Indiana bill would protect privacy of school eMail messages

A bill under consideration in the Indiana Senate would make the eMail messages of public officials—including school administrators—secret from any prying eyes, despite the state’s Open Door law, which makes public documents, discussions, and minutes available to anybody who requests them.

At issue is whether eMail messages and other forms of electronic communication should be considered “public documents” and, therefore, subject to the state’s open-records law. Supporters of the bill liken eMail correspondence to a telephone conversation, in which there is an assumption of privacy, while opponents argue that the public has a right to know what officials are sending and receiving via publicly financed computers.

According to education law expert Craig Wood, the proposed legislation reverberates on a national scale, as states from across the country consider how their own public-access laws should read in the digital age.

“This is a great illustration of a national problem: that state law is not keeping up with the technology explosion. There’s no state that could not use an overhaul of [its] open-records laws,” Wood said.

Bill 1083

A synopsis of Bill 1083 from the Indiana General Assembly says it would ensure that “a public employee’s electronic mail and records concerning a public employee’s internet usage are confidential.”

The bill follows a controversy over the recent publishing of internet records taken from the computers of Indiana school superintendents.

In January, the Indianapolis Star obtained the internet logs and “cookie” files, which track a computer’s history of internet use, from the computers of 49 superintendents in the Indianapolis area and published the results, to the consternation of school officials and education groups.

Star editors justified their actions by explaining that school superintendents are employed by—and therefore accountable to—the public.

“[Just as] an employer has the right to look at the eMail of its employees, the public has the right to look at the eMail of public officials,” said Terry Eberle, editor and vice president of the Star.

But state Rep. Jeff Thompson, who introduced the amendment to Bill 1083 that would protect the privacy of eMail communication, said, “My concern about internet files and cookies is that just reporting them does not give a full picture. You have to have the context to understand why some sites are used.”

Thompson, who also teaches physics and chemistry at Indiana’s Danville Community High School, said he drafted the amendment after he was approached by school board members in the wake of the Star’s investigation.

Barely two months after the Star requested internet information from the 49 superintendents, the paper requested eMail information from members of the state legislature.

When the request for legislators’ eMail messages between February 27 and March 13 came on March 14, the Indiana General Assembly sent a unified response to the Star: a definitive “no.”

“There are guarantees in our federal Constitution … that say individuals have the right to petition their legislators for redress of grievances,” said Leslie Hiner, counsel to Republicans in the state House of Representatives.

The Star’s request would have “a chilling effect” on such petitions, she said, because if stakeholders knew their eMail messages to elected officials could be made public, they’d be less inclined to air their grievances via eMail.

The same concerns apply in schools, said Judy Seltz, director of planning and communication for the American Association of School Administrators.

“To shut down eMail as a medium for discussing confidential issues—or issues that may become confidential—would do damage to the way schools have come to conduct business,” Seltz said, noting that parents often use eMail to discuss sensitive issues with school administrators.

Zionsville Superintendent Howard Hull, one of the 49 superintendents forced to give the Star their internet records, said he approves of Rep. Thompson’s amendment to Bill 1083.

“It’s hard to draw a line between privacy and the public’s right to know,” Hull said. “We don’t want people to think we have something to hide, but there are people who have said they don’t want their messages to me shared with the world … No one would think about tapping my phone, but everyone knows my eMail address, and I view it as the same thing.”

An ‘elephant gun’?

According to Craig Wood, the argument that public officials should have the right to send private eMails about private issues is legitimate. But the language of the Indiana statute is too broad, he argues.

“My problem, when I looked at this legislation, is that [state representatives] are trying to kill a fly with an elephant gun,” Wood said.

The way the language is written would mean that even extremely sensitive matters of the utmost public concern are considered private, he said: “That is exactly what open-meeting laws are designed to prevent.”

The argument that the bill would stifle eMail communication does not legally hold water, said Wood, because federal laws already protect sensitive student information from the public eye.

“FERPA—the Federal Education Records Protection Act—already protects student records information,” he said, adding that the federal law preempts any state laws to the contrary.

So far, however, the bill has not met any opposition among state legislators, passing the House in a nearly unanimous vote on March 5. That leaves the final vote up to Indiana senators.

Some legal experts believe state legislators should amend the bill’s language to say that only non-public communications are exempt from the Open Door law, while specifying that communications among public officials regarding public business are not to be made private. Wood, for one, fears the current wording does not adequately address the issues at stake.

“This is a huge step backwards in [terms of] public accountability,” said Wood of the bill.

April 12 is that last day for final passage of a House bill in the Indiana Senate, where it is eligible for amendment. If Bill 1083 passes the Senate, it goes back to the House, where members can reject or accept the amendments.

Twenty-six out of 50 state senators are needed to vote the bill into law.

Links:

Indianapolis Star
http://www.starnews.com

Indiana General Assembly
http://www.state.in.us/legislative

Zionsville Community Schools
http://www.zcs.k12.in.us

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

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Security hole threatens schools using Microsoft Internet Explorer

Software giant Microsoft Corp. is encouraging school districts and other customers to install a patch for a newly discovered security hole in several versions of its Internet Explorer (IE) web browser.

The company warned its customers that IE has a flaw that could allow attackers to run programs on another user’s computer. The glitch reportedly causes IE to open specially coded attachments in eMail messages automatically, Microsoft said March 29.

Attackers potentially could attach a program or a virus to such an eMail message, which then would cause problems to a victim’s computer files.

“Such a program would be capable of taking any action that the user himself could take on his machine—including adding, changing, or deleting data, communicating with web sites, or reformatting the hard drive,” explained a Microsoft security official.

For attackers to make use of the program’s vulnerability, they’d simply have to persuade the victim to click on a web site they controlled or open an eMail message they had sent.

According to Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California, the hole could have a number of serious consequences for schools.

“These include the loss of access to confidential employee and—more importantly—student records; neutralizing our screening programs for inappropriate internet sites; and getting into attendance and grading programs and making changes,” he said.

This type of problem is a lot more common than users know, Liebman said.

A patch to fix the problem has been developed and can be downloaded at no cost from Microsoft’s web site. Internet Explorer versions 5.01 and 5.5 that do not have IE 5.01 Service Pack 2 are affected.

Scott Culp, Microsoft’s security program manager, said the flaw exists only with a few out of several hundred Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIMEs), which are used to encode files as eMail attachments.

According to the company’s security update, a MIME is “a widely used internet standard for encoding binary files as eMail attachments. When an eMail contains a binary attachment, it must specify what type of file the attachment is, so the mail program can interpret it correctly.”

In the case of this vulnerability, IE does not correctly handle certain types of fairly unusual MIME types, Microsoft officials said. If an attacker created an eMail message containing an executable attachment and specified that it was one of these MIME types, IE would execute the attachment rather than prompting the user.

Attackers would not be able to harm users who set their computer not to allow files to be downloaded from web pages.

Marysville’s technology director, Rick Corl, issued a directive to school officials recommending that they install the patch in district computers and provided direction on how to handle any problems until the patch was installed.

So far, no district computers have reported problems related to the IE hole, Corl said.

Microsoft’s Culp said the problem is a typical software error, and it was discovered before any viruses could be spread.

“That’s the best situation we can hope for, short of perfect software,” he said, adding that Microsoft is working to install checks for the glitch on virus scanners.

Juan Carlos Cuartango, a security researcher for the Spansih company Kriptopolis.com, notified Microsoft of the flaw. The programmer had found previous security gaps in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator.

Chris Rouland, director of the Atlanta-based Internet Security Systems’ X-Force, called the glitch a “theoretical vulnerability.”

“This is an example of the fact we see individuals and hackers are always looking for flaws and bugs,” he said, adding that users who don’t use antivirus software are at the highest risk.

And that goes for schools, too.

According to Liebman, not enough districts have policies and dedicated technology employees to deal with security issues like this one. But there are several things that schools and districts can do to protect themselves, he said.

“Schools need to articulate policies and procedures that define appropriate and inappropriate use … and hire tech staff who truly understand security issues,” he said. “They also need to install programs and general applications to regularly monitor and update safety procedures, software, and practices.”

Links:

Microsoft Security
http://www.microsoft.com/security

Download locations for this patch
http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/download/critical/Q290108/default.asp

Kriptopolis.com
http://www.kriptopolis.com

Marysville Joint Unified School District
http://www.mjusd.k12.ca.us

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FCC issues rules for compliance with filtering law

Just days before implementation of the law that requires schools and libraries receiving eRate discounts to use web filters and adopt internet safety policies, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released its rules for compliance.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), effective April 20, was passed by Congress in December, despite opposition from education and civil rights groups that say it is unconstitutional. The American Library Association (ALA) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have both filed lawsuits against CIPA.

Nevertheless, the FCC on April 5 released its regulations that explain how CIPA will be upheld and enforced.

Under the rules set out by the FCC, schools and libraries must certify that they have an internet safety policy and are using internet filtering technology to be eligible for eRate discounts.

Schools or libraries that knowingly fail to comply with CIPA are required to reimburse any eRate discounts they received during the time the law was in effect, the FCC said. A school or library found to be noncompliant can become eligible again for the eRate if it becomes certified.

Internet safety policies and filters

The FCC said schools and libraries will have to certify that they have adopted, and are enforcing, an internet safety policy that includes measures to block or filter access to content that is obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors on internet-connected computers used by minors.

Schools must certify that their internet safety policy requires the online activities of minors to be monitored. The policy also must address:

  • Access by minors to inappropriate content on the internet and world wide web;
  • The safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications;
  • Unauthorized access, including so-called “hacking,” and other unlawful activities by minors online;
  • Unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors; and
  • Measures designed to restrict access to materials deemed “harmful to minors.”

Schools must provide reasonable public notice of the policy and must hold at least one public hearing or meeting to address the policy.

Schools and libraries that already have such a policy, have notified stakeholders, and have held at least one hearing or meeting about their internet safety policies are in compliance with CIPA’s public-notice requirements and are not required to repeat them, the FCC said.

An authorized person may disable the blocking or filtering measure during any use by an adult to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose, the agency added.

Certification

Because applying for the eRate is already complicated, the FCC said it designed its rules to use existing processes where possible, to avoid creating greater burdens for schools and libraries.

The agency considered using Form 471 for the certification but decided that because not everyone who fills out Form 471 is assured of funding, it was best to complete certification on a modified Form 486.

For the current funding year (Year Four), schools and libraries must certify by Oct. 28 that they either have the required policies and technology in place, or are in the process of putting them in place for the following year. If schools and libraries are not certified by the October deadline using FCC Form 486, they will not be eligible for funding and will have to reimburse any funds they have received in Year Four of the eRate.

The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the group that administers the eRate, will accept certifications from a single “billed entity” on behalf of its members—whether this entity is a school, school board, library, or consortium. (The “billed entity” terminology derives from the fact that schools and the other institutions are the entities billed by vendors for services that then are discounted under the eRate.)

Each member of a consortium, however, must submit a new form—called Form 479, Certification to Consortium Leader of Compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act—to the billed entity of its consortium, which keeps these forms on file. The billed entity certifies on Form 486 that it has received completed Form 479 certifications from all of its members and will make them available upon request.

The FCC added that, because the billed entity in a consortium is required to certify only that it has received a signed and completed certification from each of its members, it is not responsible for verifying the accuracy of these certifications.

Because it’s not fair to the whole consortium if some members fail to comply with CIPA, the FCC decided that only those schools or libraries that fail to comply should return any eRate discounts they received while out of compliance.

eRate discounts themselves cannot be used to pay for filtering technologies; the only federal funding source permitted to pay this expense is funding provided by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the FCC said.

Disputes

As required before issuing its final rules for CIPA compliance, the FCC asked for public comment. Though some respondents said schools and libraries should have to post their internet safety policy, the name of their filtering vendor, or instructions for registering complaints publicly, the FCC decided not to require these measures.

“Because the statute does not require these disclosures, we decline to impose additional burdens on schools and libraries,” the FCC said.

One respondent asked the FCC to certify the effectiveness of a school district’s internet policy and filtering technology, but because the law doesn’t require this, either, the FCC declined.

Others said filters are inconsistent, and block too much or too little.

The FCC responded, “We presume Congress did not intend to penalize recipients that act in good faith and in a reasonable manner to implement available technology protection measures. Moreover, this proceeding is not the forum to determine whether such measures are fully effective.”

Both the ACLU and ALA have filed lawsuits against CIPA, claiming the law is unconstitutional.

The FCC included this response in its report: “In general, administrative agencies are to presume that the statutes that Congress directs them to implement are constitutional. We therefore defer to Congress’s determination that section 254(h) and (l) is constitutional and comply with Congress’s direction to promulgate implementing regulations.”

Reaction from the ALA was immediate. “We were profoundly disappointed by what the FCC did,” said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the ALA’s Washington office. “They didn’t comment on the constitutionality of it, they just proceeded [in rule-making].”

ALA asked the FCC to not make CIPA retroactive to Year Four, but it did. Sheketoff said many schools and libraries will have to forfeit funding, despite completing the application process for Year Four, which started back in November.

Even though schools have the option to prove they’re in the process of installing filters, Sheketoff said, “This is not just a 15-minute procurement issue. … You’re making an affirmative statement to the government that you’re complying with this law.

“There’s no money for schools and libraries to pay for this or the staffing that it’s going to take to implement it. We have to get over the major burden of putting in these technology filters at all,” Sheketoff added.

“In this country, there’s always been a commitment to local control in schools and libraries. This is really throwing a monkey-wrench in that,” Sheketoff said. “I hope this doesn’t lead to more of a loss of local control.”

Links:

CIPA regulations
http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Orders/2001/fcc01120.doc

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

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Audit: State tech department wasted millions on consultants

In its efforts to upgrade technology in the state’s school districts, the Massachusetts Department of Education’s technology department squandered millions of dollars on consultants and questionable expenditures—such as flowers, home internet connections, food, and parties—according to a state audit issued March 21.

The department was first criticized in an Administration and Finance Department review last year, following a report by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., on the group’s accounting and hiring practices.

The audit released in March offers similar findings, but also new details, chronicling a series of questionable expenses and saying the group violated some state laws by prepaying consultants and allowing consultants to supervise state employees.

Meanwhile, Commissioner of Education David Driscoll said that Gregory Nadeau, who oversaw the group before being demoted last year, had resigned from the department “by mutual agreement.”

Among the findings by State Auditor Joseph DeNucci’s office:

  • The department wasted $3.6 million of the $14.3 million it spent on consultants over a two-year period by hiring consultants through private companies that marked up the price, rather than hiring information technology employees directly.

  • The department passed its own expenses—such as travel expenses and office furniture—on to the consulting companies, which then charged the department after marking up the price as much as 10 percent.

  • The department paid more than $194,000 for training and conferences for consultants who were “hired for their expertise and should already have been adequately trained.”

  • Nearly $5 million in expenses were undocumented or improperly documented. The audit also reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses—including nearly $50,000 for food for meetings; $677 for flowers for consultants and family members; and $227 in annual fees and finance charges on personal credit cards.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Driscoll defended the decision to hire the consultants through their companies rather than individually, saying it was a sound business decision.

“At the time, working with consultants seemed like a good idea,” said department spokesman Jonathon Palumbo. It was an easy way to get around the state’s bureaucratic hiring process and a way to compete for expensive technology professionals, he said.

The next time the department hires technology consultants, officials will put more thought into the process, Palumbo said. “We are probably going to think about it more and examine it more before we decide to do it,” he said.

Driscoll added that he was disturbed by the procedural flaws discovered by the audit. “The expenditure of money, no matter how small, is a credibility problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Driscoll said, and the audit acknowledged, that the department had taken steps to prevent similar problems from happening again. Some of these steps include hiring an organizational consultant to assist in restructuring and staffing the department, setting hourly wage limits, retaining resumes and other paperwork, and limiting the hours reflected on consultant’s timesheets.

The technology department hired 126 consultants during the audit period to build a $19 million database to track students and help bring students and teachers online. Of those 126, the audit found, the department had no resume on file for 80 percent and no documented duties for any of them.

The department also paid two consulting companies $309,575 for communications-related expenses, including $205 for a new phone line for a consultant with a company called Adept, $204 for a new pager, and $24 for a monthly internet connection through America Online.

The consulting company Nitro expensed $2,513 for “meeting facilitation” without explanation, and Adept consultants expensed credit card finance charges and $1,237 for a Christmas party, the audit found.

The audit’s findings are regrettable, because the money “might have been used more correctly for more services and resources for teachers and students,” said Isa Zimmerman, coordinator for Business and Education for Schools and Technology (BEST), a coalition of business, education, and labor organizations that lobbies for educational technology to enhance teaching and learning in Massachusetts schools.

“Some of the things that happened in the department were well-intentioned to move quickly to get technology in the [state’s] schools,” Zimmerman said. “I’m sorry that it happened, because it reflects badly on an important enterprise.”

Links:

Massachusetts Department of Education
http://www.doe.mass.edu

Commonwealth of Massachusetts
http://www.state.ma.us

Business and Education for Schools and Technology
http://best.prospect.com

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Many popular kids’ web sites still ignore COPPA privacy rules

Many popular web sites geared toward children still don’t follow federal requirements for privacy, according to an independent study released March 28 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Almost half of the 162 sites checked by Annenberg researchers don’t have prominent links to their privacy policy, and one in 10 had no link at all on their home page, contrary to the 1999 regulations designed to protect kids on the web.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wrote the rules for children’s web sites, based on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

“One year after the passage of COPPA, we found more sites skirting the COPPA requirements than following them carefully,” said Joseph Turow, Annenberg professor and author of the study, entitled “Privacy Policies on Children’s Web Sites: Do They Play By the Rules?”

COPPA requires that web sites obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting, using, or disclosing any personal information, such as a name or address, from children under 13. Consent can be verified through postal mail or a telephone call. The law also requires a detailed and easy-to-find privacy policy.

The web sites examined by Annenberg researchers were selected in consultation with FTC staff using a list, provided by Nielsen/NetRatings, of 500 web sites that had the highest percentage of two- to 12-year-old visitors. They included sites for video games, snacks, children’s characters, and TV shows.

Common on other web sites, too, the researchers found the privacy policies were difficult to find, read, and understand.

“We found that most of the 90 privacy policies were so long and complex that it took the coders an average of 9.4 minutes to read each policy in search of its COPPA statements,” the report said.

Seventeen of the 162 sites did not post privacy links on their home page—despite FTC requirements—but did collect personal information.

However, a check by eSchool News staff revealed that, between the time the information for the study was collected and the time it was released, two of these 17 sites—NancyDrew.com and PokemonSnap.com—had posted privacy policies on their web pages.

Other sites that did have privacy links did not highlight them as required by law, the report said, and many policies didn’t have all the required statements about how personal information is used or how parents could review or remove their children’s personal information from the site.

COPPA regulations encourage web sites to include certain visual elements—such as highlighting with color or typography—to make links to their privacy policy stand out. Only 44 percent of the sites linked to their privacy policy using a different font, and only 6 percent used a different color, according to the study.

Although COPPA asks web sites to avoid putting their privacy policy at the bottom of the home page in small letters, 60 percent of web sites still did this.

Some proprietors of kids’ web sites have complained that the COPPA requirements are too strict and are burdensome for smaller sites.

“We need to provide fun, educational things for children to do on the internet—that has been our goal,” said Steve Schaffer, chief executive officer of MysteryNet Inc., the company that operates NancyDrew.com.

Three months after COPPA went into effect last year, the FTC reviewed several sites to check for compliance. Of all the sites that collected personal information, about half had “substantial compliance problems,” according to the FTC.

Toby Levine, a senior staff attorney for the FTC, said there is good news and bad news in the Annenberg survey.

The study found that 91 percent of web sites examined do post privacy policies. Levine said that’s a huge increase in the number of web sites that actually posted privacy policies since the FTC’s own examination last year.

“Unfortunately, there are a number of sites that are not doing a good job of informing parents and educators about what their policies are,” Levine added.

The Annenberg study suggested that the FTC should help parents and educators find out easily if a site conforms to COPPA through some sort of seal-of-approval program.

“If there was a model or template that parents could use to compare between sites, it would be much more helpful,” Turow said.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) already operates such a program, called ESRB Privacy Online. Web sites that participate in this program get an ESRB Privacy Online seal of approval logo to place on their web site. The logo links to the site’s privacy policy, which is reviewed by ESRB legal staff to ensure it complies with COPPA and other ESRB requirements, said Claude Noriega, legal counsel at ESRB. Also, ESRB provides web sites with a standard template to use to form their policies.

“Even when information collection does require permission, as COPPA does,” Turow said, “people still need to be able to make decisions based on privacy policies they can understand before their eyes glaze over.”

In most cases, Turow said, the policies were so vague, complex, and confusing that it was as if the sites didn’t want parents or educators to notice their policies. “The complexity of the statements raises the question of whether companies expect or even want parents to read their policies,” he said.

The FTC seeks to educate companies about the requirements of COPPA, Levine said. But a privacy advocate contacted by eSchool News said the agency needs to do more than just educate.

“The Federal Trade Commission needs to enforce the law,” said Andrew Shaen, policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Obviously, when popular web sites that cater to children under 13 are not following federal privacy laws, something needs to be done.”

Most importantly, the FTC needs to focus enforcement on web sites that receive the most traffic from children 12 and younger, Shaen said: “When you target the largest and most popular web sites, you help the most number of children.”

Shaen also called the study “shallow,” saying, “Surveying privacy policies is different from surveying privacy practices.”

In the near future, the FTC will release “a group of case studies that demonstrate that the law is being enforced,” Levine said. Those who violate COPPA are subject to a penalty of up to $11,000 per violation.

According to COPPA, web sites directed to children 12 and younger must:

  • Provide parents with a notice about the site’s “information practices.”
  • Obtain a parent’s permission before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children, with certain limited exceptions.
  • Provide parents with access to their child’s personal information and allow them to review this information and have it deleted.
  • Allow parents to stop more information from being collected or used again.
  • Limit the collection of a child’s personal information to “information that is reasonably necessary for the [online] activity.”
  • Maintain the confidentiality, security, and integrity of information collected from children.

Links:

Privacy Policies on Children’s Websites: Do They Play By the Rules?
http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/jturow/release.html

Annenberg Public Policy Center
http://www.appcpenn.org

Federal Trade Commission
http://www.ftc.gov

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://epic.org

Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
http://www.kidzprivacy.org

Entertainment Software Rating Board: Privacy Online
http://www.esrb.org/privacy.asp

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Research team develops free ed software for handhelds

A Michigan University professor and a team of researchers are developing a suite of educational tools for handheld computers that will be available for downloading at no charge. The tools are expected to be ready by September.

"We’re designing and we’re building," said Elliot Soloway, professor of education and computer science at the university. "We call it the ‘cool dozen’ that you’ve got to have."

Many ed-tech advocates believe that, with their low cost and portability, handheld computers—also called personal digital assistants, or PDAs—hold great promise for schools. But a lack of educational software for handhelds has hampered their deployment in classrooms until now. Soloway and his team aim to change that.

They’re creating small software programs for the Palm OS that will allow students and teachers to do essential tasks, such as word processing, sketching, manipulating images, creating timelines and family histories, graphing equations, and printing directly from their PDAs.

"We haven’t fixed what the ‘cool dozen’ will be, but you’ve got to have them," Soloway said. "They’re going to be free, with mass distribution."

Palm Inc. and other companies are helping Soloway and his team develop the software package, though funding comes from the National Science Foundation through an umbrella organization of Michigan University, called Highly Interactive Computing in Education (HiCe).

The business model for selling software doesn’t work for schools, Soloway said. Most Palm OS applications have a registration fee, and paying that fee for a classroom full of students for each program can be costly.

Add this cost to software incompatibility problems and the difficulty of loading the software onto a classroom of PDAs, and the concept of handheld computers in schools isn’t worth it, he explained.

Soloway and his team of researchers foresee the danger this new technology presents—where schools eagerly purchase a handheld computer for every student and then scramble for software. Such a process would, in fact, mirror how computers entered education.

"We don’t want people to get burned again," said Soloway.

But Soloway believes handheld computers will transform educational technology in schools. For as low as $150 each, students can have more computational power in the palms of their hands than ever, he said.

Handheld devices function not only as a computer, but also as a textbook, notebook, and pencil. Students can use the devices to edit and revise their work. Handhelds also hold advantages over traditional computers with their ability to beam data from one device to another. Students can beam questions to teachers, for example, or send parts of an assignment from their own handheld to that of a colleague.

Soloway goes so far as to argue that implementing computers in schools hasn’t been successful to date.

"The PC route is a diaster," Soloway said. "You can’t keep them running, the settings never stay the same. They’re used by different sets of students five times a day. They’re anything but ‘personal’ computers."

Most computers are housed in labs that students visit only a few hours a week, and the majority of students will never receive their own laptop computers from school, Soloway said. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average ratio of students to computers was 6 to 1 in 1999.

"Computers haven’t impacted kids in education, because they haven’t been used in education," Soloway said. For technology to transform education, it must be ubiquitous—and, according to Soloway, handhelds offer this promise.

"When the kids use it all day long in all of their classes and than take it home, it becomes a more integral tool," Soloway said.

Soloway and his team of researchers have piloted a number of handheld programs in local schools.

PiCoMap lets students create concept maps on their handheld computers to help them organize, visualize, and expand their thoughts. The maps can be beamed, printed, synched to a desktop computer, or posted on the web. Another program, called Cooties, simulates the transfer of a virus. As a class activity, teachers can introduce beaming, and how disease spreads.

PalmSheets allow teachers to create worksheets to beam to students. And Go’nTell allows students to manage the pictures they have taken with a Kodak digital camera that plugs into the Palm. Students can use the pictures to create scrapbooks or upload photos to a web page.

Students can use a program called Fling-It when they are surfing the internet on a desktop computer. When a student finds a web page he wants to read, he clicks on the Fling-It button on his browser, and the program strips images and formatting from the page and places the text onto the Palm computer.

Soloway’s goal is to create small, intuitive programs that offer a lot of functionality.

"We try to think about what really goes on in schools and how teachers would use them, and then we create productivity tools to be used over and over," Soloway said. "Right now, we are trying to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t."

The "cool dozen" will be available on CD-ROM and for downloading from the web. The package will come with curriculum materials and exemplary materials that demonstrate how to use its various tools.

Links:

Palm OS: Computers in Education
http://hi-ce.org/palm

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South Dakota governor proposes eLearning center

South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow has proposed creating a $2 million learning center at Northern State University (NSU), which, he says, will help rural schools deal with teacher shortages and make the Aberdeen campus a national center for distance education.

One of six public universities in South Dakota, NSU has an emphasis on teacher training. The university has an enrollment of more than 3,100.

Under the governor’s plan, the school would offer upper-level high school chemistry, physics, calculus, and other courses via distance learning to the state’s K-12 districts.

“Our intention is to become a provider of coursework to small school districts, large school districts—wherever the demand might be to help meet the challenge of teacher shortages [or of] bringing upper-level classes into high school programs where [they] are not available now,” said NSU President John Hilpert.

Eventually, all NSU students would be required to take courses in distance learning technology, regardless of their major.

Tad Perry, executive director for the state Board of Regents, said the focus would make NSU unique. “I know of no institution anywhere that has eLearning as a core part of its curriculum,” Perry said.

Janklow has amended his proposed budget to launch the center. Preliminary figures call for about $1.3 million from the state’s general fund, about $500,000 from the Aberdeen-based Great Plains Education Foundation, and about $450,000 from NSU.

The effort is part of the governor’s digital education program, which has included wiring the schools, training teachers in classroom technology, and interactive learning among schools. The state Legislature will consider the idea as part of its appropriations process.

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iMind shuts its doors

As of the first week in March, California-based iMind—an educational software company with more than 70 employees—had thrown in the towel.

No formal company statement that iMind was closing its doors was issued, and no board members or company executives were available for comment. The iMind web site, still up and running, makes no mention of the company’s last days.

According to CNN.com, however, the company had just one employee left on March 3, Richard McWilliams, a senior developer. McWilliams explained that company paychecks stopped coming at the end of January.

“They came in and told us when the paychecks were due that they couldn’t make payroll, and they were trying to pull all sorts of deals together to do that,” he told CNN.com.

The company did not hand out any pink slips and it has not offered any severance, CNN reported.

iMind board member Dominique Hanssens told CNN that the company is still trying to straighten out its financial situation. But Hanssens told eSchool News March 7 that he was no longer a board member as of that week and declined further comment, citing iMind’s pending bankruptcy.

In the meantime, some employees have decided to sue the company for back wages, according to CNN.

As late as the Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) in January, iMind was promoting the launch of its web-enabled technology, iMind Integrator and iMind TutorPro.

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Newspaper probes what supes do on computers

An investigation of computer records from 49 Indiana school districts by the Indianapolis Star has raised questions about what constitutes appropriate use of computers by administrators.

In a Feb. 18 story, the Star reported that superintendents who are in charge of enforcing their districts’ web-surfing policies often violate their own rules. While many school internet policies say web surfing should be for educational use only, some Indiana superintendents are shopping for cars, planning trips, and looking for other jobs on their district-issued computers, the Star reported.

In fact, one superintendent’s internet records reportedly included two sites with pornographic material—an apparent violation of common school district internet policies, and one that cost former Hamilton Southeastern Superintendent Robert Herrold his job in September. It was Herrold’s example that prompted the Star’s investigation.

The Star’s review of 6,691 web sites on superintendents’ computers showed that half the sites clearly were education pages. But 3,000 other sites—some of which also could have been viewed for educational purposes—ranged from the popular Amazon.com shopping site to more obscure sites.

Those included www.tomthedancingbug.com, the home page for a comic strip that was found on the computer records of Shelbyville Superintendent James Peck, and www.near-death.com, a web site about near-death experiences, found in the personal computer bookmarks of Marion Chapman, who resigned in January as superintendent of South Madison Schools.

Zionsville Superintendent Howard Hull’s internet records reportedly included two sites with pornographic material. Hull said he was stunned to learn that the sites showed up on the files from his district-issued laptop computer. He said he tracked down the likeliest culprit in a quick eMail check with his college-age daughter. She told him she probably went to the sites, not knowing they contained inappropriate material.

“I think I’ll keep a padlock on it from now on,” Hull said of his laptop.

While school districts across the country have enacted rules to police students’ internet access and have punished them for violations, many districts do not have well-defined guidelines for staff members that address personal use. Even in districts that allow personal use of computers, ethical questions remain, such as whether superintendents should look for new jobs on their school computers.

That is what Ron Mayes, the former superintendent of Edinburgh, Ind., schools did before moving to a new job as chief of the larger Taylor Community Schools near Kokomo in December.

He said he probably spent some time at work in Edinburgh on his job search—and he believes that was acceptable. He would allow his own employees to do the same, simply because he wants his teachers to use the internet as much as possible.

School board members did not mind, either. “If he used a lot of work time to search for a job, that would bother me,” said Cathy Hamm, an Edinburgh school board member. Because Edinburgh’s policy allows for personal use of the internet, however, she believes in the honor system.

Judy Seltz, director of planning and communication for the American Association of School Administrators, said the same prohibitions that are placed on student surfing should not always apply to professional staff.

“We’re talking about people who work far more than a regular 9-to-5 work day, and it seems reasonable that if a superintendent is at the district office on a Saturday morning, [he or she] should be able to take a break and look at the New York Times online,” Seltz said.

A good acceptable-use policy is key, Seltz said: “The best acceptable-use policies are not necessarily so very detailed, but they allow for flexibility. And there should be a differentiation between adults and children.”

But if an acceptable-use policy is expected to apply to the staff and students in a school district, then all staff are equally responsible, including the superintendent, experts say. Superintendents who break the rules will have trouble disciplining staff for violating the same policy, said Richard McGowan, who teaches business ethics at Butler University.

“Real leaders have to follow the rules, even if it’s inconvenient,” McGowan said. “How can they expect others to if they don’t?”

Links:

Indianapolis Star
http://www.starnews.com


American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

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Spectrum switch could cost schools a bundle

Because of the burgeoning frequency requirements for cell phones, pagers, and other wireless devices, some school districts could lose substantial funding or incur significant new costs. The risk comes as a result of new spectrum-reallocation proposals now before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC is looking for ways to accommodate new wireless technologies for consumers. Consequently, school districts might be forced to give up a portion of the wireless spectrum that currently supports distance learning and videoconferencing for thousands of students.

In one of many possible FCC scenarios, educators would not lose access to this spectrum entirely. Instead, some school districts that hold licenses in the portion of the spectrum now reserved for educational applications would be moved to another band of frequencies, as the FCC tries to make room for advanced wireless solutions (also called third-generation, or 3G, technologies).

But if that were to happen, some communities could lose their educational services altogether, while others could face new equipment costs, disruption or curtailment of service, lower quality of service, or signal interference, according to Wireless Education Broadband (WEB) NOW, a campaign to preserve the portion of the wireless spectrum devoted to education.

What’s more, school districts stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees if the move were to occur. Many districts now lease their excess spectrum capacity to companies such as WorldCom or Sprint in exchange for computer labs, equipment, broadband access, or cash. If these companies don’t follow the districts to their new frequency channels, such partnerships no longer would apply.

The spectrum battle

According to the FCC, the number of subscribers to wireless services such as mobile cell phones, pagers, and personal digital assistants more than doubled from 1996 to 1999, to more than 86 million users.

As the demand for mobile data services—such as wireless internet access, eMail, and short messaging services—continues to grow, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is developing standards for 3G technologies, estimates that 160 megahertz (MHz) of additional spectrum will be needed to meet the projected requirements of 3G technologies by 2010.

To accommodate this demand, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) Jan. 5, seeking comment on several possible solutions. This NPRM (FCC Document No. 00-455) proposed using any, or all, of five frequency bands currently used for other applications to support emerging 3G technologies.

One of the frequency bands in question, 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz, is shared by the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), a distance-learning technology that has provided educational services to students and teachers since the 1960s, and the Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS), a fixed wireless broadband service provided by a commercial entity.

ITFS licenses are only available to K-12 and higher-education institutions engaged in the formal education of students, or nonprofit organizations providing educational programming for schools and communities.

“There are between 2,000 and 3,000 [ITFS] license holders, and of those, about 750 are K-12 schools,” said Mary Conk, a legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “But what many [people] don’t realize is that ITFS affects not only those license holders, but also any schools in the areas covered by those licenses.”

ITFS is used for a broad range of services, from in-service teacher training to classroom instruction for students.

“Initially, the ITFS spectrum was given out in the 1960s as one-way analog,” said Conk. “Schools have traditionally used the spectrum for internal television stations to deliver professional development.”

About three years ago, ITFS license holders were given the opportunity to use digital technologies—and the results have been “amazing,” Conk said: “Only recently have we been able to do bigger and better things with this, like [offering] high-speed broadband access and wireless [service].”

Almost all of California’s professional development occurs over ITFS, Conk said. California education officials “have used it very effectively for alternative certification classes to get teachers at inner-city schools certified.”

Schools also use the ITFS spectrum to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

“There are lots of schools without the staff to offer an entire [AP] section, and this is a great way to deliver it,” said Conk. But many schools use the ITFS spectrum to offer general courses, too, she added.

For instance, Conk said, Kansas requires its students to take a certain number of foreign language classes to graduate, but many rural schools don’t have the capacity to hire more than one teacher to teach foreign languages. Many of these underserved schools use the ITFS spectrum to offer these courses via distance learning, she said.

Potential impact

According to the FCC, if ITFS has to make room for commercial 3G applications, schools would not have their spectrum taken away entirely; instead, they would be relocated to another part of the spectrum. One plan suggested by the FCC would set aside 90 MHz of the 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz spectrum band for emerging wireless services, leaving 100 MHz for ITFS and MMDS.

Though it’s only one of several possible scenarios, the education community has expressed “major concerns” about moving ITFS from its current portion of the spectrum, said Conk. Besides the disruption in service that could occur, schools also fear they’ll lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from partnerships with MMDS providers using the same spectrum band.

Currently, many school districts operate in a symbiotic relationship with wireless MMDS companies such as WorldCom and Sprint, with the districts allowing these companies to use an extra channel or two in exchange for a fee and the opportunity to develop new wireless technologies at the schools.

“That has been really important, because most schools don’t have the capital to develop wireless technologies by themselves,” said Conk. “If we were [to be] moved, it has been said that our commercial partners would not go with us. They are established in this portion of the spectrum, and the cost for them to change over would be astronomical.”

Bob Baker is the director of technology services at Houston Region 4 Education Service Center, an organization that includes 54 school districts and approximately 900,000 students—about 25 percent of the state’s enrollment.

“We’ve been on an ITFS network for 15 years,” Baker said. “We use it for all our traditional distance education programs, including for-credit programs in rural areas, professional development for teachers and administrators, conducting administrative meetings, and going on electronic field trips.”

The Houston service center has had a partnership with its local cable wireless operator, Sprint Broadband Group, for several years.

“They’ve provided us with the access to some wireless cable learning channels, they pay for upgrades and maintenance on the transmitter, they pay for FCC [legal filings], and they pay us a monthly royalty fee,” Baker said.

The service center holds licenses for eight channels in the Houston area, only three of which are used for its own programming. The other five are leased to Sprint.

“My understanding is that the proposed area [of spectrum] we’d be moved to would not be of interest [to Sprint],” said Baker. “We’d be moved for free, but the cost of operating the network would not be recovered from our districts. We’d either have to underwrite it somehow or shut it down.”

The move would mean the loss of $10,000 per month in fees and services to the 54 school districts represented by the service center, he said.

“Without our wireless partners, we’d be dead in the water,” Baker said.

The telcos’ side

In petitions filed with the FCC, some wireless telecommunications carriers that don’t own MMDS licenses have asked the agency to open a portion of the ITFS/MMDS band for 3G use. Many of these companies have cited the fact that current ITFS license holders already lease portions of unused spectrum to commercial companies as evidence that 3G technologies can be accommodated easily on this spectrum band.

For example, Verizon Wireless pointed out that “while it was originally allocated for the transmission of instructional programming, this [2500 MHz to 2690 MHz] band is now predominantly used for commercial purposes. In the past, when the [FCC] determined that spectrum was not being used predominantly for its intended purpose, it has reallocated a portion of the band to accommodate other services needing spectrum. The [FCC] should take the same action here.”

A spokesman for Verizon Wireless declined to comment on the company’s position or how it may affect current ITFS license holders.

Groups such as AASA and the National ITFS Association, which launched WEB NOW, are urging educators to contact their legislators and the FCC to express their concern with the potential relocation of ITFS. In fact, the WEB NOW site provides educators with a sample letter to the FCC and to Congress, urging against any reallocation of the current ITFS spectrum band.

FCC spokesman Brad Lerner said the agency could not comment about ITFS and 3G at this time, because its “notice of proposed rule making” is still pending.

“It’s a restrictive proceeding, so we can’t answer specific questions at this time,” said Lerner. “But I can say we have made no decisions yet, and [moving ITFS] is only one option we’re discussing.”

Links:

FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making
http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Engineering_Technology/Notices/2000/fcc00455.pdf


American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org


Houston Region 4 Education Service Center
http://www.esc4.net


National ITFS Association
http://www.itfs.org


WEB NOW
http://www.itfs.org/webnow


Verizon Wireless
http://www.verizonwireless.com

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