MultiMedia Comes of Age: 
The Future Is Now in Lawrenceville, New Jersey
by Rebecca Gold • Technology Director, Lawrenceville Township Public Schools
with Ferdi Serim • MultiMedia Schools Editor
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2002
21st Century Ideas from NCREL's enGauge

As an education leader, I'm always looking out for the students, always asking about the kind of future that awaits our kids, and how we can guide our actions so they get the best possible preparation.  One place I turn to for inspiration and support is the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory's enGauge Web site [http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/skills.htm].  There, I find powerful insights into the nature of work in the 21st century and the skills needed to do this work—insights that helped us accomplish what we have here in my Lawrenceville, NJ school district.

— R.G.
Real-World Tools: A Definition

"Real-World Tools comprise the hardware, software, networking, and peripheral devices used by IT workers to accomplish 21st century work. These tools are supported by a conceptual and contextual framework that facilitates communication and collaboration among local and distant groups to achieve a shared task. Examples include digital media of all kinds, knowledge management tools, simulations, data visualization, publishing, and project management."

—from Cheryl L. Lemke (2001). 21st Century Skills—enGauge Framework.
Work commissioned by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory through the Metiri Group [http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/skills.htm]


"There is an ongoing mismatch between what is being taught in our schools and the skills that employers need. The experience of education is simply not designed to match the experience of work."

—Jonathan Raymond, President, Corporation for Business, Work and Learning
What It Takes to Connect Seven Schools, 500 Teachers, 5,000 Students
  • Each school has a wide band video routing switch. Any visual resource becomes an input of this switch while every classroom becomes an output.
  • Bi-directional video is sent via unshielded twisted pair cabling. The analog or digital signal sent via SAFARI's UTP transmission equipment allows for broadcast-quality video that does not degrade the quality of the data network.
  • SAFARI Content File Server-Digital video server integrates core curriculum into the mix. The SAFARI Server is packaged with copyrighted educational resources, which allow any user anywhere on the network to control and manipulate content and to create interactive lesson plans.
  • Digital Media Commander is the network appliance in the classroom that allows teachers to present digital and analog resources. The DMC allows teachers to focus on instructing while the DMC manages all of the multimedia resources, such as teleconferencing, Internet, live video, digital video, text messaging, and much more.
The set is quiet, the team members take their places, as they do every day. The stage manager cues the anchor, while computer graphics illustrate the story. Researchers and script writers see their work come to fruition, and news that is relevant and important to this elementary school reaches every classroom, as well as any home in the community watching a feed through the cable system. The skills and talents required for success in the 21st century have made their entrance on cue, as literacy moves beyond reading and writing to embrace the full spectrum of digital media.

And everyone making it happen is a third grader.

Remarkably, this is just part of the results of a multimedia and technology initiative, funded by a successful referendum and a partnership with Safari Technologies, Inc.

From Starting Line to Finish Line: Student Benefits Drive the System
For years in this district, we've focused on buying gear that we believe had the potential to help teachers help kids learn. Yet these purchases have varied from classroom to classroom, from school to school. We wanted to take all the piecemeal investments and put them into a unified system that teachers can control from their classrooms. In any classroom. In every classroom. Here's some of what's been done so far.

Recent growth in our community has changed our demographics, particularly with respect to English as Second Language (ESL) students. These students have traditionally taken a back seat as they struggle to fit into a new culture, with the materials and social interactions they are just learning to comprehend. Their stories get lost, and their progress is hampered until they find something their self-esteem can latch onto.

In our case, we started a series of projects in which these students did research on their homeland countries. Using a coordinated approach of text, multimedia, and Internet, these students prepared presentations that conveyed the heart and soul of the nations where they'd lived before coming to our community. The confidence that emerged when they were able to show and tell stories that held meaning and pride for them, before audiences of their classmates, parents, and eventually (over cable TV) the town, allowed them to feel they'd joined our community and to feel valued when positive feedback came their way.

Along with their third-grade counterparts, these students are entering the digital age as creators, not merely consumers. At the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory's enGauge Web site (see sidebar), I read this quote byDr. Robert L. Caret, president, San Jose State University: "Students had no idea what careers are available to them and, as a result, had given little thought to backgrounds they needed to achieve those career goals." Our students get this experience every day.
 

From Forward Thinking to Forward Curriculum
But more important, these experiences are not happening in a vacuum. They are directed by data. As thebacklash builds against assessment dominated by state testing, people are finally beginning to ask, "How should it be done right?" People are realizing that political drive and performance improvement are not necessarily mutual destinations.

Under the leadership of our superintendent, Dr. Max Riley, we are following a strategic plan based on school and student achievement. As Riley states, "We begin by asking teachers what needs to change. Then we provide school leaders with performance data. They have responded by identifying the data they don't have, knowing what to look for, and what to do with it when they get it."

Our focus on communication skills and expanded literacy comes from these efforts to improve performance. So the technology in our multimedia and technology initiative has a purpose, a vital role in helping everyone meet these goals.

We've looked at the data for student performance in our district, and across the board, at all levels of students, in all schools, they lack abilities in public speaking, organization skills, and project planning. In New Jersey, we have a public speaking requirement for all fourth graders. It was clear that the opportunity to create content and distribute it within our community was a powerful way to prepare kids in these crucial life skills.

Making announcements, displaying work from a laptop, distributing feeds to classrooms from speakers or visitors, sharing teacher projects, greetings from the principal on back-to-school night, simulcasting author visits during Read-A-Thon, and (my personal favorite) letting kids watch the incubator as we do our annual "chick hatching" project...these are all examples of how the multimedia technology we've acquired through this initiative has been integrated into the daily life of our school.

Another significant feature has been security. We've been able to deploy 16 video cameras, which monitor the building after hours. Each camera "sees" an entry/exit, so we may not see the kids taking or breaking stuff, but we'll catch them walking out the door! Vandalism and theft have been reduced, because kids know they'll be caught. So far, the first incident of kids breaking in to the cafeteria to take money has been the last incident.

Perhaps the most surprising use has been with our school board. Now, our board meetings happen in the library/media center. The board president has the agenda on a laptop, and the items up for discussion are illustrated with PowerPoint presentations viewable by the public in the room as well as the public at home via cable television. Members of the public who wish to speak are also encouraged to provide their PowerPoint materials in advance. Within a short time, using this technology has become "second nature" to the school board and the public. Most important, after the community's $8 million investment, the results are visible, both in terms of teacher and student use, and in terms of communicating the achievements, challenges, and commitments required to provide learning to all.
 

The Last Mile
Since 1904, when Thomas Edison predicted that movies would soon replace schools, hype about media has exceeded educational results. Radio, TV, filmstrips, and, most recently, the Internet have all taken a turn as the panacea of the moment. Each has suffered from the same fatal flaw: the assumption that simply introducing a new technology would result in improvement. It is the use of any tool that may or may not lead to improvement, and passive use is less likely to do so than uses where students and teachers are creators. Communications must be two-way if learning is to flourish. Our system allows us to do this now, rather than waiting for the eventual arrival of widespread high-speed connectivity.

The promised broadband revolution has seemed like a mirage to many schools. No matter how we work to approach it, the benefits are always on the horizon, due to "the last mile" problem. High-speed connections are spreading to urban and upscale areas, but reaching each school building isn't on the calendar for most schools.
 

Opening All the Lanes of the Information Superhighway
Safari Technologies, Inc., with whom we partnered on our multimedia and technology initiative, is addressing this problem. The company is pursuing a strategy that capitalizes on the networking investments made by schools, which, by now, have resulted in nearly all schools being connected to the Internet—the investment in category 5 cabling that powers typical Ethernet local area networks. The E-Rate has allowed schools to make this investment over the past 5 years. Safari has allowed us to make powerful use of it in an unexpected way: by creating value inside our network, rather than always seeing it outside, on the Internet.

Most people are surprised to learn that half the lanes of the Information Superhighway carry no traffic. The common Ethernet cable (category 5) has eight strands, only four of which are used to carry the information that allows computers to access the Internet (IP or Internet Protocol traffic). The other four strands are not used at all. Safari, realizing this, developed and patented over 200 techniques, making it possible for their server to use two channels in each direction for video.

What does this mean? When we plug one of the Safari Snap! servers into an existing Ethernet network, up to 30 machines on our network can access 30 different video programs, at broadcast quality, on demand. The "last mile" problem is no longer the school's problem, because the content lives on the school network, which enjoys 100 megabit speeds. Our current students may attend several alumni reunions before such connectivity is available to all schools via broadband.
 

The Future Is Now, But Change Is Forever
Keeping up with new systems is the technology director's nightmare. Originally, my goal was to provide each classroom with a way of seeing multimedia, whether it was from video, a computer, or any other source. We decided that 32-inch television monitors were the most cost-effective form of display, and I considered purchasing a VCR for each room as well, since sharing a cart with a TV/VCR combo wouldn't cut it. (We would have had to find a way to cope with scheduling; to navigate stairways with rolling carts; and deal with tapes breaking, being stolen, or destroyed.)

My choice was to buy 500 VCRs ... or seek a district-wide, state-of the-art solution that would make our content available everywhere. Moreover, it had to be a system that would work with a staff of "12 o'clock flashers"—the kind of folks who have every device in their house flashing 12:00 because programming each one is something they're not going to do.

I wanted a system that could take any media source and put it anywhere. I lived through the CD-I phase, and know that the VCRs I'm using now will soon migrate to DVDs. The system had to be able to accommodate that change without requiring us to buy all new gear. I wanted an infrastructure with the ability to change devices as needed. Eventually, I found my way to Safari, Inc. What I got is a system where "everything is both a source and a destination."
 

New Vendor Relationships: Design and Build vs. Cookie Cutter
Networks must be responsive to the needs of teachers and students. But we rarely apply this same standard to the vendors we work with! None of this would have been possible if we hadn't worked with a vendor who actually makes the product it sells. When I asked Cory Crawford of Safari, Inc. about a "typical installation," his answer was, "There is none." What he meant was that each installation is designed around each school's network, and as we all know, there is no typical school network.

In our case, we saved thousands of dollars by building our system so we could reuse existing computers, peripherals, networking, and cabling. That is just good planning. But one example shows how it goes even deeper. For each of our classrooms, we bought 32-inch TV monitors, each of which came with a remote. When the new Digital Media Commander control unit for the Safari Snap! server came out, it came with its own remote. I didn't want to have two remotes. When Safari's Crawford came by my office, he made several drawings as we talked, then got on the phone with technicians back at the head office. We shipped them one of our TV monitor remotes. A couple days later they called asking us to ship them all 700 of our existing remotes. Two weeks later, they were back, reprogrammed to work with both our TVs and the new Digital Media Commander, with new labels so that the learning curve for our staff would be greatly reduced.

Now, using one remote (which we'd already paid for with the TVs), our teachers can cruise the Internet as well as schedule which of the 6,000 multimedia titles they'd like to see. The system integrates with our library automation system, importing MARC records into the scheduling database, so that our existing library of analog videos can be accessed and scheduled as well. This wouldn't be possible with a traditional vendor who simply resells other people's stuff. It is a model for the 21st century relationships that are needed between schools and suppliers.
 

Intellectual Property, the Legitimate Way
For years, since the arrival of the first laser discs, powerful digital media has entered classrooms, but there was no legitimate way to use it. Providing content without the means or rights to use it is a cruel hoax. Pulling stills or clips of precisely the sequences desired for maximum learning and using this material in teacher- or student-created work was either not practical or not permitted.

Safari, Inc. has addressed this issue as well: The content that comes on a Snap! server is fully licensed for educational purposes. The content in question is 6,000 titles from AGC/UnitedLearning.com, including the Encyclopedia of the 20th Century. All this, along with the license, comes on this incredible little box, plug and play. Teachers can schedule what they want to see, from home, over the Web, as they're making their lesson plans. If it's on the server, they can do it on demand. If it's in our library, the library/media specialist loads it in the VCR rack, which takes 15 minutes, twice a day.

The intent is for students and teachers to construct new knowledge using these materials, in keeping with 21st century skills, and our system reunites the tools and the stories to assist in this content creation.
 

Working Yourself out of a Job
There is no such job as "director of pencils," and, in my view, neither should there be a director of technology. It should be seamlessly woven into the fabric of the way we get our job done, and our job is simply education. In my case, the district has now put me in charge of curriculum, a perfect place to see that the power of technology is used—when and where it makes sense—to enhance learning. My goal has been to work myself out of a job, and you have to be careful what you wish for. Now I have three jobs where I used to have one! But the point is, the power of technology is now built into our curriculum, special education, and community outreach efforts—at all levels.
 

Conclusion: The Last Mile Is the First Mile
Our early experience with mature multimedia technology is vastly encouraging. We have found a way to leverage our previous investments and keep them evergreen. We have found a way to harness the talents and desires of our staff to align their efforts with student performance, while supporting their continual growth through sharing and collaboration. We have found a way to turn schooling from a "black box" that has inputs of money, time, and people and open a window into what we are doing, as well as how others in the community can help. The technology didn't do this. We did this. But until now, the people using the technology never quite understood how both it and they could come together to reach goals we'd never dreamed of. I encourage you to seek these benefits for your learning community!
 
 

Communications with the author may be directed to Rebecca Gold, Technology Director, Lawrence Township Public Schools, 2525 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648; 609/530-8470; rgold@ltps.org.
 

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