Supes weigh in on security, ASPs, and virtual schooling

School superintendents from West Hempstead to Wyoming gathered in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for a unique technology summit April 30 and May 1. Hosted by eSchool News, the summit gave attendees a chance to help set the technology agenda for the nation’s schools.

Between sessions designed to enhance their technology leadership skills, the superintendents met to develop three “National K-12 Advisories.” These are consensus documents that address a trio of topical issues affecting how technology will be used in schools: virtual schooling, privacy versus security, and application service providers (ASPs).

Keynote speaker Gary Marx, president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Va., began the summit by noting that superintendents should use interactive technologies to drive consensus-building and decision-making in their districts. That’s just what attendees did later in the conference, as they used an interactive group-response system to achieve consensus.

First, however, attendees met in separate groups to study each issue more closely. After briefings from experts on each topic, superintendent moderators worked with their colleagues to define key questions for the assembly at large to consider.

In a general session on Day Two, the moderators for each group led attendees through the consensus-building process. Using Group Interactive Feedback Technology developed by Leadership Technology Group Inc., attendees indicated their responses to a set of questions for each topic on the keypad of a handheld device.

Responses were transmitted wirelessly using radio-frequency technology to a computer running software that tabulated them instantly, so results could be projected for the entire assembly to see.

eSchool News will disseminate the statements resulting from these responses to government officials, opinion leaders, and fellow school leaders from coast to coast. These “National K-12 Advisories” also will be posted to the eSchool News web site so other school leaders may weigh in with their perspectives, further extending the influence of local school executives.

Virtual schooling

Virtual schools, in which students complete courses over the internet without ever meeting the teacher or stepping inside a building, offer solutions to a number of educational problems, their proponents say, including providing access to rare classes, remedial work for the academically at-risk, and solutions to scheduling problems.

Another advantage to virtual schools is that students can learn at their own pace, according to Phyllis Lentz of the Florida High School, one of the nation’s first online high schools. Lentz, who served as the expert in the brainstorming session, said students who learn best in an online setting tend to be self-motivated.

Some of the issues that must be resolved in virtual schooling include how to handle socialization and discourage cheating–or, as one participant said, “How do you take down the walls and leave the barriers up?” By removing geographical boundaries from students’ education, virtual schools also challenge educators to develop new models for funding, accreditation, and intellectual property rights.

The evolution of virtual schooling requires a clear understanding of who is responsible for student learning as it relates to local, state, and federal guidelines, standards, and accountability, participants decided. Local school districts should ensure the quality of curriculum in virtual schools, and virtual schools should align their curricula to the state and local standards where their students reside, Summit attendees decided.

Superintendents were not unanimous on whether funding for virtual schools should stay at the local level. But a clear majority (63 percent) said credit should be issued through a local school district, not the virtual school. And most agreed that certification of teachers should be approved at the local level. In addition, 43 percent “strongly agreed” that virtual schools should be required to provide community involvement in curriculum.

Privacy vs. security

In the aftermath of Columbine and other terrible tragedies, many school systems are turning to technology to keep their students safe. But electronic surveillance and other high-tech security measures can raise a host of legal and constitutional issues, warned David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Supporters of school surveillance say it provides another set of eyes for the administration, as cameras can be where personnel can’t be all the time. But Sobel said there’s a fine line between keeping students safe and treading on students’ privacy rights.

The problem is, the laws in this area haven’t kept up with advancements in technology. As a result, school leaders are left with no clear guidelines. But notifying students and staff of what measures you’re taking and why, getting consent from stakeholders, and giving them access to the information you collect about them, if requested, could be the keys to avoiding a lawsuit, Sobel said.

Though there are no easy answers to the question of when security measures begin to encroach on privacy rights, Sobel said, it’s important to plan for problems that may arise. For instance, suppose you decide to install security cameras inside the doors of your elementary schools, and each camera is equipped with software that scans an entrant’s face and compares it to a database of known sexual predators. You’d better have a plan for dealing with the “false positives” you’re likely to encounter in this scenario, he said.

Fifty-nine percent of superintendents at the summit said it is better to err on the side of security rather than privacy. An overwhelming number (88 percent) agreed that parents’ views on the topic differ considerably from those of their children, and parents’ views should prevail, the superintendents said.

Two-thirds of participants said the electronic images from surveillance cameras should be stored for a month or more, while only four percent said they should not be stored at all. And 57 percent said biometric and/or facial recognition technologies may be appropriate for use in schools.

Despite these figures, 73 percent of attendees worry that state open-records laws encourage school systems to veer more toward the privacy end of the spectrum, thus hampering security efforts. Nearly all agreed that states should compile a policy guidebook that explains what local schools need to do to comply with existing privacy laws.

Application service providers

ASPs host applications–such as student information systems, back-office functions, and curriculum software–from a remote location and deliver them to schools over the internet. While this emerging model of software management promises several benefits, it also brings key concerns.

The ability to have instant access to the latest software is the chief benefit of the ASP model, attendees decided. This was followed, in order of importance, by the ability to standardize software; the availability of support for both software and hardware; the speed of delivery and development; and lower hardware costs, as older and “thin-client” machines can be used to project software that is hosted and run from an ASP’s servers.

Chief among superintendents’ concerns is the privacy of information stored on a remote company’s servers, followed by the loss of control or customization of the software; reliability of its delivery; potential for data loss or other “disasters”; and financial viability of ASPs, given the downturn in the internet economy.

Total cost of ownership is the single most important factor in deciding whether to use an ASP solution, superintendents decided, followed by measurements of effectiveness; mission-criticality of data; return on investment; and research on ASPs.

Other summit topics

Besides helping to shape technology policy for each of these three key issues, superintendents who attended the summit were able to sharpen their technology leadership skills by taking part in any of 12 informative sessions.

Topics included guiding the integration of technology into the curriculum, using technology to streamline educational operations, communicating your district’s technology plan to board members and business leaders, and evaluating the “learning return” on your technology investment.

The Superintendents’ Technology Summit was co-sponsored by Centrinity, Homeroom (from the Princeton Review), bigchalk.com, Brainfuse, Executive Source Quality (ESQ) Computer Solutions, Interactive Products Division – Numonics, JonesKnowledge.com, kwiktag, Learn.com, Learning.com, NetOp School, NetSchools Corp., Nortel Networks, Performance Learning Systems Inc., SMART Technologies, TestU, The Leadership Technology Group, and Troxell. Education Partners for the Summit were the Consortium for School Networking, George Mason University, and the Association for Educational Computing and Technology.

Plans are under way to mount another edition of the Superintendents’ Technology Summit. It will be held at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., October 22 and 23.

Links:

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

Centrinity
http://centrinity.com

Homeroom
http://www.homeroom.com

bigchalk.com
http://www.bigchalk.com

Brainfuse
http://www.brainfuse.com

Executive Source Quality (ESQ)
http://www.execsource.com

Interactive Products Division – Numonics
http://www.interactivewhiteboards.com

JonesKnowledge.com
http://www.jonesknowledge.com

kwiktag
http://www.kwiktag.com

Learn.com
http://www.learn.com

Learning.com
http://www.learning.com

NetOp School from Cross Tec Corporation
http://www.CrossTecCorp.com

NetSchools Corp.
http://www.netschools.com

Nortel Networks
http://www.nortelnetworks.com

Performance Learning Systems Inc.
http://www.plsweb.com/online/

SMART Technologies
http://www.smarttech.com

TestU
http://www.testU.com

The Leadership Technology Group
http://www.TheLTGroup.com

Troxell
http://www.troxell.com

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

George Mason University
http://www.gmu.edu

Association for Educational Computing and Technology
http://www.aect.org

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Using the web to help parents shop for schools

Choosing a school for their children is one of the most important decisions parents will ever make, yet few guidebooks exist. Steve Rees is trying to change that, however—one school at a time.

His San Francisco company, School Wise Press, is using the web to inform and educate parents about California schools.

Marked by fresh writing, easy navigation, and coherent design, www.schoolwisepress.com is an information-rich web site. Launched in 1997, the site translates the complex business of education into layman’s terms, making it easier for parents to locate and compare schools.

Parents can look up an education term, join the debate about vouchers, access test score data and statewide rankings, link to national clearinghouses, tap into online experts, or order parent-friendly publications.

Most of the information is free. Detailed school profiles cost $6 and give parents information about enrollment, teacher credentials, class sizes, computer resources, the make-up of the student body, and other key factors.

“We’re combining the old-world ways of getting words on paper in a polished form with the new-world ways of automating the data reporting for California’s 8,000 schools,” says Rees. “We’re selling school information one school at a time.”

Using public records and data, School Wise Press’s goal is to make parents “school smart” by helping them understand the complex business of teaching and learning.

“We try to present the data in a readable format and help explain what the figures mean and don’t mean,” says Gordon Smith, the site’s lead designer. “Context is so important, especially in the area of testing. In order to make good decisions, parents need to understand the pros and cons.”

While other web sites and education portals offer many of the same services, School Wise’s clear, concise writing, subdued advertising, and tightly organized format set a new standard for effectiveness.

By helping parents understand the nuances of testing, accountability measures, desegregation, school finance, or social promotion, School Wise hopes to inspire them to get actively involved in decisions affecting their children.

Here’s a sample of School Wise’s brute honesty and snappy writing from a recent posting on its Legislative Watch: “The ‘shape up or ship out’ solution: school accountability rules that rank schools, reward high scoring ones, and ‘assist’ low scorers. If low ranking schools don’t improve, there’s hell to pay. How fair are the rankings? How are they computed? And will school districts have more power (or less) to fix floundering schools?”

Or how about this, from the site’s Virtual Library: “Split Personality: What difference would it make if high school counselors were actually given the tools and the time to do their job? And how can overworked counselors handle two disparate student needs: college preparation and personal counseling? Millicent Lawton, of Education Week, gives us a comprehensive account of this complicated issue.”

The company’s proprietary software application can interpret relationships between data sets, recognize patterns, identify statistical anomalies, and explain them in sentences that can be “understood by anybody with a high school education.”

“We do what many special-interest publishers do: We interpret an area of technical expertise for the interested layman,” says Rees.

The site’s content is enhanced by its clean design and intuitive approach to navigation. Graphics are kept to a manageable size, and the information is displayed in a coherent fashion.

“Looks are not that important,” says Smith. “Design should add to clarity and make the information more accessible, not less. We tend to go toward the utilitarian rather than the glitzy.”

Smith says school webmasters would be wise to assume that parents and other site visitors will not have the latest and greatest technology.

“A lot of parents are going to be looking at our site using [America Online] or older browsers that aren’t frame-capable,” he explains. “We need to keep it simple, so people with older equipment will be able to tour our site quickly and easily, or upload our graphics without using a lot of bandwidth.”

While some educators shy away from controversial subjects or operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to communications, Rees and Smith believe that open communication actually builds greater trust.

By using the web and other communication channels to share vital—and often controversial—information with parents and the community, school leaders can engage parents more effectively, they say.

“If we could make communications active and public-oriented rather than passive and ‘damage response’ oriented, we might be able to change the nature of this dialogue,” says Rees. “It’s right at the heart of our schools’ relationship to their customers.”

Links:

School Wise Press
http://www.schoolwisepress.com

Gordon Smith Design
http://www.sirius.com/~zibbis/index2.html

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How to handle offensive student web sites created outside of school

Even if you aren’t old enough to remember Wally Cox as “Mr. Peepers” on the small black-and-white tube, or you somehow missed the antics of John Travolta as Vinny Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” you are likely to have gotten a few laughs or tears from TV sitcoms or dramas set in the classroom.

While many of the scenarios are based on real situations, in many cases TV writers either have no clue as to what really happens in school, or they intentionally distort or exaggerate reality for effect. A recent example of the sublime approach to prime-time classroom soap opera is the Fox Network show “Boston Public.” Putting aside the sheer goofiness of the over-the-top caricatures of faculty, staff, and students, there is one aspect of the show that reflects one of the more serious and frustrating issues facing eSchoolers—student web pages.

Among the ongoing flow of interesting and though-provoking eMails from readers who are out on the eSchool front lines, I received this question from Paul F. Rosenbaum, head of Upper School and associate headmaster of the Viewpoint School in Calabasas, Calif. He wrote that one of the dilemmas he faces concerns student web pages. “Of course, our student newspaper is reviewed by the faculty editor, and the school web page is reviewed by the faculty webmaster. But what about student web pages that mention the school?”

Although it is unlikely that many students will post content on their web pages that is as offensive and shocking as the animated horrors published by the unbridled young webmistress on “Boston Public,” it is always tempting for students to use their personal web space to poke fun at administrators, criticize teachers, or sensationalize school-related problems.

For those schools that allow students to create a personal web space on the school’s web site, there is little problem. The pages can be monitored and edited (OK, censored) by school officials or teachers. Certainly, the parameters of proper web page content are part of your school’s acceptable-use policy (AUP). But when kids use their home computers and internet service providers (most of which offer some web space as part of the web connection fee) to rattle your school’s cage, taking disciplinary action can get a bit tricky.

Suspensions and expulsions are drastic measures that can buy you a one-way ticket to court and a sizeable legal bill for defending against the almost certain First Amendment challenge. Far more effective (and a whole lot cheaper) is immediate and non-confrontational contact with the parents, most of whom do not monitor their cherubs’ web shenanigans. If that does not work, communicate with the ISP (internet service provider) that hosts the student’s web page. All ISPs have their own AUPs, and most do not condone obscenities or libelous material.

You might want to add some wording to the part of your school’s AUP that applies the same standards of web-behavior to a student’s personal web pages. The student and the student’s parents who sign the AUP agreement for using the school’s web facilities then would be asked to agree that they will adhere to the same standards of appropriate content for personal web pages or postings that can be accessed from the school’s computers. While the First Amendment may restrict your ability to control private web site content, if the student and parent agree to the restrictions in the AUP “contract,” it may be easier to defend withdrawing school web privileges for student misuse of personal web pages.

Make sure you don’t try to over-control private student web pages. If you get too sensitive about satire or criticism on student web sites, you are less likely to prevail with either parents or ISPs. Sometimes, you are better off just to grin and bear it—and be thankful it wasn’t anonymously spray-painted in foot-high letters on the school driveway.

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“CraniaMania” lets students compete with their peers

Looking for a fun and competitive way to challenge your students? CraniaMania is an online destination for high school students that aims to improve academic achievement through real-time practice and interscholastic competition. Accessible any time from home or school, CraniaMania is an educational supplement for teachers and a forum for achievement-oriented students to practice, compete, win prizes, and meet other like-minded students. This free education site promises to help students sharpen their test-taking skills and knowledge of academic subjects through fast-paced practices and competitions. The content adheres to national and state secondary school curriculum standards, as well as Advanced Placement and SAT curricula. Achievement-oriented students ages 13 to 18 who are looking to improve their test scores, increase their knowledge, and compete with their peers can practice in private and compete in public against other students, teams, classrooms, and schools on this new game site. Educators looking for ready-made, nationally approved content to supplement lesson plans, and those looking for engaging new ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, also might appreciate this site. One warning to educators: CraniaMania makes no bones about selling sponsorships for its online competitions, so if you don’t want kids exposed to any ads at all, you might want to steer clear. CraniaMania features proprietary academic content in a number of secondary school subjects, all developed by a team of expert educators, according to the site’s creators.

http://www.craniamania.com

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Mine this online database for nuggets of wisdom on school funding issues

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently launched an online database that will help school administrators and the group’s members track a wide variety of education funding issues. The database can be found on the site under “Policy Issues” and “education.” Although the site is designed for state legislators, most information is open to all visitors who are interested in learning more about how certain state mandates affect schools. NCSL describes the site as an “information clearinghouse” that explains how state education funding formulas work and tracks all education-finance litigation. Among the topics covered are funding for technology infrastructure, construction, special education, and transportation. The site also addresses issues such as school choice, teacher quality, after-school projects, school violence, civic education, school-to-work, and releases from the National Center on Education Finance. As funding for school districts may be transformed by policy changes resulting from the new political climate, this site is a great way to keep up with federal- and state-related funding issues.

http://www.ncsl.org/programs/educ/edu.htm

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Study: Many popular kids’ web sites still ignore COPPA

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 the 162 sites checked by Annenberg researchers don’t have prominent links to their privacy policies, 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, titled “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 2- 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 pages—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 policies stand out. Only 44 percent of the sites linked to their privacy policies 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 policies at the bottom of the home pages 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 posted privacy policies since the FTC’s 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 said, adding that those who violate COPPA are subject to a penalty of up to $11,000 per violation.

Links:

Privacy Policies on Children’s Web Sites: 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

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“Project 2061” is a launching pad for successful science curricula

In 1985, the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched a long-term effort to reform science, mathematics, and technology education for the 21st century. That same year, Halley’s Comet was approaching the sun, prompting the project’s originators to consider all of the scientific and technological changes that a child entering school in 1985 would witness before the return of the comet in 2061—hence the name, Project 2061. Project 2061 “is dedicated to making science literacy a reality for all students and will continue to develop innovative, yet practical, tools educators can use to put science literacy goals to work at every level of the education system,” according to its web site. Panels of scientists, mathematicians, and technologists have prepared a report, called “Science for All Americans,” outlining what all high-school graduates should be able to do in science, math, and technology and establishing principles for effective learning and teaching. The project’s web site includes links to several publications that encourage science literacy. Its “Benchmarks” section provides sequences of specific learning goals that educators can organize however they choose in designing a core curriculum that meets the goals for science literacy recommended in “Science for All Americans.” The site is a great resource to use when developing science curriculum.

http://www.project2061.org

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“NowHiringTeachers.com” could bolster your teacher recruitment efforts

NowHiringTeachers.com, powered by the Center for American Jobs, is a new recruiting solution that integrates the web and the telephone to provide employers with a comprehensive skill assessment of job candidates. The web site is intended to provide a fast, easy, and cost-effective way for employers to find pre-qualified candidates that meet their minimum hiring standards. The heart of NowHiringTeachers.com involves the pre-screening and pre-qualifying of prospective employees, using state-of-the-art Interactive Voice Response (IVR) telephone technology and the internet. Responding to recruitment advertising, candidates can call 800-NOW-HIRING or go to the web site to answer a series of job-related questions designed to pre-qualify them to the employers’ hiring standards. The site’s proprietary system compares the candidate’s answers to employers’ individual hiring criteria, and, where there is a match, automatically eMails or faxes an enhanced resume to employers. The site also allows candidates to record a special message to prospective employers, allowing them to listen to those messages at any time via the internet or the telephone. Use of the service is fee-based for districts, but free to the job-seeker.

http://www.nowhiringteachers.com

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“Resource2000.org” is a well-organized education portal

This useful educational resource portal was conceived and designed by a retired Long Island junior high school history teacher of 32 years and is sponsored by BASCOM, a developer of secure school web sites. Resource2000.org contains links to nearly 2,000 sites for students, teachers, and parents, with a special emphasis on practical information. The site recently added 200 new linked resources, with some links offering streaming radio and video. “Learning the Net” and “Microsoft Product Tutorials” are new to the list as well. Other notable features include curriculum-related links for major subject areas, reference links, links related to high school and college, and teacher and parenting links. The site is pretty bare-bones, with no bells or cyber-whistles, but it scores high for ease of use. Addressing a plethora of subjects from current events to the arts, colleges and careers, lesson plans and resources, and virtual field trips, this site is a great way to locate materials to supplement lesson plans.

http://www.resource2000.org

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Take advantage of these new resources from chip maker Intel

Intel Corp. announced in March that it has launched a number of new online resources for teachers who want to teach with technology. New features on Intel’s education web site include a lesson-plan database, called “Units and Lesson Plans,” with topics ranging from history and science, to math, English, and foreign languages. Each lesson plan includes resources and examples of how to conduct lessons, all available for downloading at no charge. Another new feature is “Ask our Teachers,” which enables teachers to consult with expert teachers on using technology to improve instruction. Finally, Intel continues to offer its “Journey Inside” technology literacy course, which uses interactive experiments and multimedia to help middle school teachers and students discover how computers and the internet work. The Journey Inside is divided into two parts. The “Student” section is similar to an online science museum, filled with activities such as a virtual microscope. The “Teacher Guide” includes tools to help teachers customize the activities in the “Student” section to fit the needs of their classes.

http://www.intel.com/education

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