N2H2 drops sale of student web-use data

A major internet filtering company will stop collecting and selling the web habits of millions of schoolchildren who use its product after privacy groups howled and the Defense Department had second thoughts, the company disclosed Feb. 22.

N2H2 Inc., whose “Bess” internet filtering solution is used by a reported 14 million students in the United States and recently was voted as the best internet filter available by eSchool News readers, said it has stopped selling its “Class Clicks” list that reports the web sites students visit on the internet and how much time they spend at each one.

After N2H2 announced its deal with marketing research firm Roper Starch Worldwide last September, privacy groups called the filtering company a “corporate predator” and were incensed over reports the information would be sold to the Defense Department for recruiting.

“It is not the purpose of the public schools to abet corporations that spy on the web browsing of schoolchildren,” said Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based group targeting commercialism in schools.

The Bess filter is used by 40 percent of the schools that use internet filters to screen out objectionable web sites. N2H2 spokesman Allen Goldblatt said his company and Roper Starch “mutually decided” to drop the relationship.

“From our end, this was a distraction for us,” Goldblatt said. “What we do is work on filtering.”

Goldblatt said that no personally identifiable data about kids were ever collected or sold. Federal law prohibits collection or sale of a child’s personal information without parental permission.

“Our business is protecting kids. We never would, never have, and never will jeopardize anyone’s privacy,” Goldblatt said. “I think any time you have a great public debate about privacy issues …, this is a good thing.” The company will stop providing all reports, Goldblatt said.

After writing to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to stop the deal, Ruskin received a letter from the department saying that, while learning how kids used military web sites would be “appealing,” the department had second thoughts.

Ruskin called N2H2’s announcement a victory, saying many school administrators did not know about the collection of data and objected to its use.

“It’s good that N2H2 is going to stop its schoolroom snooping,” Ruskin said.

For its part, N2H2 says it has been distributing this information for more than a year, including monthly dispatches of data to the education press for dissemination to educators. The company said it began collecting the information to help educators use the internet more effectively during instruction.

Links:

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

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Senate bill aims to restrict commercialism in schools

Schools would have to ask for parents’ permission before any student information could be collected and used for commercial purposes, and they’d have to develop and adopt a policy with parents concerning in-school commercial activities, under a bipartisan bill introduced into the Senate Feb. 8.

The bill, called the Student Privacy Protection Act and sponsored by Sens. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., aims to involve and inform parents about commercialism in schools.

According to a September 2000 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), tight budgets have forced many schools to seek alternative revenue sources to pay for new technology or sponsor student activities. As a result, schools are permitting their classrooms to be used for marketing, the GAO report found.

“More and more, schools are being perceived not just as centers for learning, but centers for consumer research,” said Dodd, who added that the bill stemmed from the GAO’s investigation. “Our children should be instilled with knowledge, not tapped for information on their spending habits.”

From ads on the sides of buses or internet browsers, to soft-drink sponsorships, to student surveys, commercialism is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools.

“Many schools enter into commercial contracts with advertisers because, as the GAO found, they are strapped for cash,” Dodd said. “Schools often are faced with two poor choices—provide computers, books, and other educational … equipment with commercial advertising, or not at all.”

Channel One, the most often cited example, offers schools free equipment and a daily news program in exchange for showing television ads to students. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. middle and high schools are connected to Channel One, the GAO report found.

ZapMe!, which is now rStar Networks, gave schools up to 15 computers with 17-inch monitors, internet access, and a printer in exchange for continuously displaying ads on their computer screens. Though rStar Networks continues to support ZapMe!-installed machines, the company does not offer new contracts to schools, and schools that originally signed up for the service now have to pay for the equipment.

The new bill wouldn’t outlaw these types of practices; instead, it would make sure parents are aware of them and are part of the decision-making process. According to the GAO report, not all districts disclose the details of these agreements to parents, and many parents aren’t aware these kinds of activities are going on.

“This bill would return to parents the right to protect their children’s privacy,” Dodd said.

“It does not ban advertising, nor does it ban market research. It simply requires that, before a researcher can start asking a young student to provide personal information, that researcher must obtain parental consent or its equivalent.”

Schools would have to explain to parents who will collect such information, how it will be used, and how much class time the process will consume.

A similar law, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), has been in effect since April 2000. COPPA requires web sites that collect personal information from children ages 12 and under to get parents’ permission first. The Student Privacy Protection Act would go a step further and apply to any collection of information for marketing purposes at any K-12 school.

Also, the bill would force schools to develop commercialism policies in consultation with parents. All parents must be informed of the school’s commercialism policy, as well as any changes or exceptions that alter that policy.

“I do not personally see the harm in letting parents know what’s in the schools,” said Lori Cole, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a pro-family, grassroots organization. “I think the more we get parental involvement in schools, the better.”

Links:

Sen. Christopher Dodd
http://www.senate.gov/~dodd


Sen. Richard Shelby
http://www.senate.gov/~shelby


The Eagle Forum
http://www.eagleforum.org


Channel One
http://www.channelone.com


rStar Networks
http://zapme.com

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Bill would give unspent eRate funds to poorest schools

The nation’s poorest schools would be eligible for up to $100 million in unspent eRate discounts to modernize their internet labs and computer hardware, under a bill now before Congress. The trouble is, no one can agree on whether these unspent funds actually exist

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, introduced the legislation, called the Children’s Access to Technology Act, because a recent report from the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) found schools were not completing all the necessary eRate paperwork. As a result, nearly $1.3 billion in committed funds for 1998 and 1999 have gone unspent, according to the GAO.

The bill would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a lottery to distribute these allegedly unspent funds. Title I schools could win up to $25,000 in extra funds to update their internet and computer hardware.

“We cannot afford to lose any eRate funding at the end of the year simply because some schools are not following up with their funding,” Green said in a statement. “In these instances, the unspent funds can be allocated to truly needy schools that are struggling to improve the delivery of internet services to their students.”

In the GAO report, called “Schools and Libraries Program: Application and Invoice Review Procedures Need Strengthening,” lawmakers asked the GAO to investigate (a) the amount of eRate funding requested by applicants, (b) the amount of funds committed to them, and (c) the amount of committed funds schools have actually used.

Under the eRate, schools are required to submit a form outlining what telecommunications services they have implemented, so they can be reimbursed. SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said although this final step is widely publicized, not all schools follow through with it.

Blackwell said the data cited in the GAO report is from a certain period of time and only represents “a snapshot” of the actual situation. For example, in Year One, $4.37 million was unspent, but SLD “rolled it into Year Two, so we didn’t have to collect it from the telecommunications companies in Year Two.”

Each year, the SLD gives the FCC a projection of the demand for eRate funds, so the agency can collect the money from telecommunications companies. By rolling the unspent funds over from year to year, SLD can reduce the amount of funds the FCC needs to collect from companies, Blackwell said.

“There weren’t any unused funds in Year One, [they all were] rolled into Year Two,” Blackwell said.

Carolyn Breedlove, a technology lobbyist for the National Education Association, agreed, saying the data used in the GAO report was collected at “inappropriate times” because it was collected one month before the program’s deadline.

As for Green’s bill, Breedlove speculates that his purpose is to start a discussion about some the problems surrounding the eRate.

“He has some legitimate questions, but I think they can be answered without this legislation,” Breedlove said. “He’s probably trying to get some discussion going and trying to get some answers.”

Blackwell said there probably won’t be any unspent funds in Year Four, either, considering this year’s demand for eRate funding is estimated at $5.787 billion—the highest ever—from 37,188 applications.

In fact, the SLD predicts it won’t be able to fund internal connections for the neediest schools—those eligible for 90-percent discounts—for the first time ever this year.

“It speaks to the need,” Breedlove said, adding that many schools ask for more eRate funding than what they expect to get, and some schools probably applied for the first time.

The GAO report also looked into whether eRate funds have been committed to products and services that are ineligible for support under the program’s rules, whether the program’s administrative costs are increasing, and how these costs compare with those of other federal programs.

“We found that SLD reviewers failed to identify other ineligible items, resulting in at least $6 million in funding errors,” the report said.

Since the eRate began, the SLD has continued to streamline the program and fix problems. Breedlove said it’s hard to standardize the criteria of what is and isn’t eligible, because human beings evaluate the applications.

Links:

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas
http://www.house.gov/green


Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org


U.S. General Accounting Office
http://www.gao.gov

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Don’t be afraid to call or even visit program officers

At February’s eSchool News Grants and Funding conference in New Orleans, federal program officers were unable to attend because of the change in administrations. This dilemma led me to start one of my sessions with the following piece of advice: You can visit program officers at their offices, and you should!

Program officers are responsible for providing information about the grant program they are affiliated with and giving technical assistance to potential applicants. The contact information for a grant’s program officer can be found in the grant’s request for proposals (RFP).

I just attended an RFP workshop in which the federal program officer actually gave his home eMail address and said we should not hesitate to contact him on weekends if we needed to. Take advantage of this contact information, but don’t abuse it.

Don’t be afraid to get in touch with program officers and draw upon their knowledge and expertise. I have found many program officers to be extremely helpful and receptive to answering my questions. In some cases, this has saved me from submitting a proposal that would not score high enough to be competitive.

I suggest that you contact program officers to do the following:

o Discuss your intended project before starting the proposal, especially if you are not clear whether there is a “tight fit” between your idea and the purpose of the grant program.

o Ask specific questions you might have related to your project, your proposal, or the grant program itself. Do not, however, pick up the phone and call a program officer if you haven’t even read the RFP yet. Program officers are far too busy for these types of “fishing expedition” phone calls!

o Ask them to refer you to a prior grantee who may share some similarities with you in terms of project ideas or demographics.

Depending on your level of interest in federal grants and the travel funds available in your district’s budget, it might be worth your while to schedule a trip to Washington to visit with several program officers face to face. This is easy to do, because the various grant offices are located in close proximity to one another. I would encourage you to schedule these visits during “down” time (usually the summer), rather than at the height of the grants season. It is conceivable that spending a day or two in Washington could result in your seeing as many as 10 or more program officers!

Prepare in advance for your visit with the program officers. Review the RFPs for the grant programs you are interested in and make a list of the questions that you have regarding the RFPs. Write brief abstracts of your proposed projects, so the program officers have something they can read and react to. Take careful notes of your discussion, so you have something you can refer to when you return. Ask the program officers if they will review a draft of your proposal before final submission (yes, it’s hard to believe, but some federal program officers in certain programs will do this!).

Remember, program officers want high-quality proposals—and they want to help you produce them. View them as important members of your grant-seeking team.

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Point your browser to this web site for practical PowerPoint guidance

“PowerPoint in the Classroom” is an eight-part tutorial to help K-12 teachers incorporate the use of Microsoft’s PowerPoint effectively in the classroom. PowerPoint is a high-powered software tool used for presenting information in a dynamic slide show format. Text, charts, graphs, sound effects, and video are just some of the elements PowerPoint can incorporate into school presentations. Whether it’s a classroom lesson, a parents’ group meeting, a teachers’ seminar, or an unattended kiosk at the science fair, learning PowerPoint can help educators and administrators make a powerful impression on their audience. This site helps educators learn the basics of using PowerPoint’s toolbars, laying out information, saving, and moving information to the presentation site. Just to tweak your memory, the tutorial includes a quiz question at the end of each new section. The “Cool For School” page is a great source for extra tips and tricks for using PowerPoint in the classroom.

http://www.actden.com/pp

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Help students develop safe surfing habits with

The NetSmartz Workshop, an educational resource for parents, teachers, and children of all ages, was created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to address the need for children’s internet safety education. Compaq Computer Corp. donated $1.5 million to establish an on-site internet studio at NCMEC with 3D animators, artists, and web developers. This donation allows the NetSmartz Workshop to be shared with children, parents, and educators worldwide via the internet at no cost. The project’s web site features age-appropriate, interactive games and activities that use the latest web technologies to entertain while they teach kids how to stay safe on the web. The site targets every level of the educational process by containing a segment designed especially for kids, a segment for teens, and one for parents and educators. Users can participate in activities, read suggested discussion questions, and get classroom-ready lesson plans related to the site’s online activities.

http://www.netsmartz.org

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Dept. of Ed’s ‘eRate and the Digital Divide’ details the eRate’s impacts

With all the talk of political threats to the eRate program, you might be asking yourself exactly what the eRate has done for U.S. schools thus far. The answer is contained in the U.S Department of Education’s 231-page report, entitled “eRate and the Digital Divide: A Preliminary Analysis From the Integrated Studies of Educational Technology.” This report offers the first comprehensive consideration of the effects of the federal Universal Service Administrative Company’s eRate program, administered by the Schools and Libraries Division of USAC and created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 “to provide discounts on the cost of telecommunications services and equipment to all public and private schools and libraries.” The aim of the eRate is to make internet connections more affordable for schools, particularly for schools in lower-income areas. The report—available in PDF format—analyzes the effects of the eRate on targeted schools. Prepared by Michael J. Puma, Duncan D. Chaplin, and Andreas D. Pape, this September 2000 publication provides an overview of ED’s findings. To get a general overview of the report, start with the Executive Summary.

http://www.ed.gov/offices/OUS/PES/erate_fr.pdf

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Buddy up to this web site for lesson plans and collaborative projects

“The Buddy Project: Teacher Resources” offers a host of web sites, guides, and information to help educators integrate technology successfully into the classroom. Launched in 1988 by the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Corporation for Educational Technology, the Buddy Project is funded through a variety of sources, including a state initiative through the Indiana General Assembly, as well as contributions and grants from public and private funds. According to its web site, the project “develops and facilitates demonstration projects of leading-edge student learning environments for K-12 schools using technology in anytime, anywhere settings.” Teachers from around the country can get lesson plans created by their peers that connect technology with classroom curriculum, and they can get links to other web sites showing how schools have published curriculum that integrates the internet. Using Adobe Acrobat Reader, teachers can view and print the handouts that Buddy Project facilitators have created. These handouts offer tips for integrating technology into classroom curriculum, as well as tips for establishing school-home connections. Teachers can find out how their school can step beyond the classroom walls by joining collaborative projects, and they can learn how to enter contests that could earn money, equipment, software, or other awards.

http://www.buddyproject.org/teach/default.asp

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