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Pressing Forward

Think it's impossible to deploy state-of-the-art learning technology tools cost effectively? Find ou

Today's students are used to state of the art video technology. Offer them anything less in the classroom, and you'll catch them staring out the window in a hurry. Yet with budgets tight, buying the best presentation tools for your classrooms is quite a challenge.

Luckily, items like plasma monitors, digital projectors, interactive whiteboards and document cameras are coming down in price, while they pile on features. Here are three examples of districts that have managed to put together high-tech systems without plunging their districts in the red.

Houston, Georgia

Mike Hall has been principal of Houston (pronounced How-ston) County High School in Warner Robins, Ga., for seven years. When he arrived, he recalls, "The school was definitely not into technology." There were fewer than 100 computers to serve the 1,600 students and no network.

Times have changed. The school now accesses the Internet using a T3 line, which can move data at an impressive bandwidth of 45 megabits per second, and wireless networks allow flexible connections within the school. Every room has at least two networked computers, and all administrative record keeping is processed electronically. Hall reports that at last count, 82 percent of his pupils' parents were involved in checking their child's performance online.

But the core of the challenge Hall faced was determining how technology tools could deliver cost-effective improvements in instruction. With the help of Hitachi, he began by having some of his young teachers undertake special projects such as "Teaching Math in the 21st Century" in his ninth-grade academy.

In that project, every math room was equipped with a StarBoard Interactive EM Panel, a digital projector and software for student performance testing. The EM panel is a touch-sensitive panel on which a teacher uses a pen-like stylus to write, draw, run applications and control graphic and video displays. Software provides annotation tools, handwriting and geometric object recognition capability and real-time conferencing capabilities, and integrates with applications like Microsoft PowerPoint.

The presentation tools now have found a place in a number of projects at Houston County High. They have, for example, made it possible to do streaming video presentations of teachers' taped lectures.

Putting an interactive panel in a classroom cost about $1,500, and adding a projector tacked on another $1,000. For a reasonably equipped classroom, Hall estimates, the average expenditure is about $4,000. All told, he guess-timates he's spent about $3 million on educational technology.

The money to acquire these tools was, in Hall's words, "begged, borrowed and stolen". Support was forthcoming from the school board, and $5 million from a local sales tax add-on funded teacher workstations and large-screen monitor at all 33 schools in the district. Business partnerships, such as the one with Hitachi and another with Intel, helped.

What does this money make possible? A social studies teacher, for example, can illustrate some comments about Eastern Europe by displaying a map of the area, then zooming in, highlighting and changing colors to illustrate aspects of the geography that have influenced political events. The tap of a stylus then starts a streaming video on recent events in the area that's been pulled off the Web.

"To move into technology the way you need to in the classroom," the principal cautions, "requires a total culture change in your school. To do that culture change, you've got to have strong leadership that believes in it."

Hall reports that, in his district, leadership responsibility resides at the school level.

New York, New York

Joe Silvati retired recently as chief of staff for the Division of Instructional and Information Technology of what is now the city's Department of Education, closing out a long career that included shepherding schools in the Big Apple into the universe of distance learning.

That task, which began in 1991, got two significant early helping hands: from the local phone company, which proposed a pilot project to wire a small handful of classrooms, and the city itself, which offered access to high-bandwidth fiber-optic cable running under its streets.

The technology initiative was hardly a blue-ribbon effort. As Silvati recalls, "The school system saw this as way out of our league, as too much of a complicated, expensive venture we would never be able to replicate or expand if we had to pay for it ourselves."

But a small group persevered, and four high schools and a community college were connected to NYClassNet, as was the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. At last count, the network had grown to encompass 32 sites, including schools, the Lincoln Center and the American Museum of Natural History.

In New York City, students can take part in virtual fieldtrips to cultural institutions and schools can broadcast stored or satellite feeds of educational programs or live events.

Using affordable networked video recording and playback appliances from VBrick Systems of Wallingford, Conn., and supporting software from TODD Video Network Management of Minneapolis, the systems allows educators and students in one classroom to view TV-quality video from three other locations simultaneously. Students also can take part in virtual fieldtrips to cultural institutions and schools can broadcast stored or satellite feeds of educational programs or live events.

After support from NYNEX ended, continued development of the system was made possible through an agreement with New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which was developing high speed networks to serve city departments.

That development didn't follow a smooth path, though. Different groups envisioned the system meeting different needs, while Silvati's group sought to use the distance learning tools primarily to expand in-school learning. They would do this by making available experiences not available in the classroom--a visit, for example, to curators on the natural history museum's fifth floor, wired for the purpose, so students could talk with the scientists while they were working on projects.

Lofty visions can easily run afoul of mundane realities, though. There's money, of course. In hard times, who will defend learning technology when the cost is in laid-off teachers and bigger classes? In addition, there's logistics. For example, in New York, schools' daily schedules are not synchronized, so classes in the originating school may start and end 10 minutes earlier than in receiving schools.

The program survives, but in Silvati's view, neither its nature nor its future is certain. "It's been 10 years, and it's still kind of exotic; we haven't made a lot of progress. It's become cheaper and easier with regard to the technology, but there still hasn't been lot of changes in school funding, how we spend time, and so on."

And the major challenge remains the same, from his point of view: forcing a rethinking of what school is about and how it's done.

Phoenix, Arizona

When the story is taught of Cesar Chavez and the organizing drives he led to better the working conditions of California farm laborers, students inevitably are told of Chavez's oft-repeated motto: "Si, Se Puede," or "Yes, It Can be Done."

What needed to be done when the Phoenix Union High School District built Cesar Chavez High School in 1999 was to identify how teachers could deliver lessons that would capture the students' attention while remaining true to the school district's curriculum goals.

The delivery method had to be visual, to keep in step with the values of today's students. It had to be technology based, to mesh with trends in learning today and also to give students experience with tools they will need in life. But it had to work in the context of the classroom, where budget limitations and the need for group learning processes preclude a display screen at each desk.

Initially the district considered putting large televisions in every classroom. But TVs, even at 32 inches, can be hard to see from the rear of a classroom. Glare can be an issue under fluorescent lights. And extra work would be required to interface the TVs with computer networks and the Internet.

Lynne Spiller, then the technology educator at Chavez and now director at research and evaluation at the Creighton School district in Phoenix, recalls arguing for presentation systems rather than the TVs.

In Phoenix, projectors are used in every class at Cesar Chavez High School; since this experiment started, reading scores have gone up and the student dropout rate is the lowest in the district.

It was, she says, quite a battle. But ultimately, district and Chavez officials--with the help of CCS Presentations Systems of Scottsdale, Ariz.--chose video projection systems using lightweight NEC Solutions VT Series projectors that could be ceiling-mounted into classrooms throughout the high school. The projectors are affordable, bright and easy to use.

"Our goal was to create a community of learners," says James L. McElroy, principal of Chavez High. "With the new school, we wanted to bring the world into the classrooms and the projectors help us do that."

One glitch presented itself immediately: the school plans did not include electrical outlets on the classroom ceilings. That took some time and a visit to the school board to fix, but the systems were ultimately installed.

To get started, Phoenix Union technology educators along with CCS instructed a cadre of teachers on the projectors during the summer months. Those teachers then went out to introduce their colleagues to the new tools.

McElroy reports that the use of projection in the classrooms at Cesar Chavez High School has been a success. Reading scores have gone up and the student dropout rate is now the lowest in the district. "The reason we most often hear that students don't like class is that they are bored. Since our teachers started using multiple strategies to teach, our kids are here because they are happy to be here."

Spiller has strong feelings on the use of televisions in the classroom.

"I do not think TVs are an instructionally valid piece of equipment," she says. When videos are presented, student attention falls off quickly the greater the student's distance from the TV. And as for text such as PowerPoint slides on television:

"Forget it," Stiller says emphatically.

Alan S. Kay is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.