ANNAPOLIS – Electronic chalkboards. Video e-mail. Internet access without phone lines. Sound like stuff locked away in a Microsoft laboratory?
Think again. These elements of a “wireless community” will be unveiled Friday at Hyattsville Elementary School in Prince George’s County – where students access the Internet through antennas and radio waves, rather than plugs and phone cords.
The unveiling will kick off Net Weekend 1998, an initiative sponsored by Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening to get all Maryland public schools wired.
The third annual event calls on volunteers around the state to wire classrooms, install computer-related equipment and train teachers in Internet instruction.
Net Weekend organizers expect about 2,000 volunteers to flood public schools Friday and Saturday, when 402 schools will receive $866,000 for high-tech improvements.
Major F. Riddick, the governor’s chief of staff, said the effort will bring Internet access to 90 public schools – the last of the 1,262 schools in Maryland to be wired.
Riddick likened Net Weekend to an Amish barn-raising and called on citizens to volunteer to save the state millions of dollars in labor.
Hyattsville Elementary School is being held up as a model. The school, with 550 children between the ages of 4 and 12, began planning its high-tech renovations in 1996.
It now has laptop computers with antennas that can be carted from class to class, allowing students to access the Internet through a radio tower on the school’s roof.
Some classrooms have “electronic chalkboards,” which can project images from a teacher’s computer onto a larger screen for all to see. The “chalkboard,” networked with other classrooms, also comes equipped with video e-mail, which allows different teachers in separate rooms to teach together.
The elementary school is also linked to Hyattsville Middle School through video e- mail and plans to connect with the University of Maryland, College Park, by the end of the year.
“The students are so excited,” said Principal Roger White. “You just have to come and see their faces.”
White also said that each teacher is equipped with cellular phones, e-mail accounts and a “homework hot line,” or telephone voice mail, to better communicate with parents.
The wireless network at the Hyattsville school, while a part of Net Weekend activities, is funded by a donation from GTE Communications Corp. and its partners.
The $866,000 used for other Net Weekend projects come from the State Information Technology Fund – taxpayer money designated for school improvements.
Since 1996, Net Weekends have provided nearly 1,000 Maryland schools with more than $3.7 million in computer upgrades and training, Riddick said.
“The [purpose] of this is to make students familiar with the technology, to update their skills and make them more competitive in the job market,” Riddick said.
Barbara Reeves, director of instructional technology at the Maryland State Board of Education, praised Net Weekend for getting parents involved and stimulating learning.
“The Internet is a vast area of information … the kind of information we’ve never had access to before,” she said. “I think we’re making tremendous progress if you look at where we were three years ago.”
Reeves said that, among other things, the Internet allows children to access textbooks online that school systems can’t afford. Despite the success of Net Weekends, a report presented this week to the State Board of Education said more needs to be done.
The report, prepared by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, said Maryland schools outpace national averages in Internet access and computer-to-student ratios. For instance, there is one computer for every seven students in Maryland public schools, compared to one for every nine nationwide. And nationwide, only 78 percent of schools have Internet access, compared to Maryland’s 89 percent.
However, only 23 percent of the computers in Maryland schools sit in classrooms, the report said. Nearly half are used by administrators in offices.
The report also stressed a need for more teacher training, Reeves said. “Though many teachers are comfortable with using computers and the software applications,” she said, “there’s still a ways to go.” -30-