“Creative Connections” helps students reach out across the world

More than 1,500 classes from around the globe reportedly have participated in this online virtual exchange program that connects students and teachers around the world in efforts to promote a free-flowing cultural exchange of art, history, and modern-day communication. With components in the Amazon Rain Forest (including schools in Ecuador and Guyana), Latin America (including schools in the Galapagos Islands, Chile, Ecuador, and Costa Rica), Africa, and China, the Creative Connections Project “brings the world right into your classroom,” its creators say. Features include eMail and Q&A exchanges between teachers and students; student art exchanges; class-to-class photo and information exchanges; International PowerPoint presentation exchanges; music sampling; virtual pen-pal exercises; video streaming; and scrapbooking. While some features, including a project newsletter, are free of charge, there are costs associated with the full exchange program. Prices range from $15 to $200 per class, depending on the participation options selected. Whole-school participation starts at $75 per school, according to the site.


Technology strikes a chord in music education

From elementary schools to the Berklee College of Music, a revolution is quietly taking place in music education. With the help of electronic music composition software, students who don’t even play an instrument now can compose songs or even an entire symphony–learning more about music theory in the process than ever before possible.

Electronic music software allows teachers to take music education to a whole new level of interactivity. Using programs such as GarageBand, which comes pre-installed on all Apple computers, and Reason, by the Swedish software company Propellerhead, students at all levels of instruction are laying down tracks that can be turned into full-fledged musical productions in just a few hours.

Today’s music software gives users access to thousands of prerecorded loops of various instruments and sounds, which can be manipulated and arranged into electronic music creations of all types and genres.

“It’s incredibly empowering to children, because they can express themselves in ways that you or I weren’t able to traditionally,” said Lee Whitmore, director of marketing for SoundTree Inc., which sells and installs learning systems for music education that integrate electronic music instruments, computers, and software.

These tools also have transformed music education classes by individualizing instruction to a great degree, Whitmore said.

He said the labs SoundTree typically installs have multiple stations where students are working on computers with headsets, aided by music software.

“Instead of just giving lectures, teachers can teach a concept and students can illustrate that concept with their own stuff. The minute [students] put their headphones on, they’re working at their own pace,” Whitmore said.

Besides selling and installing electronic music composition tools, SoundTree also offers free lesson plans, projects, and training for teachers from elementary school all the way up to college.

Whitmore described one training session that incorporated a genre called Jongo, which is a West African style of creating music used for drum circles. Teachers at an elementary school used this compositional style to create music that came from another culture in Africa.

“We talked about and listened to a traditional drum circle recording and then turned on their stations, put the headphones on, and composed music using technology, but still using the same style and techniques,” Whitmore said. “So you sort of connect with other cultures [through] music history. Without technology, students wouldn’t have been able to experience that in real time and extend what they learn. A teacher can present a concept, and then a student can go farther with it.”

Music software titles run the gamut from inexpensive–Apple’s GarageBand is part of the iLife suite of software that comes pre-installed on new Macintosh computers–to high-end programs such as Finale or Logic, another Apple program.

Whitmore recommended Harmonic Vision’s Music Ace Maestro, a product targeted primarily toward elementary and middle-school students that covers the musical staff, ear training, pitch recognition, scales, tempo, and harmony. Each lesson contains games to reinforce what has just been learned.

“Music Ace Maestro includes a full breadth of the curriculum and is very good for teaching the fundamentals of music,” Whitmore said. “You can do a little composing, and it is good across a fairly large age spread. It’s interactive, and it has an application to help with assessment information so that, as a teacher, you can look into what each of your students is doing in the way of progress.

Patricia Foy, chair of music and pedagogy at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., has been a Music Ace user since the mid-1990s. After learning about Music Ace at a national conference, Foy enlisted a number of the music majors at her school to evaluate the software. Their reviews came back thumbs-up, and since that time, she has incorporated Music Ace into a number of instructional programs at Converse College.

One way she uses the software is to help music majors in sharpening their basic theory skills. “Many of the voice majors that entered our music programs needed some assistance in honing their theory skills,” said Foy. “Music Ace allowed them to do that in a focused, yet entertaining way.”

She also uses Music Ace to provide self-paced music theory to general education majors. This is a diverse group of students, she said–some with extensive music backgrounds, some with very little–so the need for something that accounts for varying degrees of knowledge is important.

“In this environment, we’re able to let students progress at their own pace through the music theory component of the curriculum, relying heavily on the games at the end of each lesson as a key assessment tool,” Foy said. “Before Music Ace, students would express a negative reaction to the structured class format, in which everyone worked at the same pace. Music Ace has been a boon for these students.”

Foy also uses a notation program from Sybelius Software that allows users to input music and print out a full sheet of music. Users can compose full symphonies with the professional version, but Foy said the student version would be useful for elementary teachers.

As founder and director of the Converse Music Technology Institute, Foy has received grants of more than $214,000 from the South Carolina Department of Education and the South Carolina Arts in Basic Curriculum Project to train South Carolina music teachers in the use of music technology. She also organizes and conducts music technology workshops for her state’s education department.

Teachers accepted into these workshops are awarded a computer, midi keyboard, and software. “These workshops are a great way to expose educators to the benefits of using technology to help teach music,” she said.

David Mash, vice president of information technology at the Berklee College of Music, says his school has been using technology to teach music since the 1980s.

Three years ago, Berklee school officials decided technology was so essential to the learning and music-making process that each student should have his or her own computer and software.

All 4,000 of our students have an Apple Powerbook, and they come pre-loaded with the Apple iLife suite, which includes GarageBand, and they also get Logic Express, Finale, Reason from Propellerhead, and other software,” he said.

Students also get a small midi keyboard so they have something they can carry around in a small carrying case that is, in effect, a full music production studio,” Mash said. “Every entering freshman has an introduction to music technology course where they learn to use those tools–so from that point on, they can write music, create CDs, post MP3 files, and so on.”

He explained, “The professional music world has changed drastically over the years, and there’s a huge change in how people get their music. Our college’s mission is to prepare our students for successful careers in the music industry, and without these technology tools, you can’t be successful in the current world.” Music technology benefits learning, Mash said, in various ways.

“Twenty years ago, I might be teaching students in a harmony class, and we might be learning about core progressions and cadences. I might ask my students to go home and write an eight-bar example using the techniques we learned in class. Those students, very mechanically, would create the exercise and bring it into class the next day. When I’d play it on the piano, nine out of 10 students wouldn’t recognize what they’d written, because they hadn’t heard it before. This was a theoretical exercise that was disconnected from sound, and music exists in sound. With the old tools, you had to express sound in a code–music notation–that the general public doesn’t understand. It’s a set of directions for musicians to turn into sound,” he said.

“Now, with technology, we have that same class, and the students write the same eight-bar example, but as they write it, they play it back, and they hear it; and by hearing it, they’re making musical decisions. They’re learning much more effectively about that harmonic progression, and they recognize their work and everyone gets to hear it they way they intended it to sound, because the students produced it themselves, rather than the teacher playing it at the piano,” Mash said.

“It goes from abstract to very real,” he concluded. “It helps the teacher be more effective and coach better, and things are more musical & when you’re actually hearing everything all the time.”

Mash compared the evolution of music composition and instruction to the progression from a typewriter to word-processing software.

“With a typewriter, you had to be careful and retype if you made an error, but with a word processor you can write as you go and read everything at once,” he said. “The whole editing and revision process has a direct correlation to the music world. With a music processor, you get to experience the music as you’re writing it in sound. Instead of moving sentences, you can move musical passages.”



Harmonic Vision

Sibelius Software

Converse College

Berklee College of Music


Gradeschoolers learning on handhelds

USA Today reports that a new generation of kids are using handheld devices to read, write, and do math as a regular part of their curriculum. Once reserved for jet-set corporate executives, handheld device sales to the education sector are booming …


Students, soldiers connect online

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that via an online video conferencing connection at the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce downtown office, students from three social studies classes at Highland Park Senior High were able to ask American soldiers questions from a range of topics they were studying …


China tops U.S. in IT exports

The Bangkok Post reports that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced Monday that China has overtaken the United States was the world’s number one exporter of information and communications technology …


Ed-tech makes after-school programs more accountable

Looking to extend accountability from traditional schooling to before- and after-school programs, officials in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Ky., are issuing customized ID cards that let administrators and volunteers working for these community-based programs see student achievement data and other personal information housed in the school system’s data warehouse.

Administrators contend the new swipe-card tracking system, which works by having students scan their ID cards every time they enter and exit a participating facility, will help gauge participation and more accurately determine the impact of before- and after-school programs on student performance.

The experiment comes at a time when school leaders across the country are searching for ways to apply the information gleaned from increasingly sophisticated school data systems toward achieving the promise of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires schools to demonstrate improved academic performance across the board or risk losing federal funding.

Just as up-to-the-minute student achievement data can be used to foster improvements in the classroom, advocates of community-based before- and after-school programs contend that, with the help of ID cards, these data also can be used to bolster the impact of supplementary initiatives sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Salvation Army, and other neighborhood organizations.

As deputy superintendent of a school system that is responsible for more than 97,500 students across 150 schools, JCPS’s Marty Bell says before- and after-school programs–especially in large, urban settings–are essential. Unfortunately, he says, in many school systems, these programs often are undervalued.

“We are a school system that prides itself on working with our entire community, and [we] believe that it is the responsibility of all of us to educate these kids,” he said in a recent interview with eSchool News. “These programs aren’t just there to fill time–they are there to help students succeed.” From the time they enter grade school through their senior year in high school, Bell said, students on average spend only 13 percent of their waking hours in school. The other 87 percent of their time is spent outside the classroom–at home, under the supervision of community-based organizations, or elsewhere.

Finding it impossible to ignore these statistics, Bell and his colleagues set out to find a solution that would enable them to keep better track of student participation in before- and after-school programs and determine whether these programs were, in fact, having a positive impact on student performance.

Before deciding what system to use, JCPS officials sat down with leaders of several community-based nonprofit organizations, including the Salvation Army and the Boys & Girls Clubs, among others, to get a sense for these different programs and compare their goals to those of the school system.

What they found, according to Bell, was a dedication to student achievement and success that very closely mirrored what the district was trying to accomplish.

Like the public school system, Bell said, the community-based organizations he met with aim to offer programs that encourage students to continue their education through high school, earn a diploma, keep strong attendance, and strive for good grades along the way.

But despite these good intentions, Bell said, the majority of before- and after-school programs in and around Louisville lacked the ability to determine whether their initiatives were having their intended impact. Most programs, he said, relied on clumsy record-keeping and paper sign-in sheets to track attendance and had no way of determining whether students were performing better in school as a result of participating in extra-curricular programs.

“You need to make sure you have the correct information,” explained Bell, who added that the paper-based tracking systems used in many of the programs reportedly were providing inaccurate data for 70 percent of participating students. “We decided we had to do it electronically, as a group,” he said.

Originally, the district wanted to develop a custom solution of its own design. The goal was to create a tracking system that would help administrators analyze program attendance patterns, access key student information collected by the school district, tailor their offerings toward improved student performance, and help educators determine the overall effectiveness of before and after-school programs.

That’s when an administrator at one community-based organization introduced district officials to an electronic ID card system known as KidTrax.

Built by nFocus, a software company in Phoenix, Ariz., the KidTrax system automatically logs time and attendance information by scanning specially made ID cards when students enter and leave a facility, eliminating the need for paper sign-in sheets. Program administrators then can use the internet to access records and keep track of attendance patterns to aid in overall program development, scheduling, and to submit as further justification for their ongoing funding requests.

In Louisville, officials decided to take the program a step further by tying the KidTrax system into the school district’s existing data warehouse, giving educators in the schools and administrators in before- and after-school programs password-protected access to personal student information and NCLB-related performance data. The data are accessed through a custom-built middleware server that ensures both qualified school personnel and program administrators have access to them.

According to Bell, when any of the 97,500 JCPS students enrolled in before- and after-school programs enter a facility, their information already is pre-loaded into the system. All they have to do is scan their card, and the system can track how long they’re there and how often they attend, he said.

School administrators then can cross-reference these attendance data with updated student performance records to determine whether participation in before- and after-school programs plays a role in increased achievement, he said. Currently, the district estimates as many as 13,000 students participate in some form of before- or after-school program where the cards are being used.

When asked about potential privacy concerns that would evolve from making personal student data more easily accessible to volunteers and program directors outside the school system, Bell said all parents are given a confidentiality and disclosure agreement to sign before their child’s information is loaded into the system.

Out of the more than 2,600 JCPS students currently enrolled in Boys & Girls Clubs programs in the district, he said, just four parents so far have declined to make this information available to program administrators.

“By and large, parents enroll their kids in these programs because they want them helped,” he said, noting that’s the aim of this initiative.

nFocus President Ananda Roberts agreed with Bell’s assessment. Though Louisville is the only school district in the nation currently using her system in such a way, she said the company has received very few complaints from parents who fear that privacy concerns outweigh the need to provide more accountability in before- and after-school programs, many of which have struggled for years to keep track of student attendance and other critical data while being forced to operate on shoestring budgets.

In Louisville, Bell said, participating programs have had little difficulty securing the necessary funding to support the rollout of the KidTrax system.

With an estimated price tag of approximately $3,000 per facility, he said, the equipment–including building scanners and software–is largely affordable, even for most nonprofit organizations. There also is a $449 annual fee for data hosting, tech support, and software updates to the system, according to nFocus.

In some cases, Bell said, the organizations running these after-school programs–including the American Way and others like it–are starting to write the cost of KidTrax into their grant applications, so that when they apply for funding, the cost of the system is already included in the proposal.

From the school system’s point of view, he said, the cost to participate is “minimal.” Because the data warehouse already was in place, JCPS officials had only to tie the KidTrax system into their existing infrastructure and make sure there were enough employees on staff to help monitor and maintain the system.

“We have some staff that spend time on it,” said Bell of the KidTrax database, but most of these employees divide their time between this system and other tasks, making it difficult to put an exact figure on the cost to the district.

So, is the KidTrax system helping school officials validate the importance of before- and after-school programs for students?

From an attendance standpoint, Bell said, yes.

“We have determined that if a student participates in an after-school program more than four times a year, then [his or her] overall attendance at school also improves,” he said.

Does participation also translate into improved performance? “It’s still a little too early to tell,” he said. Even so, the program holds enough promise that the district plans to continue developing new ways to use the data it gleans from the system.


Jefferson County Public Schools

nFocus Software

Boys & Girls Clubs of America

The Salvation Army


HarperCollins to create searchable digital library

The New York Times reports that in the latest move in the battle between search engines and publishers, HarperCollins announced that it would create its own searchable, digital library … (Note: This site requires free registration.)


Commentary: NTP won’t shut down Blackberry

Commentary from The Washington Post says that although it is legally possible for NTP Inc. to shut down the popular Blackberry service, many industry lawyers feel that the two firms are in a “high-stakes game of chicken.” The fact is that NTP stands to make a lot of money if they are awarded a percentage of Blackberry sales … (Note: This site requires free registration.)


Mobile County school board meetings now online

The Mobile Register of Mobile, Ala., reports that anyone with access to the internet and a media player can now watch Mobile County school board meetings online. In what is becoming a growing trend for school systems nationwide, Mobile County Public School System employees recently began recording the meetings, which are usually held on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month. The video is posted to the school system¹s web site a few days after the meeting. A district spokeswoman said board members requested that the meetings be posted online to improve the district’s communication with the public …