Panelists: Blogs are changing education

Blogging, and the easy access to–and exchange of–ideas that it has spawned, is having a “transformative” effect on education, according to the winners of the first-ever eSchool News “Best of the Education Blog” Awards.

Sponsored by Discovery Education, the awards are intended to celebrate excellence in education blogging. They come at a time when blogging has exploded in popularity, giving educators and students an unprecedented opportunity for easy self-expression and reflection that anyone can access–and to which anyone can respond.

Recipients of the “Best of the Education Blog” Awards were honored in a ceremony held in conjunction with the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando March 23, where they talked about the significance of blogging in education during a panel discussion.

Though each of the four winning bloggers writes for a different audience and purpose, all agreed: The impact of blogging on teaching and learning can be profound.

“Kids are getting excited and engaged in literacy through blogging, commenting, and sharing ideas” online, said Wesley Fryer, director of instructional support services for the Texas Tech University College of Education. Fryer’s blog, “Moving at the Speed of Creativity,” which mixes insights on education theory with sound, practical advice for educators, won in the category “Best Education Theory Blog.”

There is an excitement that comes from writing for a real, authentic audience instead of a circular file seen only by the teacher, Fryer said, adding that this thrill can be a huge motivator for students.

Frank LaBanca, a science teacher at Newtown High School in Connecticut, is using a class blog called “Applied Science Research” to challenge his students with frequent, short writing assignments designed to make them think critically. LaBanca, whose blog won in the category “Best Classroom Instruction Blog for Students,” said the blog enables him to have a high-level, asynchronous conversation with his students that extends the boundaries of the traditional classroom.

“Our students are tech-savvy, and we need to make sure we take advantage of this,” he said.

Like the other winners, both Fryer and LaBanca noted that today’s digital tools make blogging extremely easy, especially when compared with the effort it used to take to upload files online via the File Transfer Protocol or build a web page using Hypertext Markup Language.

Sharing ideas with the world today is “so easy,” Fryer said. “Now, it doesn’t take anything but a web browser to engage in these conversations.”

Sparking conversations and getting education leaders to think critically is the intent of “EduWonk,” the winner in the category “Best K-12 Administration Blog.”

Sara Mead, a co-contributor to EduWonk along with Andrew Rotherham, said the two created the blog to push education policy debate into the blogosphere, capitalizing on the interest in political blogging that already existed but wasn’t focused enough on education policy.

With all of the issues and controversies taking place in public education today, “there is no shortage of stuff to write about,” said Mead, who works for Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

There also is no shortage of material to read in the blogosphere. Bill MacKenty, computer science teacher at Edgartown Elementary School on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, said he subscribes to about 450 education blogs through Really Simple Syndication feeds. Though he doesn’t read them all, he said he can skim through new blog entries as they are posted in order to stay informed.

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Fighting the resistance to change

Willard Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, was one of three “Eye-Opener Keynote” speakers Thursday morning. He talked about what students in the year 2010 will need to know in terms of communication, information, and biological technologies. During his speech, Daggett discussed why he believes the United States needs to change its schools, what needs to be done to bring about this change, and how this change will come about.

“You cannot, and you will not, change schools until there is more pressure for change than resistance to change,” he told the audience. “You have to have a faculty and a community…that believe we must raise the academic standards for kids across all the board.”

One reason academic achievement isn’t increasing is that governors, teachers, and parents each do not believe they are part of the problem, Daggett said. “Until you believe that you are part of the problem, you are an enormous obstacle,” he said.

Daggett cited data indicating that 16 years ago in China, India, Eastern Europe, and the old Soviet Union, those populations could not compete against the U.S. Now, he said, those roughly 3.6 billion people are ready to compete head-to-head.

“Folks, they’re going to hand us our lunch,” he said, echoing a phrase from Crew’s keynote.

Daggett noted that China’s plans include providing a world-class education to many of the country’s students, to have world-class universities, and to have a wide math and science focus.

Chinese language instruction, he added, is becoming more and more important for U.S. students if they want to be fully prepared for the new global economy. About 1.3 million students in the U.S. are taking French, and just 24,000 students are taking Chinese, he said. The reason, he said, is simple: because the U.S. has far more French teachers than it has Chinese Mandarin instructors.

“There’s nothing wrong with French, but how do you justify not having Chinese?” Daggett asked.

Biochemistry, applied physics, statistics, and technical reading are all courses and skills that today’s youth will need to succeed in an increasingly global society, said Daggett, and many U.S. students don’t even receive these courses in high school.

Post-September 11 changes in visas have forced many non-U.S. citizens to return home after studying and obtaining degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields, Daggett said. In all of Asia last year, 60 percent of all degrees were in science and engineering, he said–while in the U.S., those same fields accounted for only 5 percent of degrees.

Despite the many warnings that the United States must keep pace with its global competitors, Daggett had words of praise for the nation’s education system.

“I think the finest education system in the world is the American public education system,” he said. “I am convinced–you know why? Because I look at it through the eyes of a parent,” said Daggett, who used his two youngest children, one born with mental handicaps and another who faces immense difficulties after a car accident, as evidence of the nation’s unique focus on educating all students–regardless of their disabilities.

Daggett emphasized that, while the U.S. needs to keep up with other countries such as China and India, it is one of the greatest countries in the world because of its compassion and understanding for each and every student.

Focusing on what needs to be done to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the global race, Daggett said educators should teach with real-world experiences and rigorous courses in mind. He added that changing the way technology is used, and how technology affects daily life, can go a long way.

Educational change in action

In a separate event at the conference, Dell, Microsoft, and Intel announced that three forward-thinking K-12 schools, chosen in a nationwide search by the companies as part of their FutureReady program, each will receive technology and services worth roughly $250,000 to make their educational technology vision a reality.

Each winner approached classroom technology and learning in an innovative way, the companies said. The FutureReady program is designed to help students reach their full potential through innovative uses of technology in the classroom.

Rocko Smucker, technology chair and first-grade teacher at Hall Fletcher Elementary School in Asheville, N.C., established a three-year technology plan to help students to be “producers, creators, and entrepreneurs.” Using interactive whiteboards and Dell notebooks, Smucker hopes to have students develop 21st-century skills by eventually producing 90 percent of their assignments digitally.

From Union Pines High School in Cameron, N.C., teacher Robin Calcutt’s plan includes helping teachers integrate technology into their curriculum. She also hopes to equip a Ninth Grade Academy with handheld computers and other devices to help reduce dropout rates, and she would like to help high school seniors create ePortfolios of their coursework that can be shared with scholarship committees, universities, and future employers.

Laurence Goldberg, director of technology at Abington Senior High School in Pennsylvania, had a vision in which students use MP3 devices to create digital portfolios. He also envisions using Dell Intelligent Classroom technology for collaboration and project-based learning, having a state-of-the-art mobile video production lab to produce multimedia reports, and using advanced software to create multi-user virtual environments for students.

In addition, Goldberg plans to implement a platform that enables teachers to manage lessons and assessments on the web, providing students with anytime, anywhere access to educational content that can be customized to their learning styles, abilities, and schedules.

Links:

Florida Educational Technology Conference
http://www.fetc.org

International Center for Leadership in Education
http://www.daggett.com

FutureReady program
http://www.futureready.org

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School tests crisis alert system

Michigan’s WZZM 13 reports how one school in the western part of the state is experimenting with a new instant-messaging alert system designed to immediately track down parents in the event of a school emergency. The 21st century emergency notification system called, “Instant Alert” allows instant text messages to be sent to a cell phone, eMail account, or personal digital assistant in order to inform parents of a situation and assure them of their child’s safety, the report said.

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IT chief loses eRate bribery appeal

CNet reports that a former information technology official for a Pennsylvania school district likely will be forced to serve a three-year jail sentence after losing an appeal on a 2005 conviction related to a bribery scheme that netted him nearly $2 million in kickbacks for defrauding the federal eRate program, the $2.5 billion grant program that provides internet access and telecommunications discounts to needy schools. Formerly the director of information technology for the Harrisburg School District, John Henry Weaver was originally convicted of the crime in March 2005, but appealed the ruling. On March 10 a judge for the U.S. Court of International Trade upheld the conviction, calling the sentence “reasonable.”

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Cisco highlights 21st century schools

Computer Business Review Online reports that network giant Cisco Systems has highlighted three U.S. schools that it believes serve as models of 21st century learning. Each of the schools employs a one-to-one learning environment complete with laptop computers and a converged IP network. Through the integration of advanced mobile computing devices and infrastructure, staff and students reportedly have access to learning information and critical systems wherever they are on campus, the news source said.

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Top ED official steps down

The New York Times reports that Sally Stroup, the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) assistant secretary for post-secondary education, has resigned and plans to leave the department in April. The nation’s top official overseeing colleges and post-secondary institutions, Stroup has been with the department for four years. Stroup reportedly has accepted a position as deputy staff director for the House education committee. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Study: high school a barrier to college

The Sacramento Bee reports on a study from researchers at the University of California which finds that high schools throughout California are not providing enough counselors or college preparatory courses to adequately prepare students for four-year universities. The study, released March 20, reportedly was used to buttress calls for K-12 funding increases across the state. “These aren’t just speed bumps. These are huge barriers on the pathway to college,” Jeannie Oakes, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy Education and Access and author of the College Educational Opportunity Report told the paper.

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‘Bubbling in on a test sheet … is insufficient’

How can educators keep up with the “digital natives,” today’s generation of youth who were raised in a world of information technology and to whom it therefore comes naturally? And, perhaps more importantly, how can educators prepare all students for the challenges of an increasingly global workforce and society, regardless of their socio-economic background or abilities?

These were the key questions considered during the opening general session at the Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando March 22. Conference speakers and attendees hope to answer these questions over the next two days with the help of keynote speeches, more than 200 concurrent sessions, and an exhibit hall featuring more than 500 ed-tech companies.

Addressing conference-goers in his home district, Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Ronald Blocker posed the first of these two questions to attendees. To answer it, he said, schools must look to the business world for appropriate models.

“Yesterday’s students were wired for print,” Blocker said. “Today’s students are wired for video streaming and blogs.” His implication was that schools risk leaving some children behind if they don’t adapt their instructional strategies to reach this new generation of students who are wired for learning in vastly different ways than previous generations.

To ensure that doesn’t happen in Orange County, some of the district’s teachers are podcasting their lessons and posting them on Apple’s iTunes U to help students review for exams, Blocker said. And the district also has strived to give teachers the tools to create personal web pages quickly and easily. So far, he said, several thousand teachers in Orange County–the nation’s 12th largest school system–have their own web pages for communicating class information to students and their parents.

On the business side, Blocker said, Orange County is building a web portal that allows for “eRecruitment” and other enterprise functions. Teachers now can apply for jobs within the district online, he said, and the district’s ultimate goal is to enable all employees, parents, and students to conduct any of their business with the district through this web portal.

Orange County has commissioned a study on how technology is being implemented in the district, with the purpose of using it as a blueprint for reflection and improvement. “We’re doing things well in Orange County, but we’ll be doing them even better” because the district is taking the time to evaluate which approaches are working and which aren’t, Blocker said.

He concluded: “It’s important to do things right, so we don’t get ambushed by the digital natives.”

Technology has ‘arrived’

Florida Commissioner of Education John Winn later told a story that underscored Blocker’s point about the need to reach a new generation of students who are wired for learning differently. He said he visited a school where three first-graders were showing off a podcast they had made to answer the question, “What is peace?”

“What does peace smell like?” the students asked in their podcast–and an image of a flower appeared, along with their answer: “Peace smells like a flower.” The question, “What does peace sound like?” was followed by an image of a waterfall, along with the students’ answer: “Peace sounds like a waterfall.”

“And these were first-graders,” Winn noted, adding, “For you middle and high school teachers out there, watch out for these three” and other students like them–for they represent the kinds of interests and abilities that educators must be prepared to address going forward.

Fortunately for today’s students, technology has “arrived as a basic [element] in education and not an add-on,” Winn said, noting that Florida has invested as much in technology as in any other instructional tools or expenditures.

To succeed with educational technology, Winn said, educators must “have a vision for what the demand is going to be five years out.” He said this vision will be demonstrated in practical terms during the many conference sessions and on the exhibit hall floor over the next few days.

Winn also spoke of the need for schools to prepare students well for the challenges of an increasingly global society. He mentioned a new initiative, called “Global Florida: Classroom Connections,” that Gov. Jeb Bush introduced last month. “Global Florida” is an international exchange program between Florida and the Bahamas that uses technology to increase reading proficiency, raise students’ awareness about the culture and history of Florida and the Bahamas, and help the Bahamian Ministry of Education develop teacher-training programs, according to the governor’s web site.

In the program’s early stages, three Florida schools will pair with three Bahamian schools. Each pair will form sister classrooms, sharing culture, educational concepts, and technological innovation and strengthening students’ reading skills. To start the process, the classes reportedly are swapping books and will connect online in the spring.

New degrees of literacy

Preparing students for citizenship in an increasingly global society also was the theme of the evening’s featured speaker, Rudy Crew, who gave an inspiring and thought-provoking presentation. The former commissioner for the New York City Public Schools, Crew now heads Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth largest school system, where he has implemented the lofty goal that every student will graduate from high school fully prepared for college or the work force of tomorrow.

“Technology ought to be thought of as a road to hope,” Crew told the appreciative crowd, many of whom nodded their heads in agreement. “This is about giving children a portion of a world that they themselves didn’t even know they could have.”

Crew said it’s not enough to prepare students to meet state standards of achievement. Educators, he said, also must ensure that students are “occupationally prepared” for success in ” a shrinking globe.”

“Globalization is an economic reality,” Crew said. Arguing that an understanding of other nations–how they trade, how they think, what languages they speak–is increasingly critical for success, he called on attendees to start a dialog in their communities about the need for new levels of literacy–such as occupational literacy, civic literacy, and even personal literacy–that go beyond the core academic standards set by states.

“Bubbling in on a test sheet … is insufficient,” Crew said, adding that nations in Europe and Asia are “eating our lunch” because they connect the experience of students in the classroom to the outside world.

“These adequacies”–these notions of what it takes to be a fully functioning human being in an increasingly global society–must “travel alongside the conversation about technology literacy,” Crew said.

At the end of the day, he concluded, education is about all children leaving school with a personal sense of worth, a moral center, and the occupational skills and cultural awareness to make a living for themselves and their families in an increasingly global world. “That’s why we still have our shoulder to the wheel,” he said.

Links:

Florida Educational technology Conference
http://www.fetc.org

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Ga. lawmakers considering Bible class

A report from National Public Radio states that Georgia lawmakers are expected to pass a bill authorizing a Bible literacy class in public high schools. The class, “History and Literature of the Old and New Testament,” will be taught with the Bible as the text, Emily Kopp of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports. The bill does not require that schools teach the course, or that students take it.

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Senate defies Bush on ed budget

Less than two months after President Bush asked Congress to cut more than $3 billion from education in his 2007 budget proposal, U.S. senators have responded by passing a proposal of their own that would restore $1.5 billion to school funding, significantly reducing cuts to some education programs and leaving the door open for initiatives previously slated for elimination to be saved yet again.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, was approved March 16 in a narrow 51-49 vote. The bill doesn’t set funding for many specific programs, so it’s too early to tell how educational technology would fare under the measure.

Overall, the resolution would increase the amount of money available for programs sponsored by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education by $7 billion over the president’s plan. Under the Senate bill, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would receive $55.8 billion in 2007–$1.5 billion more than the $54.3 billion requested by Bush, but still nearly $2 billion short of what schools received in 2006. As work on the 2007 appropriations bills begins on Capitol Hill, advocates of educational technology say the Senate’s proposal is proof that lawmakers don’t necessarily share the administration’s desire to cut domestic spending. Given that it’s an election year, and politicians on both sides of the political aisle will be looking to curry favor with their constituents, the odds that lawmakers will preserve the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program and other technology-related spending measures are improving.

“At this stage of the budgeting process, this increase is an extremely important step in restoring federal support for technology in education, as it provides increased funding flexibility for Congress to address critical priorities in the global competitiveness agenda and in support of schools’ efforts to meet the rigorous requirements of No Child Left Behind,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). ISTE, along with the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the Software & Information Industry Association, have organized a nationwide advocacy campaign to boost federal support for school technology.

The primary source of federal ed-tech funding, EETT has been targeted for elimination by the Bush administration in each of the last two budget cycles. In 2005, the program received $496 million. In 2006, despite efforts by the administration to kill the program, EETT received $272 million. In 2007, the program finds itself on the chopping block yet again.

But eliminating EETT, some say, would go too far.

“We have done more than cut out the fat, we have done more than cut through the muscle, we have done more than cut through the bone; we have cut into the marrow,” said Specter in support of the Senate bill.

Unlike the president’s budget proposal, which breaks out spending for individual programs line by line, the Senate’s version offers only general departmental figures, providing specific dollar amounts for a select few programs. The Senate resolution, known as S. Con. Res. 83, makes no mention of EETT specifically, choosing instead to focus on aid increases for the disadvantaged and disabled. It does, however, provide $412 million for the president’s American Competitiveness Initiative, a massive research and teacher-training program to ensure that America maintains its competitive edge.

Given a nationwide focus on science, math, and technology instruction in schools and an emerging emphasis on the importance of maintaining global competitiveness, advocates of educational technology contend EETT plays a critical role in preparing students for a successful future.

The Bush administration thinks otherwise. Responding to protests from the ed-tech community, administration officials say EETT has served its purpose–a point of emphasis that was reiterated in the president’s 2007 budget proposal.

“Schools today offer a greater level of technology infrastructure than just a few years ago, and there is no longer a significant need for a state formula grant program targeted specifically on (and limited to) the effective integration of technology into schools and classrooms,” wrote the administration as part of ED’s Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Summary.

Rather than rely on EETT to provide funding for school technology initiatives, ED officials–including Tim Magner, director of the federal Office of Educational Technology–have said schools should look for funding elsewhere in the federal budget, pointing out that money for school technology is tucked away in a variety of grant programs supporting everything from teacher quality to disadvantaged students in Title I schools.

“There are resources across the federal government’s investment; there are a variety of other programs outside of EETT…where money can be used to support the integration of technology,” Magner said in a recent interview with eSchool News.

It’s an argument that ed-tech advocates have dismissed for years. Following the Senate’s approval of its budget proposal late last week, at least one influential lawmaker took a similar exception to the administration’s reasoning.

In a letter on behalf of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, former vice presidential candidate and ranking minority committee member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called the administration’s decision to eliminate EETT “at best, premature–and at worst, simply wrong.”

Rather than simply write EETT off, Lieberman said he would reserve judgment on the program until results from a government-mandated study from ED are available. The department, under the leadership of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, reportedly is in the process of conducting an independent analysis, using scientifically based research, to determine “the conditions and practices under which technology is effective in increasing student academic achievements.”

The study–requested by Congress under the provisions of Title II, Part D, the same piece of legislation that authorizes funding for the EETT block-grant program–reportedly will evaluate several software programs in the areas of reading and mathematics. Though eligible schools are not required to spend EETT funds on the programs under evaluation, Lieberman says the results could help identify better ways to use EETT funds.

The results of that study are due for review by Congress no later than April 6.

Another independent study, by the Virginia-based State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), finds that schools nationwide rely on EETT funds to support technology-related initiatives and to help meet the demands of NCLB.

In its 2006 “National Trends” survey, released March 20, SETDA reports that 14 states–Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin–rely solely on EETT to support technology-related projects at their schools.

The study also found that nearly a quarter of all states currently are “funding or commissioning research studies on the impact of educational technology on learning in schools.”

What’s more, the report stated that 40 percent of all states use some portion of their EETT funds to promote initiatives designed to boost the quality and effectiveness of reading and mathematics instruction in eligible schools.

If the cuts go through, educators say many of these programs would be in jeopardy.

Survey results were collected from a single respondent–in most cases, the state ed-tech director–in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, SETDA said.

Looking ahead to what is likely to be a long and contentious appropriations battle, advocates of educational technology say the news, at least on the Senate side, is encouraging.

The House has yet to submit its proposal and isn’t expected to begin budget considerations until at least next week.

Though it’s believed that the House proposal will more closely mirror the president’s plan, the administration reportedly is feeling some push-back from Democrats and moderate Republicans worried about funding levels for domestic programs–concerns no doubt amplified by the fact that this is an election year.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group led by former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, has expressed opposition to the president’s budget, saying that it would continue large spending increases for the Pentagon while squeezing important domestic programs.

On March 16, in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., 23 moderate Republicans threatened to oppose the House version of the budget resolution, which is still being developed, unless it includes a 2 percent increase, or about $8 billion, for domestic discretionary spending.

Given the effort lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are devoting to their re-election campaigns, Congressional leaders say they don’t expect final action on the 2007 budget until sometime after the mid-term elections, giving ed-tech advocates until November to state the case for EETT and other programs slated for elimination.

“It will continue to be critical that Congress understand how important technology funding is as the appropriations process unfolds and as actual funding for individual programs is determined,” said Knezek. “But, if the House joins the Senate in a resolution that increases discretionary spending, then there is at least funding available that Congress can appropriate to educational technology programs–and that is a very encouraging development.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

U.S. Senate
http://www.senate.gov/

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

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

Software & Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net

Alliance for Excellent Education
http://www.all4ed.org/

State Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org

SETDA’s National Trends Report (PDF)
http://www.setda.org/resources/SETDA%20Nat%27l%20Trends%20Final%202006%2Epdf

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