WebTV: Changing the Face of Education

REDMOND, Wash., April 5, 1999 — In every big-city school system there are children whose educational needs aren’t met by mainstream classroom instruction. Students with physical disabilities, recent immigrants who speak little or no English, and children from unstable homes are just some of the special-needs groups that pose difficult challenges for our public schools.

In the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Miami, Florida, there is one group in particular that the school system has struggled to serve: children of migrant farm workers. Dade county is home to one of the largest migrant populations in the United States; each April, the children of these workers–roughly 4000 students–leave Miami with their parents. For the next six months, they follow the harvest through Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

For the children, traveling with their families means bouncing from school to school. Isolated from peers and sometimes ignored by teachers as they move from place to place, migrant students are at great risk for school failure; dropout rates in the middle school years are particularly high. The main problem, experts agree, is the lack of continuity that results from the constant travel.

A new project, run jointly by Barry University and Miami-Dade County Public Schools, offers new hope to these migrant students. Called MECHA (Migrant Education Consortium for Higher Achievement) the program uses the Microsoft WebTV Network to provide access to a specially created Web site that allows students to stay in touch with their home teachers while they are away from Miami.

Through MECHA, WebTV-based Internet units were distributed to 100 migrant families. An individualized learning plan was created for each student participating in the program, and a MECHA teacher was assigned to monitor progress as students travel. Every time a MECHA student moves, the MECHA teacher uses the Internet to contact the new classroom teacher. That teacher can go online to access the lesson plan for a student; records provide a snapshot of the student’s current level and areas that need special attention. The individualized learning plan also suggests resources that teachers can use.

“When I was a counselor, I talked to a lot of kids who had dropped out or were getting ready to,”
says Cipriano Garza, director of migrant education for Miami-Dade County Schools and MECHA supervisor.
“I’ve always thought that if we could find a way to stay in touch with the teachers they encounter when they travel, we could let them know we care. I think we’ve finally found the solution with WebTV and the Internet.”

Although still in its infancy, the MECHA project is already yielding solid benefits, not only for students, but for their extended families as well. While WebTV technology lets students stay in touch with teachers and helps them stay on top of their studies, their parents are using the WebTV service to connect to the Internet for access to news from their native countries. In the process, they are learning basic computer skills and discovering how to use e-mail.

“We are seeing the bond between parent and child strengthen,”
says MECHA project director Dr. Janie Greenleaf.
“We are seeing students teaching their parents how to use WebTV. We find parents are communicating with their kids more.”

Richer Resources = Motivated Students

MECHA is just one example of the innovative ways that educators are using WebTV to transform the face of education. Inexpensive, easy to set up, and simple to learn, WebTV opens new doors for students, teachers, and parents as schools use it to provide new educational opportunities, improve home-school communication, and offer access to a rich array of materials and activities. WebTV is also safe: The WebTV service includes SurfWatch, which automatically protects users by screening objectionable Internet material.

The combination of simplicity, affordability, and safety has helped the South Bay Union School District (SBUSD) of San Diego, California, launch a groundbreaking program aimed at raising academic achievement among its 10,000 elementary school students. This academic year, the school district distributed WebTV Internet units to every student in two or three classrooms in each of SBUSD’s 12 schools. Teachers in those classrooms are seeing remarkable changes.

“Knowing that each of my students has WebTV at home is great,”
says sixth-grade teacher Janet Rodriguez.
“I’m able to give assignments in which they do research on the Internet. So they’re going out into the world, visiting museums and finding resources I haven’t even thought of. I’m finding my kids to be more motivated, which usually translates into higher grades and more learning. The richness of the resources they explore shows up in their work. They bring these experiences into their writing, and they’re expressing their ideas with a more enriched vocabulary.”

The WebTV-based Internet connection has also proven to be an important conduit for parent-teacher communication.
“With WebTV at home, I have a way to check on my son’s progress,”
says Esmeralda Alvarado, the mother of a student in Janet Rodriguez’s class.
“If I have a question about his grades or an assignment, I just go to the Web and contact his teacher. I know she’s right there. It’s easy to contact her, and she sends a note right back.”

To date, the school district has installed WebTV in more than 950 homes. SBUSD officials believe that 90 percent of those students wouldn’t have Internet access without the WebTV service. An extremely diverse district that sits very close to the border between the United States and Mexico, the South Bay Union School District includes a high proportion of students from financially disadvantaged households. In addition, more than one-third of the district’s students have limited English skills. The WebTV program has helped the South Bay Union School District put cutting edge technology in the hands of hundreds of families that would not have been able to afford it.

In the future, the school district would like to extend the program to each and every one of its students.
“Our long-range goal is to provide every student who enrolls in the South Bay Union School District with a WebTV-based Internet unit, just as they receive a math book or a social studies book,”
says SBUSD superintendent Larry Acheatel.
“We want WebTV to become a standard learning tool.”

When that happens, the district believes that WebTV will play a major role in helping to improve the quality and quantity of time families spend on learning by helping parents to focus on what they can do at home to continue their child’s educational development. The district’s long-range plans include individualized learning plans for every student , plans that parents will be able to access through the Internet for updates on how their child is doing. Links will take them to tutoring activities so they can help their child work on problem areas.

“Our dream is to have parents truly involved with the school,”
says Al Walters, director of curriculum and projects at SBSUD.
“We want to find ways they can effectively help their kids and at the same time meet the demands of working and supporting their families.”

Extending the REACHE of Distance Learning

Younger students aren’t the only ones benefiting from WebTV. Through the Kansas City Regional Access Consortium for Higher Education (KC REACHE), older students who can’t attend traditional classes can now take advantage of college-level programs. KC REACHE is a consortium of colleges and universities in and around Kansas City, Missouri, which are working with KCPT, the local Public Broadcasting Service member station. KCPT provides the education broadcast content for KC REACHE classes, while professors from participating institutions of higher education provide instruction. Most of the courses are conducted entirely over the Internet.

While distance learning through public television isn’t entirely new, KC REACHE has taken the concept a step further by offering students who don’t have computers the opportunity to participate by using the WebTV service. One such student is Jody Evans, a working mother who is pursuing a counseling degree. To date she has completed three classes through the KC REACHE program and is currently enrolled in three more.

Evans hopes to graduate in May 2001, a goal that would be impossible without WebTV.
“When you’re raising kids and you’re not making a lot of money, a computer can be out of reach,”
she says.
“I needed to do these distance education classes, so WebTV was the perfect option.”

The low cost of WebTV units has allowed KC REACHE to establish a loan program for students like Evans.
“WebTV is the great leveler,”
explains Michael Connet, vice president of adult education at KCPT.
“It extends learning into the home for people who can’t make it to a college campus or to a classroom environment. The ease of use is second to none. The threshold to get a student online quickly and easily, connected to a rich array of content just can’t be replicated.”

Helping Teachers Do Their Homework

WebTV technology is also helping teachers in the Kansas City area takes advantage of KCPT educational programming. Selected school districts in the Kansas City area participate in MoKan Kids, a project that brings educational programming and planned classroom activities to students. MoKan kids includes a Web site called TeacherLINK, which provides classroom and follow-up activities, as well as instructional material searchable by subject and grade level.

Ten of the 34 schools in the Olathe School District in Olathe, Kansas, just southwest of Kansas City, are using the MoKan Kids programming extensively. The district recently purchased 10 WebTV-based Internet units so that teachers without home Internet access can borrow an easy-to-use device that will allow them to access the TeacherLINK Web site at home.

The WebTV units provide a cost effective and simple solution to what could have been a very difficult and expensive problem: creating opportunities for teachers to access the Web and take full advantage of the TeacherLINK site. The issue wasn’t necessarily a shortage of computers–every school has networked computers in both their lab and media centers–but of finding the necessary research and planning time during the school day. Teachers can sign out a WebTV unit and take it home when they need extra time to prepare.

“We have Internet access at school, but we needed to give teachers access at home,”
explains Kathi Tully director of technology for the Olathe School District and a member of the board of directors for MoKan Kids.
“Teachers are with students when they are at school, and that’s the way it should be. We want to make it easy on those who don’t have computers at home so they can do Internet research in the evenings.”
According to Tully, Olathe school officials are considering extending the WebTV program to the remaining 24 schools in the district.
“The pilot started at our instructional television sites, but there is no reason that we can’t extend it out to our other schools,”
she says.
“WebTV could give all of our teachers Internet access through a take-home program.”

That could put the Olathe School District at the front edge an important trend as more and more school districts and educational programs discover that WebTV is an ideal way to put Internet technologies in the hands of students and educators. As access to the Web and all of the rich educational content it offers becomes a critical component of every student’s education, WebTV’s unique combination of affordability, simplicity, and safety make it an ideal way to ensure that students of every age and background enjoy the same opportunities.

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