Add firepower to your school communications with ‘pocket rockets’

“Pocket rockets,” those personal digital assistants (PDAs) that put more communications firepower in the palm of your hand than NASA had to launch its early space missions, represent a new communications frontier for school leaders.

While educators who fit the marketing profile of “early adopters” are already using handheld computers to manage their time and ease the back strain caused by carrying bulging leather planners, most still haven’t hopped on board the wireless revolution.

It’s time for a second look. With capabilities expanding and prices dropping, pen-entry handheld devices have enormous public relations potential.

“For marketers, the wireless and mobile use of PDAs presents an opportunity to reach consumers out in the world on a device that’s very personal,” writes Deborah Kong in “A Handful of Marketing Opportunities” for WirelessAdWatch.

Cybiko, for example, is now marketing a wireless handheld device for teens that offers everything from traditional calendar and contact organizers to an MP3 player, Spanish-English dictionary, and a multilingual phrase book–all for just $99.

Packed with more than 10 software products–including free games that can be downloaded from the company’s web site–and fully upgradable, the Cybiko Xtreme costs less than most teens’ tennis shoes, school ensembles, and television sets.

With no airtime fees, teens can send and receive pictures, music, text files (homework, anyone?), and eMails and can dive into chat rooms–making the much-heralded “digital divide” seem more a matter of priorities than economics for most families, community groups, and school systems.

And, while Palm Pilots and Handspring Visors still own the greatest market share, Casio, Hewlett-Packard, Asky, Sony, and Compaq offer models ranging in price from about $130 to more than $500–still pricey for a planner, but inexpensive for the equivalent of a wireless, mobile personal computer.

Unlike earlier versions, these new models allow users to do more than one thing at a time, thanks to improved operating software developed by Microsoft. Now you can listen to your favorite MP3s or view video clips from school events while charting out your strategic plan or developing the high school’s new block schedule.

School districts in Texas are already using handheld computers to take attendance, record grades, exchange business cards, organize lesson plans, check eMail, and communicate with parents.

Using PDA software currently on the market, educators can keep track of coursework, grades, class details, lesson plans, parent contacts, notes, and exam schedules for up to 15 classes at a time.

And, while some recruiters still go to college fairs armed with logo-emblazoned highlighters, tote bags, and mouse pads, tech-savvy school districts are offering handhelds and laptops along with signing bonuses and other incentives.

Expansion slots and add-on devices on newer models mean users can turn their PDA into a digital phone, video game player, or digital camera. By signing up with Omnisky, GoAmerica, Palm.Net, Yada Yada, or some other wireless service, educators can access the web, download applications, and use eMail–anywhere, anytime.

For another $100, administrators, staff developers, and other meeting warriors who are tired of lugging their laptops around but hate tapping in notes with a stylus can purchase a folding, pocket-sized keyboard that attaches to most handheld computers.

This means that from as little as $200 to $800, educators and students can have access to a fully-functioning personal computer with built-in internet capabilities.

Not only is this great news for those who confront the digital divide on a daily basis, it also means PDAs are beginning to reach a more mainstream market–putting a new and affordable channel of communication with parents literally in the palm of the hand.

Imagine attending a championship football game or Odyssey of the Mind tournament and being able to eMail event photos to PTA leaders and your school web site–all before you leave the auditorium. Or, what about using a PDA to link homeschoolers with their traditional school counterparts?

Think about the efficiencies that could occur when teachers can use their PDAs to take attendance and then send it electronically to school and district offices.

Then take it a step further, and think about the implications of eMailing parents at their homes, places of work, or digital pagers to let them know their son or daughter performed well on an exam, was selected for a school honor, or did (or didn’t) show up for class.

Right now, the wireless revolution is more hype than reality, but it is coming nonetheless. School leaders need to get in the game and find out how to use these new technologies to manage their relationships with parents, teachers, and other community stakeholders. PDAs and other new technologies are quickly becoming part of the mainstream. And, as Cybiko’s marketing success already shows, the Net Generation–and our future school parents–will be fully wired.

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Understanding the ‘P’ in AUP

When I began this series of columns about acceptable-use policies (AUPs), I intended to focus on some of the nuances of AUP development. By this point in the new century, I figured that everyone pretty much had the basics down pat. I assumed that most school districts already had AUPs up and running and were interested in fine-tuning the implementation phase.

Then I started getting eMails that began, “My superintendent has asked me to draft an acceptable-use statement,” or “I just got appointed to a committee that is supposed to write our AUP.” I soon realized that some school systems were way ahead of the high-tech game, but many others were just getting started. This month, it’s back to basics and the foundation for everything–the “P” in AUP.

Probably the most fundamental question I received via web-mail was, “We have a one-page agreement that each staff member or student signs before they can use the internet. That is not really a policy document. Why do they call computer agreements between schools and their students and staff ‘acceptable-use policies’?”

Good question. There are actually a number of components to a comprehensive AUP (including the agreements and permissions you have between the school and users or parents), but some school districts are missing the most crucial element: a policy document adopted by the board of education that establishes districtwide rules for use of the internet.

In some states (like Kentucky), the legislature has passed a law requiring the state board to promulgate regulations and each local board to adopt policies. In other jurisdictions, local districts are left to their own devices.

It is a given that the school board needs to act. An AUP written by the local school computer teacher and handed out by the principal has some basic legal flaws. Foremost is the lack of authority for some important actions, including penalties for violation of the rules. In addition, having a different computer or internet policy for each school is no better than having individual school policies on drugs, graduation requirements, or prayers at football games.

In the absence of a state law or regulation providing otherwise, what should a good board policy include?

It may seem relatively unimportant, but one question a school board should ask before it spends a lot of tax dollars on computers and networks is, “Why do we want our students to use computers–and how do we want them to be used?” More to the point, “Why do we want our students who use computers to have access to the internet?” Once the seminal question of why is answered and understood, it’s much easier to make a list of the “acceptable” uses for your school district.

Another important policy issue is the division of responsibility. Where does your board draw the lines of accountability between the school, the teacher, the student, and the parent for web-based activities? If the school board is going to disclaim responsibility for online actions or put the entire onus for proper behavior on students or faculty, it needs to do that in writing and have a public vote. Suspension of access to school computers, eMail, or the internet needs to have the full authority of a written board policy, so the policy needs to define prohibited web activities and the resulting penalties.

In a nutshell, the board should put into writing the basic rules for use and abuse of the web. In addition, the policy should establish the consequences for violation of web rules and the process for determining accountability and assessing punishment.

Comprehensive AUPs also deal with issues such as privacy, copyright abuse, access to chat rooms or news groups, filtering, hacking, URL logs, downloading (software or files), installing personal software, eMail etiquette, and other legal or ethical issues. One way to do this is for the board to adopt a “Code of Conduct for Internet Users.”

Finally, the policy should establish an implementation process that will provide guidelines for teachers and other staff on supervising student use of the web, give adequate notice to students and parents of board policy and enforcement procedures, obtain informed consent from parents for studentsí’ “field trips” onto the web, and include a review or audit process that will provide feedback to the board and taxpayers about the benefits being derived from using tax dollars for computers and connectivity.

If your school district already has implemented web-access tools and AUP agreements with students and parents, it may be time for a review. Tighten up the language, and fill in the weak spots. But most of all, make sure your technology implementation program is firmly grounded on a clearly written policy document that has been adopted by the school board.

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Bush administration drops fight for Microsoft breakup, seeks lesser penalty

In a dramatic shift, President George W. Bush’s administration abandoned the Clinton-era effort to break up Microsoft. It suggested a lesser antitrust penalty that could still force changes to the company’s new Windows operating system.

The Justice Department (JD) also dropped charges that the software giant illegally hurt competitors by tying or bundling separate features, like a web browser, to its flagship computer operating system.

Microsoft had hotly contested those charges because the company’s strategy calls for integrating more new features into products like the new Windows XP operating system, due in stores this month.

Officials said the legal shift was not an overture to Microsoft to settle. They suggested the government will ask the new judge handling the antitrust case to review the Windows XP software and seek a penalty that ensures the company doesn’t operate as an illegal monopoly in the future.

The administration’s decision sparked accusations that the White House was reluctant to pursue legal actions against big corporations, but it earned praise from those who believe the antitrust lawsuit should be resolved quickly.

Critics of the decision, which JD announced Sept. 6, pointed to a similar Bush administration move: JD’s determination in June that it should seek to settle a long-simmering civil lawsuit against the tobacco industry brought by the Clinton administration. In both cases, the White House has altered course–detractors would say capitulated–in Clinton-era lawsuits against large corporations, reflecting the new administration’s philosophy that lawsuits are not the best way to resolve disagreements.

JD said it made the about-face to streamline the case and bring it to an end as quickly as possible. The goal, it said, was to “obtain prompt, effective, and certain relief for consumers.”

The department said it would still seek a penalty that would open the operating system market to competition.

To that end, the government proposed a penalty similar to some interim penalties imposed by the original trial judge, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson.

Those would, among other things, stop Microsoft from making certain exclusive deals with partners, force computer manufacturers to keep specific icons and programs on the Windows computer desktop, and give other companies more access to Windows blueprints.

Some legal experts were mystified by the administration’s move, saying the government backed off on a case it was winning. “The government’s litigation was in the fourth quarter, yet the Bush administration chose to forfeit the game while it was ahead,” said Gordon Klein, a law professor at University of Southern California. “It was purely political.”

One antitrust expert predicted the case will get even murkier because so-called conduct remedies, rather than a clean breakup, are much more difficult to enforce.

“Conduct remedies will require much closer monitoring from the government and the courts,” said Norman Hawker, a finance and law professor at Western Michigan University.

Lawyers for both sides were to submit reports detailing their next moves to U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly by Sept. 14.

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Riverdeep acquires Learning Company; Harcourt purchases Classroom Connect

The HP-Compaq deal (see story, Page One) might be the most significant recent company merger, but it wasn’t the only deal affecting schools.

Harcourt Education Inc. of Orlando, Fla., said it had reached an agreement Aug. 28 to acquire Classroom Connect, a pioneer and leading provider of internet-based curriculum and professional development.

And Riverdeep Group plc, another supplier of web-based learning solutions for K-12 schools, announced an agreement Sept. 6 to acquire the education assets of the Learning Co. (TLC), a publisher of educational software used by schools and home consumers.

Classroom Connect will continue to operate as an autonomous business unit within Harcourt Education, according to Judith Hamilton, Classroom Connect’s president and chief executive. Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

“For the meantime, it’s ‘business as usual’ and our customers will not be impacted,” Hamilton said. “The high-quality curriculum products and professional development resources we offer, such as Connected University … and the Quest Channel, will still exist.”

In the long term, “we expect Classroom Connect’s relationship with Harcourt Education to benefit our customers a great deal, providing them with an even greater set of online and face-to-face educational resources that will enable them to fully embrace technology in their classrooms.”

Adam Newman, a senior analyst for Boston-based market research firm Eduventures.com, said both companies stand to benefit from the acquisition. Harcourt’s platform “gives Classroom Connect potential access to a much broader audience,” he said. In return, the smaller company gives Harcourt an entry into the eLearning space already occupied by rivals such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education.

“Harcourt had been a little late into this space,” Newman said. But Harcourt’s choice of partners indicates it recognizes professional development as a key component of an eLearning solution, a factor that bodes well for the company, Newman added.

Under the terms of the Riverdeep-TLC acquisition, Riverdeep has agreed to pay Gores Technology Group, the current owner of TLC, $40 million in stock and assume about $20 million in liabilities in the form of inter-company debt, in exchange for TLC’s assets. These include educational software titles such as Reader Rabbit, Carmen Sandiego, ClueFinders, Oregon Trail, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and Zoombinis, among others.

Newman said the deal “is consistent with what Riverdeep has done since it went public: putting together pieces of what it considers a comprehensive [online] solution.” Riverdeep also has acquired companies such as Teacher Universe and Edmark Corp. in recent months.

“The Learning Co. has been dragged through the mud a little bit lately, but it’s still a significant asset,” Newman said. He added that Riverdeep “may be a little more nimble than larger publishers and could pose significant competition for them.”

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Poorest schools to receive full eRate funding

Schools and libraries qualifying for eRate discounts of 90 percent will receive full funding for their internal connections this year, according to the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the group that administers the program.

The SLD’s Aug. 31 announcement was welcome news to applicants qualifying for 90-percent discounts. Because of the extraordinarily high demand for eRate funds this year, it was suspected that funding might not be sufficient to cover all requests for internal connections even among these poorest of applicants.

Schools and libraries applying for Year Four of the eRate requested an unprecedented $5.19 billion total, an amount greater than the first two program years combined. The Federal Communications Commission has capped the program’s annual funding at $2.25 billion.

To qualify for a 90-percent discount, at least three-fourths of an applicant’s students must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The SLD’s announcement coincided with the release of its fourth wave of funding commitment letters, which included funding for internal connections for 90-percent applicants for the first time this year. Wave four committed nearly $400.5 million in discounts, bringing the total amount committed in the fourth year of the eRate to more than $1.1 billion as of Sept. 4.

SLD officials said it’s unclear just how far discounts will extend for internal connections this year. The agency is notifying applicants who qualify for discounts of less than 85 percent that their requests for internal connections are being denied because of insufficient funds. But “uncertainty still exists at this time regarding internal connections funding requests at the 85 percent to 89 percent discount range,” officials said.

All eRate-eligible applicants will receive full funding this year for so-called “priority one” services, or telecommunications services and internet access.

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It’s time to reconsider your school’s web presence

I read with optimism a recent article in the New York Times that discussed a general reduction in the practice of web surfing. According to the article, people are abandoning search engines–and the serendipitous wanderings in search of information that accompany them–in favor of four or five mainstream information sources.

I found this news encouraging, not only because the thought of healthy, active people spending a Saturday afternoon in front of their computer screens seems depressing, but also because it is an indication that the novelty of the web is beginning to wear off. Soon we will see the extent to which the web’s true impact on society will match the hype.

While this change in behavior may be bad news for online advertisers and dot-com startups, schools generally have not depended on random web surfing to bring viewers to their sites; their “captive audiences” have guaranteed that visitors will return. Nevertheless, the end of the web’s novelty gives schools and businesses alike the opportunity to reevaluate the business case for their web presence and identify ways to make their sites meet the needs of their organizations more effectively.

The advent of the web’s popularity and the explosion in school connectivity in the mid-90s created the idea that all schools needed a web page. Not having a web site meant that your school lacked vision and innovation–that you were desperately behind the curve technologically. Regardless of what was on the site, schools scrambled to get something up on the web to demonstrate to their constituencies that they were keeping up with the curve.

This mad dash to get online fueled a number of dot-com startups that would create school web pages (sometimes without the permission of the school), leaving school leaders to decide why they needed a web page only after the page was on the net.

The first school web sites, much like the first business web sites, were collections of static pages used to publish information about their organizations. Schools would include basic information about their philosophy and mission. Visitors might find driving directions, and alumni might find information on upcoming events. Many teachers and curriculum coordinators also saw this as an opportunity to publish student work and add a level of authenticity to student projects by creating an instant audience outside the classroom.

While some of these sites demonstrated exceptional innovation, they often were based on the premise that web-surfing was and would continue to be a popular pastime for most people–and that simply attracting visitors was a valid goal in itself.

Publishers believed that people would find students’ work by randomly searching the net for a particular topic. Viewers then would send comments to student authors, making the students feel like they had made an authentic contribution to the body of knowledge on the topic. Others believed that the school’s alumni site automatically would attract former students.

As the newness of the web begins to fade, however, it is becoming clearer that–even on the internet–if you build it, they may not come.

The question now becomes: How can schools make the best use of their sites, given the change in how people now use the web? To answer this question, school leaders must reexamine their goals for their web sites, and publishers must clearly identify the different audience groups they are creating content for.

Clearly, some of the goals that schools have had all along will continue to be applicable. Schools will still strive to connect their students, parents, and alumni to build a sense of community. Teachers and school web masters will continue to compile lists of links to appropriate research materials that suit their students’ needs, functioning as a sort of “quality control portal” categorized for specifically assigned projects.

To some extent, information such as school contacts, driving directions, budgets, and bond issues still will be presented to the public, but school leaders should realize that their core web audience is not the wandering web-surfer who stumbles across their site to see how the football team did last Friday or what the cafeteria is serving this week. A school’s core audience consists of students, teachers, parents, and alumni. School leaders will need to recraft their web sites to target the interests of each of these groups, presenting appropriate, useful information in a way that is easy for each group to find what it wants.

Other goals, while noble in concept, are not going to be met by many school web sites the way they are structured. While publishing student work on the web will attract the occasional visitor, these visitors will be few and far between.

If your goal is to give students the experience of publishing to a wider audience, you should promote the students’ work via eMail to a peer group or discussion list, encouraging people to send comments to the students. If your goal is to inform, as in the case of a student newspaper, you should send a broadcast eMail promoting the site to the publication’s target audience. Tying these publications to existing traditional methods of communication, such as an alumni newsletter or other correspondence, will help your target audiences find appropriate information on your site.

Some school leaders might find new goals that are uniquely geared to the medium of the web, such as posting administrative applications like grade books, attendance, and scheduling. Tying these applications to back-end databases and creating different types of interfaces to them can make them useful for parents and students, as well as administrators and teachers. Automating eMail distribution through thresholds and triggers can help you reach out and draw the target audience to your site, instead of hoping viewers find it on their own. Other new goals might include the distribution of licensed software.

By reevaluating goals and better identifying target audiences, school leaders can redesign their web sites to serve their organizations and communities more effectively. By making changes now, as changing attitudes toward the web become apparent, schools can keep themselves ahead of the curve and prevent the perception that their web site goals have not been met or that their online publication efforts have been a waste of time.

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Privacy groups claim Microsoft’s Kids Passport is a ticket for trouble

Some privacy and consumer advocates allege that a new Microsoft service, which is intended to help parents control the information their children give out online, actually is misleading and fails to comply with a federal law aimed at protecting children’s online privacy. They have asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate.

Microsoft denies the allegations and says the groups’ complaints amount to nit-picking. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, along with the Center for Media Education and 11 other organizations, filed supplemental materials in support of a pending complaint with the FTC Aug. 15.

The law in question is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It prohibits unfair or deceptive marketing practices and requires web sites aimed at kids to display prominently a detailed and easy-to-read privacy policy.

COPPA also requires web sites to obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting, using, or disclosing any personal information, such as names or addresses, from children under 13.

Kids Passport is a version of Microsoft’s Passport technology, an online service that lets users create a single profile–including user name, password, and other information–that can be used on all participating web sites. The service’s goal is to make web-surfing and internet shopping easy for consumers.

According to the Microsoft Passport web site, “Kids Passport helps protect and control online privacy for children by obtaining parental consent to collect or disclose a child’s personal information” from one convenient, centralized location.

Parents can use Kids Passport as a tool to let participating web sites collect or disclose personally identifying information about their children.

When a child tries to sign on to a web site that requires personally identifying information, the child can ask a parent or guardian for permission by sending an electronic request through Kids Passport. The parent or guardian reviews the request and can grant a specific level of consent or can deny consent altogether.

Microsoft’s Kids Passport appears to meet most of COPPA’s requirements, but privacy advocates are concerned it doesn’t meet them all.

“Microsoft is promoting its Kids Passport to parents as a service that will protect their kids’ privacy, when in fact it doesn’t appear to comply with the law,” said Gabriela Schneider, senior policy analyst at the Center for Media Education. “It’s misleading to parents.”

The Kids Passport privacy policy says, “It is important for you to read the Privacy Statement and Terms of Use for each web site you are consenting for your child to visit and use.”

But under COPPA, Schneider said, “there should be one [privacy] policy that outlines all of the details” if there is a single consent form for parents.

With Kids Passport, parents need to read the individual privacy policy of each web site their kids visit. The Microsoft service “puts the burden on parents to see if the web sites have changed their policy,” Schneider said.

A Microsoft representative told eSchool News, “Kids Passport is only a mechanism to help parents with parental control. Should Kids Passport be the one to govern the privacy policies of all these sites? Microsoft never positioned it to be that.”

Microsoft Passport is not mandatory for users, but it is one of the foundation services of the Microsoft .NET initiative, which aims to offer personalized experiences to users any time, anywhere, from any device.

Links:

Center for Media Education
http://www.cme.org

Microsoft Kids Passport
http://kids.passport.com

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‘Dot-net’ captures support of software developers

A new technology platform developed by Microsoft Corp. will simplify and enhance school computing, educational software developers insist, despite criticism from Microsoft rivals and some consumer advocates that the technology is aimed at extending the company’s software monopoly.

The new technology, called Microsoft .NET (dot-net), is an underlying architecture designed to allow a more personalized, seamless, web-enabled computing experience for the user. Several developers of educational software, such as Chancery, Blackboard, and GVOX, have built dot-net technology into the next generation of their software applications.

When teachers or school administrators currently use software, they often operate a word processor, eMail, instant messaging, a grade book, and an internet browser at the same time. The programs work independently from each other, and frequently the user has to switch between programs.

Microsoft’s dot-net technology aims to change that.

“Instead of five different applications working together, it’s one system working together,” said Roberto Bamberger, manager of learning solutions for Microsoft’s education group. “As far as the user is concerned, it’s one simple process.”

Dot-net technology–which is built on XML, or extensible markup language, a common architecture of the web that allows disparate systems to “speak” the same language–will save users from having to cut and paste data from one application to another, Bamberger said. This means no more switching between programs.

“It removes the burden from the user–whether [the user is] a parent, teacher, student, or administrator–from having to know ‘well, I take [information] from here and put it there,'” he said.

Among its capabilities, dot-net technology integrates different software programs with similar functions together. “What we’re talking about is the ability to stream together different programs without creating one monstrous application,” Bamberger said. The end goal is to streamline the user’s experience.

Chancery uses dot-net technology to integrate a student database with both eMail and the internet to enhance the functionality of its next generation of student information systems.

Before dot-net, a school administrator had to request custom reports to identify problem areas. Now, when an event occurs in the student information database, Chancery’s software will send a message to notify the administrator, parent, or teacher instantly.

“Under the hood, what you have is integration of the messaging component and the database,” said Lee Wilson, vice president of marketing for Chancery’s student information systems.

For example, if parents are concerned about their children’s attendance, they can customize Chancery’s student information system to notify them by eMail when their children miss more than three classes in a week. The parents could receive this eMail notification on a cell phone, pager, personal digital assistant, or computer.

“Most people won’t know that this is a dot-net technology, but what they will know is this is a much better student information system than what they could have bought last year,” Bamberger said.

By using an openly defined platform such as dot-net, Chancery and other software developers can integrate blocks of functionality that fall outside their area of expertise, such as a calendar function.

“It allows us to focus our attention on what we know best, like scheduling and attendance,” Wilson said.

Blackboard Inc. is building Version 6 of its web-based learning platform using dot-net technology. Michael Stanton, a Blackboard spokesman, said this will allow the company to integrate a wider array of academic resources in a learning environment tailored to students’ individual needs and preferences.

GVOX Inc., which provides web-based musical tools at its NotationStation.net web site, uses a small part of the dot-net platform to deliver its software to the user reliably. Compatibility issues?

Microsoft is not the only company to develop an underlying technology architecture that aims to facilitate a more personalized, integrated computing experience for users. Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems, for instance, has been building its own web-services architecture, called SunONE, which stands for Sun Open Net Environment. This raises the issue of compatibility.

SunONE is based on Sun’s Java, a popular programming language that lets developers write software applications that can run on a variety of computers, regardless of the underlying operating system. But Microsoft’s dot-net technology does not support Java.

Microsoft announced in July that it was excluding support for Java from its Windows XP operating system and all future systems so it wouldn’t violate a legal settlement with Sun. Sun had sued Microsoft three years ago, alleging the company violated the terms of an agreement signed in 1996 by creating a Windows-only version of Java that was incompatible with other operating systems.

Though Java competes directly with Microsoft’s dot-net, it’s not as broad in scope, according to Chancery’s Wilson. Because different platforms exist, however, developers like Chancery and Blackboard say they are taking steps to build their software so it is compatible with various technologies.

Links:

Microsoft .NET
http://www.microsoft.com/net

Chancery Software Ltd.
http://www.chancery.com

Blackboard Inc.
http://www.blackboard.com

GVOX Inc.
http://www.gvox.com

Sun Microsystems
http://www.sun.com

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Legal fur flies over Pennsylvania cyberschools

A county judge on Aug. 9 ordered a Pennsylvania cyberschool not to collect $43,700 in fees for 10 students it enrolled from the Butler Area School District in Butler County, Pa.

This new ruling counters a decision on May 11 in favor of the cyberschools, and it comes as lawsuits pile up over the status of charter cyberschools in the Keystone State.

On May 11, Pennsylvania Judge Warren G. Morgan denied a request by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which had wanted the state Education Department to be barred from withholding aid from school districts that refuse to pay invoices from charter cyberschools.

But the new ruling, handed down by Judge William Shaffer, is meant to stop Einstein Academy, a charter cyberschool, from getting money from the Butler Area School District–at least until Shaffer can rule on a lawsuit the district filed against Einstein July 24.

In that suit, the Butler Eagle reported Aug. 10, the district claims the cyberschool is operating illegally. Among other things, the Butler district claims Einstein has no physical address–just a post office box–and has no certified teachers.

Shaffer set a hearing to determine whether the cyberschool legally can enroll Butler Area School District students. Until then, Einstein Academy was ordered not to enroll any more Butler Area students.

Since the May ruling favoring cyberschools, more Pennsylvania school districts have joined the legal fray, while others have simply refused to pay the bills issued by the state’s online charter schools.

Cyberschools offer students an opportunity to take classes via the internet. They are permitted in Pennsylvania under the state’s charter school law, but many school districts say cyberschools are costing them money because state funding follows the student.

In July, the Downingtown Area School District in Pennsylvania’s Chester County filed a separate lawsuit against Einstein Academy, claiming the state’s 4-year-old charter school law doesn’t apply to schools that operate over the internet. That lawsuit is still pending.

Einstein cofounder Mimi Rothschild said then that public school districts are attacking the state’s fledgling online charter schools movement to guard their educational monopoly.

“What we have here is a Burger King coming into a town where there’s only been a McDonald’s,” Rothschild said. “Naturally, McDonald’s won’t like it, but people like to have a choice between a Whopper and a Big Mac.”

In addition, according to an Aug. 17 Associated Press report, several school boards in Pennsylvania’s Erie County have passed resolutions vowing not to pay bills sent by “cyber charter schools.”

Other school districts simply ignore the bills from online charter schools, which began appearing about a year ago.

The charter cyberschools will, however, receive money through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is poised to recover the payments by withholding corresponding amounts of state funding from the school districts.

Erie school officials are not contesting the payments, saying they prefer to deal with the state.

“If we pay it now and then three months from now … the school is not in business, we won’t get the money back,” said Iroquois School District business administrator Kim Smith.

Charter schools are established with approval from school districts but are not held to many of the mandates traditional public schools must meet. Under state guidelines, the districts send per-pupil payments to the charter schools to help them operate.

Charter cyberschools offer a curriculum over the internet, and students who enroll can come from anywhere in the state. Last year, Pennsylvania had two charter cyberschools, Einstein Academy and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

Conflicts are expected to increase before they are resolved, though. Six more charter cyberschools were scheduled to open this fall.

Links:

Einstein Academy
http://www.einsteinacademy.org

Butler Area School District
http://www.butler.k12.pa.us

Downingtown Area School District
http://www.dasd-adm.org

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

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Study: Video games stunt learning

A controversial new study from a Japanese researcher finds that computer games might stunt teenagers’ developing brains and cause them to be more disposed to violence than their parents, regardless of the level of violence in the games’ content.

The video game industry and some educators dispute the study’s conclusions, citing other research that suggests video games actually can be beneficial to learning.

Brain-mapping expert Professor Ryuta Kawashima and his team at Tohoku University in Japan found that absorbing violence from computer games didn’t cause aggressive outbursts in children; instead, the outbursts were caused by stunting the development of the brain.

According to reports from the British newspaper The Observer, researchers measured and compared the level of brain activity in hundreds of teenagers playing a Nintendo game and doing a simple, repetitive math exercise known as the Kraepelin test, which involves adding single-digit numbers continuously for 30 minutes.

The researchers found that youths who played the computer game didn’t stimulate their frontal lobes, the area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and–most important–self-control. In humans, the frontal lobe continues to develop until about age 20, it is reported.

Playing computer games stimulated only the parts of the brain responsible for vision and movement, the researchers found.

Kawashima reportedly conducted his research with the intention of helping game manufacturers prove that video games benefit the development of children. Now, he says children should be encouraged to read, write, and interact with others instead.

Esteemed researchers and video game advocates say Kawashima’s study is quick to assign blame.

“I think this is a considerable leap of faith from the neuroscience data to the conclusion [the researchers] draw,” said Chris Dede, Timothy Worth professor of learning technology at Harvard University. “The experts I talked to in neuroscience are very hesitant to make that kind of sweeping judgment on a single study of brain patterns.”

Dede, who is leading a $1 million research project to determine what impact–if any–the video game environment has on learning, added, “I think this work is certainly not conclusive in the way it’s being presented by the researchers. It is an important area to study, but it’s going to take a lot more than a single isolated neuroscience study for us to fully understand what the strengths and limits of kids being involved with games and simulations are.”

The European Leisure Software Publishers Association downplayed Kawashima’s research and described it as having a “very limited focus.”

“For too long now, our industry has been the target of ill-informed criticism and scare-mongering,” Roger Bennett, director general of the association, said in a statement. “We want to help those who weren’t brought up on computer games to understand this exciting new medium and the part it can play in healthy balance of learning and leisure activities for all age groups.”

According to the group, a research project led by the University of Central Lancashire and Manchester University found that those who play video games experience the same level of concentration as those who compete in sports.

“… [Computer] game-playing can significantly assist mental agility and aid concentration,” Bennett said.

Links:

Tohoku University
http://www.tohoku.ac.jp

Harvard University
http://www.harvard.edu

European Leisure Software Publishers Association
http://www.elspa.com

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