Combining Dynamic Query and Full Motion Digital Video in a High Speed Network to Improve Instruction in Middle School Science and Social Studies Classes




Victor Nolet, Ph.D.
University of Maryland at College Park
vn9@umail.umd.edu

Gary Marchionini, Ph.D.
University of Maryland at College Park
march@oriole.umd.edu

Ernestine Enomoto, Ph.D.
University of Maryland at College Park
ee23@umail.umd.edu






As the characteristics of the 21st century work place, with its reliance on telecommunications and information technologies have become more well defined, concern has been expressed over the perceived inability of schools as they are currently configured to prepare children and youth to join that work force. For example. the 1991 report of the U.S. Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) linked school reform directly with the characteristics of an information-based economy and was unequivocal in emphasizing the importance of core content area classes for teaching these workplace competencies and foundations. Emergence of a global economy driven by information technology is fostering international consensus that students must demonstrate competency in core subject area courses that involve complex thinking and problem solving. Consider for example, curriculum reform initiatives in Great Britain (Barnett, 1992), Australia (Nicholoson, 1993), Spain (Tarrago, Santallusia, & Marti, 1993), and The Netherlands (van Weer, 1992) where informatics is viewed as a core subject area. Access to effective instruction in the content areas has become a prerequisite to full participation in society for all children, including the large group of children and youth who are at risk of school failure because of economic circumstances, language or cultural differences, or disabilities (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989).
Unfortunately, students who need the best and most often get the worst and least. In many instances, practices in middle and high school classrooms that serve students at academic risk are out of step with current theories of teaching and learning. For example, instruction in most middle and high school content classes is structured by textbooks that have been characterized as "inconsiderate" of poor readers (Armbruster, 1984), cover content superficially (Crabtree, 1989), present many facts with little integration of material into coherent representations, and contain few unifying concepts or principles (Beck, McKeown, & Gromoll, 1989). The assumption implicit in design of traditional science and social studies programs is that students who lack basic skills , are "not ready" to function in content area classes (Doyle cited in Knapp, Turnbull, & Shields, 1990). However, curriculum and instructional designs based on assumptions of "readiness" tend to underestimate student capabilities, postpone or omit more challenging and interesting work, provide little context for learning of meaningfully using skills and, reinforce academic failure over the long term (Knapp, Turnbull, & Shields, 1990).

Technology and Modern Views of Learning

In the last decade, research conducted in a variety of domains, has lead to a rethinking of teaching and learning in content classes. The context in which content area learning occurs is now understood to be at least as important as a student's readiness skills. Indeed, learning in content area classes increasingly is being viewed as process of enculturation, where students enter into "cognitive apprenticeships" with teachers who model the thinking skills associated with a domain (Brown, Collins, & Durgid, 1989). Learning is viewed as being situated in a particular context. For example, in math and science, and social studies classes, teachers can serve as cognitive mediators by creating classroom-based contexts that help students think and problem solve "like a scientist" in an active process that builds on prior understandings in construction of new knowledge (Harper, 1990; Schoenfeld, 1996; Kinzer, Risko, Vye, & Sherwood 1988) ). This instructional approach has been found to be particulary effective for at-risk students (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1996).
At the same time as notions of learning have evolved, a theoretical basis for learning through information technology has emerged and it is becoming clear that media and method are integrally related (Kozma, 1991). Video technologies such as videotape and Level 4 videodisks, have become essential tools for teachers in mediating situated learning. For example the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1996) has made extensive use of videodisks in programs such as The Young Sherlock Holmes and Jasper Woodbury Problem Solving Series, where "video anchors" are used to create realistic, interesting contexts that promote active construction of knowledge by all learners.
Video curricula, particularly videodisks can be superior to print media or even hands-on experiences such as field trips because they can be replayed and reviewed as often as necessary, and may require less organization and preparation time and therefore, can be immediately integrated into classroom activities under direct control of the teacher or students. However, high quality videodisk-based curricula are expensive to create and generally have a fairly specialized purpose that may limit their utility across instructional settings. Also, like textbooks, commercially produced video curricula, impose the, point of view and theoretical perspective of the program author and these may be incompatible with local curriculum goals and student needs. Finally, even though teacher interest in use of video technology has grown drastically in recent years, the VCR remains the dominant form of video technology available for use in classrooms. Videodisk systems are readily available to only about 12% of teachers and regularly used by as few as 5% (NEA, 1991), with most videodisk systems located in high schools rather than middle or elementary schools (OTA, 1995). There are growing expectations that adoption of networked digital video technologies in schools provides the practical basis for many video solutions.

Networked Technologies and School Reform

While free-standing video technologies such as videodisks will continue to occupy a niche in schools, momentum has been building steadily in recent years for much more extensive integration of networked technologies in schools. Educational policy increasingly is under the influence of powerful market forces aimed at selling hardware, software, and connectivity to schools and also, at gaining access through schools to the much larger home market. For example, national and state telecommunication policies and regulations recently have undergone significant revision to address the rapidly growing potential of information technologies, with particular attention paid to reducing inequities among technology "have" and "have not" schools. Development of a National Information Infrastructure (NII) has been identified as a national priority and significant private and public sectors funds have been committed to the task of ensuring that all schools gain access to the Internet. In response, the U.S. Department of Education is in the third year of providing Technology Challenge Grants to public school-lead consortia of universities and private businesses seeking to demonstrate innovative approaches to use of information technology in schools. At the same time, numerous states recently have staged "net days" on which community volunteers install in-school wiring to facilitate wide bandwidth Internet access, using wires and hardware donated by local telecommunications providers.
In all likelihood, networked technologies will usurp other classroom technologies as competition for limited school budget dollars intensifies. The clear expectation is that information technology that facilitates distance learning will have a major impact on the organization of schools and the nature of teaching and learning in classrooms for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the precise relationship between information technology and school improvement has yet to be described. Even though vigorous school reform efforts are under way nearly every state, school reform policy and practice generally has entailed a much greater investment in revamping curricular guidelines and establishing high performance standards than in improving access to information technology (Means, 1994; OTA, 1995).
In the last decade, most national and international standard-setting organization have issued rigorous new content standards that reflect this renewed attention to learning theory and create the expectation that students demonstrate proficiency in complex and critical thinking, problem-solving, manipulation of information, communication, and cooperative work. In turn, these new standards have influenced state and national content standards and curricular frameworks that often are intended to serve as benchmarks against which to measure the performance of schools. The project we will describe in the remainder of this paper employs state-of-the-art networked telecommunications technology in a format designed to promote improved instruction in content classes, linked to rigorous performance standards and curriculum guidelines.

The Baltimore Learning Community

The Baltimore Learning Community (BLC) is a collaborative project of the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP), Johns Hopkins University (JHU), and the Baltimore City Public Schools, funded as one of the U.S. Department of Education Technology Challenge Grant. The goal of this five-year project is to create a learning community through use of high quality digital science and social studies resources and high-speed networking. The project has two major components that both target technology "have not" schools that serve high numbers of students who are academically at risk. One component of the project, lead by a team of researchers from JHU, employs interactive video conferencing and focuses on development of school-community links to facilitate effective school to work transitions consistent with the SCANS goals. The other component of the project is lead by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland at College Park and focuses on development of effective solutions for integrating high quality digital video and other resources into middle school science and social studies classrooms and linking instruction that uses these resources to rigorous curriculum guidelines measured by a statewide performance assessment. This paper will describe the UMCP component.
One goal of the Education Challenge Grants program is to demonstrate how public school-university-business consortia can operate to improve educational outcomes through enhanced technology. In addition to the school and university partners, the BLC also involves a consortium of public organizations and private businesses that have made a major investment in the project. Discovery Communications Inc. participated actively in the development of the original project proposal and is providing up to 100 hours of digitized video programming from the Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel as well as ongoing technical and conceptual assistance. Apple Computers has donated 40 computers as well as significant technical support. The National Archives and the Space Telescope Institute have provided significant content resources in both digital and non-digital formats.

Overview of System Design

The project employs a multi-format, multi-source approach to providing a wide range of instructional materials in content classrooms. When the project is fully implemented, 12 science and social studies teachers in classrooms in three urban middle schools will have access to still images, various forms of text, WWW sites, and full motion video via high speed connections to the Internet. Some of these resources will reside on a video server consisting of a Sun Sparc 20 workstation running Starlight video server software while other resources will reside throughout the World Wide Web. The project is employing a client-server configuration with client machines installed in the middle school classrooms and digital resources available on a download basis from the server. Upon final implementation, video streaming will be supported, with all resources available "on demand" from the server or the World Wide Web.
Each of the 12 classrooms is equipped with three or four Apple Macintosh 5200 computers capable of displaying MPEG video. These machines are available for student use. In addition, the classrooms also include "planning and presentation" platform consisting of an MPEG-capable Apple Macintosh 5400 computer equipped with a 4gb hard drive as well as one or two large screen "s-video" monitors for classwide display. Presently, each of the schools in the project operates an ethernet-based LAN with a hubbed dial-up connection to a proprietary Internet provider. All teachers on the project also have been provided with Internet access at home. The project will migrate to fiber or a hybrid wired/wireless solution in the last two project years. Currently, the Sparc 20 server resides at the University of Maryland but upon full implementation of the project, the server will be located in the school district and schools will have ISDN or better bandwidth connectivity.

Indexed Resources and Linkage to Curriculum Standards

The networking and video-server configurations employed on the project for the most-part use "off the shelf" technologies. This is consistent with the goal of ensuring maximum scalability of all aspects demonstrated on the project. However, the project has required development of two software innovations. These are an indexing system that employs a graphic display for retrieval and previewing of digital resources, and a user interface that links access and use of digital content resources directly to an instructional decision-making and planning process based on curriculum standards. The customized search and explore interface uses a dynamic query interface (Allany & Shnierderman, 1995) to support teacher access to the resources.
Multimedia Indexing and Retrieval System
The teachers currently working on the project function as full development partners and have been largely responsible for identifying materials appropriate for their curricula to be stored on the server. These resources include broadcast quality video material from Discovery Communications Inc., as well as scanned graphics from the National Archives and various historical and local interest text documents.
The multimedia indexing and retrieval system employs a starfield display that allows the user to search for digital resources stored on the local server by subject area, topic, or subtopic. The display crosses topics by standards on two axes and displays variable length bars corresponding to video, graphics, WWW sites, and text resources, and modules previously created by other teachers. The number of each type of resources available on the server varies according to the particular subject area, topic, or subtopic selected and the size of the bar displayed in the starfield corresponds to the number of resources of each type that are available for retrieval. This display is illustrated in Figure 1. Currently, over 1000 objects are stored on the server, and we anticipate that this number will grow to over 50,000 by the end of the five project years.

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By clicking on any of the bars in the starfield display, the user can obtain more detailed information about the resources available and then select specific items to preview. The preview mode presents thumbnail images of the resources available on the server so the user can decide whether or not they want to acquire the image for use in the classroom. The preview mode is illustrated in Figure 2. Once the user has decided to use an item, it can be downloaded and stored at the planning and presentation workstation in the teacher's classroom.

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Instructional Planning Interface

The overriding goal of the project is to create technological support for instruction in middle school content classes that enables students to meet rigorous performance outcomes. The digital materials that can be accessed in the project are expected to function as instructional anchors that will help teachers create a context within which to situate instruction. Unlike videodisk-based programs in which instructional planning and organization are conducted by the program authors, this project leaves virtually all of the decision-making about how the digital resources will be used up to the teacher. Generally the video content stored on the server is less than 3 minutes in length and is intended to be used within an instructional context mediated by the teacher rather than to function as a complete instructional program. To assist teachers in this process, a user interface has been created that requires a series of instructional planning decisions before the digital resources stored on the server are incorporated into instruction in the classroom. The interface is an HTML-based form with cgi scripts that support development of Instructional modules that can be stored on the server and displayed at the planning and presentation workstation in each classroom.
Instructional modules can then be used in any context the teacher wishes, ranging from a single, self-contained lesson to a series of lessons that occur over numerous class days. These modules are stored on the server and always available for use in the classroom. The user interface offers a Planning Mode and a Presentation Mode to support module development. To create a module during Planning Mode, the user must specify specific information such as grade level, content area, and curriculum goals the instruction is intended to address (see Figure 3).

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Currently curriculum outcomes from the Maryland School Performance Program are required, however, the final version of the system will support user-defined curriculum goals. Linkage with performance assessment tasks also will be included in the final version of the system, although this function is not included in the current version. The user also is asked to identify activities and tasks that will occur before-, during-, and after-instruction. Once this information has been specified, the path name or URL of resources the user has selected from the starfield display are listed and available for display in the classroom. When the teacher is ready to use the module in class, the resources can be accessed from the list and displayed via the TV monitors. The Presentation Mode permits resources to be displayed in full motion, at full screen under teacher control.

Future Directions

The early stages of this ambitious project focuses on demonstration and evaluation of the use of rich resources accessed via high speed networks to learning in middle school content classes. However, an additional goal for the project is to provide a vehicle for sharing knowledge and resources among students, educators, parents, institutions of higher education, state and federal government agencies, business groups, and community organizations and individuals with expertise in the subject matter students are learning. As teachers become adept at creating and using the instructional modules supported by this project, they will be encouraged to submit completed modules for review by their peers within their own school and the other schools on the project. In turn, these modules will be stored in a "public" sector on the server so they can be viewed by the word at large through the WWW. Much as the digital resources will function as anchors to situate instruction in the teachers classes, we expect the creation, review, and public sharing of modules will create a context for communications among a wide range of individuals intereted in student learning. We believe that development of this learning community function may actually be the most powerful contribution this project will make.

Project information may be found at: http://www.learn.umd.edu


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