Educators rave about ‘chalkboards on steroids’

The Hattiesburg American reports that new interactive whiteboards are a big hit with educators at Hattiesburg’s Rowan Elementary. Following Hurricane Katrina, Promethean donated three “Activeclassroom” systems. These systems include an interactive whiteboard, LCD projector, and an interactive pen that serves as both a pointer and a mouse. The systems allow teachers to connect to the internet, access lesson plans, and involve students in interactive exercises. In the past, lessons would be static, but now educators can reach their students in whole new ways, and the district plans to buy 30 more of them, or one for each classroom, before the start of the next school year…

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Lawmakers propose new ‘net neutrality’ solution

News.com reports that the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee released a five-page bill that would embed “net neutrality” provisions into federal antitrust laws. Unlike other pieces of proposed legislation, the “Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act” has supporters on both sides of the aisle. Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, is a supporter of the bill, citing research that suggests that most Americans have at best two choices for broadband service, and this “duopoly” can lead to anticompetitive business practices, and that a remedy is needed…

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Is frequent tech use injuring kids?

News.com reports that prolonged exposure to technology such as home video game systems, computers, cell phones, etc., has doctors, therapists, and researches wondering if all of this tech use is injuring the nation’s youth. They expect a rash of new injuries as a result of repetitive stress in the coming years. A study taken in Australia in 2000 showed that 60 percent of students aged 10-17 showed evidence of back and neck discomfort while using computers. However, while conclusive research is lacking on the issue, researchers are still concerned nonetheless about the ergonomic hazards youth face when using technology…

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Schools dial up new communication plans

With nine out of 10 college students carrying cell phones these days, a growing number of schools are pulling traditional telephone landlines from dormitories, setting up special cellular service, and providing college-specific cell phones.

Technical experts say most U.S. schools are at least considering these and other changes.

“In many cases, students and student expectations are driving what schools need to do,” said Greg Tritsch, director of communications technologies for Acentech, a consulting company that has worked with schools on the issue. “Some are waiting to see which competing technology will win the horse race, but most are aware that this issue will need serious attention in the future.”

Some schools aren’t waiting.

Morrisville State College in upstate New York has replaced landlines in dormitories with cell phones. The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania plans to drop the traditional phone service in dorms this fall, except for a few house phones, and stay in touch with students via their personal cell phones. Austin College in Sherman, Texas, plans to use mainly eMail to contact students.

The University of Cincinnati (UC) is preparing to offer a free “Bearcat Phone” to an estimated 4,000 incoming freshmen at its June orientation through a partnership with Cincinnati Bell.

“The landline probably will be obsolete in five years or so, and we want to be in the forefront of new technology,” said Frederick Siff, UC vice president and chief information officer, who believes multifunctional cell phones will overtake laptops. “Students don’t carry laptops around constantly, but they always have their cell phones.”

Under the voluntary UC program, which is still being fine-tuned, students could get a free standard phone offering basic voice and mobile text and instant-messaging services, buy a trendier thin phone that could offer more data services, or upgrade to a more expensive, multifunctional “smart phone” with a keyboard and features such as Windows technology.

Students also would get access to features such as five-digit, on-campus dialing; wireless access to grades and other academic and campus information; and unlimited local calling to other Bell phones, depending on the rate plan they purchase. Students could reach campus emergency services with the push of one button. Siff said the plan is eventually to use a Global Positioning System to locate a student on campus who presses a mobile help button.

Pricing is still being developed for the rate plans and phones that would be sold to students at discounts. A $510 smart phone with discounts might cost about $420 under the UC program, but Siff thinks that cost could be driven down even more.

UC will invest the equivalent of $1.5 million a year for five years–much of that as new customers for Bell–and Bell will create new wireless internet points and upgrade cellular coverage across campus.

Cincinnati Bell and Sprint Nextel Corp., which also has worked with universities on wireless and cellular programs, say the arrangements give them access to new customers and allow schools to offer services that some see as competitive advantages in attracting students.

The challenge is to make the Bearcat phones so appealing in affordability and features that students will want to switch from their existing cell phones, Siff said.

Eric Weil, a managing partner with Student Monitor, which publishes a nationally syndicated marketing research study of the college student market, said he is not sure if schools can compete from a pricing standpoint with the family plans that many students are locked into when they get to campus.

“I think schools generally are trying to respond to what they think students want in technology, but I think some of these ideas will be met with limited interest by students and parents,” he said.

Morrisville has been pleased with its deal with Nextel Partners Inc., which provided the cell replacements for traditional phone service.

Students are charged for the cell phones in residence hall fees, said Jean Boland, Morrisville’s vice president of technology services. Incoming and local calls, voice mail, and Caller ID are free, while students pay for long distance. Phones are returned upon graduation.

Whether schools can save money by removing landlines depends on the type of phone systems they use. Some schools own their telephone networks and paid for them years ago, while others pay monthly for every phone line on campus.

The University of Scranton expects to invest the approximately $200,000 a year it has been spending on dorm phone lines to update its campus cable TV network and other data services to benefit students, said Jerry DeSanto, vice president for planning and chief information officer.

UC will eliminate landlines–with the exception of a few house phones–from one dormitory this fall on a trial basis and expects eventually to remove them from all residence halls.

Some schools aren’t ready to make that leap.

Officials at Towson University in Maryland worry about potential lawsuits if students don’t have reliable landline service in their dorm rooms in case of emergency.

“While the money we pay for landlines in each room could be reinvested elsewhere, I don’t like the idea of depending solely on a few courtesy phones in hallways,” Towson telecommunications analyst Alex Konialian said.

Austin College also is keeping landlines for safety reasons but no longer will offer long distance or voice mail on those phone lines. Most students use cell phones for such calls, said telecommunications specialist Sandy Russell.

At the University of Cincinnati, senior Megan Kelly, 27, of Cincinnati, is worried that grades might be withheld if phone bills are unpaid or in dispute, although that’s not in the current plan.

Sophomore Chris Weiser, 20, of Dayton, thinks the plan sounds worthwhile but wants more details.

“I’m not sure how many [students] will want to pay extra for the smart phone,” he said.

Links:

Acentech
http://www.acentech.com

Student Monitor
http://www.studentmonitor.com

Morrisville State College
http://www.morrisville.edu

University of Scranton
http://matrix.scranton.edu

Austin College
http://www.austincollege.edu

University of Cincinnati
http://www.uc.edu

Towson University
http://wwwnew.towson.edu

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Opinion: Simulations are ideal for assessment

Line56.com writes that the best educational learning simulations and games employ “active learning”–learning through doing, or in other words, learning that occurs through the subjective cognitive experiences of the learner. Simulations as an assessment tool are more prevalent in the corporate world compared to the educational world, but they are expanding the computer-based testing horizon, and have educational applications. These “active learning” simulations are ushering in a new era of testing. Simulations benefit test takers because they can assess skills, as opposed to traditional tests that only measure knowledge. In addition, they provide a high level of security, because they are not constructed in traditional formats such as multiple choice, etc…

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Pain marks district’s IT makeover

As the superintendent of the Katy Independent School District in metropolitan Houston, Leonard Merrell knows a thing or two about growing pains.

Reportedly the fastest-growing district in all of Texas, Katy adds an additional 3,000 students every school year.

The growth has come with its share of complications, says Merrell. Three years ago, the district’s technology infrastructure was near collapse. As new students and families continued pouring into the community year after year, district administrators and teachers struggled to keep the network up to speed. They sought to ensure that technology components–from basic classroom computers to complex back-office systems used to manage transportation and food service–were capable of meeting the needs of a growing population.

Not unlike other suburban school districts across the country struggling to cope with the challenges presented by exploding enrollments, Katy ISD began looking for ways to protect its multimillion-dollar technology infrastructure, including thousands of classroom computers and high-powered data servers, from the potentially crippling effects of urban sprawl.

Hoping to add a touch of corporate efficiency to the district’s overmatched IT department, Merrell took an unorthodox approach. Rather than try and grow the network under its current regime, he hired a pair of private-sector executives to overhaul the entire infrastructure.

“We all had an idea of where we wanted technology to go … but needed someone who could translate that vision into a reality,” said Merrell.

The search eventually led the district to Scott Wright, a former executive and technology consultant who had spent the majority of his career working in the oil and gas industries. Merrell invited Wright and members of his independent consulting firm, Xpediant, to the district. Their charge: to stabilize Katy’s overburdened IT infrastructure and improve the quality of its back-end operations.

“When I first came here, Katy really was in kind of a crunch [from] systems just not performing like they should,” said Wright, who–despite being paid as an independent contractor–was given the title of executive director of technology for the district. Katy “was having problems keeping the infrastructure going,” he said.

Three years and several sweeping reforms later, Wright says Katy’s once-maligned infrastructure now adequately services some 48,000 students and 4,000 full- and part-time instructors–all with an approval rating that reportedly tops 90 percent of school district employees.

In an interview with eSchool News, the pioneers behind the district’s high-tech turnaround talked about what it took to transform Katy from a limited technology district into a massive, enterprise-level infrastructure.

This is their story.

Culture shock

Before he arrived in Katy, Wright said, the district’s IT department was in disarray, organized under a hierarchy that made it difficult to discern between the educators who specialized in leveraging technology in the classroom and the professional technologists whose primary job was to maintain the network and ensure the systems were up and running.

The end result was that educators in the IT department were trying to perform duties for which they were not properly trained–functions Wright says should have been left to the discretion of professional technologists.

It was a problem without an easy fix, and Wright and his colleague, Lenny Schad, the district’s deputy superintendent of information and technology services, realized it full well.

Their plan was to separate the district’s existing IT department into two divisions: one for professional technologists whose job would be to upgrade and maintain the systems infrastructure, and another for curriculum specialists who would concentrate on leveraging technology in the classroom.

Because neither Wright nor Schad had any previous education experience, Wright didn’t want the work they were doing in IT to interfere with the work of the curriculum department. To ensure that IT technicians were under separate management, the group decided to move the district’s educational technologists out of the IT department and under the umbrella of curriculum and instruction.

“Our goal was to create a sort of service organization within the larger district,” explained Wright. Within this organization, IT administrators would work independently from educators and ed-tech professionals to build out the network on the back end, making structural modifications to improve capacity and bolster overall functionality.

During the transition, they also added the position of deputy superintendent for information and technology services–a change that gave Schad a direct line to the superintendent’s office.

By creating a cabinet-level position for the district’s top IT administrator, Schad said, Katy was able to eliminate much of the red tape that previously had been a roadblock to back-end technology improvements.

“One of the smartest things that Katy [leaders] did when they started this transition was they went out and got somebody at the CIO level from business and put [this person] at the cabinet level,” he explained. “We needed to be able to hear what they were saying in order to help them.”

Internal shake-ups

As with any major organizational shake-up, district administrators acknowledge it was rough going–at least at first.

“It was difficult the first year, because there was no educational technology department,” said Loreen Bailey, the district’s instructional officer for educational technology.

Bailey is now head of a five-person unit composed of four ed-tech specialists and a department secretary whose job it is to help ensure that technology is integrated effectively in classrooms throughout the district. The department, which is overseen by the office of curriculum and instruction, was established following the initial overhaul to use the skills of educators with technology expertise. The department is complemented by a staff of instructional technology facilitators (ITFs) who provide on-site support at each of the district’s 44 school buildings.

Thanks to the ITFs and a new technology help desk, which can be accessed directly by any teacher in any classroom through the use of a district-wide IP telephone system, educators can better focus their efforts on improving the academic standing of students, Bailey says.

“When you don’t have to be the fix-it person, you can really focus on delivering instruction in the classroom,” she said.

Though she was skeptical of the changes at first, Bailey says much of what the educational technology department has been able to accomplish in the last three years is a direct result of upgrades to the district’s technology infrastructure.

“It was a positive change,” she said. Though the two departments–IT and educational technology–now operate under different organizational umbrellas, she says, administrators from the two departments continue to meet on a monthly basis to ensure that any changes to the infrastructure are being made in the best interests of students and teachers.

Despite a mostly positive reaction from employees and students, response from the larger community has been decidedly mixed.

When a recent $261.5 bond issue for new school construction, renovation, and infrastructure upgrades–including additions to the district’s eMail and telephone services–was defeated by voters earlier this month, a sticking point for some opponents of the measure was the hiring of Wright.

Critics of the deal alleged that the district, which paid Wright and his firm more than $13 million over a four-year period, had overpaid for his services. Led by a local newspaper publisher and a citizen’s group that calls itself the Katy Citizens Watchdogs, these critics also noted that Wright’s firm, Xpediant, was delinquent on its taxes and had been prohibited from doing business in Texas for a period of time until those bills were paid.

Wright claims the tax issue was the result of a miscommunication with the state comptroller’s office and stemmed from a state franchise tax in 2001. He said the issues surrounding his company’s tax status have since been resolved.

Though Wright was given an official position within the district, Merrell said, on paper he remained a consultant–and he continues to be paid as such.

Before signing on with Wright and his firm, Merrell said, the district ran the proposal by its financial experts and an independent auditor. According to Merrell, all agreed the deal was above board and made sense for the district. He said the school board will receive the results of an independent review of the transition in June, at which time he believes district officials will be vindicated.

Meanwhile, the transition continues.

Though Katy’s current IT department is not much larger than it was when the initial transition began three years ago, Wright says the names and faces of the people behind the network have changed dramatically.

“We retooled the entire organization and brought in the right people,” he said.

Under the new infrastructure, there is both an executive director for technology operations and an executive director for enterprise applications.

“In some areas, I think we just needed different skill sets,” he said. In some cases, those skill sets weren’t easy to find.

In an era when IT professionals in the business world often command six-figure incomes, Wright said, the district’s antiquated pay structure made it nearly impossible to attract high-quality talent.

To lure a more attractive pool of candidates, Wright worked with the school board to restructure the district’s pay scale, freeing up more money to pay highly qualified IT technicians and other back-end staff.

Though the district was able to offer fringe benefits such as more flexible work schedules and additional days off, he said, the only way to attract top-tier technology talent was to improve the pay scale. “You can’t pay someone $40,000 a year to run a network worth $9 million,” he said. “We’ve changed that.”

Fending off critics

Despite the unwavering support of Merrell and other district leaders, Wright and Schad anticipated their new roles would generate tension within the district, especially at the school level, where some educators questioned their lack of school experience.

After all, the changes they sought to implement were dramatic.

Not only did Wright and his team state the case for a multi-year, multimillion-dollar investment in technology; they also convinced board members and other stakeholders to adjust existing pay scales so as to attract more highly skilled employees, implemented in-service training programs, and completely changed the look and feel of the district’s IT department.

Having operated for so many years under a system where technology infrastructure took a back seat to curriculum and instruction, he said, it was sometimes difficult to convince certain staff members that the decisions the new IT crew was making were in the school system’s best interests.

“We knew that the change was going to be painful, and we prepped the board for the fact that it was going to be painful,” Schad explained, adding, “I think most school districts’ knee-jerk reaction is, Well, if it causes people to yell and scream, we don’t want to do it.'”

To fend off these criticisms, the team took a proactive approach to promoting its technology plan. Rather than simply forcing changes upon district stakeholders, they set out to explain the reasons behind each and every move, making frequent presentations to board members and holding informational and planning sessions so administrators could get a feel for what to expect.

“We had to spend a lot of time going through lots of discussions with the school board and with the superintendent about what our path forward was going to be,” explained Schad.

Getting the school board members and other stakeholders to support the effort was huge, said Merrell: “Without the support of some of these people, the changes would never have seen the light of day.”

Innovations and improvements

As the defeat of their recent bond issue proves, district officials still have work to do in building stakeholder support for their IT initiatives. But, Merrell claims, the changes they have made so far have been well worth the struggle.

In the first year of the transition, the team moved to centralize and standardize a whole host of technology components. They redesigned the district’s infrastructure, built new applications, crafted district-wide technology standards, and locked down more than 18,000 desktops in favor of central management.

“One of the first things we did was to lock down the desktop in terms of hardware and software,” explained Schad. “No matter what campus you’re on, every computer in the third grade looks exactly the same.”

“Although the transition was difficult at first … we are now reaping the benefits,” said Michelle Vaughn, an education technology specialist with the district. “Once you accept the need for standardization, you really can come to see the value … There really is no other way to do it.”

Among the team’s first major development projects was a district-wide curriculum management tool called KMAC, or Katy Management of Automated Curriculum.

The fully online application, accessible from any computer within the school district, enables teachers and administrators to share detailed lesson plans and other educational resources district-wide. The tool also lets administrators monitor computer-use by individual teachers and is currently being upgraded to provide a means to tie student test scores to teacher performance, developers said.

Today, KMAC reportedly is used by 99 percent of teachers across the district to develop weekly lesson plans, integrate multimedia resources, and collaborate with colleagues and outside educational experts. Available 24 hours a day, Wright says, KMAC currently houses more than 1.8 million lesson plans and 468 curriculum guides aligned with federal and state standards for all disciplines.

“KMAC helps new teachers come up to speed,” said Wright in a report about the application. “And it also keeps all of our teachers on the same page when it comes to teaching standards-based curriculum.”

Wright and his team also have begun looking at new ways to collect and report student data using KMAC.

“Early on, we transferred student management and student gradebook reporting from the campus to the district level,” said Schad. “Once we did that, administrators began to see the power of the data and of reports that could be quickly and efficiently generated.”

The group also has begun expanding its capabilities by entering into partnerships with a series of nationally recognized technology vendors. To improve network efficiency, the district began migrating to servers and routers powered by Cisco Systems Inc. Another technology partner, CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), collaborates with the IT and curriculum departments by helping to manage procurement and licensing of all new hardware and software devices, freeing district IT staff from the hassle of dealing with multiple vendors, agreements, and contracts.

Wright says the new infrastructure has enabled district IT staff and educators to make more efficient use of their time. For technicians, that means more hours devoted to maintaining and upgrading the network. And for educators, he said, it translates into more time where it counts most–in the classroom.

“Once everything was stabilized, instructors could really begin to focus on integrating technology into the curriculum,” Bailey said.

Links:

Katy Independent School District
http://www.katyisd.org

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com

CDW-G
http://www.cdwg.com

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Students tune in through film

USA Today reports that a recent C-Span-sponsored contest, StudentCam has experienced a remarkable response rate. The contest encouraged young people to submit 10-minute documentaries on various subjects such as: global warming, wiretapping, and video-game violence. Since April 10, C-Span has interviewed a prize winner on-air, and broadcast the winner’s entry. All winning entries can be viewed at: www.studentcam.org…

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Two states approved for NCLB experiment

The Washington Post reports that the Education Department announced that North Carolina and Tennessee will be allowed to change their method of measuring student progress under No Child Left Behind. North Carolina and Tennessee were the only two states chosen for the national experiment, which will allow them to measure student progress using the “growth model,” which tracks student progress over time. Under the current system, progress is measured by comparing different student groups against each other from one year to the next, a system that some educators claim is unfair… (Note: This site requires free registration.)

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Cheating becomes even more high-tech

The New York Times reports that with a virtual arsenal of gadgets and electronic devices, today’s students are devising sophisticated methods of cheating. Faced with this development, officials have found themselves in a game of “cat and mouse,” where they have to outwit would-be cheats with varying strategies. Some college professors have banned cellphones on test day, cutting off internet access from laptops, or simply making test-takers do it the old way: on pen and paper. While cheating like this is certainly a big problem, plagiarism is quite possibly a bigger problem because it is easy to lift a paper off of the internet without proper attribution. A recent study of 62,000 undergraduates on 96 campuses found that two-thirds of those surveyed admitted to cheating… (Note: This site requires free registration.)

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Carnegie Learning and the Benedum Foundation donate to W.Va. schools

Carnegie Learning announced that 18 West Virginia schools will implement Carnegie Learning’s Algebra I curriculum with $165,000 in funding from the Benedum Foundation, named for Michael Benedum, who was born and began his career in the state. The five-year purchase includes the full Cognitive Tutor curriculum integrating interactive software sessions, textbooks, and student-centered classroom instruction and supported by an ongoing professional development program. This adoption is the third in a multi-phased initiative by the West Virginia Department of Education and the Benedum Foundation to address the need to improve high school math scores across the state.

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