Smart back-to-school technology helping teachers, schoolboards too

No longer is the back-to-school ritual just about buying a good-quality notebook binder, pencil case and protractor set. These days, students of all ages are technology shopping to ready themselves for summer’s end and September’s arrival.

Electronic purchases for the back-to-school season have increased by 11 per cent compared to last year, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s going against the recession trend of most other low-tech categories dipping since last year.

It’s not unheard of to be required to bring a laptop to class for some college and university programs – a sure sign that technology has found its rightful place in the educational process.

But students aren’t the only ones tapping technology to make the most out of their school time. Teachers and school boards are using their last weeks of summer to shake the cobwebs off and arm themselves with some tech muscle.

Web portal helps parents vital content

Jeff Dutra has been spending his summer improving upon the new Web site launched by the Halton District School Board last February. Powered by Microsoft Sharepoint, Dutra has turned the site from an information pamphlet to a portal featuring updated content and readily searchable information.

With 90 schools, 50,000 students and 6,000 staff in south-west Ontario, the Web site typically gets a steady flow of traffic – about 12,000 visitors a day – most of them parents looking for information. As Web master, Dutra has readied new features to deliver that information – e-mail subscriptions to a newsletter, an improved key word search, and up-to-date content.

“Depending on key words that you search for, we know you’re probably looking for certain information,” Dutra says. “So we can try to control the search experience and get people the information they want.”

Sharepoint’s analytics feature displays what Web site users are searching for as well as the results returned to them, he adds. If a fairly common search term isn’t returning relevant information, Dutra can link the key words to the appropriate page.

Parents search for information about their local school trustee, contact information for a school’s principal, and whether specific programs such as French immersion are offered at the school.  

Sharepoint also means more people can be involved in updating the content on the school board’s Web site. The old site would often feature stale content because it was the responsibility of the IT department to update it, Dutra says. The content owners just didn’t have access.

“Now all it requires is to set permissions to other users based on their account,” he says. “The content owner can update the page and we don’t have to worry about it.”

As a result, instead of two employees working full-time on updating Web site content, the IT department will just require one person to do it on a part-time basis. That leaves the team more time to provide services and run other projects.

Symantec offers “security kit” for classroom use

Teachers stocking up on supplies for the school year will inevitably go shopping at a Staples Business Depot store. The retailer even has three “Teacher Appreciation” days – Aug. 13, 20 and 27 to show its gratitude. This summer, teachers will find a new freebie offered up at Staples on these dates.

View related slide show: Inside Symantec’s Security Operations Center

IT security products vendor Symantec Corp. is offering up a “Student Internet Security Kit” CD-ROM, intended for teachers to use in the classroom to educate their students about cyber-security issues – from online hackers to online bullies. The disc is loaded with content for all ages.

“Whether you’re teaching to Grade 5 or Grade 10 students, you’ll want to address them in a different way,” says Lynn Hargrove, director of consumer marketing, Symantec Corp. “There’s something for all teachers to access depending on the age of the students.”

The CD-ROM is navigated with an on-disc Web page that offers easy access to various PDF files and movies. One section has pre-packaged teacher presentations that include both a movie and a follow-up question and an answer sheet to go over with students.

The movie is a cartoon featuring McGruff the crime dog and his new sidekick, Faux Paw the cat. In the movie tailored to an elementary school audience, Faux Paw is sucked into cyber space and bamboozled by strangers who want to arrange to meet in real life. Thanks to advice from a helpful friend, the cat knows to reject the invitation.

There are also more serious, straight-forward videos and presentations that discuss social network safety and cyber-bullying. About one in four kids have participated in cyber-bullying, according to Symantec.

“Kids today don’t’ realize that once they post something on a social networking site, that content is on an open forum and they don’t have control of it any more,” Hargrove says.

It is Symantec’s first year in releasing content aimed at teachers. It worked with to produce the content.  

Teachers can present the content to their classroom using a laptop and a projector.

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