Rand McNally delivers fee-based geography content online

Rand McNally recently launched a new web-based service to deliver comprehensive geography content, interactive games and activities, and skills-based lesson plans for teachers. Called Rand McNally Classroom, the web site offers a wealth of geography materials for simple integration into K-12 social studies, geography, and history curricula. Features of the site include detailed, up-to-date maps covering the entire world; customized maps of each school’s own neighborhood; build-your-own maps activities, continent quizzes, and puzzles; current-events updates and an “Ask the Experts” corner; and editable lesson plans and assessments. Teachers can project Rand McNally Classroom maps onto a whiteboard using an LCD projector. The subscription-based service launched in September. The site is fee-based, and the cost varies from school to school, based on school size, average daily attendance, and full-time enrollment. Until August 2007, Rand McNally is offering multi-year and multi-school discounts.


C-SPAN enhances its Classroom web site with new tools and resources

C-SPAN Classroom has introduced new enhancements to its web site for middle and high school social-studies teachers. The upgrades are designed to make it easier and faster for educators to incorporate C-SPAN’s public affairs and political programming into their classrooms. Social-studies teachers now can download free video clips; search archived and current video by keywords; and create personalized user areas for their favorite clips. Recent video clips include a discussion about civil liberties between Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and ACLU President Nadine Strossen, as well as President Bush’s press conferences about the war in Iraq. In addition to the new features, C-SPAN’s site includes lesson plans, discussion questions, and other resources for teachers. C-SPAN Classroom video content is copyright-free, with no time or usage restrictions. All resources are linked to state and national civics and social-studies standards and are available free of charge.


Students, scientists team up to probe the secrets of longevity

On Jan. 29, students and teachers will be able to follow along as the Quest Network begins its second Blue Zones Quest, a three-week, inquiry-based online learning project. Founded by explorer and National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, who has produced more than a dozen interactive expeditions, the Quest Network offers free curricula that cultivate collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills, while meeting state and national standards. The Blue Zones Quests aim to locate areas around the world where people live well into advanced age–and explore why. The next Blue Zones Quest will search for clues that explain why people in a remote location in Central America are living longer than anyone else in this hemisphere. Along with accessing the expedition team’s daily content of dispatches, videos, and photographs from this region, students can direct the team’s exploration and help distill a cross-cultural formula for living a long, healthy life. The Blue Zones web site also gives teachers additional activities to extend the quest beyond the internet. For instance, students can take charge of their own health through the Blue Zones Challenge, a four-week fitness program in which they apply what they find in the quest to their own lives, creating roadmaps to a healthier life. The Blue Zone Quests and curriculum guides are available free of charge to teachers, thanks to corporate sponsors Allianz and Davisco Foods.


Teachade: Online social networking for teachers

Educators who are looking for online sites to communicate and collaborate with their peers can register free of charge with Teachade, a site that lets educators share resources, create online learning communities, and connect with colleagues. Teachade is available to K-12 teachers, pre-service teachers, student teachers, and college professors through a free registration process. The site uses Web 2.0 collaboration and social-networking technologies. Teachers can join groups formed around topics such as music, 6th-grade science, supporting educational technology, increasing student and child safety, and so on. Educators also have access to a personal and group calendar and can keep lesson plans or other items in personal “favorites” files.


CITEd’s latest web resource is something to get excited about

The Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) recently unveiled a new web site that is intended to serve as an anchor for delivering technical assistance to teachers, state and local administrators, professional development and technology coordinators, and parents. Here, educators can access a comprehensive array of free online tools–including the interactive EdTech Locator, a self-assessment tool that helps users evaluate where they stand in the tech-integration continuum and guides them through the various stages of technology integration; and Tech Matrices, which allow users to search for products and tools to support reading and math instruction for students with special needs. The site is organized into three core focus areas: The Learn Center helps users select resources and tools for implementing technology to support the needs of all students; the Action Center provides tools to plan an ed-tech initiative and conduct professional development activities; and the Research Center houses CITEd’s syntheses of research practices grounded in core content areas, for educators seeking ways to use technology effectively in their instruction.


New site helps educators comb through education research

Educators looking for help in trying to implement evidence-based approaches in their classrooms now have a new tool at their disposal: With a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Institute of Education Science, the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University has created a free resource called the Best Evidence Encyclopedia (BEE), which contains educator-friendly summaries of research on educational programs, as well as links to the full-text scientific reviews. Research summaries employ easy-to-understand symbols like those used in Consumer Reports. Topics of the featured studies include elementary mathematics, technology in reading and math, reading for English-language learners, and more. An alternative to ED’s What Works Clearinghouse, the site is intended to give educators and researchers unbiased and useful information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of programs available for students in grades K-12.


Partner’s Index

AVerMedia Technologies Inc.


Century Consultants Ltd.

Computer Power Solutions of Illinois Inc.

Consortium for School Networking

Dell Inc.

Enterprises Computing Services Inc.

Extron Electronics

Ken-A-Vision Inc.

Library Video Co.


National Educational Computing Conference

NetSupport Inc.

New Dimension Media

Roland Corp.


Schools Interoperability Framework Association

Transition Networks


Western pioneer

After 18 years on the job, Calvin Baker still strives for his district to be the first in the region to embrace new technologies to improve student achievement. As a result, his district is widely known as one of the first in the nation to swap textbooks for laptops–and Baker himself was honored as one of 10 “Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award” winners by eSchool News last year.

“I’m most proud of creating an environment where our staff and students can excel,” said Baker, superintendent of the Vail School District, which serves 8,200 students in the southeast corner of Tucson, Ariz., plus 425 square miles outside of the city.

The secret to Baker’s success? “It’s about hiring good people, giving them the tools to be successful, and creating an environment where they feel safe enough to take risks and do innovative and creative things,” he said.

Vail’s list of pioneering innovations is noteworthy. The district was one of the first in the area to get every classroom and office connected to the internet; the first to install a wireless wide-area network; and the first to provide parents with real-time access to grades and attendance.

Most risky on its list of innovations: Vail was the first district in the state to adopt a completely digital curriculum at its one-to-one laptop high school, which opened last year.

At Empire High School, each student was given an Apple iBook laptop. To make the most of this one-to-one computing environment, the district decided to forgo traditional textbooks in favor of digital instructional materials.

As part of the planning process for this new high school model, district officials visited schools in California, Kansas, and Maine that had initiated one-to-one laptop programs. “We looked around, and we liked the level of engagement at these one-to-one schools,” Baker said. “But we also saw that teachers were teaching like they would at a traditional school.”

It seemed as though the laptops were an overlay to the traditional curriculum, “like icing on the cake,” he explained.

The planning committee, which included a small group of teachers, agreed that teaching methodologies needed to change to ensure successful integration of the laptops.

To force teachers to teach differently, the district used its textbook money to buy the laptops, Baker said. Also, teachers who were recruited to work at the school had to be committed to adapt to the new format.

“The common assumption [people make] when they read about or hear about our school is that we are using digital textbooks,” Baker said. “That’s not the case. We use a real smorgasbord of instructional materials.”

Social studies teachers use ABC-CLIO products; science teachers use free materials from universities, NASA, and science foundations; and math teachers use some digital textbooks as resources.

Primarily, teachers decide what instructional materials to use. This requires more work, but giving teachers the freedom to choose their own instructional materials is viewed as an expression of creativity–especially compared with the mundane task of preparing students for high-stakes tests.

“I believe one of the best indicators of teacher acceptance was turnover,” Baker said. “After that first year, our turnover was zero. Every single staff member came back.”

Baker advises others not to focus too much on the technology but on the relationships with staff. “If the teachers at Empire High School weren’t being valued, if all of this technology was being dumped on them because someone at the district office had a brilliant idea, then it would have failed,” he said.

After its first year of operation, the state rated Empire High School as “highly performing,” the second-best rating a school can receive. Test scores have been well above average, Baker said.

Not only are test scores up, but students are learning workplace skills–and the laptops appeal to kids’ interest in technology.

Today’s students, who often are referred to in education circles as “digital natives,” are practiced at instant messaging, file sharing, and gaming. But when it comes to organizing, communicating, and distributing their work, their skills are generally weak. “They weren’t very good at simple things, like saving and organizing files,” Baker said. The district learned some hard lessons in the first year of the program, Baker said: “There was no one to follow. There was no pattern. We were finding our way.”

He added, “We are very glad that we started out with a significant amount of control over the laptops.” Students couldn’t install anything on their machines or send eMail or instant messages.

This policy sent the immediate message that the laptops’ primary purpose was for education. Now, to make the machines more personalized and valued, students are permitted to download and store music on their laptops.

Everything students do on their laptops goes through the district’s server. Students submit their homework using either Studywiz or Turnitin.com, and they are allowed to eMail outside of class hours.

Baker aspires for openness throughout the Vail School District by guaranteeing a high degree of communication.

Student records are stored in digital format and made available in real time. All the district’s schools use the PowerSchool student information system, which allows parents or students to go online at any time to see any grade, attendance record, or assignment. Teachers are accessible via voice mail and eMail.

Although state tests are only administered yearly, district teachers give benchmark tests via computer at the end of each quarter. Also, teachers can access formative assessments on the district’s web site to test a subject unit just taught.

Vail has two charter schools, one of which is technology-focused. Vail High School sits in the middle of the University of Arizona’s Science and Technology Park. The 150 students who attend this charter school are surrounded each day by about 7,000 adults working in high-tech fields. The school uses Windows-based PCs.

The state recently awarded three individuals from Vail as the high school principal of the year, elementary school principal of the year, and technology director of the year for 2005-06. “When these kinds of things occur, they also tend to occur in the classroom as well,” Baker said.

The state rated 12 schools in Vail last year. Nine received the highest rating, “excelling,” and three received the second-best rating, “highly performing.”

Baker, who graduated with a degree in elementary education from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, taught fifth, sixth, and eighth grades in Phoenix suburbs for five years.

After earning his master’s degree in education from Arizona State University, he was looking for something different. On a whim, he interviewed for and got a job as principal of a high school in Kotzebue, Alaska. Baker spent nine years as principal of a couple of schools in the area that served students from small Eskimo villages.

Baker became a principal in Vail in 1988. He was already a school administrator when computers became prevalent in schools.

“I was attracted to the efficiency they brought,” Baker said. He also viewed computers as an equalizer.

Baker’s knowledge of computers is self-taught. He began using Apple IIe computers in Alaska to do high school course scheduling.

“In the early years, when I was superintendent, we were small enough that I served as the technology director of the district,” Baker said.


Vail School District http://vail.k12.az.us


Extend your PR reach by streaming video and audio online

As streaming audio and video gets easier–and better looking–thanks to new software and the proliferation of high-speed internet connections, making digital content available from school district web sites is no longer a matter of when or why, but how.

Once considered at best a luxury and at worst an annoyance, online audio and video streaming is becoming a mainstream communications tool, primarily because parents, students, teachers, and other key stakeholders are demanding it.

In today’s multitasking world, it’s hard to beat the ease, convenience, and near-universal access of internet-based content that allows web users to listen to an audio broadcast by the superintendent while answering eMail, paying bills, or performing myriad other routine tasks at work or at home.

And, while television still reigns supreme in terms of combining viewer comfort with high-quality sound and visuals, the portability of laptop computers and other digital devices makes these newer tools ideal for providing 24-7 access to breaking news and information.

“The biggest advantage you have with the internet as compared to cable casting is the convenience factor,” says Donald Tate, station manager and news director for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ cable television channel, CMS-TV3. “With the internet, people can watch when they want to, in different locations, and they can go back to the content again and again.”

CMS-TV3 recently started streaming its video and audio content online, instantly extending its audience from Mecklenburg County’s 200,000 cable TV subscribers to a virtually unlimited, worldwide audience.

As a result, the district is experiencing a form of “viral video,” in which web surfers eMail links and CMS-TV3 MP3 files to each other, thus multiplying the impact of each posting.

“One of the advantages of online or digital content is that people have the option of sharing the information you provide easily and passing it along to other people they think need to see it, hear it, or listen to it,” says Tate. “You really can’t do that with television, at least not yet.”

This kind of reach is important–especially for districts like CMS, where many web site visitors (verified by ongoing Web Trend analyses) live out of state.

Prior to the addition of online video and audio streaming, three of CMS’ prime audiences–prospective parents, Realtors, and corporate relocation experts–didn’t have access to one of the district’s most powerful sources for current news, information, and success stories. More importantly, current CMS parents and others are snapping up the new content and have asked the district to add more RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to make sure they don’t lose out on new programs and information.

Online video “is a very powerful medium,” says Tate. “If we can use that to tell the CMS story, people benefit by having better information–and we benefit by increasing viewership.”

If schools or districts already have solid video production capabilities, digitizing the content and transferring it to the web is relatively simple, Tate says.

CMS-TV3 uses nonlinear editing software from Avid Technology–make sure to ask for the education discount or government rates–to edit and convert its video and audio content into MP3 files, which are easily read by the multimedia software that now comes standard in most PCs and laptops.

The district also uses a software package called Sorenson Media Squeeze Compression Suite Power Pack to compress files. Tate recommends keeping digitized files to 4 megabytes or less to protect the video quality and to minimize download times.

When it comes to streaming video and audio, shorter is better, according to Tate. “Short video clips and audio files that are quick and informative work better online, while TV is better for entertainment,” he says. “There aren’t too many computer monitors out there that are 27 inches or higher, which is the standard TV screen size.”

Its launch of video and audio streaming comes as CMS-TV3 shifts from supporting classroom-based instruction with educational videos to serving as a 24-7 news and information channel for CMS parents, students, employees, and community members.

Effective and creative communicators know how to tell and package stories so the audience understands the message, no matter which format or distribution channel is used.

“Every time we put something on the air or on the web, we have to approach it as if that’s the only time people are going to see or hear it,” says Tate. “We need tell the story in a clear and concise way, so they get it the first time.”

By focusing on its county-wide viewing audience, rather than the classroom, CMS-TV3 has carved out a new niche by providing content not available on other local newscasts, such as exclusive interviews with the superintendent and other dignitaries–including a recent school visit by the first female president of an African nation, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

“It’s been a smart decision to respect our viewers and give them something they want to see, instead of just focusing on the classroom,” says Tate. “The main thing that drives our shift from instructional television is news and doing a better job of telling the CMS story.”

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.