Judge: Student can’t discuss potential flaws in school transaction system

Should intellectual property laws prevent tech-savvy students and other “hackers” from exposing potential flaws they find in computer systems? It’s a question being raised in a growing number of court cases—and although the courts have tended to side with the computer industry so far, civil rights and consumer advocacy groups say that’s unfair to schools and other software purchasers.

Take the recent case of a Georgia Tech student. Fifteen minutes before he was to lecture on security flaws in a debit card system used on 223 college campuses, 22-year-old Billy Hoffman found out a judge had banned him from talking.

Hoffman had used a screwdriver to break into a laundry room swipe machine that reads BuzzCards, identification cards used by staff and his fellow students at Georgia Tech and similar to ones at hundreds of other schools. The computer engineering major says he found ways to bilk the school out of Cokes, laundry service, and cash.

He was scheduled to discuss his findings before computer hackers at the Interz0ne conference in Atlanta earlier this month, but card maker Blackboard Inc. got a judge to issue a temporary restraining order.

Hoffman said he wasn’t a curiosity-seeker breaking the law. He says he was trying to expose security flaws so they could be fixed.

“All I wanted to do is tell everyone, ‘Hey, this is a problem, and it needs to be protected,'” Hoffman said. “Everyone was blissfully unaware of how it works. I looked at it and found the emperor has no clothes, and now everyone’s mad at me.”

Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard likened Hoffman to a common thief who’s spreading his criminal methods. Blackboard, which reported revenues of $69.2 million in 2002, said it could suffer severe financial losses if Hoffman’s methods are spread.

“We took the legal course because what he’s presenting and promoting was encouraging illegal behavior,” said Blackboard spokesman Michael Stanton. “He was able to tap into the wires, like anyone could do if they took a sledgehammer to an ATM machine.”

Although Hoffman wouldn’t discuss the specifics of how he hacked into the system because of the restraining order, he had previously published the information on a web site that is still viewable.

The site discusses ways to trick a vending machine into giving free drinks and deceive a laundry machine into starting for free. Hoffman also describes other possible ways to exploit the BuzzCard, such as getting into dormitories and sporting events, ordering free food on the student meal plan, and getting textbooks for free.

“These flaws don’t necessarily just extend to silly things such as tricking a Coke machine—they have much more important implications to physical security,” he said in an interview.

Blackboard asserts its system is safe unless someone physically breaks into a circuit board or card-reading terminal, though Hoffman suggests hackers might be able to remotely do what he did with a screwdriver.

Citing student privacy, Georgia Tech wouldn’t discuss whether it took disciplinary action against Hoffman, spokesman Bob Harty said. He added that he believed the systems on campus were secure.

Hoffman’s lawyer, Pete Wellborn, said the courts must decide whether intellectual property laws prohibit exposing security flaws.

“It’s sheer folly to claim that the purchaser must blindly use that system accepting the word of the seller with no means of investigation or confirmation,” he said.

The restraining order, issued April 12 by DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Anne Workman, keeps Hoffman and co-defendant Virgil Griffith—who was scheduled to help Hoffman give the presentation at the Interz0ne conference—from discussing information relating to Blackboard card readers. A hearing on the case is set for May 30.

The order relied on trade secret, trademark, and other state and federal laws, though it did not cite the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a controversial law that prohibits circumventing anti-piracy devices. Lawyers on both sides said the DMCA could become part of the case later.

In another recent court ruling on the issue, a federal judge on April 9 threw out a lawsuit that challenged the DMCA by seeking permission for a Harvard student to probe internet filtering software used in schools and public libraries. The lawsuit was brought last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School student who argued that such software—which is required of schools and libraries that receive federal technology funding—often blocks far more than pornography and other objectionable sites.

Edelman had asked Seattle-based filtering company N2H2 Inc. for a list of sites its software blocks, but was rebuffed. He then went to court to seek permission to reverse-engineer N2H2’s product, saying he needed court permission because the controversial 1998 law forbids the dissemination of information that could be used to bypass copyright-protection schemes.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns ruled that “there is no plausibly protected constitutional interest that Edelman can assert that outweighs N2H2’s right to protect its copyrighted material from an invasive and destructive trespass.” (See “Judge tosses lawsuit seeking probe of filtering software,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4360.)

Links:

Hoffman’s site
http:/se2600.org/acidus

Blackboard Inc.
http:/www.blackboard.com

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eTextbooks are more engaging, users say

A Florida school district that tested an interactive, web-based textbook in place of a traditional textbook for a half year in six classrooms found that students were more focused and engaged and completed more homework. Despite the pilot project’s success, however, educators involved in the program say few schools are ready to replace their print versions with electronic ones anytime soon.

Staff from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ division of instructional technology and media support services studied the effect of Pearson Prentice Hall’s electronic textbook, the iText, on learning in grades seven, nine, and eleven.

“We started looking at iText and other products to see if they could enhance education for a child,” said Patricia L. Evans, supervisor of instructional materials and textbook services for the district.

Evans wanted a textbook that would promote in-depth learning, support various learning styles, and provide word definitions, simulations, audio, and video clips. It also had to give students the ability to change the font, search for concepts by keyword, and get immediate feedback on lessons.

Evans began asking textbook publishers about the possibility of receiving interactive textbooks after seeing her own children’s frustrations with traditional textbooks. A typical homework assignment might ask her child to complete 20 questions, she explained, but if her child got off to the wrong start, then the error was reinforced 20 times.

“I was looking to this technology to see if it could stop a child from repeating the wrong methods over and over,” Evans said. “Pearson was the first publisher to come to Miami-Dade and say, ‘We think we have what you want.'”

The schools that participated in the pilot project had to meet the following criteria: They had to use the Pearson Education textbooks adopted by the state; they had to provide a one-to-one ratio of laptop or desktop computers per student; and students had to have internet access at home.

The teachers of the two middle school classes and four high school classes that took part varied widely in their technical ability. “I had one that was, quite honestly, a technophobe,” Evans said. “Now he is quite in love with the product.”

The students also were drawn to the idea. “The kids were overwhelmingly positive with the online textbook,” Evans said. “They told me they preferred it to traditional textbooks.”

Overall, homework completion rates were higher than ever, and students moved seamlessly between productivity software and the online text when completing assignments.

“The teachers said the video and audio helped teach and explain some of the concepts better,” Evans said.

When explaining Hitler’s propaganda, for example, a film clip has the greatest impact, she said. Having the video embedded right into the textbook increases instruction time by saving teachers from having to set up a film projector and cuing to the specific clip.

“One teacher uses the video clip first when he’s teaching a lesson to get the students’ attention. And again, there’s no need to set up extra equipment—it’s right there,” Evans said.

Despite the success of the Miami-Dade pilot project, Evans is doubtful many schools will begin to use electronic textbooks exclusively.

“We’re not ready as a society to give up the traditional textbook,” she said.

For online texts to work as well as traditional ones, students each need their own internet-connected laptop or computer. “One of our biggest problems is providing every student with [his or her] own computer,” Evans said.

In fact, the teachers who participated in the study last year have switched to a combination of traditional and online textbooks. Evans said there could be many reasons for this, including more limited access to computers, slower internet connections during the school day, and accommodating different students’ learning preferences.

“We are not moving in the direction of replacing the paper textbook, but of having this to enhance what’s going on in the classroom and what students are doing for homework,” Evans said.

Also, Florida schools do not have the option yet to use an online textbook solely. “Right now, it’s not a choice, but [state officials] are definitely studying it,” Evans said.

As a standard, all major textbook publishers offer online versions for free with the purchase of their traditional textbooks, said Evans, who has reviewed many of the online texts.

“Each one has different strengths. They are all excellent … I have not seen one yet that I did not like,” Evans said. Of iText, she said, “It can give immediate feedback, and it works for many modalities of learning, and we’re very pleased with it. It’s something we will continue to push for the use of in our district. But, again, I would not say exclusively.”

iText is available through Pearson Prentice Hall’s education portal, known as PH SuccessNet. It enables students to access audio summaries of each chapter, click on words to find the definitions or pronunciation, or watch video. It also incorporates other languages, such as Spanish, and animations that students can manipulate.

Pearson offers its iText on CD-ROM as well, but this version lacks some of the functionality of the web version. For example, students can’t take notes or save the answers to their homework questions.

iText currently is available for middle school writing, literature, grammar, and science; high school biology; and high school writing, literature, and grammar. Middle and high school math and social studies are expected to follow soon.

Links:

Miami-Dade County Public Schools
http://www.dadeschools.net

iText
http://www.phschool.com/successnet

Pearson Education
http://www.pearsoned.com

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Fla. schools to benefit from $202M Microsoft settlement

Microsoft Corp. on April 15 announced a tentative settlement of a class-action lawsuit in Florida that would allow the state’s neediest schools to buy hardware and software from any vendor and to purchase professional development services, including advanced technology training, leadership development for school administrators, or curriculum development and instructional resources for educators.

The pending settlement still needs final court approval, so schools aren’t likely to begin receiving benefits until 2004 at the earliest.

Needy schools eventually would benefit, but the settlement would mainly affect Florida residents, providing up to $202 million in vouchers for people to buy computers and related products. When any of those vouchers go unclaimed, the company said, Microsoft would donate half of the unclaimed vouchers to Florida public schools.

The settlement—which is similar to a deal Microsoft struck with California in January—will resolve a lawsuit filed in a Florida circuit court in Miami claiming Microsoft violated a state law against unfair trade practices in the manner it sold operating system and applications software.

Class action participants who purchased the Microsoft operating system, productivity suite, spreadsheet, or word processing software between Nov. 16, 1995, and Dec. 31, 2002, would be eligible for vouchers to purchase computer hardware and software from any manufacturer—including systems running on the Macintosh platform from rival Apple Computer.

To keep the focus on underserved students, only public K-12 schools where 50 percent or more of the student body participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs would be eligible. Microsoft didn’t say when the vouchers would expire if not used.

Despite the tentative settlement’s limitations, Microsoft estimated the deal would reach more than 695,000 students in more than 1,600 schools and 40 districts—or roughly one-third of all students throughout the state.

Bill Piotrowski, executive director of technology and information services for Leon District Schools in Tallahassee, Fla., said the pending settlement is “great news for schools all across Florida.”

“Given the tough budget environment, the timing is particularly helpful,” he said in a statement. “This program will provide badly needed resources for the schools that need it most and help bridge the digital divide for those students.”

The relief won’t be immediate, however. The court has set a hearing for Nov. 24 for final approval of the settlement.

The deal is similar to a settlement Microsoft reached with California in January. There, schools will be able to claim two-thirds of any unclaimed portion of the $1.1 billion in technology vouchers that state officials negotiated with the company.

At the time, Microsoft said it expected the California settlement would benefit more than 13 million consumers and 3 million children in 4,700 schools. (See “California schools to benefit from $1.1 billion Microsoft settlement,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4196.)

Although only half of the unclaimed funds in Florida would go to schools, “we believe that the settlement agreement reached with the Florida plaintiffs is more than fair,” said David Driftmier, director of Microsoft’s Educations Solutions Group.

The company currently is involved in talks with at least 14 other states and the District of Columbia, though it refused to comment about when and where future settlements might occur.

The private antitrust lawsuits are separate from a case Microsoft settled last year with the Justice Department and several states.

Last year, Microsoft lost its bid to settle dozens of private antitrust lawsuits by donating $1 billion worth of computers and software to the nation’s poorest public schools.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in Baltimore ruled that proposal was unacceptable, because it would give the software giant an unfair advantage over its competitors.

Links:

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

Florida Department of Education
http://www.flboe.org

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Update: Detroit schools save $3M by outsourcing IT

Officials from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) say a groundbreaking $75 million contract to outsource the district’s entire information technology (IT) department to local computer firm Compuware Corp. has paid off to the tune of $3 million in IT-related cost savings per year.

The May 2001 agreement—in which the Farmington Hills, Mich.-based company promised to deliver IT services in human resources, financial and budget operations, student information services, and special education—reportedly marked the first time a major city school district had enlisted the help of a private company to manage every aspect of its IT department.

The $3 million figure represents a 16.5 percent savings for DPS, which Compuware credits to a series of technology upgrades and a touch of corporate-style re-engineering.

Upon signing on with Compuware, DPS—the nation’s tenth largest school system—underwent a host of technical renovations, such as the addition of a district-wide, web-enabled eMail system; the replacement and upgrade of network components, including hardware and communications lines; the installation of T-1 data connections at all remote locations; the replacement of outdated hardware with high-speed servers; upgraded software for payroll and human resources management; an improved IT help desk, and an expanded student information system.

That’s no small endeavor, considering the Motor City contains more than 268 schools and 163,000 students.

On the personnel side, Compuware came to Detroit with an eye on core competencies. The company brought in experienced Compuware employees to fill roles previously held by less qualified DPS employees, while creating more suitable positions for displaced workers within the district or at the company itself.

“A whole lot of people were just in the wrong jobs,” said Marvin Ritter, director of the district’s application management center.

Ritter, who blamed a unionized employment system for the department’s inefficiencies, said Compuware was able to accomplish its goal of streamlining information technologies and saving money simply by evaluating the various skill sets and abilities of department employees.

According to Ritter, the district had several workers who either were engaged in roles they were unqualified for or were stuck in posts that undermined their talents. Now, nearly two years into a five-year contract, school administrators say Compuware’s presence has enabled educators to focus less on infrastructure and more on learning.

“Our goal when we contracted Compuware was to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our technology operations,” said DPS Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Burnley. “Compuware has done just that, allowing us to concentrate on providing our students with an outstanding education.”

At the time of the agreement, eSchool News reported that DPS was in search of creative ways to deal with a $2 million budget deficit, which education officials blamed on declining enrollments (see http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=1321). That’s when the idea came to cut down on the $20 million spent internally per year to operate IT services.

Today, as budget deficits loom large for school systems nationwide, the quest for potential cost savings is a high priority for nearly every administrator. Still, industry researchers warn that outsourcing—though efficient—harbors no guarantee of a financial windfall for schools.

According to Bill Rust of Connecticut-based IT research firm Gartner Inc., outsourcing is an excellent way for a school system to measure the efficiency of its workers. “But I’m not convinced it will save you money,” he said.

Rust, who co-authored a 2000 report on the topic, said outsourcing generally assists schools in accomplishing three goals. It helps streamline processes, cutting down on the amount of time it takes to complete a task; it ensures that service will be maintained at a constant level; and it enables schools to predict a budget more easily for the section of business being outsourced.

Whether or not schools save money during the process depends in large part on how efficient their operations were before the arrival of corporate partners, he said.

Another option to consider is partial outsourcing. According to Rust, no school system should feel obligated to outsource an entire segment of its operation. Given the new demands of the No Child Left Behind Act and other educational reforms, however, outsourcing might alleviate needless stress on overworked and underprepared district employees in certain circumstances. Significant new requirements for student information management, data warehousing, and data mining might be among those circumstances.

“You need to have someone who understands costs, [who can] compare what you can get in-house [with] what is available elsewhere,” Rust said.

Though Compuware has experienced success in its involvement with DPS, according to school officials, the company has yet to take on full-scale commitments from other school districts. Still, it’s an opportunity Ritter said the company is looking into. “We are beginning to earmark schools as a new avenue,” he said. “We believe we can help them.”

Added Compuware Chairman and CEO Peter Karmanos Jr.: “I’m pleased by the success of this agreement. Our services have helped DPS staff focus on the serious business of educating students.”

Links:

Detroit Public Schools
http://www.detroit.k12.mi.us

Compuware Corp.
http://www.compuware.com

Gartner Inc.
http://www4.gartner.com/Init

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New search engine technology helps users quickly pinpoint relevant information

For teachers, students, and librarians, the ability to locate high-quality, relevant information about a particular topic quickly and easily is critical. This ability might be greatly enhanced by a new search engine technology from iXMatch Inc. that combines the best of meta-searches and clustering to deliver search results from a district’s own library resources—as well as external subscription databases, web sites, and web search engines—in a single step, all grouped according to category.

“School districts are investing in high-quality resources—databases, cataloged web site collections, online references, magazines, and books—but unless students can access all of them without difficulty, those resources go to waste,” said Jim Zicarelli, chief executive officer of Sagebrush Corp.

Sagebrush has released a new search tool, called Pinpoint, that is based on the iXMatch technology. Pinpoint gathers, evaluates, ranks, and reports the most relevant results from multiple sources. Because it’s web-based, students can access results from anywhere, at any time.

The search tool reportedly supports databases from Bigchalk, EBSCO, Gale Group, Grolier Online, H.W. Wilson, NewsBank, and ProQuest, and it also can accommodate others upon request. Pinpoint does not include the cost of these resources; schools would still have to subscribe to each one separately, said Bret A. Busse, technology and marketing director for iXMatch.

“The big difference is that this is a web-based search engine that can search not just the district’s library or web site or intranet. It also can search the web, too, like Google.com or Encyclopedia Britannica,” Busse said.

With Pinpoint, the company says, students can better manage information overload and more easily navigate through search results by selecting relevant content groups, because it clusters the results into sub-groups based on context.

For example, if you typed in the search term “mercury,” it would group the results into topics such as Mercury the planet, Mercury the Greek god, mercury the element, Mercury Theater, Mercury the car, and so on, instead of returning an unordered hodgepodge of resources.

Pinpoint clusters the search results using a proprietary technology from iXMatch. “It takes all the resulting documents that come back, looks at all the words in the document, and then dynamically forms groups of documents that are similar based on words that are in them,” Busse said.

The search term “apple” is another good example, Busse said: “You get one set [of results] about Apple Computer, one set about recipes, one set about the Big Apple, meaning New York City.”

Another interesting feature of Pinpoint is that it reportedly can search for age-appropriate material. At the beginning of a search, a user self-selects whether it is a grade school, junior high, high school, or adult search.

Over time, for each search term, the search engine analyzes what resources are most useful based on how often and by which age group they are accessed. “If it turns out most kids click on Grolier versus something else, the search engine learns from that,” Busse said. “It learns the relationship between the user’s level, what’s being searched, and what’s being used.”

Pinpoint does not act as a content filter, but it does come with a standard list of useful web sites that schools can customize.

“The concept that students can search … the open web, the subscription databases, and local content to harvest information is a good idea,” said Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for the Nauset Public Schools in Orleans, Mass., who admits she has not been impressed with clustering search engines in the past.

Clustering search engines, depending on the algorithm used, can inhibit the quality of the search because they might inadvertently bury essential, relevant information, she said—but this concept has potential.

“A meta-search tool such as this one could give [students] the overview of what is available on the web and in the subscription databases, thus allowing them to easily compare, contrast, and critically evaluate information,” Schrock said.

Links:

iXMatch Inc.
http://www.ixmatch.com

Sagebrush Corp.
http://www.sagebrushcorp.com

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Weighing in on federal proposals is no longer a hefty chore with

In a step forward for eGovernment, the Bush administration has unveiled a new web site, Regulations.gov, that allows individuals to participate in the federal rule-making process more easily. The site enables educators and other users to search for, review, and submit comments on federal proposals and other documents open for comment and published in the Federal Register, the government’s legal newspaper. The idea is to provide one centralized location where stakeholders can go to offer their opinions on major issues—from school reform to technology integration and more—and have their comments considered by lawmakers. The site gives users the opportunity to express their opinions about specific documents, as well as pose questions to particular federal agencies. Regulations are searchable by keyword—or, if it’s a certain agency you’re looking for, just type in the department name in the top right corner of the screen. A section for frequently asked questions explains how comments are solicited, received, and reviewed by federal employees.

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FCC proposal would let schools sell spectrum rights

To facilitate the provision of fixed and mobile broadband access in schools and other locations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking comments about how best to reconfigure a substantial portion of federal airwaves now dedicated to educational broadcasts.

The commission hopes its proposed rules changes will spawn competition, innovation, and investment in wireless broadband services, as well as build out the educational services offered within the spectrum band in question. But critics fear the proposal actually will undermine the delivery of educational services to students and teachers by eroding the number of license holders that are educational institutions.

At issue is the future of the 2500-2690 MHz spectrum band, which currently supports Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS), a distance learning technology that has provided educational services to students and teachers since the 1960s.

FCC officials and other stakeholders agree this portion of spectrum is underused, and the agency’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeks comment on how best to promote increased access to and efficient use of available ITFS spectrum. For example, the notice considers both a geographic licensing approach and an unlicensed approach for schools using the spectrum.

But another section of the proposal—which would allow schools and universities to auction off unused portions of the spectrum to private-sector companies—is more controversial.

Supporters say the plan would enhance the delivery of wireless broadband services to consumers while giving financial relief to cash-strapped schools. Critics say it threatens the very future of ITFS, as schools that currently hold licenses might feel pressure to unload them to the highest bidder.

The proposition is likely to hit a nerve among policy makers, educators, and other stakeholders—all of whom will be asked to consider whether a near-term fiscal crisis of historic proportions outweighs the potential for schools to acquire additional federal airspace and broadband access in years to come.

“The NPRM asks whether the commission should remove the requirement that ITFS licensees use the spectrum entrusted to them for educational purposes. It also asks whether the commission should allow ITFS licensees to sell their licenses to the highest bidder, where a private company could buy the spectrum and dispense with any educational activity,” said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. “Such an outcome would threaten this important educational tool. If ITFS becomes just another commercial service, we will have lost the last place on the spectrum reserved specifically for education.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Some officials contend the proposed rule change would allow the spectrum to achieve its full potential—something it has yet to do in more than four decades of outright ownership by schools.

“I don’t know if this spectrum is best used to offer a third broadband pipe to the home, a mobile solution, a broadcast alternative, or some other market-driven product, but I am willing to ask the question,” wrote FCC Commissioner Katherine Abernathy in a statement about the proposal. She concluded: “Underutilized and unused spectrum has little value.”

The 190 MHz of contiguous spectrum at issue “is roughly equal to all spectrum currently devoted to terrestrial, mobile wireless,” said FCC Chairman Michael Powell. “But the 2.5 GHz band has not yet delivered similar rewards, in no small part because of the well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, regulatory decisions of this agency.”

Powell called the commission’s current regulations “complex” and “stifling.” He said he was looking forward to the rule change as a way “for the American people to enjoy the full potential of a large parcel of previously underutilized, prime spectrum real estate.”

According to FCC officials, educational uses for the spectrum have grown tremendously since it transmitted its first television broadcasts in 1963.

As it stands today, approximately 1,275 ITFS licensees serve millions of students on thousands of channels at more than 70,000 locations throughout the U.S. The licensees form a broad spectrum of educators and educational entities, including state governments, state universities, public colleges, secondary schools, elementary schools, parochial and private schools, public television stations, and hospitals, the FCC said.

Schools use the ITFS spectrum for a variety of applications, including professional development, online advanced certification courses for staff, and traditional educational programming, as well as advanced-placement courses and back-office administrative communications.

The NPRM is the result of a joint request last October by the Wireless Communications Association International, the National ITFS Association, and the Catholic Television Network. The three entities represent the interests of licensees on the 2500-2690 MHz band.

“I applaud the work of the National ITFS Association, the Wireless Communications Association International, and the Catholic Television Network to develop proposals for the evolution of this band and to expand opportunities for all licensees to achieve their missions,” Powell said. “I look forward to continuing our work with them to eliminate the regulatory barriers that have hindered the development of this band for far too many years.”

According to Todd Gray, an attorney representing the National ITFS Association, “The essence of the proposal was to reorganize the frequency band to make it much more user-friendly.” Gray said the evolution of the spectrum from a one-way broadcasting channel to a two-way data pipeline has given way to a host of new opportunities for schools.

Although the association favors building out the capabilities of the spectrum band for video and data transmissions, Gray said it is opposed to the idea of schools selling high-dollar spectrum real estate for a profit.

“The educational value should be preserved,” he said. “It would be ironic if the way the [FCC] intends to improve the band is by allowing educators to sell it off.”

This isn’t the first time the FCC has considered realigning the spectrum band in question. Two years ago, eSchool News reported that the agency was searching for ways to accommodate the growing demand for consumer wireless solutions and was considering a proposal to move ITFS license holders to another band of frequencies so it could make room for new wireless innovations.

But schools were quick to contest the move, claiming it would curtail service and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the transition. The FCC ultimately decided against the proposal.

FCC officials say they don’t know how long it will take them to rule on this latest NPRM, which at press time had yet to be posted to the agency’s web site. Once it is posted, schools and other stakeholders will have 90 days to file their comments.

FCC Commissioner Copps cautioned that it would be a mistake to lose site of the irreplaceable value the spectrum band has provided to schools.

“The paramount public interest in the ITFS spectrum should continue to be to support an educational programming mission. While we must seek to find improvements that will result in the ITFS spectrum being used more intensively—and we must admit that the current use of ITFS is not as intense as it could be—our goal must be to do this in a way that promotes the educational mission,” Copps said.

“ITFS certainly has its problems,” he added. “It worries me greatly that many licensees lease such a high percentage of their spectrum to companies that do not engage in education, and that some licensees have not built out their facilities even though they have had licenses for many years. But I would rather work to make ITFS a better educational tool than say that it cannot be saved.”

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

National ITFS Association
http://www.itfs.org

Wireless Communications Association International
http://www.wcai.com/

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Schools get help in meeting tech requirements of NCLB

U.S. Department of Education (ED) officials and state ed-tech leaders have unveiled a new toolkit designed to help states and school districts implement the technology provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C., April 9, the resource includes specific guidance for implementing the new education law and best practices from various states regarding such issues as scientifically based research, technology literacy assessment, common data elements, and effective teaching using technology. It also makes recommendations for the new National Education Technology Plan that is due in January.

The toolkit, called “The National Leadership Institute Toolkit: States Helping States Implement NCLB,” is the result of discussions held at a national summit last December where state leaders worked closely with research experts and federal officials to draft strategies to implement the technology pieces of NCLB.

“The results from the National Leadership Institute provide another example of how [ED] is committed to working with states to successfully implement No Child Left Behind. Even more importantly, it demonstrates what can be accomplished when state leaders work together,” Education Secretary Rod Paige said in a statement.

Members of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)—which represents all 50 states—identified the topics of greatest concern, as NCLB has added significantly to the demands on school technology directors. The law requires schools to improve their accountability systems, provide high-quality teachers in every subject area, and ensure that students are technology literate by the eighth grade.

The toolkit will help schools meet these challenges with step-by-step guides, checklists, definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, and other practical resources for implementing the technology aspects of NCLB.

“The real value of this toolkit is the insight offered by state educational technology leaders who are primarily responsible for implementing NCLB,” said Anita Givens, SETDA chair and director of educational technology for the Texas Education Agency.

“Working together, we’re able to solve problems collectively that independently we would not be able to,” she added. “One thing we cannot afford is recreating and inventing things that other state leaders have already created.”

Some of the resources included in the toolkit are:

  • Essential questions and answers for developing a statewide scientifically based research program and eight steps on how to get started;
  • A framework and criteria for measuring technology literacy;
  • Recommendations to ED about what common data elements should be collected to meet Title II, part D of NCLB;
  • A matrix outlining assessment strategies for evaluating effective teaching with technology; and
  • A set of key components essential to building a National Education Technology Plan, including themes, recommendations, and stakeholders to consult.

“This toolkit is significant because it truly does represent a consensus among state leaders on the best ways to interpret and implement today’s education law,” said Melinda George, executive director of SETDA.

An important milestone of the toolkit is its consensus on what information states should collect from schools and how they should collect it.

“SETDA ought to be commended for pulling states together on this [issue] to provide common data that can be compared easily,” said John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology.

The toolkit actually is a work in progress. “There’s quite a bit of work left to do. This is really a starting point,” George said.

SETDA will continue to refine existing models by building more tools, continuing research, and evaluating existing programs. Some the items to be added in the future include success stories of scientifically based research programs, state-level survey instruments based on the common data elements, and collective, comprehensive information about the various technology assessments used by states.

State leaders who already have begun using the tools available on the SETDA web site say they are essential to helping them implement the law.

Nicole Nokovich of the Pennsylvania Department of Education said the toolkit has helped her state get a better handle on program evaluation. It “has provided some insight of what avenues to go down,” she said.

New funding for ed-tech research

In other news from the press conference, Bailey said ED will be announcing a new $4.2 million grant later this year that will provide states with funding to conduct their own scientifically based research of technology’s impact in schools.

“We won’t be able to hit every state with this $4.2 million, but we hope to help a couple of states develop assessments,” Bailey said.

This research will contribute to the existing body of ed-tech research, he said, adding that it will be disseminated through ED’s What Works Clearinghouse and other web sites.

The process of creating a new National Education Technology Plan will begin in the next few weeks, Bailey said. The planning process will commence after most states have finished their own plans so that the national plan will reflect what the states are doing. ED hopes to have the final draft ready by December.

Students will be involved in the planning process through focus groups. Bailey explained that kindergarten students entering school today have been immersed in a world of technology to a greater extent than any other generation of students in history and will have much greater expectations of their schooling.

Access to DVDs, cell phones, the internet, hundreds of cable channels, and digital video recorders is “influencing and changing what [students are] expecting to experience in schools,” Bailey said.

Besides students, the planning process will include as many stakeholders as possible. “It’s a different way of approaching a technology plan, but it’s the way we are going to do it,” Bailey said.

Links:

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

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org

No Child Left Behind Act
http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov

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Judge tosses lawsuit seeking probe of filtering software

A federal judge on April 9 threw out a lawsuit that challenged the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act by seeking permission for a Harvard student to probe internet filtering software used in schools and public libraries. The lawsuit was brought last summer by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Ben Edelman, a Harvard Law School student who argued that such software—which is required of schools and libraries that receive federal technology funding—often blocks far more than pornography and other objectionable sites.

Edelman had asked Seattle-based filtering company N2H2 Inc. for a list of sites its software blocks, but was rebuffed. He then went to court to seek permission to reverse-engineer N2H2’s product, saying he needed court permission because the controversial 1998 law forbids the dissemination of information that could be used to bypass copyright-protection schemes.

“The reason we filed the suit the way we did, seeking declaratory judgment, is that I simply cannot do this research without a court telling me it’s permissible,” Edelman said after a court hearing last week. “They could seize whatever assets I have if I were later found to have infringed on their rights.”

N2H2 claimed that providing such information to Edelman would compromise trade secrets, and that Edelman had no legal standing to be granted such permission because there was no imminent threat he would be sued.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns agreed, writing in a ruling issued April 9 that “there is no plausibly protected constitutional interest that Edelman can assert that outweighs N2H2’s right to protect its copyrighted material from an invasive and destructive trespass.”

Chris Hansen, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, said the ACLU was discussing options for other ways to challenge the law. Edelman did not immediately respond to a reporter’s eMail message.

N2H2 spokesman David Burt said the company was pleased with the ruling.

“We think that researchers and other people who want to learn about filters already have means for doing that,” Burt said. “I think it’s pretty clear that people who want to analyze and criticize filters can use tools that do not involve decryption.”

Links:

Edelman v. N2H2: Case Summary & Documents (Edelman’s site)
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/edelman/edelman-v-n2h2

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

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School weather data could be instrumental to homeland security

In a nation at war and on high alert for terrorism, schools across the country could help save thousands of people in case of a chemical or biological attack, thanks to their participation in a national weather monitoring network.

The agreement to use school weather stations for national security was announced last August (http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3956). Now, schools around the nation are beginning to be certified in the drive for homeland security.

Perched on the schools’ rooftops are weather stations recording wind speed, temperature, and humidity. In case of terrorism, they could provide key information for predicting how and where dangerous substances might spread—information not available from National Weather Service sites used by the government.

Not that the children know about the role their schools might play.

Anthony Gaul, a sixth-grade science teacher at West Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa, said his students are more interested in seeing the school mentioned by TV forecasters or checking the temperature on the internet.

“As far as their grasp of it being used in an emergency, we briefly discussed it,” Gaul said. “We really haven’t focused on that with them, nor do I think we will.”

Most days, the data are used only by the students or local forecasters, but the private company that operates the stations sees a greater purpose—and so does the government.

The 6,000 sites operated by AWS Convergence Technologies Inc. create a monitoring system that would cost the government an estimated $50 million to replicate.

AWS, based in Gaithersburg, Md., has promised to give the government access to the data for free. Vice president John Saaty said the company did so in response to President Bush’s call for private companies to help with homeland security.

Winning a government contract “may take too long,” Saaty said. “Our CEO said, ‘We’re going to step up to the plate because this is something that can save lives and property.'”

The government already has access to National Weather Service data to map and forecast air movement for emergency managers choosing evacuation routes. But weather service stations typically are posted at airports, and they can’t provide accurate information about what might have happened miles away. The school-based monitors could fill in the gap.

The weather service spent days setting up a network of stations around the World Trade Center site to collect wind data and predict the spread of smoke and dust. There were more than 40 AWS stations near ground zero, but they weren’t used because the company did not yet have the sharing arrangement with the government.

The $7,000 weather station at Willow Springs Elementary School in North Carolina, installed three years ago, is one of the first to be certified under the partnership. Its computer sits on a table next to a caged iguana in the library, yet data it provides could be invaluable in case of an attack.

Willow Springs is just 10 miles south of Raleigh and 45 miles north of Fort Bragg, one of the nation’s largest Army posts.

“We need to know which way the wind’s going. I need to know how fast, how quickly, and I need to know right now,” said Chris Kozlow, a counterterrorism and emergency management expert based in Arlington, Va., who helped manage rescue efforts near the trade center after Sept. 11.

Iowa has five certified stations, the most of any state, and hundreds more are being evaluated for their ability to meet the same standards imposed upon the National Weather Service’s 1,000 automated stations.

Dave Dorenkamp, principal at Okoboji Middle School in northwest Iowa, said he wouldn’t want his students to know weather data from their school could be useful for tracking a chemical attack.

“I think it’s important,” he said, “but I guess the fact that we are that site, to me could be a little alarming to a 10- or 11-year-old.”

Sister Ann Therese, principal at Assumption Academy in Emerson, N.J., is more interested in classroom applications. The weather stations come with interactive, weather-related lessons in science and math.

But she said parents and staff of the 300-student school also feel more secure knowing they can get detailed information about their neighborhood if anything does goes wrong.

“It will tell them if there’s anything in the area that doesn’t belong,” she said. “Now we know if there’s something in the air there. That’s a good feeling.”

Links:

AWS Convergence Technologies
http://www.aws.com

National Weather Service
http://www.nws.noaa.gov

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