Renaissance Learning, AlphaSmart to merge

Renaissance Learning Inc., a Wisconsin-based provider of educational software, yesterday announced plans to merge with AlphaSmart Inc., a maker of portable word processors for students. The $57 million marriage is just the latest in a swath of industry moves intended to advance the trend toward one-to-one computing in the nation’s schools.

Under the agreement, unanimously approved by the boards of directors of both companies, Renaissance will continue to provide AlphaSmart products to the more than 8,000 school districts already using the tools nationwide. The company also said it would begin looking at ways to package its suite of educational software solutions with the popular handheld devices, giving students in more than 67,000 schools the chance to access custom educational content in the palms of their hands.

“The addition of AlphaSmart’s exceptional product line and talented professional staff will strengthen and diversify Renaissance Learning’s position as a leading provider of learning information systems to schools,” said John Hickey, president and chief executive officer of Renaissance Learning. “Together, we will be able to provide unique breakthrough solutions to help educators develop student writing skills along with strengthening other Renaissance solutions, where limited computer access is a bottleneck to daily program use.”

Company executives said the merger would have no immediate impact on the products and services offered by the two companies and that existing leadership teams would remain intact. In the future, Hickey said, Renaissance will offer drill and practice programs for its latest writing intervention tool, as well as for its popular Accelerated Reader product, by way of select AlphaSmart devices.

Hickey said the ability to download the programs to a portable computer companion such as AlphaSmart’s Dana or Neo would help schools overcome many of the inequities that result from a lack of classroom computers.

Though educators would love to be able to provide a desktop or laptop computer for every student, he said, the reality is that most schools can’t afford that type of investment. With AlphaSmart, he explained, educators soon will be able to download information from their PCs or laptops directly to the portable devices, giving each student in the classroom unfettered access to the latest interventions. But customers, he said, aren’t likely to see these and other innovations until later in the 2005-06 school year.

Renaissance isn’t the first educational service provider to make overtures toward the handheld computing market. As educators begin to see the value of one-to-one computing in the nation’s classrooms, inking multimillion-dollar laptop initiatives and expanding the use of handheld devices such as the Palm and PocketPC, several ed-tech companies have formed similar alliances combining the ubiquity of handhelds with an overarching need for more individualized instruction and assessment.

In June, Roseville, Calif.-based PASCO Scientific Inc., a provider of instructional and lab materials for science classes, acquired ImagiWorks Inc., which specializes in science and math programs for the Palm operating system.

PASCO executives said the merger was fueled by industry expectations that the number of handhelds in education would grow exponentially in the next two years.

At the time of that merger, market research firm IDC said K-12 public schools would spend approximately $175 million on handhelds in the current school year and nearly $300 million by the 2005-06 school year.

Other educational companies, including Scantron Corp., the testing and assessment giant known for its bubble-style scoring sheets, also have sought out partnerships with makers of handheld educational software products and services.

Still other companies branching out into the handheld marketplace include textbook maker McGraw-Hill and Franklin Electronic Publisher Inc., long known for its line of handheld video and travel games.

Introduced in 1992 by a group of former Apple Computer engineers, AlphaSmart products, including the Dana and ultra-portable Neo, are intended to enhance students’ mastery of critical skills from writing and keyboarding to basic comprehension.

Renaissance Learning is perhaps best-known as the maker of Accelerated Reader, the reading software program reportedly used in more than 55,000 schools. Among the company’s various other offerings are solutions intended to boost math and writing instruction, as well as student assessment and teacher-parent communication.

More recently, the firm introduced Renaissance Place, an integrated, web-based student information system designed to track student performance in relation to Adequate Yearly Progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

A longtime provider of research-based learning systems, school improvement programs, teacher training, and consulting services, Renaissance contends it has sought to empower educators with the kind of continuous feedback that helps motivate students by accelerating learning, boosting test scores, and coordinating learning with state standards.

“By offering AlphaSmart portable computer-companion products with Renaissance Learning software, we will be able to help K-12 districts leverage the use of their existing classroom computers, thereby increasing the value derived from their technology investment,” said Ketan D. Kothari, chairman and chief executive officer of AlphaSmart. “Our solutions are highly complementary, and we expect that this merger will help grow the revenues of the combined companies and accelerate learning of writing and other subjects.”

Hickey estimates the merger will save the combined entity at least $1 million, thanks to a reduction in costs and redundancy attributed to the consolidation.

Structured as a tax-free reorganization, the deal, which is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2005, will pay every AlphaSmart stockholder $3.75 per share. Stockholders will have the option to be paid in cash, stock, or a combination of the two.

The final agreement, subject to approval by AlphaSmart shareholders, also awaits official go-ahead from the federal government.

At press time, AlphaSmart stock, which trades on the NASDAQ, was up nearly 7 cents to $3.62 a share.

Links:

AlphaSmart Inc.
http://www2.alphasmart.com

PASCO Scientific
http://www.pasco.com

Renaissance Learning Inc.
http://www.renlearn.com

Scantron Corp.
http://www.scantron.com/

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Mich. to grade essays via computer

Essay tests soon could take a high-tech twist in Michigan classrooms: State education officials want to launch a pilot project this school year that would use a computer program to grade students’ essay exams.

The futuristic technique–which, until now, has been employed mostly by pioneering school systems looking to give students more writing practice without creating more work for already overburdened teachers–first might be tested in Michigan with a relatively small group of sixth-graders, but if it succeeds, it could be ramped up statewide.

Using computers instead of people to grade essays could save time and money, state officials say. It also could help students become better writers, because computers can provide quicker feedback.

But the plan faces skepticism from those who say the human element should remain in essay evaluation.

Educators don’t doubt the computer software’s ability to grade spelling and punctuation, and they say it would save time for teachers, who often are stuck grading essay questions after school on their own time. But they have misgivings about the computer program’s ability to evaluate content, which often is subjective and subject to debate.

“We would hate to see the human element eliminated from something as important as evaluating a student’s writing,” said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “Involvement is crucial to the educator’s understanding of the student’s work.”

Jamey Fitzpatrick is interim president of Michigan Virtual University, a partner in the pilot project. He said teachers should be relieved, rather than worried, about the new technology.

“We are not looking to eliminate classroom teachers. We are looking to make their jobs easier,” he said. “From our understanding, this is becoming a more mature technology. It no longer is a technology in its infancy.”
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Details of Michigan’s
possible essay-grading pilot

Michigan education officials hope to start a pilot program that would use computer software to evaluate some essay answers on student exams this school year. Here are the early details:

  • Sixth-grade classrooms, most likely those already participating in a state program that provides laptop computers to individual students, would be chosen for the pilot program.

  • Students would take their essay tests on a computer, so their answers would be typed in.

  • Teachers would agree to give a certain number of writing assignments during the pilot program period. Teachers also would agree to be trained on the technology.

  • Tests would be graded both by a computer program and by people to evaluate how well the computer program is doing.

  • The pilot program likely would not be used for high-stakes tests such as the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, which are used to measure whether schools are meeting annual yearly progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

    Source: Michigan Department of Education

  • Indiana is considered a national leader in using the technology. The state uses a computer program to grade some end-of-the-year algebra tests and English exams for high school juniors, who type in their answers on keyboards.

    Indiana ran a two-year pilot program–with computers and trained human readers simultaneously grading essays–to test the computer program’s merits. Indiana doesn’t yet use the computer program to grade essays that measure whether students are making the adequate yearly progress required under federal law, but that could be done in the future.

    “The response has been good,” said Jason Bearce, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “We are learning as we go, but we feel it has definite advantages.”

    Indiana spends more than $1 million a year on the project, but state officials say it eventually will save them money as the system matures.

    A handful of companies–including Educational Testing Service (ETS), Pearson Education, and Vantage Learning–have developed software to grade essay tests, and they say several states, including Michigan, have inquired about following Indiana’s lead.

    So far, however, the only high-stakes test that uses an assessment engine to mark its writing component is the Graduate Management Admission Test, for which each test is scored twice, once by a human and once by ETS’s e-Rater software. (See “eSN Special Report: Instructional Writing Tools.“)

    “The question is whether it’s reliable enough to be used for a high-stakes test,” said Jeremy Hughes, chief academic officer for the Michigan Department of Education.

    Until the state figures that out, Michigan’s pilot project will be limited and won’t involve grading essays that are part of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), the state’s main measuring stick for adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

    Even when computers are used, the essays also will be evaluated by people to determine how accurately the computer program scores the papers during the pilot phase.

    Sixth-grade classrooms will be selected for the pilot soon, Hughes said. The classrooms selected will be among those in which students received their own laptop computers through a state program, so being able to type their essays on a computer shouldn’t be a problem.

    Teachers must agree to attend training to use the computer software. They also must agree to make a yet-to-be-determined number of writing assignments that will be given to students during the pilot project.

    Hughes became interested in the technology after attending an educational assessment seminar last year. If the technology proves itself, he said, it could eventually be used to grade essay tests that are part of statewide testing.

    That could provide a huge cost savings to the state. But even if the state decides it wants computers to grade essays, it might find it has fewer essays to grade. Education officials may have to eliminate essays from some statewide tests next year if the state Department of Education is forced to trim its assessment office budget.

    Scrapping MEAP essays would save about $7 million, Hughes said. State standards require at least two trained people to read and evaluate MEAP essay questions, making it expensive and labor-intensive.

    No final decisions have been made on the budget or on whether some essays will be eliminated. But the possibility already is causing alarm.

    “An essay adds to the quality and integrity of a high-stakes test,” said Nancy Danhof, a Republican from East Lansing, Mich., and the newest member of the State Board of Education.

    “Why would we want to get rid of that knowing it decreases the reliability and viability of a test, when we are already under fire for that?” she asked.

    Links:

    Michigan Department of Education
    http://www.michigan.gov/mde

    Michigan Virtual University
    http://www.mivu.org

    Michigan Education Association
    http://www.mea.org

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    New eJournal addresses top IT challenges in schools

    The inaugural issue of Innovate–a new peer-reviewed, bimonthly electronic journal focusing on information technology to enhance educational processes in academic, commercial, and government settings–is now available for free to educators. The journal, published by the Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University, provides individuals with free access to articles, peer reviews, cutting-edge research, and best practices in the field of information technology. Subjects covered in the journal include the research and practical application of technology in education; information about current educational technology projects nationwide; commentary and reflections from the field regarding the evolution of 21st-century learning environments; and the skinny on emerging technologies and trends. Innovate encourages professionals from the field to submit articles for publication. Readers are invited to discuss their thoughts on each article through a number of technological channels, including an online discussion forum, an interactive webcast that connects readers with authors, and a unique “read-related” feature that links visitors to similar topics.

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    Hackers get to key data by old-fashioned eavesdropping tricks

    Reuters reports that hackers are starting to eavesdrop on cell phone and eMail conversations between organizations’ IT personnel in the hope of picking up inside information about targeted computer networks. This tactic has enabled some hackers to steal passwords and then enter the system as legitimate users.

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    Sun to share some Solaris code in move toward open source

    cNet’s News.com reports that Sun Microsystem will begin sharing source code for the Unix version of the Solaris operating system as part of its new OpenSolaris project. The company wants more programmers to embrace the software, and it hopes to achieve this by offering it to the open-source community.

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    Critics don’t want SpongeBob tolerance video in schools

    The New York Times reports that conservative Christians, led by Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, are trying to block a video about tolerance from being shown in elementary schools because they said it is “pro-homosexual.” The video, created by music producer Nile Rodgers, features the cartoon characters Jimmy Neutron, Barney and SpongeBob SquarePants. Rodgers says the whole campaign against the video is a misunderstanding. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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    Texas community making the most of its grant from ED

    The Brownsville Herald of Brownsville, Texas, reports on the opening of a 30-computer community technology center at the local high school. The center was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It was one of only 26 such grants given out by ED nationwide.

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    Kentucky students’ PSA attracts audience of state lawmakers

    The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown, Ky., reports on local high school students who won a statewide video contest for 60-second public service announcements. All 17 students in the school’s broadcasting class toook part in the video production. They will go to the state capital next month to show the video to Kentucky legislators.

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    CoSN pushes accessible technology

    The nonprofit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has launched a three-year initiative intended to demonstrate how greater collaboration and increased communication between school technology leaders and special-education departments can deliver the benefits of a technology-rich education to all students, including those with disabilities.

    CoSN officially unveiled the program during the annual Assistive Technology Industry Association conference in Orlando Jan. 21 and plans to make a similar announcement at the Florida Educational Technology Conference, also in Orlando, on Jan. 27.

    “America’s schools need a new conversation between those responsible for general education and those responsible for special education around how technology can assist all students,” said Bob Moore, CoSN chairman, who is also executive director of IT services at Blue Valley Union School District 229 in Overland Park, Kan. “This new initiative will bridge the divide between district-level technology and special-education leaders, demonstrating how successful districts are overcoming these obstacles and what tools can be employed to extend access to technology to students of all abilities.”

    Through its “Accessible Technologies for All Students” initiative, CoSN will host a series of educational resources and professional development opportunities intended to facilitate the effective use of educational technology for all students, regardless of ability or disability.

    Among the project’s many endeavors are a program web site, www.accessibletech4all.org, featuring a repository of best practices that highlight how successful districts have sought to integrate the work of IT staff and mainstream educators with the efforts of special-education departments; an educator’s toolkit that includes slide shows, checklists, and suggestions for improving the widespread access to technology for all students; a whitepaper outlining the issues surrounding K-12 technology accessibility; and a series of online courses and face-to-face workshops explaining the importance of accessible technologies in U.S. schools.

    The ongoing initiative also will feature an aggressive advocacy campaign, including interviews and meetings between K-12 district technology leaders and special-education directors and a Capitol Hill policy briefing, providing educators with an opportunity to state their case for accessible technologies to members of Congress.

    Since the inception of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a new era of accountability in the nation’s schools has made it incumbent on all educators, including those in special education, to raise the bar on student achievement. Faced with an enormous task–and determined not to leave a single student behind–many educators have embraced technology as a means to achieve the sweeping federal mandate.

    In general, however, schools have largely approached the integration of technology on two separate fronts: assistive technology, or solutions generally reserved for students in the special-education system; and information technology, which encompasses the use of instructional technologies in mainstream learning environments.

    As CoSN’s latest report suggests, a fundamental rift exists between the good work being done in mainstream education and the strides being made by special-education leaders, especially in terms of students’ use of technology.

    “Communication and interaction between those in charge of special-education assistive technologies and those responsible for district information and instructional technology programs remains almost non-existent in many school district settings,” wrote project director Sonja Schmieder in her introduction to CoSN’s latest report.

    But times are changing, CoSN suggests.

    Rather than maintain separate approaches to the use of technology in schools, educators can help all children succeed by using technology to bridge the gap between special-needs learners and mainstream students. Where assistive technologies might be used to provide special-ed learners with access to mainstream opportunities, the same solutions might also be deployed in traditional classrooms to help mainstream students exceed their potential through the application of new and, as yet, untested approaches to learning.

    “NCLB has forced us to understand that underachievement is not limited to students with disabilities,” explained Dave Edyburn, an associate professor with the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, during a Jan. 19 webcast about CoSN’s initiative.

    Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the concept of “universal design,” an emerging theory of instructional design that suggests it’s better to create instructional solutions built to address a wide array of educational needs. The theory, supported by such educational groups as CoSN and the Massachusetts-based Center for Applied Special Technology, contends that technology has the greatest effect on learning for all students, including those with disabilities, when it is deployed with a unified vision, combining the resources of AT (assistive technology) and IT (information technology) into a single, workable solution.

    The reason is simple, says Edyburn: No two students are the same.

    “American classrooms are more diverse than ever, and efforts that enable all students to achieve high academic standards will require new approaches to teaching and learning,” he noted. “Assistive technology has the potential to impact everyone, either directly as a personal user of assistive technology, or indirectly, as a means of helping someone we know.”

    Not that shifting the way school districts view the use of assistive technologies will be easy. According to CoSN’s report, schools likely will have to overcome a myriad of obstacles before building a united front between AT and IT.

    Aside from an overall lack of vision by school decision makers, the report states that insufficient training, the technical incompatibility of systems, the existence of financial hurdles, and an overall lack of time and resources likely will make it difficult to achieve better communication between AT and IT staffs–at first.

    But don’t despair, Schmieder says; the results–when they come–will be worth it.

    “Positive relationships between general and special-education technology leaders have the potential to create a powerful force for enhancing the school culture as well as advocating for technology-rich education overall,” she wrote in the report.

    Aside from fostering better communication among staff and sharing ideas, educators say increased collaboration between special-ed and IT departments will bring about partnerships critical to education reform, accelerate the use of technology in schools, increase access to assistive and accessible technologies for all students, and employ a greater range of solutions that ultimately can individualize instruction for every student, regardless of disability or learning style.

    Still not sold on the idea? Several forward-thinking districts already are reporting favorable results, says CoSN.

    For instance, in Blue Valley, a 20,000-student district outside Kansas City, CoSN’s Moore sought to bring AT and IT staffers together by establishing an IT-AT Working Group whose job was to author and implement a joint technology plan for all students, including those with disabilities, at a new elementary school in the district.

    To lead the group, Blue Valley also created a new AT coordinator position, with the sole job of streamlining collaboration between these two historically disjointed departments.

    “We’re just starting to see the results of this–and it’s very exciting,” said Moore. For a closer look at the goings-on in Blue Valley, educators can visit the CoSN project web site and look at the case study.

    Meanwhile, educators at the 60,800-student Boston Public Schools (BPS) have taken the idea one step further, creating an entire department charged with building a better rapport between the district’s Office of Instructional Technology and its assistive technology arm.

    Directed by Kristen Eichleay, BPS’s Access Technology Center (ATC) is responsible for fostering relationships across various instructional departments and ensuring that AT and IT staff members confer when deciding what technologies make the most sense for the district.

    As the director of a three-person office, Eichleay participates in all district-level IT meetings and activities. Because her office shares its budget with the larger IT office, the ATC also has a direct say in what technologies the district chooses to invest in.

    Through a series of collaborative projects and grants obtained throughout the district, the ATC is helping to ensure that “assistive technology” is no longer a term reserved solely for students with disabilities, Eichleay says.

    CoSN’s Accessible Technologies for All Students initiative is supported by corporate sponsors Sprint Corp., AlphaSmart Inc., Apple Computer, Educational Testing Service, IntelliTools Inc., Kurzweil Educational Systems, and Verizon. eSchool News is the initiative’s media sponsor.

    CoSN’s full report on this topic will be available this spring as part of the 2005 CoSN Compendium.

    Links:

    Consortium for School Networking
    http://www.cosn.org

    Accessible Technologies for all Students
    http://www.accessibletech4all.org

    Blue Valley Union School District
    http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

    Center for Applied Special Technology
    http://www.cast.org

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    Newly developed virus hits devices that use Bluetooth

    The New York Times reports that a Brazilian virus-code writer has found a way to send malicious code to cell phones and handheld computers. The virus attacks devices using Bluetooth technology, and can spread like wildfire whenever an infected Bluetooth device is located in proximity to another one. (Note: This site requires registration.

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