Toddling toward the wired schoolhouse
May 7, 1999
(IDG) -- When Alice disappears down the rabbit hole, she finds a mushroom that can instantly make her grow bigger. In elementary education, there's a similar wish that dropping a networked PC into a classroom will produce equally rapid growth.
But as any schoolchild can tell you, Alice in Wonderland is fiction and so is the idea that a little connectivity can instantly make a grade-school class PC-ready for the next century. In Pennsylvania, 62 pilot schools are discovering just how many elements must align before World Wide Web-assisted learning can truly take root in the classroom.
The state's Community-Based Network (CBN), launched last fall, seeds rural and low-income elementary and middle schools with Internet technology. The goal is to foster closer connections among students, teachers, parents and, ultimately, the community, through the use of Web sites for each school, free e-mail accounts and access to educational resources online.
"We were attracted to the idea that young people would have their own e-mail addresses, their own personal Web pages and [that] schools would have their own pages," said Herbert Morgan, assistant to the executive director at the
Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), a state-sponsored, countywide support organization for public schools. "There is much power in those tools."
The CBN program is a partnership of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Link-to-Learn technology initiative, the AIU and Lightspan Partnership Inc., a for-profit educational software development company. Through federal Title I funding, schools that were unlikely to get Internet access on their own received Lightspan's Local Connect, a software and support package that helps schools create Web sites with built-in software templates and authoring tools, a Web server, staff training and customer support.
In addition, each school received a one-year subscription to The Lightspan Network, which includes such online resources as student learning activities and lesson plans, Compton's Encyclopedia Online, an indexed collection of educational Web sites and resources to help teachers implement Pennsylvania's academic and student performance standards.
Finally, free subscriptions to Lightspan's Ed-Mail system would enable parents, students and teachers to swap e-mail and enter chat rooms opened only to approved members of the school community-a safe, "clean" way, Morgan said, to foster greater communication and help people get their feet wet online.
With so much power at their disposal, it seemed only to be a matter of time before teachers were downloading dynamic lesson plans on the fly, kids were updating their own Web pages and checking homework chat rooms daily, and parents were swapping e-mail each night with teachers.
Not exactly. Six months into the project, it's clear that CBN has elicited a huge amount of enthusiasm, but it requires a huge amount of work, leaving much of its potential unexplored. "Initially, there was a feeling that if we placed this tool in the hands of educators, it would grow like a mushroom patch," said Mary Ann Hart, Web developer at the AIU in Pittsburgh. "Now we're realizing it's a slower process than that."
But as underused as parts of the network are, even the tip of the iceberg has affected three core constituencies-teachers, students and parents-in significant ways, say teachers and principals that have worked with the network at ground level.
Teachers who have composed a Web page, or had someone do it for them, are using their sites as a communication tool to highlight goings-on in the classroom, said Cheryl Levin, principal of Regency Park Elementary School, Plum, Pa.
At Waynesburg Central Elementary School, Waynesburg, Pa., some teachers are beginning to use the Internet, usually to access Compton's Encyclopedia Online for reference materials. "With Compton's, I can be reasonably sure it's up to date and the maps are current," said Sarah Matthews, a fourth-grade teacher at the school and a Webmaster for the Waynesburg site. Neither school's teachers have yet to take measurable advantage of online curriculum guides or other teaching tools available through the Lightspan Network, although they say they hope to in the future.
Students have responded to the network with enthusiasm, principals and teachers said. "The exciting thing used to be getting work posted on the bulletin board in hallway. Now they ask, 'Are you going to put this on the Internet?' " Matthews said. In addition to publicly validating accomplishments, individual and class Web pages motivate students and offer them an opportunity to explore computers, which is a key factor, teachers said, because many children do not have PCs at home.
Finally, students whose teachers have shown them how to surf the Internet itself (the Light-span Network filters out objectionable material) have a chance to see "what's out there in the world and see what other people think about things," Matthews said.
Parents are perhaps the group least involved so far, although the seeds are being sown on a case-by-case basis. "I know of three families that have recently bought computers to go out onto the Internet after their kids came home saying, 'We're on the Web, we're on the Web!' " said Kelly Tuite, head of the PTA for Regency Park Elementary. The school's home page is a good place for Net newbies to begin their explorations, she said. "It's familiar to you. Starting with your neighborhood school out there feels safe."
But for all CBN's successes, the Web sites seem to be functioning in these early days not so much as centers for two-way communication than as electronic billboards.
One instructive case is Ed-Mail, the free e-mail component of the Lightspan package. At Regency Park, about one-third of the teachers have an active Ed-Mail account. At Waynesburg Central, all the teachers have active accounts, but it's an uphill battle to change the school culture to the point where everybody uses, or at least checks, his or her e-mail daily. "We've made a real concerted effort to make the faculty technology-aware, but they need to get into the habit of using e-mail," Matthews said. Whether students take advantage of their free account or not also is dependent upon individual teacher decisions. "In my room, yes, everyone has e-mail," Matthews said. "It's been left to teacher preference. We're not trying to force anyone to use technology."
When it does work, it's a great communication tool, Matthews said. She regularly e-mails two parents whose students need help with homework, telling the parents what the assignments are and alerting them to longer-term proj-ects. "We've seen a big improvement [in the students] just by knowing that their parents are in touch with me," she said. "Before, [the students would] think, 'You'll never get ahold of my parents; they're at work.' Now, that's not the case."
Even with a one-time grant, server support, software and development tools, schools still require a great deal of support to make a network work. For example, the reason so few Regency Park teachers are active on e-mail or downloading lesson plans is access: There are only four or five computers in the building that can access the Lightspan Network, Levin said.
Then again, teacher resources often are stretched to the breaking point. Two point people from Regency Park attended AIU-sponsored training sessions, and Web training is a component of staff-development meetings that occur every six weeks. But individual teachers still must spend time, often their own, updating their Web pages and answering e-mail. When one teacher told Levin it took her an hour and a half to update her page, Levin suggested she have Net-savvy, Net-hungry students do it for her.
Hart and the AIU have responded to those problems by stepping up technical staff development, meeting face to face with all 62 principals, creating a listserv of all educators participating in the network, conducting presentation showcases demonstrating ways in which the network can be used and establishing a mentoring program between more-active and less-active school Webmasters. For example, Matthews, who dedicated hours of her own time to launching and refining the Waynesburg Central Web site, is paid a $1,000 monthly stipend to coach other school districts struggling to launch sites.
That one-on-one touch may ultimately decide whether the network succeeds or fails in individual schools. "Technology is an odd thing. It requires a personal commitment, a desire to learn more," Hart said. "Even schools with fantastic technology aren't necessarily using it. It's not yet a live, breathing, dynamic representation of who they are."
The AIU's Morgan is equally philosophical about the CBN program's overall pace of acceptance. "When schools are making some commitment to a project, they're a little more tied to it," he said. "It will be interesting to see how many school districts pick it up on their own" after the first-year funding runs out, he said. Nevertheless, the AIU is looking for the means to continue funding CBN for a second year for schools that can't pay for Lightspan on their own.
That's a hope shared at Regency Park Elementary, where administrators hope for another year of funding. If that falls through, they might consider raiding the school's furniture budget, Levin said.
Waynesburg Central already has won budget approval to renew the program-at a reduced rate-for another year, said Glenna McDougal, Title I coordinator for the school. The money, she said, came from the general fund. "We really did not have to fight for it. We're open with the school board, and they can see what we've got going."
Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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