Study: Arts education benefits literacy skills

The New York Times reports that a study by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suggests that students who participate in the Guggenheim’s Learning Through Art program show improvement in literacy and other academic areas. The study is now in its second year and interviewed hundreds of New York City third grades, some who have taken the program, and some who have not. The study found that students who participated in the art program showed that their performance in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills outperformed those who did not participate in the program. The release of the study is sure to raise debate, as the era of NCLB has led some schools to increase time spent on reading and math at the expense of other subjects… (Note: This site requires free registration.)


School sues over Wikipedia posting

A parochial high school in Omaha, Neb., has filed a lawsuit over comments introduced during the editing of a posting on Wikipedia, the online, publicly compiled encyclopedia.

Administrators at VJ and Angela Skutt Catholic High School take a dim view of these and other lines about the school:

“It’s [sic] tuition is ridiculously high, too. Not to mention you get an awful education there. They put more emphasis on sports than they do education. No wonder almost all kids there are complete idiots.”

That opinion showed up in June on And Skutt officials say there have been three other objectionable entries since February. They include sharp criticism of Skutt Principal Patrick Slattery, obscene language, and a note about drug use by students.

The offending entries since have been removed from the site.

Since Wikipedia debuted in 2001, it has grown to two and a half million entries in 10 languages.

Thousands of changes are made every hour to Wikipedia items, and contributors are charged with editing themselves and others. All viewers need do to change an entry is click “edit this page” and do so.

Skutt officials can’t tell who posted the entries they’ve zeroed in on, so the Douglas County, Neb., District Court suit names a John and Jane Doe.

The internet addresses belong to Cox Communications, and a spokeswoman said the company intends to comply with a subpoena for the names of the posters.

Whether the Skutt lawsuit will prevail is uncertain, because the complaint involves the inherent conflict between free speech and damaging opinion in the usually anonymous realm of cyberspace.

“The law is a mixed bag right now,” said John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “I can understand how anybody feels pain, but it’s still a very difficult row to hoe.”

Seigenthaler, a one-time administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, complained in an op-ed piece published in USA Today last November that a biography of him on Wikipedia claimed he had been suspected in the assassinations of the former attorney general and his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

Seigenthaler said it took about four months to get the erroneous information about him removed.

The Skutt lawsuit says the school has suffered general damages that would be determined at trial.

“These particular edits were really harmful and mean-spirited,” said Patrick Flood, a lawyer for Skutt.

Once Skutt officials find out who posted the entries and why, they will proceed accordingly, he said.

Federal law protects online service providers.

“They are just the vehicle” for other people’s information, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Basically, the more control you have [over the information], the more risk you have.”

On its site, Wikipedia tells users that “it is a valuable resource and provides a good reference point.” But, it says, “unfamiliar information should be checked before relying upon it.”

Inappropriate comments often are removed, said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in an eMail interview with the Omaha World-Herald newspaper.

He said such postings are rare, however, and he wondered why Skutt officials hadn’t contacted him directly.

As of press time, the Wikipedia entry for Skutt Catholic High School contained the following note: “Due to previous vandalism, editing of this article by anonymous or newly registered users is disabled … Such users may discuss changes, request unprotection, or create an account.”


VJ and Angela Skutt Catholic High School

Skutt’s Wikipedia listing


Study: Multitasking hinders learning

Today’s students might be “media multitaskers” who are adept at juggling homework assignments while watching TV or instant-messaging their friends–but new brain research suggests that such distractions can affect the way people learn, making the knowledge they gain harder to use later on.

The study, published in the July 24 edition of the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” also provides a clue about why this happens.

“What’s new is that even if you can learn while distracted, it changes how you learn”–making the learning “less efficient and useful,” said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The study’s findings could have important implications for today’s students–and the educators charged with instructing them.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found third-graders through 12th-graders devoted, on average, more than six hours per day to TV or videos, music, video games, and computers. That study referred to the current generation of learners as “media multitaskers,” nearly one-third of whom said they chat on the phone, surf the web, send instant messages, watch TV, or listen to music “most of the time” while doing their homework (see story: Here).

As Poldrack explains it, the brain learns in two different ways. One, called declarative learning, involves the medial temporal lobe and deals with learning active facts that can be recalled and used with great flexibility. The second, involving the striatum, is called habit learning.

For instance, in learning a phone number you can simply memorize it, using declarative learning, and can then recall it whenever needed, Poldrack explained.

A second way to learn it is by habit: “punch it in 1,000 times, then even if you don’t remember it consciously, you can go to the phone and punch it in,” he said.

Memorizing often is more useful, he pointed out: “If you use the habit system, you have to be at a phone to recreate the movements.”

The problem, Poldrack said, is that the two types of learning seem to be competing with each other, and when someone is distracted, habit learning seems to take over from declarative learning.

“We have to multitask in today’s world, but you have to be aware of this,” he said. “When a kid is trying to learn new concepts, new information, distraction is going to be bad, it’s going to impair [her or his] ability to learn.”

That doesn’t mean Poldrack thinks a silent environment is essential–music can help in learning, because it can make the individual happier, he said.

But in general, “distraction is almost always a bad thing.”

What Poldrack and his colleagues did was to use brain imaging to study the parts of the brain in use when 14 people were learning.

Participants were asked to predict the weather after receiving a repeated set of cues. During part of the learning, researchers added a second task where participants had to keep a running mental count of high tones they heard, thus adding an element of distraction.

The results showed that when doing single-task learning, the brain used the region associated with declarative memory, while the habit-memory region was associated with dual-task learning.

The dual-task learning did not affect the participants’ ability to predict weather at the time, but it reduced their knowledge about the task during a follow-up session later.

“In my opinion, this article represents a significant step forward in understanding the interaction between the various memory systems possessed by healthy human adults and task demands,” said Dr. Chris Mayhorn, who teaches psychology at North Carolina State University.

The results suggest that at least a bit of the information is being learned even when we are distracted by a secondary task, said Mayhorn, who was not part of Poldrack’s research team.

By relying on habit memory, he said, “We may find ourselves in situations where we have picked up information about performing some task, but we are unsure where that information came from.”

Mayhorn cautioned that the experiment was small, looking at only 14 people from a limited age range.

“It is difficult to determine how far we can generalize these results,” he said. “But I still believe that the results are interesting, because they extend previous results and provide direction for future research in the area.”

Poldrack’s research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Whitehall Foundation.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Students become virtual astronauts in this web-based program from NASA


NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston offers a free, online educational initiative called the Virtual Astronaut Program. It’s an interactive, three-dimensional web site designed for students in grades 5-8 that integrates existing life-science research data and NASA educational products into a suite of instructional materials. Activities include a “Complete the Skeleton” game, in which students put together all 206 bones in the adult human body; a topography hunt in which students locate Earth’s landmarks as viewed from space; a lesson and quiz on plants in space; and much more. The site contains electronic activities, teacher’s guides, and teacher briefs that include space and life science content. Educator guides help teachers with lessons on how astronauts purify their water in space, as well as solar power, neuroscience, microgravity, and more. The site also provides several links to additional life and space science resources for educators.


Latino students test Calif. schools

California’s Contra Costa Times reports that a growing population of Latino students–it’s estimated that within three years California will become the second state behind New Mexico to boast a majority Latino student population–is creating new challenges for educators, many of whom already wrestle with such issues as how to teach English as a second language, what types of subject matter to emphasize, and how to manage cultural differences and promote greater parental involvement, among other issues.


Indiana service center turns underutilized resources into a thriving distance-learning program

Indiana’s Wilson Education Service Center services 27 school corporations in the southeast region of the state with cooperative purchasing, media services, and professional development and curriculum items. When Jerry Steuerwald arrived at the center in 2003 as a distance-learning specialist and big believer in the value of video conferencing in the classroom, he found little in the way of a communications technology strategy.

Although the center’s distance-learning program had received a grant and had equipped elementary through high-school classrooms throughout the area with more than 60 video conferencing systems, almost all sat unused, collecting dust. Steuerwald made it his mission not only to resurrect the languishing system deployment; but also to expand the program through outreach and training.

"My job is all about removing barriers to video in the classroom and getting people excited about the possibilities. I truly believe that schools and communities can be improved by using video conferencing," explained Steuerwald. "But when I first started with Wilson Center Distance Learning, there was little training and no services available to help educators with even things like finding content."

Getting focused

The first step Steuerwald took was forming a focus group made up of video conferencing users to solicit guidance and develop a relevant and robust distance-learning program in the region.

"My goal was end-user-driven distance learning, and what better way to achieve that than by going straight to the source?" said Steuerwald.

This group, which helped Steuerwald get started, is still active and growing today, meeting quarterly to support, promote, and use video for distance learning in the communities of southeast Indiana.

A one-stop shop

Once priorities were defined, Steuerwald constructed a video conferencing web site ( that has become the foundation for the Wilson Center’s distance-learning effort. Truly a one-stop shop, this clearinghouse of information about all things related to video conferencing in southeast Indiana includes an overview of the region’s distance-learning program; a description of the services available through Wilson Center Distance Learning; explanations of the value of video conferencing as a teaching tool; a "tips for teachers" section; links to hundreds of content sources; information on easy-to-attain training; and a listing of colleagues with whom to collaborate.

"Essentially, what my web site does is allow customers who are interested in distance learning to go to one source for information," said Steuerwald. "They can access everything from downloadable training files on video conferencing, to a quick-reference, printable instruction form that can be laminated and placed next to the video system, to a form for scheduling a multipoint call over the IHETS network."

Keys to success

Today, there are more than 100 video conferencing systems deployed in the 12 Indiana counties served by the Wilson Center, including units in all of the K-12 school corporations that are members of the center. In addition, many public libraries, every technical school, and all of the area’s adult learning centers offer video conferencing. Steuerwald’s biggest customer, a school in Lanesville, Ind., holds 60 to 70 conferences every year. He credits the enthusiasm for video to two factors–training and content.

A three-part video conferencing training program developed by Steuerwald is available to all K-12 educators in the region. With a description of each program available via his web site, more teachers are beginning to gain video conferencing expertise by requesting this training.

"The program I developed allows instructors to choose the level of training they want–from the basics, to using video as a teaching tool," said Steuerwald. "I think the flexibility can make the training courses a success."

The training series includes "VC Basics" for those who plan to participate in video calls only occasionally; "Video Conferencing 101" for those interested in more advanced tools, techniques, and equipment and increasing their role in conferences; and "Incorporating Video Conferencing Into Your Teaching," an advanced course for educators who want to teach classes via video.

"Access to content was the second big issue for teachers," Steuerwald said. "You can have all the video conferencing equipment in the world, but if you have no one to connect with, it doesn’t do you much good."

A section of the Wilson Center Distance Learning web site for content providers links to the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC), a nonprofit program content provider, and the SBC Video Conferencing Yellow Pages. It also directs users to the Berrien County Intermediate School District (BCISD) Video Conference Program Database, the largest and most up-to-date listing of video content in the country–with more than 1,500 events, many of which are free of charge. Polycom is a BCISD partner in expanding and supporting the Videoconference Program Database, which can be accessed at

In addition to the web site content links, Steuerwald implemented a content provider awareness program, in which content providers present (via video) an hour-long program highlighting what they do.

"The content provider awareness program is a virtual handshake between the content providers and our schools and [is] a great step in getting educators excited about conferencing," said Steuerwald.

If users are unable to find appropriate content through the web site, they can also contact Steuerwald directly for help.

Video in practice

In the first year of the Wilson Center Distance Learning program, most video connections were made within the state of Indiana. Since then, participation and access to content have grown dramatically.

Field trips and classes over the past three years have included such programs as "Gods and Heroes from Greece and Rome" and "Impressionism" from the Cleveland Art Museum; lessons about the Chinese New Year presented by the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University; a series on "Children of the Holocaust" provided by the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in New York; the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s "Exploring Shakespeare"; numerous programs from the Indy Zoo; and two special treats–the "Secret Life of Dolphins" from Sarasota, Fla., and an "Introduction to the Great Barrier Reef" from an aquarium in Queensland, Australia.

"Our video network is host to such a diverse range of classes and virtual field trips," Steuerwald said. "One biology class will be connecting to the St. Louis School of Medicine to witness a live autopsy through its forensic science program, while another is hooked up for a virtual dive into Lake Michigan with a biologist–a pretty cool field trip for kids who live in a state with very few lakes."

Making the connections

As Steuerwald expands the Wilson Center’s video conferencing network, he deploys Polycom’s flagship VSX video conferencing solutions, not only because they offer high voice and video quality, but also because they are easy to use.

"Schools want the technology they deploy to be easy to use. If it’s not, they won’t even turn it on," he said. "I always say, You give me 15 minutes with a Polycom system, and I can teach you how to use it’–it’s that easy."

Steuerwald held a two-week testing session inviting actual users to try out multiple vendors’ video solutions. That testing reportedly resulted in the installation of 41 Polycom VSX 7000 group and VSX 3000 desktop video systems.

Furthering the mission

In three short years, Steuerwald has made a major impact on video conferencing for the Wilson Center. But he’s not one to rest on his laurels. He plans to continue his push for expanded conferencing throughout southeastern Indiana and is confident he will make further inroads.

In the meantime, he continues to focus on ways to enable easy-to-use conferencing solutions for his customers, as well as develop programs to get educators throughout the region excited about video’s unlimited possibilities.


Wilson Education Service Center

Polycom Inc.


Texas schools flagged for possible cheating

Education officials in Texas have announced plans to ramp up investigations in more than 600 schools accused recently of cheating on statewide exams, according to a report in The Houston Chronicle. The decision comes after an independent consulting firm, which the state reportedly paid $533,000 to conduct an analysis on its testing methods, found anomalies in the scores posted at several schools. The firm reportedly did not name the schools outright in its report to the public, the paper said.


Social-networking sites exposed

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal exposes the dangers of more than a dozen so-called social-networking web sites, including, and others. The article finds that despite additional protections several of these sites make it possible for strangers to rendezvous with unsuspecting youths, opening the door for criminal activities and other abuses, and raising questions about what can be done to make the internet safer for teens.


The next big thing: Hands-free eMail? reports that the next big could be iLane, a new device that provides a hands-free interface, so vehicle operators could access their eMail. The device audibly notifies users when an incoming message or other important information has arrived. The driver can then listen to the eMail message, verbally compose a reply, and use verbal commands to manage meeting requests…


UK acts on cyber bullies reports that the British government is publishing guidelines that will help schools, parents, and children deal with the phenomenon of cyber bullying. Schools minister Jim Knight also said the government is asking technology firms for assistance. The guidelines will be distributed to schools in England, and will include simple steps to both avoid and prevent cyber bullying. Some of these steps advise young people to never respond to harassing emails or text messages, and to keep in public areas of chat rooms and the like. For parents and educators, the tips advise parents to understand that both parent and child know how to use technology wisely and safely. For educators, it is recommended that all school communication technology be monitored. According to recent study by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, up to one in five students have been bullied via the internet or cell phone…