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High-Tech Trends

Tablet PCs, multimedia labs and digital video are proving their worth in schools across the country

The digital divide has haunted many school districts in the past 10 years, but laptop distribution programs, wireless technology, artificial intelligence and video-on-demand are chipping away at the problem by increasing computer access for more children. As the world spins forward in the 21st century, many schools are keeping up with technology advancements despite school budget deficits that hit all-time highs this year.

Gone are the days when districts sought to have classroom computers connected to the Internet. More than 90 percent of K-12 schools now support some type of broadband access. "Education is leading the market in wireless access," according to the 2002 report Making the Grade: Challenges and Opportunities in Education Broadband Networks from In-Stat of Scottsdale, Ariz.

With districts pushing their own envelopes, this story will take a look at three technologies that just might end up being the next big thing: Tablet PCs; labs where students can use multimedia to immerse themselves in projects; and digital video on demand.

Here come Tablet PCs

It started off as a hunt for the perfect laptop. But Eric Portenier, systems administrator and technical coordinator at the private Cathedral Preparatory School for young men in Erie, Penn., was left in awe of something else. Last fall, Portenier considered buying laptops when officials from different companies showed off their wares. When the Acer representative uncovered his Tablet PC, "It stunned everyone at this meeting," Portenier says. "Here is a laptop. Plus, you could flip it around and take all of your notes and do all these other functions with it. As soon as he brought that out" the laptop was "shoved" away, Portenier says.

Weighing 3.5 pounds, the Acer TravelMate C110 convertible Tablet PC includes the latest Intel Centrino mobile technology, which provides wireless connectivity and extended battery life. With the MS Windows Tablet PC software, the machine includes handwriting and speech recognition capabilities. Students won't need eight notebooks for eight classes; they can take all their notes on the PC and download textbooks online, eliminating the need to carry multiple textbooks. "I watch these kids walking down the halls and their book bags are heavier than they are," Portenier says.

Administrators and students can write notes in long hand; those notes are then converted into words typed on the screen. Using a headset and Windows XP software, the PC can also write notes the user dictates. (As in the handwriting program, the software aims to adapt to students' speaking patterns.) "You can talk out your notes and your report," Portenier says.

Last June, the school bought 50 Tablet PCs, costing nearly $100,000. This expense was covered mainly through alumni grants and donations, admittedly options that most public school districts can't rely on. Faculty members and administrators are using them now and the plan is to give tablets to roughly 150 incoming freshman next school year.

While students can probably type faster than they can write, having students take notes in the Tablet mode has two advantages, Portenier says. Students can't hide behind their screen. Having the screen flat on students' desks allows teachers to keep an eye on students' work.

Math and computer instructors can put notes on graphs or PowerPoint presentations and show the presentations and the notes on a screen via a projector.

"It's just the way the future is going," Portenier says. "We're hoping that because we give technology to the students we're getting them ready for the future, that [this] will help them in their studies and give them chances to follow-up on things and do better research and take better notes and study better."

Diving in the Black Sea

In the depths of the Black Sea, Hercules, an undersea remote-operated vehicle, uncovers several beams that comprise an ancient ship's hull. ARGUS, another undersea vehicle, is working at another shipwreck in the Mediterranean, unveiling various artifacts including ancient vases and lamps. Explorer Robert Ballard calls it, "a 'veritable Wal-Mart of the ancient world!' "

The above notes describe Ballard's journey to the Black Sea and Mediterranean in August when 40 middle school students in Lamphere, Mich., joined him. Sort of.

It was the first time that deep-sea exploration was brought live to scientists, students, and the public via satellite and Internet technologies.

Ballard's journey was designed, in part, to uncover ancient ruins and shipwrecks presumably sunk as far back as 750 B.C. While the students weren't exactly in the water with the explorer, they were able to feel like they were, thanks to all the tools contained in their school's Immersion theater/lab.

"With our district's new lab, we have middle school students sitting in Michigan in direct communication with Robert Ballard. It's incredible." -James McCann, superintendent, Lamphere School

While many students across the U.S. watched the exploration unfold in museums or aquariums, Lamphere Public School students followed the action in their new theater. It is outfitted with a high-definition projector, surround sound, laptops, and a live video feed 24 hours a day made possible, in part, by super high-speed Internet2 connections.

The Lamphere theater, which was funded mostly with donations, is a first of its kind, according to school officials.

Internet2 allows for two-way communication quickly and high-definition video sent faster than the typical Internet connection. The signal from the ship comes from satellite to land and then is transferred to the Internet, according to Dale Steen, technology director for Lamphere Public Schools. Internet2 is fast, like two feature-length DVD movies across 6,800 miles in less than a minute fast. It enables new applications such as digital libraries, virtual laboratories, distance-independent learning and tele-immersion. With this, Ballard brings the sea's underworld to students--in real time--as he brings it aboard his ship--without the students having to submerge, says Lamphere's Superintendent James McCann. "You have middle school students sitting in Michigan in direct communication with Robert Ballard, one of the top ... explorers, in real-time communication right to that ship," McCann says. "It's incredible."

"Whatever they were doing on the ship, we could view it," Steen adds. The project included six themes, including marine archeology, oceanography, culture and history, with 12 missions. In one exercise, students covered one eye and looked for an object in a dark room with just a flashlight to learn how difficult it was to maneuver a remote-operated vehicle in water, Steen says. Students also created a Web site and asked questions of experts and scientists on board with Ballard.

But the technology goes further, and Lamphere students can use their theater in other ways. Students can explore other bodies of water, freeze the ROV and look at a starfish, for example. The computer's software, which is created for a specific site, can give all the facts on starfish. Ballard will use Internet2 for upcoming expeditions, including the Panama Rainforest in January and the Titanic, which he will revisit next spring, Steen says.

"It's going to change the way we educate kids," McCann says. "The key to all this technology is that a student doesn't have to come to school to learn. I'm not saying kids are sitting in front of a computer 24 hours a day; they have to be social and interactive, but it gives them the capability to learn topics at great depth."

Digital Lessons on Command

As teachers become more strapped for time, more accountable to deliver a lesson that every student comprehends, and more responsible to meet greater testing demands, video-on-demand is getting more popular. Not only are many districts signing up with companies that offer this service, but entire states, including Alabama and Utah, are trying out these supplemental programs.

Unitedstreaming by United Learning and DigitalCurriculum by AIMS Multimedia are examples of this kind of service. Several districts in Mississippi are piloting DigitalCurriculum, which delivers thousands of video clips, films, articles and news links that can supplement curriculum.

The Pascagoula (Miss.) School District was chosen to help pilot the program this year because it has "better networking systems," says Superintendent Hank Bounds. "This gives [teachers] the tools to pull up information that directly speaks to the lesson at hand," says Bounds. "It saves time in preparation and valuable instruction time."

Students and teachers can log into the program individually and download whatever they need, according to David Sherman, co-president of AIMS Multimedia. Or the whole class can watch the material through a TV monitor, Bounds says.

The cost of the service ranges from about $900 to $1,600 per school per year, depending on student enrollment.,,,,,

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

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