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PLATO Courses: History, Geography

By Alice Kurtz - Posted Jul 1, 2006
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REPORT CARD
Overall Rating:4 Stars
Installation:A-
Content/Features:A-
Ease of Use:A
Product Support:A

Company: PLATO Learning Inc., 10801 Nesbitt Ave. South, Bloomington, MN 55437; Phone: 800/869-2000; Internet: http://www.plato.com/.

Price: $110 per student, for one course for one semester.

Audience: High school.

Format: Internet-based coursework.

Minimum System Requirements:

Windows systems: Intel Pentium 400 MHz running Windows 98 second edition (with 64 MB memory), Windows ME (128 MB memory), Windows XP, or Windows 2000 Professional with SP4.

Macintosh systems: Macintosh processor, G4 and G5, 256 MB, OS10.4.2.

Both systems: Internet connection, DSL or cable. Internet is required for data transmission. Browser note: Netscape 8 is not supported.

Description: PLATO Courses offer online semester-long core high school courses in a variety of subjects. At the time of this review, the courses included Algebra, English, Biology, Physical Science, Geography, and American History.

The course offerings include instructional content, assessments, cumulative final exams, and state standards coverage reports. Students can proceed at their own pace through the material; teachers can track mastery and progress through a management system. All coursework is aligned to state standards. A Teacher's Guide provides a variety of materials, including an Implementation Guide.

Reviewer Comments:

Installation:  This review was done using a cable Internet connection.

The site is accessed through a case-sensitive password and log-in system for students and teachers. The user needs a PLATO name, a group name, and a password to log on.

The log-in process seemed to get easier after the initial use. There is a reminder for the case-sensitive password next to the log-in box on the opening page.

As each course loads, an indicator reminds the user that the materials are loading. The loading time varied from course to course and activity to activity. None were too long, but there was wait time.

Plug-ins and a new version of Adobe are required to run the program. They are available from the home page of the product. Installation Rating: A-

Content/Features:  Each PLATO Course is organized in a series of units. Each unit typically includes a pre-test, a tutorial on the subject matter or skill, additional learning activities, and a unit post-test.

Students access their work through the Assignments category, which is located on the course menu. The menu also includes Study Questions, Overview, Glossary, Documents, Art, Graphs/Charts, Maps, Essays, Practice Tests, Special Topics, and Status Report.

As an example: a student might be assigned to study pre-Columbian America in American History 1. The student would click on that unit to load the material.

The opening screen includes an interactive timeline and a Start arrow. A tutorial and a test cover each segment of material within the unit. The content information is broken down into very small, focused modules.

The student reads the materials and takes a series of practice tests; test options include factual, conceptual, chronological, and map/graph reading questions. The student can choose the type of test he or she will take for the practice test. Answers and corrections are given instantaneously.

Other activities include writing a short essay in response to a broader question that addresses the materials just completed. Also offered are short answer questions that accompany artwork or photographs, as well as maps and charts that pertain to the topic at hand.

The program includes a variety of tests: unit pre-tests, mastery tests, unit post-tests, and semester-end tests. Some tests are available online; some can be administered offline. A management system tracks progress and grading. The system accounts for nearly every keystroke of student work. All sorts of progress reports can be compiled and printed, ranging from material mastery to seat time.

The program content is very basic. The amount of reading on a topic is pared down to bare bones and basic facts. The text for the American History segment is placed in a short limited-scrolling window with a sidebar. The major topics within the segment can be accessed by scrolling or by highlighting the topic in the sidebar next to the text.

The module on the Depression, for example, offered a few facts on Herbert Hoover's policies, and a two to three line description of Theodore Roosevelt's ABC agencies. This is hardly enough to have any understanding of a topic, but just enough to answer questions on a multiple choice test.

A glossary provides easy to understand definitions of concept terms. Artwork is in a separate segment and is accessed from the menu. Each topic includes only one to three art selections.

Learning activities for the student include: answering multiple choice test questions, word processing short answers online, recording information in a notebook, and some drag-and-drop matching or fill-in-the-blank activities. The History and Geography coursework do not have an audio component.

The program offers many teacher support materials and training guides, including answer keys for all tests and activities, print and electronic grade books, rubrics, pacing guides, checklists for monitoring student success and implementation outcomes, and volumes of materials for setting up and administering the online courses.

In addition, a large number of reports can be generated and printed. The reporting features cover areas including progress through the materials, mastery, and seat time—for individuals and for groups of students.

The program has a high teacher learning curve for set-up and administration features. Onsite professional development is available to help with the process. Content/Features Rating: A-

Ease of Use: The PLATO Courses are easy for a student to use at her or his own pace. The pages are uncluttered; the buttons and paths are well marked. A top toolbar offers a notebook, learning tools, and a Help button.

The pages of the tutorial are marked with a Start button, a Close button, and a Forward button. The Glossary is fairly easy to access from anywhere in the program. A PDF learner guide can be accessed and printed.

After an initial instruction, students should be able to focus on the material and not be overwhelmed by the technology. Ease of Use Rating: A

Product Support: There is a great deal of support for this product.

Onscreen help is available for each phase of the learning process. The manuals are clearly written. Curriculum guides for each subject area are accessible through the teacher log-in.

Help is available online, through e-mail, and via a toll-free telephone number. Help with program set-up and management is available electronically and through onsite professional development sessions. Product Support Rating: A

Recommendation: When considering the purchase of PLATO Courses, keep in mind the focus of this program: students in danger of dropping out of school and students in need of course credit recovery. The aim of the program is self-paced focused learning for students who benefit from a sequential yet flexible structure and a great deal of independence in learning.

This program addresses the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements that high schools are to be held accountable for graduation rates and student performance on academic assessments. It can also offer a school system opportunity for distance learning and online course alternatives for home-schooled students.

The teacher support materials are comprehensive and helpful for planning the implementation of this type of learning program. However, it would be wise to consider the onsite professional development sessions that are available.

The PLATO Courses are a reasonable alternative to be considered for high school reform efforts. Recommended.

Reviewer: Alice Kurtz, Irving B. Weber School, Iowa City, IA; Kurtz.Alice[at]iccsd.k12.ia.us.


 
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