District strives to apply library efficiencies to textbook management

Two years ago, when schools in Baltimore County, Md., embarked on a complete overhaul of their beleaguered libraries, reformers employed technology to boost accountability systems. Their efforts resulted in a fully computerized approach to tracking resources both on and off the shelves.

Now, educators there are considering applying a similar technique to textbook management. The total technological solution would allow Baltimore schools to track and evaluate textbooks by way of online databases, electronic review forms, and bar codes corresponding with student accounts.

According to Della Curtis, coordinator of the district’s library information services office, the concept evolved from the success of technology initiatives she spearheaded in 2000, securing $10.5 million to upgrade the district’s grossly inadequate school library system.

Curtis said the new system—traditionally reserved for library resources—would be one of the first to provide an all-technology approach to textbook management.

“We are really paralleling how we handle library resources and taking a similar approach to how we handle textbooks,” Curtis said. “Textbooks in school districts are not as well-managed as they should be.”

Still in the planning phase, the system would employ a host of technology options designed to help educators monitor, evaluate, track, and share textbook resources throughout the school system.

Under its current design, the plan calls for each individual textbook to be outfitted with an electronic bar code, which would identify that book in the context of a massive online database, letting schools track the status and location of any book from anywhere in the district, Curtis said.

Educators familiar with the program say the concept alone holds promise.

One benefit is that a database-driven system would provide a central location where educators could turn to take stock of what texts are available, Curtis said. Currently, many schools find it difficult to keep tabs on what texts are in circulation throughout various buildings and which books are gathering dust in the book rooms.

“Now you are using technology to file information instead of going into a desk drawer or file cabinet,” Curtis said.

But the benefits of increased automation don’t stop there, said Karen Cordell, principal of Dogwood Elementary School in Baltimore County.

According to Cordell, who is responsible for educating and maintaining order among 650 elementary-aged students, having textbook resources available via computer means she can spend less time on inventory and place her focus where it should be: on education.

“Principals want to be out in the halls working on instruction, not in the book rooms counting texts,” she said.

The proposed system also promises to help schools place more effective textbook orders. Online evaluation forms would let educators rate and critique the effectiveness of certain texts. Although the idea is not altogether new, having the forms online will make the data infinitely more accessible come decision time, Curtis said.

“We could share the evaluation of textbooks,” she said. “It’s crucial that we share the knowledge and share the reviews—much the way they do in professional journals.”

According to Art Stritch, who supervises Baltimore County’s office of library and information services, the benefits associated with automated textbook management are especially pronounced in larger districts. Baltimore County, for instance, must provide textbooks for more than 107,000 students. Multimillion-dollar investments aren’t always easy to monitor when relying on a paper-based system, he said.

“Soon I won’t have to get on the phone and interrupt someone’s day to ask: What is that calculus book you are using? Because it’s right there on my desktop,” he said. “I can give people the information that they need quickly.” Proponents of the program hope additional tracking features associated with the computerized bar codes will help drive down the number of texts that are lost or stolen by year’s end.

“To be effective and efficient, we have to work with a system that allows us to keep track of and maintain our resources,” said Lynn Bloom from the school system’s office of internal audit.

“It’s very hard for us to keep track of what we have,” Bloom said. “The volume of individual items is just too great.”

Cordell agreed: “Schools do lose materials over the course of a year.”

But Curtis said she would expect a fully computerized system to drive down the costs associated with replacing lost books by holding students responsible through the use of personal accounts similar to those used in the schools’ modern library system.

“We will have a greater accountability for who has what,” Curtis said.

To reinforce that accountability, the system automatically will identify students who have failed to return textbooks, sending letters to unsuspecting parents.

Despite the potential for increased accountability, even some of the concept’s most adamant supporters acknowledge that initial costs, along with the additional work required during implementation, could keep the system from ever becoming a reality.

“Whenever you are talking about technology, you are talking about dollars,” said Bloom, who added that it might be difficult to convince school boards of future savings in the face of high initial costs. Those costs, she said, would include software, scanners, training, and professional development programs.

“The initial workload will be huge,” Stritch said. “But once it’s done, it’s done. You can continue to build on that initial investment.”

“The benefits would outweigh the costs in the long haul,” Cordell said.

Currently, Curtis and her design committee are searching for a company that promises to deliver on the services the district has requested.

“Companies have bits and pieces of these processes,” Curtis said. “But there needs to be a total technological solution, and there is no reason why there can’t be.”

Links:

Baltimore County Public Schools
http://www.bcps.org

tags

This grant, called Special Education–Technical Assistance and Dissemination to Improve Services and Results for Children with Disabilities Program, is authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended.

This program provides technical assistance & information that (1) support States & local entities in building capacity to improve early intervention, educational, & transitional services & results for children with disabilities & their families; & (2) address goals & priorities for changing State systems that provide early intervention, educational, & transitional services for children with disabilities & their families.

Eligible Applicants include state educational agencies (SEAs) of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, outlying areas & Freely Associated States that have not been awarded grants under this competition (84.326X) in previous years.

The Department plans to award approximately 18 grants for an average of $375,000.

Additional information is available online at:
http://www.ed.gov/legislation/FedRegister/announcements/2002-2/062502c.html

tags

Report: America needs tech programs Bush would kill

Contrary to a recent federal report that showed substantial gains in computer and internet access by Americans, some civil liberties advocates say the digital divide still exists and federal leadership is crucial to closing the gap.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and the Benton Foundation, with support from the Ford Foundation, issued a report July 11 called “Bringing a Nation Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership.”

The report gives state-by-state accounts of how some federal grant programs have helped improve access to technology for all Americans, including schoolchildren. It argues there is a continued need for these programs and criticizes the Bush Administration’s plans to eliminate them.

The report is a reaction to data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce earlier this year in a report called “A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet.”

In that report, the administration pointed to a trend that showed internet use growing at a faster rate among the poor and minorities and in rural areas. Emboldened by the survey, officials declared that the digital divide was closing and expensive government programs aimed at closing the gap no longer were needed.

Despite these gains, the authors of “Bringing a Nation Online” found a significant divide remains based on income, race and ethnicity, geography, and disability—meaning many Americans have yet to see the benefit of the internet.

For example, the report shows that 68 percent of white and Asian Americans use the internet, compared to 30 percent of black Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics. Also, the report finds that the disabled use computers and the internet half as often as other Americans.

“The Commerce Department’s data should be used to guide and strengthen federal programs that bridge the opportunity divide, not as an excuse to eliminate them as the Bush Administration has proposed,” said Wade Henderson, counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

Two technology programs in particular—the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) and the Education Department’s Community Technology Centers (CTC) program—are slated for elimination in the Bush Administration’s fiscal 2003 budget, despite their reported accomplishments.

The report profiles 44 TOP and CTC projects in 25 states that, individually and collectively, demonstrate the federal government’s success in assisting a wide range of Americans gain access to technology, enhance economic opportunity, and build community services.

“The good news is that the federal government has jump-started hundreds of community technology centers, sparking innovation in many rural and low-income neighborhoods,” Benton Foundation President Andrea L. Taylor said. “However, scuttling programs that offer new approaches to human activity that could strengthen our democracy undercuts community efforts to provide economic opportunity for all Americans.”

Neither Commerce Department nor White House officials were available for comment before press time.

In addition, the nation’s schools are closing the gap for minority students who do not have computer access at home, the report found. Hispanic and black children—with low computer-use rates at home—have equitable access when compared with white, Asian, and Pacific Island children at school.

“The availability of school computers makes overall computer use rates among children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds comparable,” the report stated. As of September 2001, almost 90 percent of school-aged children used computers and 58.5 percent used the internet, mainly to complete school work.

But some educators worry that students who don’t have computers at home are at a disadvantage when compared with students who do have home access.

To date, TOP has awarded 530 grants in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, totaling $192.5 million and leveraging $268 million in local matching funds. The CTC program has awarded 227 grants based on a $107.5 million allocation from Congress that has leveraged $92.5 million in non-federal matching funds.

Links:

Benton Foundation
http://www.benton.org

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund
http://www.civilrights.org

“Bringing a Nation Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership”
http://www.civilrights.org/publications/bringinganationonline

U.S. Department of Commerce
http://www.doc.gov

“A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet”
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/dn/index.html

tags

USDA lets schools place food orders online

School food purchasers soon will be able to order canned peaches, peas, and other nutritional items for school meals online, thanks to a new automated system from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Electronic Commodity Ordering System (ECOS) is an online tool that lets local districts communicate their school lunch needs in real time to states prior to placement of commodity orders with USDA, thus lessening a bureaucratic burden that has contributed to the slow-moving distribution of school commodity food for years.

Though a number of states have developed similar tools for food ordering independent of the federal government, this marks the first time USDA has offered such a service to states and schools directly. What’s more, it’s free of charge.

According to Les Johnson, director of USDA’s food distribution unit, USDA-supplied commodities make up 15 to 20 percent of the food devoured, tossed, and trashed by students in school cafeterias each year. What amounts to approximately $700 million worth of commodity orders from schools results in a complex logistical system of ordering, shipping, and distribution of products across the country. ECOS, Johnson said, will help streamline that process.

“The system allows access to everything the federal government offers schools as a commodity,” he said. “It will give [schools] the ability to order what it is that they need.”

Typically, the commodity ordering process begins with USDA allocating maximum amounts of any given order—from chocolate pudding to chicken nuggets—to individual states. These choices then are filtered down to individual schools and districts. Once schools decide on an order, they resubmit their request to the state, where results are compiled and returned to USDA. The agency then constructs a bid package and allows companies to submit competitive bids. After an agreement is reached, the food is delivered by truck either to a state warehouse for storage or, in the case of larger institutions, directly to schools for consumption, Johnson said.

Before ECOS, states found communication with individual schools difficult, Johnson said. Under a previous system, known as Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), states had the ability to communicate by modem and via eMail with USDA officials. But the program did not include a channel for local districts to participate in the communications, Johnson said.

Older systems generally were paper-based, which slowed the ordering process. But, according to Johnson, the new online component integrates technology to improve upon those methods.

First, ECOS is expected to provide for better communications between state agencies and local school districts. Johnson said improved communication channels will help USDA pinpoint the exact commodity needs of individual schools.

Before, “states had to estimate what schools needed,” Johnson said. “This will allow states to work with real data from the schools.”

That means school officials can log onto the databases and enter exactly how much of a commodity they require. State facilities then can review this information before placing commodity orders at the federal level. According to Johnson, this capability will help both states and USDA decide how to spread commodity allocations more effectively.

Another benefit to real-time access: Food and nutrition specialists can see instantly what commodities are available and how much of their federal allocations have been used.

According to Johnson, USDA gives states a commodity allowance based on the number of students served in each state. Once they have reached their limit under the allowance, they must purchase commodities from the general market.

“The system will allow [states] to keep track of how many commodity orders they have left,” Johnson said.

ECOS also promises to provide for advanced warnings in the event of spoiled or contaminated foods, an apprehension that had increased in light of recent homeland security concerns.

The system “allows for a direct communication with the schools,” Johnson said. “Whenever you are dealing with food, you have occasions where something goes wrong.” State and school food nutrition specialists who have used the program on a pilot basis say ECOS has potential.

“Having it online makes things so much easier. It’s going to save a lot of time,” said Amy Lins, director of food services for the Oakland Unified School District.

Lins, who helped develop the program, said she was most impressed by the amount of time ECOS saved her during the ordering process.

“As a director, I can tell you it really helps to be able to consult my computer instead of having to look up a file,” she said. “Anything that we don’t have to file or send is a always helpful.”

Steve Thomas, a food distribution administrator for Virginia, echoed Johnson’s sentiments. He agreed that ECOS will help schools and states order the exact amounts of commodities needed.

Virginia, he said, was operating under a very inexact system. Commodity orders were made based on broad estimates. When excess food arrived, it would be shipped to other schools throughout the state or stored in a warehouse in the event of a shortage. “Right now, we really don’t have a feel for the exact volume of our orders,” he said. “This new system will really help us pinpoint what it is [school systems] want.”

Despite the program’s potential for improved ordering efficiency, Thomas said he still expects schools to have to place food orders some six to nine months in advance.

“One of the hurdles you still have to get over is the logistical movement within the state,” he said. “Everything is done six to nine months ahead of time.”

Neither Johnson nor Lins denies that logistics continues to be a problem. But, they said, the new system will make improvements.

ECOS “probably won’t address all the logistics concerns directly,” Lins said. “But in the long run, it will speed up the ordering process.”

Johnson also acknowledged that several states will continue to experience logistical difficulties in the shipping and storing of food. But, he said, the ability to use exact data should help eliminate the need for the additional transportation, storage, and redistribution of excess commodities throughout different states.

“We are continually involved in a balancing act,” he said.

Johnson said he expects the system will become a popular option for schools come January when it is offered freely to all states, although some states will stay with systems already in place.

Currently, ECOS is being piloted in four states: Virginia, Connecticut, California, and Illinois. The remaining 46 states will have the option to implement the service by January, Johnson said.

Links:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
http://www.usda.gov

California Department of Education
http://www.cde.ca.gov

Oakland Unified School District
http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us

State of Virginia
http://www.myvirginia.org

Virginia State Department of Education
http://www.pen.k12.va.us

tags

Explore the mystery of all things living at “The Shape of Life”

This PBS-sponsored site is the educational complement to eight hours of programming dedicated to exploring the diversity of animal life on Earth. “The Shape of Life” contains video clips from each of the eight episodes and takes students from the evolution of the single-celled organism through the mystery of the human body. Students can research creatures such as flatworms and can look at pictures of animals from water-dwelling sponges to tree-climbing primates. The Activities and Resources section comes with step-by-step directions for a variety of crafts and projects. Students can make their own jellyfish out of paper plates or perform an experiment to determine whether snails have a sense of smell. For research purposes, an Explorations and Scientists section contains short interviews with leading scientists and briefly explains their latest research endeavors. The site also contains a comprehensive glossary of biological terms and invites students to explore in detail the eight major classifications of life on Earth. Students wishing to further their discovery will find links to more advanced materials. The site is designed for students of all ages and features appropriate content for children from kindergarten through high school.

tags

eSN Analysis: Big-business bungles shake school customers

The massive debts and outrageous accounting scandals that have sent shares plummeting and clouded the future of industry giants such as WorldCom and Vivendi Universal have made one thing clear: Schools are as vulnerable to the missteps and misfortunes of big businesses as are shareholders and other consumers.

Like other markets, the education industry has experienced a record number of mergers and acquisitions since last year. But as the recent troubles of WorldCom illustrate, corporate consolidation can compound the sting when things go wrong.

In early July, French company Vivendi Universal became the latest corporate titan to make headlines when a French newspaper reported that Vivendi sought unsuccessfully to inflate its 2001 accounts by $1.47 billion. Vivendi’s chairman, Jean-Marie Messier, resigned July 2 in the wake of the scandal and with the company facing a mountain of debt.

Reportedly the world’s second-largest entertainment conglomerate (behind AOL Time Warner Inc.), Vivendi’s holdings include Universal Studios and Universal Records. The company also owns educational software companies Sunburst Technology and Knowledge Adventure, as well as textbook publisher Houghton-Mifflin Co.

Messier had orchestrated a string of costly acquisitions aimed at transforming Vivendi, which had it roots in water and waste treatment, into a multimedia entertainment behemoth. In doing so, however, he accumulated the biggest debt load in French corporate history, ultimately causing investors to flee and Vivendi shares to tumble 75 percent this year. The company’s troubles leave its fate—and those of its school customers—in limbo.

According to a report released in June by Eduventures Inc., an independent research firm focused on the education industry, there were 114 publicly announced, education-related mergers during 2001, up from less than 30 the year before.

This year, the trend continues. Scantron Corp., a provider of testing solutions for schools, on July 9 announced plans to acquire EdVision Corp., a maker of web-based curriculum development and assessment tools, for $29 million.

In May, the Concord Consortium’s nonprofit subsidiary EdTech Exchange Inc. acquired HighWired, a company that provides free web communication tools to thousands of schools and teachers. Also in May, PLATO Learning, which makes comprehensive courseware for schools, acquired NetSchools Corp., which sells one-to-one eLearning solutions for education.

Although these mergers are relatively small in scale, three corporations in particular—Vivendi, Pearson plc, and Riverdeep plc —have significantly increased their dominance in the education market by acquiring numerous education companies in the last few years.

International media and publishing company Pearson plc, with revenues of more than $6 billion last year, includes Penguin Books, the Financial Times of London, and Pearson Education. Among Pearson Education’s assets are Electronic Education (publisher of Waterford reading and math software), NCS Pearson, NCS Learn, Prentice Hall School, and Scott Foresman. NCS Learn was formed last year from Pearson holdings NovaNET and Computer Curriculum Corp.

Riverdeep plc, with world headquarters in Dublin, Ireland, has acquired several ed-tech companies since 2000, including Edmark Corp., EDVantage Software, SmartStuff Software, Teacher Universe, and The Learning Company. Riverdeep’s total revenues were nearly $52 million last year.

These mega-corporations aim to operate more efficiently than a series of smaller companies, because they can consolidate redundant tasks such as human resources and marketing. They also have deeper pockets, meaning they have more capital to spend on research and development to create new or better products.

But consolidation traditionally leads to less diversity and choice in the marketplace. And, as the recent problems at Vivendi and WorldCom show, having fewer companies means there is greater impact when one of the giants struggles or falls.

Mergers can be quite complicated and expensive to execute smoothly, said Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, an educational technology research and consulting firm. Often, cost-cutting occurs in the short term to help the company survive the consolidation process, he said.

“In the near term, [consolidation] may mean less product development and fewer resources put into marketing and customer support,” Grunwald said. “A lot of times, the cost savings [these companies] think are going to happen don’t happen.”

Ultimately, the relationship the company has with its customer is damaged, Grunwald said—but if the company divests and separates into smaller companies, it can benefit customers.

“Smaller companies are closer to the customer and more focused on their core competencies,” he said.

Complicating matters is growing doubt over the reliability of corporate financial statements and questions of honesty on the part of CEOs.

“Many high-profile mergers in recent years have failed to deliver the promised benefits,” Frederick W. Green, president of The Merger Fund, recently wrote to shareholders. “Not only must senior managers convince themselves that a deal makes sense, but they also must be able to sell the transaction to Wall Street, which is no longer willing to give would-be acquirers a free pass.”

Green cites the Hewlett-Packard purchase of Compaq Computer Corp. earlier this year, which was sold to investors based on its long-term benefits but was opposed because of its near-term effects on the company’s earnings and the distractions of integrating two companies.

“CEOs are under increasing pressure from all sides to get it right when they undertake a significant merger or acquisition, and the crisis of confidence that pervades many executive suites has not been good for our business,” Green wrote.

In reference to Vivendi, Grunwald said some observers think that when a company’s leader is trying to execute his vision and then overnight he is no longer in charge, the company’s fate seems uncertain. This fear is especially heightened if the company is overextended financially, he added.

Analysts said French banks likely will bail out Vivendi on condition that the company sells off some of its assets. Indeed, this has already started to happen, as Vivendi received an initial loan of $990 million July 9.

“They’re giving liquidity for the short term because they can see Vivendi has a good cash flow,” said Jose-Luis de Moran of Merrill Lynch.

Meanwhile, France’s culture minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, said he wrote to new Vivendi chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou to express his concerns about Vivendi’s role as a protector of French culture.

“This ministry cannot remain indifferent toward the company’s situation and the risks that would exist from its breakup,” he told reporters.

School leaders, increasingly dependent on solid performance from the private sector, are finding that indifference to corporate turmoil isn’t feasible for education either.

Links:

Vivendi Universal
http://www.vivendiuniversal.com

WorldCom Inc.
http://www.worldcom.com

Pearson plc
http://www.pearson.com

Riverdeep plc
http://www.riverdeep.com

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

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com

Hewlett-Packard Company
http://www.hp.com

tags

Ohio’s new student ID system raises data-security concerns

Ohio officials are preparing to assign an identification number to each of the state’s 1.8 million public schoolchildren to improve student-data tracking and boost academic performance. But in spite of state assurances that student data will be protected by the most sophisticated security technology available, the new ID system worries the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which has asked the state for details on the plan.

The Ohio Department of Education says the Statewide Student Identifier System will be in place this coming school year. The state will use the system to study which programs are effective and which students need extra help, said department spokesman J.C. Benton.

Lawmakers approved the concept of the system two years ago when they overhauled the way the department collects data. The system also will help Ohio comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in January.

Last year, after lawmakers revamped Ohio’s proficiency-test systems, school districts began reporting test scores according to a child’s gender and race.

Although the state has received such information in summary form before, this will be the first time officials will have information on individual students, Benton said.

“Really, we’re not collecting anything more than we collect now when Joey starts the first day of kindergarten,” he said.

The department won’t have any personal information on students and will track them only by a number, Benton said.

The system requires schools to collect specific pieces of identifying information, including a student’s name, date of birth, place of birth, ethnicity, and gender. The information then is given to New York-based PwC Consulting, which assigns an identification number for each student.

The education department is paying the firm $1.25 million to manage the program. The company, a division of accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, will not receive any academic information about a child, according to state officials.

The system has “the most advanced security features available” for transmitting and storing information, Benton said.

Nevertheless, the ACLU of Ohio filed a public records request with the education department for all details about the project.

“We’re talking about the government collecting and collating vast amount of information about students,” said Raymond Vasvari, ACLU legal director. “Once you start collecting data and putting [them] together in ways not generally available without doing the collecting, all sorts of questions arise.”

The school board in Akron, Ohio, decided to provide only the information required this year rather than include additional data—such as a student’s middle name and place of birth—which will be required next year.

“We felt this was information that had never been supplied about a child before, and the child would be able to be tracked,” said district spokeswoman Karen Ingraham. “We’re so sensitive to Ohio privacy laws regarding students, we just wanted to make sure the community did know information about their students would be in someone’s hands.”

Robert Rachor, who directs data collection and analysis for the Toledo, Ohio, city schools, told the Associated Press he supports the goals of the new ID program and believes the proper privacy protection is in place.

“My concern is there is so much data being collected on kids that I worry about the accuracy of the data,” he said. “People don’t have time to check it all.”

Other states are creating similar reporting systems. In Iowa, education officials last month predicted they would need a similar identification number.

Michigan is creating the Michigan Education Information System, although some districts have complained about the time and money they’re spending on the project.

Links:

Ohio Department of Education
http://www.ode.state.oh.us

PwC Consulting
http://www.pwcconsulting.com

ACLU of Ohio
http://www.acluohio.org

tags

eSN Update: Microsoft agrees to make ‘Kids Passport’ service more kid-friendly

Microsoft Corp. has agreed to make changes to its Kids Passport service, an online system that seeks to obtain parental consent before allowing web sites to collect and disclose the names, addresses, and online identities of children. The software giant’s decision came after one watchdog agency’s report claimed the company misrepresented itself to parents. eSchool News first broke the story in August 2001.

The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a division of the Better Business Bureau that monitors certain web sites for compliance under its own regulatory guidelines and those imposed by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), said Microsoft should make the changes to better inform parents about the consequences and limitations of using Kids Passport, which CARU claims was not designed specifically for children.

Kids Passport, an extension of Microsoft’s .NET (“dot-net”) Passport program, is a vehicle for children under 13 to obtain parental consent easily before registering on more than 300 participating web sites, some of which independently collect and disclose personally identifiable information—including eMail addresses, first and last names, mailing addresses, and birth dates.

The software giant said it developed .NET Passport as a medium for participating sites to exchange personal information, thus allowing visitors to create single user profiles, which would let them log on to any number of sites without having to constantly repeat the registration process.

By extension, Kids Passport allows parents to give their consent just once, and this consent would enable children to log on to all participating sites. Microsoft promotes the service as a way for parents and children’s web site operators to ease the administrative burden of complying with COPPA, which requires parents to give their consent before a web site can collect personally identifiable information from their children.

But according to CARU, Microsoft’s Kids Passport service also gave parents the false impression that it would better protect kids’ privacy online.

“After extensively reviewing the Kids Passport service, CARU found that certain information presented by Microsoft about what the service would do for children and how parents could control their children’s online activities through the use of the service was inadequate and confusing,” CARU’s report said.

For instance, the organization’s critique said Kids Passport was misleading because its advertising content implied that kids who participated in the program would be granted access only to those sites designed specifically with children in mind. CARU, however, said that was not the case.

At the time of its inquiry, CARU found that “none of the 12 sites that were then Kids Passport-participating sites and services was designed specifically for children.” According to the report, all of the sites—which the company touted as child-oriented—in fact were general-interest sites. These sites included mainly names from the Microsoft family of online services, including MSN Calendar, MSN Chat, and the company’s free Hotmail eMail service.

Offering children access to such widely used services made it impossible for Microsoft to ensure that children were not revealing the types of personally identifiable information that its Kids Passport had vowed to protect, thus allowing people—possibly predators—to initiate online or offline contact with children. This possibility was not accurately disclosed to parents, CARU said.

Also, the organization complained that the privacy statements of several participating sites, which COPPA requires, either did not exist or were difficult to understand. “Microsoft does not endorse or even review the privacy policies of each [participating site],” CARU said. “Neither does Microsoft ensure that the individual [sites] conform to [its own] posted privacy policies.”

A major problem with the inconsistent privacy policies of participating sites is that parents never truly know how much information their children will be asked to divulge. CARU said Microsoft was unclear about the differences that exist between a Kids Passport profile and a standard .Net Passport profile. Also, the amount of information gathered depends on which participating site the child chooses to register from, CARU said.

In response to CARU’s report, Microsoft has agreed to several major revisions.

First, Microsoft no longer will claim that its product helps protect or control online privacy. The company also has agreed to clear up language concerning the types of sites that are available through the program. Microsoft will no longer tout participating sites as specifically child-oriented and will include some mention of general-interest content.

Microsoft also said it will provide two separate privacy policies, one for its .NET Passport service and one for Kids Passport. The latter will explain that Microsoft does not monitor the privacy policies of participating sites, but merely provides a single location where parents can turn to grant or deny consent for participating sites that collect sensitive personal information from children.

What’s more, all participating MSN sites will explain how children’s personally identifiable information will be collected and distributed by way of a separate statement for parents, according to the agreement. Microsoft said it will revise its online screens so that parents who wish to grant consent will be better informed of the consequences that exist with the disclosure of personal information. The company also will revise its help screens so parents will be able to navigate the site and obtain a passport for their children more easily.

Furthermore, Microsoft said it will warn parents that children have the power to edit their online profiles to include more detailed information, such as their name and address. Also, the company will make clear that children can obtain .NET Passports without parental consent whenever they encounter a participating site that does not require users to specify their age. Sites that do require age verification will disallow children who identify themselves as under 13 from using profile-sharing preferences.

Concerns over Microsoft’s Kids Passport first materialized last August, when eSchool News reported that 12 organizations—including the Center for Media Education—had filed separate complaints with the Federal Trade Commission alleging the service violated COPPA.

Detractors claimed Microsoft’s service did not comply with the law because it did not offer a universal privacy policy for all participating sites, but required parents to review the polices of each site individually. Also, they said, Microsoft did not draw enough attention to its own privacy policy so parents and kids could understand what they were signing up for and how personal information was to be distributed.

While the FTC has made little progress of its own regarding the complaints, CARU—one of three independent Safe Harbors commissioned by the agency to help ensure that online organizations are in compliance with COPPA—has had more success.

“CARU is a self-regulatory agency working within the framework of a very clear law,” said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education. “It is critical to have a law on the books that sets up very clear requirements.”

Throughout the controversy, Microsoft has stood by its policies and the dissemination of its privacy information. But the company said it understands CARU’s concerns regarding the need for clearer language.

“We believe our policies accurately state the information parents need to make informed decisions,” a Microsoft spokesman said. “[But] in our discussions with CARU it became clear that there could be some misunderstanding around the language, and we are happy to make changes in cooperation with CARU to ensure that we are being clear and concise.”

The changes are expected to be fully implemented by September.

Links:

Kids Passport
http://kids.passport.com

.NET Passport
http://www.passport.com

Children’s Advertising Review Unit
http://www.caru.org

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

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

tags

Pennsylvania seeks fix for troubled cyber schools

A new Pennsylvania law seeks to improve the accountability of the state’s charter cyber schools while allaying educators’ concerns that the schools are draining money away from their districts.

The school-code law, signed by Gov. Mark Schweiker June 29, will partially reimburse the state’s school systems for per-pupil funding lost when students enroll in alternative schools. The law also transfers authority for the establishment, evaluation, and renewal of charter cyber schools from local school districts to the state education department.

The new law comes just 12 days after a state court dismissed a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) challenging the legality of the state’s online charter schools. The court dismissed the case, but handed school districts a partial victory by saying districts should have an opportunity to question tuition bills sent to them by charter cyber schools.

Pennsylvania has been a pioneer of cyber education—a form of distance learning in which students receive instruction via the internet. But problems have arisen over who should foot the bill for the state’s cyber-school students. The problems were highlighted by the high-profile struggles of one cyber school in particular, the Einstein Academy, headquartered in Bucks County.

According to state education department officials, more than 300 districts refused to pay $10 million in bills last year from Einstein Academy and Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Pennsylvania has seven cyber schools in all.

In filing its lawsuit, one of PSBA’s key concerns was that the state’s cyber schools are funded under a formula based on the per-pupil spending of the students’ home districts, yet the districts receive no state subsidies for these students.

In a report issued last October on Pennsylvania’s growing cyber-school movement, the association claimed that cyber charter schools have saddled local school districts with $18 million in unbudgeted expenses and have attracted mostly home schoolers, who previously had not been entitled to taxpayer support.

The new law attempts to address this concern by reimbursing public school districts up to 30 percent of the per-pupil funds lost when prospective students enroll in charter schools.

But, according to Stan Whisler, who is director of business affairs for schools in Souderton, Pa., the reimbursements cannot be used to purchase additional technology equipment or create new educational services for students.

In fact, the law states that funds can be used for only three purposes, Whisler said: as a tax abatement, to reduce outstanding debt, or to restore any programs that had been cut.

The law “really restricts what we can use the money for,” said Whisler, whose district plans to use its more than $100,000 in additional funding to pay down its debt.

In spite of such limitations, PSBA spokesman Tim Allwein calls the new law “a step in the right direction.” State oversight of cyber charter schools will help clear up some of the problems that have existed, he said. Gretchen Toner, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the state now will serve as “a central clearinghouse” for questions regarding the appropriate operation and regulation of charter cyber schools.

The legislation also will relieve chartering school districts of an unwanted bureaucratic burden, she said: keeping track of cyber-school enrollments. Although they reside in a single district, cyber schools attract students from across the state.

“It is an onerous task for chartering school districts to keep track of students drawn from across the state,” Toner said. Bookkeeping, too, can be difficult.

Toner said state officials realized that—in its original form—the charter school application was not comprehensive enough to ensure that cyber schools were prepared to open. The new law calls on the state education department to set key guidelines, including attendance procedures, computer versus personal instruction time, and curriculum standards.

The law requires that cyber-school applications include a description of the proposed curriculum; work that is aligned to state standards; a model of the education delivery system; the amount of time students will spend online; a list of technologies that will be used; special-education procedures; attendance policies; and a list of all materials that will be provided by the school or required for students to purchase.

The state also will be responsible for monitoring whether cyber schools are meeting the goals set by their charters. If not, schools will be in jeopardy of having their charters revoked. This is a responsibility that previously had rested with the chartering district.

Despite these changes, Allwein said cyber charter schools still must come a long way to escape lingering controversies.

For instance, he said, the new law does not place any limitation on the continuing proliferation of cyber charter schools. According to Allwein, some cyber schools take on more students than they are equipped to handle.

“Many cyber schools are taking on additional students, but not taking on additional instructors,” he said. “Kids aren’t getting the educations they deserve.”

The new law, he said, does not place enough responsibility on cyber charter schools to deliver a full, well-balanced learning experience. “You can basically put a curriculum online and call yourself a cyber school,” he said. He contends the Einstein Academy is an example of that phenomenon.

In May, eSchool News reported that Einstein Academy finally would receive $3.4 million that state officials had withheld over questions about whether the school was operating legally. In return, the school must ensure that it meets several conditions, including providing services to special education students, responding to parental complaints, and properly accounting for its billing and spending practices.

Einstein had struggled to deliver computers and textbooks to families on time since it opened last September. In March, the academy’s internet service was terminated, reportedly leaving many of its students in the lurch. Einstein’s provider said the academy owed nearly $80,000 for internet service.

According to Toner, Einstein is the exception. Most cyber schools, she said, have proven to be trustworthy, accountable, and highly effective. But she agreed there still is work to be done.

“Laws are the first step,” she said. “Then you have to boil everything down to the nitty-gritty and make things work.”

Pennsylvania’s seven cyber charter schools currently enroll about 4,995 students. The state education department said it plans to approve two more such schools for the fall.

Links:

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.state.pa.us/pde_internet/site/default.asp

Pennsylvania School Boards Association
http://www.psba.org/home.html

tags

a

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) announces a $20 million pilot grant program for broadband transmission service in rural America.

For fiscal year 2002, $20 million in grants will be made available through a national competition to applicants proposing to provide broadband transmission service on a “community-oriented connectivity” basis. This approach will target rural, economically- challenged communities and offer a means for the deployment of broadband transmission services to rural schools, libraries, education centers, health care providers, law enforcement agencies, public safety organizations as well as residents and businesses. This all-encompassing connectivity concept will give small, rural communities a chance to benefit from the advanced technologies that are necessary to foster economic growth, provide quality education and health care opportunities, and increase and enhance public safety efforts.

Applications for grants will be accepted until November 5, 2002. All applications must be delivered to RUS or bear postmark no later than November 5, 2002.

tags