Texas PUC investigates Southwestern Bell’s school deals

Texas officials are investigating whether Southwestern Bell has misled school districts while selling long-term deals for high-speed internet access.

Southwestern Bell, a unit of San Antonio-based SBC Corp., has been trying to lock in contracts by telling school districts that if they don’t sign up now, rates could rise next September, when a state law capping school rates expires, the Texas edition of the Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 15.

But Public Utility Commission (PUC) officials say the state Legislature has extended the caps, which allow school districts to pay below-market rates for internet access.

Three commissioners have asked Southwestern Bell how many school districts were told the discounted rates were expiring and which of them signed contract extensions. The contracts could be open to renegotiation, PUC officials said.

Under a 1995 law, Southwestern Bell and other companies agreed to provide high-speed internet connections to schools, libraries, and nonprofit hospitals at a rate capped at 5 percent above cost, in exchange for partial deregulation of the state’s telecommunications markets.

The PUC said the Legislature modified the law in 1999 to keep the discount rates until lawmakers vote to drop them.

But Southwestern Bell believes the 1999 change didn’t override the original expiration date. Spokeswoman Karen Kay Speer declined to elaborate.

In the meantime, Speer said, Southwestern Bell has “taken it upon ourselves” to extend discounts to schools through 2005. She said the company doesn’t know how many schools were contacted or signed deals.

The rate cap provides huge savings to school districts. Randal Douglas, education technology director for a consortium of schools in the suburbs west of Fort Worth, said he asked Southwestern Bell to provide a spreadsheet so he could compare costs.

The numbers, Douglas said, showed the cost of a high-speed internet connection in one rural area would more than triple from $350 to $1,325 per month after the cap expired.

“There is no way [the schools] can afford to do that,” he said.

In March, a Southwestern Bell accounts director, John Walling, wrote to Dallas school officials warning them that the 1995 rate-caps law was set to expire next year “and at this point we are not sure if it will be extended or not.” He urged the district to sign a five-year contract to lock in current rates—adding a penalty for disconnecting services early.

PUC officials fumed when they saw the letter.

“Trying to scare people into a five-year term. I mean, that’s not OK,” said Commissioner Judy Walsh.

At an open meeting of the PUC Nov. 1, Walsh expressed concern about the potential effects of Walling’s letter if districts take its contents at face value.

“If there [were] not the benefit of the doubt, or some scintilla of a doubt, I think this clearly violated the provisions about deceptive solicitations,” she said.

“Only in the unlikely event that this company could come forward and prove that [its] costs have gone up, could these rates go up, and even then it would only be able to charge you 105 percent of whatever the cost would be, and they would have to prove it to the Public Utility Commission before they could do that,” she added.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) spokesman Joey Lozano said his agency has had no prior problems with Southwestern Bell as a service provider, but he added that the agency does not oversee these types of services.

“The districts are responsible for negotiating their own internet contracts,” he said. “Those rates in question were part of the state laws dealing with public utilities and not part of the education code, so we were not involved.”

Lozano said he does not believe Southwestern Bell intentionally mislead any school districts.

“I think we all understood that on August 31, 2001, those rates would end. It’s only in the past few weeks that we’ve heard about the ruling that those rates would be extended,” he said.

Since 1995, hundreds of school districts in Texas have signed up for the lower-cost internet service allowed under the law and installed high-speed T1 phone lines.

That was a sales boom to telecommunications companies, according to Arnold Viramontes, former executive director of the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board, a state agency that helps schools connect to the internet.

Links:

Public Utility Commission of Texas
http://www.puc.state.tx.us

Southwestern Bell
http://www.swbell.com

Texas Education Agency
http://www.tea.state.tx.us

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Wired high school seniors still prefer paper for college applications

This year’s high school seniors may be wired and tech-savvy, but most of them will be applying to colleges the old-fashioned way: by mailing in paper applications.

Despite a hard sell from colleges and universities seeking to save money and reduce clerical mistakes, many students are so far shunning invitations to apply via the internet.

Schools are slowly breaking down psychological barriers; online applications are on the rise, as indicated by Nov. 1 and Nov. 15 deadlines for early decisions. Still, most observers expect paper to dominate for another five years or so.

The Class of 2005 hopefuls may be comfortable with technology for researching term papers and buying clothes, but they don’t want to take a chance when it comes to colleges.

“We are going to be spending the next four years of our lives in college, and we want to make sure we get the application right,” said Guy Fain, a senior at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn.

By having an application in hand, Fain said, “I feel like I can get a better grasp of what I’m sending. I am getting the big picture.”

It doesn’t matter that many colleges and universities try to make online applications safe—for instance, by sending electronic receipts, which they don’t do with paper applications.

University of Pennsylvania freshman Eric Rothman submitted his application a year ago via certified mail, with return receipt.

“I’m pretty tech-savvy, and I use the internet a lot,” he said, “but for something like that, I want to make sure it got there.”

Some of the resistance comes from guidance counselors and parents who had applied on paper when they were younger. They fear that online applications won’t carry as much weight because students chose the easier route.

College admission officers, in their visits to college fairs and high schools, are trying to shatter those perceptions. They insist they consider online and paper applications equally.

“We wouldn’t offer it if we didn’t want to encourage its use,” said Nikki Brown, assistant admissions director at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

More than three-quarters of the nation’s colleges and universities now accept online applications, the National Association for College Admission Counseling estimates. Yet many schools reported that less than a third of last year’s applications came in via that route. Vassar’s rate was closer to 2 percent, while the University of Richmond got 5 percent. Most schools have been accepting online submissions for a few years.

More success has been seen at the University of Iowa, where 30 percent of its prospective freshmen applied online last year. Lewis & Clark College received 15 percent of its applications online last year, up from 9 percent in 1998, the first year of the program.

“As with anything new, it requires time,” said Young Shin, founder of Embark.com, which sets up online applications for about 400 undergraduate schools. “Soon, no one will remember we used to do this on paper.”

Many colleges still receive transcripts and teacher recommendations by mail, and most schools still print out online applications for their reviewers.

At the same time, they encourage online applications because they can feed data directly into computers that way. Many colleges are even waiving application fees to encourage online use.

Some schools consider online applications as a way to show off their technological capabilities.

West Virginia Wesleyan College, a liberal arts school in Buckhannon, W. Va., began requiring online applications this year. President William Haden wanted to send a message to prospective students: “If they came here, they would find their lives imbued with technology.”

California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo got 82 percent of applications online last year–up from 1 percent in 1992, when the school began taking applications on disk. Paper applicants are still asked to complete a questionnaire over the internet, and the information helps automate the acceptance process.

If students resist? “They won’t be competitive,” said James Maraviglia, executive director of admissions and recruitment.

Cal Poly, like the rest of the California State University system, emphasizes the ability to apply to multiple campuses with a single mouse click. The time savings was enough to persuade Sherri Greer to let her older son, Zachary, apply online.

“Within an hour, we were able to ship it off to five different schools,” said Greer, of San Jose, Calif. “I’m normally pretty old-fashioned.”

As more students embrace online applications, admission officials will have to address access. Some students have internet access only at their schools or public libraries, if at all, but such access isn’t as convenient as having it at home.

Will that place poorer students at a disadvantage, especially when a school requires online applications? West Virginia Wesleyan says his institution will try to dispatch laptop-toting officials when necessary, but the college won’t guarantee it.

David Boyle, college coordinator for Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., also warns of carelessness.

“To compose an essay right on the internet site is to open yourself up to a lot of typos and grammatical errors,” he said. Students “have to be careful to realize they are not playing a game.”

At Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., college counselor Bob Brown recommends that students applying online mail in a printed application as well. Most of his students, though, are using only paper.

“A lot of these kids don’t have access to PCs at home, and in other cases are just finding it more convenient to do the old method,” Brown said. “At an organizational level, students are still far more comfortable working with a paper product.”

Links:

National Association for College Admission Counseling
http://www.nacac.com

West Virginia Wesleyan
http://www.wvwc.edu

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New web site helps schools decide how to manage internet content

Do internet filters really protect students from being exposed to pornography, or do they just offer schools a false sense of security? Are acceptable-use policies enough to protect schools from legal action if a student downloads inappropriate material from the web?

A new web site called “Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse” addresses these questions and more. The initiative is designed to help school leaders understand their technological options for managing the content that students access over the internet.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology to improve K-12 learning, developed the site with funding from N2H2, Education Networks of America, and America Online Inc.

“This project is designed to inform school leaders about all the options available and the differences in technology solutions,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director.

“CoSN firmly believes that each school or district should decide for itself how and whether to manage the internet content that its students access after receiving input from students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and [makers of] the technology,” he added.

Although many schools already have decided what to do about inappropriate content on the internet, schools now face greater challenges because they have more computers and internet access than ever before.

Surveys indicate the number of students accessing the internet at school will grow from 14 million to 44 million by the year 2003, according to CoSN. Given these figures, it’s clear that school officials must understand how to protect themselves and their students and staff.

“I don’t want to suggest schools have been lax, but as school networks have grown, it was felt some schools just needed further guidance,” said Sara Fitzgerald, project director of Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse. “There are lots of new solutions coming [on the market], and they haven’t been addressed in a complete solution about what works.”

When school officials understand how different filtering products include or exclude web sites, then these educators are better equipped to pick a product, she said.

On the Wired Schoolhouse web site, educators can find a briefing paper that examines a school district’s options for providing internet access and content management. It explains the history behind filters, how they were developed, how to write an acceptable-use policy, how monitoring and filtering work, and more.

“The white paper itself tries to lead you into the background of some of these issues,” said Fitzgerald, who wrote the paper based on testimony given before the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission, as well as recent surveys.

The document “helps you think of things you might not have thought of,” she said. For example, should school officials manage internet content for their students? If they decide to do so, what factors should they consider? Will they have one policy for the entire district? Or, is it more appropriate to have a different policy for elementary students, high school students, and staff?

“There’s a long list of things. We tried to think of the kind of process [school officials] should go through,” Fitzgerald said. “Above all, we express that schools going online should have an acceptable-use policy.”

The Wired Schoolhouse site also offers a checklist of questions school leaders should ask before deciding whether to manage internet content and when evaluating the various types of filtering products available.

Eventually, CoSN plans to add a downloadable PowerPoint presentation to the web site for schools to use. The presentation will be similar to the one designed for CoSN’s Total Cost of Ownership project, which helps school leaders understand the long-term costs involved in building and operating a network of computers, Fitzgerald said.

“I think [the site is] useful, and it may save some time,” said Dick Barkey, executive director of information technology at Adams Twelve Five Star Schools, serving the Colorado communities of Broomfield, Federal Heights, Northglenn, Thornton, and Westminster. Because the Wired Schoolhouse web site gathers statistics and research in one place, district officials can disseminate information quickly to all decision-makers if an incident occurs and the district wants to make an immediate change, he said.

“In our first year of internet access, we opened up very wide internet access to students. I was very concerned about opening up such wide access without the use of filters, but we didn’t have any problems,” Barkey said. “If we had a severe incident, we would probably [want to] clamp on some type of filter fast.”

Legislation pending in Congress could require schools and libraries to use filtering technology, but CoSN maintains the government should not mandate the use of filters in schools.

“Some [educators] view the school opportunity as a way to teach safe use of the internet,” Fitzgerald said. If schools teach students how to deal with inappropriate internet content at school, they’ll be prepared to deal with it when they encounter it elsewhere, she said.

Links:

Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse Project
http://www.safewiredschools.org

Total Cost of Ownership Project
http://www.cosn.org/tco

Adams Twelve Five Star Schools
www.ad12.k12.co.us

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eSN Bonus Report: Superintendents weigh in on election reform, EDI, and internet policy

A week before a deadlocked presidential election would stun the nation and shock the world, hundreds of superintendents and senior managers from school districts across the United States came together to address the promises and pitfalls of using technology to reform local elections. They discussed how balloting for school bond issues, tax referenda, and school board races could change if citizens cast their votes anytime, anywhere via the internet and if those ballots were tabulated instantly and automatically.

Electronic balloting in local elections was one of three emerging technology issues the school district CEOs grappled with during a first-of-its-kind Superintendents’ Technology Summit in Palm Springs, Calif., Oct. 30 and 31. The conference was produced by eSchool News, the nation’s only national newspaper about school technology. The theme of the conference was, “Setting the technology agenda for America’s schools.”

The realities of a national protocol for the electronic transfer of school and student records was also on the superintendents’ agenda, and they dealt as well with the issues surrounding internet policies for students and staff members.

After briefings from experts on each topic, superintendent leaders and professional facilitators from the National Association of Partners in Education guided the school district chiefs through consensus-building sessions. After intensive discussions formulating key alternatives in each area, the conference attendees came together to express a “Sense of the Summit.” They voted on three “National K-12 Advisories,” each composed of specific guidelines the superintendents offered up for the consideration of their peers and for the edification of lawmakers and opinion leaders from coast to coast.

Along with the consensus-building sessions, the conference also offered professional development on topics ranging from electronic procurement to communication strategies superintendents can use when discussing technology with business leaders and board members. But the Superintendents’ Technology Summit aimed to go beyond professional development by encouraging the superintendents to weigh in on three areas where emerging technology issues are likely to have a profound impact on the nation’s schools.

eBalloting

The nation’s first binding election that included voting via the internet—dubbed eBalloting—took place last February in the Arizona Democratic Primary election. Turnout increased by 800 percent compared to the number of citizens participating in that party’s previous presidential primary vote. During November’s presidential election, an experiment allowing a small number of military personnel to vote via the internet reportedly went without a hitch. Some experts predict that eBalloting will be ubiquitous in the United States as soon as 2004.

Mark Strama, eBalloting expert and vice president of Election.com, told attendees at the Superintendents’ Technology Summit that holding an online election might increase voter turnout, because it offers constituents the convenience of voting at any time and from anywhere.

Some advocates of eBalloting also speculate that opening elections to the internet would encourage more busy parents to vote, tipping elections for school bond issues in favor of the district as parents’ votes outnumber those of retirees, who often vote against school funding.

“Internet voting isn’t going to make other types of voting go away,” Strama said, although he said the Gartner Group, a research organization, has predicted voting will be done mostly online by the time the next presidential election rolls around.

Despite the potential for increased voter participation, online voting does raise some concerns—most notably, voter privacy and the potential for voter fraud. These issues can be resolved through technology, Strama told the superintendents, but the start-up cost of encrypting ballots to ensure voter privacy and mailing PIN numbers to authenticate voters could prove daunting for election officials in many localities.

Although online voting might one day be the norm, superintendents at the summit determined the prospect is not something very many educators are thinking about at the moment. One of the major roadblocks to eBalloting, attendees noted, is that laws would need to be passed permitting ballots to be cast via the internet.

Strama said New York so far is the only state where internet voting currently is legal. For now, Strama told attendees, his company is trying to find state officials and school districts willing to work with the company to change state laws that prohibit internet voting.

While arriving at a consensus on eBalloting, superintendents agreed that online voting will increase traffic to school web sites. They said voting via the internet will have no effect on the likelihood of passing bond issues or on the quality of school board members who might be elected via eBalloting. The superintendents also agreed that literacy will be a major factor in who uses online voting.

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)

An emerging protocol called EDI is beginning to enable K-12 districts to send student transcripts and other information electronically to colleges, state and federal agencies, and other participating school districts. This past fall, the Des Moines School District in Iowa became one of the first in the country to transfer student records using the EDI protocol, which is being developed by a U.S. Department of Education (ED) task force.

If all schools adopt EDI, it is likely to reduce cost and save time for administrators, guidance counselors, and college admissions officers, according to Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., School District and chairman of ED’s EDI Task Force.

A case in point is sending transcripts to colleges, Yeagley told summit attendees. The current process involves the costs of staff time to locate, copy, and package the paper transcripts along with the costs of supplies, photocopying, and postage. EDI can reduce staff time by as much as 75 percent, Yeagley said, while eliminating postage and supply costs and significantly reducing the cost of analysis at the colleges.

The downside to EDI is its initial set-up costs. Chief among the challenges to its implementation is the wide variety of student information systems used in schools, most having unique file formats that are incompatible with their competitors and with software used by colleges.

For EDI to be used to send transcripts and other student records, there must either be translation software to convert the files into a standard format, or each student software vendor would need to create an EDI module for its software. Each of these approaches is in its infancy at the present time, Yeagley said.

In addition, schools will need to deal with the learning curve associated with any new software and with the natural tendency of people to resist change. Guidance counselors and others will need to be convinced EDI really will be less work and less costly before they will embrace it and make it successful. To accomplish this, EDI proponents will have to be ready to such questions as how to transmit SAT information, letters of recommendation, and other narrative documents that typically are mailed with the paper transcript.

Such challenges notwithstanding, the consensus among superintendents at the summit was that EDI is a reliable, cost-effective, and efficient means of transmitting records and that the K-12 community should pursue EDI as a preferred means of exchanging information.

Conference attendees agreed the use of consistent, well-established, dependable standards for EDI are essential and that schools should use systems compliant with the standard EDI protocol, not XML. They also said the software industry, state and federal agencies, colleges and universities, and K-12 school districts should share the burden of implementing EDI.

Addressing concerns about internet security, the superintendents agreed the means are available to make the internet secure enough to transmit student records. But they said school districts need to develop procedures to authenticate records requests and to ensure that student information conveyed via the internet is as safe as records sent through the mail.

Internet-use policies

After lengthy deliberations on the topic of acceptable internet-use policies for staff and students, the superintendents identified guidelines schools should adhere to when creating these types of policies.

First and foremost, superintendents agreed there should be no federal mandate that would require school districts to use internet filters. At the same time, they said educators should be proactive in developing standards and specifications for filtering.

Such policies should outline that use of the internet in schools is for educational purposes only and that personal use must not interfere with educational duties. Violations of the policy should result in consequences consistent with existing student codes of conduct or other applicable school regulations.

Technology-use policies, the superintendents said, must be concise, understandable, and applicable to students, staff, parents, and the community. They must be legal and enforceable, consistent throughout the region, and must address all technologies—including analog and digital devices.

The superintendents also decided that school districts should be responsible for maintaining an internet environment free of commercialism for students. They said schools should be responsible for educating both students and staff about copyright laws and in proper citation of copyrighted material.

Think like a quarterback

Besides shaping the agenda for school technology in several key areas, the superintendents got executive briefings on other issues pertaining to technology and leadership.

Keynote speaker Ian Jukes, associate director of Audio Education Inc. of British Columbia, encouraged summit attendees to create forward-thinking visions of what technology should be like in their districts, especially considering the speed at which technology is evolving.

Jukes had one key message for the superintendents attending the technology summit: Think like a quarterback. When a quarterback throws the football to a receiver, Jukes explained, he throws the ball to where the receiver will be—not where the receiver is when the ball is released.

“There’s not a single person sitting in this room who’s prepared for what’s about to happen,” Jukes said. We are preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist and to solve problems we don’t know anything about, he added.

Education is “about visualizing the life these kids will lead when they leave school,” Jukes said. “Reconsider education through the lens of emerging technologies.”

He cited a gap between where education is going and where the rest of the world is going. Education hasn’t yet grasped what the future holds or what is about to happen. “If we continue to do the things we’ve always done, guess what: We’re going to get what we’ve always had,” he said.

A practitioner of the type of forward thinking Jukes espouses is Joe Kitchens, superintendent of Western Heights, Okla., School District. Kitchens described how his district is providing more computers for a fraction of the cost using thin-client technology. Thin clients eliminate the need for a typical computer processor because they deliver software applications running off a central server.

“You have to have a pretty good-sized server. But … you can get the eRate to support a server for thin clients,” Kitchens said, referring to the federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal network components.

Another speaker, University of Michigan Professor Elliot Soloway, went so far as to announce the demise of the personal computer in schools: “PCs are finished!” The concept of a personal computer in school is an oxymoron, anyway, he said, because school computers are shared.

“Palms are the personal computer for K-12” education, he said. “We’re working in schools where every kid in the high school has one.”

Soloway said personal digital assistants (PDAs) are great for schools, because they’re affordable, portable, and wireless. Every student can have the convenience of mobile computing, he said, especially now when more software applications than ever are being created for PDAs.

“We have to think differently.” Soloway admonished. “You have to be flexible.”

Technology resources

Sandy Paben, director of education for NY WIRED, reminded the superintendents of the importance of staff development. “Less than 30 percent of teachers feel prepared to use computers,” she said. “They’re not going to feel prepared until they get professional development.”

Lots of free content is available for teachers on the internet, Paben noted, and the International Society for Technology in Education already has created technology standards for schools.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” she advised. “If somebody has already done it for you, take it and tweak it.”

The “Star Chart,” created by the CEO Forum on Education and Technology, is a great resource that can help school leaders define their schools’ technology agenda, she said.

“I think this can help you set benchmark goals,” Paben said. “It’ll help you decide on your priorities.”

Setting sound priorities in light of the multiple opportunities and challenges presented by emerging technology was a constant theme at the first-ever Superintendents’ Technology Summit, co-sponsored by eschoolmall.com, with additional support from HostLogic, Kids 123, NCS Pearson, Solbourne, Smart Technologies, ThinClient@school, and VoicePoll.

The superintendents who gathered in Palm Springs weren’t able to head back to their school districts with comprehensive solutions to all the challenges emerging technologies might pose, but during the conference, most attendees said they attained a clearer perspective on what the future could hold for America’s schools.

NATIONAL K-12 ADVISORIES

At the Superintendents’ Technology Summit, Oct. 30-31, in Palm Springs Calif., school district CEOs from coast to coast weighed in on three matters of significance involving technology issues facing education. Based on their deliberations, they arrived at a “Sense of the Summit” on each of the three topics.

eBalloting

On using online voting for board elections and bond issues, superintendents agreed:

  • Online voting will increase traffic to school web sites.
  • Literacy will be a factor in who uses online voting.
  • Online elections will have no effect on the likelihood of passing bond issues.
  • eBalloting will have no effect on the quality of school board members who are elected.

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)

On the issue of using EDI to transmit student records electronically between schools, superintendents agreed:

  • EDI is a reliable, cost-effective, and efficient means of transmitting records, and the K-12 community should pursue EDI as a preferred means of exchanging information.
  • Use of consistent, well-established, dependable standards for EDI is essential, and schools should use systems compliant with the standard EDI protocol, not XML.
  • The responsibility of implementing EDI should be shared equally among the software industry, government, K-12 educators, and post-secondary community, each contributing leadership and resources unique to that area.
  • The internet is secure enough to transmit student records, but school districts need procedures to ensure that requests are legitimate and that the confidentiality of student information is protected to the same degree as with the U.S. Postal Service.

Technology-use Policies

On acceptable technology-use policies, superintendents agreed:

  • Technology-use policies must be concise, understandable, and applicable to students, staff, parents, and the community.
  • Technology-use policies must be legal and enforceable.
  • Technology-use policies must apply to all technologies, including analog and digital devices.
  • Technology-use policies must address the responsibility of supervision of technology users.
  • Technology-use policies must be consistent throughout the region.
  • Technology-use policy violations should result in consequences consistent to student code of conduct or other regualtions, as applicable.
  • There should be no federal mandate that would require school districts to use internet filters.
  • Education must be proactively involved in developing standards and specifications for filtering.
  • Use of the internet is for educational purposes only, and personal use must not interfere with educational duties.
  • School districts are responsible for maintaining an environment free of commercialism for students.
  • Schools districts are responsible for educating both students and staff about copyright laws and what procedures they should take for for citing copyrighted materials.

Links:

Superintendents’ Technology Summit
http://www.eschoolnews.org/sts

Election.com
http://www.election.com

National Center for Education Statistics’ EDI information
http://nces.ed.gov/edi

Ian Jukes’ web page
http://www.ianjukes.com

NY WIRED
http://www.nywired.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

CEO Forum on Education and Technology
http://www.ceoforum.org

eschoolmall.com
http://www.eschoolmall.com

HostLogic
http://www.hostlogic.com

Kids123.com
http://www.kids123.com

NCS Pearson
http://www.ncs.com

Solbourne
http://www.solbourne.com

Smart Technologies Inc.
http://www.smarttech.com

ThinClient@School
http://www.national.com/thinclient@school

Voice Poll Communications
http://www.voicepoll.co

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Court: Schools must let parents view internet-use logs

In a decision with broad implications for schools nationwide, a New Hampshire judge has ruled that the Exeter school district must make public copies of its internet history logs so a father can check whether officials are doing enough to keep pupils away from the web’s seedy side.

James Knight, a father of four whose children attended district schools until recently, filed a lawsuit asking a judge to force the district to hand over its internet logs after educators decided not to use filtering programs on computers children use.

The programs, which have been criticized for their accuracy, block access to objectionable internet sites. The district decided to use supervision and spot checks by teachers instead.

But Knight, 44, questioned whether that was enough and wanted to examine the internet logs to see whether children were accessing pornographic or other objectionable sites despite the supervision.

School officials denied the request, saying distributing the information would violate the federal Electronic Communications Act of 1986 and would fall outside the state’s Right-to-Know law.

Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson disagreed. In a ruling released Nov. 2, Abramson said a district’s internet history logs are, indeed, public records.

She also ruled that the federal wiretap statute does not apply because the contents of the logs had not been wrongfully intercepted, which is a precondition to the application of those laws, at least in New Hampshire.

“The Court finds that, in this instance, it was unreasonable for the respondents to conclude that the records the petitioner requested were exempt from the Right-to-Know law, as they knew or should have known that the information was not exempt…,” Abramson wrote in her ruling.

Material that could divulge personal details about pupils is not public information and needs to be protected, district officials had argued. For example, under the state’s Right-to-Know law, a person cannot go to a public library and request a list of everyone who has borrowed specific books.

But Knight’s lawyer, Alec McEachern, successfully argued that pupils’ privacy wasn’t an issue in this case because his client wasn’t interested in learning who used the internet, only where they went. Any identifying information can be deleted from the log files before they are made public, McEachern said, so parents can’t tell which students visited which sites.

Judge Abramson agreed. But, to protect students’ privacy, the school district must write a computer program that removes user names and passwords from the log files before making the list of web sites that students visited available to Knight.

The cost of such a process must be paid by Knight or anyone else who requests the records, Abramson said.

Knight praised the decision, saying everybody wins—the children, their parents, and the district.

“I hope it will promote accountability now that parents will have access to this information,” Knight said. “Now, there will be more people making sure that the information [students] do have access to is acceptable . . .”

McEachern said he believes Knight’s lawsuit is the first attempt by a parent to get access to a school’s internet logs, though it isn’t the first time a state’s freedom-of-information laws have been tested on the issue.

Two years ago, a group concerned with internet freedoms won access to internet logs at schools in Utah. The group, the Censorware Project, opposed the use of filtering software and wanted to see if such programs were blocking pupils from accessing legitimate sites.

Jon Meyer, a lawyer in Manchester, N.H., who has experience in education law and civil rights cases, predicted that if Judge Abramson’s ruling is not overturned, it could encourage anxious parents in other states to use local right-to-know laws to gain access to school internet use logs to check on students’ web activity.

Arthur Hanson, superintendent of the Exeter school district, did not immediately return calls seeking comment. The district’s lawyer, Stephen Hermans, declined to discuss the case.

Links:

Exeter Regional Cooperative School District
http://www.ercsd.k12.nh.us

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N2H2 pulls ad-sponsored filtering model

In the wake of an industry-wide internet shakeout, failing online advertising campaigns, and criticism from anti-commercialism groups, another education company has decide it can no longer afford to offer free services to schools.

N2H2 Inc. of Seattle, the leading provider of filtering solutions to K-12 districts and creator of the Bess filtering system, announced it will no longer offer its free, ad-based Bess Partners Program filtering system to schools as of the end of the current school year.

The announcement comes on the heels of a similar announcement from ZapMe! Corp., which recently said it could no longer afford to provide schools with free computer labs. The labs were subsidized by ads on the ZapMe! browser.

N2H2’s Bess is the leading internet filter in K-12 schools, according to figures from market research firm Quality Education Data. The company had offered schools a choice between a free web browser containing advertisements and a browser that is ad-free.

But the price was not the same for both models. Because advertisers underwrote the cost of the filtering solution—at least in part—the solution without advertising was more expensive. Schools that agreed to let a banner ad appear at the bottom of each web browser received free filtering and support for the lifetime of the solution.

A ‘softening market’ for online advertising

In a Nov. 16 statement to investors, Peter Nickerson, N2H2’s president and CEO, stated, “Beginning today, we are making a strategic move away from the Bess Partner Program, our advertising model in education. When we initiated this model in September 1999, our goal was to increase market share by making filtering more accessible to schools through a choice of either fee-based filtering or an advertiser-supported offering.

“Now, with internet advertising having softened industry-wide—contributing only 13 percent of our revenues in the fourth quarter—we are making the transition toward offering our services on a fee basis only,” he added.

“Internet advertising is a very new concept, and it has not been proven. So far, companies have not found it to be effective,” explained Jim O’Halloran, N2H2’s director of product marketing.

O’Halloran said the company’s intention with the Bess Partners Program was “to allow responsible corporate sponsors to subsidize the service for schools.”

“What we have discovered is that the ‘blue-chip’ sponsors we had targeted to help with this [initiative] did not come forward,” he said. “For example, for a time we had an arrangement with Chevron, but there were simply not enough of these folks coming forward. This is the case all across the internet community.

“Any observer of the internet industry can see that the internet world is having to reckon with online advertising problems. That model does not seem viable.”

O’Halloran said N2H2 might have been able to make the internet advertising model viable, but the company maintained very strict guidelines about which firms it allowed to advertise.

“We declined about 30 percent of potential advertisers. The Bess Partners Program may have been viable if we had violated the advertiser guidelines we set for ourselves, but we chose not to violate those limits,” he said.

The advertising debate

Some observers speculate that N2H2’s surprising announcement might stem, in part, from pressure by anti-commercialism groups, such as Washington, D.C.-based Commercial Alert.

Earlier this year, Commercial Alert participated in a letter-writing campaign aimed at removing advertising from the ZapMe! web browser, an action that ZapMe! executives believe led to the end of their organization’s involvement with education.

“Our critics attacked our sponsors in an effort to undermine us,” ZapMe! CEO Lance Mortensen told eSchool News. “I’d actually like to congratulate our critics for a job well done. They have successfully helped remove technology from our schools. That does not benefit anyone.”

Troubled by the proliferation of commercial advertising in America’s schools, and bolstered by the recent announcement that ZapMe! was getting out of the education business, a coalition of academics and other professionals set its sights on N2H2 just a few weeks before the company’s announcement.

In a Nov. 3 letter sent to President Clinton, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), and other key members of Congress, the group, which includes Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, urged that federally mandated internet filters in schools and libraries (such as N2H2’s Bess) should be prohibited from carrying any advertising.

The letter, also sent to Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., began, “We want to alert you to an unintended consequence of the mandatory software filter provision currently attached to the fiscal year 2001 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill.”

The bill in question would require schools nationwide to install filtering software before receiving government funding for certain educational programs, such as the eRate for school connectivity.

The letter urged the policy makers to ensure that “any mandatory software filter provision for schools and libraries that receive federal technology funds also prohibits the filtering program from acting as an advertising delivery mechanism.”

“Our main thought when writing this letter was that safeguarding kids from pornography should not be a reason to open them up to commercialism in school,” said Commercial Alert’s Ruskin.

“We want to make sure it’s federal law that any federally mandated browser will not have advertising on it,” Ruskin added. The group’s proposal is intended to be “a smaller provision inside a much larger provision,” he said.

Besides Ruskin, other signers of the letter included Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education; Colleen Cordes, co-coordinator of the Alliance for Childhood’s Task Force on Computers in Childhood; and Nancy Willard, project director for Responsible Netizen, an initiative of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education.

Immediately after the coalition’s letter to Congress became public, O’Halloran told eSchool News, “Commercialization is nothing new. Anyone who believes that disallowing ads on filtering technology would eliminate commercialism on the internet is sadly misinformed. The internet is replete with commercial messages, for better or for worse.”

O’Halloran said he believed corporate sponsorships could be a boon to schools struggling with budget constraints.

“There is a potential for valuable public-private partnerships at the K-12 level,” he said. “N2H2 has been experimenting with ways to allow responsible commercial entities to help fund school technology.”

But any advertising that targets kids is inappropriate, Ruskin argued. “The purpose of school is not to deliver a captive audience of impressionable schoolchildren directly into the hands of multinational corporations,” he told eSchool News.

When interviewed about the coalition’s letter in early November, O’Halloran said he did not believe the group’s demands would pose a problem for his company.

“I would say the effect of this [letter] will be negligible,” he said at the time. “It is disappointing that these types of concerns end up limiting the potential for partnerships with responsible commercial enterprises. We are losing out on opportunities.”

A ‘lightning rod for controversy’

Following N2H2’s announcement that it would discontinue its ad-based model, O’Halloran said the decision was not a response to pressure from groups like Commercial Alert.

“Groups like that did not affect our decision. We acknowledge that advertising in schools is a real issue, but we are not responding in any way to the singling out of N2H2 in that letter,” he said. “Filtering has always been a lightening rod for controversy, but I can say that this development is a result of real business concerns, not a response to pressure from non-commercial groups.”

O’Halloran also cited a statement posted on a Yahoo message board by one of the signers of the letter to Congress, titled “Praise for N2H2’s Decision on Ads.”

“As a critic of N2H2’s use of advertising on its public school filter, I want to commend the company for [its] decision today to go to a fee-based model. This is a responsible step that hopefully will be met with great success. No one can deny the need for filtering of the internet in schools. With the removal of the ads, I believe N2H2 opens up much larger markets for its filter,” wrote Jim Metrock of Obligation Inc.

“I think it is significant that this group acknowledges the need for internet filtering,” said O’Halloran.

O’Halloran addressed head on the argument that its previous ad-based option was morally flawed and potentially harmful to children.

“I’d contest the inference that our previous choices were not morally responsible. [We] intended to provide schools with an option. We wanted to find constructive public-private partnerships. I’d take issue with any suggestion that advertising in schools is evil by its very nature,” he said.

The future for schools

O’Halloran said N2H2 will work with schools that currently receive free filtering through the Bess Partners Program.

“We are talking with them now to arrange a smooth transition. We’re comfortable with our decision not to disrupt service until June 30, and we plan to work with each customer on an individual basis,” said O’Halloran.

According to O’Halloran, there are currently more than 14 million students using Bess, and of that figure, more than half are using the ad-sponsored Bess Partners Program.

“We’ve informed all the schools of the change, and we hope to work with each of those schools individually. So we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.

Initial indications are that schools will continue to use the company’s filtering solution, regardless of the change.

Said Carolyn Worsham, director of instructional technology at Nederland Independent School District in Nederland, Texas (K-12, enr. 5,381), “It will only affect me in that I have to make a decision about where to get the money from. Bess is so valuable to us that we think it is well worth the price.” Nederland has been using the ad-based model for one year, and the fee-based service for two years before that.

According to N2H2, the cost of the program will be similar to the current fees charged for the ad-free service N2H2 already offers schools. Pricing varies widely based on the school—but, in general, there is a one-time, non-recurring charge to place a server in the district.

“There is also a monthly fee charged per connected workstation. This varies, but it is approximately $1 or less per connected workstation per month,” said O’Halloran. “The set-up fee also varies according to the network configuration, but it’s usually several thousand dollars.”

According to O’Halloran, schools currently using the service will not be charged set-up fees, but next year they will be charged a monthly service charge if they continue to receive filtering from N2H2.

O’Halloran said N2H2 recognizes there may be some schools that cannot afford the subscription-based service and will have to discontinue their use of the Bess filtering program. In that case, he says, N2H2 will remove the servers from the schools.

“The initial fee is not a purchase; it is a set-up fee. But this is probably a moot point anyway, because there is no real reason they would want to hold onto the proxy server if they are not receiving the filtering service,” he said.

Nederland’s Worsham offers advice to cash-strapped school districts that fear they may be forced to discontinue service: “My advice is to work with N2H2 about setting up a pay schedule that works with your budget year. It is a two-edged sword. It will cost you money, but generally speaking, you get what you pay for.”

Nederland schools have felt the consequences of so-called internet fallout harder than most districts, it seems.

“Right now, I am also negotiating with ZapMe! on what we can do about that problem,” said Worsham. “I’m certainly understanding of the situation. They weren’t making any money. But, at the same time, it is hard when schools are struggling with limited dollars.”

Links:

Commercial Alert
http://www.essential.org/alert

N2H2
http://www.n2h2.com

Nederland Independent School District
http://www.nederland.k12.tx.us

Yahoo! Message Board
http://messages.yahoo.com/bbs?.mm=FN&action=m&boar d=22689355&tid=ntwo&sid=22689355&mid=1135

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$2.4 billion school tech program awaits action from Congress

Poor school districts struggling to find affordable ways to modernize schools and fix crumbling buildings might be eligible for billions of dollars in additional funding, depending on how Congress decides to vote on its remaining appropriations bills after it returns to the lame-duck session in December.

While much of the attention surrounding the federal education budget for fiscal year 2001, which is still before Congress, has focused on an amendment that would mandate the use of internet filters in schools receiving federal money, the education budget also proposes to increase funding for school construction and modernization by billions of dollars.

Included in the appropriations package is a bipartisan school modernization bill introduced by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., called America’s Better Classrooms Act of 2000 (H.R. 4094).

This bill would commit $24.8 billion in tax credit bonds over the next two years to modernize up to 6,000 schools. Within this $24.8 billion program, $2.4 billion—up from $400 million last year—is reserved for Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, also known as QZABs (pronounced “cue-zabs”).

The Better Classrooms Act also includes a new $1.3 billion school emergency renovation loan and grant for high-need school districts with little or no capacity to fund urgent repairs. The neediest districts would have priority for receiving these funds.

The increase in the QZAB program is significant for school technology, because QZABs provide interest-free loans to low-income schools to pay for renovating school buildings, purchasing equipment (including computers and high-speed networks), developing curriculum, and training school personnel.

The limit set in bonding authority for the QZAB program, which was created in 1997, has always been $400 million per year. The proposal before Congress would expand the program by 600 percent, to $2.4 billion in bond authority over two years, and for the first time would permit QZABs to be used for new construction projects.

Schools receiving QZABs must be located in a federal empowerment zone or enterprise community, or they must have at least 35 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

QZABs also require schools to team up with the private sector to create partnerships, because to qualify, they must get a business to match at least 10 percent of the bond value.

Schools receiving QZABs are responsible for repaying the principle, while the federal government pays the interest to the bondholder in the form of a tax credit, relieving the community of this expense. Because interest payments can equal up to 50 percent of the cost of a typical loan, states and local communities will save substantially from this program, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Budget uncertainty

Both Riley and President Clinton have asked Congress to fully fund the school modernization and construction bill, which is co-sponsored by a clear bipartisan majority of 229 House members.

“This school construction proposal is an important piece of the budget. It should have the full support of every member of Congress, including fiscal conservatives, because it would save states and communities billions of dollars in interest costs,” Riley said in a statement Oct. 24.

Days before the election, Congress retreated from an agreement on the education budget, which is included in the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill (H.R.4577), also referred to as Labor HHS. Clinton blamed the Labor HHS hold-up on Republicans bowing to the demands of special interests.

“Just last Sunday [Oct. 29], we reached bipartisan agreement on an education budget that would have tremendous achievement for our children. But, under orders from their special interests, the Republican leadership cancelled the compromise we had reached,” Clinton said Nov. 2.

The White House accused congressional leaders of backing away from the agreement after special interests objected to an unrelated provision regarding repetitive stress injuries in the workplace.

“The trigger point that collapsed the deal on Labor HHS was ergonomics, not an education issue,” said Dan Lara, a spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee. “That was the primary sticking point.”

The Labor HHS bill is one of six remaining bills to be decided for the FY 2001 budget, Lara said. Congress had passed a continuing resolution to return Nov. 15, but because of how the election turned out, Congress won’t resume until Dec. 5.

“There is the possibility that Congress will pass another continuing resolution act, and that could mean [the remaining bills] would be the new Congress’s responsibility,” Lara said. It’s also possible that when the lame-duck session returns, things that were agreed upon before won’t be agreed upon now, he added.

John Emekli, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said it’s hard to say how Congress will decide, but the administration hopes Congress will listen to the 229 representatives supporting the bill and pass it as is.

“For three years, the president has been trying to get school construction legislation passed,” Emekli said. “This is the closest we’ve come. We have bipartisan support. We have representatives from both sides signed on.”

The interest-free nature of the QZABs is attractive to many schools faced with expensive repairs, renovations, and upgrading costs. In fact, 21 states across the country already use them.

The bonds are “worthwhile if you have renovation projects to do but you don’t have any money to do them,” said Paul LaRocque, business manager of the Keystone Central School District (K-12, enr. 5,380) in Pennsylvania. The program “can save you millions of dollars in interest payments.”

Fred Schmitt, chief financial officer at Norfolk Public Schools (K-12, enr. 33,014) in Virginia, agreed: “Most schools [that] do school construction enter into debt anyway—why not do it interest-free?”

“There’s a lot of flexibility with QZABs,” Emekli said. “If you need to buy computers or make classrooms accessible for technology and bring them up to 21st-century quality,” you can use QZAB funds to do so.

Expanding the program to include new school construction also increases the program’s flexibility.

“There are many school districts that have buildings that are in such disrepair, it’s a waste of money to repair them,” LaRocque said.

Increasing debt load

But some educators say increasing the amount of money available to borrow through QZABs to $2.4 billion still places a burden on truly cash-strapped schools.

Using QZABs “would add that much debt to school districts around the country, and [it] would obligate the federal government to pay the interest on that amount,” LaRocque said. “It’s still not going to solve the problems of very poor districts, because they can’t afford to pay back the principle on the bonds.”

Schmitt acknowledged that school districts without a large tax base to generate revenue might have a hard time repaying the bonds.

“It is debt, and it would depend on the district’s locality whether it’s a good idea or not,” he said, though he added, “It’s still a worthwhile program.”

Teaming up with the private sector, as the QZAB program requires, could create some interesting programs in schools, Schmitt said.

“You derive some benefits with your partnership, you benefit from an interest-free loan, but you still have the responsibility of repaying the debt,” he said.

Links:

Qualified Zone Academy Bonds
http://www.ed.gov/inits/construction/qzab.html

White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

House Committee on Education and the Workforce
http://edworkforce.house.gov

Keystone Central School District
http://oak.kcsd.k12.pa.us

Norfolk Public Schools
http://www.nps.k12.va.us

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Maryland students use handheld computers to boost their productivity

For the past few years, laptop computers have been touted as a way of getting technology into the hands of all students, making “anytime, anywhere learning” possible. But laptops are expensive, their batteries die quickly, and they’re not always easy to lug around. That’s why some school technology experts are predicting that handheld computers, or personal digital assistants (PDAs), may be a more viable solution.

To be sure, PDAs come with their own set of problems: So far, they’ve lacked a convenient input device and software that would make them useful in the classroom. But a Baltimore-based company called MindSurf aims to change all that with a pilot program at River Hill High School in Clarksville, Md.

Through this program, MindSurf has seamlessly linked a group of select ninth-grade students with their teacher via PDAs and integrated its wireless platform with the school’s educational applications. The program’s goal: improved communication between the students and their teacher and increased productivity in the classroom.

The pilot program, which launched Oct. 3, is expected to be duplicated in additional schools throughout the year.

MindSurf, a $70 million joint venture between Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., Owings Mills, Md.-based Aether Systems Inc. and San Francisco-based Critical Path, has created an educational tool out of the Palm Pilot, with general internet access with web browsing, a searchable dictionary and encyclopedia, a graphing calculator, games, and financial applications.

The company has equipped a ninth-grade River Hill High School English class of 15 students with Palm Pilot Vx devices. The devices come with cellular modems that enable students to connect to the internet and to each other wirelessly from anywhere—much like the connectivity that a cellular phone provides.

“The kids generally search the internet for text-driven sites. Actually, any site on the web can be accessed, but the graphics on multimedia sites don’t display well,” said Scott Pfeifer, principal of River Hill High School.

“The kids usually go to a site called OmniSky that features a search engine for text-only web sites,” Pfeifer added. “There’s actually a button on the Palm that takes them to OmniSky. There is a growing market for writing text-only web pages for these handheld devices. Web designers are now often writing dual sites, one for broadband computing and one for text-only cellular technology.”

Students also were given collapsible keyboards from Palm that fold down to about 4 inches by 6 inches by 1 inch. The folding keyboards, which can be used to input information into the handheld computers, “make this program so much more powerful than just using the stylus to input information,” said David Long, vice president of product development for MindSurf.

The Palm computers’ capability for wireless communication allows students to use eMail and instant messaging wherever they go. They can check eMail and work on assignments on the bus ride home from school, for example, thereby extending their productivity.

“We’ve also put instant synchronization capability on the devices,” said Long. “That way, if a teacher hands out an assignment, the due dates get automatically updated on each child’s Palm calendar.”

The Palm Pilots also are updated automatically with daily announcements. “One of my goals is to eliminate the intercom,” Long said.

MindSurf and River Hill High School are working together to explore ways the technology can be used to enhance student learning as well as productivity.

“We are in a developmental phase of exploring new curriculum goals. We are really trying to create a culture of technology in the classroom,” said Rick Robb, the English teacher involved with MindSurf pilot program.

Robb was recruited to come to River Hill and teach the MindSurf pilot class in part because of his extensive technology background.

“[Robb] worked at Honeywell for a decade, so understanding the technology was not a challenge for him. We could then focus immediately on the curriculum. But we know that different people will need different levels of training,” Long said.

One thing Robb has discovered is that PDAs facilitate collaboration in his classroom. A recent activity in his class involved drafting a letter to the school newspaper. Students created their own responses and then combined them into a single letter by “beaming” each other’s writing back and forth.

“They did in about an hour what would have taken much longer otherwise, if I had run off copies for everyone,” Robb said.

Assessment features are also on the horizon, according to Long. “We also will [include] a test administration feature, where teachers can give quizzes and tests that can be graded automatically so that kids get immediate feedback,” he said.

But the assessment feature is not yet fully operational, Robb said. “We are currently researching ways of doing assessment. It’s hard to do electronic testing for an English class, because you have to grade writing,” he explained.

The response to the pilot has been tremendous so far, Long said. In January, the program is expanding to other subjects in the ninth grade at River Hill, including math, science, social studies, and one foreign language class.

“The administrators here are very eager. The goal was not to get a device into the hands of children, but to enable learning at the curriculum level,” Pfeifer said. “We want kids to use the Palm Pilots as a productivity tool, just like adults do. The question, literally, is how do we help kids become better learners.”

The learning curve is not as daunting with PDAs as with other types of technology, those involved with the pilot say.

“Anytime you introduce a new technology, there will be some resistance, but as far as learning to use the device, it is far less complicated than a laptop. With a laptop, you have to learn a whole complicated operating system, but with a Palm [everything] is literally one or two clicks away,” said Robb.

MindSurf plans to add a teacher training segment to the program, Long added. “We will provide on-site training for the pilots we will be doing around the country, and we are putting together a training protocol for when we begin connecting whole schools,” he said.

The final product, when rolled out nationally in September 2001, also will contain security measures to protect student information and ensure that students are staying on task, according to Long.

Pfeifer acknowledges there are certainly costs involved that schools will have to deal with. “Right now, we are not paying for the cell time, and that will be a major cost to schools,” he said.

Prices for the final product have yet to be determined, according to MindSurf. “We are still trying to manage down the cost. After the first set of pilot programs, we will begin to deal with it,” said Long, who added there most likely would be an installation charge to put transceivers throughout the schools.

“But on a cost basis, it is really favorable. The devices cost around $200, maybe $300 with the keyboards. Compare that to a $2,000 laptop. Also, it is far cheaper to put in a wireless network than [it is] to wire a school,” Long said.

Despite expenses to schools, the educators involved with the MindSurf pilot remain enthusiastic about the product.

Links:

MindSurf
http://www.mindsurf.net

River Hill High School
http://www.howard.k12.md.us/rhhs

Palm Inc.
http://www.palm.com

OmniSky
http://www.omnisky.com

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QED: Teacher internet use grows more sophisticated

By next June, 99 percent of America’s public schools will be connected to the internet, according to a new report from market research firm Quality Education Data (QED). That’s up from 95 percent at the start of this school year—and it’s just one of the interesting findings of the new report, according to Jeanne Hayes, QED president.

QED’s “Internet Usage in Public Schools 2000, 5th Edition,” also reveals a change in exactly what teachers are using the internet for, Hayes said.

While past studies indicated that teachers use the internet primarily for research, this year’s study shows that 81 percent of teachers surveyed now use the internet to evaluate curriculum material.

“One of my favorite findings is the fact that teachers are now finding and evaluating curriculum material using the internet, rather than just using it for research. That really shows a move towards a more vibrant use of the internet,” Hayes said.

The new report also reveals that a growing number of educators are using the internet for lesson planning and professional development.

The study polled a random sample from QED’s National Education Database, which contains all public schools in the United States. The company conducted 400 telephone surveys with public school core curriculum teachers. The study has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

The majority of those surveyed said the internet has played a positive role in educating U.S. children. Of the teachers who said they use the internet to teach, 38 percent said it has given them access to more instructional materials and resources.

The overall findings of “Internet Usage as a Teaching Aid” reveal that the vast majority of those surveyed, 80.8 percent, use the internet to evaluate curriculum material. Nearly 79 percent use the internet for doing research, and 72.7 percent use it for eMail and communication.

A little over half of the respondents, 53.2 percent, said they use the internet for professional development, 52.9 percent use it to create presentation tools, and 52 percent use it in lesson planning. Only 13.6 percent of teachers use the internet to make online purchases.

“The use of the internet seems far more widespread now for finding materials to guide curriculum. I expected more skepticism, but everyone really seems ready to move forward with the internet in the classroom,” Hayes said.

“Using curriculum materials found on the internet opens up resources never available to teacher,” she added. “This [study] shows the rapid adoption of web sites designed to deliver curriculum and professional development tools to teachers. We have also found that state departments and school districts are creating annotated links to curricular materials for their teachers—often including materials that correlate to state standards.”

The teachers who responded also were asked to define the impact of the internet on teaching. Of those teachers who use the internet in teaching, 31 percent report that the web gives access to better instructional materials and resources, and 27 percent of teachers indicated that the internet helps them and their students do better research. Only 18 percent reported that they do not feel they are teaching any differently as a result of the internet.

Another finding involves the use of internet filtering software by grade level. In 1999, approximately 58 percent of all elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools reported using filtering software. Those figures changed in 2000, most dramatically at the middle-school level. The percentage of schools that use filtering software stayed about the same at the elementary level, but jumped from 58.9 percent to 66.7 percent at the middle-school level and, less markedly, from 58.3 percent to 63.5 percent at the high-school level.

The report also examined the web sites that were most often recommended for student use. The site named the most was Yahoo, with 19.3 percent of teachers responding that they use it the most. That was followed by Yahooligans (8.2 percent), Ask Jeeves (8.2 percent), Scholastic (7 percent), Alta Vista (5.3 percent), NASA (4.1 percent), Discovery Online (2.9 percent), ERIC (2.9 percent), About.com (2.3 percent), and Dog Pal (2.3 percent). Nearly 51 percent of respondents named “other” as the site they visited the most for student use.

QED, established in 1981, is a market research and database company wholly owned by Scholastic Inc. and focused entirely on education.

Links:

Quality Education Data
http://www.qeddata.com

Scholastic Inc.
http://www.scholastic.com

By the Numbers: Internet Usage as a Teaching Aid
Type of use Percentage of teachers
  2000 1999
Evaluating curriculum materials 80.8% 63%
Research 78.7% 74%
eMail/Communication 72.7% 82%
Professional development 53.2% 55%
Presentation tool 52.9% 43%
Lesson planning 52.0% 57%
Online purchases 13.6% N/A
(Source: Quality Education Data, 2000)

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School board might sell ‘naming rights’ to new tech school

A proposal by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in Charlotte, N.C., to fund a new technology school in part through corporate sponsorships is raising questions about the infiltration of commercialism into public education.

Corporations already have placed their names all over the sporting world by paying to give their name to stadiums and arenas. Now, school officials in Charlotte, N.C., are considering selling naming rights to classrooms and cafeterias.

Could the future hold schools across America featuring the Gateway computer lab or the Nike gymnasium?

The school board is considering a policy to allow some campus areas—including a technical high school now under construction in west Charlotte—to be named after a corporate entity that makes “significant contributions” to the school or district.

Until this time, Charlotte-Mecklenberg has had a restrictive naming policy for school property, allowing elements to be named only after people who have gained recognition in some way, district officials say. That policy may soon change, depending on the outcome of a Nov. 28 school board vote.

“In examining that policy and thinking ahead to the future, we now have the opportunity to take advantage of a corporate gift—be it a cash gift, a technology gift, or a services gift—and in return, allow that company to display [its] brand name in a prominent way,” said John Lassiter, vice-chair of the school board.

Although the proposed policy could apply to any school, Superintendent Eric Smith said it was crafted with the technical high school in mind.

The school’s focus will be preparing students for careers in computer science, manufacturing, transportation, construction, environmental science, and health science.

That means students will need training on expensive equipment that tight school budgets can’t always handle, Smith said. So, the district plans to ask businesses for help. Offering to name a lab, school wing, or other campus area after these businesses may encourage corporate donations, he said.

“In a time when schools have increasing need for revenue and difficulties generating that revenue, this is an avenue that, if properly done, could provide benefits to all involved,” Lassiter agreed. “Companies are focusing increasingly on the ability to display their brands. It is no different than naming rights to an NFL stadium or colleges allowing outside organizations to name their buildings. This can help the companies by showing their dedication to education.”

Lassiter said construction of the new technology high school is not dependent on whether the school board decides to accept corporate sponsorships. “The sponsorships are to provide enhancements and additional things like labs, hardware, and software,” he said.

Corporate sponsorships would “assure us that the type of equipment students are being trained on is still relevant in the workplace,” said Smith.

The school board would not identify any specific companies that might consider buying corporate sponsorships in the new technology high school. “We haven’t gotten that far yet. We are just in the policy-making stages now,” Lassiter said.

Board members have not talked about how a company’s name would be displayed, but “I would expect it to be appropriate to the area in question,” said board member Jim Puckett. “A library would obviously have a different approach than a cafeteria or a football stadium.”

Such partnerships have triggered a debate in school districts in Texas, New Hampshire, California, and elsewhere over how involved companies should be with schools.

Officials with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction didn’t know of any examples of schools naming campus areas after businesses, although there are plenty of instances in the Carolinas and elsewhere of schools teaming up with businesses for everything from school supplies to computers to pizza lunches.

“It’s not new at the K-12 level, in the sense that many schools have scoreboards donated by Coca-Cola or computers with the brand name displayed on the box. Branding is not new,” said Lassiter.

Denise Carter, head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PTA Council, said the public schools could not function without outside business support. And school board members said they have yet to receive complaints about the proposal.

But there are those who worry that corporate influences in schools can go too far.

The California-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education argues that schoolchildren become easy targets for advertising when their school districts use scoreboards sponsored by soda companies or when school cafeterias contract to sell a company’s fast-food product.

“To date, we’ve had no negative responses, which I find intriguing,” said Lassiter, citing the erstwhile debate over Channel One, the highly controversial classroom news program that provides news broadcasts, complete with commercials, to 40 percent of public school students in the United States each school day.

“Channel One, by bringing advertising directly into the classroom, sent a message that the schoolroom was no longer off-limits,” said Walter Hanna, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education.

According to the center’s web site, “The issue of marketing to school kids goes much further [than Channel One]. Commercialism in America’s classrooms is reaching epidemic proportions, with new forms of in-school advertising being discovered every week.”

The issue is “all about making schoolchildren into a captive audience for advertisers, and the federal government should do everything in its power to stop it,” said Hanna.

But branding is not necessarily the same thing as advertising, district officials say.

“We are just talking about a name on a wall. It is not an active situation that asks you to make a decision when a screen comes up on a computer,” said Lassiter. “It would be naive to say that our kids aren’t exposed to broad-based commercialism at all times. But kids today are more sensitive to that, and they can sort through what they see. We’d be kidding ourselves to think we could insulate our kids from all forms of commercialism.”

If the school board approves the policy to name campus areas after corporations, it will weigh each case carefully, board chairman Arthur Griffin said. “That’s not to say we’re going to be guaranteeing a name, because some corporations do not have good community will.”

“We obviously would not enter into an arrangement with a company that sells alcohol, or cigarettes, or condoms,” Lassiter agreed.

If the policy receives a majority vote at the Nov. 28 school board meeting, it will go into effect immediately.

Links:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/

Center for Commercial-Free Public Education
http://www.commercialfree.org/

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
http://www.dpi.state.nc.us/

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