Satellite tracks students’ school bus trips

A small New Jersey school district may be one of the first in the country to employ satellite technology that allows parents to make sure their youngsters get to and from school safely.

Under a pilot program with the system’s manufacturer, students in West Paterson are issued plastic ID tags that a computer scanner activates when they board a school bus. The technology is much like that used by package delivery services.

Parents and school administrators who log on to the company’s web site using a password can see where their child got on and off the bus. They can also follow the bus along its route through the satellite tracking system.

If a child has fallen asleep and is left on a bus, the system would be able to provide immediate answers, West Paterson Superintendent Frederick Lejoi said.

“It’s a great system. We can’t lose a bus, and we can’t lose a child. We never have, and I don’t want to,” Lejoi said.

The system’s manufacturer, Thoreb North America of West Caldwell, N.J., approached the 906-student, K-8 district about running a no-cost pilot program last year. Five students and their families participated.

This year, the program is being expanded to all West Paterson schools—two elementary schools and one middle school.

The program normally would cost $3,000 to $4,000 per bus, but it’s free to the district this year, officials said.

Each student will carry an ID card in his or her backpack. As soon as the student boards or leaves a bus, an antenna on the bus will detect the ID card and transmit the information to the company’s server.

This information is integrated with a global positioning system (GPS) on the bus to help officials determine the bus’s exact location.

“Wherever the bus is, we know where [it] is within 15 feet and we know how fast it’s going,” said Hank Henderson, managing director of Thoreb North America. This is especially helpful during bad weather and traffic accidents, he said.

Because it’s still a pilot program, the district and the company haven’t worked out all the bugs yet, such as what to do when a student forgets his or her ID card.

“That’s something we haven’t gotten past yet,” Lejoi said. “Eventually we will have to sit down and work that out with the company.”

As for privacy concerns, no parent has lodged a protest. “Only numbers are being used, so no one knows who they are except for the school,” Lejoi said. “Parents don’t see it as a threat, just as something that’s helpful.”

In addition to individual student tracking, the company has installed a special feature that calls out a student’s name when it’s his or her turn to get off the bus. This is helpful for small or special-needs children, Henderson said.

Digital cameras soon will be added aboard each bus to provide real-time images to school administrators and police via the internet.

“In our case, the picture can be transmitted in real time [to the company’s server],” Henderson said. “If there are real problems on the bus, the police can [intercept] that bus to see what’s going on.”

The district’s buses also will have a silent alarm feature to notify officials in case of an emergency.

While West Paterson is pushing the envelope in high-tech monitoring, other New Jersey districts have been adding cameras to their school buses, largely as a way of deterring misbehavior.

Bridgewater-Raritan, Union Township, and Cherry Hill are among districts installing video cameras in buses this year.

“It does appear to be a growing trend. A lot of districts have started to request it in their bid specifications,” said Dave Armitt, general manager with Laidlaw Transit, a school bus provider.

“Obviously, when you have a driver trying to keep his eyes on the road and on 54 kids in the back of the bus, it serves as—for lack of a better word—a deterrent for kids,” he said.

Harold Bell, principal at Kawameeh Middle School in Union Township, said the videotapes will help officials sort out what happened when parents dispute disciplinary action.

“I think it’s really going to help, because the kids can no longer say, ‘I wasn’t doing that,”‘ Bell said.

Links:

West Paterson Schools
http://www.wpschools.org

Thoreb North America
http://www.thorebnorthamerica.com

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Distance learning goes 3-D with Teleporter

Distance education in a Texas school district is about to enter a new frontier, as students soon will see their teachers three-dimensionally instead of on a flat television screen.

The Birdville School District reportedly is the first district in the country to use a Teleporter, which projects a 3-D image that is so lifelike students say they feel as if they’re in the same room as the teacher.

“You have the presence of the person in the room. You’re not looking up at a screen—you’re looking at a person,” said Phil Barnett, vice president of Teleportec Inc., the Richardson, Texas, company that makes the Teleporter unit. “You can truly have eye contact.”

The Birdville School District bought the Teleporter from Teleportec and installed it at Richland High School in August.

Toby Howard, the district’s director of technology and manager of information systems, agrees that the projection really is lifelike. “If you’re in a receiving site and you have someone visit your class through this technology, you have the sense that you’re actually having a conversation with a real person,” Howard said.

In fact, as soon as district officials first saw the technology, they knew it would enhance their current distance-education programs.

“It will offer something to our students that traditional distance-learning settings don’t offer,” Howard said. “It’s the excitement that’s generated from feeling there’s someone in the classroom, rather than interacting with a flat-screen TV.”

Although distance education is not the ideal teaching environment, it allows school districts to make the most of limited resources. Teachers can teach specialized subjects—such as foreign languages or Advanced Placement classes—to students in other locations, effectively doubling the number of teachers available at two schools.

Typically, distance-education students watch their teacher on a TV or computer monitor. Communicating is awkward and stilted, according to Art Lacy, director of educational learning services at Teleportec.

Using the Teleporter in a school setting creates a more natural learning environment, Lacy said. “When classroom teachers see this, in seconds they get it—the impact that this could have on classroom teaching,” he said.

High school Latin teacher Sandra Carney uses the Teleporter to teach three different Latin classes at the same time.

Only Richland High School students see their teacher as a 3-D illusion; the other two classrooms watch her on TV monitors. The Teleporter isn’t being used to its full advantage in the two classrooms, because Richland is the only site with the technology at this time.

In the Richland classroom, Carney teaches the class from behind her desk, located in a corner of the room. One-way glass attached to her desk blocks the roomful of students from seeing her. Instead, they focus their attention on her illusion at the front of the room.

She appears to be standing behind a podium lecturing the class. In reality, however, Carney is seated in the corner lecturing at her desk.

The Teleporter unit at her desk records Carney and projects the image in real time to the front of the class, and over the internet to the other two classrooms.

“The image of the teacher is generally projected off a black background,” Lacy said. The black background creates a more robust picture that is faster for the computer network to refresh, he said.

Each of the classrooms has a camera that records the students, so Carney can observe the classes, and microphones placed throughout the classroom pick up sound.

Carney remotely controls the movement of the cameras, which are located at eye level, to zoom in on a student or pan around the class. This effect helps create the feeling of eye contact.

“You know it’s like TV, but the image looks right at you and talks right to you,” Howard said.

When Carney gets up from her desk during the lesson, cameras from the old distance-education system take over, and the 3-D illusion is interrupted until Carney goes back to her desk.

The podium where the illusion is projected looks like a large teleprompter. It has a large piece of glass in front and the image is projected onto the glass, resulting in a 3-D image.

“It’s a bit of an optical illusion, I’m told. It’s not truly a 3-D image, it just looks that way,” Howard said.

Schools don’t have to rebuild their networks to operate the Teleporter. It requires 768 kilobits per second of bandwidth, or roughly half of a T-1 line, to function.

“The technology is so user-friendly that the teachers don’t have to be techies,” Lacy said.

Schools can choose between three models: an illusion at a desk, conference table, or lectern. But the technology doesn’t come cheap.

“Our model is currently $4,000 a month for unlimited usage,” Barnett said, or schools can buy the complete installation for $50,000 up front and a monthly service fee of $1,000. Birdville officials say the cost is justified by the enthusiasm of their distance-education students.

The images can be saved and replayed, a useful feature for teachers who teach the same lesson at various schools.

For example, Barnett said, a teacher can record a 15-minute lecture and show it to the first school, followed by a 15-minute live question-and-answer period. While the first question-and-answer period is going on, the taped lecture could be played at a second school, and so on. In an hour and 15 minutes, one teacher could do the same half-hour lesson at four different schools.

Because Birdville reportedly is the first district in the United States to buy a Teleporter, educators and company officials haven’t explored the technology’s full potential yet.

“There’s a limit on the kind of return we get on it today,” Howard said. “Once you get two, you can talk to each other.”

Before the Teleporter can have a greater impact on what’s possible, more schools will have to invest in the technology.

“It’s kind of like having a color TV in 1953. We have a color TV, but they aren’t many other schools that do,” Howard said. “We were fortunate to see the technology early.”

Links:

Teleportec Inc.
http://www.teleportec.com

Birdville Independent School District
http://www.birdville.k12.tx.us

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Analyst recommends software switch in wake of Nimda attacks

As the insidious Nimda worm continues to wreak havoc on Microsoft web servers worldwide, an analyst with an influential high-tech research firm said companies and school districts affected by the attacks should consider switching to a new product rather than battling to keep their Microsoft server software secure.

John Pescatore, research director for internet security at Gartner Group, told the Associated Press Sept. 24 that organizations whose web sites were shuttered more than once by the Nimda worm and other similar attacks might not be able to keep their servers safe from future attacks.

The attacks, including Code Red and last week’s Nimda, have knocked out thousands of web sites and briefly threatened to wreak havoc on the internet earlier this summer.

They work by wriggling in through vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS). The glitches can be fixed by regularly downloading security patches from Microsoft web sites, but Pescatore said any organization hit by more than one attack clearly doesn’t have the technical staff to stay on top of the latest safeguards.

“If you were hit by Code Red and by Nimda, basically you can’t keep IIS secure, you’re not up to the task,” he said. “IIS has a lot more security vulnerabilities than other products and requires more care and feeding.”

Pescatore said Microsoft’s web server product is hard to safeguard because it is more often the target of hacker attacks. He recommended that users switch to rivals such as iPlanet or Apache, which he called more secure and less likely to be hit by hackers.

Microsoft Corp. denied that its IIS software is especially vulnerable to attacks.

“Gartner’s extreme recommendation ignores the fact that serious security vulnerabilities have been found in all web server products and platforms,” Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said. “This is an industrywide challenge.”

Other analysts contend that Microsoft’s web servers aren’t significantly less secure than other products, but are simply targeted more often.

“IIS right now is so exposed … it is arguably the biggest target in that space,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the high-tech research firm Giga Information Group.

Enderle said he’d heard from clients who were switching from Microsoft server products, but he said security alone isn’t to blame. Many organizations also are angry about a change in Microsoft’s licensing agreements, which they contend will make it much more costly to run Microsoft products over the long term, he said.

Nimda’s wake

Nimda—which is “admin,” the shortened form of “system administrator,” spelled backwards—started spreading Sept. 17 and quickly infected PCs and servers across the internet.

Also known as readme.exe and W32.Nimda, the worm is the first to use four different methods to infect not only PCs running Windows 95, 98, ME, and 2000, but also servers running Windows 2000.

The worm spreads by eMailing itself out as an attachment, scanning for—and then infecting—vulnerable web servers running Microsoft’s IIS software, copying itself to shared disk drives on school district or business intranets, and appending JavaScript to web pages that will download the worm to a user’s PC when the user views the page.

Although Nimda does not delete data, it does overwrite a number of files and spreads to shared computer hard disks, allowing it to wreak havoc on computer networks by slowing them to a halt.

School officials in Fort Wayne, Ind., said the program attacked and disabled library computers containing card catalog information. Though it had little effect on students and teachers, the district’s libraries and their staff members were without access to their electronic card catalogs Sept. 21.

The worm infected 53 library servers and two servers in the school district’s administration building. Computer technicians spent about 100 hours last week combating the virus, and the electronic card catalogs were expected to be running again a week later, said Jack Byrd, the district’s director of technology.

In Mitchell, S.D., Nimda caused problems in taking attendance and running the district’s food service software, and it also interrupted online exams. Technology director Dan Muck said technicians received a remedy for the problem the same night, and the system was back online Sept. 18.

Online technology news source CNET reported Sept. 24 that Nimda remains a threat to computer networks worldwide. Antivirus company Trend Micro’s World Virus Tracking Center reported at least 120,000 new infections in a 24-hour period that ended Sept. 24 at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, according to CNET.

Every major antivirus company has updated software that can detect and remove Nimda, and Microsoft’s latest updates to its IIS software protect against the worm. Users who have not done so are encouraged to download the new software before the worm causes more damage. Despite the attacks, many school technology directors contacted by eSchool News said they disagree with Gartner Group’s advice to switch to a new web server product.

“Microsoft servers are attacked by virus creators because there are so many out there,” said Chris Mahoney, director of technology for the Lake Hamilton School District in Arkansas. “Getting rid of Microsoft servers would only shift the focus [of hackers] to other platforms.”

Links:

Gartner Group
http://www.gartner.com

Microsoft’s “Information on the ‘Nimda’ Worm”
http://www.microsoft.com/technet/treeview/default.asp?url=/technet/security/topics/Nimda.asp

TechRepublic.com’s “Learn what Nimda worm does and how to combat it”
http://www.techrepublic.com/article.jhtml?id=r00220010920mco01.htm&fromtm=e101-4

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Geography studies flying high in Montana

Students in Montana soon will have free access to the same space-based tools professional foresters, engineers, and mapmakers use to explore and study the world, thanks to a geography initiative called GIS-4-Montana.

All public K-12 schools in the state will get geographic information system (GIS) software and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) content at no cost. The initiative is the product of an exclusive agreement between the state, GIS software providers, and NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) Education Project of the University of Montana.

The goal of the initiative is “to help teachers learn to use equipment that would help them look at satellite imagery and have it incorporated into lesson plans,” said Alex Philp, assistant director of the EOS Education Project.

Two GIS software makers played a crucial role in making the initiative possible, Philp said.

Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI) granted a reduced-rate statewide license for its ArcView GIS software, and ERDAS Inc. offered free use of its Image Analysis extension software to enhance the capabilities of ArcView.

The University of Montana will coordinate training and dissemination of the project, while NASA is providing some funding and content.

GIS-4-Montana is expected to be deployed in some 150 to 200 schools this year, but the state’s 800 public schools are eligible.

“If a school wanted to buy an ArcView site license, it would cost them $500,” said Philp. With this agreement, schools get the software and packaged satellite imagery and data at no cost.

NASA is providing hundreds of scenes taken with its satellites, including comprehensive coverage of Montana. The images, which are only a year-and-a-half old, will let students explore every continent, country, state, and even their hometown.

“We have sample imagery that has a resolution of one meter off the ground taken from 400 miles away in space,” Philp said. “It’s incredibly powerful.”

ArcView is robust and powerful enough to let students and teachers add data—such as the most recent census statistics—to the images. “There are other programs out there that don’t allow people to do much with the data but look at it,” Philp said.

Teachers can use these tools to help students understand Montana’s history and geography. Students could use the software to map sources of pollution on a river, for example.

Jackie McCann, technology educator at Florence-Carlton School, a K-12 school in Florence, Mont., uses ArcView to teach Montana history, geography, and fire prevention. The software gives “new life” and “cutting-edge excitement” to old geography lessons, she said.

Students “like the power they have to change their view with just a few simple clicks. It sparks excitement and motivates students to do more and go further with their maps,” McCann said. “I am just as excited as the kids when we are working on projects.”

GIS software is useful for conducting query-based investigations in the classroom. It helps users both visualize and analyze spatial worlds, because it combines images with a database of information “You are only limited by your imagination as a teacher as to how to apply this,” Philp said.

McCann agrees: “The possibilities are limited only by my knowledge of the program. That pushes me to continue to learn more.”

To get teachers started, ESRI’s web site has a database of lesson plans, called ArcLessons.

“We built [the database] as a leave-and-retrieve site for teachers,” said George Dailey, K-12 education specialist at ESRI. “We, as a company, by no stretch of the imagination have all of the ideas of what’s possible with GIS, so it’s very important for teachers to be able to add their own.”

Teachers can learn how to use these GIS tools by taking ESRI’s self-guided, self-paced online tutorial, a limited number of which have been pre-paid by EOS officials, Philp said. The course also qualifies for university credit, he said.

“We bought training packages for 200 schools. Realistically we didn’t think we could work with more schools than that [this year],” Philp said.

The ArcView software does have a steep learning curve, but McCann recommends that teachers learn the software in small chunks using the online tutorial.

“First, learn how to work the buttons, then use prepared projects to manipulate information. Don’t try to make your own map until you have the first two steps down,” McCann said. “It is a large and complex program. I learned a bit here and there for a while but did not really start to be able to use ArcView until I went through an online course.”

Links:

GIS-4-Montana Education Initiative
http://www.eoscenter.com/gis4mt/index.cfm

NASA’s Earth Observing System Education Project of the University of Montana
http://www.eoscenter.com

Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.
http://www.esri.com

ESRI’s Schools and Libraries Program
http://www.esri.com/industries/k-12/index.html

ERDAS Inc.
http://www.erdas.com/home.asp

Florence-Carlton School
http://www.florence.k12.mt.us

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Experts: Terrorist Attacks Unlikely To Affect Ed-Tech Funding

Although the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States have shifted the country’s focus to security and the war against terrorism, sources on Capitol Hill tell eSchool News the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains on target for this fall.

ESEA outlines how federal dollars will be allocated for education programs, including school technology. Members of a joint legislative committee are working on a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the ESEA reauthorization bill, and sources say the spirit of bipartisanship that has risen from the attacks may actually help the negotiations along.

Despite these assurances, much remains to be worked out. The Senate version would retain a greater number of individual technology programs, while the House version seeks to consolidate funding into a single block grant.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Much of next year’s technology funding will be distributed to schools by states in the form of block grants.

One program that will be hotly debated is Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, known as PT3. Funded at $125 million last year, it is reauthorized in the Senate version of the bill, but not the House version. PT3 provides funding to consortia of school districts and colleges of education to ensure that teachers-in-training learn how to use technology to improve learning.

“There will be consolidation of technology programs; it is just a question of degree,” said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA). But Schneiderman said his organization hopes PT3 is one of the programs that is maintained in its unconsolidated state.

“Our view is that there is no alternative to a specific program, because once you have a block grant, you lose the focus,” Schneiderman said. He added that preparing the next generation of teachers to use technology in the classroom is an important priority and one the federal government should not abandon.

Also included by the Senate but not the House is the Star Schools program, which is likely to be reapproved intact.

“I would guess that Star Schools will be continued in some way,” said Schneiderman. “It has friends in high places,” he said, referring to the fact that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is one of the initial authors of the program. Kennedy is a key member of the joint legislative committee that is working on a compromise version of the bill; other key members include Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and George Miller, D-Calif.

At least one technology program under Title III of the current ESEA will remain as a separate program. Ready to Teach, Ready to Learn–which funds commercial-free educational programming, such as that on the Public Broadcasting Service network–is funded at $50 million in 2002 in both the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization bill.

Compromise will not be without pain. “It will be harder on those from the Senate,” said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. Kozberg noted that it’s difficult to see a pet program submerged under a larger funding umbrella. But she believes the conference committee is dedicated to a quick turnaround on the final version of the bill. “It’s been a very disciplined, very committed group,” she said.

Jim Manley, press secretary for Sen. Kennedy, is more guarded in his optimism. He said the committee has set no firm deadlines for completion, but noted that “the president went out of his way to say he hopes we have a bill soon.”

However, assuring appropriate levels of funding is a priority for Kennedy. “Senator Kennedy feels that we can’t have reforms without adequate funding,” Manley said.

Kennedy is not the only one concerned about adequate funding. Both the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and SIIA are concerned that block grants–especially those awarded partially by formula, as specified in the House version of the bill–will spread money too thinly to be effective. Early estimates say the median technology grant made to a school district could hover around $15,000.

The House version calls for block grants awarded 60 percent by formula and 40 percent on a competitive basis. The Senate has called for monies to be awarded totally on a competitive basis.

“We are concerned that the grant program isn’t large enough” and that it might be “diluted to ineffectiveness,” said SIIA’s Schneiderman. “Under $50,000 to 60,000 [per district] is not a wise use of federal funds.”

Schneiderman said his organization would prefer to see fewer, but larger, grants as opposed to many small ones. “The competitive [system] gives states more flexibility,” he said.

Funding will come easiest to those education programs that fit with President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan. Jeehang Lee, senior legal associate for Leslie Harris and Associates, which represents CoSN in legislative matters, said he expects “a large, across-the-board increase in education [funding],” especially where the proposals are congruent with those of the president.

Committee members are guarded in their willingness to adjudicate disputes through the press. “Chairman Boehner doesn’t want [the debate] conferenced out through the media,” said Heather Valentine, press secretary for the House Education and Workforce Committee. So far, the committee has presented a united front.

Despite concerns that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 might take funding or attention away from education, Kozberg predicts no ill effects. “It [the attack] doesn’t make [education] any less significant,” she said.

A spirit of bipartisanship that has descended upon the Capitol following the attack may also help speed ESEA through committee, Kozberg said. Valentine agrees, stating that “this is a time when people are trying to work together and get things done.”

The committee expects to begin releasing parts of the completed bill as agreement is reached, perhaps as soon as the last week in September. Valentine believes the first part to be released will be the final version of the president’s Reading First program.

Technology decisions are not expected to emerge until later in the process.

Links:

Software and Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
http://www.senate.gov/~kennedy

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio
http://www.house.gov/boehner

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

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

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eSN Exclusive: New eRate Boss reveals changes

In an exclusive interview with eSchool News, the new eRate chief—who will oversee $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts for schools and libraries each year—said he is committed to expediting the program’s application and notification process and already has taken steps toward that goal.

George McDonald officially was appointed vice president of the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC) Sept. 13, with overall responsibility for the agency’s Schools and Libraries Division (SLD). The SLD administers the federal eRate program.

McDonald replaces Kate Moore, who resigned May 30 to become a teacher for the Washington, D.C., public schools.

Moore, who was one of the founding members of the eRate, oversaw the day-to-day operations of the SLD, including the development of the SLD web site, the process by which eRate applications are reviewed, and the organization’s operating budget.

Under Moore’s leadership, which helped stabilize a program that was widely criticized by conservative members of Congress, the number of applications for the eRate has increased each year.

Now, McDonald is taking over operations at a time when eRate demand is at an all-time high. The total number of dollars requested in Year Four discounts were more than double the $2.25 billion available, and requests for Year Five will start pouring in soon.

“I’m making sure we address any areas of concern and taking care of those, so we can continue to move forward,” McDonald said. “Kate always made a point of it, and I will continue to improve customer service.”

McDonald has served as acting head of the SLD since Moore resigned, and he has worked as SLD’s director of operations since the agency was established, so he’s no stranger to the program.

In his interview with eSchool News, McDonald said the SLD just learned Sept. 14 that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved the agency’s proposal to allow schools to file for the eRate completely online using electronic certification.

Before, schools could complete the form online, but they also had to print out a certification page, sign it, and mail it in. Now, applicants will be permitted to use a personal identification number (PIN) to “sign” the form electronically.

The SLD receives more than 30,000 applications each year, and if each one of these applications requires a signed certification page to be mailed in separately, the approval process takes a long time, McDonald said. With electronic certification, the process is simplified and shorter.

“I think this is a very positive decision and a move in the right direction for school districts,” said Dennis Dempsey, interim superintendent of Crook Deschutes Education Service District in Redmond, Ore. “Most, if not all, of our local school districts file applications online, and this change should help expedite the application process.”

Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for the Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts, concurs: “Online submission is a great thing for those of us responsible for filing the eRate stuff. As long as we can easily print out a copy of the filled-in forms before we submit them, this will save a lot of time.”

In addition to making the online application process easier, McDonald addressed policy changes—one of the largest obstacles impeding the timely dissemination of eRate discounts.

Policy changes in past years of the program—such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which was enacted in Year Four—have caused significant backlogs as the SLD has had to wait for guidance and documents from the FCC. There was a new form in Year Three as well.

“We couldn’t move forward until we had the final form,” McDonald said.

FCC officials have promised there will be no new rules for Year Five of the eRate. McDonald said this would play a large role in making the eRate process faster and more efficient.

“In Year Five, if we have no change to the forms and no change to the process, it’ll be our best year ever,” he said. “If the program is stable, we have a better chance of getting those [funding commitment] letters out on time.”

McDonald also has focused his attention on fine-tuning the efficiency of the SLD’s day-to-day operation by putting all of the agency’s functions online, thereby creating a clear, accessible way for SLD staff to identify, understand, and be able to address backlogs.

“Kate Moore had a great ability to keep many things in her head and track them. I don’t have that capability,” McDonald said. “There’s so many pieces to this, I need to see it all laid out.”

The SLD will continue to conduct internal audits to help improve efficiency, enforce policy, and reduce violations. The agency also will continue to audit eRate beneficiaries to make sure they used the funds correctly, McDonald said.

Besides administrative obstacles, eRate advocates have had to answer objections from critics, primarily Republican, who say the FCC has created a bloated program that has forced long-distance telephone companies to raise their rates—even though it was Congress itself that initiated the eRate as part of a revision of the telecommunications act.

The current administration’s plans for the eRate are still unclear, but McDonald expects the program to continue to help provide connectivity to schools long into the future, especially as distance learning increases the need for advanced telecommunications.

“When I look and I see the demand, I don’t think [applicants] are saying, ‘I’ve gotten what I needed out of this program,'” he said.

Before joining the SLD, McDonald served as deputy director of the Office of Budget and Program Performance for the Department of Transportation. He is a graduate of Fordham University and holds a B.A. in Mathematics.

“Our national search provided us with a number of qualified candidates but, in the end, the best was in our own backyard,” said Cheryl Parrino, chief executive of USAC. “[McDonald] is very well-respected by key stakeholders and brings a wealth of experience, as well as a proven track record of success with the program.”

Links:

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

Crook Deschutes Education Service District
http://www.cdesd.k12.or.us

Kathy Schrock’s Home Page
http://www.kathyschrock.net

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Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions

KinderStart.com is an index-directory of information about parenting, pregnancy, child development, health, education, learning activities and the wide range of issues related to children seven years and under. KinderStart is a “hand-made” index created by experienced professionals, educators and parents – not some computer program.

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District’s $50K ‘piracy’ settlement leads to policy changes

In a case that might serve as a warning for district administrators and technology coordinators from coast to coast, a school system outside of Chicago has agreed to pay $50,000 to a computer trade organization after discovering that a former employee had copied software onto school computers illegally.

Officials from Community Unit School District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill., settled out of court after discussions with their lawyers and the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an international association of software makers that attempts to enforce copyright restrictions and curb software piracy.

On Sept. 10, the school board voted to pay BSA after discovering that a former employee at Jacobs High School—who has since resigned—brought in a copy of Adobe’s Acrobat software and downloaded the program illegally onto several desktop machines used by administrators at the school.

According to Superintendent Ken Arndt, there also were some illegally copied versions of Microsoft software on the district’s computers, though he was unsure of the exact program.

Arndt has only been employed at District 300 for two-and-a-half months but has been working to resolve the copyright infringement issues since he started.

“It’s my understanding that the situation was brought to the district’s attention about a year and a half ago by the BSA,” he said, adding that he was not sure how BSA received the tip.

Regardless of how the organization learned of the problem, Arndt admits the violations did occur and lawyers were involved, though no formal lawsuit was ever filed. The district has complied with the investigation fully, he said.

District officials attribute the copyright infringement to a lack of knowledge about what constituted a violation. “There was also a lack of knowledge that districts need licensing agreements to use software,” Arndt said. “A lot of employees and administrators did not know that.”

Schools can be particularly susceptible to inadvertent software piracy, because many educators don’t have a clear understanding of what they are allowed to copy for free and what is protected under copyright law.

“A lot of times an employee will bring in a program and install it because they have a receipt for it, and think ‘Hey, I own this, so I can do what I want with it.’ They don’t realize that they need a special [multiple-user] license,” said Arndt. “There is a lot of misconception. It gets confusing because there is free software that [school users] can download legally, too.”

District 300 has learned an expensive lesson, officials say. But the $50,000 settlement is actually lower than the initial figure requested by BSA, which was 1.5 percent of the market value of the software.

The settlement was reached through negotiations between the district’s attorneys and BSA. Arndt was unsure of the exact amount BSA initially requested.

The district is taking steps to ensure that software piracy is eradicated in its 21 school buildings. The school board’s first step will be to update District 300’s acceptable-use policy to reflect new regulations meant to curtail piracy.

“This district has had a long record in terms of site-based decision making,” Arndt said. “But this is one example where those types of decisions are best made not at the building level, but at the district level.”

The district’s new acceptable-use policy will reflect three major changes regarding copyright issues and software licensing.

First, all teachers and administrators will be made aware of federal copyright laws and restrictions, and what constitutes copyright infringement. So far, all building administrators and staff have been notified, Arndt said, adding that efforts to keep District 300 employees well-informed will be ongoing. “We have just begun the process of making sure everyone knows our policies,” he said.

Second, all software installations and purchases will be initiated at the district level. Building-level employees no longer will be allowed to decide on and oversee software purchases or installations.

Third, one person will be in charge of making those decisions. That person also will make sure the district has the proper records to establish the licensure. In the past, no one person specifically was in charge of keeping records and establishing licensure, Arndt said, so employees were not able to present proper documentation for software licenses. The problem was compounded by the lack of an established procedure for filing and maintaining the extensive copyright records that large-scale software ownership demands.

Jenny Blank, BSA’s director of enforcement, said her organization has made no specific announcement about District 300, and she declined to comment on the case.

However, she did say that school districts have “a special obligation” to make sure the tools they use to teach their students are legal, because they set an example for children. Blank also added that software companies understand schools are under a good deal of financial pressure, and they often provide steep discounts on their products to schools.

“That’s why it is hard to understand why [schools] would not be legal,” she said. Still, Blank agreed that lack of communication might be a key factor in inadvertent copyright infringement.

“I think this happens across the board,” she said. “Companies and schools may have a policy about software piracy, but they fail to communicate those policies [to employees].”

BSA has published a “Guide to Software Management” that offers companies and schools advice on how to stay legal.

“Sometimes centralized record keeping can be best, but it does not have to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Blank.

Links:

Business Software Alliance
http://www.bsa.org

BSA’s “Guide to Software Management”
http://www.bsa.org/usa/press/newsreleases/1999-03-17.300.phtml

Community Unit School District 300
http://www.d300.kane.k12.il.us

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Bennett’s K12 Inc. targets kids in grades K-2

Educators and others got a first look this month at the offerings from K12 Inc., the Virginia-based company led by former U.S. education secretary and conservative icon William J. Bennett.

The company aims to profit by delivering instruction via the internet to students as young as kindergartners, but critics question whether students that young can learn as well as older students do in an online environment.

When K12 launched late last year, it drew cheers from homeschooling parents, criticism from some teacher unions, and curiosity from all observers. Now, as the company opens its virtual doors for its first cohort of students, the K12 seems intent on expanding into the charter school market while remaining true to its homeschooling customers.

K12 boasts leadership from high-profile individuals and groups. In addition to Bennett, who holds the chairmanship of K12, the company also has attracted Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter as its chief technology advisor. The firm was launched with a $10 million investment from the Knowledge Universe Learning Group, backed by financier Michael Milken.

Although K12 has attracted attention as an online schooling option, its lessons draw more from traditional texts and materials than they do from computer-based sources.

A typical lesson begins with a review of previously learned material. Then, activities that use materials readily available around the home are presented, such as estimating the number of jars in a spice rack in first-grade math or building a river bed out of sand and a baking dish when studying the Nile in first-grade history. Online examples illustrate the lesson at hand. A graphic of a flooding river overtaking a field accompanies the lesson on the Nile, while a game of clicking on the closest estimate is included in the mathematics lesson.

Most of the lessons, however, are paper-based. The lessons point to specific text and exercise pages in the accompanying books that ship with their purchase. Worksheet pages and answer keys in portable document format (PDF) are available online but are intended for printing and traditional completion. The lessons conclude with enrichment information, such as the history section on the Nile River today.

“Three-quarters of the time [is spent] offline,” said Ron Packard, chief executive officer of K12, who acknowledges that the program involves a variety of delivery methods. Packard declined to release current enrollment figures but said the number is “in the thousands.” K12 has made a deliberate decision to open its doors to just the youngest students—those in grades K-2—this year. Packard says this is because K12 has “very high standards” that exceed those in place by any state in the country. Therefore, the organization prefers to start with a fresh group of students and establish the entry-level lessons first. In later years, the company will take older students who might require remediation before entering their targeted grade.

The company’s focus on grades K-2 is not without its critics, however.

“I’m not convinced that students that young can learn as well online,” said Jim McVety, an analyst with Eduventures.com. By targeting the youngest students, McVety says K12 is attempting to bring online education to a population that many people feel protective of. “Students are a bit more sacred when they’re younger,” he said. McVety said K12 will need to be aware of the market to be successful financially. “High school is really where we’re going to see growth” in online education, he said, adding that K12’s approach of starting with younger students may put the company behind its competitors.

He also noted that homeschooling is just a small piece of the education pie. “The homeschool market is growing, but it won’t surpass two million any time soon, versus 54 million [students] in U.S. public schools,” he said. K12 officials say they’re aware of these figures, and they are making inroads into the charter school market as well. “We’re moving full speed in both directions,” Packard said.

Before this school year began, K12 signed contracts to supply online curriculum to charter schools across the country, including Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, Texas Virtual Charter School, and Colorado Virtual Academy. At press time, K12 also was in discussions with Florida officials. “We eventually want to be selling this in public schools,” Packard said. To this end, K12 is developing what Packard describes as “niche products,” such as assessment tools, that will help the company gain entry into public schools. K12’s peers in the online education game seem to react generally positively to its entry into the market, especially as it serves homeschoolers.

“The curriculum would seem to be helpful to parents who have made the decision to homeschool, in that it would provide a consistent framework,” said Linda Pittenger, director of the Kentucky Virtual High School.

Pittenger believes K12’s emphasis on face-to-face teaching is a critical part of the curriculum. “The role of a caring and supportive teacher or parent who can help guide each student toward activities that address the individual learner’s needs is important,” she said. Julie Young, executive director of the Florida Virtual School, agrees that more depends on the educational environment and needs of the learner than whether the materials are delivered online or by text.

“The question could be raised as to whether any materials are appropriate” for a given student, she said. “It’s different from child to child.” Ultimately, this school year is critical to the success of K12. Packard says the company will measure its success by “how children do on state assessments and our own final exams,” as well as by its customer retention rate, which the company hopes will be 100 percent.

K12 “needs this school year to bring examples of success to the fore,” said McVety.

Until hard data are available, McVety says, K12 will “sell the vision this year, results next year.”

Links:

K12
http://www.k12.com

Eduventures.com
http://www.eduventures.com

Kentucky Virtual High School
http://www.kvhs.org

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

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Michigan’s teacher laptop experiment begins

As schools across Michigan gear up for a new school year, there is a difference in the classroom: Most of the state’s teachers have a new laptop computer, thanks to a $110 million program proposed last year by Gov. John Engler. Whether the Teacher Technology Initiative—believed to be the largest state program of its kind—will make a difference in teaching and learning remains to be seen.

Adopted by the state and administered by the Michigan Virtual University, the program makes use of a $110 million state appropriation designed to get technology into the hands of classroom teachers.

At about $1,200 per qualifying teacher, the money can be used by districts to purchase desktop or laptop computers for individual teachers or, in some cases, to purchase other technology resources for the school.

Not surprisingly, most of the qualifying teachers have chosen to receive a laptop computer. To date, about 70,000 of the state’s 97,000 teachers have received new equipment, a figure that is expected to rise to 90,000 by the end of October. Qualification for the funds was not automatic. Applicants had to sign a fair-use agreement and take an assessment before receiving the money. Only full-time employees and those with classroom responsibilities were approved; part-time instructors and those without classroom responsibility were not eligible to participate.

The equipment remains the property of the district, given through a long-term loan to the teachers.

Jamey Fitzpatrick, vice president of development and education policy for Michigan Virtual University, says he already has noticed a difference in how teachers use technology. He tells of his own visit to a parent orientation at his son’s high school, at which comfort with technology was ubiquitous.

“Without exception, every one of his teachers said, ‘The best way to connect with me is eMail,'” Fitzpatrick said. Reactions from Michigan teachers have not been uniformly enthusiastic. Rosemary Carey, communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association, reports hearing reactions that are all over the map—from “the best thing that has ever happened” to “the money could have been spent better elsewhere.”

However, she says most teachers are “very pleased that they have computers.” Fitzpatrick thinks teachers will be the best indicators of the program’s success. He says program officials deliberately have downplayed criticisms of the state’s expenditure, choosing to wait until teacher feedback is available to say whether or not the program was worthwhile. But early indications seem to be positive.

“The number of phone and eMail messages from teachers has been just incredible,” Fitzpatrick said. “We have acknowledged them professionally. [Now] how do we share the stories?”

Michigan Virtual University is looking for ways to make public the teacher feedback and the stories of best practices that emerge, he said. Hard data indicating the program’s success may be available soon. An initial assessment, which all participating teachers have completed, will yield one of the most comprehensive snapshots of teacher technology comfort level ever taken.

Addressing such topics as operation of basic computer applications, using technology to design lessons, and professional and legal standards, the survey results will be released in about a month.

Teachers will take a second survey at the end of the program to measure their progress. “The biggest issue is training,” said Carey, noting that districts likely will step in with training programs once all equipment is in hand.

Toward that end, Michigan Virtual University also has purchased, with grant monies outside of the initial $110 million, a statewide license of more than 700 online training courses. Published by NETg, a training company based in Naperville, Ill., the courses are aimed at helping teachers improve their technical proficiency. Teachers also will benefit from each other’s expertise as they learn. One component of the initial survey asked teachers if they were comfortable enough with a given subject to serve as a resource person for their peers. These data now are available online for project participants, who can find a technology mentor at the building, district, or state level to help them.

Approximately 25,000 teachers have volunteered to be on call for their peers. The Teacher Technology Initiative is not a panacea for all technology problems in the state. Fitzpatrick characterizes the program as a “one-of-a-kind, one-time investment” to jump-start teachers’ use of technology, not an ongoing program to ensure that teachers always have a current laptop in hand. Individual districts will be charged with that task.

“Greater responsibility will be placed on local school districts,” Fitzpatrick said. However, he points out that districts should have a much easier time replacing these laptops once they become obsolete. “In three to four years, [districts] will be able to buy a robust computing device for much less than $1,200,” he said. Carey believes the infusion of laptops will not bring drastic changes to the classroom overnight. “Not so much is education going to change in the classroom,” she said. “This is a tool.”

She notes that teachers she has spoken to are using their computers for a variety of tasks, from classroom activities to personal administrative use. She also describes a wide range of initial competency levels, from novice users to those who will use the machines for multimedia classroom presentations. Initially, the most valuable part of the program is the attention it has drawn to technology for teachers and the data the initial survey will provide about educators’ technology use.

“[We’re] causing discussion to occur,” said Fitzpatrick. “The level of professional dialogue has really started to kick in.”

Links:

Michigan Virtual University
http://www.mivu.org

Michigan Education Association
http://www.mea.org

Gov. John Engler’s office
http://www.michigan.gov/gov

NETg
http://www.netg.com/us/flash.asp

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