Obama’s high-tech win holds lessons for ed

As educators continue to reflect on President-elect Barack Obama’s historic victory in the Nov. 4 election, many are looking at the Obama campaign’s unprecedented use of technology to mobilize support and wondering what lessons their schools and colleges might learn from his success.

Observers have credited Obama’s success in no small part to his campaign’s innovative use of technology–including blogging, text messaging, and online social networks–to connect with younger voters and get them excited about politics and the election.

"We’ve done a huge amount of organizing using the internet, and we’ve used new technology in ways that really captured young voters’ attention," Obama spokeswoman Kirsten Searer told the Associated Press (AP) for a Nov. 3 story.

Obama’s Facebook page had 2.6 million supporters, and he had 850,000 MySpace friends. The campaign also relied on text messages to communicate with voters, finding that short blurbs were an effective way to advertise campaign stops and early voting locations.

Exit polls had the youth turnout, voters between the ages of 18 and 29, at its highest since 1972–and 66 percent of these young voters cast their votes for Obama.

Young voters reportedly accounted for 18 percent of the 133 million votes cast. This occurred in a year when a Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of Americans between 18 and 29 used the internet as their major source of election news in 2008. Only 17 percent of youth voters said they got their election coverage from newspapers.

Obama even mentioned the impact of young voters in his Nov. 4 victory speech, thanking "the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy."

Many observers believe educators can look to the Obama campaign for inspiration and use similar techniques in mobilizing support within their own school communities.

"There are a lot of lessons [schools] can learn," said Nora Carr, chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, "especially [regarding] social media networks. [These] can be used for teacher recruiting … and there are ways for teachers to communicate with students."

Carr said some school systems use online social networking to communicate with college students and recent graduates as a way to recruit teachers. She also said introducing social networking between teachers and students provides an opportunity to talk about media literacy, such as appropriate ways to use media.

"Right now we’re talking about the youth vote, but a few years from now these voters will be young parents. I think teachers will be able to plug into social media to stay in touch with those young parents and keep folks engaged and involved," she said.

Carr said she recognizes that finding ways to use online social networking either in the classroom or as a way to stay connected to young parents might be a daunting idea for some schools.

"A lot of schools are struggling just to keep their web sites updated," she said. "They might not know where to start with something like [social networking]."

But Carr said the entire Obama campaign will make for a good case study for public-relations specialists in the future.

"No matter your political leanings, you had to admire the sophisticated use of technology and the strategic and smart way they deployed it to get people registered, and then kept them informed until the elections," she said. "The outreach and follow-through was brilliant."

One example of this outreach came when the Obama campaign promised supporters who signed up to receive text messages that they would be the first to learn who Obama had chosen as his running mate. Thousands of supporters flocked to the campaign’s web site to enter their cell-phone numbers.

The idea didn’t work exactly as planned, because the media learned of Obama’s selection of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his vice presidential candidate and reported this fact before supporters received a text message. Still, this brainstorm had accomplished its goal: The campaign had thousands of new numbers in its database and was able to send alerts about campaign rallies and reminders about voter registration deadlines and polling places–something that young voters respond to well, according to a Princeton University and University of Michigan study.

The study showed that young voters who were sent text-message reminders to vote, on the eve of Election Day 2006, were more likely to vote than those who didn’t receive a text-message reminder. The study found that sending a text-message reminder to vote provided a 4-percent boost in youth voter turnout rates.

Many schools and colleges have implemented emergency-alert systems that can send out automated phone calls and text messages in the event of a campus emergency. Having already collected the cell-phone numbers and eMail addresses of students and parents in a database, school leaders also can use this information to send other messages as well, such as to diffuse campus rumors or garner community support. (Public schools and universities must be careful not to use their systems to campaign for any candidates or take sides on any ballot initiatives, experts say–but they can use these systems to raise awareness.)

According to his campaign web site, Obama’s election campaign was only the beginning of how he will harness the power of the internet to transform government and politics, by allowing voters to connect to his administration and to each other.

Now that the campaign is over, the president-elect is continuing to use the internet to connect with the public. Within 24 hours of clinching the election, Obama’s transition team unveiled Change.gov, a site that includes a blog, a newsroom, and a countdown to the Jan. 20 inauguration.

People who visit the site can share their stories about what the election meant to them and offer their hopes for what Obama can achieve during his presidency. "Share your vision for what America can be, where President-Elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?" the site asks.

Schools can take similar steps by soliciting feedback from parents and students through their web sites, taking the pulse of the community to find out what stakeholders think is important and make them feel like a part of the school community.

People are invited to submit their names and eMail addresses to the change.gov web site, with the goal of creating a new list for the president-elect to tap when he wants to communicate directly about a program he’s promoting or seek help urging members of Congress to support legislation he’s proposed.

"Just imagine what happens when a congressman comes back to his district and 500 people are lined up for his town hall meeting because they got an eMail from Obama urging them to attend," Thomas Gensemer told AP. He’s managing partner of Blue State Digital, which designed Obama’s campaign web site and change.gov.

If schools acquire parents’ eMail addresses through a feedback section on their web sites, they could use similar tactics to increase parent awareness and involvement. Schools could send out eMail messages to alert parents about things such as changes in school policy or to urge attendance at a school board hearing.

Aides say the Obama team will staff a robust "new media" operation out of the White House and plans a complete overhaul of the White House web site to make it more interactive and user-friendly. On the campaign trail, Obama promised to use the internet to make his administration more open, such as offering a detailed look at what’s going on in the White House on a given day or asking people to post comments on his legislative proposals.

Such freewheeling use of new technology also carries certain risks, as Obama discovered last summer when he signaled he would vote in the Senate for a sweeping intelligence surveillance law reviled by liberal activists. Thousands of angry supporters jammed his campaign web site to express their outrage–a phenomenon that could easily be repeated when he becomes president. Schools, too, could face the same problem of being an easy and direct target for criticism–though experts say the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.



Office of the President-Elect

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Technology Without Breaking the Bank resource center. With every dollar at a premium, school and district leaders are looking for ways to cut costs without sacrificing their education initiatives. The good news is, new advancements in technology make this scenario possible. Strategies such as software virtualization, software as a service, open-source software and open technologies, and a new breed of low-cost computers enable school IT directors to streamline their operations and bolster their ed-tech programs-without breaking the bank. Go to: Technology Without Breaking the Bank


Oregon ordered to pay in dispute over online testing

The Oregon Department of Education, which blamed Vantage Learning for the catastrophic failure of computerized statewide testing in spring 2007, is itself the guilty party, an Oregon jury decided. As a result, reports The Oregonian, Oregon must pay Vantage Learning $3.52 million, because the state education agency operated in bad faith and violated its contract with Vantage. Leaders of the Pennsylvania-based company were jubilant that a panel of Oregonians cleared the firm of wrongdoing and placed blame for the dispute squarely with the state education department. "We’ve been vindicated," said Vantage President Bob Patrylak, one of several company officials who testified during last week’s five-day trial in Salem. The jury verdict told a starkly different story than the one the state education department put forth in spring 2007, when a high-profile stoppage in computer testing forced schools to switch to paper-and-pencil tests. Oregon officials excoriated the company, saying poor service and unprofessional attitudes at Vantage caused the problem. Schools scrambled to reschedule tests, students couldn’t do retakes, and thousands more pupils failed the state math exam than when the tests were offered online. Vantage Vice President Harry Barfoot said the way his firm was treated, along with Oregon’s decision to hire a new online testing firm that charges more than twice what Vantage did, raises questions about how well the Oregon Department of Education manages taxpayer money. Oregon was the first state to have all students take reading and math tests via computer. Vantage pioneered the technology that allowed Oregon to test that way. Since fall 2007, the state has relied on Washington, D.C., -based American Institutes for Research to conduct the tests online…

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Opinion: Obama and our schools

President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are signaling that education might take a back seat to other issues in the first few months of his administration. He ranked it fifth among his priorities, and if it is being downplayed, that’s a mistake, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "We can’t meaningfully address poverty or grow the economy as long as urban schools are failing. Mr. Obama talks boldly about starting new high-tech green industries, but where will the workers come from unless students reliably learn science and math?" Kristof writes. "The United States is the only country in the industrialized world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington. The most effective anti-poverty program we could devise for the long run would have less to do with income redistribution than with ensuring that poor kids get a first-rate education, from preschool on. One recent study found that if American students did as well as those in several Asian countries in math and science, our economy would grow 20 percent faster…"

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Survey reveals economy’s impact on schools

School districts in every region of the country are feeling the effects of the economic downturn, with many having already delayed technology purchases, cut non-essential travel, and increased class sizes, among other measures.

That’s according to a survey conducted last month by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which found that districts nationwide already have begun implementing belt-tightening measures in response to shrinking budgets. The survey also suggests the slumping economy could threaten the gains in student achievement that schools have fought so hard to attain–and it could undermine their capacity to deliver essential services.

"In many communities, schools are on the front lines of the economic downturn," said AASA President Randall Collins, superintendent of schools in Waterford, Conn. "Schools provide essential resources for children in need, especially during tough economic times. We need to ensure schools have adequate funding, so we don’t put our children at risk during these challenging economic times." 

Steps taken: Thirty-four percent of superintendents surveyed said they’ve deferred technology purchases as a result of the current recession, putting this solution among the top 10 responses. Other top measures that senior school executives already have undertaken include altering thermostats (62 percent), eliminating non-essential travel (56 percent), reducing staff-level hiring (48 percent), increasing class size (36 percent), deferring maintenance (36 percent), and reducing instructional materials (35 percent).

Steps pending: Another 25 percent of superintendents said they have considered delaying technology purchases, but haven’t done this yet. Other top actions that superintendents have considered but have not yet implemented as a result of the economic downturn include eliminating field trips (35 percent), freezing outside professional service (30 percent), laying off personnel (30 percent), and cutting non-academic programs, such as after-school enrichment programs (26 percent).

Economic impact: Sixty-seven percent of superintendents described their districts as "inadequately funded." Only 30 percent described their districts as "adequately funded," and two percent said their districts have surplus funding.

Superintendents in urban and rural school districts (69 percent and 74 percent, respectively) were more likely to describe the current economic situation in their districts as "inadequate" than those in suburban districts (60 percent).
Among superintendents reporting inadequate funding in their districts, most said this situation affects their capacity to maintain a focus on student learning (87 percent), maintain a focus on instructional improvements (83 percent), address the learning needs of all students (83 percent), and meet or exceed state and federal performance assessments (81 percent). Districts with adequate funding reported limited impact in these areas.
Credit crunch: Twenty-one percent of respondents said the economic downturn is already affecting their district’s ability to borrow funds to pay for school projects. Eighty-eight percent anticipate it will be harder to borrow funds in the coming year, and 61 percent predict it will be harder to sell bonds.
The poor economy isn’t just affecting school programs, according to the survey; it’s also affecting families–and, therefore, students’ readiness to learn.

Among respondents who reported inadequate funding in their districts, 91 percent said mortgage foreclosures have increased in their communities; 72 percent reported homelessness has increased; 95 percent said unemployment has grown; and 96 percent reported an increase in the number of students without health insurance.
Participation in the federal school lunch program also has increased dramatically, according to superintendents, with 75 percent reporting some increase in participation.

Overall, the survey reflects a general sense of pragmatism among superintendents regarding the need to tighten their budgets and implement moderate changes in response to the current economic climate, AASA says. However, given that schools largely passed their budgets for the 2008-09 school year before the recent Wall Street meltdown, many respondents said the adjustments they would make to their 2008-09 budgets are very moderate when compared with the cuts they expect to see in their upcoming budget discussions. 
The survey also notes the close connection that exists between the fiscal health of public schools and their communities.

"When schools curtail their spending through measures such as reducing payroll, conserving energy use, reducing fuel consumption, deferring maintenance, and delaying purchases, the local community feels the effect," says the report. "For many small communities, schools are a major employer as well as a reliable source of revenue, and cuts to school spending mean cuts to community revenue."

"Public schools are an integral component to economic recovery and growth," said AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech. "A strong public school system produces a strong workforce, fueling the economic diversity essential to a recovering economy. Reducing investment in public schools when capacity is needed to sustain recovery only multiplies the negative impact and prolongs the economic downturn." 

American Association of School Administrators

Survey: "Impact of the Economic Downturn on Schools"

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Technology Without Breaking the Bank resource center. With every dollar at a premium, school and district leaders are looking for ways to cut costs without sacrificing their education initiatives. The good news is, new advancements in technology make this scenario possible. Strategies such as software virtualization, software as a service, open-source software and open technologies, and a new breed of low-cost computers enable school IT directors to streamline their operations and bolster their ed-tech programs-without breaking the bank. Go to: Technology Without Breaking the Bank


Virtual office hours get students, profs together

The era of brief, face-to-face meetings between college students and their professors is coming to an end, higher-education officials say. Instead, colleges and universities are embracing a new forum for student-teacher conferences—virtual office hours, which extend class discussions into cyberspace.

Rather than forcing students to adjust their schedules to meet with professors during the relatively small window of opportunity afforded by weekly office hours, virtual meetings allow for much greater flexibility—which, in turn, means more students can benefit.

Virtual meetings are gaining popularity in higher education for a number of reasons, officials say. Off-campus students can have their questions answered without having to drive to campus, meeting times are more flexible, and professors can sit down with many students simultaneously, instead of penciling in students for 15 minutes of individual help before the next appointment begins. 

"[Students] can be sitting at home in their pajamas and get an answer they need without having to travel to our building," said Robert Evans, director of information technology at Purdue University, where educators have conducted online office hours since fall 2007, when the school began using the Purdue Adobe Acrobat Connect system.

Some virtual office-hours platforms allow students to see and hear their professors expound on issues they touched on in their latest lecture. Evans said Purdue instructors receive written questions in the online forum, then answer through a camera and microphone attached to their computer.

"Since most people have eyes and ears, it makes sense that seeing and hearing are important ways for people to process a certain depth or quality of information," he said, adding that students who need additional help after the online session are encouraged to call the professor.

Bonnie Willy, an assistant professor in the IT department at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, said her school’s online office-hour program has bolstered the frequency and length of teacher-student conversations over the last two years. Willy said she still requires freshmen to meet with her face to face for long-term course scheduling, but during the semester, question-and-answer sessions attract dozens of students to office hours via the web.

When students gather online, she said, peers bring their various approaches to problem-solving to the forum, and they sometimes answer student questions before the professor responds.

"But I can always take them through click by click wherever they’re stuck," said Willy, whose college uses Wimba’s Pronto program to host virtual office hours. "Sometimes, students help each other through chat rooms … and they’re able to solve these problems without me clicking at all."

Virtual meetings were more popular than ever when gas prices topped $4 earlier this year, Willy said. With gas dipping to near $2 a gallon, the prospect of a 30-mile round trip for a short meeting with a professor is not quite as daunting, but most students still prefer computer-based meetings, she said.

Findings published in the 2007 Community College Survey of Student Engagement showed students were either unwilling or unable to meet with professors after class time. The study showed that only 15 percent of college students discussed lessons from class readings or lectures "often or very often" outside the classroom.

Forty-seven percent of students said they "never" met with college faculty outside the lecture hall, according to the report. Only 8 percent of students surveyed said they met with instructors "often or very often" after class.

Higher-education officials said online office hours could be part of a larger strategy to tap students’ use of social-networking web sites. A survey released earlier this year by the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE showed that 57 percent of 18- and 19-year-old college students use social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for at least six hours a week. Seventy-nine percent of students surveyed said they used social networking to stay in touch with friends and family.

With students accustomed to communicating with friends and family via online chat and web-based messaging, professors are more likely to draw students to office hours if those sessions are hosted online, advocates of the practice say.

Willy said internet platforms where students and professors can meet has created a more close-knit campus atmosphere, even for online students who rarely, if ever, come to one of the more than 20 Ivy Tech campuses.

"I think it develops camaraderie between students and faculty," she said. "It’s nice to know you’re not the only one hammering something out [online] at 3 a.m. on a Saturday."


Ivy Tech Community College

Purdue University



A lesson in high-tech education for school district members

Four members of the Trenton City School District are flying to Los Angeles today to witness an innovative school initiative known as New Technology High School–a radical twist from what’s considered traditional learning, reports The Times of Trenton, N.J. The Trenton district has spent years trying to improve student performance through educational programs and tutoring, but now it is getting a feel for a different option. Spearheaded in 1999 and funded by the nonprofit group New Technology Foundation, roughly 40 New Technology schools operate across the country. In these technology-based schools, students confront a range of challenges in order to complete a project. The emphasis is on becoming adept at using modern technology. "It’s about recognizing that not all students learn in the same way. We have to have different ways of providing the curriculum," said Lucille E. Davy, state Education Department commissioner. "The best way for a district to know if they’re interested is to see it in action. It’s not the same unless you see the students in the classroom engaged in a far different way than in a traditional high school." A traditional math class in Trenton looks something like this: Teacher stands in the front of the room, lecturing and walking students through different equations. When the lesson is over, the teacher assigns similar problems for the students to finish at home. The New Technology schools alter that teaching philosophy. Instead of having a different lesson every day, the schools focus on project-based learning, in which students are given a problem and the content is built within the project. Students work to learn the content through research, calculations, outside interviews, and more…

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Technology security concerns cited in school district audit

A state audit has revealed that the Hernando County, Fla., School District’s information technology network needs beefier security protocols, reports the Hernando Today. The computer privileges of fired workers must be revoked in a timelier manner, and the district must create a more detailed log of cell-phone use: These are among the findings of the state’s annual operational audit of the Hernando County School District for the 2007-08 fiscal year that ended in June. The Florida Auditor General’s office completed the review and outlined 10 areas of concern that need improvement. The district has already addressed some of the issues and is working to fix the others, Superintendent Wayne Alexander said in a letter to the auditor general’s office responding to the findings. Some information technology staffers have too much access and control to district software applications, auditors wrote. Computer help-desk workers also had unnecessary power to update information on behalf of users who call for assistance. A review of 10 terminated staffers found that network access privileges weren’t revoked until as many as 78 days after the worker was fired, according to the audit. "Prompt action is necessary to ensure that a former employee does not retain information technology access privileges that would allow misappropriation or abuse of District assets," auditors wrote, adding that district staffers assured them that protocols were put in place back in August. The district also needs to have a procedure in place to provide the Internal Revenue Service with the value of cell phone services provided to each employee. The district had 228 cell phones last fiscal year that added up to a bill of more than $115,000. While staffers checked to make sure the phones were only being used for business, the district also needs to provide documentation to the IRS, typically in the form of notated cell phone bills, auditors wrote…

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U.S. schools burned by market crisis

Some Wisconsin school districts are reeling after a risky financial investment produced disastrous consequences–including severe injury to school operating budgets and teacher retirement funds.

Two years ago, school board members across Wisconsin tried to help save teachers’ retirement plans by borrowing money from a European bank in an investment that reportedly promised big profits.

Now, these five Wisconsin school districts–Kenosha, Kimberly, Waukesha, West Allis-West Milwaukee, and Whitefish Bay–are suing the investment firm of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. Inc., as well as the Royal Bank of Canada, in Milwaukee County Circuit Court over their $200 million loss. The districts say the investment firm did not fully disclose the risks involved.

Most of the $200 million was borrowed from an Irish bank called Depfa.

Depfa–a Dublin-based lender acquired last year by Hypo Real Estate of Germany–underwrote a package of municipal bonds that were then downgraded by ratings agencies, meaning Depfa was deemed less credit worthy. Because of this status, Depfa had to buy back the bonds, which would have created immediate liquidity problems at Hypo itself.

The German government has now agreed to approve Hypo’s request for a 15 billion euro bailout, or $19.6 billion, meant to guarantee its debt until it receives a larger bailout in a few weeks.

The credit line is a guarantee on the company’s short-term lending activity, which is strained by the credit crunch, and aims to support Hypo until it gets more rescue funds agreed to in early October.

But even with Hypo’s bailout, and with much of the world’s economy in turmoil, the Wisconsin schools are on the "brink of losing their money, confronting educators with possible budget cuts"–as well as the loss of educators’ retirement funds, reports the New York Times.

"I am really worried," Becky Velvikis, a first-grade teacher at Grewenow Elementary School in Kenosha, Wis., told the Times. "If millions of dollars are gone, what happens to my retirement? Or the construction paper and pencils and supplies we need to teach?"

The problem started when David W. Noack, a local investment banker, proposed that the district of Whitefish Bay invest overseas–but what the district didn’t know is that this investment was imitating hedge funds.

"They were buying something that school boards should never actually be buying. It’s called synthetic CDO [collateralized debt obligation]. Basically, they sold insurance on a big collection of bonds, which put them on the hook if anything went bad–but they didn’t know that," said New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg during an interview with National Public Radio.

"Unfortunately, what we thought we bought and what we bought are two separate things," said Kenosha school board member Marc Hujik. "And the information we were provided prior, when we asked questions and received answers, wasn’t necessarily reality or truth."

"I don’t think any of us envisioned that this would become a wholesale slaughter that it eventually did become," said Herb Jacobs, former managing director of Depfa in New York.

All five districts in total borrowed the $165 million from Depfa and contributed $35 million of their own money to purchase three CDOs sold by the Royal Bank of Canada. These "synthetic CDOs" committed the school boards to paying off other bondholders if corporations failed to honor their debts.

According to the deal, if just 6 percent of the bond issues went bad, the Wisconsin educators could lose all their money. If none of the bonds defaulted, the schools would receive about $1.8 million a year after paying off their own debt.

However, according to the Times, last March Whitefish Bay began receiving notices saying that the bonds insured by its CDOs were defaulting. The district’s money would be seized to pay off other bondholders, and most of the $200 million would be lost.

Soon, other districts started receiving similar notices, and officials began to consider the need to dip into school funds–which would mean course cuts in art and drama, less classroom maintenance, and forgoing replacing teachers who retire.

The Wisconsin districts hope they’ll win their suit, leaving their retirement plans intact.

"You know, I would have to say that the villain is probably ignorance and the exuberance that drew cities and school districts and regular people into this big economic global system when they didn’t really understand how it worked," said Duhigg.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin school districts are a few of the many businesses and organizations that have been burned by Depfa and the international market crisis. The Metro Transit Authority in New York has endured severe financial loss, and affordable housing projects in Colorado and California and a bridge project in Vancouver are also at risk.


New York Times story on Depfa losses

National Public Radio

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Wisconsin Association of School Boards

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Technology Without Breaking the Bank resource center. With every dollar at a premium, school and district leaders are looking for ways to cut costs without sacrificing their education initiatives. The good news is, new advancements in technology make this scenario possible. Strategies such as software virtualization, software as a service, open-source software and open technologies, and a new breed of low-cost computers enable school IT directors to streamline their operations and bolster their ed-tech programs-without breaking the bank. Go to: Technology Without Breaking the Bank


Online social network targets those interested in global education projects

The Global Education Collaborative is an online community for teachers and students who are interested in joining global education projects. With more than 800 members, the site encourages users to post media, blogs, and ideas for advancing collaborative education worldwide. The site operates similar to an online social network, allowing members to search for each other, post pictures and videos, and join groups around a common theme or project. Groups such as "Global Awareness Curriculum," "Student-Driven Podcasts," and "Primary Teachers Collaborating" allow a space for teachers and students to interact and discuss their initiatives.