White House: Schools lag in Y2K readiness: President’s Council sounds alarm over K-12 districts’ preparations so far

The White House is beginning to worry about the pace at which school districts and other local government agencies are preparing their computers for the next millennium.

According to the latest report by the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion, “A troubling number of institutions, especially in the elementary/secondary area, have not yet completed their assessment of systems and are lagging in remediation and testing.”

The problem isn’t likely to have a direct impact on teaching and learning, but Y2K failures could very well plague the computers used by schools to manage payrolls, student records, online curricula, and building safety systems, the report says.

Citing a Department of Education survey of more than 3,500 school districts and local education agencies, the report says only 28 percent indicated that their mission-critical systems are Y2K compliant. That number is expected to jump to 72 percent by Oct. 1 and 98 percent by Jan. 1.

In addition to school districts and local government agencies, other key groups cited by the council for their slow pace include small hospitals and small businesses.

“The real concerns now are businesses and governments that are either taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, got a late start in fixing their systems, or are projecting late-year completion dates for remaining Y2K work,” said council chairman John A. Koskinen. “These organizations are placing themselves at risk of experiencing Y2K-related failures, which only increases the need for having good contingency plans in place on Jan. 1.”

But contingency planning is another weak spot for school districts. Only 24 percent currently have contingency plans in place. The number should roughly double by Oct. 1, though that still leaves more than half of all school districts with no contingency plans as they head down the stretch.

Close to 60 percent said inadequate personnel is a primary challenge to completing Y2K work.

That’s the case for New Orleans Public Schools, a district that’s been criticized for its slow progress. A private watchdog group recently cited “numerous causes for concern” in the New Orleans public school system, primarily due to the lack of staff available for the effort.

Other key findings in the Council on Y2K Conversion report:

• Less than half of the responding school districts have written plans for achieving Y2K compliance.

• Of the state agencies that administer the Department of Agriculture’s National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, about half were Y2K compliant as of March 1. The remainder expected to be ready by summer’s end.

• Among postsecondary institutions, 30 percent report that their mission-critical systems are now Y2K compliant, and another 30 percent expect to be ready by Oct. 1, while 62 percent have completed contingency plans.

• The U.S. Department of Education completed its Y2K renovation, validation, and implementation work on all its systems last March. The department also reports that initial contingency plans for all mission-critical operations have been completed.

Besides the trouble spots pointed out by the council, the report says the country is generally “in a much better position to make the transition into the Year 2000 than was the case just a few short months ago.”

With time running out, the latest snapshot of America’s readiness finds that the nation’s banks, utilities, telecommunications, and travel industries are or will soon be Y2K ready.

U.S. Department of Education Year 2000 Reports and Publications

http://www.ed.gov/offices/OCIO/year2000/ reports.html

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Language barriers fall with new technology: As students talk, their speech is translated automatically

K-12 administrators working to integrate non-English-speaking students into the mainstream classroom environment might benefit from a new technology that allows spontaneous translation from one language to another.

The technology, recently tested in a video conference at Carnegie Mellon University, enabled testers to ask questions using casual speech patterns and receive spontaneous translations in return.

C-STAR

The Consortium for Speech Translation Advanced Research (C-STAR) was established in 1991 to conduct research in spoken language translation. It has grown over the past seven years from four partner laboratories to 20 partner or affiliate labs in the USA, Japan, Germany, Korea, Italy, France, and Switzerland.

The recent international video conference consisted of scientists at several labs posing as mock “tourists” and planning trips to Heidelberg, Kyoto, and New York City by conversing with each other in their native languages and allowing the computerized translation devices to bridge the language barrier.

For example, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student asked a scientist posing as a travel agent in Kyoto, “What time is it in Japan?” He asked his question in English. Shortly thereafter, he received a digitally translated response to the Kyoto scientist’s Japanese answer, “It’s 1 a.m. in Japan.”

Participants speaking six different languages booked imaginary flights, made hotel reservations, and received tour information via the web-based spontaneous translation system.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of the speech-translation technology available was the live video link to a Carnegie Mellon student in Germany, touring the grounds of Heidelberg Castle and using speech translation devices to ask German speakers to take his picture, give him directions, and relay information on tourist sites.

He did all this wearing a headset, with a laptop in his backpack, and a computer the size of a paperback book strapped to his arm. Researchers are currently working to develop smaller versions of the paperback-size machine for the commercial marketplace.

School applications

Advanced technology such as this might one day foster instant communication between English-speaking teachers and non-English speaking students. This would be a significant development, because it is no longer rare for school districts to have more than 100 distinct languages spoken by students.

In the school division serving Fairfax County, Va., for example, English as a Second Language classes are available in 145 schools county-wide for 11,099 students, grades 1-12, who collectively speak more than 100 languages. With the increasing need to accommodate English as a Second Language, many such schools stand to benefit from new speech translation technology.

Envision this scenario: You are in charge of developing a curriculum in which 25 seventh-grade students, all of whom speak little or no English, must develop a basic understanding of the Renaissance as part of their history requirement. Through the use of speech translation devices, these ESL students can be led on a virtual tour of the Vatican Museum by an authority on Renaissance art and antiquities via a web link directly to their classroom. These students can ask questions in their native language and receive answers in the same language translated from Italian.

The new technologies becoming available are the most user-friendly translation devices ever developed. Though computerized speech translation has been around for a while, the less-advanced technology only allowed for a limited vocabulary with perfect syntax and grammar.

The latest devices, such as Carnegie Mellon’s JANUS speech translation system, are far superior to previous devices, according to C-STAR chairman Alex Waibel. “Speech recognition systems have been improved to handle the sloppy speech people produce when talking spontaneously with each other,” he said. “The um’s, er’s, interruptions, hesitations, and stutterings of spontaneous speech are automatically recognized, filtered, and properly prepared for translation.”

There have also been advances in machine translation, with two primary translation modes.

Interlingua

The Interlingua approach first transfers people’s speech into an intermediary language—which represents their intended meaning—before translating it into the second language. This method is beneficial because researchers do not have to build translations between every pair of languages, just between the languages and the Interlingua.

The second approach is example-based, and uses parallel bodies of text to indicate phrases that correspond. These types of translations can actually learn from examples.

For now, speech recognition programs are limited to talk related to travel, such as itineraries, flight information, and bookings, but the far-reaching implications for educators are obvious.

“This type of technology works on one semantic domain at a time,” said Maxine Ezkenazi, system scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technology Institute. How soon the scientists get to education might depend on money. “Working on a new domain depends on funding,” said Ezkenazi.

If language barriers were effectively eliminated through the help of advanced speech recognition systems, kids could link directly to sources of information from all over the world.

“Using a CD-Rom is passive,” Ezkenazi observed. “Speech makes you active, because the opportunity to ask questions and receive spontaneous answers is there.”

Consortium for Speech Translation Advanced Research (C-STAR)

http://www.c-star.org

Carnegie Mellon University Language Technologies Institute

http://www.lti.cs.cmu.edu

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eRate survives telcos’ legal assault: Appeals court upholds $2.25 billion program as constitutional

The $2.25 billion eRate program, which provides telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries, survived a major legal challenge late in July when a federal appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implemented the program legally.

While educators and political supporters hailed the decision as a “huge win for America’s children,” industry insiders said the court’s ruling is unlikely to buffer the program from further political attacks.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 30 that the FCC has the authority to collect fees from telecommunications companies (telcos) to pay for the eRate. The court also ruled that schools and libraries can apply the discounts toward internet access and internal connections as well as telecommunications services.

Several telcos, including Bell South, Southwestern Bell, GTE, and numerous states’ utility commissions, had challenged various aspects of the eRate.

When the case was heard before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in December, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that extending the universal service program to include discounts on internet access would allow providers such as America Online, which does not have its own telephone circuits, to participate in the low-cost program without having their customers pay subsidies.

But AOL and other internet service providers pay into the universal service fund indirectly because they pay telephone line access charges, FCC attorney Christopher Wright contended.

Telecommunications companies also argued that the eRate is an “unconstitutional tax” and that the FCC had exceeded its authority when it ruled the discounts could apply to the wiring, hubs, and switches necessary to bring internet access into classrooms. Their concerns have been largely echoed by several members of Congress, including influential members of the Senate and House telecommunications subcommittees.

Tom Magee, an attorney with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, a firm that specializes in eRate issues, said the program is still ripe for congressional review despite the court’s ruling.

“The court sidestepped the core complaint that the FCC exceeded its authority,” Magee said, noting that the decision was based on the premise that the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the law that established the eRate, didn’t explicitly forbid the FCC from applying the discounts toward internal connections. “It’s our understanding that certain members of Congress feel this opinion is all over the place—so I don’t think it’s a dead issue.”

‘A huge win’

The 5th Circuit Court ruling was not a total victory for the FCC, because the court said the agency can only collect fees to pay for the program on interstate telecommunications services, not in-state services. Given the court’s action, the FCC will have to revisit its formula for collecting money to support the eRate.

But other key elements of the program, including provisions for funding the wiring of schools and allowing internet service providers to benefit from the subsidies, were upheld.

FCC Commissioner Susan Ness called the ruling “a huge win for America’s children.” Vice President Al Gore, whose support of the eRate led opponents to call it the “Gore tax,” also applauded the decision.

“This decision is a victory for America, a victory for our schools and libraries, and a victory for the future of all American children,” Gore said in a statement.

The court’s decision came as the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the program on behalf of the FCC, issued its fourth wave of Year Two funding commitment letters. Wave four brought the total dollar amount committed to schools and libraries for the program’s second year to $270 million as of July 30.

Bell South had joined the suit but withdrew last November, saying it believed “that most major issues…will be resolved through the regulatory process in place today.” SBC Communications subsequently withdrew the following month, saying its commitment to education was “such that we don’t feel the need to work out these differences in court.”

The eRate, officially known as the Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries, provides discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent to all K-12 public and private schools and all public libraries on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections.

In its first year, the program provided more than $1.67 billion in discounts to 25,000 school and library applicants. This year’s total funding will reach $2.25 billion, to be split among 32,000 applications.

Federal Communications Commission

http://www.fcc.gov

Schools and Libraries Division

http://www.sl.universalserviceorg

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From the Publisher: Recruiting help

Like confronting the tax burden after winning the lottery—some problems are better to have than others.

Right now, the school field has a situation a little like that, a challenge inextricably bound up with the current run of national prosperity. Here’s the bittersweet challenge facing schools from Millinocket, Me., to Coronado, Calif.: How to find sufficient human resources in a shriveled employment market.

The shortage of skilled workers now afflicting the school field throbs like a particularly painful toothache, precisely because it comes at just the moment when the need and the means to succeed have swung into a rare, rough alignment.

The robust U.S. economy is generating jobs, growth, and tax revenues without much inflation. A growing majority appreciates the fundamental value of education for society. Everyone pretty much understands that technology is essential to making substantial progress in our schools.

In short, more communities than ever are developing the will and wallet to empower their schools to install innovative, student-centered programs. These achievements absolutely depend on technology-savvy school personnel.

And that’s where the fly hits the marmalade.

Our prospects are darkened by the dearth of talented, trained personnel. The shortage of teachers and administrators that demographers have been predicting for years has finally come to pass. And now, on top of that, is an even more particular worry: a severe shortage of skilled technology personnel, without whom much of the promise of new techniques and solutions in education could go aglimmering.

It isn’t a problem only schools confront, of course. Technology workers are just plain scarce.

According to a study released last month by the American Electronics Association (AEA), the unemployment rate among engineers, programmers, math and computer science majors is less than 2 percent. Since 1993, more than 1 million new technology jobs have been created, and high-tech wages have jumped 19 percent since 1990.

Meanwhile, according to the AEA study, the number of college graduates with high-tech degrees in engineering, computer science, and business information systems declined by 5 percent between 1990 and 1996.

For the national shortage of technology personnel, the ultimate solution is education. First our schools and then our colleges must prepare more students capable of becoming technologists.

But there’s the rub. To accomplish this vital national mission, your schools will need technologists of their own. And just where, exactly, are you supposed to find them?

Education has never had a central clearinghouse for technology employment. eSchool News can’t do much to increase the absolute supply of technology personnel. But we think we can begin to enhance the communication surrounding technology recruitment. We can help your schools become more efficient in your efforts to identify promising prospects for your technology team. So that’s just what we’ve done.

On Aug. 16, we introduced education’s most comprehensive employment service for school technology personnel. Now, simply by visiting the School Technology Career Center at eSchool News Online, school systems may post their technology job openings, and technology personnel may post their resumes. And they can do much more at the center, too.

Free. There’s no cost at all for any aspect of this service. Neither the job seeker nor the employer need spend a penny to benefit from this employment center.

At eSchool News, we have an abiding regard for good technology. But we know this, too: It’s the people behind the machines who make the difference.

Visit the new center: http://www.eschoolnews.org.

Then let me know what you think and how we can make it better.

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Security hole in Office 97 endangers school computers

A serious flaw has been found in the Jet 3.51 data access software of the Office 97 suite from Microsoft. These applications currently are being used in millions of computers in schools and other organizations from coast to coast. In spite of the significant danger, a solution is readily available, computer security experts say.

The Jet 3.51 vulnerability would allow an attacker to create a malicious .xls or .doc file, according to computer security specialists. When opened, this file could execute arbitrary commands on a school district’s computer system.

Such a malicious file could be distributed via eMail, from the web (including in hidden frames), or by any number of other methods, according to the web site Security-Focus.com. The file could give hackers a security hole to retrieve, alter, or erase computer data. According to Security-Focus.com, a solution is available: “MDAC 2.1 includes the JET 4.0 driver, which is not affected by this vulnerability. It is available for download” at no charge from the Microsoft web site.

Attempts to exploit the security hole in Jet 3.51 would not be detected or prevented by antivirus software, according to Russ Cooper, a computer security expert in Lindsay, Ontario; but as of July 31, he said in an interview with Associated Press (AP), there had been no reports that any such breaches actually had occurred.

Andrew Dixon, group product manager for Office, did not return AP’s call for comment, and other knowledgeable Microsoft officials also were unavailable, company spokesman Dan Leach told the wire service.

Jeffrey Schiller, computer security chief at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the data-access problem illustrates the pitfalls of upgrading programs over the web or through eMail, despite the convenience.

“It’s not clear to me that it’s a wise idea to write all these scripting files . . . that let you completely control the computer,” Schiller said.

Now that the flaws are known, recreational hackers and criminals might well be scrambling to take advantage of them before the fixes are in place, he warned.

Viruses typically have spread through macros (small programs combining a series of commands). A computer user opening eMail or importing material from a web site with macros typically is alerted and may disable the macros or reject documents and files that contain them.

The Jet 3.51 vulnerability is different.

Late in July, Juan Carlos Cuartango, a programmer who previously found security gaps in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and in Netscape Navigator, discovered that Internet Explorer and Windows are configured to “trust” Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and other Office program documents. Thus, files from these applications may be used as “trojan horses” to implant malicious code into a computer, triggering low-level operating system commands that could change or destroy files or even undermine an entire hard drive without resorting to macros.

“This is a bug that needs to be fixed, a bug of huge proportions,” Cooper said, referring to the Jet 3.51 vulnerability. “The ramifications are quite large.”

Office 2000 and some of the final versions of Office 97 are free from the flaw, but it is present in millions of installed versions of Office 97 and probably also in many older versions, possibly dating as far back as 1992, Cooper said.

A member of Microsoft’s security response team confirmed the security hole in a posting to NTBugTraq on July 29, according to the internet news service CNET News: “The company said the ‘vulnerability should be taken seriously’ and recommends that all customers upgrade to Jet 4.0.”

CNET News also offered this method for checking the vulnerability of your PCs:

“Using the Windows ‘Find’ command, search for a file named ‘ODBCJT32.DLL.’ Using the right mouse button, click on the file, then select the ‘Properties’ tab. Click on the ‘Version’ tab to check the version number of the file. If it is a version prior to 4.0, it should be updated. The new version of the drivers are contained in a file called Microsoft Data Access Components version 2.1, available from Microsoft’s web site.”

Universal Data Access (MDAC) Download Page

http://www.microsoft.com/data/download.htm

Security-Focus.com

http://www.security-focus.com

NTBugTraq home page

http://www.ntbugtraq.com/

Microsoft Jet 3.5

http://www.microsoft.com/ACCESSDEV/Articles/v35perf.htm

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ED conference: Schools should focus on technology evaluation

Schools should conduct a careful study of their technology programs to determine what’s working and what isn’t. That was the message contained in a two-day conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in July, titled “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Educational Technology.”

The conference, held July 12 and 13 in Washington, brought together about 350 federal, state, and local education officials to discuss ways that school districts can measure how well their technology plans are being used to improve educational outcomes in order to protect their investments.

“We must not assume everything that employs technology is going to be successful,” said Education Secretary Richard Riley in his opening remarks. “That is why evaluation is so important.”

The conference marks a shift in focus for an administration that has led the push for increased technology spending in schools.

Figures from the department’s National Center for Education Statistics show that internet access in public schools has more than doubled in the past five years, from 35 percent of schools in 1994 to 89 percent in 1998. And according to the market research firm Quality Education Data, annual K-12 technology expenditures in public schools have more than tripled this decade—from $2.1 billion in 1991 to $6.9 billion this year.

But the increase in spending has led to calls for more accountability, especially from critics in Congress who want to ensure that the money is being spent wisely. And ED officials have been listening.

In an interview with eSchool News, Linda Roberts, special adviser to President Clinton on educational technology, said the administration’s focus has shifted this year from getting technology into the classroom to helping schools use it effectively to meet educational goals.

“We’re calling for long-term studies to research the impact of technology on today’s learners” to find out what works and what doesn’t, Roberts said.

Part of the problem in addressing critics’ concerns about technology is that much of the evidence of success that we have now is anecdotal, not empirical, she said. To help solve the problem, the administration’s plan to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would let the secretary of education set aside up to 4 percent of the total Title III technology funding to support future evaluation projects.

Tools for evaluation

At its July conference, ED highlighted two recent studies as examples of the kinds of evaluations that are needed.

In Idaho, a statewide evaluation of technology initiatives, which have pumped about $200 million in public and private foundation grants into technology for the state’s public schools, produced positive results. The studies showed improved scores on standardized tests given to Idaho eighth- and 11th-graders who have been introduced to technology in the classroom.

And in West Virginia, an analysis of the state’s Basic Skills/Computer Education Program correlates the use of computers in grades K-6 with higher scores on standardized tests that measure basic reading, math, and language arts skills (See “West Virginia study links technology to student achievement,” May 1999).

State education officials were called upon to conduct similar evaluations of their states’ technology programs. But local studies also are needed to ensure that technology is being used wisely, ED officials said. School leaders were challenged to develop their own evaluation plans, and a host of resources were on hand to help get them started.

Leading researchers and evaluators, including Professors Dale Mann of the Columbia University Teachers College and Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University, the researchers who led the West Virginia study, talked about the methods and criteria for such studies in a panel discussion.

One piece of advice that emerged from the panel: School districts should team up with higher education institutions or other research facilities to help them develop measurable goals and sound techniques to their investigations.

Researchers also presented white papers to help schools design evaluations. Walter F. Heinecke, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, presented a paper called “New Directions for Evaluation of Technology and Student Learning,” in which he outlined the questions school leaders should ask themselves in developing an evaluation.

Heinecke’s paper, the two state studies, and other resources are available on the conference’s web site.

“Evaluating the Effectiveness of Educational Technology” conference

http://www.ed.gov/Technology/TechConf/1999

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GetNetWise: Help for protecting kids on the internet: Coalition of fiercely competitive web portals comes together to agree on internet safety measures

Educators and parents have a new, industry-backed internet resource—GetNetWise.org—at their disposal, and it promises to help them protect children from the perils of the world wide web.

Information on how to help kids avoid pornography, hate speech, and explicit sites about drugs or alcohol will never be more than a mouse-click away, provided by the operators of some of the web’s largest sites, including those run by Yahoo!, America Online, Lycos Inc., The Walt Disney Co., and Microsoft Corp.

The coalition’s $1 million web site was unveiled July 29 in Washington, D.C., at a news conference with Vice President Al Gore and Commerce Secretary William Daley, along with several industry executives.

“The internet industry has stepped forward as a strong and responsible corporate citizen,” said Gore. “It is safe to say that never before in the history of a new industry have so many companies that compete in the boardroom come together to ensure our children’s safety in the living room.”

The project’s web site includes details about more than 80 commercial software programs parents and schools can use to block web sites inappropriate for children and monitor the time kids spend online.

Although some companies that design internet filtering software helped pay for the site, details are listed about all such technology tools.

The site also includes links to sites deemed safe for children of different ages as well as resources for reporting inappropriate or criminal behavior on the web.

“We’re not substituting for parents, but we’re giving parents a leg up,” said Jerry Berman, president of the Washingtonbased Internet Education Foundation and one of the project’s principal organizers.

Ernie Allen, chief executive officer for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said organizers sought to design the web site for parents anxious about what children might find online.

“[The internet is] an incredible resource, but it’s scary,” Allen said. “Your kids know more about it than you do.”

Companies involved in the campaign claimed that almost 95 percent of the internet’s traffic flows through their sites.

Participation in the campaign was so broad that it brought together otherwise bitter rivals: Microsoft and AOL currently feuding over software that lets consumers send “instant messages” as well as AT&T and the nation’s internet providers, which are battling over the future of high-speed web access over cable-television lines.

Although hundreds of web sites will simply offer parents a link to www.getnetwise.org, others will recompile the information and present it themselves. Allowing the recompiling is partly a concession to ultra-competitive high-tech companies that want to keep visitors on their own site.

America Online, for example, said it will offer the information within its “parental controls” section, one of the first areas a parent sees when signing onto AOL. It also will include a link on its popular AOL.com web site.

The idea to develop a parental web site had been kicked around by industry players for a couple of years.

Then came the April 20 shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The tragedy and a little prodding from the likes of Gore and others put a new sense of urgency into the project.

While the resources to be offered on the site are not new—and though many web sites already promote child safety—backers of the initiative say the link from major internet sites and the push from the vice president could help spur parents to get more involved in their children’s online activities.

A survey conducted in February by the market research firm Greenfield Online found that when it comes to internet use in the home, parents tend to take a strict approach for children under age 11. But once children reach age 12, most are allowed to “go online whenever they feel like it” and with little or no supervision.

The internet’s role in the Littleton massacre also has been hotly debated. In a Gallup poll taken just one day after the tragedy, respondents placed nearly as much blame on the internet as the easy accessibility of guns. According to the Gallup poll, 82 percent of the 659 adult respondents said the internet was at least partly to blame for the Littleton tragedy, while 88 percent said the same was true of gun availability.

Another survey, this one commissioned by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and released May 4, found that parents of school-aged kids are “deeply fearful about the web’s influence on their children.”

The study showed that over 75 percent of parents are “strongly” or “somewhat” concerned that their children might view inappropriate web content. Two-thirds agreed that the internet can cause their children to become isolated, and 42 percent believe too much internet use can cause children to develop anti-social behavior.

At the same time, however, parents believe the internet to be an important educational tool and something that can help their children with homework.

“We found this incredible conflict,” commented Joseph Turow, who wrote the Annenberg report. “People trust their kids with the internet, but they don’t trust the internet with their kids.”

The founders of GetNetWise.org hope that’s all about to change.

GetNetWise

http://www.getnetwise.org

America Online

http://www.aol.com

Annenberg Public Policy Center

http://www.appcpenn.org

AT&T

http://www.att.com

Greenfield Online

http://www.greenfieldcentral.com

Internet Education Foundation

http://www.neted.org

Lycos Inc.

http://www.lycos.com

Microsoft Corp.

http://www.microsoft.com

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

http://www.ncmec.org

The Walt Disney Co.

http://disney.go.com

Yahoo!

http://www.yahoo.com

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Molecule-size circuits hold the prospect for ultrafast computers: Marriage of chemistry and computer technology could open a world of possibilities

Imagine computers so small and powerful that all your district’s computing needs could be met with an array the size of a postage stamp. Imagine dozens of lightning-fast workstations on a grain of sand or tiny probes that cruise the bloodstream looking for trouble. These all would be possible with molecule-size computer components based on chemicals instead of chips and transistors, researchers said on July 16.

“What we are proposing is essentially building a computer in a test tube,” said Phil Kuekes, a computer architect for Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif.

Such tiny, chemically assembled computer components could create devices billions of times faster and smaller than today’s personal computers—opening up a world of “Fantastic Voyage’-like possibilities.

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard and the University of California, Los Angeles, in a paper published in the journal Science, reported early success in the marriage of chemistry and computer technology.

They’ve found molecular switches that can be opened or closed—the first step in basic computing.

Currently, computers are run by semiconductor silicon chips that are increasingly jammed with transistors to make them faster and more powerful. Eventually, scientists say, it simply won’t be possible to push such chips any further.

That’s where “chemically assembled electronic nanocomputers,” or CAENs, come in. Scientists say such molecular-based computers will be much smaller, much more powerful, and a lot less expensive than silicon-based counterparts.

Researchers created their switch using two regular wires and synthetic rotaxane molecules. They were able to configure the switches into what are known as “logic gates,” the basis of computers.

“What we have here for the first time is a molecular device that is a real technology—not just an isolated device,” said James R. Heath, professor of chemistry at UCLA, who led the team. “This is a real step toward making a molecular computer.”

The next step is for scientists to put the molecules between much smaller wires and create a device that can perform basic computer functions. Substantial molecular electronics are still a decade away.

“We’re hoping to build something as complex as a chip you could have bought in the 1970s,” Kuekes said. “It will be very simple, but the point is it will have a real legitimate function, in a space much smaller than anyone can make a transistor now.”

That’s still about two years off, but researchers are already excited about the possible applications.

“Imagine millions of tiny computers everywhere in our lives. Tiny probes in the body, monitoring body functions—perhaps a very sophisticated pacemaker,’ said Eric Wong, a postdoctoral researcher from UCLA who is involved in the project.

“Eventually computers are going to be so small you won’t be aware of them. The computer won’t just be in your wristwatch, it will be in the fibers of your clothes,” Kuekes said.

Hewlett-Packard

http://www.hp.com

UCLA

http://www.ucla.edu

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New laser technologies could offer super-fast connectivity

Two breakthrough optical networking technologies that use laser beams to transmit digital information could dramatically boost the capacity of school networks as early as next year.

Lucent Technologies’ new WaveStar OpticAir system will use state-of-the-art lasers, amplifiers, and receivers that can be placed on school rooftops or in windows to transmit voice, video, and data from point to point through the air.

According to Lucent, the system eventually will be able to transmit up to 10 gigabits (billion bits) of information per second wirelessly between points. That’s the equivalent of 15 CD-ROMs each second, or 65 times more information than with today’s wireless radio frequencies, Lucent said.

Meanwhile, researchers at San Diego State University have developed a different technology, called Refractive Synchronization Communication, that allows a single-wavelength laser beam to carry many signals on a fiber optic cable.

The simplicity of the single wavelength allows for a much higher bandwidth transmission at less cost than those reached through traditional multiple wavelength technology, according to representatives of the patent holder, a San Diego company called SilkRoad Inc.

Fiber optics—without the fiber

Lucent’s wireless laser technology, which the company described as about 99 percent reliable now, will be field-tested by the Bermuda-based optical networking company Global Crossing in December. By March, Lucent plans to roll out an initial version of the service to customers.

“If our testing of the product meets expectations, it could offer a breakthrough method to help our global customers bypass local bottlenecks,” said Wally Dawson, a senior vice president of Global Crossing, which is building an international fiber optic network. “Based on projections, no one else is even approaching the amount of bandwidth” that the technology will bring to the market.

To work right, there has to be a clear line of sight between stations. The system also has a limited range; transmissions work best between distances of less than 5 kilometers. But despite these limitations, the technology has great potential as a “last mile” access solution for applications that require increased bandwidth or for delivering high-speed connections between neighboring school buildings, said Lucent spokeswoman Mary Ward.

“I think it’s going to be one of those things where as people think about the technology, they’ll come up with more and more applications,” Ward said. “It’s going to open a lot of possibilities.”

Designed by Bell Labs, the WaveStar OpticAir system will use “expanded-beam” lasers to free optical networking from the confines of fiber cables. The laser beams, which Lucent says will not pose any environmental risk, can be expanded to a width of about 2 meters and will not be visible to the naked eye.

As in fiber optics, the system will use the photons in pulses of light to transmit information digitally. Lucent says its system will be able to reach speeds as high as 10 Gbps by using a technology known as dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM), which splits the beams of light into different wavelengths, or colors, to create more channels for carrying information.

The system will consist of two terminal units that are used to transmit and receive the signals. Each unit will be about the size of a mailbox and will include optical translators, so they can be deployed easily within existing networks.

Unlike wireless radio frequencies, the WaveStar OpticAir system doesn’t require a licensing of spectrums, Ward said, because the streams of photons do not interfere with each other.

With its limitations of range, the technology isn’t meant to replace fiber-optic lines. But it could be a popular alternative for networking school campuses—especially in places where running a land-based fiber line would be impractical, said Gerry Butters, president of Lucent’s optical networking group.

“Lucent soon will be able to provide the power of fiber optics just about anywhere—with or without the fiber,” he said.

Because its transmission system is portable, the technology also could make an ideal solution for broadcasting special events, Ward said. For example, the OpticAir system could be set up to transmit video of a guest lecturer from one school to the others within a district, she said.

The first release of Lucent’s WaveStar OpticAir system, which will support one wavelength at speeds up to 2.5 Gbps, is expected to be commercially available by March. A four-wavelength system with a maximum capacity of 10 Gbps is expected to be available next summer.

The company didn’t provide details about how much the technology would cost, other than to say it would be comparable to the cost of installing current high-speed fiber lines.

Single-wavelength beams

Silkroad is a company with only 75 employees. But with its Refractive Synchronization Communication technology, the firm hopes one day to compete with the major producers of fiber cable technology such as Lucent and Nortel.

“The phone company of the future isn’t a phone company, it’s a bandwidth company,” Jeffery Kagan, an Atlanta-based telecommunication analyst, told The San Diego Union Tribune. “Data on the network is growing at several hundred percent per year. We have to find a way to squeeze more out of the network we have. This will unleash the power of the digital future.”

San Diego State’s researchers reportedly found that SilkRoad’s system was able to send a 411 megabyte file of 3D geological visualization data from one computer on campus to another in 8.21 seconds with 0 percent packet loss. A standard connection would have taken almost an hour to transmit the same amount of information, the company said.

According to SilkRoad representatives, San Diego State will be using this new technology in its own facilities to further the university’s international distance learning program.

In one demonstration, SilkRoad reportedly transmitted 93 billion bits of information per second—the equivalent of 77,500 copies of Moby Dick—through a single wavelength of fiber optic cable.

The first commercial application of SilkRoad’s new product line is currently undergoing field testing under the name Emissary 1000. It is expected to be on the market by the first quarter of 2000, company representatives said.

One important aspect of the new technology is that it reportedly allows transmission of video without the significant image lag that often occurs now. The new laser technology reportedly handles large file transfers, increases network speed and capacity, and supports a variety of network security methods. Pricing has yet to be established on the Emissary line.

Although the technology is expected to be adopted almost immediately by colleges and universities, Kris Stewart, computer science professor and director of the EdCenter at San Diego State, has some reservations about how soon it will be available for K-12 computer systems.

“I’m not sure if individual schools currently have the level of support they need to keep a high-level system [such as Emissary 1000] up. It’s a huge commitment. But it would be a great benefit for K-12 to be able to achieve faster connections if they had the infrastructure to support it.”

Representatives of SilkRoad Inc. argue that the benefits of their product outweigh the potential start-up costs and investment in training personnel at the K-12 level. Mike Emerson of SilkRoad Inc. told eSchool News that his company’s bandwidth-boosting technology would improve schools’ ability “to be connected over a network and broadcast interactive classes over a wide area.”

Added Emerson: “What’s available right now is very slow, and the picture is often blurred or fuzzy. What we offer is a full screen where everyone is operating in real time.” Full-screen transmissions without any image lag would be ideal for distance learning applications, Emerson indicated.

Lucent Technologies

http://www.lucent.com

SilkRoad Inc.

http://www.silkroadcorp.com

Global Crossing

http://www.globalcrossing.com

The San Diego Union Tribune

http://www.uniontrib.com

EdCenter at San Diego State University

http://www.edcenter.sdsu.edu

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Newslines–Poll: Computers make kids smarter, more creative

A recent online poll by Family PC showed that parents overwhelmingly believe computers have made their kids smarter and more creative.

When asked the question, “Have computers made your children smarter?” 68 percent of parents said yes, 19 percent were not sure, and 13 percent said no, they did not believe computers had improved their children’s intelligence.

Seventy-nine percent of parents surveyed believed computers had helped their children master problem-solving skills, 69 percent said computers helped with reading, 69 percent said they helped with math, and 63 percent believed computers helped their youngsters with language and communication skills.

Sixty-three percent of parents also believed computers had helped kids master motor skills, 61 percent said spelling skills, 60 percent said research skills, and 56 percent said computers had helped kids learn vocabulary.

When asked, “Have computers made your children more creative?” 61 percent said yes, while only 2 percent said computers made them less creative. Twenty-five percent said they had no effect on kids at all, and 12 percent were not sure.

Finally, when parents were asked, “Do you spend time with—or supervise—your children while they are on the computer?” 55 percent said they spent time with their kids on the computer, 35 percent said they supervise their kids, and only 10 percent said they neither supervise nor spend time with their children on the computer.

The poll of 615 families was conducted by Digital Research on behalf of Family PC.

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