New site offers research, guidance to promote high school improvement


The American Institutes for Research (AIR) has announced the creation of a new web site for its National High School Center, a U.S. Department of Education-funded entity that serves as a central source of in-depth knowledge, expertise, and analysis on high school improvement. The High School Center works to identify research-supported programs and tools that can improve high school teaching and administration to better help all students learn. It also aims to develop user-friendly products and technical assistance services to help states implement these programs and tools, drawing on AIR’s extensive experience operating national technical assistance centers, as well as the knowledge gained by the organization through conducting large-scale evaluations of prominent high school reform efforts. The center’s tools and findings now are available on its web site, AIR said.


Discovery launches homework tool

Seeking to extend its popular video-on-demand product into students’ homes, Discovery Education has announced a new subscription-based learning service, called COSMEO, for students to use outside of the classroom.

The new service is a collection of digital tools that includes math homework help, interactive learning games, and video clips culled from the company’s unitedstreaming product. Discovery intends the service to appeal to a new generation of learners already surfing the web and multitasking as they complete their homework at night.

“COSMEO is the first educational tool to teach today’s kids in the way they learn best. This online product meets them where they’re spending most of their time and is helping to define how they learn today,” said Judith McHale, Discovery’s president and chief executive officer.

“COSMEO also gives parents a terrific window into their kids’ education and the ability to participate in their progress at school like never before,” she said. “We sense families across the United States will find a real benefit in, for example, the WebMath section, which offers a full spectrum of math learning–from third-grade multiplication tables to advanced calculus–with easy-to-understand, step-by-step solutions.”

The online service includes 30,000 video clips that correlate with state curricula, Discovery said. Students can search by grade level, subject area, or keyword, and they can download clipart for use in reports and projects. The service also offers more than 15,000 interactive quizzes, puzzles, and brain games. A digital encyclopedia gives subscribers access to more than 27,000 research articles, and the collection is expanding, the company said.

“There is a huge disconnect from what students do inside the classroom and what they do outside,” said Jennifer Dorman, a ninth-grade social studies team leader from Holicong Middle School in Pennsylvania. “At home they chat online, download music–they live online. And this online universe is as real as their face-to-face environment in the classroom. COSMEO provides a [learning] resource that taps into their online world.”

McHale said the service is updated daily, and every piece of video, print resource, and photography is reviewed by curriculum developers to ensure that it adheres to the educational standards of all 50 states.

“The service is built on a very solid foundation,” said Steve Sidel, president of Discovery Education, a division of Discovery Communications. The service is an extension of Discovery’s unitedstreaming offering, an educational video on-demand service currently licensed to more than 70,000 K-12 buildings in the U.S.

“We have a very rich resource that includes WebMath, which on a standalone basis has tremendous value,” Sidel said. “It’s designed for the generation that has grown up online.”

COSMEO’s WebMath section walks students through math problems, whether they are studying addition, fractions, trigonometry, or calculus. WebMath also helps students solve real-world problems, such as how to figure out sale prices of store items and, yes, even the odds of winning the lottery.

The algebra section walks students through adding and subtracting complex numbers, adding and subtracting polynomials, and calculating and working with the power of i.

WebMath is intended to help children understand their homework and lessons, McHale said, and it also helps engage parents in the educational process. “The vocabulary of math has changed over the years, and parents find it increasingly difficult to understand what is going on in the classroom,” she said. “[WebMath] puts the parents much more in line with what’s going on.”

During a conference call between Discovery executives and members of the media, Sidel said the idea for COSMEO evolved out of requests from parents who wanted their children to have access to unitedstreaming’s online video library from home. He said the company spent the last year putting together focus groups and soft launches to fine-tune the product’s navigation and user interface. More than 70 percent of the families that tried the COSMEO trial ended up subscribing to the service, he said.

“My kids absolutely love COSMEO,” said Robin Henderson, a parent from North Carolina. “They can easily navigate the site, and since it was so interactive, it held their attention and was fun for them. And anytime something is educational and fun, and they want to learn–I love it, too.”

Discovery anticipates much of the interest in COSMEO will stem from the company’s current relationships with schools, as well as from local parent-teacher organizations.

A subscription to the web-based service is available for an introductory rate of $9.95 per month, or $99 per year, after a free 30-day trial, and the standard COSMEO subscription price is $12.95 per month, or $129 a year. The monthly subscription fee entitles a family to as many as four student accounts, the company said.



Discovery Education


Online tutoring a boon at home and abroad

The Boston Globe reports that entrepreneurs with connections to India are using local brainpower to help improve the lagging science and math skills of U.S. students. The Indian subcontinent currently has thousands of science and math scholars willing to work cheaply, and these entrepreneurs are outsourcing online tutoring in the same way some firms outsource technical tasks. The companies established by these individuals also hope to benefit from the No Child Left Behind Act, which provides millions of dollars to remedial tutoring programs. However, some teacher’s union officials aren’t behind the plan, as they say online tutors don’t have to meet the same standards as classroom teachers… (Note: This site requires free registration.)


Britannica: Wikipedia study flawed

The BBC reports that a recent study on the accuracy of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, by the prestigious journal Nature is “fatally flawed.” Nature’s report was published last December and compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The study found that both were about as accurate as each other in terms of science entries. Encyclopaedia Britannica has fought back against Nature’s study, and called for the paper to be retracted. The study only found eight serious errors, four from each encyclopedia. However, the Nature study did find factual errors in other subjects, 162 in Wikipedia compared to 122 in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica does not claim to be error free, but it does say that the research exaggerated its inaccuracies and that “Britannica was far more accurate than Wikipedia.”


Florida bill to require high school majors

The New York Times reports that the Florida House has passed a bill that would require Florida high school students to declare a major, just as college students are required to do. The measure would make Florida the first state in the nation to adopt this requirement. The bill, backed by House Republicans and Governor Jeb Bush, passed on a party-line vote, 85-35. The governor and others who support the bill believe that requiring high school students to declare a major will better prepare students for college and reduce the dropout rate… (Note: This site requires free registration.)


Schools focus on reading and math

The New York Times reports that in response to the requirements of No Child Left Behind, schools are increasing time spent on reading and math by cutting time spent on other subjects. In the case of some low-proficiency students, time spent on other subjects is eliminated altogether. A survey by the Center on Education Policy found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had reduced time spent on history and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math… (Note: This site requires free registration.)


Why is Windows so slow?

The New York Times reports that eight years after settling a benchmark antitrust case, Windows is again stifling innovation–at Microsoft itself. Last week, Microsoft announced that Windows Vista would be delayed until January, which means the release will miss the holiday shopping season. In addition to causing problems to retailers, consumers were looking forward to the chance to upgrade from Windows XP, which is now five years old. In those intervening years, Apple Computer has released four versions of its Macintosh operating system and beat Microsoft to market with innovative new features… (Note: This site requires free registration.)


Cheating via mobile phone on the rise reports that the number of students caught cheating in school exams and coursework in England rose by over a quarter last summer. Students caught with mobile phones accounted for around 25 percent of total cheating offenses, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Students can be marked down or even failed for just possessing a mobile phone during an examination–whether the student uses it or not…


Georgia school displays iPod ingenuity

Thanks in part to an enterprising group of faculty who call themselves the iDreamers, Georgia College & State University (GSCU) is quickly becoming a leader in using Apple Computer’s near-ubiquitous iPod to enhance education–and school officials say their efforts are helping to retain more students.

More than a third of the rural Georgia school’s 300 staff members reportedly use the digital music and video players as an education or research tool. Rather than simply making class lectures available for downloading to iPods–a practice now routine at many colleges and even a few high schools–the school’s educators are pushing to find more strategic uses of the device.

History professor Deborah Vess asks students to download 39 films to their devices so she doesn’t have to spend class time screening the movies. Psychology professor Noland White has found a new-age answer to office hours: a podcast of the week’s most frequently-asked questions.

And the campus has organized a group of innovative staff and faculty to conjure up other uses for the technology. Called the iDreamers, the team bats around ideas that could turn the devices into portable yearbooks and replace campus brochures with podcasts.

“The more you free up your classroom for discussion, the more efficient you are,” said Dorothy Leland, the school’s president.

Campuses throughout the nation have transformed iPods into education tools, a trend Apple hopes to capitalize on with “iTunes U,” a nationwide service that makes lectures and other materials available online (see story: Apple offers free hosting of class lectures at ‘iTunes U’). And GCSU isn’t the only school that wants the music players to be more than just a tool for catching up on missed lectures.

At North Carolina’s Duke University, where incoming freshmen have been handed the devices as welcoming gifts, foreign-language students use iPods to immerse themselves in coursework.

Administrators with Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University want to use podcasts–broadcast messages that can be downloaded to iPods and other digital music players–to recruit high schoolers to the 3,000-student campus. The school also used a podcast to address student and faculty concerns after a New York man who had contracted anthrax visited campus with a dance troupe.

Yet few campuses have embraced the new technology as doggedly as GCSU, which was rewarded for its iPod ingenuity by hosting Apple’s Digital Campus Leadership Institute in November.

The school has been a leader in “integrating the iPod into the curriculum to enhance teaching and learning in creative ways, going all the way back to the original iPod,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of iPod product marketing.

After Leland and Jim Wolfgang, the school’s chief information officer, began seeing iPods around campus in 2002, they decided to explore educational applications for the devices. They started by farming out 50 donated iPods to faculty who offered the best proposals.

Soon Wolfgang’s office was flooded with applications from educators suggesting new uses. Now, some 400 college-owned iPods are floating around campus–some loaned to students in certain classes, others available for checkout at libraries.

Hank Edmondson, a government professor known around campus as “The Podfather,” was among the first to use iPods to supplement his course lectures. Edmondson makes lectures, language study programs, indigenous music, and thumbnail art sketches available for download to the iPods of students in a three-week, study-abroad program he leads.

During a recent visit to the Prado in Madrid, he recorded a 20-minute lecture on the museum’s artwork. Downloading that in advance will let students spend their visit to the museum exploring, not listening to Edmondson talk.

“You want to pack everything in, but you’ve got a lot of travel time,” he said.

Vess said having her history students screen films on their iPods allows her to dedicate class time to discussion and analysis; likewise for the weekly graduate course she teaches on historical methods.

“Now I can devote my whole three hours to Socratic dialogue,” she said with a grin.

Although iPods can be useful tools for reviewing coursework, some critics argue donning a pair of earphones is not the same as actively engaging with material in a classroom setting.

“Learning is through interaction, discussion, critical questioning, and challenging of assumptions,” said Donna Qualters, director of the Center for Effective Teaching at Northeastern University in Boston. “Those cannot be duplicated on an iPod–you have to be there to experience that learning.”

GCSU officials say the school makes sure its iPod lessons supplement classroom work–not replace it.

“We don’t have any project that repeats what’s going on in the classroom,” Wolfgang said. “All this is value-added.”

He said the school’s iPod ingenuity is helping promote GCSU’s decade-old effort to remake itself as Georgia’s only public liberal-arts college. Long a school that attracted a regional crowd of middle Georgia students who often left for other schools after a year, Wolfgang believes the focus on iPods is helping retain more students.

This school year, the school started iVillage, a virtual community that encouraged incoming students to start communicating before the start of classes. The first dozen freshmen recruited for the effort were asked to think up innovative uses for the iPods.

The team is creating an iPod-based freshmen survival guide that includes advice on classes, dorms, and nightlife in the school’s hometown of Milledgeville, Ga., a sleepy community 100 miles south of Atlanta.

Bobby Jones, a freshman from Rome, Ga., said he’s found life in a “virtual community” surprisingly satisfying.

“[You] think it will never get the same sense of community living together, but we definitely found that sense of belonging,” he said.


GSCU’s iPod use


FETC 2006: Day Three

The final day of the Florida Educational Technology Conference, much like the days before it, focused on improving U.S. education in the face of an increasingly global and competitive world.

The day began with keynote sessions by ed-tech experts, including one that focused on what the nation’s next president should know, and do, about U.S. education.

During the session, the panelists discussed the ways in which attention to education and educational resources should be changed in order to improve not only the educational system, but how students learn and how educators teach.

Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a member of Friday’s panel, said the next decade will shape the future of the U.S. economy for generations to come because the nation is at the beginning of a global knowledge-based economy. He compared the situation to the Industrial Revolution, illustrating his point by saying that the first nations to join the Industrial Revolution gained an enormous advantage.

Dede expanded on his ideas in an exclusive interview with eSchool News.

“In the same way, many people think that as we move into a global knowledge-based economy, [in The World is Flat] that Tom Friedman talks about, we’re at a similar point–the countries that get in first figure out how to do high-quality education centered around information and communication technologies, figure out how to prepare students to be effective citizens and workers,” he said. “[They] are going to gain an almost insurmountable advantage.

“And at the very time that other countries are investing in education, investing in learning technologies, thinking ahead to where the world is going, unfortunately our country is moving away from investment and in fact looking rather backwards in terms of what kind of knowledge and skills kids really need,” he said.

Dede said many countries that are succeeding in the global economy strongly link business, education, workforce development, and national policy. He noted that education has purposes other than to prepare students for the workforce, but said it’s true that many of those other purposes rely on a strong economy to succeed.

“Preparing kids to be effective leaders, employees, and entrepreneurs, is really crucial,” he said. “In these other countries, the business community is often the champion for helping the public, key stakeholders, [and] parents see that it’s important to move beyond the kinds of skills that made kids successful in industrial workplaces to instead twenty-first century skills that focus on higher order of knowledge,” he said.

“It’s difficult for educators alone to make that argument, but educators can be part of a larger team that makes that argument.”

Dede noted that federal education policy often consists of twentieth century models, and that the nation needs to move forward to twenty-first century models. National partnerships and awareness, he said, come out of the effort to understand the difference between those twentieth and twenty-first century education.

“Some of that is recognizing just how much a person’s lifestyle has changed,” he said. “When I was growing up I was prepared for the single job that it was expected that I would have all my life, then we moved to a conception that people really may have multiple jobs, now what we see but we don’t prepare people for educationally, is the concept that people might have multiple careers, not just multiple jobs, and what we see in the future that we’re really not preparing people for in education, is that people are going to invent multiple careers through their lifetimes,” he said.

“Instead of focusing on broad shallow factual knowledge, we need to prepare kids with deep thinking skills, with the ability to be flexible and creative, with a love of learning, that will sustain them as we move through all these periods of social change,” Dede said.

Part of the reason that the nation is not moving quickly in twenty-first century learning, Dede said, is because parents, students, and teachers sometimes have naïve ideas about education.

“I think, when we look back in history, this will be seen as a time of dark ages in education,” he said. “We still have a lot of very naïve ideas that people in the public believe about learning.” Dede said experts in other fields such as health and economy have succeeded in educating the public about changing concepts and ideas.

“They’ve succeeded in a kind of education that keeps the public up to date, where we in education have badly failed,” he said. “Most people in the public believe the same things that people believed centuries ago … and those misconceptions drive a lot of the policies that we see now and hold us back rather than letting us move forward.”

Dede said businesses, educators, workforce developers, and people in the policy arena need to band together and form a strong campaign about education awareness and what education can do–a challenge, because people have different ideas about what the nation’s top education priorities should be.

Despite different opinions, Dede said one common idea is that most parents want their children to have more economic opportunities than they had. This belief can be used as a touchstone to help rally public awareness around these education issues, he said.

One big action that can be taken at the federal level, Dede said, is to recognize that the first generation’s set of tests, accountability measures, and standards is flawed. Dede summarized some of the ideas, which are contained in an online report that he co-authored.

“It was a place to start, but like most things one tries the first time, it isn’t quite right,” he said. “To think about what the second generation’s standards would be like, second generation assessment, second generation accountability policies, would make a lot of sense, instead of being defensive and pretending that the first generation is perfect.”

“A second thing is to recognize that skilled teachers are really at the heart of any possible education reform. We don’t have to really understand where we’re going to know how important the teaching force is for us,” he said.

Thinking of ways that teachers can build their experiences in twenty-first century workplaces, and providing them with incentives to engage in professional development centered on new technologies, will be a step in the right direction.

“I think the two measures of changing the kinds of rewards and incentives that we use in education, and then providing reasons and ways to build teacher capacity, are the two most important places to begin,” he said.


Transforming Learning for the 21st Century: An Economic Imperative

FETC 2006