Students put portal to the test

Virtual Education Space

Last December, about 6,000 Massachusetts high school juniors who had to

retake a statewide assessment test voluntarily prepared for it through a

dynamic education Web portal that mapped their weaknesses, assigned a curriculum

and corrected practice tests instantly.

The state's Virtual Education Space — developed collaboratively by

several school districts and the state education department — not only

offers students a personalized tutorial and curriculum, it also enables

them to communicate via e-mail with teachers, use a calendaring tool or

participate in a threaded discussion forum, said Kimberly Joyce, executive

director for the VES Educational Collaborative.

Prior to VES, she said students preparing for the standardized tests

would be mailed an information booklet with practice tests and left to their

own devices. Although students are still left alone when using the online

diagnostic assessments, the system helps teachers track students' progress

and frees up time in the classroom for review of such tests, she said.

VES "does not absolutely replace the need for a teacher or person to

oversee how they're doing, and it doesn't guarantee kids are going to do

it," Joyce said, but she added that it does empower students by offering

them a breadth of online tools.

VES is a flexible platform for school districts to enhance teaching

and learning through a central but customizable portal. Educators and administrators

can access the same tools available to students.

So far, 22 districts with a combined 13,000 students and 65,000 teachers

and administrators are participating. Teachers can post assignments and

communicate with one another and administrators. The state education department

also has used the portal to conduct surveys quicker and more efficiently,

Joyce said, adding that in the fall, the state education commissioner is

planning to converse with teachers statewide online.

Joyce said school districts can change the look and feel of the portal

to personalize the site, and they have the flexibility to turn off some

tools they don't want. For example, some school districts don't want their

students to have e-mail, she said.

The portal — which is actually in its second generation — was re-launched

in October 2001 using Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International

Inc.'s CleverPath Portal software, which allows greater flexibility than

when the portal was initially launched. The new iteration offers greater

scalability, full compliance with Web services standards, wireless functionality,

dynamic high-resolution 2-D and 3-D representations, and aggregated administration

of storage, security and e-business infrastructure. Joyce said VES servers

are located at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Massachusetts initially launched the portal in November 2000 using Blackboard

Inc. software in response to educational reform initiatives and to provide

a more personalized environment for students. "We weren't focusing on technology.

We were focusing on the need for information, communication and accountability,"

Joyce said. Back then, eight school districts participated with a combined

47,000 users, 400 of which were students, she said.

After several focus groups, the state went through a competitive bidding

process again for a more flexible and robust portal and landed Computer

Associates' offering in early spring 2001. The state does provide training

to the districts at no charge.

Joyce said that Washington state plans to implement VES, which may also

be shared with the U.S. Open e-Learning Consortium, a coalition of 14 states

looking to sharing online educational tools, she said.

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