Highlights From NASA’s Innovative K-12 Distance Learning Program

T.H.E. Journal, November 1998, p. 63

NASA’s “Learning Technologies Project” (LTP) has begun a number of initiatives to enhance distance learning opportunities for K-12 schools. You can learn more about the program on the Web at http://www.lerc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12.

Here are some of the things the LTP has been able to accomplish since NASA upgraded its video technology capabilities and schools have likewise installed equipment:

Teacher training on aerodynamics. Visual materials from the video are available for downloading from NASA’s web site.

Instruction to teachers on the use of airflow simulation software, which is available for free download from NASA’s LTP web site.

Lessons on integrating NASA’s educational web sites into the K-12 curriculum. Resources include assistance on developing lesson plans, live demonstrations of applying the Web sites to instruction, and tours of interactive Web sites.

Future projects from NASA’s LTP include a jet engine simulation program, Web chats, and additional pre-service and in-service teacher workshops.


GOP investigates ‘duplicative’ school tech funding programs: Reduction in federal aid coming?

Expressing fears that federal funding for school technology has grown “bloated” and “duplicative,” congressional Republicans have launched an extensive internal examination of all programs that might be used to provide technology, telecommunications, and training to schools.

Growing concerns in Congress over the amount of federal spending on school technology–particularly the controversial eRate program–have sparked an investigation that Hill staff members say could last a year. When all is said and done, schools might find themselves cut out of some programs, the staff members say, but schools will find it easier to apply for those programs that remain.

On Sept. 16, the House Committee on Education and the Work Force and the Senate Commerce Committee began holding joint hearings to review federal and private initiatives that provide technology, telecommunications, and training to schools. The committees have also requested an extensive report by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The report, which will be completed in July 1999, is being conducted at the behest of legislators who fear that technology funding programs for education have become bloated and duplicative, said Denzel McGuire, a spokesman for the House Committee on Education and the Work Force.

“For too long Washington has believed that the creation of big, new, federal education programs would fix our nation’s ailing public schools,” said Committee Chair Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa. “If the federal government were the solution to failing schools, the 760 federal education programs now on the books would have fixed them a long time ago.”

Concerns over the amount of money available to schools for their technology programs–and where those moneys come from–has increased in recent months. Not even the GAO, as it acknowledged in a May 7 report, was able to identify what portion of federal funds was actually being spent on technology.

The current probe continues a trend. eSchool News reported last month that Congress narrowly defeated a bill that would have prevented schools and libraries from applying for funds under the Telecommunications Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP).

Those in favor of the bill argued that TIIAP funds were intended to support the same kinds of expenses supported by eRate funds — discounts for schools and libraries for their internet connections.

$12 billion in 27 programs

A preliminary report commissioned by the joint committees and released on Sept. 15 shows that about $12 billion is available in school technology funds in fiscal year 1998. The report identifies 27 federal programs, including those in the Department of Education (ED), the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Commerce, that award grants to schools and libraries for telecommunications and information technology.

Of the 27 programs, only four — ED’s Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, Technology Literacy Challenge Fund Grants, Star Schools, and the eRate — specifically target technology funding to schools and libraries. Combined, these programs will yield about $2.5 billion in funds to schools and libraries by the end of 1998.

The remaining $9.5 billion is given through 23 programs that do not specifically target technology for schools or libraries but can be used for this purpose.

Some of these programs, such as Title I and Twenty-first Century Community Learning Center grants from ED, are specifically for schools but not necessarily for technology. Others, such as the Department of Agriculture’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, support technology initiatives but not specifically schools, although schools are eligible to apply.

Still other grants do not specifically target schools, libraries, or technology, but could be (and have been) used for such purposes. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities offers Promotion of the Humanities Summer Seminars and Institutions grants to teachers at any grade level for training in humanities-related fields.

Only 1 percent of this program’s annual outlay of $6 million is spent on technology-related training for K-12 teachers, according to one program officer.

Expressing concern that the complexity of government funding programs limits access to only those schools that can afford dedicated grants writers, the House committee spokesman said a reorganization of the way federal grants are administered could result in an easier, more streamlined application process for schools across the board, in all program areas and for all types of technology funding.

The joint committee wants to make sure funding efforts are being coordinated on a national as well as local level, said McGuire.

It’s still too soon to say what the lawmakers will conclude from the GAO report, said McGuire. One possibility is setting up a separate “office of technology.”

Another is consolidating all the funding programs in the Department of Education, he said.


The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Work Force

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Commerce Committee

The General Accounting Office (GAO)

U.S. Department of Education


U.S. Department of Agriculture

National Endowment for the Humanities


Congress OKs limits on ‘harmful’ internet content: Child Online Protection Act passes as part of eleventh-hour omnibus spending bill

Congress in late October took a big step toward limiting your students’ access to pornography when it approved budget-bill provisions requiring companies to restrict access by children to “harmful” online material. The provision was based on a measure originating in the House.

Schools currently must rely on adult supervision or filtering software to block access by children to inappropriate internet sites. But the Child Online Protection Act seeks to protect children from material considered “harmful to minors” by requiring commercial web sites to collect a credit card number or an “adult access code,” a certifiable number given upon proof of age, before visitors can enter the site.

The House Commerce Committee unanimously approved the legislation on a voice vote, and sent it on for passage by the full House. A companion bill by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., earlier passed the Senate Commerce Committee. In the eleventh-hour scramble before the congressional recess, the Republican leadership added the measure to the omnibus budget bill, which passed in late October.

CDA redux?

The measure’s prohibition on commercial internet sites allowing children under 17 to see “harmful” material is narrower in some important ways than the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA).

That law sought to ban anyone, not just companies, from sending “obscene or indecent” material to minors. The Supreme Court overturned the law in 1997, in part because it was overly broad and in part because of uncertainty about what “indecent” meant.

The new legislation takes that ruling into account, said Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, who wrote the bill.

“Our efforts are ones that bend over backward to make certain we have an effective method of screening children from this garbage and to make certain what we have will pass constitutional muster,” said Oxley.

Many adult sites voluntarily ask if customers are older than 18 before allowing visitors to see pornography. But sites often display a few “teaser” images even in publicly accessible areas.

“We say to them, you can’t put out these teaser screens available to children,” Oxley said. “You have to put it behind a blank screen.”

‘Harmful to minors’

Critics complain the bill defies the spirit of the 1997 decision, which held that the internet is entitled to “the highest protection from governmental intrusion.”

“At first glance, it appears relatively benign,” said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group.

“When you look beneath that veneer, you quickly discover that it applies to any web site that has a commercial component and material that some community could consider ‘harmful to minors,'” he said.

Under the bill, violators will face fines of up to $50,000 per incident and a prison term of up to six months.

The legislation defines “harmful” material as appealing as a whole under current community standards to prurient interests; as depicting or describing actual or simulated sex acts or contact, or a lewd exhibition of genitals or a woman’s breasts; and as lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

“This bill is not an attempt to regulate a person’s speech,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. “It does not prevent you from getting porn on the internet. You can, and you do.”

Some critics complained the bill would encourage adult web sites to collect a customer’s personal information, such as name and credit card number. But an amendment prohibits companies from disclosing any details learned in the course of verifying a customer’s age without written consent.

The House bill is H.R. 3783. The Senate bill is S. 1482.


House Commerce Committee

Rep. Mike Oxley

Sen. Dan Coats

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Rep. Billy Tauzin


Judge denies publisher’s request to view cookie files: But pending appeal could still allow free access to public employees’ online behavior

In the first round of a case that could have legal ramifications for school employees, a federal judge has denied an internet publisher the right to feast his eyes on so-called “cookies,” computer files showing which web sites users have been browsing.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Higgins dismissed the publisher’s lawsuit Sept. 24 but left a legal question up to the state: Are cookies public records?

Geoffrey Davidian, publisher of an on-line newsletter called “The Putnam Pit,” wanted to see the files to determine whether city employees in Cookeville, Tenn., were visiting pornographic and other non-work related sites on taxpayers’ time. He said the city violated First Amendment rights by denying him access.

Higgins ruled that Davidian’s claim was a stretch, but left it up to the state to decide whether the cookies are public information when they are stored on government computers.

Davidian has appealed. First Amendment experts are watching the case, hoping the courts will set clearer boundaries for what computer information is open to the public.

If the appeal is successful, it could open the door for reporters or other stakeholders to access the computer records of school employees’ surfing habits.

Cookies are nuggets of information that a web site can be programmed to plant in the hard drives of computers. Depending on the computer, the files can be stored for long periods of time, leaving a trail showing where the user has visited.

Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of the Washington, D.C., newsletter “Privacy Times,” said the Freedom of Information Act guaranteeing public access to certain government records should cover cookies. But, he said, it might take a number of court cases to establish that.

Davidian’s case stemmed from a feud with Cookeville officials that led him to start publishing the Pit, which focuses on government and politics in Cookeville, about 80 miles east of Nashville.

City attorney John Duffy argued that because the files are created by outside software, they are not city property, even though they are stored in city computers.

Sam Harris, Davidian’s lawyer, likened the cookies to long distance phone records, which are considered public under Tennessee’s Public Records Act.