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Oh, What a Year It Has Been!

Education World's Tech Team members remember the best and worst technology-related experiences of the past year. Their memories are funny, informative, inspiring, surprising -- and occasionally downright scary!

"My best technology-related experience was working with my students on a Toys of the Future Internet Project," said Mary Kreul, who teaches second grade at Richards Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. "The idea was to design a toy that children of the new millennium would like to play with. Students worked in teams, using KidPix to design the toys. Each team then wrote a description of its toy, urging other children to purchase it. Students voted on their favorite design, and the winner was submitted to the Toys of the Future project sponsored by the Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania. This project was not only lots of fun," Kreul noted, "but also provided a creative way to combine language arts, social studies, and art."


"One of our most successful efforts was the introduction of the WebQuest format to our middle school teachers," said Pamela Livingston, director of information technology at Chestnut Hill Academy, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "The format was introduced by Walter McKenzie, creator of The One And Only Surfaquarium, who conducted a WebQuest workshop for the teachers at our school as well as teachers at the Academy for the Middle Years, a nearby public school.

"Teachers were asked to come to the workshop with a project or unit they would be doing during the year," Livingston noted. "They learned to search for appropriate sites and then actually started designing their own WebQuests during the session. The teachers learned how WebQuests could help them pull together Internet resources and create specific Web pages for student use.

"Instead of allowing students to simply surf on topics -- with all the problems that can entail -- the teacher creates a WebQuest around a curricular unit or topic, and students use it to construct their own knowledge," added Livingston.

"The most successful technology-related experience I had was our nomination as a finalist in the Education World Cool School of the Year contest," said John Simeone, Webmaster at Beach Street Middle School in West Islip, New York.

"Building a school Web site was a completely new challenge for us, but success was immediate -- beginning with our designation as Education World's Cool School of the Week," Simeone said. "From that point, we received recognition from many other organizations and companies that also liked our work and thought it deserved recognition. In fact, we've received 35 awards to date! The awards got attention from parents, teachers, and students in the school community and opened up new doors to the way we view technology and the Web in our school district.

"The awards also paved the way for more technology funding, including a new 20-Macintosh computer lab for Web development, and art and music technology at the high school level," added Simeone.

"I suggest," Simeone told Education World, "that [people] who have pride in their schools and some Web authoring knowledge try to build a school Web site. It's a great way to show off your school to your community and the rest of the world! And, who knows, the results may be just as phenomenal for you as they were for us!"

"My most successful project was teaching basic Internet skills to senior citizens," Internet trainer Carolyn Salerno told Education World. "To watch them go from not knowing how to use a mouse to sending electronic greetings to grandchildren in distant states in 12 two-hour sessions was tremendously rewarding.

"We started with basic mouse skills, using solitaire and some electronic cards that had games built-in to hone mouse skills," said Salerno, who also teaches fifth grade at Bretton Woods School in Hauppauge, New York. "We set up each senior citizen with a Hotmail account, and then they were off and running. Grandchildren e-mailed them all the time, suggesting sites they should visit. And we culminated the whole session by providing URLs for additional sites that would be interesting to them, such as AARP, gardening sites, stock sites, travel sites, and so on. We even spent a lesson showing them basic search skills using a metasearch engine.

"After the initial class was completed, they wanted more!" Salerno noted. "So, we took six two-hour sessions and taught them basic word processing. Then we had them write about a segment in their life that they would be willing to share with the community and the world. Finally, we posted their segments at Senior Net 2. Take a look at what the senior citizens shared with the community and our students," Salerno urged. "And remember, it all started with basic Internet skills!"

Marcia Reed's best experience started with an iBook presentation at a convention. "After seeing a demonstration on a wireless network, we decided that a bundle of five iBooks would be a flexible upgrade for our K-8 elementary school," Reed, media center coordinator at St. Pius X School in Toledo, Ohio, told Education World. The bundle we purchased included an iMac and an AirPort -- either or both of which can be used as base stations. Since then, we've ordered two more AirPorts to better cover all of our classrooms and eliminate the interference.

"It really does work!" Reed added. "Last week, a class of 31 second graders, using five networked lab computers and five wireless iBooks, created a WebQuest on dinosaurs. Children worked in groups of three to complete a Venn diagram comparing two dinosaurs chosen from a list of six. It was a great experience to see the enthusiasm of the children as they calmly worked together in their cooperative groups!

"All the technology was not a big deal to them, and the classroom teacher and I just marveled at how well it worked," added Reed.

"The most rewarding event for me was our students' participation in CyberSurfari," said Libby Adams, a computer resource teacher at Troost Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. "We have participated for the last four years, and it's a terrific opportunity for students who need an extra challenge to participate on the Web in a safe environment.

"We use two teams, one from the fourth grade and one from the fifth grade," Adams told Education World, "and they work together laboriously to solve more than 100 contest clues. It's great to watch the cooperation that develops among team members. CyberSurfari generates school-wide interest as daily results are posted on a hallway bulletin board. The team members feel pretty important as the whole school cheers on their efforts."


"My technology disaster," Adams added, "was an attempted participation in a postcard exchange. The expense of postage and the time it took students to write either online or by snail mail became so cumbersome that we were not able to fulfill our obligation to this project."

Mary Kreul's worst experience also involved mail -- but in her case the culprit was e-mail failure. "Probably the worst technology-related experience of the year," Kreul recalled, "was when our school e-mail system went down -- right in the middle of several telecollaborative projects. For six weeks, I had to e-mail all the project contacts from my home computer, which made it impossible for the students to be actively involved, as they should have been. It was also frustrating not to be able to get a quicker response from those in charge of fixing the problem!"

"The worst thing that happened to me sounds like a small problem, but when it takes place during a one-hour training class with 22 third graders, it becomes a big problem," said Jeanne Snyder, founder and managing director of the Cyber Mom Society, CMomS, and Miss Netty's World.

"I was teaching students how to write a report, illustrate it, and place it in a simple word document," Snyder explained. "The goal was for them to create their own stories, then save the files to 3.5 floppies. Easy, right?

"It all went great until we tried to save our files to school-provided 3.5 floppies -- that's when the successful mission stopped! You see, the school had provided unformatted disks and neither the children nor my one teacher helper knew how to format them. So I ran around the room, formatting 22 diskettes in about 15 minutes -- and wasting lots of time in the process. When I asked the technologist, she just smiled and said, 'Boy, those must have been old!' A small problem but one that made me an unhappy camper that day: A great learning experience stopped for a dumb reason. And, yes, now I do check any diskettes I'm given," Snyder said.

"My worst technology-related experience was when my advanced computer applications class decided to add video to a PowerPoint presentation," said Fred Holmes, Webmaster at Osceola High School, in Nebraska. "The video-capture device we had ordered didn't work, so I had to go to the superintendent and ask to get a better one. Then we found out that we needed more RAM and a bigger hard drive. Again back to the superintendent -- hat in hand -- asking to get those items too. Fortunately, he okayed the purchases.

"Of course, the best moment," Holmes told Education World, "was when we finished the presentation (all 28 minutes of it!) and showed it at our activities banquet. Now my students are asking for an advanced applications II class so they can experiment more!"


Jennifer Wagner's worst moments, on the other hand, were the kinds that brighten every teacher's day!

"After spending three months teaching my students correct typing skills, they were typing marvelously," said Wagner, technology coordinator at Crossroads Christian School in Corona, California. "One day, however, as children were signing on, I noticed that they were typing with only one hand. I wondered why but didn't say anything. The next week, they did it again, and I had to ask: 'Students,' I inquired, 'why are you typing with only one hand.' Almost unanimously, the students answered, 'You said to type in our names with the right fingers.' Needless to say, I now ask them to type with the correct fingers, thus eliminating the confusion between right and left.

"To understand the second incident," Wagner told Education World, "you have to understand our school's discipline policy, which is based on a color system." At Wagner's school, students begin each day "green." The first time a student misbehaves or fails to pay attention, he or she receives a warning. The second warning changes the student's color to "yellow." The third incident earns an "orange" designation and a ten-minute detention. Changing two colors also costs the student his or her Friday "Principal's Recess" privilege. A fourth incident turns a student "purple" -- and precipitates a phone call home. Finally, a change to "red" results in another phone call and a meeting with the principal. "No one wants to have a "red day" at Crossroads Christian," Wagner noted.

"One day, the first-grade students were working in Kid Pix -- coloring in shapes they had drawn," Wagner said. "I said to the children, 'All right, everyone needs to change color to red.' The room got very quiet, and one little girl began to cry. It took me about a minute to figure it out, and then I began to laugh. I explained to the class that they were changing their computer colors, not their school colors. Then we all laughed as we changed our colors from red to blue to purple to orange -- all 'uh-oh' colors in the school's discipline system!"


Probably the most difficult technology-related experience was the one recounted by Eve Datisman, library media specialist at Forks High School, in Washington. Datisman calls it "Network Nightmares." Don't worry, though! She also tells you how to avoid the same miserable fate!

This is Datisman's story:

"Imagine yourself as a dog. Now imagine that there is a tiny tingle, a little itch right at the base of your tail in the one little spot that you can't reach, no matter how you bend and twist and turn. It's just a little itch. If you ignore it, it will go away. Only it doesn't! The itch gets more persistent. The harder you try to nip at it, the more it moves -- just a little bit out of your reach. Every little thought in your little doggie brain is turned to the itch. The whole world slows to a standstill. You can't wag, you can't eat, you can't scratch, you can't do anything but freeze in place. You can't fill your place in the family; you are a mass of tingling, itchy nerve endings. Finally, you can't stand it any longer, and you begin to chase your tail, hoping to catch the itch and find relief. You wear yourself out racing until you fall into a deep sleep. You wake and get a drink of water, eat a little kibble, look for a human to play with, and get ready to take your place in the family again.

"Then, there it is, that little tingle, that little itch at the base of your tail in the one little spot that you can't reach, no matter how you bend and twist and turn. And the whole thing starts all over again.

"So what do dogs have to do with technology? If you substitute network for dog and roaming profiles for itch, you'll understand what happened at Forks High School last February when the network came crashing down around our ears -- and didn't get stabilized for about a month!

"Our servers couldn't accept information; students and staff couldn't log on to the system; no one could use a printer; no one could send or receive e-mail. Our fully wired, fully integrated technology system turned into a huge mass of paper weights, of no use to anyone, simply because the network had an itch -- a series of collisions that overloaded its circuits and sent it off chasing its own electronic tail.

"So what can your district to do to keep the worst from happening to you?

  1. Make sure you know what roaming profiles can do for you and how to set them up, so programs reside on the individual computers and files are transferred to a workstation only as needed. Configure your machines to dump temporary files daily.
  2. Save your servers by making sure you have programs that block memory hogs.
  3. Pay dues to a technology co-op if you can't afford the $10,000 machine that lets the technology staff isolate machines that are collision sites, which can freeze router and hub connections. Be friendly with those folks; they can save you a world of trouble.
  4. Be patient. We're spoiled enough to resent it if there's more than a nanosecond between request and gratification. Because we know more than we used to, the things that become problems have also become more sophisticated. Realize that it takes time to solve a mystery, to track down the variables, and to untangle what's causing the problem. (Breathe!)
  5. Have a great (not just a good) communication tree in place -- and use it. Let people know what's going on every day. It's nerve-wracking enough to be a teacher on the front lines without being in the dark about the fate of your programs as well.
  6. Don't rely on 'tech-speak' to explain the problem. Find an analogy or translate the problem into regular English when you tell the folks in the trenches why they can't 'do school' as usual.
  7. Have a good back-up plan in place. What are you going to do if the lights go out for weeks at a time? How are students going to get to their folders to access their work in progress?
  8. Pay for the best equipment to run the backbone of the system. Remember, these machines are on 24-7. They get no rest, and everything depends on them. Build in a redundancy system. It's well worth the money.
  9. Budget for good tech support. Industry has about 28 machines for each tech. Schools usually can't afford that, but they also can't afford to assign 485 machines to one technician. The current rule of thumb is that one-quarter of the technology budget should go to maintenance and support.
  10. Wired means nothing if there is no easy, quick access, so spend the time to make sure that access is there."

Make all your experiences good ones!

Education World's Tech Team includes 40 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. Stay tuned in the months ahead as members of Education World's Tech Team share their thoughts on a wide variety of topics.

Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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