UK acts on cyber bullies

BBC.com 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…

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Reading, writing–and video games

The Dayton Daily News reports that Dayton school officials hope to capitalize on the immense popularity of video games in an effort to keep kids in school. The new Dayton Technology Design High School will enroll about 100 students, with 80 in the “virtual game” track. This course of study requires a three year commitment, and culminates in the marketing, and possibly, sale of a student-created video game. Some of the district’s academic stragglers have already made a commitment to the program…

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Microsoft takes on iPod, iTunes

The New York Times reports that Microsoft has announced the development of portable music player aimed at competing with the popular iPod for a slice of the $4 billion market for portable entertainment devices. The project is moving forward under the code name “Zune,” and will also include an integrated service to compete with iTunes. This project marks a departure for Microsoft, which previously relied on partners to produce devices that integrate with Windows software… (Note: This site requires free registration.)

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Opinion: School cell-phone bans ring hollow

An article in the Des Moines Register argues that school cell phone bans are out of touch with today’s realities. There is currently a tension between technology-cautious school officials and the technology-savvy students they serve. Because of this technological generation gap, it is much easier to simply ban cell phones rather than the underlying reason kids are using them. At first glance, an outright ban seems to make a certain measure of sense. For obvious reasons, schools don’t want kids using phones in class or disrupting school activities. However, this blanket policy ignores complex issues. There are reasonable reasons why students should be able to have and use cell phones, as long as it is between classes and not during lessons. A student may need to call for a ride or tell mom about a good grade, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do so. The goal should be establishing responsible, polite use of technology in schools, while at the same time prohibiting rudeness and classroom disruptions…

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Report recommends moving SAT online

Ultimately, the College Board should consider having students take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) online, says a new report. The report was requested in the wake of highly publicized scoring errors that occurred last October. But until the test goes online, steps ranging from better scanning software to more training–and even providing proper pencils and erasers at test centers–could improve the reliability of scoring the SAT exam, according to the report.

The report, commissioned by the College Board and released July 20, says the scoring system for the college entrance test has improved since more than 4,000 SATs taken last October were given incorrectly low scores. On the whole, scores are reliable, according to the report.

But the report by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton identifies a series of continuing risks, such as scanners affected by debris or misinterpreting erased marks, and suggests a range of mostly technical steps to provide further safeguards. Overall, the report paints a picture of a less-than-infallible exam, noting several areas where current controls fall short of providing perfect reliability.

The College Board and Pearson Educational Measurement, which scores most of the exams, had previously blamed the October errors on the misreading of “marginal marks” and on answer sheets that expanded because of humidity. Some of the recommendations would address those problems, including additional “anchor marks” on the sheets that reveal whether they have expanded.

In the long run, the report suggests the College Board consider moving the SAT online, something the organization says it has discussed in the past and will consider again, though such a move would raise security concerns.

The report was delivered to the College Board, which owns the SAT, in late May. But the board then backed off a pledge to make the report public, citing litigation on behalf of students whose tests has been misgraded. The College Board changed course after receiving a subpoena from Sen. Kenneth LaValle, chairman of New York’s state Senate Higher Education Committee.

Robert Schaeffer, a College Board critic with the group FairTest, attacked the report for failing to provide any new insight into what went wrong with the October exams.

“After all the noise and all the promises, they still haven’t answered those questions,” he said. “It’s going to be another arena where they’re answered–presumably the courts.”

Other critics of the College Board questioned the independence of Booz Allen, which received $5.2 million in consulting fees from the board in the year ending June 30, 2005, according to a report in the New York Times.

“This isn’t the outside independent scrutiny” that is needed, Brad MacGowan, a college counselor in Newton, Mass., told the Times.

College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti said the organization already had determined that humidity and problems with so-called “marginal marks” were to blame for the October errors. She said the report was commissioned “to determine if what we put in [as a remedy] was effective, and if we needed to do anything else.”

“We’re very pleased with the report, because it does confirm our improvements were effective,” she said.

After the scoring errors emerged, the board reportedly adjusted its procedures in several ways, including having each answer sheet scanned twice and giving answer sheets a drying-out period.

Coletti said some of the report’s further recommendations are already under consideration, and she called it a “probability” that test centers soon would provide students with proper pencils and erasers to try to head off smudging problems.

The College Board isn’t the first to consider using the internet to administer standardized tests. Several states have begun experimenting with online testing for their high-stakes exams, though with mixed results.

In a pilot program last year, the Kentucky Department of Education allowed some 1,200 students in 147 schools to take Kentucky’s statewide assessment, the Commonwealth Accountability System, or CATS, online.

In a related program, some 457 10th and 11th grade students in an additional 74 schools were allowed to take the reading and social studies portions of the Kentucky Core Content Test (KCCT), one component of the larger CATS statewide assessment, via computer.

Although considered a success, officials decided not to offer the online version of the KCCT again in 2006, owing to “hardware limitations identified during the pilot.” The larger CATS Online system, however, did continue as a testing option to students who routinely used a text reader or screen reader for instruction. The students took the online assessments on a secure server, and their grades were submitted to an outside contractor for grading. At the time the pilot was announced, state officials said the goal would be eventually to move every student in the state to an online model. Officials in other states, including Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, and Virginia, also have begun exploring the benefits of statewide online testing.

In 2003, officials in South Dakota tabled a plan to conduct widespread online testing in reading and math after developing a new metric designed to better meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Though the online version remains stalled, officials there have not ruled out the possibility of pursuing an online model in the future.

Links:

College Board
http://www.collegeboard.com

Consultant’s report
http://www.collegeboard.com/sat/answersheetprocessing/report

FairTest
http://www.fairtest.org

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Picture this: A sneakier kind of spam

USA Today reports that a new kind of spam is catching consumers and corporate security officials off-guard. This new type of spam contains images, rather than text, to confound spam filters and to encourage recipients to actually read the message. In 2005, image-based spam accounted for just 1 percent of all spam. In 2006, the number has already risen to 26 percent. The newest version of this technology varies the content of individual messages by tweaking the color scheme, font types, etc. Due to the size of the images in the messages, this new spam is up to seven times larger per message and is clogging up eMail servers and slowing systems down…

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Teacher development key to tech success

A new survey of teachers and their use of technology suggests there is a clear correlation between hours spent in professional development, classroom integration of technology, and improved student performance.

Technology use by teachers continues to rise, the survey indicates; three out of five teachers said their tech skills were at least “somewhat advanced,” four of five think it engages students, and two in three believe it can improve performance. Professional development in the use of technology also is on the rise, according to the survey–though one in five teachers still receives no such training.

Sponsored by CDW-G, a reseller of hardware tools to schools and governments, and administered by education research firm Quality Education Data (QED), the study, called “Teachers Talk Tech 2006: Fulfilling Technology’s Promise of Improved Student Performance,” polled some 1,000 K-12 public school teachers on technology’s role in the classroom.

The poll offers an in-depth look at how K-12 teachers use computers in their jobs; evaluates technology’s role and efficacy in education; sheds light on educators’ opinions regarding the use of computers in their classrooms; and attempts to gauge the effectiveness of computers in preparing students for the 21st-century workplace, according to survey administrators. CDW-G said its findings support the need for more federal ed-tech spending, including continued support for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program, the largest single source of ed-tech funding in the federal budget–and a program that President Bush has asked Congress to eliminate in 2007.

Although teachers report they are using technology more frequently for both instructional and administrative tasks, they also worry that obstacles such as a lack of access, time, and money are keeping them from integrating technology effectively into the curriculum, the study found.

Technology is “on the cusp of radically transforming the learning environment,” researchers wrote in response to their findings; but it’s not fully there yet, they said.

Bob Kirby, CDW-G’s senior director for K-12 education, said technology can be an “empowering tool,” depending on who’s using it.

“Technology is becoming integral to the teaching process, and we’re finding it makes the overall process that much better,” said Kirby, who called the survey “a tool for teachers to say, ‘Here’s why I need something like professional development.’ … Anything above eight hours sees a dramatic improvement in comfort levels for teachers.”

The survey, now in its fourth year, found technology has changed the way teachers teach “a great deal.” In 2004, 40 percent of teachers said their teaching environment had changed. By 2006, 54 percent reported such a shift. Veteran teachers who have been in the profession for at least 10 years have seen technology change the process of teaching, while younger teachers have always had some link to technology, the study found. Researchers interpret these changes to mean that technology is being used and embraced in the classroom.

According to the survey, four out of five teachers indicated that technology is very or somewhat important to teaching. Eighty-eight percent of those surveyed said technology is important to administrative functions such as attendance and grading, while 86 percent agreed it was important to communications with other teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

In addition, 81 percent of those surveyed said they use technology for research purposes when preparing lessons, and 79 percent use technology as a teaching tool in the classroom. Further, 63 percent of teachers characterize their classroom technology skills as “somewhat advanced” or “advanced,” with a 5-percent increase in the percentage of users who consider themselves “somewhat advanced” since 2003.

Seventy-nine percent of teachers say they are either “competent” or “highly competent” in using instructional software, and 76 percent chose the same designations for their ability to integrate computing into lessons. What’s more, 66 percent of respondents said they were “competent” or “highly competent” in using technology to develop critical-thinking skills in their students. Seventy percent of teachers indicated competence in using data analysis tools to gauge student performance–a key to achieving federal requirements ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

“Without technology, it would be impossible to meet the requirements of NCLB,” the study said.

In fact, researchers say they noticed an increase in the use of technology in every major curricular category since last year, from writing to art. The number of teachers using technology to teach writing skills went from 64 percent in 2005 to 71 percent in 2006, while the use of technology to teach scientific concepts also increased significantly, from 51 percent in 2005 to 60 percent this year. Teachers have even increased their use of technology for “performing artistic activities,” the study found, from 36-percent saturation in 2005 to 42 percent this year.

Teachers overwhelmingly agreed that the use of technology in the classroom makes students more engaged, and most agreed that students’ academic standing has improved as a result of technology’s use. Eighty-two percent of teachers surveyed said students are more engaged when technology is being employed in classroom activities. Sixty-five percent said students’ academic performance improves with the use of classroom computers. Teachers also noted that computers have been found to help students think more creatively (64 percent), and more independently, if those computers are in the classroom (47 percent).

But there are still obstacles to achieving technology’s promise, teachers reported.

Fifty-five percent of survey respondents believe the biggest impediment to effective technology integration is access to computers; 48 percent believe they lack sufficient time to properly integrate technology into lessons; and another 48 percent say district budgets do not allow the level of technology integration they would like to see in their classrooms, the study said.

Professional development also is on the rise, the study found.

The percentage of teachers reporting they did not receive any professional development in the use of technology dropped by 12 percentage points from 2005 to 2006. Still, at least 19 percent of teachers interviewed said they did not have any professional development training in the past 12 months, according to the study.

“It was a surprise that nearly 20 percent of respondents are still getting no professional development,” Kirby said. “As much as technology is integrated in business and higher education, 20 percent of our teachers are not getting any training around technology. That is very surprising to me. Twenty percent of our teachers are not getting technical professional development, and yet we’re cutting back on funding EETT–the main source of professional development funding for technology?”

Despite this gap, researchers contend there is a clear link between professional development in technology use, classroom integration of technology, and improved student performance. According to the survey, 78 percent of teachers who have had at least 16 hours of professional development in technology say they incorporate 21st-century skills into their curriculum, and 66 percent believe teaching those skills strengthens skills for standardized testing. Similarly, 74 percent of teachers who have had at least 16 hours of professional development believe students’ academic performance is enhanced with the use of classroom computers, the study found–that’s 9 points higher than the percentage of teachers overall who hold this belief.

“I think the biggest ‘aha’ of the study is that we are starting to see a direct correlation between hours of professional development and how thoroughly technology is being integrated into the classroom,” Kirby said. “These are things we’ve always suspected, but now we have some actual statistics through the surveys that validate the correlations.”

CDW-G said its report represents a call to action for the education community.

“Funding needs to go toward technology, not away from technology,” Kirby said. “You’ve seen some school districts that are making great strides here, and some that haven’t. You’re going to see a large gap [between those that are achieving greater integration and those that are not], and with a funding cut, that gap will get bigger. It’s very bad timing to cut back on this effort, because it’s just starting to get some traction. I can’t think of a worse time to cut back on technology funding.”

QED conducted telephone interviews with 1,000 K-12 public school teachers. The random sample was drawn from QED’s National Education Database of K-12 schools, which is a census of all schools and districts in the United States.

Links:

“Teachers Talk Tech 2006: Fulfilling Technology’s Promise of Improved Student Performance”
http://www.cdwg.com/ttt

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Program creates ILPs for all students

You could call it “MySpace” meets “Monster”: Kentucky has introduced a web-based program that will help students map out their academic careers and give them an idea of what career path they’d like to explore–all while teaching them how to write a resume and apply for financial aid.

The program, called Individual Learning Plans, is a revamped version of the Individual Graduation Plan, a system the state introduced in 2002 but that failed to catch on with students.

The new program, run by Toronto-based Career Cruising, is already earning raves.

“I’ve already had more kids in the last week say things about this than I’ve ever had in 13 years of education,” said Todd Mullins, a guidance counselor at Oldham South Middle School.

Each student will have his or her own page, complete with test scores and the results of surveys designed to help students figure out what they’re interested in.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Ray Grijalba, 13, an eighth grader at Oldham South who said he wants to be an engineer. “I’ve been looking at the money you make and stuff.”

The site also allows parents to log in and check on their child’s progress. Parents can leave students a message on the site or send a note to the school’s guidance counselor. The plan is available in both English and Spanish.

Jenny Sawyer, executive director of admissions at the University of Louisville, said the system makes students better prepared for dealing with the pressure of applying to college.

“I think it levels the playing field for students who may be first-generation college-goers, or who have parents who are not as experienced about applying to college,” she said.

The state Board of Education wants to make sure schools are using some form of the program. Linda Pittinger, director of the division of secondary and virtual learning at the Kentucky Department of Education, said the program is designed to get students involved in planning their future, regardless of their aspirations.

“Every single child needs to be stretched and challenged, even our most high-performing students,” she said.

The program will include a survey that students can fill out, which educators hope will give them a better idea of how to cater to students’ needs. To help matters, Kentucky is beginning the program in the sixth grade. The previous version waited until students were on the verge of high school, though Pittinger stressed it’s not designed to give students concrete ideas about what they should do with their lives.

“This is not about looking at every sixth-grader and saying, ‘OK. What are you going to be when you grow up?'” she said. “This is about the process with those students and their parents to begin talking about the purpose of education, what their goals are going to be, that high school is important, and that it is important to get ready for high school.”

She added: “The most important thing is to make sure no child is cut off from the opportunity to go to college. … That happens to too many kids.”

Dozens of middle and high schools began training with the new program when school began in September. Some schools have already started using it, with others should be up to speed by the end of the year.

The program’s career-matchmaker function lets students complete an interest survey that matches them to 40 professions. The site then shows students information about those careers, including video interviews with people in those professions, and it allows them to see the corresponding college majors, along with the colleges that offer them.

Schools are not required to use the web-based system, but they are required to complete plans for each student as part of the state’s new graduation requirements. And the state education board is considering holding schools accountable for the plans by including students’ completion rates in the state’s student testing system.

Links:

Kentucky Department of Education
http://www.education.ky.gov/KDE/Default.htm

Career Cruising
http://www.careercruising.com

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Food-makers’ sites target children

The San Jose Mercury News reports that food manufacturers are turning to “advergames” to sell products to children. Because childhood obesity is a national concern, health advocates have long decried the use of television advertising to sell unhealthy foods to children. While TV still commands the bulk of junk food advertising, the internet is seeing an increased role. A study by a nonprofit health care policy group found that 75 percent of the 77 product web sites analyzed had some sort of “advergame” target to children on them. These games allow children to play endlessly in a name-brand environment, rather than passively staring at a 30 second TV spot. In addition, a quarter of these websites enabled kids to sign up for special offers and upcoming commercials–only half of these sites required parental permission…

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Google site to aid the blind

News.com reports that Google is set to unveil a search site that will help blind people locate results that will work best with text-to-speech software. The new Google Accessible Search site prioritizes the list of results based on how simple the web pages are laid out. The service examines the HTML markup on a given page, and favors those pages that have few visual distraction and those that are likely to render well in the software when the images are turned off. The new service is based on the same underlying technology as Google Co-op, which prioritizes results based upon specialized interests…

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