Discovery Educator Network Selects 140 Educators to Take Part in its National Institutes

Silver Spring, Md. (May 17, 2007)–The Discovery Educator Network (DEN), a global community of innovative educators passionate about teaching with digital media, sharing resources and collaborating with one another, has selected 140 educators from across the country to participate in its second annual DEN National Institutes. The DEN National Institutes are exclusive professional development opportunities open only to STAR Discovery Educators–DEN members who have been recognized for their outstanding efforts–to share their insight and expertise with their peers through activities such as facilitating trainings, workshops or presentations and demonstrating how to integrate Discovery Education products and services in the classroom.

Each national institute accepted STAR Discovery Educators based on responses they provided on their applications regarding their use of technology in the classroom and their efforts to promote the use of digital media in education. During their time at one of the three national institutes, educators hear from special guest speakers, participate in workshops, collaborate with educators from across the country on a variety of educational technology projects, network with their peers and share ideas. The DEN National Institutes will be held this summer on the following dates and locations:

– June 18-22, Discovery Communications´ Global Headquarters, Silver Spring, Md.

– July 14-19, Bahamas Cruise, departing from Port Canaveral, Fla.

– August 6-10, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif.

"We are really excited about this year´s DEN National Institutes because they offer a unique opportunity for these passionate and dynamic teachers to undergo professional development in a fun, collaborative environment," said Scott Kinney, Director, Discovery Educator Network. "Our hope is that these teachers will leave the event feeling inspired and energized, and integrate the innovative ideas they have learned into their classrooms."

Debbie Bohanan, a technology coach from Reedy Creek Elementary School in Kissimmee, Fla., said of her experience participating in the institutes: "Last summer´s DEN National Institute was the most engaging, up to date, technology training I have ever experienced! We were on the cutting-edge learning about Wiki´s, podcasting and other wonderful tools while collaborating with teachers from all over the United States. The wealth of knowledge in the room and the willingness of everyone to share their expertise was amazing."

To learn more about the DEN National Institutes and the Discovery Educator Network, go to

About Discovery Education

Discovery Education is a division of Discovery Communications, the leading global real-world and knowledge-based media company. The leader in digital video-based learning, Discovery Education produces and distributes high-quality digital video content in easy-to-use formats, in all core-curricular subject areas. Discovery Education is committed to creating scientifically proven, standards-based digital resources for teachers, students, and parents that make a positive impact on student learning. Through strategic partnerships with public television stations across the country, its public service initiatives, products, and joint business ventures, Discovery Education helps educators around the world harness the power of broadband and media to connect their students to a world of learning. For more information, visit


Video helps Baltimore County overhaul its curriculum

Recognizing the need to engage a new generation of students who are visual learners, Maryland‘s Baltimore County Public Schools–the nation’s 25th-largest school system–has installed video servers and a video-on-demand system in all of its 169 schools.

The system, SAFARI Montage by the Library Video Company, will allow teachers to access and play more than a thousand video programs from leading publishers such as National Geographic and Scholastic. It also will enable Baltimore County to expand not only its curricular offerings, but also its professional development, according to school district officials.

“The vision is to make the curriculum more 21st-century and engaging,” said Della Curtis, coordinator for Baltimore County‘s Office of Library Information Services (LIS).

The use of video on demand is nothing new for schools. A growing number of districts–including such large school systems as the Chicago Public Schools and Nevada‘s Clark County School District–have begun integrating digital video clips into lessons. But what distinguishes Baltimore County‘s effort is that the district has convened teams of teachers in each school to brainstorm ways of using the new resources to their fullest potential across each academic discipline.

School district officials aim to implement the system district-wide to “support the entire curriculum, and make it multimedia,” said Andrew Schlessinger, CEO of Library Video Company. He added that Baltimore County‘s video project “represents our vision for how we’d like to see the product used. … This is really the first district I can honestly say is 100 percent behind everything that SAFARI Montage can do.”

The video content isn’t hosted on Library Video’s servers, Schlessinger said, but instead resides on the district’s network, much like a YouTube-style environment–but one that is controlled and targeted specifically for the school field.

Curtis said Baltimore County evaluated streaming video products for the past two years and chose SAFARI Montage as its solution because the system will allow the district to bring multimedia and moving images to classrooms without compromising bandwidth.

Content from producers such as PBS, National Geographic, and Scholastic also was a plus, she said.

Baltimore County‘s own television studio, The Education Channel, broadcasts to the district and community during the day and evenings. Before implementing SAFARI Montage, Curtis said, if educators wanted to have a copy of the educational programs that appeared on the channel, they could copy these programs either during the daytime broadcast or at home during the evening. Now, with SAFARI, educators can show these programs, too, in their classes at any time.

“It’s a delivery system for our own knowledge assets,” and not just Library Video’s content, Curtis said.

Each school’s principal is responsible for implementation, and he or she is in charge of selecting a SAFARI Montage leadership team that will provide school-based leadership to ensure an effective transition. These teams are getting professional development and guidance from the district’s LIS and instructional technology offices.

From the district’s LIS web site, staff members have access to several academic exercises and activities that already have incorporated SAFARI content to enhance the curriculum. Teachers can incorporate video clips into their lessons and can view videos showing best teaching practices, such as a science-experiment guide that shows how the experiment should be conducted.

“What was really phenomenal was that in 169 schools, it only took two and a half weeks to put a server in every school and set up logins for teachers,” Curtis said. “So for those who would say [implementing such a project is too much trouble], that’s the legacy for this project–it’s surprising how quickly it was deployed and how quickly teachers were using the system.”

Baltimore County‘s video project comes as an audit from Phi Delta Kappa International sharply criticized the district for a lack of oversight and teacher training that has undermined academic progress and perpetuated an achievement gap among minorities, auditors said. According to the audit, Baltimore County needs to improve its management and development of curriculum, among other recommendations.

Curtis said SAFARI Montage’s presence will help the district address these recommendations–one of which was that “our curriculum needs to actively engage kids.”

“Giving kids the tools they’re used to using and bringing them into the classroom is going to be a lot more motivating than a textbook,” she concluded.


Baltimore County Public Schools

SAFARI Montage


Translation tool tackles language barrier in schools

As a bilingual education teacher at Barrington Elementary School, Ray Mata knows a thing or two about language barriers.

Like many of his colleagues in the Austin, Texas, Independent School District, where more than half of the school system’s 82,000 students are Hispanic and at least 20 percent do not speak English as their native language, Mata is constantly looking for new approaches to get his students on par with their English-speaking classmates.

So when he found a free technology program that would let his students–and, importantly, their parents–translate English web sites into Spanish automatically and even send and receive translated eMail messages to teachers and friends throughout the school system, he just had to try it.

Several months later, Mata says he’s using the program to show English-language learners how to conduct online research, better engage parents in their children’s education, and encourage ESL students to share their language–and their heritage–with their English-speaking friends.

The project is part of a nationwide grant program sponsored by IBM that gives schools and other nonprofit organizations free access to a specialized version of the company’s WebSphere Translation Server, a service that helps multinational businesses convert web sites and eMail messages from English to several other languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese, and vice versa.

Called Traducelo Ahora!, or “translate now,” the version currently being used in schools is limited to English-Spanish conversions. Program developers say the goal is to help teachers, as well as students and their parents, bridge a burgeoning cultural divide that often stands in way of success.

“We are trying to inspire the conversation between Spanish-speaking students and English-speaking teachers,” said Doris Gonzalez, program coordinator for IBM’s Traducelo Ahora! project. As the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow–researchers predict that within the next few years, the Latino population will be the nation’s largest minority–teachers must find a way to connect not only with students who have a limited grasp of English, but with their parents as well, Gonzales said.

As the program has evolved, IBM has invested a significant amount of research and development dollars into its translation engine. Three years and some serious tweaking later, Big Blue says the Spanish-English version of the program is up to 30 percent more accurate than it was when it first launched in 2003.

Despite all the extra work, the technology still is far from perfect, Gonzalez acknowledges. Because each form of Spanish–whether it’s Mexican, Salvadorian, Guatemalan, or some other regional translation–has its own unique dialect, IBM uses what it calls “International Spanish” as its default translation.

Though the conversions might not be exact in all cases, depending on what type of Spanish the user is accustomed to, it usually is close enough for a competent Spanish-speaking person to make the connection, Gonzalez said.

If there are major gaps in the translation, or portions of a web site are not translated correctly, participants are invited to point out inconsistencies by eMailing IBM software developers. The company reportedly gets upwards of 125 eMails from Traducelo Ahora! users each month and considers each suggestion on an individual basis.

There are other technological hang-ups, too. Gonzalez says the program still cannot automatically translate text and pictures featured on web pages as part of Flash images or PDF files. Rather than seeing these translations reflected automatically, as is the case with pages using strictly HTML code, she said, the user has to scroll over the English words and look for the Spanish translation in a separate pop-up box.

“We’re still working on that,” she said.

Though it remains very much a work in progress, Mata said Traducelo Ahora! already is keeping communication in Austin from getting lost in translation.

Where language barriers often preclude talented minority voices from assuming leadership positions within their local communities or keep parents from taking a more active role in their children’s education, he says, programs like Traducelo Ahora! are empowering the school system’s Hispanic population to take a more active role.

“It’s amazing how often language barriers keep people from reaching their potential,” said Mata.

IBM says Traducelo Ahora! currently is used at 160 grant sites in the U.S., Mexico, and Venezuela. Though the original grant program is now closed, IBM spokesman Clint Roswell said schools are encouraged to contact the company. IBM will reach out to interested applicants when the grant program reopens in the coming months, he said.


Traducelo Ahora!


Lawmakers face flap over iPods-in-classrooms idea

An idea to give Michigan students an iPod or other MP3 player as a learning tool has been met with sharp criticism in a state that is facing a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Michigan House Democrats tried to derail the distracting controversy April 12, saying a statement made the previous week about providing iPods for Michigan students had been misconstrued and was diverting focus from the state’s budget crisis.

Democrats, at least for now, say they aren’t considering providing an iPod or MP3 player for Michigan students. House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford, said the initiative can’t be pursued until the state has settled its budget problems.

The iPod idea first surfaced in early April during a broad, budget-related press conference held by House Democrats. Rep. Matt Gillard, D-Alpena and chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing K-12 school budgets, discussed a $38 million "21st Century Learning Environments" plan. He also pulled out an iPod and said "we want this in the hands of every student in the state of Michigan."

Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, said there is no plan to provide iPods for Michigan students and there never was one. He said much of the $38 million would go toward professional development for teachers, which Gillard also mentioned in the press conference.

"This thing has spun completely out of control," Melton said April 12. "We take responsibility for a piece of that."

But Melton said Democrats, including Dillon, were disappointed the iPod issue came to dominate media coverage about the broad budget ideas discussed last week.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said Melton’s comments "failed to put to rest the most serious concerns Michigan citizens have about this proposal."

Apple Inc., maker of the iPod, at least partly paid for Dillon, Melton, and Gillard to visit its California headquarters earlier this year. On April 12, Melton said the lawmakers will pay the price of that trip–$1,702 each–out of their own pockets.

Democrats said the trip wasn’t much different from those taken to Apple when Republicans were in charge of the state House. Those trips, in 2002 and 2003, came after then-House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican, started working on a program that provided laptop computers to some Michigan students.

The laptop program, called Freedom to Learn, eventually ended up using computers provided by Hewlett-Packard Co. The state’s budget problems essentially caused a halt to the program before it got beyond the pilot stage.

Johnson, now a lobbyist with Fraser Consulting, appeared with Melton at the April 12 press conference. Both Democrats and Johnson said the state should be committed to improving technology in Michigan classrooms.

Among educators, reaction to the iPod idea has been mixed.

"This is a case of legislators trying to do a nice thing for educators but not having a clue about what we’re trying to get accomplished on a day-to-day basis," said Jon Felske, superintendent of Wyoming Public Schools outside Grand Rapids.

Lawmakers instead should give schools money for new labs, because more high school students will be taking chemistry to meet Michigan‘s new graduation requirements, Felske said.

Paul Pominville, director of technology for Michigan‘s Howell Public Schools, had a different take, although he worried how thousands of the portable storage devices would be kept from being stolen, lost, or broken. He said teachers have approached him about doing podcasts and recording lessons, but the district doesn’t have the money.

"It would open up a different way of teaching," Pominville said, noting that Apple’s iTunes online store has free educational audio and video content for students. "Kids will love it. This is what they use all the time."

Schools usually require students to turn off music-listening devices in the classroom.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, sensing the proposal could be in trouble, on April 11 said the initiative is much broader than buying devices.

"We don’t want this controversy to derail what is a good thing," Flanagan said in a statement. "We are adding education technology to the high graduation requirements and into the proposed revisions to the state’s teacher preparation programs. Schools, teachers, and students all need to embrace this emerging way to learn."


Robots tackle core of STEM education

As pressure mounts to educate today’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–also known as the STEM disciplines–to ensure America remains a global leader in innovation, educators from coast to coast have been busy retooling programs to make mastering such complicated subjects less daunting.

Thanks, in part, to the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, significant headway already is being made in math and science courses. But, according to some critics, where the quest for STEM mastery still falls woefully short is in the middle–with technology and engineering instruction.

"Technology and engineering are like the neglected stepsisters in the STEM education family," said Niel Tebbano, vice president of operations for Project Lead the Way, a national initiative that offers eight high-school-level courses designed to expose students to the rigor of engineering prior to college.

Hoping to change that, many educators are turning to robotics, holding design competitions and challenging classmates in a battle for technical supremacy.

At the Lummi Nation School in Bellingham, Wash., for example, a group of eighth-grade science students recently worked with volunteers at Western Washington University to build remote-controlled robots used to explore the ocean.

At the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering in Stamford, Conn., high school students build electronic cars and other mechanical devices as part of an introductory class on the elements of robotics.

And last month, in Atlanta, more than 20,000 people gathered in the Georgia Dome for the finals of the 2007 FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an annual event that brings K-12 students from every state and at least three countries together to compete in a series of robotics challenges.

Part Super Bowl, part high school science fair, the event takes winning teams from 37 national and international regional events and pits them against one another in a bid for the best student-made robot. Some 9,000 students from 1,300 different teams squared off this year in three separate competitions to determine which team had what it takes to win.

When it comes to engaging students in technical disciplines, Tebbano said, few activities are a bigger draw than robotics. "Robotics brings a real sizzle to engineering," he said. "It’s something that’s always been very appealing to young people."

Robots in the classroom

But robots aren’t just tools for technical education. When used effectively, some experts say, they can be important cogs in the learning process, providing a new way of thinking for students, while helping to illustrate abstract concepts that–prior to the integration of such devices in the classroom–had proved difficult to teach.

As the chief executive officer of Valiant Technology, a U.K.-based engineering and design firm that builds robots for use by teachers and students, Dave Catlin is one such believer. Catlin’s company reportedly has sold more than a quarter of a million of its Roamer robots to schools.

Catlin says he hopes to build on the success of his original Roamer robot with the release of Roamer Too, a new version that integrates voice capabilities and other features for a more interactive user experience. Already being demonstrated in the U.K., Catlin said, Roamer Too should be available in the U.S. this summer.

Resembling an oversized mushroom cap on wheels, the plastic, dome-shaped devices reportedly are being used in classrooms to do everything from impart simple mathematics concepts, to engage developmentally disabled learners. In some cases, Catlin says, schools even are using the robots as mechanical guinea pigs, giving aspiring engineers a chance to dissect them in the name of practical knowledge. What’s more, he says, at less than $150 per machine, depending on accessories and software, the Roamer likely won’t break the bank where school budgets are concerned.

Michael Doyle, program manager for math, science, and technology at the Cattaraugus Allegany Board of Cooperative Educational Services in southwestern New York, said educators in the 22 school districts his organization serves have access to at least 60 of the machines and use them to help emphasize certain geometric concepts, teach students how to plot points on a navigational map, and lead lessons in beginning programming and engineering.

Unlike most textbooks, where problems are written out on paper and to exact results, robotic tools such as the Roamer illustrate the unpredictability of math in the real world, Doyle says. For instance, students using the Roamer must account for a series of real-world variables, such as the impact of the floor’s surface on movement.

"When you’re driving down the road, you’re not necessarily driving in a straight line," he explained. "There are all sorts of variables to contend with." The Roamer helps students learn to account for these, he said.

At the Mathematics & Science Center in Richmond, Va., K-5 math and physical science teacher Gail Warren says educators use Valiant’s Roamer to teach third-graders about such fundamental concepts as angles, degrees, and basic geometry. Instead of simply drawing shapes on a board or manipulating them on a computer screen, she said, teachers work with students to program the movements into the robots and then watch as the machines carry out each action as assigned.

Like learning a foreign language, Warren said, it’s important for students to interact with technology at a young age. The earlier they pick it up, she said, the more likely they are to retain the information being taught–a benefit that will only help them as they compete for jobs in an increasingly technology-driven workforce.

Expanding on research first cultivated by famed MIT professor Seymour Papert, Catlin designs his machines, in part, using the Logo programming language–an educational philosophy that examines how children learn through their interaction with other people and the world around them.

Papert first illustrated the Logo concept through the creation of a rudimentary robot called the Turtle. Similar to Catlin’s Roamer, the Turtle was a small device that moved around on the floor and responded to commands typed by teachers and students into a computer.

Just as the robots "learn" from completing a series of tasks, Catlin said, students also are able to improve their understanding of basic concepts by observing theirs and others’ interactions with the robot. By watching the robot perform a basic function such as moving across the floor five feet, for example, a student is able to visualize five feet as a unit of measurement, forming a picture in his or her mind of what five feet looks like in real terms.

Such mental connections are hard to make when tethered to a computer. But by allowing students to put their hands on the technology, to give the robot commands and observe its actions firsthand, he said, educators can help ensure that students not only grasp, but retain, the information being taught.

"If you make something exciting for a kid, [he or she] will remember it forever," Catlin said. "The robot helps give students that practical experience … it helps build that intuitiveness, that understanding."

On a grander stage

The Roamer isn’t the only tool educators have for putting the "E" back into STEM education. After launching with 28 teams in 1992, FIRST reportedly has experienced double-digit growth each year since its inception, with a 15 percent spike in participation this year alone.

Chief Marketing Officer John Marchiony said there is little doubt that a renewed emphasis in STEM education is driving interest in the program, which features three different robotics challenges targeted at students in grades K-12.

"A growing number of individuals and corporations have identified looming gaps in their workforce," Marchiony said. To help fill those gaps, leading technology corporations and organizations–including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and others–have combined to provide the financial backing and services to support the competition.

Apart from giving corporate sponsors a chance to flag top talent, Marchiony said, the program also helps foster important 21st-century skills such as teamwork and collaboration–providing an experience for students that mirrors what they’re likely to encounter in the business world, no matter what career they choose.

Students work together in teams to research, design, and build their own robots using a kit and guidelines pulled together by the folks at FIRST. The teams then join with other teams from across the country to form alliances, competing against teams in other alliances to advance through the tournament.

When the program first launched in the early 90s, Marchiony said, the robots competed in simple tasks such as pushing past opponents on a ramp. But as the technology has evolved, so, too, has the challenge for students. This year, he says, contestants competed under the theme "Rack ‘n’ Roll." The remote-controlled robots were required to pick up plastic tubes and hang them on a rack in the center of the ring; teams had two minutes and 15 seconds to hang as many tubes as they could.

Whether educators choose to enter their students in a national robotics competition or invest in robots for use in their classrooms, Catlin stresses the technology "is not by any means a panacea." Like any classroom solution, he says, the machines are only as good as the curriculum that surrounds them.

"It’s sort of like saying, ‘Does a pencil meet the standards?’" said Catlin. "The technology is a tool. It provokes kids to think."


Colleges seek better emergency-notification systems

The two hours it took for Virginia Tech officials to eMail students a warning about a gunman on campus last month have raised the question of how schools can get critical news out faster in a crisis–and how technology can help.




"When you’re in the middle of something, two hours is not very long. But when you’re looking in, it does seem like a long time," says Mitchell Celaya, the assistant chief of campus police at the University of California, Berkeley.




At UC Berkeley, Celaya says an extreme emergency would warrant, among other things, a siren on an outdoor public address system, followed by an announcement with instructions.




The University of Florida is working with local police to place automatic calls to campus telephones with similar kinds of messages, including alerts about hurricanes and tornadoes. And the University of Cincinnati has gone as far as making its public address system audible inside buildings.




"There is no one magic communication system that we can press a button and let everyone know what is going on," says Chris Meyer, assistant vice president for safety and security at Texas A&M University, where they use all of the above methods and others.




Getting word out to students also was the plan at Virginia Tech, where officials have been working on a system that would get emergency alerts to students via text messages on their cell phones.




That system was not in place April 16, during the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. The gunman who killed 32 people and then himself was identified by police on April 17 as Cho Seung-Hui, a South Korean studying at the university.




Virginia Tech officials and local law-enforcement authorities faced pressure to explain how the gunman apparently avoided detection after killing two people in a university dorm and then went on to kill 30 others in a classroom building across campus two hours later.




Some students said their first notice of trouble came in an eMail message sent at 9:26 a.m., after the second shooting had begun.




University president Charles Steger said the university decided to rely on eMail and other electronic means to spread the word, but he added that with 11,000 people driving onto campus first thing in the morning, it was difficult to get the word out.




Steger said that before the eMail messages went out, the university began telephoning resident advisers in the dorms and sent people to knock on doors. Students were warned to stay inside and away from the windows.




"We can only make decisions based on the information you had at the time. You don’t have hours to reflect on it," he said.




The University of Georgia has joined a small but growing number of institutions that are testing emergency-notification systems similar to what Virginia Tech had planned. Its service, provided by the California-based NTI Group, is voluntary and allows students to plug in various phone numbers and eMail addresses to a web site–and then transfers messages from the university using phone systems outside the affected area so it doesn’t jam local phone lines.




"One person may be receiving five different messages through five different means," says UGA spokesman Tom Jackson.




Elsewhere, some universities are devising more targeted means of security in hopes of quickening their responses.




The University of Washington has a high-level safety team that was put in place after a murder-suicide. The aim is to move staffers who are in danger to other offices or provide them extra security protection. However, that system failed recently when a 26-year-old staffer was killed by her ex-boyfriend on April 2.




There’s also no guarantee that students will heed warnings.




Diane Brown, spokeswoman for the University of Michigan’s public safety department, says officials there sometimes have trouble getting students to exit buildings during fire alarms and other emergencies because of false alarms.




"How do you overcome that desensitization?" she asks.




She and others note that it’s also common for students to let strangers into dorms that are locked or require key cards. Propping doors open is also still a rampant practice.




And the fact of the matter is, campuses are largely open places where just about anyone–especially a student–is free to roam.




For that reason, college officials across the country agree that, in the end, no higher-education institution is immune to this kind of violence, no matter how well it prepares.




"Obviously, these crazy out-of-the-blue nightmare scenarios can happen just about anywhere," says John Holden, a spokesman at DePaul University in Chicago.



Until April 16, the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history was in Killeen, Texas, in 1991, when George Hennard plowed his pickup truck into a Luby’s Cafeteria and shot 23 people to death, then himself.




The April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech took place almost eight years to the day after the Columbine High School shootings near Littleton, Colo. On April 20, 1999, two teenagers killed 12 fellow students and a teacher before taking their own lives.Previously, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history was a rampage in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin, where Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower and opened fire. He killed 16 people before police shot him to death.


Tech’s ‘greatest potential’: Personalizing instruction

Calling technology’s “greatest potential” for education its ability to personalize instruction, Katie Lovett, chair of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), kicked off the group’s 12th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in San Francisco March 28.

The conference brought together school district chief information officers and other educational technology leaders from around the world to discuss key ed-tech challenges and solutions. One of these challenges, Lovett noted in setting the stage for the meeting’s opening general session, is the need to break out of the mold of the one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.

Lovett, who is the CIO of Georgia’s Fulton County Schools, introduced Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Education. Dede moderated an opening general session that explored two creative yet very different approaches to personalizing instruction with the help of technology.

One of these approaches is, a United Kingdom-based international virtual learning community. offers an alternative to traditional education for students who, for a variety of reasons, can’t cope with school.

“We’re the absolute antithesis of what school is,” said Jean Johnson, project director.

Johnson explained that Notschool allows students to take ownership of the curriculum and shape their own education. They can choose their areas of study, and because instruction is asynchronous and online, they can choose when they’ll participate. “Teenagers don’t want to learn at in the morning,” she said–but, given a choice over the direction of their education, they do want to learn.

Operating within the confines of the traditional school system, Virginia‘s Fairfax County Public Schools–the nation’s 12th largest school district–is working to create an Individual Learning Plan for each of its 163,000 students.

“It’s time to craft our vision for the future, instead of dwelling on the past,” Superintendent Jack D. Dale told conference attendees.

After Johnson and Dale described their respective projects, Dede moderated a discussion about the challenges each faces. He concluded the session by noting that, while it’s clear technology allows educators to personalize instruction “in ways we never could before,” school leaders often must confront significant political and cultural hurdles to make this happen.

(Editor’s note: For highlights of this opening general session, see the nine-minute video clip titled “Personalized Learning”:

Re-engaging students

A key idea to emerge from this opening general session, which was repeated throughout the conference, was the need for schools to re-engage today’s youth.

“Why are kids on MySpace?” Johnson asked conference attendees. “They’re there because they want to be there.” But, too often, the same can’t be said about school. Today’s students are growing up immersed in a world of video games, cell phones, and instant messaging–but when they get to school, they’re often forced to leave these technologies at the door.

In an international symposium held March 27, the day before the conference officially began, CoSN brought together education leaders from several nations to discuss how computer games and simulations–interactive media that today’s students embrace and understand–can be used as serious learning tools.

The symposium included an address from Lord David Puttnam, an Academy Award-winning British filmmaker and education official. Puttnam, whose films include The Mission, The Killings Fields, and Chariots of Fire, is the only non-American to lead a major Hollywood studio, having run Columbia Pictures in the 1980s. After retiring from the film industry, he went to work for the United Kingdom‘s Department for Education and Skills, where he has sought to spread the message that today’s schools must change if they are to reach a new generation of learners.

In an interview with eSchool News, Puttnam said educators can learn a lot from the entertainment industry. The primary lesson? “Know your audience,” he said.

(Editor’s note: For highlights of the interview with Lord Puttnam, see the five-minute video clip titled “‘Know your audience'”:

The exploration of computer gaming as a serious approach to instruction continued on the conference’s first day, with a session examining a project in Japan, called the Instructional Activities Game (AIG), that uses games in teacher education. Another session looked at existing research on the effectiveness of using games to teach core curricular content.

An international flair

This year’s CoSN conference had a decidedly international feel to it, highlighted by a closing general session on March 30 examining what might be the world’s largest effort to transform instruction through the use of technology on a national scale in Great Britain.

In a session titled “Personalization and the U.K.‘s Whole-School Reform Effort,” Doug Brown, head of learning technologies for that nation’s Department for Education and Skills, described the scope of these efforts and the vision behind them.

The U.K. has pumped a tremendous amount of funding into educational technology over the last 10 years, Brown said. It now spends the equivalent of $1.5 billion a year on school technology alone for its 9 million students–and this figure is growing at a rate of about 5 percent, per year. The country also has made a push to install interactive whiteboards in its schools, and though the decision to participate is left to each institution, the devices are now in more than 50 percent of the nation’s classrooms.

By 2008, the U.K.‘s goal is to have all schools using learning platforms, all students using personalized learning spaces, and “universal access” to technology, wherever and whenever students need it, Brown said. That could include laptops, personal digital assistants, Sony PlayStation Portables, tablet computers, or whatever technologies school leaders choose.

As with the projects featured during the conference’s opening general session, the goal of these initiatives is to personalize instruction, Brown explained, adding: “One size fits all isn’t going to work.”

Sir Michael Barber, a consultant on global public-sector practice and former head of the British Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, was the original architect of Great Britain‘s school-reform movement, which provides the context for that nation’s ed-tech initiatives.

Barber addressed the conference in a pre-recorded video, saying, “Change will only happen if it is placed in the context of whole-school reform.” It also will happen only if education leaders combine pressure with support, he noted.

Toward that end, high-quality leadership is key. Brown acknowledged that education officials made a mistake when their initial push to train teachers in the use of technology to improve learning didn’t include training for school principals; that has since been rectified, he said.

How are these reform efforts working? There is some evidence that achievement gaps have been narrowed, Brown said, and literacy rates in the elementary schools are on the rise–but there is still much more work to be done.

‘A new kind of conversation’

Continuing this international theme, other conference sessions highlighted such initiatives as Australia‘s national education portal, EDNA; the use of open electronic learning content in Japan; and an international research project to investigate new ways of measuring the value of school technology.

For the last six years, CoSN has held an International Symposium in conjunction with its annual conference, in which the organization has brought together key education and policy leaders from the United States and abroad to examine global responses to educational technology. But with this year’s conference, CoSN has made an effort to integrate more international speakers and voices into the general program itself, said Keith Krueger, the group’s executive director.

This year’s conference featured more than 50 international participants from more than a dozen countries, Krueger said; that’s double the number from past years. Besides the U.K., Japan, and Australia, these included Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, France, and Denmark.

Krueger said CoSN wanted to give more international education leaders the chance to showcase their own ed-tech challenges and solutions, “so we can start a new kind of conversation and not just stop at the ocean’s shores.”

Overall attendance at this year’s show was up 10 percent over last year, he said, establishing a new conference high of more than 1,000 participants. This was the first year that Washington, D.C.-based CoSN has held its annual conference in San Francisco, and Krueger said the group plans to alternate between San Francisco and the D.C. area in future years.

News from the exhibit hall

Over in the exhibit hall, dozens of educational technology companies showcased their products and services for the education market. Here are some of the highlights.

3Com Corp. announced its “Spring Price Break” for schools, in which educational institutions can save money on 3Com’s switches and routers, IP telephony, security, and wireless solutions from now until June 1.

Atomic Learning highlighted the most recent additions to its stable of online technology tutorials, including new tutorials on Microsoft’s latest product offerings: Office 2007 and Windows Vista. The company says it now offers more than 25,000 tutorials on more than 100 computer applications that students and teachers use every day. These are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from any internet-connected computer, with new tutorials reportedly added every 45 days.

Brother International Corp. displayed its printing and imaging solutions for schools, which give educators the ability to reduce paper usage through double-sided printing, easily convert paper documents to PDF format or archive them by scanning to FTP, protect confidential student information with secure fax and print features, print hall passes with a date and time stamp, and create such products as visitor ID badges and bar code labels for books.

Elluminate Inc., a provider of live eLearning and web collaboration solutions for schools and businesses, introduced vRoom, a free, three-seat “virtual office” for both academic and corporate users. vRoom is optimized for low bandwidth connectivity, works on multiple platforms, and is always available, Elluminate said. It features two-way audio, an interactive whiteboard space, direct messaging, application sharing, file transfer, live video capabilities, and multiple language translation. “The collaborative opportunities available in Elluminate’s vRoom are tremendous,” said J. Ricky Cox, a professor at Murray State College. “I use vRoom and my tablet PC to conduct virtual office-hour sessions in my chemistry courses. Audio capabilities in vRoom allow me to discuss problem-solving strategies with my students, while I use the tablet pen to work problems and draw structures on the whiteboard. I also use vRoom with research colleagues across the country to plan experiments and converse about scholarly manuscripts we are writing.”

ePALS Classroom Exchange featured its new SchoolBlog solution, which enables students to blog freely in a protected environment. With ePALS SchoolBlog, teachers and students can safely incorporate classroom and school web sites and blogs into their educational endeavors, the company said.

Parat Solutions introduced its Paradidact Mobile IT Transport System, which allows educators to transport, store, recharge, administer, and synchronize up to 32 notebook computers cost-effectively and efficiently. The system allows users to conveniently administer updates or synchronize lesson plans from any remote location via “Wake-on-LAN” technology, according to the company.

Stoneware Inc. featured its web Network solution, which allows schools to create a single, secure access point for all of their applications, services, and content. Stoneware says its webNetwork 5e combines the security of a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Virtual Private Network with the services of a web portal.

Following a successful pilot during the 2004-06 school years, Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School now offers two, 2-year online International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme courses: economics and information technology in a global society. VHS says it is the first and only online course provider to offer IB courses online.

A closer look at the report’s findings

The first-grade study was based on five reading software products that were implemented in 11 districts and 43 schools. The sample included 158 teachers and 2,619 students. The five products were Destination Reading (published by Riverdeep), the Waterford Early Reading Program (Pearson Digital Learning), Headsprout (Headsprout Inc.), PLATO Focus (PLATO Learning), and the Academy of Reading (Autoskill). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $100 a student for the school year, with a range of $53 to $124.

According to records maintained by the software, usage by individual students averaged about 30 hours a year, which the study estimated to be about 11 percent of total reading instructional time. Some control group teachers used technology-based reading products that were not in the study, though these teachers reported using software about a fifth as frequently as treatment teachers reported using the products in the study.

First-grade reading products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero, according to the report. But researchers observed large differences in the effects among schools–and effects were larger when schools had smaller class sizes.

The fourth-grade study included four reading products that were implemented in nine districts and 43 schools. The sample included 118 teachers and 2,265 students. The four products were the Leaptrack Assessment System (LeapFrog SchoolHouse), Read 180 (Scholastic), Academy of Reading, and KnowledgeBox (Pearson Digital Learning). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $96 per student for the school year, with a range of $18 to $184.

The average annual usage by students for the two products that collected this measure in their databases was seven hours for one product and 20 for the other. Assuming a typical reading instruction period was 90 minutes, that means students used these products for less than 10 percent of the total reading instructional time, according to the report. The fourth-grade reading products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero–though, not surprisingly, effects were larger when teachers reported higher levels of product use.

The sixth-grade study included three products that were implemented in 10 districts and 28 schools. The sample included 81 teachers and 3,136 students. The three products were Larson Pre-Algebra (Houghton-Mifflin), Achieve Now (PLATO Learning), and iLearn Math (iLearn). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $18 per student for the school year, with a range of $9 to $30.

Student usage was about 17 hours a year, or about 11 percent of total math instructional time, according to data from product records. The products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero.

The ninth-grade algebra study included three products that were implemented in 10 districts and 23 schools. The sample included 69 classrooms and 1,404 students. The three products were Cognitive Tutor Algebra (Carnegie Learning), PLATO Algebra (PLATO Learning), and Larson Algebra (Houghton-Mifflin). The study estimated the average licensing fees for the products to be about $15 per student for the school year, with a range of $7 to $30.

Product records showed that student usage averaged 15 hours for the entire school year, equivalent to about 10 percent of total math instructional time. As with the other products studied, algebra products did not affect test scores by amounts that were statistically different from zero.

Minor technical difficulties, such as issues with students logging in or computers locking up, were fairly common throughout the study. However, most of those problems were easily corrected or worked around, according to the report.

Tellingly, when asked whether they would use the products again, nearly all teachers indicated that they would.

The report detailed the effectiveness of the products as a group and did not review the performance of particular programs. That was a point of contention among some critics of the research, and ED says it will publish details about each program’s effectiveness after the second year of the study. (See Delays, designs diminish ed-tech research: news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6927.)


Why Apple-EMI deal holds scant school impact

For users of Apple Inc.’s iTunes Store, the company’s recent deal with EMI Group could be a real boon, because it will allow iTunes customers to download and listen to songs from EMI recording artists on devices other than Apple’s iPod. But for students and other users of the legal music-download services that have been cropping up on college campuses in recent years, the deal holds less promise, industry experts say–and it’s unlikely to spur more widespread use of these types of campus-based services in the future.

Breaking from the rest of the recording industry, London-based EMI–the world’s fourth-largest music label–on April 2 said it would begin selling songs online through iTunes that are free of copy-protection technology. The decision could pressure other major recording companies to follow suit.

iTunes customers soon will be able to buy unprotected songs by the Rolling Stones, Norah Jones, Coldplay, and other top-selling artists for $1.29, or 30 cents more than the copy-protected version. The premium tunes also will be offered in a higher quality than the 99-cent tracks.

The deal, however, doesn’t include music from the label’s biggest act, The Beatles. EMI Chief Executive Eric Nicoli said The Beatles’ music catalog is excluded from the deal, but he added that the company was "working on it." He declined to set a time frame for negotiations over the catalog.

EMI’s announcement followed calls by Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs earlier this year for the world’s four major record companies to start selling songs online without copy-protection software.

The technology, known as digital rights management, or DRM, is designed to combat piracy by preventing unauthorized copying or sharing, but it also can be a consumer headache. Some music players, for instance, support one type of DRM software but not others.

The DRM technology used by Apple does not work with competing services or devices, meaning consumers could download songs from iTunes only to play on their computers or iPod music players. The lock between the download services and players has drawn criticism from European industry regulators, who argued that it limits buyer choice.

"Doing the right thing for the customer going forward is to tear down the walls that impede interoperability," Jobs told a London news conference.

Jobs previously had argued there was little benefit to record companies selling more than 90 percent of their music on compact discs without DRM technology, then selling the remaining percentage online with DRM.

Some analysts suggest that lifting the software restrictions could boost sales of online music, which currently account for around 10 percent of global music sales.

Though EMI’s announcement is significant for users of Apple’s iTunes, Tim Hurley, a spokesman for Ruckus Network, which provides legal music-downloading services to colleges and universities, said the agreement is not likely to have a major impact on how students and teachers use other online music stores.

Whereas owners of MP3 players manufactured by Samsung, Dell, and other companies now will have the capability to download songs by a select crop of artists from Apple’s iTunes library, he explained, the announcement will not enable users of the popular iPod to start downloading music, movies, and other digital media from competing services such as Ruckus or Napster.

These companies, and others, have heavily courted the education market and have entered into agreements with schools to offer their services to students free of charge or at steeply discounted prices. Apple has no such agreements in place with schools regarding students’ use of iTunes.

Because Ruckus and other iTunes competitors employ a different standard than Apple’s pay-per-track service, Hurley said, Apple’s army of iPod users still will have to use the iTunes software to download music to their portable devices. The inability for students to play tracks on their iPods is a key reason many colleges and universities report an underutilization of legal download services such as Ruckus and Napster on their campuses (see Students spurn free music-download services,

Jobs said he planned to offer around half of all music in the iTunes store under the premium, DRM-free package by the end of the year, but he declined to say whether Apple was in discussions with other leading record companies.

"Consumers tell us overwhelmingly that they would be prepared to pay a higher price for digital music that they could use on any player," Nicoli said. "It is the key to unlocking and energizing the digital music business."

The iTunes music store will begin offering EMI’s entire catalog–apart from The Beatles–without DRM software starting in May, he said.


RIAA looks to change students’ tune

A music industry trade group is escalating its war on illegal music downloads, and students at more than two dozen universities are the primary targets.

As eSchool News reported not long ago, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has cracked down on illegal music downloading and file-sharing on campus networks by sending thousands more complaints to colleges and universities this school year than it did last year (see AP: Music companies targeting colleges: Now, the music industry trade group has gone a step further, sending what it calls "pre-litigation" letters to schools warning them that a copyright-infringement lawsuit against one of their students is forthcoming.

"Even with the impressive growth of the [legal digital music] marketplace, it’s not yet offsetting losses in physical sales. In order for that to happen, we have to make sure that the emerging digital marketplace has integrity and can realize its full potential," said RIAA Chief Executive Officer Mitch Bainwol.

In late February, the RIAA sent out 400 pre-litigation settlement letters to 13 universities, informing the schools of impending legal action being taken against their students and requesting that the universities forward the letters to the appropriate network users.

On March 21, the group announced that it has launched a second wave of settlement letters, sending 405 letters to 23 universities, including Boston University, Columbia, Dartmouth College, DePaul, and Drexel.

"We take this opportunity to once again ask schools to be proactive, to step up and accept responsibility for the activity of their students on their network–not legal responsibility, but moral responsibility as educators and leaders transmitting values to their students," said Cary Sherman, RIAA president. "Schools can offer legitimate music services and alternatives to illegal downloading. They can impose the appropriate disciplinary action for students found to be engaging in illegal activity. Most importantly, they can implement network technical solutions."

The RIAA says its latest anti-piracy campaign actually adopts a more reasonable approach than in the past.

Before, the group would file what it called a "John Doe" infringement lawsuit against an unnamed defendant, then issue a subpoena to the university to learn the identity of the offender. Once it had established this identity, the group would follow up with a letter to the student and would begin settlement discussions.

Now, instead of simply filing lawsuits, the RIAA is giving students the chance to avoid having their names emerge as part of a lawsuit by allowing them to settle within 20 days before any litigation starts. The association says students who choose to settle immediately will not have to pay as much as they would in a lawsuit.

"We have added this capability because we heard often from those who have been caught in a lawsuit that they wanted a way to settle earlier in the process and wanted to avoid having anything be part of a public record in federal court," said Steve Marks, RIAA’s executive vice president and general counsel. "We view this as a win-win-win that advances everybody’s interests; that is, the person caught, ours, and the university’s."

So far, it looks like the tactic might be working–at least for the RIAA: Of the 400 letters sent out in February, 116 students responded and have settled with the association, it says. For those who did not respond, lawsuits are being prepared. (The RIAA would not discuss how much it has recovered through settlements, nor the average dollar amount of such deals.)

The RIAA’s latest campaign is "another reason why we encourage our students not to violate copyright laws," Boston University spokesman Colin Riley told the Boston Herald. "We clearly tell students not to [illegally download]."

Since the RIAA began its lawsuits, students and universities have been favorite targets of the group. "That’s where the piracy is taking place in the most rampant way," said Bainwol. "The challenge here on college campuses is that there’s not a clear sense of risk, and we’re clearly trying to address that."

Sherman suggested that universities might want to try one of the available software products that are intended to "maintain the integrity, security, and legal use of school computer systems without threatening student privacy." These peer-to-peer traffic blockers can be designed either to block all peer-to-peer applications on a school’s network or only illegal traffic, he said.

Some school leaders, however, say this approach is not an effective solution. At Purdue University, officials say peer-to-peer file sharing can be beneficial for sharing educational material, something many of these new software applications cannot distinguish.

"There are legitimate reasons for peer-to-peer file sharing," said Purdue spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg. "We’re recommending that peer to peer be disabled if you’re not using it for an educational purpose. Our technical people feel that the services that are currently available are too blunt an instrument to be used."


More students getting laptops instead of textbooks

With the help of funding for schools affected by Hurricane Katrina and reward money for rising test scores, a Louisiana high school this fall will become one of the first in the state to dump textbooks in favor of laptop computers and an all-digital curriculum.

Students at Bolton High School, part of the Rapides Parish school system, won’t be carrying around textbooks and paper notebooks, but instead will have laptop computers as part of the parish’s first Digital Academy.

“This is on the cutting edge, not only for our parish but also the state,” Bolton High School Principal Bill Higgins said. “This is the wave of the future.”

Students in Bolton‘s gifted program, plus all 11th-graders and the majority of its seniors, won’t be issued textbooks but will be given an Apple iMac computer on the first day of school. The students will be allowed to take the computers home.

“We are immersing the curriculum in technology,” Higgins said.

Bolton High has two technology facilitators who are taking 30 of the laptop computers to various classes, giving students a taste of what they will experience next year.

Barbara Gourgues recently had the mobile lab and facilitators in her civics class. She said the students loved using the computers.

The school is using two grants and state reward money to pay for the new program. It received 160 laptop computers from the Virtue Foundation, which has helped schools affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and has given out 600 computers across the state, school officials said. A Louisiana High Tech grant, as well as money the school expects to receive because of growth in its school performance score, also will help fund the Digital Academy.

To prepare for the Digital Academy, Bolton High will become wireless so students can receive internet service as far out as the football field, Higgins said.

The school is converting an old typing classroom into an internet cafe that will be open later in the afternoon, so students who do not have internet access at home can get work and studying done. In addition, the students will be able to use “hot spots” throughout the community to get online.

The online curriculum is in the planning stages, and officials say the project gives the school a chance to update its curriculum.

Higgins said teachers will be able to grade assignments and return the graded material online. Students can turn in work online, and classes will be able to include such activities as online experiments.

Teachers in the Digital Academy will receive laptop computers and projectors for their classrooms. The computers will be maintained and repaired on campus, so that if a student has a problem with one, he or she will simply turn it in and be issued another.

In going all-digital, Bolton High School will follow the lead of pioneering institutions such as Arizona‘s Empire High School, part of the Vail School District, which dumped textbook in favor of laptops in 2005.

According to district technology coordinator Matt Federoff, Empire’s program has enjoyed such success that state education officials are working to replicate it in seven additional schools.

Every student and teacher at Empire receives a laptop loaded with several electronic resources. Rather than mandate how and when teachers should use the technology, educators are free to leverage it as they see fit.

“As long as you teach the standards, we really don’t care how you get there,” said Federoff, who noted that one of the chief complaints under No Child Left Behind is that increased accountability has stifled classroom innovation. “We’re giving that freedom back to teachers,” he said.

To make educators comfortable with these new resources, Federoff said, one of the most important decisions Empire made was to give teachers paid time before the school opened to experiment with the technology in groups, trading best practices and devising appropriate lessons.

Schools typically overlay computers onto their instruction “like frosting on the cake,” said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker, a 2006 winner of eSchool News‘ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award. “We decided that the real opportunity was to make the laptops the key ingredient of the cake … to truly change the way that schools operated.”