Imagining texts in a new form

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the advent of the Wikitext is almost here. Wikis are collaborative, freely licensed, and freely editable online projects. When applied to textbooks, the concept can open up an equitable solution for students around the world who may have some access to a computer, but not as much to traditional texts. While Wikitexts may never fully supplant traditional textbooks, they should significantly enrich and supplement them…

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For some educators, tagging is ‘it’

A new method of searching the internet aims to transform the way people look for and store the information they find online–and already it’s having a significant impact on teaching and learning in some schools.

The method, dubbed “tagging,” addresses a common complaint of many internet users that searching for information often is clumsy and inefficient. Web surfers often must sift through multiple pages of search results to find what they are looking for. And retrieving the best sites a second time usually means redoing the search or trolling through an unorganized list of sites that you have haphazardly saved in a “favorites” folder.

Tagging, however, can cut through the online clutter to deliver more relevant bits of information. That’s because many versions allow users to search only those sites that other people already have deemed useful. It also makes it easier to find desired information again.

Supporters of the trend say the process could have broad implications for educators looking to direct students quickly and easily to more relevant educational content online.

“With the challenges presented to teachers in creating previewed lists of sites containing authentic information, a tagging tool is one more option for teachers to consider as they distribute site lists to students,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

Tagging services have multiple uses. First, they allow web surfers to save hundreds (or even thousands) of favorite web pages under key words. The technology is named after the keyword “tags” that users associate with each page they want to save. (For example, a web page featuring information about Abraham Lincoln could be saved under the tag, “Lincoln.”) For individual users, tagging makes their own favorite pages easy to search and retrieve. Unlike storing addresses in a “favorites” folder on your computer, tagged pages are stored on the web and are accessible from any computer. A tagging site also lets you search among all your stored pages by keyword, eliminating the need to scroll through dozens of sites and remember the order in which your links are saved.

Educators say the greatest benefit of tagging, and the reason many large internet companies now are adopting it, is that tagging sites often allow users to make their list of tags and sites available to (and searchable by) either a closed community of individuals– such as friends and family, or the students of Mrs. Jones’s eighth-grade English class–or all other web surfers. So, instead of searching the entire web, users can limit their forays to an edited universe of pages others already have tagged as interesting or helpful. Also, many tagging services include the kind of social-networking features that have made sites such as MySpace.com and Friendster so popular: Users can post comments or vote on the usefulness of sites that others have tagged.

While tech-heads have been using the method for the past year or so, tagging is now moving into the mainstream. Silicon Valley heavyweights, along with a number of new upstarts, are now putting major resources into developing tagging services.

In December, Yahoo Inc. bought the popular tagging site Del.icio.us (pronounced “delicious”). Now, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company says it plans to allow Del.icio.us users to access their tagged links through My Web 2.0, Yahoo’s own tagging site.

One new site, Shadows.com, allows individuals to save their favorite web sites under keywords that others also can search. The site, launched last October by the co-founders of Pluck Corp., based in Austin, Texas, attracts more than 275,000 unique monthly visitors, according to comScore Networks.

Yahoo’s Flickr.com, which allows anyone to upload photos from their camera phone or computer to the web and then store them in a digital album that others can search by keyword tags, is another early tagging success.

There are two main ways to tag a web site. Del.icio.us, for instance, will ask you to enter the web address of the site you want to save into a field on its page and to click “save.” But Del.icio.us, along with many others, also allows you download a toolbar to your desktop. While web surfing, you can add pages to your account simply by clicking on the toolbar.

Tagging could have significant implications for educators, both as a time-saving strategy and a way to find and share relevant information with students more easily.

“Let’s say you wanted the students in your geometry class to take pictures of things in their community that illustrate different concepts, like ‘acute angle’ or ‘hemisphere,’ and there isn’t any simple way for you to upload and organize these [photos] on a server hosted by your school,” said Tom Hoffman, a former teacher and technology coordinator who now manages an open-source software project called SchoolTool. “You could have the students create free accounts on Flickr and upload their photos to the Flickr server. They could then tag the photos with the name of the concept they illustrate, and you could view them by going to Flickr and searching for ‘hemisphere.'”

Hoffman added, “Of course, for some of these, other people will have already used the tag, especially for ‘circle,’ for example. To avoid this problem, you might have the students add a prefix to the tag, like ‘mrh-circle,’ so that only the class’s photos will show up with those tags.”

Tim Wilson, technology integration specialist for the Hopkins Independent School District #270 in Hopkins, Minn., said he would be giving a class on tagging to a group of teachers in his district soon. “I can think of several useful ways that tagging could be used by teachers,” said Wilson, who, like Hoffman, contributes a blog on education technology to the Ed-Tech Insiders page at eSchool News Online.

For instance, “teachers can use Del.icio.us to get information to their students on particular topics,” Wilson said. “Let’s say a teacher has geography and government classes. He could tag web sites and online articles related to his curriculum (e.g., ‘geography’ and ‘government’), and his students could subscribe to RSS feeds of those tags. Then the students could get notified about the articles automatically.”

Another example: “I use Creative Commons-licensed Flickr photos frequently for my presentations,” he said. “Thanks to the tags that users assign to the photos, finding photos on particular subjects is pretty easy. I’ve shown Flickr to several teachers, and they’re using the photos they find to supplement their lectures and other presentations.”

While tagging is still new and the method does have limitations, analysts are predicting further growth in the “tagosphere” as new companies crop up to grab a share of the nearly $15 billion online-advertising market. Tagging sites are free to use, but some run advertisements that display small snippets of ad text targeted to the terms a user is searching for or other words on the page.

Tagging sites are increasingly transitioning beyond places individuals go to for retrieving their favorite web pages to sites they visit first when they want to search the internet. That means they are beginning to compete directly with search behemoths such as Google and Yahoo. A Google Inc. spokesman says the company doesn’t comment on its competition. But “these systems are really coming into the mass market,” said Caterina Fake, director of Yahoo Search technology.

Demand for the new sites reflects many web surfers’ frustration with current search technology. The major search engines are all built around different algorithms that try to determine the most relevant sites for a particular search. But only 17 percent of internet users say they always find what they are looking for when they use a search engine, according to a 2005 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In November, Americans conducted more than 5 billion online searches, up 9 percent from the previous year, according to comScore Networks.

There are some downsides to the new sites. Unlike a typical search engine, the effectiveness of tagging services depends on the quality and quantity of the people who save pages to them.

Also, users generally have to use the same tags for a search to capture all relevant pages. (For example, if you search for sites under the tag “Lincoln,” you could miss out on applicable pages that were tagged under “Civil War.”)

Like any new technology, educators who hope to make use of tagging in their classrooms will need to find a way to exploit the benefits.

“This concept is beyond the casual user experience and will require some ‘best-practice’ examples to give the education community an opportunity & to understand the possibilities,” said Plano’s Hirsch.

Still, tagging is “a great example of how technology can support just the right kind of new opportunity for learning,” said Cathy Norris, a professor of technology and cognition at the University of North Texas.

Links:

Del.icio.us
http://del.icio.us

Flickr
http://www.flickr.com

Ed-Tech Insiders at eSN Online
http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti/index.php

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School Blogs Impact On Teacher-Student Literacy and Project Collaboration at FETC

ePALS Classroom Exchange (www.epals.com) will be showing off it´s newly launched safe, protected and multilingual ePALS SchoolBlog tool at the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando this week March 22-25 at booth #583. Company representatives will be providing examples of how ePALS SchoolMail and SchoolBlog have proven to increase literacy scores on standardized tests and enhance teacher-student-parent communication, collaboration and information flow.

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Chicago jumps on the Wi-Fi bandwagon

The Associated Press reports that Chicago is following wireless initiatives in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco and is planning to offer its own service. Chicago already has hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots around the city, and is hoping to extend the wireless blanket to all 228 square miles. The city plans to ask technology companies to submit proposals for the project this spring…

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Bipartisan panel to study NCLB

USA Today reports that after four years of complains from parents and teachers, a bipartisan panel is being called on to take a “hard, independent look” at the law’s promises and problems. The Commission on No Child Left Behind will be announced Tuesday, February 21, and will travel the USA, conducting roundtable discussions and hearings to investigate the way the law is implemented and executed…

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Microsoft hands out academic grants

News.com reports that Microsoft asked academic researchers to submit request for proposals on advancing Microsoft Virtual Earth technology. In addition, the software giant is asking researchers to develop curriculum projects for the “Trustworthy Computing” initiatives, which focus on privacy and reliability of Microsoft software. Twenty-three researchers have been awarded the grants already, and represent universities from around the world…

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From the TCEA Exhibit Floor: Professional development

Atomic Learning has expanded its resource library with an offering dubbed Lesson Accelerators. Lesson Accelerators uses Atomic Learning’s show-and-tell tutorial approach with project-based media lesson plans that are goal- and objective-driven. Each Lesson Accelerator provides descriptive information about a project, step-by-step tutorial movies using a specific software application, and a project activity guide. Projects can be extended or adapted based on the needs of the classroom. Lesson Accelerators have been incorporated into the curriculum resources section of the Atomic Learning product and are available to all Atomic Learning subscribers. Atomic Learning provides web-based software training for popular applications, plus other specialized software programs. The training is delivered through short movies that provide on-demand answers to questions. http://www.atomiclearning.com

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TCEA shows ed tech’s ‘wild side’

Realizing the promise of one-to-one computing and achieving the effective integration of technology into instruction were the foci as more than 13,000 educators, students, and exhibitors–including more than 8,300 paid participants–converged on the Austin Convention Center, Feb. 6-10 for the 26th annual Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference.

Taking “Technology Gone Wild” as its theme, TCEA aimed to guide attendees through the “jungle” of educational technology, with special speakers, hundreds of free instructional sessions, and 700 ed-tech exhibits.

Throughout the three-day event, one of the largest annual statewide demonstrations of educational technology in the nation, educators and software vendors alike came together to find solutions to a pressing problem: How to prepare today’s students for success in the new global economy–one where technology will intersect every aspect of their personal and professional lives.

Motivational speaker Coach Ken Carter was the featured keynote for the opening day of conference activities. Carter’s experiences as the head coach of the Richmond High School basketball team in Richmond, Calif., became the basis of the movie Coach Carter. Carter made news when he locked out his undefeated basketball team to push them to improve their grades. The team members later went on to be successful in basketball and academics.

In his speech, Carter emphasized accountability, integrity, and teamwork. His positive attitude generally matched the mood of those taking part in the morning’s proceedings.

But Carter’s words might have had more resonance than many of the educators in the packed conference hall would have liked. With President Bush proposing to eliminate the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program–the primary source of federal ed-tech funding for schools–in his 2007 budget proposal, part of $3.2 billion worth of cuts to education spending overall, Carter’s words on keeping a positive attitude while growing up poor in the south were perhaps too close in their relevance, if positive in their message (see story: Bush: Cut $3.2B from education).

“You can be broke,” Carter told the crowd. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But, never be poor. Broke is an economic state–just ask any college student, they’ll tell you. But poor is a disabling state of mind.”

It’s this same “disabling” state of mind that academics such as David Thornburg, a senior fellow at the Congressional Institute for the Future and author of Campfires in Cyberspace, a guide to teaching with the web, say is keeping schools from fully embracing the benefits of technology-based learning–and one-to-one learning environments in particular.

In an interview with eSchool News, Thornburg stressed the value of ubiquitous computing models in the nation’s classrooms. Thanks to lower prices made possible by the emergence of free, or inexpensive, open-source alternatives to proprietary operating systems and applications, he said, one-to-one computing is becoming an educational reality–albeit somewhat slowly. Despite the continued march of technology, Thornburg said, the average student-to-computer ratio remains stuck at 4-to-1, where it’s been now for nearly three years.

Thornburg attributes much of this sluggishness to a general reluctance on the part of educators–and even some parents–who he believes feel threatened by the emergence of anytime, anywhere learning in the nation’s schools.

“There is a perhaps well-placed fear among educators that if technology becomes ubiquitous, it will totally transform the practice of education,” Thornburg said. It’s this threat to the established economy of learning–where the teacher is the keeper of knowledge and the student is the one upon whom it is bestowed–that leaves educators uncertain, he said, adding, “[Educators] don’t want the practice of education transformed, because they’re very comfortable with it.”

And some of these concerns are justified, he said.

As with any kind of wholesale instructional change, Thornburg explained, it’s entirely possible that learners who thrive under traditional teaching models might encounter a learning curve when moving to a more cooperative classroom environment–one that is less dependent upon rote memorization and other strategies inherent in the textbook-and-lecture approach to learning.

Conversely, he said, many students who do poorly in traditional settings have been shown to improve dramatically in the types of collaborative, inquiry-driven, project-based learning environments offered by anytime access to technology.

“The possibilities offered to all students with this kind of access–we just can’t talk about that enough,” he said.

But achieving that potential won’t be easy, he acknowledged.

Like the business world–which today is powered by a vast array of digital tools, from cell phones and laptops to personal digital assistants–schools, too, must begin to integrate these technologies effectively, he said. Without them, U.S. students will continue to enter the workforce at a distinct disadvantage to their academic counterparts from other, more forward-thinking nations.

Assessing tech skills

During the conference, executives from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) brought together educators with makers of classroom technologies and other assessment tools to ease the transition to a better-connected 21st century classroom.

The session, “Assessing Students’ and Teachers’ Technology Skills: NETS as Benchmarks,” highlighted initiatives that focus on providing high-quality assessment items, tasks, and resources supporting ISTE’s National Education Technology Standards, or NETS, a list of benchmarks designed to promote the effective integration of technology in schools.

“Ready or not, the world is different,” said Christine Richman, a representative for the ISTE 100, a group of ISTE corporate partners recognized by the organization for their commitment to improving education through technology.

“One assessment may work for one school, and may not work for another,” Richman said.

To maintain vendor neutrality while demonstrating industry-wide acknowledgement of the NETS’ high quality, ISTE invited educational software providers Certiport Inc., Learning.com, Microsoft Corp., and PBS Teacherline to demonstrate their assessment products.

Together, the vendors showcased a variety of teacher- and student-based assessment tools, remediation solutions, and technology certification programs, all based on NETS benchmarks.

‘Techno-traditionalism’

Elsewhere at the conference, educators continued the search for new and innovative approaches to learning, sampling a variety of products and solutions designed to resonate with a generation of students raised on digital media.

“Any time you can keep a kid interested for a longer period of time by engaging more of their senses, the better they’re going to learn,” said motivational speaker Tony Brewer. Author of Beginners’ Guide to the Internet, Brewer led a session on the integration of digital presentation technologies in the classroom.

Using Photo Story 3, a free photo-editing product available for downloading from Microsoft, Brewer demonstrated how to edit images for presentations, using the program’s functionality to quickly create documentary-style photo editing using pan camera techniques, voice-overs, and more.

Brewer said the software enables teachers and students to incorporate their own images into assignments and classroom instructional materials for the purposes of illustration and demonstration, offering an array of possibilities for learning through the addition of a strong visual element.

In contrast to Thornburg, who said the effective integration of technology in the nation’s schools could be achieved only through a radical shift in teaching and learning, Brewer argued for the continued maintenance of more traditional approaches to learning, in which students are monitored closely by instructors, whose job is to engage them through traditional lecture and assignment-based practice activities.

The difference between the two styles provided a great illustration of the broad range of teaching and learning solutions represented at this year’s conference.

“The answer,” said Brewer, “is techno-traditionalism, which brings tech into play when it’s needed to engage kids in the learning process. By doing a PowerPoint presentation about the Civil War, with embedded videos and things like that, it’s a lot more engaging than just reading aloud from the textbook. Techno-traditionalist teaching brings technology in to enhance, accelerate, and engage the kids.”

The first step: Building the right infrastructure

But, as at least one school technology leader noted during the conference, pairing the right philosophies with the right standards will get you only so far. To make technology work for learning, the first step–for schools, at least–needs to be building an infrastructure that can support the needs of an evolving institution.

David Burkhart, network communications manager for Texas’s Wylie Independent School District (WISD), said in his presentation, “IP Telephony: Do It Right the First Time,” that district officials have to embrace the transition from traditional telephone network services to the much higher-functioning Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). VoIP converts analog signals of traditional telephone networks into data packets and transports them across a fiber-optic data network. This increasingly popular, flexible, intuitive solution to a district’s telephony needs reportedly lowers the total cost of ownership of the district’s network.

Burkhart said VoIP permits communications managers to have greater local ownership of and control over their communications network. He said it offers more features, including voicemail-eMail integration, drag-and-drop desktop options for assistants and secretaries, and video conferencing. VoIP also reportedly permits simplified, “fix-it-from-anywhere” support options for overstretched district support staff, and a far more redundant telephony network resulting in fewer communications disruptions, he said.

Burkhart’s step-by-step VoIP demonstration was intended for chief technology officers and systems administrators and was culled from his own experiences at WISD.

For officials who want to make the switch to VoIP, Burkhart offered a few helpful tips.

First, he said, administrators must embrace the concept of VoIP. Burkhart warned that critical administrative buy-in will help ease the difficulties that are likely to arise when transforming the district’s voice communications network. These will include technical as well as human challenges, resulting from the frustrations of faculty and staff as they adjust to the transition.

Burkhart also pointed out that the network should be cautiously deployed from building to building and “tested, tested, tested” through a third-party VoIP service provider who can come in and make certain that the network has been properly configured by the core district support staff. Burkhart also said it is best to use a single hardware vendor for the total solution, because “Cisco stuff works best with other Cisco stuff,” for example.

Burkhart’s final piece of advice: “Keep the secretaries happy. They’re the ones who are on the phones most often. If they’re happy, then the principals will be happy. If the principals are happy, then the teachers will be happy. Since you have to deal with all of them, then everybody being happy means less work for you.”

Links:

TCEA 2006
http://www.tcea.org

eSchool News Conference Information Center: TCEA coverage
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic

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Premio pleads guilty for defrauding eRate

Funds for Learning reports that the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Premio Inc, has agreed to pay $1.7 million in criminal fines and restitution relating to collusion and fraud in the FCC’s eRate program. Premio is specifically charged with: “committing mail fraud by willfully entering into a scheme to defraud the E-Rate program by substituting ineligible equipment for approved equipment, submitting false and fraudulent documents to hide the fact that it installed ineligible equipment, and submitting false invoices to the E-Rate program to receive payment for the ineligible equipment that it installed at an E-Rate project at a school district in Highland Park, Michigan”…

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Venture capitalists invest in education reform

The New York Times reports that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are financing a new group: schoolmasters. L. John Doerr helped found the New Schools Venture Fund in San Francisco six years ago. The fund is for a new breed of entrepreneur–onee that doesn’t have to make a profit. Recipients of the fund’s investments are mainly public school teachers with a passion to improve the ways poor children are taught… (Note: This site requires free registration)

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