Technology helps ratchet up math instruction

As the emergence of a new global economy continues to drive wholesale instructional changes in the nation’s classrooms, the demand for solutions designed to teach higher-level mathematics concepts such as calculus and engineering is growing.

With President Bush making math and science instruction a point of emphasis in his State of the Union address and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings calling on schools to “raise the bar” on math instruction, K-12 institutions are looking for ways to help students understand–and even appreciate–tough math concepts.

And it’s technology, not textbooks, many experts say, that will make much of this transformation possible–along with a shift in teaching strategies and an emphasis on professional development.

“Used well, technology can open the door to mathematics for more students than it ever has in the past,” said Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

With that thought in mind, NCTM recently teamed up with executives at Texas Instruments (TI) and producers for the hit CBS television drama Numb3rs to launch a new classroom companion web site and curriculum based on topics discussed during the show, which features a mathematician who employs complex theories to help the FBI solve crimes.

The idea, according to TI’s Linda Beheler, is to take what students often see as abstract mathematical concepts and make them more relevant to their daily lives. The television show, she said, serves as an example of how math is used every day to solve real-world problems.

“We always get the same question,” said Beheler. “Students always want to know, “How are we ever going to use this stuff in the real world?'” And that’s the idea behind the Numb3rs initiative–“to show them how these [concepts] apply to what they do in life.”

Mathematicians and educators from NCTM are working with the show’s writers and producers to develop lesson plans and activities centered on the different mathematical concepts encountered during each episode. Topics touched on already this season include continued fractions, Benford’s Law, probability, direct variation, ellipses, and randomization.

Before each episode airs, teachers, students, and parents can go the Number3s web site and download the corresponding activities, giving them an opportunity to play along with investigators as the characters try each week to solve a new crime. Students then return to class prepared to talk about the concepts used during the show; teachers, in turn, provide corresponding problem sets to reinforce the topics. The activities from each episode remain on the site throughout the entire season, so teachers can return to them and use them as they deem fit, Beheler said.

The activities also are designed to integrate well with TI’s handheld Navigator and graphing calculator products, she said, giving educators another opportunity to integrate technology into the learning process.

Like the show, Beheler said, the Numb3rs activities are a hit. Since September, as many as 21,000 people reportedly have registered to take part in the program. She said CBS reports as many as 6,000 new activity downloads per week from the site.

“We’re seeing a real groundswell of support for the program,” she said.

Proponents attribute much of its success to a renewed focus by President Bush and other U.S. leaders on the importance of high-quality, advanced mathematics instruction in the nation’s schools. It’s a need, many say, that has become particularly acute as U.S. students continue to lose ground to their academic counterparts in developing nations such as India and China.

“It’s really echoing what a lot of us have been saying for some time,” NCTM’s Seeley said of the program and the call for better math instruction in the nation’s high schools. “That is, whether you want to become a scientist or an astronaut & you’re really going to have to use and understand math skills that weren’t even being talked about a decade ago in terms of workforce preparation.”

Looking to the future, experts agree a majority of the jobs that will be in high demand are likely to have a strong technical focus. From computer engineering, to science, to design, Seeley said, math plays an increasingly central role in all facets of the modern workforce.

But while educators in foreign nations have been aggressively pursing curricula with a focus on higher-level, 21st-century-type math skills such as calculus and engineering, U.S. institutions, by and large, have been slow to adapt, she said.

“A problem that we’re having is that a lot of folks around the country haven’t been paying attention to the growing importance of math,” she explained. “The role of math in the world is growing.”

Through interactive initiatives such as the Numb3rs program and others, Seeley said, NCTM aims to make higher-level math more accessible to more students.

According to TI’s Beheler, that’s a large part of why her company–one of the nation’s leading technology providers–signed on to sponsor the program.

“Even if you don’t go into a technological field, studying math is going to give you more [career] options,” she said. “We’d encourage every high school student to take at least one math course each and every year.”

Seeley expanded on that point, saying that if America is going to remain a leader in the global economy, it’s imperative that educators find effective ways to reach even the most reluctant students. And more and more, this involves the use of technology tools.

“Teachers are going to need to change the way that they teach…to use technology well,” she said. “We need to use the tools that will allow us to teach better, smarter.”

It’s that kind of thinking that is driving innovation and research at places such as Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Carnegie Learning.

Born in 1992 out of a research lab at Carnegie Mellon University, the technology-centered educational services provider operates under the philosophy that students learn best not simply by memorizing methods of operation, but by understanding the process through which answers to mathematical problems are achieved.

“[H]aving a deeper understanding is important [because] it helps you remember long-term, so that when you enter into the workforce you still retain enough of the information to help you in your job,” said Steve Ritter, a co-founder of the company and senior vice president of research and development.

Fifty years ago, Ritter said, U.S. schools were ahead of the pace when it came to teaching mathematics. But in recent years, a widening body of domestic and international evidence–including reports from the American Institutes for Research, the Program for International Assessment, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS–has given rise to increased concerns over American students’ inability to keep up with students in other industrialized nations.

“The biggest challenge in mathematics is getting to the deeper understanding of how and why do I want to solve a particular problem,” Ritter said. “Why is a particular operation the right thing to do?”

Every student thinks differently; as a result, Ritter said, each student also learns differently.

For teachers, he said, the key is to identify the difficulties faced by each individual student–and then teach to those weaknesses. And that’s where technology can help, he said–by differentiating instruction.

For example, Carnegie’s software “does more than tell a student what is right or wrong,” Ritter explained. “It follows the thought process of the individual student. It asks, ‘How do you want to solve [the problem]?'”

Using word problems fashioned after real-world situations and accompanying graphs, he said, Carnegie’s line of advanced math software aims to integrate the kinds of true-to-life thinking skills that students are likely to encounter in the workforce.

For instance, he said, in one of Carnegie’s algebra programs–each of which includes a combination of computer simulation and face-to-face instruction taught from an accompanying textbook–students are asked to envision working for a company where they’ve been tasked by their boss to choose the most cost-effective employee cell-phone plan. Using a set of predetermined variables–from cost per minute, to permanent charges–the students are asked to use their math skills to determine which plan best suits the needs of their imaginary employer.

“Districts really are starting to take this very seriously,” Ritter said of the real-world approach. “We find that questions like these really resonate with students and with teachers.”

Ritter said his company’s products are now used in 750 school districts across the nation, reaching some 350,000 students.

But given the much-publicized struggles of U.S. students in the areas of math and science, he acknowledged, innovative solutions alone probably won’t be enough to prepare students for the challenges of the global economy.

For this shift in thinking to occur, Ritter said, teachers–and parents–also have to buy in to the philosophy that math is a life skill that needs to be learned, not memorized.

To do that, schools have to change not just how they approach their students, but how they train their instructors, too, he said.

“We have to provide teachers with the essential and guiding questions to take the kids to the next level,” explained Sandy Bartle, Carnegie’s director of educational services and head of the company’s professional development division. She added, “We’re trying to align teaching to the way students learn.”

Links:

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
http://www.nctm.org

NUMB3RS educational web site
http://www.cbs.com/primetime/numb3rs/ti/activities.shtml

Carnegie Learning
http://www.carnegielearning.com

Texas Instruments Education Portal
http://education.ti.com/educationportal

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Project combines reading, music with tech

Mansfield News reports that teacher Rayna Freedman is running a special project in her third-grade class, a project that demonstrates to her students how many subjects are actually interrelated. The project combines reading, critical thinking, computer technology, writing, music and art. “The point of the project is to give kids a vision that all of these subjects can work together,” Freedman explains.

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Kids hover around technology

Pantagraph.com reports that at the SIT conference, kids demonstrated the hovercraft they built with the help of Heartland Community College instructors and volunteers. The kids used shop vacuums, wood, and shower curtains to build the floating vehicles. Students will take their hovercraft to their respective schools to be used in teaching math, technology and recreation.

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TCEA speakers address photography, telephony

The Texas Computer Education Association held the second full day of its annual conference at the Austin Convention Center on Thursday, with educators attending plenty of the free sessions offered, taking in some of the featured speakers, and checking out what more than 700 vendors on the showroom floor had to offer.

“Looking at everything here,” said Phyllis Hawkins, a technology media teacher from Texas, “there is not a learning style we can’t address with technology.”

Hawkins attended sessions on digital video editing, web editing in Macromedia Dreamweaver 8, clay animation techniques, and transferring VHS video recordings to DVD formats.

For others with visual learning styles, Tony Brewer, motivational lecturer and author of Beginners’ Guide to the Internet, gave a session on classroom digital presentation technologies.

Brewer said that the availability of affordable digital cameras provides teachers with a great hook for “preparing children to utilize technology in every way.” Teachers and students, Brewer said, can incorporate their own images into assignments and classroom instructional materials for the purposes of far greater illustration and demonstration, offering a whole new range of possibilities for learning through the addition of a strong visual element.

Brewer’s presentation focused largely on how teachers could use those images with the free Microsoft photo editing tool, Photo Story 3. Brewer demonstrated how to use Photo Story to edit images for presentations, using the program’s functionality to quickly create documentary-style photo editing using pan camera techniques, voiceovers, and more.

But sometimes the learning styles of administrators and staff can be the most difficult ones to address. That’s why David Burkhart, network communications manager for Texas’s Wylie Independent School District, 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. The increasingly-popular, flexible, intuitive solution to a district’s telephony needs is said to lower the total cost of ownership of the telephony network.

Burkhart said VoIP permits communications managers to have greater local ownership of and control over their communications network. The solution is said to offer more features–including the tantalizing propositions of voicemail-eMail integration, drag-and-drop desktop options for assistants and secretaries, as well as the possibility of integrated video-conferencing. VoIP also reportedly permits tremendously simplified, “fix-it-from-anywhere” support options for overstretched district support staff; and a far more redundant telephony network resulting in fewer communications interferences.

The step-by-step VoIP deployment talk was meant for chief technology officers and systems administrators, and culled from Burkhart’s own experiences deploying VoIP throughout his entire district.

For officials who wish to make the switch to VoIP, Burkhart offered a few helpful tips, the first being the one mentioned above: administrators must embrace the concept of VoIP. Burkhart warned that the critical administrative buy-in will help to ease the difficulties that will inevitably arise when transforming the organization’s voice communications network, both technical and those resulting from the frustrations of faculty and staff members irritated by those technical problems.

Burkhart also pointed out that the network should be slowly 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. He said the district should go ahead and pay the extra money to make certain that the provider will not be “priced out of business in two years by taking low-ball contracts with school districts.” Burkhart also said that it is best to use a single hardware vendor for the total solution, because “Cisco stuff works best with other Cisco stuff.”

Highlights on the exhibit floor included:

Dell Computers Inc., PC hardware solutions provider, was promoting its next generation of Dell Intelligent Classrooms–computers, technology devices, content and professional development that transform classrooms into integrated teaching and learning environments–in two curriculum-specific modules: math and science, and English, foreign language, and social sciences.

NetSupport, Inc., a network and attached hardware services and support provider, highlighted the benefits of its desktop management suite for schools. NetSupport says its software helps schools better manage and support computers on campus from the network level to the computer lab. Those include NetSupport School, a software-only classroom instruction, monitoring, and testing tool that the company says enables instructors to train students in the computer lab; and NetSupport DNA, an all-in-one IT asset management tool that NetSupport says offers hardware and software inventory, software distribution, application and web metering, query-based reporting, a help desk component and remote control functionality.

Atomic Learning has expanded its resource library with an offering dubbed Lesson Accelerators. Lesson Accelerators uses the 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.

GeeGuides, a company founded to help children gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for art, offers animated, interactive programs that are web-based and can run on desktop or handheld computers. The curriculum’s goal is to give children the tools needed to understand, interpret, and create art. Animated lessons, followed by interactive exercises to help strengthen retention and understanding of the concepts presented, help reinforce that goal. The curriculum comprises three components: sayART, seeART, and doART. In sayART, children are introduced to fundamental art principles. They explore the meaning and interpretation of specific artworks in seeART, and in doART they develop visual self-expression and put into practice the concepts they have learned so far.

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Headmaster describes tech integration

The Guardian Unlimited examines how Headmaster Jeffrey Risbridger integrated technology into his curriculum. In his own words, Risbridger explains how he worked closely with tech providers to ensure that every pupil has his or her own notebook computer. This enabled them to work in specific groups, rather than parking them in front of computer terminal. In addition, he explains that he wanted to make sure that all technology that he integrated was “future proof”–meaning that it would be current in two to three year’s time. He also details the steps he took for storage and security for his integration initiative…

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Panel explores standardized testing for colleges

The New York Times reports that a committee on higher education named by the Bush administration is investigating whether it is prudent to expand standardized testing to universities and colleges. The goal is to eventually test in order to show that students are indeed learning, and also to provide a more uniform basis of comparison between institutions. The plan is opposed by many university officials who claim that there are too many variables in higher education to make the plan worthwhile… (Note: This site requires free registration)

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Mich. floats online learning requirement

A pioneering proposal now before the Michigan state legislature would make Michigan the first state in the country to require students to experience some sort of online instruction before they graduate from high school.

Advocates for virtual instruction say that if the plan is approved, Michigan likely will set a precedent for other states to follow as more schools begin to experiment with the benefits of online learning.

The online learning mandate is part of larger piece of legislation designed to ratchet up high school graduation requirements across the state. Until now, Michigan students have been required only to take a civics course to graduate. The new proposal would require math, science, and a foreign language in addition to some form of online instruction.

The idea for the virtual learning requirement reportedly came from a report produced by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins in September. Watkins, who published the report “Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan: The New Education (R)evolution” while on sabbatical from Michigan’s Wayne State University, recommended that every school in the state adopt some form of eLearning as a means of extending course options and providing new ways to engage struggling students. Susan Patrick, executive director of the North American Council for Online Learning and former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, called Michigan’s proposal “a bold plan” to foster a culture of lifelong learning and more readily prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly global economy.

“Michigan [officials have] realized that they have an industrial economy–they spawned the auto industry–but they face many of the challenges that other states face in making the transition to a more knowledge-based economy,” Patrick said She added, “I think the recommendation is terrific–and I think you are going to see more states following suit.” There already is strong support for online instruction in Michigan. At the Michigan Virtual University, enrollment in its Michigan Virtual High School program has grown from 100 students in 1999, the program’s first year, to 5,959 students during the 2004-05 school year, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The state’s online learning proposal is “probably one of the most forward-thinking educational strategies I’ve seen in a long time,” said Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of the nonprofit Michigan Virtual University. “It’s very exciting to see our policy makers engaged in the debate.”

Even if the measure doesn’t pass, he said, the fact that lawmakers were at least willing to entertain the idea proves that virtual instruction is growing in importance. The new graduation requirements were ratified by the state board of education in December and now stand before the state legislature.

Although no deadline has been set for approval, the measure so far has met with little opposition and appears to be on a “fast track” through the legislature, Fitzpatrick said. One item of concern is whether Michigan’s schools have the necessary infrastructure to support the online learning requirement.

In January, state House Republicans introduced a bill that would delay the start of the online mandate until the state board of education has determined that all high school students have equal access to computers and the internet, the Free Press reported.

But flexibility written into the plan’s requirement could ease lawmakers’ concerns. The measure says students can fulfill the mandate by having at least one “online learning experience.” This could include enrolling in an online course through the Michigan Virtual High School program, or simply taking an online test-preparation course or using electronic career-development software.

Supporters of the plan say this flexibility is one of its strengths.

“The last thing anyone wants to see is a cookie-cutter approach to education,” Fitzpatrick said.

Proponents are optimistic the bill will be approved by March so the new requirements can be in place for the graduating class of 2010, Fitzpatrick added.


Links:

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

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org

Watkins’ report
http://www.coe.wayne.edu/e-learningreport.pdf

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Experts to students: Watch what you post

Much has been made of the danger of posting too much personal information on web sites such as MySpace.com, where millions of people–including online child predators–can, in seconds, find out where site users go to school, learn their interests, download their pictures, and instantly send them messages.

But there is another, less widely reported danger as well: that the information students post online could come back to haunt them later in life.

In recent weeks, a Dover, Del., newspaper reporter was fired from his job after someone alerted his editor to racially offensive comments he had posted to his personal blog on MySpace.com–and seven Lincoln, Neb., high school students were suspended for two weeks when a school staff member found a MySpace.com posting that mentioned the students drinking alcohol.

“This is a new arena for us,” said Wendy Henrichs, athletic director for Lincoln East High School, where the seven suspended students were all varsity and junior varsity basketball players. “In the ’70s or ’80s … people would say those things. Today, they write them.”

She added, “The difference is putting it in print, basically documented proof of what’s been said. I don’t know if kids understand that.”

MySpace, one of several popular social networking sites, is a free service that allows users to create web site profiles of themselves that can be personalized with information, pictures, and movies. MySpace reportedly boasts more than 180,000 new members per day and, according to web site traffic ranking service Alexa, was the seventh most popular destination for English–speaking internet users as of press time.

While today’s students are undeniably savvy in their knowledge and adoption of technology, they aren’t always as savvy in how they choose to deploy it–and often they are only vaguely aware of the digital “footprint” they leave behind when they post personal information.

And this footprint could play an increasingly important role in whether students land their dream job or even get into the college of their choice, experts say.

A recent Harris Interactive poll showed that 23 percent of people search the names of business associates or colleagues on the internet before meeting them–which probably means many employers are doing the same with job applicants, said Andrea Kay, a career consultant and author of “Interview Strategies That Will Get You the Job You Want.”

“It’s a wake–up call: You better be careful what you say and do, because it is your reputation. You’re developing it early on,” Kay said.

Many employers hire companies to conduct background checks, but “Googling” job applicants serves as an additional tool. It makes sense, especially when young applicants have few references or the job involves responsibility for people’s health or finances, said Charles Fleischer, an employment lawyer and author of “The Complete Hiring and Firing Handbook.”

Given the relative ease of investigating someone online and the rate of technology’s penetration into the college admissions process, it’s conceivable that college admissions officers, too, could soon be Googling prospective students.

College admissions officers who spoke with eSchool News said it wasn’t part of their typical practice yet–but if the trend of employers Googling applicants spreads to education, that could change.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director for the American Association of College Registrars and College Admissions Officers, said he isn’t aware of “any [higher–education] institution that is Googling people or checking out MySpace for background information.” However, he added that “it is within the rights of the institution, and it is not inconceivable that an institution could fact–check an application in this manner.”

According to David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, colleges are “aware of the enormous space blogs and aggregated web sites like MySpace.com & have taken in the lives of youths.” But with an increase in the number of college applicants in recent years, he said, “there isn’t always time to dig deeper on student applications.”

Still, Hawkins said, “the potential for a student to trip himself up is certainly greater than it was even 10 years ago.”

Kent Weaver, supervisor of guidance services for Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, said the rise of social networking sites is such a new phenomenon that most guidance counselors haven’t yet formed a policy for advising students to be discreet about the information they post about themselves online. But Weaver said his staff does advise students against using silly eMail addresses that seem cool at the time, but are unprofessional later on. The easiest way for students to guard against the information they post coming back to haunt them is not to post anything embarrassing. But users of most social networking sites also can control how much of the information they post is available to the general public.

The major “profile” sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, and LiveJournal, all allow for various privacy settings. MySpace uses the most public setting as its default. The others include prompts that make users choose a privacy setting when they post information. Users can opt to make the various parts of their profile available only to people they list as “friends.” Even so, nothing guarantees that privacy policies in effect today will be honored in days and years to come.

Experts say it’s important for students to understand that, when they use MySpace and other sites like it, they are building up a virtual archive of their online behavior. How that archive might be used in the future is anybody’s guess.

Links:

MySpace.com
http://www.myspace.com

American Association of College Registrars and College Admissions Officers
http://www.aacrao.org

National Association for College Admissions Counseling
http://www.nacacnet.org

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Politically motivated edits show Wikipedia’s limits

The Washington Post reports that a new scandal has come to light on Capitol Hill–controversy surrounding some unscrupulous Wikipedia edits. Recent reports show that some entries on U.S. Senators were subject to edits that included among other things: selective erasures of past faux pas, posts that were outright insults, and selective revisions. The partisan edits have forced Wikipedia to temporarily bar some Capitol Hill IP addresses from making any edits to existing entries… (Note: This site requires free registration)

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Politically motivated edits show Wikipedia’s limits

The Washington Post reports that a new scandal has come to light on Capitol Hill: controversy surrounding some unscrupulous Wikipedia edits. Recent reports show that some entries on U.S. Senators were subject to edits that included among other things: selective erasures of past faux pas, posts that were outright insults, and selective revisions. The partisan edits have forced Wikipedia to temporarily bar some Capitol Hill IP addresses from making any edits to existing entries… (Note: This site requires free registration)

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