School laptop program begets writing gains

Maine’s pioneering program to give every middle school student a laptop computer is leading to better writing, according to a new study.

Despite creating a language all their own using eMail and text messages, students are still learning standard English, and their writing scores have improved on a standardized test since laptop computers were distributed, the study says.

Moreover, the students’ writing skills improved even when they were using pen and paper, not just a computer keyboard.

“If you concentrate on whether laptops are helping kids achieve 21st-century skills, this demonstrates that it’s happening in writing,” said David Silvernail, director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

The study, authored by Silvernail and Aaron Gritter, is the first in a series in which educators aim to evaluate Maine’s first-in-the-nation laptop program.

The program, which seeks to eliminate the so-called “digital divide” between wealthy and poor students, kicked off with distribution of about 36,000 computers to each seventh- and eighth-grader in Maine public schools in 2002 and 2003.

The study focused on eighth-graders’ scores on the Maine Educational Assessment to see if the standardized test results backed up the perception of both students and teachers alike that laptops have led to better writing skills.

State Education Commissioner Sue Gendron said the study represents the first concrete evidence that backs up what most educators already believe: that the laptop program, known as the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, is working.

“It’s about enhancing learning opportunities, and the evidence and the data we’ve received in this report substantiates that this is the right approach,” she said.

Maine Education Assessment scores indicate 49 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in 2005 in writing, compared with 29 percent in 2000.

And it wasn’t just a function of taking the writing portion of the test using a computer and keyboard. Students who used pen and paper, and those who used a computer keyboard, showed similar improvements on the test, Silvernail said.

During the same period, math scores were unchanged and science scores improved by 2 points, while reading scores actually dropped 3 points, Silvernail said. Writing showed the biggest improvement of 7 points, from 530 to 537, he said.

Silvernail said it’s unrealistic to expect big increases on standardized test scores that are tied to laptops, but writing is the exception.

Laptops make it easier for students to edit their copy and make changes without getting writer’s cramp, he said. As a result, students are writing and revising their work more frequently, which leads to better results. And it’s important, Silvernail said, that those skills translated when the test was taken with pen and paper, too.

Virginia Rebar, principal at Piscataquis Community Middle School, said she was not surprised by the results, because language skills are being developed every time the computers are used, in social studies and other subjects beyond language arts.

“It’s just a lot easier to edit, to self-critique. Our teachers engage students in a lot of peer editing. Not only are they helping themselves, but they’re helping each other as they get to their final projects,” Rebar said.


Maine Learning Technology Initiative

Maine Education Policy Research Institute

Study: “Maine’s Middle School Laptop Program: Creating Better Writers”


FETC 2008: Computer hardware and infrastructure

Bretford, a supplier of technology and media furniture for schools, introduced two height-adjustable carts with welded pull-out shelving. The new carts have legs and shelves that are arc-welded into place for a strong and secure platform. The A2642NS has three open shelves, while the CA2642NS includes a lower locking cabinet to store equipment and deter tampering and theft.

Both models are 24 inches wide, 18 inches deep, and can be adjusted from 26 inches to 42 inches in height by resetting four screws to a comfortable projecting height. They offer enough room on the top shelf to accommodate a 20-inch diagonal monitor or any audiovisual equipment with similar dimensions, and they are available with either 4- or 5-inch swivel casters for easy movement and locking brakes so they remain steady during use. Their die-press shelves feature rounded edges for extra safety during use and while being moved. And, their top shelf includes a non-slip rubber mat to keep expensive AV equipment firmly in place.

Optional electrical units with a 20-foot power cord and winder are available so the carts can be positioned anywhere in the room.

HP launched the HP Compaq 6720T Mobile Thin Client, a thin-client laptop computer with a 15.4-inch diagonal display, embedded Windows XP operating system, 1-gigabyte Flash module, and USB storage security options, among other features. Advantages of the device for education include its ease of deployment, security (confidential data and district applications are kept secure on a centralized server), and a lack of moving parts—resulting in less maintenance and downtime than with traditional laptops, HP says.

The mobile thin client also is environmentally friendly: It’s energy-efficient, meets Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) compliance, offers recycling incentives, and its power supplies meet all the requirements of the U.S. Energy Star program. In addition, the device comes with HP ThinSlate Tools to help deploy, configure, and manage software using a USB flash key for easy image capturing and deployment.

The mobile thin client starts at $749.


eSN TechWatch: February 2008

Flash Video

A wake-up call for American educators, and whatschools can learn from the movie industry. Plus, some ideas for making ed-techresearch more effective.


Microsoft makes a bid for Yahoo

The highly competitive web-search business became a lot more interesting today when Microsoft Corp. made an unsolicited bid to purchase Yahoo Inc. for $44.6 billion–far more than Yahoo shares were worth when the stock market closed yesterday.

And as Microsoft’s dramatic move was clearly aimed at strengthening its competitive edge against Google Inc., the prospect was for much greater competition between the two online powerhouses.

That, in turn, seemed destined to improve the internet experience for school officials, ed-tech leaders, teachers, and students among the many millions of internet users around the world for whom web searching and related software applications have assumed increasing day-to-day importance.

Microsoft’s unexpected announcement came as both it and Yahoo were struggling against frontrunning Google in the race to capture online advertising dollars. Analysts also saw the prospective deal as giving a positive jolt to the entire technology market.

In a letter to Yahoo’s board of directors, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said his company would bid $31 per share, representing a 62 percent premium to Yahoo’s closing stock price Thursday. The offer sent Yahoo’s share price up 54 percent in premarket trading, while Google fell 8 percent.

Since reaching a 52-week high of $34.08 in October, Yahoo shares have fallen 46 percent. Yahoo rose $10.27 to $29.45 in premarket trading today, and by midday it stood just below $28 a share. Google, meanwhile, was down about 9 percent and Microsoft was off nearly 8 percent.

Ballmer said in his letter that Yahoo had told the world’s biggest software company a year ago that the Yahoo board felt it was not the right time to enter into discussions regarding a deal.

The main reason for that view was attributed to the Yahoo board’s confidence in realizing “potential upside” based on a new operational strategy and “a significant organizational realignment.” Ballmer added: “A year has gone by, and the competitive situation has not improved.”

According to the proposed deal, Yahoo shareholders could choose to receive cash or Microsoft common shares, with the total purchase consisting of 50 percent each in cash and stock.

Microsoft said the merger would generate at least $1 billion in savings. The company planned to offer significant retention packages to Yahoo engineers, leaders, and employees. The company said it believes the takeover would receive regulatory approval and close in the second half of this year.

For the educators and the rest of the internet world, the prospective combination of Microsoft and Yahoo against Google represents the latest major development in a high-stakes “battle for the desktop.” With personal, professional, and educational computing becoming increasingly sophisticated, big-name technology companies have been fighting fiercely for marketing supremacy–leading to big gains for so-called software as a service and other internet-based products. See Web offerings spread in ‘battle for desktop.’

As Microsoft made its offer for Yahoo, Ballmer said his company expected Yahoo’s board will review its proposal, but “reserves the right to pursue all necessary steps to ensure that Yahoo’s shareholders are provided with the opportunity to realize the value inherent in our proposal.”

Microsoft’s announcement followed one by Yahoo late Thursday that Terry Semel was stepping down as its chairman, severing his ties with Yahoo 7 1/2 months after resigning as its chief executive under shareholder pressure. Semel had been criticized for failing to cash in sufficiently on the web advertising surge in comparison with Google.

Yahoo co-founder and Chief Executive Jerry Yang said this week the company will cut 1,000 jobs, or 7 percent of its work force, in an effort to cut costs. Meanwhile, Microsoft last week forecast a rosy 2008 despite broader economic worries after it blew past Wall Street’s expectations for a second consecutive quarter.






K12 is Wall Street’s pet as online schooling grows

In recent years, a small but fast-growing number of parents seeking alternatives to traditional schooling have fostered a new industry: virtual public schools.

These publicly financed distance-learning alternatives are essentially charter schools in cyberspace. Yet, so far, just one company is winning strong marks for capitalizing on this movement: the Herndon, Va.-based K12.

The education-software maker just went public in December. It sells online curricula and management services to 32 virtual public schools in more than a dozen states including Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado. The bull case for K12 is in its growth prospects, as more parents look beyond the traditional public schools and the Internet becomes an increasingly accepted learning tool. Over the past four years, average enrollments at K12’s client schools more than doubled to 27,000 students from 11,000, boosting K12’s revenue 97% to $140.6 million.

This week, three investment banks, which also helped underwrite K12’s IPO, issued Buy or Outperform ratings on the stock with price targets of $26 to $27, compared with Wednesday’s close of $24. To date the shares are up 33% from the company’s initial offering price of $18, although they’ve edged down from their first trading day’s close.

K12 charges per-student fees for its curriculum and management services, including the hiring and training of teachers. The virtual schools, which are regulated by their states, are free for eligible parents. K12 supplies each student with a computer, Internet connection and all the curriculum materials. Chief Executive Ron Packard says he was inspired to start K12 after growing dissatisfied with the math lessons his daughter was getting in first grade. He says he went online hoping to buy “what the world’s best schools were teaching in math,” but couldn’t find such a product.

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‘Green Team’ monitors school’s eco-response

From the Washington Post: Sixth-grader Sophie Chang stood in front of a computer monitor near a teacher’s desk in a darkened classroom at Julius West Middle School in Rockville.

“Yeah, it’s not off. That’s not good,” she said, flicking off the power switch and making a note on a sheet of paper.

But the lights were off and the blinds and windows closed, so she gave Room 126 a score of three points out of a possible four on a report card issued by the school’s Green Team, an after-school club dedicated to promoting energy conservation among students and staff members.

Chang and fellow members of the Green Team, which meets Wednesdays, were conducting one of their regular spot-checks to find out whether teachers were taking some simple steps to conserve energy.

“Let’s see if the teachers are any more efficient than they were before winter break,” Green Team sponsor and science teacher Nancy Dorne said before the students, armed with report cards that they would tape to classroom doors, fanned through the hallways.

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Online schooling grows, setting off a debate

From The New York Times: Weekday mornings, three of Tracie Weldie’s children eat breakfast, make beds and trudge off to public school — in their case, downstairs to their basement in a suburb here, where their mother leads them through math and other lessons outlined by an Internet-based charter school.

Half a million American children take classes online, with a significant group, like the Weldies, getting all their schooling from virtual public schools. The rapid growth of these schools has provoked debates in courtrooms and legislatures over money, as the schools compete with local districts for millions in public dollars, and over issues like whether online learning is appropriate for young children.

One of the sharpest debates has concerned the Weldies’ school in Wisconsin, where last week the backers of online education persuaded state lawmakers to keep it and 11 other virtual schools open despite a court ruling against them and the opposition of the teachers union. John Watson, a consultant in Colorado who does an annual survey of education that is based on the Internet, said events in Wisconsin followed the pattern in other states where online schools have proliferated fast.

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STEM education program gets $12 million boost

A new program to create more schools focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education will prepare Ohio students to better compete in a global marketplace, state officials said Jan. 30.

The Ohio STEM Learning Network—a nonprofit initiative that will oversee the program—will begin with the creation of five math and science schools in different regions of the state by 2009.

Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and state lawmakers announced the program at Metro High School, a science and math school that opened in 2006 on the campus of Ohio State University. The new program will be financed with the help a $12 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization established by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Each of the new schools will be the hub in a wider network connecting students studying biological sciences, for example, with a professional outlet such as the Cleveland Clinic, where they could use hands-on science skills in a practical environment. Another region, which might focus on engineering, would expose students to real-life engineering training.

“We’re in a global economy, and we’ve got to compete,’ said House Speaker Jon Husted, a Kettering Republican who is one of the central backers of the education program. “And we are. Today represents a wonderful step in that direction.”

In 1970, half of those who held engineering and science degrees were Americans, but by 2010 that number will drop to 15 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education statistic cited by Husted.

Ohio lawmakers also have set aside $100 million for a technology-focused college scholarship program created in the current two-year state budget plan. Dozens of states have begun to emphasize STEM education in order to transition to a more research-based economy.

The Learning Network, which will be managed by Columbus-based Battelle—the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization—hopes by 2015 to double the number of college graduates in Ohio with degrees in science, math, and technology disciplines.

The five regional schools will target minorities and students who come from low-income families, in keeping with the Gates Foundation’s goal of making cutting-edge educational reform available to all students, regardless of race or economic means, said Steve Seleznow, education program director for the foundation.

The purpose of the program is to encourage students to develop problem-solving skills in group settings rather than using rote memorization, advocates said. Students said in a video presentation that they could, for example, use physics and math skills to create video games.



Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation