Education Commissioner David Driscoll holds a current event

The streaming video made Commissioner David Driscoll’s face look like it was melting, and the thread of conversation in the chat room was hard to follow. But other than that, the Department of Education’s interactive forum went off without a hitch.

The November 15 Internet event, or “e-vent” as it was called, was the first of its kind in the country, according to the DOE. The agency had broadcast state Board of Education meetings on the Web before, but this was the first time the education agency hosted an electronic conference in which participants could log in and “talk” to each other.

The e-vent was designed to bring together members of school councils–from Provincetown to Williamstown, as Driscoll put it–to share successes and gripes with each other. School councils are central to the 1993 Education Reform Act’s notion of letting schools make their own decisions instead of merely obeying the dictates of a central school-district administration. The law requires each school in the state (except charter schools, which have their own governing boards) to have a site council. These bodies–which are made up of community members, parents, teachers, and (at high schools) students–act as an advisory committee to the principal, who is also on the panel.

The councils are charged, by law, with writing “school improvement plans,” which are submitted annually to the district’s school committee for approval. These plans cover everything from class size to professional development for faculty, student discipline, parent involvement, and extracurricular activities. The school improvement plans took on even more significance in 1999, when the state board adopted a system of school accountability. Under that policy, the plans become an essential part of the state’s evaluation of how well districts and schools are doing their jobs.

But, as Driscoll acknowledged in his opening remarks for the forum, the school councils haven’t exactly worked as hoped. “I think if we’re honest about it,” Driscoll said, “we would conclude that, while there has been an awful lot of success in many of the councils, it¹s been mixed.” Some councils suffer from poor attendance and others can’t find volunteers to fill all of he positions, he said. “I’ve set as a major goal this year to rejuvenate the school improvement council initiative… We want to make school improvement councils as strong as we can.”

So, for 90 minutes, about 220 school council members from across the state reached out for a cyberspace lifeline. On the left-hand side of their computer screen, they saw a live video broadcast of Driscoll sitting at a desk answering questions from participants, relayed through an aide in the room with him. Simultaneously, on another part of the screen, participants exchanged ideas chat-room style, their comments quickly scrolling down the screen, attached to such online pseudonyms as “lextopher” or “wildcat.” The free-flowing discussions were organized around specific topics, such as “Defining and Implementing a Sound School Improvement Plan,” the most popular venue. Anyone who tried to follow both Driscoll and the chatting, though, was doing some serious multimedia multi-tasking. (For those who missed something, you can find it in the DOE Web site’s archive:

In the school improvement plan chat room, participants jumped right in. Two conversants disagreed on whether they had real influence when it comes to their school-reform plans; a couple of others wished for more money to implement the ideas in theirs. Replying to a question, Driscoll encouraged school councils to make sure their plans are specific, with clear goals. “It isn’t just a matter of coming together [and] feeling good,” Driscoll said.

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Several participants signed off at the end offering high praise for the event–uh, e-vent. But not as many logged on as DOE had hoped; the department had the capacity for nearly five times the participants. Some may have been deterred by the early closing date for registration, which was three weeks in advance. Or maybe it was all the computer and Internet power participants were supposed to have. A 56K modem was deemed the “minimum” for taking part, and the DOE recommended a T-1 or cable-modem connection. Given the distorted video picture that came over a DSL link, a dial-up modem must have been an exercise in frustration.

But we could be seeing a lot more of this electronic twist on the New England town meeting in the future, says Arthur Sheekey, coordinator for learning technologies at the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, DC. The online forum is “a pretty efficient way of getting information out,” he says, and it allows for valuable feedback on state policy. “I think it’s good [that Massachusetts] set up a capacity for people to feel they are a part of the process and [that] policy-makers are listening.”