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Can IBM Reinvent Education?

By Todd Shapera

Two North Carolina students enjoy using IBM's new educational software developed through its Reinventing Education Program.
Two North Carolina students enjoy using IBM's new educational software developed through its Reinventing Education Program.

eggy Walker's trigonometry class in Wellsburg, West Virginia, is working online, figuring out a forensic problem. Describing a hypothetical hiking tragedy, the computer prompts the students to measure the angles of the victims' pelvic arches to determine their sex. They obtain the measuring tools through mouse clicks.
        Walker, a teacher for twenty-six years, developed several such multisubject, problem-based lessons using IBM's Learning Village software. She says Web-based lessons can change the learning environment, motivating students when textbooks may leave them uninspired. "When you tell them it's on the computer, they run over to get started," she says. Web-based lessons can also transform teachers into learning coaches instead of merely lecturers; students' roles evolve, too, from passive listening to learning to direct their own learning.
        Attempting to apply technology to enhance the way teachers teach and students learn is part of an IBM education initiative that is ambitiously dubbed Reinventing Education. Louis V. Gerstner Jr., former CEO of IBM, seeded the initiative in 1994 by hiring Stanley S. Litow, former deputy chancellor of New York City's Department of Education, to launch the program. To date, IBM has invested approximately $70 million in pilot programs in approximately twenty-one school districts across the United States and in eight countries abroad.
        As the name Reinventing Education implies, Gerstner wanted to undertake far more than feel-good, public relations gestures, such as donating surplus computers or giving a few schools a million dollars. IBM was cashstrapped at the time, but Gerstner felt the corporation should bring its impressive research and technology resources to bear to help reform education--the same resources, in fact, that global clients were using to solve their complex business problems.
        Litow knew that achieving lasting, replicable education reform would be difficult. "The challenge in education hasn't been the ability to create a successful school, or successful education experience for one child. I can take you to New York schools that are crumbling; in the worst circumstances, they are producing dazzling results. What has bedeviled the world is the inability to bring those successes to scale. That is the challenge we have taken on."
        Upon his arrival at IBM's Armonk, New York, headquarters, Litow learned that before he could transform education, he had to reinvent corporate philanthropy at IBM. With Gerstner's imprimatur, he argued that IBM's embrace needed to extend beyond traditional, relatively laissez-faire support of arts or civic programs. "If the goal is real change--developing real solutions to achieve real gains-- IBM's philanthropy has to evolve from being a little box apart from what the corporation does to being enmeshed in everything the company does," he stressed. "The thing that is given away should be as valuable as what our high-paying clients buy from IBM--the technology, talent, and problem-solving ability of IBM."
        Even with Gerstner's support, the idea of involving IBM in the morass of public education wasn't an easy sell. "Why invest in a sinkhole, where we could be tarred with that brush," some skeptics asked. (Some still do.) Litow has countered by justifying the work as an investment in the very image IBM seeks to project globally: developing innovative and lasting solutions to tough problems.
        Litow found himself busy reinventing relationships externally, too, redefining the way a giant corporation partners with schools. IBM tapped full-time employees from its research centers and assigned them to
IBM's education program was launched by Stanley S. Litow.
work side-by-side with administrators and teachers, who were required to invest their time, talent, and resources, as well. In time, classrooms became minilabs for pilot programs that were continually refined. It became a far cry from the heavy-handed, strings-attached approach of, for example, Whittle Communications which once gave thousands of TVs to classrooms but required the kids to watch commercials.
        So, how, specifically, is IBM "reinventing education"? The answer is not one magic application. Rather, over time, IBM researchers have developed a multifunction platform, dubbed Learning Village, that offers various teaching and learning tools.
        Anyone may visit its site, Nonregistered users can click on the "guest" button on the home page to see some information.
        The system gives selective access, depending on the user. Parents and students can look at the standards required for promotion to the next grade, examine class home pages created using IBM templates, or sample lesson plans. But they won't be able to see teaching notes, the teachers' "lounge," or subject-based discussion groups--algebra, geometry, and so on.
        Teachers can create action plans for students based on instructional planners that give them detailed procedures to follow, with links in the plan to other Learning Village activities and various Web sites. Moreover, there is a logical progression: units point to lessons, lessons point to activities, and activities point to resources.
        Teachers may submit their own lesson plans online for peer review. Using a split frame, reviewers may type in comments as they read through the lesson. The best ones become incorporated into a section that has grown to include over seven hundred lesson plans.
        Other aspects of Reinventing Education have included online teacher mentoring, student-to-student projects, and a plan to help teachers uniformly grade subjective assignments such as essays. Of course, technology has played an integral role. Voice recognition technology was adapted to a word recognition program, "Watch-me!-Read". Digital imaging that was used to help restore Michelangelo's Pieta has been applied to interactive science lessons. Web communications tools were refined to help teachers communicate with parents and their peers. "While we were at it, we took advantage of new technologies that haven't made it out of here yet," says Peter Fairweather, who heads up the Learning Technologies Group at IBM's Thomas Watson Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, New York.

IBM's ivory tower

o learn more, I visited Fairweather at Watson one day last spring. Fairweather greeted me cheerfully. Quick-minded, he seemed ideally suited for IBM's education task. Fairweather said that rather than being ivory-tower solutions, his team's ideas evolved after "listening to our teaching partners and steeping ourselves in problems they identified. Then we fashion solutions that make sense and that are generalizable--neither one-off kinds of things nor a truckful of stuff."
        Even if it seemed like common sense, for example, to use speech recognition software to help close the reading gap (a student reads a passage and a computerized mentor listens and corrects errors), programming the software to detect differences in pitch, tone, and articulation proved to be immensely complex. Fairweather's team recorded over eighteen hundred voices across the United States." There are over one hundred different languages spoken in the New York City schools," he added smiling.

Working together

nevitably, relations between the researchers and teachers encountered linguistic and cultural barriers, creating some working tensions. "We don't hear what they say sometimes, or we don't hear what they don't say," says Dick Lam, one of Fairweather's amiable project managers. Not that each side didn't have collaborative dispositions. Anthony Iannone was among some North Carolina teachers who met with IBM researchers to brainstorm ideas. "They were craving our feedback on what was and wasn't working," he recalls.
        An irritant for many teachers, though, was being asked to donate hours and hours of unpaid personal time to develop, revise, and update class Web pages and online lesson plans. Adding to their frustrations, were
A teacher at Will Rogers Elementary School in Houston helps a students with IBM's Watch-Me!-Read.
difficulties navigating through the software. "It was like Hansel and Gretel.You had to drop pebbles to find your way out," says Cathy Devito, a teacher and project coordinator in a West Virginia elementary school. "You start on your lesson level, and it branches off into an activity level, and each activity has an assessment template. The assessment may have a resource attached to it, and soon you don't have any idea where you are. You can get lost beyond belief."
        Moreover, although the teacher-submitted lesson plans survived peer review and testing, a majority flunked tough juries of master teachers, academics, and state education officials. That meant investing more time making revisions. "It was like going through stages of grief," Devito says. "Some teachers threw up their hands and screamed and yelled, and then went back and did their work. A few refused to change anything." Unbowed, Devito argues, "This is what it takes to improve student achievement and provide for the divergent needs of students. You don't do that in two to three days. It's an intense, six-month process."
        In the end, Devito and her colleagues used the Learning Village to design lessons that addressed learning deficits indicated by standardized test scores while also making learning fun. For firstgraders, they developed five circus-themed lessons, "Under the Big Top," that provided work on using vowels and consonant blends. In "Weave a Web of Words," second graders developed language skills, using synonyms and antonyms. Third graders worked on science in "Under the Volcano."
        For its part, the IBM team also faced tough juries--the teachers. "One of the things we keep relearning is how overworked teachers are," Lam says. "If they need to stay two hours at the end of the day to learn a program, it won't work. We are not just problem solving; we are also trying to solve what constraints we have on problem solving."
        The process, though, is ingrained in the Watson culture. In fact, Lam was working into the wee hours one night on a server in a client school. During a break, he unknowingly set off an alarm. Police cars rushed to the scene. Lam flashed his IBM identity card, but the police didn't believe the man in the leather jacket. "They phoned the principal to inform her they had apprehended an intruder," he says, laughing now. Fortunately, he had introduced himself to her earlier.

Meaningful results

o assess how things were going and to document results, Litow's team commissioned site evaluations by the independent Center for Children in Technology. The findings, published last year, indicate that for all of the operational frustrations, eight years of trials and pilots produced some meaningful results. "The unique Reinventing Education solutions are having a significant, positive impact on student achievement," the report concludes. At numerous sites, it documented improvements in achievement, attendance, and attitudes of students. It noted that at
IBM is building an affinity with millions of school children that may pay off in long-term brand loyalty and future commercial applications.
elementary through high-school levels, low-achieving students made progress on standard tests when using lesson plans targeted to address deficits, while high achievers sustained their performance levels.
        Calling Reinventing Education "a new model of grant-making," it lauded the program's unique collaboration with schools, even as IBM's "level of involvement in the actual implementation and operation of the grants significantly increased IBM's risk and exposure." In addition, a Harvard professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, mentioned Reinventing Education partnerships in the Harvard Business Review as "a role model for the way corporations can use their resources to make a contribution to change."A Vanderbilt University study found significant and consistent improvements in firstgraders' reading levels, word recognition, and comprehension in comparison to students not using the program.
        All along, Litow has been seeing the program expand. In Houston "Watch Me Read" has expanded progressively and is now offered in fifty elementary schools. In San Francisco, software to help reduce inappropriate special-education placements is being used in twenty-eight of seventy-eight schools.
        In West Virginia, Peggy Walker has designed her own class home page using Learning Village templates, supervised other teachers with their home page designs, developed lesson plans, and overseen her colleagues creation of lesson plans. The program grew from a dozen math teachers the first year, to 34 the second year, and 69 the third year. As previous participants trained new teachers, it expanded to 173 more teachers regionally and, eventually 1,470 teachers statewide.

Sustaining change

nettlesome issue in applying Reinventing Education innovations has been the discomfort of some teachers and administrators with computers. "Technology is good, but the bottom line is that there has to be a teacher behind it," Walker stresses.
        Consequently, Litow's team has come to believe that sustaining any gains also means reinventing the way teachers are trained to integrate technology into instruction before they ever reach the classroom. "It has to become ingrained beyond one unique teacher or administrator, so that when we stop supporting it, the jungle doesn't grow back over," he says.
        Presumably, if Learning Village tools are introduced when teachers are being trained in colleges and universities, the teachers will be more comfortable with them and more likely to regard them as integral tools to classroom work. With this rationale, IBM issued $15 million in grants in 2002 to nine sites targeting teacher-training programs. IBM required applicants to demonstrate a willingness and capacity to "eliminate bureaucratic roadblocks" to innovation and reform, and to show some record of innovative preservice training.
        The nine recipients came from urban and rural settings, from school districts with 30,000 students (San Jose) to 435,000 students (Chicago). They included the fastest-growing school district in the United States, Las Vegas. Among the other sites are former Reinventing Education partners in Charlotte, North Carolina, upstate New York, Philadelphia, Vermont, and West Virginia, as well as partners in Baltimore and Memphis.
        While focusing on teachers in training, grant winners will also work with current teachers on using Learning Village for lesson plans, assessment activities, portfolio development, and mentoring. Some of the sites also incorporate video demonstrations of effective teaching to help teachers build the portfolios required for national certification.
        To be sure, Reinventing Education isn't pure, selfless giving. The diverse school systems have become incubation sites for IBM to learn about uses for its own technologies. Many have purchased IBM servers and classroom computers. Litow says this "unintended consequence" was never required or requested. IBM teams also are looking at Reinventing Education innovations for their commercial potential. Last June, IBM partnered with a global education developer, Riverdeep, to jointly market and sell Learning Village. Similarly, "Watch-me!-Read" is being brought to market through another business partner, Don Johnston, Inc.
        Along the way, IBM is building an affinity with millions of schoolchildren that may pay off in profitable, long-term brand loyalty. Litow says the commercial applications are inevitable and don't detract from his objective. If profitable applications become by-products of their work, it reflects the value of Reinventing Education. Ultimately, he says, it's all for the better. "If you develop a new and better way to teach children to read, and it doesn't become a commercial product, who will get to use it?" he reflects. "Who will service it? Who will improve it?"
        Moreover, he asserts, "If what you are about is making money, and opening markets for your services and products, IBM's choice of education as a philanthropic focus would be a very bad one. And if you made that bad choice anyway, you would try to do it in the cheapest and most beneficial way. You'd give away your cheapest product, or give away what you couldn't sell, or provide hardware with a proprietary platform, or software that is exclusive."
        In the meantime, Litow believes that Reinventing Education has shown the potential for helping teachers, who often feel isolated and unsupported, to become part of dynamic, innovative, responsive virtual communities. "I have talked to people for whom teaching is a brand-new vocation." says Litow.
        Now, after a decade, Litow sounds like a man who's just reaching his stride. "Right now, we are reaching over sixty-five thousand teachers and millions of children. We have the capacity to make systemic improvements in education that can help tens of thousands of additional teachers and millions more children do better."
Todd Shapera is a freelance writer based in Pleasantville, New York.

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