six similar implants as part of a clinical trial and hopes to conduct more. But for now, its device contains relatively simple electrodes, and experts say Cyberkinetics will be the first to engage in a long-term, human trial with a more sophisticated device placed inside a patient’s brain. It hopes to bring a product to market in three to five years.

A number of research groups have focused on brain-computer links in recent years.

In 1998, Neural Signals researchers said a brain implant let a paralyzed stroke victim move a cursor to point out phrases like “See you later. Nice talking with you” on a computer screen. The next year, other scientists said electrodes on the scalp of two Lou Gehrig’s disease patients let them spell messages on a computer screen.

Cyberkinetics founder John Donoghue, a Brown University neuroscientist, attracted attention with research on monkeys that was published in 2002 in the journal Nature.

Three rhesus monkeys were given implants, which were first used to record signals from their motor cortex–an area of the brain that controls movement–as they manipulated a joystick with their hands. Those signals were then used to develop a program that enabled one of the monkeys to continue moving a computer cursor with its brain.

The idea is not to stimulate the mind, but rather to map neural activity so as to discern when the brain is signaling a desire to make a particular physical movement.

“We’re going to say to a paralyzed patient, ‘Imagine moving your hand six inches to the right,'” Surgenor said.

Then, he said, researchers will try to identify the brain activity associated with that desire. Someday, that capacity could feed into related devices, such as robotic arms, that help patients act on that desire.

It’s misleading to say such technologies “read minds,” said Jonathan Wolpaw of the New York State Department of Health, who is conducting similar research. Instead, they train minds to recognize a new pattern of cause and effect, and adapt.

“What happens is you provide the brain with the opportunity to develop a new skill,” he said.

Moving the experiment from monkeys to humans is a challenge. Cyberkinetics’ “BrainGate” contains tiny spikes that will extend down about one millimeter into the brain after being implanted beneath the skull, monitoring the activity from a small group of neurons.

The signals will be monitored through wires emerging from the skull, which presents some danger of infection. The company is working on a wireless version.

But Richard Andersen, a Cal Tech expert conducting similar research, said the field is advanced enough to warrant this next step.

“I think there is a consensus among many researchers that the time is right to begin trials in humans,” Andersen said, noting that surgeons are already implanting devices into human brains–sometimes deeply–to treat deafness and Parkinson’s disease. “There is always some risk, but one considers the benefits.”

Wolpaw said it isn’t clear that it’s necessary to implant such devices inside the brain; other technologies that monitor activity from outside the skull might prove as effective. But, he said, the idea of brain implants seems to attract more attention.

“The idea that you can get control by putting things into the brain appears to have an inherent fascination,” he said.

Andersen, however, said that for now devices inside the brain provide the best information.

“It would be nice if in the future some technology comes along that would let you non-invasively record from the brain,” he said. “MRIs do that. But unfortunately, it’s very expensive and cumbersome, and the signal is very indirect and slow.”

Links:

Cyberkinetics Inc.
http://www.cyberkineticsinc.com

Neural Signals Inc.
http://www.neuralsignals.com

Food and Drug Administration
http://www.fda.gov

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Free early reading software given away monthly through December

Teachers who sign up five students for Headsprout Early Reading, a supplemental reading program with a money-back guarantee, and have these students complete the first five online lessons of the program are entered into a monthly drawing. Winners of the monthly drawings will receive both the online and offline Headsprout Early Reading materials for their classroom. Educators can sign up students for the “5-by-5” promotion free of charge at the web site below. Monthly drawings are schedule through December 31, 2004.

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$3,000 for innovative social studies instruction

This program supports research and classroom application projects which improve social studies education, foster enlightened citizenship, and promote civic competence. In 1986 the Christa McAuliffe Reach for the Stars Award was established to help classroom teachers “reach for the stars” and achieve a dream that under ordinary circumstances would not be fulfilled. Christa McAuliffe was an innovative social studies teacher who reached for the stars in an effort to make her dream of space travel a reality. She was the first classroom teacher to participate in space flight and planned to use the experience in teaching lessons from space. The purpose of this $1,500 grant is to help a social studies educator make his or her dream of innovative social studies a reality. Only members of the National Council for the Social Studies are eligible.

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Get information about character education from this new federal web site

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools has unveiled a new web site for the Character Education and Civic Engagement Technical Assistance Center (CETAC), called CETAC Online. The site provides state program administrators, local educators, and the public with information about character education and civic engagement programs, as well as strategies that support academic goals and other reform efforts. It also will provide support and information for and about schools involved in character education and civic engagement across the country, officials said. The site contains publicly accessible information about legislative changes and news and events, as well as publications on character education and links to resources of interest to the field. “This new web site is an excellent tool for educators, parents, and the community across the nation because it provides significant information and resources on character education and civic engagement–two key components in the historic No Child Left Behind education reform law,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement announcing the online resource.

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Campus web site seeks to address rumors

School leaders looking for new and innovative ways of using the web to reach out to stakeholders might want to borrow a page from the Southeast Missouri State web site.

Whether it’s confirming the whispers or dispelling the ridiculous, The Rumor Mill @ Southeast seeks to address rumors that tend to make their way around campus.

The page can be accessed from the university’s web site, www.semo.edu. Students can anonymously post online questions to the site, which is directed by university news bureau director Ann Hayes. Hayes then investigates and answers the queries.

The rumors range from entertainment–“Is Kid Rock coming?”–to the serious–“I heard a girl was attacked and raped.” Hayes said common themes include rumors affecting everyday campus life: parking, food service, residence life.

She said the web site has received 545 questions since its inception five years ago.

“We really set it up as a way to open lines of communication and dispel any false rumors out there and correct information,” Hayes said. “There’s an archive, and if you look at it, anything and everything has been asked on The Rumor Mill.”

Senior Jeremy Boyer, 23, has sent in four or five questions during his four years at Southeast.

“I’ve asked everything from questions about parking to the most recent one, about all the noise the power plant makes,” said Boyer, a music education major.

The complaint was given a quick response, Boyer said. During the week he wrote the eMail to The Rumor Mill, tests were being run on a boiler that required exhausting excess steam, which is a very noisy process.

“The Rumor Mill at least lets us know what’s going on,” he said.

Hayes responded to the question about the rape rumor by saying that a victim had not come forward, but campus police had received information concerning an alleged sexual assault.

Other rumors are more frivolous. Some postings are just off the wall. One asked, “Do you know [what] a coaxial cable is?”

“I thought, ‘Why are you asking this on The Rumor Mill?'” Hayes said. “Some people see it as the Bureau of Information. But it’s really there to clarify and present information on topics when they don’t know where [else] to go.”

Links:

The Rumor Mill @ Southeast
http://www6.semo.edu/news/rumorMill

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School leaders learn how to use data to improve instruction

Data-driven decision making and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) were the focus of a conference held April 8 in Washington, D.C.

Sponsored by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the event featured national lawmakers as well as educators and other stakeholders who have a vested interest in seeing children succeed in the classroom.

A primary emphasis at the conference: how to go beyond the mere collection of data to developing effective methods for using those data to advance student achievement.

For years, schools have collected student achievement data primarily by way of standardized tests, which students take as required on an annual or bi-annual basis. These days, educators say, those metrics–while still important–provide neither time nor detail enough to address the individual needs of students, a problem compounded by the accountability demands set forth under NCLB.

Instead of relying on summative assessments merely as a rite of passage to the next grade level, school leaders now say they need more comprehensive data that can be accessed incrementally–anytime, anywhere–so teachers and parents can intervene before their students fall behind.

Helen Soule, special assistant in the Office of Postsecondary Education for the U.S. Department of Education, called data-driven decision making “a powerful tool for improving student achievement” that is essential in meeting the rigorous demands of the federal law.

“You need at your fingertips timely, relevant, accurate, and continuous access to all data,” Soule said.

That’s what administrators at Community Consolidated School District 15 in suburban Chicago set out to have through a partnership with IBM Corp. The result: a data-warehousing solution that now tracks more than 249 variables on everything from student achievement to school bus service and classroom cleanliness. According to retired district superintendent John Conyers, Big Blue built the platform using one simple guiding principle: “If it moves, measure it.”

Aside from monitoring student test scores incrementally in the classroom, the district also tracks student demographics and churns out other data indirectly related to learning, such as school lunch status and the timeliness of bus routes. District officials are so enamored with data, they even use their current information system to evaluate the quality of custodial service in classrooms. The better shape the rooms are in, Conyers reasoned, the fewer distractions there are to keep children from reaching their full potential.

Leading indicators

Before data-driven decision making and the advent of anytime, anywhere assessment, Conyers said schools routinely used “lagging indicators” that assessed student knowledge too far down the learning curve to allow for any significant improvements.

“No organization we know [of] can improve itself using lagging indicators,” he said. “The key motivating factor is to get leading indicators.”

To do this will require a sea change in education, especially among the teaching ranks, where instructors now must learn to speak the language of research and must integrate data seamlessly into the instructional process. To ease this transition, Conyers suggested that school personnel enter into business agreements with leading technology companies, in which solutions providers supply the technology and training necessary to meet the school system’s needs.

“Organizations need to develop critical friends,” Conyers said, with parents and students as their perceived customer base.

But it isn’t always easy for schools, especially those that have fallen behind, to implement dynamic changes. To move teachers away from an environment of perennial paper-pushing and into one of intense number crunching, administrators first must convince them of the value of data in smaller, more meaningful doses.

“It’s like watching what you eat,” said Peter Robertson, chief information officer for the Cleveland Municipal School District. “That’s how you lose weight. … NCLB is sparking an important conversation about what data to use [to raise] student achievement. To get to the next level, we’ve got to grab hold of what’s going on in the classroom.”

Being prepared

Achieving this new data-driven culture in schools will require professional development. No matter how comprehensive and technologically advanced a school system’s data pipe might be, the information is only as good as the educators whose job it is to turn these data into change.

Karlene McCormick-Lee, assistant superintendent for the Clark County Schools in Nevada–the nation’s sixth largest district, with 268,000 students and 25,000 employees spread across 277 school buildings–said the problem is especially tricky in those systems that have a very diverse population of schools.

In Clark County, where learning environments range from a K-8 school with 10 students to an urban high school with an enrollment of more than 4,000, administrators quickly learned the cost of making data-driven decisions. It cost Clark County in excess of $147,000 to train key personnel on the district’s new data infrastructure, furnished by solutions providers Educational Testing Service Inc. and the Pulliam Group. That’s not exactly a small price tag, considering most educators still are coming to terms with the concept.

The idea, according to McCormick-Lee, is to use data to tell the story of each individual student. Administrators collect and analyze assessment data to highlight accountability, spotlight achievement, and pursue greater equity among students.

“A centralized system with local control is key,” she said. That way, educators at the classroom level have the power to extract, manipulate, and apply the data to the individual needs of their students for immediate intervention.

But “there are some things data can’t tell you,” she cautioned. That’s why it’s also important to involve other stakeholders in the process, including parents and the students themselves.

Another hurdle to solid data-driven decision making is the lack of communication that exists today between parents at home and instructors in the classroom. Using a myriad of web-based tools, educators who are using data to improve instruction have opened the classroom up to parents by doing a better job of communicating and sharing personal performance data across the internet.

“Teaching is part art, part science,” said CoSN Chairman Bob Moore, executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley Unified School District in Overland Park, Kans. “We need to get the right data to the right people in a way that is understandable to them…. We need to turn this information to action.”

Links:

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)
http://www.cosn.org

CoSN’s Data-Driven Decision Making Initiative
http://3d2know.cosn.org

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eRate players clash over high-stakes issues

As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares to make key changes to the eRate–such as increasing the minimum amount the neediest applicants are required to contribute, and possibly eliminating the Form 470 used to seek competitive bids–stakeholders in the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program remain sharply divided as to what these changes should entail.

About 45 applicants, consultants, and vendors responded to the FCC’s “Third Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” by the March deadline. The notice continued the agency’s effort to explore ways of improving the program’s application process and reducing waste, fraud, and abuse.

The eRate provides discounts of up to 90 percent on the cost of telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections for eligible schools and libraries. Year after year, demand for the eRate has exceeded what’s available.

For the 2004 funding year, the agency that oversees the program, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., reported that 39,785 applicants requested more than $4.278 billion in discounts. Although that amount is some $440 million (9 percent) less than last year, school and libraries still have asked for nearly double the amount available.

Despite the high level of participation, eRate stakeholders say the program needs a makeover because the application process is complicated and burdensome–and, increasingly, instances of program abuse have become widely publicized.

New House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, who says he supports the goals of the eRate, recently announced that he intends to step up focus on the eRate by reviewing the way the program is funded in conjunction with an analysis of several telecommunications issues.

Barton declined to comment on whether such a review might lead to a reduction in annual eRate funding. The eRate is also still under investigation by a House oversight and investigations subcommittee. On April 5, the Justice Department indicted five more individuals for eRate fraud, alleging they falsely claimed to have provided telecommunications services to three schools in order to receive funding.

Eliminating the Form 470

As one possible remedy, the FCC’s Notice asked whether the eRate would be improved if the Form 470 process–which ensures that applicants seek competitive bids–were to be simplified or even eliminated.

Many who submitted comments applauded the idea of eliminating the form altogether and creating a system whereby applicants certify their own procurement policy and procedures.

“School districts are already bound by procurement rules designed to ensure favorable pricing, encourage competition, and prevent fraud,” said the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE). “Imposing another set of vaguely defined rules only complicates an already time-consuming process.”

“Every state has a procurement law,” agreed the Arkansas eRate Work Group. “The majority of applicants are good fiscal agents for their entity and the eRate program.”

Alternatively, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which described the Form 470 as a “meaningless administrative burden,” suggested that the FCC should require applicants to seek a minimum of three bids before selecting an internal connections provider.

“Six years’ experience has proven that very few, if any, entities receive viable bids as a result of their Form 470 postings,” officials wrote.

As another option, the FCC could set acceptable price ranges for various products and services to keep applicants’ expenditures in line, said Greg Weisiger, Virginia’s state eRate coordinator.

For example, “experience indicates an adequate local area network, including hardware for a 900-student, 50-classroom, single-building school, can be done for approximately $300,000. Internal connections requests in excess of this total amount should be scrutinized for potential waste, fraud, and abuse, particularly if the same building was funded for internal connection within the past two years,” Weisiger wrote.

Instead of completely eliminating the Form 470 process, many said it should be radically reduced.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) suggested eliminating the Form 470 for telephone and internet service but keeping it for internal connections.

E-Rate Complete LLC, an eRate consulting firm in Iowa, disagreed with the proposal to eliminate the Form 470. “Even if there is no other available vendor, it isn’t a hardship to complete the Form 470. It forces the applicant to consider adding new services or eliminating those that are not utilized,” the firm wrote.

Adjusting or revising the discount matrix

Additionally, the FCC asked whether it should adjust its discount matrix for internal connections to distribute funds to more applicants and deter waste, fraud, and abuse. Currently, the poorest schools and libraries receive a 90-percent discount to wire their buildings, leaving them responsible for only 10 percent of the cost.

Many who submitted comments said applicants should bear more of the costs for wiring their buildings. The Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Virginia Department of Education, the Arkansas E-Rate Work Group, BellSouth, and Sprint Corp. suggested lowering discounts to 70 or 80 percent.

“I believe a 10-percent match does not provide a sufficient incentive for applicants to limit internal connection funding requests,” said Virginia’s Weisiger.

The benefits would be threefold, he explained. First, the increased cost to applicants would prevent them from purchasing expensive, unnecessary products. Second, giving applicants 70-percent discounts instead of 90-percent discounts will free up funds to be distributed among more applicants. Lastly, it would stop vendors who inflate prices or offer applicants “grants” to cover their 10 percent.

Sprint Corp. agreed that revising the current discount matrix would improve the effectiveness of the eRate. Asking applicants to pay only 10 percent of the cost leaves “little incentive to select the most cost-effective configuration,” Sprint wrote.

Sprint recommends lowering the maximum discount for internal connections to 80 percent, but leaving the maximum discount for maintenance on internal connections at 90 percent.

“It makes little sense to install equipment and facilities, but then have those facilities operate below par because of lack of maintenance,” the company wrote.

Though changing the discount matrix might create a financial hardship for some applicants, Sprint noted that the eRate has been operating for seven years already, and many of the neediest applicants should have been served.

On the other hand, several entities strongly opposed the idea of changing the discount matrix–including the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), NYCDOE, CoSN, and ISTE.

First, they said, the FCC should evaluate the effect of its new rule that restricts applicants from applying for internal connections more than twice within a five-year period. This rule will take effect in the 2005 funding year.

Limiting applications for internal connections to twice in five years will already reduce waste, fraud, and abuse, AASA said. Plus, increasing an applicant’s contribution from 10 to 20 percent would double what it would have to pay out.

“In a time of record state funding shortfalls and tight budgets, this could restrain applicants from participating–especially in high-poverty and rural areas,” AASA wrote.

United Utilities Inc., which serves rural schools and libraries in Alaska, concurs. “The neediest applicants do not have the means to pay more than they are already paying,” United Utilities wrote. “If these applicants are required to pay more than 10 percent of the service costs, many applicants will probably be precluded from even applying.”

By waiting to see the effect of the “twice in five years” rule, CoSN and ISTE added, the FCC would reduce the burden on applicants.

“From an applicant’s perspective, frequent rule changes, no matter how necessary or warranted, serve only to further complicate an already complex program,” they wrote. “Applicants must have sufficient time to adjust to these rule changes without the additional burden of coping with discount matrix alterations.”

Recovering funds from vendors or applicants

The FCC also asked for comments on a range of issues related to the recovery of funds that were wrongly disbursed.

The NYCDOE currently is requesting a waiver from the FCC concerning its recovery of funds. Several years ago, the district proactively hired companies to audit telephone charges for more than 23,000 circuits in more than 1,600 school buildings. As a result of these audits, the telephone companies reimbursed millions of dollars to the district. The district’s contract with its auditors said that for every $1,000 recovered, the auditors would be paid $250 and the remaining $750 would be disbursed according to the district’s discount rate–78 percent to the SLD and 22 percent to the district.

However, the SLD insisted that the district pick up the cost for the audit and return the original amount of the discount to the SLD.

“This is illogical, unfair, and a disincentive for applicants to monitor expenditures,” NYCDOE said. “It creates a situation where the only injured party is the applicant who made the good-faith effort to prevent waste.”

In instances where rule violations or abuses are discovered, Weisiger recommends, the FCC should not allow the SLD to take back funds after they were committed. Instead, he wrote, if the SLD wrongfully promises funds to an applicant, the agency should repay the money itself. And if an applicant or vendor conducts wrongdoing, the matter should be turned over to objective law enforcement officials.

Sprint recommends that “financial liability for & repayments should be assigned to the party responsible for the violation.” In cases of minor errors that do not affect program integrity, the FCC should waive the recovery of funds, Sprint said. Also, determining the need to recover funds should be based on the rules that were in effect at the time of disbursement, not the time of the audit.

Both Verizon Communications and Cox Communiations suggested that a statute of limitations should be set for the recovery of funds. In the case of the Norfolk, Va., Public Schools, the FCC sought to recover funds three years after they were disbursed and used, Cox explained.

“We can conceive of nothing more destabilizing to the eRate program than applicants living in fear that the SLD or the [FCC] may decide [to] recollect from them discounts,” the company wrote.

Defining ‘internet access’

The FCC also asked whether the definition of eRate-eligible internet access should be expanded from “basic access to the internet” to something more in line with the definition recently approved for rural health-care providers. The agency defines internet access for these entities as “an information service that enables rural health-care providers to post their own data, interact with stored data, generate new data, or communicate over the World Wide Web.”

Sprint opposes expanding the definition of internet access for the eRate program, citing that “the circumstances surrounding the eRate and rural health-care programs are very different.”

For example, the new definition would stimulate even more demand for the eRate. Plus, new internet technologies would “further blur the line between pure internet access services and telecommunications services. This is of critical importance, as not all providers of internet access services are eligible to provide telecommunications services under the eRate program.”

WiscNet, Wisconsin’s state education network, said the definition should be expanded to match the one for rural health-care providers. “The current schools and libraries definition, with its narrow, obsolete focus on ‘basic conduit access,’ penalizes internet service providers who are not simultaneously telecommunications services providers,” WiscNet wrote.

Links:

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

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

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