Open source question for schools

Looking around the British Education Training and Technology show, BETT 2009, it was clear by the sheer size of the event, that an awful lot of money is being spent on technology in education. With Open Source Software (OSS) freely available, covering almost every requirement in the national curriculum, a question has to be asked why schools do not back it more fully, possibly saving millions of pounds, reports BBC News. As the name suggests, OSS is community-driven software with its source code open to all. Anyone can modify the software according to their needs and then share these modifications with everyone else. When many people hear OSS they think Linux – the alternative operating system that comes in many flavors such as Ubuntu, openSUSE or Fedora. Linux has long been used to power servers, but open source extends to all manner of projects. Web browser Firefox and the OpenOffice software suite are great examples of this. In the education sector, OSS is promoted and used by only a handful of self-motivated technologists looking to stretch their technology budget. Critics say Becta – the government agency that oversees the procurement of all technology for schools – has not done enough to promote OSS. Peter Hughes, head of procurement agreements at Becta, told the BBC that more would be done…

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Administrators share vision to change schools

Skip the piecemeal education reform. A group of Texas school superintendents are calling for a complete transformation of public schools to better prepare students for the future in ways that aren’t boring, according to the Houston Chronicle. They’ve laid out the framework in a 48-page report called Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas. Nearly two years in the making, the document spells out school leaders’ thoughts on six key issues, including the use of digital technology, abuse of standardized testing and designing accountability systems that inspire excellence instead of punish perceived shortcomings. The 35 superintendents from Dallas, Cypress-Fairbanks, Fort Worth, San Antonio and numerous rural and suburban school districts are responsible for educating about a quarter of the state’s 4.7 million schoolchildren. Plano school Superintendent Doug Otto said students come to traditional school settings with a mastery of iPods, Wii game systems, cell phones and other devices that must be "powered down" in class. The challenge is finding a way to use gaming techniques and other technology to enhance the curriculum and create a more relevant and engaging learning environment, he said, citing one of the report’s guiding principles…

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Paperless format helps students and alumni

Ralph C. Richardson’s skepticism of educational technology faded–and eventually vanished–with the introduction of electronic tablets that allow more comprehensive note taking and instant student responses during professors’ lectures at Kansas State University.

Two years after the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine–where Richardson has been dean for 10 years–began doling out multi-purpose Toshiba tablet computers to incoming students, Richardson said the school would pursue more technology that supplements the college’s intensive coursework.

"If you would have asked me five years ago if we would use this kind of technology, I would have told you, ‘No, ours is a professional school, and we need personal interaction,’" said Richardson, who practiced veterinary medicine in Miami and served as an assistant professor and head of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Purdue University for 23 years before joining Kansas State. "I’ve done a 180-degree turnaround with the increasing reliability of technology. It’s a tremendous part of how we educate students today … and I think it will continue to expand."

Kansas State’s Veterinary College also has joined peer schools, including the University of Kansas and Iowa State University, in converting lecture notes to electronic form, making the school paperless.

The university’s veterinary students have seen their library revamped in recent years, transforming the former book repository into Digital Instruction, Support, and Creative (DISC) Services. The center offers classes that teach students how to use software such as Windows Movie Maker, Camtasia, Adobe Photoshop, and Microsoft Office. Students can reserve the school’s high-tech gear–like digital voice recorders and underwater-capable digital cameras–with an eMail message or phone call to the center.

DISC also provides scientific and presentation poster design, poster mounting, and scientific illustration for students preparing a demanding class project.

When students began clamoring for online notes and faculty members saw the benefits of updating lecture notes on class web sites, Richardson said the school weaned itself off its pricey paper habit.

"We were spending a lot of time and money providing paper notes," he said, adding that alumni of the veterinary college have requested up-to-date class notes to stay current in their profession. "It will help graduates in the field keep up to date. We’ve had alumni ask for electronic updates … because they want to remain current. It’s a way of staying close to our alumni base."

The cost of the tablet computers is covered in the $350 technology fee charged every semester–meaning students pay a fraction of the cost of a store-bought tablet PC. Students can take the tablets with them after graduation.

Richardson, who earned a biology degree and a veterinary doctorate degree from Kansas State in 1969 and 1970, respectively, said students in their 20s have taken to the tablets, while older students have taken some time to adjust to the computer-based classroom.

"It has been interesting to observe the generational learning style changes," he said.

The electronic tablets allow students to take notes, zoom in on images and diagrams introduced by professors, cross reference course material, and interact with faculty using the audience-response system. Professors can gauge students’ comprehension of a topic by asking questions via the tablet throughout a lecture. If most of the class is clearly misunderstanding the lesson, the professor can backtrack and reinforce the lecture concepts.

"If [faculty members] realize their audience is not getting a concept, they can go back and refresh that," Richardson said. "It’s a way of testing the connection between the instructor and the students during the lecture, rather than waiting for a quarterly examination."

Providing a chance to review has become essential for Kansas State veterinary professors. A lengthy lecture packed with dense concepts, Richardson said, can drain even the most dedicated students.

"There’s only a certain amount of concentration a person can endure," Richardson said.


Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine


Gates Foundation to show excellent teaching

Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates says his foundation hopes to post online videos of exemplary teachers plying their craft as a way to inspire other educators and help students learn. He also says the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will increase its giving in 2009, despite the sinking economy.

The news comes in an open letter published by Gates on Jan. 26, which summarizes the foundation’s progress in health and education and outlines its plans in the months ahead.

Gates left Microsoft’s executive ranks last July to focus full-time on the foundation he created with his wife, Melinda. The letter is the first of what Gates says will be an annual series of missives to foundation stakeholders.

In the letter, Gates highlights a new area of focus for his foundation’s education work: helping to identify what makes teachers successful and sharing these best practices more broadly.

"It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school," he wrote.

"Whenever I talk to teachers, it is clear that they want to be great, but they need better tools so they can measure their progress and keep improving. So our new strategy focuses on learning why some teachers are so much more effective than others and how best practices can be spread throughout the education system so the average quality goes up."

Already, the Gates Foundation has made grants to support this new area of focus. Last week, it announced nearly $10 million in new grants to fund research on teacher effectiveness and its impact on student achievement–including $7.3 million to Educational testing Service, $1.9 million to teach for America, and $579,000 to ACT Inc. (See "Gates Foundation to give $22M for education.")

"We will work with some of the best teachers to put their lectures online as a model for other teachers and as a resource for students," Gates also wrote in his Jan. 26 letter.

Based on what the foundation has learned so far from its giving, "we have refined our strategy," Gates said.

He explained: "We will continue to invest in replicating the school models that worked the best. Almost all of these schools are charter schools. Many states have limits on charter schools, including giving them less funding than other schools. Educational innovation and overall improvement will go a lot faster if the charter school limits and funding rules are changed."

Gates also affirmed his foundation’s new focus on helping more students graduate from college, particularly through grants to community colleges and the organizations serving them. (See "Gates Foundation targets college graduation.")

Addressing the current fiscal crisis that lopped 20 percent off the foundation’s endowment last year, Gates said this crisis would not slow the foundation’s giving. In fact, he said, the foundation plans to increase its spending.

"During the past five years, as the foundation was growing, we spent a bit over 5 percent of its assets each year," he wrote. "Our spending in 2008 was $3.3 billion. In 2009, instead of reducing this amount, we are choosing to increase it to $3.8 billion, which is about 7 percent of our assets."

He also urged the U.S. government to follow suit.

"Governments face revenue shortfalls at the same time their citizens need government services more than ever," Gates wrote. "A great example of this is education. Recent improvements taking place in K-12 education could be reversed because of budget cuts. State-funded two-year and four-year colleges will see record demand but may also face spending cuts."

He added: "As governments respond to the crisis, they need to protect these investments even as they spend to stimulate the economy. In the United States, only the federal government can do deficit spending and increase its investment in long-term goals like education. I am impressed with the way President Obama has talked about the need to do both and has his team looking at investments that fulfill both goals."

Gates said he enjoys working full time for the foundation, comparing the experience to running a multibillion-dollar corporation.

"I feel like my experience in building teams of smart people with different skill sets focused on tough long-term problems can be a real contribution," he wrote. "The common sense of the business world, with its urgency and focus, has strong application in the philanthropic world."


2009 Annual Letter from Bill Gates

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Math Intervention resource center. U.S. students are lagging behind their peers in other countries in math achievement, fortunately education companies are responding with solutions. Go to: Math Intervention


Cleveland zoo uses videoconferencing technology to teach about animals

Tad Schoffner has some new on-the-job partners that he knows will upstage him: Schoffner, assistant animal care manager at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, uses the zoo’s new mobile and wireless infrastructure to teach students about animals within their habitats via a videoconference link, Computerworld reports. "You can’t always guarantee [the animals] are going to do what you want, but when it works, it works great," says Schoffner. "Even if the timing isn’t just right, it’s still a lot better than standing in a studio." Computerworld named the zoo’s project as the winner in the Media, Arts, & Entertainment category in its annual Honors Program. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has broadcast educational programs to students through its distance-learning program since 1998, using standard videoconferencing equipment housed in its Adventure Hall studio. The classroom had interesting teaching tools, but the educational staff wanted to create a more interactive experience that more closely resembled a trip to the zoo. To do that, they implemented an enterprise-wide wireless infrastructure and made the videoconferencing equipment mobile. "I taught in a room with four walls. The kids were going from one classroom into another. I wanted them to see more," says Cathy Ryan, an education specialist in the zoo’s conservation education division. "Now we have a lot more teachable moments. We can say, ‘Take a look at that joey — it’s pushing its head out of the pouch,’ and we can zoom in on that for the kids to see."

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Budget cuts could eliminate Tennessee school software tool

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said he’s going to make sure money stays in the classrooms, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be sacrifices, reports WSMV-TV — and one possible cut could eliminate a very important software tool that 108 school districts use, called the Star System. The software package manages attendance, schedules, and discipline and is the way school districts report to the state. The state education department said if the governor cuts funding for this initiative, the state would no longer pay for the software, leaving districts to find their own funding or pay for a state contract. Several Tennessee school districts have their own software for taking attendance and tracking grades, including Metro Nashville schools and Williamson and Wilson county schools. However, all districts use the software for special education reporting. The state is hoping to divert some federal dollars to pay for that. It’s up to the governor and the state legislature to decide which of these programs will be cut and which could be saved…

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Report: Reinvent schools for digital age

Educators can’t truly deliver 21st-century instruction in schools that reflect Industrial-Age designs, with rigid schedules, inflexible facilities, and fixed boundaries between grades, disciplines, and classrooms, according to a new white paper from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21).

Sponsored by Cisco Systems, the paper–titled “21st Century Learning Environments”–describes the kinds of school structures that have been shown to facilitate successful 21st-century teaching and learning: from flexible learning spaces that can be rearranged to fit different class sizes and subjects, to more malleable units of time than the typical 50-minute class period.

Although much attention has been paid to improving standards, assessments, professional development, curriculum, and instruction, this white paper argues that learning environments themselves are an essential component to supporting successful 21st-century outcomes for students.

“Schools are being designed for a new balance that combines the best of traditional classroom learning with leading 21st-century learning methods and tools,” said Bernie Trilling, global director of education strategy and partnerships for the Oracle Education Foundation. “At the same time, federal, state, and local policies must help guide the creation of learning environments that serve all students in every corner of our states.”

With tight budgets and worries over the economy, policy makers face tough decisions concerning whether school design really makes a difference in education, the report says. According to Georgetown University researchers, design does have a bearing on achievement, reporting that test scores can rise by up to 11 percent when a school’s physical environment is improved.

With that in mind, education leaders should design learning environments that incorporate movable furniture and walls, connect with the wider community, and enable collaboration, interaction, and the gathering and sharing of information, the paper says.

As important as it is for physical structures to be adaptable, “it is even more important that class time be elastic. Instead of assigning a certain amount of time for teaching one subject per day, teachers need the flexibility of bigger and more adjustable time slots to truly impact learning,” said Charles Fadel, global lead for education for Cisco Systems. “There must be a renewed focus on increasing the quality of teaching by [giving] teachers more time and opportunities to plan, collaborate, and work with advanced technology systems.”

In addition, schools cannot continue to use seat time as a measure of academic attainment, the report argues. Instead, measures of learning must include thoughtful assessments of a student’s ability to apply and demonstrate knowledge in complex situations.

The report notes that the term “learning environment” has traditionally suggested a concrete place (such as schools, classrooms, or libraries), but in today’s interconnected and technology-driven world, a learning environment can be virtual, online, and remote.

Successful 21st-century learning environments should blend physical and digital infrastructures to seamlessly support learning, says the report. Students need access to digital tools and resources that will help them explore, understand, and express themselves in the world of the future, and educators need access to tools and resources to share knowledge and practice with other professionals, interact with experts in their field, and connect with their students’ families and communities.

And although the connection between physical environments and learning is important, even more important is how—and whether—these environments support the positive human relationships that are critical to education, according to the report.


How to defend your campus IT budget

Campus technology officials have joined the ranks of department heads vying for shrinking funds in a sagging economy, and many IT chiefs say defending their budgets is complicated by jargon that some university decision makers don’t fully understand.

IT officials have seen programs trimmed, slashed, and delayed over the past year, and the struggle for campus dollars is expected to last throughout 2009, perhaps worsening as states hedge public university funding and endowments are hit by a haywire stock market.

With IT budgets among the highest line items on many college campuses, making adjustments that save tens of thousands of dollars is often easier for budget officials than paring budget items for every department on campus. This makes IT departments an easy target, officials say.

Faculty and staff charged with pitching new technology initiatives to those who control campus purse strings say IT officials should plan ahead, explain tech-related jargon in layman’s terms, show they sympathize with college deans and presidents about the current fiscal crisis, and show exactly how the school can save money in the long term with an immediate, reasonable investment. 

"The time to plan for disaster is not when the tidal wave has reached your doorstep," said Tim Roe, web project manager at Butler University in Indianapolis, describing the approach IT officials should embrace during budget discussions. Roe added that it’s crucial for IT heads to "earmark," or reserve, funds for updated technology systems "so that the spending is planned in advance."

Proposing IT projects and initiatives–such as campus-wide laptops for faculty–well ahead of budget negotiations is critical in winning support, said Nadine Stern, vice president for information technology and enrollment at the College of New Jersey.

"I try to introduce concepts way in advance of budget proposals," she said.

Getting other departments on board with IT initiatives that could benefit classroom instruction and save money in the long run, Stern said, is another key to securing tech dollars.

"It is important to have ongoing IT discussions through governance structures so that there is comprehension of, and support for, IT initiatives from constituencies across campus," she said.

The impact of the economic downturn on higher education has been well documented. "Managing the Funding Gap," a report released in December by the higher-education technology group EDUCAUSE, shows American universities facing budget cuts of from 5 to 15 percent in 2009.

Interviews with IT officials showed many were not prepared to pitch ideas that could shield campuses from devastating budget cuts if the economy continues to stagnate, according to the EDUCAUSE report.

"No one was confident that if the president or provost called and asked for an outline of a vision for how technology could support a restructuring of the institution, they could provide a complete answer," the report said. "They did believe, however, that it was becoming more likely that the question would be asked of them."

Stern said her college could save money this year by rearranging computer equipment to "more appropriate locations," rather than purchasing expensive new equipment. Reviewing the college’s computer replacement cycles to ensure no money is wasted in the coming years was another idea.

Matt Eventoff, a partner with New Jersey-based Princeton Public Speaking, has helped chief technology officers nationwide better communicate with deans and provosts who pass down final budget decisions. Eventoff said "removing the tech speak and presenting in terms that a [university official] can understand" is vital to defending IT budgets, regardless of the economic outlook.

"In the majority of instances, anytime IT is seen as less essential than other departments, it is [owing] to the lack of messaging and communication. When competing for dollars, it’s important to note that the onus doesn’t fall on higher-education officials, who dole out funding, to understand the language of IT," he said. "The onus falls on IT leadership to message the importance and relevance of IT in clear, coherent, compelling terms that a higher-education official would clearly understand."

In explaining the importance of IT security funds, Eventoff said, CTOs should simply tell officials that a vulnerable campus network could lead to devastating hacks, resulting in stolen student information. This would directly impact enrollment–and therefore, tuition–as students lose trust in the school and leave for campuses with more secure, reliable technology.

With colleges and universities of every size investing in technology infrastructure, a school’s high-tech offerings–such as campus-wide Wi-Fi, advanced platforms for online classes, and iPods and iPhones for incoming freshmen–have transformed into a recruiting tool.

"It’s an investment that has the potential to increase [a school’s] competitive advantage," said James Hilton, vice president and CIO for the University of Virginia.

Many IT chiefs are pushing for centralization of campus computers, instead of having a multitude of computer clusters spread across campus. The scattered approach wastes space and ultimately costs more money, they explain.

Outsourcing also could save cash. If an outside contractor can manage eMail services and save the school money, proposals should be written and introduced immediately, officials say.

Hilton said the nationwide fiscal strain could have a bright side: encouraging the exchange of ideas among technology officials looking for ways to save money and gain favor with those who control the campus budget.

"This kind of thing breeds camaraderie," said Hilton, who serves as a board member for EDUCAUSE.

Initiatives that might have received a thumbs-up in 2007 or 2008 are suddenly being scrutinized as budget realizations hit campuses hard. At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., a program that would have given laptops to faculty members was scaled back last year. Now, the school might be able to buy only a few laptops.

"We’re left with close to nothing," said Gary Ploski, assistant director of academic computing at Sarah Lawrence. "We’ve seen it completely chopped. … If we had more money, we’d be able to do this."



Sarah Lawrence College

Butler University

University of Virginia


‘UnderTheMicroscope’ aims to support, and inspire, young women scientists

The Feminist Press at the City University of New York recently launched in conjunction with IBM in an effort to increase public awareness of the need for women in science-related fields. The site aims to celebrate the achievements of women in science, while openly discussing the challenges they face, and also inspire more young women to pursue science careers by providing a social-networking forum for students, working scientists, teachers, counselors, and parents. More than half the women—mostly in their mid- to late-30s—working in science, technology, and engineering careers today leave these fields, citing isolation, condescending attitudes toward women, and a lack of role models among their primary reasons, the site’s creators say. UnderTheMicroscope is intended to help inspire and support girls and women as they pursue these fields. The site collects stories and lessons from women in technical fields, highlighting experiences that were turning points for success and offering helpful advice for persevering through difficult times. It also encourages teenagers to share their stories, concerns, and ideas with their peers and mentors; offers tips for parents and teachers; and provides links to related sites about women in science.


Gaming is the future of classroom instruction


Gaming is moving out of the entertainment domain and into other areas, said Jim Brazell, president of

“We now have serious games. There are applications of video games to domains other than entertainment,” he said Jan. 22 at an “eye opening” keynote — so named for its start time 28 minutes after sunrise — during the Florida Education Technology Conference. “Video games do not belong pigeon holed in entertainment.”

Games have crossed into serious domains such as health care and military training and have begun to give birth to new models of playing, learning, and socializing, he said.

“You can get more data in a video game than in any other education area,” Brazell said, adding that gaming allows for the convergence of physical, virtual, and imaginary realities.

Video games have been used for things as diverse as emergency-response training and language acquisition. The utility of gaming derives from the fact that mammals learn best through play, according to Brazell.

“[Students] don’t know that the learning is embedded. That’s the thing about play, the learning is embedded,” he said.

Of the more than 75 attendees in the keynote session, almost all of the educators said they were either definitely interested in using gaming in the classroom or might be interested in using gaming. Brazell said that educators should start by determining what it is they hope to convey.

“Never start with the idea that you’re going to use a video game [as a teaching tool]. Decide what you want to teach and then find the right application,” he said.

But Brazell stressed the fact that games should not attempt to replace the classroom or classroom teachers.

“We’re talking about blended learning,” he said.

Brazell is a consultant and researcher focusing on 21st century issues, including education innovation, emerging technology, and jobs. His current projects include using robots in mathematics courses and applying video games to career simulation in K-12.

(Editor’s note: Watch for still more real-time coverage of this year’s FETC at FETC Conference Information Center page)