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Approaching Ground Zero With Today's Technology Tools

More and more, education is looking to connect up to global and community based resources to enrich learning. As schools begin to reach a critical mass of networked hardware and software resources, the path towards true pedagogical change becomes clearer. Access to the Internet and World Wide Web is becoming a top priority. The National Center for Education Statistics, in a survey conducted during the fall, 1996, found that 65% of U.S. public schools had access to the Internet while 95% expected a connection by the year 2000.[1]

Even though networked connectivity is occurring fairly rapidly, it is not happening too soon - especially for students. A USA Today poll conducted jointly with CNN and the National Science Foundation last spring,[2] talks about "techno-teens", rich or poor, male or female, embracing technology in all its forms. Eschewing TV and video games, they apply their time working on computers and the Internet. This study of 7th - 12th graders showed a proclivity towards using the technology when it was available.[2] Are students concerned about acquiring technology skills? The survey reported that 82% think they won't make a good living unless they have strong computer skills, and 65% feel schools should be teaching more in terms of computer education.[2]

Any causal observation of how most kids interact with current technology combined with research results like the above, make it obvious what needs to be done to accomplish real structural change in the classroom.

It may be obvious, but the task is neither easy nor inexpensive. Many teachers are still intimidated by technology and the facile way students use it. Technology change is happening at an incredibly rapid pace. Those school districts who take a conservative approach and who don't do their homework, end up taking delivery of hardware and software that either d'esn't work well with the existing infrastructure or is already obsolete.

Moving to a "technology rich" school environment is costly. One projection from Educational Testing Service is that it will take $15 billion to accomplish it.[3] Currently, the annual expenditure on technology is around $3 billion.
 
Preview of What Our New Network D'es for Us
In this article, we outline how our school is finding its way through this maze of technology issues and report on how we are integrating some new and powerful software tools with existing hardware to launch and manage our school's intranet.

Even more important, of course, is what our students, faculty and staff, and parents gain from this new networked environment. This article provides some detailed examples as well as general observations.

For example, all of our publications, from calendars to the school's newspaper Tiger Prints, are created and distributed this way. Teachers are building Web pages for personal and students' instructional use.

Our special education students, from the efforts of an energized department staff, get an extra benefit. Using Web resources as a springboard, their learning experiences are being enhanced in very un-digital ways. Our social studies teachers led their students into first national political studies. Students then made their own way to local city government Web-based resources, popularizing them with all of the institution.

Mainstreaming of the technology is seen in the rise of e-mail and use of FTP between people, and of course, more and more Web pages being created by everyone. Access from home is beginning to be noted by students, staff and parents. Videoconferencing is starting to be explored. And Web-access to and from the community's public library is under review.

Our Infrastructure
We gained Internet access during the first semester of 1996. Our Internet gateway is established through a Sun SPARC server running I*Gear software. This software suite for K-12 includes components to filter both incoming and outgoing material, add and manage student and teacher accounts, and monitor system use -- all through an HTML format. The heart of this system, though, is the proxy server. It efficiently caches HTML documents on the server, thereby eliminating repetitive and time-consuming requests across the Internet. This system is connected to a dedicated 28.8-kbps modem and supports multiple users.

Although lack of bandwidth is a limiting factor, with appropriate site selection (responsive sites that download quickly) and advance preparation by a teacher, this approach works surprisingly well! We also have three Novell NetWare servers, one each for Administration and the Media Center and one for our two instructional labs. All networked workstations are running TCP/IP and can "ping" our gateway server.

Recently, we installed Microsoft's NT Server 4.0. Given the existing hardware, we were particularly interested in Internet Information Server (IIS), 4.0's integrated Web server software. The only computer available for the IIS server purpose was the writer's own desktop computer, a three-year-old, 486/66-based system with 16MB RAM and a 450MB hard drive. Through some "horse trading," we added a second hard drive and bumped RAM to 32 MB. NT's ability to function both as a server and a workstation (Office 97 is also installed), came in handy here since this was the only machine available and it was also still needed for other duties. It is dual-bootable for Windows 95, to run 16-bit software when necessary.
 
"Cool Tools for Schools"
Schools who purchase NT 4.0 can receive a free communications kit from Microsoft. Their Communications Tools for Schools (CTS) is a comprehensive suite of software and special offerings designed specifically for K-12 education. The CD contains software resources, contributed by Microsoft and other companies, to set up school e-mail, videoconferencing and HTML browsing. It also includes a tool for downloading Web resources for off-line browsing; powerful Internet publishing tools and utilities with education-specific templates and wizards; and more. Overall, it has just about everything needed to implement a school-wide intranet, tailored "out of the box" for teachers and students.

The seeds of an intranet were planted early at our school. Shortly after opening in 1994, we discovered that HTML documents could be distributed across our IPX-based LAN and read by a desktop browser. Although it has just been within the last year that we have extended this technology in any significant way, early on we introduced HTML authoring to teachers and students.

At present, we are using our intranet to distribute school-based information to students, teachers, parents and administrators. This includes weekly office bulletins, class and activity schedules, as well as the school newspaper and other major school publications. Instructionally, teachers are creating and developing departmental home pages, as well as individual home pages to outline class objectives, lesson plans and to organize and channel Web resources for class use. Our IP connection, fragile though it may be, d'es provide public access to the school's Web pages over the Internet, and students and teachers at home are beginning to access them. Several teachers are also beginning to upload their work to the Internet Information Server via FTP on a regular basis.

Our school uses Microsoft's FrontPage, the Web publishing software included on the CD, to manage our school's intranet. It is a sophisticated and powerful tool, WYSIWYG-based, but also has editing capabilities for tweaking individual HTML code.

Our teachers use a variety of Web authoring tools to create their Web documents. Those new to HTML can readily publish by converting their existing instructional material to the HTML format. This is accomplished with one of the add-on Internet "assistants" or from within the application itself The latest iterations of popular software typically include the option to "Save As" HTML. For example, we use Microsoft Publisher 97 for the school newspaper and other school-related publications. Once complete, the documents are converted to HTML, flowed into FrontPage and linked into the school's Web space for publication. The first page of our school newspaper, Tiger Prints is shown in Figure 1.
 
Delivering the Goods: Interoperability Issues
Given the diversity of the software and hardware platforms at our school, everything works together surprisingly well. In fact, no interoperability problems have been encountered so far. Each system contributes in a way that gives us better overall performance than any one system could do on its own -- given our limitations.

To explain our limitations: Our gateway server d'es an efficient job caching documents and blocking out unwanted material, but is quickly overwhelmed when too many users are online trying to authenticate or access "first time" Web pages. The school's intranet Web pages, however, are stored on the Internet Information Server. It speedily processes these documents, handling our current level of "hits" very satisfactorily. Web-based resources for instruction, meanwhile, are stored locally on the Lab's Novell Server.

Our primary tool for downloading all these documents is WebWhacker. Included on the CTS disc, this is a valuable instructional tool for any school with a fledgling Internet connection. It captures associative links as well, to whatever level you specify. Conceivably, entire Web sites can be downloaded, given sufficient time and hard disk space. Instructionally relevant sites that are often accessed and contain static information are great candidates for this process. These resources are placed in a master bookmark list or linked by the teacher into their lesson plans. This multi-platform configuration balances HTML traffic across our three servers, providing quicker response time and more stable connections. Intranet pages or those downloaded with WebWhacker are allowed to bypass our proxy server to further reduce the burden on the SPARCstation.
 
Using Web-Based Resources in the Classroom
Now the question is: How do we begin to apply these resources in a meaningful way for students? The first and most important step is to simply begin. There are few benchmarks for guidance. However, the Web is such a compelling place to be, the "launch and learn" approach quickly spawns a wide variety of instructional paths.

We have learned, however, to encourage our teachers to begin with what has worked in the past. By using an existing repertoire of successful assignments, projects and activities from the teacher's toolbag, there is enough familiarity for both the teacher and students to help ensure a successful instructional outcome. This also encourages teachers to include Web resources as a regular and continuing part of instruction rather than as rare, anecdotal experiences.

Not all lesson plans are adaptable, but with some tweaking, most can be given a technological face-lift. Early on, well-structured and literal assignments are particularly important for large classes just learning how to log on and navigate with a browser. Although the instructional backdrop is the same (e.g. "browse the following resources and answer these questions; write this report, citing three Internet sources"), students typically stay excited and focused. Innovative teachers, at ease with the technology, quickly migrate towards more sophisticated and challenging lesson plans.
 
An Instructional Example in Special Education
Our school has a diverse student population, both culturally and economically. It also includes a special education department offering a wide variety of programs for students with disabilities. Many of these students often have trouble generalizing skills learned in the classroom. Learning and practicing their skills in as many different situations as possible helps them generalize better. This holds true for all students, of course, but it is particularly important for students with certain kinds of disabilities.

Community based instruction is also an important instructional component in this program. Special education students can learn and practice skills in locations where they will actually be used. Activities such as "visiting" the local MacDonalds or "buying" groceries can serve as valuable learning experiences for these students.

It is our good fortune to have a special education department staffed with bright, dedicated and technologically aware teachers. These teachers and their students have been the most consistent and regular users of technology and were the first group to publish a departmental home page. Their students love working with computers and "surfing the Web" -- it is a very "grown-up" thing to do. Following their theme-based lesson plan, our teachers, Kim Jameson and Liz Everett, combined their classes and brought them to the lab for a lesson on healthy eating habits and good nutrition.

Resources used for the activity were from the Dole Foods website (http://www.dole5aday.com/school.html).

DOLE FOODS GRAPHIC:dole.tiff

Figure 2: The Dole Foods 5-a-day Web site

A link from the home page connects to interesting, school-related resources and ideas that many teachers can use. In fact, Dole Foods sponsored a contest for creative, student-based projects involving the nutritional values of fruits and vegetables. The activity, briefly described below, was derived from the contest winners' projects outlined at the site.

Using the Lab's "electronic chalkboard", a large-screen monitor connected to a PC, Jameson led students through a lesson on the nutritional values of different fruits and vegetables. Students followed the text and visual cues on their own computers. Next, students were blindfolded and asked to identify different kinds of fruit and vegetables by touch, taste and smell. After removing the blindfolds, they revisited the Web site and the main elements of the lesson for reinforcement.

This lesson serves as a good example of how virtual and real information -- including the sensory inputs of touch, taste and smell -- can be instructionally blended and leveraged into a new and different learning experience.
 
An Instructional Example in Social Studies
Another group active in introducing the Web to their students is our social studies department. Bob Glisson, department head, created his group's Web page and is one of several social studies teachers making extensive instructional use of Web-based resources. He teaches American Government, a required course for graduating seniors.

Our Lab's Internet connection was timely for Glisson and his department. Shortly after installation, he had his classes visiting presidential candidates' Web sites, following and analyzing current election issues. After the election, they focused on the comprehensive array of Web resources from various agencies and entities within the federal government. Our own state (Virginia) provides extensive resources and topics of interests as well, which these teachers used to interweave into their lesson plans.

But it was the city governments' Web sites (Chesapeake; Virginia Beach; Norfolk; Portsmouth; Hampton) that attracted the most interest by both students and teachers alike. Students spent considerable time analyzing and comparing local government and community-based issues. Not surprisingly, they were keenly interested in matters that directly affected them such as local ordinances on teenage curfews, licensure requirements for driving, and summer employment opportunities in the area.

City of Chesapeake's Home Page: http://www.chesapeake.va.us/index.html
 
Are Extranets in Our Future?
What is an "extranet"? Business (read schools), which is driving this particular concept at the moment, would define the term as the inclusion of its customers (read parents, students, other interested parties in the community) for access to part of its relevant intranet resources (read instructional and school-based information resources) for sharing over a direct link. This concept is a natural one for community-based education since it already has a global blueprint to follow. The genesis of the Web, after all, involved the desire among educators in the research community to help each other and to communicate more effectively.

Ech'es of this idea can be seen in our own school district. Intra-school resources between teachers are beginning to flow back and forth via e-mail and FTP. Several teachers and their students are experimenting with videoconferencing. At present, our media center is discussing better ways to exchange resources with our community's public library. This discussion includes the joint licensure of software that would allow proprietary access of magazines, periodicals and other research materials over the Web. The importance to students of local issues was apparent, as shown in the social studies example above.

The activities and behaviors described above are just the beginnings of what should be possible, enabled by smart people with smart tools and a good network. It is our first draft of an ambitious vision.

This is the vision of more and more educators for their school districts and communities. As educators fully grasp the power of today's new communication tools -- and then understand how to apply them to extend school-based instruction beyond its physical self -- changes to the existing paradigm of learning will begin to occur.

Roger Geyer is a computer resource teacher at Oscar Frommel Smith High School. He also teaches Internet-related courses at Old Dominion University's Technology Education Center and is Microsoft certified in NT Server 4.0. Additionally, Geyer is co-principal of HyperLearning Technologies, Inc., an educational consulting and computer services company in Virginia Beach, Virginia. E-mail: rgeyer@pen.k12.va.us

References:

  1. Heaviside, S., Riggins, T., & Farris, E. (1997, February 5), Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, National Center for Education Statistics. [Online]. (NCES 97944). Available: nces01.ed.gov/pubsearch/infopage.idc?cid=97944XXXXX
  2. Henry, T. (1997, April 23), "Techno-Kids Can't Live Without Their Computers," USA TODAY, p. 1A.
  3. ETS Study Shows Major Differences in Student Access to Technology, (1997, May 14), Educational Testing Service [Online]. Available: www.ets.org/

Products & companies mentioned:
I*Gear; URL Labs, Hampton, VA, (757) 865-0810, www.urlabs.com
MS NT Server 4.0; MS Office97; Microsoft Corp., Redmond WA, www.microsoft.com/education
Novell NetWare 3.12 and 4.1x; Novell, Inc., Provo, Utah, (800) 342-1234, www.novell.com
Sun SPARCstation; Sun Microsystems, Mountain View, CA., (800) 786-0404, www.sun.com
WebWhacker 1.0; ForeFront Group, Inc., Houston, TX, (800) 475-5831, www.ffg.com
 

Communications Tools for Schools

The following is a list of communications and Internet software, utilities and other resources included on the CTS disc. The CD is free with purchase of NT Server 4.0. The offer is available until 12/31/97. Some restrictions apply. NOTE: Several of the MS resources are already included with NT Server 4.0 operating system.

Includes these programs:

  • Cool Tools for Schools' Web Template
  • ForeFront WebWhacker
  • Microsoft FrontPage
  • Microsoft Internet Assistant add-ons and Viewers for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access (Mac & Windows)
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer (Mac & Windows)
  • Microsoft Internet Information Server
  • Microsoft Mail and News Clients (Mac & Windows)
  • Microsoft NetMeeting
  • Qualcomm Eudora Lite Mail Client (Mac & Windows)

Services for Macintosh

  • White Pine CU-SeeMe Reflector
  • White Pine Enhanced (color) CU-SeeMe (Mac & Windows)

Special Discounts and Exclusive Offers

  • Digi Int'l- Internet Communication Peripheral Devices for ISDN & RAS
  • Kent March Ltd. - Winshield, for desktop security
  • Logicraft's CD-hfs for NT
  • NETCOM - Internet Sevice Provider

MailSrv MAIL SERVER for student email

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.

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