Internet taking on new role in education
BLAIRSVILLE--A decade ago, computers and the Internet were a rare commodity in schools. Today, they are as commonplace as the textbook. And the role of technology within education is continually growing, reaching into new areas.
Two local businesses have recognized the need for newer forms of educational support and have tapped into the latest technology to make them available.
Apangea Learning and Learning Sciences International, both located at Blairsville's Corporate Campus, have focused their efforts on using the Internet to provide instructional support to students and teachers alike.
One of the newer services now being offered online is tutoring for students. Apangea Learning is among those providing such a service, for students in grades 5-12.
Apangea's system, called SmartHelp, uses artificial intelligence with all of its tutoring, but it integrates the use of human tutors, as well.
According to Matt Hausmann, vice president of marketing and business development for Apangea, the artificial intelligence system handles 80 percent to 90 percent of the tutoring. But it will recognize when the student needs more help than it can provide, and flags a live online tutor to "help students through the hurdles," he said.
Human tutors are available 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.
Apangea was founded in 2002 by Louis Piconi and Stephan Mueller, both CEOs. The pair had the idea of making tutoring more cost-effective and, therefore, more affordable for more families and children.
"Stephan and I just shared this passion for education, for students who needed help," Piconi said. "It's really grown to serve college students, accelerated students.
"There was such a strong need. It was obvious that most of the students that needed tutoring weren't getting it.
"We started with tutoring and moved to educational support, because it's not just kids who are behind that need it," he said.
"It's really been our clients who have shown us that what we do can be used in other ways."
The partners licensed research from the U.S. Air Force and applied it to schools in inner-city Pittsburgh, running after-school tutoring programs. They wanted to prove that the research worked in real-life situations, integrating live tutors into an online tutoring program.
The original product employed older technology, Hausmann said.
"What they figured out right away was it needed to capture the kids' attention," he remarked. So the graphics were upgraded to become more eye-catching, and other aspects, such as the voice option, were integrated.
Currently, Apangea offers mostly math tutoring, But it has built an education support platform, so the company can handle a variety of subjects in the future.
When Apangea representatives talk to various school districts, the subjects that have been flagged as difficult areas for the majority of students are reading, writing, math and science.
The system works through a dial-up phone connection, which is especially important in more rural schools where there is a need for such tutoring, Hausmann said.
"Everything we do is built around scalability, and the Internet really allows us to do that," he said.
Business has been booming for Apangea because of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests currently being administered in local school districts.
"This is the first year we've gone commercial in a big way," Hausmann noted. The company now services about 75 schools in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York.
"These tutors (in Blairsville) are serving students in other states," Hausmann pointed out.
Apangea is catering mostly to public school districts, but is looking into marketing its learning programs to the private sector.
"The business plan was always to start with schools and move to consumers," he said. "We're getting a lot of interest right now from home schools."
A test is being planned for this coming summer, "to get a handle on the difference between home school and school district needs."
"Where education is moving today is differentiated instruction for all students," Hausmann said.
Instead of all students doing the exact same exercises and activities, they are working according to their own skill level in the various subjects, he noted.
At a given point each the day, the Apangea system typically will be providing online lessons to 300 students.
Last month alone, Apangea tutored 4,000 students in the tri-state area.
Most of the on-line tutors are IUP graduates who have been certified as teachers.
These on-line tutors can see every keystroke the student has made, as well as the correct keystrokes. So the tutor is able to visually analyze the student's thought process.
Both written text and vocal recitation are used via the Internet.
"It allows the tutors to be as efficient as possible," Hausmann said.
"At a really busy time, each tutor will have six students online."
When students enroll in SmartHelp, they are given a 78-question assessment to determine what their strengths and weaknesses are.
"That gives us a learning pathway of what courses the student should take," Hausmann explained.
The teachers must then log into the system and approve that pathway, choosing the levels of difficulty before a student can begin taking the courses.
At the beginning of each lesson, a five- to 10-minute multiple choice quiz is given, designed to make sure the student is paying attention.
All text is read to the students, because it was determined early on through research that some kids weren't having trouble with math, but with reading. Lessons also are offered in eight different languages.
Visuals are added to the text and the vocal presentation to ensure the lesson can be understood.
A seven-step process then is required to solve problems, what Hausmann called "math literacy": explore the problem; define the goal; identify the variables; build an equation; solve the equation; answer the question; and explain the answer.
"We don't want kids to just pick up the content," he stated. "We want them to have a process that they know they can use to solve problems."
The artificial intelligence program kicks in during the word problems.
Piconi said his goal for Apangea Learning is to establish an international reach, while staying true to the company's small-town roots.
"Our vision for this is really to build a company that tutors kids all over the world from right here in Indiana County," Piconi said. "We're working on partnerships to make us international."
Piconi noted that Apangea also is working with organizations to help schools find funding for use of the on-line tutoring system.
Mueller acknowledged that the Apangea program is not a cure-all for struggling students, but it provides a base from which to progress.
"It's not the proverbial silver bullet that will solve all their problems," he said, "but it is a nice tool for them to use."
All of this, Hausmann said, can be attributed to the Internet. "The Internet creates a connection for everyone," he noted. "And because (the online tutor) is someone they don't know, they are more willing to ask questions.
"Clicking on that tutor button is like raising your hand in class, without anyone seeing you."
"Without the Internet, we couldn't even skim the surface of our tutoring," Piconi said. "There has to be a medium to make this happen, and the Internet is that medium.
"Without it, what we do wouldn't even be possible."
Learning Sciences International CEO Michael Toth was a former faculty member at IUP working with technology grants in the field of education.
When the grants were completed, Toth took the research teams, mostly comprised of IUP students, and decided to move into the IUP small business incubator in 1999. His idea was to take their experiences and try to commercialize them.
Learning Sciences International works in a similar way to Apangea, in terms of educational support.
But, instead of focusing on students, it has turned its attention to teachers.
"We produce and provide professional development for certified teachers in K-12," Toth said. "We provide a mechanism where they can have 24/7 access through the Internet to see exemplary lessons being taught, using research based on instructional strategy."
The company has brought on board a familiar local face as its corporate director of curriculum.
Charlie Adamchik spent 27 years as an instructor at Blairsville High School before he accepted the position, which entails ensuring that Learning Sciences International's learning model is ahead of the competition's.
He also handles quality control for their products and acts as a leader for the company's research and development team.
Learning Sciences International provides a variety of options for teachers to use its products: individual study; group study with an expert facilitator on the particular subject matter;, and a study program that qualifies the user for graduate credits.
The study groups, which are usually between five and 10 people, are scheduled courses, while the self-study option may be used "day or night, at any location on the face of the Earth that has Internet access," said Adamchik.
Because the courses are accessible at any hour of the day, any day of the week, "It's very convenient for the teachers," Toth said. "They can fit it in their lifestyle, when it suits them."
Learning Sciences International currently covers only a small range of subjects, including early literacy, teacher leadership and instructional coaching.
The company also offers courses in math and science, as well as gifted education and English language learning. Graduate courses also are being offered.
The courses can be used to maintain one's teaching certification.
Adamchik noted the company is attempting to negotiate a deal that could allow it to offer a master's degree in early literacy.
Over time, the company hopes to further expand the graduate program offerings.
Learning Sciences International has a goal of eventually working directly with schools, as Apangea Learning does.
For now, Adamchik's company contracts with individual teachers--not with the school districts. Currently, it has over 40,000 teachers enrolled in various programs.
If an instructor is interested in taking an on-line course, he will create an account, enroll in his course of interest, and when ready to begin, will review a multimedia version of that course, including narration and related articles.
"It's very engaging," Toth noted. "And there are activities they can take back to the classroom and apply to their practice. Everything they do has to be applied within their professional practice with children."
It's a requirement of each course that the teachers submit feedback on how they implemented what they learned online in the classroom, and how it worked out.
"They come back online and share what they've done," Toth said. "It's all performance-based."
All of the course designs have been developed by former IUP students, and many include contracts with subject matter experts. Flash movies are used, as well as still photography.
All courses are developed in whole at the Blairsville Corporate Campus location, including the photographs, recording and web graphics. A second office is located in York, Pa.
Adamchik had worked part-time at Learning Sciences International while still teaching at Blairsville, and was impressed by its offerings.
"I just think it levels the playing field for everyone out there. A lot of teachers would have trouble getting to a college or university to keep up with their certification or earn a degree. They can do this when it suits them.
"It's a convenience factor. They don't have to buy books, or be anywhere at any specific time."
That convenience factor wouldn't exist without the Internet, Toth acknowledged.
"If there weren't an Internet, we'd have no business," he remarked.
"The Internet has provided us the reach and ability to provide our product globally and still have a rural, small-town location.
"And it provides equal footing for big and small companies by leveling the fields for those that are tech-savvy."
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