Virginia schools boost student achievement with video on demand

A video streaming service that delivers clips of educational videos on demand to teachers’ desktop computers has been found to boost student achievement by nearly 13 percent in some Virginia schools. Teachers say the online service helps engage students’ interest while making lesson-planning easier.

The service, called unitedstreaming, offers teachers access to more than 2,000 complete videos that can be streamed or downloaded on demand to a desktop from a server. It was developed by United Learning, a company that has been producing and distributing 16-millimeter educational films since 1954.

The company has catalogued and indexed its entire collection of videos into more than 15,000 two-to-three minute clips, so teachers can choose to show an entire program or just a short clip without needing to fast-forward or rewind.

“I prefer the clips,” said William Collins, seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher at Central Middle School in Charlotte Court House, Va. “[With] some of the videos, as good as they are, it’s not practical or necessary to show the whole thing to teach the objective.”

The videos cover a range of subjects, including math, social studies, health studies, art, science, and language arts. Teachers can search for content by keyword, grade level, subject, or state and national teaching standards.

“I don’t have to go to the library,” Collins said. “Right here at my desk, I just go onto the internet and within two minutes I have a segment I can use in my lesson.”

Once teachers have selected a video or clip, they can choose to view the video by live streaming or download it to their computer. Downloading allows teachers to access the clip at any time without being connected to the internet.

“I incorporate [clips] into PowerPoint presentations to reinforce concepts and different objectives that I’m teaching,” Collins said. “[The service] works so well with PowerPoint.”

For a civics lesson, Collins can show a video segment that discusses the history of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, for example, and why the amendments were added.

The video incorporates both reenactment and historical footage. “You can’t bring that out in a textbook or a lecture, no matter how good you are,” he said.

Showing video clips in class breaks up the monotony of a lesson. “It adds variety, which is really good at the middle school level,” Collins said.

Teachers like the short clips because they can get the idea across faster. “We have so much to teach and so little time to teach it. Our teachers can pick and choose what to show to use their time more wisely,” said Claudia Bates, curriculum coordinator for Virginia’s Charlotte County Schools.

Children are more attentive and can retain the point better, she added.

“Sometimes the clip starts abruptly and ends abruptly because of the whole editing process, but it is still handy compared to showing a whole 22-minute video,” Collins said.

The streaming video capitalizes on the high-speed internet connections many schools have today. Schools can choose to cache the content on a server at the school or central office, at a regional service center, or at United Learning.

Schools can add their own video collections to the same system for teachers to access, providing they own the digital rights to the content. Unitedstreaming features an upload manager tool to facilitate this process.

The content is always increasing, according to the company. For example, United Learning recently signed an agreement with Discovery Channel School to incorporate some of its content into the service.

After using unitedstreaming, Collins said, his students improved substantially on Virginia’s state test. The eighth grade history class improved from the 44th percentile to 87th on Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL), he said.

“I’m not giving [unitedstreaming] all the credit, because our teaching improved—but it certainly helped,” Collins said. In addition to using unitedstreaming, the school’s two history teachers aligned their teaching to Virginia’s standards and incorporated other presentations and videos in their lessons.

“I think all combined, it helped,” he said.

Collins’ students also participated in an independent, scientific evaluation of unitedstreaming that found student achievement increased by 12.6 percent. More than 1,400 elementary and middle school students in three Virginia schools participated in this study.

The research was based on one economics unit. Researchers tested students on their knowledge before and after the unit. Some classes were exposed to unitedstreaming content, while control groups were not.

“The research showed among the experimental students an increase in their performance by 12.6 percentage points compared [with] the control group,” said Jim McColl, vice president of United Learning. “This is certainly an example of technology helping in the classroom.”

Links:

United Learning
http://www.unitedlearning.com

Charlotte County Public Schools
http://www.ccps.k12.va.us

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Report: ED shares personal student data

High school seniors who tap the government’s online student aid application to find relief for soaring college tuitions should approach with caution. The private information disclosed on such forms—including social security number, financial status, and legal history—is shared with agencies outside the U.S. Department of Education (ED), including the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and even private companies such as debt collectors.

A report released Oct. 30 by congressional investigators found that government agencies frequently share information gleaned from various federal applications—sometimes without the applicant’s knowledge of where it might go. And it’s legal.

“People are generally unaware of all of the sharing,” said Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a civil liberties organization based in Washington, D.C.

The information sharing ranges from passport application data—which can be shared with foreign governments—to details on student loan applications. The law requires that agencies receiving the applicant’s form must disclose how they use the information.

ED spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said applicants are told in detail on the paper and electronic forms of their applications that information will be shared. They list some, but not all, federal agencies that will receive information, but they don’t always specify what outside companies also might see it.

She said such sharing of information is needed to process the application.

“Sharing with the other agencies is necessary in order to confirm a student’s eligibility,” Babyak said.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’s investigative arm, checked four often-used government forms to see how the agencies collected and shared information both inside and outside of government. The report listed all the ways agencies share personal data, some of which are not explicitly listed on the form itself.

Much of the sharing is owing to “computer matching agreements,” a way to automate routine checks.

For example, ED gives information on financial aid applicants to:

  • The Justice Department to see if they have been convicted of a drug-related offense.
  • The Department of Veteran’s Affairs to check a veteran’s eligibility status for student aid.
  • The Selective Service System to make sure a male applicant has registered for the draft.
  • The Immigration and Naturalization Department to see if an applicant is eligible for federal benefits.

If an applicant is delinquent on a federal loan, application information goes to a private collection bureau. ED also sends the student’s personal financial information to state agencies to coordinate student aid.

While ED admitted it shares data about student aid applicants with other federal agencies, the department was unable to specify at press time whether ED employs the same communal approach to private information from other applications, including those for education grants.

No question, federal information-sharing agreements and the convenience of sharing computer data make swapping Americans’ most sensitive personal information easy to do.

“It’s becoming much easier to share information across multiple databases,” said Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. But technology, he said, is making it more difficult for applicants to control which agencies have access to the information once it is submitted.

Despite concerns, investigators found the agencies largely complied with federal information sharing and privacy regulations as they stand today.

“These four agencies’ handling of personal information varied greatly—including the types and amount collected—and a wide range of personnel had access to the information,” investigators wrote. “We did, however, note isolated instances of forms that were not accurate or current, and other forms that did not contain the proper privacy notices.”

The four forms investigated were ED’s student aid request, Agriculture’s standard loan form for farmers, Labor’s federal worker’s compensation form, and a passport application from the State Department.

The sharing is allowed under an exception in the Privacy Act, which protects a person’s information from sharing without prior consent. Called the “routine use exception,” agencies must make a public statement in the Federal Register every time they want to share data in a new way.

But CDT’s Schwartz said the disclosure doesn’t make it easier for applicants to figure out.

“There’s [a new Federal register notice] every day, they’re very difficult to read, and [such privacy disclosures are] listed vaguely,” Schwartz said. “It’s the easiest place to claim an exemption.”

Legislation proposed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who requested the GAO report, would require more detailed privacy impact statements on such databases. The Senate has passed the bill and the House is expected to take it up after the election recess.

Even though the agencies must tell applicants how their information will be used, applicants are usually left with a Hobson’s choice: Either provide the information and watch it be shared throughout the government and elsewhere, or don’t apply and forego the student aid, passport, or other service.

The GAO also found that many federal employees at the individual agencies can see the information that is shared. Up to 13 different types of State Department workers—from civil service clerks and foreign workers at U.S. embassies to employees at Mellon Bank, which handles some passport renewals—have access to passport application data, for example.

Schwartz said privacy concerns are likely to increase as the government relies more on digital forms.

“We need to make sure that the Privacy Act is kept up to date and [is] still relevant,” he said.

Links:

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

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

Center for Democracy and Technology
http://www.cdt.org

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
http://lieberman.senate.gov

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org

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New electronic whiteboard software gives teachers more flexibility

Teachers now have even greater functionality with the latest improvements to InterWrite Software Version 3.21, the interface for GTCO CalComp’s electronic whiteboards. InterWrite is an annotation application that drives the company’s SchoolBoard and SchoolPad products, enabling users to control meetings, lessons, and presentations with the click of a button.

Using the software and whiteboard, teachers can select tools from the menu to annotate or highlight important information and interact with lesson material for the entire class to see. Teachers also can save and print lessons and even eMail them to absent students.

The latest version of the software now supports Bluetooth wireless connectivity, so teachers can control the whiteboard and make notes on the screen from anywhere in the room. It also lets teachers customize the toolbox; hide portions of the screen during presentations; cut, copy, and paste between InterWrite and other Windows applications; and resize shapes and annotations.

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Connect two schools in minutes with Proxim’s wireless outdoor bridge

If your schools are on the low end of the eRate discount spectrum, you know how quickly those monthly charges for T-1 access can add up. As an alternative to ground-based leased lines, the Tsunami QuickBridge from Proxim Corp. is a cost-effective, quickly deployable way to provide network connectivity between two buildings up to six miles apart.

The QuickBridge includes all the components needed to connect two buildings, including two outdoor bridge units with built-in antennas. With the Installation Quick Start Guide, the QuickBridge can be up and running in less than one hour, Proxim says. The system offers greater capacity and speed than 802.11b bridges and operates on the 5.8 GHz band. An audible antenna alignment tool helps ensure foolproof installation.

The Tsunami QuickBridge comes in three varieties. The Tsunami QuickBridge 60, which costs $5,499, provides data connectivity at speeds of up to 60 Mbps between buildings up to three miles apart. The Tsunami QuickBridge 20, which costs $3,499, offers up to 20 Mbps of connectivity between buildings up to six miles. Lastly, the Tsunami QuickBridge 20 with an optional T-1 or E-1 connection—which enables school districts to establish both voice and data connectivity—offers up to 12 Mbps of connectivity for up to six miles for $7,499.

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Simplify the teacher hiring process with Applicant Tracking System

The stringent teacher quality requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act have created new challenges for school districts. Now, more than ever, school leaders must find teachers who are licensed, hold a bachelor’s degree in their subject area, and demonstrate teaching competence. To meet these challenges, some school districts are managing the teacher application and hiring process with Applicant Tracking System, a new software program from SearchSoft Solutions.

The SearchSoft system helped New York’s Hewlett-Woodmere School District make the teacher recruitment process paperless. The district’s principals now can go online and search the software’s database for prospective applicants using keywords when looking to fill a specific job, such as French or Spanish teacher.

The software also simplifies the job search process for teachers. For example, if teachers submit a single application to the Ohio Area School Employment Consortium, they have applied automatically to all 39 districts that belong to the consortium.

Schools can purchase the SearchSoft Applicant Tracking System through either an installed or application service provider (ASP) model. Pricing is based on the number of licenses.

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Palm’s newest handheld cracks the $100 barrier

Palm Inc. has introduced a handheld computer with a new look and low price intended to attract more first-time customers. Starting at just $99, the Zire handheld is the most affordable and lightest personal digital assistant from Palm yet.

This latest handheld computer is designed with fewer buttons, and its polished white face and silver back resemble the trendy color of Apple Computer’s iMac. The Zire features the same software programs that come pre-loaded on other Palm handhelds, including the Date Book, Address Book, Note Pad, and To Do List. On the downside, it contains only two megabytes of memory, which Palm officials say is more than sufficient for first-time users. The device can store approximately 6,000 addresses, five years of appointments, and an array of downloadable software programs.

The Zire plugs into a standard electrical outlet to recharge, and a single charge reportedly provides weeks of battery life. It comes with a small USB port and Hotsync cable to connect to either a PC or Mac, instead of a Hotsync cradle.

According to Palm spokeswoman Kathleen Dixon, the Zire is best suited for teachers or students on the go who haven’t adopted handheld technology yet. It doesn’t have keyboard capability, but it is ideal for assessment, appointment, and homework tracking.

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Here’s a single, compact source for data storage and recovery

Are you looking for a tool that can provide data backup, storage, and disaster recovery in a single, small package? Colorado Springs, Colo.-based STORServer Inc. is selling a smaller, less expensive version of its STORServer all-in-one storage backup appliance that is perfect for most school systems.

For its small size, the S10000 Backup Appliance offers loads of storage capacity, ranging from 90 to 270 gigabytes. Because it’s expandable, the device can support environments larger than 2 terabytes. School districts that use STORServer backup appliances for their storage needs include Canada’s Saskatoon Public Schools, Hoke County Schools in North Carolina, and Riverside Schools in California.

The S10000 has a small footprint and can sit on top of a table, but it also has a rack option. It backs up any network-attached client that uses directly attached storage. The appliance supports 35 different platforms, including Windows NT/2000, Novell, UXIX, Sun, and AIX. Prices start at $19,900.

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Microsoft ruling opens Windows options

Educators turning on new Windows computers in the coming months could see important new changes, including prominent links for programs such as music and internet software from some of Microsoft Corp.’s biggest corporate rivals.

But a court’s Nov. 1 decision not to impose tougher penalties than those negotiated with the Bush administration means Microsoft’s flagship operating system will remain mostly unadulterated as the engine for the technology industry and for the company’s own extraordinary profits.

In an enormous victory for Microsoft, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly approved only minor changes in the antitrust settlement. She will permit computer makers, for at least five years, to activate software from rivals as soon as a new PC is switched on by consumers. She also will prohibit Microsoft from threatening to retaliate against anyone who cooperates with its rivals.

The judge established a corporate committee—consisting of Microsoft board members who are not company employees—to make sure the company lives up to the deal, and she gave herself more oversight authority.

But she would not go further in punishing Microsoft, deriding arguments by attorneys general from nine states and the District of Columbia that tougher penalties were essential to restore competition in the technology industry. The judge said many of these additional proposals were developed chiefly to benefit Microsoft’s rivals, not consumers, and said the states’ legal strategy had been hopelessly flawed.

What a difference a judge makes.

Kollar-Kotelly, 59, proved a meticulous, enigmatic jurist unwilling to push the limits of earlier rulings on Microsoft by a federal appeals court.

She adopted a remarkably narrow view of the issues surrounding the case and indicated she was particularly skeptical over the failure to show how Microsoft’s business decisions hurt consumers, even as these actions proved devastating to technology rivals.

The judge in the earlier Microsoft trial, Thomas Penfield Jackson, occasionally lost his temper toward witnesses during a 78-day trial and laughed openly at Microsoft chief Bill Gates. Jackson also eagerly broadened the case beyond narrow questions surrounding web browser software and frequently butted heads with the appeals court.

When Jackson handed down his punishments, also overturned later by an appeals court, he ordered Microsoft split in two. The Nov. 1 decision by Kollar-Kotelly, which is the closest thing yet to a resolution in the case, was far more favorable for Microsoft.

Gates pledged a personal commitment to abide by the judge’s instructions, which he called “a good compromise and good settlement.” Microsoft’s lawyers expected to spend the weekend reviewing the decision, which covers hundreds of pages. But declared Gates: “We’re not seeing anything that would be cause for appeal.”

Officials for the nine losing states also were studying their options at press time. They could appeal the judge’s denial of additional penalties, although California’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, acknowledged that after a four-year court fight, “We’re all fatigued.”

Microsoft and the government had argued that the settlement they secretly crafted one year ago was sufficient. The agreement:

  • Prevents Microsoft from participating in exclusive deals that could hurt competitors;
  • Requires uniform contract terms for computer manufacturers;
  • Allows manufacturers and customers to remove icons for some Microsoft features; and
  • Requires Microsoft to release some technical information so software developers can write programs for Windows that work as well as Microsoft’s own products do.

Microsoft’s extraordinary impact on everyday life is hard to understate: Its lucrative Windows and Office products are essential tools for American businesses, government agencies, and school districts, not to mention individual consumers.

The company’s market value of $287.6 billion exceeds the gross domestic product of at least 150 nations, including Saudi Arabia and Argentina. Its stock is among the most widely held by investors, especially among mutual funds and retirement accounts.

Among K-12 schools, Windows-based machines constitute more than 58 percent of the installed base of computers, according to research firm Market Data Retrival.

Most educational technology leaders who spoke with eSchool News said they were relieved the case appeared close to a resolution.

“I am glad that third-party products will be added [to Windows-based computers],” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania. “I [also] appreciate the integrated nature of Windows XP for students and teachers. It is certainly easier to use and add devices.”

However, Becker said she’d prefer to have an independent consultant or legal representative oversee the settlement, rather than a corporate committee.

Although Microsoft’s most prominent court battle seems headed toward conclusion, the company’s antitrust troubles are not over.

Microsoft still faces private lawsuits by Sun Microsystems Inc. and AOL Time Warner Inc. And European antitrust regulators—who were awaiting the U.S. judge’s decision—have hinted they will announce sanctions against Microsoft by year’s end on related matters.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling
http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/trial/nov02/11-01opinion

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$50 million PowerUP program shuts down

PowerUP, a massive educational technology effort that undertook to bridge the “digital divide” by installing millions of dollars worth of computer equipment in schools and community centers nationwide, closed its doors for good Oct. 31, leaving schools in need with one less friend to turn to.

Though it failed to eliminate the divide, the program—established in 1999—did succeed in equipping nearly 1,000 high-tech computer labs in underserved areas across the country before pulling the plug.

Backed by such high-profile corporate sponsors as AOL Time Warner Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), PowerUP spent upwards of $50 million on the labs, which were equipped with a hodgepodge of donations from its sponsors.

While Cisco provided high-speed networks for the equipment to run on, HP donated printers, and AOL supplied internet services.

Nonprofit organizations, too, played a role. The Waitt Family Foundation, created by Gateway Inc. founder Ted Waitt, provided from 10 to 20 new Gateway machines for each center, and the Case Foundation—led by AOL Chairman Steve Case—donated $10 million to get the program off the ground.

“The concept was to provide an avenue of access to technology … for people who would not normally have that,” said Al Panico, director of grants for the Waitt Family Foundation.

That’s exactly what happened in certain areas of Mississippi, where PowerUP signed on in January to help create PowerPALS, a network of 66 community technology centers throughout the state, valued at $4.75 million.

According to Betty Laupigg, the project’s director, PowerPALS was a monumental success. While PowerUP provided the equipment for the project, the centers also were supported and staffed by such organizations as the state department of education, the Appalachia Regional Commission, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

At one point, Washington lawmakers even got into the act. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., helped obtain federal funds to provide AmeriCorps*VISTA staff to work as assistants in each of the centers.

“We have seen a lot of new partnerships and relationships grown through the program,” Laupigg said. “They have done what they said they would do. We are very pleased.”

Now that PowerUP has folded, it will be up to those new partners to keep the technology centers running, she said.

Though some parties involved have implied that the swooning stock market and sluggish economy contributed to the program’s downfall, PowerUp spokesman Kevin O’Shaugnessy said there were other reasons for shutting down.

According to him, PowerUP lost steam when its slew of high-profile corporate benefactors decided their generosity would be better spent promoting individual efforts rather than collaborative projects with inter-industry partners.

“There was an evolution of what they wanted to do in their philanthropy … away from the PowerUP model,” he said.

PowerUP’s demise is bad news for needy communities in search of better technology access, but its termination will have little effect on the community technology centers it already has helped to build.

That’s because PowerUP was never intended to provide ongoing funding for any of the initiatives, O’Shaugnessy said. Once the centers were on their feet, it became the responsibility of local partners and other community-based groups to keep them running.

He called the technology centers a “collaborative effort.” According to him, the system operated on a three-pronged model in which PowerUP provided the equipment as an initial boost, local partners provided the staffing, and national organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs paid for the maintenance and upkeep of the labs.

“They know it’s their job to keep this thing running,” O’Shaugnessy said. “If it breaks, it’s their responsibility to fix it.”

Looking back over the program’s three-year life span, O’Shaugnessy said he never expected it to last indefinitely, but he was encouraged by what it had accomplished.

“It’s an unqualified success. We’re not saying the digital divide has been bridged and is gone. But PowerUP over the last several years has established more of these centers than anyone else,” O’Shaugnessy said. “There has been a tremendous amount achieved in the past three years.”

Links:

PowerUP (Shut down Oct. 31)
http://www.powerup.org

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Protect your network–and your student’s–with NetDay’s “CyberSecurty Kit”

While computer security experts and public policy makers debate the merits of a White House panel’s proposed national cyber security plan, the nonprofit group NetDay has developed and released its own Cyber Security Kit for Schools.

The online kit is designed to create awareness among K-12 educators, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders about many of the dangers that lurk online.

The site contains a guide called “What Every Administrator Needs to know About Cyber Security.” The online guide includes practical suggestions and resources for ensuring that school computers are safe against online attacks.

Another feature, “Computer-Savvy Families: A Story about Cyber Security for Children.” includes a narrative written by a fourth-grade teacher, which stresses the danger of online predators to children.

Other resources include links to news, articles, and editorials addressing the delicate balance that exists between network security and internet freedom; an “action plan” for securing desktop computers from intrusion; and a list of cyber security and online safety web sites.

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