July 1, 2001
Mindsurf Networks aims to provide portable computing and Internet access to students and teachers through wireless networking, handheld computers, software, and support, moving away from the prevailing strategy that including technology in public schools involves placing wired, desktop computers in a lab environment. The cornerstone of Mindsurf Network's approach is one-to-one computing: every student and teacher should have immediate and individual access to a rich array of information resources. By providing students and teachers with information and communications technologies that are portable but have the capacity to store several electronic books - as well as spreadsheet and word processing software, a personal calendar, email and infrared communications functionality, Internet connectivity, and a bevy of other resources - the company hopes to achieve four goals:
- Provide teachers with the means for frequent assessment of student work, provide students with ready feedback;
- Help teachers tailor their instruction to students' needs;
- Offer high-quality instruction and interaction for all; and
- Support effective classroom management.
Prior to entering the educational marketplace and selling its commercial solution to schools and districts, the company formed partnerships with two "Development Schools" in Maryland - a high school located in an affluent suburb in Howard County and an urban middle school in Baltimore - and 84 "Schools of Innovation" scattered throughout the country. At the two Development Schools, where multiple teachers are experimenting with the handheld wireless tools, Mindsurf has been conducting extensive beta testing of its prototypes and overall approach to wireless computing. Additionally, Mindsurf has been using the Schools of Innovation (SOIs), which are located in urban, suburban and rural middle and high schools in 26 states, to test their network solution on a broad scale.
In order to become a School of Innovation, Mindsurf asked schools considering participating in its SOI Program to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The MOU detailed the vision, scope and incentives of the program and clarified the responsibilities of the company and the participating schools. Beginning in February 2001, Mindsurf Networks began providing each SOI with the following:
- a class set of handheld, wireless computers, each provisioned with a variety of wireless software applications;
- one wireless access point to be linked to the school's existing, qualified LAN;
- training for the pilot teacher;
- on-going technical and curriculum support for the duration of the pilot; and
- a written summative report of results.
SOIs will continue to use the materials that Mindsurf Networks has provided and will participate in the Program until it formally concludes in December 2001.
For the Spring 2001 semester, teachers and administrators at each SOI selected the class in which they would use their set of handheld computers. Consequently, SOI participation involved a variety of subject areas (e.g., Language Arts, Science, Mathematics, and Social Studies); a number of grade levels (seventh through twelfth); and a range of student levels (e.g., Gifted and Talented, Honors, General Education, Special Education and Learning Disabled). The schools also were free to implement the technology as they thought best. For example, they could choose to provide students with handheld computers that students could use throughout the school day and take home; they could provide students with access to the handheld computers during class time only; or, they could create a "class set" of handheld computers, allowing several classes to use and share the tools. To support the effective use of the handheld computers and wireless network, Mindsurf Networks also provided a Web site with online resources for both students and teachers. The Web site includes a Teaching Exchange - a collection of lesson plans and teaching methods that teachers can adapt to their own classes, along with profiles of teachers and how they have used the handheld computers in their classes.
To understand better the Schools of Innovation Pilot Program, the experiences of the Development Schools, and the overall potential of the Mindsurf tools, the company commissioned the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology (CCT) to conduct an evaluation. CCT, a non-profit organization that has been studying the roles that technology can play in teaching and learning for the last 20 years, devised a research plan that includes a five-month formative evaluation, from February to June, 2001, of the ways teachers and students at the Development Schools and SOIs use the Mindsurf applications. This report is the culmination of that formative evaluation. As an outgrowth of this report, CCT is engaging in consultation with Mindsurf Networks around the implementation of this report's recommendations and the roll out of version 2.0 of the company's product line.
For the formative evaluation, CCT examined the kinds of applications that have been available to students and teachers, for what purposes they have been used, their perceived benefits, and the challenges that teachers and students faced in using them. This examination allowed us to suggest potential improvements, enhancements, or additions that would strengthen the tools in the company's future offerings to schools. The perceived and potential benefits are discussed in detail in Section III. SOI teachers and students also encountered a number of challenges while integrating the Mindsurf tools into their classroom experiences, as is true for all technology pilot implementations. These challenges ranged from issues involving technical infrastructure and hardware to tool management to classroom practice.
CCT utilized a variety of methodologies - site visits, interviews, classroom observations, and a Web-based survey - to assess how participating teachers and students use, understand, and leverage the MindSurf Network tools. In addition, CCT collected a range of contextual data that helped us in undertaking a preliminary analysis of the ways in which different types of schools use different applications.
This report presents profiles of the schools, teachers, and students involved with this project, the uses that teachers and student made of the Mindsurf tools, the potential benefits to teaching and learning that the data suggest, and several case studies of the Mindsurf tools in context.