News Analysis: AOL, Microsoft legal wrangle could vex educators

When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets crushed. And technology leaders at the grass roots in education have reason to worry that this old African proverb just might apply to the legal battle now joined between technology pachyderms Microsoft and AOL Time Warner.

Media conglomerate AOL Time Warner Inc. has filed a lawsuit against the software giant seeking damages for harm done to AOL’s Netscape internet browser. The now flagging Netscape browser had ruled computer desktops until Microsoft began giving its competing browser away.

Analysts and legal experts agree this newest chapter in the ongoing antitrust saga against Microsoft is sure to prolong the court proceedings even further. Some fear the costly struggle will drain needed resources from technology research and development at both companies. And others say the fight is for ultimate control of the internet.

What is clear is that Microsoft now faces three distinct legal fronts in defending its business practices. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is considering a settlement to the original antitrust case that has the support of the federal government and nine state attorneys general, while nine other states are still suing Microsoft.

Many of Microsoft’s business practices, including ones in which the company encouraged computer manufacturers and internet providers to distribute its Internet Explorer web browser instead of Netscape, were found to be anticompetitive by a federal appeals court last year.

AOL, which bought Netscape in 1999, wants Microsoft to cease its contested business practices and pay damages. AOL Time Warner executive John Buckley noted that court ruling and said, “This action is an attempt to get justice in this matter.”

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the software giant is “disappointed” that AOL Time Warner has chosen litigation.

“We’ve consistently tried to work more closely with [AOL executives] in a variety of areas, including instant messaging,” the Microsoft representative said. “They have consistently turned us down.”

AOL Time Warner filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Jan. 22. Under federal law, AOL would be entitled to triple any actual damages found by the court.

The company also asked for an immediate injunction against “ongoing and further damage” involving the Netscape Navigator browser, Buckley said.

But Microsoft officials questioned AOL’s motives in filing the suit. “This lawsuit is not about consumers, this is about a company concerned about its business performance and attempting to use the courts rather than innovating in the marketplace,” said the Microsoft spokeswoman, who wished to remain anonymous.

One possible option, if a judge ruled in favor of AOL, would be to force Microsoft to sell a stripped-down version of its Windows operating system so computer manufacturers could choose which internet browser to offer. That has also been requested by the nine state attorneys general suing Microsoft in federal court.

The federal government and the nine other states settled their landmark antitrust suit with Microsoft last year, but that settlement is still under consideration by Kollar-Kotelly. AOL has been a longtime critic of Microsoft and has talked frequently with prosecutors throughout the case.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who heard the federal government’s case against Microsoft in the Netscape matter, found that Microsoft tried to keep consumers from being able to choose Netscape. The appeals court affirmed many of Jackson’s decisions.

Microsoft’s business practices “help keep usage of Navigator below the critical level necessary for Navigator or any other rival to pose a real threat to Microsoft’s monopoly,” the appeals court wrote last year.

Perhaps, but that isn’t the reason for AOL’s current lawsuit, Microsoft alleges.

“After hearing all the evidence in the antitrust trial, AOL purchased Netscape for $10 billion,” said the Microsoft spokeswoman. “Now, AOL wants to blame Microsoft for Netscape’s and AOL’s own mismanagement.”

At least a few analysts agree. AOL was more interested in Netscape’s media property, the Netscape.com web site that many users kept as their home pages, said Ken Allard, senior vice president of research at Jupiter Media Metrix.

Other Netscape initiatives, such as browser development, enterprise software, and services did not receive as much attention, Allard said. AOL also never integrated the Netscape browser into its proprietary online service, instead relying on a version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

In a viewpoint posted on the ZDNet web site Jan. 25, market research firm Gartner Inc. said the real battle between AOL and Microsoft is over control of content.

“Both the online content provider and the software developer are determined to be the trusted party that internet users rely on to store all kinds of information—such as addresses, bookmarks, passwords, and credit card numbers,” said Gartner.

This control is particularly key to AOL Time Warner and Microsoft, Gartner said, because “if either company can become the default holder of presence information, it will have access to significant and recurring revenue.”

University of Baltimore law professor Bob Lande said of AOL and its lawsuit: “This is a company that obviously can afford it, and wouldn’t take the step lightly. I think they’ve got an excellent chance of success, given that the government has established the facts and established that Microsoft has broken the law.”

But proving Microsoft’s guilt could be a long time in coming, industry experts say.

“Given the stakes, and the spin machines that both companies have at their command,” said the Gartner viewpoint, “the fireworks around the AOL Time Warner suit hold the potential to eclipse those of the government trial.”

A judge would still have the challenge of choosing a remedy that would restore competition to the internet browser market. Netscape now has less than 20 percent of the internet browser market, compared to more than 70 percent in 1995.

“You can’t literally put the market back in the competitive position it was in, so you’d have to think of a forward-looking remedy to help restore competition in the market as best as possible,” Lande told ZDNet.

For educators, who increasingly rely on web-based content in classrooms and central offices, anything with the potential to significantly alter the accessibility and richness of the internet is a development worth watching.

Links:

AOL Time Warner
http://www.aol.com

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Gartner Inc.
http://www.gartner.com

tags

News Analysis: AOL, Microsoft legal wrangle could vex educators

When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets crushed. And technology leaders at the grass roots in education have reason to worry that this old African proverb just might apply to the legal battle now joined between technology pachyderms Microsoft and AOL Time Warner.

Media conglomerate AOL Time Warner Inc. has filed a lawsuit against the software giant seeking damages for harm done to AOL’s Netscape internet browser. The now flagging Netscape browser had ruled computer desktops until Microsoft began giving its competing browser away.

Analysts and legal experts agree this newest chapter in the ongoing antitrust saga against Microsoft is sure to prolong the court proceedings even further. Some fear the costly struggle will drain needed resources from technology research and development at both companies. And others say the fight is for ultimate control of the internet.

What is clear is that Microsoft now faces three distinct legal fronts in defending its business practices. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is considering a settlement to the original antitrust case that has the support of the federal government and nine state attorneys general, while nine other states are still suing Microsoft.

Many of Microsoft’s business practices, including ones in which the company encouraged computer manufacturers and internet providers to distribute its Internet Explorer web browser instead of Netscape, were found to be anticompetitive by a federal appeals court last year.

AOL, which bought Netscape in 1999, wants Microsoft to cease its contested business practices and pay damages. AOL Time Warner executive John Buckley noted that court ruling and said, “This action is an attempt to get justice in this matter.”

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the software giant is “disappointed” that AOL Time Warner has chosen litigation.

“We’ve consistently tried to work more closely with [AOL executives] in a variety of areas, including instant messaging,” the Microsoft representative said. “They have consistently turned us down.”

AOL Time Warner filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Jan. 22. Under federal law, AOL would be entitled to triple any actual damages found by the court.

The company also asked for an immediate injunction against “ongoing and further damage” involving the Netscape Navigator browser, Buckley said.

But Microsoft officials questioned AOL’s motives in filing the suit. “This lawsuit is not about consumers, this is about a company concerned about its business performance and attempting to use the courts rather than innovating in the marketplace,” said the Microsoft spokeswoman, who wished to remain anonymous.

One possible option, if a judge ruled in favor of AOL, would be to force Microsoft to sell a stripped-down version of its Windows operating system so computer manufacturers could choose which internet browser to offer. That has also been requested by the nine state attorneys general suing Microsoft in federal court.

The federal government and the nine other states settled their landmark antitrust suit with Microsoft last year, but that settlement is still under consideration by Kollar-Kotelly. AOL has been a longtime critic of Microsoft and has talked frequently with prosecutors throughout the case.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who heard the federal government’s case against Microsoft in the Netscape matter, found that Microsoft tried to keep consumers from being able to choose Netscape. The appeals court affirmed many of Jackson’s decisions.

Microsoft’s business practices “help keep usage of Navigator below the critical level necessary for Navigator or any other rival to pose a real threat to Microsoft’s monopoly,” the appeals court wrote last year.

Perhaps, but that isn’t the reason for AOL’s current lawsuit, Microsoft alleges.

“After hearing all the evidence in the antitrust trial, AOL purchased Netscape for $10 billion,” said the Microsoft spokeswoman. “Now, AOL wants to blame Microsoft for Netscape’s and AOL’s own mismanagement.”

At least a few analysts agree. AOL was more interested in Netscape’s media property, the Netscape.com web site that many users kept as their home pages, said Ken Allard, senior vice president of research at Jupiter Media Metrix.

Other Netscape initiatives, such as browser development, enterprise software, and services did not receive as much attention, Allard said. AOL also never integrated the Netscape browser into its proprietary online service, instead relying on a version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

In a viewpoint posted on the ZDNet web site Jan. 25, market research firm Gartner Inc. said the real battle between AOL and Microsoft is over control of content.

“Both the online content provider and the software developer are determined to be the trusted party that internet users rely on to store all kinds of information—such as addresses, bookmarks, passwords, and credit card numbers,” said Gartner.

This control is particularly key to AOL Time Warner and Microsoft, Gartner said, because “if either company can become the default holder of presence information, it will have access to significant and recurring revenue.”

University of Baltimore law professor Bob Lande said of AOL and its lawsuit: “This is a company that obviously can afford it, and wouldn’t take the step lightly. I think they’ve got an excellent chance of success, given that the government has established the facts and established that Microsoft has broken the law.”

But proving Microsoft’s guilt could be a long time in coming, industry experts say.

“Given the stakes, and the spin machines that both companies have at their command,” said the Gartner viewpoint, “the fireworks around the AOL Time Warner suit hold the potential to eclipse those of the government trial.”

A judge would still have the challenge of choosing a remedy that would restore competition to the internet browser market. Netscape now has less than 20 percent of the internet browser market, compared to more than 70 percent in 1995.

“You can’t literally put the market back in the competitive position it was in, so you’d have to think of a forward-looking remedy to help restore competition in the market as best as possible,” Lande told ZDNet.

For educators, who increasingly rely on web-based content in classrooms and central offices, anything with the potential to significantly alter the accessibility and richness of the internet is a development worth watching.

Links:

AOL Time Warner
http://www.aol.com

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Gartner Inc.
http://www.gartner.com

tags

Fingerprint technology speeds school lunch lines

Some Pennsylvania schools are testing a fingerprinting program that lets pupils pay for chicken nuggets, sloppy joes, pizza, and other cafeteria delicacies without ever carrying cash.

If the program proves successful, the little ridges on index fingers eventually could make school lunch money and lunch-line bullies things of the past.

“It’s certainly a lot faster,” said Linda Kelly, cafeteria manager at Welsh Valley Middle School, about 10 miles from Philadelphia.

The program doesn’t use a complete fingerprint; instead, it relies on a computer program to match 27 mapped points on a finger. Even so, the technology remains controversial.

The Penn Cambria School District, about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh, began the program in August 1999 and plans to use it in all five of its schools by next year. To avoid controversy, administrators never used the word “fingerprint.”

“We say ‘finger-image’ or ‘finger-picture,'” said Milton Miller, Penn Cambria’s director of food services.

The program has sped up the high school lunch line, which has been growing with the student population.

The other benefits? “One, no lost [ID] cards; two, no one can access another person’s account with a lost PIN number; three, it’s good for the parents. The money is in the account, and they know that the money is only being spent on school lunches,” Miller said.

Another advantage of the program, which also is used in the Tussey Mountain School District in central Pennsylvania, is that students who receive free and reduced-price lunches aren’t embarrassed by having their names checked off a list or by turning in lunch tickets while their classmates pay cash in cafeteria lines.

“At 16 years old, the last thing you want to be known as is poor,” said Mitch Johnson, president of Food Service Solutions, the Altoona-based firm that installed the program. To the best of his knowledge, he said, the system is unique to Pennsylvania.

Johnson said the program, which will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 per lunch lane, was developed to help schools comply with a federal law that says schools can’t overtly identify those receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits,” said David Magill, the Lower Merion School District superintendent. “They won’t be stigmatized.”

His growing district just wants to find the most efficient system that will get a couple of hundred children through lunch lines in 40 minutes with time to eat, Magill said.

“What we’re really looking for is the system that works the best,” he said. Because the program is in the testing phase, the district is not paying for it.

Some cafeteria customers still have doubts about whether fingerprinting is the right program.

Ian Murry, 13, bypassed the fingerprint system and went straight for his wallet during lunch at Welsh Valley Middle School. “I don’t like it,” Murry said. “It doesn’t always work. Then the line gets slower.”

Tawanda Worthy, on the other hand, said she approved of the program, new at her school this year. “You don’t have to bring lunch money, so somebody can’t take it,” she said.

So far, a minority of the middle school’s 700 children have declined to be fingerprinted. “They think the FBI’s going to get them or something,” said Kelly, the cafeteria manager.

Magill said he hasn’t heard any negative input from parents regarding the program. He knows fingerprinting children could raise a few eyebrows, however, and he rejects Orwellian theories.

“We’re not using fingerprints for anything other than a quick way of identifying the student in the cafeteria line,” he said.

A high school in Minnesota has been beta-testing fingerprint technology in its library to automate and speed up the book check-out process. The fingerprint reader at Eagan High School doesn’t keep a record of the entire fingerprint, just the five points of identification that it stores as an algorithm.

Because the system doesn’t record a complete fingerprint, school officials are not concerned about students’ privacy. But in the state of Michigan, privacy concerns have made it against the law for schools to use electronic fingerprinting.

School districts in Michigan can’t use electronic fingerprinting technology to identify a child for school-related purposes, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm ruled Dec. 12 in response to a query from state Sen. Ken Sikkema, R-Grandville.

Sikkema said a constituent of his was interested in the finger-imaging technology, and he asked if it were allowed in schools.

Granholm ruled that the state’s Child Identification and Protection Act of 1985 prohibits a school district from using electronic fingerprinting technology for electronic imaging or finger scanning.

She noted the law is designed to safeguard the privacy of children, and it generally prohibits governmental units from fingerprinting a child. She said finger imaging “would result in multiple violations of the act.”

“Although the act does not explicitly address electronic fingerprint imaging technology, it is clear that it was enacted to generally prohibit schools and other governmental units from fingerprinting a child,” Granholm said in her opinion.

The act does permit children to be fingerprinted if authorized by a parent or guardian in case a child becomes a runaway or is missing, if the child is arrested, if the fingerprinting is required by court order, or with the parent or guardian’s permission to aid in a specific criminal investigation.

Sikkema said he agreed with Granholm’s ruling, and there is no move to change the law and permit such technology in the state’s schools.

Links:

Penn Cambria School District
http://www.pcam.org

Food Service Solutions
http://www.foodserve.com

Eagan High School
http://www.schoolextra.com/eaganhs

Michigan Attorney General’s Office
http://www.ag.state.mi.us

tags

AFT offers standards for online learning

A new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recommends a broad set of guidelines for ensuring successful instructional outcomes in the newly evolving realm of online education.

The report, released Jan. 17, outlines a set of “quality standards” for distance education programs at the college level. It calls for, among other things, clear standards for content, technical support and counseling for students, protection of intellectual property rights, and proper training for faculty.

But AFT officials believe the standards can, and should, apply to online programs at the K-12 level as well.

“This resolution adopts these standards for higher education, but we are on record as saying that when the time comes for us to do a review of K-12 [programs], these same standards will apply,” said AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz.

“Distance Learning Guidelines for Good Practice” is based on a survey of AFT members who teach distance learning classes, as well as previous studies by the union and a resolution at AFT’s last convention. The report includes the following recommendations, among others:

  • Distance education students should be given advance information about course requirements, equipment needs, and techniques for succeeding in a distance learning environment, as well as technical training and support throughout the course.

  • Close personal interaction should be maintained among students and teachers.

  • Equivalent library materials and research opportunities should be made available to distance education students.

  • Assessment of student knowledge, skills, and performance should be as rigorous as in classroom-based courses.

  • Academic counseling and advising should be available to the same extent that it is for students in more traditional environments.

  • Faculty should shape, approve, and evaluate distance education classes. Faculty members need to be adequately compensated and provided with the necessary time, training, and technical support to develop and conduct online classes.

  • Full undergraduate degree programs (and, presumably, full elementary or secondary school programs) also should include classroom-based coursework, with exceptions made for students who are truly unable to come to classes, for whatever reason.

According to Horwitz, “Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice” is the result of member cooperation and outside research at the AFT.

Four years ago, the group commissioned a research project on distance education from the Institute for Higher Education Policy at the request of AFT members who wanted to learn more about the subject.

“Essentially, we wanted to look at distance learning in a very open-minded way, and what we found was that there was a dearth of research available,” Horwitz said.

The study found that some classes lend themselves to distance education more easily than others, he said. The AFT resolved to provide some guidelines to help educators successfully implement online learning programs.

“Clearly, the growing popularity of distance education calls for a close look at its application and an emphasis on developing and maintaining high standards,” said AFT President Sandra Feldman.

“While online and distance learning are, in general, good options for taking a particular course or set of courses, this does not automatically mean that it is acceptable for an entire undergraduate degree program to have no in-class component,” she added.

And this goes for the K-12 level, too, Horwitz said.

“Higher education foreshadows what may come along in K-12. Our members still advocate some in-person education at the undergraduate level, and I think they would feel even more strongly about the necessity of that for K-12 [education],” he said.

“We believe the lower [in grade level] you go, the more you need real human interaction,” Horwitz said. “We [at the AFT] love distance learning, and we believe it’s here to stay, especially as an adjunct to other types of learning.”

Even so, the AFT tempers its praise for distance education with some real-life concerns about the benefits of educational programs offered entirely online. Large-scale, all-online K-12 institutions—such as the newly-announced K12 Online School, led by conservative William Bennett—may not be right for every student, officials said.

“Is it really good to take a chemistry class, like the one that Bennett plans to offer, with animated beakers and Bunsen burners?” asked Horwitz. “A class where the students never smell the sulfur, conduct hands-on experiments, or learn about the importance of safety conditions in a lab? It just seems unrealistic.”

Only certain types of learners will prove successful with internet-based learning, Horwitz said: “It’s good for self-motivated learners, but most students have a real need for a personal connection.”

Educators who run online programs at the K-12 level generally agreed with the AFT’s recommendations.

“Overall, these are things that we value at my institution,” said Kathi Baldwin, educational technologist for the SeeUonline virtual school in Palmer, Alaska. “We definitely value student-teacher relationships, but we know that online education is not for every student. It can be good for some students and horrible for others.”

But Baldwin took exception to the implication that online simulations can’t provide a comparable experience for some students.

“Simulation is not necessarily a bad thing for students,” she said. “We don’t send people into space without simulating the situations. And I’d say that in K-12 [education], simulations may often be the best thing for students. Do they really need to smell the sulfur, or burn down the chemistry lab, or buy and use expensive or dangerous chemicals while they are in high school? I’d put a large caution on saying any class has to do this or has to do that.

“To me, the real test of a good distance learning program is this: Is it as good, or better, than what I can take face to face?”

Links:

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

“Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice”
http://www.aft.org/higher_ed/technology

Institute for Higher Education Policy
http://www.ihep.com

K12 Online School
http://www.k12.com

tags

Bush plan to overhaul eRate divides educators

A controversial plan to combine the $2.25 billion eRate and nine other school technology programs into a single block grant is one of a handful of key proposals by President George W. Bush that has divided many policy makers and educators.

In his education plan, which he unveiled Jan. 23, Bush called for a consolidation of “duplicative” school technology programs—including the eRate—into a single block grant. The grant would be administered to schools by formula to help streamline the current federal application process.

Many school leaders who spoke with eSchool News said they welcomed this approach, because they believed it would free them from the burdensome red tape that accompanies the eRate. But education groups and some politicians oppose Bush’s plan to overhaul the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services for eligible schools and libraries and is administered under the Federal Communication Commission’s Schools and Libraries program.

“President Bush’s proposal to convert the eRate into a block grant program with other Department of Education technology programs would be a grave mistake. This would be a major step backwards, and I will fight it aggressively,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents more than 95,000 school board members who govern the nation’s public schools, shared Rockfeller’s view.

“Because of the rapid changes in education technology today, we are concerned that the proposed reconfiguration of the eRate program may erode school districts’ ability to effectively use these funds,” Bryant said.

Details of the plan

Not only does Bush’s education plan, entitled “No Child Left Behind,” aim to consolidate overlapping and duplicative grant programs; it also promises to increase accountability for student performance by requiring yearly testing, focus on what works by stressing research-based practices, and empower parents by giving them vouchers.

“Although education is primarily a state and local responsibility, the federal government is partly at fault for tolerating these abysmal results. The federal government currently does not do enough to reward success and sanction failure in our education system,” the proposal stated.

“Over the years, Congress has created hundreds of programs intended to address problems in education without asking whether or not the programs produce results or knowing their impact on local needs. This ‘program for every problem’ solution has begun to add up—so much so that there are hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year.”

Bush’s plan—which is more like an outline, since it lacks specific details and a budget—provides a general vision for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is set to be reauthorized this year. Unlike the current version of the act, which is divided into 10 broad-based themes, or “titles,” Bush’s plan outlines seven titles.

Under Bush’s plan, technology literacy and school safety would be combined into a single new title, called Title V: Encouraging Safe Schools for the 21st Century. This title would replace the current Title III technology programs with a single block grant, which also would encompass eRate funding.

By administering eRate funds by formula, Bush’s proposal aims to eliminate the burdensome paperwork required by the current application process. The funds would be targeted to high-need schools, including rural schools and schools serving high percentages of low-income students.

Schools reportedly would have the flexibility to use the funds for purposes that include software purchases and development, wiring and technology infrastructure, and teacher training in the use of technology.

The funds also could be used to buy internet filters in support of the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, which—if upheld—will mandate the use of internet filters in all schools and libraries that receive eRate funding.

To make sure this money enhances education, states would be encouraged to set performance goals to measure how federal technology funds are being used to improve student achievement. States and school districts would risk losing federal funds if they failed to meet these performance goals.

Title V of Bush’s plan also would offer matching grants to establish community technology centers in high-poverty areas. These grants would be provided through the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The proposals Bush unveiled Jan. 23 are only part of his total agenda for education reform. The president said he would issue more specific details of his plan in the next few months.

Causes for concern

Although NSBA’s Bryant said Bush’s plan has many appealing features, some of his proposals raise questions and are causes for concern.

“The plan announced by the president is only an outline, so our overall evaluation really depends on the details and the level of funding proposed,” Bryant said. “Focusing on block grants controlled by governors will only fuel a different bureaucracy and may not give local school districts the resources or flexibility they need.”

According to Rockefeller, the eRate—which is written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996—was part of a deal with telecommunications companies, which wanted more competition and the ability to expand. In exchange for increased competition and expansion, the federal government insisted that these companies provide discounted services for schools and libraries.

Rockefeller said the eRate—which offers discounts to all public and private schools and libraries for telecommunications services, internet access, and the internal wiring necessary to connect classrooms to the internet—is a successful program with bipartisan support.

“Under the Bush block grant approach, local schools would have less flexibility, not more,” he said. “Private and parochial schools would have to negotiate with state education agencies and worry about entanglements of federal regulations. Most importantly, the secure funding for the eRate and investments in technology would be jeopardized,” because the program would be subject to the annual appropriations process in Congress.

A ‘step in the right direction’?

Proponents of Bush’s plan say schools will see tremendous benefit from his proposal to streamline the administrative requirements of existing technology programs.

“Schools could submit one application and would be allowed the flexibility to pool funds toward everything from purchasing hardware and software, to modifying classrooms to make them technology-ready, to training personnel so that technology can truly be part of the formula for improving achievement,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Many educators who have experienced the eRate application process also welcomed Bush’s plan to reduce the program’s administrative burdens.

After reviewing Bush’s proposal, which is available on the Department of Education web site, Kyle Hutson, director of technology for the Rock Creek School District in Kansas, said, “That sounds wonderful. I just finished doing the eRate process myself for the first time ever—and what a royal pain in the butt!”

He added, “Anything to make my life easier would be better.”

Tom Sextro, technology director for the Holton Unified School District in Kansas, said he sees Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate as a step in the right direction, because it could mean less paperwork and more flexibility.

“Just getting rid of the whole eRate process and being funded directly [would be] great, in my opinion,” Sextro said. “Too many schools have probably missed out on funds just because of errors.”

He is concerned about the proposal to measure how federal technology funds are used to improve student achievement, however.

“Right now, we just get the money and spend it, but we don’t have to prove how it affects kids,” Sextro said. “In technology, that’s one of the toughest things to measure.”

“The eRate program is time-consuming. Anything to streamline that would be good,” agreed Charlie Reseigner, technology director for Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District. “But to credit the government, the eRate has gotten better over the years.”

He added, “I would like to have seen a national push at the high school level to prepare students for the high-tech work force.”

Gearing for a fight

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said he thinks the chances are “very slim to none” that Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate with other technology programs will succeed.

“The eRate has broad, bipartisan support from Congress,” Packer said. “There will be a significant disruption as you shift [control of] the program to the Department of Education from the FCC.”

But “at least [Bush] has a technology program,” he said.

Packer said his organization would work closely with Rockefeller, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also opposes plans to change the eRate program, and others to defeat Bush’s proposal.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov<

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
http://www.senate.gov/~rockefeller

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

Rock Creek School District
http://rockcreek.k12.ks.us

Holton Unified School District
http://www.holton.k12.ks.us

Penn Manor School District
http://www.pmsd.k12.pa.us

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

tags

Fox aims to shut down acclaimed science web site

Call it a close encounter—of the legal kind.

A dispute over a popular science web site created by the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pitting academics against people from the worlds of television and the law.

Attorneys for the Fox Network are demanding that the university close its web site “The Why Files,” a 5-year-old site that explores the science behind the news.

The network claims the site confuses consumers and infringes on its trademark television show The X-Files, the popular 7-year-old program about FBI agents who encounter aliens.

“If you haven’t been abducted by aliens recently or had some type of mind-altering experience, there is absolutely no way you could confuse The Why Files and The X-Files,” said Terry Devitt, Why Files editor and program coordinator.

But since January 2000, lawyers for Fox have been sending letters to UW officials, demanding they stop using the name.

“The web site clearly uses a play on words to trade off on the goodwill of our client’s trademark,” a Fox attorney wrote in an Aug. 4 letter. “While our client appreciates the educational value of your web site, Fox cannot afford to permit others to lessen the distinctiveness of The X-Files.”

Fox Network officials and their attorney did not immediately return phone calls by the Associated Press (AP).

“I’m not sure if Fox is trying to get a legal hammerlock on the alphabet or what their motives are, but that’s what it seems,” Devitt told AP Jan. 17.

The Why Files has developed a following, receiving 19 awards from organizations that review internet sites. In April 1999, eSchool News recognized the site in its Netwatch section, which highlights its top picks for instructional resources on the web. Devitt said at least 120,000 people visit the site each month, including several K-12 teachers and students.

At press time, the site featured information about earthquakes, oil and natural gas, and snow.

Both The X-Files and The Why Files are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Lawyers for Fox have offered to settle the case if UW surrenders its trademark to Fox. The company said it would be willing to license the name to the university under “appropriate restrictions.”

University officials so far have refused to do that, but they have offered not to expand The Why Files into the areas of science fiction and the supernatural.

Fox lawyers rejected that offer and have said they will start legal action seeking to cancel The Why Files.

Links:

The Why Files
http://whyfiles.org

The X-Files
http://www.thexfiles.com

University of Wisconsin-Madison
http://www.wisc.edu

Fox Network
http://www.fox.com

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Digitized content and hand-held applications mark this year’s FETC

Thousands of educators had the chance to see the latest in school technology at the 21st annual Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando Jan. 11-13. Among the trends revealed at the conference: digitized content from traditional textbook publishers and programs that take advantage of personal digital assistants.

About 12,000 teachers, administrators, and university educators from Florida and across the nation attended hundreds of sessions and workshops and previewed the newest educational hardware and software from nearly 400 exhibiting companies.

At the conference, Linda Roberts, the first-ever appointed White House advisor on educational technology, received a lifetime achievement award to honor her contributions in leading the nation’s implementation of technology in schools and developing federal grants to support technology initiatives.

“I’m so proud of what we have accomplished,” Roberts said. “When I first came into the job I have held for the past eight years, only 3 percent of classrooms were connected to the internet.” Today, that figure is close to 70 percent, she said.

After thanking students, teachers, and companies that provide technology, Roberts added, “We have to make sure that we never stop pushing for technology, and we have to make sure nobody is left behind.”

From the exhibit hall, there emerged a strong movement among education companies to offer digitized textbooks. For instance, education publisher McGraw-Hill Education is now offering its content online through the McGraw-Hill Learning Network, which features complete, interactive eTextbooks and support resources for teachers, administrators, students, and families.

The McGraw-Hill Learning Network—MHLN.com for short—integrates online assessment, full content of print textbooks, and a variety of multimedia, including movies and audio links. Currently six science textbooks in middle and high school are available online, and more are expected throughout the year. Each eTextbook provides a teacher’s edition complete with answers, lesson plans, standards, review activities, and tips. MHLN.com also has tools that let teachers create lesson plans, make customized tests, record grades, build a web site, and shop for materials at the McGraw-Hill Education Learning Store.

While MHLN.com’s online tools for teachers, students, and parents are free, access to its eTextbooks and related content is by subscription only.

A new curriculum management tool from Microsoft Corp., called Encarta Class Server, combines digitized content from several education publishers, including Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Reed Educational & Professional Publishing 2000, Times Learning Systems Private Ltd., and the McGraw-Hill Companies.

Teachers can customize assignments for an entire class, a group of students, or even a single student. With customizable online rubrics and a built-in grading tool, teachers control the automatic assessment and can provide individual feedback to students on an assignment.

Also, Classwell Learning Group, a new education company based in Boston, is offering complete online content from education publishers like Houghton Mifflin Co. Starting this fall, all schools will be able to subscribe to Classwell Learning’s service, which includes customizable lesson plans, student resources, student assessments, classroom management tools, real-time professional development tools, teacher training, annual upgrades, and around-the-clock customer service.

Classwell Learning doesn’t require all students to access a computer, since its assessments and activities are all printable. The company’s partnership with Kinko’s lets teachers pick and choose different handouts and worksheets for students on the computer, and Kinko’s will print, bind, and deliver the materials right to the school.

Another trend that emerged at FETC this year: Personal digital assistants, or PDAs, are taking a stronger foothold in the education market, since they now can perform most of the functions of a full-size computer—including word processing, spreadsheets, eMail, and internet searches—at a vastly reduced cost.

Dick Callahan, vice president and general manager of education at computer maker Gateway Inc., told eSchool News that Gateway is developing an “Alpha Classroom” that features lower-cost devices, enabling schools to give all kids equal access to technology. Instead of laptops, Callaghan said Gateway envisions combining PDAs, internet appliances, and a few desktop computers in a classroom to make the best, most affordable use of technology possible.

As part of its Palm Education Pioneer Awards program, Palm Inc. will be giving Palm handheld computers to K-12 teachers and their students. Teachers must apply for this grant by March 15 on the Palm web site. SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning, which will supply the devices, is conducting an evaluation of the program to study learning uses, experiences, and effectiveness of Palm computers in K-12 education.

Many education companies also are developing educational applications for PDAs, including Classroom Connect. The company has developed the first professional development program for K-12 teachers available on the Palm operating system, an application called Pocket CU.

Pocket CU is a prototype for how Classroom Connect’s Connected University online professional development courses may be supplemented with handheld devices in the future. The course, Teaching to Standards, was designed to supplement the existing six-week professional development course available online through Connected University. Its content features supplemental reading material that teachers can download right to their PDAs.

Links:

Florida Educational Technology Conference
http://www.fetc.org

U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Technology
http://www.ed.gov/Technology

McGraw-Hill Learning Network
http://www.mhln.com

Microsoft’s Encarta Class Server
http://www.microsoft.com/education

Classwell Learning Group
http://www.classwell.com

Gateway Inc.
http://www.gateway.com

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

Classroom Connect
http://www.classroom.com

NEW PRODUCTS AND COMPANY ANNOUNCEMENTS

With ABC-CLIO’s War Collection encyclopedic media packs, librarians and teachers can provide students in grades six to 12 with powerful textual, visual, and audio primary source materials for exploring American armed conflicts. The media packs examine the political, social, and military contexts of the American Civil War, War of 1812, American Indian Wars, Mexican-American War, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Persian Gulf War. The products also feature image-based timelines of major developments.
http://www.abc-clio.com

AIMS Multimedia, a leading provider of audiovisual technology, launched an on-demand streaming video library called DigitalCurriculum.com. Through a low-cost subscription, school districts can access more than 1,500 videos on a variety of subjects, including science, social studies, language arts, mathematics, and more. Since the videos are accessed over the internet, each one is encoded at five different rates so it can be played at the best speed for your district. Teachers can assign selected videos as homework, and students can access them at home or at the library.
http://www.aimsmultimedia.com

AOL Time Warner and Dell Computer announced that the free education service AOL@School, which launched in April 2000, will now come preloaded on all Dell computers sold to schools in the United States. AOL@School, which offers eMail, instant messaging, an education-focused search engine, and portals for teachers and administrators, is designed to help schools make more effective use of the internet in the classroom. In addition, AOL@School has added an online shopping tool specifically for educators to its administrator and teacher portals. The new School Store offers access to online courses, professional development services, assessment tools, school supplies, and more.
http://www.school.aol.com
http://www.dell.com

Apex Learning Inc., a builder and operator of virtual schools, and Blackboard Inc., provider of an eLearning software platform, have teamed up to deliver an online learning infrastructure for Apex Learning’s K-12 virtual school customers that features a customized version of Blackboard’s eLearning platform, Blackboard5. Also, Apex Learning users will now have access to Tutor.com’s comprehensive database of tutors who are available 24-7 in multiple areas of study, thanks to a strategic agreement between the two companies. In addition, Apex Learning will provide the Illinois State Board of Education with online infrastructure, accredited courses, and support services to help build the Illinios Virtual High School.
http://www.apexlearning.com
http://www.blackboard.com

Bigchalk.com, a K-12 online content provider, announced bigchalk Library, a complete research solution that provides access to full-text articles and transcripts from more than 1,500 magazines, newspapers, books, and radio programs, along with access to more than 40,000 photographs and maps and 2,000 audiovisual resources. The library’s easy-to-use interface lets users search by relevance, date, reading level, or publication, and the results can be reviewed by eMail, on screen, or printed. To expand its offerings to include more elementary content, bigchalk.com is partnering with FableVision Studios, a creator of story-based programs for children and adults, and Brainium, a provider of online educational content for K-8 students. Bigchalk.com also added Generation GIT—Girls’ Issues and Technology—to its Generation YES program to help increase young women’s interest in, and understanding of, technology.
http://www.bigchalk.com

Boxer Learning, an online education software provider based in Charlottesville, Va., announced the BoxerMath.com Gymnasium, a new practice area of the BoxerMath.com web site that features more than 1,300 practice problems to help students practice and reinforce key math concepts. BoxerMath.com’s online management system lets educators track and assess student progress in the Gymnasium activities.
http://www.boxerlearning.com

Chancery Software, a provider of information management systems for schools, is developing a way to transfer data between Chancery’s student information systems—Open District, WinSchool, and MacSchool—and eSped.com’s web-based special education system, WebIEP. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1998-99 about one out of every eight students had an individualized education program (IEP), and eSped.com’s product computerizes the IEP process. Through this alliance, Chancery will continue to save school districts from spending time on duplicating data entry for different administrative systems.
http://www.chancery.com

Cognitive Concepts, a provider of language and literacy software, announced Earobics Literary Launch, an enhanced, research-based early literacy program. The program combines upgraded software with new integrated multimedia tools and materials, internet resources, home-to-school connections, and customized staff development to give teachers an easy way to provide effective instruction and experience in areas critical for reading success, including phonemic awareness, letter knowledge, alphabetic principle, language, decoding, spelling, and beginning writing skills.
http://www.earobics.com

Curriculum Advantage, a division of Havas Interactive located in Torrance, Calif., announced ClassWorks Gold Mississippi Edition, a complete K-8 math and learning arts curriculum software package aligned to Mississippi’s state standards. The Mississippi Edition is the third in a series of ClassWorks Gold software programs aligned to each state’s own unique standards (Texas and Florida were the first two in the series). The ClassWorks Gold Mississippi Edition includes a library of more than 180 educational titles from nearly 20 publishers, including creativity software such as Knowledge Adventure’s HyperStudio. ClassWorks Gold lets teachers customize lessons, integrate internet web sites, and incorporate their own materials.
http://www.curriculumadvantage.com

Disney Interactive has put together an assortment of educational software collections, with characters children know and love, to supplement learning in the classroom. More than 30 titles cover all aspects of early childhood development and learning, from motor skills to basic math, language arts, and critical thinking. Students can also practice memorization, sing along with Disney music, and create artwork on desktop publishing software.
http://www.disneyinteractive.com

Educational Insights released GeoSafari Knowledge Pad—the Math Series, consisting of four mathematics programs aligned to the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The series includes Beginning Math for kindergarten to first grade, Addition and Subtraction for first and second grade, Multiplication and Division for third and fourth grade, and Decimals and Percentages for fifth and sixth grade. Each program is made up of arcade-style quiz games designed to engage students and an easy-to-use assessment tool for keeping track of students’ progress.
http://www.educationalinsights.com

EBSCO Publishing released Online Reader 2001—Complete Edition, which contains 3,000 articles and tests appropriate for grades four to 12. Teachers browse a list of non-fiction articles selected from popular magazines and assign these articles to the class. The students retrieve assignments, read articles, and complete the accompanying multiple choice tests, which are automatically marked and recorded into an electronic gradebook. EBSCO Publishing also has created PokeyToes Corner, an animated software program to help K-3 students learn to read and write.
http://www.epnet.com

Frontpath Inc., a subsidiary of SONICblue Inc., and River Logic are working together to build an education network, called School Path, using ProGear and Web4Classroom technology. “We expect that the combination of RiverLogic’s Web4Classroom technology and ProGear will bring a new dimension to the classroom—up-to-date learning material, access to the internet, customizable curriculum, online testing, and more—all in a wireless, personalized, portable, and broadband-based learning environment,” said frontpath General Manager Janet Leising.
http://www.frontpath.com
http://www.riverlogic.com

Gateway will use its 300 Gateway Country stores, located in communities across the country, to provide its products and service to K-12 education customers. The Country Stores also will host regular teacher nights that feature educational technology presentations and training. Because so many schools are having difficulties recruiting and retaining technology personnel, Gateway also is piloting a Remote IT program in six K-12 schools. In addition, the company is developing an “Alpha Classroom” that features lower-cost devices, enabling schools to give all kids equal access to technology. Instead of laptops, Gateway envisions combining PDAs, internet appliances, and a few desktop computers in the classroom.
http://www.gateway.com/education

GollyGee Software Inc., of Reston, Va., now has two curriculum guides for its award-winning, three-dimensional creativity software, GollyGee Blocks. One guide focuses on K-5 math curriculum, and the other is an integrated cross-curriculum guide for all subjects. GollyGee Blocks, a 3-D building blocks program, lets students stack, stretch, spin, scale, turn , color, and rotate three-dimensional shapes to build complex scenes which can be viewed from any angle. One integrated lesson outlined in the curriculum guide has students build a landmark from their community and then graph the number of different shapes they used to build it. GollyGee Blocks is the company’s first product.
http://www.gollygee.com

Homeroom.com, a division of Princeton Review, has created a state-specific Assessment Advisor that helps teachers, parents, and students make sense of individual, state-specific tests. The program prompts users to select a state and grade level, then provides information about a particular test’s subject matter, test dates, and the effects of test results on students and schools. Homeroom.com’s Assessment Advisor also provides background information, insightful commentary on various types of standardized tests, and links to education sites specific to the user’s state.
http://www.homeroom.com

iMind Education Systems continues to offer an internet-based solution that supports delivering instruction, assessment, and communication between parents, teachers, and students. MIS International Inc., a respected distributor that also is affiliated with FutureKids in New York city, will market, sell, and distribute iMind products exclusively to schools and after-school centers in New York. Also, iMind has obtained a worldwide license to use McREL’s internationally recognized Compendium of K-12 Education Standards in its web-based education platform. Now iMind’s program lets teachers align their lessons with McRel’s standards as well as their individual state standards.
http://www.imind.com

Kidspiration, the newest product from Inspiration Software, is a visual learning tool appropriate for early primary students, grades K-3. With its bright, bold graphics, this software is easy to grasp and navigate for young learners, not to mention highly interactive. Kidspiration comes with more than 45 activities designed to support core curriculum in reading, writing, science, and social studies. The program’s Activity wizard makes it simple for teachers to create and modify activities to support specific lesson plans and thematic strands.
http://www.inspiration.com

Intel expanded its Teach to the Future program to Florida. The program is an international effort through which Intel contracts regional training agencies (RTAs) that help train teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms. The Museum of Science will serve as Florida’s RTA.
http://www.intel.com/education

JumpStart Artist software, from Knowledge Adventure, features art curriculum based on national standards. The software introduces K-3 students to elements and principles of art, art history, and the cultural significance of art. With JumpStart Artist, students can digitally draw, paint, stamp, and quilt images, then save their art as a BMP or JPEG file. The software not only offers students an array of artistic tools—including pastels, oil paints, water color, and charcoal—that appear true-to-life; it also contains educational content complete with a collection of famous artwork, folk art, and crafts from around the world. JumpStart Artist features a teacher’s activity guide correlated with particular content area and achievement standards. Available for both Macs and PCs, JumpStart Artist costs $49.95 for a teacher’s edition, which includes two copies of the software, while a 15-user site license is $325.
http://www.knowledgeadventure.com

LeapFrog SchoolHouse introduced LeapTrack, a supplementary reading assessment and instructional management system correlated to state standards for K-5 students. Students complete a test from the LeapTrack Library of Assessments using a new version of the LeapPad—a portable, notebook-sized electronic tool—that now contains a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen to provide visual feedback. The LeapPad records the test results, and teachers then upload them to the Instructional Management System on the LeapTrack web site to get test results and prescriptive activity reports. The company’s Leap into Literacy reading program soon may be implemented in Utah’s 40 school districts, now that the Utah Department of Education has added the program to its list of approved instructional programs. The Leap into Literacy Center—which includes the LeapPad, LeapMat, and LeapDesk—is an interactive, multi-sensory curriculum for beginning readers that uses phonemic awareness as the basis for teaching children to read.
http://www.leapfrogschoolhouse.com

The Learning Network has expanded its professional development offerings for K-12 educators to include workshops on Classroom Techniques, Technology Integration, and Leadership for Educators. The Learning Network also recently launched a new web site for kids ages nine to 14, called FactMonster.com. This site combines essential reference materials, fun facts and features, and individualized homework help. At FactMonster.com’s Homework Center, students can find direction on common homework topics and submit questions to homework helpers.
http://www.learningnetwork.com

Learn Technologies Interactive, a creator of online educational applications, has licensed its “hyperfolio” technology to McGraw-Hill Education. Hyperfolio facilitates web-based research by allowing users to collect text, pictures, videos, and other media items from the web and transform them into their own customizable multimedia documents. McGraw-Hill will distribute hyperfolio to those who use its new education portal, MHLN.com. With hyperfolio, web users simply drag and drop media items from their browser to create a personnel collection that can be stored on the desktop. Users then can organize the media items into a multimedia presentation. All the media items retain their original URL, and users can return to the original source with the click of a mouse.
http://www.hyperfolio.com

Macromedia’s new Dreamweaver 4 lets educators create engaging, interactive web sites for their district, school, or as part of their curriculum, without programming backgrounds. Macromedia offers a Web Design Studio bundle for schools that includes full versions of Dreamweaver 4, Fireworks 4, Flash 5, FreeHand 9, and manuals for only $249. Macromedia also has created a curriculum guide for grades seven to 12, called “Project Based Multimedia: Step-by-Step Projects for Integrating Multimedia into your Classroom.” This guide, which costs $20, is the first in Macromedia’s new Web Design Series. The projects in the guide include creating a digital autobiography using multimedia to illustrate the roots of your name for either a writing or sociology class.
http://www.macromedia.com

N2H2 Inc., which delivers internet filtering services to schools, businesses, and homes, is bringing eMail services to the education market by reselling Mail.com’s eMail boxes and MailWatch solution, an eMail firewall service, to the K-12 market. Also, N2H2 recently launched an online resource designed to provide information and resources to help educators comply with the new law that requires schools and libraries to use internet filters under the Children’s Internet Protection Act. FilteringInfo.org explains filters, outlines steps required to comply with the law, offers links to resources and funding, and notifies users about changes in legislation.
http://www.n2h2.com

NetSchools Corp., of Atlanta, unveiled NetSchools Orion, an internet application that equips school districts with instructional management tools to provide accountability, alignment, assessment, and achievement for students and teachers in grades K-12. NetSchools Orion is designed to help manage schools’ curriculum and objectives.
http://www.netschools.com

NTS/Brainium, a provider of technology-based education solutions, announced that bigchalk.com will be offering Science Brainium, an online interactive science resource for students in grades three to eight, to its more than 42,000 customers. NTS/Brainium also is selling four of its online educational products as a bundle until March 31. The Brainium Online Educational Bundle includes Science Brainium, MathRealm, Classroll, and CountryWatch for $199.99, normally a $1,000 value.
http://www.brainium.com

Pioneer New Media Technologies demonstrated how its DVD-V7400 Industrial DVD-video player engages students through its unique ability to present information in an exciting multimedia format. Featuring durability and versatility, Pioneer’s DVD-V 7400 is compact, easy to set up, and contains the ability to read bar codes and jump to a particular point on a DVD-video disc. The player also features a video blackboard component that allows teachers to highlight specific information by using a mouse to point out and place graphics over important elements of the video.
http://www.pioneerusa.com

Plato Learning’s new subscription-based online assessment tool, called Plato Simulated Test System, will include a patented eRater scoring technology from ETS Technologies. The eRater system is designed to analyze essays based on writing features defined in holistic scoring rubrics, and it does this in less than 30 seconds. In performance tests of marking more than 500,000 essays, eRater agreed with expert scorers 95 percent of the time, according to the company. The Plato Simulated Test System integrates state standards, practice tests, and skill assessments that can be linked directly to individual student instruction. The system scores student practice tests and provides instant feedback, then it automatically enrolls the student in courses designed to fill identified skill gaps.
http://www.plato.com

PowerSchool Inc. released Version 2.0 of its PowerSchool web-based student information system. The upgrade streamlines tasks and increases information access for teachers, so they know more about their students and can enhance learning in their classrooms. In Version 2.0, the user interface is completely redesigned, with a simplified log-on screen, a common navigation bar, and customization tools for individual preferences.
http://www.powerschool.com

Riverdeep Interactive Learning launched two new language arts programs for students in grades six to eight. “Write for Life: Persuasive Essay” explores the process of writing critically, creatively, and persuasively for a variety of audiences. “Editor’s Desk” hones and challenges students’ editing skills with assignments from a virtual publisher’s office. Also, Riverdeep said it will feature professional development content from T.H.E. Institute on its web site, Riverdeep.net, along with its own mathematics, science, and language arts software for students in grades K-12. The professional development content will train educators to use technology in the classroom, including Riverdeep’s content.
http://www.riverdeep.net

Sagebrush Corp. announced WebManager Suite, a unique library interface solution that meets the new federal filtering requirements and provides appropriate access for library patrons and students of all ages. The solution incorporates Symantec Corp.’s I-Gear filtering technology.
http://www.sagebrushcorp.com

Through the Scholastic.com web site, Scholastic Inc. offers teachers a daily radio program featuring interviews with authors and educational e

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Maryland system pulls plug on $4 million student information system

Capping a year and a half of frustration, officials at Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (K-12, enr. 131,000) announced they would discontinue use of a $4 million student information system from the Canadian firm Administrative Assistants Ltd. because it failed to meet their expectations.

Though officials were hesitant to assess blame for the failed project, a district spokesman cited “a long list of problems with the software itself” as the main reason for the decision. Company officials, meanwhile, insist that Montgomery County tried to bring the system up too quickly, and they point to successful implementations of the software in other school districts.

Regardless of why the project ultimately failed, its troubles reportedly led to the firing of the district’s former technology director last year. The district has returned to using the 25-year-old legacy system it used before trying to upgrade to the new system.

A ‘long, tearful day’

Montgomery County chose Administrative Assistants’ web-enabled SIS (a generic acronym for “student information system,” but also the name of the company’s software) to replace its legacy system three years ago.

Though district officials would not name the systems integrator in charge of deploying the software, the Montgomery County Gazette reported that the district had contracted with BAE Systems—a global technologies company with United States headquarters in nearby Rockville—to implement the system.

“The $4 million figure includes the original purchase of the software, developing the software to meet the needs of the district, [plus] training and deployment,” said district spokesman Brian Porter. “We knew within the first couple weeks [of SIS’s installation] that it wasn’t working.”

The software was installed in August 1999 and crashed the first day of school, unable to complete student scheduling for that semester, Porter said.

“Believe me, it was a long, tearful day for a lot of people, and it continued for several weeks after that,” he said.

According to the Montgomery County Gazette, SIS “made an inauspicious debut in September [1999], revealing numerous glitches and crippling student registration, attendance, and scheduling as 131,000 students began the academic year.”

The Gazette also reported that a second wave of problems took place in February 2000, when about 2,000 middle and high school report cards were mailed out containing incorrect grades or credits, while some 10,000 report cards had grades listed in the wrong places.

“The litany of technical problems is long and complicated. [The system] resulted in a massive district-wide failure in our ability to handle day-to-day school functions, including attendance, transfers, and ultimately report cards,” said Porter. He cited “a long list of problems with the software itself” as reason for “the superintendent’s lack of confidence in using [SIS] in the future.”

John Q. Porter, chief information officer for Montgomery County Public Schools (no relation to Brian Porter), joined the district in January 2000, after the initial deployment of SIS had failed. He replaced Ronald H. Walsh, former head of the office of Global Access Technology, who was fired after the problems with SIS surfaced.

“I made a recommendation in March to take the system down and assess whether we’d put it back up. After we did the assessment, we recommended to the board that we go back to the legacy system,” he said.

In a Jan. 11 story in the Washington Post, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is quoted as saying, “SIS will not work. We have no intention of going back to that. We will purchase a new system, and how quickly we can use it will depend on how robust a system we can find.”

That’s news to the software provider.

According to Debbie Baldwin, vice president of administration and corporate counsel for Administrative Assistants Ltd., “Mr. Weast’s recent statements took us by complete surprise. It is our understanding that Montgomery County intends to continue to use portions of our system in the near future—and the full system within the next two to three years.”

While John Porter said no legal action has been taken thus far, he acknowledged that the district is “in legal discussions about what happened with the integrator of the software product.”

“I can say that the system did not function properly for us. We were at the forefront of using a product that did not fulfill our requirements,” he said. “I know of other school districts that have had more success with the same system, but we brought the system up all at one time. [Other districts] have been phasing it in [piece by piece].”

Measuring accountability

According to John Porter, Montgomery County tried to bring the system up all at once because of Y2K-related time constraints.

“Because of our time frame, we had to do ‘work arounds’ because portions of the software weren’t ready yet,” he said. That meant district employees had to find other ways to perform certain administrative functions, and complications arose from the ensuing confusion.

“Things were not debugged properly. The [difficulty] with a system like this is that one problem reverberates throughout the whole system,” he said.

Administrative Assistants Ltd. points to this rush to get the system up and running as the chief reason for its failure.

“Any large, complex software implementation takes at least two to three years to become fully mature,” according to a company statement. “The implementation team must deal with the technical issues associated with converting multiple legacy systems into a common enterprise-wide information system, as well as the people issues involved with the introduction of a new software system.

“In addition to anticipated learning curve concerns, most users who have used a legacy system for 25 years do not readily take ownership of a new, more complex system. Change is never easy.”

The company also denied that its software was at fault for the system failure.

“The severity of many of [the district’s] problems have stemmed from its internal political structure,” officials said. “During the start of school in September 1999, [the district’s] student system performance seriously slowed, and [it] experienced numerous problem reports from schools and users.

“Although many of the start-of-school issues were characterized as ‘software problems,’ most were, in fact, due to hardware and memory problems, program conflicts with [the district’s] in-house development, poor requirements definition, and internal training issues.”

“There have been a lot of issues,” John Porter acknowledged. “First of all, it’s a new technology, and the integrators were new to school systems. Also, we customized the application significantly to fit our needs.”

According to company officials, those enhancements also were a direct cause of the system failure.

“Over the life of the contract, [the district] has only utilized one-third of the total SIS application and has requested a high volume of complex enhancements to the software, which are unique to their district,” said the company. “The heavy volume of development demanded by [the district] was never anticipated by AAL, and the continued support of [the district] by AAL has often been to the detriment of the rest of its client base.”

Success story

One district that has experienced success with Administrative Assistants’ SIS is Blue Valley School District (K-12, enr. 17,000) in Overland Park, Kansas.

According to Ruth Weddle, Blue Valley’s director of information services, her district began using SIS around the same time as Montgomery County and has brought portions of the system online over the past three years.

“Blue Valley paid for implementation services from Tracor—the company that eventually became BAE Systems—for one year. After that time, the district opted to deal directly with [Administrative Assistants Ltd.],” she said.

Blue Valley is in its third year of using the software, and Weddle said it has become easier for district employees to use over time.

“I can say from experience that any changes, particularly software conversions, are very difficult for schools,” she said.

Open lines of communication may be one reason Blue Valley has been successful in implementing SIS.

“Our district has a technology integration committee made up of board members, teachers, and patrons. While we’ve been implementing the student information system, we’ve tried very hard to keep the lines of communication open so that all parties know what’s going on,” said Weddle.

But, she added, “We are a much smaller district than Montgomery County, and we are still implementing portions of the software.”

At first, district employees were uncomfortable with the software, but they have come to appreciate the streamlined system, said Weddle.

“[During] the first year, the typical response was a comparison to the old system. People asked. ‘What can this system do, and how can I do that?’ After that, people really began to say, ‘Wow, look at all the things we can do with this system.’ Now, I think probably 95 percent [of the district’s staff] are very satisfied with SIS,” she said.

A growing problem?

Montgomery County is the third large, high-profile school district within the last year to announce it was not satisfied with the performance of a multi-million dollar software system due to technical failures and problems with implementation.

In October, the poorly executed implementation of a new computer record-keeping system left San Francisco Unified School District officials facing a difficult decision: scrap the entire system, which already had cost the district nearly $5 million—or spend $1.7 million more to pay the software provider, PeopleSoft, to bring it up to speed.

Sandy Rosen, a consultant hired by the district, and PeopleSoft public relations manager Lisa Sion both attributed the district’s problems to inexperienced staff and a lack of leadership.

“The old system did not work very well, but people were used to it,” Sion said. “After PeopleSoft was installed, there was no internal driver to enforce the use of the new software. Bugs were created … as a result of people trying to work their way around the system.”

In December, eSchool News reported that the Philadelphia School District’s new computer accounting system was inefficiently purchased, is over budget, and “still doesn’t do many of the things it was intended to do,” according to an audit by the Philadelphia city controller’s office.

The school district purchased Advantage 2000, a $15.6 million system, from American Management Systems Inc. (AMS) in January 1998 for financial management, human resources, and payroll. But after nearly three years, the price tag has escalated to almost $36 million—and school district officials still have not determined the cost of future improvements or additional services, according to the audit.

Why are school districts across the country losing the farm—and millions of taxpayer dollars—on high-end software systems?

Though he would not comment specifically on any particular school system, education market analyst Peter Grunwald of Grunwald Associates said, “It’s clear that, historically, the technology industry has made some errors in their dealing with schools. One of those errors is thinking of school districts as the ‘typical customer’ and viewing the school market as any other vertical market. The reality is that districts are very different.”

According to Grunwald, because of school systems’ internal structures, they often can’t change direction and integrate new systems as quickly as private sector businesses.

But “on the flip side, yes, school districts need to do a better job training and supporting their personnel as new technologies are introduced,” he said. “There has always been a problem around the capacity of technology companies and school districts talking to one another.”

Grunwald believes the successful software provider will be one “that does not have a distinct barrier between curriculum and administrative activities. … Our view is that it will take a much more integrated approach to work. The software that meets the specific needs of schools in a thoughtful and insightful way will be successful.”

Links:

Montgomery County Public Schools
http://mcps.k12.md.us

Administrative Assistants Ltd.
http://www.admassist.com

BAE Systems
http://www.baesystems.com

Blue Valley School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com

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Ex-Ed Sec. Bennett launches online schooling firm

William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education during the Reagan administration and best-selling author who once wrote, “So far there is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve learning,” has become chairman of new company that will open an online school this fall for students in grades K-12 nationwide.

As a past critic of educational technology, Bennett once gave schools’ efforts to increase the use of computers in teaching an F-minus. In his books The Book of Virtues and The Educated Child: A Parent’s Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade, he advocated traditional educational approaches and values.

Yet, Bennett is now joining the list of companies and school districts willing, even eager, to sail into uncharted cyberspace—despite skeptical child development experts and the spiraling business failure rate in the dot-com world.

“Education is what America cares about the most, and technology is what we do best,” said Bennett, who introduced a new online school Dec. 28. The for-profit school, called K12, begins enrollment next fall in kindergarten through second grade and promises eventually to offer lessons in all grades, from math and science to arts and sex education. Costs would range from $25 for skill tests to about $2,000 for full lesson plans and software for a year.

K12, based in McLean, Va., was launched with a $10 million investment from Knowledge Universe Learning Group, a division of Knowledge Universe that was founded in 1996 with investments from Oracle’s Larry Ellison and financier Michael Milken.

The company has recruited David H. Gelernter, Yale University computer science professor and recipient of a package from the Unabomber that exploded in 1993, as its chief technology adviser. Gelernter has expressed similar skepticism of internet education ventures and the use of educational technology.

Although many internet companies offer online curriculum and schooling without much proof that it improves learning, Bennett has made the decision to try to get it right, said Jason Bertsch, vice president of government relations and public affairs at K12.

“He thinks technology can improve student achievement but, so far, it hasn’t,” Bertsch said. “Most studies show that it hasn’t had a significant impact on achievement—and that’s why we are doing this.”

In response to Bennett’s announced plans, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) expressed concern about the prospect of teaching the early grades through the internet because of the lack of personal contact and technical support.

“An excellent elementary and secondary education cannot be based solely on technology,” said Sandra Feldman, AFT president, in a statement. “We will have to wait and see if the quality of this particular product is as grandiose as Mr. Bennett’s quotes.”

Backers of educational technology say the internet can help children isolated from traditional schools by distance or disabilities, and it can benefit children already schooled at home by their parents.

“I can see the benefits of an online learning program for children being home-schooled. I can see such a program providing an enormous enhancement to a teacher in a remote community,” said Lauren E. Pomerantz, programs coordinator of the California Space and Science Center.

However, Pomerantz added, “I think that most children do not have the discipline to start such a program in kindergarten or elementary school, and most parents do not know how to implement such a thing.”

The Florida High School, a nonprofit online school based in Orlando, has offered internet courses since 1997 for students in grades nine to 12 statewide. Also, several public charter schools from California to Pennsylvania teach children online. At the state-funded Valley Pathways online school based in Palmer, Alaska, roughly 300 students take from one to six courses a semester on the web.

“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it could produce an equal education or better,” said Pathways teacher Kathi Baldwin. “I know my students online and in detail. They tell you things in writing they would never tell you face-to-face.”

Classes are held by computer, teachers and staff work from a central office, and students sign in from their home desktop or laptop computers. Standards for teachers ideally are the same as those of traditional schools.

It’s not all reading, writing, and arithmetic. In gym class over the web, pupils keep daily logs of their exercises. They learn music theory online, then go to a designated campus for piano or guitar lessons. They can fax, eMail, or bring in art projects completed at home. Parents even dial in for online PTA meetings.

Parent Linda Deafenbaugh said online schooling has filled a void for her son, a third-grader with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Each morning, despite his behavioral disorder, Douglas Meikle, 8, signs on to the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and downloads his reading, science, and math assignments himself. He completes the lessons by working with online teachers, who include a special education expert, to keep him focused.

“He definitely had a bad school experience, to the point [where] teachers were not letting him in the door of the classrooms,” said Deafenbaugh, a cultural anthropologist who works for the federal government. “Not only was his social life falling apart, but his academics were, too.”

Douglas, who stays home with his father in Pittsburgh, socializes with other children at after-school sessions, sporting events, and church groups, she said.

The going has been bumpy for some online schools. Teachers have to keep up student interest with interactive lessons, guard against student cheating, and do without body language or verbal cues to tell them whether students understand lectures.

And in October, a 15-year-old in an online charter school in California hacked into the system and racked up $18,000 in damage, knocking the school offline for two days and destroying homework assignments, lesson plans, and attendance records.

But the marriage of education and technology is needed, say educators who believe teaching is becoming more difficult in today’s environment. Growing enrollments and shrinking budgets are leaving less room for one-on-one, hands-on learning at the side of an attentive teacher.

“We shouldn’t be stuck with one model,” Bennett said.

Links:

K12
http://www.K12.com

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

California Space and Science Center
http://www.teachspace.org

The Florida Online High School
http://www.fhs.net

Valley Pathways
http://www.seeUonline.org

Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School
http://www.midlandpa.org/wpccs

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Apple hopes to regain shine with new education post

Hoping to revive slumping sales to the education market—traditionally a cornerstone of the company’s business—Apple Computer has announced a new leadership position dedicated solely to education. The move indicates a renewed focus on schools, according to the company.

Cheryl Vedoe, a former vice president of Apple’s education division, has rejoined the company in the newly created position of vice president of Education Marketing and Solutions, reporting directly to Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs.

Most recently, Vedoe was CEO of Post Communications, a venture capital-backed startup providing eMail marketing technology and services. Prior to that, she was a founder and CEO of Tenth Planet, a developer of innovative curricular software for elementary classrooms.

Previously, Vedoe gained extensive experience in the education market as vice president of Apple’s Education Division. She also has held a variety of engineering and marketing management positions at Sun Microsystems, Apollo Computer, and Digital Equipment.

Vedoe holds a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and an MBA from Northeastern University.

Education a ‘top priority’

“The education market is a top priority for Apple, and we intend to regain market share beginning in 2001,” said Jobs in announcing Vedoe’s appointment. “With her extensive experience in education and technology, Cheryl is a strong addition to Apple’s education team.”

“I am delighted to once again be part of Apple’s education efforts,” said Vedoe in a statement. “There is enormous untapped potential for technology to enhance learning in our schools, and Apple is on the forefront of providing the innovative solutions that meet the needs of students, teachers, administrators, and parents.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Vedoe said her new position indicates a renewed dedication to Apple’s education division going forward.

“Very simply, the fact that my position was created is an indication that Apple is serious about education,” she said.

Signs that Apple was losing market share in education began to surface in 1999, when rival Dell Computer cited figures from the Gartner Group market research firm Dataquest indicating it had surpassed Apple as the No. 1 supplier of computers to schools—despite the popularity of the iMac in many schools.

On Sept. 29, Apple’s stock fell by more than half its value when the company warned its fourth-quarter 2000 earnings would be substantially below expectations. Sluggish education sales during the back-to-school month of September—when Apple’s computer sales traditionally peak—were a key factor, according to a company statement.

Apple also rankled some educators when it shelved its 20-year program of grants and donations to schools in 1999 “in order to help the company maintain long-term profitability”—a decision that came just two months after the company announced its first profitable year since 1995.

New solutions

With Vedoe’s hiring and a suite of new products unveiled at the Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando Jan. 11, Apple hoped to regain its shine and jumpstart its education sales.

“A good example of our innovation is iMovie,” said Vedoe. “[This software] makes it extremely easy for the typical, nonsophisticated computer user to take advantage of technology to present [his] ideas in an easy-to-use, creative format.”

Apple also announced that its iTools product has been adapted for educational use. iTools for Education includes free eMail; the iDisk technology, which allows for server-based storage of up to 400 megabytes of space; and a new Homepage feature.

“Homepage allows teachers to create their own home pages very easily. They can put iMovie clips on the pages, graphics—anything they want, really. And, it’s easy to use,” said Vedoe.

Vedoe said the company also unveiled another new tool for education at FETC, called EdView.

“EdView is a free service for educators located on the Apple web site. It gives teachers the ability to go in and search a set of Apple-approved educational web sites,” she said. “We’ve even had teachers go in and write the descriptions of each site and redefine all the key words. That way, when an educator is looking for something very specific, [she] can find it easily.”

Finally, Apple demonstrated its newest addition to wireless classroom computing for FETC conference-goers. The mobile wireless classroom solution comes with a cart that can be moved around the school, a teacher workstation complete with software, iBook laptop computers for students and the teacher, and a printer.

According to Vedoe, the cart is equipped with an AirPort wireless access point that sends internet access to the iBooks remotely within a certain range. The mobile computing carts are available in computer 10-packs for $19,999 and packs of 15 iBooks for $28,599.

“We want to make sure we’re supporting the development of all the skills that kids need with our educational offerings,” said Vedoe.

Links:

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com

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