Personal computers have transformed the way teachers teach, students learn, and school operations are conducted. But the addition of PCs is not the only technological advancement that can help education institutions run more productively.

The progress that has made computers smaller, faster and cheaper also has led to the availability of products that allow students to receive information more quickly and in more varied ways; that allow teachers to communicate more easily with each other, with administrators and with the parents of their students; and that allow administrators to manage their staffs and facilities more effectively.

Communications systems

A classroom with a telephone was a rarity not so many years ago. Schools could not afford the cost of all the lines that would be needed to provide phones to every classroom and office in a building. Often, a building intercom system that delivered messages from the principal's office was the only way a classroom could receive communications. Now, technology makes it possible for schools to end the isolation of teachers and students in classrooms, connecting them to the rest of the world.

A simple way for schools to facilitate communications between staff members is to use a walkie-talkie system. The handheld units can keep a line of communication open for teachers supervising recess away from the school building or staff members assigned to portable classrooms that aren't connected to an intercom system. As the price of cell-phone service has become more affordable and coverage areas have improved, those systems also have become a viable option for education institutions.

More sophisticated communications systems have become available for schools because of the push for instructional technology improvements that began in the 1990s. Propelled by federal programs such as E-rate subsidies, nearly every public school classroom has connections to the Internet.

Schools can take advantage of those technological networks that are now in place in most facilities and furnish phone connections over the Internet instead of traditional phone lines. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) systems bring regular telephone service to classrooms as well as other features — voice mail, call forwarding, conferencing — that help teachers communicate with fellow staff, administrators and parents.

“The integration was transparent to everyone,” says Julio Velasquez, technology director at the Somerset (Pa.) school district, which installed a VoIP system a few years ago. “The phones were so easy to use, users barely had to learn anything.”

The technology infrastructure in place in many schools also will allow classrooms to receive video programs or distance-learning presentations online. Schools also can use their computer networks to make sure their class schedules are accurate and bells sound at the correct time. Just as cell phone users can download specialized ring tones, a computerized bell system can provide a wide array of sounds that school personnel can select to differentiate various times of the day, altered schedules, or special events.

Library checkout

New technology enables school libraries to handle material checkout more efficiently and deter theft more effectively. Libraries on campuses such as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; University of Connecticut and University of Pennsylvania have installed radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems in some of their library facilities.

In an RFID system, information is placed on microchips in tags that are affixed to library materials. Radio-frequency technology “reads” the information on the chip. The American Library Association says the RFID tags last longer than bar codes and that data from the tags can be read much more quickly than from barcodes; RFID systems also can read several items at the same time. That makes it much more practical for library patrons to check out their own materials. Sensors can detect when an item is being removed from the library without being checked out properly, and can keep track when material is used within the facility without being checked out.

The technology also allows libraries to conduct an inventory of materials much more quickly. An employee can gather information about materials without even removing them from the shelves; a handheld scanner can gather the information. “Using wireless technology, it is possible not only to update the inventory, but also to identify items which are out of proper order,” the ALA says.

The disadvantages of an RFID library system, according to the ALA, include high costs (tags cost 60 cents to 85 cents each, it says); the possibility that a thief could block the radio signal; the chance that thieves or vandals could remove the radio tags from materials; and the perception among students or other library users that the system may violate their privacy.

In at least one case, a school has tried to apply RFID technology beyond the library and use it with student-identification cards to streamline attendance taking and boost security. However, concerns about privacy have scuttled that experiment (see sidebar, p. 48)

Beyond blackboards

An interactive whiteboard takes the traditional concept of chalk and blackboard into a brave new world. The key component of a whiteboard system is a large touch-sensitive computer screen. An instructor can use a computer to display web pages, multimedia presentations or other software programs on the whiteboard screen. Students can use a pen or their fingers directly on the touchscreen to add handwritten information.

The Fairfax County (Va.) district has acquired whiteboards for several of its schools. “The interactive whiteboard allows FCPS teachers and students to access and display Internet websites, run educational software, run live video from a camera, record, capture, highlight and review notes from a classroom discussion, deliver PowerPoint presentations and more,” states the district's technology plan.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@primediabusiness.com.

Tracking system raises privacy concerns

Technological advancements often lead to new ways of doing things, but sometimes the people who are supposed to use the technology are reluctant to embrace it.

That's what happened earlier this year at Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif. Officials in the one-school district announced that in January they would begin a pilot project using a radio frequency identification system to track student attendance more quickly and effortlessly. But after just a few weeks, complaints from parents and others about safety and privacy issues led the company that created the system to end the pilot project.

Students were required to wear identification cards tagged with a radio frequency ID (RFID), and antennas placed above classroom doors “read” the ID information from the cards and relayed the attendance data via a server to that classroom teacher's personal digital assistant.

But in addition to the attendance function, the ID tags allowed school officials to keep track of students' whereabouts. That privacy concern, together with worries about possible health effects from the radio waves, prompted objections from several parents of the 600 or so students who attend the K-8 school.

“These ID cards are an invasion of privacy, cumbersome to wear and a hazard to the children,” parents Michael and Dawn Cantrall wrote to the school board.“ … Education is about teaching respect and tolerance for each other. It is not ‘big brother’ monitoring every move, or children being made to feel they have fewer rights than criminals convicted of serious crimes.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also voiced its objections.

“The RFID badges will make it easier for anyone — not just school officials — to target and find Brittan schoolchildren, both at school and in the community at large,” the ACLU stated in a letter to the Brittan school board. “As RFID readers become cheaper and more widely available, the threat to students increases.”

The civil liberties group says the ID system “creates a prison-like atmosphere at the school. Their use is demeaning to all children … creating an atmosphere of disrespect for and distrust of students.”

The pilot project ended in mid-February. “While all accounts were that the system was very accurate and would save time and money, [company] representatives felt that all of the recent national publicity was a distraction to the school learning environment,” the school's newsletter said.