Virtual school aims to educate lawmakers

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is taking an innovative approach to promoting support for virtual education by inviting legislators to become students.

This spring, FLVS began offering a mini-course to provide elected officials and U.S. Department of Education (ED) personnel with a first-hand look at the school’s online learning environment.

“We know that improving the quality of education is a top priority for state and national leaders, and [we] recognize there are many ways to achieve our various goals,” said Bruce Friend, chief administrative officer for FLVS. “Our goal, in developing this course, is to introduce decision makers to virtual learning. We encourage our nation’s public policy makers to step into the shoes of today’s students and experience an online course.”

Participants in the course have two options: They can sign up for a short course on American government facilitated by a certified teacher and to be completed at their leisure. Or, they may explore the course without an instructor. This would enable them to get a look at the curriculum as an observer in the class–24 hours a day–for a two-week period.

Legislators are encouraged to sign up anonymously for either option. In both cases, participants would not be required to hand in work, nor would they receive grades for their participation. Rather, it’s a way for policy makers “to take a peek at what virtual learning really looks like,” Friend said.

The course is intended to dispel what Friend says are some common misconceptions about online learning–mainly that it is a solitary and disengaging affair–while giving legislators a chance to see and feel how the program actually works.

“It’s a way for the people who fund us to learn about our environment,” Friend said. “This is an opportunity for us to spread the word [about virtual learning] to those who hold the purse strings about what online learning really looks like.”

Links:

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

Legislator course registration
http://notes.flvs.net/amgovleg.nsf/registration?open

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New technology could lend a (clean) hand to school food safety

With just a flicker of blue light, school officials soon might know for sure whether their food-service employees washed their hands thoroughly before serving lunch. New light-scanning technology borrowed from the slaughterhouse promises to help hospital workers, restaurant employees–one day, even kids–make sure that hand washing zaps some germs that can carry deadly illnesses. A device the size of an electric hand dryer detects fecal contamination and pinpoints on a digital display where on a person’s hands more scrubbing is needed.

eMerge Interactive Inc., a struggling technology company in Sebastian, Fla., is hoping to tweak light scanners it already sells to beef plants to detect the same kinds of nasty germs on humans.

The blue-light scanners could dramatically improve hygiene among employees who forget to wash their hands after bathroom breaks. This practice is a leading cause of food poisoning that reportedly afflicts tens of millions of Americans every year.

Studies show people typically fail to scrub around fingernails and between fingers adequately. The government recommends people wash their hands for at least 20 seconds; researchers find many people do not even use soap.

“People are not good at hand washing,” said Janet Anderson, a nutritionist at Utah State University. “We find that unless sinks are very close to where people are handling food, they don’t wash their hands well.”

eMerge, which demonstrated an early prototype for The Associated Press, said its first clean-hand scanners could go on sale as early as year’s end to schools, restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals, and day-care centers. Using identification cards, the devices can even record which employees scrubbed acceptably and which ones still have dirty hands.

“Being able to tell whether there’s fecal matter is a major improvement,” said Jim Mann, executive director of The Handwashing Leadership Forum, a group in Illinois that studies food-borne outbreaks.

Mann called the scanning technology promising but “not a silver bullet,” because it cannot detect pathogens such as salmonella or viruses that do not always spread initially in fecal contamination. Salmonella can be present in raw eggs, for example.

Using a specific light wavelength, the scanners cause a fluorescence in even minuscule amounts of fecal contamination that could carry dangerous bacteria like E. coli; it shows up on a built-in display as a bright red spot on a person’s dirty hand.

In meat plants, the scanners look for evidence of chlorophyl, the green pigments found in plants and grasses common to cow diets. The clean-hands scanners will need to search for other signatures, not just chlorophyl, that might signal contamination by meat eaters: Human diets are much more diverse than cattle’s.

People on the popular Atkin’s diet, for example, would have almost no chlorophyl in their systems, said eMerge’s executive vice president, Richard Stroman. He declined to say which new markers the company is investigating, calling that a trade secret.

“If you only eat beer and cheese pizza, what kind of signatures are you going to get?” asked Jacob Petrich, a biophysical chemist at Iowa State University who invented the meat-scanning technology along with two scientists, Thomas A. Casey and Mark A. Rasmussen, at the Agriculture Department.

Petrich suggested that hospitals, restaurants, or schools could ask employees to swallow chlorophyl tablets. “This is do-able, it’s just a question of technology, of how you look at the spectral signatures of diets,” he said.

A report last year by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) identified 195 food-borne illness outbreaks in schools nationwide between 1990 and 1999, according to the American School Food Service Association (ASFSA). This represents roughly 3 percent of all outbreaks reported during that period.

State health departments provided information to the GAO regarding 59 large food-borne illness outbreaks in schools–those where at least 50 people were affected. Of these, 19 outbreaks were caused by sources unrelated to school food service, such as food from students’ homes. An additional 19 outbreaks were attributed to improper food handling practices within schools, and 8 were attributed to the contamination of food before its delivery to the schools. It is not known where the food involved in the remaining 13 outbreaks was contaminated.

The clean-hand scanning technology “looks good and could be very useful in school kitchens,” said Erik Peterson, director of public awareness and media relations for ASFSA. “I would say its widespread use in schools will depend in large part on the cost of the units.”

An eMerge spokesman said the company was considering a price in the $2,000 range for the scanners.

Links:

eMerge Interactive Inc.
http://www.emergeinteractive.com

American School Food Service Association
http://www.asfsa.org

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MIT develops free course-management platform

Computer buffs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have constructed a new portal framework designed to give educational institutions more flexibility in managing both on-campus and distance education programs.

Called Caddie.net, the framework–which schools can download free of charge–supplies basic applications for course management and scheduling, while enabling users to build customized portals designed to meet the specific needs of a particular class or campus organization.

Developers are touting the program as more versatile and easier to use than leading commercial course management solutions, such as those provided by Blackboard Inc. and WebCT. What’s more, they say, the program will save schools money by cutting down on IT costs and streamlining the process of updating web services applications such as campus events calendars, class schedules, and student rosters.

John Williams, a professor of engineering at the university and head of the Caddie.net project, said the idea evolved from a need on campus for more flexible course-management tools and services.

“We discovered there were lots of different kinds of learning events going on around campus that needed support,” Williams said. But given the myriad of teaching styles and diverse needs of students, he said, a single, standardized solution wasn’t likely to give educators the flexibility they desired.

With that in mind, Williams and his band of researchers set out to develop a web-based environment that would make it easy for educators to incorporate their own unique applications and services into existing course-management software.

The result: Caddie.net.

Unlike traditional learning-management-system (LMS) programs, which consist of two blocks of software (an application layer and a database layer), the Web Services architecture employed by MIT is a three-tier system that lets users plug in their own modules and preferences without altering or changing the composition of the original database.

Or, as Williams put it, Caddie.net does not ask educators to conform their ideas to the contours of a single, off-the-shelf solution. Rather, it provides “a platform, or framework, that can be customized to individual needs and preferences,” he said.

For instance, if an instructor were teaching a lesson on computer programming and wanted to organize students into groups to discuss coding, most classroom-management solutions would not provide the capability to create a separate, customizable portal for each individual group–where students could log on to exchange ideas, save their work, and submit projects for grades.

Caddie.net, on the other hand, creates a “portal factory,” where a single course-management database essentially could be connected to thousands of student-operated portals–all with their own unique look and feel, Williams said. The idea is to share centralized course information, while working through separate portals to meet the specific needs of various users.

“A single, integrated database is great if you don’t have to make any changes,” he said. But educators using those types of solutions tend to have “very little control over extending their systems.”

That’s not to say more traditional LMS software soon will become obsolete.

Blackboard executives declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the company’s impending Initial Public Offering of stock, but Chris Vento, executive vice president of research and development and chief technology officer at WebCT, said the products his company offers to schools still far outpace the likes of Caddie.net in terms of functionality, speed, training, service, and support.

WebCT’s course-management solutions boast a number of teaching and learning applications not yet available as part of the Caddie.net model, he said, including a homework tool for students and an assessment metric used to help grade tests, to name two.

Another place MIT makes no attempt to keep up with its commercial competitors is in the area of customer service. Where Caddie.net is available merely for downloading, WebCT’s solutions–which can run from $10,000 to into the six figures, depending on the size of deployment–come staffed with full-service technology personnel whose job is to make sure educators understand how to use the technology, Vento said.

Although an open-source system might be capable of delivering more flexibility because of the number of portals it can support, Vento suggested educators should look at other interoperable products such as WebCT’s Vista 2.0–an eLearning system designed to support the existing structure, operations, and workflow of higher education institutions–in conjunction with Caddie.net.

“The two systems really complement each other,” Vento said. “Vista could serve as an integration hub” for Caddie.net and other solutions, he said, including complex student information systems and school library databases. That way, users could have access to the tools and services available with the WebCT product, even if those services are not yet available with Caddie.net.

“It’s all about adding value,” said Vento, who acknowledged that Caddie.net offers a few values of its own–not the least of which is its ability to provide cross-platform integration of applications.

Designed under an open-source framework, Caddie.net is extremely flexible in terms of the applications and services it will work with, Williams said–meaning an application built for RedHat Linux, for example, could be added to a course management portal supported by Microsoft.Net, the architecture on which Caddie.net is based. (Schools that want to download the beta version of Caddie.net, however, must do so using a Microsoft platform.)

Unlike traditional LMS software, Williams said, the more evolved Web Services framework is hierarchical–an attribute he says could represent significant savings for schools on the back end.

MIT has engineered Caddie.net so that lower-level administrators–secretaries, for example–can be empowered to update and change certain portions of the course database, such as class rosters and event calendars, without having to filter those changes through a higher level technology staffer–someone whose time, Williams said, is generally more expensive.

Under the Web Services model, technology personnel effectively could spend more time writing programs and fulfilling higher level tasks, while empowering educators and administrators to update databases and correlate schedules, he said.

The system does have its share of drawbacks. One problem with Caddie.net–at least, in the near term–is its overall lack of security. Although MIT says it has developed a password-protected application that schools can download to secure different portals and databases, this application is not available as part of the beta version.

Developers said they wanted to make the beta product as transparent as possible, so users could get a sense for how the system operates. Eventually, Caddie.net will include the ability to encrypt all sorts of data–from students’ grades and names to homework assignments–if users so choose.

Schools looking to download the product for widespread use, however, might want to wait for a later version. As with any new technology, Williams said, there have been some complaints about downloading glitches and other problems, which developers say they hope to have resolved when the final version of the product is released some time this summer.

Currently, Caddie.net is being used to manage more than 300 courses at MIT, Williams said. It also has been picked up by Gaukin University, a 15,000-student Japanese university system, and Hibernia College in Ireland.

MIT developed the concept through a grant from Microsoft.

Another for-profit eLearning company, Jones Knowledge, has offered its “e-education” online learning platform to schools free of charge since December 2002. Unlike Caddie.net, however, e-education is designed specifically for creating, administering, and delivering courses online.

Links:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
http://www.mit.edu

Caddie.net Portal Factory
http://iesl.mit.edu/web/default.aspx

WebCT
http://www.webct.com

Blackboard Inc.
http://www.blackboard.com

Jones Knowledge
http://www.e-education.com

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Take a 360-degree tour of Mars with the “EOS Education Project”

Students can get a one-of-a-kind look at the Red Planet through this new interactive web site from NASA. The space program’s Earth Observing System provides students, scientists, and space enthusiasts alike with some of the first three-dimensional images captured by NASA’s “Spirit” and “Opportunity” rovers and beamed back to Earth in the early phases of this monumental exploration. Using technology from Skyline Software Systems Inc., a provider of 3D visualization software and web-based interactive 3D “fly-through” technology, students can take a 360-degree tour documenting the exact terrain and geography where the modules touched down at Meridiani Planum, Mars. Visitors to the site also can get live updates on the progress of the exploration, with details about the latest findings and significant discoveries. Organizers say the goal of the project is to engage students in real-life science exploration and promote increased student achievement through interactivity.

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Use of plagiarism-detection software grows

For years, educators at colleges and universities have marshaled software tools to ensure that their students’ work is original. Now, tainted by scandals or leery of the internet’s copy-enabling power, a growing number of newspapers, law firms, and other businesses are also using data-sifting tools that can cross-check billions of digital documents and swiftly recognize pilfered passages in just seconds.

The expansion of plagiarism-detection software from academia into the business world underscores the need for educators to impress upon their students and staff members that plagiarism is wrong–whether it occurs in school or in their professional life.

Unlike Google and other search engines that find matches to typed-in keywords, an advanced plagiarism-detection service such as iParadigms LLC’s makes a digital fingerprint of an entire document and compares it against material on the internet and in other sources, including proprietary academic and media databases.

Even the U.N. Security Council has begun to protect its credibility this way, using iParadigm’s technology since last fall to ensure the originality of reports by its researchers and freelance writers.

Oakland, Calif.-based iParadigms started in 1996 with a computer program to help researchers at the University of California, Berkeley inspect undergraduates’ papers. Today, its Turnitin plagiarism-detector is used by about 2,500 high schools and colleges in the United States and 1,000 more abroad. It launched a commercial version, iThenticate, in January.

Other plagiarism-detection providers–including Glatt Plagiarism Services, MyDropBox LLC, and CFL Software Development–also report growing business outside the educational sector.

New clients include companies that produce instruction or training materials, attorneys searching for copyright violations, and police and military agencies that check officers’ applications for promotions.

Few of these businesses are willing to talk about using these tools. Many insist that the software makers shield their identities and keep mum about any transgressions that are exposed.

Fearing negative publicity, most “don’t want other people to know they’re using the service,” said Max Litvin, co-owner and inventor of MyDropBox.

Last year, one publisher turned to iParadigms when it investigated–and subsequently affirmed–rumors that an accomplished textbook author had plagiarized other sources. Sworn to secrecy, iParadigms president John Barrie said he watched in disbelief as the publisher quietly revised later editions, leaving the author’s reputation intact.

“But I see a lot of plagiarism every day,” Barrie said. “Most authors, whether a student or professional author, they think the odds of being found out are so remote that they’ll play the odds and think they’re just fine.”

iParadigms charges universities a $500 annual licensing fee plus 60 cents per full-time student. Business customers pay $1,000 a year and $10 for each page submitted for screening. Newspapers face different charging options based on word count or circulation.

A different program, WCopyfind, was employed by USA Today as it probed the work of its embattled former reporter Jack Kelley. The free program compares strings of words only from preselected documents.

iThenticate and MyDropBox, by contrast, are web-based tools. Users upload documents to the web sites; the services troll the internet and other proprietary databases, such as Lexis-Nexis or ProQuest, for any sign of unoriginal work; then they produce reports showing matches. iThenticate also combs its archive of internet pages, which grows by 40 million pages a day.

Clearly, plagiarism is a growing problem. In a survey of 30,000 undergraduates at 34 colleges, 37 percent admitted committing cut-and-paste plagiarism using the internet, up from 10 percent in 1999. Only 20 percent of their professors use plagiarism-detection tools, according to the survey by Rutgers University professor Don McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity.

Plagiarism detectors can be relatively cheap insurance against intellectual property sins, but many businesses and even educators remain reluctant to use them. Some fear lawsuits if they accuse someone of cheating. And deciding what amounts to actual plagiarism remains a judgment call that humans must make, creators of the software say.

“It’s merely a tool to guide the eye,” said Lou Bloomfield, a University of Virginia physics professor who created WCopyfind in 2001 to check for plagiarism in student term papers.

iParadigms’ software helped the Hartford Courant conclude last month that Central Connecticut State University’s president, Richard Judd, had allegedly committed plagiarism in an op-ed piece after an alert reader said it may have contained sentences previously published in the New York Times.

The Connecticut newspaper tried an internet keyword search but without much success. iParadigms’ software later showed that the opinion piece included not only material from the Times but also three other sources; at least 11 percent of it appeared to be unoriginal.

The criticism upended the respected university administrator’s career: Judd, 66, announced on March 19 that he will retire July 1.

The Courant doesn’t plan to routinely check every story for plagiarism–just submissions for the editorial page, says John Zakarian, editorial page editor. However, the paper now has a fast and effective tool to use if a staff writer’s story is questioned, he says.

“We’ve come to rely more and more on the internet,” he said, “and it’s not humanly possible to verify every sentence and word. I was amazed we have the wonders of technology to help in that fashion.”

Other newspapers are reluctant to use the powerful software.

At the Macon Telegraph, which fired a reporter for plagiarism in March, editors are discussing how to prevent a repeat occurrence–but such electronic tools aren’t being considered, said managing editor Mike McQueen.

“We, the editors, trust our writers deeply,” he said. “I don’t think anybody here would want to challenge our reporters to prove that they are not plagiarizing everything they write. It’ll look like a witch hunt.”

In January, a Canadian teen studying at McGill University in Toronto won the right to keep his work from being put through iParadigms’ Turnitin software after the student protested that the school’s use of the software unfairly presumes guilt, the Toronto Star reported Jan. 16.

Still, Barrie predicts that iParadigms’ commercial clients eventually will outnumber the academics. “The stakes are 100 times greater,” he said. “We’re not talking about grades anymore.”

Links:

iParadigms LLC
http://www.iparadigms.com

MyDropBox LLC
http://www.mydropbox.com

Lou Bloomfield’s Plagiarism Resource Site
http://www.plagiarism.phys.virginia.edu

Center for Academic Integrity
http://www.academicintegrity.org

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Researchers aim to “democratize” supercomputing

An experiment held April 3 by researchers at the University of San Francisco (USF) offered a new twist to the latest trend in supercomputing: using off-the-shelf computers networked together to generate the kind of processing power capable of solving the most complex research problems.

Last fall, students at Virginia Tech proved they could create a low-cost supercomputer by wiring together off-the-shelf desktops. The twist in the USF experiment was that hundreds of participants gathered in the university gymnasium for a one-day event designed to determine whether they could spontaneously muster enough power to compare with the world’s strongest machines.

Though organizers failed to break into the ranks of the world’s top 500 supercomputers as they had hoped, they said the event, which they called “Flashmob I,” was a success nonetheless.

“Flashmob is about democratizing supercomputing,” said John Witchel, a graduate student at USF who codeveloped the concept. “It’s about giving supercomputing power to the people so that we can decide how we want supercomputers to be used.”

Supercomputers perform highly sophisticated functions, such as predicting weather patterns, modeling biological processes, or animating movies. Most are run by government laboratories or big corporations because they are expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The April 3 flashmob event was a dry run designed to measure how much computing power could be generated during a spontaneous gathering, rather than tackle a specific task.

About 660 volunteers took part, including programmers, self-described “computer geeks,” teenagers, college students, and researchers. Cables connecting various laptops and desktops were strewn across the gym.

“I just want to be part of history,” said Glenn Montano, a USF senior majoring in computer science.

Organizers had hoped to break into the ranks of the worlds top 500 supercomputers by generating more than 500 gigaflops of power. The top spot is held by a Japanese computer that generates about 35,000 gigaflops.

The April 3 event managed to generate 180 gigaflops, not enough to make the Top 500 list. Still, organizers said they were pleased.

“This proves that this kind of computing can be competitive with computers that cost tens of millions of dollars,” Witchel said.

The term “flashmob” comes from the spontaneous internet-organized gatherings that gained popularity last year. During the events, hundreds of people suddenly appear at a predetermined location, perform a wacky stunt–such as wearing purple hats or spinning in circles–then quickly disperse, leaving bystanders scratching their heads.

The USF event was not the first time citizens have pooled their computing power. For example, the University of California-Berkeley’s SETI@home project has created a “virtual” supercomputer through thousands of internet-connected PCs to search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Last fall, students at Virginia Tech created a cluster of off-the-shelf Power Macs that ranked as the world’s third-fastest supercomputer. The cost: about $7 million, significantly less than the custom supercomputers that labs use for weather and weapons simulations, chemical experiments, and other highly complex projects. (See “Va. Tech knits off-the-shelf Macs into third-fastest supercomputer,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4815.)

Organizers hope the Flashmob concept can eventually be applied to problems requiring high-powered computing such as the study of global warming or AIDS research.

Links:

USF FlashMob I
http://www.flashmobcomputing.org

Top 500 Supercomputing Sites
http://www.top500.org

SETI@home Project
http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu

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Exclusive: ED’s new tech chief sets her agenda

Susan Patrick, new head of the federal Office of Educational Technology (OET), is calling on schools to adopt a more integrated approach to technology across all facets of their operation–from classroom instruction to front-office administration.

In an interview with eSchool News, the country’s top ed-tech administrator said she is not interested in pursuing “technology for technology’s sake,” but in looking for ways technology-driven solutions can contribute to the broader goal of helping all students learn.

To do that, she said, will require a culture of communication and an open-mindedness about learning that encourages all stakeholders–including students–to speak their minds about the direction of educational technology in America’s schools.

Education Secretary Rod Paige on March 26 tapped Patrick, an agency veteran, to head the OET, part of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Patrick had served as acting director since Feb. 2, when she succeeded former director John Bailey, who left to join the reelection campaign of President Bush.

Patrick is charged with coordinating technology programs and policies to further the mission of the department and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), including virtual education and eLearning, student data management systems, online assessments, and the national ed-tech plan.

Technology is becoming the adhesive that unites formerly disparate parts of the education enterprise, she indicated. Unlike the paper-based environments of old, where every facet of education–from classroom teaching to student assessment and front-office administration–existed as its own separate entity, Patrick said the technology-infused schools of today require a more integrated approach, where one institution cannot be expected to survive without the others.

“Every administrative system, in a sense, becomes an instructional system,” she said. For instance, if a school uses Geographic Information Systems technology to plot its bus routes, and those buses show up 15 minutes late for school because of a mistake traced back to improper training, the mix-up no doubt affects the administrator who made the error, but it also has consequences for those students who missed out on valuable class time.

The same can be said for a student information system that collects volumes of personal data, but provides no means for educators to extract those data in a meaningful way that can aid in instruction, and so on.

Research and best practices

To address these concerns, Patrick said one of OET’s goals going forward will be to reduce the complexities of data management and student assessment systems and to help educators locate solutions that best fit the needs of their students.

To do this, Patrick says her office will continue to build on ED’s What Works Clearinghouse, an online repository of systematically evaluated research to help educators more easily identify scientifically proven teaching methods and instructional practices as required by NCLB.

For instance, OET is currently overseeing a three-year, $15 million initiative that will look at 10 statewide technology projects from across the country–from virtual classroom initiatives to professional development programs–and will use these examples as a blueprint for success in other states.

In all, ED has committed more than $56 million to 28 different research projects geared toward evaluating various approaches toward technology in the classroom.

By expanding the number of proven solutions and best practices available to schools, Patrick hopes educators will need to spend less time worrying about which solutions work and be able to devote more time to using proven solutions to meet the achievement and accountability standards outlined under NCLB.

Though Patrick acknowledges that conducting high-quality research sometimes takes longer than most educators would like, she cautioned that such projects are necessary to convince policy makers that technology is having its desired effect.

Without proof in numbers, she said, there’s no guarantee of funding. “Policy makers want to see a return on investment,” she said.

A national vision

Patrick is also taking up where her predecessor left off in overseeing the development of a new National Educational Technology Plan.

In seeking input from all stakeholders, she has continued the legacy that Bailey created. OET received thousands of suggestions from students, parents, teachers, and industry professionals before the March 12 deadline for comments, with contributors asking the department to focus on three main themes: professional development, ubiquitous computing, and the needs of today’s students.

“I believe it’s very important to use a two-way feedback process in drafting large-scale national policy,” Patrick said. From students’ perspectives, she said, it was amazing to learn how technology exists seamlessly in their everyday lives. Whether it’s eMail or instant messaging, students–as communicators–tend to be far ahead of teachers and parents. (See “‘Ultra-communicators’ demand more eMail access, better software,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4946.)

Using respondents’ comments as guidance, ED is in the process of drafting its final report, though Patrick was unable to say exactly when the plan would be available.

Learning online

Virtual schooling is another priority. Patrick said she plans to continue pushing online courses as a supplemental option, especially for students in rural areas who otherwise might not have access to high-quality instructors and more advanced courses.

But online instruction is more than just a supplemental solution for students in remote locales. According to Patrick, the benefits of virtual schooling now extend to educators seeking professional development opportunities, as well as at-risk students who might learn better in alternative environments.

Virtual schooling presents its challenges, too. As the practice of online learning continues to gain in popularity, concerns are mounting about whether students who enroll in online courses receive the same amount of attention and commitment from educators as those who attend traditional schools.

Though it’s not yet the case everywhere, Patrick said she believes it is possible for students to receive a high-quality education no matter what learning environment they choose. The key, though, is to ensure that cyber schools are held to the same standards of accountability as traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

For a virtual school–or even a supplemental online course–to be effective, she contends, online institutions must employ highly qualified teachers; offer strong, scientifically-based curricula and content; and provide innovative teaching methods that engage students’ interest.

Educators also must recognize that virtual learning requires a shift in thinking away from traditionally localized forms of education to an open system equipped to deal with the problem of long-distance learning. That is, if a student in Colorado opts to enroll in a virtual course taught by an educator in Florida, policy makers and administrators must do what they can to ensure that certification and accreditation polices are configured to deal with such relationships.

For most students, she said, the issue won’t necessarily boil down to a choice between cyber school and old school, but will encompass a “blended approach” that combines certain aspects of virtual learning with the benefit of in-class, in-person instruction. Just because a child opts to attend regular classes at his or her local high school doesn’t mean that child won’t have an opportunity to reap the benefits of online learning, she said. With options that run the gamut from video streaming and conferencing to real-time assessment and internet research, Patrick said there’s no end to the type of technology-integrated solutions that can help students learn.

Preparing for tomorrow

In the long term, Patrick said, OET is concerned not only with how well technology is used in schools, but also with how students’ relationship with technology will prepare them for their future.

To help in this transition, Patrick said she will continue to support such ongoing initiatives as ED’s Interagency Working Group on Advanced Technologies for Education and Training, which was designed to explore ways technology could boost the productivity of learning while at the same time lowering its costs and helping to make the U.S. workforce more competitive globally.

As part of the program, OET officials are joining forces with other government agencies to explore ways in which emerging technologies create efficiencies in the workforce. The department also plans to work with technology and software providers to identify solutions and find ways to integrate them into the learning process. The idea is to expose students to the same types of technologies they will encounter as they venture from school into the work world.

Other initiatives include ED’s ongoing support of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a public-private organization whose members include the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Dell, Microsoft, the National Education Association, and SAP.

With the goal of promoting information and communications technology literacy, Patrick said the partnership is working to devise a framework for educators to follow as they implement the technology-literacy provision of NCLB, which states that all students must be technology proficient by the eighth grade. Results from that framework are expected as early as this summer, she said.

Responding to critics

Ed-tech advocacy groups such as the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking have been critical of the Bush administration’s attempts to eliminate several technology-specific education initiatives, including the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program, saying this demonstrates a lack of leadership and commitment to ed tech at the federal level.

In response to these concerns, Patrick echoed her predecessor, saying ED is more committed than ever to providing money for technology in the nation’s schools. Instead of supporting technology-specific programs, she noted, the department has sought to have technology infused throughout its various programs–including the $1 billion Reading First Grants and the $12.4 billion Title I program.

“We need to keep our eyes on the overall picture,” Patrick said. “More than ever, federal dollars are being used to support technology.”

Links:

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

ED’s Office of Educational Technology
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/os/technology/index.html

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Why grants don’t cover operating expenses

Here in my home town of Lancaster, Pa., the School District of Lancaster is dealing with a crisis. The superintendent of the district is alleged to have used grant funds for consultants who had dubious backgrounds and might not have provided any service, yet were paid. The superintendent has resigned, and the district is being investigated by the state and the FBI. Past grants also are being reviewed and scrutinized closely for mismanagement.

This situation has raised a variety of issues within the community, one of which concerns the purpose of a grant. Like many school systems nationwide (and particularly large, urban districts), the School District of Lancaster struggles with finding the funds necessary to pay for its day-to-day operating costs. However, the district has been extremely successful at securing grants–some rather large in terms of dollars–for special projects. Now some members of the community are asking why the district does not have basic necessities in the classrooms, such as textbooks–and why the grant funds haven’t been used to buy them. (If it’s any consolation, in my experience many nonprofit organizations experience the same struggle in covering their daily operating expenses.)

Understanding the purpose of grants is essential for proposal writers, teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents. For the most part, grants are meant to provide seed money for new projects. Grants provide grantees with the financial resources to implement a new project and to see if the proposed outcomes for student achievement really will come to fruition. Or, grant funds might enable a grantee to discover a new model of teaching that significantly increases student achievement and impacts professional development. Or they might enable a district to use technology to carry out administrative responsibilities in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.

Those who have written several grant proposals realize that funding generally is allotted for a specific amount of time. Usually grants cover a 12-month time period, or in the case of multi-year grants, funding covers a three or five-year time period. For multi-year requests, it is common that the amount of money supplied by the funder shrinks in the latter years while the amount of support from the grantee grows. Funders are working under the assumption that if a project is successful and merits continuation, the grantee will find other ways to maintain the project after the grantor’s funding comes to an end. Budgets typically will not allow the inclusion of daily operating costs of the school or district. Only those costs associated with the project are allowable, and in some cases there are several restrictions as far as what can and cannot be included in the budget request.

I have seen directories in the past that list sources of funding for operating expenses. However, these directories are often very small–and for some states, there are no foundations listed that will accept proposals requesting operating funds.

I would suggest that if you haven’t done so already, explain the purpose of grants to your staff and school board members so they have a clear understanding and can educate community members should the question arise. Also, contact local funders and get their perspective on why they do not fund daily operating expenses, and then share this information at a board meeting or perhaps in your district newsletter. A clear understanding should make the grants process more comprehensible and will allow others to see how grants fit into your district’s overall funding plan.

As for the larger issue of accountability that Lancaster’s situation raises, see my column in next month’s issue for some lessons in grants management.

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or Debor21727@aol.com.

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April’s eSN partners index

AAL Solutions Inc., of Ontario, offers a district-wide student information web solution called eSIS for real-time information access from a centralized location. Visit AAL’s web site:
http://www.aalsolutions.com
(800) 668-8486
See the ad for AAL Solutions on page 8

CDW-G, of Chicago, provides direct computing solutions with a vast product offering tailored to fit the unique needs of education and government customers.Visit CDW-G’s web site:
http//:www.cdwg.com
(800) 328-4239
See CDW-G’s ad on pages 24 and 25

Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., is committed to helping schools take advantage of internet-based learning by providing eLearning initiatives and other programs designed to address the exchange of information and personal security in an increasingly digital world. Visit the Cisco Systems web site:
http://business.cisco.com/prod/tree.taf%3Fasset_id=77639&ID=77639&public_view=true&kbns=1.html
(800) 553-6387
See Cisco’s ad on page 7

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), of Washington, D.C., is a national nonprofit organization that promotes the use of information technologies and the internet in K-12 education to improve teaching and learning. Visit CoSN’s web site:
http://www.cosn.org
(888) 604-5209
See CoSN’s ad on page 16

Failure Free Reading, of Concord, N.C., offers a research-proven language development and reading comprehension program specializing in accelerating the learning curve of the lowest-literacy students. Visit the Failure Free Reading web site:
http://www.FailureFreeOnline.com
(800) 542-2170
See Failure Free Reading’s ad on page 22

Gateway Inc., of San Diego, is a Fortune 250 company focusing on building lifelong relationships with businesses, schools, and consumers through complete technology personalization. Visit the Gateway web site:
http://www.gateway.com
(888) 888-0294 or (888) 888-0438
See the Gateway ad on page 17

Global Internet Management, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., offers InfoServeCM, a suite of smart content and knowledge collaboration tools that enables schools to empower their existing web sites into dynamic, content-managed sites. Visit Global Internet Management’s web site:
http://www.gim.net
(800) 538-3539
See the Global Internet Management ad on page 12

Hewlett-Packard Co. North America includes the company’s K-12 education division (part of the Enterprise Systems Group), which offers a host of technology products, services, and solutions to help transform schools into 21st-century learning environments. Visit HP’s K-12 Solutions web site:
http://www.hp.com/go/k12solutions
(800) 88-TEACH
See HP North America’s ad on page 9

HOSTS Learning, of Vancouver, Wash., provides high-quality, research-based learning systems for the education market. Visit the HOSTS Learning web site:
http://www.hostslearning.com
(800) 833-4678
See the HOSTS Learning ad on page 19

InFocus Corp., of Wilsonville, Ore., is a worldwide leader in digital projection technology and solutions. Visit the InFocus web site:
http://www.infocus.com
(800) 294-6400
See the InFocus ad on page 5

The International Society for Technology in Education, of Eugene, Ore., is the sponsor of the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), the industry’s largest trade show. Visit the NECC web site:
http://www.iste.org/necc
(800) 280-6218
See the ad for this year’s NECC on page 38

LaserFiche Document Imaging, headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., strives to deliver smart, flexible, and easily integrated document management solutions for a broad range of business and government needs. Visit the LaserFiche web site:
http://www.laserfiche.com/company/index.html
(562) 988-1688
See the LaserFiche ad on page 26

Lawson Software, of St. Paul, Minn., provides business-process software solutions designed to serve the specialized needs of service industries, such as health care and education. Visit the Lawson Software web site:
http://www.lawson.com
(800) 477-1357
See the ad for Lawson Software on page 11

Macromedia Inc., of San Francisco, provides industry-leading software that empowers internet developers and designers. Visit the Macromedia web site:
http://www.macromedia.com
(800) 470-7211
See Macromedia’s ad on the back cover

Meridian Creative Group, of Erie, Pa., provides math software for every student. Visit the Meridian Creative Group web site:
http://www.meridiancg.com
(800) 530-2355
See Meridian’s ad on page 34

Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., is a world leader in software for personal, business, and education use. Visit Microsoft’s web site:
http://www.microsoft.com
(425) 882-8080
See the Microsoft ad on page 2

NetSupport Inc., of Cumming, Ga., is a member of the PCI Group of companies, developers of a range of award-winning remote control and IT training products. Visit NetSupport’s web site:
http://www.netsupport-inc.com
(888) 665-0808
See NetSupport’s ad on page 15

PLATO Learning Inc., of Bloomington, Minn., has created and delivered educational software solutions for curriculum and assessment since 1963. Visit the PLATO Learning web site:
http://www.plato.com
(800)-44-PLATO
See the ad for PLATO Learning on page 21

Sagebrush Corp., of Minneapolis, is a fast-growing leader in serving K-12 library media specialists in their efforts to provide access to information, stimulate interest in reading, and improve student performance. Visit the Sagebrush web site:
http://www.sagebrushcorp.com
(800) 533-5430
See the Sagebrush ad on page 10

Serious Magic Inc., of Rancho Cordova, Calif., is looking to create the next generation of visual communication tools. The company’s Visual Communicator software enables students to create everything from school broadcasts to multimedia projects in just minutes. Visit the Serious Magic web site:
http://www.seriousmagic.com
(916) 859-0100
See the ad for Serious Magic on page 14

TechSmith, of Okemos, Mich., makes software that enables students, faculty, and staff to capture and share text, video, and graphics from software applications and the internet easily. Visit TechSmith’s web site:
http://www.TechSmith.com
(800) 517-3001
See the ad for TechSmith on page 13

Tripp Lite, of Chicago, offers the most reliable, cost-efficient power protection, power supply, and connectivity solutions available. Visit the Tripp Lite web site:
http://www.tripplite.com
(773) 869-1234
See the ad for Tripp Lite on page 6


eSchool News Online Partners
Be sure to visit eSchool News Online www.eschoolnews.org and the School Technology Buyer’s Guide www.eschoolnews.org/buyersguide to learn more about these leading companies that believe an informed educator is their best customer:

CDW-G, of Chicago, provides direct computing solutions with a vast product offering tailored to fit the unique needs of education and government ustomers.Visit CDW-G’s web site:
http//:www.cdwg.com
(800) 328-4239

Chancery Student Management Solutions, of British Columbia, helps K-12 educators and administrators gather, manage, analyze, and apply student data to enhance student achievement. Visit Chancery’s web site:
http://www.chancery.com
(800) 999-9931

Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., is committed to helping schools take advantage of internet-based learning by providing eLearning initiatives and other programs. Visit the Cisco Systems web site:
http://business.cisco.com/prod/tree.taf%3Fasset_id=77639&ID=77639&public_view=true&kbns=1.html
(800) 553-6387

Dell Inc., of Round Rock, Texas, designs, builds, and customizes a broad range of computer products and services for consumer and professional use. Visit the Dell web site:
http://www.dell.com
(800) WWW-DELL

Hewlett-Packard Co. North America includes the company’s K-12 education division, which offers a host of technology products, services, and solutions to help transform schools into 21st-century learning environments. Visit HP’s K-12 Solutions web site:
http://www.hp.com/go/k12solutions
(800) 88-TEACH

TechSmith, of Okemos, Mich., makes software that enables students, faculty, and staff to capture and share text, video, and graphics from software applications and the internet easily. Visit TechSmith’s web site:
http://www.TechSmith.com
(800) 517-3001

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Simulation-style video game targets education field

A software start-up company relying on MIT-derived know-how is developing a historically accurate, high-tech video game that it hopes will engage high school and college students in World War II (WWII) history lessons. The game will use state-of-the-art technique while meeting the standards and accommodating the limitations of today’s classrooms, its developers say.

The idea appeals to some educators, who believe video-game technology can be a powerful teaching tool if tailored to the classroom environment.

Although a handful of mainstream simulation games, such as Civilization III or Age of Empires, are useful tools for teaching social studies, they are not a perfect match for the classroom, said Kurt Squire, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is interested in piloting the new WWII game.

“In cases like Age of Empires, you have kids playing the game and … developing a lifelong love of history,” Squire said. But “one of the problems with a game like that is it’s designed to be used at home. It requires 200 to 300 hours of game play.”

Muzzy Lane Software, of Newburyport, Mass., intends to address this and other limitations of mainstream, simulation-style programs with the launch of Making History, an educational video game expected to debut this fall.

“We’re taking the best of the state-of-the-art the gaming industry has to offer … and applying it to our product. But because it is an education product, there are additional things we need to address,” said Nick deKanter, the company’s vice president.

Making History will have shorter play segments, ranging from 45 to 90 minutes long, that are more suitable for school schedules. It also will have reporting and feedback features built in.

“If this is to be a strong tool in the classroom, it has to be able to collect and report what students have done,” deKanter said.

Unlike typical consumer-oriented video games, Making History will feature a recording engine that will keep track of the decisions students make and their outcomes. Besides using this information for assigning grades, teachers can start classroom debates with it. For example, if 32 percent of the class decided to go one way and the rest decided to go another way, the teacher could ask: Who had the better result, and why?

Historical accuracy is another problem with using mainstream games in the classroom. Although no simulation is entirely precise, entertainment-based games have more freedom to fudge the facts.

To combat this, Muzzy Lane’s designers have based the game on the best-known history as reported by respected universities. But, because history is a product of different perspectives, teachers reportedly will be able to modify certain assumptions–such as the belief that Winston Churchill was hawkish, for example.

Making History’s technology, graphics, and interfaces will be familiar to students. But what’s different is that students will be able to learn, and even experience, hard-to-explain concepts surrounding WWII, the game’s creators say.

History involves a fairly complex set of events and trends, notes deKanter. Making a decision to form a treaty with another country, for example, involves economic and political repercussions.

Making History intends to immerse students in the period and give them an opportunity to think and make decisions like actual historical figures. Students will be asked to make critical, strategic decisions as they handle challenges such as reuniting a series of regions in Germany, peaceably rebuilding the country and its economy, and keeping Europe’s borders defined by the Treaty of Versailles without going to war.

Though Making History is one of the first commercial simulation games of its kind to come to market, more will follow, predicts Squire, who works with the Education Arcade (formerly MIT’s Games-to-Teach project) and has a long history of developing and researching computer games for the classroom.

Educational simulations are already widely used in military, adult, and corporate training. “I think immersive worlds in education will become the norm,” Squire said. “I don’t think we’re going to throw out classrooms and textbooks, but you will see (the technology incorporated) in a wide variety of areas.”

See these related links:

Muzzy Lane Software Inc.
http://www.muzzylane.com

The Education Arcade
http://www.educationarcade.org

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